The bird you thought you had caught by surprise
beats its wings and flies away...
Love lies afar, you wait and wait
and when you don't expect it anymore, there it is!
All around you, swift, so swift
it comes and goes, and then comes back.
You think you've caught it, it eludes you;
you think you’re free, it captures you.
The Underground is always crowded in the winter, when London’s yellow streetlight haze is too weak to lift the snow fog on Chilworth Mews and there’s nothing to do but shiver, wet breath heating your scarf and steaming your glasses as you tramp down the slick, dirty steps of Paddington Station clutching a violin case to your chest at 6 a.m. It’s absolutely wretched, and sort of beautiful.
Louis Tomlinson couldn’t see on this particular morning. His limbs ached with sleep and his fingertips felt frostbitten in the cold. They itched as he descended into the damp heat of Paddington, all echoing tile walls and the faint smell of piss, one small note in a dissonant tone poem of humanity already up and rushing to jobs in the City. He hurriedly wiped the mist from his glasses as he touched his Oyster card to the reader and stumbled through the turnstile, lifting his violin protectively to nudge the hard metal bar with his hip.
A small coffee stand was doing good business just down the tunnel from the platform. Louis smiled gratefully at the vendor as he dropped 90p onto the counter with a satisfying, musical clink and accepted a styrofoam cup filled with hot, black liquid. He turned to catch his train.
“Change?” the vendor called after him, holding a shiny 5p up between grimy fingers.
“Never,” Louis quipped, and mustered the energy to throw the old man a wink as he headed to the platform.
The 6:14 Hammersmith & City was right on time. Louis ducked onto a car and sat with one arm around his violin, hugging it to his side as he sipped his coffee and glanced around at his fellow travelers. There was a tired-looking woman in a faded lavender coat, fussing over a smudge on the cheek of her cranky toddler. They were discordant, obviously. A quiet, workaday harmony that wound through the stable melody of the train and expressed all those tiny frustrations, the sideways steps in the steady march of life. Come ‘ere, love. You come ‘ere now. There was also a large man, frowning as he flipped through the Financial Times. Louis added a bass sigh -- down, down, down -- underneath the upbeat, rhythmic notes of the melody, a tremolo every time another newspaper page fluttered over. A young woman, probably a student, gazed steadily out the dark window of the train at the flashes of electricity, dreaming or staring at her own reflection. She sang a tentative descant in Louis’s mind, the only note of hope this morning.
Something’s coming; something’s coming…
Come ‘ere, love.
Down, down, down.
It was all a horrible muddle. Louis frowned, staring into the grainy dregs of his cup, cracking the styrofoam rim with his thumbnail. Widening the rip, letting small white confetti flake off onto his coat. Some mornings his little game yielded results. Louis would arrive at rehearsal enthused, leitmotif from the train running through his head, fingers twitching to translate notes onto staff paper.
Nothing was good enough, though. Especially not lately, under the oppressive winter sky that had wrapped London in dirty cotton for months, muffling all the sharp thoughts in Louis’s head. Letting nothing but empty wind howl through the cold streets. Squealing strings.
“I hate avant-garde,” he muttered.
St. Luke’s was a short walk up Goswell Road from Barbican Station, then east on Old Street for a few hundred meters. Louis slipped through the wrought iron gate and stared up for a moment at the stark grey stone church, which had been remodeled in the mid-90s into a rehearsal space for the London Symphony Orchestra. A raven circled the steeple, gothic and cawing, like something out of Poe. Louis huffed a cloud into the air and wondered why the end of January always insisted on being the most depressing part of the year.
The sun was barely up by the time he was settled into one of the practice rooms in the church’s warren-like maze of a basement, playing scales and practicing runs, warming up his fingers. One small beat of satisfaction -- he was the first in. Louis always took a grim sort of pride in being the first member of the orchestra to arrive, and the last to leave. Dedication was what he had to offer. It had been his dedication and unwavering attention to technique that had lifted him above other young violinists, won him scholarships and accolades in his steady climb to hold the coveted position of concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra at the relatively young age of thirty.
Pairs of sixteenth notes, slurring up the staff. A low trill. A staccato run.
Soon he was deep into the music. Practicing never failed to take Louis to another dimension: a painless, bloodless state of complete focus that when he was younger had been his greatest escape -- a refuge from his parents’ divorce, from the messy process of coming out, from the stress of auditions and make-or-break performances in the pressure cooker of the London classical music scene -- and was now a sort of drug that he’d come to depend on. He was in control of his fingers. In control of the music, in control of his orchestra. Numb to everything but the notes on the page.
Eleanor had to knock three times before Louis registered the extra sound. He blinked, easing his left elbow down as he turned to stare at her wide-eyed face in the glass panel of the door. It was like coming up from a deep ocean dive. The sound of her insistent rapping rung in his ears; he felt lightheaded for a second, instinctively cross at the interruption. He set his Amati carefully in its case, feeling a ridiculous pang of separation as his fingers left the polished spruce, glowing even in the harsh fluorescent light, the color of fine old whiskey.
He cracked the door. “Yes?” he asked, in a clipped voice.
