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my heart, in deadly rhythm

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BEFORE

'Cause I can see it in your hands
That you're not a fighter, but you've had your dance before.
So you'll keep the world at bay, keep your secrets and your scars.

Boy & Bear

Москвá (Россия)
27 4 2011
0900 hours

“Drop the gun!” the boy is shouting, and Louis wants to laugh.

Partially because the boy genuinely seems to think that Louis would rather be given orders in French than in his native English (butchered French, that is, Louis corrects, rolling his eyes because honestly, Laisser tomber le pistolet sounds like it came straight from Google translate), but primarily because his would-be assassin can’t be much older than, like, fourteen, with ridiculous curly hair tumbling out from behind a thick black scrap of fabric tied around his head. There are two ragged holes cut in the makeshift mask, revealing a pair of unearthly green irises, and the boy’s lips and cheeks are both flushed a soft pink color that only aids in making him look more like a nervous five year old little boy who’s found Daddy’s gun than an actual threat to anyone’s life.

“Why should I?” Louis asks tiredly, switching to English spoken in his nearly-perfected, neutral American accent.

His assassin blinks in surprise, looking so innocently cherubic under the bright, artificial lighting of the construction site that Louis almost feels sorry for him. The poor little doe-eyed thing should be in school studying to become a teacher or a doctor or something as equally mundane, not rather unsuccessfully trying his hands at murder.

“Ne pas jouet avec moi,” the boy replies hesitantly, trying his best to sound forceful; never mind that Louis’ calculated risk of death is approximately 0.1% seeing as the gun currently pointed at his chest is shaking just enough in the young boy’s hands to miss his heart by at least a centimeter. It might sting a bit, yeah, if the little killer can actually get a shot off, but Louis’ banking on the fact that a dozen much more qualified men— emphasis on the men— have attempted to take him out over the last three years and, judging by the state of his decided aliveness, none have actually succeeded.

Louis lets out another long-suffering sigh, not having the heart to point out that “jouet” is a noun, not a verb, and that “Don’t toy with me!” is a phrase so obviously English that it would immediately compromise Curly’s cover in any other situation.

“Je vais vous tuer si vous déplacez un autre centimètre,” the young assassin threatens, pointing to the gun in a ridiculous gesture as if Louis hasn’t realized that, yes shockingly, Curly has been sent here to kill him.

“Pas aujourd'hui,” Louis replies disinterestedly (in correct French), crossing the twenty meters between them in the blink of an eye. He’s disarming the poor lad with a bored flick of his wrist before Curly can even consider getting a shot off, and honestly chuckles a bit under his breath when the young boy stumbles back clumsily in surprise.

Louis takes a few steps back himself, a gun in each hand now, and raises both arms slowly to level them at the hitman’s own exposed vital points.

“Carotid or femoral?” he asks with a cocky grin.

He’s teasing now, having no actual plans to kill the boy if he can avoid it, but the unmasked fear in those supernaturally green eyes is just too naively sweet not to play with. Most of the people Louis ends up in confrontations with nowadays are sadistic veteran criminals without a drop of emotion left in their bodies. They wouldn’t even bat an eyelash had Louis produced three lit grenades from his pocket and started juggling. This, however, is a lovely and refreshing twist.

“Please,” the boy mutters, his voice dropping half an octave when he switches to what Louis can immediately recognize as his native tongue. It’s deep and husky and all-too intriguing, and he’d probably squeeze a few more details out of the youngster if he didn’t have a busy schedule to maintain.

“Left or right?” Louis continues with all his natural bravado, dutifully ignoring the plea, “I will warn you that I’m rather unfairly ambidextrous, though, so it won’t matter much which hand you choose.”

“Right,” Curly replies after a moment, cringing noticeably, though the fight hasn’t quite left his eyes.

Louis watches a bead of sweat trickle down the boy’s neck, pooling near his collarbones. He can read the growing tension in those neck muscles like a news bulletin (Attention! Impending attack!) and is thus entirely unsurprised when the young assassin launches toward him in one last futile attempt at finishing his assignment. Louis easily dodges the knife swipe to his side, grabbing the boy’s arm and spinning him around to forcefully press both hands behind his back. There’s a sharp crack (probably a fractured wrist) and his attacker cries out in obvious pain. Louis sighs loudly, really having hoped to avoid any unnecessary injuries.

“I’m not going to be as kind the second time around,” he purrs into the boy’s ear, reaching over his shoulder to press the blade just below the hitman’s jaw.

He can feel the poor thing trembling slightly beneath him, an almost imperceptible whimper falling from between those full pink lips. The sound, embarrassingly enough, goes straight to his groin, and he realizes just how sexually domineering of a position he’s ended up in: the boy’s arms pulled back behind him and Louis’ cock pressed into the crease of his nubile flesh. Louis swallows, allowing himself one friction-producing rub against the teenager’s jean-clad ass before pistol-whipping him soundly across the back of the head.

The curly-haired young assassin crumples to the floor, landing in an oddly-angled heap amongst the sawdust. He looks almost peaceful that way, eyes closed and lips parted wantonly, and Louis spends a second too long wondering what his face might look like behind the tattered black fabric. He finds himself momentarily mesmerized by pale skin and pink lips, reaching down as if to untie it, but quickly retracts his hand. He, better than anyone, knows a man’s identity is his dignity in this profession; he owes the boy some modicum of pride at least.

“Go home, darling,” Louis says flippantly, shaking those thoughts from his mind (though the boy is obviously unconsciousness and will be for quite a while).

He reaches down to pick up the other gun which he’d discarded in order to restrain his attacker, pausing a moment to admire the sleek black pistol, clearly of old Soviet military origin. He hasn’t had his hands on one of these in years, and wonders idly how a lanky British teenager got hired to kill for, presumably, the Russian government. And, more importantly, how they ever convinced themselves that the fluffy-haired, rosy-cheeked cherub was capable of taking out a seasoned intelligence officer such as himself. He sighs, tucking the Russian pistol into his waistband alongside his own treasured SIG p320. Leave it to the bloody Russians to hire children to do their dirty work…

Maybe I’m underestimating the kid, Louis considers, which is precisely the moment that a second knife goes whizzing past, nicking him right on the ear.

“You little shit,” Louis breathes, infuriated but also stupidly impressed by the young man’s tenacity.

He whirls around to see the boy propping himself up with his broken arm, face contorted in a grimace of pain as blood pools on the floor around him. Compound fracture, Louis notes, biting his lip sympathetically at the site of the pale white bone, raw and jagged, poking through the split skin just above the wrist. That’ll be a bitch to heal, that’s for sure.

He shakes his head once more, mentally chastising himself for having let his guard down so readily. Curly may be injured and in a lot of pain but he’s also attempted murder like three times in the last fifteen minutes, so it’s not hard for Louis to reassume his proper role. He reaches into his waistband to pull out the black pistol, smiling serenely down at the injured youth.

“What’s a boy like you doing with one of these?” he asks in flawless Russian, his lips quirked into a small smirk. He’s actually a teensy bit thrilled to be able to converse, if only briefly, with his newest enemy, bleeding ear notwithstanding.

Curly narrows his eyes, opens his mouth as if to reply…. and promptly spits on the ground at Louis’ feet.

“And to think I was willing to negotiate, even after you threw another knife at me,” Louis says sardonically, rolling his eyes at the look of pure contempt visible in the boy’s dark pupils.

“Выродок,” the teenager hisses, and now that’s just completely uncalled for.

Louis sighs again loudly, crossing the space between them in a few short strides, perfectly spacing his last step to come straight down on the boy’s already broken wrist. He applies just enough pressure to have the teenager writhing beneath him, and watches, with a practiced sort of dispassion, as the radius of the blood stain slowly increases, spreading across the old construction site’s concrete floor.

“I don’t particularly want to hurt you,” he remarks, lifting his foot ever so slightly to remove the compression off the wound, “but I certainly don’t trust you not to hurt me.”

He kneels down, steadying the gun and pressing it to the boy’s temple.

“It’ll be ruled a suicide, you know,” he notes idly, feeling the teenager’s muscles tense beneath him, “We’ll make sure of that.”

He should really stop referring to his assassin as “the teenager” considering Louis’ just barely an adult himself, but then again he’s really never heard of an agency employing anyone younger than eighteen for assassination purposes. Louis hates hit jobs, and usually avoids them, as there are plenty of more experienced ex-military snipers that love a bit of trigger-action every now and then. He highly doubts that the doe-eyed but admittedly feisty youth before him is old enough to have served a tour of duty, which rules out any military connections. Maybe Curly is a freelance agent… but to secure a contract with the Russians would mean that he was actually, well, good. And to have an established international reputation as a hitman at the tender age of fourteen, maybe fifteen years old, would be completely unheard of.

“Who sent you?” Louis questions impatiently, lightly fingering the trigger.

“Янебудуговорить,” the boy replies steadily, and of course he’s probably taken some ridiculous oath of silence in true KGB fashion.

“I’m afraid that’s the wrong answer,” Louis remarks with an easy smile, standing up and walking toward the warehouse door.

He passes several rows of rusty construction equipment, counts to ten, and turns around quite deliberately to shoot the boy— neatly and precisely— in the right toe. There’s a sharp, strangled cry and he can’t help but wince at the sound. It’s necessary, of course, to ensure that the hitman is completely incapacitated; nothing but standard procedure, shoot to injure not to kill. Curly almost took his head off with a knife while balancing on a broken arm; who knows what else the little shit could pull off with Louis’ back turned. He also can’t stick around and supervise, just in case the teenager’s probably quite thuggish Russian mafia/military associates decide to turn up on the scene. Louis may be a fucking awesome spy, but he’s definitely not equipped to take on a whole room full of angry Russians…

So Curly’s foot will be a tad messy for a bit, yeah, but he certainly won’t bleed out, especially since Louis’ already pressed the button on his mobile alerting his backup to his current location. He goes through the standard procedure in his head as he strolls leisurely to his assigned pick-up point near another abandoned warehouse in the industrial district. First, the boy will be arrested and treated at the hospital, then tried a few months or a year later for murder, espionage, and possibly treason if Louis’ hunch about British citizenship is correct. It will all be relatively quick and painless, and the Russians will deny their involvement vehemently in order to preserve their fragile connections with the rest of Europe and the United States, undoubtedly leaving poor Curly caught in the bureaucratic crossfire.

Ah yes, Cold War foreign policy still in place, Louis chuckles, because at least the decades spent on the cusp of nuclear war have given him a job to do.

His ride arrives right on time, and he’s at the airport in less than an hour (after a short stop at the hospital to have his ear disinfected and bandaged) boarding a private express flight back to Paris. He settles into his seat, gazing out the window and trying to wipe his mind of the still-fresh memories of butchered French, defiant green eyes, and crimson splatters.

Louis knows what it’s like to be raised in the service— hell, he was in Curly’s position just over two years ago— but he also knows that there are certain things that someone so obviously young should never be expected or required to do. To be trusted on a solo mission, especially one with such high risk, the poor thing must’ve been in training for years. He cringes imagining Curly at ten or eleven years old being taught to kill, learning how to be detached and emotionless and ruthlessly calculated, to regard each human life stolen as simply another bull’s-eye in a long row of targets. Of course, Louis’ done plenty of killing at this point, but at least he was trained with the emotional maturity to be able to do so and live with himself afterward. It’s likely that his young assassin is already suffering from some serious psychological damage, the sort that will only worsen once he’s imprisoned with the rest of the world’s worst international offenders. Louis closes his eyes at that, leaning back in his seat and letting his bone-deep fatigue finally overwhelm him.

The jet touches down in Paris a few hours later, and Louis is escorted by several Interpol officers to the Embassy of the United States on Avenue Gabriel. The mansion itself is lavish to say the least, with the classic Parisian architecture alone enough to drop jaws. It’s location on the Champs-Elysees in the heart of the city is comfortable enough to attract only the wealthiest American businessmen, lawyers, and former politicians; all appointed by the President himself and relaxing contentedly in Western Europe away from the real sites of international conflict.

Louis, a loyal Brit, does his best to contain his disdain for American foreign policy as he strolls into his supervisor’s office. He’s part of a pilot program of young agents which encourages cooperation between the American CIA, the British MI6, and the French DGSE, and unfortunately has spent the last six months being sent on CIA-directed missions from the program’s temporary headquarters at the American’s Parisian Embassy. He was trained through MI6 exclusively, of course, a fact which his American counterparts love to mock, as if their militaristic farce of a government isn’t despised by every other country in the world.

There is corruption everywhere, obviously, but the proud, overtly confident Yankees take it to an entirely new level. Their recent unnecessary intervention in “assisting” the Russian government in dealing with a pesky terror cell is very likely the reason why Louis almost ended up getting killed, and by a squirrel-haired child nonetheless.

“Louis, please, have a seat,” his supervisor says cheerfully, motioning to the solitary chair placed directly in front of the large antique mahogany desk.

Louis rolls his eyes and mutters an indignant reply in Swahili, just to be difficult. He knows it’s one of the only languages that his American supervisor has real trouble with, and can’t help but smirk in triumph when the man grimaces at his words.

“You could maybe try to be cooperative?” the American suggests tiredly, shuffling a few papers around on his desk, “I understand that you’re probably upset with us…”

“Okay, definitely upset with us,” he amends at the look that Louis gives him, “but we honestly hadn’t received a single intelligence report about the assassination attempt. We were as in the dark as you were.”

His supervisor ignores his resultant snort, and continues, “We’re working on securing a list of possible identities of the young killer, as well as determining whether or not he has a history of working directly with any specific terror cells or if he’s simply a hired hand.”

“I’d be willing to put money on the first,” Louis replies after a moment, pulling the Soviet rifle from his waistband and setting it on the desk between them, “These aren’t exactly easy to come by.”

The man’s face betrays no emotion as he carefully picks up the weapon and gives it a quick examination. Gingerly placing the gun on the desk once more, he says formally, “Thank you for your service, Agent Tomlinson. Take a few weeks off to recuperate. We’ll be in touch.”

Louis blinks once in confusion at the hasty dismissal, though he’s not important enough to escape nodding in acknowledgement of the director’s supreme authority. “Yes sir,” he replies just as ceremoniously, before standing up and backing slowly toward the exit.

His supervisor watches him leave with an unreadable expression, hands clasped atop the desk and back ramrod straight in his dark leather chair. There’s something in the man’s eyes, however, that suggests a hint of fear, of apprehension, and Louis finds himself wondering, as he walks back down the long hallway, what could possibly beget such a reaction from a man notorious for his steely stoicism.

He shakes his head, clearing away the thought. He’s just been given time off (a rarity in his profession) and dammit he’s going to use it.

***

NOW

You understand, they got a plan for us
I bet you didn’t know that I was dangerous
It must be fate, I found a place for us
I bet you didn’t know someone could love you this much

Big Data

 

서울 (한국)
28 6 2011
1500 hours

Louis is in Seoul, on his first mission since his deservedly long break, when he receives a text from one of the senior data analysts. The analysts occasionally serve as added security intel, assigned to monitor field agents’ whereabouts and provide vital information in terms of their assignments and their safety. His assigned partner is an incredibly anal, fellow Brit called Liam Payne (though that’s likely not his real name) who he knows the agency assigned him precisely because Liam reports his every mistake— even the most minor, like when he simply made a wrong turn walking down the sidewalk in Rio for god’s sake— with inhuman speed and frequency. Louis’ not exactly known for following the rules, but with Payne breathing down his neck 24/7 it’s kind of impossible not to. Although, for all that Liam is a childish tattle-tale of a robot, he’s also irritatingly good at his job and has saved Louis’ life more times in the last year than Louis would ever care to admit.

Louis keeps a watchful eye on his target in his periphery, casually sipping his oddly-colored Daechu tea as he swipes open the message.

Surveillance of hotel hallway shows an unknown party carrying a suspicious package entering your assigned quarters at 20:32 and exiting at 20:37. Suspect appears to have used keycard supplied by front desk. No evidence of forcible entry seen in attached footage. Currently working to identify possible witnesses.

Louis taps play on the accompanying video and watches as a male figure, clad in what appears to be a fitted black tuxedo and carrying something large and oddly-shaped, casually strolls up to the doorway of his hotel room, swipes the electronic key card, and disappears inside for approximately five minutes before exiting just as quickly as he came— sans package. Louis tries in vain to pause the footage at the exact moment the man’s face turns briefly toward the hallway security camera, but the video quality is thickly pixelated and he’s virtually unable to make out any defining features. He sighs in frustration, and sends back a message of his own.

Should I return to my room to investigate?

Not safe, Liam replies immediately, and Louis rolls his eyes. He could literally be contained in a bullet-proof, germ-proof bubble and the analyst would still deem it life-threatening.

We’ve called in a bomb threat response team to secure the area, Liam continues, Stay where you are and proceed with the mission as normal.

Yes mum, Louis responds just to be antagonizing, and slips his phone back into his pocket.

He ignores the resultant buzz of Liam’s probably quite indignant reply and focuses his attention back on his target instead— Korean male, 45 years old, armed and well-trained with unknown connections to the North and South Korean intelligence agencies. Louis’ been assigned to trail the man and map out his routine so that a planned abduction and interrogation can occur, preferably under the radar of both of the hostile governments he’s apparently been serving. So far, determining the suspect’s pattern of behavior has been laughably simple, aided primarily by a diagnosis of mild OCD Liam had dug up from an obscure copy of the man’s childhood medical records.

Louis knows after only four days, for instance, that his target arrives at this restaurant for lunch at precisely 14:13, sits outside on the patio at an isolated corner table, orders the same bland meal, drinks two cups of chrysanthemum tea while reading a newspaper, and leaves by 14:58. He doesn’t drive himself but instead travels only by hired car, a mistake that Louis and his team could easily capitalize upon by picking the man up in the same make and model of vehicle (equipped with a fake license plate and a doppelganger of its usual driver). Louis fights the urge to sigh aloud, and wishes for a mission that wasn’t so mind-numbingly effortless on his part.

Nothing interesting ever happens to me anymore, he bemoans, which is precisely the moment that his suspect collapses face first into his porridge, an artfully clean bullet hole in his shoulder staining his suit jacket a brilliant red.

The entire restaurant erupts into chaos with panicked citizens running around screaming wildly, some already in tears from their shrieking hysteria. Louis ignores the crowd’s reaction and stands slowly and calmly, making his way over to the victim. He can almost hear Liam chastising him for not clearing the scene, but he has no reason to believe that the assassin poses a risk to his own life. Whoever’s shot the man probably doesn’t even know that Louis’ undercover. The victim was working for the North and the South, after all; the statistical probability that at least one side would want him dead eventually heavily outweighed his chances of survival. Of course, his apparent death (after Louis checks his vitals) does make the whole interrogation thing a tad more difficult, but he reasons that a bit of investigating on the agency’s part will be able to determine who finally made the payment to get rid of the double agent once and for all.

He glances around briefly, noting the now empty restaurant and the faint sound of police sirens in the distance. Just as he’s beginning to examine the wound to determine the ammunition type and the approximate distance of the shot, there’s a light tap on his shoulder that has him nearly jumping out of his skin.

He whirls around to see a tall young man in a tuxedo grinning wildly back at him, an image that just as soon becomes a whirling blur as the needle in the man’s hand is jabbed into his left bicep. He feels himself crumple to the ground, swearing loudly, before being lifted up by a pair of strong arms. His head swims as he’s carried haphazardly over one shoulder, his battle with consciousness finally ending as his view of the restaurant’s concrete patio fades into darkness.

Well, shit.

***

2100 hours

It’s pitch black.

And quiet.

And his skin is swathed in a comfortable warmth.

Which is unusual given that he’s probably part of some daft hostage situation.

He blinks several times, swallowing against the fuzzy dryness in his throat (no doubt a byproduct of the heavy sedative he’s been administered), and sits up to examine his surroundings. His hands aren’t tied, he notes primarily, and there appear to be no other noticeable restraints.

He’s in a bed. His bed, he realizes with a start, the very one he slept in not a day before. Taking in the now familiar surroundings, he confirms that, yes, he has been taken back to his hotel room on the south side of the city. Which is also odd… Very odd, in fact.

Finally, he begins to examine himself for injuries and finds none that require immediate medical attention, only a bit of itchy redness on his upper arm surrounding what is presumably the injection site of the sedative. He highly doubts that he managed to fight off his attacker(s) and make his way back to his room on his own whilst heavily drugged, so he resolves instead to begin examining the room for explosives or a hostage note or a list of demands… Anything to explain why he was sedated only to be returned apparently unscathed.

Sliding out of bed, he tests his weight gingerly and finds that his muscles— though understandably fatigued— are still able to manage his body weight without perceptible weakness. Making his way around the room, he finds absolutely nothing amiss… the drawers are all empty, the bed is made, the bathroom is free of flammable materials… that is, until he lays eyes on a small floral bouquet perched on the side table.

The flowers themselves are a brilliant bluish purple color, suspended vertically along tall green stalks with oddly twisted petals. Mixed among them are smaller, similarly-structured stems, though these are dotted with tiny white blossoms instead. The latter Louis immediately recognizes as heather (a plant his mum used to grow in their back garden when he was young). The whole bouquet is tied together with ribbon and set in a clear vase, a small white card folded neatly and resting on the tabletop in front of it.

Louis approaches the table with caution, and quickly snatches the card from its place in front of the startlingly blue arrangement. He waits a long moment, expecting some sort of explosion to go off or perhaps an alarm triggered to alert the entire North Korean army as to his whereabouts; but, after five minutes of his chest heaving in anticipation, there is still only silence. He swallows, unfolds the card (with fingers that are absolutely not trembling, thank you very much) and reads:

There is a language, little known…

-          H

Which, yeah, okay… Whatever the fuck that means.

He supposes this mysterious “H” person is either the tuxedoed man who’d broken into his hotel room on the surveillance footage (maybe he was just trying to be romantic for his girlfriend or something and accidentally picked the wrong room) or the also tuxedo-clad man who’d drugged and kidnapped him at the restaurant before apparently placing him back in the same hotel room the other tuxedoed man had visited a few hours prior… or maybe they’re the same man… or maybe someone intervened and got Louis away from the kidnapper, returning him to his hotel room in one piece… but how would they know where he was staying? And why would they help him? And… Louis shakes his head, clearing away his thoughts before he gives himself an aneurysm chasing all the little leads forming in his brain. He’ll leave the theorizing to Liam; his only job right now is to get out of fucking Seoul before his cover is blown and the Koreans kill him too.

He pulls out his phone— left surprisingly untouched in his pocket— and takes a picture of the bouquet and the accompanying card, sending it to Liam with the most nondescript explanation he can provide. He tacks on “btw I’m alive” as an obliging afterthought.

I know you’re alive, obviously, is Liam’s immediate reply, written in a tone that is probably the closest Liam can bring himself to expressing vexation without feeling unprofessional, I’ve been monitoring your vitals for the last five hours.

Louis sighs at his own senselessness, remembering the bio-chip he’d had implanted in his arm when he started at the Academy years ago. He’s not going to let Liam taste victory that easily, however, and foregoes offering the polite thanks that Liam no doubt expects for his service.

Just tell me what the message means, smartarse.

He can almost hear Liam’s exasperated sigh through the phone, and smiles in self-satisfaction.

It’s from a poem published in London in 1875 entitled “The Language of Flowers”, Liam explains, a follow-up message appearing seconds later, also don’t touch the blue ones. They’re monkshood and incredibly poisonous.

Louis glares at the offending bouquet.

Who’s sending me toxic flowers, and why? he types back quickly.

I don’t think they meant to poison you, Liam supplies, although that would be a highly effective and nearly untraceable way to do it but I digress. The attached card suggests that the choice of flowers has significance. In Victorian times, floral meanings were very popular.

So I’m assuming the inclusion of the toxic bunch means they want me dead? Haha, so clever.

Not quite. Monkshood means “a deadly foe is near” and white heather is “protection”. Looks like ‘H’ fancies himself your savior.

So it’s not a threat? Louis questions, eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

Not as I interpret it, Liam replies, then, There’s a car waiting outside. Black sedan. See you soon.

Hopefully you won’t, Louis replies childishly, leaving the hotel room and closing the door behind him with an air of finality.

Hopefully I won’t, Liam agrees, and Louis chuckles in delight. It’s not often he can get a rise out of his stoic partner. He taps one final message as he slips out of the lobby’s revolving front doors and into the black sedan idling on the curb.

Love you, Li.

Of course you do.

***

The lights of Seoul fade from view as his plane ascends to the pilot’s prescribed 35,000 feet.

He spends most of the flight scrolling idly through the additional briefing documents that Liam’s provided. It’s a strange dichotomy of Victorian odes to flowers and their wholesome beauty, and lists of known assassins working for the Korean governments (or what the “Democratic” Republic up north likes to refer to as a government). Louis sighs tiredly and closes the email, leaning back against the head rest and shutting his eyes as the hum of the engines drone on.

He dreams, strangely, of unearthly green eyes.

***

Paris (France)
1 7 2011
0900 hours

Barging into the CIA director’s office whilst said CIA director is in the middle of an important meeting with the Libyan Ambassador is probably a bad idea, but convention has never really stopped Louis Tomlinson before.

“You let him go while I was in Korea?” he seethes, slapping down a stack of freshly printed files on his supervisor’s desk.

The man doesn’t even blink, just sighs tiredly at the interruption and motions the Ambassador out of the room with a muttered apology in Arabic citing “irritating subversives”.

“You don’t have clearance to access that sort of information,” he says calmly, as soon as the door shuts behind the diplomat with an audible click.

“Bullshit,” Louis hisses, “How could you release him on bail? He tried to fucking kill me not three months ago, or have you forgotten?”

“Agent Tomlinson,” the American states shortly, pulling rank, “We needed to explore the connections between the Russian terror cells and the assassin, so we offered up a deal.”

Louis clenches his fists, “I hope it was worth it, then.”

