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I would name the stars for you (I would take you there)

Chapter Text

 

&&

Slowly counting down the days
‘til I finally know your name
The way your hand feels round my waist
The way you laugh, the way your kisses taste
I’ve missed you but I haven't met you
Oh but I want to

How I do

 

1 year before

It is the strangest of feelings when love falls apart.

Strange in the sense that you hurt until you feel numb, until you feel nothing at all.

Hollywood lusts after drama; loves a violent end with screaming and cursing and crying in the rain and that one final plea for forgiveness. But the just-not-quite-right kind of love? The kind of love between two people who settle for one another, for comfort and familiarity over passion and risk? That love simply fades away, softly and slowly, like a shadow into the night.

At first, all you see is the sun, warm and comfortable and familiar. You let the false tendrils of hope wrap themselves around your heart, and ignore the impending darkness, the black spots that creep along the edges of your vision, the inevitable ending in which you both realize that your puzzle pieces were of a similar shape but never a perfect fit.  And so, eventually the sun sets and you‒ blinded by the false light of a complacent love‒ don’t feel the chill of dusk until it’s much too late. And then it is dark and you are, all at once, completely alone.

You become a husk of your former self‒ empty and withering, roots yanked out by Fate’s cruel hand‒ clinging onto something that is already gone. You ask yourself who you could possibly be in a world without them, and find the answer in the torn pieces of a photograph featuring your brilliant smile, but hollow unhappy eyes. You are incomplete, one-third of a whole instead of the perfect half you were meant to be… But eventually, you find your soul too weak to even grasp at those waning memories of love and bliss, and it is then that you are forced to let go.

You allow the remnants of what you once were to be tossed and turned in the winds of time, a little lost soul drifting aimlessly amongst a sea of people, almost dead but unfortunately not quite. And then you tell all of your friends that you’ve moved on, tell your mum that she needn’t worry any longer, and trick yourself into pretending that everything’s okay. You make them believe you, politely refuse their offers of help until eventually they stop coming. If you’re destined to be alone, you reason, you ought to well and truly detach yourself from everyone you love.

Because what is real love if yours didn’t turn out to be?

(You promise yourself you’ll never get hurt again.)

And then you flock to the clubs and get shamelessly drunk, picking up anonymous fucks and pretending that they don’t all bear an uncanny resemblance to… to… and you lie to yourself, say you forgot the name when it’s burning like flames on the tip of your tongue. But the curls aren’t curly enough or the eyes are the wrong shade of blue or the feel of those calloused fingertips against your skin is either too rough or not there at all. And you try to forget but you can’t, try to love again but you won’t, try to live again when you haven’t got the heart to.

They are quick to teach you- just as soon as you depart from the seemingly endless fantasy of childhood- that the world is an inherently cruel place. There are drug dealers and thieves prowling the streets at night, hoping to plant the seeds of rebellion in your naïve adolescent brain. There are rapists around every corner waiting to steal your innocence and murderers plotting to end your life. They speak of terrorists and tyrants and nuclear weapons, of genocide and war and forced prostitution. News headlines flash with horrific tales of kidnappings and sexual abuse. But they never say a word about the tragedy of lost love.

They wouldn’t want to scare you after all…

So they tell you, instead, that every good and loving person gets their happy ending.

Even when you don’t.

& L &

This feels right and I’m letting it
And now I know just what to do
Tire of me if you will, my dear
I will not tire of you

And so it is by the most tragic and unfortunate of circumstances that one Louis Tomlinson, aged twenty-two and recently freed from an onslaught of insufferable uni courses for a Masters in English he’s not entirely sure he needed, finds himself standing in front of an abandoned two-level shop in London. It’s in horrible shape, really– the display windows are shattered jagged pieces of glass jutting out like the teeth of some ghastly beast, and the hand-carved wooden sign above the door is covered in so many layers of graffiti as to bear an uncanny resemblance to Raindrops #4 by the prolific, but decidedly less criminal, Bruce Gray. There’s a faded awning attached on only its right side, waving in the breeze like a tattered post-war banner, and an equally as devastated-looking black wrought iron fence lining the short, cobblestone walkway. He likes it, he decides, sizing up the ostensibly derelict exterior.

It has character.

He steps gingerly over the holes in the walkway as– quite predictably– more than a few cobblestones are missing, and hops up three cement steps to the front stoop. He digs in his pocket for a moment and eventually produces a rusty golden key, the likes of the flying keys in one of those Harry Potter movies‒ minus the wings of course. The lock on the shop’s decrepit door is as equally old and rusty, layers of paint peeling all around it like strips of wallpaper or skin, he supposes, in a more morbid sense of the word (he is a writer after all, pay no mind to such artistic comparisons). It takes several attempts before he finally manages to jam the key in the lock, having to jiggle the knob quite violently to release the latch. He supposes the neighboring shopkeepers ought to think he’s some sort of traveling vagabond, breaking into an abandoned shop to smoke some pot and sleep for a week or two.

Better they think I’m mad and keep away, he muses, than have them flocking to my door like pigeons with their incessant chatter.

With one final groan of protest, the heavy door swings open, revealing an inner sanctum untouched by human hands for nearly twenty years. No one wanted this property, he was told, and that’s exactly why he bought it. The foreboding two-story brownstone lies squeezed between a quirky thrift store painted a cheery yellow and kitschy self-proclaimed “sex emporium” called Kitty’s– its sign an outline of a provocatively posed young woman highlighted in pink neon. Tucked away in a nearly-hidden side street in inner-London’s artsy Camden Town, it’s neither the most accessible nor ideal of business locations. The real estate agent had sold it to him for little more than £20,000‒ an absolute steal despite its dreadful condition. He hadn’t even visited the residence, bought it solely from verbal description alone. The agent had thought he was joking at first, but once she’d established his genuine interest, there was little to do but sign a few papers and he was settled. Apparently, she’d been just as eager to get rid of the property as he was to buy it…

A swirling cloud of dust erupts as he shuffles inside the front door. Rats scurry about in a panic, dodging the sun’s rays under oddly-shaped lumps draped in‒ what were probably once starched white‒ linen sheets. The floor, the walls, everything really, is covered in a thick layer of fuzzy, grey dust. He absentmindedly runs a finger across one of the lumps as he walks by and is genuinely surprised when the object in question is not some sort of furry deceased animal but, in fact, just an old bureau. So, despite the dirt and the mess and the obvious need for repairs, Louis finds that he’s already fallen in love.

It’s perfect, he thinks, and for the first time since… well since it happened, he feels himself genuinely smile.

To any passive observer, his recent purchase would seem quite the foolish decision, judging by the property’s absolutely deplorable condition. But one final glance at the precariously hung chandelier and the peeling wallpaper and the moldy floorboards does nothing but convince Louis that he’s found himself a brilliant new opportunity.

Generally speaking, if he cannot fix himself‒ an undertaking which has thus far proven thoroughly impossible‒ he can at least fix something.

&&

1 year after

Brrring..

The jingling of the little bell over the front door sounds through the shop, echoing softly past rows and rows of bookshelves as far as the eye can see (or rather those occupying the first floor of an ostensibly miniature–sized London bookstore). A lissome, brown-haired young man sits at a desk near the back, scribbling furiously in a tattered moleskinee. He curses once‒ for a misplaced word which he quickly marks out‒ and again as the bell’s interruption causes an unsightly dark smudge in the margin of his notebook.

(It’s Sunday, a slow day‒ or what was supposed to be a slow day‒ and he’d been foolishly hoping that there wouldn’t be any interruptions whilst penning the last of the poems for his latest collection, one which his publisher was absolutely demanding be finished by the quickly approaching deadline. And, of course, this final poem was giving him particular trouble. Perhaps it was due to the rather sensitive subject matter, but either way he’d been working on it for hours and had just established a sort of flow to his work when of course a customer had to arrive.)

He stands up begrudgingly from his place of work and prepares a cheery smile as to properly welcome the visitor to his shop. He moves quickly to the front of the store, smoothing out his rumpled sweater and mentally preparing his oft-rehearsed greeting. “Hello, I’m Louis Tomlinson. Welcome to Tales Resold, the finest antique bookstore in London. Are you looking for anything in particular?”

But it’s then that his eyes catch a familiar flash of blonde hair and the need for all formalities disappears, along with the exaggerated grin threatening to strain his cheek muscles.

“For god’s sake, Niall,” he cries out in frustration, “Can’t you leave me alone for one day?”

The blonde boy just grins, ignoring the rather rude greeting. He reaches into a pocket in his trousers, unwraps a half-crumbled pastry, and proceeds to take a large, unmannerly bite.

“Er’ gon’ pain’ tha’ do?”  Niall asks, and it’s a wonder that his thick Irish accent remains even the slightest bit intelligible through a mouthful of apple and flaky bread.

Louis can’t help but smile softly despite his mate’s disgusting eating habits. It’s a joke they’ve shared since he bought the place nearly two years ago. Over the years, he’s spent countless pounds and hours of labor repairing every inch of the shop, but for some odd reason he can’t bring himself to repaint the front door. He’d once likened the dilapidated shop to his own life, a condition of brokenness that was seemingly irreparable. Though there eventually came a point where he no longer felt quite so broken, he supposes that the unfinished door serves as a reminder of his lingering imperfections. Even now the forest green paint is peeling something awful, but the sting of nostalgia he feels at the thought of painting over the original is enough to keep him from buying a liter and getting it over with.

“Suppose I will soon enough,” he replies earnestly, though by Niall’s chuckle it’s clear that he’s anything but believable.

It’s then that the blonde boy lets out a sudden resounding belch, having polished off the last of his tuck. He takes a hand to the crumbs dotting his mouth and chin, and wipes them off on the thigh of his trousers.

“Been swiping merchandise from the bakery again?” Louis asks, remaining unfazed by the Irishman’s lack of basic table manners (he’s had years to become immune to it after all).

Niall, for his own merits, looks surprisingly offended. “Course not,” he protests, “I’d never.”

“Must’ve had a quick shag with Josh behind the counter then,” Louis teases, “Convinced him to give you a free one, did you now?”

Louis cackles and ducks as Niall’s fist swings playfully toward his head.

“Arsewipe,” Niall mutters, his cheeks painted a brilliant shade of red.

Josh is a cheery lad with a boyish face who owns an organic bakery a few streets over. The three of them, along with Liam, Louis’ sensible old uni roommate in his first year teaching at a posh secondary school in Brook Green, often frequent the local pubs on the weekends. These outings usually involve Louis perched on a barstool scribbling poems on a paper napkin, Liam‒ who even after all these years still half-heartedly claims sobriety having had, at one point, only one kidney (medical miracle or summat)‒ keeping careful track of how many pints each of the others have consumed and providing the appropriate warnings (“Niall, that’s four you’ve had already and no, I don’t care how Irish your blood is!”), and Niall and Josh drinking into oblivion whilst obviously desiring to do a bit of covert fondling in the washroom in the back.

“Me and Josh are just mates, Lou,” Niall remarks with a not-so-subtle sigh, picking at the ragged hem of his ‘artfully destroyed’ white top.

He plucks away a loose thread with a quick pinch of his fingers, and looks up, face brightening. “And anyway, I’ve got me eye on a fit brunette who just moved into the flat on the fourth floor.”

He pauses a moment, seemingly struck by the memory of his new neighbor.

“Her legs, mate…” he continues, with a wistful sigh, “They’re like… like… the best legs ever… in the world.”

“Very articulate,” Louis comments, an amused smirk gracing his lips, “and I presume you utilized your incredible way with words to sweep her off her feet?”

Niall scoffs. “Give me some credit, Lou. As Mark Wahlberg once said ‘actions speak louder than words but not nearly as often’ and I’m‒”

“I believe that was Mark Twain, actually,” Louis interjects, “though the first bit is actually an ancient proverb, likely Greek in origin, first recorded in English in the late 17th century.”

“Wahlberg, Twain, same difference,” Niall replies with a shrug.

Louis laughs good-naturedly. “And I suppose you think ‘quick to kill, I gets ill, I make ya blood spill’ is the opening line to Tom Sawyer?”

“I’m pretty sure that was in there somewhere, yeah,” Niall says, smiling.

“Right, of course,” Louis nods in agreement, “It’s a wonder you aren’t an English major as well… Anyway, you were saying? The bird in the flat on the fourth floor?”

“Right,” Niall says, puffing his chest out, “As you know, I’m a man of action, so I helped her carry some boxes up to her flat ‘nd offered to cook her a ‘welcome to the complex’ dinner ‘nd everything.”

“Oh, is that right?” Louis questions, raising an eyebrow doubtfully, “Well then, I hope you’ve bragged to her that your culinary specialties include burnt steak and half-cooked pasta dishes, unless you’ve suddenly become a five-star chef without my knowledge?”

Niall glares‒ opening his mouth to no doubt protest his mediocre cooking abilities‒ but apparently decides against it and quickly changes the subject instead. “So what were you up to then before I stopped by?”

Louis sighs, glancing back at the still unfinished poem lying on his desk. “Trying to finish that last poem before my publisher bites my head off,” he replies.

“You mean the poem?” Niall asks with a knowing look.

“That’s the one.”

“C’mon Tommo,” he protests, “you’ve been working on that one for what? Three years now?”

Louis sighs loudly, idly toying with a loose string on the hem of his knit jumper. “I know, I know,” he replies, sighing again, “I wanted this poem to be the opening to the collection, but it’s still missing something…”

“It’s always missing something,” the blonde boy remarks, moving to lean against the edge of one of the wooden display tables. “Or someone,” he adds under his breath, though Louis is quick to scowl at the aside.

“This poem tells a story and it’s very personal, alright?” Louis snaps, softening his voice at the brief flash of hurt in the blonde’s eyes, “I’m sorry, what I mean is, I just can’t decide if I want it to have a happy ending. I don’t feel as if it deserves one, since it’s… since it’s not what I got, you know?”

He hears Niall “mmm” sympathetically, and continues, “But my stupid brokenhearted words from years ago stare back at me from the paper as if I’ve betrayed them, as if I’ve written them into existence the wrong way.”

“People do love happy endings, Lou,” Niall says, always frank, “They’re, well, happy.”

Louis makes an affronted noise. “What they are is disgustingly optimistic.”

Niall gives him a patronizing look. “You know, maybe if you’d actually let me read your poem, I could tell you if it’s any good or not.”

Louis looks back at the journal again, which rests wide open and vulnerable on the desktop, mentally gauging the speed he’d have to travel to prevent Niall from snatching it up first.

“You’ve read some of my other work,” he dissents, avoiding the other boy’s pejorative gaze.

Niall snorts. “Yeah, sure, I’m a big fan of your depressing poems about grey clouds and endless rain.”

“They’re not depressing.”

“Well they’re not exactly romantic tales of love in the English countryside either, are they mate?”

Louis lets out an offended gasp and reaches over to playfully shove the other boy off balance. Niall opens his mouth, probably to let loose a string of colorful curses, but he’s interrupted by Louis’ phone chirping loudly in his pocket. Louis takes a step back and pulls out his mobile, the alert on the screen reminding him to turn on channel 4.

“Erm, maybe you should go?” he tells Niall, glancing over at the stairs that lead up to his living quarters on the second floor. He’s almost certain to miss the gossip if he doesn’t get to the telly soon.

“Right, that’s not happening,” Niall replies, “Why so anxious all of a sudden?”

Louis panics and blurts, “My show’s on so I ought to-”

“Lou, are you watching that gossip garbage again?” Niall asks, eyes narrowing, “You know that little fucker will be on it as always.”

“It’s for inspiration!” he protests weakly.

“Chronic depression more like it,” Niall grumbles, “That boy’s shagged England’s housewives more times than their husbands have.”

Louis opens his mouth to argue once more, but the Irish boy is already past him and climbing up the stairs.

“Well c’mon then,” Niall sighs, a hand motioning upward, “We don’t want to miss it.”

& H &

“Harry Styles, who was recently named the UK’s most desirable bachelor, is involved in yet another pregnancy scandal, this time with a married woman ten years his senior-”

“Turn it off, Zayn.”

“Styles is due in court on the twelfth to determine whether he will be forced to take a paternity test to determine the father of the child-”

“I said turn it off!”

“Harry, you can’t keep ignoring this.”

“Fuck off.”

His body protests the sudden shock of cold as the covers are yanked off of his sleeping form. He sits up, wrapping the blankets around his naked lower half and flipping the bird at the dark-haired boy who’s supposedly his best mate.

“You’re acting like a right prick, you know that?” Zayn remarks, eyes locked on him in a steely gaze. “You’re always a joy to wake up, especially when you’re hungover.”

“Stop staring at me, fucking slag,” Harry hisses, dramatically pulling up the blanket to hide his now-exposed chest. He’s forever trying to get a rise out of Zayn, but the older boy doesn’t even flinch at the insult, just glares at him with palpable disapproval.

“Calling people names you know aren’t properly offensive?” he comments, voice infuriatingly calm, “Very mature.”

“Haven’t you read the papers, Zayn? I’ve apparently fucked more women in a year than you’ll fuck in your entire life,” Harry ripostes, reaching down to grab a pair of black Calvin Kleins off the floor.

“Don’t act like you’re proud of that,” Zayn says, watching solemnly as he slips on the boxers and a dirty t-shirt. “Least I’ve been in love.”

The slight is meant to sting and it hits its mark. His fists clench reflexively and he leaps up, grabbing a handful of Zayn’s t-shirt. “Fuck you,” he spits, “You know I have.”

“Yeah, but he fucked you over. Shit happens. Now put some fucking trousers on.”

Harry glares, moving about the room as slowly as possible. “He didn’t fuck me over, Zayn. He chose his career and I chose mine. Now we’re both famous and management pays him enough not to slag off about me on national radio. It’s fine.”

Zayn raises an eyebrow, but chooses not to comment on his obviously skewed definition of “fine”.

Harry’s hand is still on Zayn’s collar, the tension in the room thick enough to slice a knife through. “If Nick bloody Grimshaw,” Zayn says after a moment, the name like a dirty word on his tongue, “can flaunt his sexuality for millions of people every morning, why can’t you just date who you’d like to?”

Harry sighs, releasing the fabric and turning away from Zayn’s accusatory gaze. “You know why not,” he says, simply, “It’s about my image. Sex sells ‘nd all that.”

“Stop spouting your publicist’s shit and just admit that you made a monumental mistake signing that contract two years ago,” the dark-haired boy castigates, “one you’re certainly not fixing by fucking every woman that makes eyes at you– or pretending to, at least.”

 “Things are different now,” Harry says defensively.

“But do they have to be?”

Harry sighs again, running a hand through his tangle of curls. “Fuck Z, I don’t know, okay? I don’t know. I just do what they tell me. In fact, as you so kindly pointed out, I’m contractually obligated to do what they tell me.” He pauses, bites his lip, and adds “and it’s not true, you know.”

“What’s not true?” Zayn asks, eyes narrowing.

“That pregnancy rumor,” he explains, pulling on a pair of tattered black skinnies, “It’s supposed to spark public interest because the album’s set to drop next month.”

“Well that’s incredibly fucked up,” Zayn comments dryly.

He barks out a laugh, bitter and aggrieved. “Yeah well, what part of my life isn’t?”

 “Oh, I don’t know? The part where you make millions for having a pretty face?” Zayn remarks, the barest hint of resentment in his voice.

“You think I’m pretty?” Harry teases, batting his eyelashes, “Oh Zaynie, you’re too much.”

“And you’re insufferable,” the dark-haired boy replies, turning to leave. He expertly dodges the dirty sock that Harry launches his way and gives him an indignant look. Pausing momentarily to lean against the door frame, he says, “Anyway you’ve got an interview at Radio One in an hour, so I’d suggest you get dressed.”

“Yeah, fuck that,” Harry replies, waving his hand dismissively.

“I’m serious, Haz,” Zayn warns, “You’re running out of chances to prove that you’re still a marketable popstar, and not some immature twenty year old twat with an out-of-control drinking habit.”

Harry flips him the bird as he walks out, but the dark-haired boy is already gone.

& L &

Louis grabs the remote and clicks the TV off with resounding finality.

“Fuck that stupid, heartbreaking, womanizing twat,” he spits, resting his head in his hands.

“Cheer up lad, I’m sure they’re just rumors,” Niall remarks, rubbing his back in comforting circles.

 “D’you really fink so?” he blubbers, looking up at Niall with wide eyes.

It takes mere seconds before his doe-eyed, hopeful façade has the Irishman in stitches.

“C’mon,” he protests, throwing his hands in the air indignantly, “that was brilliant!”

 “Jesus Christ Lou,” Niall wheezes between spouts of raucous laughter, “Just be thankful that you’ve perfected this whole ‘bookkeeping poet with a bizarre indie music fetish’ thing you’ve got going, because the rest of your acting is absolute shite.

“Excuse you!” Louis replies with mock disdain, “I’ll have you know that I graduated with a double major in English and drama from one of the UK’s top universities!”

“Now the English part I believe,” Niall quips, a chuckle escaping his lips before he’s even finished the sentence.

His attempt to leap over the back of the couch before Louis can tackle him is ultimately futile; he’s pinned to the ground and begging for mercy within a millisecond of his wry utterance. Louis puts a finger to the blonde boy’s lips as he wriggles beneath him, effectively silencing his desperate cries for mercy.

“In all seriousness,” he says, well, rather seriously, dusting himself off and helping Niall up from his place on the floor, “I could honestly care less what flavor-of-the-week middle-aged socialite that pretty popstar is sampling for afternoon tea. It’s just an awful coincidence that my love for trashy gossip telly and his tendency to be featured on said trashy gossip telly happen to coincide.”

“Right, of course,” Niall says, giving him a patronizing look, “And I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that‒ and I quote‒ ‘his collarbones are worth salivating over’ or ‘imagine tugging on those curls with that pretty face nestled between your legs’ or my personal favorite‒”

“Out of context!” Louis cries, “Out of context! I was right pissed when I said that and you know it!”

“Doesn’t make it untrue, does it?” Niall replies, “Power of the subconscious mind ‘nd all that… And anyway you’d be on your knees in a blink if that bubblegum crooning self-proclaimed popstar suddenly discovered a newfound passion for dusty old books.”

The Irishman playfully fluffs up his hair and pouts his lips. “Hello I’m Louis Tomlinson and welcome to Tales Resold,” he continues, pitching his voice an octave higher in an awful attempt at femininity. He starts down the stairs to the main level, swinging his hips and waving his hands around dramatically.

“Could I interest you in our evening special?” he squeaks, turning back briefly to flutter his eyelashes as Louis follows him down. “It’s called ‘fuck me and the books are free’.”

“Niall!” Louis squawks, looking indignant, “I’ll have you know that I would never proffer away my expensive high-quality merchandise in exchange for sexual favors.”

They reach the main floor then, with Niall still giggling elatedly at his frankly awful impersonation.

“And anyway,” Louis continues flippantly, “even lovely ladies’ man Harry Styles would forget all about the books the minute he laid eyes on the devastatingly fit bookkeeper.”

“You’re right, of course,” Niall replies, sighing dramatically, “S’pose I’ll have to take down that FREE BLOWJOBS FOR POPSTARS sign I put in the window on me way in.”

Louis pauses, pretending to consider this seriously.

“Nah, leave it up,” he says after a moment, tidying up the front desk and pulling his wallet out of the side drawer, “Never know when we might have Robbie Williams strolling by feeling a bit randy.”

“Sick Lou,” Niall replies, wrinkling his nose, “He’s like forty… and married.”

Louis shrugs, pocketing his wallet and plucking the shop keys off a hook on the wall.

“No popstar can resist free blowjobs, young Niall,” he says sagely, ruffling his mate’s bleach blonde hair. He puts away the last of the scattered pages of manuscript, tucks his trusty miniature moleskine into his back pocket, and double checks the cash register before leaning down to grab a pair of faded red VANS from under the desk.

“Business is slow today,” he says as he slips them on, looking up to see Niall already collapsed on the old floral sofa by the front door. “Think I’ll close up early. Fancy a pub night? I know it’s a Sunday, but we’ve no reason to pretend we’ve got lives anyhow.”

Niall’s spirits are apparently revived at the mere suggestion of a pint as he shoots up into a sitting position and whips out his mobile to invite Liam and Josh to join them.

“I’ll take that as a yes, then?” Louis remarks with a fond smile, locking the door behind them as Niall hails a taxi to their favorite pub near Liam’s flat. He plans on having fun tonight, and dammit, he’s going to have it.

Never mind that his agent and publisher are going to kill him if he puts off finishing the last of his poetry collection any longer or that he’s promised himself to call his mum and the girls at least a dozen times this month or even that he hasn’t had a proper shag since The Bastard Who Shall Not Be Named (blowjobs in the loo at dirty clubs really shouldn’t count) and he’s resorted to lusting over a daft, curly-haired popstar who probably has more STDs than he’s got books in his shop…

Really. Never mind all that.

Louis Tomlinson’s got his life absolutely under control…

Absolutely.

& H &

Harry is drunk, and spectacularly so.

(Never mind that it’s only ten-thirty on a Sunday evening. It’s not like he “works” Mondays anyhow.)

He’s at his favorite club, dark and anonymous, paying double for every drink in exchange for the bartender’s silence (he’s already paid off the bouncers enough times that they know not to talk). Of course, if he were here to pick up a girl all this wouldn’t matter, but tonight is one of those nights when he’s really really not.

The music pulsates in time with the alcohol in his veins and‒ after one last shot‒ he makes his way to the dance floor. He’s thrashing about wildly, body moving with abandon, when he feels a pair of hands grip his waist and pull him closer. He whirls around and takes in the stranger standing before him, or rather, what he can make out through the dark and the smoke. His chin tilts up a bit as the man is slightly taller than he is (a surprising feat considering his own stature) with a striking jawline and artfully disheveled brown hair gelled into a tall quiff.

“Dance with me,” he purrs, slipping a leg between Harry’s own and pulling him closer.

The resemblance is striking and Harry feels his resistance slip away with a flash of eyes that aren’t-quite-green-but-close-enough.

 “Yes,” he breathes, moving his hands to grip the stranger’s thin hips.

They rock to the beat of the music, hips slotting together with delicious heat and friction. Their pace increases and Harry feels his cock respond almost immediately, a soft groan escaping from between his lips.

(It’s been far too long…)

The stranger pauses, sensing his building urge, and tilts Harry’s head up to press their mouths together. The taste of his lips is familiar and intoxicating‒ not quite the same as Harry remembers, but just enough to make his heart beat quicken and his pupils widen with arousal. He grinds their hips together more forcefully, letting out a quiet moan as the man’s hand slips between them to cup his hardening length. He reaches back to thread his fingers through the taller man’s hair and‒

Bzzz.

His phone vibrates in his pocket, obnoxiously buzzing against his thigh and that of the stranger grinding up against him.

“You gonna get that, mate?” the man whispers against his mouth.

“Mmm,” Harry offers in reply, leaning in closer to trace his tongue along a vein in the other man’s neck. His lips find his way to the stranger’s ear, mumbling, “Maybe after we fuck.”

His phone buzzes again and he sighs, pulling it out of his pocket and carelessly tossing it on the floor. He’ll tell his manager that he lost it, receive a half-hearted lecture about being more responsible, and have it replaced within the week. He’ll have someone wipe his account from his laptop in the morning.

“My flat or yours?” the stranger asks, interrupting his thoughts as he slips his hands under Harry’s t-shirt.

“Mm, it’ll have to be yours,” he replies, shuddering at the feeling of warm skin pressed against his own and the intoxicating, musky scent of sweat and arousal. He lets the man lead him out of the club, eyes bloodshot with temporary bliss and fingertips tingling with desire.

(It’s been far, far too long…)

& L &

Louis and Niall arrive at the pub around 9:30.

It’s an old family-owned place with battered booths and chipped barstools and a bartender who’s usually not good for any drink that requires more preparation than pulling a pint of whatever’s on tap, but it’s fairly close by and comfy and not horribly overcrowded for a city pub, so they can’t really be bothered to spend time looking for another.

They spot Liam and Josh at their customary table in the back corner. Predictably, Josh’s pint is already half-gone, while Liam keeps taking tiny sips of whatever fruity concoction he’s decided to try this time, making awful faces after each one.

“Greetings lonely lads!” Niall calls out loudly, earning a few glares from the weekend working crowd leaning exhaustedly against the bar.

Of course, he doesn’t notice and continues to make his way over to the table still obnoxiously chatting up everyone in sight. He slides into the chair next to Liam, clasping a firm hand on his shoulder, and reaching down to take a swig of Liam’s neon pink monstrosity.

He splutters, picking up a napkin and spitting into it, before declaring, “Jesus Christ, Liam, what in the name of‒”

Liam cuts him off with an exasperated, “Yes, Niall, I know it’s awful, but I’d really rather drink this than that black tar you down on the regular” and pinches his nose, bringing his lips to the edge of the glass and swallowing another mouthful.

Josh is almost in stitches at the expression that Liam makes as he gulps, gleefully explaining to the others that “he asked for something a bit sweeter and Eddie–the new bartender-in-training– filled the glass with a splash of vodka and every fruit-flavored rum they kept in stock”.

It’s at this very moment that Eddie– a lanky, disheveled-looking blonde clad in all black– waltzes over from the bar with another brightly colored ‘death punch’ in hand. Niall and Josh are fighting back tears as he sets it on the table in front of Liam with a wink and a sultry “it’s on the house, pretty boy”. Louis can’t help but chuckle at Eddie’s retreating form, his hips swinging rhythmically back and forth like an extra in a Beyoncé music video.

“Looks like you’ve got quite the admirer, Li,” Niall hoots, Josh collapsed on his shoulder and snickering into his t-shirt.

Liam glares at the pair of them, defiantly taking a tiny sip of his new drink, and attempting to muffle the resulting cough into the sleeve of his thin jumper. He looks down at the Pepto Bismol pink cocktail woefully, a deep frown etched across his features.

 “Surely he doesn’t intend to woo me with this?” Liam proposes doubtfully– in the closest approximation to mean that Liam Payne could ever achieve– which of course sends Niall and Josh into more hysterics.

Louis resorts to spending the next two hours or so patting Liam on the back sympathetically, the poor lad complaining that he can’t not finish his second atrocious excuse for a drink because that would be “so completely rude, Louis, I’d feel awful!” and listening to Niall and Josh discuss footie stats and pointedly ignore their mutual attraction for one another.

Around twelve-thirty, however, things finally get interesting.

There’s a sudden, resounding BANG and every patron in the pub looks up to see a dreamy, raven-haired stranger slamming the front door open so hard it knocks a couple of framed photos off the wall. Alright, well, maybe Louis was the only one thinking “dreamy” and “raven-haired” in addition to “I’d love to have that beautiful specimen bend me over the bar and fuck me until I can’t walk straight” but still… his entrance is certainly surprising.

Eddie is hurling all sorts of profanities at the deliciously leather-clad intruder from his place behind the bar, but the guy hardly spares him a glance as he boldly addresses everyone in the room.

He whips his clearly expensive phone out of the pocket of his clearly expensive designer jeans and points at a small blue digital dot blinking cheerily on the screen.

“So my lovely little locating app,” he starts, and for fuck’s sake, Louis despairs, even his voice is sexy, “is telling me that someone here found a phone that doesn’t belong to them tonight.”

He looks around the room sternly, several patrons even refusing to make eye contact with the gloriously handsome and intimidating stranger, when finally a younger lad with bushy eyebrows stands up and whips an equally as expensive looking phone out of his own pocket. He stumbles over to Mr. Fuck Me and hands him the device with a shrug and a heavily slurred, “Here mate, relax… I watched some guy basically throw it ‘cross the club earlier and figured he didn’t really want it, but whatever, it’s yours.”

The stranger sighs deeply‒ like this is apparently a regular occurrence‒ and takes the phone, nodding once firmly and slipping it into the pocket of his leather jacket.

He turns to leave, but Niall (already three pints in and still upright, the Irish bastard) calls out, “Hey mate, have a sit for a ‘mo!” and cheerily pats the seat next to him, left empty when Josh had ducked out around eleven citing an early shift at the bakery the next morning.

Tall Dark and Handsome pauses in the doorway as Niall concludes his invitation with a hearty “Pint’s on me, looks like ye could use one!”

He takes out his phone again, blinks a few times at the screen, and sends a quick message before swaggering coolly back across the pub and taking a seat with an artful kind of practiced nonchalance that makes Louis’ breath catch in his throat.

“Cheers, mate,” he says, nodding as Niall slides a newly filled mug his way.

He plucks a cigarette from behind his ear and digs around in his pocket before producing a cheap lighter‒ probably the only cheap thing about him. He glances up briefly at Eddie as if asking permission, but the bartender just shrugs like he could really tell fucking Marlin Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire what the fuck he can and can’t do. His mouth twitches briefly into a subtle smirk as he flicks the lighter once and touches the flame to the tip.

“I’m Zayn,” he says casually, addressing the three of them as he puts the lit cig to his lips and blows a perfect smoke ring.

Louis might be in heaven.

“I’m Niall,” Niall says, gesturing to himself and grinning brightly.

To Zayn’s credit, he doesn’t seem put off in the least by the Irishman’s unabashed and genuine friendliness.  In fact, if Louis could just keep his eyes off of the Vogue model’s deliciously angular jawline for more than a second at a time, the small smile on Zayn’s lips would suggest that he’s even a little refreshed by Niall’s sunshiny attitude.

“’nd these are me mates, Lou and Li,” Niall continues, gesturing across the table, “Well, their real names are Louis and Liam, but fuck if that’s not a mouthful.”

“It’s really not,” Liam cuts in quickly, almost as if he’s embarrassed… and wait a minute… is that a faint bit of pink spreading across his cheeks? Is the sexually unaffected Liam Payne really blushing?