Everyone knew not to interrupt him when he was practicing. Eleanor, his stand partner and associate concertmaster, knew this rule better than anybody. Louis couldn’t help but wonder for a fleeting second if this was some sort of sabotage -- she’d been his closest competition for years, and was always eyeing his job. But,
“They’ve finally hired an interim conductor,” she said, breathlessly.
“About bloody time.”
Valery Gergiev, longtime principal conductor of the LSO, artistic director of the heralded White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg and Grammy winner -- along with many other accolades of course, although the small, scruffy Russian in his pristine tuxedo standing uncomfortably next to a Lady Gaga clad only in discarded iPhone cases was an image for the ages -- had elected in December to take a hiatus to pursue other projects. The LSO’s managing director, Nicholas Grimshaw, had been hemming and hawing over appointing an interim conductor for weeks, and Louis was getting frankly fed up. He’d tried to impress upon Grimshaw the importance of the relationship between conductor and concertmaster, tried to explain the almost psychic rapport that he and Valery had slowly but surely developed through practice and creative dialogue. It had resulted in some very solid performances last season, and Louis was certain that throwing some random stranger into the mix this late would only cause problems -- more problems the longer they put off the decision. “Trust, Grimmy,” is what he had said when he’d cornered the tall, bequiffed man in his office two days before. “I don’t need to like him. Hell, friendship? Don’t care. But trust. I have to be able to trust him.”
And nothing. For three weeks, the orchestra had been in limbo.
“So?” Louis snapped. “Who is it?” He tried to project an air of unaffected sharpness, all business and no insecurities -- no sense in letting Eleanor see him with his panties in a bunch.
She shook her head. “Don’t know.”
Louis sighed, sweeping his caramel fringe off his forehead with an elegant flick of his bowing wrist as his mind raced through the possibilities. “Well, who do we think, Rattle? Barenboim?”
“I heard it’s someone young.”
“Someone young?” Louis nearly choked. Not that it had to matter, but... He was the young one. The hip kid with the most Youtube hits, the nerdy fangirls, the social media buzz. His brain struggled to process this information even as it switched gears and started to produce a new set of names. Levinthal? Not seasoned enough. Yang? His Mahler cycle was atrocious… Christ, this is unacceptable, totally unacceptable!
Eleanor smiled sweetly at him, eyes full of poison as she murmured, “I’ll let you get back to your warm up.” She flipped her cascade of long, perfectly-waved brown hair over her shoulder as she walked down the hall, conservative heels tapping on the linoleum. The mellow notes of a trombone followed her, the hollow flutter of a flute, strings like singing cicadas… The orchestra was waking up.
Louis had to find out who their new conductor was before the situation got out of hand. He had to know who he was dealing with. He packed up his sheet music, silently fuming that Grimshaw hadn’t called him first, that he’d had to find out from Eleanor, of all people.
He found Niall snogging one of the second violins in the stairwell.
Wet, sloppy noises. Uncoordinated and singularly unappealing. (You’d think musicians would have a better ear for this sort of thing.)
Louis gave up and tapped Niall on the shoulder, fixing him with a quick glare as he startled and turned around, wiping his mouth on his shirtsleeve.
Louis didn’t acknowledge him, instead raising his eyebrows at the second violin. “Shouldn’t you be practicing that coda, Cynthia? With all the acciaccaturas you were asking me for help with yesterday?” She nodded, looking properly ashamed of herself. In another second she was gone, adjusting her skirt, and Louis had turned back to Niall.
“Rude,” he said, simply.
“You’re the rude one, mate.” Niall reached out to tweak Louis’s nipple through his thick wool jumper, and this was --
“... getting so inappropriate, Horan, I swear to God I’ll…”
Niall just grinned and pinched the other one. Hard.
“Look, I know they’re delightful, but you have to learn to control yourself.”
That made Niall burst into a giggling fit that Louis had to try very hard not to be endeared by. The man was an imp, an Irish leprechaun of the cheekiest (and frequently drunkest) order, but he was a first-rate French horn player, and Louis’s best friend at the LSO. Louis rolled his eyes at Niall’s fair, wide-open face, chewed-off fingernails running through the dark roots of his ridiculous shock of bleach-blond hair as he continued to laugh.
“The interim conductor. I know you know.”
“I might.” Niall waggled his eyebrows at Louis suggestively.
“Don’t flirt with me, Horan. Who is it?”
And, no. Louis thought he might have just hallucinated, because that name was not on any of his lists, did not rank among even the remotest of possibilities. Harry Styles. Harry Styles.
“Then someone lied to you.”
Niall snorted. “Please, Tommo. I’m a human lie detector.”
Niall drew himself up at that sarcastic slight on his honor, puffing out his chest and poking Louis in the shoulder. “Got it straight from Grimmy over a pint last night at The White Lion, and he was tellin’ God’s truth, bet me life and your future adopted babies on it.”
Louis considered this. He paced to the right, flicking his fringe out of habit and pique. Paced to the left, worrying his bottom lip.
Niall clapped him on the back, already distracted, looking down the hall to where Cynthia had disappeared into a vacant practice room. “You’ll do fine with him, mate. I know Harry.”
“Of course you do. You know all of Europe, right down to snotty Prince George.”
Niall grinned. “I think you’ll get on.”
Louis rolled his eyes.
“Not if he’s still…” he murmured under his breath.
