On the morning of 1 February, Harry Styles woke with his heart in his throat. A surge of fresh adrenaline followed as soon as his conscious mind kicked in enough to remember why.
His left wrist rested on the pillow next to his head. He kept his eyes squinched shut and tried to determine if it felt any different. He thought not, yet his heart remained in his throat, pounding with excitement and ball-shriveling terror.
Slowly he cracked his eyes open. He had to blink the grit out before the skin of his wrist came into focus--the clean, unblemished skin of his wrist.
"Yes," he hissed, rolled over onto his back, and punched his fist in the air. "Harry Styles is seventeen."
He gave a victory whoop and flung himself out of bed and out his bedroom door. In the corridor, he nearly collided with his sister, shambling out in her pyjamas and rubbing her face.
"Oi, watch where you're flinging yourself, you goober," she yawned. She tried to fend him off with one arm, uncoordinated with sleep, but he had youth and momentum on his side. "And go put some clothes on, for God's sake."
He grabbed both her hands and spun her around in a wobbly circle. "I'm seventeen, Gems. Seventeen!"
"Yeah, H, I know." She snorted a laugh as her shoulder skimmed the wall. "I can count, you know."
Harry grinned and let her pull free. "Ooh, it's that clever Styles girl," he teased.
She stuck out her tongue as he turned and headed for the stairs. If he skipped a bit, no one could blame him today.
He reached the top of the steps and flung his arms out wide. "I'm seventeen," he hollered at the top of his lungs. The acoustics in the stairwell gave it a sick reverberation, so he yelled it again. "I'm seventeen!"
"Inside voice, please, my darling," his mother hollered back from the kitchen, and he grinned before thundering down the stairs.
He slid into the kitchen, grabbing onto the door jamb and swinging around it like it was a lamp post. "I am seventeen," he sang in his best Gene Kelly voice and made a grab for the tea his mum was holding.
She swiveled it away from his grasp with an affectionate cluck. "Go at least put a jumper on, my birthday boy. You were born in winter, you know."
Behind him, he heard the thump of lighter footsteps on the stairs, and then Gemma slipped past him. She made grabby hands at Mum, who turned over the mug of tea without a fight.
"Hey," Harry protested, but then he saw the opportunity in his mother's empty hands. So he grabbed her and pulled her into a cross-kitchen waltz, Fred and Ginger-style. "I'm seventeen, Mum."
Her exasperation crumbled with a sigh until she smiled up at him. "I know, baby. Happy birthday."
They sailed around the kitchen table, where his stepdad sat with tea and his iPad, eyes crinkling behind his glasses as he watched them. "I'm seventeen, Robin," Harry crowed.
Robin grinned and doffed an imaginary top hat to him as Harry twirled Mum into her usual seat at the table. Harry plopped down beside her and held out his arm. "Look, Mum," he said, voice dropping almost to a whisper. "I'm not sixteen anymore. Totally clear."
"You know it's not always that clear cut, sweetheart." But she took his proffered hand and stroked her thumb across his wrist bone. "Still, it's a good sign."
Gemma fell into her seat across the table and tried to bury her nose in the steam from her half-drunk tea. "So dramatic, H," she said into the mug. "We're not really nobility. We're barely eligible by a quirk of the family tree. No one was ever going to drag you off to marry the prince."
"Don't pretend you weren't worried about it," Harry shot back at her. "Back before you were too ancient and shriveled to marry anyone."
"Excuse me?" Mum gave him a playful smack and waggled her engagement ring in his face.
"I dunno." Gemma leaned her elbows on the table, cradling her mug between her hands, and looked up to contemplate the ceiling. "Being a princess doesn't sound so bad."
"You'd want to marry some ogre prince you don't even love?" Harry's brow furrowed, aghast at the image suddenly playing in his mind: Gemma weeping as she trudged down the aisle of Westminster Abbey, armed guards jabbing rifles into her back to herd her towards her doom. Harry saw himself struggling against the faceless royal retainers holding him back as he shouted to the shadowing, hulking bridegroom looming at the altar to let his sister go.
"You don't know that he's an ogre," Gemma protested, snapping him out of his thoughts.
"Then why haven't they let him be seen in public in ten years?" he countered, though guilt immediately prodded him in the chest. After all, it probably wasn't Prince Louis's fault if he were a hideous, Shrek-like creature. Or a frog. He could be quite nice and just wishing for a friend.
"Queen Johannah wanted to give all her children as much of a normal life as she could." Mum laid her hand on Harry's arm with a gentle smile. "I'd do the same, in her shoes."
Her thumb stroked over the clean skin of his wrist, a silent acknowledgement that she was as happy as Harry was that he would be free to live his life as he chose. The crown prince had never had any hope of that. His own joy was starting to make Harry feel like a dick.
He stayed just glum enough to let his mother hustle him back to the stairs. But when he came back down with a bit more clothing on, a full English breakfast plus pancakes (and his own cup of tea) awaited his attentions. By the time he had done it justice, the problems of the royal world seemed blissfully distant once more.
"Thank you, Mum." As he got up from the table, he bent to smack a kiss to her cheek. "All right, I'm off to the bakery."
"They gave you a shift on your birthday?" Robin's outrage made Harry grin with fondness.
"Nah," he said before Robin could offer to go have a word with someone. "Just got to go tell Barbara and the girls the good news." And maybe let them spoil him with a few cupcakes, because Harry Styles was not one to miss his opportunities in life.
"That you're not a princess after all?" Gemma stole the last of his birthday pancakes; that was all right, in anticipation of the cupcakes. "Not sure you won't get some argument about that one."
"I'm seventeen, Gemma!" he called over his shoulder as he grabbed his coat and sailed out the door.
He had to come back in a moment later because he had forgotten to put on his shoes. But that was all right, too. A second dramatic exit never hurt anyone.
"But once King Henry put aside his lawful wife in favor of the witch Anne Boleyn, Pope Clement sent his most powerful sorcerer Cardinal de' Medici to--Your Highness?"
He was aware of the words, but Louis was too busy to actually listen to them. He had been listening, before he'd remembered the little tube of super glue in his pocket. Tiny fireworks of excitement had gone off in his brain as his gaze slid over and down to where Stan was wiping his sweaty palm on his trouser leg.
Because Stan had developed a raging crush on their newest tutor, the lovely if unattainable Miss Ora, and every minute in her presence devastated Stan's seventeen-year-old nervous system. As his lifelong best mate, Prince William Louis George Arthur (of Wales) felt it his God-given duty to make sure Stan made a proper impression.
"Your Highness, please."
So when the lady in question called on him, Louis had just finished drizzling a careful spiral of glue on Stan's thigh, right where his palm would inevitably come down to rub over his trousers. He looked up with a bright lifting of his eyebrows. "Yes, ma'am?" he said and flicked the flattened tube of glue away from him under the table. The smell of glue cut sharply through the musty smell of the old palace library, but no one else seemed to notice.
She returned his raised eyebrows, more obviously sardonic about it. "My apologies. I wasn't sure I had your attention. Would you care to reiterate what we just covered?"
He (sort of) remembered the very last thing she had said. Whatever had come before that was now a sweet blank spot in his memory. She undoubtedly thought she had caught him out, but Louis had kept a stash of books on motherfucking King Henry VIII for as long as he could read.
"It was Cardinal de' Medici who cursed my family to bear the gods-mark and decided we couldn't be trusted to pick our own spouses." He grinned, saucy and bitter. "So old Henry was stuck with his dried-up old nun of a wife, and the rest of us are stuck with whoever gets a big burn mark across their wrist. Really sexy, that. I can't wait for my turn."
"On the other hand," Stan said with his most charming (or so he thought) smirk, "I am quite free to date whoever I want."
The sequence of events that followed happened in less than a minute, but Louis's memory recorded it in slow flashes. Miss Ora closed her eyes for an exasperated instant. Stan's hand slipped under the table and wiped over his thigh. Louis heard the soft rip of glue separating from fabric just as Stan squawked, "What the hell is on my trousers? Louis, what did you do, you fucking dick?"
Louis choked back his laughter, but one tiny snort escaped. Then Stan tried to scrape his palm against the edge of the table. It stuck. Stan let out a shriek of panic and pulled harder at it until he looked like he was struggling for his life, or possibly having a fit.
Louis gave up and howled with laughter until he doubled over with it. Miss Ora started yelling, and then there were a lot more people in the room yelling and trying to detach Stan from the table. Louis barely heard them because he had toppled out of his chair and under the table, still laughing because the yelling only got louder.
The yelling would continue at length, for days, directed mostly at him. Even knowing that, it was all worth it for the giddy feeling of freedom swirling through his head.
The study was silent, except for the intermittent flick of paper when the Queen turned a page. Each flick sounded louder and louder as his mother declined to look up from the Prime Minister's daily briefing report to deal with her son.
Louis clenched his fists in his lap. He badly wanted to move, to stand up, to pace, even just to fidget with the paperweights on his mother's desk. But every time he so much as twitched, a page would pause in mid-flick, a reminder that things could still go so much worse for him.
He bit back a sigh. After a few days, the glow from his outstandingly successful prank had faded, but the yelling had continued and amplified, exceeding even Louis's expectations. Even his little sisters had scolded him with (what he felt was) snotty self-righteousness. He had figured it was finally over once Stan started speaking to him again--but then he had received the summons from his mother, delivered with ominous sympathy by her aide-in-chief.
"Mum." The word burst out of him, ringing overloud in his ears.
She paused, but did not look up from her reading. A small, measured sigh was her only response. Louis squirmed.
Finally the last page flicked over, revealing the dark burgundy of the binding. His mother closed the report and sighed again, head still bowed. "Louis," she said, ending on another sigh that turned the second syllable of his name almost into a hiss.
"I'm sorry, Mum." He ducked his own head as she raised hers. Normally his mother's anger at his antics would have faded by now; he had never seen it actually build up and he had no idea how to handle it. "I really am sorry."
"You always are, Louis. And now, so am I."
His head jerked back up, a bit of indignation working its way into his fear and giving him courage. "It was just a bit of fun. Even Stan thought it was a right laugh." When he had stopped screaming, anyway.
"I've always wanted you to have fun, sweetheart. I've guarded your privacy like a dragon. I've let you run about the city with your friends. I practically abducted Stanley from his family when you took such a shine to each other." She sighed one more time, cooling his indignation into guilt. "I just wanted you to be happy and free for as long as possible."
"I am happy, Mum. I am." He looked down at his hands where he had been semi-consciously tugging at his fingers one at a time. "It's not like I mean to cause a fuss with anything. It--"
"Just sort of happens," she finished for him. "But you're nearly an adult now. It can't happen anymore."
"It won't." He looked up, abruptly hopeful. "I promise. I mean it."
His heart sank again when she shook her head. "I know you mean it, and I'm not blaming you. It's my own fault for not starting earlier, to prepare you for the life ahead of you. I am correcting that mistake now."
"What does that mean?"
"I'm sending Stanley home. Don't look so stricken. You'll still have visits, but you will be too busy to need a constant companion."
"Busy with what?" The question was more breath than voice. Dread settled over him, froze into his eyes and his skin, squeezed his lungs.
"Preparing to assume your duties, which you will do at the New Year." His mother sounded so calm as she systematically destroyed his life. "The formal investiture will be on your birthday to introduce you to the nation."
"But that's not supposed to be until I'm twenty-one." His eyes burned and blurred, his dignity being sucked out along with his freedom. "You promised."
"It's whenever I say it is." Motherly guilt flickered under stern monarch. "And I've concluded, reluctantly, that waiting another three years will do you more harm than good."
"That's not fair," Louis protested with an angry swipe as his eyes finally spilled. "That's not fair."
"Neither is life, poppet." She sighed. "A fact I've tried to protect you from for too long, I'm afraid. You need to learn responsibility, and that's my responsibility now."
"I'll do better." The bars of his lifelong cage were slamming down around him and his own mother was about to snap the lock shut. "I can, I swear. I will."
"I know it's frightening, love," she said gently. "And lonely. But that, at least, I can do something about."
He grasped the lifeline with both hands. "You'll let Stan stay?"
"No, I'm sorry. You know I love Stan like he's my own, but he was your childhood. You need someone to support you, settle you as you grow up."
"No," he said around the burn of panic in his throat. "You can't. It's too soon."
"The search and selection will take time, long enough for you to come to terms with it, I hope." Her sympathy only increased his distress. She knew how he felt about this; she knew. "You'll be happier once it's done."
"No," he said again and then lost his fight against the tears.
Finally she got up and came around her desk to perch on the arm of his chair. "I am sorry, Louis." She stroked his fringe back from his forehead. "I know this is hard for you. It was hard for me, too."
"Yeah, and your destined match didn't exactly work out for you, did it?" It was surprisingly hard to sound accusatory while choking on his own sobs. "So much for God's fucking plan."
"Louis," she admonished.
"No, but really." A good rant would scorch out his tears, so he let it build. "Five hundred years ago one guy couldn't keep it in his pants, and now I have to marry someone picked out by you, the Prime Minister, and some stupid magic spell that nobody even understands? Or some great disaster will befall Britain? How does that make any sense?"
"You'll have the chance to meet everyone we find bearing the mark," she reminded him.
He huffed and turned his head away. "And then you and Prime Minister Cowell will pick whoever you want anyway."
"We'll do our best to pick someone who will suit you well." Her hand stroked once, gentle over his head. "I know you'd prefer a boy."
"Guess I'll keep my fingers crossed that one shows up. God knows all I can do about it is show up when you have the rest of my life planned out for me."
"When you're King, you'll get to be the one making plans." She picked up his hand and stroked her thumb over the gods-mark near his wrist, a match to the one on hers. "In the meantime, that's the price for this privilege."
"Some privilege." He wanted to yank his hand out of hers, so that she would hurt with betrayal like he did. But her touch was the only thing that made him still feel human and not entirely alone. "I'm not suited to be King, no matter how perfect a consort you foist on me, and you know it. Just get this thing off me and find someone else."
"Oh, if only I could." She was joking, of course she was joking, but the wry words still cut deep. "But whatever magic the Church once had, its secrets are long lost to us now."
"If something put this mark on me, then something can take it off," he insisted. "Get the Archbishop down here, I want to speak with him."
"Not even the Pope himself could accomplish it, my love."
In a rush, the fight drained out of him and he slumped in the chair. His fingers went limp and slipped out of her grip. His mother paused, waiting, but Louis had nothing left to say. For someone meant to reign, his opinion seemed to hold very little value around here.
"The search and selection will take some time," she said again when the silence grew too large for the room. "It certainly won't be done before our holiday."
"Plenty of time for me to contemplate the sins of my fathers," Louis muttered. "Marvelous, thank you."
She sighed, short and delicate, before standing and abandoning her attempt at motherhood. "Stan may still accompany us on holiday, if you like."
A minor relief, but he refused to show her even that much. So he stood without another word and walked out, resisting the temptation to slam the door behind him.
Three steps down the corridor, he thought better of it, went back, and opened the door just wide enough to slam shut as hard as he could. He was a hopeless case, was he not? If she thought some namby-pamby, inbred offspring of whatever fawning aristocratic family was going to change him just because God had a royal improvement plan, she was dead wrong.
"Mate." Stan rose from the antique bench a few meters down, eyes almost as round as his face. "What the hell was that for? What did she say to you?"
"Nothing." Louis slung his arm around Stan's neck and pulled him down the corridor. "Come on. I want to go out."
If his anonymity, his freedom, had an expiration date, he had better make as much of it as he could while he had the chance.
Even with the warm spell they had been having, it was probably too cold to be eating lunch outside. But Zayn and Liam needed to smoke, and Harry rarely minded the cold.
Niall did, but Harry had him well distracted from such petty concerns as they waited for the other two to get their lunches and join them. "Honestly, Haz, you don't have to act so happy about this tremendous failure."
"I'm pretty fucking happy about it, actually." Harry stuffed three chips in his mouth at once and grinned around them. "In fact, I consider it my greatest accomplishment to date."
"No, you have failed me," Niall argued and moved his own chips away just as Harry started eyeing them. "I consider this the most horrible, bitter betrayal."
Zayn and Liam dropped down next to them to complete their circle. "Who's betrayed you, Niall?" Liam asked, brow furrowed with concern.
"Him!" Niall pointed an accusing finger at Harry, who paused mid-chew and shrugged. "My best friend. My best friend who was supposed to become a prince."
"Ah," Liam responded and ducked his face into his sandwich to hide his smile.
"And why was that important to you, Niall?" Zayn put a mocking, albeit affectionate hand on Niall's knee. "Why was our Hazza supposed to become a prince?"
"Because then I would be the best friend of a prince." Niall's eyes had gone a bit wild, and Harry had to disguise his laugh with a cough that he stifled in the sleeve of his jumper. "And then I would finally--finally!--get the pussy I deserve."
They all burst into snorts of laughter, and Zayn held out his fist for Niall to bump. "You deserve so much pussy, man."
"I do," Niall said earnestly. "So much."
Liam shook his head as Zayn kept goading Niall with suggestions on the quality and quantity of pussy he could have expected from Harry's rise to royalty. He shifted around to angle his back to them. "So, Harry. How's it going?"
Harry beamed at him. "I'm seventeen, Liam."
"Yes." Liam sighed. "So I've heard."
Harry kept grinning at him to the soundtrack of Zayn and Niall's increasingly obscene conversation. Polite conversation, he reminded himself after a moment. "So, Liam. How's the footie team doing?"
"We suck." A shrug went along with the succinct answer, resignation to their suckage and acknowledgement that it was unlikely to change any time soon. "How's your drama production going?"
"We also suck." Harry mimicked Liam's shrug, though he lacked the nonchalance to sell it. This was the first musical he had ever directed, and his cast not only sucked, but were about three minutes from a genuine nervous breakdown at every rehearsal.
"Well, good on ya for trying, mate." Liam stared at him for another moment. Harry grinned harder at the twitch in Liam's jaw as he tried manfully to ignore the escalating shouts of "pussy" coming from next to them.