The American looks hesitant, but manages to inject as much of his usual disdain into his reply as possible, “That’s precisely why I wanted to meet with you, later, as in after I spoke with Ambassador Abbas, though I should’ve expected you’d weasel your way into this somehow.”

Swallowing, he continues, “The bail money didn’t come from the Russians nor did it come from any ethnic minority terror groups established in the region.”

Louis’ eyes narrow in confusion.

“It came from an anonymous donor, in an envelope stamped with now-defunct MI6 insignias.”

Well, that’s… a bad sign, to say the least.

“He’s one of ours then?” Louis breathes, heartbeat fluttering at the shock.

“He was,” his supervisor corrects, breaking eye contact to stare down at his hands, “or at least training under someone affiliated with the SIS.”

“But then how did he get involved with the Russians?” Louis asks, a thousand different possible connections forming in his head.

“It appears it was an elaborate ruse,” the American replies, shuffling the papers around on his desk out of nervous habit, “Teach the boy Russian, stick a Soviet pistol in his hand, and anyone would’ve jumped to a similar conclusion. We’ve spent months pursuing a false lead, which seems to be precisely what the perpetrators had hoped for.”

“But if the Russians didn’t want me dead,” Louis continues, “then who did?”

“You’re arguably the best agent we’ve got, Tomlinson,” the man replies, grimacing noticeably at having to issue such a compliment, “We believe someone’s attempting to dismantle the organization from the inside out.”

“Starting with my death at the hands of an ex-agent,” Louis nods numbly, fitting the pieces together.

“Exactly,” the American affirms, running a hand through his silvery hair, “though there’s been no further activity over these last few months. We’ve got contacts all over the world keeping an eye out for this boy, and no one’s seen anyone matching his description.”

Louis thinks back to the flash of defiance in those brilliant green eyes, and shakes his head. “He’s smarter than that,” he remarks, honestly, “You won’t catch him easily; not until his next big move, if there is one.”

“We know,” his supervisor responds simply, “but whoever’s behind this honestly expected you dead. The fact that you escaped with barely a scratch has significantly set them back in their planning; however, we’re very confident that they’ll strike again sooner rather than later.”

Louis nods again, acquiescently. “In the meantime,” he suggests, “you should have our best analysts searching records from all the youth academies, looking for any possible matches. I highly doubt our little killer was old enough to have actually been approved for field work.”

“We’ve got Payne on it already,” the man assures, raising a silver eyebrow, “which I presume is how you got access to this file of highly classified documents?”

Louis flushes.

“Don’t take it out on Liam,” he says, scratching the back of his neck sheepishly, “I did threaten the use of force if he didn’t hand it over, er, virtually that is.”

His supervisor looks only mildly disapproving when he responds, “I didn’t think for a second that Payne was directly responsible for the security breach, which I do get alerts on in case you’re planning to dig around the database again. I happen to trust him.

Louis, in a brief demonstration of his maturity level, just sticks his chin out stubbornly and frowns. “I’m quite trustworthy, thank you very much. The word ‘secret’ is in my job title.”

“Alright, James Bond,” the director replies, rolling his eyes, “Get out of my office.”

“Wait,” Louis says, pausing in the doorway, “any word on the Seoul situation?”

This time the disapproval is palpable. “By ‘situation’ are you referring to the events of last week in which you ignored safety protocol after your target was assassinated and subsequently found yourself drugged and kidnapped by some mysterious man in a suit who not only returned you to your hotel room unscathed but left you a romantic bunch of poisonous flowers?”

Louis winces. “Er, yeah, about that…”

His supervisor just holds up a hand to silence him, “I’ve already read the incident report that Payne provided.” He sighs, motioning Louis to step back inside the office.

“Look Tomlinson, you’ve got to be more careful,” he starts simply, ignoring the defiant look on Louis’ face, “I’m serious. You’ve been lucky so far, but the unforeseen attempt on your life and now this mysterious kidnapping aren’t looking good for your safety, or for the longevity of this program.”

“What are you trying to say?” Louis asks, attempting to decipher the director’s cryptic wording.

“I was going to wait until it was official to tell you,” the man responds, averting his eyes, “but there’s a hearing this afternoon.”

“A hearing?” he hears himself say, suddenly numb. That can really only mean one thing.

The director nods solemnly. “I’m petitioning for your temporary dismissal from the agency.”

And there it is: the sound of his entire world falling apart.

“Louis, listen,” his supervisor continues, the personal address so unlike him that is has Louis laughing bitterly in its wake, “It’s for your safety, like I said. We’ll be placing you in a witness protection program in the States, just until we can recapture the contract killer and settle the situation in Seoul.”

But Louis’ not listening to any of it; the only thing he can hear is the pounding in his ears as the blood rushes to his brain. He feels faint, swaying on his feet as the CIA director drones on, his clinical monotone fading in and out in bits and pieces of hollow reassurance.

“…maybe a year or two tops…”

“… it’s for the greater good…”

“…you need a chance to live a normal life…”

He can’t… It’s not… He’s been doing this for almost three years now. His life’s never been normal. His family thinks he’s dead. What is he supposed to—

***

1700 hours

Louis wakes up in a hospital bed, presumably after fainting like an idiot.

He rolls his eyes at the unnecessary medical treatment, trying to muster up the courage to yank the IV out of his hand like he’s seen in all the soaps. Louis actually really, really hates needles, and of course they’ve taped this one on just to make it even trickier to dislodge. His stomach turns and he gulps as he wraps his fingers around the plastic tubing.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a disembodied voice warns, shocking him enough that he almost does rip the IV straight out of his arm as he flails in surprise, “Infection risk, and all that.”

Seated in a kitschy mint green lounge chair in the corner of the room is a young man with classically handsome features, an awful buzzed haircut, and bulging arm muscles that are visible even covered by his long-sleeved white button-down. Louis swallows because, um, hello. Hot man in his room. Disregard the hair— which is entirely fixable— and alert all battle stations.

“Who the fuck are you?” he blurts instead, in what is possibly the least-smooth introduction to a conversation he’s ever initiated, and he frequently interrogates terrorists and suspected war criminals for god’s sake.

The man couldn’t be more unruffled by the profanity, however, instead smiling widely and leaping up from his seat to wrap his arms around Louis’ hospital gown-clad form.

“It’s so nice to finally meet you face-to-face!” the attractive hugger enthuses, babbling on excitedly, “You look exactly how I pictured you from your messages, except for maybe a bit shorter. My estimates based on your vitals were unfortunately a few centimeters off.” He pauses, eyes gleaming, “Did you know you’re quite strong for your size?”

Louis’ eyes nearly fall out of his head at the familiarity of the stranger’s teasing.

“Oh my god,” he ventures hesitantly, sitting straight up in the cot, “Liam?”

The man’s smile broadens impossibly and he gestures to himself with a nod. “The one and only, mate!”

It’s entirely possible that Louis has stopped breathing.

“Are you okay?” Liam asks, suddenly concerned, as the beeping of the heart monitor to Louis’ left accelerates to a probably unhealthy rate.

“I… yes,” he replies eventually, once he’s gotten his pulse back under control, “Just… wasn’t expecting to see you, like, ever?”

Liam just grins again, laughing heartily, “Me either, mate! But here I am! And guess what?”

Louis does not want to guess what. In fact, he would rather pass out again than determine whatever terrible, awful, horrible news Liam is so ecstatic about.

The man looks crestfallen for approximately two seconds (and Louis should really stop referring to Liam as “the man” considering that Liam’s clearly still a teenager and has a Britney Spears-eque buzz cut), but he continues on enthusiastically anyhow.

“We’re going to be living together!”

Louis has gone to hell.

He’s actually dead right now and is being forced to suffer through purgatory with the most anal-retentive human being in the entire universe.

“No, really!” Liam enthuses, apparently mistaking Louis’ horrified silence for pleasant surprise, “The Agency decided it at the hearing this afternoon. They found you a right posh flat in the States— New York City, if can you believe it— and got you a new identity and passport and what not, but then they were worried that you wouldn’t obey the sanctions, so they needed to find someone to protect you and watch over you and of course I was the perfect choice, like, I mean I’ve been watching after you for years and I can keep doing all my work from my computer so it’s really quite perfect, and we can be like best mates sharing a flat together even thoughwe’ll still be under the Agency’s protection, so like it’s all completely safe and fun! Isn’t it just wicked?”

Liam, Louis notes, speaks entirely in run-on sentences when not confined to his perfunctory, minimally detailed text messages. He’s kind of insanely thankful that his first few years of knowing the analyst were limited to interactions of like a hundred characters at a time. He might not have gotten a word in otherwise.

“Yeah,” Louis says eventually, refusing to meet Liam’s eyes, “Sounds great.”

Liam’s face lights up like it’s Christmas and he hugs Louis again tightly.

“New York here we come!” he cheers, immediately launching into another longwinded spiel about America and opportunity and bagels.

Misery, here I come, Louis thinks despondently, and promptly pretends to fall asleep just to get Liam to shut up.

***

New York City (United States)
3 10 2012
2100 hours

Living with Liam is sort of like living at home again— a sentiment that leaves him feeling vaguely nostalgic and also frequently annoyed.

He’s nearly twenty years old for god’s sake. He really shouldn’t be chastised for not making his bed or, as he is now for instance, for forgetting to let the dog back in.

They have a dog.

They are literally two young men living in an apartment together with a two-pound miniature Yorkie. Because apparently they are starring in a gay sitcom. And because Yorkies— which are already small dogs, what the fuck— apparently come in smaller, exponentially more annoying versions.

“She could’ve run off and gotten killed!” Liam is shouting hysterically, flapping one hand about while the other cradles the beasty little creature tucked safely against his side, “How could you be so careless about Danielle’s safety?”

The dog’s name is Danielle. Because Liam had a girlfriend of the same name whom he was forced to break up with when he started working for MI6. They were devastatingly in love with each other at the time and the whole thing was very tragic and blah, blah, blah… heterosexual sadness… and now he and Liam have a dog.

(Louis is of the professional opinion that anyone who authorizes assassinations and releases damaging personal information to the world on a daily basis should not be as grossly romantic as Liam apparently is, but he doesn’t say that of course, just rolls his eyes and sighs each time Liam complains that Louis has hurt Danielle’s feelings by yelling at her for chewing up his shoes or for peeing in his bed.)

“Liam,” Louis says calmly, “We live in a high-rise apartment. There is literally an enclosed balcony and one thousand feet of air beneath it preventing the dog from running away.”

“Don’t say that!” Liam gasps, and actually covers the dog’s ears.

Louis sighs from his perch in the living room area: a large leather chair already well-worn from the year of use. “Alright, alright, I’m sorry, Danielle,” he says long-sufferingly, and reaches out to pet the dog’s head. Danielle just growls in response and Louis retracts his hand quickly before she punctures his skin with her tiny vampire teeth and gives him some sort of incurable dog-borne disease. Because she would. Just to spite him.

“Thank you, Louis,” Liam replies primly and carts Danielle off to his makeshift office, where he will no doubt determine the fate of the world multiple times over (looking ever-so-menacing with a two pound dog wearing a pink bow perched in his lap).

Liam’s working with Agent Horan now, a cheery fake-blonde Irish lad that Louis had trained with at the Academy way back when. Horan works in the tactical weapons department and has the honor of trying out all sorts of new toys on each of his missions. The pairing of perpetually tense Analyst Payne and laidback Agent Horan is absolutely hysterical, and Louis can sometimes hear Liam shouting in the middle of the night about the dangers of using a grenade launcher after seven pints of Guinness or that fucking the Japanese assassin sent to kill a prominent Chinese politician is a gross appropriation of the “get to know your target” guideline in the handbook.

Agent Horan prefers to receive instructions over the phone as opposed to text like Louis did (something about it being more personal that way… gag) and his unconcerned Irish drawl can often be heard drifting through the apartment as Liam tries desperately to convince him not to do something reckless— tries being the operative word.

There’s a sudden, loud bout of cursing from the other room, which had shocked Louis at first because really, who knew Robot Liam possessed such a colorful vocabulary? Apparently, without a key pad in front of him, Liam has no restraints when it comes to really letting loose.

“Horan, no!” Liam shouts, “Do not touch the— you fucking touched it, didn’t you? What did I tell you?”

Louis just laughs quietly to himself, shrugging on his favorite faux-fur-lined denim jacket and grabbing his keys from the bowl on the entryway table. He sneaks out just as Liam launches into a lecture about the proper way to handle arsenic powder which— if the continued cursing is any indication— Agent Horan is paying absolutely zero attention to.

His feet hit the sidewalk and he pauses, breathing in the smell of people and trash and noxious chemicals. New York has a city atmosphere all its own, and though Louis will never treasure anyplace more than his beloved London, he finds that after a year spent perfecting the accent and screaming “watch it asshole!” at least five times a day he feels perhaps a little bit at home.

Liam, neurotic as he is, eventually got over his initial impression of the Big Apple as being altogether overwhelming and horrendously unhygienic, and now appears as any young Manhattan socialite with his purse-sized pooch and collection of designer suits (all purchased using his significant salary from the Agency). Louis himself is on paid leave so he’s not poor by any means, just lacking in the action and adventure of actually doing his actual job.

Which is why he’s on his way to his current, “second” job as a bartender in Brooklyn.

The place is called Sunny’s, an old saloon style bar that’s been in operation on the waterfront since the 1890’s. It’s absurd but he’s in love, and he still remembers the night he’d drifted off the beaten path and ended up in the artsy rough-around-the-edges Red Hook neighborhood. He’d stumbled into the dive bar on a whim, taking in the slightly askew, boozy, water-warped feel that tinged the block and every establishment along it. The hardwood floors were laid crookedly, the booths were ripped and worn, and every inch of wall space was decorated with remnants of a nautical past, but— to Louis— it was breathtaking. He came back every weekend for five weeks in a row until the owner finally got so fed up of kicking him out that he hired him instead.

“You might as well get paid to loiter this much,” the old man had said gruffly, and Louis’ been working Fridays and Saturdays ever since.

The local crowd is eclectic and fun and a nice break from the bourgeois atmosphere of the Upper East Side (which makes Louis feel important but also obnoxiously snooty at the same time). So, every weekend he leaves his and Liam’s spacious flat— apartment, he corrects in his American vernacular— and throws on something ratty looking, hopping the green line across the river into Brooklyn.

He greets the regulars as he walks in, tossing his jacket behind the bar and rolling up his sleeves. He’d been delighted to find out that the legal age to bartend in New York was eighteen, and that he didn’t even have to request another fake ID to work at Sunny’s (other than the one he’s already been using, of course). So here in Red Hook he’s Norris McMillan— Norri, for short— bartender extraordinaire.

He notices the unfamiliar face right away: a chubby-cheeked young man with dark hair perched on the barstool at the end of the counter, the place where all the newcomers sit to avoid catching too much attention from the rougher, local crowd. The boy looks hardly old enough for a drink, sweating nervously in his white button-down, his cheeks flushed a pale pink. The man up front has let him in though, so Louis won’t be the one to blame.

“What can I get you?” he asks, sidling up to the anxious costumer with a friendly smile.

“Gin and tonic,” is the reply, softly stuttered and almost inaudible over the din of the room and the live Bluegrass bland that has started up in the corner.

“Coming right up,” Louis assures, trying to coax some information out of the uncomfortable visitor as he mixes his drink, “So, what’s your name?”

The man looks startled at Louis’ attempt at conversation, tugging on his collar as he whispers, “Uh, it’s… Stan.”

Stan is very English and Louis sighs wistfully, the shapes of his lovely, long-neglected British vowels forming on his tongue. He shakes his head and reverts back to American mode, setting Stan’s glass in front of him with a practiced flourish.

“Well hey there Stan,” Louis replies cheerfully, “I’m Norris but you can call me Norri.”

He expects the question (Where’d you get that name?) and his easy answer (I was named after my great grandfather who came here from England), but Stan is absolutely silent in response, just nodding hesitantly like Louis’ name could be Prince insert-something-foreign-and-unpronounceable and he still wouldn’t have anything to say about it.

“What brings you to the area then?” Louis asks, barreling straight on. There’s never been a customer he couldn’t crack; he’ll get something out of this one yet.

“Just… trying to relax,” Stan replies hesitantly, and Louis nods empathetically as if he too is craving some repose and not biting at the bit for an adrenaline rush. Granted, his heart rate does get a bit elevated dodging through sketchy alleyways whilst exploring shortcuts to work, but that’s really as far as his adventurous side has been allowed to, well, venture.

Stan certainly is a nervous fellow, Louis can’t help but note, with an odd habit of slipping his hand into his left trouser pocket protectively as if he has something to hide. Louis dismisses his natural suspicion though, chalking it up to his training at the Academy and his ever-increasing number of near-death experiences… both having left him with a ridiculous but persistent paranoia.

Just as he’s about to ask Stan another question— and to refill his gin and tonic which he’d downed, poor thing, in two massive gulps— a large familiar hand grips him roughly on the shoulder.

“Hey Lou?” Sunny says, ever so gruffly, “Got something for ya.”

He presses a card into Louis’ hand, leaning in to whisper that it came from a gentleman across the room and to motion Sunny back over if there’s any trouble. Louis just nods in agreement, though his confusion remains as his boss returns to his usual corner table to watch the rest of the band’s set.

“I’ll refill you in a sec, alright?” Louis says, turning his back momentarily to unfold the card when Stan nods hesitantly in agreement.

Though the outside of the note had been blank and plain white in color, the inside is ornate in comparison, decorated with a print of familiar blue and white flowers all woven together to form an emblazoned letter ‘H’. Louis’ chest heaves in surprise at the sudden reappearance of what is apparently the mysterious H’s signature calling card, and he glances wildly around the room trying foolishly to find someone whose face he’s never seen. He examines the card again, folding and unfolding and turning it over in his hands; as if staring at it long enough will give him sort of clue as to H’s identity.

And that’s precisely when he sees it.

Printed in tiny dark lettering in the bottom right hand corner.

If you trust me, duck.

He remembers, then, what the flowers stand for— a deadly foe is near— and he’s diving underneath the bar just as the single shot rings out.

***

4 10 2012
0800 hours

“And in recent local news, a heroic undercover cop took out an armed attacker last night in a near-fatal Brooklyn bar fight,” the news anchor is saying, her face fading into a shot of Sunny’s bar surrounded by yellow police tape.

Louis lets out a shaky breath, having wondered all night exactly how ‘H’ planned to explain what should’ve been reported as a coldblooded murder of an apparently peaceful bar patron— a patron who was actually ‘Stan’ Lucas, a prominent and prolific British assassin (at least, according to the file Louis had bribed another analyst at the Agency to look up for him as he took off at a sprint out the pub’s back door).   

Liam doesn’t say anything for a moment, just clicks the television off and turns to give Louis a level look.

“I can only assume you were involved,” he remarks coolly, Danielle sporting a matching glare from her place in the man’s lap.

“I mean, sort of…” Louis hedges, biting his lip and staring down at his feet.

At Liam’s expectant eyebrow raise, he clarifies, “Well, I certainly didn’t shoot anybody if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Liam lets out a long breath he must have been holding for quite a while, though his tone remains as clipped as ever when he instructs Louis to explain.

“I know you think I’m incapable of self-control and that I was playing hero last night to get my fix,” Louis prefaces, ignoring the other boy’s weak protests because they both know that’s exactly what Liam first had in mind. That said, he launches into a probably longwinded and overtly detailed account of the incident, beginning with Stan’s odd behavior and ending with a single gun shot and Louis fleeing the scene. There’s no point in being concise; Liam will drill him with even more questions for the official write-up otherwise.

“So the mysterious H strikes again,” Liam remarks once Louis has finished the recap, expression a mixture of worry and intrigue, “and over a year later too. If he or she hadn’t apparently saved your life last night, I’d say you have a stalker on your hands.”

He pauses, looking thoughtful, “Or perhaps you still do. Just one who’s obsessed with keeping you alive for themselves.”

“H isn’t dangerous, Liam,” Louis snaps, surprising the both of them with his overt defensiveness. He kneads his thighs with his hands, voice softening, “He’s sort of like my secret admire, if you will.”

Liam raises an eyebrow at that, setting Danielle down on the floor as he leans back in his chair. The little monster immediately runs across the room and begins yapping at Louis’ feet, but he ignores her protests in favor of Liam voicing his concerns.

“A secret admire who leaves you creepy floral messages and somehow always know when you’re about to be killed?” Liam remarks doubtfully, “I don’t buy it, Lou. He’s got to have some sort of ulterior motive.”

Louis frowns, considering, “Point taken, Li, but what sort of nefarious reason would this person have for keeping me alive? It’s not like I’ve been doing any work lately.”

Liam rolls his eyes in apparent exasperation. “Louis, you’re the best agent in the program, arguably one of the best in the SIS, and you’ve managed to be successful on every single mission you’ve been assigned to over the last three years. Our track record together is impeccable and unmatched, even though you’re an absolute pain to work with, and with my help you’ve managed to piss off 99% of the world’s most prolific criminals. There’s always a reason to keep you alive, even if it’s just so someone else can kill you.”

There’s a beat of awkward silence as he and Liam both process the fact that an actual compliment has just passed between them. Louis only hesitates for a moment, though, before he’s leaping out of his seat and running across the living room to plop down in Liam’s lap. Looping his arms around his startled partner, he presses a wet kiss to Liam’s scruff and ruffles his now— thank the Lord— much longer and infinitely more stylish hair.

“I knew you loved me, you big softie!” he exclaims delightedly.

In response, Liam feigns being ill, shoving Louis off his lap unceremoniously. It does little to deter Louis’ affection, however, and he grins up at Liam even from his place on the floor, opening his mouth to begin the teasing anew.

He’s cut off mid-jest, unfortunately, by the sudden shrill ring of the phone in Liam’s office. He and Liam both look at each other wide-eyed for a split second before Liam is leaping out of his seat and darting into the next room. The landline is for emergencies only, and the fact that it’s ringing is definitely not a good sign.

He hears Liam speaking calmly and authoritatively, just the barest hints of fear present in his normally emotionless voice. It makes Louis nervous, listening to the panic grow as Liam’s voice does, louder and louder until he can piece together little phrases even through the soundproofed walls.

Liam returns to the living room fifteen minutes later, face haggard and cheeks flushed. Louis opens his mouth to ask, but the younger boy’s icy glare silences him immediately.

“Agent Horan’s identity has been compromised and he’s being held for ransom,” Liam says shortly, crossing the room in two long strides and falling back into his armchair.

Louis sucks in a breath from his place on the couch. “What’s his status?”

“Unharmed, as of now,” Liam replies, picking at a loose thread in the cushion, “but they’re threatening torture if we don’t comply.”

Louis nods, considering, “And the figure?”

“Twenty-five million,” Liam answers immediately, nodding in agreement when Louis whistles lowly at the price.

“But we’re not going to pay that, are we?” Louis responds, phrasing it as a question though he’s certain that the Agency won’t concede to the demands of the corrupt government regime or terror cell (or whoever/whatever it is that Horan’s managed to get himself captured by), at least not without a fight.

“Of course not,” Liam affirms, scrubbing a hand across his face tiredly, “The Agency’s got a rescue mission in the works already.”

“Right, good, yeah,” Louis remarks, a small smile creeping onto his face at that little detail, “and I’m assuming that you wouldn’t have clearance to tell me about any this if I wasn’t somehow involved myself?”

His smile widens exponentially as Liam sighs, apparently having been caught.

“They want you back, Lou,” he says begrudgingly, ignoring Louis’ loud whoop of success as he continues, “Our supervisor is apparently under the impression that, after the events of yesterday, you’re not any safer in New York than you would be out on a mission. Plus we’re nowhere closer to finding out the identity of the young Russian hitman since he’s not made any further appearances for nearly two years now.”

Liam pauses, taking in Louis’ manic grin and eager eyes.

“Listen Louis,” he warns, adopting his distinctly patronizing tone, “Agent Horan’s extraction is not going to be easy. There’s a reason they’ve brought you back just for this.”

“Oh spare me the motherly lectures on safety, Li,” Louis replies, rolling his eyes. He laughs delightedly at Liam’s affronted expression, bouncing in his seat with feverish excitement at the news, “I’ve been waiting a year and a half for those fuckers to come crawling back to me. Nothing you say could possibly detract me from this now.”

Liam sighs deeply, running a hand through his hair, “That’s exactly what I was afraid of.”

***

São Paulo (Brasil)
10 10 2012
0500 hours

The helicopter blades beat loudly overhead as Louis grabs the ladder, hoisting himself and the unconscious Irishman under his arm onto the first set of rungs.

“Louis, c’mon!” Liam is shrieking into his earpiece, “Detonation in twenty!”

He groans, throwing Agent Horan over his shoulder haphazardly and scrambling up the ropes with the speed and agility of, like, Spiderman or something. Seriously. He’s that fucking good.

“Eight seconds, Lou,” Liam warns, continuing to monitor the time, “I swear to god if you die on me right now. Seven, six…” His countdown is cut off, thankfully, by Louis’ arrival at the chopper’s open side door.

“Stop nagging and help me in, you bastards,” Louis grits, grimacing as Liam and the two snipers manning the doorway lift him and Horan up by the shoulders, tossing them— with rather unnecessary vehemence, Louis notes— onto the cabin’s metal floor. The door slams shut and the entire team appears to release a collective sigh of relief.

Louis, on the other hand, is absolutely buzzing. He can’t fight the manic grin that threatens to split his face in two; certainly not when, for the first time in nearly two years, there’s pure, unadulterated adrenaline coursing through his veins.

Oh yes, I’ve certainly missed this, he thinks gleefully, strapping himself into his seat as the helicopter takes off at breakneck speed. The minute but lingering sensation of anxiety in his chest fades after a few tense minutes when the pilot announces that they’re at least a half-mile away from the danger zone.