Zayn chuckles softly, slowly turning to place his full attention on the source of the interruption, who‒ if he wasn’t red before‒ now resembles a prepubescent schoolgirl with a crush on her ruggedly handsome instructor. The dark-haired lad’s eyes move slowly down Liam’s body and back up, seemingly taking in every inch of the charmingly innocent, but also admittedly attractive site before him.

Louis definitely sympathizes with Zayn in this moment, as he himself had half-heartedly tried and failed to flirt his way into the schoolteacher’s pants when Niall had first introduced them at uni, setting them up to room together. What? The sexy loose curls (now shorter and straighter but still just as sexy) and the thickly sculpted arm muscles were totally calling out his name. And anyhow, Liam had blushed like mad when he’d made his advances and politely declined, telling him that he wasn’t really interested in a “fleeting sexual tryst” no matter how many times Louis promised he wouldn’t call him ‘Professor Payne’ in bed. Seriously. Those exact words.

So up until this interesting little development, Louis had just assumed that the sweet, Liam ‘Virgin Mary’ Payne was too pure to be interested in anyone, especially after his first and only relationship ended so awfully…

Clearly, Louis could not have been more wrong.

“So Zayn,” he says a bit defensively, interrupting the sexy stranger’s visual deflowering of one his best mates, “what do you do for a living?”

The bastard definitely takes his sweet time tearing his eyes from Liam’s right bicep. “I’m a music producer,” he replies idly, “well, a music producer in training really, but I’ve been pretty involved at the record label producing my mate’s album. It drops in a couple weeks and I’m hoping that with some positive reviews the execs will grant me some real creative freedom on his next one.”

“And,” he says slowly, eyes flitting back to Liam who is one twitch of his open mouth away from drooling on the table, “I also DJ at this pretty cool nightclub in Chelsea on the weekends. You lot should check it out sometime.”

At that, he takes a long swig of his pint, immediately making a face and quickly setting it back down on the tabletop. “Ugh, what is this stuff?”

Louis glances down at his own drink, and replies rather scathingly, “Sorry love, probably not up to standard with your typical 50-quid Chelsea brew, is it?”

“Louis!” Liam exclaims, clearly affronted. He leans into Zayn, cheeks still red, and faux-whispers, “I’m so sorry about him. He’s a bit of a diva.”

Louis’ glaring daggers at Liam-The-Traitor across the table, but Zayn merely shrugs. “I don’t mind,” he says, “Go back home and I’ve got people saying the same thing.”

“Ah, home,” Niall mutters, sleepily. In the course of the conversation, he’d downed yet another pint and had tucked himself comfortably into the space between Louis’ chest and left shoulder.

“Where’re you from then?” Liam asks, wide-eyed, like he’s expecting Zayn to say that he beamed himself down from heaven just yesterday. Louis scoffs. Zayn may be Fifty Shades of Fuck Me, but he’s clearly a trust-fund baby playing at making records with a couple thousand quid from Daddy’s bank account.

“Bradford,” Zayn says, and Louis may or may not choke on his drink. “Pakistani da and English mum, so if you’re thinking of saying something racist about my hometown, then yeah, it’ll probably offend me.”

“Well shit mate, I’d never,” Louis says, “I’m a Yorkshire lad meself, though bit south of you. Born and raised in good ol’ Donny.”

Zayn nods begrudgingly, taking another small sip of his pint. “You’re alright, mate,” he says slowly.

Louis blinks; though the assent sounded genuine, the other boy’s gaze remains as wary as ever. He watches then as Zayn turns and says something to Liam, the moment forgotten but the same brooding look still in place. Louis shrugs. Apparently Zayn’s just a really intense person, like, all the time.

“So Zayn,” Liam implores, staring at the dark-haired boy with what appear to be actual hearts in his eyes, “What was that whole thing with the phone about? Someone you know lose it?”

Zayn rolls his eyes and sighs deeply. “Remember my best mate with the album? Yeah, he’s got a bit of a reputation for being an insufferable dick. What’s worse, he happens to be an insufferable dick with money.”

“Is there any other kind?” Louis replies, grinning even as Liam smacks him on the arm and hisses his name once more.

“So he did toss it on the ground, then?” Liam asks, retracting his hand.

Zayn makes an affirmative noise. “That or he was too pissed to be bothered carrying it any longer.”

“Cheers to that,” Niall mumbles from his place against Louis’ chest.

Louis cards his fingers absentmindedly through the blonde’s soft hair, earning a pleased rumble from the little Irish lump. “So your mate with the album? He’s pretty successful then, yeah?” he questions, then adds, “Hard to make it these days on talent alone, so he must be a fitty.”

Louis,” Liam hisses yet again, “that’s really not appropriate.”

Zayn just chuckles. “It’s fine, Liam,” he assuages, casually shifting a bit to his right to rest a placating hand on Liam’s forearm, and wow, Louis really did not think it was possible for Liam to become any redder than he already was.

“So he is a fit bloke, then?” Louis asks, still curious.

“Yeah, you could say that,” Zayn says, shrugging complacently, “The gossip mags are always going on about how Harry’s like a young–” he cuts off mid-sentence, face contorted like he’s made some sort of mistake and oh my god. Now that he thinks about it, Louis’ definitely seen Zayn before… in Tesco… on last week’s cover of The Sun (not that he frequently reads The Sun or anything, but still). Zayn had been in the background, looking ever the brooding and mysterious bad boy, with one properly pissed popstar stumbling ahead of him.

“Harry Styles?” Louis asks, and if the name sort of comes out sounding like a breathy moan, well, who can fault him for that, really? “Your best mate is the Harry Styles.”

Zayn bites his lip, looking like he might try to lie his way out of it, but ends up slowly nodding instead.

“’s that right?” Niall mumbles, “Louis loves Harry Styles, says he’d like to lick his collarbones ‘nd suck his…”

Shut up, Niall,” Louis hisses, cheeks flaming. He looks up to see an insufferable smirk fighting its way onto Zayn’s face. “Niall is off his head, mate. Don’t believe a word he says.”

“Wouldn’t have pegged you for a fangirl,” Zayn says, still smirking.

“Oh Louis definitely has a thing for popstars,” Liam supplies helpfully. “Just this afternoon, Niall told me that Louis said he’d give Robbie Williams a blowjob...” he pauses, looking especially scandalized, “for free!

Zayn actually laughs aloud at that one which, of course, has Liam smiling proudly like he’s just won a gold medal in the fucking Comedy Olympics. “I think Harry’s still got Robbie’s number from some charity function thing,” Zayn says, grinning widely, “I could definitely hook you up, mate.”

Louis glares at the pair of them.

“Listen here, Zayn whatever your last name is,” he declares dramatically, reaching across the table to poke Zayn right in the ‘v’ of his pretentious little v-neck, “you’re corrupting my best mates and I won’t stand for it.”

“Mmm, I don’t mind, Lou,” Liam says, a bit dreamily, “I rather like our new friend.”

Zayn grins at Liam and Louis swears you can seem him preen. “See, I’ve not done a thing.”

“Don’t you have any other mates?” Louis asks, rolling his eyes, “Like, oh I don’t know? What about the poor drunken popstar that’s milling about town without a phone to call for help?”

Zayn shrugs. “Whatever happens, Harry probably deserves it. He was a proper dick to me this morning and he managed to skip a big interview at Radio One which the PR people are in crisis mode over trying to reschedule. ‘S probably best that he stay lost for a bit.”

Zayn’s apparently apathetic attitude toward best-mate-keep-alivedness should probably concern him, but granted Louis’ best mate (Niall) is certainly not a phone-tossing-interview-skipping-late-night-partying popstar either.

The four of them end up spending the rest of the night chatting amicably amongst themselves (with Eddie’s glares from behind the bar becoming exponentially more murderous with every adoring look Liam directs Zayn’s way). As the evening wears on, Louis finds it harder and harder to fault Liam for his affection, as Zayn turns out to be surprisingly intelligent and thoughtful and tells hilarious stories of he and Harry playing what was meant to be “New Age indie rock” and was really just butchered acoustic guitar chords and passionate grunting in tiny underground clubs filled to the brim with pretentious wannabe artsy-types. Liam, too, loosens up considerably after an uncharacteristic pint or two, talking about how much he just adores each and every one of his brilliant Year 7 pupils, as if any sensible human being really ought to be enamored with a classroom full of thirty bratty eleven year olds.

“Always wanted to be an English teacher before I got into the music business,” Zayn says at one point, earning yet another glowing smile from the already-beaming schoolteacher, “I actually started out in Classics and English before switching to music production.” After Liam’s sharp intake of breath and subsequent fawning, Zayn is glowing just as brightly (or as brightly as someone dressed in all black and leather can glow). Louis swears he hears a glass shatter from over near the bar but, when he turns to look, Eddie has already ducked out of site.

 Zayn’s aside leads to a discussion of his and Liam’s favorite Greek and Latin philosophers, which leads to a debate over their favorite more contemporary authors, which soon turns into a heated argument over whether The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment should be considered Dostoyevsky’s greatest work.

After debating for what feels like ten years to Louis (he writes poetry instead of thousand-page novels for a reason, thank you very much), Zayn‒ as a not-so-subtle way of involving him in the conversation‒ politely asks if he’s currently working. Louis’ barely opened his mouth before Liam cuts in saying “Oh, he owns just the loveliest bookstore in Camden, Zayn, you should see it! Fixed it up himself ‘nd everything! And he writes, like, this great poetry, but it’s really quite sad, you know? He’s a proper tortured soul ‘nd all that, ‘specially after that asshole Aid-”

“Are you quite finished, Li?” Louis snaps, tension springing up in his shoulders at the mere almost-mention of the bastard’s name. “I think that’s enough about me, don’t you?”

Liam just flashes him a sappy smile and pats him on the shoulder hard enough that he can’t help but flinch. “Don’t be so modest, Lou!” he booms, earning a few tired glances from the older pub patrons still hanging about.

“Yeah okay, big guy, I’ll work on that,” Louis says, rolling his eyes. He leans forward across the table and whispers to Zayn conspiratorially, “I swear he doesn’t usually drink this much. Li’s a bit of a lightweight, really.”

Zayn laughs good-naturedly, skillfully steadying Liam’s chair when he tips it backwards onto two legs laughing raucously at something Niall’s said. “Uh yeah, I can see that.”

“You’re quite pretty, you know,” Liam says, tugging at Zayn’s leather jacket and grinning dopily. “Bet you’d be even prettier with this off.”

Louis laughs brightly as Zayn shifts uncomfortably to twist his jacket out of Liam’s grip. “Oh, that one’s going in the blackmail pile for sure!” he says, miming writing down the event on the palm of his hand,
“Liam’ll be mortified when I remind him what a slaggy drunk he is.”

Something shifts in Zayn’s voice as he asks, “He does this often then, yeah?”

And, ah, there it is.

Louis takes a slow sip of his drink, considering, “Only with people he’d be too shy to say he fancied when he’s sober. He’s certainly never tried to remove my clothing.”

Zayn’s posture relaxes at that, his white-knuckled grip on the back of Liam’s chair noticeably looser. It’s then that Liam leans in close‒ too close, really‒ so that their shoulders press together, and Louis doesn’t miss the small smile that fights its way onto Zayn’s face. Disgusting, the both of them.

 Zayn opens his mouth to speak again, but is interrupted by a long, tired sigh.

“’M sleepy, Lou,” Niall says into Louis’ shoulder, “Can I stay at yours?”

Louis casts Zayn an apologetic look, but the dark-haired boy just shrugs and waves him off. “Sure, let’s get you home then, eh big guy?” he tells Niall fondly, the younger lad’s yawning form pressing closer to his chest.

He looks back up and sighs at Liam who’s not-so-subtly staring at Zayn like he hung the fucking moon in the sky. “Looks like we’re heading out, but I’ll leave you two to… erm…” he pauses, watching Liam light up at something Zayn whispers in his ear, “whatever it is that you’re doing. Ok then, yeah… night.”

He grabs a napkin, digs a pen out of his back pocket, and writes:

Please call me when you need me to come pick Liam up!! –Louis

He sets the note on the table for Zayn to see and ushers Niall out of the pub, glancing back every few seconds only to feel increasingly more nauseated at the captivated look in Liam’s eyes and Zayn’s hand brushing against his elbow.

“Think Li’s finally gon’ get fucked,” Niall says drowsily, as Louis shoulders open the door, guiding him out.

“Seems inevitable at this point,” Louis agrees, and grimaces thinking back to the number of neon pink cocktails Liam has downed in the last five hours. “Though I’m hoping Zayn’s enough of a gentleman not to take advantage of the fact that Liam’s blood-alcohol content is at least 85% strawberry rum.”

Niall manages to nod sagely, even as he stumbles across the threshold of the pub and onto the sidewalk.

“Maybe on their next date,” Louis continues, waving his hand to hail a taxi, “That or he’ll chicken out and we’ll be forced to hear him whine about Zayn’s dreamy caramel eyes for weeks after.”

“Mmm,” Niall says, muttering something unintelligible in reply that ends with, “D’you think Li tops?”

Louis just laughs softly, helping the near-comatose Irishman into their waiting black cab, “Sweet dreams, my little Leprechaun.”

Niall curls into his side the minute they get situated in the back of the cab, Louis making room for him under his shoulder. The blonde’s hair glows softly from the light of Louis’ smartphone as he pulls it out of his pocket, scrolling through his Twitter feed and posting an adorable picture of sleeping Niall on Facebook before he finally notices that he has a new message from a number he doesn’t recognize.

hey mate its zayn! i found ur # in liam’s phone to tell u that im splitting cab fare with him when we decide to head back cause his flats not far from mine (actually it is but dont tell him that… im trying to be a proper gentleman) anyway 2nite was fun lets do it again & next time i’ll bring the popstar!! but stay away from his collarbones theyre insured for a mil haha !!! cheers –zayn Xx

His phone chimes again just as he’s finished reading the first text and started his reply.

p.s. my last name is malik in case u don’t trust me around liam and decide to do a background check ;) heh XxxXxxxxxxx

He laughs and shakes his head (a winky face, Zayn, really?) before amending his original message to include Zayn’s last name.

i don’t doubt ur intentions are pure Zayn MALIK but nevertheless if u hurt my sweet innocent LiLi i’ll be forced to do unspeakably cruel things to ur manly bits and ur perfectly styled quiff and ur fantastic jawline and… anyway have fun kids, use protection etc. !! Xx

Zayn’s reply is hilariously indignant (im just dropping him off wanker!!) and he doesn’t feel the least bit threatened, that is, until he receives a text from Liam’s phone (u better watch it…) with an attached picture of Zayn’s own phone displaying an unsent message with a frankly awful picture of a young Louis in his checkered blue sixth year uniform. The text is addressed to a random number and Louis starts to ask just exactly who Zayn is sending it to when he notices the caption below the photo.

lol this lil hottie wants to lick ur collarbones :))) Xx

u wouldnt!! he types in response, adding and where did u get that pic??

liam’s cell is like fulllll of blackmail mate comes the reply a minute later.

Louis furrows his eyebrows and aggressively taps piss off malik receiving only a mocking :) in return. He sighs, slipping his phone back into his pocket and leaning down to rest his head on top of Niall’s own. The gentle lull of the cab as it snakes its way through early morning traffic has his eyelids drooping, lashes fluttering gently against his cheeks. A light rain begins to fall, drops a steady drumbeat against the black exterior like some rhythmic tribal lullaby. Soon, without warning, Louis drifts off completely, frozen in time in the backseat as the sounds of the city drone on.

& H &

The thing is Harry is still drunk, spectacularly so.

But this time he’s also lost, which is proving to be quite the problem.

After a quick anonymous fuck with some bloke from the bar, he’d left the stranger’s flat with the intent of finding a taxi. But it’s something like 4 am and he’s wasted and all the cars are flying by in a blur of colors and he hasn’t got his phone and… he is completely and utterly fucked.

And then, of course, it starts to pour.

“Bloody fantastic!” he shouts at the sky, throwing his hands up in a rage, though it’s directed more toward his own stupidity (for throwing away his phone and having yet another pathetic shag with a Nick look-alike) than at whichever mystical being has decided to fuck him over by summoning a fucking hurricane. Fat raindrops splatter his clothing and his hair as he runs-slash-stumbles aimlessly down the street. He catches a passing glimpse of his reflection in a moonlit display window‒ haggard and soaking wet, droopy curls framing his pale, gaunt cheekbones‒ and blinks back tears.

The rain is coming down harder now, lightning illuminating the sky in brilliant streaks. He shivers as the thunder rumbles and quickens his pace, throat beginning to burn and heart beating wildly in his chest, protesting alongside his straining muscles. He pauses for a moment and presses a hand to the place where his heart lies quaking beneath, finding himself momentarily amazed that the aching muscle still exists under the layers of cover-up, cracked ribs, and milky white scars. But then the thunder booms again and he is still scared and alone, despite the heart that he apparently still possesses. And so he runs, wet feet slapping the pavement, though he doesn’t have any idea where he’s going.

Harry runs, looking for a road that will lead him home.

& L &

Louis startles awake as the cab jerks to a halt outside the bookstore. He gently nudges Niall who groans for far too long before sitting up and stretching his arms above his head with a loud yawn. A brilliant flash of light followed by a deep rumble has him peering out the window and eyeing the wet pavement warily. Sometime during his too-short nap the sky had opened up and the rain is really coming down now, slow-moving ominous grey clouds to the west signaling a long storm ahead. Louis quickly tips the cabbie as Niall braves the torrent, darting across the pavement and unlocking the front door. They stumble into the bookstore soaking wet and giggling, leaving soggy footprints on the ancient knotted rug Louis’d placed in the front foyer.

“If you leave puddles on my hardwood, Horan, I swear,” Louis shrieks indignantly as Niall dances through the aisles toward the stairs leading up to his living quarters.

“Piss off, Delia Smith,” Niall calls back with a laugh, “You can bake me some biscuits later while you mop your floors.”

“Really, Niall?” Louis replies disapprovingly, shucking off his wettest outer layer and draping it over the back of a nearby chair, “Your sexism is devastatingly charming.”

There’s no reply– Niall apparently already out of earshot– so Louis allows himself an eye roll and a deep sigh before slipping off his soaked Vans and darting upstairs to find a towel to mop up the pools of rainwater formed from their harried entrance.

Strolling into his bedroom, Louis dutifully ignores the snoring blonde starfish in the middle of his bed, opens a slightly dented, badly painted chest of drawers, and snatches a faded blue towel from its underbelly.  

Jogging back downstairs, he walks to the front door and stoops down to wipe up the wet patches where Niall had dripped, sighing again deeply at the always-cheery London weather.

“Should’ve gone to Ibiza or Tahiti or summat,” he mumbles to himself, standing up towel in hand and raising the blinds on the front window to peer out at the muted greys and blues of his little stretch of Camden Lock, “’stead I’ve got a bookstore in the city of perpetual misery. Lovely.”

He shuts the blinds and turns back around to take in the state of his shop. A few 19th century novels lie misplaced on the front table display and he restacks them in a formation he hopes will be aesthetically pleasing to someone (there’s a reason he’s a writer, not an artist).  Surveying the stacks once more and deeming them acceptable, he flicks off the downstairs light and heads back upstairs where Niall is still snoring loudly. He rolls his eyes, tosses the wet towel in with the rest of his soiled laundry, and strips down quickly. Clad only in his boxers and a white tee, he flings himself into bed next to Niall‒ who predictably doesn’t even stir‒ and tucks the both of them in under his Nan’s knit quilt. Despite the Irishman’s rumbling chainsaw-like snore, he feels himself drifting off immediately, thoughts still swimming pleasantly from the alcohol’s fading buzz.

&&

Funny how, if maybe, he’d taken just a quick peek out his bedroom window…

… if instead of falling into bed, he’d stayed up a bit later, penned a few maudlin words in his moleskine, and gazed out onto the empty street…

… maybe, just maybe, he might’ve seen a tall, dark figure stumbling along the curb, long limbs illuminated by the soft glow of the corner streetlight, looking ever the radiant wanderer… lost and alone.

But no, the voice of Fate must’ve whispered, lulling him to sleep with her quiet assurance, keeping his eyes on the sheets and away from the pull of the curtains, the enticing sliver of light sneaking in through the window… No.

Not just yet.

& H &

Harry blinks awake in the early hours of the morning, the sound of a door slamming shut rousing him from a fitful sleep. His head is pounding and his neck aches from where he’s been pressed up against the brick wall behind him. His silk long sleeve button-up feels tight and sweaty and he peels it off, grimacing at the dampness of the t-shirt he’s wearing underneath it. His jeans were apparently, at one point, just as equally soaked and have now plastered themselves tightly around his thighs and ankles.

Wonderful, he thinks, trying to ignore the aching feeling that has spread from his neck to what feels like every joint in his body. He stands up, swaying on his feet a bit, and tries to take in his unfamiliar surroundings. The main street from which the alleyway branches off doesn’t appear to be very busy which means he’s either a) drunkenly teleported to the middle of nowhere , or b) it’s currently some ungodly hour in the morning during which people have no reason to be awake and moving about. One swift glance to the east where the sun is just peeking over the horizon and his second theory is confirmed.  He rubs his eyes and groans, peering down the pavement to where he can just make out a large, faded overhang with the words “Camden Lock” slopped on in mustard yellow paint.

“Camden, then,” he says aloud, mentally calculating the time it will take to get back to his flat in Kensington. He quickly realizes just how far he is from home; if his math is correct, about a thirty minute ride by car, longer by bus, and certainly outside of a comfortable walking distance.

He swears loudly, ducking back into the alleyway just as the rain starts up again. With no one awake at this hour, he supposes he’s got no better plan than to wait awhile longer, at least until the sun is fully up, and then ask some nearby shopkeeper if he can use their phone and perhaps dry off a bit.

Harry lets his body slide back down the wall, closes his eyes with a groan, and waits for sunrise.

& L &

Louis’ alarm goes off bright and much too early, the clock next to his bed reading 6:00 on the dot. He groans, the pounding in his head echoing with his every step toward the bathroom.

Louis’ slipping on a pair of trousers, mouthful of toothpaste, when his mobile vibrates loudly on the sink counter in front of him.

“H‘lo?” he answers, spitting into the sink with a pastel-tinted grimace.

“Lou?” a voice asks, anxiously.

“Liam! You alright, mate?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m… I’m fantastic, really,” Liam replies unconvincingly.

“Right, so that’s false,” Louis deadpans, pawing at his messy fringe in the mirror, “What’s wrong, then?”

There’s a long pause.

“Erm…” Liam starts, nervously drumming his fingers in the background, “this may sound a bit odd but… how exactly did I‒”

 “Zayn took you home,” Louis answers in advance, knowing the bashful schoolteacher well enough to anticipate the question. He waits, listening for Liam’s loud exhale of relief.

“I- he did?” Liam replies after a moment, sounding decidedly more contemplative than reassured.

There’s another beat of silence before he asks “Wait, did we…?” at the exact moment that Louis reassures exasperatedly, “You didn’t have sex with him, Li.”

Not that you didn’t want to, he adds, under his breath.

This time there is an audible exhale; though, of course, it’s immediately followed by a terse “and how exactly would you know that?”

Louis rolls his eyes. “I was under your bed listening, obviously, just in case I needed to pop out and defend your virtue.”

Louis,” Liam presses, his flat echoing with the sound of his agitated, pacing footsteps.

“Fine, fine,” Louis placates, the thumping immediately waning, “Zayn texted me around two saying that he was splitting a cab with you to ensure you got home safely‒ you were quite wasted, love‒ and he was adamant that he was going to be a gentleman about it. I did a GPS thingy on your phone around three and you were on your way home. If you’ve just woken up, you’ve not been out that long since he left you.”

“Oh god,” Liam says despairingly, “You know how I am when I’ve had one drink too many, Lou! I’m a proper slag, that’s what! Do you think he had to help me upstairs? Oh, I’m sure he did, if I was stumbling around like an idiot! He probably thinks I’m desperate and clingy and now he’ll never want to see me again and‒”

Louis yawns, rubbing his eyes and glancing at the clock which now reads 6:21.

“How are you not still unconscious?” he asks, tiredly.

“I can’t sleep when my nonexistent love life is on the line!” Liam cries, just verging on hysteria, “Plus, it’s Monday. I’ve got class at eight.”

“I thought you were on break?” Louis asks, a bit surprised, “Going out on a school night, Mr. Payne? That’s quite irresponsible of you.”

“October half-term hols don’t start ‘til next week,” Liam replies miserably, “And I went out with you lot because that one teacher asked me out again and I‒”

“Ms. Lewis, innit?” Louis interrupts.

“The very same,” Liam replies exasperatedly, “She invited me to dinner last night and I lied and told her I had plans with my mum.”

“Your mum’s back in Wolverhampton, if I’m not mistaken,” Louis teases.

“You aren’t,” the teacher affirms, sighing deeply, “I fully planned on spending the night at home with the last few essays I’ve left to mark, but Ms. Lewis texted around eight telling me to have fun and to say hello to ‘Mummy’ for her and I felt so guilty about not going out that I accepted your invitation instead.”

“Liam, love,” he replies, fighting laughter, “when you lie to someone and say that you’re busy, you’re not supposed to actually make yourself busy.”

“I know that,” Liam snaps, “but anyway I‒”

A sudden loud pounding downstairs draws Louis’ attention away from the conversation at hand. “Hold on just a mo’,” he cuts in, listening intently.

The pounding continues for a minute, followed by the familiar creak of the front door, and the sound of footsteps on the hardwood.

“Liam, I think someone’s broken into the shop,” Louis hisses into the receiver.

“Are you serious, Lou?” Liam cries, “Get out of there! Or hide! Or do something!”

“If you don’t hear from me in a few, call the police,” Louis says and hangs up the phone to frantically search his bedroom for some kind of weapon.

He ends up creeping down the stairs, hands shaking, armed with a wire coat hanger snatched from his closet. He reaches the landing and tiptoes between the bookshelves until he’s got a better look at the cash register near the back of the shop. He fights crying out as a tall figure in a ratty black t-shirt and torn-up jeans steps into view.

“Who’s there?” the figure calls, his voice deep and a bit raspy, “I promise I’m not a burglar or a bum or anything.”

“What do you want?” Louis hollers back. He tries his best to sound intimidating though his voice wavers noticeably. “I’m… I’m armed!”

“Holy shit,” the intruder replies, holding his hands up in surrender, “I’m leaving, I promise. I’m leaving immediately!”

He starts toward the door, but Louis‒ spurred by a sudden shock of charitably (if the man is homeless, he obviously needs some help, okay)‒ leaps out from his hiding place behind the bookshelf with the intent of blocking the man’s exit and offering him some assistance and maybe, like, some canned goods or something.

There’s an unmanly squeal followed by an exclamation of “Jesus Christ!” and the whole thing ends with the black-clad figure and himself in a pile of limbs on the floor.

Louis’ face is buried in a nest of dark hair and there’s a knee or an elbow or something painfully pressing into his crotch. He fights to get up as the person underneath him flails about screaming “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”

“Relax, would you?” Louis snaps, the ridiculousness of the situation combined with his raging, currently untreated hangover sending him over the edge.

“Yes, sir,” the intruder replies in a fearful whisper and stills himself immediately.

Louis stands up slowly, headache pounding behind his eyes, and surveys the cowering lump of a human being collapsed on his floor.

“Oh, get up please,” he orders irritably, holding out a hand to assist the clearly incompetent burglar, “If you leave now, I won’t call the police. That is, if Liam hasn’t already…”

He trails off as he feels the thief’s own massive hand encircle his own, a strange shock of (of what, exactly?) traveling lightning quick up his arm. He pulls the man to his feet and looks up, expecting a burly, bearded bum or a glassy-eyed stoner or something. Instead, he finds himself face to face with one, admittedly homeless-looking but still very recognizable, Harry Styles.

“What. I. You’re,” he splutters intelligently.

Harry cocks his head, greasy curls in disarray and his cheeks reddened from their accidental scuffle. “You alright, mate?”

Louis balls his fists and wills himself back into control. “Of course I’m not alright,” he retorts, “I did genuinely think I was being burglarized not a moment ago!”

The popstar has the gall to look properly scandalized at such a notion.

“Oh don’t give me that look!” Louis continues, “I’m on some sort of celebrity prank show, aren’t I? Shouldn’t Ashton Kutcher have popped up by now?”

Harry furrows his eyebrows in response.

“Ha ha, act all confused, very funny,” Louis replies, “Was the whole Liam and I ‘coincidentally’ meeting up with your mate last night just a test to determine if we were gullible-enough targets?”

There’s a long pause as Louis glares at the bushy-haired popstar, hands on his hips.

“What on earth are you talking about?” Harry says finally, giving him an odd look.

“I want to know why you’re here!” Louis demands, tossing his hands up in exasperation.

“Fine. Jesus,” the popstar placates, before launching into his explanation, “I got a bit pissed last night and lost my phone at a club, so I tried to find my own way home but, like I said, I was mildly intoxicated and all the shops were closed and, to top it all off, it was storming out. Next thing I know, I’m waking up in the alleyway outside yourshop, which I genuinely thought was abandoned because really have you seen your front door? Anyway, my watch read 6:30 which I thought was still a bit too early for anyone to be up, but I figured if I knocked I might be able to ask to use a phone or something. So I pounded a few times on your‒ let me emphasize this‒ decrepit excuse for a door and it literally swung right open.

At that point, I was sure the shop was abandoned so I took a peek inside simply out of curiosity. That’s when I heard you sneaking about and threatening to shoot me, so of course I was terrified out of my mind and practically running out the door when, out of nowhere, there you came tackling me! I then landed on your stupid rusty coat hanger‒ which I’m now probably going to get tetanus from or something, thank you very much‒ and that brings us to where we are now: myself being interrogated by quite possibly the looniest shopkeeper in all of England.”

Harry pauses for a moment, out of breath, despite the fact that he’d been speaking at a rate of about two words per minute. “Do you even have any costumers, like, ever?” he asks scathingly, “I mean, obviously not. The outside of your shop looks like it hasn’t been touched since the fall of the Roman Empire, and then, of course, there’s the fact that you own it and you’re absolutely mad!”

“Of course I have customers,” Louis spits, “Though I’m a bit unclear as to how you’ve still got fans going off of your frankly disgusting appearance and apparent kleptomania.”

“Klepto‒” Harry starts, scrunching up his nose in momentary confusion, “Oh, for god’s sake I already told you I’m not a criminal!”

“Great, wonderful, I don’t care,” Louis mutters in reply, pulling out his phone and sending an “everything’s fine” text to Liam before the entirety of MI6 shows up at his doorstep. He sighs loudly, flicking back to Zayn’s texts from last night, and typing out: Found your popstar… Unfortunately.

His phone pings three times not a moment later, alerting him of his new messages: one from Liam in all caps stating NOT FUNNY LOUIS!! which great, yeah, he’ll have to explain that later, and another two from Zayn, the first with a thrilled dammit, things were quiet with him gone :( and the second asking for Louis’ address. He quickly replies with the directions, half-expecting Harry’s security entourage to have teleported to his location the minute it reads “delivered”. What he’s certainly not expecting is:

driver’s wife is having her baby so we won’t get someone out there until like 10 sorry!! ur stuck w him til then :) haha good luck !! Xx

Louis curses under his breath, types YOU OWE ME!!!! in all caps, and pockets his phone. Sighing deeply, he looks back up at the popstar with a practiced saccharine smile the likes of which he normally wears when dealing with customers with rowdy children who can’t stop touching things. It does seem especially appropriate for the situation as Harry is currently perched on the edge of one of the display tables, his long thin legs swinging back and forth rhythmically, looking ever the petulant pouting toddler.

“I’ve alerted Zayn to your whereabouts and he’s having a car sent over in a few hours,” Louis says finally, trying to sound unimpressed with the idea of someone having their own chauffeur, “Don’t even think of trying to escape as I’m expecting a generous cash reward for your capture once your people arrive.”

Harry starts to complain (“A few hours? That’s ridicul‒”) but he bites his tongue; something in Louis’ discourse having arisen his suspicions.

“And how exactly do you know Zayn?” he questions, eyes narrowing.

“Met him last night,” Louis replies with a nonchalant shrug, “when he walked into the pub my mates and I frequent looking for… oh, what was it? Perhaps the phone that you chucked across the dance floor during your little clandestine midnight excursion?”

The younger lad’s cheeks flush red with guilt and Louis almost pities him until he remembers all the trouble that the irresponsible escapade had caused.

“And you missed a big interview,” Louis continues, “caused a bit of trouble for your people, and for Zayn, who’s apparently a good mate of yours though I can’t fathom why… Bit rude, innit?”

Harry’s glare returns full force at the admonishment. “You don’t understand what it’s like,” he grits between his teeth, “and you’ve no place to criticize.”

“Oh please,” Louis replies, eyes rolling up so far in his head he thinks they might not come back down, “save all your misunderstood ‘fame isn’t what I’d thought it’d be’ bullshit. You’re filthy rich and incredibly successful and you’re only what? Twenty? I highly doubt you even finished uni, did you?”

He pauses, watches as Harry begrudgingly shakes his head.

“Exactly. Some of us actually wasted away for three, four years and graduated without a proper job or a house or anything, alright?” He gestures around the bookstore, recalling all the work it took to fix it up.

“And not to mention, you’re perpetually surrounded by beautiful women‒ which isn’t really everyone’s cup of tea‒ but if the tabloids are anything to go by, it’s definitely yours, and‒”

“It’s not,” Harry interrupts, voice bitter and defensive, though his eyes go immediately wide as if he’s said something wrong.

“I‒ what?” Louis replies, pausing mid-sentence.

Harry’s eyes are the size of saucers.

“I… uh… it’s not… you know, my dream, it’s not to be surrounded by women,” he splutters intelligently, “I… uh… I like them one at a time?”

He cringes, looking at Louis pleadingly as if asking him to accept the fact that he’s clearly just lied about… about something.