Then Liam gave up and twisted to snatch Niall's snapback off his head and used it to muffle Zayn's cackling laughter. Harry just kept beaming, feeling in love with the whole world, now that he was finally free to love.
The Greek Isles were unrelentingly sunny and warm, or at least the tiny private island where Louis's family had taken their holidays for decades was. It did not suit Louis's mood at all.
"Come on, Lou," Stan complained next to him as Louis stared down into his tea. "We can't just sit in the villa the whole week. Let's take out the jet skis or something."
"Yeah, all right." He should enjoy this last holiday with his best mate. It was just hard to enjoy anything with multiple swords hanging over his head on increasingly fragile strings. "Let's go."
"Go ask your mum first."
Louis's head snapped up. "Ask my mum? Do I have to get her opinion when I go for a wee as well?"
Stan held up his hands palms out. "Look, your mum already blames me for everything she doesn't like about you. Anything happens with the jet skis, I don't really want to know what she's going to do to me. She's the fucking Queen."
"Right, fine," Louis mumbled and pushed himself back from the table. He went off in search of his mother, but only because his guilt over Stan's situation ate at him almost as much as his depression over his own.
This time of afternoon, Queen Johannah almost always retreated to the small room she had claimed as a study to catch up on work. Sure enough, the door was closed when Louis approached, and he could hear his mother's voice as she spoke to someone on the phone.
He raised his hand to knock, but froze when he heard his own name. Carefully, he braced himself with his palms flat on the wall and pressed his ear to the door. He heard nothing at first; then she started speaking again.
"I don't understand it. Are you certain you've contacted everyone? Yes, I understand it's a limited pool, but there are plenty who are the right age for it. We should have several options by now. And you've seen them all in person? That makes no sense. How can none of them have the mark?"
Louis pulled back like the door had burned him. His ears buzzed and something stuck in his throat. He turned and ran back to the kitchen.
Stan started to stand up when Louis skidded through the door, but paused halfway out of his chair when he saw Louis's face. "So... it's a no on the jet skis?"
"They can't find anybody," Louis blurted.
"All right. Er, who were they looking for?"
"They can't find anybody for me. To be my consort. There's no one who has the mark."
"What?" Stan's brow furrowed. "That can't be true."
"I just overheard my mum talking about it. They've searched all the families, but not a single person has it." Louis took a few more steps and leaned over the table. "Fucking hell. I'm such a bad person even God can't find anyone to be with me."
"Shut up, you're the fucking best person I know." Stan came around the table and pulled Louis into a fierce hug.
"You spend all your time with me, you don't even know any other people," Louis mumbled into Stan's shoulder, but he clung tight to his friend.
"Don't need to." Stan squeezed him until Louis wheezed before letting go. "And hey, isn't it a good thing? They can't force you to marry someone if there's no one qualified for the job."
A harsh bark of laughter escaped his throat as he pulled away. "That's the irony, yeah?"
"What? If they can't pick someone for you, they'll have to let you pick for yourself. Problem solved."
"Doesn't work like that. I either marry someone with the mark, or I can never marry anyone." He hated the idea of an arranged marriage more than anything--but he hated the idea of spending the rest of his life alone even more. "Look what happened when the search failed for Edward and he married that American woman. Bloody World War II."
"Oh." Stan bit his lip until it turned white. "That's all right, though. You can be the Party King, get a revolving door for your bedroom. Only the hottest guys get in. It'll be sick."
Just the thought made Louis's stomach twist. It did sound sick; he could live the dream of a million boys his age. But the truth was, he did want to get married. He wanted a big televised wedding and children and someone to wake up to and grow old with. He had just wanted to fall in love first.
"Yeah." He tried to sound as enthused by the idea as he ought to be. "Sick."
But Stan had known him most of his life. He wrapped his arm around Louis's neck and slobbered a messy kiss to his cheek. "Then when you're tired of all the hot guys, I'll come move back into the Palace and be your live-in lover and annoy you when you're trying to make important speeches."
"That sounds brilliant." Louis found a smile and leaned his head against Stan's. "Shame you're inexplicably straight."
"Yeah," Stan sighed. "Damn inconvenient. Come on, let's go steal the jet skis. Bugger your mum."
"Do what to my mum?" Louis roared with mock outrage and chased Stan down to the beach.
In the end, a couple hours messing about on the jet skis only worsened his mood. Instead of distracting him, the constant roar of the engine and the water made him feel cut off from the world. Trapped with his own thoughts. Alone, like he would be for the rest of his life.
Stan was shouting something at him from across the churning water. Louis could not hear it, but he imagined it was something along the lines of 'quit moping like a fucking drama queen.'
Louis squeezed his eyes shut. He had no idea what he was going to do without Stan, but this slow dwindling, waiting for him to be gone, ate at him.
He felt like his skin was crawling off his body. He felt like the sky was choking him.
Eyes still shut, he gunned the motor and took off, away from Stan, away from the island. He had no idea where he was going or even what direction he was steering. All he wanted was to not be there anymore. He plunged ahead, reckless and blind, until he didn't even know how much time had passed.
The motor finally sputtered and died for want of petrol. Louis hunched over the handles, trying to breathe. Tears of humiliation stung his eyes when he finally opened them; yet again he had done something foolish. Now he had no choice but to wait for someone to come rescue him, like a kitten up a tree.
Unless. Unless he didn't.
He blinked his eyes clear, squinting against the glare off the water. To his right, a strip of coastline broke the blue of the sea and sky, too vast to be their private isle. Whatever it was, it was still far away, but Louis had always been a strong swimmer. He didn't have to stay here and wait to be found. He didn't have to play the victim to his fate.
Heart pounding, he dove into the water. And he swam, and swam, until his arms burned and his legs felt heavy as stone. If he died here, the country would be better off, his family would be better off, even Louis would probably be better off. He could disappoint them all one last time and be done.
But he wanted to live, so he kicked off his water-logged trainers and swam until the waves started pulling him in to the shore. Then he turned over on his back and only worked to keep his head above the water until his heels dragged over wet sand.
He stumbled up onto a tiny, deserted beach, let out a salt-hoarsened whoop, and flung himself onto his back in the drier, warmer sand. His chest heaved painfully, though even when he caught his breath, his heart still pounded.
It pounded even faster as he sat up. For the first time in his life, nobody knew where he was. Even when he and Stan had gone out and about London, smug that nobody knew their faces, a protection officer or two had always followed at a discreet distance. They were probably searching for him now, but who knew how long it would take to track him here?
And who said he had to be here when they came?
Almost dizzy with the idea, he pushed himself to his feet and looked around. Tall trees ringed the beach; a small path led up the slope between them. Beyond it, he heard faint shouts, the grind of machinery, and then the whistle of a ship.
He headed for the path that would take him out into the world. As he hiked up the incline, his mind raced with excitement. All he had was the t-shirt and swim shorts on his body. He had no money, no passport, not even any shoes, but that was all right, wasn't it? He could make his way by his wits and charm, hitchhike and fall in love with some beautiful stranger.
By the time his mother caught up with him, he would show everyone that he could make it on his own. Someone would make a movie about him. Britain would be so entranced by his many adventures that they would demand to make him King immediately and Parliament would petition the Church to let them change the laws so he could marry his beautiful stranger and live happily ever after.
Then he crested the slope, and his jaw dropped. Or maybe, he would just never come back at all.
Below him stretched a huge bay he had not been able to see from the jet ski. A town of white-stuccoed buildings stretched along the far side, but the area nearest to Louis was dominated by a small but busy shipping port. A freight ship sat docked at the port with enormous cargo containers being lowered into its hold by a tall crane. A dozen movies flit through his mind, but they ultimately faded under the single idea that suddenly consumed his entire mind: escape.
He crouched down just behind the crest of the hill and watched the fork lifts scurrying back and forth, watched the crane's ponderous rise and fall, watched the dock hands and sailors climbing on and off the ship. It looked like they were almost done loading, which made his feet itch to start running down there. He forced himself to stay still; he could do this, he knew he could, but if he got caught, he would only get shipped straight back to his mother.
The sun beat down on him, drying the salt onto his skin and stiffening his hair into uneven spikes. When it reached its zenith overhead, a whistle blew on the docks and all the workers began streaming out toward the town. Within minutes, the place looked deserted.
Lunch, Louis thought, chest tightening. Lunch, and then probably a siesta if they held to the same customs as on the royal family's isle. He would never get a better chance, if he was really going to do this thing.
Slowly he stood up, but stayed frozen in place. Was he going to do this thing? He had no idea where that ship was bound--he imagined roaming through Singapore, South Africa, Australia, lost and alone.
He imagined being hauled back to the Palace and locked away until he lost his spirit, until his smile turned polite and lifeless, until he wore bespoke suits like a second skin. Then his feet were moving without his volition, flying down the hill, pelting through the dock, dodging the handful of workers still around, and carrying him onto the ship and down an open hatch.
Some equipment had been secured beneath a large tarpaulin. Louis ducked under the tarp, wriggled into a corner by the bulkhead, and finally stopped moving for the first time since he had broken into a run down the slope. But his heart did not slow until the engines rumbled to life beneath him some time later.
The ship started pulling away from the dock, and Louis went limp with relief. He had actually done it. He was free.
The next two days were the most miserable year of Louis's life. He huddled in his corner, exhausted but too paranoid to sleep lest he snore or somehow roll out from beneath his meagre shelter. Not that many people walked by; he had seen only a handful of booted feet pass. Nor would they have heard him if he did snore--the engines thrummed loud day and night, until he thought his bones would shake apart inside his body.
He was thirsty almost immediately, and soon his stomach began to twinge with hunger. Breakfast had been a long time ago, and he had only picked at it. His skin itched everywhere from the dried salt water and bits of sand stuck to him. He was freezing. He missed Stan, and his sisters, and his mum. He had never felt more like the spoiled, pampered princeling he had never wanted to be.
Then as if to taunt him about the fact that he had nothing to drink, he realized he had to wee. He gritted his teeth and held it until he was sure night had fallen and the ship was quiet save for the relentless engines. Finally he crept out from his hiding place and slipped along the dim corridors.
He only had to turn two corners before he came across a door marked "HEAD," which pinged in his memory from some movie or book. Louis pressed his ear to the door and waited, but heard no sound of occupancy. Carefully he eased the door open and found, shining like the Holy Grail, a cramped toilet.
Relieving himself had never felt so blissful before in his life. He bit back a groan as he finished, and reached for the tiny sink to wash his hands. As soon as the cool, fresh water touched his skin, he did groan and then slurped up mouthful after mouthful from his cupped hands. He drank until his stomach ached and washed as much of the sea salt from his body as he could before slipping back out into the corridor.
He had barely reached the first turn when he heard heavy footsteps behind him. Panicked, he scurried back to the tarpaulin as fast as he could and did not dare leave it again. He had no idea what they would do to him if they caught him, and he no longer had armed guards or even his name to protect him.
Hunger and thirst gnawed at him for another day and night. He was starting to wonder what his desiccated skeleton would look like when they finally found him when suddenly the engines shifted to a different frequency. They were slowing down.
Louis instantly forgot his discomfort. Some exotic foreign land waited for him out there. Excitement buoyed him as he wobbled to his feet.
As soon as the ship stopped and the hatch opened, Louis made a run for it. Burly Greek sailors swarmed the deck, but Louis was small and quick and caught them by surprise. They grabbed for him and missed, shouting in Greek as he broke for the gangplank, sprinted down it, and kept on running until he disappeared into the port and its forest of stacked shipping containers.
He could still hear them shouting when he stopped to catch his breath, and he doubled over laughing in pure joy at what he had pulled off. Despite his light head and unsteady legs, he was more than ready for his next adventure.
Wherever he was, the air was cold, but the sun and the ground seemed warm after the chill of the ship. He padded through the shipping containers until he emerged at the edge of the docks, almost getting run over by a huge lorry driving in.
Other people were shouting here, not in Greek and hopefully not about him. They sounded Russian, or Eastern European, at any rate, and Louis bounced on the heels of his bare feet in excitement. He had never been so far from home before. He hoped he got to tell Stan about it someday.
Another lorry rumbled past, this time leaving. Louis took the opportunity and raced out beside it, dodging to the side as soon as he was clear of the port entrance. He trotted along for a minute, then winced at a sharp pain in his foot and stopped to dig a small rock from between his toes.
When he stood up, he looked back at the bustling docks. That was when he noticed the sign: PORT of LIVERPOOL.
His heart froze into his chest. Liverpool. Louis had only ever heard of one place called Liverpool.
He was back in fucking England.
"What. The fuck?" he breathed. A flush of rage made his chest tighten and his eyes burn. "Fuck you!" he shouted up in the vague direction he had always imagined God to be. "Fuck you anyway. Why can't you just let me go?"
A few people walking past paused to look askance at him, but then hurried on. Great. Bloody spectacular. He was not only back in the place he wanted to escape, but now he was a barefoot crazy person with nowhere to go.
He almost sat down right there and waited for someone to come retrieve him. What was the point of running? He would never make it out of England again; surely they were searching for him by now, and after one trip as a stowaway, he knew it was not in him to make another.
But Louis was nothing if not stubborn. And hungry, he was also very hungry. The sun had sunk down almost to the horizon, and he was starting to shiver from that particular damp English chill he should never have mistaken for anything else.
He started walking with no idea where he was going or what he was looking for. Every step got more painful as his bare feet seemed to find every rock, twig, and uneven bit of pavement available. Every business he passed, he considered going inside and begging, but the last of his pride kept him moving.
Eventually he wandered into a residential neighborhood. He eyed each house that had a light on and wondered what kind of people lived there, and whether they were the kind that would take pity on a lost and penniless boy.
Then he turned the corner and across the street, a church stood shadowed against the darkening sky. Louis's chest rose and fell in relief before he even consciously processed the image. "Right," he muttered. "You have to take me in. You fucking owe me."
He darted across the street and up the steps. The heavy wooden door opened easily enough under his hand, and then his feet found the smooth carpet in the vestibule, blessedly soft under his abused soles.
"Hello?" he called as he let the door close behind him and stepped into the nave of the church. "Anyone here? Father?"
No one answered except his own voice echoing off the vaults of the ceiling. Given his current hostility toward the Church, that was probably for the best. Still, after days alone with his own chaotic thoughts, he would not have minded someone to talk to.
He wondered how much of a sin it would be if he helped himself to any leftover bread and wine. Louis was meant to be anointed by God and all that; surely God could spare him some crackers.
But apparently priests did not just leave such things lying around the altar, at least not that Louis could find. Shaky and disappointed, he sank down onto the front pew and stretched out. His exhaustion overwhelmed him so that the hard wood felt better than the softest pillow top mattress he had ever slept on.
His nervous system took a little longer to settle enough for him to sleep, long enough for the muddle of hope, fear, and guilt to resume its churn in his stomach. He wondered what his family was doing, if they'd found the jet ski yet, if they were worried about him. If they missed him.
Eyes slitted, he stared at the indelible mark on his hand to remind himself why he'd had to leave. Then he looked up at the crucified Christ above the altar. "Why can't you just let me go?" he mumbled and fell asleep.
"Well, if this isn't a lost lamb, I've yet to see one."
Louis woke to a hand on his shoulder and a craggy, smiling face above a Roman collar. He bolted upright, suddenly mortified to be caught in such a position. "Father. Er, sorry. Sorry, I--"
"Relax, son. God's house is open to everyone. You're welcome here." The priest patted his hand, a soothing gesture until Louis remembered the gods-mark that lay in exactly that spot. Shit. He had not thought to conceal it before, but a priest would surely recognize it.
"Yeah, thanks." He tried to smile as he pulled his hand away and stuck it under his leg. "I--I didn't know where else to go."
"That's precisely the time to come here." The priest raised his eyebrows as he scanned Louis's pathetic state. "That's a rather interesting outfit for Liverpool in February."
"It's just what I was wearing when--" And how the hell did he even explain himself?
"Did you run away from your home, then?" the priest asked, and Louis nodded, maybe a little too eagerly. Yes, that was exactly it. "Well, that's all right. I'm sure you had your reasons. I'm Father Craig, by the by."
"I'm--Louis." He gave the French pronunciation, which felt odd in his mouth, but immediately sounded right to his ears. He had always wanted to pronounce his name that way, but the British royal family most certainly did not pronounce anything the French way.
"Pleasure to meet you, Louis. I imagine you're pretty cold, and maybe a bit hungry?"
Louis nodded and followed Father Craig toward the side of the altar. As the priest headed down a set of stairs to the church basement, Louis paused and glanced down at his hand, trying to figure out how best to hold it to conceal the gods-mark.
He blinked. He blinked again, but the sight did not change. The gods-mark was gone.
"All right there, Louis?" the priest called, and Louis realized he had let out a strangled cry.
"Fine," he choked. He stumbled his way down the stairs, unable to take his eyes off the smooth, unblemished skin of his hand. It was gone. It was gone.
The words kept echoing in his head as Father Craig sat Louis in his office, made him tea and urged him to eat the pasty that had probably been meant for the priest's own breakfast. When Father Craig disappeared to rummage through the clothing donations, Louis sat and stared into his tea cup, a numb feeling creeping through his chest. He had imagined this a thousand times; he would have thought he'd be happier.
"Here we are." The priest returned with an armful of clothing. "I'm afraid the jumper may be too big for you, but the shoes should fit well enough, and that's the important bit, isn't it?"
"Thank you," Louis said automatically. When Father Craig dropped a pair of blue Toms on the desk in front of him, Louis blinked in surprise. They were nearly identical to his own favourite shoes that were probably still on the floor of his room in the Greek villa. A consolation prize, he supposed.
"I don't suppose I can persuade you to let me help you go back home?" Father Craig asked when Louis was fed and changed.
Whatever magic still lingered in the Church, it had let him go. Or just rejected him. Either way, Louis could never go home now. He had no place there anymore. What would they even do with a prince disinherited by God?
"No." He shook his head, almost embarrassed by the admission. "I don't think they'll want me back."
"I doubt that's true, but I'll leave it be. Do you have friends? Family elsewhere? Anywhere you can go?"
Louis had met a great many people in his life, but knew very few. He could only think of one who might give him refuge without question. "My old nanny, maybe? She retired ages ago, but…I think she wouldn't mind."