Louis opens his mouth to congratulate his team on a successful mission, but Liam cuts him off immediately with his patented icy glare.

“What?” Louis asks innocently, fighting another smile.

“Shut the fuck up,” Liam hisses in reply, wringing his hands like he’s considering homicide, though he thankfully settles on hugging Louis fiercely instead.

“Don’t you ever fucking come that fucking close to fucking dying again, do you fucking here me?” Liam is castigating, hands fisted in Louis’ t-shirt.

“Relax Li, I love you too,” he assuages, wincing at the deafening explosion that follows.

Liam leans back into his seat at that, some of the worry fading from his eyes as he gazes back at the scene. Louis glances out the window toward the city as well and sees the quarteirão ablaze, the sky above that little chunk of the city black with smoke and ash. At least they’d had time to evacuate the residents of that particular neighborhood prior to the mission’s inception; the kidnappers themselves certainly weren’t quite so lucky.

He turns back to face the group, immediately greeted by five sets of haggard faces and weary eyes.

Liam looks like he might faint at any moment, and Louis frowns, reaching over to grab his partner’s hand. The younger boy looks up gratefully, lacing their fingers together and squeezing tightly.

“Your plan worked perfectly,” Louis says softly, just loud enough to be heard over the hum of the chopper’s engines.

He shoots Liam a weathering look when the intelligence officer opens his mouth to no doubt protest the significance of his role in the mission’s development. “Spare me, Liam,” he requests with another roll of his eyes, “I know you’re responsible for all of this, and therefore are perfectly deserving of my congratulations.”

Liam averts his eyes bashfully but doesn’t protest, instead shifting his attention to the battered and bruised hostage— still unconscious in the seat across from them. A female medic kneels before Horan’s slumped form, treating his more severe cuts and burns while her male counterpart administers a concoction of fluids intravenously.

He can’t prevent the image that recreates itself behind his eyes: the basement’s penetrating darkness, the overwhelming stench of rotting flesh, and Agent Horan— Niall, he allows his mind to supply, one of his closest mates during training, so young and so painfully, perpetually happy— strapped down and screaming, always screaming… For ten days, he’d stared at the scene helplessly, disguised as a guard and waiting for the Agency’s signal. He’d cut them down mercilessly once it arrived, reveling in the pain in their screams and the panic in their eyes. He aimed for arteries and lungs, shooting each and every one of those Brazilian bastards without his usual clinical precision. He wanted them to feel it as Niall had and as he had at the hands of their South American brethren before, wanted them to bleed out, to suffocate, to die in the agony they deserved. He wanted—

“Are you alright?” Liam asks, dragging him out of the depths of his dark thoughts.

They both wince simultaneously, tearing their eyes away as the medics lift Niall’s tattered shirt to reveal deep, overlapping stripes of crimson. Louis bites his lip as he hears, once more, the crack of the whip that marred that pale flesh.

“What they were doing to him, Li…” he all but whispers, choking down the sob that threatens to shake free from his lips, “…when I found him that first day, and I had to watch as—”

“Shh, don’t,” Liam interrupts, reaching over to rub calming circles across his back. Louis shudders at the contact, sinking into Liam’s side as his memories overwhelm him. The excitement of returning to field work has all but seeped out of him, the last of the adrenaline rush trickling from his veins with each shaky beep of the heart monitor the medical team has hooked up to Niall’s chest.

“I hacked into the video feed about three days in,” Liam explains after a moment, visibly swallowing at the sight of Niall lying across from them covered in bruises and blood, “I… I know.”

Louis nods shakily, focuses on his own breathing instead of the labored twitches of the Irishman’s beaten chest. He begins categorizing the mission’s successes, repeating a quiet mantra of in and out, in and out as he does so.

“I’m alive,” he repeats aloud, allowing himself a break in his grief to savor the words.

“You’re both alive,” Liam agrees pointedly, “Impossibly, but you are.”

Louis smiles softly at that, though the fatigue that has settled into his bones cannot be cured so easily.

“I’m going to sleep now, I think,” he says softly in reply, humming gratefully as Liam lifts up the armrest between them and gestures to his lap.

Louis sinks down slowly, snuggling against the younger boy’s broad chest and letting the waves of exhaustion overcome him. He hears Liam’s voice once more as his eyes flutter shut, a distant echo at the edges of his waning consciousness:

“Welcome back, Tommo. We’ve missed you.”

***

New York City (United States)
3 11 2012
1100 hours

When he and Liam finally return to their Manhattan apartment to pack up the last of their belongings, they find a large blue bouquet sitting on the kitchen counter.

Louis loads his gun with a practiced click, feeling absolutely numb as he callously shoots down the sniper sitting on the balcony of the building across the street.

“Thanks H,” he mutters as he zips his suitcase shut, the quickly approaching sirens begetting no reaction.

Liam doesn’t appear to be panicked either, just tired, as tired as Louis probably… or maybe even worse.

“I think we’re done here,” Liam says softly, grasping him on the shoulder.

Louis glances around one last time at the million dollar walls he once called home, then responds with a single abrupt nod.

“We’ll find H, I promise,” Liam assures once they’re safely tucked into the back of the cab, “I suppose we ought to thank him.”

Louis just shakes his head slowly at that. “I really don’t care about H right now,” he replies honestly, gazing out the window as the skyscrapers fly by in blurs of beige and grey, “Just tell me how Niall’s doing.”

Liam bites his lip, says, “He’s still in serious condition in an ICU in Paris, but they say he’s stable for now.”

Louis nods wordlessly.

“He’ll recover just fine, Lou,” Liam promises, placing a comforting hand on Louis’ thigh.

Louis smiles softly at the touch but it doesn’t reach his eyes. Liam doesn’t appear to notice, just pats his leg twice as he beams, “God, you were amazing back there though. Just incredible. They’re sure to send us somewhere nice and touristy in reward.”

“Monte Carlo,” Louis mutters, eyes trained on the street, “That’s what they told me this morning.”

“Sick, mate!” Liam enthuses, then adopts a horrendous New Yorker accent, “We’re back in business baby!”

Louis can’t help but snort at that despite his nagging feelings of guilt and anger over the mission.

“And this is why you’re the one behind the screen,” he teases gently, feeling a bit more like himself as Liam chuckles softly in response. He tucks himself comfortably against his partner’s side and says fondly, “But I wouldn’t dare do this with anybody else.”

***

Bogotá (Colombia)
19 6 2013
1100 hours

It’s been nearly a year since he was last in South America and Louis can’t say he’s all that thrilled to be back, especially with a very upset, internationally notorious drug lord pressed against his chest in a chokehold.

“Fuck you Tomlinson,” the man hisses, coughing at the pressure of Louis’ left hand on his jugular.

“No gracias,” Louis replies in Spanish, if only to infuriate the drug lord further.

The man’s next words aren’t as kind (involving madre and puta among other things) and Louis twists the knife deeper for posterity’s sake, waiting patiently as the life drains from the Colombian’s eyes.

A few minutes later and he’s wiping his hands on his black tuxedo pants, ignoring the dark smears of blood that appear in the fabric. He stoops down to inspect the body one last time, ensuring that the syringe and vial lay conspicuously nearby. Walking out of the warehouse with a spring in his step, he dials the number for the local— not to mention accommodatingly corrupt— police force.

“En… encontré un cuerpo,” he stutters with faux-nervousness, as he delivers yet another Oscar-worthy performance.

(He’s thankful that his Machiavellian grin can’t be seen through the phone; the expression would probably ruin the effect.)

He answers a few more questions as he waits for his getaway ride: personal information (all made up, of course), where when and how he found the body, description of the victim, et cetera, et cetera… When they finally ask him what the cause of death appears to be, he’s quick to ramble off a short list of possible ‘medicinal’ culprits.

“Heroína,” he tells them, voice fading to a whisper as if he’s fearful of who might overhear, “Creo cocaína también, pero no recuerdo. Tuve miedo y corrí pronto después yo vi el hombre muerto.” 

The explanation seems to satisfy la policía and they hang up a moment later, promising an investigation that will likely never happen. Two months spent in the cartel and Louis already knows the ropes when it comes to the Colombian law enforcement— mainly that drug-related violence shows up in the books as an OD every time, as long as the officers get their share of the profits that is. The death of one of the top suppliers will be harder to overlook, but a little pressure from the Agency combined with the compelling evidence “found” on the scene should ensure a clean result for everyone involved, pun unintended.

The loud rumbling of an approaching black van shakes Louis from his thoughts, and he hops in quickly as it sidles up next to the curb. He yanks the heavy back doors shut and settles onto the bench-like seating in the rear, rubbing idly at the maroon-tinted bloodstain that’s settled into his trousers. He’ll have to get those dry-cleaned before his next mission in Croatia. Stupid stab wounds and their messiness…

There’s a sudden loud cough from somewhere in his proximity and he jerks back up in surprise, his breath immediately catching in his throat at the sight of an all-too-familiar face.

“Zayn!” he cheers, an earsplitting grin finding its way onto his lips.

The dark-haired boy smiles back brightly, says “Lou” in an uncharacteristically fond tone reserved, he claims, for the people he truly cares about. Louis counts himself lucky to be included as one of the chosen few. Zayn is rarely demonstrative of any emotion, much less affection, preferring to complete his missions with silent stoicism in contrast with Louis’ witty James Bond-style remarks and dramatized aggression.

“It’s been too long, mate,” he remarks easily, thinking back to their last meet-up in Berlin in January. Neo-Nazis. Jewish temple. Nasty stuff.

“Couple months, yeah,” Zayn affirms, and Louis immediately picks up on the slight lilt in Zayn’s normally quite thick English accent.

“Afghanistan or Iraq?” Louis chances, feeling the shapes of long since used Pashto and Dari forming on his tongue.

“Iran,” Zayn corrects gently, “Standard reconnaissance.”

“Eh, Farsi, close enough,” Louis replies with a shrug.

Zayn rolls his eyes. “Actually, I was in a very rural region with heavy Turkish influence. It was mostly Azeri, and a bit of Tüurkmen.”

“I didn’t know you were versed in the Turkish dialects,” Louis replies, raising an impressed eyebrow.

It’s a ridiculous statement, really, since they hardly know anything about one another past their appearances and the names they’ve chosen to share. Louis is Louis’ real name, of course, although he’s gone by two different pronunciations over the years which complicates the records just enough for him to get by without changing it too frequently. Anyhow, he’d never confirm any of that with Zayn, or rather, his closest mate in the service— or fellow field agent in the service really, as the best mate title still falls to Liam— who happens to go by the name of “Zayn”. The level of secrecy is ridiculous but also necessary, especially when you’re very good at what you do (like Louis is, and like he assumes Zayn must be as well to be working for the Agency) and the baddies have the desire and the resources to kill you for consistently screwing up their plans.

“I am now,” Zayn says, grinning widely, and it takes Louis a moment to realize that he’s responding to his previous comment.

“I bet your Turkish was awful,” Louis teases, leaning his head tiredly against the van’s back doors, “You know people only listen to you because you’re infuriatingly sexy.”

“And you’re infuriatingly annoying,” Zayn replies immediately, though he doesn’t deny Louis’ claim.

Zayn, or Agent Adonis as he’s known around the office, is all too aware of the effect that he has on people, women and men alike, and shamelessly uses his godlike visage to his advantage. He’s also really fucking smart, Louis concedes bitterly, which is mostly irritating because Louis’ also really fucking smart, just decidedly less pretty than the English-Pakistani should-be Gucci model seated next to him in the back of a bulletproof transport vehicle. What an odd pair of mates they make, Louis thinks to himself with a smile, though he supposes he really can’t have any other sort of friends being in the service as he is.

“So what had you in good old Bogota then?” Louis inquires, wincing slightly as the van turns onto a bumpy unpaved road on the outskirts of the city.

Zayn’s a bit high-maintenance, if the size of his quiff isn’t any indication, and thus tends to avoid assignments that don’t come with the promise of five-star hotels and designer suits and fancy events in which his main task is to seduce the rich into giving him information. It’s no surprise that His Holiness Malik the Gorgeous gets a lot of information, and quickly too.

“Government deal gone sour,” Zayn explains, flashing his unnaturally white teeth in a way that manages to be both irritating and charming at the same time, “Went to a ball, gave a pretty girl the ride of her life, and uploaded the intel from the flash drive I swiped from her purse the very next morning.”

“You disgust me,” Louis remarks, ignoring the other man’s triumphant grin, “I spent two months as an errand boy in a local cartel, earning the trust of some bigwig they unimaginatively referred to as ‘El Jefe’. That particular entry-level position warranted me the nickname ‘Pequeñito’.” At Zayn’s resultant snort he adds, “Don’t laugh! It was incredibly demeaning!”

Zayn just shakes his head fondly, before asking, “So just reconnaissance, mate? Or a bust, or what?”

Louis hesitates, gesturing to the red stains on his trousers in what he hopes appears to be a casual manner, “Nah, took care of him, didn’t I?”

Zayn levels him with the same concerned, slightly patronizing look he’s been receiving from Liam for the last couple of months or so. Louis despises that wide-eyed, sympathetic bullshit and tells Zayn as much, receiving a deeper frown in return.

“Wasn’t gonna say anything, mate,” Zayn assures him, immediately contradicting that statement with a second troubled remark. “Just… you’ve been taking on a lot of those missions lately, haven’t you?”

Louis attempts a shrug of nonchalance, slumping casually against the wall of the van. “So what if I have?”

The olive-skinned man just shakes his head in response. “S’not any of my business what you do or don’t do, but I know you, Lou. I’ve known you since our days at the Academy, and all I’m saying is you sure hated all those assassination seminars back then— even begged off a few with claims of an upset stomach, if I’m not mistaken. So, what’s changed?”

Louis bites his lip and sighs deeply, having been so easily dissected by the raven-eyed agent before him.

“Last year in São Paulo,” he says slowly, noting the spark of recognition in the other man’s eyes, “They were torturing Agent Horan, and I had to sit there and watch, day after day, just standing in the rot and the filth and listening to the screams of all the people they had chained up down there. It unlocked something primal inside of me, Z, something that had me mercilessly tearing those fuckers apart limb from limb when the time finally came. I never used to like to kill the bad guys, you’re right, but after that I suppose I found my taste for it.”

Zayn is quiet for a long time, just staring back at him with those supernaturally perceptive pupils. Louis feels as if his skin is being stripped straight off his bones, layer by layer, peeled back relentlessly by a man he’s seen a total of three times in the last five years yet who still understands him better than almost anyone— even Liam, for god’s sake, who monitors his vitals and thus literally knows him inside and out.

“Your need for revenge-based murder is certainly not psychologically healthy,” Zayn states bluntly after his prolonged moment of consideration.

“Yeah thanks, Z, I’m pretty fucking aware,” Louis snaps, feeling immediately small and defenseless under the scrutiny of Zayn’s resultant glare.

“Horan’s fine, Lou,” Zayn says patiently, “He took a bit of time off and came back cheery as ever. He’s somewhere in the Arctic Circle right now, testing explosives on the ice caps and having the time of his life.”

“I know he’s fine,” Louis replies, thinking of the weekly text updates on the Irishman’s condition that Liam dutifully provides, “but I just keep thinking, you know, what if one of them somehow escaped? What if they’re still out there, angrily plotting their own revenge? What if they come back?”

Zayn stares back at him, eyes dark and brooding. “You can’t kill an idea by killing people, Louis.”

“Fucking watch me,” he snaps in response, opening the back door just as the van stutters to a halt in front of the airbase.

“See you next time, mate!” Zayn calls after him, apparently unperturbed.

Louis clenches his fists and starts up the stairs to the plane’s open cabin door. He glances down again at those damn bloodstains and finds them oddly metaphorical.

My thoughts are blood and darkness, crimson and black.

Violent.

***

Frankfurt am Main (Deutschland)
1 7 2013
1300 hours

“Please report any suspicious packages to the nearest airport official,” a voice says in German, echoing loudly across the terminal like some godly proclamation from the heavens above.

Louis is waiting in the airport for his connection to the Croatian capital city, listening idly to the conversations that float around him. He’s always found German to be an angry language, full of harsh consonants and oddly capitalized letters, but the tone of it today seems to reflect his mood perfectly.

“Guten Tag,” an older woman greets as she sits down in a seat nearby, arranging her multiple bags around her feet.

“Guten Tag,” he responds in kind, acknowledging her with a curt nod.

She pulls out a newspaper, the loud rustling almost drowning out the little chirp of his phone from within his pocket. He pulls it out, expecting a text from Liam or one of the other analysts. What he certainly doesn’t expect is a message from an unknown number with a very familiar picture attached.

I’d avoid Croatia, if I were you. –H

He actually snorts aloud at the audacity of his little savior. The phone number would be easily traceable if he were to relay the info to Liam; in fact, his partner could probably track down the phone’s date and location of purchase with a few clicks of the mouse. Access the store’s security cameras, zoom in a bit, and he’d have his H once and for all. It’s a tempting proposition.

His finger hovers lightly over the “forward” option, and he bites his lip, considering. Before he can make a decision, however, his phone is chirping happily again in his palm.

Please. Give me some credit, the message reads, and Louis can’t help the smile that tugs at his lips, I’m not that easy.

They say the whole world’s gone digital, Louis types back, though I didn’t expect it’d affect your floral delivery service.

There’s a prolonged pause before the bubble that signifies H’s reply appears again.

I could walk a lovely bouquet over to you right now, but I’m afraid I’m a bit of a chicken.

Louis jumps to his feet at that, heart suddenly pounding as he scans the waiting area for some sort of sign.

Sit down please, H sends him, the alert tone sounding once more, I want to talk, but I can’t risk it in person just yet.

Louis slowly sinks back down into his seat, the newspaper lady across from him staring back strangely over the top of her periodical.

Can I ask you a question, then? he types in resignation.

Depends on what it is, H tells him.

Louis lets out a nervous breath, sending the childish inquiry that’s been nagging at him since H’s first appearance. He’d always assigned H a male gender, feeding into his romantic and sexual inclinations he supposes, but he’s obviously never known for sure.

Are you a man or a woman?

Man, H answers, does that disappoint you?

Louis smiles lightly, says, Not at all.

There’s another long pause in the conversation, before his phone is chirping once more.

Oh. Good.

He frowns at the perfunctory response, considering his next question carefully.

Do you want to hurt me?

This time the reply is immediate.

Of course not, you dummy. I’ve dedicated three years to saving your life.

But why? he asks, pulse still racing.

I made a mistake a long time ago and I’m trying to make up for it. I know that’s a shit explanation, but it’s all I can offer you right now.

Louis blinks, recalling Zayn’s words on his last mission in Colombia— you can’t kill an idea by killing people— and thinks that he may understand H’s reasoning quite a bit more than the man must think he does.

I have a flight to catch, H sends abruptly, Stay out of Croatia. Please.

Louis looks around one last time, listening to the airport intercom rattle off his flight’s boarding schedule in a mix of German and English. In this moment, he’s faced with a dilemma: his duty lies with the Agency and his mission, but H has also never been wrong when it comes to attempts on his life. He briefly considers texting Liam but he’s not sure how the analyst would be able to convince their supervisor to bring him home (especially since said supervisor is only aware of the first floral incident in Seoul and nothing more).

The attendant calls his row to board and he stands up slowly, looking pensively down at the ticket he cradles in his palm. His mind pulls up a snapshot of the speech the director himself gave at the Agency’s inception, a little thread of truth that has stuck with him ever since: My life is worth less than the ones I have the power to save.

Louis gets on the plane.

***

Grad Zagreb (Republika Hrvatska)
2 7 2013
1900 hours

Louis isn’t a trained military sniper by any means, but he can aim and threaten to pull the trigger, which is really all this particular mission requires of him.

He’s camped out on a hotel balcony— a balcony attached to the room of a visiting Slovenian dignitary harboring documents that could incite another war in the volatile Eastern European region. Louis unfortunately doesn’t get to do anything as exciting as murder this time, just wave his gun about menacingly until the ambassador agrees to hand over the files. He’s got Liam in his ear monitoring the man’s location (currently still enjoying his dinner in the restaurant fifty floors below) and now all he has to do is wait.

He yawns, standing up to stretch his legs and to load and reload his handgun for the thousandth time. The sound of the clip snapping into place echoes off the ceramic tiles lining the balcony, and Louis repeats the action several times in the midst of his boredom.

Click. Snap. Snap. Click.

He sighs loudly, idly twirling the gun around his thumb as he gazes out over the sprawling capital city.

“I thought I told you to stay out of Croatia,” a deep voice remarks from the open doorway, startling Louis enough that he almost tosses his weapon over the edge.

He whirls around and raises the gun, pointer finger poised on the trigger and aimed at the heart. The intruder doesn’t so much as blink, however; just smiles softly, almost fondly, as if the thought of being shot from point blank range is somehow a comforting proposition. Louis’ eyes quickly take in the man before him, absorbing every centimeter of those long limbs, those plush lips, that mop of dark hair tied back with a ragged scarf… He feels his jaw fall open in surprise when his dick twitches slightly in his pants at the admittedly pleasant visual stimulation; his brain finally having caught up to his body that, whoa hey, the guy in front of him is, like, inordinately attractive.

“Hello Louis,” the man— boy, really, as he can’t be much older than eighteen or so— says cheerfully, green eyes twinkling. And good god, he’s British, Louis notes immediately, his heart leaping irrationally in his chest at the sight of a fellow countrymen (though, as previously stated, that’s not the only thing that’s been leaping).

Unfortunately, the mysterious fit Brit (!) interprets the silence as an invitation to take another step closer, triggering Louis’ automatic attack reflex tuned to react to even the slightest of flinches. Louis’ leaping from his perch on the balcony wall, restraining the man’s arms in the blink of an eye, and pressing the barrel of the gun against his temple with a practiced flick of the wrist.

“This… really isn’t necessary,” the young man grunts, and surprisingly manages to twist out of Louis’ grasp without exerting a significant amount of force. He darts to the other end of the balcony, breathing heavily, and somehow, impossibly whips out a gun of his own from the waistband of his surely-dick-suffocating black skinny jeans.

Louis’ hand stays steady as his eyes trace the long length of the man before him once more, all rosy-cheeked and unfairly, breathtakingly beautiful. He’s got legs for miles, an endless torso, and broad muscular shoulders all clad in inky black skintight fabric. Louis swallows. What he would do to be able to touch… It’s been so long, too long—

Focus, his mind snaps and he blinks back into reality, surprised when the delectable stranger addresses him first.

“Carotid or femoral?” the young man asks, though his voice has an oddly teasing lilt.

“I’d really prefer neither,” Louis replies immediately, tossing the gun into his left hand in order to hint at his ambidexterity. It’s a ploy, of course, but a good one, and it usually works to intimidate whoever he’s up against into giving him the upper hand.

The stranger just raises a curious eyebrow in response, however, a small smile gracing his sharp features.

“It’s my turn to ask a question,” Louis states, cataloguing the young man’s every movement. At the intruder’s resultant shrug, he continues, “Who the fuck are you?”

The stranger just laughs delightedly, a wide-mouthed, hyena-like cackle that threatens to split his face in two. “I’m H, of course,” he says, after he’s taken a breath to steady himself, “but please, call me Harry. No one else does, not anymore.”

Louis just gapes, unable to produce a single sound in response to the stranger’s pronouncement.

“What… what on earth are you doing here?” he splutters a moment later, having collected himself enough to force some English from his lips.

“You didn’t text me back,” H— Harry replies easily, that damn grin still plastered across his face.

Louis blinks, feeling suddenly woozy from this strange turn of events. He’s clearly in the presence of some deranged hotel worker or something he rationalizes as he vainly attempts to slow his breathing. Certainly this Willy Wonka-esque young man isn’t the same one that’s apparently been saving his life for years now.

“I think I need to lie down,” he mutters, fingertips pressed to his temples where he can feel a headache blossoming.

“Ehm, I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Harry says slowly, sheepishly shrugging in the direction of the suite, “There’s quite a bit of blood on the bed. Sorry.”

Louis is suddenly incensed, cheeks flushed red and eyes narrowed. “You killed my target?” he demands, voice raised several decibels.

“Of course I didn’t,” Harry replies with a wince, eyes trained on the gun in Louis’ shaking hand, “I killed the woman targeting you.”

And, oh. Well that’s…

Louis peers into the hotel room and sees that, yes indeed, Harry has dispatched of his apparent assassin, the little blonde thing lying at the foot of the bed with her throat slit neatly from ear to ear.

“You, um…” he stutters eloquently, lowering the gun to his side, “Right, thanks… thank you. That’s… good, yeah.”

“You’re welcome,” Harry responds cheerily, his impish grin having returned full force.

“What are you?” Louis blurts before he can stop himself.

Harry blinks, apparently unfazed. “Well, human, I’d like to think,” he supplies helpfully, a deep dimple appearing in his cheek.

“No, you idiot,” Louis says, sighing exasperatedly because, really, why does he always find himself surrounded by smartarses. “I mean what do you do? Who do you work for?”

“Myself, I suppose,” Harry replies easily, shrugging once more.

“Yourself,” Louis clarifies.

“Myself,” Harry repeats, shifting to stand with his hands folded behind his back, “I freelance mostly.”

“You’re a hired gun,” Louis deadpans, “You.”

Harry frowns. “You don’t believe me?” he asks, forehead crinkling adorably.

Not that Louis finds anyone adorable. Nope. Not him.

Okay, so maybe the whole ‘adorable’ thing is part of the reason why Louis finds this all so unbelievable. Harry somehow manages to look like a classic Greek sculpture, a six year old girl, and something Walt Disney might’ve dreamt up all at the same time— a handsomely chiseled work of art with rosy cheeks and a dopey smile painted on— but he lacks the domineering intensity one would expect from a trained killer. Louis’ mind just can’t seem to reconcile the two.