But Niall was already gone.
Grimshaw made the official announcement during rehearsal that afternoon. Louis tried to keep his face calm and impassive, tried to let phrases like “thrilling young talent” and “the next Toscanini” wash over him. Inside, he was roiling. He tried to swallow, but his throat was oddly dry, his Adam’s apple stuck like a lump of clay. Just the thin winter air, he told himself, not noticing that his right knee was jiggling nervously.
“He’ll be taking over after our big Night of Romance Valentine’s bash,” Grimshaw continued. “Very exciting. Thank you again to the life-saving Ms. Price for stepping in to rehearse and conduct that performance.” He nodded at Lucinda Price, the London Philharmonic’s assistant conductor, who had been called up on short notice a few weeks before. She smiled and bowed to a polite smattering of applause.
“Mr. Styles will be conducting three cycles with us, in March, April, and June. He has some very… original ideas.” Louis hoped he was imagining the slightly worried look on Grimshaw’s face as his gaze flickered down to the first violins. “I’m sure we’ll all find his work quite provocative. Right,” he concluded with a clap. “Back to work, chaps and ladies.”
Provocative. Oh, God.
“Harry Styles!” Eleanor squealed under her breath, grabbing Louis’s arm as Grimshaw stepped down from the podium. “Can you believe it?”
Louis made a soft noise, trying to clear the itch in his throat. “Not really.”
“But it’s a brilliant choice, isn’t it?”
Louis bit his lip. They were supposed to be getting out sheet music for the Swan Lake Overture, part of the tired old lineup for LSO’s annual Valentine’s Day concert. Louis could probably play the entire program in his sleep. (He’d tried to convince Grimshaw that Swan Lake wasn’t exactly the most romantic of stories, anyway, and that they should spruce things up by replacing it with something more obscure and unexpected, like the Lullaby from Kakhidze’s Amazons Suite. But he’d received only a snort and a “Stop being ridiculous, Tomlinson,” for his troubles. As usual.)
“I wouldn’t know.”
“You’ve heard of him, though, obviously…” Eleanor whispered as she tucked her violin under her chin. “Cello prodigy, wants to break into conducting. He was on Leno last week.”
“What kind of conductor goes on Leno?” Louis hissed back, softly stroking the opening notes of Swan Lake underneath the contemplative oboe solo.
“Previn wrote a glowing piece about him in The Times.”
“Oh, lovely, so we should all just bow down to André…”
“What? So I’ve not been brainwashed by Harry Styles. He’s a fucking celebrity, flavor of the moment pop conductor who knows how to charm the right people, probably going to end up with a reality television show…”
“Not to mention handsome as all fuck.” Eleanor raised an elegant eyebrow at him as the music began to swell.
“Yeah, I’m sure that hasn’t hurt his career,” Louis muttered darkly. Eleanor just pursed her lips and turned back to their music, bowing with the sort of forced theatrical gusto that Louis had always found incredibly grating in performers. Solid technique was enough for him and hold the extra flourishes, thank you very much.
Timpani rolled like thunder as the overture rose toward its familiar climax, music still striking a chord in Louis after all these years. It made him think of searching. Of uncertainty, and long separation. The truth is, he’d been avoiding Styles-related press as much as possible, and now found himself reluctantly wondering what Harry looked like as an adult. Bet he’s not gotten rid of that layer of baby pudge…
“Earth to Tomlinson.”
Louis realized with a start that he was still holding his final note, having missed Ms. Price’s cut off. His open E string vibrated up to the high ceiling of Jerwood Hall.
“Um… God, sorry. Slight brain aneurysm. Won’t happen again.”
The rest of the violins were tittering, whispering under their breath. Louis frowned. The music was just so comfortable; he’d played it about a million times and he’d only been distracted for a second anyway, so it was no big deal. Not even a small deal, really.
And now everybody was looking at him. Wonderful.
“Well, other than that you were lovely,” Ms. Price smiled at him. “So I suppose I’ll forgive you. Okay, from 121, please, just the viola section...”
Louis shook his head, trying to clear it and re-focus. Eleanor smirked next to him, flipping back a few pages in the score and unconsciously following along with the violas on her fingerboard. “You’re jealous,” she whispered.
Louis blinked at her. “You’re going to have to explain that one to me, love.”
“Of Harry. Cos he’s going to get all the attention, isn’t he? Swooping in, stealing your thunder, when you’re used to being the shining star all the old ladies want to talk to at fundraisers.”
“Right, it’s Harry now, is it? You two are on a first-name basis?”
“Not yet, but…” Her poisonous smile was back. “I wonder if he ever dates co-workers.”
Louis couldn’t help snorting, almost knocking his bow against the stand as he tried to muffle his laughter in the arm of his maroon jumper. “Oh my god. You’re going to try to put the moves on Harry Styles?”
“Maybe I am.”
The same Harry Styles who got that awkward boner when I took off my shirt at the Double Bar Campfire and had to jump in the lake, pretending someone had dared him to...
“What?” asked Eleanor, eyes narrowing.
“Nothing,” Louis said, blinking away a few tears and swallowing the rest of his mirth. “Good luck with that.”