"Just like family, then." Father Craig squeezed his shoulder and poured him more tea. "Do you know where she lives?"
His mother had made him write out and address a handful of Christmas cards himself every year. The numbers and name of her street floated up from his memory. "Yeah, in Manchester."
"Manchester? Well, in good conscience, I'm not sure I can let you go there." The priest started laughing at his own joke almost before he finished. "No, no worries, lad. We'll have you there in no time."
"Oh my God." His mum's voice drifted up the stairs just as Harry shambled out of his room Sunday morning. As he rubbed his eyes and hitched up his pants, he heard the rumble of Robin's response and another softer murmur from his mother.
He jogged down the stairs, found the kitchen empty, and continued through to the lounge where his mum and Robin were sat on the sofa staring at the television. "What's going on? Did they find the prince?"
His mum had her hands pressed to her mouth, eyes fixed on the screen, leaving it to Robin to look up with a sober shake of his head. "They've given up the search. They're declaring him dead."
"What?" Harry exclaimed. "Why?"
"Don't know yet, do we? They're expecting an official announcement from the Palace any minute now." Robin shifted over to make room for Harry on the sofa.
"It's only been a couple of days." Harry sank down next to Robin and glared at the sombre news presenters on the screen. "They can't just give up on him."
His mum shushed him and lifted the remote to turn up the volume. The presenter was glancing down at a paper someone had just handed him as the scrolling text beneath him changed: "PRINCE WILLIAM LOUIS HEIR APPARENT TO THE BRITISH THRONE DEAD AT 17."
"...Palace has confirmed the death of Prince William Louis, only son of Her Majesty Queen Johannah. At shortly after eleven o'clock last night, the gods-mark appeared on Princess Charlotte. The mark was confirmed early this morning by Vatican emissaries, after which the search for Prince William Louis ended."
"Oh God," his mum murmured again. "His mother. His poor mother."
Harry's gaze dropped down to his wrist, the empty space he had been celebrating since his birthday. His joy darkened in an instant; he felt hopelessly crass, like he had dishonored the prince's memory before he even died. He had only been a bit older than Harry.
"Gemma called," Robin said when the broadcast turned to a tasteful retrospective of the prince's life, necessarily short since no one knew much about the last ten years. "One of the Calders is in a lecture with her. She said someone came out from the Palace last week to check the girl for the mark—apparently they've been searching all month, but not a single person from any of the families has it."
They must not have got far enough down the food chain to bother looking at Harry. He would have shown off his empty wrist with smug glee. "Guess it didn't matter."
"God must have known," Robin agreed and patted Harry's shoulder.
They watched the news coverage in silence after that. All the BBC had were old pictures of the prince as a young child, before the Queen had enacted the photo ban on all her children. William Louis had been a charming, impish, adorable boy, and Harry's heart twisted to think of how his life had ended before it ever began.
"Should we send a card, d'you think? Or maybe flowers?" Harry frowned down at his lap. "They are sort of almost family. A little bit."
Robin hastily got up as Harry's mum let out a choked sob and reached for him. Harry submitted to her embrace; her arms always held the comfort he needed, even when she was getting his neck wet.
"You have such a good heart, Harry," she whispered and he held her tighter.
Father Craig kept his word with a bus ticket and a few pounds for taxi fare on the other end. Before Louis had time to think about whether this was actually a good idea, he was standing on the doorstep of 13 Newcot Close.
Someone was home: he could hear the buzzy murmur of the television and the clink of dishes. He had not seen his old nanny since the last time his mother decided he was too old for someone. The thought of feeling her arms around him again propelled his fist up to knock on the door.
"I'll get it," a young male voice called on the other side. "Coming!"
"Don't run in the house, Liam," another voice called and the pounding footsteps slowed.
Then the door opened and Louis faced a lad around his own age with fluffy brown hair and soft brown eyes. "Hullo," the boy said. "Can I help you?"
Acutely conscious that everything he was wearing came from a literal charity bin, Louis smiled and tried to look like someone you would let into your house. "Er, hello. I'm looking for Margaret Payne?"
The boy tilted his head in a quizzical look that made Louis' heart drop. If Margaret no longer lived here, Louis had no idea how else to find her.
But then the boy nodded amiably enough and gestured for Louis to step inside. "Yeah, all right. Nan!" he called into the house. "There's someone to see you."
"Is that Barbara?" A much more familiar voice, the first he had heard since diving off the jet ski, made Louis' knees go weak with relief. "I thought she might call when she heard the dreadful—oh God!"
His ready smile wavered when his beloved nanny, looking so much older than when he last saw her, appeared in the entryway and promptly clutched at her chest. "Hello, Nanny. Do—do you remember me?"
"Remember you?" The words came out a reedy gasp. Her eyes, wide and red-rimmed, looked at him like she was seeing a ghost. "Remember you?"
He started to stammer out an apology, already reaching for the door knob. But then she moved as quickly as only a lifelong nanny can, and he found himself clutched tight in her arms.
"Louis," she said against his shoulder, and he took a deep, soothing breath of her familiar perfume. "You wicked, reckless, horrible, wonderful boy."
"Just trying to live down to your expectations," he joked damply against her temple.
Instead of laughing, she pulled back to seize him by the shoulders and give him a good shake. "This is nothing to joke about, you royal brat. We thought you were dead. Your mother, God save her, thinks that you're dead."
"Dead?" Louis backed up a step to keep her from shaking him again. "Really? They gave up that fast?"
"They found your jet ski drifting in the sea." Her voice wavered, and he understood why her eyes were so red. "They found your shoes washed up on the shore kilometres apart."
"Oh." He ducked his head, unable to hold her damp eyes for the shame of having caused the tears in them. "I—I didn't think of how it might look."
"And then last night, the gods-mark appeared on Lottie's arm." Her veined hands squeezed his shoulders again, but gentler, as though reassuring herself that he was solid flesh. "That could only happen if you were dead."
"And yet here he is," her grandson put in from behind her. Louis looked up, meaning to glare at him, but got disarmed by the boy's eager grin. "Nan, let him talk. Whatever happened to him, I bet it's a sick story."
Louis grinned back at him for a second before sobering under Margaret's stern look.
"Sick? Sick with grief, that's what your mother is." She put her hand to her head as she shook it. "I need to call the Palace at once. Your poor mum shouldn't go another second thinking you're gone."
"No!" Louis reached out and caught her arm before she could go more than a step. "Please, no, you can't."
Grandmother and grandson both stared at him with identical looks of shock; then Margaret's frown gentled into contemplation. "Why don't you tell me what's really going on?"
Louis took a deep breath, and then lowered his gaze pointedly to the hand that still touched her arm. She bent her neck to follow his line of sight. Her sharp breath told him that she realized what she was not seeing. "Louis," she said. "How is that possible? What on earth happened to you?"
"What?" Her grandson peered over her shoulder, trying to see Louis' hand. "What are you looking at?"
"Not now, Liam. Tell me what happened, Louis."
He opened his mouth and realized there was no way he could tell them the literal truth. If he told Margaret that he had run away on a whim, she would have one hand around his neck and the other beating him over the head—after she called his mother.
"I fell off the jet ski," he said carefully. "Almost drowned, but eventually I washed up on a little beach. Found my way to a church, and a priest took care of me until this morning. That's when I noticed that the mark was gone."
She shook her head in disbelief. "I can't begin to think what that means."
"You know what it means. It means I've been disinherited. God, or the Archbishop, or the Pope, or whoever kicked me out of the succession." The pang of grief surprised him when it hit. He knew he had never been worthy of the throne, but somehow it hurt like hell to find out that a higher power agreed with him.
"I can't go home." He breathed deep to steady himself against the truth that was just sinking in. "I've got no place there anymore. What would they even do with an ex-prince? I'd only be in Lottie's way; they'd have to send me away again in the end. Better I stay dead and spare them that."
"Oh, Louis." Her eyes had shut while he was speaking; she knew he was right.
"I've decided to go by Louis now," he said, emphasizing the ee-sound. "Not quite a clean break, I know."
She opened her eyes, reached up and patted his cheek. "Lou-ie. It suits you," she said and then pulled him into her arms, a much gentler embrace. "I don't know how to help you, sweetheart, but it's good that you're here. I'm glad you came to us."
"Didn't know where else to go," he mumbled into her soft silver hair. "You always took care of me."
"And I always will." She patted his back before letting him go. "But right now, I think I need a bit of a lie-down. Liam, introduce Loui—Louis to your parents, then get him settled. I imagine he can have Nicola's old room for now."
The boy—Liam—grinned and clasped Louis' shoulder. "Right you are, Nan. Come on, Louis, welcome to the family."
He dragged Louis through a whirlwind of introductions to Liam's parents and second oldest sister, who had no time to even realize who Louis was before Liam dragged him away again. Up the stairs, along the narrow corridor crowded with old bicycles and a blur of family photographs, until Louis found himself sitting cross-legged on someone else's bed.
A girl had obviously grown up in this room. All the artifacts of girlhood brought a rush of feeling for his own sisters. Luckily, before he could think too much about them, Liam plopped down at the foot of the bed, facing him.
"So if you're really going to stay—are you really going to stay?"
He shrugged a little, disconcerted by Liam's matter-of-fact attention. "I guess?"
Liam grinned. "Sick. This is going to be amazing. I've always wanted a brother. And now I've an actual royal prince for one. Well, I suppose you'll have to be my cousin. Living abroad, but come back to finish school, maybe? We'll work it out. Where are you in school, by the way? I'm in Lower Sixth at Teasdale High School just down the road, business and music technology mostly. Always just squeak by in exams, but hopefully good enough to get into uni, you know?"
"Do you even breathe?" Louis said in awe, and Liam laughed like he'd never heard anything funnier before in his life.
"Sorry, sorry. But seriously, just leave it to me, I'll get you set up. You can enroll in my college and meet my friends—"
"Liam, you realize that nobody can know who I am?" Louis interrupted again.
Liam's mouth rounded in shock like Louis had slapped him. "Of course not! I would never—look, we'll get you a whole new identity. I know this guy at school who can get fake IDs and my mum volunteers in the office, so I bet we can get you anything you need for paperwork. You'll be like a spy going into deep cover; I bet I could get a job with MI-6 after this. Hey, if you ever go back to be King, will you put in a good word for me?"
He instinctively wanted to say something sarcastic, but Liam's eyes were too earnest, his smile too sweet. Louis gave up with a sigh. "Yeah, of course, mate. But seriously, don't hold your breath."
Liam beamed like Louis had just promised to make him the next 007. "Great. Right, so you'll need a new last name for your ID. Hey, what is your last name, anyway?"
"Oh, well—" Louis fidgeted and stretched out his legs to buy himself a few seconds. "I'm not sure, actually. I've never needed one before."
"Oh." Liam pulled a credible impression of an owl, eyes blinking slowly. "But what's on your birth certificate?"
"His Royal Highness Prince William Louis George Arthur of Wales."
"Right. Well, at least you don't lack for names." Liam's grin returned, cheekier than Louis would have expected from him in their brief acquaintance. "So what will it be? New name for a new start."
"Oh, uh...." He had not even thought beyond the slight change of his first name. Louis groped for inspiration; his gaze darted around the room, but he was not naming himself either Pitt or Lancôme. He squirmed under Liam's expectant look and dropped his gaze to his shoes. "Maybe—something like... Toms. Tom. Or...." What last names did normal people even have? "Tom...ison?"
"Tomlinson?" Liam misheard, reaching over to grab an abandoned pad of sticky notes from his sister's desk. "That works. There were some Tomlinsons at our old church, but I doubt you'll run into them. There, I've jotted it down. You are now officially Louis Tomlinson, congratulations."
"Cheers." Louis grinned back at him and felt something settle inside him. Louis Tomlinson. That felt real, like something he could live.
"So we'll get you into school and I'll try to get you into my classes. Have you taken your GCSEs yet? Well, I guess that doesn't matter, it's not like we can transfer your records, haha. We'll say you've been schooled in America. By the time they figure out how to sort that, we'll all be in uni. Oh! You can do football with me."
"Football?" Exams did not particularly interest him, but Louis had always wanted to be on a football squad. He fancied himself not a bad player, even, though he only ever got to play with Stan and some of the staff. "Really?"
"Yeah, we never have enough players. I mean, we're total shit, but we have a good time." Liam shrugged like the quality of the side did not really matter. Assuming Louis stuck around, he would have to work on that. "Oh, and we'll have to find you a job."
"A... what?" That sounded much less exciting than a footie team. Louis frowned; in his family, their lives were their jobs. He wasn't sure what else he could do.
"Well, yeah, of course, if you ever want to be able to go out or buy anything. Don't worry, I'll find something for you. Oh, I have it!" Liam snapped his fingers—literally, physically snapped his fingers. Louis stared at him in awe. "My mate works at a bakery, and I know for sure that they just lost someone. And the owner's a mate of Nan's, so you'll be in, no problem."
Louis just nodded; his brain was starting to overload on the details.
"My mate's called Harry, you'll love him. You'll love all of them, actually, they're top lads. Tomorrow we'll—"
As Liam went on, Louis began to see his whole life unfolding, every piece already meticulously planned by this boy he had only just met. It felt bizarre, surreal, but strangely good. Louis might finally have found a place he fit.
"He was pretty quiet, but really funny when he did speak up. Sarcastic, you know?" Niall was saying. "You'll like him."
"Who?" Harry said absently, sweeping the last crumbs out of the empty pastry tray he had just pulled out of the display case.
"The new guy, Liam's cousin we never heard of before. Liam never seemed to know if he should laugh or take him seriously. It was fucking hilarious."
"Right, him. Sorry I missed it. Oi, quit it." He reached over and smacked Niall's hand as he reached for one of the rolls on the full tray Harry was about to replace. "Why do you even still come here?"
Niall shrugged and licked a bit of butter off his fingers. "Where were you, anyway?"
"You made them skip lunch?" Niall pulled a face of horror like Harry had said he was using his drama cast to create a human centipede. "No wonder they hate you."
"They don't hate me," Harry protested. "They just suck. Or I do. It's probably my fault."
"Of course it's not. Honest opinion, you're a class director." Niall's chin set in stubborn, loyal determination. "Hey, maybe you can recruit the new guy."
Harry shrugged noncommittally as he slid the full tray into the case. The pre-dinner rush would start any minute. "Can he sing? Dance?"
Niall returned his shrug. "How the fuck would I know? I met him for, like, twenty minutes."
"Well, is he hot, at least?" Hot could make up for any number of deficiencies in talent, and along with talent, it was sorely lacking in his cast.
"Again, how the fuck would I know? He seemed all right looking. Zayn seemed to think so, anyway."
Harry tried not to frown. Every time an attractive person came anywhere near Harry's orbit, it seemed like Zayn had got there first, pulling them into the black hole of his ridiculous sex appeal. If he wasn't an amazing friend and one of Harry's favourite people, Harry would have to consider hating him just on principle.
"You'll find out for yourself soon enough," Niall went on. "Liam's bringing him by after footie practice."
"Is he?" Harry brightened. That was Liam all over, always making sure Harry never felt left out even though he did drama instead of footie and had to work the rest of the time.
"Yeah, I think he wants the new guy to take my job," Niall went on, and Harry deflated, though only a little. "My job, my place on the squad—might as well take my girlfriend while he's at it."
"You haven't got a girlfriend," Harry pointed out, only because Niall did not seem particularly upset about any of it.
Niall clutched at his chest in mock outrage. "Cheers for that reminder, mate, really," he said just as Barbara emerged from the kitchen with a fresh tray of meat pies.
"If you spent less effort eating my merchandise," she said as Harry rushed to take the heavy tray from her, "and a little more on eating other things, you might have better luck in that department. If you take my meaning."
"Barbara! You saucy minx." Niall gasped, and Harry did a bad job of stifling a giggle as he bent down to arrange the pies in the case. "But anyway, I'm not actually worried. Pretty sure the new guy is gay."
"Oh, you hear that, Harry?" Barbara pushed some stray wisps of grey hair back under her hairnet and bumped Harry's shoulder with her hip. "What's that you boys always say? Get in."
A flush rose in Harry's face, mostly from the heat of the fresh pies. "You sure about that?" he asked Niall.
"Good as. He definitely started drooling when he met Zayn." Niall shrugged, not noticing how Harry's face fell. "Not that that's always a sure sign. Hell, even I stare at Zayn sometimes."
"So much for that," Harry mumbled. Once again, Zayn had got there first, and Harry could never bring himself to go for Zayn's sloppy seconds.
"Don't you sell yourself short, my dear." Barbara gave his bum a good pat as Harry straightened up. He shrugged and reached for the broom to sweep up the crumbs he had spilled earlier. "Niall, does Harry's future gentleman friend have a name?"
Niall scrunched his face, like he did when anyone asked him to remember a detail he had considered too minor to notice at the time. He was saved when the bell over the door jingled and Liam poked his head into the shop.
"Ah, amazing, you're all here," he said and then pushed the rest of way in. "I have someone I want you to meet."
When Harry looked up from the little pile of dirt he was building, he was dimly aware of Liam and Niall exchanging bro hugs at the corner of his vision. Zayn was there as well, but before he knew what was happening, Harry's eyes had already fixed with laser focus on the most beautiful boy he had ever seen.
He was slender, almost dainty in the way he held himself, but with power underneath it. Maybe the power came from the delicious curve of his hips and thighs, which, Harry was immediately certain, culminated behind him in a glorious arse. Above his graceful neck, he had a shock of reddish-brown hair, exquisite features, and vivid blue eyes, sharp with intelligence and soft with kindness.
Or so Harry fancied. He could get lost in those eyes—which he knew because they were staring right back at him. Butterflies did a loop-de-loop in his stomach, lighting up his face and everything else. That was when he found out the boy had a smile as beautiful as the rest of him.
He also had Zayn's arm looped around his neck, but Harry did not even care about Zayn now. Harry would fight for a chance just to talk to this boy. He gripped the broom handle tighter and in his imagination he was leaping over the counter, wielding the broom like a ninja staff. He would remove Zayn in a gentle but badass fashion and then sweep the boy (maybe too literally) off his feet.