“If there weren’t literally a dead body on the carpet behind you, I’d never believe you’d have it in you to kill anyone at all, much less make a career of it,” he remarks honestly, “You remind me of like Bambi or something.”

Harry offers him an exaggerated pout, batting his big doe eyes like some sort of absurd half-puppy, half-princess hybrid. He might actually be an animation, Louis thinks, escaped from the Disney vaults or transported from an alternate dimension like in that Amy Adams movie. Louis is suddenly very concerned that there might be talking animals involved. Harry definitely looks like the type that would commune with the creatures of the wilderness… He probably thinks Grizzly bears are cute and cuddly.

“That’s part of why I’m so good at what I do,” Harry explains with a wink, interrupting Louis’ daydream just as it begins to include flower crowns and Shetland ponies, “People tend to underestimate me.”

Louis still isn’t entirely convinced that the bushy haired cherub before him is a lethal force, but another glance at Harry’s handiwork in the suite suggests at least some degree of experience.

“Why do people keep trying to kill me?” he bemoans, glaring when Harry snorts loudly in response.

“Are you serious, Louis?” Harry asks incredulously, laughter bubbling from his throat, “Every major criminal organization in the world wants you dead, and a whole list of politicians and businessmen too. God knows the Israelis and the Palestinians won’t agree on anything, except for when they both helped fund a mission to eliminate you.”

Louis’ left with his jaw hanging wide open at that little tidbit of intel. He’d known, of course, that he had somewhat of an international reputation, but to hear Harry— a complete stranger of sorts— speak of him so reverently is a bit of a shock to say the least.

“People know about me?” he questions, still a bit dazed, “About the things I’ve done?”

“Of course,” Harry replies immediately, voice dropping a whole-step lower when he teases, “That’s why I’ve had to save your arse so many times.”

Louis blanches, covering his reaction with a nervous chuckle. “Exactly how many times, would you say?”

Harry shrugs again, which appears to be his favored ambiguous gesture, and says, “Oh, I dunno. I usually just tip you off and let you handle it on your own, but sometimes when I know I’ll be nearby, like today for instance, I do a bit of the dirty work myself.”

Louis frowns deeply, having thought that Harry’s direct interference today was the first time, certainly not one of many.

“If you weren’t so inexplicably committed to keeping me alive,” he ventures carefully, “how likely is it that I would’ve already been long dead?”

Harry frowns back at him, and says, suddenly impassioned, “You’re brilliant at what you do, Louis. You’ve never needed my help.”

Louis laughs dryly, gesturing to the dead girl flopped on the floor of the suite, rigid limbs all in a tangle and her eyes a lifeless gray. “Clearly I do,” he snaps, turning away from the sight, “seeing as the combined force of three major world intelligence agencies has still failed, numerous times mind you, to warn me of my every impending assassination.”

“And to top it all off,” he continues bitterly, taking three steps across the balcony to poke Harry squarely in the chest, “My guardian angel turns out to be a fucking assassin with a savior complex.”

Harry just looks on calmly as Louis stalks back and forth in agitation, gazing down the bridge of his nose with those ethereal green eyes— eyes that seem to tug at the edges of Louis’ memory. There’s no way, of course, that he’s ever met someone as striking in both appearance and personality as Harry is before (except for maybe Zayn, who is striking in an entirely different way, hiding his brilliance behind sharp cheekbones and glossy hair). If Zayn is a raven, Harry’s an owl, wide-eyed and a little ridiculous looking, but captivating nonetheless.

“I’m sorry, that was unfair of me,” Louis says softly, Harry’s eyes lightening perceptibly at his apology, “I’m just frustrated that we’re apparently the only two people in the world who can do their jobs correctly.”

Harry seems to briefly consider this, but ultimately shakes his head in disagreement.

“Your people couldn’t do their jobs correctly because they don’t have access to the sort of information that I do,” Harry replies after a moment, swiping a hand through his thick tangle of curls, “I’m not a good guy, by any means, Louis. I kill people for money because it gives me a thrill, and because someone I loved was murdered a long time ago and I apparently have a really stupid revenge complex. I have contacts just as your superiors do, clients from old jobs and other assassins and governments all over the world… but what the Agency doesn’t have is a trustworthy reputation.”

Harry grins, sweeping his arms out to present himself, “And that’s where I come in!”

“Right,” Louis agrees dryly, “and remind me what your part in all of this is again?”

“You’re one of the good guys, Louis,” Harry explains, voice taking on that strangely ardent tone once more, “You don’t deserve to die, not after all the good you’ve done and will do.”

“So, what you’re telling me is, you keep saving my life because it makes you feel better about being a fucking criminal,” Louis snaps, feeling oddly, immediately penitent when Harry’s entire body seems to droop at his harsh words.

“I can’t tell you the real reason why,” Harry says quietly, his emerald eyes suddenly dark and pained, “I just… not yet. I only just finally got to meet you, and you’d hate me if you knew the truth.”

The poor man looks so bloody dejected and guilty about the whole thing that Louis can’t help but begrudgingly accept his apparent need for secrecy. Despite Harry’s firm belief in his “goodness”, Louis’ done a lot of shitty things in his past too; plenty of which he would love to have erased from his record permanently given the chance. He feels like Black Widow— her greatest fear having always been her own regrettable actions catching up to her. Louis’ no angel; those red marks stain his file too.

He can feel the tension in the air, unspoken questions hovering between them. Their weapons, though hanging pacifistically at their sides, are still gripped by bruised, distrustful fingers. He feels like he’s suffocating, and not from the city’s smoggy air, but from the raw intensity of Harry’s gaze and that nagging feeling of familiarity.

“Harry, you’re an assassin and I’m a spy,” he jokes, trying for humor, “Now that we’ve established that we’ve both got a shit ton of emotional baggage, we could just relax and chat a bit like normal human beings?”

That said, Louis makes a show of slipping his gun under his shirt and relaxing into one of the balcony’s lounge chairs. The whicker creeks as he sinks down, his eyes trained on the young assassin’s still rigid posture. Finally, Harry’s shoulders seem to relax and he pockets his own pistol, choosing a chair, Louis notices, a step closer to the door than the one Louis himself currently occupies.

“Planning your escape route already?” Louis remarks, smiling softly.

Harry hesitates, a slow grin spreading across his own features, “Just watching the door, you know, in case anyone else tries to kill you.”

“I still don’t believe that you’re as prolific as you claim,” Louis retorts, surprised when his snappy comment comes out sounding more teasing than insulting, “though I can see why people trust you unconditionally. You look like a Cabbage Patch Doll.”   

“I do not!” Harry ripostes, touching the dimples in his cheeks, “Do I?”

Louis just laughs delightedly. “Yeah, love, you kind of do.”

“I am prolific though,” Harry mumbles sullenly, toeing the ground with his worn leather boots.

“Prove it,” Louis dares, leaning back in his chair expectantly.

Harry bites his lip and doesn’t say anything for a long while, his face fraught with conflict. Finally, he seems to make up his mind, announcing with confidence, “I bet you’ve heard of Benjamin Black, haven’t you?”

Louis raises an eyebrow, “Of course I have. He’s only the most notorious assassin in the entire world. The Agency’s attributed thousands of kills to him over the years. Bloody git doesn’t even belong to a side, just shoots indiscriminately for whoever’ll hire him.”

Harry nods agreeably, interjecting, “My lack of pattern does seem to frustrate people.”

“Right,” Louis says, “Like if he was predictable we could deal with it, but— wait, what did you say?”

Harry just gestures to himself, his grin almost blinding, “You’re not the only one with a reputation.”

The world, Louis swears, actually tilts on its axis at Harry’s declaration. Harry’s not… his H is not... There’s absolutely no way. He’s not given any further time to process, however, as his earpiece is suddenly alive with Liam’s voice.

“He’s unlocking his door, Lou,” Liam relays calmly, “Prepare yourself.”

Louis groans, leaping up from his chair.

“If you’ll just excuse me for a moment,” he tells Harry, unable to look the man in the eye, “I’ll be back right… I mean, fuck, right back… yeah.”

Harry opens his mouth as if to reply, but his words are cut off by the sound of the suite’s door clicking open. Louis just manages to duck out of sight, tucking into the little space between the bedside table and the bed itself. The ambassador walks in, undoing his cuffs and shrugging off his suit jacket onto the side table in the entryway. He moves calmly and methodically, Louis notes, as if his every action is planned out days in advance. Louis braces himself as the man walks into the bedroom and takes a startled step back at the site of the body bled out on the floor.

“Hello?” he calls out in Slovene, his voice remaining oddly measured despite the gore.

Louis begins to stand up from his hiding place behind the bed, but he’s yanked back down suddenly by Harry’s hand on his shoulder. He opens his mouth to complain but the glare the other man shoots him is enough to quiet his protests.

“Ah, Ambassador Kosovel,” Harry greets, standing up and making a show of brandishing his gun. His black headband is pulled down over his face, two small cut-outs baring those brilliant green irises.

Louis looks wildly between the towering, bearded Slovenian and Harry who, if he didn’t look like a string bean before, is positively dwarfed by the burly Eastern European.

The ambassador again shows no sign of surprise, and smiles, actually smiles at Harry as he says in heavily accented English, “You’ve done well, Black. Thank you.”

“You paid well,” Harry replies easily, gesturing to the corpse, “It was the least I could do.”

Harry’s grin is positively devilish, and so unlike the bashful quirky man Louis just spoke to that it’s actually giving him whiplash.

“I had thought they were sending a man for the files,” Ambassador Kosovel remarks, looking down at the obviously female victim.

“Change of plans,” Harry replies smoothly, holding out an expectant hand as he continues, “Now hand them over.”

The ambassador’s eyes narrow as he takes a defensive step backward. “This wasn’t part of the deal.”

“It wasn’t, you’re right,” Harry agrees in a tone of voice that leaves absolutely no room for argument, “but now it is.”

The man’s eyes flit around the room, searching for any possible escape routes. Sweat begins to pool on his neck as he tugs at his collar nervously, and Louis can see the resignation starting to develop in his submissive posture.

“Hurry up, would you?” Harry remarks tiredly, twirling the gun around his fingers, “I’d really hate to have to kill you myself after I’ve just saved your life and all.”

The ambassador visibly swallows and shoves a hand in his pocket, producing a USB flash drive which he waves in Harry’s direction.

“Set it on the table and leave the room,” Harry instructs, “There’s a ticket from Zagreb to Ljubljana waiting for you at the train station.”

The man nods once forcibly and heeds Harry’s directions, placing the flash drive on the entryway table and hurrying out the door. He doesn’t even bother to collect his luggage or even his coat, Louis notes, as the door slams shut with an air of finality.

Harry waits a long moment before turning around, but when he finally does so, his voice has returned to its slow, syrupy sweetness.

“Sorry about that,” he says pleasantly, tossing the flash drive to Louis who catches it in his hands with an expression of disbelief, “Couldn’t have you bumbling up the plan.”

“He called you Black,” Louis mutters, standing up from his place on the floor shakily as his head continues to spin.

Harry ignores his comment and continues, “Someone will be around to pick up the body soon enough, so don’t worry about that.”

He pauses, cocking his head as a low drone fills the room. “And there’s my ride,” he explains cheerfully, pushing the black fabric back onto his forehead and tucking his gun into his jeans.

Louis follows Harry numbly as he steps back out onto the balcony, a small personal helicopter descending into the narrow space between the hotel and the next building over.

“I’m so happy I finally got to meet you,” Harry says in earnest, pulling Louis into a tight hug. He releases him a moment later with a chummy pat on the back and a sunny, “Bye Lou!”

Louis looks on, paralyzed in shock, as Harry climbs onto the balcony railing and— without a hint of hesitation— jumps across the ten-foot gap, grabbing onto a flimsy-looking rope ladder that’s dangling from the chopper’s side door. The idiot waves, actually waves, gripping the ropes with one hand as the helicopter rises up and over the city.

“Your heart rate’s up,” Liam remarks suddenly, scaring the shit out of him even further, “Did you get the files?”

“What?” Louis mumbles distractedly.

“The files, Lou,” Liam repeats, “On the flash drive. Are you sure you’re alright?”

The noise of the chopper fades away as suddenly as it came, Louis’ focus returning as Harry finally disappears into the horizon.

“Oh, oh yeah, ‘course,” he replies, stuttering back to life, “Yeah, I’ve got them.”

“Excellent work Agent,” Liam says professionally, though there’s still a hint of concern in his voice, “and the ambassador?”

“On his way back to Slovenia.”

“Perfect,” Liam enthuses, voice all business once more as he relays the next assignment, “We’ve been called to respond to a security threat in Tivat. Our flight leaves in two hours. How’s your Montenegrin?”

“Probably not very convincing,” Louis replies honestly. He’s forever mixing up his Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian dialects.

“At least there’ll be plenty of time to perfect it on the flight,” Liam assures cheerily, and Louis just groans in response.

“Oh, and Lou?” Liam says lowly, “I detected at least one other body in the room with you. It could be faulty heat signatures from this distance but… Care to explain?”

Louis laughs bitterly, leaning against the balcony to look out at the darkening Croatian sky. He hears Harry giggling, cheeks flushed, the pistol in his hand so incongruent to the image that his mind almost forgets to add it in. Harry is a contract killer, he reminds himself, he murders people for money, accepts whatever job he can get, and he’s good at it— Benjamin Black— the best in the world. He’s completely and totally void of any morals. He’s so bloody dangerous it makes Louis’ heart race in his chest…

 And beautiful, his conscience supplies, so damn beautiful.

Louis had pieced it all together soon enough. Harry was supposed to kill him, hired by the ambassador as protection from the man sent to retrieve the files (aka Louis himself). But Harry didn’t kill him, did he? He actually warned Louis away from Croatia, a warning that Louis had stupidly refused to heed. So Harry killed a girl instead and left her body in the suite, or maybe that had been his plan along— to trick the ambassador into believing he was safe from the threat. But where did that girl come from? Was she a bad guy actually sent to kill Louis as well? An innocent passerby on the street? Someone Harry had a vendetta against and wanted to off anyhow? A leftover corpse from a recent job?

“Louis?” Liam asks again, his voice soft but probing, “Who was with you?”

Louis sees green eyes again, long limbs, a brilliant smile; he closes his eyes and tries to forget.

“No one,” he says simply, “I was alone.”

***

Paris (France)
5 8 2013
1300 hours

Louis, surprisingly, has a few weeks off.

A scuffle with a warlord’s thugs over a priceless blood diamond in Côte d'Ivoire has left him with a cracked rib and doctor’s orders to rest— as in no traveling outside the city for any reason no matter how much the Agency needs him sort of rest.

Unsurprisingly, Louis hates being injured. It makes him feel useless and antsy and vulnerable, and so it’s no surprise that when Liam had complained that they were out of milk, Louis was all too keen to volunteer to pick some up. Liam had made him promise to come right back and to text if he felt ill or needed a ride, Louis rolling his eyes throughout the entirety of the lecture. Finally, finally, Liam had let him go, and he hobbled down the stairs from their flat and out into the open air for the first time in days.

Louis, also unsurprisingly, is really bad at following directions. Which is why he’s currently jogging through the Jardin des Tuileries, having long passed the épicerie located just a few blocks from their residence. He loves running, loves the burn in his lungs and the movement of muscles as his legs carry his body forward, but this jog is more about pride than anything else. His chest is aching fiercely and his breathing is painful and labored, but he carries on anyhow, wincing with every step.

He’s just rounding the final loop to head back home when his phone chirps in his pocket. He slows to a walk, groaning at the angry message that Liam is sure to have sent him. Pulling his phone out, he blinks in confusion at the unknown number and the cryptic message attached to it.

Turn right.

He looks around wildly for the source of the text, but the park is heavily populated this time of day— chock full of meandering tourists and locals on bicycles and exercise classes on the lawn. He looks down at the message again, hesitantly typing a response.

Why should I?

Oh play along, Lou, the reply appears instantly, You know who this is.

The picture that follows is unmistakably a bunch of white heather.

Louis looks up again hopefully, his smile widening when he spots a familiar face amongst the crowd. Harry grins back at him, bright as sunshine, and motions for Louis to come his way. He looks different out in the open, casual and relaxed, with his hands tucked into the pockets of his still-tight denim jeans. He’s dressed in a pale blue button up shirt, though he apparently couldn’t be bothered to do the top four, and thus exposes a v-shaped area of pale skin that Louis totally does not spend several seconds admiring. He wears loops and loops of necklaces with miscellaneous charms, and just as many bracelets piled on to each wrist. His thick curls are again held back with a headband, though this one appears to be made of brightly patterned silk.

He looks ridiculously bohemian, ridiculously charming, and most of all ridiculously hot.

Louis almost giggles at the sight; Benjamin Black, the world’s deadliest killer, dressed like a hippie and surrounded by hundreds of clueless Parisians. Harry motions toward him again with a happy wave and Louis crosses the pathway much too quickly, his rib protesting at the sudden movement. A rogue cyclist cuts between them, Louis tripping forward and— because his life has apparently turned into a gross romantic comedy— right into Harry’s arms.

“Oops,” he mumbles in embarrassment, though not loudly enough to be heard over Harry shouting some choice French words at the errant man riding off into the distance.

Harry sets him gingerly back on his feet, smiling widely, “Hi.”

“Hi,” Louis says slowly in return, “What are you doing here?”

Harry shrugs lightly. “I had a few weeks off. Wanted to see you.”

“To see me?” Louis asks, frowning, “Why?”

The hitman just chuckles, reaching out to pinch Louis’ cheek with one massive hand. “You intrigue me,” he says simply, “and this job gets quite lonely, you know? The only interesting people I ever meet are either paying me or getting shot. It’s a bit depressing, if I’m honest.”

His smile is soft and teasing, dimples deep.

“How long can you stay?” Louis asks, his heart fluttering stupidly within his chest.

Harry frowns. “Just tonight, I’m afraid. I’ve got to be in Belgrade in the morning.”

Louis tries to ignore the irrational feeling of disappointment that flares in the back of his mind.

“Well then,” he says cheerfully, “How about dinner?”

***

They end up in a tiny, empty café in the heart of the city, one that Harry absolutely swears by.

The waiter greets Harry by name, or by Marius at least, which Louis teases him about mercilessly until he admits that, yes, he is a bit of a musical fan. The food is simple but delicious, and they eat surrounded by dim candlelight and two French singers crooning “Ne dis rien” on the antique radio in the corner.

Louis never realized until now how truly lonely he’s been, having run away from home as a teenager, picked up and taken to the Academy not long after he arrived in London. He has Zayn and Liam, and sometimes Niall, of course, but he’s never had anyone like Harry, who is beautiful and deadly and a terribly slow conversationalist, but fascinating all the same. Being with Harry is… nice, he decides. It’s refreshing. And nice.

They talk of places they’ve been and people they’ve seen, of terror cells that Harry’s killed for and that Louis’ disassembled. Anything that verges on being too personal is easily glossed over, and the conversation remains light and laidback, or as light and laidback as a dinner between a spy and an assassin can possibly be.

“How old are you?” Louis asks suddenly, interrupting Harry’s truly riveting story about receiving a lettuce in the mail.

Harry blinks, smiling easily. “Afraid I’m not legal?” he teases.

Louis rolls his eyes, though his body threatens to respond uncomfortably to that particular insinuation. “More like afraid that you’re actually a forty-year old serial killer or something,” he retorts, “using your youthful good looks to lure me in.”

“My good looks, huh?” Harry replies, raising an eyebrow as Louis flushes, “Though I do kill people, Louis, arguably in a serial manner, I promise I’m only nineteen.”

“No fucking way,” Louis blurts in surprise, because nineteen, holy shit. “What are you going to do when you’re like thirty?” he asks, flapping his hands about as he extrapolates, “You’ll probably be running the world with the reputation you’ve already established.”

Now Harry’s the one who’s blushing, ducking his head bashfully at Louis’ remarks. He looks even younger this way, bowed under the soft dusky light, all pink lips and porcelain skin. He’s kind of unfairly breathtaking, Louis thinks, and wonders if in some other life he could have let himself have this, could have reached across the table and cupped the boy’s cheek, pressed tender kisses along his jaw, taken him home and flattened him against the mattress, the sweet friction of skin on skin. Harry might let him, he thinks, if the circumstances were different. Louis intrigues him, after all.

His thoughts are poisonous, though, and he feels heavy with desire, weighted down in his chair even as his instincts scream at him to run. His muscles twitch. Harry is dangerous, a murderer, a liar. But then again, isn’t Louis too? The spy who kills and the assassin who saves, two sides of the same bloody coin.

“I didn’t want it,” Harry says softly after a moment, his eyes warily distant, “My reputation, I mean. I was young and angry and vengeful, ready to fight for what had been done to me. I wanted to kill, Louis. I wanted the blood on my hands. I chose this, this… life, and the money came pouring in, too much for me to justify refusing.”

He pauses, meeting Louis’ eyes, and Louis sees himself at nineteen reflected right back at him in dark emerald hues. “I just wish I could give it all up sometimes, you know,” Harry continues, ducking his head again to pick at the floral-printed tablecloth, “but it’s too late to go back, too late to forget all the things I’ve done. And I’m afraid, terrified really, that even if I could give this up, I’d realize once and for all that I’m not good at anything else.”

Louis doesn’t know what to say, just reaches across the table and touches Harry’s hand gently, hoping to offer some sort of comfort. Harry accepts the gesture with a hesitant smile, twining their fingers together atop the table. This version of Harry— so young and vulnerable and raw— is completely incongruent to the gun-toting master assassin that Louis met in Croatia. Harry had been so confident then, so clinically devoid of emotion as he threatened the ambassador’s life. Had Louis known it was really all an act, he probably wouldn’t have been so impressed. To mask the pain you feel instead of dealing with it is to have the pain with you always, and Louis knows what it’s like, keeping those feelings locked inside himself. He also knows what it’s like to lose control, in São Paulo for instance, when he felt the call to slaughter just as Harry had described.

“I wanted to be a teacher before all this,” he offers quietly, recounting a history he hasn’t touched in years, “was on my way to becoming one actually, until my family found out I was gay. My stepdad thought he could beat it out of me, fucking bastard, so I cashed in all my savings, bought a train ticket, and ran. A man found me about a year later, half-starving on the sidewalk in the city, and offered me a place. I had no other options so I agreed, and the Academy became my home. Not a day goes by, Harry, not a single day that I don’t wish to be something more than what I am.”

“But at least you help people,” Harry argues, tightening his grip on Louis’ hand, “At least you don’t kill in cold blood.”

Louis just smiles sadly, thumb rubbing circles on Harry’s wrist. His tiny palm is dwarfed by Harry’s own, and he feels a stupid sense of safety here, in their little piece of Paris, away from it all. But Harry will be in Budapest tomorrow morning committing a murder, and Louis will wake up in his bed alone, nursing a sore rib and a lonely heart. In nine hours, they will find themselves on separate sides of the line they cannot, will not, cross: Harry won’t kill him and he won’t turn Harry in and they will live like this, in precarious balance, stuck together on a tightrope and unable to move. He considers their hands, touching chastely, and selfishly wants more.

“I had an absolutely awful geometry teacher in secondary,” Louis recounts, taking one deep, jagged breath, “He told me that I would never amount to anything. He’s the main reason why I hated authority, why I distrusted any and every adult and always fought back with my words, and sometimes with my fists. My first week in training was hellish. I was angry and disobedient to the point where I ended up in the headmaster’s office. He was meant to expel me, to send me back out on the streets, but instead he handed me a gun and said ‘if you’re so angry, go kill someone’. And I wanted to. I thought about that stupid geometry teacher as I walked out of the facilities, I thought about him as I took a train back to my hometown, and I thought about him as I sat in his living room, waiting, with the loaded gun pressed to the back of my throat.”

He watches as Harry inhales sharply, green eyes wide and ethereal in the glow of the candlelight.

“He walked in and saw me there, grabbed the gun out of my hand and started screaming at me, telling me that my life and my capabilities were more powerful than the sadness I was feeling. I spit his words back at him— you’ll never amount to anything— and then I stood up and ran right out the door. I have no idea what happened to him after that, but that was the extent of my revenge. I hope with all my heart that he still thinks of me sometimes, still feels the guilt of what his words played a part in.

When I came back to the Academy, I placed the gun on the headmaster’s desk and told him that I had decided not to kill myself after all. From then on, I worked harder than anyone, graduated top of my class with honors and was employed by the government almost immediately after. But I still feel the pain, Harry, no matter how much I try to hide it. I still wake up every morning fearing that my geometry teacher’s prediction has come true— that I really have amounted to nothing. Sometimes I think he was right.”

Harry doesn’t say anything for a long while after Louis finishes, so long in fact that he lets out a panicked laugh, scrubbing at his moist eyes, and says, “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I told you that.”

This seems to shake Harry from his stupor and he reaches across the table suddenly so that both of their hands lie connected atop it. “I believe in you,” he says with such conviction that Louis forgets that they’ve only met twice despite having spent nearly three years crossing paths, “No matter what happens, I believe in you.”

Harry is a stranger but he doesn’t feel like one, and that’s probably why Louis says something as equally strange in reply: “I believe in you too.”

They finally leave the café around ten, lingering on the pavement together. There’s a decision to be made here, but neither of them will choose, and so Harry says “I’ll text you” like they’re friends who are both too busy to hang out very frequently instead of a spy and an assassin who are breaking all kinds of rules just by breathing the same air.

“Soon,” Louis says instead of goodbye, because he knows that neither he nor Harry will be able to resist seeing each other again, no matter how much they’re putting on the line.

Harry will find him, as he always does.

Louis believes.

***

He limps into the flat to find Liam on the settee, clicking idly through the television channels.

“Where were you?” Liam asks without looking up.

Louis just rolls his eyes and starts off toward his bedroom.

“Louis,” Liam says more forcefully, “Where were you?”