He turned back to the music, resolving to pay attention to rehearsal and to stop bickering about Harry goddamn Styles. They had a couple more weeks before he would grace them all with his wondrous presence, anyway, and Louis was sure everyone would get sick of gossiping about their new conductor before then. So. Time to lead his orchestra in the soppiest, most commercial love songs classical music had to offer.
(Without even one thought about how the LSO was Louis’s kingdom, his home, and Harry Styles would ruin it over his dead body.)
Harry paused on the corner and fished his gloves out of the pockets of his overcoat. It was a cold night, several degrees below freezing, but there was no wind and he’d enjoyed the bracing air on his skin as he walked to the end of the block, cheeks still rosy from the warmth of the pub. His hands were going a little numb now, though, so he tugged the buttery black leather onto his fingers and smiled as he flexed them in the warm fleece lining.
“Where did you get those things?” his sister had asked, when he’d visited her in Manchester that Friday. “Murderer’s gloves!”
“Murderer’s gloves?” he’d said in amused disbelief.
Gemma had nodded and shuddered, “Yeah. They’re terrible. I keep picturing them wrapped around some poor lady’s throat. Or, you know,” she did a stabby motion, mimicking the screeching ee-ee-ee-ee music from Psycho, “like wielding a knife or something. Very attractive, H. Good purchase.”
Harry had let out a frustrated huff. “Wull, what am I supposed to do? Huh? Wear mittens?” he’d asked, finishing in an emphatic, slightly outraged squeak, as if there were no more childish item of clothing. Like, mittens? Really!
“Oh, heaven forbid!”
“These are the gloves of an adult man, all right?” he’d said, looking down his nose at her as he boxed out his shoulders and made a show of adjusting them, pulling at the wrists.
She’d just snorted out a laugh, and said, “Well, that makes sense; you guys do most of the murdering.”
Harry rolled his eyes, still smiling at the memory. He glanced up at the corner of the building on his left, reading off the name of the street. Long Lane. That’s where he was. The corner of Long and Aldersgate. In London. Finally back in England, since the Wednesday before. Harry was glad. It smelled right here. And the street signs were normal.
Not that this particular corner was all that familiar as of yet. Harry glanced back over his shoulder at the pub he’d just left, The Old Red Cow. Niall had taken him out for dinner and few pints to celebrate his birthday, which had been two weeks before, and also this new job he was starting. Tomorrow, actually. He’d begged off early, telling Niall he wanted to get a good night’s sleep, but instead of turning into the tube station as he’d intended, he drifted across Aldersgate and moved further up Long, gazing at the Barbican Centre as he approached it.
His pulse rate ticked up the closer he got, and he shook his arms out a little as he walked, needing an outlet for his nervous energy. This was where he’d be heading to work in the morning. Interim Conductor. The London Symphony Orchestra. He rolled the words over in his mind, trying to get a grasp on them as he slowly made his way to the lake terrace entrance. He shoved his gloved hands into the pockets of his coat as he walked, taking in the strange beauty of the hulking building and the water in front of it, lit up in the dark.
Harry had been to the Barbican before, when he was much younger. For several workshops, to see a few performances, and once even to perform himself. But his memories of it were in bits and pieces, scattered in his mind, and the layout of the streets and buildings in the area -- of the centre itself -- still felt alien and unknown.
He’d met Niall there years before, at one of the workshops. Harry had been different back then, still adjusting to the weight of his rapidly increasing fame as a cellist and to the uncomfortable feeling of celebrity, and it had been Niall that seemed alien at first. Niall was this unapologetic, vibrant kid who still had braces and wore fluorescent high-tops everywhere. He was joyful and laidback and easily confident, so happily wonderful at French horn. Harry had been slightly in awe of him, overwhelmed and awkward. But somehow, the next thing he knew, they were best friends. Harry wasn’t even sure how it had happened. It was as if Harry had blinked and suddenly Niall was calling him Banana Boy and trying to pants him as they raced down the corridors of the basement at St. Luke’s, like they were eleven years old and not eighteen. (Or maybe, yeah, exactly like they were eighteen, Harry thought with a little roll of his eyes.) Niall had never stopped being his favorite. They didn’t get to see each other often, but they always kept in touch through email and Harry knew he was lucky that Niall was in this orchestra. That he would be there with Harry tomorrow.
He smiled; his heart was still thrumming along in his chest as he thought about the next day. He tilted his head back to look at the night sky above the fountain to his right, stars obscured by the light pollution, and took a deep breath. He’d be with the orchestra for the next five months. Sometime soon, he knew he’d think back to tonight and remember how it felt, remember the weird and disjointed way he’d perceived the landscape before it became familiar. It was oddly comforting.
Harry turned and shuffled toward the Barbican, walking up to the glass of the enormous windows and looking in at the inviting yellow glow. It would be open for another hour, but he didn’t go inside. He could just make out the entrance to Barbican Concert Hall across the vaulted lobby. There were large banners suspended from the ceiling at various intervals, leading the way to its doors, each one displaying a photograph from a famous LSO performance over the past several decades. Harry was really only staring at one though, the closest to him. It was a recent black and white shot of Valery Gergiev, taken from stage left. Gergiev was in the foreground in the midst of conducting, his salt and pepper hair a cloudy halo around his head, giving him the effect of a mad musical genius. Stormy and possessed, like Harry imagined Beethoven had been at the end of his life. And just beyond Valery, set slightly back but still in sharp focus, was Louis Tomlinson on violin. Harry’s eyes narrowed in on him and locked there, fixed in place. Tomlinson looked as precise as the focus of the picture, in absolute and exact control of his instrument. His agile presence in the photograph was almost more strongly felt that Gergiev’s.