As Harry came back to reality, Zayn looked at him, and looked at the boy beside him. Then he took his arm off the boy's shoulders and took a single, pointed step away from him. Harry felt himself swell up with victory. He knew he was beaming, and the boy laughed at him, a breathy chuckle that made Harry feel like he was the center of the entire fucking universe.
He managed to tune in to Liam's voice just in time. "Everyone, I want you to meet Louis."
Louis Louis Louis. Elegant, playful, it fit him perfectly.
"Oh, you must be Peggy's other boy," Barbara was saying as she moved around the counter to enfold Louis in a floury embrace. "She just rang about you this morning."
Barbara had known about this miracle of a boy all day, and she'd said nothing. Harry would be having words.
"Lovely to meet you," Louis said, sounding genuine and lovely and a little surprised, as though he had not realized there were people there who were not Harry. Or at least, Harry hoped that was the cause.
Niall hopped off his stool at the small coffee bar and pulled Louis into another bro hug, pounding his back twice. "Good to see you again, mate. Understand you're here for my job, yeah?"
Louis frowned, which put a sexy furrow in his brow. "Your job? Sorry, I thought Liam said the position was vacant."
"Oh, it is, believe me," Barbara snorted, though not unkindly.
"Niall got sacked," Liam explained, and Louis' eyes widened in even greater confusion. He looked back to Harry with a silent question. Harry just grinned.
"I was eating too much product." Niall shrugged, glanced down at his shirt where a few crumbs clung for their lives, and then shrugged again. "At least now I don't have to feel guilty about it."
"Typical," Barbara muttered, giving Niall a swat on the bum. "Well, Louis, I've known Peggy for approximately a thousand years, and Liam for as long as he's been alive. If they vouch for you, then the job is yours if you want it. God knows Harry could use some actual help."
For a second, Louis' eyebrows (so delicately arched and expressive) lifted, dubious, though whether he was hesitant about the job itself or his grandmother recommending him was hard to tell. But then Harry watched another thought distract him, and a moment later Harry's heart burbled with delight.
"Harry?" Louis asked, though his eyes had already slid back to Harry himself. They watched each other for a moment of anticipation before Barbara urged him forward with a hand on his shoulder.
"Yes, come on back and meet Harry." She drew him behind the counter and then Louis was there, just an arm's length away. "He'll show you the ropes, though heaven knows he did a poor enough job training that Irishman he persuaded me to hire."
"Hey now," Niall protested. "Other than the theft, I was a model employee."
They continued to bicker, but Harry tuned them out. Now that everyone's attention was elsewhere, he and Louis were as good as alone. "I'm Harry."
Louis' smile lit his entire face and crinkled his eyes. "I had a feeling about that." He extended his hand towards Harry. "How do you do, Harry? I'm Louis."
"Hello, Louis." Harry had a moment to admire the graceful bend of Louis' wrist before his fingers slid into Harry's, warm and strong and a perfect fit. He was already worrying about whether he'd be able to let go before it became socially awkward—when a sharp pain struck through his wrist. He yelped and dropped Louis' hand, all thoughts diverted and confined to the awful burning that seemed to be searing through skin, muscle, tendons, down to the bone.
"Harry?" The alarm in Louis' voice cut through the haze of pain and panic in Harry's head. Christ, what a first impression to make, he thought wildly. "Harry, are you all right?"
Slowly, Harry gathered his wits enough to realize that it was his other arm he was clutching. His left arm, and when he took his hand away, he knew exactly what the angry red slash across his wrist was. And he was not all right, not in the smallest degree.
"Oh my God." Louis reached for him like he couldn't help it, but stopped with his hand hovering just shy of touching Harry. "That looks horrible. What the fuck happened?"
"Burned myself on the oven earlier," Harry managed to get out. He tried to recover with a charming smile, though it felt more like a grimace. "Oops?"
He must have had a bit of charm left, because Louis left off looking at his arm, distracted back to Harry's eyes. "Hi," he said, smiling wide again like he couldn't help it.
"Hi." Harry couldn't help smiling back, even while he fought back tears he refused to let ruin this perfect moment any further.
Barbara started to turn around; she, of course, would know that he had not been anywhere near the ovens today. "Looks a lot worse than it is, I promise," Harry added hastily. "Better go put a plaster on, though."
"Yeah, of course. Can I—?"
"It was really nice meeting you, Louis," Harry interjected before he broke down and let Louis touch him again. He could feel a sniffle twitching at his nose; he had to get out of here before he started full-out crying.
"Yeah," Louis started, but Harry was already pulling his apron off and heading for the kitchen.
He made it through and out the back door just as the first tear of pain and fury slid hot down his cheek. Shock and disbelief still tried to numb him, but underneath he wanted to rage at whoever had done this to him right at the moment—the exact moment—that he had found the most beautiful boy in the world. A boy who might just think he was beautiful, too, a boy Harry might have got to touch and hold.
A common boy. A boy he might be forced to walk away from just as he found him.
It wasn't fucking fair.
"You didn't tell me about Harry," Louis accused as soon as they were upstairs after dinner. In front of him on Liam's duvet, he had a pile of brochures and forms the college headmaster had given him at his admission meeting, which he fully intended to ignore. "Why didn't you tell me about Harry?"
Liam frowned. "Uh, I did?"
Louis waved his hand in the air. "Yes, you mentioned his name, but you failed to mention that he's a bloody Greek god."
"A Greek god?" Liam snickered, though he clapped his hand over his mouth and looked apologetic. "Sorry, mate, but wow, you sure fell hard, didn't you? I mean, Harry's a good-looking bloke, but not sure anyone else would call him a Greek god."
"Yeah, fine, you're right." Louis considered the matter. No Greek god had eyes like that or a smile like that or a dimple you could dig your thumb into just to make him giggle. He reckoned Harry had an adorable giggle. "A Botticelli angel, then. Yes, much more accurate, cheers."
"A what angel?" Liam asked, but Louis had already tuned him out. He was busy, occupied with rewinding every minute he had spent in the bakery, committing it to memory and analyzing what it meant. Not that he really knew—he had never been interested in a real person before. He had never had the opportunity.
Liam waved a hand in front of his face, laughing. Louis startled and then glowered, irritated at being jolted from the pleasant haze of his thoughts. "What?"
Still laughing, Liam leaned back against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. "Yup, you're far gone, all right. I've never seen Hazza work so fast. Usually he's more of a slow burn kind of guy."
"Hazza," Louis repeated. Adorable again. Dammit. He ignored Liam's mocking chortles.
"Oh, I know." Liam abruptly stopped laughing and rapped his knuckles on Louis' knee. "You should get him to come to football practice. Or definitely a match, at least."
That caught Louis' attention. "What? What for?"
"Because you're brilliant." Liam's grin was too bright to be insincere, if he was even capable of insincerity. "Seriously, mate, you're head and shoulders better than all the rest of us put together. You should have seen Coach drooling down his chin when you were kicking those penalty shots."
No one had ever called him brilliant at anything before. "That's just because the rest of you suck."
"Pointless to deny it," Liam agreed easily. "But just think how good you'll look when Harry sees you playing next to the rest of us."
"That's not a bad idea, actually." A brief fantasy of scoring a goal while Harry cheered wildly from the sidelines swept through his mind. "Does he even like football?"
"Yeah, loves it," Liam said and Louis' smile brightened in relief. Harry was hot enough to make up for it if he didn't love football, but it boded much better for the relationship Louis was already half-living in his mind if he did.
"Then why doesn't he play himself?" The only thing hotter than the image of Harry cheering for Louis' goal on the sidelines was Harry being the one to pass him the ball before he drove it into the net. And then, of course, tackling Louis to the ground in celebration.
Liam hesitated. "He...tried."
Louis raised his eyebrows insistently. "And?"
"Haz's got many gifts, but let's just say physical coordination isn't...the most gifted of them." Liam bit his lip and pretended to resume reading his textbook.
"Wait, he got kicked off? From this team?" Oddly, the humiliation of that notion only made Louis want to go find Harry and wrap his arms around his middle and just squeeze.
"Oh, no, ha, Coach has never dropped anybody." Liam's head snapped back up as he laughed. "Harry just got embarrassed."
Louis leaned back and finally opened one of the booklets to a random page. As Liam ducked his head to frown his way through his assignment, Louis stared at the David Beckham poster on Liam's wall, only half seeing it. So the exquisite Harry had a human flaw; Louis only found him more endearing for it.
But Harry should never suffer any chinks in his self-esteem as far as Louis was concerned. If his football skills needed to be brought up to par, well, then Louis might have a purpose in life after all.
"H?" The soft tap on the door made Harry flinch from the floor next to his bed where he huddled. "Don't you want dinner, love?"
"Ate at the bakery," he mumbled, then repeated himself loud enough for her to hear through the door. He hated lying to his mum, but he might never be able to choke down another piece of food again, and he absolutely could not tell her why.
He heard nothing for a long moment, though he knew she was still there. Finally she sighed. "All right. You know where to find the leftovers if you get hungry later. And you know where to find me if you want to talk."
Harry wanted to talk, so badly he could scream from it. He wanted her to kiss the slash on his wrist so he could pretend it was all better; he wanted her to tell him he was wrong and everything would be all right. Harry closed his eyes, feeling the tears finally squeeze out to dampen his lashes.
He could still be wrong. Maybe he just burned himself on the tray when he was arranging the pies. Mum always said he had a fanciful imagination.
As his mother's footsteps moved off toward the stairs, Harry pulled the open book out from under the bed. He had bought the book, Lives of the British Consorts, two years ago when he had found out.
His fretting spurred his mum to confiscate and throw away the book, but Harry rescued it from the bin and concealed it under his mattress. He had memorized it over the years, every gory detail. While he was grateful enough that the selection two centuries ago of Prince Frederick as King William's consort had eliminated the persecution of gay people in most Christian nations, he couldn't get over the horror of having his life and his life partner chosen by some arcane spell no one had ever properly understood.
He stared down at the pages he'd had open since he got home. The description hadn't changed no matter how many times he read it. Neither did the picture of the Queen Mum's wrist when she was found, the first real photograph of the mark.
Harry looked back to his own wrist, where the burned slash was already turning iridescent. The mark of Aragon was unmistakable.
He wasn't wrong. And he could never talk about it, not to anyone. Ever, or at least not until the new heir apparent was safely wed to someone else. That could take a while, since Princess Charlotte was barely fifteen years old, still too young even for an engagement.
Resolute, Harry clambered to his feet and went to his desk. He picked up the gauze he had filched from the first aid kit when he got home and started wrapping it around his wrist. When the mark was covered, he gathered up all the bracelets he owned—mostly skinny black rubber ones from his two-week emo phase, plus concert wristbands and even the friendship bracelet his cousin had given him. He piled them onto his arm until no one would be able to tell he even had a wrist.
If his mother knew, she would tell him he was obligated to reveal himself. Yesterday, he would have felt the same.
But today there was Louis.
By the time Louis followed Liam out to their usual lunch spot, he had already spent the better part of his day thinking about Harry. When he spotted the back of a familiar head of curls, it was almost surreal to see him there in the flesh.
Already grinning, Louis ran the last few steps and dropped down next to Harry with an audible whoosh. "Hello there, Curly."
Harry jumped a little and unfolded himself from where he had been hunched over his knees with his face scrunched into a pained frown. When he saw Louis, his face cleared into the sweet smile that made Louis' stomach jump. "Hi."
Though it had lasted only a second, the frown reminded Louis with a jolt that Harry had hurt himself. "How's the arm? Are you feeling any better?"
Harry's eyes widened in alarm; Louis was about to call for a doctor right then and there when Harry relaxed and shrugged. "It's all right. Mostly embarrassing, you know?"
"Yeah, Liam was telling me last night that you're a right klutz," Louis said and then chortled at the look of horror on Harry's face. "Here, let me see."
He reached across Harry and grabbed the fingers of his left hand, drawing the injured arm toward him and pushing up the sleeve of his uniform blazer. Harry had managed to get an entire Accessorize store on his wrist; Louis was certain all his sisters combined owned fewer bracelets. "Is there skin under there? It's hard to tell."
"Just a plaster. Nothing to see, really."
That little touch of vanity charmed Louis unbearably. He smiled at Harry until Harry's shoulders lost their tension and they were grinning at each other, unabashedly goofy.
Louis finally broke off the gaze to look down at the hand he still held. He skimmed the palm of his free hand over the stack of bracelets. "Sexy, though. I like the look."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Harry's grin get even wider. "Yeah?"
"Gives the uniform a bit of a rakish air." This was his first look at Harry in the school uniform; he had to take a moment to appreciate it.
"You just make it look good," Harry blurted. His cheeks flushed, but he held Louis' gaze.
"Oh, fuck, they've gotten worse. How is that even possible? You've known each other for ten fucking minutes total."
They both looked up to see Niall standing over them, holding his lunch and shaking his head. Zayn stood next to him looking amused, and Louis realized that Liam had already sat opposite them and was chewing on his sandwich.
"Can't help it that we're both so hot." Louis arched his neck, nose going up in the air with the proper royal snoot he had learned from his sister. "It would be rude not to acknowledge it."
"I don't remember you exclaiming on his hotness when you met Zayn," Liam, the traitor, mused with patently false innocence.
"Oh, no?" Harry looked rather pleased at that, with a smirk not quite directed at Zayn. "Imagine that."
Zayn rolled his eyes and dropped down on Harry's other side, giving his shoulder a playful bump. "He only thinks you're so hot because he hasn't seen you try to walk and breathe at the same time."
"My breathing skills are top notch, I'll have you know." Harry mimicked Louis' upturned nose. A low hum of satisfaction pervaded Louis' belly.
"As good as your football skills?" Niall goaded, and Louis was torn between wanting to hit him for making Harry's smile turn to a glower and wanting to kiss him for giving him the opening.
He nudged Harry's shoulder to bring his attention back to Louis. "Liam told me you used to play."
"Did he?" Harry turned his glower on Liam, who looked everywhere except at Harry. "And what adjectives did he use? Hm, Payno?"
"Oh, leave it, Haz. He just wants you to come to practice so you can see how amazing he is on the field." Liam almost redeemed himself with that, though he could have been a bit subtler.
"Is he?" Niall paused in unwrapping his sandwich. "Hey, maybe I'll have to go back to watch, too, if there's going to be someone actually good on this squad."
"Since you left, you mean," Zayn said and held out his fist for Niall to bump.
"You used to play, too?" Louis asked.
"Yeah, till I blew out m'knee." Niall shrugged. "I'm on the waiting list for surgery, and then I'll show you how to play football, mate."
"You won't be better than Louis."
It took a second to click that it was Harry who had spoken, not Liam. Louis turned to beam at his profile, the stubborn set of his jaw and the almost-pout of his lips.
"You haven't even seen him play!" Zayn protested, and Louis leaned happily against Harry's arm.
"We'll fix that tomorrow," Niall announced. "Harry and I will come scout you. You in, Zaynie?"
Zayn laughed and lit up a cigarette. "Sure. When I'm dead, you're welcome to take my cold, stiff corpse and prop it up wherever you'd like to have me."
Louis yelped with laughter. As the rest joined in, a fleeting thought of guilt passed through him for how easily he had replaced his best friend and how well Stan would have fit in here. But with these boys around him, this boy beside him, he could not bring himself to actually regret any of it.
"Your battle armor, good sir." Harry grinned as he handed Niall's old apron over to Louis for his first afterschool shift in the bakery.
Louis took it with a sweeping bow and slipped it on over the old jeans and henley of Liam's he had changed into. "Why, thank you, my fair squire."
"Hey," Harry laughed. He turned Louis around with a deliciously firm hand on his shoulder and tied the strings behind him. "If anyone's a squire, I think it's you. I actually know what I'm doing here."
"Who says I don't?" Louis challenged, though in truth he had never touched a baked good that had not come off a china plate, courtesy of the royal pastry chef. The brush of Harry's fingers at the base of his spine made him feel invincible. "What do you want me to do? Mix some dough? Frost some cupcakes?"
"No!" Barbara shouted from the kitchen.
Louis stuck his tongue out in that direction. Harry giggled. "Don't take it personally. She doesn't even let me actually make anything, most of the time. Here, let's start with something a bit easier."
A moment later, Louis had a broom in one hand and a dustpan in the other. He wasn't sure he had ever seen one of either in person before; he knew for certain he had never touched one. "You want me to...?"
"Just sweep up a bit out in the front and behind the counter," Harry said as though it were the simplest thing in the world. "I'll go see what else needs to be done tonight."
As Harry disappeared into the kitchen, Louis stared at the objects in his hands. Well. How hard could it be? Dirt was the enemy, these were his weapons, and Louis came from a long line of warrior kings.
Sometime later, he was crouched down next to the rubbish bin by the door, tongue caught in his teeth in his concentration, when he heard Harry behind him. "Wow. I have never seen anyone wield a broom quite like that."
Louis grinned up over his shoulder and adjusted the angle his arm twisted around the neck of the broom. His wrist was starting to hurt from all his hard work. "Never fear, my liege. This dirt will never trouble your kingdom again."
Harry giggled again; every time it was like a shot of endorphins through Louis. "My hero. Right, come along. I have another foe for you to vanquish."
"But I'm not done yet." Louis frowned. He might not have much work experience, but he did have a work ethic (whatever Miss Ora liked to report to his mother).
"Oh." Harry sounded surprised—did he think Louis had some kind of super-speed cleaning powers? Much as Louis enjoyed the thought of hero worship from Harry, he might have to moderate his expectations on the work front, at least. "How much more do you have to do?"
"I've done this bit here." Louis gestured to the strip under the windows, which had taken forever to get the broom into the corners. "Still have that bit to go."
Harry's mouth gaped open a bit as Louis gestured to the rest of the shop and waggled his wrist to indicate the behind the counter area as well. "Oh," he said again. "All right, well. Let's not waste you on just one quest. Barbara has some dirty bowls and such that need slaying."
Louis puffed out his chest to make Harry laugh again. "I'm your man."