 “Out,” Louis replies shortly, whipping around, “I was out, Liam. Is that alright? You’re not my mum, you know? I can go out whenever and wherever I please without coming home to some… some fucking interrogation!”

“Do you know how many people would jump at the chance to kill you?” Liam retorts, throwing the remote onto the floor as he stands, “I know you think I’m this boring, anal stick in the mud, but at least you can trust me. I can’t trust you, Louis. I’ve never been able to trust you because you think that the rules don’t apply to you. You think you can go out wandering through the city alone and injured and you’ll be just fine. Well that might work for you, but I can’t do that, Lou. I care about you! You’re my best mate— god knows why at this point— but I’d be more than a little upset if I got a call telling me that your body’s been found in an alleyway or fished from the Seine!”

“I wasn’t alone, alright?” Louis replies, taking a step back into the living area, “I met someone. He took me out to dinner. It was… nice.”

Liam looks even more distressed by this explanation than by the thought of Louis being by himself.

“Louis, that’s wonderful, really,” he says carefully, eyes full of pity, “but you know you can’t… Not with what we do.”

“Relax Liam,” Louis reassures, ignoring the pang in his gut as he lies, “It was nothing. Just a meal and a conversation. I’ve been lonely lately so I snuck out and… I’m sorry.”

Liam nods, taking a step forward to wrap Louis up in a tight hug.

“I don’t mean to get upset; I just don’t want you getting hurt,” he apologizes as he pulls away, the guilt in Louis’ stomach growing even larger at Liam’s genuineness, “Will you be seeing this person again?”

“I don’t know,” Louis answers honestly, though he keeps his tone offhanded, “I think maybe I’d like to.”

Liam nods again, sinking back down on the couch with a sigh.

“Just be careful,” he requests, eyeing Louis warily, “Please. And end it before it gets too messy. I’m sure this mystery man won’t appreciate an induction into Witness Protection on your behalf.”

Louis hobbles a few more steps and places a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “I know what I’m doing,” he tells Liam confidently, though his heart protests loudly within his chest, “It’s just a bit of fun. Nothing serious. And he works a lot internationally as well, so he understands my schedule. He’s not the suspicious type.”

“Good,” Liam says with finality, eyes refocused on the screen, “I just want you to be happy.”

“Me too,” Louis all but whispers in reply, turning around and limping back to his room.

Of course he wants to be happy. More than anything.

He’s just not sure what it will take to get him there.

Or who.

***

Bruxelles (Belgique)
11 10 2013
1400 hours

“Please, Liam, please,” Louis begs, bouncing on the edge of his bed, “I’m not even on a mission. We’re here because you have to go to some lame ceremony thing at the EU headquarters which I’m not even invited to, and I’ll die of boredom alone in this hotel room otherwise. Plus I already bought my ticket!”

Liam ignores him as he has done since they checked in this morning, tying his tie in the mirror without so much as a shake of the head in reply. It’s been three days since Louis started his pleading, though, and he can see the cracks widening in the other man’s resolve. Liam continues to move wordlessly about the room, shrugging on his tuxedo jacket and checking his hair in the bathroom one last time.

Finally he turns around, sighing loudly, and Louis knows he’s won even before Liam says exasperatedly, “Fine. You can go. But absolutely no funny business, do you hear me?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Louis replies excitedly, leaping off the bed to press a wet kiss to Liam’s cheek, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

“Get off me,” Liam mutters, and Louis’ detaching himself from his partner, grabbing his own jacket from his suitcase, and darting out the door.

“Be careful, please!” Liam calls after him, poking his head out into the hallway, “And for the love of god, don’t accept any drugs from strangers!”

***

Louis arrives at the venue just as the opening act is finishing their set, managing after several more minutes to squeeze his way toward the front of the stage.

He loves The Fray, loves everything about them, but especially their song “Look After You” which he’d sung numbly to himself in his bunk at the Academy, night after night, choking back tears from his profound loneliness and the insane standards of his instructors. The Fray reminds Louis of his earliest weaknesses, and of the strength he found within himself to succeed even despite them. He’d purchased his ticket on a whim a month ago after Liam had mentioned a stop in Belgium the same weekend, spending all his time since then convincing Liam to actually let him go.

Now that he’s here, though, he can’t help but feel a bit lonely, even surrounded by thousands of fans screaming out the lyrics to “How To Save A Life” like their own lives are in danger if they don’t sing it loud enough. He settles in slowly, pretending that he’s just a normal twenty-one year old whose twenty-year old partner and best mate is not being honored in the UN building just a few streets over for preventing a large-scale war from breaking out in South America. It almost works, and he sings along for a few bars without thinking about the government-issue handgun tucked against his hip or the biometric tracking device buried under the skin of his forearm.

A boy to his left smiles at him invitingly, but Louis turns his head. He can’t let himself get distracted, focusing instead on the gentle lull of the music as the lights dim and the lead singer announces that they’re going to slow things down a bit.

“Think of someone you love that you’ve had to say goodbye to,” Isaac Slade speaks into the crowd, “Think of the pain of always leaving, of always being separated from the one person you want to be with more than anything. This is Vienna.”

The crowd cheers and Isaac slides behind the piano, giving a quick nod. The band launches into the opening chords, Louis' heart beating loudly in his chest as the lyrics to the first verse seem to leap out at him. He hadn’t meant to think of Harry when the lead singer had spoken, but he had seen the younger man’s face as clear as day in his mind. He tries not to dwell on it, tries not to think too hard about what that might mean. He likes Harry a lot, of course, but he doesn’t love him (not even after they’ve continued their little clandestine café meetings every time they’re both free). That would be foolish and impossible. And unbelievably dangerous.

The song reaches its climax, Isaac and Joe harmonizing on the chorus. Louis feels goosebumps as their voices soar above the crowd, joining in himself with his soft, hesitant tenor. His serenity, however, is transformed into momentary terror when a pair of arms wrap around his waist and a low voice sings softly in his ear, harmonizing perfectly with his own.

There's so many words that we can say/Spoken upon long-distance melody

“Harry,” he breathes, because he would know that voice anywhere, even amongst a screaming crowd of thousands. He spins around to find his vision flooded with green, green, green.

As always, he asks, “What on earth are you doing here?”

And Harry says, teasingly, “Had some time off. Wanted to see you. Plus, I love this band.”

“Me too,” Louis says lamely, still in shock, though Harry turning up wherever he goes really shouldn’t be so much of a surprise at this point.

They don’t say anything for a long moment, the loud music pulsating around them.

“I missed you,” Harry says, shaking his head like those words aren’t enough to convey what the months of separation have made him feel. But Louis knows. He knows. He feels it too.

He thinks again of that magic other life, where he and Harry have been dating for a year or two and he surprises Harry with tickets to The Fray’s concert in Brussels for their anniversary because Louis’ an incredible boyfriend and Harry deserves to be treated like the royalty he is. In this alternate reality, Harry would kiss him, pressing fingertip-shaped bruises into his arms in giddy excitement. Maybe he’s jumping ahead of himself but the beautiful boy behind him feels like it, like forever, but maybe he’s just lonely, so starved for attention that he’s fabricated some bizarre attraction to Harry all inside his head. They’re meant to be momentary, he tells himself, recalling his reassurances to Liam after their meeting in Paris all those months ago. Nothing serious. Just fun. Like a temporary tattoo— pretty for a while until it fades, scrubbing away in the bath without a trace. Louis wants a permanent mark; that thought he can’t deny, but all he has is now.

They listen to the rest of the band’s set in this tense, weighted silence, Harry’s wide palms never leaving their place against Louis’ hipbones as they sway in tandem to the music. He won’t give in, he tells himself. They’ll dance together for one more song and then he’ll leave, go back to the hotel room and tell Liam that the concert was great and wait desperately for Harry to find him once again. He’ll do that. He can do that.

Harry apparently has other ideas, however, and spins Louis slowly around just as the lead singer is shouting his final thank you’s into the mic.

“I’m going to do something really stupid now,” Harry says slowly, lips inches from Louis’ own, and now is the moment where he runs, where he mumbles a hasty goodbye and forgets Harry ever existed and goes on living his life as a very successful spy who doesn’t have some powerfully magnetic attraction to an annoyingly charming teenage boy who also happens to be the world’s most prolific assassin. This is the moment where he decides… where he—

Louis chooses easily, in the end, shoving his worried thoughts to the back of his mind. He rocks up on his tiptoes, whispers “I like stupid” into Harry’s ear, and then finally finally lets himself have what he’s wanted since Paris, since Croatia, since stupid poisonous flowers left in a Korean hotel room.

And, because Louis’ life is becoming even more like a romantic comedy than candlelit dinners in Paris, Harry kisses him right back.

***

When he returns to the hotel room around midnight, he’s surprised to see that Liam is still out.

He shrugs, too lazy to send a text, and collapses in a starfish atop the down comforter. His head is spinning and his limbs feel heavier than lead as he slowly tucks himself under the blankets. He wonders idly if you can get drunk on a feeling just like with alcohol, and decides that his flavor of choice would be soft lips pressed against his own or warm hands lifting his shirt just enough to grasp at bare skin.

It was a one-off, his conscience reminds him, one perfect kiss just to satiate his need.

People make-out with strangers in clubs all the time, right? And Louis knows that if he were to run into Harry under different circumstances, they would’ve gone way past a little lip action despite having just met. He knows this Harry, he reasons, has come to know him in bits and pieces for three years now. Knows his name and his fears and his profession, and that he’s broken in ways that Louis understands.

And now… now he knows how Harry tastes.

And that should be enough, shouldn’t it? His final curiosity satisfied.

He doesn’t understand why his heart keeps shouting, “More!”

***

A remote village (नेपाल)
23 12 2013
0800 hours

“You look happy,” Niall remarks as they go tearing down the mountainside, the explosions thundering behind them.

“No shit,” Louis replies breathlessly once they’ve stopped to rest behind a rocky outcropping, “We just managed to rescue two hundred young girls from a notorious sex trafficking ring, and icing on the cake, you blew up the bastards that were in charge.”

“Yeah mate, I know,” Niall replies in his thick Irish brogue, slapping Louis on the back, “but I meant that you look happy… inside. Like love happy. You’re all glowing ‘n shit.”

Louis feels the panic set in for a moment, but manages to laugh it off. “You’re crazy, Ni,” he jokes, “Who would I even be in love with? You’re pasty white arse?”

“Hey now,” Niall warns, patting his own bum, “I take this bit of me seriously. He’s sensitive.”

Louis breathes a sigh of relief, having changed the subject so easily, and continues their banter until Liam is radioing in to announce the arrival of their Cessna plane.

Louis feels ill as he gazes out over the destruction, not because he feels bad about killing sex traffickers but because it reminds him of Brazil and Niall’s hollow eyes.

“Hey,” he says, motioning for Niall to turn on his headset, “I’m sorry about São Paulo, about not acting earlier. I… I never got to apologize to you for that.”

Niall just shrugs. “You saved my life, Louis. Took a while, yeah, but I’d rather be scarred than dead, wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah,” he agrees softly, the weight rolling off his shoulders like water.

He smiles, leaning back against his seat to prepare for the long trip home. Wherever ‘home’ is these days. Paris, hopefully. It’s… growing on him.

His phone chirps in the airport as he, Niall and Liam wait for their connection flight, the screen displaying a single purple-blue monkshood blossom and the message:

Dinner at our café as soon as you land.

He grins ridiculously despite himself, hearing Niall snort loudly beside him.

“I told you, mate,” the Irishman teases, “Love happy.”

Louis really can’t be held responsible for his actions after that.

(But he hopes they bruise).

***

Paris (France)
24 12 2013
1700 hours

“Happy Christmas Eve!” Harry greets cheerfully as Louis slides into his seat.

Their café is warm and cozy as always, a string of lights around the door illuminating the few falling flakes of snow that melt immediately upon touching the ground. Snow in Paris is probably too much to hope for on his birthday, Louis thinks, and he tells Harry as much.

“It’s your birthday?” Harry exclaims, and Louis realizes then what a mistake he’s made.

Harry motions the lone waiter to his table, babbles something in French too soft for Louis to hear, and flashes a thumbs up as the waiter walks back toward the kitchen.

“What did you just plan?” Louis asks, eyes narrowed.

“Nothing,” Harry replies innocently, grinning even wider when the chef himself bursts through the kitchen doors not a moment later carrying a large pastry with a lit cigarette speared through the middle. It’s so very French that Louis can’t help the loud chuckle that escapes him, much to Harry’s delight.

They’re alone in the restaurant once more, so Harry, the chef, and the waiter sing Louis a mostly on-key happy birthday. He pretends to blow out the cigarette, handing it off to the waiter who sticks it in his mouth and sucks the last bits of tobacco out eagerly.

“Twenty-two now,” Harry says cheekily, “Quite old, innit?”

“I’m eating dinner with a child,” Louis retorts, and watches fondly as Harry sticks out his tongue.

“So how was Nepal?” Harry asks, stealing a large forkful of chocolate pastry off of Louis’ plate.

“Cold,” Louis replies, eyeing the missing chunk, “and cold. Also cold.”

“Warm, got it,” Harry teases, pouting when Louis fends off his second attempt at dessert theft, “Berlin was cold too. Weird thing called winter happening in this hemisphere right now.”

“Shut up,” Louis grumbles, waving his fork admonishingly, “It’s my birthday. You have to be nice to me. S’the rule.”

Harry raises an eyebrow. “In case you forgot, neither of us are much for rules.”

Louis pouts, sticking out his bottom lip and widening his eyes until Harry cracks and apologizes for his sarcasm and cake stealing. Louis blinks out of character, says “sucker” and shoves the last few bites of pastry into his mouth with a triumphant grin.

“I’m a sucker for you,” Harry jokes back, giggling as Louis groans at the awful pun.

“No, really,” Harry continues in earnest, grabbing Louis’ chin with one massive palm and leaning in to press their lips together. He hears Harry sigh loudly in contentment, tongue chasing the taste of chocolate and buttery bread around his mouth. It’s sweet. Harry’s sweet.

Louis’ not in love.

“Let me give you your present,” Harry mumbles against his lips, hand sliding beneath the table to softly palm the growing bulge in Louis’ jeans.

“Yes, please,” Louis replies between kisses, because there is a hot boy with a hand on his dick and he has really, really poor self-control.

“There’s a club a few streets over,” Harry tells him, standing up and tossing a large wad of bills onto the table, “It’s dark and anonymous and the loos are as spacious as they come.”

“Such a romantic,” Louis teases, laughing when Harry reaches across the table to tickle his sides.

They walk out of their little café together, Harry’s arm slung comfortably over his shoulder. The greyish falling snow is melting into ugly puddles all around them, looking garish under the yellow light of the streetlamps. Despite the sight, Louis can’t help but think that he’s never seen Paris more beautiful. He tells Harry as much and the younger boy just smiles down at him happily.

“The City of Love,” Harry agrees, and for the third time tonight Louis has to tell himself that the description does not apply.

They arrive at the club about ten minutes later, Louis’ hard-on having dissipated just enough to look socially acceptable. Harry pays the bouncer and they dart inside, hands and lips all over each other immediately after their scenic but sexually frustrated nighttime stroll.

Harry grabs his hand and tugs him toward the bathrooms which are indeed surprisingly spacious. Sliding into a stall and locking it shut, Harry spins him around to press his back against the brick wall. It’s hard and uncomfortable, but then again so are other things, and Louis is really not about to complain as Harry slides down to his knees in front of him.

Harry is insatiable when it comes to dick-sucking it seems and has Louis’ pants unbuttoned and his cock in his mouth in the literal blink of an eye. Louis takes a sharp breath as Harry licks one slow, teasing stripe up his entire length. He suckles the sensitive head for a moment before diving down to take Louis all the way, nose nuzzling up against the fine hairs at the base. Harry does some other equally as remarkable things involving his throat and his tongue, but Louis honestly doesn’t even remember most of them as he’s threading his fingers through Harry’s hair and coming in minutes like some bloody teenager. Harry swallows every drop, sighing happily as Louis reaches into his trousers to give Harry’s own erection a few sharp tugs. Harry lets out a deep, shuddering moan as he spills into Louis’ hand and they collapse against each other, breathing heavily. It lasts about five minutes all in all which is either really hot or embarrassingly juvenile, Louis can’t decide. His body decides for him in the end, thoughts clouded over by the post-orgasmic haze.

“I can’t believe we just did that,” Louis says softly, giggling into Harry’s neck.

He tears off a sheet of toilet paper and wipes his hand, tossing the soiled tissue into the toilet behind them.

Harry just mewls again happily, burrowing against his side.

It hits Louis again then, with the younger boy pressed warmly under his arm, just how much he wants this, whatever “this” is. Granted, they are in a dirty Parisian loo, which probably seems like an odd time for romantic realizations, but Louis feels as if he could conceivably be happy with Harry anywhere. Thoughts like these are the ones that scare him most, unsure as to what the depth of his feelings for the beautiful young assassin might be. He knows he’ll have to end this soon, that it’s more than just a bit of fun as he’d told Liam many months ago.

He can’t keep meeting up with Harry like this, but he doesn’t know how to stop.

They leave the bathroom together and head to the bar, sharing a few drinks each and stalling for time until Harry reluctantly announces that he has a flight to San Juan in three hours that he absolutely cannot miss. They walk out of the club together and stand inches apart on the sidewalk, just breathing in the last remnants of the night.

“Be safe,” Louis says before they part, rising up on his tiptoes to press his lips to Harry’s forehead.

The domesticity of it all surprises the both of them and they blink back at each other in surprise.  

“I… I will,” Harry says slowly, cheeks flushed pink from the alcohol and the icy winter wind that curls around them.

Louis doesn’t know what’s wrong with him, doesn’t understand why Harry makes him feel so strangely out of tune with himself. Like he’s living in a universe composed of just the two of them, where what they do doesn’t matter, where they have all the time in the world instead of a few hours a month spent pretending that it’s possible.

“Come back to me,” he requests, and it’s a foolish thing to say but it’s exactly what he feels in this moment. He doesn’t have to hide from Harry, he feels, not anymore.

Harry leans in to kiss him deeply one last time, those massive palms reaching up to cup his cheeks tenderly.

“You know I can’t resist you,” the younger boy replies once they break apart, his green eyes wide and raw.

“Tirana, Minsk, La Paz,” Louis blurts, naming off the locations of his known missions over the next few months. Liam would absolutely crucify him for revealing such sensitive information, but Liam also wasn’t the one who just sucked his dick so, hey, forgive Louis’ penis for not knowing where its loyalties lie.

“Shh,” Harry says, cutting him off with another toe-curling kiss, “I’ll find you. I always do.”

With that, he turns away, sliding into the sleek silver town car that has appeared on the curb. The windows are tinted black but Louis waves anyway, watching forlornly until the vehicle has driven out of sight.

He feels strangely empty, hollow even.

But he’s certainly not in love.

***

Nairobi (Kenya)
3 1 2014
1800 hours

“You do look happy,” Zayn remarks, wincing as their matatu driver slams on his breaks to avoid yet another collision.

At Louis’ inquisitive look, he explains, “I saw Niall about a month ago and he told me that you were all loved up. I didn’t believe him of course ‘cause you know… it’s you. But he’s right. You’re all pink and glittery.”

“I am not,” Louis protests, leaning out of the window to shoot at the motorcyclists currently tailing them before Zayn can reply.

“You absolutely are, mate,” Zayn argues calmly as soon as Louis ducks back inside, “Tell me who he is.”

Their driver curses loudly in Kiswahili, the matatu hurtling around a corner at breakneck speed.

“There is no ‘he’,” Louis insists, reloading his gun in one smooth, practiced movement, “Niall’s just a bloody gossip.”

“And I’m a Pakistani prince,” Zayn replies easily, leaning forward to tell their driver to take the next left, “Tell me who he is.”

Louis ignores him, turning around to see if their minibus is still being followed. Surely enough, the motorcyclists haven’t yet abandoned their pursuit, though they do remain several hundred meters back. Louis swivels in his seat to relay the news to Zayn, surprised when he comes face to face with the barrel of Zayn’s gun instead.

“You wouldn’t,” Louis gasps, watching his fellow agent’s eyes narrow.

Zayn’s finger slides loosely into the loop of the trigger guard as he threatens, “Try me.”

“Ok, so I’ve sort of been seeing someone,” Louis says hurriedly, shaking his head as Zayn smirks triumphantly and lowers his gun.

“For how long?”

Louis swallows, says, “Well, we’ve known each other for about three years now, you could say, but obviously I don’t get to see him very often.”

He watches warily as Zayn’s expression takes on the same one that both Niall and Liam had sported before him. “Louis, are you aware of how reckless this is?” Zayn admonishes, “If the Agency were to find out—”

“They’re not going to find out, Z,” Louis interrupts, glaring at his apparently traitorous best mate, “unless of course someone tells them.”

Zayn raises his hands in the air innocently. “It’s not my place to tell you what you can or can’t do, obviously,” he says, shrugging, “but I can advise you against relationships while in the service. I tried it, Lou, believe me, and it doesn’t work.”

Well that certainly piques Louis’ interest.

“Tried it?” he asks, noting the way Zayn’s cheeks flush pinky-orange atop his tanned skin, “With whom?”

“That really wasn’t the point,” Zayn evades, leaning out the door on his side to fire a couple rounds.

“Didn’t think it was,” Louis ripostes, shouting to be heard over the gunshots and the rumble of Nairobi traffic, “Who was she? Or he, perhaps?”

He was a fellow agent,” Zayn replies resignedly after a moment, “That’s all you’re getting.”

“He!” Louis exclaims delightedly, “And in the service too, how scandalous! Is your paramour still active?”

“I am not playing twenty questions with you right now,” Zayn replies shortly, snapping his magazine back into place and chancing a few more shots out the back window. There’s a loud squeal of tires as he mutters, “Got one.”

“Oh c’mon Zaynie,” Louis pleads, “Promise I won’t tell!”

Zayn sighs loudly, swiping a hand through his drooping quiff. “On a scale of now to when we’re a hundred, at one point is it likely that you’ll stop pestering me about this?”

“I’m prepared to continue my interrogation in the afterlife if necessary,” Louis replies instantly, letting out a loud whoop as one of his shots hits the mark and a second attacker goes spinning off the road.

“Niall,” Zayn says, so softly that Louis almost doesn’t catch it over the din.

“I’m sorry?” Louis asks, almost positive that he’s misheard.

“It was Niall,” Zayn repeats, expression unreadable as he takes out the last of their pursuers with a single, well-timed shot, “We went to the same sixth form college in the city before the Agency picked us up. We weren’t best mates or anything, but we belonged to similar social circles and knew each other well enough. It was a miracle that they wanted both of us, you know? That we got to stick together.”

Louis nods in understanding. It’s rare that any agent is allowed to keep contact with people from their past; many, like Louis, don’t want to, but some had loving families and friends before they were enlisted, like Liam whose sisters know he works for the government but not much else besides. He can see the spark of gratitude in Zayn’s eyes, however, and thinks how nice it must’ve been at just sixteen to have someone familiar along for the ride.

“I think I always knew that I wanted him,” Zayn says, voice dipping low as he turns to gaze out at the city, now illuminated as dusk overcomes them. “He was always so bright, so charismatic, making friends with anyone and everyone, lighting up the room every time he walked in. I was the opposite, of course— dark and quiet and always isolating myself. Niall brought out the best in me; he always has.”

Louis doesn’t have to ask what happened next, Zayn continuing on even as his voice cracks with rare emotion, “We fucked around at the Academy at first just casually, handjobs in the loos and the like. I told myself that I wouldn’t get attached, that I didn’t mind not putting a label on what we were or weren’t. But I fell hard anyhow. Of course I did. Niall is magnetic, electrifying, and he pulled me in deeper and deeper as our training went on.”

“I was with you all the time,” Louis interrupts, thinking back to the hours he and Zayn had spent lounging in the common room together or dicking around on the football pitch, “I never realized.”

Zayn shakes his head slowly. “No one did. I was careful to hide it from everyone around me, Niall especially. I was a coward, too afraid to risk it all in case I lost him in the process. When we finally got assigned to do actual field work, we hardly saw each other; Niall in the weapons research department and myself always out on reconnaissance. It was easier, then, to ignore the spark that had flowed between us untouched for so long.  I began sleeping with every girl and boy I could entice on my assignments, even after I’d already gotten the information I needed. I thought I could fuck him out of my system. I thought replacing love with lust would cure me of my dependence. Eventually, Niall heard about my new reputation as the Agency’s lothario and severed all contact between us. He only updated me on your own little love affair because he knew that I’d be seeing you soon and he was concerned that you were making a similar mistake.”

Louis blinks back at the dark-haired boy, unmoving, having never in his life heard Zayn speak so much in one go. “You still love him, though,” he says softly, reaching across the darkness of the minibus’ backseat to touch Zayn’s shoulder.

“Of course I do,” Zayn replies after a moment, shrugging into the contact, “but there’s nothing that I can do about it, being what I am.”

“You could fight for him,” Louis urges, “He’d take you back if you tried, I’m sure of it.”

“And then what, Lou?” the other man asks, voice tinged with bitterness, “We get trapped in the same vicious cycle again? Waiting months at a time just to spend a few hurried moments together? We’re spies, Louis, or have you forgotten? We work until we die, murdered or otherwise. There’s no room for love here.”

The words hit too close to home, knocking Louis over with the weight of their significance. Is that what he and Harry are doing? Allowing themselves to be trapped in a cycle of here and gone? Is he just one of many other men or women that Harry’s seeing? Is he even important at all?

“You… you can’t honestly believe that, Zayn,” Louis protests, more for his own sake than for the agent across from him who gazes back with dark, tired eyes.

“I don’t want to believe it,” Zayn replies quietly, “but it’s what keeps me from doing something stupid like chasing him halfway across the world just to feel his lips against my own one last time, like dropping a bomb on São Paulo and letting the entire city rot for keeping Niall in chains.”