“Don’t worry about Louis, mate,” Niall had said earlier, washing down his clam chowder with a swig of beer. “I know Lou. ‘E‘s all bark, no bite. You guys’ll get on.”
“No bite,” Harry repeated to himself in a whisper with a single scoff of a laugh. His hands were clammy against the lining of his gloves as he tossed his head, taking a shaky, calming breath. “You aren’t fifteen fucking years old any more, you idiot,” he muttered. He squeezed at the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes, trying to ease the sudden twist of anxiety in his stomach. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have the experience or the talent to have taken this job. In his heart of hearts, Harry knew this could be absolutely amazing, that he could be amazing at it. He opened his eyes and took another lingering look at violinist towering before him, larger than life. “You can do this,” he whispered, steeling himself against the ridiculous shiver of teenage insecurity it sent through him.
Harry shook his head one last time and huffed out a frustrated laugh, tearing his eyes away from Tomlinson and forcing his body into motion, back toward the tube station at Long and Aldersgate. It was about a forty minute ride to his flat in Hampstead. He had to be in at seven the next morning to get settled into his office and see the facilities, probably blindly sign and initial a giant amount of paperwork. All of that before his first rehearsal with the orchestra in the afternoon.
You can do this, Harry thought again as he waited on the platform for the train, hunching against the cold. You want to do this. He’d lead orchestras all around the world. He’d drawn out incredible performances from institutions with far less talent than the LSO. He was wearing the gloves of an adult man! Everything would be all right. It would.
Everything was going perfectly all right, if a bit tediously, by 1:30 p.m. the next day. Harry was holed up in his new Barbican Centre office reviewing his schedule for the next couple of months with a fastidiously well-dressed young man named Liam Payne. Nick had met Harry outside promptly at 7:00 a.m. and then given him an exceedingly cursory tour of the Barbican before turning him over to Liam. Liam had some kind of administrative position in Development, but he’d been asked to act as Harry’s personal assistant until they managed to hire someone else full-time. Nick had apologized before he hurried away, apparently swamped with morning meetings, but he’d assured Harry he would be there to introduce him to the orchestra at the 2:30 rehearsal that afternoon.
“So,” Liam said, nudging his tie out of the way to look down at the tablet in his lap, “you’ve got the St. Luke’s Foundation fundraiser on March 11th.”
Harry nodded absently, shaking his leg under his desk and wondering why they couldn’t have scheduled the day in the opposite order. Rehearsal first, administrative baloney second. His nerves about meeting the orchestra for the first time seemed to be compounding themselves with each passing minute. Harry was usually pretty good off the cuff, but he felt increasingly uneasy about not having more formally prepared some kind of speech. What was your plan again, you dickhead? Just stand up there and wave and say ‘Hello, I’m Harry, shall we play some music?' He chastised himself, mild panic fluttering in his belly as he stared blankly out the window at the weak flurries of falling snow.
“Hey, Maestro, you still with me?” Liam asked. He shifted toward Harry in his seat, waving a hand back and forth to try to return him to reality.
Harry’s lips twitched as he struggled against a smile. Maestro. They’d only been working together for about five hours and Liam had already called him that four times. There was something about his tone when he said it, completely earnest and almost obsequious, that Harry found very entertaining and maybe a little endearing.
He cleared his throat, leaning back in his office chair as he looked at Liam. “You can just call me Harry, you know. That’s -- that’s fine.”
Liam turned slightly pink and ignored the comment. “Well, did you accept the meeting request in Outlook, then? I just sent it.”
Harry sighed and leaned toward his computer, squinting at the monitor and then opening his eyes wide as he stared at it, finally wrangling the cursor with the mouse. He clicked Accept on the new invite in his inbox. “It’s on the 11th?”
“Mmmhhm, at 8:00 p.m.,” Liam said. “At the Bailey Hartinger Gallery in Soho. You get a plus one, of course…” He leaned forward almost imperceptibly, his eyes darting over Harry’s face.
Harry’s lips twitched against another smile. He turned and blinked at Liam, expression impassive. “Okay,” was all he said.
“Okay,” Liam replied after a beat, finally dropping his eyes back to his tablet. “Oh, I missed this one before, sorry,” he said, with a little wince. “You have a photo shoot. Next Thursday, 6:00 p.m. Don’t worry, won’t interfere with rehearsals…it’s for the promotional campaign for the new season.”
“I’m sure you have plenty of experience with those types of things,” Liam said, with a knowing smirk.
Harry raised his eyebrows.
“Photo shoots,” Liam prompted.
“Oh,” Harry said, giving a little laugh and a half-nod, feeling a bit self-conscious. He ducked his head and scratched at the back of his neck. “Uh, right.” The last photo shoot he’d done had been for Esquire; they’d written a profile on him right before the release of his latest album. They’d shot him almost completely nude, on the side of a dusty road with just his cello. He felt like a ridiculous embarrassment every time he remembered that the pictures even existed. (It certainly wasn’t as though Niall was going to stop reminding him any time soon. “’S my lock screen for life, sorry friend.”)