Though Harry didn't laugh this time, he flushed and dimpled—even better. "Right. Give me your lance and shield and sally forth to the sink."
He shrugged and surrendered the broom and dustpan, giving a jaunty salute once his hands were free. Harry whacked him on the bum with the broom, but lost his attempt at a stern look to another grin.
Louis floated back to the kitchen. "I have come to save you, my lady," he announced over the whir of the dough mixer.
Barbara chuckled and shook her head. "Washing up was the one thing Niall was good at," she called back. "Let's see how you do."
"I'll be better," he promised and started rolling up his sleeves.
A small mountain of bowls, pans, plates, and various utensils had overrun the sink. Louis faced them with determination. He'd never washed a dish in his life, but he had at least washed himself, and occasionally one of the family dogs. Inanimate objects would hardly be a challenge after a hyperactive spaniel.
He found soap and a sponge and a few brush things on sticks and dove in with gusto. The water burned his hands when he turned the tap on, so he brought it down to a nice cool temperature and extricated the first bowl from the jumble in the sink.
When he next looked up at the clock in the kitchen, more than an hour had passed. "Wow, time flies when you're having fun," he said as he turned off the water and wiped the back of his wrist across his brow.
"Was he raised in a jungle?" he heard Barbara demanding. Oh, she was on the phone, he realized when he turned around.
But Harry was there, staring at him with his jaw fully unhinged this time. Louis hesitated, not sure how to interpret it. He looked down at himself; so he had gotten a bit wet. His apron was sopping, actually, but that was what it was for, wasn't it? And his jeans were dripping on the floor, and his shirt was wet through, but people paid for that sort of thing, so.
He tried a smile and gestured at the stack of dishes on the drying rack. They had been rather hard to all fit, but he had balanced them with great care. "Ta da?"
Harry's mouth snapped shut. He took a breath and opened it again to speak. "Louis—"
A tremendous crash made them both jump. Louis whirled around just as the rest of his carefully built structure came down. Bowls tumbled back into the sink; three pans crashed onto the floor, reverberating like cymbals. A whisk bounced off Louis' Toms and skittered across the floor until it stopped at Harry's feet.
Harry bent down and retrieved it. He held it up to the light without comment. Louis looked between Harry's face and the whisk, wondering what he was staring at so pointedly. He couldn't see any damage from the whisk's tumble. A little egg clung to a couple of the tines, but that had been there before. Louis was sure it would come off just fine the next time Barbara used it.
"Well." Barbara's voice was bright as she came over to them, though she was rubbing the bridge of her nose as though her head hurt. Her glasses bumped up over her hand, then settled back into place. "Louis, I think we're wasting your talents in the kitchen. The dinner rush is about to start. I think a charming boy like you belongs on the till. Don't you, Harry?"
"Please tell me you know how to make change." Harry sounded slightly pained. He must not like manning the till himself; odd, for someone so social and charming himself, but Louis would step up to help him.
"Of course," he said loftily. "Please, Harold. Maths may not be my best subject, but I do know how to count."
"Well, that's a relief," Barbara muttered, confirming Louis' suspicions that cashiering was not Harry's strength.
Delighted that he could really help Harry with something, Louis shot her a conspiratorial grin as Harry grabbed his arm and towed him back out to the front of the shop. "All right, pay attention." Harry set him in front of the till. "I'm going to show you how to ring up a sale."
Louis nodded along, though he was paying more attention to the way Harry's long fingers pointed to each button (so many buttons) than to their function. He could figure that out when he didn't have Harry's other arm heavy around his shoulders or Harry's warm side pressed against him.
"I'm going to go help Barbara with the... stuff," Harry finally said. "You think you can manage? Just shout if you need help."
"What if I just get lonely?" He had rather hoped to be working alongside Harry at some point.
Harry bit his lip until his smile stretched it free. "Maybe I'd better stay for a bit. Make sure you're on your feet. Just for the first few customers, you know?"
"That would be very responsible of you." Louis nodded, practically solemn with responsibility himself.
"Let me just go tell Barbara I'll be back in a bit." Harry nudged Louis' foot, so quick he almost missed it, and vanished back into the kitchen.
A second later the bell rang behind him, and Louis turned to face his first customer. Damn, now Harry would find out that Louis didn't need his help after all.
"Good evening, madam," he greeted the woman unwinding her scarf just inside the door. "You look like you could use some hot baked goods."
She paused with the scarf half looped over her head. "Goodness. You're new, aren't you?"
"First day." He felt rather proud; he had a job, a real one. "First customer, in fact."
"Am I? Lucky me." Her lips twitched into a half smile, not quite a victory. "I'll have a half dozen of the multigrain rolls, please."
"Right you are." The till had a button just for rolls, but Harry had mentioned there was an upcharge for certain kinds. Why wasn't there a button for that? "Sorry, just hold on a tick."
Louis poked the peeling button with the faded 'rolls' marked on it like it might bite him for being wrong. It rang up £1.05. Louis had no idea if that was what rolls were supposed to cost.
He looked up with a reassuring smile. "No worries, everything's under control."
"Oh, thank God," she said. "I was worried the till was about to blow and kill us all."
"Haha," Louis responded politely. He craned his neck, trying to catch a look at the little card in front of the rolls in the display, but the angle was impossible. "Just one more moment, I promise."
The woman sighed, just softly enough to avoid rudeness. Louis dashed around the counter and bent down to read the price card. "Ah, just as I suspected, these are a bit pricier than our other rolls."
"Lovely." She was starting to get on his nerves, but Louis kept his face as placid as he could. That's what all the good servants did back home.
He came back around the till and examined the buttons again. Upcharge, upcharge. Possibly he should have focused less on how long and strong Harry's fingers were and more on where they were pointing. "You do get what you pay for," he offered to stall for time. "Or so my mum always says."
"I see. Should I be buying from that artisan cake shop down the road, then?"
Louis' back molars ground together a bit. He disliked people who tried to be funnier than him. "Overrated, I hear."
"But probably faster, do you think?"
"I did mention this was my first day, didn't I?" Louis gave her a tight smile. He jabbed another button and miraculously, the price on the till increased to £1.55. Louis chewed at his lip; the actual price of the rolls had already fled his memory as though it wanted out of the shop as badly as his customer did.
Whatever. They were just rolls. He carefully repeated that combination of buttons five more times. "All right, that'll be nine pounds thirty."
She opened her mouth as though to protest. He shot her his best quelling look (stolen straight from his mother). She subsided and pulled a ten-pound note from her wallet.
Louis took it and then squinted at the till again. It took him another bit to reconstruct how Harry had showed him to finalize the sale—and where the hell was Harry when he was supposed to be helping him?
The cash drawer popped open with a triumphant ding. Louis beamed at it. See, he was doing just fine.
He put the tenner on top of the others already in the drawer. She'd have change back from this; Louis cocked his head to look at his options. Normally he could add and subtract perfectly well, but somehow it seemed much odder when it involved money. Louis had never really dealt with physical currency, anyway, so they could only expect so much from him.
"Hullo, Mary? Yeah, it's me. So sorry, but I'm going to be late. I've been at the bakery for ages. They're having staffing issues. Again."
Louis' head snapped up. That was the absolute limit. Just who the fuck did this woman think she was? She should be fucking honoured that the first-born child of her monarch was deigning to serve her.
He leveled his most disdainful look at her, though she had turned her back to him to make her phone call. Like he couldn't still hear her.
Without looking, he dug a handful of coins out of the till and slapped them down on the counter. "Thank you for your business, madam," he said, loud and icy. "Have a wonderful evening."
She turned around and stared at the change, closed her eyes for a brief moment, then looked at him expectantly.
"What?" he said, not really caring.
"Do I get my rolls?" she asked. "Or are we just laundering money here?"
Shit. Louis closed his own eyes to gather himself. "Right. Of course," he ground out and picked up one of the paper bags with the bakery's cupcake logo blazoned across it.
Louis tried shaking it open like Harry had done so smoothly. After a full minute of flapping, he finally worked his fist into it and punched it open. He shot his customer another quelling look before she could make another clever remark. Then he slid open the back of the display case, only a little harder than necessary, and reached in to start grabbing the rolls with his fingers.
"Oh, God. Louuuu?" he heard behind him as he was dropping the third roll into the crumpled bag. "Uh, whatcha doing?"
"Just getting this...nice lady her order." Louis straightened up to turn towards Harry (who picked a fine time to show up), and slammed his head into the top edge of the display case. "Bloody buggering shit!"
"Oh, Lou." Harry's hand settled onto his hair, briefly cupping the back of his head. Then he gently removed the bag from Louis' hands. "Let me finish up for you."
Louis let himself be shuffled aside; it might have been humiliating, but he could still feel the weight of Harry's hand on his head and the affectionate 'Lou' in his ears. He grinned foolishly even as Harry dropped the bag of rolls into the rubbish bin under the counter.
Harry grabbed a slip of wax paper from the dispenser on the back of the case (damn wasteful, if you asked Louis) and used it to quickly count a half dozen rolls into the bag. He hesitated, then added three more before folding the bag neatly and dropping it on the counter. "Is there anything else I can get for you, ma'am?"
The woman melted under the charm of Harry's smile—which, bullshit, she didn't even deserve that smile. She nodded to the change still sitting on the counter. "He overcharged me and then gave me back more in change than I'd paid in the first place."
Harry looked down at the pile of coins next to the bag of rolls. Louis craned his neck to look over Harry's shoulder. Oh, those were all pound coins, weren't they? Well, they all had his mum's face on them; Louis had never been able to tell the difference.
After Harry fixed the rest of Louis' fuck ups and waved the woman out the door, he turned and looked at Louis with an odd look. Louis read some combination of amusement, exasperation, and resignation.
Louis returned the look with a little shrug. "Guess customer service isn't my specialty after all?"
Harry's giggle chased out the tiny wisps of embarrassment in the back of Louis' mind. Then the bell rang again and the dinner rush began in earnest. Louis helped Harry as much as he could, which mostly involved making Harry tea and staying out of his way. They made a great team.
Later, in the quieter space between the rush and closing, they spent their break sitting together on the back step. "I'm pretty useless, aren't I?" Louis mused. It was hardly a new thought for him, but he found that he didn't want Harry to think of him that way. That was new.
"It's only your first day," Harry said kindly. "And that was the best cuppa I've ever had." Then he snickered and nudged Louis' shoulder. "But it's a good thing you're pretty, yeah?"
Louis jostled him back in mock offense, even though he could feel the blush giving him away.
"Against all odds, you were actually right," Niall said. "Louis is better than I've ever been."
Out on the field, Louis was racing past his teammates like they were standing still. He shouted to Liam to give him the ball, and then took it straight down the pitch to the goal. No one came close to touching him.
Harry started to respond with something smug, but then Louis sent the ball rocketing straight into the net and Harry jumped to his feet to shout Louis' name wildly. Niall jumped up next to him and pumped his fist in the air a couple times before sitting back down. Harry kept cheering until Niall's hand fisted in his shirt.
"Sit down, you fountain of embarrassment." Niall dragged him back down to the bench, shaking his head. "It's only a practice."
"He's new," Harry argued. "He needs extra support."
Niall outright snorted. "Mate, the last thing he needs out there is any help from us. Oh, but look, I think he caught your little mating dance, 'cause here he comes, right on cue."
Harry's head swung abruptly back towards the pitch, ignoring Niall's snickering. Louis was jogging toward them. He was grinning, looking right at Harry, and Harry suddenly felt a little self-conscious about his display. He dismissed the feeling a second later; it was much too late to play it cool with Louis anyway.
"Hazza!" Louis called when he was a few metres away. "Come here. I need your help."
"Me?" Harry laughed, though he didn't mind the idea of Louis needing him. That was all that had gotten him through Louis' first (and almost last) shift at the bakery.
"Yeah, come along." Louis beckoned him, imperious. "I need someone to kick the ball at."
"Oh, nice," Harry said, but he was already standing up and hopping down to the pitch.
He trotted after Louis to the goalposts. Louis gripped him by the shoulders and situated him at the front of the goal. "Perfect. Now you're going to be my keeper."
Harry could hardly be expected to resist. Not that he tried—he started giggling before he got the words out. "Does that mean I get to keep you?"
Louis rolled his eyes; Harry caught his smile as he turned away. Harry had loved flirting since before he knew what it meant, but flirting with Louis exhilarated him. His heart sped up and his stomach fluttered like each exchange was a shot of Red Bull right to his veins. It made him forget everything else, even the pile of bracelets dragging at his arm.
To the point that he failed to notice when Louis took his first shot—until the ball smacked him in the face. "Oh, shit," he heard Louis shout through the ringing in his ears. Further away, Niall was cackling wildly.
A second later the shock wore off and, well, Harry was not doing a drama course for nothing. He clutched at his face and staggered backward until he could fall into the net. "My face!" he cried. "My beautiful face! I'm ruined!"
He heard a thump. When he peeked through his fingers, Louis was skidding on his knees to Harry's side. "No! Say it isn't so, Harold."
"It is so," Harry insisted.
Louis seized Harry's wrists and wrenched his hands away from his face. "Oh, God," he cried, eyes huge and jaw hung wide in horror. "Your face, it's come right off."
They were starting to attract an audience. Liam jogged up and squatted down next to them, and Harry decided to take his squint of concern and proper use it. "I knew it. Even Liam thinks I'm a freak with no face now. I'm going to lose my modeling contract."
More of the football squad gathered around as Louis wailed, "It's all my fault. How will I ever live with myself?"
The onlookers parted just as Louis was getting going, letting the coach through to loom over Louis' shoulder. Louis' final wail petered out as he and Harry swiveled their heads upward in unison.
"I've missed having you on the squad, Styles," Coach said after a long moment. "Welcome back."
And that was how Harry became the new goalkeeper for the Teasdale football squad.
"Louuuuu," Harry called across the changing room after practice on Friday. "Wait up."
Louis turned and arched his eyebrows as if to say 'of course,' or so Harry chose to interpret it. With Louis, he had learned, the eyebrows could indicate anything from breathless joy to biting disdain. "We're all leaving together. How far did you think I was going to get?"
Harry could bathe in Louis' sarcasm. Was that weird? "Yeah, I just wanted to talk to you for a second first."
"Go on, then." Louis shifted his kit bag on his shoulder, which had the effect of tilting his hips and making Harry forget what words were. "Well? Cat got your tongue, young Harold?"
It certainly wasn't anything related to pussies of any kind that was distracting Harry. He cracked up out loud at his own silent joke, until Louis started huffing confused sympathy laughs. "Sorry. Anyway. I was talking to Liam."
Louis straightened face and nodded sagely. "Your first mistake. I can see why you need my help."
"I do, actually." Shyness, according to every adult in his life, was an alien concept to Harry. Yet he felt a bit softer than he usually did, less sure of what he was doing, the tiniest bit nervous about how Louis would respond. "Liam said you thought you could train me up. Make me a real footballer."
He could actually see the ball jokes being weighed and discarded behind Louis' eyes before the other boy just grinned. "I reckon I could make a go of it. You could end up being my life's work. My Galatea."
"Your what?" Harry laughed to cover the jump in his stomach at the thought of being Louis' life's work. What a thought; only after that thought had settled nicely in his belly did another thought sour it.
He gripped his wrist without thinking. The burn no longer hurt under all the bracelets, but he could never forget it was there for long. And for as long as it was, his life couldn't belong to anyone; not even to Harry.
"My Eliza Doolittle," Louis was saying. "You know, My Fair Lady? Come on, you're in theatre!"
"Oh!" Harry dropped his hand and struck a coy pose. "I'm a good girl, I am!"
"That football career is looking more promising by the second," Louis said through his giggles.
"So I have some goalposts in my back garden," Harry said when they both sobered. He saw no reason to mention he had just stolen (with Niall's help) the goalposts from his cousins' house last night. "I thought maybe you could come over this weekend? If you liked."
Louis beamed, and Harry's odd hesitance melted away under the light that always seemed to radiate from him. "How's tomorrow? After our shift at the bakery?"
Harry started to agree, but checked his eagerness just in time. "Shit. I have to head to rehearsal straight from there. It'll probably go late, too." In fact, it had to go late, because Harry had let them slack this week; he had forgotten how time consuming even a crap footie team could be. And (he forced himself to admit) missing lunch wasn't an option anymore.
"Come on, I'm sure you need to practise at football much more than you need rehearsal." Louis said it jokingly, but his eyes gleamed with genuine temptation.
Harry felt himself bend toward it; he shook his head until it cleared and his responsibilities settled back into place. "It's my cast that needs rehearsal. Badly, too. Price of being in charge, I guess."
Louis made a tiny moue of distaste. "Guess that's why I've never been keen on it. I'm not one to tell people what to do."
"Are you kidding?" Harry said and started to laugh before Louis blinked at him in surprise. "Oh, you're serious."
"What? I thought it was rather obvious I'm not leadership material, mate." His mouth tightened, like it was a sore point. From the moment he'd met Louis, Harry felt like he knew him completely; it occurred to him every now and then how much he still didn't know about this boy.
His lips curved up at the thought. In his imagination, he savored each tiny thing he had yet to learn about Louis like a pirate biting every doubloon in his treasure chest.
But it seemed he already knew some things about Louis better than Louis himself did. "I haven't known you that long, mate," he said (Louis blinked again in surprise, as though he too had forgotten), "but I'm pretty sure you're not shy about giving direction."
Louis looked at once confused, abashed, and pleased. "Only when my natural talent makes it inevitable," he sniffed. "Like on the football pitch, for instance. Guess you'll find out on Sunday."
"Guess I will," Harry replied and they grinned at each other. "Come over after lunch? Or come for lunch, if you don't mind that my mum will be a little weepy because...."
He waved his hand vaguely in the air to avoid saying what he had been trying not to think about too much. It was hard enough to avoid any time he walked past a computer, the telly, or his mother. A royal funeral was big news at any time; when a young prince didn't even leave a body to bury, the whole world stopped to watch.
At least Louis didn't seem fussed about it. He just nodded. "I have to see what Liam's family does for Sundays," he said, and then hesitated. "Oh. Should I—did you want me to ask Liam to come as well?"