Louis sucks in a ragged breath. “I’m not going to stop seeing him, Z. No matter what the rest of you keep warning me about.”

The lights of the city fade out behind them as they careen wildly across the open grassland, tires kicking up clouds of dust that glow luminescent in the reflection of the rearview mirror. The sky is wide and infinite above them, a million stars visible in the gaping blackness of it all. He hopes idly that somewhere a beautiful green-eyed boy might be gazing up at the very same celestial bodies, missing him too.

“I don’t want you to stop,” Zayn tells him honestly, threading their hands together for comfort, “but I don’t want you to get hurt either.”

“I’ll be alright,” Louis reassures him, though the sinking feeling in his chest has begun to grow, “and if it all goes to shit, at least I’ve got you, haven’t I?”

“You’ve got me,” Zayn avows, squeezing Louis’ hand in affirmation.

“Then that’s all I need.”

***

Louis gets a message from Harry the minute he steps off the plane in Paris.

Café again is too risky.

Agreed, Louis types back, Where next then?

The reply is immediate.

How about Spain? You’ve got time.

Louis’ still not sure how Harry manages to know his schedule so precisely, but he supposes, as the world’s most infamous killer, Harry probably has a few contacts who can keep him posted.

What’s my incentive? he sends teasingly.

He’s certainly not prepared for the reply, however, walking smack into the car waiting to pick him up as he reads the subsequent message in shock.

“Are you alright, sir?” the driver asks, and Louis waves him off, sliding into the backseat. He swallows, opening the message again to ensure that he’d read it correctly and not, like, hallucinated the words ‘fuck me’ or anything. And nope. There they are. Right at the end of the sentence.

A big soft bed in a posh hotel with me on top of it… kneeling on all fours and waiting for you to fuck me?

If Liam wonders why Louis doesn’t unpack when he returns, instead purchasing a last minute flight to Madrid and using their landline to call a cab, he doesn’t ask.

“If you need anything, please contact me,” Liam calls from the bedroom doorway, watching warily as Louis gathers his things and chooses a fake passport from their rotating collection.

“Love you, Li,” Louis says evasively in reply, wrapping his partner up in a tight hug.

“I’ll love you more if you come back alive,” Liam remarks, pushing Louis off of him.

“I’ll think about it,” Louis teases and then he’s out the door, Harry’s touch the only thing on his mind.

***

Madrid (España)
6 1 2014
0700 hours

He checks into the hotel early in the morning, the key card the receptionist presents to him weighing heavy in his hand.

He steps into the elevator just off the lobby and hits the button for the top floor, swallowing nervously as he begins his slow descent up, up, and toward the unknown. The room is marked with a gilded brass knocker and the number 1534 painted on the black wooden door in delicate gold filigree. He slides his keycard and hears the lock click open, pushing against the heavy door with shaking hands.

The suite is large and ornate, decorated in swathes of gold and cream and rich red. There’s a dining area and a modest sitting room (two ottomans and a large couch) but it’s the separate bedroom area that really catches his eye. Rounding the corner he takes in the romantic four-poster king draped in soft, cream-colored silk and topped with a virtual mountain of pillows. Louis takes three steps and dives right into the middle, sighing contently as he slowly sinks down into the cloud-like comforter.

“Enjoying yourself?” an amused voice remarks from the doorway, causing Louis to nearly roll off the bed in surprise.

He sits up quickly, angling his body toward the doorway and smiling at the beautiful man who stands there softly chuckling. 

“God, get over here already,” he says impatiently, laughing brightly as Harry mimics his swan dive with much less success. There’s a loud smack which is probably the other man’s head connecting with the left bedpost, confirmed when Harry sits up and pouts, rubbing at his temple.

“Graceful,” Louis teases, cut off by Harry’s lips attaching themselves hungrily to his own.

“I missed you too, H,” he giggles once they break apart, poking his bedmate in the dimple.

Harry swats at his hand in annoyance, continuing to pepper kisses down his neck and shoulders. He returns to Louis’ lips a moment later, and they spend several minutes just tasting each other after even more months spent apart. Harry is becoming impatient quickly, Louis can tell, gasping loudly when the younger boy begins to grind their hardening lengths together through their trousers.

“Hey, slow down,” Louis cautions, pushing at the boy on top of him, “There’s no hurry.”

“Don’t want to wait,” Harry murmurs in response, “Want you to fuck me.”

Which, yeah, okay… Louis can definitely get behind that. His body definitely doesn’t feel like they’re rushing things, even if his mind issues vague protests behind the haze of lust that’s surrounded it. If they were a couple—which they aren’t, he tells himself— this level of intimacy would logically be the next step.

“Do you have stuff?” he asks eloquently against Harry’s lips, sighing in relief when the younger man nods and points to the bedside drawer.

“Let me blow you again first though,” Harry requests, his pupils widened in arousal.

Which is also something that Louis can get behind because Harry’s lips were sort of made to be around a dick— his dick, more specifically. Seeing that Harry is still looking at him expectantly, Louis nods, biting his lip as Harry’s long fingers make quick work of his strained trousers.

Despite his initial rush, Harry takes his time on working Louis to his full firmness, long slow laves of his tongue along the shaft, wet kisses to the head… By the time Harry’s finally worked up to a quicker rhythm, head bobbing up and down, Louis’ hands are fisting the sheets and he’s babbling a nearly incoherent mixture of “fuck”, “yes”, and Harry’s name.

“Not gonna last,” he gasps after another painfully prolonged minute, tugging sharply on the younger boy’s curls. God, he loves Harry’s mouth, he really does, but the promise of something more has the warm feeling of arousal spreading across his entire body.

There’s an obscene pop as Harry detaches his mouth and places several more teasing kisses to the head which leave Louis squirming in response. Harry crawls slowly back up the length of his body leaving a trail of little bites that are sure to bruise spectacularly.

“Clothes,” Louis mumbles, hands coming up to grasp at Harry’s lithesome form, “Why are you still wearing clothes?”

Harry shrugs, smiling sheepishly, and begins to unbutton the plaid flannel draped over his bony shoulders. Louis takes a minute to appreciate another of Harry’s more casual outfits as he helps to remove it, the worn “hipster” apparel existing in such contrast to the fancy suits that he’s seen the younger boy don more often than not. Harry has to scoot to the end of the bed to peel off his signature too-tight jeans, complaining about how unsexy it is and that he’s sorry that he’s making Louis wait.

“I’d wait forever for you,” Louis says, unthinking, and wow if that didn’t make him sound like a huge creep... He opens his mouth to joke lamely about his stalker-ish tendencies, closing it slowly when he meets Harry’s eyes which sparkle back at him in the brightest shade of green he’s seen them yet.

“I want this forever,” Harry replies ardently, though his voice has faded to almost a whisper as he presses his now-naked form against Louis’ own.

The concept of a forever with anyone sends Louis’ mind into overload; behind his eyes, he’s suddenly bombarded with images of he and Harry sharing a flat, getting married, having three kids, two dogs, and a cat named after Liam… It’s a lot. Too much. He’s not in love.

“Turn over,” he commands, switching back into sexual mode. The lust he can handle… irrational thoughts of a future where he and his assassin lover lead a pleasant, normal life? Not so much.

Harry, thankfully, obliges immediately, and they readjust seamlessly until Louis is kneeling between the younger boy’s splayed legs. He reaches into the side drawer which is quite well-stocked with a seemingly endless variety of condoms and lube. It’s the perfect opportunity to tease Harry about being presumptuous, and he does so, relishing in the deep blush that colors the other man’s face. Selecting the most generic brands possible (a cheetah print condom and cheesecake flavored lube are just a little too wild even for him), he sets the chosen condom on the nightstand and rips open the lube packet to coat his fingers liberally.

“Have you done this before?” he asks cautiously, and feels relieved when Harry nods with clear enthusiasm. He also feels an irrational sense of anger at whomever has touched his boy here before, but he tries to push the jealousy to the back of his mind (and not dwell on the fact that he just referred to Harry as ‘his boy’ albeit subconsciously).

He leans down to press open-mouthed kisses to the insides of Harry’s thighs, feeling the boy relax contently beneath him. Gingerly circling the puckered ring, he presses one teasing finger inside, just to the second knuckle, probing gently.

“More,” Harry breathes almost immediately, and Louis obliges, slipping in a second finger and beginning a slow scissoring motion.

He searches for a moment, crooking his fingers until he’s found the right spot, an action affirmed by the obscene moan that leaves Harry’s lips. He works patiently to open Harry up, adding a third finger after a few minutes of light, teasing touches against Harry’s prostate have the younger boy grinding down helplessly on his hand. When Harry starts begging for even more, he unwraps the condom and quickly sheaths himself, emptying the last of the lube packet into his hand and giving his cock a few sharp tugs.

He looks down to ask Harry how he’d like it, but his words die in his throat at the image of the other man lying on his back and looking up at him through delicate lashes. He could kill Harry, he realizes, kill him right now and rid the world of one of its most fruitful murderers. It would be childishly simple with the hitman under him like this… laid out completely bare and vulnerable. Harry’s face is open and trusting and the intensity of his gaze has Louis’ throat suddenly desert dry.

What they’re doing is… it’s so…

Louis’ never risked so much for another person before. He’s risked his life to save people, yes, but that had more to do with it being his duty to the Agency than for any stupid emotional reason. Liam and Zayn and Niall are all important to him, but they’re his coworkers first and foremost, and his friends second at best. He doesn’t know anything about them; doesn’t know what their lives were like before the Academy, doesn’t know what their favorite colors are or what they like to do when they have time off… He doesn’t even know their real names (if Liam, Zayn, and Niall are actually aliases, that is). All he knows is what they look like in real life and what they look like on paper, just a list of responsibilities: data analysis, reconnaissance, and weaponry.

He doesn’t know them like he knows Harry. Beautiful, open, and honest Harry who exists in Louis’ world as a giggling, pink-cheeked cherubic fashion disaster, and not the cold, calculated killer Benjamin Black whose very name invokes fear in the heart of every man powerful enough to have heard of him.

He decided long ago that Harry isn’t dangerous, not when he’s constantly proclaiming his most important mission is keeping Louis alive. Maybe it’s foolish of him to trust an assassin. Probably even more foolish to fall in love with one…

But Louis’ not in love. This is just sex. Fucking. That’s all.

He’s not revealing his attention to detail when he remembers Harry complaining of a bad back and has him turn over on his hands and knees instead. He’s not revealing the depth of his care as he reverently palms the younger boy’s buttocks, which are thin and milky white like the rest of him. He’s not revealing his undeniable attraction when he pushes in ever so slowly and sees his vision erupt into stars.

He’s not in love.

Not as he snaps his hips, angling them just right so that he can listen to Harry keen again and again. Not as he leans forward to press tender kisses to Harry’s shoulder blades and wondrously long torso. Not as Harry’s chants of “Louis, Louis, Louis” make him want to forfeit all of his other responsibilities if it means he can have this, just the two of them, forever.

He’s not in love, later, as they explore the city together: eating dinner at a charming little tapas bar on the edge of the Malasaña district, strolling through the Parque del Retiro, and marveling at the ease in which they could commit a heist at the Prado until it becomes too great of a temptation and they stumble out of the museum alarming nearby visitors as they giggle loudly about the supposedly theft-proof Mona Lisa.

He’s not in love, even later, as they fall back into bed again and repeat that morning’s ministrations. When he’s kneeling before the other man, lips stretched raw and jaw sore, and it feels like the rightest place in the world… No, not then either.

And certainly not when he returns home to Paris five days later, meeting Liam’s worried gaze with his brightest, most dazzling smile.

He’s being foolish, and he knows it.

But he can’t seem to find it in himself to care.

***

الدار البيضاء المغرب 
16 2 2014
1300 hours

See, the thing is… Louis’ kind of really bad at not meddling.

He’s a natural born meddler, in fact. He likes to fix things— things that usually don’t pertain to him directly but that he feels he has the ability to aid in solving anyhow.

This is probably why he’s currently in Morocco, assisting the UN Human Rights Committee in some of the secret operations they’ve been carrying out in the Western Sahara since the early ‘90s. The Secretary General is issuing up a new report soon and thus needed a few agents on the ground investigating as to whether there has been any progress made in the region since the UN’s involvement.

Niall is with him, not because Niall is particularly skilled in reconnaissance (his loud Irish brogue is kind of the opposite of secretive) but mostly because he’s pretty damn handy with a pocketful of grenades and a machine gun. The cheery Irishman isn’t especially violent by nature but after one of their targets decides that, no, he doesn’t want to negotiate and instead shoots Louis in the leg, Niall certainly puts his marksmanship to good use.

So Louis is a meddler. And now he’s a meddler with a bullet in his calf and approximately less than 70% of the total volume of blood that’s supposed to be in his body. He’s really starting to hate helicopters, especially because this one is on its way to the nearest hospital and Louis also hates hospitals… possibly more than he hates trigger-happy Islamic extremists (which is kind of a lot right now).

“Almost there, Lou,” Niall says, making Louis wince as he jabs a needle into his arm, “Just gonna give you some medicine, alright?”

“Yeah,” Louis replies slowly, blinking in confusion because now there are three Nialls staring back at him with concern.

His leg really fucking hurts.

“Stay with me, mate,” one of the Nialls instructs loudly, and Louis groans. All he really wants to do right now is sleep.

“Let’s talk about you, okay?” Niall Two suggests, “You love that! How’s your boyfriend?”

Louis frowns, his thoughts all soupy and muddled. “I don’t have a boyfriend,” he slurs, tongue suddenly heavy in his mouth, “Zayn says… says dating when you’re a spy is bad. But he still loves you! S’weird.”

All three Nialls are frowning now.

“He said that he still loves me?” Niall Three asks, applying more pressure to the wound.

“Yep!” Louis replies happily despite his drooping eyes. The throbbing pain in his leg has begun to fade to a duller ache, though the rest of his body now feels light as a feather. He hears himself laugh giddily at the sensation of floating, but the sound is muffled and far away, like he’s submerged underwater.

“But Zayn can’t be your boy like… like Harry’s my boy,” he continues, yawning, “because… because it’s too hard, right?”

There’s a long pause as the three Nialls appear to silently confer with one another.

“Louis, listen to me,” Niall One says seriously and his eyes are blue, blue, blue… just like the water that Louis’ swimming in. “Just because Zayn and I were young and terrified and unable to get our shit together doesn’t mean that what you have can’t work out. Do I think that it’s a terrible idea? Yeah, mate, I do. But I can also see that this Harry kid makes you happy, and ‘m not ‘bout ta stand in the way of that.”

“Thanks Niall One,” Louis says cheerfully, clapping a hand to the first Niall’s back. He blinks in confusion when his hand passes through the air, and subsequently through the body of Niall One altogether.

He’s even more confused when he’s hoisted up into the air and carted off, the Nialls wholly disappearing from view. His mind, however, gives it no further thought as he himself drifts off completely.

He dreams of Harry’s voice, which seems improbable, but when he wakes up a day later with an aching leg and a cloudy mind, he’s pretty sure he’s not hallucinating the bouquet of white heather on the bedside table.

His IV drip fully-stocked with morphine may have something to say about that, but Louis still falls back asleep wearing a brilliant smile.

***

Paris (France)
23 2 2014
1200 hours

“Louis, come in, please,” his supervisor says, motioning to the chair that Louis’ occupied far too many times already, “How was Casablanca?”

“Hot,” Louis replies shortly, wincing as he slowly lowers himself into the seat, “Also I got shot. But you know that.”

“Right calf,” the man nods, not looking the least bit concerned, “How’s it holding up?”

Louis gives him a withering look, “It hurts like a bitch. Why am I here?”

The director hums, rapping his knuckles against the desktop.

“Well,” he says, clearing his throat, “Suppose I should get right to it, then.”

“That would be preferable,” Louis snaps, his leg having begun to throb in the uncomfortable wooden chair.

The man just rolls his eyes, folding his arms in front of him. “Long story short, you’re being detained. Indefinitely.”

Louis hardly spares him a laugh. “Ha ha, very funny.”

“I’m serious, Tomlinson,” his supervisor repeats, voice becoming even more lifelessly authoritative than before, “You met someone in Croatia. Someone by the name of Benjamin Black.”

Louis fights to keep his face neutral, his heart thumping loudly in his chest.

“Not only did you fail to apprehend Mr. Black, a man wanted by nearly every country in the world,” the director continues, his expression weighted in its solemnity, “you also neglected to report the assassin’s very presence to your partner Liam Payne, who is entirely responsible for ensuring your safety and the vitality of this program.”

The man pauses, then, looking at him expectantly. His silvery eyes are like bullets, magnified by the lenses of his thin golden frames. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

A long moment of silence passes between them, neither man willing to back down from the challenge.

“Benjamin Black saved my life,” Louis says finally, voice harsh and unwavering, “Multiple times, in fact. Times in which the Agency itself failed to protect me, failed to ensure my safety, as you said. Therefore, it is not hard to see where my loyalty lies and why it lies there. The Agency is my home, sir, but I simply could not condemn a man who chose not to condemn me.”

“You think he saved your life?” the director asks, laughing mockingly, “He tried to kill you, Louis, in Moscow, all those years ago. That incompetent little Russian thing whose arm you snapped, whose foot you shot instead of his heart in a moment of weakness, of blinded mercy? That was Benjamin himself, just a child then yes, but filled with enough rage and stupid naïve confidence that he accepted a job taking on you.”

“You’re lying,” Louis grits through his teeth, but he’s unable to ignore the similarities between his H and the young contract killer who’d fought so valiantly to take his life. He sees in his mind an image that cannot be forgotten, of Harry tugging that ragged black scarf over his face as Louis’ gut pangs with the sensation of familiarity. Harry wouldn’t lie to him. He wouldn’t. Would he?

“We made the connection easily enough, after your little Spanish vacation,” the man explains, “Payne was kind enough to keep track of you for us, and to afford us with your phone records and the necessary footage from your hotel room in Madrid when the time came. He was rewarded with a position on our senior staff, of course, for all the assistance he so readily provided.”

It’s an obvious barb, but a well-placed one nonetheless, and Louis feels his blood begin to boil, his fists clenching tightly at his sides. Liam, stupid bloody rule-follower Liam, has apparently betrayed him too. His best mate, selling him out for a fucking promotion.

“Sentiment, Louis,” the director says coldly, “is a chemical defect found in the losing side.”

 “There was no sentiment, sir,” Louis protests, finally succumbing to the man’s careful attempts to incense him. He has nothing left to lose, the two people he loved most in the world both having lied straight to his face, and so he too follows their lead, spinning an alibi out of thin air.

“Black’s too dangerous, too paranoid when he’s alone,” he explicates, putting on a hysteric tone, “He would’ve known if I reported him; he’s got contacts everywhere. He would’ve killed me, straight away, had I tried to fight him in Croatia. He would’ve killed me in Spain, too. You have to believe me, sir! I was… I was trying to make him trust me, so unconditionally that I could finally dispatch of him when the opportunity arose.”

“When the opportunity arose?” his supervisor mocks cruelly, “What better opportunity than when you had him on his back, hands empty, as you took him from behind? What better moment than to pull out a knife, reach over his shoulder and slit his throat cleanly from ear to ear? To watch dispassionately as he gasped for air, his hot blood soaking the sheets in front of you? What better time to end it once and for all?”

Louis cringes, shrinking in his chair at the graphic description, but the director continues on mercilessly, “No sentiment, really? Do you think I’m a fool? You loved Benjamin Black. You loved him so foolishly, so desperately, that you sacrificed your identity, your safety, and your loyalty to your fellow agents, and most of all, to me.”

The man in front of him speaks with a feeling of disappointment so profound that Louis feels as if he’s being physically ripped apart by each and every word. “You were our best agent, Tomlinson, a beacon of light for this program, so young and so promising. I handpicked you myself, you know? After seeing you perform at the Academy, I knew you were the perfect fit. Imagine how surprised I was upon reading your file to see that you’d been living on the streets for years before Cowell found you, stealing your every meal and fighting whoever dared approach your little patch of sidewalk. Absolutely pathetic. I suppose, in hindsight, I made quite the mistake trusting a teenage delinquent to help me save the world.”  

“I can still help you,” Louis pleads. This time, the desperation in his voice is all too real.

The director raises an eyebrow. “How? How could you possibly help me now?”

“I’ll go back out there and find Black, kill him for real this time,” Louis suggests wildly, “I’ll capture him and bring him back here if that’s what you want. I can do this, get close to him again. I’m the only one he trusts.”

The man laughs again hollowly. “A tempting offer, but I’m afraid we’ve already taken care of Black, no thanks to you. He’s in prison, awaiting trial, and because I’m feeling so generous, I’ve arranged for you to be placed with him, a few cells down the hall of course.” He smiles devilishly, waggling his fingers. “Oh, I know! Maybe you can share more government secrets during rec time in the yard! How romantic.”

Fuck you,” Louis seethes, leaping from his seat despite his injured leg’s protests, “You can’t do this!”

The director just shrugs, gazing at him with those pitiless steel-colored eyes.

“You’ll find that I absolutely can,” he says easily, pressing the intercom button to issue his final instructions, “Guards? Take Agent Tomlinson to solitary. He needs a few weeks to think about what he’s done.”

***

Maison d'arrêt de la Santé
Paris (France)
Date and Time Unavailable

If Louis were to give advice to anyone new to the business of espionage, he would probably say, first and foremost, try not to get labeled an Enemy of the State.

Although he’s apparently important enough to warrant lodging in the prison’s cushier “VIP” section alongside the slightly less violent, aging political criminals, it’s still prison which means tacky jumpsuits and disgusting food and petty alliances.

In two weeks, he’s been approached by more warlords and money launderers and ex-politicians than he can keep track of, and been offered enough money to make him fabulously wealthy a hundred times over. There is, apparently, no shame in prison; just power and wealth and being exceedingly less shy about desiring these things.

He’s managed two weeks without saying a word to anyone, earning a variety of curious looks from his fellow inmates during mealtimes and recreation. His reasons for being kept here are apparently still a mystery to them, and he would really prefer to keep it that way…

However, on day fifteen, the tension is shattered by a small nervous looking man who approaches him in the yard. He’s short, middle-aged, and balding, but still quite well-fed judging by the tightness of his sweatpants; company exec with a penchant for embezzling, Louis guesses.

“Black wants to see you,” the man mutters, tugging on the sleeves of his too-long standard issue top.

From across the yard, Louis can see a mop of curls surrounded by what looks to be about twenty other men, the anxious messenger not included.

Fuck Black,” Louis replies pleasantly, shooing the man away with a dismissive flick of his fingers.

The messenger’s eyes widen fearfully but he nods once and scurries back to other side of the yard. Poor little brainwashed imbecile, Louis thinks, watching warily as the circle opens up to allow the man to report back to his superior.

Louis stands up slowly and walks to one of the tables positioned even further away from the group, turning his back to them completely. He knows he’s being foolish— there’s strength in numbers after all— but he refuses to become someone’s lackey, even if it would improve his chances of getting out of here relatively unscathed. Though the little businessman’s message is the first he’s heard from Harry since he arrived, he’s honestly not at all surprised to see that “Benjamin” has been putting his reputation to good use.

He’s really not sure how he feels about the situation anymore, having had plenty of long nights to mull over the Director’s words. He tried to kill you, Louis, in Moscow, all those years ago. Despite his supervisor’s vague declarations, Harry’s reasoning behind keeping him alive is still strange and unclear to him. So Louis was once one of the assassin’s targets... so what? Plenty of people had attempted to murder him before Moscow without an ounce of regret. Was Harry really so guilty about trying to kill him that he dedicated the next three years of his life to preventing anyone else from doing the same?

He just doesn’t get it. Harry’s an assassin, a professional contract killer, and Louis’ witnessed firsthand just what a callous, coldhearted executioner the man can be. He’s watched Harry transform from smiling and childlike to deadly and remorseless in the blink of an eye. What reason could he possibly have for wanting to save a British spy he was once meant to kill? Surely among the thousands of murders attributed to Benjamin Black over the years, there must have been plenty of men and women more powerful and more alluring than Louis himself. So why him? What made him so different?

His heart flutters for a moment, suggesting its own reason— a reason which Louis’ brain, still confused and betrayed, quickly deems an impossibility. Harry couldn’t have been compromised by his feelings. Sure, he and Louis were obviously attracted to one another, but that was it. Just sex and good company. No strings attached.

Louis just wants to know why Harry lied.

***

Two Days Later

He awakens in the middle of the night to the sound of metal on metal: his cell door slowly sliding open.

Louis blinks as the solitary overhead light flickers on, revealing two burly thugs standing in the doorway. Again, he’s really not surprised.

He sits up and yawns pointedly, addressing the lackeys, “Bit dark out for tea, isn’t it boys?”

There’s a prolonged silence. Ah, so Harry’s opted for muscle as opposed to brains. Lovely.

“Black prefers to work late,” Thug One replies eventually, his voice deep and gruff to match his exterior.

“Unfortunately for Mr. Black,” Louis says, turning back over in his bed, “I do not.”

Not five seconds later, Thug One and Two are grabbing him under the armpits and carrying him down the hall. He doesn’t attempt to resist, having already anticipated the use of brute force. Instead, he counts cells and memorizes turns, in case he ever decides to visit Harry’s lair on his own terms.

They leave the VIP cell block and continue east into the buildings housing the general inmate population. No wonder Harry’s so easily amassed such a following, Louis realizes; he’s a legendary killer in a prison full of common criminals. The jewel thieves and smugglers probably worship him.

Arriving in front of what is presumably Harry’s cell, the lackeys set Louis back down on the floor, framing him on either side to “prevent” an escape. Louis could obviously take both of them if he wanted to, but he’s more interested in what Harry has to say than initiating a late night bout of fisticuffs.

“Go,” Thug Two instructs, shoving him forward.