“When can I get to the important stuff, then?” he asked, abruptly, looking back up at Liam. He placed his palms on the desk in front of him, spreading his fingers out on the smooth wood and tapping at it anxiously. This was all beginning to feel like horribly executed foreplay and he was impatient to get past it, itching to get to the actual work.
“The important stuff?” Liam asked, looking a little unsure.
“Yeah, can I just start setting up meetings with the section leaders right now?” Harry asked, his voice edging toward strident. He gestured loosely to the Outlook calendar on the monitor in front of him. “Do I just email them? Or have you taken care of that as well? Is there already some sort of established schedule for that kind of thing?” His first performance with the orchestra was just about a month and a half away, and he had his heart set on a rather ambitious piece. Sitting here in his shiny office discussing photo shoots and charity events with Liam was making him feel like time was already slipping through his fingers, like there just wouldn’t be enough.
Liam nodded slowly. “Yeah, yeah, of course we can do that stuff…” he said. He looked down at where Harry’s leg was bouncing violently under the desk and then looked back up at Harry, his eyes thoughtful. “Did you want to head over to St. Luke’s now? There’s a small office for you over there, too. We could get you settled in a bit before everyone else arrives; then I can cross-check everybody’s schedules while you’re rehearsing, get you set up for one-on-one meetings with each section leader and a group meeting with all of them by the end of the week.”
Harry stilled his knee, nodding. “Ok,” he said, letting out a relieved sigh. “Yes. Let’s do that.”
“You got it, Maestro,” Liam said, smiling as they got to their feet. Harry smiled back, a little more endeared this time.
They folded themselves into their coats and made their way down to the lobby.
“Tomlinson first, if possible,” Harry said, as they passed under the banner from the previous night, heading toward the Silk Street exit.
Liam made a sound under his breath. “Probably a good idea,” he muttered.
He gave Harry an apologetic look as they walked up Whitecross Street toward the old church. “They’ve been doing renovations,” he said, “since November. Not sure what kind of office they’ll have found for you.” He sounded nervously embarrassed, like he was expecting the worst.
As it turned out, Harry liked his office at St. Luke’s immediately. He liked it more than the one at the Barbican. Much more. As soon as he and Liam opened the door, it just felt right. It was dingy and cramped. There was layer of sticky dust coating the bookshelf along the left wall and light was only barely filtering in through the odd, milky glass in the room’s lone window. Every second breath Harry caught a hint of the lingering, phantom aroma of stale cigarette smoke and Windex. But it felt like a practice room, and that was nice.
Liam didn’t seem quite so satisfied. It looked a little bit like his worst fears had been realized. He ran a displeased finger over the top of one of the ancient filing cabinets as Harry took a stack of scores out of his satchel and plunked them down on the old war horse of a desk in the middle of the room.
“All right, Liam?” Harry asked, amused at his distaste.
Liam looked down at the grime on his fingertip and pulled a face. “I am if you are…I guess,” he said skeptically, turning in a slow circle to take in all of the little room. “Just wondering. You know. If this is really the best we could do…” He raised his eyebrows at an ugly blob of industrial glue next to the bookshelves, where it appeared something had been wrenched off the wall.
Harry laughed and shrugged, opening and shutting the drawers of the desk to see if there was anything inside. Leftover office supplies, perhaps? Some abandoned pens or paper clips? Rubber bands? Maybe a stray bottle of Wite-Out or several useless highlighters? Obviously a secret love note would be the best-case scenario, but Harry wasn’t holding out hope. Turned out there was only 40p and three red thumbtacks.
“Did Gergiev ever use this office before he left?” he asked, doubtful. He glanced up at Liam. “He didn’t, did he?”
Liam let out a punch of a laugh and scoffed, “Absolutely not. No sir.” He shook his head.
“Well, I like it,” Harry said, smiling as he eased down into what seemed to be a practically pre-war office chair. Not an ergonomic element in sight. It creaked pleasantly beneath him.
Liam was still unconvinced.
“Location, location, location, Liam!” Harry pointed out, leaning back in the chair, testing out its strength. For all its perceived shortcomings, the office was tucked into a small lobby directly off the back of the rehearsal hall, all by itself next to some dank-looking bathrooms. It was convenient, but it felt secluded and remote, like a secret, and Harry loved that. He laughed, “I bet everyone only comes back here when they need to take a shit.”
Liam looked fairly disgusted now.
Harry giggled. “Aw, c’mon, Liam. Privacy! That’s what everyone likes. Get all settled in and then down to business!”
Liam just blinked, lips twisted in a grimace.
“Lighten up, mate!” Harry said, still laughing. And then because he simply could not resist, “Everybody poops.”
Liam was a little affronted, not by the statement about the naturalness of bowel movements, but by the suggestion that he should take it easy. He started to adjust his body language, like you do right before you unsuccessfully try to convince someone that you are not, in fact, uptight. He over-relaxed his facial muscles and his posture. It looked like he might be seconds away from using some kind of “laid-back” slang he wasn’t quite comfortable with, perhaps on the verge of telling Harry he was “stoked” he’d started as the new Maestro. Harry was liking Liam more and more.