"Oh." That hadn't even occurred to Harry. Shit. Would he hurt Liam's feelings if he didn't ask? Or did Louis--? "I mean, sure. If you want to."
"Oh." Louis stared at him; Harry tamped down his frustration at not being able to read every nuance of Louis' expression yet. "I didn't mean—well, no, actually. I'd rather not, if I'm honest."
Harry brightened with relief. "Oh, good. I wanted to be alone with you." A second later he realized exactly how forward that sounded. Not that he didn't mean to be forward (he certainly did) but he always imagined himself a bit smoother than that. "Uh, I meant—oh, fuck it, that's exactly what I meant."
Louis burst into giggles, and like it was a natural law, Harry followed. They kept laughing, no words needed to acknowledge this thing happening between them. Everything was so easy with Louis, even when neither of them knew what the fuck they were doing.
With a last snicker, Louis slung his arm around Harry's shoulders and steered him toward the outside world where their friends were waiting. "I never did ask you what play you're doing."
"It's a musical, actually." Harry's bag was slipping off his shoulder, but he was not about to risk dislodging Louis' arm to adjust it.
"Oh, nice. I would have been more interested if I'd known that. What show?"
"Grease," Harry said. Then he staggered backward, pulled by his bag falling and Louis coming to a dead stop at the same time.
"No. You're lying." Louis was gaping at him like he'd just said he had cast John Travolta himself.
"No?" Harry said slowly. "Why would I lie about that? I mean, if I'm going to lie, I'd at least make it something—"
He cut off with an 'oof' when Louis punched his shoulder in what seemed to be pure glee. "No, seriously. Grease is my favourite musical of all time. I've watched the movie at least seven thousand times. I mean, maybe eight thousand."
"Me, too. Best ever." Another piece of the universe clicked into alignment. "You should come see us rehearse. I mean, we're shit, I'm not even sure I want you to see it, but. It'd be nice to have one other person there who actually knows the songs."
"I'm your man," Louis said and fit his arm back around Harry's waist.
"That wasn't too bad," Louis said as they hung up their aprons the next afternoon. "Barbara only tried to fire me twice."
"You're melting down her resistance, one broken dish at a time," Harry replied. He held the door open for Louis (because he was more a gentleman than most of the blue-blooded aristocrats Louis had known).
When they were outside and around the corner of the building, Harry stopped with a shifty look and dug into his jacket pockets. He pulled out two cheese and onion rolls, the ones that Louis had almost fallen into face first when they came out of the oven.
"Harry Styles," Louis exclaimed. "You're as bad as Niall. Give me that, you dirty filcher."
Harry waggled his eyebrows. "I would never filch. These sad little rolls happened to fall on the floor."
"Oh, did they? Fall on the floor?" Harry's eyes gleamed wickedly in response, and Louis sighed with happiness as he bit into the roll. He had grown up on the finest cuisine in the world; this was the best thing he had ever tasted.
"Couldn't sell them after that, could we?" Harry snickered and bumped his shoulder as they started walking again. "Especially since you were the one who cleaned the floor."
"We do make a good team." In fact, Harry was the best partner in crime he could imagine, with his sweet dimpled smile and wicked mind. The possibilities soared far beyond purloined baked goods.
"The best," Harry agreed and snapped a bite of Louis' roll right out of his hand.
They wound up sharing both rolls between them by the time they reached the school. Harry stopped outside the doors of the studio they were using as a rehearsal space and took a deep breath. "I told you we suck, didn't I?"
"Don't put yourself down," Louis said, squeezing Harry's shoulders. "I'm sure you don't suck."
"No, I'm serious," Harry insisted, green eyes intense under his furrowed brow. "I'm not letting you in until you accept that it's not going to be any good."
"You're hot when you're serious." The words came out (as they usually did) without any premeditation on Louis' part. Those were usually his best moments.
Certainly it disarmed Harry, whose mouth hung open for a second before he snapped it shut and swallowed hard enough for Louis to see. Then he turned and flung open the studio doors. "All right, people, heads up, tits out, we have work to do. We are not going to suck today."
An hour later, Louis was biting his lip hard from the corner where he was trying to lounge out of their way. They did suck. Oh, God, did they suck. The boy playing Danny, called Nathan, had a singing voice like sandpaper, which he clearly thought was the sexiest come-hither rasp ever granted to mankind. Also, he was an arrogant tool. The snapback and vest told that story before he ever opened his mouth.
Ellie, the girl playing Sandy, was a tiny, pretty little thing, clearly intimidated by the cheeky swagger of her co-star. She could sing, though; when she belted out the first line of "Hopelessly Devoted to You," Louis almost bounced off the floor in shock. She might have been able to dance as well, if her partner would stop dragging her about like he was moving furniture.
Harry had just shooed some Pink Ladies into place, only for them to scatter again seconds later. "Right," Harry said. His fingers dug into his hair and seemed to stick there. "We'll work on that."
As a director, Harry was patient, kind, even downright nurturing. It was driving Louis mad—half from the tender feeling it evoked in his heart, and half from sheer frustration at how completely ineffective it was.
Nathan tried to swing Ellie around and sent her careening straight towards a wall instead. Harry managed to insert himself between wall and girl, catching her against his chest and steadying her. "No worries," he said, bright and forced. "You'll get it next time."
Louis found himself on his feet before he made a conscious decision. "No," he declared loudly. "They are most certainly not going to get it next time."
The music stopped and every head in the studio swiveled towards Louis as he marched across the floor. Nathan was the only one focused elsewhere, attention captured by his reflection in the floor to ceiling mirror. Typical, Louis scoffed, though he had never met the bloke before. He didn't need to.
"You, in particular," he said aloud as he slid in front of Nathan to block his view of himself, "are not going to get it."
Nathan started and frowned down at Louis. "Who the fuck are you?"
Harry appeared at his side in an instant. "This is Louis. My...."
"Dance consultant," Louis supplied. "His professional dance consultant."
"A what?" Nathan folded his arms over his chest. "That's not a real thing."
Oh, but wasn't it? Louis (or his household) had employed at least a half dozen of them, bargaining chips in the eternal struggle between Queen and hyperactive boy. He had traded waltzing lessons for hip hop and swing, staid ballroom for musical theatre.
"First lesson is how to lead like a man." Louis flicked his hand up to Nathan's head and flung his snapback across the room. Then he grabbed Nathan and hauled him against his body (his dance instructor got a slap for the same maneuver back when Louis was young and impulsive). "You can start by remembering how it feels to be the girl."
"Oh, come on, Nathan," Harry drawled as Nathan yelped and tried to pull away. "Don't act like it's the first time."
Ellie giggled behind them as Louis forcefully demonstrated the wrong way to dance with a partner. When Nathan looked properly nauseated, Louis relented and showed off his better dance skills, first with Nathan and then with Ellie herself. As he suspected, Ellie could dance just fine with a partner who knew what he was doing.
He gave her a little shimmy action. She giggled again and mirrored him. In the real mirror, Louis caught Harry grinning ear to ear. He steered Ellie so he could keep that grin in the corner of his eye.
"You!" Harry said as soon as the last T-Bird shuffled out of the studio. He jabbed a finger into Louis' chest. "Are fucking amazing! How could you not tell me you're some kind of theatre savant?"
"I didn't know, either," Louis protested, considering an attempt at modesty only for a second before abandoning it as a lost cause. "The only shows I've been in were in my bedroom."
Harry started to respond, then stopped and pressed his finger a little harder against Louis' chest, hard enough he could feel it in his nipple. "Bedroom shows. Hold that thought, because I'll want to discuss it after you tell me how you're such a great dancer."
Louis pressed forward into the point of Harry's touch. His smile spread with the spread of heat through his chest. "Natural talent," he said and took a step toward Harry. "Natural rhythm."
He took another step, until Harry stepped backward, letting Louis set the rhythm for him as well. Even dancing backward, Harry suddenly seemed much more graceful than usual, locked to Louis by his eyes and the fingers now spread over Louis' chest.
"We go together," Harry sang softly. His singing voice was deep and sweet, with a distinct rasp of sex. His fingers heated Louis' skin through the thin fabric of his uniform shirt.
"Like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong," Louis sang back. His grin grew until it hurt, arms and hips moving in a gentle shimmy. Harry matched his moves, singing the next line, and Louis had never felt freedom like this before.
"That's the way it should be," Harry finished as they reached the door. He twirled with a giggle until he crashed the door open. Louis laughed and jogged after him.
The twirl had taken Harry's hand away from him. Louis missed it. He wanted to sing with Harry again; he wanted to touch him again. As they fell into step beside each other, he bit his lip, feeling exceptionally bold, and reached for Harry's fingers.
His handholding skills being less practiced than his dancing skills, he missed Harry's hand. His fingers hit Harry's wrist instead; they caught briefly in the mess of bracelets before bouncing off.
Before Louis could even laugh, Harry hissed and jerked his hand away. "Oh, shit, your wrist," Louis remembered. "Shit, I hurt you."
"No, I'm all right," Harry said. He looked more shaken than pained; Louis' stomach dropped.
"Sorry," he said anyway, not sure if he was apologizing for hitting Harry's injured wrist or for trying to hold his hand in the first place.
Harry shot him a half smile before ducking his head as they left the school. They walked in silence, and Louis knew he should just leave it be, maybe ask Liam's advice.
But leaving things be had never been Louis' strength. As they reached the corner where they parted ways, he reached out again, just catching Harry's pinky with two of his fingers.
Harry stopped, smiled, and Louis breathed a sigh of relief. "See you tomorrow?"
"Yeah, of course." The smile, Louis realized, came nowhere near his eyes, but his fingers brushed the back of Louis' hand as Harry detached and walked off toward his street.
Louis stayed and watched him go. After half a block, Harry half turned and waved over his shoulder with that same almost-smile. Louis lifted a hand in return, then dropped it and frowned. They had just shared (literally!) a romantic musical number. They should have been floating home.
He forgot sometimes, most of the time, that he had known Harry for such a short time. Louis knew him well enough to read his moods, but not enough to know the cause when something like this happened.
With a sharp exhalation, he turned and headed the other direction toward his own home. Tomorrow, he would have Harry all to himself. If Harry had not shaken off his funk by then, Louis would just have to fix it himself.
Late Sunday breakfast in the Payne household was an unexpectedly tense affair. Louis spent most of it fidgeting in his now-usual seat at the table, wondering if there was any way to make the clock move faster. After yesterday, it felt too strange not to have Harry at his side.
He got down his last bit of bacon and looked up. Everyone was looking at him while pretending not to be looking at anything in particular. When he swiveled his head in surprise, their gazes fluttered away like scattering pigeons.
Brilliant. He was the one causing the tension. Well, he was young, recently traumatised, and highly infatuated with a beautiful boy. They were just going to have to cut him some slack.
"I thought maybe I'd run over to Harry's," he said. "He wants me to give him some extra football coaching."
Though he had turned toward Liam, it was Liam's grandmother who answered. "That sounds like a wonderful idea," she said. Around the table, her family nodded like a bunch of bobbleheads set off by a strong breeze. "Such a shame to waste a beautiful spring day indoors."
This spring day was actually somewhat damp and chilly. Not that Louis cared; the Scottish highlands had been his childhood playground. But everyone was still nodding, and the Paynes were not a particularly outdoors type of family.
Oh, no. Oh, great. They knew. Either Liam had told them or Louis was just more obvious than he thought. But either way, clearly they had noticed Louis' wee bit of a crush on Harry.
He chanced a sidelong glance at Liam to see if he could read a cue off his face. Liam was smiling, but the smile was tighter than his usual, a hint of nervousness or perhaps embarrassment in the stretch of his cheeks.
"Right," Louis said slowly. At least Liam wouldn't be asking to come along. "If you don't mind excusing me, I think I'll head over there a little early."
"And why not?" Margaret agreed. "I think we're all done anyway."
Liam's sister looked over to her grandmother; then she made a sharp mm-hm noise and picked up Liam's plate to stack on top of hers. Liam, left with a forkful of egg lifted halfway to his mouth, opened and closed his mouth before just dropping the fork on top of his confiscated plate.
"Right," Louis said again. "Well. Thank you again for breakfast, Mrs. Payne. It was lovely."
"Of course, dear." Liam's mum smiled, but then looked bizarrely close to tears.
Louis pushed his chair back, gave them all his best trained smile, and backed out of the room slowly. As soon as he made it into the kitchen, he pulled out his phone and sent two text messages.
One, to Harry, just said, Liam's fam being odd coming over early ok?
The second, to Liam, read, love your fam mate but you're all weird today.
By the time he grabbed his jacket and got out the door, he had a reply from Harry. YES PLEASE. Mum being weepy as predicted. Need reinforcements.
Must be something in the air today making everyone's family weird. Louis grinned as he shoved his hands in his pockets and headed towards Harry's house. He couldn't remember his family being more peculiar than usual on a Sunday morning—or maybe this was normal, and Louis was the peculiar one.
He had been to Harry's house only once, for a few minutes when Harry had forgotten his football boots, but he found his way back without a wrong turn. The Styles/Cox/Twist family had a bigger place than the Paynes, with a garden almost big enough to be called grounds. He jogged up the front steps and bounced on his toes as he rang the bell and waited.
As he heard footsteps and the rattle of the lock, Louis was already smiling. But when the door opened, a girl stood on the other side. She had long blond hair and sardonic eyebrows. "Ah," she said. "You must be Louis."
"Must I be?" This must be Harry's sister (it better be Harry's sister). His own eyebrows retaliated, and she laughed.
"Well, come in, then." She stepped back and held the door open. "Mum's driving him crazy. We could all use a distraction. I'm Gemma, by the way."
From within the house, Harry's voice suddenly carried at an aggravated pitch. "Mum, I am not being disrespectful! I just think it's creepy, because it is creepy."
"And I'm so very glad I came home this weekend," Gemma added with a roll of her eyes as Louis moved past her.
He laughed, decided to like her, and started following Harry's voice into the house. No one else had been home when he had been here before; now the smell of breakfast and the sound of the television suffused the air. It felt warm and busy, like Sandringham at Christmas.
"Louis!" Harry, sitting next to his mum on the loveseat, spotted him instantly. Louis caught only a glimpse of his previous thunderous expression before his face lit up in that way that made every speck of Louis' skin light up in response.
"Oh, so this is the famous Louis," said Harry's stepfather, reclined comfortably in his own armchair. He lifted the remote control to turn the sound down on the television. "We've heard little else out of Harry except your name for some time now."
Harry closed his eyes as though praying for patience. "Robin. Did we not talk about embarrassing me in front of boys?"
"Yes, and I think I'm doing an outstanding job of it," Robin answered with a jovial laugh. "Though perhaps I ought to keep practising?"
Without opening his eyes, Harry held up his hand and shook his head. "No, thank you. You're perfect just as you are."
His mum smacked his thigh, a gesture only mildly chiding under the affectionate quirk of her smile. She stood up and came to hug Louis. "Louis, we are so pleased to meet you at last and you are very welcome here. Harry has spoken so highly of you."
At closer range, Louis saw with a start that Harry had not been hyperbolising: his mum's eyes were wet and a bit red, as though she had been weeping. He heard the tiniest sniffle as she hugged him. "It's lovely to meet you, Mrs. Cox."
"Please, call me Anne." She sniffed again and laughed sheepishly as she rubbed at her nose. "Sorry to make a watery first impression. It's just this day. I suppose it was the same at your house, if you were so eager to escape?"
"Er." Louis paused, sure now that he was missing something and unsure how he was supposed to answer. "More strange than soggy, really."
She chuckled politely and steered him toward the loveseat with a hand on his back. As he turned, the flicker of the picture changing on the telly caught his eye. He froze.
Funeral of Prince William Louis of Wales, the chyron read at the bottom of the screen. Above it, a gun carriage stood outside the gates of the palace Louis had called home. One of the six horses hitched to it stamped his hoof impatiently. "I forgot," he said dumbly, only moving again when Anne nudged him away from the television.
Anne reclaimed her seat next to Harry and drew Louis down between them. It was a tight fit. Harry pressed against him, a solid line of warmth from shoulder to calf. The rest of him (radiating outward from where his heart would have been if he'd been a better person) felt ice cold.
Then he saw four small figures in black file out from the palace gates and he found out that he still had just enough of a heart to shatter. He hadn't paid much attention to his little sisters that last morning in Greece, too caught up in his own pathos. Now he would only ever seen them again as distant figures on a television screen, forever out of reach of his arms.
He ached to hold them, ached just to see their faces, hidden under the black netting draping down from their simple and sombre black hats. One of the twins stuck her finger up under the veil to wipe at her eyes, and God forgive him, he couldn't even tell if it was his Daisy or his Phoebe.
"Poor little lambs," Anne murmured beside him. He felt the words like stab wounds. This was the moment they needed their big brother the most, and he was the cause of their pain.
Then, as if to remind him why none of them actually did need him, his mother stepped into view behind the girls. She wore her black veil pulled up over the brim of her hat, chin firmly up, eyes stony clear. The rest of the entourage settled into place around her as she took one twin's hand in each of hers.
The gun carriage rattled into motion—and for the first time, Louis noticed the coffin on top of it. His coffin. Draped in the royal standard, trimmed in ermine, holding whatever was left of Prince William Louis George Arthur of Wales. Dizzied with the bizarreness, he wondered if they had put his shoes in it to bury.
Anne let out a choked sound as the camera focused in on the Queen's still face. Gemma came over and sat on the arm of the loveseat so she could put an arm around her mum. "Sorry, Louis," Anne murmured as she dashed new tears away on Gemma's sleeve. "It's a mum thing."
"It's all right," Louis said, still staring at his mother's face. He felt faint, distant. "They'll be all right. She might not even miss him at all."
The procession clopped along and had fully cleared the palace before Louis realized that everyone in the room had turned to stare at him. Anne's eyes, clearly gifted to both her children, studied his face. Her hand came to rest lightly on his knee. "Sweetheart," she said. "Why would you say that?"