Louis rolls his eyes but enters the cell anyhow, mentally cataloguing every detail of the room out of habit. The cell is about the size of his own, but contains two sets of bunk beds and a single toilet shared amongst the four occupants. A sleeping figure takes up the top left bunk while the other two, Louis assumes, belong to his discourteous kidnappers. The fourth and final bunk on the bottom right is home to none other than the shadowy silhouette of Harry himself.

“Out,” Harry says shortly, motioning to the slumbering inmate up top.

Louis watches, amused, as the two thugs hurry into the room and cart the other man out just as they had done to him earlier. Though hastily awakened and obviously annoyed, the fourth inmate doesn’t say a word.

“You’ve trained them well,” Louis remarks, trying to ease the tension.

Harry just shrugs in reply, his eyes losing their steeliness. His body too relaxes out of its commanding posture until he’s left looking much more like himself: weary and painfully young.

“The loyalty pledges came rolling in as soon as they heard of my arrival,” Harry explains, sighing deeply, “I hate it, you know, but it’d be foolish of me to refute the power I’ve been granted.”

Louis nods, and the silence that follows is a weighted one. The uncertainty of their interaction feels unnatural, and he can’t stand all this tiptoeing around one another. Things with Harry had always been easy, so easy that he’d risked it all time and time again just to fall back into the other man’s powerful orbit. Even incarcerated, it seems, he really cannot escape.

“What do you want from me?” Louis asks finally, his impatience growing.

“Just your time,” Harry answers simply, motioning to the empty cot on the other side of the room.

Time? Louis’ got nothing but time. Weeks of it, months maybe, and then even longer if he’s convicted. His fate is in the Director’s hands and he doesn’t believe for an instant that he’ll escape punishment with the American in charge.

So Harry wants time. Great. That’s about the only thing left he’s got to give. Everything about this situation screams wrong, wrong, wrong. They shouldn’t be in prison awaiting trial. They should be on a beach in Jamaica or on a private yacht floating down the Rhine or even back in their Parisian café sharing another candlelit dinner and continuing their foolish little fantasy romance. Louis should’ve had more time with Harry out there, not split up into clandestine meetings in a French prison. 

“You know,” Louis prefaces, settling onto the other bed, “when you said forever, this certainly wasn’t what I had in mind.”

Harry laughs bitterly, green eyes piercing in the lowlight.

“Please don’t play with me, Louis,” he says tiredly after a moment, “I feel stupid enough having fallen for your little act. Suppose I should thank the Agency for inadvertently ruining your plans.”

“My little act?” Louis asks, eyes wide in disbelief.

Harry sighs again, swiping a hand through his matted curls. “When they brought me in for interrogation, your supervisor was kind enough to playback part of your confession. I especially enjoyed the part about my paranoia. That was a nice touch.”

Louis remembers, then, his last ditch effort at explaining away his actions. Cringing, he’s certain his lies sounded even worse taken out of context.

“He offered me a lesser sentence in exchange for more information on your role in the whole ordeal,” Harry continues before he can reply, “He was convinced that you were a double agent, feeding me government secrets while still feigning loyalty to his program.”

“I hope you enjoy your shorter stay then,” Louis snaps, his sudden anger overcoming him. So Harry followed in bloody Liam’s footsteps and sold him out for a deal. Incensed, his mouth moves faster than his brain, as he spits, “Ruin my life even further, why don’t you?”

In the blink of an eye, Harry’s across the room and swinging a flat hand toward his face. Louis’ reflexes are only slightly better, and he manages to grab Harry’s wrist before the slap can connect, yanking the younger boy off balance. Harry careens wildly right into his lap and Louis panics at the sudden contact, shoving him unceremoniously onto the floor. There’s a loud crack as some part of the other man’s body connects with the unyielding cement.

A pair of furious jade green eyes gaze back up at him, filled with hurt and indignation.

“I didn’t tell him anything, you selfish fucking bastard,” Harry hisses, clutching at his arm. At Louis’ gaping silence, he continues, “Why do you think I ended up in this hellhole while you fluff about in the fucking VIP palace? I told him that I seduced you, that I wanted to lure you away from the Agency and make you my partner. I told him that I was the only one to blame.”

“But why?” Louis manages after a moment, his brain struggling to process the sudden influx of information.

Harry stands back up slowly, smearing blood from his injured elbow across his ill-fitting beige jumpsuit. He doesn’t spare the stain a second glance, but Louis can’t seem to look away, thoughts returning to that old warehouse in Moscow and a young assassin with defiant green eyes lying in a pool of his own blood. He was beautiful even then, Louis thinks, and feels sick to his stomach when he realizes that he’s only served to cause the other man more and more pain since their first unofficial meeting. It’s a horrific insight, his memories returning with razor sharp clarity. He feels the nick of a knife on his ear and the weight of the gun in his hand, hears Harry’s cries of pain as he walks out of the warehouse without a second glance…

“Louis, look at me,” Harry requests, sitting back down on his cot across the room.

Louis’ eyes slowly refocus; the few meters between them feel like miles.

“I’m sorry,” he hears himself say, though he still feels oddly distant. Maybe it’s his lack of sleep or PTSD or something, but he swears he’s hallucinating— the Harry in front of him shifting between Moscow Harry and the present like his own personal nightmare.

“Don’t apologize,” Harry says shortly, “You asked me why I keep helping you, and I’m going to answer that first, okay?”

Louis nods, his heart pounding loudly within his ribcage.

“Why?” Harry continues softly, eyes cast downward, “Because I’ve admired you since I was sixteen and I couldn’t kill you, and because I fell in love with you in bits and pieces for three years after that.”

Louis is left speechless once more. He’s spent months convincing himself that he wasn’t in love, only to have Harry’s words tear down his resolve in an instant. He tries valiantly to quash the feeling of unbridled joy springing up in his heart, but it’s really no use. He loves Harry. He’s always loved Harry. Even if the assassin has the worst timing ever when it comes to heartfelt confessions…

And suddenly he’s drowning.

It’s like, the second he allows himself to examine the full depth of his feelings, to peer inside himself instead of locking them up tight, he’s barreled over by a tsunami of memories and sensations and Harry, Harry, Harry.

Harry on the balcony in Croatia, dressed in all black and dangerously beautiful.

Harry in the crowded Parisian park, shirt unbuttoned and curls set free.

Harry in candlelight, under street lamps, in the dimly lit loos.

And Harry underneath him, wide expanses of porcelain skin, loud breathy moans…

Harry, now, looking toward his little window where the first rays of morning sunlight have begun to peek through.

“You should go,” he says, ignoring Louis’ startled look of protest and snapping his fingers instead.

The thug twins return and reach for Louis’ arms but he shakes them off, standing on his own and crossing the room. He pauses in the doorway, swallows his pride and says, “It wasn’t an act. I’m… rather in love with you too.”

“Go,” Harry says again more forcefully, but this time Louis can hear his smile.

Harry’s right; he does need to go, if only to avoid having the guards discover his empty cell during their morning rounds. But he plans to continue the conversation, of course. There’s still so much uncertainty surrounding the events that have led up to this point but, as he traipses back to his cell in the west housing unit, he realizes that there is a silver lining in all this gloom and doom.

Despite the shitty circumstances (i.e. prison), despite Harry’s track record of killing a lot of people, and despite the months and months he spent denying it, Louis is certain of one thing:

He’s in love.

***

Three Days Later

By the time he and Harry’s recreational breaks line up again, several days have passed and Louis’ practically jumping out of his skin.

He catches the messenger as they’re walking out to the yard, tugging him to one side and asking him to send Black over to him. The little bald man looks at him curiously, but Louis assures him that Black will come.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, he can feel the entire prison population’s eyes turn to watch as Harry comes strolling casually across the grass to sit down at his corner table.

He opens his mouth to launch into his own apology-filled declaration of love with explanations for all his idiotic behavior, but Harry beats him to it with his own pronouncement.

“I had a sister called Gemma,” he says quickly, as if it’s almost painful to get out.

Louis just raises an eyebrow, interest piqued, and motions for Harry to go on.

“I had a sister called Gemma,” Harry repeats slowly, wringing his hands, “a couple years older than me, and much smarter too. MI6 snatched her up from uni when she was just eighteen, and she completed the training in a record six months. My mum had no idea, of course, thought she was still in school and studying abroad, but Gem told me what she was doing right before she left for her first mission. She made me promise not to say a word to anyone, and I didn’t, no matter how ace my fourteen year old self thought it was to have a spy for an older sister.”

“She was good at it, of course, brilliant really…” he pauses, biting his lip as his eyes go a bit teary, “Someone thought she was too good though, and they… they murdered her not a year after she started field work, on my fifteenth birthday coincidentally. The police told my mum that it was a mugging gone wrong, but of course only I knew the truth. I couldn’t tell her though, couldn’t break my promise. I was young and angry and alone, and I let those feelings stew for weeks until they became something much stronger than just grief and anger and guilt. The day of Gemma’s funeral I vowed revenge against the MI6 and anyone associated with it. I ran away, like you did, but my intentions weren’t pure. Once I got to the city, it was easy to slip into the criminal underworld, even as young as I was. I started out with petty crimes and worked my way up, until eventually I caught the eye of an ex-MI6 agent turned assassin who was hiding in plain sight in London.

Nick was my idol. He too despised MI6, having lost his partner in a suspicious fire years before, and his vitriolic hatred only served to fuel my own. He took me under his wing, trained me, and let me accompany him on hit jobs around the world. When I finally met his standards and then surpassed them, he decided it was time for me to begin working alone. My very first assignment was to kill you in Moscow. Of course, I had no idea who you were back then, just that you were responsible for imprisoning the partner of a wealthy Russian businessman, that that man wanted revenge, and that I would be paid to stay with him for a while for further training, all weapons supplied free of charge.

It wasn’t a ruse like your supervisor thought; I was just young and nervous and had never killed anyone without Nick by my side, much less an opponent of your caliber, so I obviously botched it all up. The Agency interpreted my attempt as some sort of plot to take down the organization, but it was really just Nick’s suggestion that I accept a mission to take out their best agent, you, since I was so desperate for revenge and all. It was Nick who responded to the post for bail, and he added his old MI6 correspondence stamps because he thought it would be funny. All it ended up doing, however, was making me a wanted man.

I tried to return to Nick’s once they released me, but his flat was empty once I got there. I started digging through his desk, trying to find some clue as to where he could’ve gone, when I accidentally stumbled across a file folder of targets he’d been hired to kill in his younger years…”

Harry’s voice breaks again, and Louis takes a stab at what comes next, his heart breaking for the man in front of him, “Your sister was one of them?”

Blinking back tears, Harry nods in affirmation, glancing around nervously at the rest of the inmates. He needn’t worry though as they’ve long since resumed their own activities after the initial shock of the Benjamin Black speaking to the silent newcomer.

“He’d been using me the entire time,” Harry continues brokenly, “I was disgusted with myself for letting my juvenile anger get the better of me, but by then I was too entrenched in his spider web of international contacts to ever consider backing out. I started doing my own freelance work, training for hours on end to establish my reputation. Because of my connections, I heard about a number of plots to kill you, but you somehow thwarted them all. I researched each case methodically, trying to find your weakness so that I could finish the job myself once the opportunity arose.”

It’s strange, listening to Harry talk about his plans to kill him with such narrative detachment. It’s strange, too, realizing how easy it is to strip another human life of its value, to regard someone as a target, a prize, instead of another living being with thoughts and dreams and a family somewhere. Louis has always killed the bad guys, or so he thought, but maybe he and Harry really aren’t that different, blindly following the commands of the leaders they trusted. It’s all perspective in the end.

“The first time I saved your life was in Korea, as you know,” Harry continues, shaking Louis from his reverie, “I was meant to assassinate the Korean man that you’d be sent to trail. Usually I work alone, but this time I had a partner, Pixie, who was a better long range shot than I am. Pixie had heard that you were meant to keep our man alive so she planned to take out both you and the Korean spy at the same time if she could. This would cause a crazy stir as your American supervisor would no doubt blame the North Koreans and not the South for your death. It was a brilliant plan, and it was going to work, no doubt about it.

The day before we were set to act, however, I got a text from my mum asking me how work was going. She still thinks I’m interning as a businessman and that the company I work for is paying for me to finish my degree. I replied with some pleasant lies of course, but it was her next text that had me reeling. ‘Love you, H,’ she said, ‘Gemma would be so proud of all you’ve accomplished.’”

Harry pauses again, chuckling to himself bitterly, “I just lost it after that. What had I accomplished? Avenging my sister’s death? Not even. More like a hundred kills for greedy politicians and businessmen and drug lords; my hands not stained with blood, but covered in it, dripping crimson gore across my conscience. MI6 wasn’t the enemy. My sister had trusted them, had lost her life fighting for our country, and here I was trailing another MI6 agent who was continuing her work brilliantly. I realized then, that I had inadvertently placed all my hopes in you, and that I couldn’t under any circumstances let you fall into the same trap that Gemma had.”

“So you decided not to kill me?” Louis asks, his fingers itching to reach out and grab Harry’s hand. His heart is so full of affection for the softhearted assassin in front of him that he feels dizzy with it.

Harry nods in reply, explaining that he left the flowers and the cryptic note in Louis’ hotel room, hoping Louis would stop there before going to the restaurant, though Liam’s surveillance of the security cameras obviously warned him off. Harry never gave Pixie the signal to shoot like he was supposed to once he realized that Louis was at the restaurant, but Pixie shot the Korean man anyway and went to take out Louis too once he ran over to examine the body. Harry, having a sedative on hand in case Pixie couldn’t get a shot off, made it look like he’d killed Louis himself. Pixie having been fooled, Harry returned Louis to the hotel room and fled the scene, too scared to stay and explain what happened because he was afraid Louis would immediately recognize him from the Moscow job.

After that, he began to intervene whenever he could. This was made easier by the fact that Louis was forced into retirement for a year due to the Agency’s misguided belief that the Moscow assassin was still actively trying to kill him. However, once Louis was back in action, Harry had to take more and more risks to protect him until finally Louis became his target again in Croatia and they met face to face for the second time. The girl’s body was a prostitute found dead on the streets from a drug overdose that morning, Harry having slit her neck to make the kill look more convincing once the Slovenian Ambassador returned to his suite.

“Of course I’d seen your face before,” Harry says, a small smile returning to his lips, “but speaking to you in person was more than I could handle. You’re kind of unfairly attractive, you know?”

“Me?” Louis asks, flabbergasted, “Have you seen your legs in skinny jeans? I was actually salivating.”

Harry blushes a deep pink, his next words drowned out by the loud ringing of the bell that signals the end of recreational time. They both stand up slowly, reluctantly, and Louis can’t help but pull Harry close and whisper into his ear, “Thank you. For explaining everything to me. You didn’t have to do that.”

“You didn’t have to forgive me,” Harry replies just as softly, pressing his lips to the inner corner of Louis’ ear, “I’ll see you soon.”

It’s quite possible that Louis watches him walk away, waving like an idiot, all numb and dazed from the feeling of having Harry so close after so long.

It’s quite possible that Harry waves back just as cheerily, the famed killer Benjamin Black blowing him a kiss as he skips, actually skips, back toward the east block.

But then again, Louis’ a spy and Harry’s an assassin, and they’re both grown men who have killed plenty of people between them.

There’s no reason for them to be acting like lovesick fools…

Except maybe, just maybe, they are.

***

Two Weeks Later

Louis’ on his way to the cafeteria when one of the guards pulls him aside.

“Tomlinson, you’ve got a phone call,” the officer says, motioning toward the little hallway where three old-fashioned, cord phones dangle from the wall.

Louis’ not sure who could possibly be calling him since his whereabouts are supposed to remain secret to his fellow agents until the trial begins, but he shrugs and follows the officer down the hall anyway.

“Ten minutes,” the man says gruffly and Louis nods, picking up the black plastic receiver and muttering a soft hello.

“Louis, listen to me,” a familiar voice says quickly, “We’re going on vacation in three days. Niall’s bringing his camera equipment and Zayn’s driving the car. We’d like to visit you before we leave.”

“Yeah, great, have fun,” Louis snaps, “So glad your new promotion pays well, fucking arsehole. Don’t bother stopping by.”

“Three days, Louis,” Liam repeats, sounding uncharacteristically nervous, “We’re coming to see you in three days, got it?"

Oh Louis gets it alright. He hangs the phone back up on the wall with a loud smack, just to let Liam know exactly how much he gets it.

“All done, inmate?” the guard asks, and Louis nods, following him back to the cafeteria without another word.

Who the fuck does Liam think he is? Planning a vacation and bringing Niall and Zayn along just to rub it in? And why would he mention Niall’s camera equipment. Niall doesn’t even like photog—

Oh.

Louis’ an idiot.

He better start packing.

***

Three Days Later

Louis jolts awake in the middle of the night to the sound of a muffled explosion underneath his cell, the resultant shockwaves vibrating him almost clear off his bunk.

When he peers down over the edge of the bed’s railing, he’s greeted by an enormous black hole in the middle of the floor, a flash of bright blonde hair framed in its center.

“Hiya Lou,” Niall calls up, waving cheerily, “Surprise vacation, innit?”

Louis laughs brightly, so incredibly relieved to see a familiar face again.

“I hate to rush you,” another voice warns, “but we’ve got maybe ten minutes before Zayn’s finished with the guards manning the entrance to your housing unit.”

“But there are like six guards at the gate,” Louis remarks, brows furrowed, “and Zayn’s hand-to-hand combat skills aren’t that good.”

“Yeah but his handjobs are,” Niall explains offhandedly, though his cheeks are flushed red in… annoyance? Ah, Louis notes, there’s still a chance for Zayn after all.

“Make love not war, as they say,” Liam adds, and the tension is broken by Niall’s resultant cackle, “Also, could you move perhaps a teensy bit quicker please?”

“Yes sir,” Louis affirms, scurrying down the ladder and lowering himself into the hole. He’s surprised, upon landing, to find that the space beneath is wide and cavernous, and also that it smells remarkably like shit.

“Welcome to Paris’ sewer system, mate,” Niall introduces, slapping him on the back heartily, “Keep your hands and feet on the platform, and please, for love of the god, don’t drink the water.”

“Alright you clowns,” Liam interrupts, “We’ve got to move.”

“Right,” Louis agrees as they take off at a quick jog, “so who’s getting Harry?”

The other two men screech to a halt, looking at him oddly.

“Who the fuck,” Niall asks, “is Harry?”

“Shit… um… Benjamin Black?” Louis tries, glancing wildly between Niall and Liam who are both wearing similar expressions of bewilderment.

“Louis,” Liam says after a moment, “why on earth would we help the assassin who tried to kill you?”

“Because he didn’t try to kill me!” Louis replies exasperatedly, “Well, he did technically, but that was a long time ago and he’s actually been protecting me ever since. You should know that, since you supplied the Director with all my texts and the tape from our hotel room in exchange for a fucking pay raise.”

An expression of understanding dawns on the other man’s face. “Is that why you were so angry on the phone?” Liam asks, rolling his eyes when Louis gives him a ‘duh’ look in return, “I knew you were seeing someone, yes, but I never would’ve betrayed you like that. The supervisor only said it was me to beget more of a reaction from you, though I had hoped you’d have more faith in me than to believe it. One of my assistant techies sold you out, Lou, not me. She’d had this embarrassing crush on you for ages, always following your paths on our tracking software. Apparently she got a bit jealous when she saw you’d been spending time with someone in Paris and gathered up enough evidence to have your boyfriend captured and out of the picture, not realizing that you’d be charged as well.”

“Fucking Eleanor,” Louis spits, knowing exactly which techie Liam’s referring to, “She always brought me tea with like three sugars in it. Disgusting.”

“Right,” Liam agrees uneasily, “but I’m still admittedly a bit confused. Eleanor mentioned the name Harry, as you did, but what does Benjamin Black have to do with all this?”

“For god’s sake, Liam, you’re supposed to be the smart one,” Louis replies, “Harry is Benjamin Black.”

“You’re fucking a murderer?” Niall blurts before Liam even has a chance to react.

“Harry’s not a murderer, Ni; he’s an assassin.”

He’s met with two blank, patronizing looks.

“Okay, yes, I’m fucking a murderer,” Louis amends, “but I’m also in love with him, if that helps?”

“Jesus Christ,” Niall mutters, threading a hand through his blonde tips.

Liam, on the other hand, doesn’t say a word, just peers into Louis’ eyes like he’s searching for some sort of confirmation that, yes, Louis is insane enough to fall in love with the world’s most infamous contract killer.

“He’s actually really nice?” Louis offers with a shrug, and watches as Liam seems to make up his mind.

“I’ll get Zayn on it,” he says reluctantly after a moment, pulling out his phone, “but he won’t be very happy with you.”

“Yes! Thank you, Li!” Louis cheers, pressing a sloppy kiss to the other man’s cheek.

“Great, you’re welcome,” Liam replies shortly, wiping at his face, “In the meantime, seeing as you’ve been reported missing as of thirty-seven seconds ago, I suggest we fucking run.”

***

After about twenty minutes at a virtual sprint (during which Louis complains the entire time), they arrive at what Liam deems the meet-up point, which is apparently a convergence of six main sewage lines.

Not five minutes later, they hear footsteps echoing down an adjacent tunnel, Zayn and Harry appearing ‘round the bend.

“You fucking owe me, you little shit,” Zayn gasps as they arrive, bending over to catch his breath.

“Noted,” Louis replies, laughing as Zayn turns his murderous gaze toward Liam, his sweaty quiff falling limply in front of his eyes.

“You told me I wouldn’t have to run,” he says icily, coughing in the middle, “I don’t fucking run.”

“He doesn’t,” Harry confirms, “We walked like half of it.”

At his words, three pairs of inquisitive eyes are suddenly turned on him. Harry stares blankly back, suddenly bashful, and sending SOS signals to Louis with his posture.

Louis takes the hint and goes to stand by his side, throwing an arm over the other man casually. “Lads, this is Harry,” he announces, “Harry, these are my fellow agents Niall and Liam, and you’ve already met Zayn of course.”

Niall and Liam both manage to produce a friendly wave and a cautious smile, but Zayn is still smoldering. For the second time in a single night, someone asks, “Who the fuck is Harry?” and this time it’s Zayn, of course.  

“Harry is Benjamin Black,” Liam explains, and Zayn’s jaw drops to the floor, “so I’d put on a better attitude if I were you, before the world’s deadliest killer decides he doesn’t like you.”

“I like you, don’t worry,” Harry interjects pleasantly, patting Zayn on the back. Louis has to stifle a laugh as the dark-haired man flinches away from the contact, mouth still gaping.

“So Liam,” Louis starts, “this little escape from prison thing was fun and all, but how exactly do you plan to keep us hidden?”

Liam blinks. “Oh, we didn’t break you out arbitrarily,” he explains, “We came and got you because we need your help.”

“Some psychopath calling himself Grimmy has taken over the Agency’s headquarters at the embassy,” Niall explains.

Liam nods, adding, “He’s demanding five hundred million dollars from the government or else he’ll blow up the entire city. He’s used the sewer system we’re currently in as well as the Catacombs to rig all of Paris with underground explosives.”

“Are you being serious?” Louis asks, because this sounds like the introduction to some brainless action film and not, you know, his actual life.

“We broke you out of a federal prison, idiot,” Zayn supplies helpfully, “What the fuck do you think?”

“Alright, point taken,” Louis concedes, “So what’s the plan then?”

Liam pulls out his phone and reads off the mission objectives, as he’s done hundreds of times for Louis, just with several million less lives on the line.

“Niall will head to the basement level of the embassy where we believe the main detonation device is being stored. Once there, his task will be to rewire the device to deliver the voltage into Grimmy’s handheld activator instead of triggering the rest of the explosives positioned throughout the city. In fact, Niall you can go ahead and take the tunnels that way. Text me when you near the embassy and I’ll relay you the underground access codes.”

Niall nods, and takes off down the tunnel to their left, whooping loudly.

Rolling his eyes at the Irishman’s enthusiasm, Liam continues, “Zayn will be dressed as woman in order to charm Grimmy’s thugs who have blocked off the streets. Once inside, he’ll find the safest entrance route where you, Louis, can sneak in and distract Grimmy until Niall gives us the signal that he’s rerouted the bomb successfully.”

“I’m sorry can you repeat that?” Louis asks, because he’s almost a hundred percent sure he heard Liam say Zayn would be dressed as a woman.

“Veronica is my alter ego and she will not be disrespected,” Zayn answers instead, “It’s one of my best disguises.”

Louis just nods slowly, taking in that little tidbit of information. “Uh, sorry mate,” he apologizes after a moment, “No offense intended?”

Zayn folds his arms across his chest and continues to look mildly displeased, which is actually fairly normal behavior coming from him so Louis’ not too worried.

“And what about Harry then?” Louis asks, gesturing to the boy who has fallen oddly silent beside him.

Liam hesitates, having clearly not yet added Harry into his equation. “I suppose he can stay with me and monitor the security cameras and you, Zayn, and Niall’s vitals,” he proposes eventually, turning to address Harry, “I mean, you’re not really involved right? I’d hate to have you risking your life for Agency business.”

“Actually,” Harry corrects, “I am involved, too involved in fact.” At Liam and Louis’ questioning glances, he extrapolates, “Grimmy is just a nickname. It’s short for Nicholas Grimshaw, a man I told Louis about quite recently and whom I used to train under only a few years ago. He’s an ex-MI6 agent with a vendetta and he was always talking about some grand scheme he had to seize power over the entire program. I never thought he’d actually go through with it, but it appears that he’s well on his way.”

You can hear a pin drop in the prolonged silence that follows. Even Liam, always the spokesperson, is at a loss for words.

“Well, shit,” Louis says after a moment, “Harry better come with me.”