“All right,” Liam said, once Harry had ceased chuckling at his clear discomfort. “I’m going to go hunt someone down and find the keys to this place.” It had been a stroke of luck that it had been unlocked to begin with. “And then I’ll check with Grimshaw to make sure he’s still on schedule.”
Harry nodded, swallowing hard. His nerves crackled back to life as Liam slipped out of the office, no longer there to distract him from the looming rehearsal. He stood up and stretched, running a hand through his unruly hair and smoothing out his tie, straightening his suit jacket on his shoulders. Then he inhaled through his nose and slowly out through his mouth several times with a hand on his solar plexus, taking deep, measured breaths to calm himself.
Two of the four walls of the office were covered in blackboard, lines of staff permanently drawn on for convenience. Harry drifted over to the one on his left, noticing for the first time that there was a clef, a key, and a sloppily written time signature on the staff at the top of the board. Notes and bars followed after, covering the length and height of it. The chalk was smudged and faint and he wondered how long it had been up there, who had left it. He took another deep breath and started to run through the music on the blackboard in his head, humming it carelessly in an effort to relax. His arms began to move as if of their own accord, his right hand setting a steady andante tempo and his left gently sculpting the air as he quickly built a dynamic concept in his mind. Two, three... Harry turned, following the music as it curved around the room, continuing onto the blackboard on the adjacent wall.
“What the f--” A sharp voice came from his right, halting abruptly into a frustrated, strangled noise. Harry jolted back to the present, his hands stilling in mid-air. He swiveled his head quickly in order to see who was speaking.
“What -- what are you doing in here?” Louis Tomlinson stood glowering at the door, clutching its handle in a white-knuckled grip. His eyes looked slightly manic and almost alarmed before they darkened, narrowing at Harry, his brows slanting in disdain.
Harry’s head jerked back. His breath caught in his throat at the sight of Louis, small and smoldering in the doorway. A wicked pulse of indignation ripped through Harry’s body, cracking like a whip as it ran up his spine and tingled out into his extremities. It mixed with a twinge of distantly familiar humiliation, hot and low in his belly, and Harry felt his face flush as blood rushed past his ears.
“What am I--?” he finally managed in shocked disbelief, his own brows knitting. He shook his head in bemusement, and when he resumed speaking it was deliberate and slow, as firm as he could make it in his agitated state. “This is my office.”
“Your offi--” Louis cut himself off with an outraged huff, his jaw jutting out, two delicately formed fingers pressed to his left temple. He gave a quick shake of his head and grabbed the eraser from the ledge of the closest blackboard, barging right in and furiously erasing the music that Harry had just been running through, muttering angrily under his breath as he did so.
Harry let out an aborted bark of laughter, his heart pounding. He crossed his arms and regarded Louis incredulously.
Louis whirled around to look at him after he’d completed his task. The blue of his eyes seemed to slash through the room as they darted about, moving over Harry’s face like electricity and making his cheeks heat up. Louis kept standing there, his chest rising and falling visibly, clenching and re-clenching his left fist around something in his palm. He’d pushed back the sleeves of his jumper, and Harry watched as the tendons in his forearm shifted under his skin. Harry raised his eyebrows in a silent prompt for some kind of an explanation. It appeared that one would not be forthcoming.
“Okay,” Harry said after several more beats, rubbing his forehead and giving another little laugh, not sure how to proceed. “Um.” He shifted his weight and thumbed a stray lock of hair off his forehead. “Well, I’m Harry Styles,” he said slowly, leaning forward with an outstretched hand. “I’m, um. The -- the new interim conductor…”
Tomlinson snorted and rolled his eyes. “I know who you are,” he snapped, ignoring Harry’s hand. Harry burst into outright laughter at that, finally pushed into genuine amusement by Louis Tomlinson’s ridiculous behavior and not knowing what else to do. He didn’t fail to notice the little stab of satisfaction he got from the pink it brought to Louis’s cheeks.
Harry leaned back against his desk and crossed his legs at the ankles. “Oh. Okay,” he said, hand scrubbing at the back of his neck, still laughing a little in disbelief as he waited for Louis to make the next move.
Louis was just a bit uneasy now, standing awkwardly before Harry. He was still tense, his slight frame pulled taut like a bowstring, but the manic fury that seemed to have propelled him into the office had died out. He looked ever so slightly contrite (but also irritated at having to feel that way), and gave a rather exaggerated sigh before stepping forward and finally extending his hand for Harry to shake.
“Louis Tomlinson,” he said, grudgingly. “Concertmaster.” Harry felt a low-level buzz in his bones as their hands slid together. Louis was making eye contact with him, but it felt detached and distant, like he was actually trying to stare through Harry to the dusty green metal bookshelf on the opposite wall. A surge of annoyance replaced Harry’s amusement when he realized. He was strangely incensed by it, really, suddenly consumed by an itch to make Louis look him right in the eye, to make Louis fully acknowledge his presence. He tightened his grip on Louis’s hand just a shade as they shook, enough that he saw something flicker in Louis’s gaze.