His throat closed up at the endearment; the last time someone had called him that, it was his own mum. "I just think," he got out as Harry's hand closed over his other knee, "that you—that we don't really know what the prince was like. They might be better off without him."
"I don't believe that," Anne replied with instant surety. "I'm sure they had problems like any other family. God knows there were days I would have happily sold these two to a traveling circus. Bargain price."
"Hey," Harry protested as he rubbed Louis' leg. "They'd pay top whack for us."
"But I would be destroyed forever if I lost either of them," she went on. "I can't even imagine how the Queen is making it through this public spectacle."
"Which is why we shouldn't be watching it," Harry muttered. "Give them their privacy."
Part of Louis agreed with him, but he sat and watched as his coffin (Prince William Louis's coffin) rumbled through the streets of London. At some point Robin turned the sound up again so they could hear the sobre-voiced presenters explaining each segment of the procession and going over everything they could think of to say about Louis's short life.
That part of the commentary was depressingly sparse; Louis hadn't realised just how disconnected from the general public he had been. He loved it at the time, but now he felt as though he should have left something more of himself behind. He was failing in death as much as he had in life.
The funeral procession got closer and closer to Westminster Abbey, nearer to closing out Louis' old life for good and all. He should have felt free, but instead he felt cut adrift. Only Harry's warm bulk anchored him.
When the coffin finally stopped in front of the Abbey, the pall bearers waited. Louis saw Stan among them, and at that moment, he'd had enough. He didn't want to see any more of his family in pain because of him. He had no desire to listen to whatever empty platitudes about him they had planned for the funeral itself.
He turned his face into Harry's shoulder. "Can we go play footie now?"
"Christ, yes, please," Harry breathed and hauled Louis to his feet and out the back door to safety.
The fresh air felt good on Harry's face after the stifling, literally funereal atmosphere of his sitting room. He knew he had been a bit of a twat to his mum, but the throb of pain in his wrist when Louis had bumped it last night sent all the guilt and anxiety he had been trying to repress spiraling back out of control.
But his attention, as had become usual, was easily reclaimed by Louis. The other boy's reaction to the funeral had diverted Harry into an intense focus on his strangely stricken face. Louis had never mentioned any particular attachment to the royal family; the funeral had even seemed to take him by surprise.
What took Harry by surprise was the ball that careened into his chest, knocking his breath out of his lungs and his body backwards into the net.
"Right," he heard Louis say above him when the ringing cleared from his ears. "I can see we're starting from scratch."
"Surprise?" Harry wheezed and accepted Louis' hand up.
Louis looked like he was thinking about dropping Harry back on his arse just to make a point, but he hauled him up and even helped brush him off. "Look alive, Curly. We have a lot of work to do."
Despite his stern words, Louis' mind visibly wandered even more than Harry's over the next hour. Finally, Harry made a show of exhaustion and collapsed back down into the goal. "Need a breather," he called to Louis, who was idly kicking the ball up on his toes. "My chest still has a crater in it."
Louis scoffed, but he was already walking over, kicking a half-hearted goal before dropping down onto his back next to Harry. Despite the sun, the ground soaked a chill through their clothes; after a minute, Harry shifted to rest his head on Louis' stomach.
He waited until Louis' fingers found their way into his curls. "Was wondering," he mumbled when Louis settled into a satisfying rhythm of twirl and pull. "You always say 'Liam's family.' But they're your family, too, aren't they?"
Louis' fingers froze, braced against his scalp, and Harry knew his guess about Louis' earlier reaction was getting close to the mark. "Yes, I suppose," Louis answered after a soft sigh. "But I haven't seen them in a long time, so I don't feel like I really belong with them. Not yet, anyway."
Harry turned on his side so he could look up at him. "What happened with your own family? You never mention them. No, you're right, I should mind my own business. Go ahead and punch me."
He scrunched his eyes shut and braced himself dramatically against Louis' chest. Louis' laugh rumbled under his cheek. "You're so weird."
Harry opened his eyes and grinned at him. "Quirky," he corrected. "That's what everyone says."
"Quirky," Louis repeated and rubbed his fingers into the tighter curls behind Harry's ears for long enough that Harry had to close his eyes again with the pleasure of it. "I'm not going to punch you."
"Didn't think so. Are you going to answer me?"
Louis pet him for a while longer before answering. "I have a mum and little sisters," he said at last. "Or—had them, I suppose."
Like the prince had, Harry thought. He curled his fingers into the loose fabric at Louis' side, and then went straight for ripping the plaster off. "Are they dead, then?"
He felt the lurch of Louis' stomach muscles under his ear. "No," Louis said, but the tension in his body did not relax. Harry stayed silent, waiting him out until the breath rushed out of him. "But I don't think I'll ever see them again."
Harry's curiosity prickled like their cat during an electrical storm. It was the oddest thing Louis had ever said, though not in the usual way of his oddness. Harry waited, but the moment passed without any further confessions.
That was all right. Harry shifted onto his back again and folded his hands over his stomach. The bracelets weighed heavy over his arm; he supposed they both could have their secrets.
He reached out until the backs of his fingers brushed Louis' bicep. "It's all right. You can be part of my family, if you like."
Then if someone came to take Harry away, his mother would at least have one son left.
"Pay attention, Louis, this is serious." Liam lifted his head from his pillow. "Do I ask Sophia to Niall's party? Or do I ask Danielle?"
At the other end of the bed, Louis stared up at the ceiling. "How do you know if you're in love?"
"Love? Jesus, Louis, it's just a party."
"You're the one who said it was serious, Liam," Louis snapped, lifting his head only to bounce it back against the foot of the mattress. "Besides, I wasn't talking about you."
"Oh, were you talking about Harry?" Liam sat up and scooted down the bed until he could smirk down at Louis. "I had no idea."
"Stuff it," Louis mumbled and closed his eyes to avoid giving Liam the satisfaction of a reaction.
"I mean, you have spent almost every waking minute together for the last several weeks. Every other word out of your mouth is 'Harry.'"
"That's a lie!"
"Oh, right, sometimes it's Hazza, Haz, Curly, or maybe Pretty Sunshine Boy."
"I have never said that."
"You were asleep at the time. Can't decide if that makes it better or worse."
"You're a filthy liar, Liam Payne." Louis' face burned with some strange suspension between embarrassment and pleasure. "Bloody hell. I've never fancied anyone before. Is this what it's supposed to be like?"
Liam smacked him on the hip. "What, really? Never?"
"Well, movie stars, footie players, and the like." Louis shrugged. "But not anyone real. Wasn't much point, anyway, was there?"
"I guess not." Liam smacked him again, grinning. "But now you can date whoever you want. Actually, I kind of thought you were already dating Harry and just somehow none of us had caught you making out yet."
"If I were dating Harry, everyone would have caught us making out by now." Louis started to waggle his eyebrows, but a frown drew them down. "But we're not dating, and I'm not sure why. I don't even know for certain that he feels that way about me."
"Are you joking?" Liam laughed as if Louis were actually joking, though he wasn't. "Of course he does. Obviously he does. He rejoined the footie squad for you, mate."
"He's a fine goalkeeper," Louis defended. That (against all odds and conventional wisdom) had become true: Harry's love of tripping and flailing wasn't such a detriment in the net, and he ended up blocking shots at least as often as not. Not entirely on purpose, but it worked for him.
"Because he plays with you in his back garden every other day."
"It's just convenient. He has goalposts set up." Those were the best hours of Louis' week, doing what he liked best, alone with the person he liked best.
"He didn't before you showed up." Liam started ticking off points on his fingers. "He never skips lunch for rehearsals anymore. He's cut out all his shifts at the bakery that you're not also working. He helps you pull pranks; he never used to do that at all."
"Well, when you put it like that." A grin spread over Louis' face, flush with confidence and excitement. It fell the next moment. "Then why hasn't he made a move?"
"Why haven't you?" Liam retorted.
Louis winced. "Honestly? I have no idea how. Flowers? Poetry? Rent a skywriter?"
"Or," Liam said, drawing the word out beyond the point of sarcasm, "you could just ask him to Niall's party?"
"Huh. Just like that? No prelude?"
"Jesus Christ, the prelude's been going since I stupidly took you to that bakery. What more could you possibly need?" Liam snaked his fingers into Louis' pocket and pulled out his phone. "Here. Just text him and ask him."
"Ow," Louis complained as the corner of the phone smacked his nipple. But he picked it up and thumbed the screen on. "Just like that, huh?"
"Just like that."
Louis sat up and took a deep breath as he pulled up his text messages. Harry's last text was right on top as it usually was: a series of emojis Louis interpreted as we're out of bananas please bring me some?
He was not bringing Harry bananas. Well, they did have some in the fruit bowl downstairs. Only he'd noticed this morning that they were a bit spotted, past their prime, and Harry liked them nice and yellow. He'd have to make a detour to stop at the little market a few streets over.
"Ugh, stop distracting me, Harold," he muttered and finally remembered to open a reply. Liam snorted, but Louis ignored him.
Hey you know niall's party this weekend ?? he typed and hit send with a frisson of excitement.
Yeeeeeeah, came the response seconds later, followed by, he doesnt stop talking about it, followed by, ever.
Louis burst into a snicker. Then, more carefully than he had ever typed anything, he typed out, do you wanna go with me?
He held his breath as he hit send. Casual, but direct; that was how Harry was about everything, so surely he would like that. Liam returned his excited grin and then they stared at Louis' phone as they waited for Harry's reply.
Harry was probably jumping around his room with joy, Louis figured after a minute. That's what he would be doing when Harry replied. If he ever did, Louis mentally added after two minutes. He was probably trying to phrase his answer just right, though how much finesse it took to say 'yes' he wasn't sure.
By the time five full, long minutes had passed, Louis found himself frowning. "Did it go through? Maybe it didn't go through."
"You've checked three times," Liam pointed out. "It went through."
Louis checked again. "It was delivered. He's online. Maybe he answered and I didn't get it? Is the wireless working?"
"There's nothing wrong with our wireless." Liam's glances were starting to turn sympathetic, which made Louis want to hit him. "Maybe his mum walked in or something?"
As if it had been waiting to confirm Liam's guess, the phone finally chimed. Louis almost fumbled it in his haste to get the screen back on.
"What'd he say?" Liam asked eagerly, leaning over to look until Louis batted him away.
Yeah of course, Harry had sent, and Louis' heart soared. Then another message came through a second later: we're all going together aren't we?
Louis' heart paused in mid-air. "Wait. What does that mean?" He shoved the phone into Liam's face. "What does that mean, Liam?"
Liam read the messages. When he winced, Louis' heart finally plummeted. "Oh, man. Sorry, mate. Can't believe he shot you down."
Louis couldn't believe it, either. "Maybe he just misunderstood the question?" he tried, but Liam slowly shook his head. "Well, fuck."
He slumped down against the headboard, an ache hollowing out a space in his chest. Harry had turned him down. Either Harry didn't like him the way Louis liked Harry, or Louis should have started with flowers after all. Either way, Liam had been completely wrong.
Liam shifted up to sit next to him, leaning on Louis' shoulder. Louis ought to shove him off, but Liam owed him some comfort. "Sorry," Liam said again. "If it helps, that's going to be me in a bit. Danielle and Sophia have both shot me down more times than I can count, ever since we were kids."
"No wonder. You are a bit of a disaster, aren't you?" Louis sniped. When he felt Liam flinch, remorse joined the swirl of misery in his stomach.
"Yeah. I guess so."
Louis nudged him with his elbow. "You just need a bit of style. I can help you with that, if you want."
"Ha!" Liam barked. "Thanks, but you have rubbish taste in clothes."
Louis looked down at his outfit. He had started raiding the clothes Liam's oldest sister had left behind—this morning he had put on an old pair of her cropped jeans, which he'd rolled up into capris.
He laughed. "Yeah, I do, don't I?"
Liam gave a satisfied huff and all was fixed, at least between them. Quiet fell over them, and Louis' thoughts slid back into their predictable groove.
"It's Easter break right after the party," he said after a while.
"Yup," Liam agreed. "That being the whole point of the party."
"Harry's going away with his dad and sister to visit their nan." When Harry had told him, Louis had ill-hid his dismay. He had been picturing two solid weeks in Harry's company without those pesky obligations like going to school.
"Yeah, they do every year."
"I think I might miss him." It felt like a bigger, more foolish admission than it would have ten minutes ago.
"You should go with him." Liam looked at him with perfectly serious eyes. "You wouldn't be imposing. You could just sit on their nan's settee and pine quietly."
For a split second, Louis actually considered it. Then he slapped at Liam until the other boy gave up his deadpan face in favor of girlish shrieks.
They slapped at each other until, by silent mutual agreement, they got bored and settled again. Oddly, Louis felt much better.
"You know, I always wanted a brother," he said. Stan had been as close as a brother, but there always remained the gap of life station between them that no one would let them forget.
Liam tilted his head towards him with a little smile. "Yeah? Me, too."
"I just thought it might take some of the pressure off," Louis admitted and looked away. "Never knew it could be like this."
Liam didn't answer, except to tilt further until his head rested on Louis' shoulder. In the quiet, Louis' thoughts resumed worrying at the Harry situation like a sore tooth he couldn't stop prodding.
He looked down at his phone, reading the brief exchange over and over. He supposed he should have answered Harry, played it cool like it was no big deal. But it was a big deal, bigger than Louis had even known when he'd started.
"It kind of hurts," he admitted after Harry's response failed to change after a dozen or so readings.
Liam hummed a little. "You said how do you know you're in love? Maybe that's how."
Harry stood outside Niall's house and, for the first time in his life, he wasn't sure he wanted to go in. Louis had gone early with Liam, ostensibly to help Niall set up. Harry hadn't even known that was the plan until Zayn arrived alone to pick him up.
Zayn stopped on the first step and turned to look over his shoulder. "You coming, mate? Thought you'd be running in. Hasn't it been, like, an hour since you've seen Louis?"
More like a day, which left Harry stressed and unhappy. Particularly since when he had seen Louis, they had been so awkwardly non-awkward with each other, both of them pretending that Louis' text message hadn't been what they both knew it was.
"Yeah, coming," he said. He scratched his arm above the solid wall of bracelets as he followed Zayn up the steps.
Harry had dawdled enough at home, waiting for Louis to text him, that the party was already well underway when they walked in. A blast of music hit them when Zayn opened the door. Harry wove through the people lingering in the entryway, absently returning their greetings as his eyes scanned over their heads.
He made it into the lounge and there he finally spotted Louis sitting on the couch, chatting with Ellie. Louis' eyes flicked up as soon as Harry took a step towards them. He gave Harry a small smile and a little wave—and then dropped his gaze back to Ellie.
Right. Harry swallowed and turned towards the kitchen. He needed a drink.
But Liam was standing by the counter. He had never got around to asking either Sophia or Danielle to the party as his date, but now he was doing his best bartender act while trying to chat up Danielle.
Danielle was Liam's long-time crush, but she was Harry's Rizzo and the best dancer they had. Harry sidled around them, grabbed a cup filled with something clear, and beat his retreat before Liam could notice and speak to him. Harry couldn't replace Danielle; it was better if he wasn't connected to Liam's inevitable crash and burn.
Harry raised his cup to his mouth as soon as he ducked out. He didn't care what was in it as long as it put some fuzz in his head as quickly as possible. And the first sip exceeded his expectations; the violent burn down his throat made him sputter until he coughed.
"Whoa, easy on, bro." Niall appeared in front of Harry's tear-blurred eyes. "That stuff's best left to the professionals."
"By which you mean Irishmen," Harry rasped as Niall pounded on his back, half bro hug, half resuscitation.
Niall laughed. "Let me get you a beer. Oh, Louis' in the lounge, last I saw."
"Yeah, I saw him." Harry took another swig of the vile drink just to avoid Niall's gaze. It didn't go down any easier the second time. "Jesus, what the fuck is in this?"
"Wait, what's going on with you and Louis?" Niall, normally oblivious to at least half of what went on around him, had a habit of zeroing in on exactly what Harry didn't want him to notice. "Thought you'd be in his lap by now, mourning your upcoming separation."
Harry hesitated. He hadn't told anyone what had happened with Louis because he couldn't tell them why. He didn't even know if Liam knew, though his coming to the party early with Louis suggested that he did.
Niall poked him in the arm when he was too slow answering. "Oh my God. Did you two actually have a fight? Wait, I think I need some of this." He took the cup away from Harry and drained it in three gulps. "All right, give me the bad news. Why are mummy and daddy fighting?"
"Not fighting exactly." Harry glanced around to make sure neither Louis nor Liam had appeared within earshot. "He asked me to come to the party with him."
"Like, with him?" Niall asked with a puzzled frown that didn't abate when Harry nodded. "What, and you said no or something?"
"Or something." Harry scratched at his arm again. "I pretended I didn't understand what he was asking, said we were all coming together."
"Well, fuck. That explains why he and Liam showed up so early without you. Thought you had rehearsal or something." Niall was still frowning. "So what'd you do that for?"
The bracelets weighed like a manacle around his wrist. "I--I'm just not ready for a boyfriend right now."
"Bullshit," Niall returned without hesitation. "You've been ready for a boyfriend since you figured out you like boys. And it's Louis. I thought you were going to pull him right in front of Barbara that first day in the bakery."
"Wanted to," Harry admitted. "But I just can't right now. There's just... too much going on."
Niall looked at him for another moment, and then shrugged. "You're a fucking idiot, but it's your life. You just better hope he's still there when you get over yourself."
That put an ache in his stomach as Niall hugged him again and then wandered off to loudly greet a gaggle of field hockey players who had just walked in the door. A couple of them spotted Harry and veered in his direction before he could get away.
He wasn't much in the mood to chat, but he could turn on his party persona without anyone knowing the difference. The flow of people eventually shuffled him back into the lounge. Louis was still sat on the sofa, this time having a laugh with the entire defensive line of their football side.
From the minute they met, Harry had basked in Louis' exclusive attention. Louis had become quite popular at their school, but when Harry was in the room, no one else mattered to either of them. Harry had gotten used to that almost immediately.
Harry wasn't used to sharing. He certainly wasn't used to being ignored.