“So you’re not into orgies, fine,” Louis shrugs, watching the tension in Harry’s soldiers dissipate at his placation, “but that doesn’t change the fact that you’ve been blessed with a virtual buffet of women from eight to eighty-five ready and willing to drop their panties at the first bars of one of your crooning ballads about the beauty of young love.”

Harry opens his mouth again, likely to protest the merits of crowd-pleasing pop music, but Louis holds up a hand. “Look,” he says softly, “I’m not trying to make you out to be some kind of villain brainwashing the public with your ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ and your charm and those damn dimples. All I’m saying is that you’ve been afforded quite a bit of privilege in your life thus far, and I’m sure a lot of people would find it refreshing if you just acted a bit more, oh I dunno, appreciative of it?”

“You think I don’t appreciate it?” Harry asks, the acidity in his tone dried up and gone. He looks down at his patched leather boots in what appears to be a sudden bout of self-consciousness.

Louis sighs, hopping up on the display table to perch next to the popstar. He slides a bit closer‒ his mind protesting that he’s overstepping his boundaries‒ but that doesn’t stop his hand from wandering over to pat Harry’s slightly damp, skinny jean clad thigh in what he hopes is a comforting gesture.

“I’m not saying you don’t,” he answers, trying his best not to be as harsh as before, “but the whole skipping the interview thing to go out and party instead does raise a few red flags.”

Harry sighs deeply and turns his head so that his eyes meet Louis’ own (and Louis’ breath absolutely does not catch in his throat as the space between them is cut in two; that would be ridiculous). Regardless of how he reacts, however, it quickly becomes apparent that any fake, pretentious façade the popstar may’ve been putting on has completely faded. This Harry, presumably the real Harry, just looks very young and very scared and, most of all, very, very sad.

“I didn’t skip the interview because I wanted to party,” he explains softly, “I skipped it because I knew they wouldn’t ask a single question about my music or my interests or even stupid, little things like, I don’t know, my favorite color or something.  All anyone ever asks me to do is confirm or deny rumors about who I’m supposedly sleeping with, and discuss whatever ridiculous weekly scandal The Sun reports I was involved in this time.”

“Ah yes,” Louis replies lightly, trying for humor, “I did hear quite recently that you’re having a baby?”

“It’s true,” Harry confirms, rolling his eyes, though Louis’ heart leaps irrationally at the small smile that tugs at his lips as he does so. “My forty-year old lover from Brixton and I are just thrilled! As is her husband.”

Louis can’t help the embarrassing giggle that bubbles out of him at Harry’s deadpan. His laugh is loud and ridiculous and squeaky and sometimes involves snorting (though thankfully not this time) and he absolutely hates it. In a futile attempt at muffling the sound, he covers his face with both hands and counts to ten. At five, he chances a peek between his fingers‒ fully expecting the popstar’s face to be contorted in some sort of judgmental expression‒ but instead, he finds Harry sporting a massive grin and looking immensely pleased to have been the cause of such an uncontrollable reaction.

“What’d you stop for? Your laugh is brilliant,” Harry says, plucking one of Louis’ hands from his face and placing it gently on the small expanse of wooden tabletop between them. He’s so painfully earnest that Louis’ heart aches with it.

(In his mind, there is a coffee shop and a blonde barista and the brush of their fingertips around a chai tea latte, the exchange of small, hopeful smiles. And it’s funny, he thinks, so funny… how every relationship begins with hesitation, but ends with certainty.)

He looks back up to see that Harry’s face has shifted from amusement to vague concern.

“Sorry, it’s just…” Louis starts, taking in one ragged, painful breath, “you sort of remind me of someone.”

“Someone you lost,” Harry replies, and it’s not a question; it’s a statement, like he understands.

“Yeah,” Louis affirms, softly, “but, you know s’probably best they stay that way. Lost, I mean.”

Harry looks at him, really looks at him‒ and it’s not a look that’s typically shared between virtual strangers‒ it’s not of pity or of disdain, it’s… empathy.

“You’d like to forget them,” Harry says, sounding just as heartbroken as Louis feels, “but you keep seeing them in everything and everyone, and… it’s strange how empty your life feels without someone next to you to share it with.”

There’s a long silence, the mingling sounds of their breathing and the tick-tock of the clock on the far wall the only interruption.

“It’s a good thing no one asks you about that relationship,” Louis remarks eventually, chuckling softly though his eyes glisten with moisture, “you’d have the entire audience sobbing on the floor in seconds.”

Harry laughs softly too. “Yeah, I suppose I should probably keep that one to myself.” He pauses, fiddling with his hands in his lap, “So, I’ve known you for about, what? Twenty minutes now? And I’ve already told you more than I’ve told anyone in a long time. It’s strange but…”

Harry trails off, face contorting into a look of confusion. Inexplicably, he starts to laugh, and his laugh is not the deep-throated chuckle that Louis expects, but a loud, uninhibited hyena-like cackle that spreads his mouth so wide it seems to take up his entire face.

“What on earth is wrong with you?” Louis asks, a chuckle escaping from between his own lips despite his attempts to ignore Harry’s insane, contagious laughter.

“I’m sorry,” Harry replies, still giggling, “I just realized that I don’t even know your name.”

In lieu of his moniker, Louis just bumps his shoulder against Harry’s playfully, and says, “This is actually the most ridiculous situation I’ve ever been a part of. It’ll be nice to include it in my autobiography, so thank you for that.”

“I met Lady Gaga once,” Harry says casually, with all the practiced nonchalance of the young, rich, and famous, “but you might top that... erm…”

He trails off again, eyebrows furrowed and nose crinkled. If Louis were allowing himself to set free his inner starstruck gay fanboy, he might even say that, in this moment, Harry Styles looks absolutely adorable.

“Hellooo?” Harry singsongs, waving one massive hand in front of Louis’ face, “Earth to– see, this is where I would say your name if I knew it.”

Blinking back into reality, Louis takes a moment to examine Harry’s hands up close: giant, smooth palms, long, clumsy fingers that would look divine spit-slicked and shiny with lube and– okay, that got away from him quickly– and loops and loops of bracelets and rings, some expensive-looking and silvery and others just frayed bits of braided twine or folded candy wrappers. His fingers itch to write them all down, to imagine the meaning behind the sloppy red and gold twists (a gift from a young fan), the plain black band (an old trinket purchased on a whim from a hole-in-the-wall antique store in Manchester), a moss green gem set in an intricate swirl of silver (from his mother on his eighteenth birthday)... Harry Styles is a poem waiting to happen, Louis thinks, eyes tracing peach flesh and the undercurrent of blue veins. He wants to write him all down, capture the image of green eyes and red lips and skinny wrists... dark ink spilled across the page. He–

“You know,” Harry says offhandedly (and Christ he’s still speaking, whoops, that’s embarrassing), “when I first called you the maddest shopkeeper in London, I was just joking, but now I’m not so sure.”

Louis, like the mature adult he is, sticks out his tongue.

“However, it feels impolite to continue calling you that, no matter how true it may be,” Harry continues, smiling expectantly, “I would love to know your name.”

His dimples are sort of impossible to resist.

Louis caves within seconds.

 “Louis,” he supplies, finally, with a wry smile, “Louis Tomlinson, and you are?”

“Pleased to meet you, Louis,” the popstar answers, and the sound of his name in Harry’s thick, molasses tone is absolutely not enticing at all, nope, not a bit.

“M’name’s Harry,” he continues, “Harry Styles, and you know it’s really nice to introduce myself, for a change.”

That’s when it strikes him. “I’ve got an idea,” Louis blurts, “Let me interview you!”

Seeing Harry’s confused and highly skeptical eyebrow raise, he clarifies, “No, no listen! This is a great idea, alright? Let me interview you. Like a real proper get to know you sort of deal! No invasive questions about your love life, no publicist standing behind the interviewer telling you what to say, just you and me, chatting it up like two strangers on a train, or summat.” Louis pauses, out of breath, “So? What d’you think?”

Harry hums contemplatively, though the smile he attempts to suppress gives him away.

“Alright,” he says, after his brief faux-moment of consideration, “but if you don’t ask me what my favorite color is, I’m leaving.”

Louis’ smile is blinding as he begins, “I’m here with Harry Styles, leader of the notorious London bookstore crime ring…”

The unmanly squeal he makes as Harry swats at his arm, and the popstar’s hysterical laughter in response can surely be heard from miles away or, at the very least, by the tenants of Kitty’s Sex Emporium next door; but Louis finds, oddly enough, that he really really doesn’t care.

& Z &

“There’s been a disturbance in the force,” Zayn says, taking a long, calculated sip of his double-shot espresso.

The pink-haired girl sitting across from him just smiles lightly, as if she’s used to such strange pronouncements. “Mmm, how so?” she replies, nursing her own‒ significantly sweeter‒ cup of coffee.

“I told you about last night, right Pez?” Zayn asks, and waits for her nod of confirmation, “Remember Louis?”

Perrie inclines her head and sets her coffee cup on the table between them. “Is that the one you want to sleep with or the one who wants to lick Harry’s collarbones?”

“The second one,” Zayn replies, glaring, “and I don’t want to sleep with Liam.”

Perrie chuckles, idly twirling a cotton-candy colored strand around her index finger. “Oh, my mistake,” she teases, “Liam is the one you want to propose to in Paris and adopt six kids with. How could I forget?”

“You know, sometimes I really regret being friends with you,” Zayn replies, still glaring.

Perrie grins and reaches across the table to pat his cheek with mock affection. “No you don’t, love,” she says with a saccharine smile, “I’m the nicest, hottest, bestest mate you’ve got.”

Seeing Zayn’s resultant eye-roll, she adds, “And certainly your most enjoyable shag to date.”

“And modest-est too,” Zayn mutters, ignoring her last comment completely.

He finishes his espresso in one long gulp, tossing the empty cardboard cup straight into the bin to his left with a bored flick of his wrist, “Anyway, as I was saying, Harry’s been at Louis’ since like six this morning and there hasn’t been a single homicide reported on the Camden Police Station’s twitter page. Not even any complaints for noise disturbance!”

He holds up his phone for emphasis, showing her a tweet about an arrest for cannabis possession posted three hours ago.

“Maybe they’ve just not found the body yet,” Perrie jokes, dark purple-painted lips quirking up in amusement.

Zayn, on the other hand, looks horrified.

“I’m just taking the piss, Zayn, my goodness!” she placates, watching his facial muscles relax at her reassurance, “What’s Harry doing there anyway?”

“Apparently, he drunkenly wandered into Camden last night and ended up knocking on Louis’ door this morning,” Zayn explains, “Can’t get a driver out there until ‘bout ten o’clock, and we certainly don’t want him papped on public transit looking hungover and half out his wits, so I told Louis to keep an eye on him. Hopefully, that way, he doesn’t escape again.”

“Bit of an odd coincidence though, innit?” Perrie comments, raising one blonde eyebrow, “Harry ending up there?”

“Yeah, proper sci-fi material,” Zayn agrees sarcastically, lips twitching into the briefest of smiles at the affronted look he receives in return, “but really I’m just glad he’s safe and not, like, passed out in the toilets at McDonald’s or snorting coke from some bloke’s bellybutton or something.”

“Can you even properly snort coke from a bellybutton?” Perrie wonders aloud, completely missing the point, “I reckon you’d get a bit of powder stuck in the creases?”

“Wouldn’t know,” Zayn replies idly, checking his watch, “Now let’s get you back in the studio. I want to work on those runs at the end of that track again.”

Perrie groans in protest, and slowly and unwillingly drags herself up from her seat. “Can’t you make Jade do them?” she coughs exaggeratedly, “My throat is sore.”

“We can’t put your name on your band’s record if you don’t actually sing on it,” Zayn chastises.

“Ugh, you’re a slave driver,” Perrie whines, “When’s Harry coming back? I like him more than you.”

“Probably around noon,” Zayn answers, “and no you don’t.”

“No I don’t,” Perrie agrees, “but I’ve never slept with him, have I? Or even seen his dick, for that matter, so how can I really be sure?”

“I knew you only liked me for my body,” Zayn scoffs, unlocking the door to the recording booth and fiddling with a few controls.

“It’s bigger than yours, innit?” Perrie asks, a bit invasively.

“Unfortunately, I can confirm that,” Zayn says with a sigh, unpleasant flashbacks from their days as flatmates flooding his brain, “Now, can we please stop discussing my best mate’s penis and get some actual work done?”

“Aye aye, cap’n,” Perrie replies, with a half-hearted attempt at a serious tone. She swings a hand up in mock salute, and marches into the recording booth still chuckling to herself.

“Yeah, you’re a proper comedian, aren’t you?” Zayn says, rolling his eyes.

As Perrie starts on some vocal warm-ups from within booth, Zayn plugs in a few mics, tests the sound levels, and sets up the backing track. Just as he’s finishing up, the door to the outer room swings open and a tall, dark-haired man dressed in all black enters, smiling brightly.

“Morning, you two!” David, the head producer, calls out, plopping himself down in the swivel chair next to the one Zayn is currently occupying. “Got everything set up, Zanzibar?”

Zayn rolls his eyes at the nickname but nods affirmatively. “Yeah, Pez is ready to lay down a few runs on track six.”

“Ah perfect,” David replies, fiddling with a few of the controls despite Zayn’s reassurances, “That’ll be it then, Zanzi. As Styland is still MIA and obviously won’t be coming in for a second session today, you’ve got the rest of the day off. Enjoy yourself, yeah?”

Zayn opens his mouth to deliver the news that Harry’s not actually missing any longer, but Perrie’s shrill laughter fills the room before he can speak.

“Wait a minute,” Perrie interrupts from the booth, still giggling, “Is Styland a play on Styles and Thailand?”

David smiles brightly, his focus drawn away as he spins his chair to face toward her. “Oui Pérríé,” he replies, switching to a poor attempt at a French accent, “You are so clevér.”

The pink-haired popstar inexplicably laughs even harder.

“D’you like that?” David replies, grinning, “Just came up with that one on the spot.”

“I don’t think that randomly employing a French accent should be considered particularly witty,” Zayn says, attempting to introduce himself back into the conversation.

The entire room falls silent; Perrie glaring and mouthing “rude!” and David simply waving a dismissive hand as if to say “Why are you still here?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m going,” Zayn mutters, collecting his things.

He’s just zipped up his backpack and started down the hallway when his phone pings with the arrival of a new text message. He whips it out of his pocket and sees that it’s surprisingly from Liam (who had drunkenly spelled his name L-U-M in Zayn’s contacts last night as he’d insisted on typing it in himself).

fancy gtting sum lunch tday?

His phone pings again before he can reply.

if ur not buzy i mean

And again.

shoot im srry that was awfl presmptius of me !

And again.

i meaan nt like a date or anythg…

i just fel like i owee u fr lst nigts cab farre??

nt tht thts the only reson i wld eat lunh w yuu!!

oh ym god pls ignore this !! !!!  this is rlly embrasing!!

Zayn tries to resist the fond smile that tugs at his lips, because really, how on earth is he this attracted to such an adorable, bumbling idiot? He’s Zayn Malik, for god’s sake. He wears leather jackets and keeps a cigarette tucked behind his ear at all times and listens to smooth R&B music (even though he produces for a popstar) and he owns a badass pit bull puppy. He’s cool, right?

I’m cool, he tells himself, looking down at his arm full of tattoos, yeah, I’m so fucking cool.

Never mind that it takes him the entire ride back to his flat to think of a suitably cool reply to Liam’s messages.

Never mind that it takes him even longer to type it in (his hands are not shaking, thank you very much).

sounds great actually! i’ll pick u up in an hr? xx

Never mind that he deletes and retypes the x’s at least thirty times before his cry of “fuck it!” echoes through his empty flat, and his thumb betrays him as it taps SEND.

Never mind all that, really.

He’s so fucking cool.

& L &

“It’s noon,” Louis remarks, yawning, as the credits roll onscreen.

Harry– curled up under a blanket on the opposite end of the couch– shrugs helpfully. “Okay?”

His curls are mussed and his lips are painted cherry red. He looks kind of really beautiful. Louis maybe, sort of wants to kiss him.

Louis doesn’t kiss him.

Instead he asks, “So, weren’t your people sending someone to pick you up around ten?”

Harry looks down suddenly, cheeks flushing.

“Did Zayn forget or something?” Louis implores, suddenly worried that he might’ve been keeping Harry against his will, “Because I can totally get you home, or wherever you need to go, you know that right? My mate Niall’s even got a car ‘nd everything, in fact, just let me call him right now and we can–”

Harry interrupts with a few mumbled words, his blush deepening.

“What was that?” Louis asks, concerned.

“I said, ‘Zayn didn’t forget’,” the popstar replies, voice still soft, “I maybe, sort of told them that I was taking the day off?”

Louis doesn’t do well at hiding his confusion. “What? When? Why?” he blurts, questions popping out of his mouth in rapid-fire succession.

“While you were setting up the movie,” Harry replies, wrapping the blanket more tightly around himself, “I might’ve snuck back downstairs and used your landline to phone my agent.”

The realization hits Louis like a freight train. “Harry, I–”

“I’m really sorry if I’ve overstayed my not-so-welcome, it’s just… I haven’t spent like a real day just hanging out with someone in so long and you were so nice to me and I sort of thought that maybe–”

“Harry,” Louis tries again.

“–that maybe we could even be friends, you know? Like all my friends aren’t even really my really real friends, they just pretend to like me ‘cause I’m famous, right? I mean, except for like Zayn and the band that I tour with and a few people at the record label, I don’t have any like normal friends, and this day has been so lovely, I’m sorry, I’ll call them back and tell them that–”

“Harry,” Louis says once more, scooting across the sofa to clamp a hand over Harry’s mouth.

Harry continues speaking for a second after he’s cut off and Louis tries his absolute best to ignore the sensation of those plush red lips moving against his palm. He removes his hand and takes in the popstar’s wide-eyed expression. Harry’s breathing heavily, cheeks flushed and lips parted in surprise, whether from his rambling speech or from their current proximity (and yes, okay, Louis acknowledges that the latter is highly unlikely, but can you really blame a man for being optimistic?).

Louis rocks back onto his knees, putting a nice, safe cushion-length distance between them, and says, “Of course you can stay, you idiot.”

“I– really?” Harry asks, almost timidly, peeking out from the wrappings of his reconstructed blanket cocoon.

“Yes, my little butterfly,” Louis assuages, surprised to hear his voice tinged with such unexpected fondness. He shakes his head to clear away those thoughts and reaches out to poke the Styles-sized burrito playfully.

“Heyyyyy,” Harry complains, dragging out the “ey” sound in his husky baritone.

Louis’ about to offer up a smart retort when his cell vibrates loudly in his pocket, and then once more as he’s pulling it out.

There’s a message from Zayn:

this prob sounds odd but what’s liam’s favorite food? please respond asap !!

And another from Liam:

emergency lou pls hepl ummm wat shud i wera if i were hypthecally goin on a NOT date w a v atractiv man to a probly v nice resterant?

“Oh dear god,” Louis says aloud, fighting the urge to vomit.

“What? What?” Harry asks excitedly, bouncing across the sofa and snatching Louis’ phone from his hands before he even has a chance to react.

He watches the younger lad’s face carefully as he reads the messages back to back.

“Are our friends hooking up?” Harry asks finally. He looks up from the screen wearing a shit-eating grin like it’s the greatest news in the world.

“It appears so,” Louis replies, trying his best to feign disinterest.

“Does this Liam bloke fancy Indian?” Harry inquires, eyes glinting mischievously as Louis nods. “Great! Tell Zayn to take Liam to Veeraswamy on Regent Street, and to mention my name for their best table.”

“What are you planning, Styles?” Louis implores, narrowing his eyes. He’s known the popstar, for what? Like six hours total? And yet, he can already tell that he’s up to something.

“We’re going to spy on them, of course,” Harry replies, rolling his eyes like it’s obvious.

“Harry, no, we can’t,” Louis protests, wringing his hands, “This is the first time Liam’s shown actual interest in anyone, like, anyone! I mean since she… I just, I don’t want to mess this up for him!”

“Well I don’t even know Liam at all,” Harry argues, “I’ve only got Zayn’s best interests in mind.”

He inclines his head slightly, grin spreading, like he’s waiting for Louis to get something. After a moment, Louis feels a smile appear on his own face as he realizes what Harry is trying to say.

“So, really,” Louis tries, “by spying on their date, we’re just looking out for them?”

“Exactly,” Harry replies, shrugging, “I mean, it’s our duty as best mates to observe and scrutinize all potential love interests.”

“Right,” Louis agrees, standing up and walking across the room to turn off the television. He turns back around and swallows at the image of one Harry Styles sprawled across his sofa, long limbs hanging languidly off the edges. He kind of sort of wants to ravish him.

Louis doesn’t ravish him.

Instead he says, “Well c’mon then, Styles! Haven’t got all day! At this rate, we’ll be late for our reservation!”

He winks lasciviously as Harry leaps to his feet.

“I must warn you though, love; I don’t put out on the first date,” he continues unabashedly, crossing his fingers that straight-as-a-board Harry won’t mind a little playful teasing, “Unless the food’s good, that is. Then I might reconsider.”

He cringes as Harry sits up looking especially scandalized. Louis watches for a moment as Harry stands– probably to go running out the door– then turns away and pretends to busy himself looking for his other shoe. When he doesn’t hear frantic footsteps behind him, he sighs partly in relief and partly in expectation of the uncomfortable silence or, if he’s lucky, the few strained words that will pass between them.

What he doesn’t expect is Harry’s giant hand on his shoulder and a pair of warm lips near his ear, whispering, “It’s a good thing I happen to know that the food is excellent.”

Louis swallows, taking a moment too long to regain his composure, before whirling around and letting Harry’s hand fall from his shoulder.

“Oy! Hands off, popstar,” he replies, teasing and confident, trying his best not to sound as overwhelmed as he feels, “What would your forty-year old lover back in Brixton think?”

Thankfully, Harry’s naturally goofy side returns almost instantaneously, all sultriness lost as he laughs brightly at Louis’ frankly poor attempt at diverting his arousal.

As they make their way back down to the first floor, Louis takes a moment to check his phone again. Predictably, it contains one slightly panicked message from Zayn (thanks for the advice ha ha !!) and at least ten from Liam, all varying in their state of terror. He pieces together a time frame based on the exponentially increasing number of exclamation points in Liam’s texts (twenty-nine total in the last one signaling Zayn’s impending arrival), and calculates that he and Harry can leave within the next ten minutes or so and get to the restaurant just after Zayn and Liam do. However, he reasons, it’s impossible to properly account for any delay that may occur in Liam’s apartment between now and then (and ew ew ew why on earth did he think about that?); all he can do is hope that Zayn’s feeling like a gentleman today because, let’s be honest, Louis himself would be on his knees in seconds if Zayn looked at him the right way.

“What’re you thinking about?” Harry asks, having returned to his familiar perch on the front display table.

Louis shudders. “Oh nothing, just an awful mental image of our respective best mates in various compromising positions.”

Harry smirks. “And here I thought you were mulling over the finer points of Keats and Shelley,” he remarks, fingers dragging along the spine of an anthology of Britain’s greatest, “So cultured, you are.”

Louis’ heart skips a beat at the mention of his favorite Romanticists.

“You read poetry?” he ventures, hoping for all the world that Harry Styles is not actually turning out to be his soulmate.

Harry looks embarrassed. “Don’t laugh, alright? I use it for lyrical inspiration sometimes.”

“I own a bookstore, darling,” Louis replies, giving Harry a look, “like I would really be one to judge?”

The younger lad looks down, still bashful, “Sorry, I just feel a bit silly, you know? I’m supposed to be this rebellious teen heartthrob and I’m sitting in my flat alone reading Byron and writing sappy songs about unrequited love.”

Louis smiles softly. “You know, I’m strictly a pen and paper sort of guy myself– granted, I did dabble in a bit of musical theater in my time at uni– but they say ‘music, when soft voices die, vibrates in the memory’ and I think that’s what made me fall in love with it, in the way that lyricists and poets are much the same.”

Harry’s face brightens almost immediately, as he replies excitedly, “Odours, when sweet violets sicken, live within the sense they quicken.''

Louis wrinkles his nose. “Yes, well, I don’t believe that part of the poem necessarily applies to the conversation at hand; however,” he pauses, ducking his head to hide his grin, “I am impressed you know a bit of my boy Bysshe nonetheless.”

Harry smiles even wider, dimples prominent in his dusted-pink cheeks. “So, you’re a writer then?”

“I am,” Louis replies, nodding in assent, “Well, trying to be, anyhow.”

“Have you published anything?” Harry asks, eyes sparkling with what appears to be genuine interest.

Louis glances over to a nearby shelf where a thin hardback with an emerald green spine is tucked unobtrusively between Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and a volume of Edmund Spenser.

“Not…” he begins carefully, “not as myself, no.”

Harry just looks even more intrigued. “A pseudonym, then?” he asks, grinning, “How very mysterious of you.”

“Yes, well,” Louis says uncomfortably, looking away.

Harry puts on his best puppy dog pout as he requests, “Read me one?”

Louis crosses the room and goes behind the front desk to grab his wallet. “Would you look at the time? We better get a move on or we’ll be late!”

The popstar just widens his eyes and sticks his bottom lip out even further. “C’mon Lou, please?”

Louis feels trapped, eyes flitting from Harry to the front door and back again. “No, I–” he begins, with the intention of refusing Harry’s request, but the younger boy’s green eyes are so sad and pleading… and Louis is so weak and susceptible to his charm…

 “Alright, maybe just one,” he relents, “but you’re treating us both to lunch, then. Deal?”

“Deal,” Harry says quickly, “I was thinking Indian, if that’s alright? There’s this great little restaurant off Regent Street?”

Louis can’t help the giddy little giggle that escapes him; Harry, once again, looking positively delighted to have been the source of it. He rolls his eyes, pulling his faded moleskine out of his back pocket and flipping to one of the very first pages. Clearing his throat and fraught with sudden nerves, Louis begins to read, voice trembling:

“Maybe sorrow was the thing.
The, can’t quite put your finger on it,
tap the tongue to the roof of the mouth,
search for the flavor without a name,
secret ingredient, to all this me I have become.”

“Maybe sorrow was the rain to the seed
of happiness planted the moment I became aware,
that there isn’t much fair when it comes to life.”

“Maybe sorrow was the thing. The, if it doesn’t kill
it makes you stronger, never yet broken promise
inside myself that no matter how hard it gets I can
survive it, extra bit of rope when I thought mine had run out.”

“Maybe sorrow was the thing. Maybe it is all the bending
and pushing of these hearts to their breaking point that grants
flexibility to the grace we spend our lives’ building.
Maybe only those who have danced with melancholy
and ache can actually hear the music.”

His eyes flit up briefly, meeting Harry’s own, and he feels his breath catch in his throat at the intensity of the other boy’s gaze.

Maybe sorrow was the thing.”

He closes his moleskine with an air of finality, ignores the way that Harry breathes out his name, how it finds his ears like a hopeful prayer, like a promise he’ll never be able to keep.

Harry’s looking at him like he’s a waif, a paper thin, fragile little thing that he thinks he might break. He’s looking at him just like Aiden did, two weeks before he proclaimed that Louis was too hollow, too closed-off, too insecure… Two weeks before he packed up and out of Louis’ life like the near year and a half they’d spent together meant nothing at all. Louis hates that look, hates the way that it makes him feel like he’s lesser, like almost twenty-three years into the game of life and he’s already destined to lose.

He clears his throat, grabs his coat off the chair, and ignores the way Harry seems to instinctually reach for him. Instead, he breezes by, saying, “C’mon then, I’ll hail us a cab.”

Harry reaches out to grasp his shoulder once more, but seems to think better of it, retracting his hand and shoving it in the pocket of his distressed jeans.

Louis holds the door open all gentleman-like and motions Harry through with a forced laugh and a “ladies first”. Harry pauses in the doorway a moment, considering, and Louis holds his breath hoping that he won’t decide to ask any questions. The younger boy must sense his apprehension as he shakes his head once, twice, and runs a hand through his knotted mane, before continuing past. Louis shuts the door behind both of them and turns around to check the lock.

As he spins back toward the street, he’s greeted with the strangest of sights: an image of Harry in the real world, a wonderfully outlandish being that exists outside the walls of his shop, the confines of his mind. Thin rays of London sunlight slip between the cloud-cover to bathe the younger boy’s skin in a pale yellow glow, and glint arbitrarily off each messy curl. Harry’s entire body is illuminated, effusing light like some heavenly being; like the Lord himself popped down for a visit disguised as a gangly, goofy, downright ridiculous excuse for a popstar.

Louis doesn’t believe in God, but he thinks, maybe, he could believe in Harry.

(And maybe he already does).

It’s a terrifying thought, that.

Not even a full day spent with the man and he’s already disregarding a major world religion in favor of a virtual stranger whose shirtless beach vacation pap photos he may or may not have saved to a folder on his computer entitled “$pank Bank)…

Granted, after their little-mock interview, he does at least know Harry’s favorite color (blue) and his favorite movie (Love Actually) and the fact that he’s worth like a gazillion dollars but only owns two pairs of jeans (he hasn’t yet determined if that’s an understatement or not).

It’s a terrifying thought that this might actually be his life now.

 “Oh my god,” he whispers to himself as a cab rolls up and he and Harry climb in, “I’m going to lunch with Harry Styles.”

He sits silently, fidgeting, and only pays attention long enough to hear Harry give the cabbie the address before he’s back to staring out the window and gnawing on his bottom lip. Out of the corner of his eye, he notices that Harry keeps glancing at him from the opposite side of the cab with a hint of concern in his wide, green eyes. He steels himself, turning back toward the younger boy and breaching the space between them to pat Harry’s thigh in what he hopes is a placating gesture.

“I’m not a baby bird, love,” he says, frankly, “Quit worrying about me, yeah?”

 “I’m not,” Harry replies, running a hand through his hair and shaking it loose, “It’s just… your poem was… it’s… I guess, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I know where you’re coming from. I mean, shit, that sounds kind of presumptuous of me, but like… I relate to it, and I… I’ve had bad experiences and I was sad for a long, long time,  and it’s like my mind was just trapped in this really shitty place, and, and sometimes I go back to that place when something reminds me of hi- that person and I just…”

He pauses, taking a deep, ragged breath, and Louis feels his heart drop at the utterly broken look that destroys Harry’s normally jubilant façade.

When he finally speaks again, it’s soft, almost mumbled, like he’s ashamed of being a little bit flawed, of loving someone who doesn’t love you in the same way or… or not at all (and fuck if Louis doesn’t understand that more than anything).

“I just hate imagining anyone else feeling the way that I did, you know?” Harry says quietly, looking down at his hands, “I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone, ever, and I especially hate that…”

Harry pauses again; looks back up to meet Louis’ eyes with a tangible, raw sort of pain; jagged bits of glass on skin, and bloody, broken hearts. “I hate that I think you might’ve.”

The silence between them lasts for only a few short seconds before Louis is unbuckling his seatbelt and scooting across the backseat to wrap his fingers around Harry’s bicep. He buries his head into the popstar’s chest, whispers “you’re much too beautiful to be broken” and feels Harry’s arm tighten around him in response.

Harry is quiet for a long while but he doesn’t push him away. Louis sits there, tucked into him, just breathing; though, he imagines he can hear Harry’s mind working overtime, thoughts noisy and pained.

“Are you going to forget this day ever happened once it’s over?” he hears Harry ask, finally, feels the accompanying rumble of sound where his cheek is pressed against the younger boy’s collarbone.

“Because being friends with me is kind of, well, really, really difficult what with the paparazzi and the constant rumors and all that,” Harry continues before Louis can answer, his voice deep and husky and sad, “and I wouldn’t blame you if you just wanted to think of this as like a nice little heart-to-heart with a stranger, ‘I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine’ single-day sort of therapy session, if you will.”

Louis sits up, cocking his head and looking evenly at the boy seated next to him.

“Is that what you want?” he asks, watches Harry bite his lip and shake his head slowly but decisively in response.

“Then I won’t,” Louis replies definitively, and he can actually see the tension bleed from Harry’s shoulders, and subsequently from his mind as well.

“You did break into my shop, remember?” he continues, lips quirking into a smile, “I just can’t let you go free when I’m still thinking about pressing charges.”

Harry’s resultant shove sends him clear across the back of the cab, his head bumping loudly against the far ceiling.

“Oi, you two!” the cabbie calls from the driver’s seat, eyes narrowed in the rearview mirror.

He meets Harry’s eyes and the pair of them dissolve into loud, raucous laughter.

“I’ll kick you lot out if you keep fluffing about back there,” the cabbie threatens.

Harry’s pinching his lips to keep from cackling as Louis replies, “That’s a fairly feeble warning considering that we’ve arrived at our destination.”

The cabbie’s eyes flit back to the road and he slams on his breaks, pulling haphazardly up to the curb in front of the restaurant.

“And we’ve arrived, gents,” he announces with obviously forced pleasantry.

Before Louis can stop him, Harry’s unbuckling his seat belt, reaching out and handing the driver a stack of notes. Harry must sense his impending complaint as he turns to look at Louis with unwavering finality, saying, “Consider this part of the lunch that I owe you” and obviously daring him to protest.

Louis’ mouth snaps shut and he scrambles to open the cab door before his brain can sear the image of Harry’s beautifully set jawline and penetrating gaze into his mind forever. He takes a deep breath once he’s free from the too-crowded space, and reaches out with renewed confidence–and a demure smile– to help Harry from the car. Harry doesn’t reach for his hand, however, and he feels an irrational throb of hurt until he notices the large group of paparazzi photographing some celebrity leaving the sushi restaurant across the street.

“Cheryl!” someone yells, “Cheryl over here please!”

And oh Louis’ just remembered what part of town he’s in again.