“I know who you are, Mr. Tomlinson.” Harry kept his tone purposefully arch, letting it rumble out slowly, his eyes trained directly on Louis’s face. “Believe me, I remember.”
And then there they were, Louis’s vivid blue eyes, flashing up in surprise to burn right into Harry’s. Making Harry’s heart beat even faster as Louis snatched back his hand.
“I’ll see you at rehearsal, sir,” he said tersely, moving toward the door. He paused when he saw the score that Harry had plopped onto the desk earlier, his gaze moving quickly over the title. He looked back up at Harry and raised his eyebrows, clearly unimpressed, rolling his eyes one last time as he turned on his heel and swept out of the room.
Harry sat stunned and breathless on the edge of his desk in the empty office, unable to stop seeing the contempt in Louis’s last look. He let the shame it aroused in him squirm into his stomach and swirl together with resentment... and something that felt dangerously close to desire.
“No bite,” Harry repeated with a bitter chuckle. This was going to be interesting.
He was still keyed up from the encounter a few minutes later, when Liam stuck his head back through the door.
“You ready?” he asked. “Nick’s all set to bring you in.”
Harry nodded, getting to his feet. He patted the left breast of his suit jacket, feeling through the fabric for his baton as he tried to calm his nerves one last time. He made to slip out of the room behind Liam, but when he reached the door he paused, brow furrowing. There, next to the eraser on the blackboard ledge, were the keys to the office.
“Mr. Styles?” Liam called back to him.
And Harry went.
He stood to Grimshaw’s right while he was introduced, smiling in all the appropriate places and surveying the orchestra, taking everyone in. Harry had met some of these musicians in a professional or social capacity over the years, but most seemed familiar from the hours and hours of concert and rehearsal footage he’d watched over the past three weeks. Maria Santiago-O’Brien, the elegant Argentine first cellist. Fussy old Gerald Courtenay, at the front of the violas. Niall huddled up next to his stand partner, the formidable Grand Dame of the French horns, Gladys Howard. Zayn Malik, a slender line of black leaning against the wall at the back of the orchestra, timpani mallet twirling slowly in his hand. Harry couldn’t quite look all the way to the left, to the first violin section. His gaze kept veering quickly back in the other direction each time it approached the one person whose performances he had studied and pored over the longest while preparing. He thought he could feel Louis’s eyes on him from across the rehearsal hall, and the idea of it, of being under Louis’s focused and probably hostile scrutiny, made the hairs on the back of Harry’s neck prickle… made him shift his weight from foot to foot. Louis’s whole presence was a like-ended magnet to Harry; he could look everywhere but there, scared of finding out that he was right. Instead he moved his eyes over to Janet Ingersoll on oboe, to Nathan Sugiyama on trombone, and back to the cellos again.
“So please join me in extending a very warm welcome your new interim conductor, the wonderful and talented Mr. Harry Styles.” Nick finished with a flourish, sweeping an arm out toward Harry before leading the orchestra in a round of applause.
Harry felt a rush of excitement as he approached the podium, his worries about Louis falling away. The nervous energy that had been building inside him all day transformed from anxiety to anticipation as he finally took his place in front of the orchestra. His orchestra. He took a deep breath, hands clasped behind his back, beaming and waiting for the applause to die down.
“Hello,” he said, grinning broadly as he looked out at them. “Thank you. Thank you for having me.” The orchestra erupted into another round of applause and Harry ducked his head, smiling and waiting for the noise to subside again. He resumed speaking when it had.
“I came to see the London Symphony Orchestra for the first time when I was thirteen,” he said, clearing his throat. “Mahler’s Third Symphony, in Gergiev’s first season.” Harry paused and did a three beat impression of one of the more famous aspects of Gergiev’s conducting style, making an O.K. symbol with the thumb and index finger of his right hand and waggling the other three just a touch. The orchestra laughed.
“I’ll never forget. Never.” An unexpected amount of emotion unfurled in his chest, making his heart feel like it was expanding inside of him. “Seeing that performance had a tremendous impact on my development as a musician. It really spurred my interest in attempting to conduct myself.” He paused again and shook his head, smiling at the memory. “My mother couldn’t get me to shut up about it. I think I even requested a Valery poster for Christmas,” he chuckled. “Gergiev, right next to the Arctic Monkeys on my wall.” There was more gentle laughter, and Harry smiled out at them again. “More importantly though,” he went on, “before we begin, I wanted to make sure to express how fully aware I am of how massive the shoes I’m filling are, and how great the honor of being given this post is, even temporarily. I could not be more excited about this opportunity. So thank you, again, for having me.”
The orchestra broke out into a round of thunderous applause once again. This time Harry had to fight the urge to turn his head all the way to the left, suddenly and absolutely desperate to look at Louis Tomlinson, consumed with a desire to know if his applause was as indifferent and tepid as he imagined. If his blue eyes were cool and skeptical. He held out as long as he could, but the impulse to see was just too strong, and his eyes flicked over almost against his will.
Harry set his jaw at what he saw there, heat flooding into his cheeks. There was a challenge in Louis’s eyes, obstinate and almost taunting. Harry turned back to the orchestra, galvanized, his heart beating fast. Just you wait, Tomlinson, he thought. Just you wait. Whatever Louis Tomlinson had in store for him, Harry was ready this time. More than ready.