“Right yeah,” Liam agrees, shaking his head in bewilderment, “Head toward the embassy but wait for Zayn’s signal.” He pauses to toss Louis an earbud, producing a second set for Harry from his techie backpack. “Put these in. Don’t turn them on until you’re inside, just in case Grimmy’s tracking any wireless signal disruptions. I’ll keep you posted from there.”

“Um, go team?” Harry offers, and Louis laughs brightly.

“We’re back in business baby,” he shouts, mimicking Liam’s outrageously awful New York accent.

And with that (and a friendly glare from the analyst), they’re off.

***

Outside the Parisian Embassy (France)
Date irrelevant
Early morning

In the end, it only takes Zayn about twenty minutes to distract the guards, sneak in, and send a picture of an upper window that’s been left carelessly unlatched.

Louis and Harry easily scale the adjacent building, shoot out a grappling hook, and zipline straight through the open window and into the embassy’s upper level offices. Harry goes to switch on his earbud per Liam’s instructions, but Louis grabs his hand, pulling him closer to press a heated, bruising kiss to the other man’s lips. Harry moans against him after just a few moments, loud and open mouthed, and Louis nips at his bottom lip teasingly before they break apart.

“Just in case,” he mouths, flicking on the audio piece and watching as Harry does the same, his fingers fumbling a bit from the heat of the moment.

“Liam, we’re in,” Louis relays after he catches his breath, listening to the instructions that the analyst quickly provides.

“Grimmy’s getting restless,” Liam warns after he’s finished, “Be careful, Lou.”

Louis makes a hasty promise and takes a few cautious steps down the hallway and around the corner toward the main stairs, the gun Liam had provided held steady in his hands. Harry follows quietly behind, his own gun poised in front of him. They reach the grand staircase without incident, but getting to the first floor ballroom where Grimmy is holding the hostages is another challenge altogether.

“Liam, what’s the first floor look like?” Louis radios in.

“Three guards to your left, and four to your right,” Liam supplies after a moment, “I’d suggest splitting up and meeting at the back of the building where the main ballroom is located.”

Louis meets Harry’s eyes, surprised when the younger boy holds up four fingers.

“Harry, no,” he starts, but is cut off by the assassin’s forceful glare.

“I got this,” Harry assures, gesturing to himself with that signature dopey grin, “World’s deadliest remember?”

“Not invincible though,” Louis reminds him, but the other man is already out of earshot, sliding down the right bannister with a cheery wave. Not to be outdone, Louis spins around and launches himself without hesitation into the open air, executing three perfectly spaced back-handsprings into a final double backflip and landing gracefully on his feet at the bottom of the stairs.

Harry’s gaping like a koi fish as Louis turns around and casually dusts off his hands.

“Close your mouth sweetheart,” he says cheekily, giggling delightedly at Harry’s affronted expression.

“That’s not what you told me last night,” Harry replies saucily, and with that they’re both darting off around opposite corners to take on Grimmy’s squad of security baddies.

Louis knows better than to fire his gun and alert the resident psychopath to his presence, so he works silently to disarm each of the guards as they attack, breaking a few bones as necessary but avoiding inflicting any injuries that are especially fatal.

When he finally meets Harry at the ballroom doors, they’re both breathing heavily, manic smiles pasted across their faces. Harry looks even more beautiful like this, adrenaline coloring his cheeks bright pink and his lips an enticing cherry red.

“Oh, you’ve got a bit of blood there,” Louis notices, wiping at the corner of Harry’s mouth with the pad of his thumb.

Harry’s eyes glaze over a bit in response, his breath hitching, and Louis pulls his hand away quickly to avoid any further distractions, no matter how tempting they might be. He jogs a few steps over to Harry’s end of the hallway, mouth falling open at the gruesome scene before him. World’s deadliest is right… The four figures lie slumped against the wood paneling, crimson pools blossoming all around them and splatters creeping high up the walls like something out of a slasher film.

“Jesus H,” he mutters when he returns, “You sure don’t mess around.”

Harry just shrugs sheepishly, cocking his head like a curious puppy as Liam radios in again to give further instructions. When they’re finally cleared to put the plan into action, Louis reaches over to grab Harry’s hand, squeezing tightly as they use their free arms to break the doors wide open.

There are three things that Louis notes about the room in the half a second he has to process before all hell breaks loose:

  1.        There are hostages. At least a hundred. One of them is the Director, sat onstage and bound to his chair.
  2.        There are guards. Twenty or more. Stationed at all points around the room.
  3.        Nicholas Grimshaw himself is standing behind the speaker’s podium, looking inordinately bored as he juggles a small remote-like device from hand to hand.

He and Harry stand frozen in the doorway as a number of hostages leap from their crouched positions in surprise, screaming and crying and shaking with fear. The guards appear to be momentarily surprised by the intrusion, but within a few seconds they’re cocking their guns and aiming them at the disruptors with an eerie stoicism.

“Sit down or I’ll have you shot one by one,” Grimmy says calmly, no hint of strain in his voice.

His tone is smooth and charismatic like a radio personality, Louis thinks idly, understanding in that instance how Harry might’ve come to be under his spell.

Grimmy’s attention turns to them soon enough, and a slow, snakelike smile spreads across his face. He reminds Louis of serpent, truly, all long limbs and cold, reptilian eyes. He could’ve charmed Eve into eating that apple, Louis’ quite certain; he’s charmed his creepy henchmen into obeying him well enough, that’s for sure.

“Visitors, how lovely!” Grimmy exclaims in a way that suggests that he finds nothing about their sudden arrival to be lovely at all.

“Please, come forward,” he beckons when neither Harry nor Louis reply to his acerbic greeting, “I promise I won’t hurt you, just yet.”

Louis glances over at the boy next to him, watching as Harry nods almost imperceptibly, and together they move slowly across the room, their steps perfectly in sync. When they near Grimmy’s podium, they pause; several rows of fearful, wide-eyed hostages block their path.

“Oh just step over the civilians,” Grimmy instructs idly, waving a dismissive hand, “or on them, if you like. They’re always getting in the way, don’t you agree?”

“Can’t say I do,” Harry replies icily, even as they climb over and between the shaking men and women sat all around them.

Grimmy blinks in surprise at the unanticipated retort, lips parting as he seems to fully take in the young man standing before him. In that single moment of lost composure, Louis knows that they’ve got the upper hand, having truly caught the older man off guard.

“Well if it isn’t little Harry Styles all grown up,” Grimmy remarks patronizingly, “I thought you’d have been killed by now, going off of your miserable first performance.”

Louis feels Harry tense up beside him, and his own blood begins to boil underneath his skin. He realizes then that no matter how confident Harry had seemed recounting his training under Nick’s watchful eye or relaying the condensed version of the story to Liam in the tunnels this morning, Nick Grimshaw still possesses a powerful influence over Harry’s perceived self-worth. With Grimmy pushing all the right buttons, this could get dangerous, fast.

“Ex-MI6 agent isn’t exactly a sparkling resume builder either, mate,” Louis supplies, watching satisfactorily as Grimmy’s eyes narrow on him instead.

“Oh what’s this?” Grimmy observes mockingly, “Another little pet of yours, H?” He makes a tsk-ing sound, waggling his finger, “Better teach this one some manners. It’s a bit too feisty for my taste.”

“Another little pet?” Louis frowns, turning to look at Harry with accusatory eyes.

“He’s lying,” Harry replies immediately, “Louis believe me. He’s good at getting under people’s skin.”

“Don’t be modest, dear,” Grimmy interrupts, voice measured but absolutely vitriolic, “Harry here is just as talented as I am when it comes to skin. He used to be such a lovely little fuck.”

The disgusting tone of the man’s voice alone is enough to have Louis seeing red, but his words are even worse, sending Louis into an absolute fury.

“Oh don’t be angry, pet,” Grimmy continues, addressing Louis directly, “We’re just chatting until my funds are wired in. No harm, no foul.”

“You’ll never get it,” Harry says, eyes pitying, “Nick, you have to know that.”

A flicker of uncertainty appears on the man’s face before he’s laughing lowly.

“On the contrary sweetheart,” he corrects, pointing to where the Director sits tied up beside him, “This lovely man has already authorized the transfer.”

“So disarm your explosives then,” Louis says, “Isn’t that the deal?”

Grimmy laughs again at that, fingers toying with the button on his activation device. “Everyone is so boring nowadays,” he pouts in a sing-song voice, executing a manic little twirl, “Where’s the fun, without the fire?”

“In fact,” he continues cheerily, “Let’s have some fun right now. Guards?”

Louis and Harry freeze in a defensive posture, watching with horror as a single guard steps forward and takes aim, shooting the Director straight between the eyes. The splatter of blood and gore ricochets across the room, a few spots landing on Grimmy’s light grey blazer. He looks down at the subtle mess, annoyed, and snaps his fingers; within an instant, the guard who fired is being dragged out of the room shouting fearfully.

“Tell me, darlings,” Grimmy requests, scrubbing at his sleeve, “What on earth were you trying to achieve by coming in here? Surely not some juvenile plot to distract me while another one of you sneaks blindly around my basement?”

Niall, no, is Louis’ first instinct, but he remembers that Niall is deeper underground, working within the sewers themselves. His second guess is confirmed as the ballroom doors burst open once more and two additional guards walk in, dragging an unconscious, dark-haired boy between them.

“Zayn,” Louis breathes, fists clenching at his sides.

“Oh, Zayn, is it?” Grimmy asks, serpentine smiling returning, “How exotic.”

He steps forward to curl his fingers around Zayn’s jaw, moving to trace the shape of his lips almost reverently. “He’ll be such a rare addition to my collection.”

Louis doesn’t know what Grimmy means by ‘collection’ but the flash of terror that appears in Harry’s eyes is enough to clue him in.

“You’ve got your money,” he seethes, “What else could you possibly want?”

Grimmy steps away from Zayn, circling Louis and Harry with an appraising air.

“I want my darling H back,” he requests coolly, reaching out to stroke Harry’s cheek, “I’ve missed him terribly.”

“You killed my sister, and you left me on my own with nothing,” Harry replies icily.

“Semantics,” Grimmy remarks with a dismissive wave of his hand, “I’m a changed man, Harry. No longer just an old codger directing from my desk, I’ve got a whole embassy now!”

“You’re insane,” Louis says, the first hints of fear cropping up in his chest at the man’s clearly erratic nature.

“That’s the best part dear!” the older man exclaims, singing, “I’m unpredictable!”

Hurry Niall, please, Louis prays silently, as Grimmy continues to slowly circle. A snake poised to strike.

“Oh my,” Grimmy says suddenly, staring at his watch, “It appears there’s only two minutes left before I’m set to blow up my first building. The tourists in the Louvre are going to adore the newest installation.”

“If I go with you,” Harry says hurriedly, glancing between Zayn, Louis, and the hostages, “will you let these people evacuate?”

“Don’t be silly, love,” Grimmy replies, smiling devilishly, “I have no plans to bomb the embassy. This is my future home! Everyone here is quite safe, and will be working happily under me once this all blows over.”

“However,” the older man continues thoughtfully, “I may consider sparing a few Parisian landmarks, if you accompany me.”

“Nothing gets blown up if I go,” Harry replies unyieldingly, “Nothing.”

Grimmy tsks, snapping his fingers once more. “So demanding… I can be more persuasive if you like?”

On his cue, five guards leave their posts on the wall, surrounding Louis with their guns pressed into all his vital points. Harry blanches, and appears to make an immediate decision.

“Harry, no!” Louis chokes out, because he knows that Harry’s self-sacrificing savior complex will have kicked in readily, “Don’t go with him! We’ll figure something else out, just—”

He’s cut off as Grimmy snaps again impatiently, a guard producing a gag from his pocket and shoving Louis’ mouth full of fabric. There’s the sound of a chopper fast approaching, and Louis gazes on helplessly as Harry’s eyes color with desperation.

“Come with me or I kill every single one of them,” Grimmy says slowly, his voice rising, “starting with your beloved little pet.”

The tension in the room has risen to an insurmountable level; Louis gagged and surrounded, Zayn unconscious, the Director grossly murdered, and Niall’s signal still unheard. The chopper blades have reached their highest decibel, the sound loud and piercing from just above them.

“Up to the roof, then,” Grimmy instructs, beckoning Harry to follow, “Our ride is here.”

Harry shoots Louis a helpless, apologetic glance as he begins to trail the older man out of the ballroom. They’ve just reached the doors when a massive explosion sounds and half the ceiling rains down in piles of dust and debris.

“Sorry about that folks,” a familiar Irish drawls calls from the now gaping space in the ceiling.

Louis watches in disbelief as Niall and Liam drop down into the room, both armed with MP5 submachine guns and dangerously cool expressions. Pressed back to back, they pivot quickly, taking out each and every guard in a hail of terrifyingly precise gunfire. Which, what the fuck, when did boring data analyst Liam become so awesome and badass?

Louis turns to see Nick Grimshaw looking about as shocked as he is, though still gripping the ignition switch menacingly between his fingers.

“This has all been very cute, boys,” Grimmy hisses, wrapping one arm around Harry’s neck in a tight chokehold, “but I’m afraid time is up.”

Time, it seems, is a bloody fucking bastard and decides to move in virtual slow motion as Grimmy’s finger comes down on the button.

“Harry, no!” Niall is yelling from somewhere across the room, voice echoing deep and syrupy.

Louis vaguely registers Harry fighting desperately to twist out of Grimmy’s grip, before there’s a massive spark of light and the entire room is bathed in sudden darkness.

When the backup generator kicks in a few seconds later, the sight before him is absolutely gruesome. Nick Grimshaw’s corpse lies on the floor, heavily blackened, the putrid smell of burnt flesh filling the room. His shoes are completely blown off and his clothing is charred and ragged, lying in shreds all around him. Despite this horrific image, all Louis sees is Harry’s motionless body on the ground a few feet away.

He darts past Liam who has already begun to comfort the surviving hostages, and Niall who is crouched at Zayn’s side wearing a similar expression of worry. He slides to the floor, scooping up Harry’s lifeless body in his arms and pressing two desperate fingers underneath his jaw. At the first flutter of a pulse, Louis breathes out an immense sigh of relief, though he quickly notes that Harry’s heartbeat has dropped to a dangerously slow rate.

“Liam? Hospital!” he shouts in a panic.

“I do believe there’s a helicopter idling on the roof,” Liam replies, giving him a ‘duh’ look.

At that, Louis is hurrying up the stairs with Harry’s limp body in his arms, shooting the surprised looking pilot one-handed and taking control of the aircraft. With the younger boy slumped in the passenger’s seat, Louis lifts off and flies toward Lariboisière Hospital a few miles to the east.

Apparently, landing your unauthorized aircraft on a hospital roof without clearance is frowned upon, but the security team is quick to radio for a response team once Louis whips out his badge.

They move Harry into the ER and treat him for some fairly minor burns, the doctor reassuring Louis that Harry’s body is simply in shock and that there should be no permanent nerve damage from the electrocution. When he asks specifically how Harry came to be electrocuted, Louis replies vaguely that he’ll probably hear about it on the news in a few days, not to worry.

They place Harry in a private room at Louis’ behest, and he stays at the bedside for several hours, reading text updates from Niall and Liam as they aid the gendarmerie in evacuating the last of the hostages. Zayn is fine, Niall tells him, and regained consciousness soon after Louis departed. He took a fairly nasty blow to the head, and may have a minor concussion, but is as lively in spirit as ever (which means he’s returned to his characteristic sullenness, probably).

When Harry himself wakes up a few hours later, Louis’ all over him in an instance, peppering kisses across his face and up and down his arms, mindful of the gauze bandages that cover the worst of the burns.

“Never try to save my life again, you selfless idiot,” he admonishes, whispering into Harry’ soft curls.

“Okay but did we win?” Harry asks groggily, and Louis can’t help the elated peal of laughter that falls from his lips.

“Yeah, H,” he replies softly, pressing another kiss to his boy’s cheek, “We most certainly did.”

“Okay,” Harry says, voice colored with sleep.

He looks beautiful even now, soft and innocent, such a contrast from his normally hard exterior. Louis sits up to let Harry rest, but the younger boy pouts immediately at the lack of contact, making grabby hands in the air.

“Stay,” Harry commands, and Louis obliges, of course he does, snuggling back against the other man’s side. He closes his eyes and lies perfectly still, his mouth curled into a ridiculously soppy grin.

“Love you,” Harry mumbles a few minutes later, shifting until he’s wrapped around Louis like a koala bear.

“Love you too,” Louis whispers.

And he does, is the thing. He really, really does. Even in a hospital bed, he feels like the luckiest man in the world.

I won, he thinks, turning over to gaze at the beautiful boy snoring softly into his shoulder, I most certainly did.

***

Temporary Headquarters (London, England)
2 5 2014
1200 hours

When Louis, Harry, Niall, Zayn, and Liam are all called into the Director’s office a month after the incident in Paris, it’s not without some marked confusion because, you know, the American was an unfortunate casualty of the late Nick Grimshaw’s sadistic killing spree.

The confusion transforms quickly into shocked surprised as they enter the office only to see a long familiar face seated behind the desk. The man motions to the five chairs placed in a row and they all sit down hesitantly in front of him.

“Hello boys,” Headmaster Cowell greets, earning gaping looks from four out of the five agents in the room. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

A while, yes, Louis agrees silently, having not seen Cowell since he was sitting in his office at the Academy more than five years ago. Zayn and Niall too appear just as flabbergasted, while Liam, though he went through tech training at a separate school, appears still quite nonplussed having heard no doubt of Cowell’s threatening reputation.

Harry just looks curious, which is to be expected, as the assassin never went through any formal training (not counting the years he spent under a psychopathic ex-MI6 agent who was not-so-unfortunately burnt to a crisp due to Niall’s brilliant electrical handiwork back in Paris).

“I’m sure you all have plenty of questions,” Cowell continues, folding his hands neatly atop his desk, “and I will attempt to answer most of them right away. First, due to the recent, er, unavailability of the original Agency head, I will be taking over the position as the liaison between the MI6 and CIA programs. For your heroic work in defeating known domestic terrorist and assassin Nicholas Grimshaw, you are all formally cleared of your charges— Louis for treason, and Niall, Zayn, and Liam for breaking into a federal prison, among other things.”

Cowell turns his gaze to Harry, who sits still and a bit frightened-looking in the chair at the end of the row. “And Harry here, too, for a variable and impressively extensive list of crimes stretching back several years.” He pauses, giving Harry an appraising once over. “You’re something special, Mr. Styles,” he remarks, his voice taking on an uncharacteristic fondness, “Your sister was one of my best. She would, no doubt, be quite proud of your actions as of late.”

The grateful smile that fights its way onto Harry’s face is reward enough for Louis, but it appears that Cowell is not yet finished.

“I’d like to make you all an offer,” he says, nodding at Harry too when the younger boy looks uncertain once more, “I have within my power the ability to clear your records completely, dismiss you from your responsibilities to the Agency, and provide you with everything you’d need to begin living a normal life.”

Louis meets Harry’s eyes immediately, the younger boy’s expression having turned wistful in nature.

“Even as young as we are?” Louis asks doubtfully.

“It would be a great loss to the Agency,” Cowell agrees, “but it’s ultimately up to the five of you.”

Louis closes his eyes for a moment and lets his mind drift, allows himself to imagine a peaceful domestic life with Harry without the constant threat of kidnapping and injury and death, and psychopathic villains of course. He pictures them in a roomy London flat, waking up next to each other every morning, sipping breakfast tea and reading the newspaper, maybe doing a bit of work from home. A life without guns and traveling and constant exhaustion, without months spent apart, without… adventure.

He opens his eyes and meets Harry’s own once more, seeing in them the same conclusion that he himself has just come to. They are Harry and Louis, assassin and spy; the need for constant danger coded directly into their DNA. Louis sees it in all of them, in fact: in the way Niall’s hands tremble when they’re not full of deadly weaponry, in Zayn’s hollow eyes which darken with intelligent purpose when he’s charming the masses, and in Liam’s hesitance to lead which all but disappears in the midst of a crisis situation. They need this. All of them.

And it’s no surprise when they each firmly decline.

Cowell nods once agreeably, as if he anticipated the response, and leans back in his chair with a small smile.

“It’s a good thing I had another offer prepared just in case,” he says smoothly, “Are any of you familiar with Operation 1D?”

“1D was a super response team, of sorts,” Liam replies instantly, “tailored to work together as a group on only the most dangerous missions; however, that program has been defunct since the early seventies.”

“Correct,” Cowell confirms, folding his hands together in a steeple shape and pursing his lips in consideration, “but I’ve decided to bring it back. The original 1D team consisted quite fittingly of an expert in reconnaissance and disguise, an intelligence analyst, a weapons expert, a professional killer, and a secret agent. Would this arrangement be more satisfactory?”

Louis blinks, unable to comprehend a future with his best mates and Harry by his side at all times, combating international crime together, as a team. His fellow agents all share similar expressions of disbelief at Cowell’s second offer, but Louis can feel the excited energy bubbling within all of them.

Slowly, one by one, they accept; the anticipation in the room growing by the second as Cowell speaks into the intercom. A woman enters a moment later, placing a stack of contracts on his desk, and disappears just as quickly as she came.

“Welcome to 1D boys,” Cowell says once the paperwork is all complete.

“Now about your first mission…”

***

2300 hours

Stepping out of the cab at the street corner, the five boys say their temporary goodbyes, parting ways to get some sleep before they leave for Bangkok in the morning.

Predictably, he and Harry head the same direction while the other three split up, though the heated look that Niall and Zayn exchange suggests that there may not be such as drastic of a division as he anticipated. Louis will have to look into that… He is a professional meddler, after all.

“Harry Styles, huh?” Louis teases, once he and Harry have returned to their government-funded Kensington residence, tucking themselves into bed with wide, happy smiles.

“Shut up, Louis,” Harry replies, rolling over to nip at his collarbone.

“Sounds like a bloody popstar name,” Louis continues, laughing delightedly as he dodges the younger boy’s bites, “Here’s Harry Styles, performing his hit single—”

“Fuck me now or so help me god?” Harry supplies, snaking lower beneath the sheets to press kisses along the edge of Louis’ boxers.

“Harry!” Louis gasps, incensed, “Imagine the headlines. ‘Womanizer Styles actually fucking super sexy bandmate!’ That would be terrible for your PR!”

Harry hums thoughtfully, fingers slipping underneath his waistband. “How about ‘World’s Deadliest Assassin falls in love with annoying spy but decides to suck his dick out of pity anyway’?”

“It may need some editing,” Louis ripostes instantly, carding his fingers through the younger boy’s curls, “but I think it’s a good start.”

Harry giggles even as he mouths a wet patch into the fabric covering Louis’ now painfully hard cock.

“Imagine us living a normal life,” Harry says, peeking his head out from beneath the covers.

“We’d have to lock up the guns around the children,” Louis jokes, gazing down at him fondly, “It would terribly boring.”

Harry giggles again in agreement, but his expression turns quickly serious as he shifts back up the bed to press a lingering kiss to Louis’ lips.

“But we’d have each other, at least,” he says thoughtfully, green eyes wide and earnest.

“We’ll always have each other,” Louis replies seriously, his heart thumping within his chest, “This is a forever kind of thing, remember?”

“Forever,” Harry repeats, dazed, pressing trembling fingers to Louis’ jaw.

And we’ll have it, Louis thinks later, as Harry keens in ecstasy beneath him. We absolutely will.

***

AFTER

I see fire
Blood in the breeze
And I hope that you remember me

Ed Sheeran

From Caracas to Cape Town, from Hong Kong to LA, from Montreal to the banks of the Seine, the five boys travel together, dismantling criminal organizations, exposing government corruption, and generally acting more ridiculously “badass” than could ever be necessary. It’s almost like they were meant for this, Louis thinks, tearing through a fish farm in Olympia, like somehow, no matter where they were or what they were doing, they would’ve come together in the end.

Dodging bullets left and right, he can’t help his wild grin at the thought of the five of them in a nursing home together, cheating at checkers and bridge and discussing their youthful adventures. He’s lucky, he thinks, wincing as a shot whizzes loudly past his right ear, lucky to have four other people to count on. He reaches up to his ear to check for blood, feeling a small bump of raised scar tissue along the top ridge from when a crazy Russian assassin nicked him with a pocket knife. He glances over to see that same crazy— now ex- and not actually Russian— assassin running beside him, grinning just as wildly at the adrenaline that pumps through their veins.

“Race you!” he manages to choke out, breathing heavily, and they both dig in, legs pumping simultaneously as they smash through the final doorway. There’s the sudden, gratifying taste of freedom tainted by a torrential Washington downpour.

Louis Tomlinson is not a romantic, and thus later, will vehemently deny Zayn’s claims that he fisted Harry’s t-shirt and kissed him deeply and desperately as the rain soaked their skin, but right now he’s too high on endorphins (and love) to give a single fuck about his reputation.

Harry smiles into the kiss, tugging him closer, and Louis knows, in this instance (as Zayn, Niall, and Liam all make gagging noises in the background) that he really, truly has it all. And that, together, they can take on anything the world might throw at them.

So terrorists will continue to kidnap Louis to entice Harry into rescuing him or vice versa, and Niall will still turn an angry red each time Zayn has to flirt with a target to get information (and fuck him loudly and possessively into the mattress of their hotel room afterward) and a pretty brunette lawyer named Sophia will wait patiently for Liam to return home from “business trips” until he finally tells her what he really does and then softens the blow with a proposal. She’ll say that she knew all along, that he should really close his tabs when he lets her use his laptop, and that he can go fuck himself. But also… yes.

And there will be too many close calls and too many risks taken, but Louis will savor every minute of it, all spent with the beautiful boy he loves by his side. And, because his life is a romantic comedy, Harry will love Louis right back.

And the world will keep on turning, saturated as it is with all walks of life— assassins and spies and analysts and explosives experts and criminals and all the normal people trapped in between.

There will be death.

There will be love.

And so it goes.