“They’re a bit preoccupied with Ms. Cole at the mo’,” Louis says, leaning down to address Harry, “not that you’re any less fit or desirable, but I reckon if you move quickly, they won’t spot you.”

Harry nods once in confirmation and leaps from the back of the cab with astounding grace, hurries across the pavement with Louis in tow, and practically dives into the restaurant.

Louis’ heart is beating a mile a minute, his fringe is in a state of disarray, and he’s panting heavily, but somehow when the smiling blonde at the front desk asks ‘Mr. Styles’ for a number, Harry’s the picture of composure, all big smiles and easy confidence.

“Two, please,” he replies with a wink (an actual wink), “and make it a private table near the back, would you love?”

He says it all with a practiced sort of charm that has the poor girl blushing and tucking a long, blonde strand behind her ear. She’s smiling at Harry bashfully, though her steady gaze is practically predatory in nature; and Louis can’t help but think that with her looks and the strain of the buttons on her black dress shirt from her more-than-ample bosoms, she’s had her fair share of high-profile visitors. Not that Louis’ judging of course– sex is great in any quantity– he’s just not particularly fond of the way that her perfectly manicured fingers reach out to grasp the fabric at the small of Harry’s back as she guides them to their table.

“If you need anything else, Mr. Styles,” she begins once they’re seated, though Harry is quick to correct her with an easy smile and an overtly-casual “just Harry, darling, no need for formality” that may or may not have Louis’ blood inexplicably warming and his fists clenching tightly at his sides.

“If you need anything else, Harry,” she–Emily, according to her nametag– obliges, “please don’t hesitate to ask for me.”

Harry grins brightly, promising that “yes, he most certainly will” while Louis simmers in his seat all the while thinking that if he has any say in it, Harry most certainly won’t.

Emily then offers them– well, Harry, really, since she hasn’t spared Louis a single glance since they sat down–  a wine menu which Harry politely declines (though Louis could definitely use a drink right about now) and saunters off soon after, her hips swaying deftly in her matching tight, black slacks. 

“She was nice,” Harry says conversationally, after she’s disappeared around the bend.

Louis has to physically restrain himself from slamming his head against the table.

“Lovely, just lovely,” he agrees, his tone forced and only slightly scathing.

Harry blinks. “What’s wrong? You didn’t like her?”

“Oh, I liked her plenty,” Louis replies icily, “and she definitely liked you.”

“What does that–” Harry starts, but he’s cut off by the arrival of their thankfully very male server who, by Louis’ standards, is himself rather quite fit. Must be a requirement to work at a posh establishment, he thinks, somewhat bitterly, recalling his several failed attempts at securing a job upon his London arrival.

“Hello sirs,” the server– this once called Jaymi– says cheerily, “Have you dined with us before?”

“I haven’t,” Louis says to Jaymi’s shapely left bicep, still visible even through his uniform. He really, really hopes he’s not imagining the way the server’s eyebrows pique in interest.

 “My mate, here,” he continues, emphasizing the word ‘mate’ just in case, “is a bit of a regular, so I’m sure he can suggest something for the both of us.”

“Very good, sir,” Jaymi nods, and this time, Louis definitely doesn’t imagine the way the server’s eyes flicker from his face to his hands and back up.

Oh yes, maybe he’s still got it.

“Now Jaymi, call me Louis, would you?” he corrects demurely, trying to match Harry’s tone addressing the hostess, “Sir is a bit, I don’t know, mature, don’t you think?”

Jaymi looks quite pleased by the attention, indeed, and Louis’ game has never felt so strong.

“I can see how you might feel that way,” Jaymi replies, teasingly, “though if you’re worried about feeling old, then I’m afraid you probably are.”

His eyes twinkle as he speaks, and Louis is more than delighted to see that they’re a lovely, bright shade of blue.

“I certainly am not,” he replies, aghast, raising a hand to his chest in mock-offense, though his returning grin probably gives him away.

“Oh don’t worry, Louis,” Jaymi fires back, “you don’t look a day over thirty-five.”

Louis is still grinning, as he says, “I know for a fact that–”

“He’ll have the kerala prawn curry and I’d like the roast duck vindaloo, no onions please.”

Harry is shoving both their menus into Jaymi’s hands before Louis can even react to the interjection.

“This is the 3-course fixe prix, of course, with my usual starters,” Harry continues, briskly,
“Ask the kitchen, they’ll know.”

Jaymi, for his merit, doesn’t appear offended, just tilts his head and raises an eyebrow in quiet appraisal.

“Of course, sir,” he replies, folding the menus with obvious practice. Louis certainly doesn’t miss the way the server directs a small smile toward him as he addresses Harry with his original decorum. “We’ll have that right out for you.”

As Jaymi waltzes off, presumably toward the kitchen to place their orders, Louis turns his attention back toward the popstar staring intently at him from across the table.

He purses his lips, expressing his disapproval, and says shortly, “Well, that was a bit rude, don’t you think?”

Harry just shrugs, not breaking his gaze. “He was clearly flirting with you.”

“So?” Louis implores, unwavering, “I do believe they legalized polite conversation between any two interested individuals right after they abolished serfdom in, oh, the early 1600’s? But please, Harry, do correct me if I’m wrong.”

“Were you?” Harry asks, shortly.

“Was I what?”

“Interested.”

Louis narrows his eyes. “I don’t see why or how that concerns you.”

“Listen–” Harry begins, green eyes blazing, looking for all the world like he’s about to place a hex upon Louis’ family or something of the sort, though he cuts himself off abruptly. He leans back against the mahogany booth, frowning deeply before shaking his head. Seemingly having forgotten about whatever originally possessed him, Harry says instead, softly and resigned, “Forgive me, it doesn’t.”

He then proceeds to fold his hands neatly atop the table and gaze across the restaurant fixedly. Several minutes pass without a word from either of them, and Louis shifts in his seat, beginning to feel a bit restless.

“Emily’s probably busy seating other guests,” he says offhandedly, “though I’m sure there are plenty of other busty blonde servers around that you can ogle in her place.”

Harry looks at him oddly, chuckling a bit, and despite his peculiar reaction, Louis is glad to have restored the conversation in any capacity.

“You know I only do that to get better service, right?” Harry replies, casually, “Emily’s worked here for a while and we always have a bit of a routine going. She knows it does well to impress whoever I’m with.”

Louis perhaps fixates on the phrase ‘whoever I’m with’ a bit too long before he musters up a reply.

“So, basically, you’re using her to get your meal faster?”

Harry looks only mildly affronted. “Wasn’t that what you were doing with our server?”

“Er no,” Louis replies, fiddling with the napkin in his lap, “the intention with Jaymi was more of a ‘hey, if you’re interested, let’s meet back at my place later for a once-off because you’re fit and I’m available’ sort of deal.”

(He doesn’t mention the fact that it may or may not have spawned from his irrational jealousy over Harry being a fairly typical heterosexual male drooling over an attractive woman.)

Harry looks oddly pained by his explanation, but quickly changes the subject with a subtle incline of his head and a whispered, “Zayn and Liam are sitting three tables to the left of the large elephant statue in the corner.”

Louis, unfortunately, is seated in a way that he can’t turn around without being fairly obvious about his gawking, so he simply nods his assent and says, “You’ll have to narrate for me.”

“They’ve each got a hand on the table, fingers about a centimeter apart,” Harry starts, “and– ew, okay– they both keep glancing down at the space like they’re just waiting to caress each other.”

Louis pretends to gag. “Disgusting, go on.”

“Well they’re talking a lot,” Harry continues, furrowing his eyebrows as he scrutinizes the scene before him, “I don’t think either of them have touched their foo– oh, never mind, Zayn’s just fed Liam a bit of his, I think that’s some sort of chutney but I’m not positive, and now they’re–”

“Does Liam look happy?” Louis interrupts, biting his lip as Harry leans a bit further out of the booth, presumably to catch a glimpse of Liam’s face as well.

“He really does,” he says after a moment, looking pleased, “As does Zayn. Practically beaming, the both of them.”

“Oh, good,” Louis replies, relieved. He only pauses for a moment– deducing from Harry’s curious expression that the popstar is waiting for an explanation– and launches into a short summary of Liam’s unlucky love life.

 “Right, so Liam dated this girl for almost the entirety of uni and they broke up about a year back. Really messy thing too; screaming in our flat and throwing things, it was like being in a soap opera. Poor lad was devastated, kept saying she ‘was it’ for him and calling her day and night before she eventually got her number changed. He never even looked at another human being for a good, oh, year and a half I’d say.”

Harry hums sympathetically. “What changed?”

Louis smiles softly. “Your mate over there waltzed into our pub last night looking like an animated Greek sculpture escaped from the Louvre.”

Harry nods, clearly amused, “Zayn does tend to have that effect on people.”

“He certainly had an effect on me,” Louis agrees, “I probably would’ve gone for him myself had I not witnessed Liam next to me practically fighting the urge to whip his dick out in public.”

Harry grimaces, but says, “Well, I’m glad you didn’t.”

He must realize all that that statement implies as he quickly extrapolates, “I mean I’m glad you didn’t shag Zayn because then you wouldn’t have been at home to help me out this morning.”

“First off,” Louis ripostes, “me not being home would’ve made your burglarizing infinitely easier, so don’t try and fool me, and secondly, your best mate would’ve been sadly out of luck, just as you are, as I’ve previously stated that I don’t shag on the first date.”

Harry laughs again, though his eyes darken perceptibly, “But, as you’ve also previously stated, you amend that rule in the case of good food, and as I’ve previously stated and do so maintain, I happen to know that the food here is excellent.”

If there wasn’t currently a tabloid stand across the street carrying a copy of the Daily Mail with “Harry Styles admits to shagging 400 women in one year!” on its cover, Louis might just be inclined to believe that said Harry Styles is flirting with him.

“Easy there, popstar,” he says, reaching across the table to pinch Harry’s cheek playfully, “I’ve yet to try a bite; and to make matters worse for you, you’ve clearly been overly cocky in ordering a meal for me without my input. I could be allergic to keral– er, whatever it was. Simply put, logic says that this is a bet you’re destined to lose.”

Harry opens his mouth to reply but, as if on cue, Jaymi returns to the table carrying their two steaming and admittedly delicious-smelling orders. Another waitress arrives at the same time with their first course and sets a plate of what look to be crab cakes between them.

“Thank you, love,” Louis acknowledges, breathing in the enticing aromas of lime and ginger.

She nods once with a tight-lipped smile, saying nothing, and disappears just as quickly as she came.

Jaymi rolls his eyes and mutters something like “stuck-up newbies” before unloading the dishes balanced artfully atop his muscular forearms.

 “Kerala,” he says, setting the plate in front of Louis, “and duck tandoori for you, Mr. Styles.”

Harry’s smile is clearly forced as he mutters his thanks, so Louis feels it’s only fair that he take extra care in acknowledging their server’s excellent work.

“Will that be all, sirs?” Jaymi asks, moving to refill Louis’ still nearly-full glass of water.

“Ye–” Harry starts, but Louis is quick to interrupt him, grazing the server’s arm lightly and motioning for him to lean in.

Jaymi is quick to oblige, though he does so with a knowing look, angling his bum toward Harry with a playful wiggle. Louis sneaks a quick glance across the table, only to see that Harry is flushed red, coiled tightly like a spring, and apparently just seconds away from murdering the poor waiter with his butter knife.

“I’m sorry about my, er, companion,” Louis whispers into Jaymi’s jawline, “He’s straight as a board, I swear, but he tends to get a bit… irrationally jealous?”

Jaymi just smiles perceptively, trailing his fingers up Louis’ arm to rest lightly atop his shoulder.

 “It’s a pity, really,” he whispers in reply, “You’re so pretty, but so painfully unavailable.”

Louis opens his mouth to protest– and to explain that he’s literally known Harry for less than a day, so there’s really no question of availability– but Jaymi silences him with another pointed look.

“He’ll come around, darling, don’t worry,” he says, close enough that his lips brush against the outer shell of Louis’ ear, “Emily, the girl who seated you, came back to the kitchen just to tell me how utterly disappointed she was that Harry Styles had finally found a date he was actually interested in.”

Jaymi pulls away at that, leaving Louis gawking, mouth hanging open in surprise.

He watches as the waiter carefully schools his features, back to the picture of professionalism, before saying brightly, “I’m afraid, sir, that we don’t currently offer that on our menu. However, I will, of course, mention your suggestion to our head chef and see what we can do about having something available for you upon your next visit.”

If Louis kind of didn’t want to kiss his still probably straight non-date seated across the table, he would definitely kiss Jaymi instead.

“I can’t say that I’m not disappointed,” Louis replies cryptically, “but I feel infinitely more reassured that the, erm, situation will be resolved thanks to your personal input.”

“You have my word, sir,” Jaymi replies, nodding stiffly, though his ocean blue eyes reflect his understanding, “Please enjoy your meal as best you can.”

Louis has to bite his lip to keep from smiling as Jaymi spins on his heel and sashays off theatrically. Just before he turns the corner, however, he stops to look back and quickly mouths “go get ‘im” with an exaggerated wink and a bit of suggestive hip-thrusting. Louis manages to suppress what would’ve likely been an embarrassingly loud guffaw by snatching his fork off the table and quickly shoving a large, very very hot bite of kera-whatever into his mouth.

Harry raises an eyebrow as Louis flails, choking on the burning mouthful. He slides Louis’ glass of water toward him, fighting a smirk; and Louis grasps it eagerly, gulping down half the glass in one swallow.

“So…” Harry starts, still smirking, after he’s sure that Louis’ not going to require resuscitation, “What were you requesting?”

Louis inclines his head, “What do you mean?”

“That little conversation with your new waiter friend?” Harry supplies, holding his hands up to place air quotes around “Whatever’s ‘not on the menu’.”

“Oh. Oh!” Louis exclaims, mentally chastising himself for being such an idiot.  “Yes, I– well, you see, erm…” he stutters, finally just blurting out the first thing that comes to mind, “I was really in the mood for a nice pasta dish?”

“Pasta? That’s the best you’ve got?” he can almost hear his subconscious hiss back at him.

Harry blinks. “You do realize that this is a traditional Indian restaurant, right?”

“What? Indians can’t eat noodles?” Louis asks, feigning confusion, “How culturally insensitive of you, Harold.”

“I’m not sure that’s how that works,” Harry replies, wrinkling his nose. He pauses and looks down at his plate, using his spoon to swirl together a bite of rice and spicy brown curry.

“And my name’s not Harold,” he continues, after he’s swallowed, “It’s Harry. Just Harry.”

Louis rolls his eyes, “Whatever you say, Harold.”

He snatches one of the round yummy-smelling things off of the center plate and is delighted to find that it is, in fact, a crab cake. “Update on the lovebirds, please?”

Harry leans out of the booth and grimaces almost immediately. “Well, Zayn’s gone for the dessert plate, which is an extra twenty pounds, so he’s clearly pulling out all the stops on this one.”

Louis’ jaw slackens at the mention of the price. “Wait a minute,” he asks, the bite of crab cake suddenly feeling like a lead weight in his stomach, “Just exactly how much does this meal cost?”

Harry shrugs. “Around sixty-five per person, so… that’s what?” he pauses, mentally totaling their meals, “One-thirty for the both of us?”

If it’s possible, Louis’ mouth falls open even farther. “Harry, I–” he starts, pushing his plate away in shock, “I was just kidding when I said lunch was on you. I really, really can’t let you pay for all this.”

Harry laughs, shooting him a disbelieving look. “Um, popstar remember?” he says, gesturing to himself, “Really, Lou, it’s nothing.”

Louis glares back at him. “I can afford it, you know.”

The curly-haired lad tilts his head curiously. “Not just a pseudonym, then,” he replies, perceptively, “A successful one?”

Louis’ lips twitch upwards into a soft close-mouthed smile. “How do you know my funds don’t come from my thriving bookshop business or, perhaps, a wealthy great uncle who left me an inheritance in his will?”

“Because you read me your poetry,” Harry replies simply, green eyes intelligent and alight.

Louis’ eyes fall to his still-hot plate of prawn curry, his cheeks burning with the embarrassment of Harry’s sincere praise. He’s kind of, maybe, possibly in love with this boy.

“Hey, look at me,” Harry continues, one hand reaching across the table to tilt Louis’ chin back up to face him.  Their eyes meet again, and it’s like he’s suffocating, drowning in a palette of green-apple, alabaster, and cherry-red. “You’re talented, Louis, and it’d be a real travesty had the British public not recognized that.”

He regains his composure, taking a deep breath and quirking one eyebrow questioningly. “Not just the British public,” Louis replies, his natural haughtiness restored, “A few others countries, too.”

Harry’s places a hand to his forehead and pretends to swoon. “No one told me I was on a date with an international bestselling author! I’m so overwhelmed!”

“A date, huh?” Louis implores, polishing off his crab cake with a final dainty bite.

Harry looks panicked. “Uh, I… I mean… not a date date like, like Zayn and Liam, you know? Not that I wouldn’t, erm… I mean, I wouldn’t… I don’t have a problem with that… but our, our date is just a friends’ date, a date between two strangers, really, I mean I’d like to be friends with you… but not like that… like we’re–”

“Harry,” Louis interrupts gently, reaching across the table to still the popstar’s flailing hands.

He waits until the younger boy has been allayed completely before continuing, as reassuringly as possible, “It’s fine. I’m gay, you’re straight; it’s okay if you’re a little uncomfortable around me when I joke about like that. I get it.”

 “That’s really not the problem,” Harry blurts, then shakes his head, grimacing, “I mean, thanks, but your sexuality isn’t an issue for me. I’m friends with Zayn, aren’t I?”

Louis can’t help but notice Harry’s odd deflections, but in the end he just shrugs and files it away for later. Harry seems confident enough in his own sexuality and certainly unbothered by Louis’, so there’s really no reason to tiptoe gingerly around the subject nor is there any reason to discuss it further…

Suddenly, Harry’s ducking under the table, hissing “They’re getting up and heading this way!”

Which, yeah, thanks for the heads-up; Louis totally has time to hide now.

Before Louis can fully join Harry down below, he hears a pair of approaching footsteps and Liam’s voice inquiring, “Louis? Is that you?”

He curses under his breath and sits up, bonking his head on the edge of the table as he does so.

“Oh, hello, Liam, Zayn,” he replies, smiling brightly, “Fancy meeting you here, innit?”

He watches as Zayn’s eyes narrow perceptibly, but Liam’s face, thankfully, remains open and unguarded as he grins in return.

“Are you here with someone?” Liam asks, gesturing to the two bowls of food on the table.

Louis panics, yelping loudly as Harry’s… something… brushes against his leg. “Oh, no, I–” he replies, grimacing in pain as his knee had jerked up into the tabletop when he was startled, “I ordered that for Niall. It’s his favorite.”

“It’s half-eaten,” Zayn remarks, still eyeing him suspiciously.

Louis’ eyes are drawn to the dark-haired lad’s arm wrapped loosely around Liam’s waist, and his dominant wide-placed stance. Lovely little display of territorialism, he thinks arbitrarily, before returning to the conversation at hand.

“Yes, well, I couldn’t very well just accept that it’s Niall’s favorite without trying it myself, could I?” he retorts, feeling as every bit as childish as he probably sounds.

“S’pose not,” Zayn says slowly, looking displeased at having been momentarily outwitted.

“And, as it turns out, it was even better than I expected,” Louis finishes, showing all his teeth. He shrugs, tossing his hands up in humorous faux-shame. “Just couldn’t help myself from enjoying a few more bites. This stomach is so demanding.”

By the time he’s finished, Liam is looking at him a little oddly, and Zayn is clearly not buying any of it.

“Where’s Harry?” Zayn asks, finally.

Louis hesitates, about to lie again, when Harry pops up from beneath the table with a resounding, “Finally! Found my ring!”

He uses a hand to smooth back his tangle of curls, and then screws a clearly not misplaced ring back onto his middle finger.

“Oh hello, Zayn,” he says pleasantly. He gestures to Liam, asking, “And who’s this?”

Zayn just rolls his eyes. “You do realize that every time you’re the one who suggests the meal, I know it’s just a ploy to spy on me?”

“You do this often?” Liam and Louis ask Harry in unison, though for very different reasons.

 “Only with people Zayn has serious interest in,” Harry replies, which seems to satisfy the both of them.

“Are you two on a date then as well?” Zayn asks, and of course the bastard is smiling knowingly as he does so.

Louis, cheeks burning, looks to Harry for an answer, but the popstar looks just as stricken as he feels. The clear solution to the problem, Louis’ mind decides for him, is to shove a large mouthful of hot curry into his mouth for the second time in one sitting.

“No, we’re not, I–” Harry starts as Louis incapacitates himself with food, but he’s quickly interrupted by a familiar presence as their wonderful brunette savior, Jaymi, whirls by and plops himself in the booth next to Louis.

“Hey babe,” the waiter says casually, slinging an arm around him with a smile, “Just thought I’d swing by to check up on you while I’m on break.”

Harry’s mouth is hanging open and Louis is sure his would be too had he not been mid-bite upon Jaymi’s arrival.

“Hi,” Louis says slowly, after he swallows, “I… wasn’t expecting you back so soon?”

Jaymi winks and gives him a look, clearly asking him to play along. “Got off a bit early for being so well-behaved,” Jaymi says, leaning in to faux-whisper in Louis’ ear, “but I thought, maybe, I could be a bit naughty for you later.”

“Okay!” Harry exclaims, clapping his hands together and looking just as pained as he was during the server’s last appearance.

“Oh, dear!” Jaymi says, pretending to finally notice the group at large. He’s almost in Louis’ lap at this point, and Harry looks practically murderous. “I’d no idea you brought more of your mates for me to meet,” he says, acting surprised. He taps Louis on the nose playfully, saying, “I thought I told you one at a time, sweetheart.”

“Erm, Louis?” Liam asks, uncomfortably, “Who’s this?”

Jaymi hops up, smoothing out his apron, and holds out his hand. Liam shakes it apprehensively, as does Zayn, as Jaymi introduces himself.

“Jaymi Hensley,” he says, bright and friendly, “I’m Louis’ boyfriend.”

“Boyfriend?” Liam asks, looking at Louis accusingly, “He didn’t mention it.”

“Yes, well, we wanted to keep it on the hush-hush until we were sure it was serious,” Jaymi continues. He turns back to Louis, raising an expectant eyebrow, “Right, babe?”

“Serious?” Liam mumbles, still in shock.

“Oh yeah, ‘course,” Louis says, finally understanding the waiter’s convenient plan to avoid any more awkwardness with Harry and curb Zayn’s suspicion of espionage, “When Zayn asked me for a lunch suggestion, I immediately thought Indian. Guess that was my subconscious talking!”

Jaymi giggles right on cue, batting his arm playfully.

“Then Harry mentioned wanting lunch as well and wouldn’t you know it, he suggested Veeraswamy because of the special popstar privileges he has here or something,” Louis explains, looking between Liam and Zayn, “and of course I couldn’t pass up a chance to surprise my boyfriend! We thought we’d timed it so that we wouldn’t run into you two, but it ended up being just the opposite.”

Zayn looks contemplative, but Liam is nodding emphatically and repeating “Serious?” to himself every few seconds.

“Yes, Liam, serious,” Louis repeats, “Jaymi and I’ve been dating for two, no, almost three months now? Is that right?”

Jaymi nods, casting a perfectly-practiced fond gaze in his direction.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier, Li,” Louis continues, settling into his part, “but you know I haven’t really put myself out there since Aiden and, well, I was definitely hesitant about Jaymi and me at the start… I just didn’t want to get your hopes up until I was certain about him. Telling people would’ve made it too real, too soon, but now that I know, well…”

He casts his own fond gaze back at the waiter, smiling softly.

Zayn, looking down at his watch, says suddenly, “Don’t you have that curriculum meeting soon, Liam? We ought to head out.”

Liam startles and replies, “Oh, I nearly forgot! At half-past, yes.”

“I’ll arrange for a cab to take you to the school,” Zayn says, abruptly, his voice becoming very official and business-like, though his eyes retain a particular sort of softness that quickly earns him Louis’ approval. Louis feels a pleasant sort of warmth at the thought of Liam finally having found someone who seems to be good for him, and whom he seems to be good for in return.

“You’re not coming with?” Liam asks, doing an awful job at hiding his disappointment.

“Unfortunately not,” Zayn replies warmly, eyes turning hard as he turns to address Harry next, “H and I’ve got to get back to the studio for an afternoon session. He’s been… missed.”

“I requested the entire day off!” Harry protests, voice a bit whiny. His face is scrunched up adorably, like a pouting, petulant toddler. He and Zayn begin to argue, and Liam just stands there awkwardly, still looking a bit shell-shocked by the strange lunch proceedings.

Jaymi chooses this moment to press more closely against Louis’ side, sliding a piece of paper into his back pocket and leaning in to whisper, “If you ever need anything, love, give me a ring.”

Louis laughs and promises that he will which has Jaymi’s lips quirking up into what he thinks is a genuine smile.

“If your boy will let you, that is,” the brunette continues, as the others are still preoccupied, “Not many acting jobs available right now, but this is a role that I’d love to play.”

He leaps up from the booth, but not before pressing a sloppy kiss to Louis’ cheek, which has him squirming. “Thanks for stopping in, babe,” he says, waving goodbye with a flirtatious wiggle of his fingers, “I’ve got to get back to work, but I’ll see you tonight, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Louis agrees, faintly, still impressed by the server’s knack for improvisation. He was a drama major, after all, and though he hasn’t acted since uni, he can tell that whoever’s not hiring Jaymi Hensley is seriously missing out.

Harry and Zayn have quit arguing and it appears that Harry has won his case based on his smug look and Zayn’s nonstop eye-rolling. 

“I guess I will be coming with, then,” Zayn tells Liam, trying his best not to appear too eager about it; something tells Louis that Harry’s battle wasn’t hard fought.

That’s precisely when it dawns on him. “Liam James Payne,” he chastises, “did you skip school to go on a date?”

Liam’s cheeks turn bright red as he splutters, “I might’ve called in sick and gotten a substitute?”

Louis just shakes his head. “I cannot believe this,” he says, putting on an authoritative tone, “I’m very disappointed in you, young man. You’re grounded for the next month. No mobile, and no boys either.”

“Oh come off it, Louis,” Zayn says unexpectedly, though he’s finally smiling, “Haven’t you seen the films? As the secretly sensitive but rebellious drop-out, I’m destined to coax the smart, responsible, studious class president into sneaking out with me, and his father’s objections only serve to intensify our forbidden love. This is textbook script-writing, really.”

“Our forbidden love, huh?” Liam remarks, raising an eyebrow.

This time it’s Zayn’s turn to blush, or rather, look a bit uncomfortable for a passing second before schooling his features, because he’s probably too cool to feel embarrassed about anything.

“Alright, that’s enough, then,” Harry says finally, having been silent for much of their exchange, “Get out of here, lovebirds.”

Zayn covertly flips Harry the bird before sliding an arm back around Liam’s waist and guiding him away. Just before they turn the corner, Liam pulls back and gives Louis a stern look clearly meaning “we’ll talk later”. Five minutes in and this whole fake boyfriend thing might be more trouble than it’s worth, he thinks, smiling innocently as Liam turns back to join Zayn at the exit.

He leans back into the booth, meaning to address Harry in conversation again, but he’s instead met with a view of the curly-haired boy glaring at his duck curry, all tense shoulders and grit jaw. Louis’ mouth snaps shut and he picks at his own dish in order to avoid recognizing the tension that thickens the air between them. They spend the next few minutes eating in silence, only pausing when Emily swings back around with the check. Louis rolls his eyes, expecting to suffer through yet another bout of unbearable flirting, but Harry simply signs the bill, slides his card between the folds, and hands it back to the hostess without a word. Emily walks away slowly, eyebrows furrowed, as if she too was expecting a wink and a bit of friendly banter, or some form of polite acknowledgement at the very least.

Having finished his meal, Louis– unable to cope with the frigidity of Harry’s cold shoulder any longer– breaks the silence with a stuttered apology:

“Look Harry, I’m really sorry for–” he blurts.

“Louis, I apologize, this is silly, I–” Harry says, at the same time.

“Wait what?”

“What?”

“God, never mind, let’s just forget this whole thing happened,” Louis says exasperatedly, his verging upon too-loud response earning them several inquisitive looks from around the restaurant.

Harry, on the other hand, still looks unsure, all furrowed eyebrows and pouty lips.

 “Okay,” he replies, finally, “but I am sorry, you know, for being so…”

Irrationally jealous? Louis wants to supply, but bites his tongue and lets Harry finish.

“…invasive, I suppose?”

Louis smiles softly. “It’s fine, Harry. I’m just not used to people, erm, caring as it were.”

“Most people don’t,” Harry replies, idly twisting a loose curl back into place.

Louis nods in agreement, “and yet I always seem to care too much. Funny that.”

“Is this what hanging out with a poet is always like?” Harry muses, “Drama and existentialism?”

“Usually there’s a lot more crying involved,” Louis teases, scooping up the last of his–admittedly quite delicious–shrimp curry, just as Emily returns with their bill.

The bubbly blonde hands Harry his card and smiles brightly, uttering a well-rehearsed, “Thank you for dining with us today, Mr. Styles.” Glancing down at Louis’ near empty plate, she continues, “and I take it your companion enjoyed his meal as well?”

“I did, thank you,” Louis acknowledges politely, “and do please tell our server that his help was much appreciated.”

“Of course, sir,” Emily replies, flashing her teeth again blindingly, “I’ll ensure Jaymi receives your compliments. Have a lovely afternoon, the both of you.”

At that, the hostess walks away briskly, probably off to assist one of Veeraswamy’s other celebrity regulars.

Louis turns back to Harry, inquiring, “So you’ve got the rest of the day off. Is there any particular way you’d like to spend it?”

Harry frowns pensively for a moment. “Preferably not in public,” he says, finally, “or at least not anywhere very busy or likely to be frequented by teenage girls.”

“Fair enough,” Louis approves, understanding Harry’s weariness of the media and his fans after witnessing the tired yet fearful look in the popstar’s eyes as they were exiting the cab.

Just as he’s begun brainstorming suggestions, his mobile goes off, filling the restaurant with the dulcet tones of Harry’s first single. Louis reaches into his pockets panicking, cheeks stained bright red, and tries to ignore the way the real Harry’s laughter intermingles with his recorded self’s crooned chorus.

“Don’t let me, don’t let me, don’t me go, ‘cause I’m tired of feeling alone”

Harry’ still laughing even as he answers, hissing, “What do you want?”

“Hello to you too,” the caller replies, words colored with a familiar Irish lilt.

Louis’ voice immediately softens. “Oh ‘lo, Niall, I’m sorry. I was–”

“Is this a bad time?”

“No, no, it’s fine!” Louis rushes to assure him, casting a glare at the still-snickering popstar across the table.

“Right, okay then,” Niall says, a hint of confusion still present in his voice, “So I was wondering if you wanted to come out to the Half Moon in Putney ‘round seven to hear me ‘n Ed ‘n the band play a gig?”

“Your little ragtag folk band landed a gig at the Half Moon?” Louis asks, impressed, “Do you guys even rehearse before you show up to these things?”

Niall laughs, and explains, “Josh’s mate just got promoted. He’s in charge of booking acts for Monday nights.”

“Well that explains it,” Louis replies, laughing as well.

“So? Shall I have the bouncers write down ‘Tomlinson’ party of one?” Niall queries.

“First of all, there are no bouncers. You’re not playing the O2,” Louis retorts, biting back another giggle, “and second of all, I’m currently out to lunch with… with an old friend and I’d planned on spending the day with him while he’s in town.”

“Bring ‘im along then,” Niall says cheerily, “The more the merrier, I always say.”

“Right, let me ask him then.”

Louis puts his phone against his chest, muffling the sound, and addresses Harry, who– like the five year old he apparently is– has built a lovely sculpture of napkins and used cutlery on his side of the table. “Would you be interested in hearing my mate and a few of his friends play a gig out in Putney tonight?”

Harry looks up, frowning as several precariously balanced forks fall to the table with a loud, metallic clang. Louis raises an eyebrow but doesn’t comment, instead waiting for the popstar’s reply.

“Yeah, ‘course,” Harry says eventually, focus still intent on his fairly pathetic attempt at modern art. His curls are flopped over his forehead, eyebrows furrowed in concentration and tongue peeking out from between his lips. He’s unfairly adorable. Louis still wants to kiss him.

“Make that reservation for two please,” Louis requests, putting the phone back up to his ear.

“Sick!” Niall enthuses. His voice is softer over the line as he hollers to someone in the background, “Now we’ve got at least two people coming!”

“What about Liam?” Louis inquires, “Did you ask him too?”

“I did,” Niall says, huffing in response, “but the bloke said he already had plans. Since when does Liam Payne have plans that don’t involve you and me?”

“Since he and Mr. McDreamy eloped this morning,” Louis explains, “I’m afraid he’s replaced us.”

“Shame,” Niall replies somberly, though he’s back to his chipper self almost immediately with a hurried, “Oh, gotta go! The rest of the lads are here! Catch ya tonight, Lou!”

Louis doesn’t even have a chance to say goodbye before the peppy Irishman hangs up. Used to Niall’s antics, he just shakes his head fondly, slipping his phone back into his pocket.

“You didn’t tell me you had musician friends,” Harry says as he looks back up. Louis laughs, thinking it a joke, but one look at the popstar’s pout and it occurs to him that Harry is actually (inexplicably) affronted at this unintentionally omitted fact.

“I literally just met you this morning,” Louis points out, matter-of-factly, “Would you have preferred I started our first conversation out with ‘Oh, excuse me person breaking in to my shop? Hate to be a bother, but did you know I’ve got musician friends?’ because I dunno, that seems a bit forward, don’t you think?”

Louis winces immediately after his little spiel, anticipating that his biting sarcasm will once again offend; however, Harry just laughs good-naturedly. “You’re right, of course,” he allows easily, grinning, “I’m just too friendly of a thief, I’m afraid. You really ought to have stabbed me with your rusty coat hanger and ended it all then and there.”

Harry’s smile is a mile wide and his dimples are a mile deep and, yeah, Louis’ maybe, possibly, definitely enamored with this kid.

“Do you want to get out of here?” he blurts, refraining from banging his head on the table at how presumptuous it sounds. “Shit, I mean, we could go back to my flat for a few hours– god dammit that sounded even worse, didn’t it?”

Harry’s hyena-like guffaws have returned in full force and he can barely keep from laughing long enough to slip in a wisecrack and a lascivious wink. “So the food really was excellent, then?” he asks, snorting loudly.

Louis just glares, and attempts to rephrase with a careful, “What I meant was, since you’ve the entire day off and there’s five or six hours left yet before my musician friends’ gig tonight, we could just chill back at my place for a few hours?” He pauses, gauging Harry’s reaction before continuing, “I’ve got a few customers coming in to pick up some special orders, but other than that, you should remain unbothered.”

Harry nods once, smiling, “Sounds great. Shall we?”

The two of them slide out of the booth.  Louis waits as Harry slips his wallet into his back pocket– how it manages to fit in between the two layers of black skintight fabric pasted on Harry’s legs is beyond him– but somehow Harry makes it work, and they head toward the front door, arms knocking together companionably.

Emily is looking painfully bored as they walk by, slouching with her elbows propped on her hostess stand. She perks up immediately, however, when she notices Harry, which Louis totally doesn’t roll his eyes at… nope, not at all.

“Oh, Mr. Styles! Wait a minute!” she calls out, twisting around the stand and bouncing over to meet them. Louis can feel his annoyance increase exponentially. “I’ve already called you and your date a cab. It’s waiting out back.”

Harry’s eyes are comically wide as he blurts, “He’s not my– we’re not– this isn’t!”

Louis quickly covers his mouth to hide his resulting snicker. “What Harry means to say,” he begins, offering the hostess a demure smile, “is that we’re both very grateful for your consideration of our privacy.”

Emily’s eyes are twinkling as she replies with a curt “Of course, sir” and gestures toward a door labeled “STAIRWELL TO ALLEY – AUTHORIZED EMPLOYEES ONLY”.

Louis thanks her again what with Harry still silently shocked beside him, and guides the both of them to the door. Harry remains quiet the two flights down, but Louis chalks it up to him wanting to avoid drawing any more attention to their exit. Several employees carrying trays of food pass them on their way down, but none seem to pay the two out-of-place guests any mind.

Sure enough, when they reach ground level, there’s an Addison Lee idling on the curb. Louis’ taking a step toward the car when suddenly Harry whirls around, looking furious.

“What the hell was that?” he spits, cheeks flushed red with anger.

“What was what?” Louis asks, flabbergasted and genuinely confused.

“Don’t play dumb with me,” Harry hisses, beginning to pace back and forth across the narrow alleyway, “You know, that whole ‘he’s my date’ thing with Emily back there? Yeah? You can’t just do that, Louis! You can’t just play along like that! You know why? Because even if you’re joking, it’ll get quoted in some trashy tabloid and then misquoted and taken out of context again and again in print and online until–”

“Until what?” Louis interrupts, feeling his blood begin to boil beneath his skin. Though he’s currently anything but, he grits his teeth and forces his voice to come out level and calm. “Until what, Harry? Until the entire world is fooled into believing some false rumor about you dating a bloke? Like that’s the worst thing you can think of? That some twelve-year old fangirl in California might spend a whole twenty-four hours in a state of devastation because ‘Harry Styles is gay’? How awful!”

Louis finishes his rant with a short, huffed breath, spins abruptly on his heels, and walks down the alleyway toward the waiting car.

He hears Harry’s footsteps quicken behind him until the popstar’s massive hand is encircling his wrist and pulling him backward.

He’s unwillingly spun back around to face the younger boy who stares back at him with wide, hurt eyes and a deeply pained expression. “Louis, listen,” Harry starts, sounding desperate, “I didn’t mean–”

Louis just shakes his head in response and yanks open the cab door with a little more force than necessary.

“Just get in the fucking car.”

&&

For a solid five minutes, the ride is completely silent. They’re sitting as far away from each other as possible, Louis’ jaw clenched stubbornly and eyes focused pointedly out the window.

(Not surprisingly, they both crack at the exact same moment once again.)

“Harry, I’m sorry. I overrea–”

“Louis, that came out all wrong. What I really meant was–”

They both pause, looking bashful. Louis inclines his head, motioning with his hand for Harry to continue.

“I wasn’t upset about the dating rumors because I’m homophobic or anything,” Harry explains, running a hand through his curls, “Trust me, that’s not the issue. Being gay definitely isn’t a bad thing and I’d look like a hypocrite if I– I mean, anyway… like, uh, like I said before being friends with me is really difficult and I just didn’t want to compromise our brand new friendship by having you automatically thrown into the media shark tank.”

Louis blinks, immediately feeling awful that he hadn’t thought about Harry’s intentions being to protect him and not the popstar’s own reputation.

“I’m a dick,” he admits, meeting Harry’s eyes.

“Yeah,” Harry agrees easily, shrugging, “but so am I.”

Louis smiles softly. “We’re sure to be excellent mates, then. Pair of dicks like us?”

“Lovely moniker, that,” Harry replies, stifling a giggle, “We could be the Dicky Duo.”

Louis isn’t so successful in hiding his own amusement, a loud a guffaw escaping from between his lips. “I’m afraid,” he starts, between laughs, “I’m afraid that we’ve wandered into gay porn titles with that one.”

 “Phallus Friends,” Harry continues unabashedly, “or, or Penis Pals!”

“Stop it!” Louis cries, wiping away tears, “I can’t breathe!”

“Penis jokes,” Harry says, grinning widely, “My favorite.”

Louis’ taking deep, exaggerated breaths in a futile attempt to calm his heaving diaphragm.

“You’re an idiot, Harry Styles,” he wheezes, “an absolute idiot.”

The younger lad puts a hand up to his chest in mock offense and opens his mouth to offer up some sort of retort, but he’s cut off by the cab pulling to a halt in front of the bookstore.

Louis whips out his wallet and quickly thrusts some notes toward the cabbie, ignoring the glare that Harry throws his way.

“You just spent two-hundred pounds on our lunch,” Louis says, by way of explanation. It doesn’t change the shape of Harry’s lips, pulled down into a deep frown, but the popstar does sigh, appearing to relent.

Harry tugs open the cab door and they both scoot out and onto the pavement, a slight chill in the early-October wind making Louis shiver in his thin cardigan. Harry bounces from foot to foot, hands clasped behind his back, as Louis fits the key into the lock and pushes the door open. They tumble inside, giggling brightly.

“Bit nippy out, innit?” Louis comments, shucking off his Vans on the mat just inside the entrance.

He reaches out and tweaks Harry’s nipple with a mischievous smile, then takes off running before Harry can enact his revenge. He darts around the bookshelves with practiced ease, being much more familiar with the layout than Harry is.

“Lou,” Harry finally calls, out of breath but still laughing, “You win, you win! Come out now!”

Louis peaks out from behind a shelf and sees that Harry is looking the other way. He creeps up behind the curly-haired boy and leaps onto his back with a loud screech.

Harry lets out a resounding yelp but doesn’t drop him as he was expecting. Instead, in an impressive feat of strength, Harry manages to spin around and set Louis gently down on his feet in front of him. Louis’ hands are pressed against Harry’s chest and his chin is tilted up in surprise. The proximity of Harry’s face to his has his breath catching in his throat.

“Hi,” Harry says, and he’s grinning stupidly.

It takes a hell of a lot of effort for Louis to remove his hands, but he does… eventually. He executes a perfect pirouette away from the taller boy and leaps gracefully over to his desk.

Harry’s still sporting that stupid grin, cheeks flushed and lips painted an enticing cherry red (which is apparently their perpetual state).

“Did you know that you always look as if you’ve got lipstick on?” Louis blurts, and yeah, wow, if that didn’t sound creepy as fuck.

Harry doesn’t appear shocked by this comment, just touches his lips with his fingers absentmindedly (Louis has to blink a few times and pretend to busy himself looking for something in his desk drawer to avoid focusing on the way Harry’s long, long fingers trace his mouth slowly).

“I get that a lot actually,” Harry replies after a moment, “that and blowjob lips.”

And yeah, that’s…

Louis gulps, tries for a joke to divert the conversation away from that particular subject. “Ah yes, I love it when pervy old men at the club tell me how nice my lips would look ‘round their dick; truly an arousing experience.”

Harry ducks his head, whispers, “Penis pals” and they both lose it all over again.

The phone rings and Louis’ wiping his eyes once more, trying to quell the pain in his stomach from laughing too hard for too long.

“Tales Resold. This is Louis speaking,” he answers, attempting to ignore Harry, who’s leaning against a display table covering his mouth and quivering from the giggles he’s trying his best to hold in.

“Yes, of course, Mr. Jensen. Shh, Harry shut up! Oh no, not you, Mr. Jensen! I was talking to my– Sure, sure, stop by anytime this afternoon… Okay perfect. See you then!”

“I do operate a business, you know,” Louis says pointedly, after he’s hung up the phone, “Try and be a little more professional, would you?”

“’S not my fault!” Harry protests, “You’re the one who made me laugh.”

“Nonsense,” Louis replies, shaking his head, “You made yourself laugh with your dumb penis jokes.”

“They’re not dumb. You laughed too,” Harry counters, and yeah, he’s got him there.

Louis rolls his eyes, “I was only laughing at your stupid face.”

“Ooh, good one,” Harry teases, his shit-eating grin having returned in full force.

 “Shut up,” Louis grumbles, “You think you’re sooo clever.”

“Because I am.”

“Ha, joke!”

“But I am,” Harry pouts, attempting his best puppy-dog face.

Louis is totally not about to cave when the bell above the front door jingles suddenly, announcing a customer’s arrival.

 “Hello, I’m Louis Tomlinson,” he begins as usual, putting on a friendly, charming smile, “Welcome to Tales Resold, the finest antique bookstore in London. Are you looking for anything in particular?”

The customer removes their winter coat and hat, hanging them on the hooks by the front door.

“Oh, hello dear,” a familiar voice says, thin and reedy, “I was hoping you were in.”

Louis perks up immediately, his falsely cheerful façade replaced with genuine excitement. He skirts around the desk and walks quickly down the main aisle to offer an elbow to the frail but extravagantly dressed old woman standing on the welcome mat.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Beasley,” he greets, laughing brightly as she bats away his proffered arm muttering, “Not that old.”

“What can I do for you today?”

Ms. Beasley purses her lips and sighs deeply, “As you know, my eldest, Georgie, has expressed a certain interest in that album of Tsarist palaces that you showed me last month. Unfortunately, and god knows why, he’s in Africa for the next six months, so he’s sent me to pick it up instead, as if I haven’t errands to run of my own.”

Louis just grins, used to the aging heiress’ posh nature.

“Yes, of course,” he says, nodding, “Let me just grab it from the rare collections room and get it all packaged up for you. I’ll only be a mo’.”

“See to it that you don’t dawdle,” Ms. Beasley says flippantly, though her thin lips are quirked up into a small, fond smile.

“I wouldn’t dream of wasting your time, darling,” Louis says with a wink, watches her hand shoot up to cover her growing smile.

He ducks into the back room, unlocking a heavy inner door and breathing in the musty scent of faded manuscripts and India ink. He heads to the computer sitting on the counter and types in his criteria–ca. 1860-65, French, Huard– and memorizes the resulting archival number. He slips on a pair of white gloves, as to prevent the oil and bacteria from his skin from damaging the thin pages, and tugs open one of his custom-made airtight, temperature-controlled storage units. Carefully removing the lovely, dark-bound album from its casing, he pauses to admire the red-stained fore edge stamped with gold insignia and delicate filigree.

“You’ll be missed, love,” he whispers, before packaging the fragile volume up properly for travel.

Locking everything back up once he’s finished, Louis heads back toward the front of the shop and is surprised to hear what sounds like laughter. As he reemerges from behind the thick red velvet partition, he has to blink twice at the sight before him:

Harry is perched on one of the display tables and talking animatedly, waving his hands about and demonstrating some action that has frigid, humorless Ms. Beasley actually clutching at her sides.

Which, okay… Louis was very much under the impression that he was Ms. Beasley’s favorite, but he’s never actually made her laugh aloud.

“Oh, Louis dear! Back so soon?” Ms. Beasley says, finally noticing his presence in the room, “Where on earth did you find such a charming young man?”

Louis feels a spark of jealousy at the way the elderly lady’s face lights up as she pinches Harry’s cheek. “Honestly, love, he just wandered in this morning.”

“Well,” Ms. Beasley says, “he’s certainly a keeper.”

Louis is quick to correct her, “Oh, he’s not. We’re not.”

The old woman just rolls her eyes. “You don’t have to lie to me dear. I’m modern. I’ve got homosexual friends. Dabbled in it a bit myself once, back in my twenties.”

Harry is snickering loudly behind her as she puts her hands on her hips, dark blue frock shimmering.

“That’s lovely, Ms. Beasley,” Louis manages to choke out. He coughs into his hand, trying to prevent another crack in his voice, “Now, how would you like to pay for Souvenir de la Russie ?”

Ms. Beasley hums thoughtfully, digging through her Suffolk Pheasant Mulberry bag (which Louis only knows the name of because she’d spent the entirety of last month’s visit complaining about how her youngest son had sent her an awful, cheap purse for her birthday… a five-thousand pound awful ‘cheap’ purse).

“Just put it on the card, I suppose,” she replies finally, “I do believe we agreed on sixty-eight?”

“Sixty-seven five, actually,” Louis replies, moving over to the cash register to ring her up, “though I wouldn’t mind that extra half.”

“Cheeky,” Ms. Beasley, teases, in a better mood than he’s ever seen her (thanks to Harry, apparently).

“Right then,” Louis says, handing her the card and the tightly wrapped album, “your total was sixty-seven thousand five hundred pounds exactly. Thank you for stopping in, and do tell George I said hello.”

At the mention of her eldest son, the woman just harrumphs and puts the package and her card into a black shopping bag. Louis watches her toddle out the door, stopping to put on her fur coat and extravagant fur-lined hat. The little bell jingles again, signaling her exit, and Louis spins back around to address Harry once more.

“How on earth did you make friends with that finicky old woman so quickly?” he asks, “It literally took months before she even deigned to speak to me past her impatient hand gestures.”

Harry doesn’t seem to acknowledge his question, instead blurting, “You just made over a hundred thousand dollars… from a book.”

Louis rolls his eyes. “It wasn’t a book. It was a rare album of Tsarist photography and watercolor paintings.”

“And she… she just bought it… Just like that, didn’t even blink an eye… Seventy-thousand pounds for a book.”

“Well yes,” Louis replies, shrugging, “Ms. Beasley is the lone matriarch of one of the wealthiest families in Europe. She’s friends with the Queen, like ‘ooh let me just pop by the old family palace for some tea and crumpets’ sort of friends.”

Harry looks as if he might faint. “Unbelievable.”

Louis just chuckles.

“Harry, I’m one-hundred percent certain that you have way more money than I do,” he says, “Plus, you’ve also met the Queen, if you’ve not forgotten. I watched it all happen on telly last year.”

The popstar is still shaking his head, muttering to himself.

“You weren’t kidding when you said that your business does well enough to pay for lunch, were you?” he asks, finally.

“Er, no,” Louis replies, “Between what I make in the antique book trade and my publishing royalties… Well, I’m doing alright.”

“Why Camden then?” Harry inquires, “I mean, no offense, it’s just that…”

“None taken,” Louis says easily. His mum and his mates had all asked him the same thing once they’d established how successful he was. “Basically, in the beginning, I had nowhere else to go and I got this place cheap, fixed everything up, and it… it sort of became my new purpose in life when I didn’t really have one. Of course, I’m much too attached to it now to consider selling it and upgrading to somewhere larger and posher.”

Harry starts to reply but is interrupted by the jingling of the bell once more.

“Mr. Jensen, hello!” Louis calls, checking his watch, “Right on time as usual.”

Mr. Jensen is a small, bird-like man with a beak nose and wire-frame glasses. He’s perpetually jittery and, though many a shopkeeper might assume him a suspicious person, Louis isn’t at all surprised by his shifty eyes and flighty demeanor as he paces around the main floor.

“What do you need, Mr. Jensen?” Louis asks, finding that a direct approach always works best with the anxious man.

“T-the n-new Sodi,” Mr. Jensen mumbles.

“Ah yes,” Louis says, smiling furtively, “Always a popular choice. I wouldn’t keep it in stock, usually, seeing as my shop specializes in collectors’ items, but the Sodi collections have been so in-demand as of late, it’d be a waste not to carry a few copies.”

“I… I don’t suppose you have a signed original?” the man inquires, so quietly it’s almost inaudible.

Louis’ eyes flit to the green hardback still sitting untouched on the shelf, as he hums thoughtfully. “That, Mr. Jensen, would depend on how much you’re offering for one.”

“Three hundred,” Mr. Jensen whispers, pulling out his wallet with trembling fingers.

Louis’ eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. “I’m afraid that’s a bit overpriced. Perhaps we could settle for one-fifty?”

“O-oh, oh, oh yes, yes sure,” Mr. Jensen agrees, pulling the notes out of his wallet.

Louis walks over to the shelf, plucking the signed copy from between the Chaucer and the Spenser, and rings it up. “So, have you read By and By, I Try yet, Mr. Jensen?”

The man puts his wallet away having collected his change and makes a soft affirmative noise. “Y-yes, I h-have, m-many t-times. This… this one is for m-my s-son.”

“Oh, this will make a lovely gift,” Louis replies, smiling beatifically, “And what would you say your favorite poem from the collection is, if you have one?”

Mr. Jensen takes a labored breath. “I do l-like… erm… ‘Temporary Tattoos’? You know, the bit that g-goes ‘There is such irony in this; in scouring away memories like ink on skin’? Yes, I l-like that bit very m-much.”

“I like ‘Once’ myself,” Louis replies, quoting, “Feet bound to earth: we leaned heavy into dark.”

He hands Mr. Jensen the bag with his purchase tucked neatly inside.

“B-but what do you think Sodi meant when he said ‘I write my poems on the palm of my hand’? Do you think he really does that? B-because I,” the man looks down bashfully, “well sometimes I write, you know, but it’s in a j-journal… D-do you think I’m doing it wrong?”

Louis’ hand drifts to the weathered moleskine tucked into his own back pocket. “I can tell you with great confidence that even the prolific William Sodi doesn’t always write his poems on his hand. That would probably be impractical for his longer ones.”

Mr. Jensen laughs nervously (it’s really more of a small squeak of amusement than actual laughter, but hey, that’s a start).

“I think,” Louis continues, choosing his words carefully, “that there’s really no wrong way to write, as long as what you’ve written makes you feel something. Screw everyone else, really. But good writing? Good writing shouldn’t be picked apart line by line, literary device by literary device, it should be viewed as a whole. Like, what do all of these little bits mean when you put them together, you know? You can write a thousand pages about a woman’s beauty, for example, but never answer the question of whether or not you loved her, or if she loved you back. There’s no substance to it. But when I ask you, in simple haiku ‘What was the moment, when my eyes became the eyes, you’d want forever?’ suddenly there’s a spark, a connection, a bit of you responding to a similar bit of me. And I think that’s what writing’s meant to do– in a funny, paradoxical sort of way– to make you feel something that you don’t have words for, using words to get you there, to plant that little seed that grows to be a part of the human experience and somehow connects us all.”

Louis pauses to run a hand through his hair, sliding it up and across his feathery fringe. “I’m sorry that probably sounded silly. I’m just a bookkeeper; I read them, not write them.”

Mr. Jensen just shakes his head, lips quivering in the closet approximation to a smile he’s ever seen the man achieve.

“T-thank you, Mr. Tomlinson,” Mr. Jensen whispers sincerely, then turns and scurries out of the shop as quickly as he came.

“Bit of an odd duck, isn’t he?” Harry comments from the back of the shop.

Louis turns around to see the gangly popstar collapsed in the chair behind his desk, spinning back and forth idly. “He’s just a teensy bit anxious about… well, everything, really.”

“That advice you gave him about writing was really nice, though,” Harry continues.

“Yeah?” Louis asks.

He’s always felt a bit self-conscious talking about the writing process like he’s an expert or something. It’s not as if he’s prolific poet and bestseller William Sodi, or well, he is actually, but when he’s writing as William Sodi he doesn’t feel like Louis Tomlinson and… and it’s all a bit complicated, really.

(And it’s especially nothing that Harry need know just yet.)

“Yeah,” Harry affirms, and his smile is warm and sunny and genuine as always.

The younger lad kicks his feet out and does a complete revolution in the chair, then two, giggling like the child he apparently is.

“You’re twenty years old,” Louis remarks, though he can’t help the fond smile that tugs at the corners of his mouth.

“Twenty-one in February,” Harry says brightly, still spinning, “So what?”

Louis just shakes his head fondly.

“That’s it for all the special requests I’ve had today,” he says, switching subjects easily, “Could have a few more customers in before we head out, but I doubt it. Monday’s are my slowest.”

“I have an idea of how we could spend the time,” Harry says offhandedly, twirling around twice more before kicking out his feet to stop himself.

Louis tries really really hard not to interpret that statement past its face value, but his stupid lust-clouded subconscious is making it kind of impossible at this point.

“And what’s that?” he asks, straining his voice to keep it even.

Harry spins to face him and stops again, propping his dirty socked feet up on the desk (which ew gross, he’ll have to remember to wipe that off later).

“Read me another one of your poems,” he suggests.

“Harry,” Louis starts wearily, “I don’t think–”

“Please,” the popstar interrupts, “you’re really, really good, Lou. And also you just said that you don’t care what other people think of your writing ‘cause it’s all for you, right?”

Louis blanches, hating how hypocritical his words sound thrown back at him. “Well, that’s not exactly…”

“Just one?” Harry asks and, oh god, the puppy-dog eyes have returned.

“Resistance is futile,” Harry continues, switching to an absolutely dreadful Borg impression.

Louis quirks a smile, and then sighs in defeat. “Fine, just one.”

He walks behind the desk next to where the younger boy has commandeered his favorite chair and leans down to unlock the bottom drawer. Tugging it open, he rifles through pages and pages of typed manuscripts until he finally locates his favorite one, his first one and the one he thinks Harry might like the best. Sliding the chosen poem out of its manila envelope, he stands back up and crosses the room to pull one of the cushy, upholstered armchairs near the front closer to where Harry is sprawled.

“How come there are so many red marks on it?” Harry asks, curiously.

Louis smiles, regarding the white page covered in angry red slashes, harried comments, and question marks.

“My editor,” he explains, “He’s, well, very helpful but also very, very particular. This poem’s never been published and probably for a good reason. It never really fit in with my first collection, and by the second and the third, it was just too often overlooked due to the stronger, more cohesive poetry I began to churn out as I found my voice, so to speak.”

“I’m sure it’s still lovely,” Harry says earnestly.

And this is another one of those foolish moments where Louis wants to kiss him.

Shaking his head slightly, Louis coughs once, and then begins, “Erm… this is called ‘Snow and Dirty Rain’.”

[only snippets of this poem are presented, click through for the full version]

“Close your eyes. A lover is standing too close
to focus on. Leave me blurry and fall toward me 
with your entire body. Lie under the covers, pretending
to sleep, while I'm in the other room…”

“…we are the crossroads, my little outlaw,
and this is the map of my heart, the landscape
after cruelty which is, of course, a garden, which is
a tenderness, which is a room, a lover saying Hold me
tight, it's getting cold
…”

“…I'll give you my heart to make a place 
for it to happen, evidence of a love that transcends hunger.
Is that too much to expect? That I would name the stars
for you? That I would take you there? The splash
of my tongue melting you like a sugar cube? We've read
the back of the book, we know what's going to happen.
The fields burned, the land destroyed, the lovers left
broken in the brown dirt. And then's it's gone.
Makes you sad. All your friends are gone…”

“We were in the gold room where everyone 
finally gets what they want, so I said What do you
want, sweetheart? and you said Kiss me. Here I am
leaving you clues. I am singing now while Rome
burns. We are all just trying to be holy. My applejack,
my silent night, just mash your lips against me. 
We are all going forward. None of us are going back.”

He licks his lips, holds his breath, and waits for Harry’s laughter, his rude remarks. Louis can’t help but remember the way his old best mate had reacted: fag fag fag scrawled across his footie bag in black permanent marker, worthless poofter scratched into his brain with sharp nails; the bloody, unforgiving scars behind his vision and across his heart. What he doesn’t expect are Harry’s stupidly long arms suddenly wrapped around him, lifting him up out of the chair and onto his feet, and that husky baritone repeating “I don’t want you to be sad” over and over again in hushed, painful breaths.

“Harry, it’s– I’m fine,” he chokes out, untangling himself from the popstar’s too-tight, octopus-like grip.

“It’s just a poem,” Louis insists, now freed. He takes a deep, much-needed breath and smoothes out his rumpled sweater.

Harry looks wild-eyed and overwhelmed. “No, it’s not. You’re– god, you’re just… and you don’t see it, I can’t,” he trails off, tugging a bit manically on a fistful of curls, “You’re famous, right? Your pseudonym? People… people recognize your talent, yeah? Because if they don’t, I’d–”

Louis bites his lip. “They do, yeah, don’t worry. I’ve got quite a, er, following, I guess you could say?”

Harry looks only somewhat appeased. “But they don’t know it’s you. Brilliant, beautiful, incredible you,” Harry growls passionately, and where on earth did any of that come from?

“I’ve known you for one day,” he continues with fervor, leaping out of his chair, “One single goddamn day, Louis, and I’ve only heard two of your poems, yeah, but that was enough for me to recognize just how talented you are. When you were talking to Mr. Jones, or whatever his name was, when you were telling him what’s so rewarding about writing, about sharing yourself with your audience… That’s how I feel all the time up onstage, and I know you’ll give me shit about the lyrics the record label puppets out of me, but it’s still… it’s still an emotional experience having a crowd feed off of your words and your energy. I’ve been trying to articulate that feeling for years, Louis. I’ve embarrassed myself in countless interviews using misplaced words like ‘euphoria’ and, fuck I don’t know, ‘a good high’ and yet it only took you like four sentences and a fucking haiku to summarize all of it! I just– I don’t understand? Why are you so afraid of people realizing how talented you are? It’s the greatest thing in the entire world.”

Louis looks down angrily, Harry’s sincerity having dredged up old emotions and doubts about his writing that he’s kept suppressed and under wraps for years. He doesn’t… can’t understand how over the course of a single day this, this complete stranger has managed to pick him apart so thoroughly. He takes a deep breath, wills himself under control.

“People do realize my so-called ‘talent’,” he says, voice heavy with years of suppressed feelings of inadequacy. He feels his eyes begin to fill with unshed tears, and any attempt he was making at holding back feels useless as they threaten to spill over.

“Haven’t you read the New York Times?” he asks, laughing bitterly, “They praise William fucking Sodi all the time. ‘Oh, his pain is so raw, so real, so tangible.’ Well you know what, Harry? It’s all bullshit. I make it up. I’ve never experienced half the things that William Sodi has. I’ve only been in love once and it was shit– sugar-coated, plain vanilla, breakfast every morning at eight, ‘I’m too tired for sex tonight darling, pencil me in for next week?’ utterly complacent bullshit. I can’t write about that, Harry. An eight word summary of my love life entitled ‘we just weren’t quite right for each other’ doesn’t exactly fly off the shelves.

No one cares about Louis Tomlinson, the… the real me. No one gives a flying fuck if my supposed best friend outed me to the entire school in Year 9 after I showed him what he later termed ‘romantic flowery shit written by a girl who’s just dying for a good dick up her ass’ and ‘you can’t be serious, Lou, you’re a footballer… you think the lads will put up with this trash?’ No, no one is going to buy an autobiography about my secondary school years as a walking laughingstock, a fairy, an ugly little skinny thing with no semblance of self-esteem.”

“But you have the opportunity to be yourself,” Harry cries, “to show them all that you’re none of those things, that you’re so much more than what they thought of you, and you’re just wasting it!”

Louis opens his mouth to protest, but the younger boy silences him with a well-timed glare.

“I’ve learned not to give a shit about what people think of me,” Harry continues, “because I’ve been told over and over and over again since I was just sixteen years old that the only way to stay famous and to sell records is to manipulate the public’s perception of who I am. ‘You’re a great singer Harry, but no one will buy these sad songs about real life shit that happens. Your market is teenage girls and that’s it. Those are the only people you’ll ever appeal to. You can’t be a serious artist if you want to make money’ and on and on, the same damn thing with every record label and every PR team.”

Harry swallows, looking so wretched and miserable it makes Louis’ chest clench tightly with a sudden, unexpected flare of protectiveness. He wants to hurt the people who’ve hurt this man, this boy really, just twenty years old and expected to live up to everyone’s expectations…

“I’ve never even had the opportunity to fall in love properly,” Harry says, softer now, “The only person I’ve ever been in love with just used me to get into my inner circle and capitalize on the connections it got hi- them. They were a lot older too, much more experienced than I was, and I just… I just held on to the foolish, naïve belief that they wouldn’t have bothered with someone as young as I was if they didn’t, if they didn’t see something special in me, you know? And now, it’s like… I can’t even have friends that are girls because I’m apparently fucking all of them and their mothers and their mothers’ mothers and that’s just not who I am; I’m not this heartless womanizing twat that the media and, and my own PR team, make me out to be. It just… it just frustrates me, I guess, that you have all the freedom to be yourself and you’ve not chosen to exercise it.”

He looks up, green eyes wide and wet underneath the flop of brown fringe, “People buy your books because they’re good, Louis,” he continues brokenly, almost at a whisper, “People buy my albums because I’m an overly-sexualized ‘badboy’ with a pretty face.”

Louis hiccups, swallowing down a sob.

“God, don’t we make a lovely little pair?” he tries teasingly, though his heart isn’t in it.

Harry blubbers a bit, but still manages to get a laugh through his snot and tear covered face.

“Tissues are over there,” Louis says, gesturing to a corner table, “You’re a right mess, Harry Styles.”

The popstar just flips him the bird and blows his nose loudly. Still sniffling a bit, he says, “You should publish something under your name. Just to see what people think, you know? You could use a smaller publishing firm so it wouldn’t be linked to Sodi. Maybe have a limited circulation, obviously no major promotional gimmicks, and–”

“Harry,” Louis interrupts tiredly, “Maybe just leave it for now?”

There’s a brief flash of hurt in the younger lad’s eyes, but he nods reluctantly. “Yeah, okay.”

“Thank you,” Louis says gently, then reaches his arms out beckoning, “Now come ‘ere, you fool.”

Just as Harry’s moving to embrace him, the little bell above the door jingles once more. They both leap ten feet apart like they’ve been shocked as a familiar voice calls out, “Lou, you ‘round?”

Louis nervously smoothes out his sweater once more before replying, “Josh! Hi! Yeah, I’m just up front!”

The short, stocky brunette steps around the corner, still talking, “Sorry to pop in on you like this, but I was just on my way to the gig, you know the one tonight at the Half Moon? I assume Niall told you but he’s not super reliable, that one. Anyway, I figured since I’d be going right by your place that I’d stop to offer you a ride in my, get this, brand new car. God, she’s fit, Lou. Black all-leather interior and–”

Upon seeing the both of them, he stops dead in his tracks, jaw hanging open.

“Hi,” Harry says pleasantly, waving.

Josh’s mouth resembles a codfish and his eyes are practically popping out of his skull as he waves back weakly.

 “Louis, a word please?” he hisses, motioning him forward.

“Um, sorry to interrupt, Mr. Styles, sir,” he addresses Harry, who just shrugs good-naturedly.

Louis skips down the two steps to stand in front of his awestruck mate. Josh has his back turned toward Harry now in an apparent attempt to be more secretive.

“Something wrong, Josh?” he asks innocently.

“Yes, there’s something wrong, you wanker!” Josh exclaims in a poorly executed stage whisper, “D’you mind telling me why the Harry Styles, international pop sensation, is currently standing in your shop surrounded by old, dusty books? And don’t tell me it’s because he loves old, dusty books!”

He’s poking his finger at Louis’ chest, emphasizing each syllable.

“Because literally no one except you and the bloody pensioners love old, dusty books!”

“Actually, I do love a good read,” Harry interjects, looking entirely too amused by the whole situation.

Josh blanches, looking faint, but doesn’t turn around. “I’m just… I’m just going to pretend you’re not there!” he calls back, voice wobbly.

“Harry Styles is purely a figment of my imagination,” he mutters, “My wonderful mate Louis is alone in his bookshop as usual, brooding, and I have come to pick him up and take him to a gig that Harry Styles, figment of my imagination, is certainly not attending.”

“Is it working?” Harry calls, openly laughing this time.

“Be nice,” Louis mouths over Josh’s shoulder, though he’s doing a poor job of hiding his amusement.

Harry just winks and bites his lip to keep from giggling anymore at the poor lad’s expense.

“Josh, meet my mate, Harry Styles,” Louis says, starting the introductions since he’s certainly not going to get another word out of the still-quivering boy beside him.

“Harry, this is Josh Devine. He works at a bakery just down the street, but he’s also an ace drummer.”

“Nice to meet you, mate,” Harry greets, smiling brightly and holding out his hand.

Josh stares for a moment too long before offering up his own limply.

It’s probably the most awkward handshake that Louis has ever witnessed in his life, and he’s really struggling not to burst out with one of his loud cackles at what would definitely be an inappropriate time.

“You know,” Harry says casually, having uncomfortably freed his hand from Josh’s noodle-like fingers, “I used to work in a bakery back home in Cheshire.”

Louis watches as Josh perks up immediately at the mention of their shared employment; if there’s anything that boy loves more than a snare and a kick drum, it’s baked goods.

“What would you say is the ideal temperature for baking scones?” Josh asks, and gee what an interesting conversation starter, Louis thinks with an exaggerated eye roll.

“Depends,” Harry offers, “What flavor are we talking?”

“Blueberry,” Josh supplies, raising an eyebrow.

“Two-twenty,” Harry answers coolly not a second later, “perfectly browned on top with a light egg wash glaze, and nice and fluffy in the middle.”

This is apparently an acceptable response as Josh’s blatant fangirling has simmered down to more of a deep begrudging respect.

Louis takes his phone out of his pocket, noting the time, and announces, “I hate to interrupt such a tantalizing topic of conversation, but I do believe it’s time to head out.”

He glances over then, noticing that Harry is still in his plain black t-shirt and without a coat to combat the evening chill.

“Wait a minute, popstar,” he says, ruffling the younger boy’s hair, “You can’t go out in October like that.”

Harry laughs. “Like any of your clothes would fit me?”

Louis pauses, not having thought of where a coat big enough for Harry would actually come from. That is, until he remembers a certain charcoal grey pea-coat still stuffed underneath his bed.

“Actually, I think I have something that might fit you,” he says, “Be right back!”

He bounds upstairs to his room, leans over to check beneath the box frame, and– yep! There it is, still folded neatly in the box it came in. Shaking it out into full form, he holds it up to his body, judges it to be a perfect length for the tall, gangly popstar, and skips back down the stairs with it tucked under his arm.

“Here we are!” he says brightly, holding it out.

Harry takes the coat, examining it for a moment, before declaring, “Louis, this is Saint Laurent.”

“Well, yes,” Louis replies, “but it’s from several seasons ago. Fall of ’09, I believe.”

This is a sixteen-hundred dollar coat,” Harry says, still awestruck.

Louis rolls his eyes, “Talk to me again when you’re not wearing nine hundred dollars of Alexander McQueen’s finest leather on your feet.”

Harry’s mouth is hanging open, as Josh laughs and says, “Louis may not dress it, but he knows his designers. Back when he first really started raking it in, he dressed head to toe in Cucinelli and Lanvin.”

“And I looked like a proper pretentious twat doing it,” Louis comments, laughing at the memories of himself strutting through Camden like an expensively dressed exotic bird.

“Why’d you stop?” Harry asks, slipping on the coat.

Louis swallows, eyes flicking up and down the popstar’s body, which is now wrapped in a gorgeous expanse of charcoal grey wool. The coat fits him perfectly, just wide enough in the shoulders to encompass the vast expanse of his back, and long enough to cover his torso and hit snugly on his hipbones. Louis feels a twinge of remorse having originally purchased it as a birthday gift for Aiden years ago, back when they were… yeah. He shakes his head, clearing away the memory, and focuses back on Harry’s original question.

“After a while I realized, shockingly, that the folks coming in to my shop were interested in the books and not the bookkeeper,” Louis explains, “so instead of draping myself in Prada and diamonds, I started investing in the finest and rarest collections to attract more potential buyers.”

“Like that one you sold today,” Harry remarks.

“Yes, exactly,” he affirms, turning to address Josh, “Oh, hey! Finally sold the Russie album.”

Josh reaches out and claps him on the back. “Sick mate! Guess drinks are on you tonight, then?”

“As long as you provide the transportation,” he replies, grinning.

“That, I can do.”

&&

They arrive at the Half Moon at a quarter ‘til, Josh immediately running off to go warm up and rehearse a bit with Niall and Ed and their bassist, Sandy.

Louis and Harry find an available table near the back, the place already packed at the popular evening hour.

“Niall and Ed are incredible songwriters, mate, just you wait,” Louis says conversationally, as their drinks arrive.

Harry smiles, taking a long pull of his beer. “I’m genuinely excited to hear them play.”

“I am too,” Louis agrees, pausing to sip his own drink, “I don’t get to hear the full band very often; usually it’s just Niall loitering in my shop and serenading me. He’s sick with a guitar.”

“In year ten, I started this band with a few of my mates from school,” Harry says, eyes twinkling as if recalling some humorous memory, “Played a few gigs around town, even did the formal once.”

Louis blinks in surprise, always having regarded Harry as the solo act he is. “Were you any good?”

The younger boy grins, taking another drink and wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Nah, we were shit,” he replies, with a laugh, “Called ourselves ‘White Eskimo’ trying to sound proper indie ‘nd all that.”

“I was in a band too,” Louis says offhandedly, laughing at the look of surprise that appears on Harry’s face.

“You play?”

“Sing,” Louis corrects, cringing at some of his own bad memories, “Though I do play a bit of piano, as it were.”

“I’m going to have to hear you at some point,” Harry demands, and Louis just shakes his head, laughing.

“Wouldn’t want to put you through that, love,” he says, winking, “I said I sing, didn’t say well.”

“I can tell you’d be good,” Harry replies earnestly, continuing his explanation upon seeing the question in Louis’ eyes, “No, really. There’s just something about a person’s voice, and yours is–”

Harry cuts himself off, looking bashful.

“It’s?” Louis prompts, still curious.

“Nice,” Harry replies quickly, “It’s… it’s nice, that’s all.”

The curly-haired boy’s cheeks are red, and he won’t make eye contact, choosing instead to look around the pub with clearly feigned interest.

Odd.

“I almost auditioned for the X-Factor one year,” Louis comments, in an effort to change the subject, though he sticks within the music realm as it apparently interests both of them.

Harry’s head whips back around. “Really?” he blurts.

“Yeah, a couple years back,” Louis explains, chuckling nervously, “I was eighteen and a little too full of myself after having played the lead role in the school musical the previous year. I actually met Niall while I was waiting in line and he asked to sing me a few bars of his audition because he was so nervous, poor thing.”

“What kept you?” Harry asks.

“I heard Niall’s voice and I chickened out right then and there,” Louis replies, and this time Harry laughs as well, “I gave him my number, told him to text me when he got famous, and hopped right out of line.”

“I’m guessing he didn’t win?”

“Nah, got cut right before the judges’ houses.”

Harry hums sympathetically, tracing his finger around the rim of his glass.

“It’s nice that you kept in touch, though,” he says, finally, looking back up to meet Louis’ eyes.

Louis laughs again, and the younger boy frowns in confusion.

“We didn’t really,” Louis explains, glancing up onstage to where Niall and Ed have begun tuning their guitars, “Didn’t hear from the lad until two years later when I randomly got a text on the startup day of uni classes that said something like ‘Oi it’s Niall from the X Factor! Remember me? Don’t mean to be creepy but I’m pretty sure I just saw you as I pulled up!’ Turns out he was staying in my building.”

“So you stayed close even after you graduated?” Harry asks, and it’s kind of bizarre how genuinely interested in Louis’ life he is.

Harry leans back in his chair, the glow of the overhead lighting hitting him just right and reminding Louis of earlier in the day when the younger boy had stepped out of his shop and into the sunlight looking just as radiant as he does now.

Louis swallows.

Harry looks good– not that he doesn’t usually, because he does, he really really does– but there’s something about this particular moment… with the form-fitting lines of his black t-shirt tracing his arms and that endless torso, the collar dipping down to reveal a pair of inked birds in flight; his dark skinny jeans stretched over his thighs, long thin legs extending on beneath the table; muscular arms crossed over his chest, angular jawbone, red lips pursed in a pensive frown, eyes sparkling and reflecting the glow from the stage…

“Louis?” Harry asks, voice bringing his attention back to the conversation, and crap that’s the second time today that Louis’ zoned out thinking about the apparent Greek god that is Harry Styles.

“Oh, uh, yeah,” Louis replies, trying to recall Harry’s question, “I stayed at the same university for my master’s degree and Niall was obviously still doing his first so.”

Harry nods along as he speaks, keeping attentive eye contact. “And what were your majors?”

“English and drama,” Louis answers, “Those are mine, obviously. Niall dabbled a bit in sound engineering, but he switched to guitar performance once he figured out he wanted to make his own music instead of produce other people’s for them.”

Harry starts to ask another question when he’s cut off by the lights dimming fully and Niall’s voice filling the crowded pub. They both turn their attention to where the blonde Irishman is drawling onstage, strumming a few chords as he introduces the band.

“The ginger one on the left is Ed,” Louis explains, leaning over to whisper in Harry’s ear.

Harry nods distractedly, already enraptured with the commotion onstage, and shushes him with a quick wave of his hand.

“Evening Putney,” Niall’s saying, grinning widely, “I’m Niall and we’re–”

He pauses, looking back at the rest of the band, “Er, what are we tonight fellas?”

“Cactus Casino,” Ed mouths, and Niall lets out one of his infamous cackles.

Turning back to the mic, he continues, “Right, so I’m Niall, that’s Ed, Sandy on bass, and our drummer Josh behind me, and tonight we’re Cactus Casino!”

The audience cheers loudly, already under the spell of Niall’s brash Irish charm.

They abruptly launch into an original song featuring Niall and Ed’s heavenly harmonies, followed by a particular rousing cover of Sleeper Agent’s Get Burned which has Niall whipping out his electric, Josh sweating up a storm pounding his drum set, and the audience singing along to the “off and on” bit with incredible enthusiasm.

By the end of their set, Harry is grinning widely and leaning over to shout “They’re really good!” above the music.

Niall goes back up to the microphone, presumably to thank the audience for being so enthusiastic, when a harried-looking man in all black rushes up onstage and whispers in his ear.

“Well,” Niall says, laughing when the crowd cheers, “Alright you guys, calm down. So I’ve just been informed that the band after us is running a bit late, and it looks like we’ve got time for one more song!”

The crowd’s cheering intensifies at his announcement and Niall is practically beaming, he’s so pleased by their reaction. Louis feels himself grinning as well watching it all happen. He’s so, so proud of his best mate it’s kind of ridiculous.

“We weren’t sure if we were going to get to play this one,” Niall continues, switching back to his acoustic and adjusting the strap, “but we had a little encore prepared just in case.”

He nods at Josh, who drags his cajón out from behind his drum set, moves it to the front of the stage, and plops down on top, executing a few practice taps with his palms.

Ed takes over as Niall quickly retunes his guitar, saying, “This is a popular hit right now, so we’d love it if you all sang along. Oh, and no groaning please! Everybody loves a little top forty!”

Niall finishes up, strumming once, and nodding at Ed and Sandy, then Josh behind him.

As soon as the guitar intro begins, Louis is biting his sleeve to muffle his laughter. He chances a glance at Harry across from him and grins wildly at the popstar’s face which is equally as amused as it is mortified.

“The story of my life,” Niall croons, “I take her home!”

He pauses and points at the crowd of drunken pub-goers, all of whom shout the lyrics back at him just as fervently, if a little bit slurred.

“Love this one!” Louis shouts, smiling dopily at Harry who’s clearly fighting an inner battle with himself over joining in. “C’mon, Haz! Sing along! I know you know the words!”

Harry rolls his eyes, fighting a smile, but passionately belts out a few bars just to humor him.

Louis laughs jubilantly, feeling the corners of his eyes crinkle with mirth. “That’s the spirit!”

Up onstage, Niall puts a hand across his brow, eyes roaming the crowd. His face lights up when he spots Louis at his table near the back, and Louis waves back excitedly, flashing him a massive double thumbs up. Either Niall doesn’t notice Harry or he isn’t fazed by the popstar’s presence as he continues through the final chorus with a huge grin plastered on his reddened, sweat-drenched mug.

“The story of my life,” Ed finishes loudly, still effortlessly in tune amidst the crowd’s cheering.

Niall thanks the crowd on behalf of ‘Cactus Casino’ once more and he and the band pack up quickly, clearing out for the next gig (some big name electronic group) that has finally arrived.

Louis downs the rest of his pint as Harry stands up and stretches, t-shirt pulling up to reveal the bottom half of his butterfly tattoo and a sliver of his impressively toned stomach. Louis looks back down, suddenly wishing for another alcoholic beverage to erase that particular image from his brain.

“C’mon, I’ll introduce you,” Louis suggests, standing up as well and guiding Harry toward where the lads are camped out, packing up their instruments and equipment.

“Absolutely sick gig!” he calls out as they approach.

Niall’s head shoots up at the familiar voice and he’s grinning widely.

“Lou, mate! Glad you could make it,” he says loudly (well, louder than normal at least), clearly still high off of his performance adrenaline rush, “Now where’s this plus-one you were telling me abo–”

He cuts off abruptly, having noticed Harry standing a bit shyly to Louis’ left.

“Well fuck me up the arse, Harry Styles,” he blurts, though he doesn’t seem as nonplussed as Josh had been earlier, “Pleasure to meet ya mate.”

He holds out his hand and the two shake in greeting; Harry compliments the band’s set sincerely and effusively, earning a bright scarlet blush from the blonde Irishman.

Upon returning from the bar with celebratory drinks in hand, Ed and Sandy both look startled to see the popstar interacting with their lead singer, though they offer up their hands politely nonetheless.

Harry and Ed end up in some deep, tantalizing conversation about songwriting technique and performance space acoustics, and Louis quietly excuses himself to the loo and slips away.

He’s washing his hands and inspecting his flushed face in the mirror, when the door swings open and Niall walks in.

“Nice guy, Harry Styles,” Niall says offhandedly, moving to stand at the sink next to him and wash a smear of grease off his palm, “Wasn’t expecting that.”

“Yeah, he’s– nice,” Louis agrees cautiously.

Niall sighs, toweling his hands off and looking up at Louis seriously.

“I hate to have this conversation with you, mate,” he starts, biting his lip, “but just be careful, yeah? I don’t want this to be another Aiden thing.”

Louis starts to protest but Niall hushes him, saying, “You like to pretend you’re immune to all this, but I’ve seen ya, Lou. You fall so easily, and I’m not… I’m not saying that Harry’s a bad guy… it’s just–”

“I’m not in love with him or anything, Ni,” Louis interrupts, successfully this time, “I just met him this morning.”

“Maybe not yet, mate,” Niall agrees, “but I can tell ya right now that ye will be. You’ve got that look about ye. All starry-eyed and moony.”

“Niall, you can’t use two celestial descriptions in one sentence,” Louis criticizes evasively.

“Why not?” Niall protests, “Shakespeare did it. You are the moon and Harry is the sun and what not.”

Louis bites back a laugh, drying his hands, and decides to indulge him, “Touché, love, but I do recall an east being in there somewhere?”

“What does the east have to do with anything?” Niall asks, holding the door open for him as they return to the bar together.

“Never mind,” Louis says, grinning as Harry meets his eyes from across the pub.

“See,” Niall grumbles, “moony.”

Louis elbows Niall and hisses a loud “shh!” ignoring the Irishman’s even louder protests.

Arriving at the bar, he quickly hops up onto the barstool next to the one the popstar is currently occupying.

“Hello beautiful,” he greets cheekily, feeling a little braver with some alcohol coursing through his veins.

“Hello to you, too,” Harry replies, swiveling on his barstool to face him.

What looks like a half-empty vodka and coke is sitting in front of him, cherry stem hanging off the edge precariously. His lips are red enough to match and he’s smiling widely, dimples deep and endearing.

“Excellent Jonas Brothers reference, by the way,” he continues, giggling.

“Wasn’t a reference,” Louis replies with a loud snort, “but it’s lovely to know that you were a fan.”

Harry leans forward and starts to hum the first few bars of the old ballad, apparently unashamed.

“Someone’s reached their limit,” Louis remarks, sliding the drink away from the younger lad, though Harry continues to reach for it with toddler-like grabby hands.

“Ed and I are gonna write some songs together!” Harry says excitedly, words slurring just slightly, “Ed also bought me, like, a lot of shots.”

“That’s lovely, dear,” Louis replies, humoring him, “but how does your nice, warm, cozy flat sound?” 

“Mmm, don’t got a flat,” Harry mumbles, “’m homeless.”

“Oh shut up,” Louis says, rolling his eyes, “Where do you live?”

“Kensington,” the younger boy replies after a moment, and Louis really shouldn’t be as surprised as he is. Harry hiccups, but carries on, “’ve a little brick house and it’s… white. It’s white!”

“A white house in Kensington… informative,” Louis catalogues, sighing, “What about an address?”

Harry spews off a couple of numbers followed by a street name that Louis’ pretty sure is in that area, so he shrugs and decides to go with it. If they somehow end up somewhere sketchy at this time of night (say south of Tower Bridge, which has happened to him before), he’ll just text Zayn for Harry’s actual address and get them both home eventually.

He jumps down off of his stool, reaching out a hand to steady Harry as he stands up as well. The two of them make their way over to where Niall and Ed are currently entertaining a large group of drunken and very handsy women, probably with one of their many (highly-embellished) road trip stories. Louis clasps a hand on Niall’s back and says a loud goodbye, motioning at Harry who’s smiling brightly and wobbling a bit on his feet.

Niall nods once, acknowledging his departure, though his eyes still flicker with concern.

Louis sighs and spins Harry around, leading him out the door. They immediately run into a gaggle of scantily clad uni-aged girls who shriek when they notice a celebrity among them.

“Can we get a picture please? Pleaseeee?” the only one of them not in tears asks hopefully.

“Erm… just one with all of you, yeah?” Louis answers, since Harry is clearly in no state to do so for himself.

The girls shriek again and Louis winces. The first girl shoves her phone into his hand and pushes him aside as the five of them crowd around Harry, sticking their chests out and pouting their lips. Harry appears absolutely thrilled by all the attention and immediately assumes a sassy hands-on-the-hips, pursed-lip pose of his own. Louis fights a laugh as he snaps the photo, handing the phone back to its owner.

“Thanks so much!” they chorus, before stumbling back down the pavement in their too-high heels.

“Bye!” Harry shouts, and Louis rolls his eyes, pulling him into their waiting cab.

&&

Thankfully, when the cab stops, they are in front of a large white Victorian in Kensington which Louis can only hope is Harry’s actual home.

The “hey, my house!” Harry cries as Louis helps him out of the car confirms it not a second later.

“Yes, your house,” he replies, laughing.

He almost trips on the curb with Harry’s octopus arms wrapped so tightly around him. They approach the gated entryway slowly but surely, and Louis feels his heart drop as he notices the little digital passkey attached to the front.

“Harry,” he says a little breathlessly, “your gate has a code.”

“Yup!” Harry confirms happily.

Louis blows hot air from between his lips. “Harry, what is the code?”

Harry just laughs, reaching out and typing it in with heavy, clumsy fingers. Louis sighs in relief, pushing it open and shutting it behind them. He gets Harry through the front door and finally inside, his mouth immediately dropping open at the insanely posh interior.

“Holy shit, did you decorate all this?” he asks, shocked.

“No,” Harry mumbles, “came this way. Don’t spend a lot of time here ‘cause s’lonely.”

Louis blinks, taking in the clinically white, streamlined furnishings.

“It is a bit hospital meets IKEA,” he relents, being careful not to trod on a particularly plush rug that probably costs three times as much as the Russie collection he sold today.

“Bedroom’s upstairs,” the younger boy says, lips brushing against his neck.

Louis swallows at the implications of that statement, reminds himself that Harry is piss drunk and also very, very not gay, and moves to help the popstar climb the stairs.

Harry’s bedroom is as white as the rest of his home, the king-size bed freshly made and unslept in.

Louis releases his grip on the popstar and watches as Harry immediately flops down atop the comforter still fully clothed, McQueen boots and all. He smiles softly and moves to take off the younger boy’s shoes, laughing when Harry mutters his protests, burying deeper into his pile of pillows and swatting Louis’ hands away.

“Alright, popstar,” Louis complies, chuckling.

He ruffles Harry’s curls, earning another grumpy moan, and turns off the light as he leaves, plodding back down the stairs.

What a day, he thinks, running a hand through his ruffled fringe and tugging open the front door.

He’s certainly not expecting to be greeted by flashbulbs and at least thirty men camped just outside the gate yelling questions at him.

“Uh, no comment?” he offers as he pushes his way through them and tries to hail a taxi.

The paparazzi continue to swarm and he winces as the flashing cameras leave spots in his vision. Finally a cab pulls up and he throws himself in, letting out a loud sigh of relief as he shakily rattles off his address.

“Another one of Harry Styles’ late night conquests, eh?” the cabbie asks, glancing at him through the rearview mirror, “Can’t say I’m surprised he’s diversified his tastes a bit.”

“Excuse me?” Louis snaps, brain still swimming from the press’ sudden onslaught.

The cabbie shrugs. “That ‘ouse is legendary, mate. Me ‘n me buddies always circle ‘round it this time a’night. Usually pick up a twiggy blonde bird or summat but,” he pauses, licking his lips, “I can see the appeal a’you.”

“I’m going to ask you once very nicely to shut up and take me home,” Louis says, voice hard, “Second time, I pull the mace out of my pocket and duck out of this vehicle before it crashes into the nearest light pole with you incapacitated at the wheel.”

“Hey, relax mate,” the cabbie says quickly, “I’m just taking the piss out a’ya. Me ‘n the lads all know these visits are just for appearances.”

“What do you mean?” Louis asks, suddenly curious.

“You know, the usual Sun kinda stuff?” the cabbie explains, “Girl goes in, comes out five minutes later, magazines make it seem like a couple a’ hours, or they suddenly got some source claimin’ they saw a goodnight kiss when there wasn’t nuffin a’tall. You see a lot when you’re a cabbie, celebrities no exception.”

Louis just hums thoughtfully at this new information. So Harry really wasn’t joking when he said it was all PR. Bloody awful, manipulative PR, but apparently effective nonetheless. Louis closes his eyes and presses his forehead to the window glass, suddenly knackered.

He blinks awake as the cab jerks to a halt, shoves some notes at the chatty cabbie, and stumbles into the shop with a loud yawn. He locks the door behind him and climbs up the stairs to his bedroom, quickly shucking off his shoes and his trousers and swan-diving into bed with a groan.

He closes his eyes, drifting off to an image of Harry draped across his shoulders limply, those cherry red lips pressed against his pulse point, sucking and biting until he’s marked and owned.

Mine, mine, mine.

&&

Louis jerks awake to the sensation of his mobile vibrating repeatedly against his thigh. He digs it out of his pocket and mumbles a sleepy hello.

“Louis!” Liam’s voice shrieks through the line, much too loud for an early Tuesday morning, “Louis, you’ve got to see–”

“Yeah, yeah, hold on a minute, Li,” he mutters, draping his arm over the side of the bed and fishing around for his charger. He’s honestly surprised that his phone has stayed alive this long, though granted he didn’t use it very much last night. His fingers tangle around the chord and he plugs it in, watching the screen light up in thanks.

“Okay, go.”

“Louis, you’re all over the gossip rags this morning!” Liam yells, “And online too!”

“What are you on about?” he mumbles, rubbing his eyes and sitting up.

“You got papped outside of Harry’s house last night and the media have painted it out like you’re secret lovers or something!”

“Alright, first of all, that’s ridiculous,” Louis remarks tiredly, still unhappy about having been woken up so early in the morning, “Next.”

“Louis, you can’t ignore this!” Liam cries, “What about Jaymi?”

“Who’s Jaymi?” he asks, interrupting again as Liam starts on another hysterical reply, “You know what, never mind, I don’t care.”

He yawns loudly, tucking himself back under the covers. “Next time you decide to read me the headlines, could you maybe do it a bit later in the day?”

“Louis!” Liam practically screeches, “I’m pretty sure Jaymi, your boyfriend, will want to be assured that you’re not cheating on him with Harry Styles! Harry Styles, as in, high profile popstar Harry Styles, whose house is constantly surrounded by paparazzi; a fact that you stupidly chose to ignore!”

Oh. Oh. That Jaymi.

“Jaymi’s not my boyfriend, Li,” Louis replies blearily, “Made that up so it wouldn’t look like we were spying on you at lunch.”

“If it weren’t only four in the morning, I’d come over there and kick your… your arse,” Liam says shortly, in the closest approximation to a threat he can manage.

“Yeah, great,” Louis agrees to… to something, he can’t really remember… “Hey, listen. Don’t tell Zayn, alright? We weren’t spying. I mean we were, but don’t… don’t tell him?”

“The phone is on speaker, you git,” a familiar disembodied voice replies.

“Is that Zayn?” Louis asks, suddenly interested, “Four in the morning and Zayn’s with you… Something tells me you got laid, Liam Payne.”

There’s a prolonged silence.

“I’m hanging up. You’re both disgusting,” Louis grumbles, before tapping end and tossing his phone over the edge of the bed. It lands on the carpet with a satisfying thud, and he buries himself back into his little nest of blankets with a loud sigh.

&&

Not even an hour later (or at least what seems like it) and he’s awoken again by his phone’s loud vibrations.

“Liam, I swear to god,” he hisses into the receiver.

“Um, not Liam?” a familiar, husky voice says softly in reply.

Louis jerks up, suddenly wide awake. “Oh, Harry, hi!” he says, much more cheerily, “I’m sorry for that! It’s just Liam called me this morning at some ungodly hour shrieking about pap photos or something as equally inconsequential; I don’t really remember.”

“Yeah,” Harry replies, his voice sounding odd and a bit strained, “Listen, I know you’re probably busy today but–”

“Not busy at all actually,” Louis interrupts, “I’ve got a couple of employees coming in to do the weekly inventory, so I’m free all this morning.”

“Great,” Harry says weakly, and yeah… something’s definitely up. “Do you think you could swing by this address around ten? Shouldn’t take but an hour or so.”

Harry rattles off an address which he quickly pens down, and Louis can’t help but note that the strange, pleading tone to the popstar’s voice has intensified.

“Sure, yeah,” he replies, complacently, “I’ve got nothing on.”

“Okay, well, see you then,” Harry says, hanging up almost immediately.

Louis rubs his eyes, still a bit sleepy and definitely more confused than ever. He leans over to peer at the clock, noting the time (eight-thirty), and quickly leaps out of bed to start his morning routine.

As the steam from his waiting shower slowly fogs up the bathroom, Louis can’t help but wonder what all the fuss is about.

&&

By 9:55, Louis’ waiting in a spacious reception area, nervously glancing around and tugging on his sleeves.

The cab had rolled up to a large complex of corporate office buildings, the doorman checking his name off a list and buzzing down for an expressionless, no-nonsense assistant who guided him up to the twenty-third floor and promptly left him in a waiting room with absolutely no instruction.

Just as he’s considering sinking low enough as to peruse the new issue of Cosmo sitting on the glass coffee table, a door to his left swings open and a displeased looking woman in a jet black pantsuit and sky-high Louboutins motions him into her office.

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Tomlinson,” she says, sitting down behind her desk and gesturing for him to take a seat as well.

“My name is Margaret Lancaster and I’m the head of Harry Styles’ public relations team.”

She doesn’t smile, her lips squished in a thin, straight line. They’re painted an angry artificial red, Louis notices, like she’s trying to appear somehow more intimidating than she already is. She looks to be in her mid-thirties, though the poorly-concealed bags under her eyes age her even further. Her hair is jet black, the same color as her impeccably tailored suit, and cut into a severe angular bob that frames her pointed jawline with ferocity. Everything about her is clean-cut, serious, and put-together, and he’s sure if he looked hard enough, he would find not even a single eyebrow hair out of place.

“It’s nice to meet you as well, Ms. Lancaster,” Louis says, after a moment, feeling the need to choose his words carefully.

“Margaret, please,” she corrects demurely, though her eyes retain their predatory gleam.

He nods but doesn’t reply, finding it more comfortable to just let the woman do all the talking.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why we’ve brought you in today,” she states bluntly, reaching into a side drawer and pulling out a stack of photos. She slides the pile toward him, one perfectly trimmed-and-filled eyebrow raised in question.

Louis flicks through the photos disinterestedly. They’re all blurry shots of him and Harry last night; a few capture the popstar leaning on him as he guided him into his home, but most of them are of Louis’ solo exit a few minutes later.

He sighs, sliding them back across the desk.

“Contact my lawyer if you want to work out some kind of deal,” he says, shortly, “I’m in no mood to discuss this.”

Margaret looks surprised, her bright red lips forming the tiniest of ‘o’ shapes before she quickly schools her features back in to place.

“Mr. Tomlinson, I’m not sure you understand?” she asks, eyebrows still furrowed slightly in confusion.

“Oh but I think I do,” Louis replies sharply, sighing again, “There’ve been gay rumors about your client and you’re here to offer me money not to be seen with him again, or maybe just to issue a nice, concise statement denying everything.”

Margaret sits back in her chair, arms crossed, appraising.

“I’m sure some silly story’s appeared in the Daily Mail or The Sun, probably both,” he continues, leaning back in his chair as well, but not breaking eye contact, “It’s all about us having lunch yesterday and then a late night out at a pub in Putney, me taking him home and not leaving until a few hours later, sources say we were flirty and handsy, practically smitten with each other.”

Louis watches the PR’s face as he speaks, notes the subtle twitch of her lip each time he gets something right.

“The sources are a, the washed-up cab driver who drove me home last night, probably said something about me having sex-hair, the heathen; and b, a buxom blonde hostess named Emily who seated us at that Indian restaurant off Regent Street. ‘They confirmed it was a date’ she was quoted saying. Now isn’t that romantic?”

“Romantic, certainly,” Margaret replies coolly, “but is it true?”

“Of course not,” Louis replies, rolling his eyes, “It was all taken completely out of context, as I’ve heard most articles about your client are. Though, I must say, you do seem to take immense pleasure in engineering them that way.”

The dark-haired woman hums thoughtfully for a moment, choosing not to confirm or dispute his assertion.

“And how do you have such experience with public relations, Mr. Tomlinson?” she asks, betraying her interest.

“I write under a pseudonym,” he says carefully, “I do my own PR, decide how I’d like to appear to my target audience, and my publishing agent handles everything else.”

“May I ask what that name is?”

“No, you may not,” he replies icily, though the woman doesn’t appear particular bothered by his impatient attitude.

 “Now, am I free to go,” he implores tiredly, “or do you yet require more of my time?”

Margaret sighs, examining her manicure for a moment before answering.

 “I’m afraid this is all standard protocol, Mr. Tomlinson,” she explains, sliding a few papers his way, “for friends of my client or otherwise. I just need to know, point blank, if you’re romantically interested in Mr. Styles, and if, at any point, you plan to pursue a romantic relationship with him.”

“No, and no,” Louis replies smoothly, then immediately wonders why it feels like such a heavy lie. He shakes his head to clear those thoughts away and turns his attention instead to the papers placed before him.

“This is a simple nondisclosure agreement,” Margaret explains, presumptuously handing him a pen, “You don’t speak to the press about my client, and he won’t speak to the press about you. All your privacy rights are listed and guaranteed there at the bottom.”

Louis looks down, noting Harry’s wide scrawl already printed next to the ‘x’ on the top line.

“I just met your client a day ago,” he remarks casually, signing and dating the agreement with a practiced flourish, “I hardly think that’s grounds for such precaution?”

Margaret blinks, lip twitching, and it’s immediately apparent to him that she knows she’s been caught.

“My client,” she explains carefully, “is quite… er… taken with you, Mr. Tomlinson. That is, this little meeting would’ve had to happen eventually, and my team and I agreed that it would be better dealt with sooner rather than later.”

“Right,” Louis agrees, confused by her cryptic reply but not willing to show it.

He slides the papers back her way and she examines them wordlessly for a moment.

“That’ll be all,” she says dismissively, tucking the signed agreement back into her desk’s file drawer, “I’ll have Flor escort you out.”

Louis can only assume that Flor refers to the expressionless blonde assistant who had led him in, though he wouldn’t be surprised if Ms. Margaret Lancaster had an entire army of pretty robot-like slaves doing her evil bidding.

“Great, thanks,” he replies quickly, standing up to leave.

Just as he’s reaching to push the office door open, Margaret’s voice rings out once more, clear and sharp. “It was lovely chatting with you, Mr. Sodi.”

Louis freezes with a hand on the door, turning back around slowly to see the dark-haired woman leaning forward languidly, elbows propped on the dark mahogany desktop. She’s smiling back at him as predatorily as ever; a gaunt, high-fashion hyena, all white sparkling teeth and hungry black eyes.

“I’m a big fan.”

If she’s expecting him to react, he’s happy to disappoint her.

“Names are such an interesting part of our identity. Wouldn’t you say, Ms. Lancaster?” he offers casually, hand still gripping the door handle tightly.

“Margaret, of Greek origin, meaning pearl, or ‘one of wisdom’. Your parents were a tad too optimistic, don’t you think? To have produced a soul as black as yours?”

He grins back at her saccharinely, “Pity.”

“Your flowery, poetic language doesn’t fool me, Louis,” she replies, harsh and informal, “I know more about you than you’d like, and that scares you, doesn’t it? That someone, or let’s say the entire world, could find out so very easily? With a simple phone call on my behalf?”

“I’d hate for you to appear a fool,” he replies scathingly, “Had to give you something to pretend to blackmail me with.”

“Oh please, this isn’t blackmail, dear,” Margaret giggles, “I’m not that childish. All I’m asking is that you don’t damage my client’s reputation any further, else I have to damage yours.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about me,” he answers swiftly, “From what I hear, you’ve already ruined Harry’s reputation enough for the both of us.”

And with that, he spins quickly on his heels and walks out the door.

&&

The rest of the week passes without further incident.

It also passes without further contact from Harry, but Louis is totally not dwelling on that at all.

If Harry doesn’t want to be his friend, it’s totally fine. In fact, it’s better than fine; it’ll probably complicate his life way less. No more paparazzi or watching Harry flirt with waitresses or clingy octopus arms, it’s fine. He’s fine. Plus, he already has three awesome best mates, anyhow. He doesn’t need another one, much less some high-maintenance celebrity who, over the course of one day, completely endeared himself to him and turned Louis into a sad, rejected loser who checks his phone every five seconds for a text that is apparently never arriving.

Nope. He doesn’t care about Harry at all (which is precisely why he’s currently sitting at his desk, biro in hand, penning a super vague, not-about-any-popstar-in-particular poem in his moleskine featuring lines like ‘It’s Christmas year ‘round with your red lips and green eyes’ and ‘Your limbs are miles long, a road untraveled, and yet somehow they fit around me). Normal friendship-y, totally-not-pining writing, you know?

He’s tapping the pen against his bottom lip thoughtfully, contemplating a non-creepy way to include ‘I close my eyes and see those two birds in flight, black inked wings cutting across the alabaster expanses of your pectoral plane...” when that little bell jingles brightly, announcing his next visitor.

“Ah, there’s the writer,” a familiar voice calls, and Louis glances up to see one brooding-as-ever Zayn Malik, looking appetizing as usual in tight jeans and black leather.

“Told you he’d be writing,” a second (even more familiar) voice affirms, “He does that when he’s moping.”

“Zayn, Liam,” Louis greets, quickly closing his moleskine and sliding it safely into his back pocket.

He stands up, skirting around the edge of the desk to meet them in the foray.

 “To what do I owe the pleasure?” he asks, exaggeratedly formal, and throwing in a nice curtsy for good measure.

“You’ve been MIA for almost week, Lou,” Liam castigates in his classic disappointed teacher voice.

“And we have a pretty good idea why,” Zayn continues, mimicking Liam’s furrowed brow.

Louis looks between them, notes the way Zayn’s arm has made its way down Liam’s lower back, his fingers splayed across the teacher’s hip.

“Isn’t this sweet?” he remarks, “Finishing each other’s sentences already? Proper couple you are.”

Zayn rolls his eyes and tugs Liam closer until they’re attached from neck to knee, practically morphed into one awful but incredibly attractive love monster or something. Louis channels his inner maturity and promptly pretends to gag up his breakfast all over the floor.

“Listen, Harry really likes you and he wants to hang out with you again, really,” Liam starts, ignoring Louis’ dramatic display of disgust.

“But he’s just been too stupidly worried about you hating him or being scared off or something after his PR team forced him to drag you into that meeting,” Zayn finishes.

“Wait, you know about that?” Louis asks, surprised.

“Well yeah,” Zayn replies, like it should’ve been obvious, “You should’ve seen poor Haz when he showed up at the studio that afternoon; looked like someone’d just killed his puppy or something.”

“God, I didn’t know he was so torn up about it,” Louis remarks, “It wasn’t that bad really. I just said a few choice words to that witch of woman, Margaret Lancaster, and she said a few back… I signed a nondisclosure agreement and slammed the door. Lovely morning overall, I’d say.”

Zayn’s gaping at him, eyes practically bugging out of his head. “They had you speak to Margaret Lancaster?”

“Yes, Margaret, like I said,” Louis confirms, a bit confused by the dark-haired boy’s reaction, “Head of Harry’s PR team? Nasty temperament, awful haircut, but very nice taste in suits?”

“Louis, please tell me you were joking about the choice words being exchanged,” Zayn pleads, looking like he might have an aneurysm at any moment

“No, I’m afraid not,” he replies easily, “She tried to blackmail me, I told her I wasn’t going to be bought or intimidated by her threats, and then I defined her name for her, very sweetly I might add.”

“You defined her name?” Zayn asks wearily, running his free hand through his artfully-sculpted quiff.

“Margaret, of Greek origin, meaning pearl, or ‘one of wisdom,” Louis explains, “Er… then I might’ve said that her parents must’ve been so disappointed to find out how black and evil her soul was after giving her such a lovely name.”

Zayn looks like he might faint. “Louis, Margaret Lancaster isn’t just the head of Harry’s PR team; she’s president of the entire management company.”

Louis shrugs, and Zayn continues, “Everyone at the record label refers to her as ‘The Dragon Lady’. She controls every artist that we work with and dozens of artists at other labels too. The company myth is that no one ever goes to visit ‘The Dragon Lady’ and comes back with their job intact.”

“Yes, well, I don’t recommend scheduling an appointment with her anytime soon,” Louis replies, “Totally lives up to the whole ‘Dragon Lady’ moniker, scary nails and teeth and everything. Kept smiling at me like she wanted to skin me alive and roast me over a fire for dinner.”

Liam winces and Zayn looks terrified out of his mind.

“They sent you to Margaret Lancaster,” Zayn mutters, shaking his head, “No wonder Harry thought you’d never want to speak to him again.”

Louis just rolls his eyes. “He has my number, apparently, since he called me Tuesday morning. He could’ve texted me, instead of worrying himself silly for five days straight.”

“Zayn’s having a little get together at his place tonight,” Liam says excitedly, changing the subject, “We came to invite you.”

“Harry will be there,” Zayn adds, wiggling his eyebrows enticingly, “I’m sure he’d love to see you.”

“Let me just give up my profession, then,” Louis replies, gesturing to the piles of not-yet-shelved books littering his desk and the floor around him, “That way I can fully dedicate my life to pleasing popstars.”

“C’mon Lou,” Liam says disapprovingly, “It’s a Saturday night, I know you’ve got nothing on, and Harry’s honestly been just as miserable as you have.”

“I’m not miserable!” Louis protests.

“Are you sure?” Liam asks doubtfully, raising a single judgmental eyebrow, “Let me see what you’ve written lately then.”

 “Okay, so maybe I’m a teensy bit miserable,” Louis says quickly, hand flying to his back pocket to protect his precious moleskine from Liam’s outstretched hands, “but that has nothing to do with Henry Smiles, or whatever his name is.”

“Oh come off it, Louis,” Zayn complains, “Are you coming tonight or not?”

Louis takes one look at Liam’s expectant, hopeful smile, and sighs loudly. “Fine, yeah. I’ll be there.”

Liam does a ridiculous little leap of excitement, and it’s kind of unfair really, Louis thinks, that a grown man can somehow look so adorable. Zayn apparently shares his sentiments as he’s gazing at the bouncing schoolteacher with a level of fondness that’s as equally as immeasurably sweet as it is nauseating.

“It’s Halloween, by the way, in case you forgot,” Liam continues excitedly, as Zayn ushers him quickly toward the door, “Costumes are required! Bring alcohol! See you then!”

“Wait, I definitely didn’t agree to–” Louis starts, but the jingle of the bell interrupts him, signaling the two lovebirds’ hasty departure.

He sighs again, glaring at the waiting stacks all around him. Just as he’s deciding what to do, his mobile vibrates loudly on his desk. He turns around and picks it up, tapping to open an awaiting message from Niall.

glad ur coming 2nite mate!!

He furrows his brow, typing back quickly:

was everyone in on this plan??

yeah, basically is Niall’s reply a moment later. His phone buzzes again, signaling a second message.

listen, i need to go costume shopping! come with?

Louis makes a face, but can’t deny that he’s also short on acceptably cool and/or humorous Halloween attire.

fine. are you driving?

nah, can’t 2day! poor mully’s ill nd in the shop.

aww poor mully :( btw i still cannot believe that you named your new car after your hometown.

proud of good ol’ mullingar mate! ireland’s in me blood :))

no one can tell that you’re irish Ni. try harder.

haha shut it lou. i’m walking over rn and we can catch a cab. see ya in five for the best costume shopping trip of ur life!!!

yeah… hooray.

Louis sends the last text and pockets his phone, running upstairs to grab his wallet before Niall arrives. He tries to ignore the little niggling sense of excitement in the recesses of his brain that keeps getting stronger and stronger as he thinks about seeing Harry again. He’s being silly and he knows it. Harry probably wants nothing more to do with him and Zayn and Liam are just lying in order to get him to be social for a night. Harry’s probably not even going to be there, he reasons, no need to get his hopes up over something so trivial.

And yet, he can’t ignore the buzz in his veins, his pulse thrumming quick and insistent at the ghost-like sensation of lips pressed to the hollow of his throat…

&&

Louis feels silly.

He feels incredibly silly, and also strangely… hot.

Niall is laughing hysterically, tears pricking his eyes, as he chokes out, “You’ve got to buy that, Tommo. I’m not letting you leave without it.”

“Niall, I’m dressed as a woman,” Louis deadpans.

“I know!” Niall shrieks, and his manic cackling intensifies, “but you’re a really, really fit woman, I swear.”

“No other man at this party will be dressed as a woman,” Louis argues, tugging at the frilly tutu and leotard ensemble that admittedly makes his bum look pretty damn fantastic, “I think I’m going to go with the sexy policeman getup with the blue booty shorts I tried on earlier.”

They also make his bum look good, just in less of a pink frilly feminine way.

“That’s–” Niall starts, wiping away a stray tear, “That’s probably a safer choice.”

“Get a picture for posterity though,” Louis requests, twirling around gracefully and cringing as the leotard begins to bunch up in all the wrong places.

Niall giggles again, snapping a few choice photos with his mobile and declaring Louis to be the finest looking ballerina in all of Britain.

After he’s returned from the fitting rooms tutu-free, Louis and Niall head to the checkout.

“I see you’ve gone with sexy pilot,” Louis remarks, nodding at the green jumpsuit and fake aviators thrown in Niall’s basket, “Strong choice.”

“Thank you,” Niall replies, seriously, “I’ve always wanted to fly.”

“You’ve always wanted to join the mile high club more like,” Louis teases, winking at the girl behind the cash register as she’s ringing them up.

“Yeah, that too,” Niall deadpans, rolling his eyes.

They pay and walk out of the store, Louis pulling out his phone to check the time.

“It’s quarter ‘til seven,” he states, tugging on his jacket as the sun has already begun to set, “What time does this thing even start?”

“I think Zayn said sometime ‘round nine,” Niall answers, zipping up his hoodie and shivering a bit at the sudden drop in temperature.

“Fancy a bite then?” Louis asks, nodding toward a Thai restaurant on the corner.

“As if I’d refuse,” Niall replies, grinning.

Minutes later, they’re seated in a holey red lacquer booth, plates of steaming curry set before them.

“So how’s your week been then?” Louis asks between bites of chicken and kaeng phet.

“Good,” Niall replies, mouth stuffed with noodles, “We booked a sweet gig with Ed’s cousin in Manchester, so we’ll be traveling out there in about two weeks. Oh, and Harry asked Josh to be his drummer on his UK stadium tour next summer. How sick is that?”

“What?” Louis asks, shocked, wiping spicy red sauce from the corner of his mouth.

“Apparently his drummer’s wife is pregnant and they’re expecting the baby in mid-June,” Niall explains, slurping his noodle soup and swallowing loudly, “Harry got Josh’s number from Liam, mentioned how impressed he was with Josh’s drumming at the pub gig, and offered him the job. Josh took it o’course, don’t worry; it pays like you wouldn’t believe.”

“That’s incredible,” Louis replies, still dumbfounded.

“Ain’t that the craic,” Niall agrees, finishing the last of his soup, “and it’s all thanks to you, mate! Wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t a’brought Harry with ya.”

Louis shakes his head.

“I’m sure it would’ve worked out somehow,” he assures, “Fate’s far from a fickle thing.”

“Speaking a’fate,” Niall says, wiggling his eyebrows, “how excited are ya to see your soulmate again tonight?”

“He’s not my soulmate, Ni,” Louis asserts, glaring at the giggling blonde, “We’re barely even friends.”

“I refuse to believe that,” Niall replies definitively, taking a long sip of his tea.

“Well, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed, then.”

Niall raises an eyebrow like a challenge, and then smiles softly like he knows something Louis doesn’t.

“I don’t think I will.”

&&

By the time they arrive at Zayn’s house in Mayfair, the party is already in full swing.

There are gaggles of half-naked girls around the backyard pool and equally as clothed men shooting pool in the basement. It takes them about fifteen minutes to actually locate Zayn, who is lounging languidly on the living room sofa, a fresh joint between his fingers.

Zayn blinks owlishly at the pair as they greet him, laughing loudly at something a pink-haired girl in a classically unoriginal cat costume leans over to whisper in his ear.

“Louis! Niall!” he says eventually. His voice is slow and syrupy sweet, though not lacking in enthusiasm.

“Sick party!” Niall cheers, reaching out to swipe a joint from a blonde, leopard-clad girl to Zayn’s left.

“Hey,” she protests, though her eyes settle fully on Niall a moment later and she seems to change her mind.

Niall smirks and plops down next to her, Zayn and Pink Kitty scooting closer together to make room for the Irishman and his new spotted lady friend. Louis just rolls his eyes and heads off in search of the kitchen for a much-needed drink.

He finally finds it about five minutes later after climbing two flights of stairs up and down before realizing that it’s located on the same level as the living room he’d started in. As he’s singing along to the catchy pop anthem currently blasting through the high-tech sound system and mixing himself a nice, strong, fruity drink, he feels a large unfamiliar hand grab his shoulder.

He whirls around quickly, expecting some sleazy drunk guy looking for a good time, but instead comes face to face with Liam Payne…

… in a Batman suit.

“Hey, Li,” Louis greets, finishing up blending his concoction and recapping the fruit juice and rum, “Having a good time?”

“Not particularly, no,” Liam replies testily from behind his mask, glaring across the room at Zayn still sprawled over the couch entertaining his group of four or five scantily clad women.

Louis hums sympathetically, and then shrugs. “Why don’t you do something about that?”

“Like what?” Liam asks, eyes wide and Bambi-like.

“Claim him, Li,” Louis encourages, rolling his eyes at the blushing schoolteacher’s apparent innocence, “Show them all who he belongs to, like, climb on his lap and make out with him or something.  Christ, I dunno.”

“You know what?” Liam says loudly, still eyeing the group of giggling girls encroaching closer and closer upon his property, “I think I will.”

He snatches Louis’ drink out of his hands, downs it in one go, and crosses the floor in three powerful strides, bat cape flapping. Louis’ mouth is hanging open and his eyes are nearly bugging out of his head as he watches Liam impolitely shove Leopard Girl out of the way and into Niall’s lap, climbing onto the couch and straddling a very surprised looking, but also very stoned Zayn Malik.

“Yes Payno!” Louis cheers as the schoolteacher rips off his mask and tilts the dark-haired boy’s head back to suck a bright red mark right under his jaw.

It’s starts to get a little R-rated after that and Louis has to look away, making himself a new drink and taking a long, long sip.

When he turns back, the couch is empty, both Liam and Zayn and the four other girls all missing. Louis’ fairly sure Liam’s not that kinky, though he can’t help but hope that these aren’t related occurrences. Niall’s getting frisky with Leopard Girl in the corner, his aviators somehow having switched owners and her furry ears tucked into his blonde quiff. The rest of the partygoers on this level are all grinding in the middle of the carpeted area or lounging about on the leftover furniture not occupied by fondling duos (or… trios? Louis notices, and downs the rest of his drink with a grimace).

He sighs, glancing once more around the room and spying a sliding glass door leading out to what looks like a large balcony. He pulls it open and steps out, immediately shivering at the cold October wind. There’s a zebra print blanket lying on one of the black lounge chairs and he grabs it, wrapping it around himself to combat the chill. He leans against the edge of the balcony and stares out at the city lights, remembering his very first night alone in London and how small and insignificant he had felt in that moment, just one life surrounded by millions of others, his own flat just one little light amongst the stars.

“Not into orgies, then?” a familiar, husky voice asks behind him.

He turns around and smiles softly at the image of Harry leaning nonchalantly against the doorframe.

“Hey shut the door wanker! It’s bloody cold!” someone yells from inside, and Harry laughs awkwardly, standing up straight and yanking it closed.

As he steps out into the light of the balcony, Louis gets his first good look at the popstar’s costume, and it’s… not a lot of fabric. He gulps, eyes traveling down Harry’s naked upper half to where his thighs are clad in skintight peach-colored spandex. He’s holding a foam finger, his hair done up in two miniature buns on either side of his head. He looks like an idiot, but a very, very hot idiot nonetheless.

Miley Cyrus?” Louis guesses.

“And we can’t stoooop,” Harry croons in response, and Louis has to muffle a giggle with his stupid zebra blanket. He watches as the popstar eyes his little cocoon appreciatively, teeth chattering and arms wrapped around his torso in a futile effort at warming himself up.

“C’mere you idiot,” Louis says, finally, lifting up one end of the blanket and motioning for Harry to join him on the chaise, “That dumbass inside is right. S’bloody cold out here.”

Harry grins and tucks himself into Louis’ side as they both sit down, shivering as a particularly chilly gust makes its way across their balcony seat.

Sexy cop,” Harry observes, taking in Louis’ police hat and dark blue polo, “Strong choice.”

“Thank you,” Louis replies, snuggling closer and wrapping the blanket more tightly around the both of them, “I was going to go as a ballerina. Tutu was nice, but the leotard was a bit… er… restricting.”

Harry raises an eyebrow. “Don’t even talk to me about restricting,” he remarks, slipping a hand out from under the blanket to motion toward his crotch, “Not a lot of breathing room in this little spandex number.”

Louis just giggles softly, mumbling “Your choice, mate” into Harry’s collarbone. He feels the younger boy still beneath him and he leans back quickly, resting his head against the chair cushion with a sigh.

They’re silent for a long time after that; the only sounds their rhythmic breathing and the traffic on the street below.

“You’re missing the party,” Louis says after a while, lowering his voice to a whisper though they’re the only two people foolish enough to still be outside. Even the groups gathered around the pool have since called it quits, favoring the warm, smoke-filled interior to the October chill.

“You are too,” Harry whispers back after a moment.

Louis shrugs against him. “Eh, not really my scene.”

“It’s an entire house full of drunken models and socialites,” Harry replies, “What’s not to like?”

“You tell me, popstar,” Louis says, fitting himself more tightly against the younger boy as the temperature continues to drop, “Shouldn’t you be in there charming the masses with your dimples and peach spandex?”

He can feel Harry’s laugh through his chest, rumbling. “Not my scene either,” Harry explains after a moment, “Too hard to remember who I openly hate versus who I’ve been pretending to like.”

“Ah, yes, the struggles of the rich and famous,” Louis remarks, smiling into Harry’s shoulder.

“You’re rich and famous too,” Harry counters, “Just secretly.”

“Doesn’t count then,” Louis argues, poking Harry in the stomach.

Harry giggles, slapping his hand away and tickling him under the armpit.

“I surrender! I surrender!” Louis calls breathlessly after a moment’s struggle.

He looks up just as Harry leans back victoriously wearing a smug grin, whispers “Sike!” and launches a full-out, double-handed assault on the popstar’s tummy until the younger boy is begging for mercy.

Louis relents, flopping back onto his back, breathing hard and staring up at the dark, cloudless sky.

“Is it stupid if I admit that I missed you?” Harry says after a moment, so quietly that Louis almost thinks he imagines it.

“Is it stupid if I admit that I missed you too?” he whispers back, breath coming out in little puffs of condensation.

“Five days and we’re lovesick,” Harry teases.

He’s smiling; Louis can tell, and he likes that he can.

“I’m going to write that into your poem,” Louis says, then bites his lip at the slip-up.

“My poem?” Harry asks excitedly, clasping his hands together with poorly concealed delight.

“I wrote about you, yeah,” Louis admits, “Separation anxiety and lonely writers don’t mix well.”

He anticipates the next question before Harry’s lips even part to ask it.

“Can I read it sometime?”

Louis shakes his head slightly, thinking back to the strange intimacy that the lines had captured, the way he’d managed to translate the constant spark flowing between them into vast expanses of ink, filling up page after page of his battered little moleskine. It was too easy, he reminds himself, writing about green eyes and red lips and stupid universes where they coexist, where it’s Christmas all the time. And it terrifies him, how simple it would be to give his heart to someone who’d never return the sentiment, how utterly effortlessly foolish it would be to search for something more in the younger boy’s wide green eyes. Harry will leave him soon, and he knows this; move on to the next pretty thing that catches his eye, someone with long blonde hair and big tits and a demure smile… someone not Louis.

But he’s still too hopelessly attached to the boy next to him to refuse him completely, so he says, instead, “Maybe someday, when it’s finished.”

Harry smiles again; he hates that he can tell.

“I’m sorry about Margaret” is what the popstar says next, and Louis sighs against him, recalling his unpleasant encounter with the Wicked Witch of Public Relations.

“Didn’t think you’d speak to me again, after all that,” Harry continues, his voice small and uncertain, “Like I said, being friends with me is difficult and–”

“Harry, shut up please,” Louis interrupts, rolling his eyes, “Is that woman very likely plotting to murder me in cold blood? Yes, absolutely. In fact, there’s probably a sniper perched on the next roof over.”

Harry hits him playfully, hissing, “Don’t talk like that, Lou!”

“But she didn’t scare me away, did she?” he finishes, meeting Harry’s eyes, “I’m right here, freezing my arse off next to you under a frankly tasteless zebra-print blanket.”

“I told Zayn it was kitschy,” Harry replies, giggling, “but at least it’s warm!”

“The only heat being generated under here is coming from you,” Louis ripostes, “You’re like an actual human furnace, Styles.”

“You’re welcome,” Harry says pleasantly, rubbing his curls against Louis’ cheek and purring loudly.

“Alright Man-Cat,” he snorts, “Let’s get back inside, shall we? I can’t feel my feet.”

He flips the blanket over and leaps up, holding his hand out to help Harry to his feet. Together, they yank the sliding glass door open and return to the living room where most of the couples have either passed out together, gone home, or moved to a vacant bedroom somewhere else in the massive home.

“Looks like it’s winding down,” Harry remarks, grimacing as his bare foot crunches down on a discarded plastic cup.

“Ew, beer foot,” he mutters darkly, frowning, and shaking his soiled foot with an exaggerated pout.

The little toddler-like display of disapproval has Louis giggling once more, steadying himself against the taller boy’s arm.

“Missed you a lot, a lot,” Louis whispers, still surprised at how quickly they’ve fallen back in sync with one another; it’s sort of like they never stopped.

&&

(As if Fate could really keep them apart for long; as if destiny could bear to bar them from finding each other again and again, in every lifetime, every universe, transcending time and space. Each story is different, and yet they remain so very much the same: they’re amoebas, dinosaurs, gladiators, princes, soldiers… a popstar and a poet, perhaps.

They’re the very first binary stars; orbits hopelessly, forever entwined.)

& L &

Louis’ still not sure how the days have passed him by so quickly but they do, somehow, flying by in a blur of crisp oranges and reds fading into muted greys and blues.

Harry stops by the bookshop as often as he can; though, between recording his new album and offering up his input on all sorts of tricky tour logistics, he’s pretty swamped. They end up texting back and forth more often than they see each other, but that’s okay. Harry loves emojis– because he’s a child– and is always ridiculously amused when Louis uses obscure combinations to spell out his own lyrics.

(Louis may or may not spend an entire day accidentally downloading every Harry Styles album– even the really obscure original EP’s and a particularly dreadful single by White Eskimo– and after several days of non-stop listening, finds himself jiggling in his seat as he writes, pen tapping to the beat of some cheesy bit about his ‘Little Things’. He should be embarrassed but he’s not; he’s kind of ridiculously happy, actually.)

Harry’s an absolute menace when he does find time to visit, rearranging stacks by color instead of author and genre because ‘they look prettier that way, Lou’ and sneaking about the ‘Rare Collections Room’ gawking at jeweled, Renaissance-era manuscripts and leaving awful, nose-shaped prints on the glass). He steals Louis’ swivel chair often enough that one day Louis caves and buys him his own, hot pink and gaudy as hell. Harry is predictably thrilled and spends hours rolling back and forth across the hardwood, directing customers to his favorite works as Louis smiles and looks on fondly from his place at his desk, little snippets of Harry’s incessant chatter finding their way into the margins of his second (second!) moleskine.

They get papped together fairly often, whenever they go out for drinks alone or to one of Harry’s mandatory social events that he always drags Louis along to. They survive the hours of posh small-talk and dull elderly presenters by poking fun at absolutely everyone and everything, as well as truly perfecting the art of napkin-and-cutlery sculpting. The media mostly ignores Louis– usually he’s labeled as ‘friend, 22’ or simply ‘Tomlinson’– and, much to his satisfaction, the benevolent ‘Dragon Lady’ Margaret Lancaster apparently doesn’t see the need to contact him again.

&&

He finishes his collection two months before his deadline.

(He also finishes that poem and pretends that it’s still all about his failed relationship with Aiden and not the strange new feelings that set his heart a flutter every time he looks into Harry’s expansive green eyes.)

His publisher is skeptical at first but, when the manuscript comes back from the editing office with only a few comments about organization and not much error anywhere else, she swallows her pride and calls to congratulate him on what is sure to be another critically-acclaimed top seller.

It’s officially published a month later, the first copies hitting stores on the second of December. The public and critics alike laud ‘William Sodi’ for his gorgeous, raw portrayal of love and heartbreak, as they usually do. Louis is pleased, of course, though he still doesn’t feel like himself; feels a bit of fraud, really.

Harry reads the entire collection in a single day, cries sixteen times (he sends a text for every tear), and is wonderfully and endearingly careful to praise ‘Louis Tomlinson’ whenever he mentions one of his favorites.

He lets Harry take him out for a celebration dinner that ends up being a huge surprise party with all of his friends and family. He’s nervous and jumpy until Harry explains that he didn’t tell them why they were celebrating, just that it was important to Louis and that they all should be there (how Harry managed to convince everyone it would be worth it, he doesn’t know, but he smiles and thanks him with a round of shots that leaves the popstar wet-lipped and giggly, and sporting the prettiest red cheeks he’s ever seen). Louis almost kisses him right then and there, in front of everyone, but he’s gotten pretty good at holding himself back what with how often Harry seems to make him feel this way… They’re best mates, he reminds himself, thinking back to that fateful day in Ms. Lancaster’s office.

(They’re contractually obligated to be.)

He introduces Harry to his mum that night.

Predictably, Harry charms the pants off her (though not literally, thank goodness) as he has done with all of Louis’ friends and family, and she lets him twirl her around the dance floor for a while, laughing like she’s suddenly in her twenties again.

She tells Louis later, on the phone, not to let Harry get away; and he pretends not to be sad that he can’t promise her he won’t.

Harry can immediately tell he’s upset when they Skype later in the week, and he forces a grumbly, unwilling Zayn to cover for him as he leaves right in the middle of a recording session in order to speed over to Louis’ flat and comfort him.

They spend that night seated cross-legged on the floor, watching reruns of Made in Chelsea and eating homemade fajitas off of paper plates (because Harry’s actually a pretty decent cook and neglected to mention it until Louis came over once and caught him dancing around his stark white kitchen in a frilly Green Bay Packers apron and little else). They’re surrounded by candles because Harry proclaims it to be ‘much more romantic’ that way– a statement that Louis does his best not to spend too much time dwelling on. Harry, predictably, sets the corner of his plate on fire at one point, and shrieks and flails around the room until Louis snatches the plate from his hand, laughing hysterically, and tosses the flaming disc into the bathroom sink.

(There’s a small orange-colored burn mark on the white porcelain now, but Louis doesn’t mind. In fact, he’s come to appreciate a little imperfection in his life; he puts up with Harry Styles after all.)

&&

Zayn and Liam are disgustingly in love, and Louis and Harry like to mock them for it as often as possible.

They play a little game at get-togethers, keeping careful score of stupid things like eye-contact duration, number of visible love-bites, boner level rated 1-10, 1o being rock-hard, come-in-my-pants with a graze of your hand, etc.

(During one particularly uncomfortable dinner at Liam’s place, Louis leans over and whispers a lame joke about ducks into Harry’s ear and the younger boy laughs so hard that he sends his glass sailing across the table and smack into Zayn’s crotch with incredible accuracy. The dark-haired boy’s cheeks are flushed the color of the red wine spilt down his front as Liam reaches over casually to wipe at his… er… nether regions, napkin in hand.

“Ten,” Louis squeaks, using his own napkin to dab at the tears rolling down his cheeks.

Harry’s face down with his head on the table, mumbling “sorry! sorry! so sorry!” between shrieks of laughter.

It’s probably the best meal Louis’ ever eaten and he doesn’t even taste his food.)

Zayn catches on after a while, smart thing, and starts to counter by pointing out all the ways that the two of them act like a couple without actually being one.

They wait for him to run out of reasons.

He doesn’t.

The game becomes less fun after that.

&&

Harry has to miss his birthday, off doing promo for the new album in Sweden of all places, but Louis doesn’t mind. They Skype for a few hours and Louis opens Harry’s present– a set of six moleskine journals, each one with a different picture of the two of them sewn inside the cover.

He definitely doesn’t cry that much.

&&

He spends Christmas and Boxing Day with his family in Doncaster, and is surprised when he arrives to see extra Christmas presents not from him stacked under the tree.

“Harry sent them a few days ago,” the twins explain in tandem, grinning hugely with a few missing teeth each.

“He’s so lovely, Boo,” his mum says, wiping her eyes. By this time, he’s explained to her that they’re just best mates and nothing more, and though she’s constantly egging him on to do something about that, she’s halfheartedly resigned to the fact that her son is going to end up a lonely old recluse with a flat full of cats. “You’ll find someone even lovelier, darling, I’m sure.”

He doesn’t have the heart to disagree, just lets her and Lottie, the oldest of the four, play with his hair and quiz him on all the attributes of his perfect man.

He only lies a teensy bit, never mind that he answers all the opposites (blonde, short, blue-eyed, instrumentalist instead of singer) until Lottie excitedly suggests that Niall could be ‘the one’ and he falls off the couch laughing ‘til he’s blue in the face.

It’s nice and all, being back with his family, but he misses Harry more than anything (and, in hindsight, that probably should’ve clued him in).

&&

He spends New Year’s Eve at a pub with Niall, Josh, and Ed.

Harry is in New York with some bottle-blonde American model named Erin, watching the ball drop in Times Square with her and all her model friends.

(Apparently the rumors surrounding Harry and Louis’ friendship had slowly shifted to being a little less about friendship, what with Harry not having been seen out with a girl since late September… And so the popstar was immediately and unexpectedly shipped across the Atlantic the night before, all at Ms. Margaret Lancaster’s careful discretion.)

Louis pretends not to be horrendously jealous by drinking his weight in hard liquor, that is, until the bartender cuts him off with a sympathetic shake of his head and a pitying gaze.

Louis doesn’t kiss anyone at midnight, save the cold rim of his mug.

Harry kisses Erin, and it’s plastered all over the front of every magazine the very next morning.

The American media is as thrilled as ever (headlines screaming ‘Unlucky-in-love VS Model Erin Farley finally meets her Perfect Prince!’) and the British rags read much the same, though they’re careful to inject ‘American’ into every appositive just to outrage the UK’s teenage female population even further.

Margaret Lancaster is so thrilled she keeps Harry in New York for an additional three weeks, sending him and Erin on romantic dates all across the city.

Harry sends him a billion texts a day about how much he hates it, and how Erin is loud and obnoxious but not in the good ‘Louis kind of way’.

Louis reads them all but can’t find it in himself to respond with anything but disinterested, one-word replies, and sometimes not at all.

&&

It’s January 21st, a Tuesday, and bitterly cold outside.

Louis knows it’s January 21st because it’s the date that Harry’s set to return.

He can’t keep himself from bouncing around the store, singing loudly and serving every customer with a genuinely cheerful smile. Most of his regulars regard him oddly until he explains that Harry’s finally coming home.

“That’s nice dear,” Ms. Beasley says as she pays, patting his cheek affectionately, “I’m sure your boyfriend will be very happy to see you.”

She’s turning around to snap at her son before he can correct her, with a bird-like squawk of “Henry James, don’t touch that! Those books are expensive.”

Henry is her middle child behind George (the world traveler and book collector) and Tom (a CEO of some company in Japan), but ahead of the three youngest (all boys as well). He’s thirty-seven years old, a banker, and lives in Chelsea with Ms. Beasley (whom he’s in charge of caring for), his gorgeous wife, three lovely children, and an impressive collection of designer suits. However, the batty old woman tends to forget that her own children are grown and financially independent, muttering, “You’ll not get a penny from me when I finally keel over if you continue behaving this way.”

Henry looks up at Louis and rolls his eyes, and Louis can only shrug helplessly in return.

He sighs loudly as the pair exits, shuts the door behind them, and flips over the sign to read ‘We’re Closed’.

Tidying up a bit around the shop, he finds himself getting more and more excited for Harry’s impending return. They’re supposed to go to a massive concert tomorrow night for one of Louis’ favorite bands, Harry having finagled a pair of tickets for the both of them located front row and center.

At nine o’clock, as he’s stocking books in the back store room, the little bell finally jingles and a pair of heavy footsteps clunk across the hardwood.

He sets the stack he’s currently holding haphazardly on the nearest tabletop and dashes out to the main foyer, coming face to face with a tired-looking but still smiling Harry Styles.

“Welcome back, popstar,” he greets softly.

Harry just laughs and launches himself into his arms, burrowing his face into the space between Louis’ shoulder and jaw.

“Missed you,” he says into Louis’ collarbone, “Missed you a lot, a lot.”

“Get off me, you great sap,” Louis grumbles in reply, but makes no move to push Harry off him.

He ignores the way he hasn’t felt right, like a whole person, in the three weeks that the younger boy has been away; and how now, suddenly, he’s full to overflowing.

They order takeaway, dragging pillows out of Louis’ bedroom to place on the floor of the shop. Harry asks Louis a zillion questions about what he’s been up to, how his writing’s going, what customers have stopped in, did they notice Harry missing, etc. as they gorge themselves on cartons of rice and noodles and vegetables in soy sauce.

&&

“Three weeks was a long time,” Harry whispers that night as they lie, snuggled up together, in Louis’ too-small-for-two bed.

Louis stiffens against him at the thought of the ocean-wide gaping hole that had separated them from this… whatever thing they have together. He shuts his eyes tightly and pretends his heart isn’t breaking at the feeling of Harry’s gangly orangutan arms wrapped around him, pretends he’ll be happy going back to sleeping alone the next time Margaret ships Harry off to another continent, or this coming summer for three full months as his lovely little popstar gallivants across Europe in a shiny new tour bus. His schedule will be so much better without Harry around, of course; no more distractions in the shop, no more making excuses to himself to close up early so he can swing by the record label to take Harry out to dinner… No more late nights sat up watching movies together and the indomitable need to reach for his moleskine when he startles awake at two a.m. and just has to capture the way the moonlight caresses the curvature of Harry’s spine… Yes, he’d much rather sleep alone in his own proper bed in his own proper lonely flat than squashed up next to this awful, lumpy excuse for a best mate. Harry snores and his skin is like a furnace and he hogs all the blankets and… and Louis is so, so stupidly in love with him he’s aching with it.

“Shh,” he whispers back eventually, threading his fingers through the popstar’s curls. He’s cut them short and quiffed them since he saw him last, and Louis’ not sure how he feels about Harry’s most famous feature being all styled-up like so. It’s not like he owns Harry’s hair or anything, it’s just… he sort of hates how easily everyone else in the boy’s life can change and mold him as they please.

 “We’ll be alright, won’t we, Hazza?” he asks, looking up at the ceiling.

His chest tightens in anticipation, but a deep, rumbling snore is all he gets in response.

He sighs, running his free hand through his fluffed-up fringe.

“Yeah, ‘course,” he says aloud, answering his own question, “you’ll continue romancing all your lovely blonde birds, tour your way through the UK and the States the year after that, and charm the pants off the masses like you always do, and I’ll…”

He trails off; knowing that lying to himself won’t make the reality of the situation hurt any less in the end. But he’s a proper tortured soul, isn’t he? Just like Liam had told Zayn all those months ago. He’s survived this heartbreak before and he can do it again (never mind that, as crude as it sounds, the pain of losing Harry is like a thousand Aidens all at once).

“And I’ll be just fine without you.”

&&

Harry’s been dating Erin for a solid month by the time his birthday rolls around.

Management suggests he fly out to join her in the States for a posh 21st in a proper American club, but Harry refuses, arguing instead for a large, private party in one of his favorite Chelsea hot-spots.

Louis’ at the bar doing shots with Niall and Ed, giggling at their stupid jokes and trying his best to ignore the way that Erin is halfway into Harry’s lap on one of the couches in the VIP corner.

Louis’ not really sure how to feel about the lithesome bleached-hair model, as this is the first time he’s actually sharing the vicinity with her. Harry only ever mentions her briefly in passing or whenever they’ve got plans together, and even then he’s usually quite vague and non-descriptive.

“Oh, flying out to New York for two days to see Erin’s runway show.”

“Erin’s in town to accompany me to the premiere of that new Hugh Grant movie.”

“Can’t go out tonight, dinner with Erin.”

And so on, and so forth.

He’s never felt anything past vague antagonism toward the girl (she is dating his best mate who he’s just realized he’s in love with after all), except for maybe on Harry’s second night back when he apparently “forgot” about the ticket he bought being for Louis and took Erin to The Fray concert instead.

Louis didn’t speak to him for three days after that, and even then he was more furious with Harry than with the clueless blonde who’d texted him an x’s and o’s filled apology from Harry’s phone as soon as she’d found out the reason behind the popstar’s moping.

Zayn and Liam had been forced to intervene on behalf of their respective parties in order to preserve the damaged group dynamic, resorting to locking the two of them alone in a room together until they’d both shouted their particular grievances at each other enough to finally reconcile.

“You look miserable, mate,” Niall comments perceptively, giving him a weighty look despite already being three pints and who knows how many shots into his night, bloody Irishman.

“Don’t think you’ve said a word to Harry since you got here,” Ed observes, looking over to where Louis’ gaze remains fixed on the popstar and his leading lady, “It is his birthday, you know.”

“Yeah thanks, I’m aware,” Louis replies icily, “He seems to be enjoying it well enough without me.”

“All me ‘n Ed are trying to say is… it’s just not like you two, bein’ apart like this,” Niall states simply, taking another long pull of his pint.

“Yeah,” Ed agrees, “S’proper weird when you aren’t hanging off each other like, I dunno, koalas or summat.”

Niall laughs brightly, “Oi, good one, Sheerio! I love a good koala joke.”

They high-five, and Louis groans, muttering, “I’m not drunk enough for this.”

He continues moping at the bar while Niall and Ed head off to find Josh amongst the crowd, Harry having asked the band to play a short set for his birthday.

Harry gets up a few minutes later– Erin clinging to his side and smiling brightly in a slinky silver body-con dress– and slurs something loud and intelligible into the microphone. The crowd of partygoers cheers deafeningly, and the lights turn to shine down on the main stage where the band has set up.

Niall shouts something equally as loud, following his announcement with a screaming guitar riff, and suddenly everyone and their mum is flooding the dance floor, bouncing around and fist-pumping to some upbeat hit by The CAB.

Louis sighs and motions to the bartender for another pint.

He’s sipping what should probably (but won’t) be his last beer when a silver blur enters his periphery.

“Hi,” a very American voice greets, shouting to be heard over the loud music.

He looks up and comes face to face with the girlfriend herself, looking admittedly radiant in silver, her bright blue eyes glimmering and long blonde hair cascading down her back in loose curls.

“Do you think we could chat outside for a bit?” Erin asks, and she sounds so hopeful and sincere that Louis just sighs and nods, holding up a finger for her to wait as he quickly downs the rest of his pint. She takes that moment to order a terrifying-looking electric blue shot, tipping it back like a pro and grimacing at the bitter taste. Louis nods again once he’s ready and hops off his barstool to follow her through the crowd and out a side door.

“Hi,” the model says again once they’re outside and alone. She’s dressed only in her strapless dress and heels and Louis moves quickly to offer her his jacket. (He may not be totally thrilled with the prospect of her existence, but let no one claim Louis Tomlinson is anything but a gentleman.)

“Thanks,” Erin replies, grinning, and she’s got a gap in her teeth that makes her look a lot younger than eighteen, and shit, that only serves to remind him of just how young she really is.

“Fucking cold out here, Jesus Christ,” she swears, shivering as the wind blows hard down the alleyway they’re standing in.

Louis raises one eyebrow, appraising, because just yesterday E!News had run a special on the couple (Herin, disgusting) with nothing but niceties to say about the young model’s sweet All-American girl reputation…

Erin flips him a middle finger.

“Hey, quit it with all your silent judgmental shit, alright?” she says, laughing, “I know you hate my guts.”

Louis opens his mouth to protest weakly, but she holds up her hand and cuts him off.

“Don’t argue with me, babe,” Erin starts, still smiling, and Louis has definitely missed something here.

“Alright, let’s move past all this posturing,” she continues, bouncing a bit in a vain effort at generating body heat, “First of all, how long have you been in love with Harry; and secondly, and most importantly, why haven’t you done jack shit about it?”

Louis’ jaw is hanging down to the floor as he gapes at the grinning teenage model staring back at him expectantly.

“B-but, you’re… you’re Harry’s girlfriend,” he splutters intelligently.

Erin just laughs again, blonde hair flipping over her shaking shoulders. She holds up a finger, signaling him to wait, as she reaches into her cleavage and pulls out a pack of cigarettes.

“Got a light?” she asks him.

Louis just stares at her blankly, and she rolls her eyes, ducking inside and returning a moment later holding a plastic lighter pinched between her jeweled, flawlessly manicured fingertips.

She places the cigarette between her teeth, holds a flame to the tip, and blows out a perfect smoke ring with a relieved sigh.

“Sweetie, I’m not Harry’s girlfriend,” she says after a moment, tossing the butt on the ground and stamping it out with one perfectly aimed stiletto point, “I’m his beard.”

Louis feels like he might pass out as his brain struggles to process this sudden influx of information.

“You’re his beard?” he asks, a little hysterically.

The model nods.

“And Harry’s–”

“Gay as the Fourth of July?” Erin supplies.

Louis just nods, dazedly.

 “Yup,” she confirms, popping the ‘p’ with a smack of her pink-stained lips.

“Well, maybe,” she continues thoughtfully, “Actually, I’m not totally one-hundred percent on that. All I know is that he sure as hell wasn’t interested in me.”

Louis’ pretty sure this is what a heart attack feels like. “Why are you telling me this now?”

Erin sighs, reaches back into her dress to pull out another cigarette.

“Because I’m tired of coming between the two of you,” she explains, cigarette between her teeth, “You’re both so god damn miserable whenever you’re apart, it actually makes me want to vomit. Plus, it’s not like I’m benefiting much from this deal anyway. I’m a Victoria’s Secret Angel, for fuck’s sake, I don’t need the publicity.”

Louis just continues gaping at her stupidly.

“Go get your man and what not,” Erin urges in a bored voice, rolling her eyes yet again and tossing her last cig into the dumpster behind her.

“Wait, where are you going?” Louis calls, as she starts down the alleyway toward the street.

“Home!” she yells back, “Shit, it feels good to say that.”

Louis runs down the alleyway to catch up with her, grabbing the model’s thin but muscular arm just as a cab pulls up to the curb.

“Wait,” he says, breathing hard, “what about this whole deal?”

“Oh,” she replies flippantly, tugging open the cab door, “I’m going to phone my agent tonight and have her call up that demon of woman, Merriam Lobster or whatever the fuck her name is, and deny the contract renewal that’s supposed to happen tomorrow.”

Louis nods, trying to keep up, as the blonde tornado of girl hops into the cab and shuts the door. Just as he’s turning around to start walking back toward the club, he hears her voice calling out to him one last time. He whirls back toward the street and laughs at the image of the teenager popped out of the sunroof, both arms thrown joyously into the air.

“Tell my boyfriend happy month-a-versary!” she shouts gleefully and disappears back down into the car with a loud whoop.

Louis chuckles, waving as the taxi merges into traffic and disappears around the corner.

He swipes a hand through his fringe, sinking down to sit on the curb and try to process all that has just transpired in the five minutes since he first ventured outside with his best mate’s apparent not-girlfriend.

“Tommo, there you are!” a familiar voice calls not a moment later, and he looks up to see Niall peering down at him with a wild grin.

“What the fuck are you doing out here without a coat on?” Niall asks, looking at his bare arms disapprovingly, “You’ll freeze to death in this weather, startin’ to snow and everything.”

Louis glances up at the sky which has indeed clouded over and begun to produce little white flakes of precipitation. It’s then that he realizes.

“That little bitch stole my jacket,” he shouts at Niall, pointing back to the now-empty street corner.

“Whoa, slow down there,” Niall cautions, holding out his hands to steady him, “You’re even more pissed than I thought, mate.”

“No, I’m not, I’m not,” Louis protests, struggling against him, “Erin was just here and she smoked a couple cigarettes out of her boobs and then got in a cab and yelled out the sunroof! And she took my jacket!”

“Yes, sure, I believe you,” Niall interrupts, guiding him back toward the club, “Now, hurry up, or we’ll miss Zayn’s set.”

“Zayn’s performing?” Louis asks, surprised.

“Yeah, ‘course,” Niall says, like it’s obvious, “and Liam too.”

Louis’ eyes nearly pop right out of his skull. “You’re shitting me.”

Niall just cackles, nodding at the bouncer and dragging him back inside. They push their way through the crowd until they’re nearly at the front of the stage, and if Louis wasn’t feeling overwhelmed by the night already, he’s certainly not prepared for the vision before him.

It’s completely pitch black in the club now, the only light coming from two spotlights shining down to illuminate a pair of black barstools sitting onstage. Occupying one of those barstools is Zayn Malik, wearing the tightest black jeans Louis’ ever seen (aside from the ones Harry occasionally whips out) and a loose black tank-top with a neckline so low that it dips down well past the dark-haired boy’s collarbones, his nipples visible on either side of the thinly stretched fabric. Louis swallows at the sight, as he’s sure the rest of the crowd has already done, and turns his attention to the second stool where his best mate or, at least, a man resembling his best mate is adjusting the microphone stand in front of him.

In layman’s terms, Liam looks fucking hot. He’s dressed in a tight black t-shirt, biceps bulging, and a pair of looser black jeans that, despite a studded leather belt, are riding dangerously low on his hips. A green and black snapback is twisted backwards on his head, making his jawline appear even more angular and masculine. Louis’ used to seeing the teacher in the school-regulation blue polo, khakis, and maybe a blazer on colder days, but this Liam has apparently moved far past his belief that wearing a tie with stripes instead of a solid color signifies a ‘wild fashion choice’.

Before Louis can ask Niall what the hell is going on, Zayn is silencing the crowd with a wave of his hand, and speaking into the mic in front of him, low and sensual.

“I’m Zayn and this is Liam,” he says slowly, introducing their act, “and this is a remix of Drake’s ‘Trust Issues’.”

The crowd is completely silent as the music starts up, a few bars of a slow electronic melody and then another quiet rest. Louis feels his heart beat once loudly in his ears before the bass drops and then Zayn’s opening his mouth and producing an angelic falsetto that has the club’s female population going absolutely mental. Louis’ entire body is covered in goosebumps and his mouth is hanging open as Liam takes over a moment later, hopping off his stool and bending down, tracing the mic stand all the way back up with his pelvis… much to the excitement of every woman in the room (and probably most of the men too). Zayn sidles up next to him as they harmonize, and the two boys begin to grind up against each other, hips rolling sensually to the beat.

Niall is cheering loudly beside him, but Louis absolutely refuses to believe that he’s watching two of his best mates reenact a particularly x-rated gay porno onstage in front of two hundred people.

He pushes his way back through the crowd, stumbling a bit as all the alcohol he’s consumed begins to fully take its effect. Just as he’s nearing the bar, he feels a hand grip his shoulder and a body pressed flush against his backside.

“Hey,” a recognizable voice breathes into his ear, and he can’t help the way his entire body seems to shudder at the sudden contact.

“I’m really fucking drunk,” Harry says, and then he’s spinning Louis around and guiding him back toward the dance floor, “and I haven’t seen you all night.”

“You were with Erin,” Louis explains, a little breathlessly, heart pounding at the feeling of the taller boy’s hands gripping tightly on his hips, “Didn’t… want to… bother you.”

“She broke up with me,” Harry says casually, not sounding even a little bit upset about this recent development, “Over text too, how heartless.”

“She told me, you know,” Louis replies, craning his neck up to meet the popstar’s eyes, “about what she really was to you.”

Harry raises an eyebrow, but chooses not to comment. Instead, he leans back down, lips against the outer shell of Louis’ ear, and asks softly, voice deep and words slightly slurred, “Dance with me?”

Louis can’t help the way he shifts his hips back against Harry obligingly.

“We’re mates, right?” he asks, pressing back and rolling his body against the younger boy, slight and teasing.

“Yeah,” Harry breathes out.

“Okay,” Louis replies, and it doesn’t matter in this moment that Harry’s not in love with him; it doesn’t matter that he kept a fake girlfriend for a month without telling Louis a damn thing; and it especially doesn’t matter that every touch they exchange from this point on will mean a thousand times more to Louis than it ever will to the boy behind him.

The crowd is screaming louder as the scene onstage has started to intensify.

“We don’t have to keep runnin’ in these circles no more,” Zayn sings.

“No mooore,” Liam echoes, hands fisting into the dark-haired boy’s tank top.

They follow with a series of incredibly sensual vocal runs, echoing each other with dark, hungry looks.

Trust issues.

Trust issues.

The music fades as the audience roars in approval, and Liam and Zayn hop off the stage and slink away, probably off to some secluded corner to blow each other’s brains out.

So Louis’ drunk and he doesn’t give a shit and Harry doesn’t have a model girlfriend anymore to prevent him from grinding back against the popstar fully now, shouting “Fuck it” as Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” blasts through the club, the pounding bass as intoxicating as the alcohol flowing through his veins.

Why can't I keep my fingers off you, baby?
I want you

They’re all over each other for three more songs, before he becomes too impatient to withstand the sexual tension any longer. He grabs Harry’s hand and tugs him toward the bathroom, slamming open a stall door and locking it behind them. Harry’s looking down at him, pupils dilated and dark with arousal, and Louis’ so damn tired of suppressing his feelings that he’s on his toes in an instant and tilting his chin up to press his lips to Harry’s own. The popstar startles momentarily, lips unmoving, and Louis worries for a moment that Harry’s not drunk enough to want this as much as he does right now. But then Harry’s moaning hungrily and surging back to meet him halfway, clumsily licking his way into Louis’ mouth with renewed vigor.

Drunk in love
We be all night, love, love

“God fucking shit dammit,” Louis swears, as Harry’s hand snakes between them, brushing against his hardening length.

“Wanted this for… for sooo long, Lou,” Harry slurs, “Couldn’t tell you, didn’t think you…”

“Shh,” Louis says, silencing him, because he’s really really not concerned with the specifics right now, especially with Harry’s hand still pressed between them.

“I was‒” Louis says breathlessly, voice catching in his throat as Harry drops to his knees in front of him (and this is new, this is… fuck), “‒very much under the impression that you–” he braces himself against the wall, biting his lip to hold back what would surely have been an embarrassingly loud moan at the feeling of Harry’s stupidly massive hands palming his cock through his jeans.

“What’s that?” Harry says, voice slightly rougher than usual, but still frustratingly composed. Louis’ zipper now undone, the popstar leans forward to mouth hungrily at Louis’ cock through his underwear, leaving a large wet circle across the front of his briefs. Louis momentarily loses all proper brain function at the thought of only that thin bit of fabric separating Harry’s sinful mouth from where it ought to be. He’s still in a stupor when Harry leans back onto his heels, using his thumbs to rub teasing circles just under the waistband.

“Lou?” he says innocently, smirking up at him through dark lashes (the smug bastard). “You were saying something?”

Louis takes a deep breath; Harry’s teasing ministrations returning in full force the moment he begins to speak. “I was saying– fucking hell, Harry– I was very much under the impression that you– goddammit, stop that and let me talk, but wait, don’t actually‒ I just, I thought you liked women?”

Harry shrugs, pulling Louis’ briefs down to his knees, his already embarrassingly hard cock springing free and tapping against the younger lad’s cheek. Louis grimaces at the sight of the swollen head– angry purple-red and oozing precome–because, seriously, since when has the thought of a simple blowjob transported him back to his virginal teenage years?

“I do,” Harry says, eyeing the erection in front of him appreciatively, and it takes Louis a moment too long to realize he’s agreeing with his previous assumption, “I just happen to like this a lot more.”

And with that, Louis’ prick is engulfed in a glorious wet heat that has his knees buckling and stars clouding his vision. His head spins at the sensation of those soft pillowy lips migrating up and down his length in a deliciously irregular rhythm (and of course, Harry Styles master of dance, would give frustratingly fantastic blowjobs set to a drumbeat played by a two-year old with a pot and a wooden spoon). Granted, Louis’ still at least ninety-nine percent sure he’s dreaming as his hands snake their way into the popstar’s thick curls, which aren’t quiffed this evening but loose and tangled. He gives them an experimental tug, earning an appreciative hum from deep in the younger boy’s throat, and finds himself almost coming right then and there at the feeling of the sudden, pleased vibrations.

“Harder,” Harry mumbles, pulling off for a moment to look up pleadingly, his voice deep and hoarse.

It’s entirely possible that Louis has never been more willing to oblige a request in his life as he threads his fingers through the shorter curls closest to Harry’s scalp and pulls.

Harry moans again and doubles his enthusiasm, his hollowed cheeks painted a pretty red.

“We’re in a dirty loo in a dirty club and we’re both piss drunk and our friends are outside,” Louis pants, “This is very, very wrong.”

Harry raises an eyebrow, sits up a bit to fondle Louis’ balls with his free hand, and slurs “I’m ninety-nine percent sure your argument is weaker than your stamina is” without taking his lips off the head. Louis glares down at him, ready to argue that point as well, but then the younger boy does something magical with his tongue that has Louis coming down his throat in seconds and shit if that isn’t embarrassing… He feels his cheeks flame red more from shame than from the force of his orgasm, though the latter was unfairly mind-blowing.

“You cheated,” he says, pouting as he pulls his pants up and fastens them with clumsy, shaking hands.

He pretends it’s all the alcohol he’s consumed that affecting his coordination, and not the fact that his painfully attractive, apparently not-so-straight best mate just sucked him off.

“Did not,” Harry replies, voice hoarse and eyelashes dewy.

“You’ve obviously been practicing,” Louis argues, leaning forward on his tiptoes to press his lips against the popstar’s jawline. “It’s all the bananas you eat,” he mouths against the skin, grinning triumphantly as Harry shudders against him, “diminishes your gag reflex.”

“Shut up,” Harry replies, a bit breathlessly, “Just admit that my blowjobs are the best.”

“Never,” Louis refuses, as he rocks back onto the balls of his feet to nip at Harry’s collarbone.

“C’mon say it, Lou,” the younger boy whines, squirming against him, “I’m the dick-sucking king.”

“I couldn’t possibly give away my title,” Louis replies, reaching down to palm at Harry’s erection pressed attentively between them, “maybe you can be the queen, hmm?”

Harry opens his mouth to protest, but he’s interrupted by the door to the toilets squeaking open and a familiar voice echoing through the stalls.

 “Listen, I love that you’ve finally stopped ignoring your mutual attraction for one another, really, but the rest of us are leaving in five,” Zayn says, clearly aware of the reason for their dual disappearance, “If you’ve got‒ erm‒ any business to finish attending to, you’ll have to get your own ride home. Okay, yeah, um be safe and, and enjoy then… and uh… Happy birthday, Haz.”

“We’ll catch a cab, thanks!” Harry calls out in reply, voice cracking from his roughed-up throat.

Louis looks at the boy in front of him, panting softly with reddened cheeks and dilated pupils, and makes a very mean decision.

“Actually, I believe we’re finished here,” he says, briefly squeezing the popstar’s hard on through his jeans and ignoring the gaping look of disbelief he receives in return.

“Payback sweetheart,” he whispers with a wink and swings open the stall door to see Zayn standing by the sinks, clearly uncomfortable.

“You sure I’m not interrupting anything?” the dark-haired boy asks, taking in Louis’ rumpled clothing and Harry squirming impatiently behind him.

“Nope,” Louis replies definitively, throwing another wink in Harry’s direction, “Just crowning myself King is all.”

Harry, though he looks about five seconds away from coming in his pants, is giggling uncontrollably and slapping Louis on the back, which of course sends Louis into hysterics as well because, c’mon, after three beers and ten of Niall’s ‘patented’ jello shots everything is hilarious.

“You guys are really fucking drunk,” Zayn comments, rolling his eyes.

“S’my birthday!” Harry replies, and he and Louis both cheer loudly.

The dark-haired boy wrinkles his nose as Louis grabs Harry’s hand and helps lead the stumbling, silly excuse for a popstar out of the bathroom.  They manage to find their way back to the VIP corner (where the rest of the group has collected) with only several minor incidents of probably-bruised knees on misplaced chairs and knocking drinks out of people’s hands. When they arrive, the rest of the group– Niall, Pink Hair from the Halloween party, er, Perrie, Louis corrects, and Josh and Liam– are already collecting their things, packing up bags and slipping on winter coats to fight the freezing February weather.

“Jesus fuck,” Niall exclaims, the first to lay eyes on the pair, “you lot literally look and smell like you’ve just emerged from ten years of pickling yourself in tequila and semen.”

His tone is equal parts disgusted and impressed, and Louis doesn’t know which one he finds more disturbing.

“Hate that word,” Liam comments, exchanging his snapback for the woolen beanie that Zayn offers him.

 “Semen,” he repeats, grimacing, “Just awful.”

“I- I drank ten years of semen, I think,” Harry says proudly, and Zayn is covering his face with his hands and groaning.

Perrie’s got one hot pink manicured-hand over her mouth as she fights a giggle, and Liam just looks embarrassed (like he didn’t just spend a solid fifteen minutes having clothed sex with Zayn onstage in front of a crowd of two hundred).

“I hope you wake up in the morning with hangovers so massive that you agree to murder each other simultaneously to escape the pain,” Zayn mutters darkly, running a hand through his polished quiff.

“That’s lovely, Z,” Harry says, clasping him on the back and guiding him toward the exit, “Shall we?”

“Yes, shall we?” Louis echoes, hooking his elbow with Zayn’s, opposite the side Harry’s already latched onto.

“I don’t particularly want to go anywhere with you two,” Zayn grouses, but allows himself to be guided through the doors without putting up a fight.

Josh, being the designated driver for the night, offers to drop off Niall and Perrie. Zayn hails a cab for him and Liam, and a second one for Louis and Harry, giving the cabbie the address to Harry’s house.

The last thing Louis remembers is being collapsed on top of the younger boy in the backseat, singing along loudly and obnoxiously to that new Ke$ha song.

“Best birthday ever!” Harry yells at one point, rolling down the window to announce his joy to the late night London crowd.

Even through his drunken haze, Louis can’t help but agree– thoughts flickering back to Harry’s lips wrapped around him as he cried out in release– that it was a night very, very well spent, indeed.

&&

Louis wakes up the next morning with a groan, head pounding and stomach churning. He flounders a bit when he realizes that the bed he’s in is not his own.

Everything’s white, from the sheets to the comforter to the pillow behind him.

Harry’s house, then.

It all comes flooding back to him in an instant: laughing blonde models, flashes of silver and cigarette smoke; Zayn and Liam harmonizing, bodies intertwined; and finally, Harry on his knees, hollowed cheeks, red lips, green eyes…

“Harry?” he calls, sitting up quickly and almost passing out at the immediate vertigo, “Hazza, where are you?”

The bedroom door swings open not a minute later and in walks the popstar himself, wearing his frilly Packers apron over a plain t-shirt and boxers and carrying two steaming plates of bacon, fried egg, and toast.

“Morning!” he greets, grinning widely, and Louis can only wave weakly in reply.

Harry climbs into bed next to him and hands him a plate and a fork which he accepts gratefully, inhaling the delicious smell of butter and grease.

“I was going to make tea as well,” Harry remarks regretfully, and then gestures to the expanse of white comforter surrounding them, “but that seemed a bit risky, considering.”

Louis nods, and shoves a large forkful of fried egg into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully.

“How… how was your party, then?” he ventures after a moment, still not sure if they’re avoiding a discussion of last night’s proceedings or if Harry just doesn’t feel like they need one.

The younger boy laughs brightly, running a hand through his matted curls.

“God, I wish I could remember it,” he says, blushing slightly, “though it seems to have been a good time based on the texts I’ve been receiving all morning.”

Louis looks at him blankly. “You don’t recall anything, like, at all?” he asks, skeptically.

“Well, I remember arriving at the club obviously,” Harry extrapolates between bites of bacon, “The rest of it’s all dream-like and blurry, though, and I’m not really sure what’s real and what wasn’t.”

“I get a lot of blackouts,” he admits, looking a bit ashamed, “Mixing my drinks usually doesn’t end well for me.”

“What do you remember, then?” Louis asks shortly, hoping for all the world that Harry’s not pulling one of those ‘did it, regret it, pretend it never happened’ sort of things.

“I do recall getting a bit, er… handsy with you on the dance floor?” Harry replies carefully, cheeks immediately turning bright red, “I’m really really sorry about that, by the way. I get way too touchy-feely with people whenever vodka’s involved.”

Louis sighs and bites his lip, knowing Harry well enough to recognize his embarrassment over that memory as being completely genuine. There’s no way that the popstar could be lying to him at this point, what with Harry being the absolutely shit liar that he is.

“I did get a bit frisky with someone, though,” Harry says proudly, pulling down his t-shirt to reveal a large purple love-bite in the hollow between his neck and collarbone. He’s smiling widely, all teeth and dimples, and Louis can do nothing but stare at his mark on the popstar’s chest and feel his heart break all over again.

“Wasn’t Erin, though,” Harry continues, frowning, “She broke up with me and left early, apparently. I just reread the text this morning.”

“I saw her leave last night, yeah,” Louis affirms, chest tightening at the half-truth.

He’s heard somewhere that sometimes people can be triggered by the mention of an event and suddenly remember it with astounding clarity. The word ‘loo’ hangs on the tip of his tongue like an Unforgivable Curse, but he swallows it down.

(Like he always does with Harry, like he’s done for months now; swallow it down, don’t say the words, don’t touch, don’t feel.)

But Harry is red lips and green eyes and Christmas all the time; and now that Louis has had a taste of all that he’s been missing, he’s suddenly become more selfish than ever before.

“Harry, I think I need to go,” he says, pushing his plate away, appetite gone, “I can’t… I can’t be here with you right now.”

Harry just stares back at him, confused and a little hurt.

“Louis, what are you talking about?”

“You don’t remember and I can’t forget,” he replies, scrubbing at his eyes and the tears threatening to form there, “I can’t forget, Harry. Don’t you get it? I can’t just be around you all the time and, and pretend like I’m not–”

He cuts himself off, climbing out of the bed and looking wildly around the room.

“Like you’re not what?” Harry asks quietly, sounding so, so painfully young and Louis can’t look at him. He just can’t.

“God fucking dammit, where are my shoes?” Louis shouts suddenly, verging on hysteria.

“By the front door,” Harry replies, in a voice so small it’s almost inaudible, “but Lou, I don’t understand. Where are you going?”

“Away from you,” Louis replies icily.

It’s so fucking cruel, and he knows it, but he can’t… he can’t leave any tiny shred of the bond intact between them or he won’t be able to leave, won’t be able to walk out this door right now, to tear himself away from the godforsaken boy in front of him, sitting amongst white down and pillows like an angel, so innocent and beautiful… He’d stay by Harry’s side forever, a stupid fucking masochist, wanting and wanting for all of eternity, dying and being reborn just to want again.

It’s like Harry is fire, brilliant and bright, and Louis is cold, he’s so fucking cold, and they exist together and they exist apart but they can never exist as one.

Because that’s the way things are in this world, Louis knows this: one thing orbits another, like the planets orbit the sun, and only time and weakness can sever the bond between them.

And so he tries, with his words– his only real weapon– to damage it the best he can.

Away from you.

So Harry is a star and Louis lives on a planet alone, staring at the brilliant glow in the distance day after day, ‘round and ‘round. The attraction keeps him and his planet bound to their orbit, close enough to watch Harry shine yet too far to cross the airless vacuum of space between them.

And so the existence of gravity is nothing more than a curse; Louis can no sooner escape Harry than become a part of him. And there are other planets nearer to his own, eagerly moving closer and closer in hopes that he will join them instead, but he doesn’t want a planet, so easily conquered, so easily destroyed. He wants a star, he wants Harry, and he knows that as long as that far-off light remains in view, that’s all he’ll ever want.

And so he is trapped, in the same way that the moon is trapped, for it does not want the earth that lies beneath it and above it and in all places, and still it cannot have the sun.

That’s the way things are in this world, Louis knows this: everything separated into two categories- what he has and what he will never have- and they do not mix, they do not change.

It doesn’t take a lot of guesswork to determine which category Harry Styles falls into because Louis knew, from the very moment he met him, that Harry was something that he would never call his own. And it’s funny because Louis was so clever in that regard, but so foolish in the fact that he chose to stay, and to come back, to accept Harry into his life again and again knowing he would someday break his heart.

And he thinks back to Niall’s warning all those months ago:

I can tell you right now that you will be. I can tell you right now.

Starry-eyed and moony, you fall so easily.

Louis can’t help it; he starts to cry.

“Louis, please,” Harry says, and his voice is breaking, “I don’t understand! Did something happen at my party? Was it because I danced with you? Because I told you, I’m so so sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”

Louis just lets out a laugh, bitter and aggrieved.

“I never meant to ruin our friendship, whatever I did. Talk to me,” Harry begs, and he’s got tears rolling down his cheeks now too, “God, Lou. You’re… you’re my best mate. I’ve known Zayn for five years and that, that doesn’t even compare to what we have. Are you listening to me, Louis? You’re my best mate and I love you so much, I don’t want to–”

“Shut up!” Louis screams, Harry’s ‘I love you’ ricocheting around his brain, replaying over and over and over again.

Then softer, “Just shut up, alright? None of this is your fault. Don’t… don’t blame yourself for things you can’t control. I just can’t be friends with you right now, Harry. I just can’t, okay? Not when I–”

Louis stops, not willing to let himself say any more than he needs to.

He forces himself to take a step, and then another, ignoring the way that Harry keeps whimpering his name, soft and pleading.

Louis. Louis. Louis.

He walks out of the room, down the stairs, out the door… Holds up a hand and hails a cab.

“Louis,” Harry says, and he can feel the younger boy right behind him, standing brokenly on the sidewalk.

“Harry,” he replies so coldly that he barely recognizes his own voice, “Go back inside.”

&&

And it’s not like the movies.

There is no happy ending, no swelling cinematic score.

There are no declarations of love, no passionate endless kiss.

It’s not even fucking raining.

Instead, there’s the sound of footsteps on the pavement and a door slamming shut.

There’s Louis getting in the cab and biting his bottom lip to keep from sobbing harder.

There’s a question: “Where to?”

And a reply: “Airport, but I need to grab a few things from my flat first.”

And that’s that.

That’s the end.

That’s life–Louis’ life, at least– falling in love and fucking it up, over and over and over again.

William Sodi will be thrilled, he thinks, as the cab pulls away from the white house in Kensington for the very last time, all this new material to write about.

They pull up in front of the shop ten minutes later, the ride quick and smooth with no traffic so early in the morning.

He’s in and out in five, stuffing a duffel bag with some clothes and toiletries and grabbing his passport from the lock-box underneath the register.

He shuts the door and climbs back in the cab, feeling numb and hopeless and broken.

But, at least he’s alone.

&&

For Louis it’s finality, but for Fate it’s just a minor bump in the road.