After a while, Harry was vaguely aware that people had stopped trying to talk to him, leaving him free to watch Louis with an intent focus. Louis knew he was there; he could tell by the way Louis' eyes flicked towards him without ever quite looking at him.
Harry sank a little deeper into misery. His fingernails dug into the mass of bracelets as if he could claw off the mark beneath them. He had never hated it more than at this moment as he watched the boy he wanted to keep forever pretend Harry wasn't even there.
A burst of laughter startled him out of the fugue he had slipped into. Louis was roughhousing with Aiden, their incredibly incompetent striker. Aiden seemed to be trying to steal Louis' seat on the sofa, and Louis was resisting through some kind of full-body squirm.
It made heat flush through Harry's body and tears prick the back of his eyes. That should be him, and whatever else fate thought it was doing, Harry knew that this was cosmically wrong.
Then Aiden won the contest and slid underneath Louis to park his bum on the sofa cushion. "Heeeeey," Louis protested, exactly the way Harry always said it, and then proceeded to plunk himself down on Aiden's lap instead.
When Aiden wrapped his arms around Louis' waist to steady him, Harry's jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed into slits. Oh, hell, no. That was not on.
He moved forward and didn't bother to think better of it. He stopped right in front of Louis, so close that his foot nudged Louis' and startled him into looking up at Harry.
"I need to talk to you," Harry said. He took Louis' hand and pulled him off Aiden's lap until Louis stumbled against Harry. The contact sparked over his skin and pulsed through his body in a silent groan.
Aiden looked up in surprise at the abrupt loss of his playmate. "Haz? All right?"
Harry ignored him. He had nothing to say right now to anyone who wasn't Louis, and what he had to say to him wasn't for anyone else to hear.
Now that the weird stand-off between them had been breached, Louis' gaze stayed steady on Harry's eyes. He gave nothing away with his expression, almost aloof except for the burn in his eyes. "Yeah, all right, Haz?" he said evenly.
Harry turned without answering and started off through the crowded room, pulling Louis behind him. He forged a path to the stairs and dragged Louis up them. Louis huffed in surprise, but tightened his hand around Harry's as he jogged up after him.
The party hadn't yet spread to the upstairs. The corridor stood cool and quiet, and Harry instantly felt closer to Louis again. He led him to the back where a short alcove connected the guest room with the bath.
Then he held Louis' shoulders and pushed his back against the wall. And he kissed him, finding his lips in a sure press that gave Louis no time to protest. Louis froze, but the second press had his mouth open and his body relaxed. When Louis kissed back, when his tongue flicked out soft and curious, Harry's brain fuzzed out faster than drink could ever make happen.
He pulled back only when Louis gasped into his mouth. His forehead rested against Louis', the furthest distance he could manage. "Lou," he rasped. His nose brushed Louis' cheek. He had things he needed to say.
Louis answered by lifting his chin to recapture Harry's mouth. His kiss melted Harry against him; his arms slipped around Harry's back to hold him. Harry's hands slid down Louis' arms and sides until they fit perfectly over Louis' hips.
When that kiss ended, Harry took another and another, quick presses against Louis' wet mouth, before leaning his forehead against Louis' again. "I'm not ready for more than this," he murmured. Every word pricked at him, because he was ready, so very ready. "It's not--I just can't. Not yet."
Louis' hand fisted in the back of his shirt. His breath warmed Harry's lips as he sighed. "You're a very confusing person, H."
"I know." He kissed Louis again because right now, at this moment, he could. "I just—it's complicated."
Louis hummed and pushed back up into another kiss. "Good thing for you I understand complicated."
Harry started to smile into their kiss. "Can I ask you—will you wait?"
In answer, Louis' fingers twined into Harry's curls and pulled him harder against his mouth. Harry groaned and pressed Louis harder against the wall with the weight of his body. No surprise he was getting hard already, and a rub of their bodies told him so was Louis.
"Kissing you, it feels like the first time," Harry whispered against his lips. When Louis shifted against him, his mouth slipped along Louis' strong jaw until he nosed into the hollow between jaw and ear. "Like I've never been kissed before."
Louis laughed. The sound and heat against his ear sent a violent shiver down Harry's spine. "Well, that's exactly what it's like for me."
He had started kissing down the tendon in Harry's neck before Harry's brain finished parsing his words. When he did, they went straight to his dick. "Wait. You've never--? I'm the first person you've kissed?"
"Mm-hmm." Louis was busy nosing aside the collar of Harry's t-shirt for a light, experimental scrape of his teeth across the muscle of his shoulder.
Harry gripped the hair at the nape of Louis' neck and wrenched him back to Harry's mouth, frantic to kiss him again. He groaned, his dick stiffening into the softness of Louis' thigh. "Fuck. How is it even possible," he gasped between hard, fast kisses, "that no one's ever pulled you before?"
Louis gave a breathless huff; his fingers slipped under Harry's shirt, stroking along his bare skin for an instant before pinching him hard. "Think I'm that easy, do you?"
"I think you're that hot," Harry said, and it was worth it to sound so soppy when Louis went pliant in his arms, except for the hard line of his erection nudging against Harry's own hard dick. The guest bedroom was only an arm's length away. In his mind, he pulled Louis inside and locked the door in one smooth motion before tumbling a breathless Louis onto the bed.
But if he got into bed with Louis, he'd never get out again.
Louis seemed to have the same thought as he broke their kiss. He held Harry's jaw between his hands to keep him from renewing it, rubbing their noses together with a small smile. "You're not the only one with complications. But lucky for you, I like a challenge."
Harry grinned, giddy with relief and longing. He nuzzled forward until Louis allowed another kiss, sweet with promise. "Love you," he breathed. He supposed it should have felt weird to say that, but it left only warmth suffusing him, especially when he felt the curve of Louis' smile.
"Love you," Louis echoed and then dropped his forehead to Harry's shoulder with a sigh. "Can't believe I won't see you for two weeks."
"Fuck." He wasn't sure how he was going to part from Louis long enough to get back down the stairs, let alone go to his grandmother's for a fortnight. "I forgot."
"I think I'll need the time to get used to not kissing you again." Louis lifted his head to shoot him a wry quirk of his lips. He pushed gently at Harry's hips to separate their bodies. "I can spend more time with Liam. I've been neglecting him."
"And your studies," Harry teased, leaning against Louis' hands to feel the resistance. "Don't think I've seen you open a book since I met you."
"Better things to do," Louis said and stole another kiss to demonstrate. And then another. "Can't stop kissing you."
"I've created a monster." Harry giggled and deepened the next kiss. He wasn't sure he could stop, either. He wasn't sure he cared now that he'd started.
The sound of footsteps thudding up the stairs finally made them separate with a rueful look. Harry kissed Louis one last time and then stepped back just as Liam appeared around the corner, holding hands with—yes, that was definitely Danielle and definitely unexpected.
Liam stopped and looked at them in surprise. Harry raised his eyebrows and pointedly sidled away from the guest room door. At least someone would get to use it tonight.
Then Danielle was giggling and pushing Liam inside, kicking the door closed with one strappy heel. Harry bit his lip and risked a sidelong glance at Louis. Louis was biting his lip, too, but when he met Harry's eyes, a snort of laughter escaped.
A second later they were helpless with it. The laughter did the job of clearing the amorous fog that held them wrapped together, leaving only a small throb of wanting deep in Harry's belly. He suspected he might never be rid of that.
Fuck Aragon and its mark. Harry had his own purpose, more important than a princess's wedding day. Destiny came no clearer than Louis Tomlinson.
"I love this song!" Louis cranked up the shower radio and stuck his face back in the spray. "The Kaiser Chiefs speak to me," he said around a mouthful of water.
"As long as you're not speaking back," Liam said around a mouthful of toothpaste. "Or should that be the other way around?"
Mockery hovered on the tip of Louis' tongue, but the message chime from his phone derailed it. Louis fumbled with the shower curtain, snaked his hand out and retrieved his mobile from the back of the toilet.
"In the shower?" Liam mumbled and then spit noisily into the sink. "Really?"
Louis ignored him and held his phone away from the shower spray to read Harry's text. He replied quickly and put the phone back in time for his favourite verse of the song.
"'Cause there's nothing at all, except the space in between," he sang along as he squeezed out some shower gel. "Finding out what you're called, and repeating your naaaaaame—"
"Harry Harry Harry Harry!" Louis belted out as loud as he could, drowning out the radio. "Do you, do you, do you, do you!"
"Know what you're doing, doing to me!" Liam's shower poof made a fine microphone; Louis was obviously born to perform. "Harry Harry Harry Harr—"
His phone chimed again and he dropped his makeshift microphone to reach for it. Liam says you're screaming my name in the shower.
Just singing ur praises. Louis snickered, hoping Harry caught the delicate combination of saucy and lecherous in his tone. Maybe he should have added emojis.
Harry did. Wet and naked?
well aren't u?
gimme 30 seconds
Louis kept giggling—until he shrieked at the sudden blast of cold water hitting all his vulnerable bits. "Liam!"
"Look, mate, you were five seconds from rubbing one out in there," Liam said as Louis hurriedly turned the water off.
Not five seconds. He reckoned it probably would have been at least another minute before the situation got critical (well, depending on what Harry's next message was). "Like you've never wanked in the shower?"
"Not with someone else in the room!"
"Well, then feel free to leave," Louis sniped and sent a bunch of question marks to Harry. When Liam didn't respond, Louis paused for a moment, listening. "Did you leave?"
"No," Liam replied immediately (somewhat disappointingly). "We're having brunch with Nan. I'm not sitting next to you knowing you just got off to someone I've known since we were five."
Louis gave an exaggerated sigh as he snagged his towel off the rack and wrapped it around his waist. In truth, he wasn't sure whether he was even technically allowed to get himself off thinking about Harry. But after they'd kissed there had been no way he could help it, and the horse was out of the barn after that.
Liam was leaning against the sink when Louis stepped out. "So you two are dating now?"
"I have no idea," Louis admitted cheerfully, rubbing his hair with a second towel and then flicking it at Liam.
Liam caught it, yanked it away, and then wadded it up to stuff in Louis' face. "Okay, but you made out, yeah?"
Louis batted Liam away, making a face as he tried to get the bits of terrycloth off his tongue. "Yeah. But that was just, like, a preview of coming attractions or something. He said he's not ready to really be together yet."
"Huh." Liam shook his head as they tromped out of the bath to go finish getting dressed. "Harry's a weird one. Always has been."
"I know," Louis said happily. He had no explanation for Harry's quirky behavior, but he didn't need one. As long as he knew Harry liked him, he could wait for the rest to resolve itself. He had all the time in the world.
His sister grunted from where she was stretched out on the sofa, trying to beat her high score on something on her phone. Harry tried to decipher whether it was a welcoming, interested grunt or not. He supposed it didn't matter. He was going to keep talking anyway.
"Gems." He stretched his foot over the arm of the chair he was sprawled in to poke her arm with his toe. "I have an ethical question."
She cursed when she lost another life and twisted her head around to shoot him an exasperated look. "An ethical question? Really, H? You want me to go wake up Nan?"
He chose to ignore her sarcasm, as he frequently, generously did. "No, I want to know what you think."
After a moment of weighing whether he was serious or not, Gemma sighed and resituated herself to face him. "All right. What's on your mind, baby bro?"
Harry frowned down at his hands, trying not to look too obviously at his wrists. Nan had tried to get him to take all the bracelets off. He hated to be stubborn with her, but he'd had no choice.
"Do you think," he started slowly. "Do you think it's wrong to fall in love with someone—to let someone fall in love with you, if you don't know whether you'll... whether you'll be able to stay with them?"
She tilted her head, questioning. "You mean, like forever? Come on, if you had to make a lifelong commitment right from the start, nobody would ever date again."
Except that Harry would have, right from the start, right from that first day in the bakery. He wasn't in love then, but he had known that he would be; falling for Louis Tomlinson was inevitable.
"No," he said. "I mean, what if you knew that you wanted that? But there was something you couldn't control that might ruin everything."
She watched him until he looked down again. Then she got up, knocked his legs down, and plunked down in his lap. "So," she said, winding her arms around his neck. "I'm going to assume this has something to do with why you've been ducking under the furniture to text when you think Nan isn't looking."
He bit his lip, but couldn't stop the smile from spreading over his face. "It's—"
"Louis. That's his name, wasn't it?" Her smug look softened, and she gave him a little squeeze. "So, love, huh?"
"Could be," he admitted. "Yeah, I think so. I really want it to be."
She skritched her fingernails through his hair. "He seems like a great guy. Bet he's pretty far gone for you as well."
"Could be." His smile widened again before his eyebrows drew together in a frown. "But there are other things that could be, too."
"You're still worried about the mark." She didn't make it a question. Harry supposed he was about as subtle as a brick wall to someone who knew everything—or almost everything.
"Everything's different with the prince dead," he said. "Someone will have to be chosen for Charlotte, but who knows how long it'll take to sort that out."
"Harry, I'm not going to tell you anything different than we all told you when you were worried about them taking me away. Or when you turned sixteen and started panicking. We're nobodies. There's only the remotest chance we would ever get the mark. Even remoter that they'd choose us over anyone else who got it."
Harry kept his head down, turning away from her as much as he could to hide the sudden tears clinging to his eyelashes. Talking about it in abstracts and hypotheticals like they always used to do made him want to scream.
"So if you like Louis, why even bother worrying about—?"
His anxiety slowed his reaction time. Her sudden silence clicked in his brain an instant too late; he moved, but her fingers were already clenched in the bracelets. Harry's arm tensed and pulled away, but Gemma was as much a Styles as he was, and as dogged when she wanted something.
The bracelets, being mainly cheap plastic and not up for an extended battle of wills, finally succumbed to the inevitable. Several of them came off with a chorus of snaps and rips. It disrupted Gemma's grip enough for Harry to finally pull his arm away, but it was too late.
"Oh, H," she breathed. "That's... is that really--?"
"Yeah." A little thrill of relief shivered through him as he finally gave up and let her take his hand. "And yeah, before you ask, I'm absolutely sure."
The last words came out choked, and she dropped his arm to pull him close against her shoulder. "Oh, Harry, baby brother, I'm so sorry."
Her sympathy broke through the last bit of repression he'd built around himself. He felt his face crumpling until the first sob shook him like a convulsion. Gemma just tightened her arms around him, shushing nonsensically into his hair until he cried himself out.
"Please don't tell anyone," he mumbled into her wet shirt. "Please don't tell Mum."
"I won't. Not ever, H, I swear." She didn't hesitate, and he relaxed a little more into her embrace. His head hurt from crying, but her fingers felt soothing in his hair and he let her pet the ache away.
When his neck started to hurt, he reluctantly straightened up and wiped his face. "I got snot all over you. Sorry."
Gemma snorted and pulled her sleeve down over her hand, then used it to scrub his face. "Honestly, not the worst thing you've ever gotten on me."
Harry scrunched his face under her rough ministrations. "Stop," he whined, though he didn't really want her to.
She gave him a few more swipes, then kissed him roughly on the forehead. "All right, goober, what are we going to do about this?"
"I have no idea," he said, but he almost started crying again from the relief of having someone he could talk to about it, someone else who knew. "But they didn't come here when they were searching for the prince. Maybe they've forgotten about us."
"That's probably your best bet." She took his hand again and pulled the remaining bracelets aside to examine the mark more closely. "Sorry about your bracelets. I'll get you new ones."
He hummed happily; he could get her to shell out for nicer ones than he'd originally scrounged. But he needed something else from her more. "You never answered my question," he reminded her.
"Not an easy question to answer." She tipped her head back to stare at the ceiling in thought. "Actually, I think you're asking the wrong question altogether."
"Enlighten me, clever uni student." A hint of sarcasm was necessary just on principle, but he was eager to hear any new insight. He'd been going round and round in circles, trapped in his own head, for too long.
"Maybe they'll come for you, maybe they won't. But if they do, if they force you to marry someone you don't love, what's going to hurt you more? Having had love and losing it, or never getting to have it at all?"
The immediacy and surety of his answer surprised even Harry. "I'd take anything with Louis, no matter what. But is that fair to him?"
"Are you going to tell him?" she asked. "He's a big boy, Harry. He can decide for himself whether he wants to take the risk."
But what if he didn't? What if he decided Harry wasn't worth it? "I don't know," he whispered. "I don't want to. Not yet."
"All right." She brushed his fringe out of his eyes and patted his cheek. "Look, Princess Charlotte is still pretty young. Even if they want someone older for her, it'll be a while before they start looking, I reckon. Go be with your boy and stop torturing yourself."
As if on cue, Harry's pocket chirped three times in quick succession. Gemma laughed and then squawked as Harry tipped her out of his lap. "Thanks, Gem," he said softly.
She waved him off and threw herself back down on the sofa, returning to her phone and leaving him to his. He still wasn't sure what he should do, but he felt a new lightness in his chest as he tapped Louis' messages.
Take off that hat ! You look like a chav !
Sorry that was for Liam
Harry giggled. Hi, he texted back. He curled around his phone like he could cuddle Louis through it and decided to stop thinking for a little while.
"I've stopped caring, Zayn." Harry stretched out on his back on the grass. The weather had finally warmed into proper spring, making lunch much more pleasant. "It's pretty relaxing. You should try it."
"I'm trying it right now." Zayn examined his sandwich with visible skepticism. "That's not ham, is it? They said it was turkey, but that really looks like ham."
Harry took the sandwich out of Zayn's hands and slid over his own egg salad. "Honestly, I just don't care anymore."
"What don't you care about?" Louis' much more welcome voice said from above them. "Is it revising? Because I don't care about that, either."
"Like I don't know that." Liam dropped down next to Zayn while Niall took Zayn's other side. Harry was still grinning up at Louis' sun-limned silhouette. He and Gemma had got back late last night, so he had only seen Louis briefly this morning for an awkward but delicious hug.
"Nathan is gone," he announced, sitting up as Louis settled cross-legged in front of him, knees almost touching. He was still grinning, feeling downright predatory, and not even for the usual reasons.
Zayn's head swiveled around. "Gone?" he said around a mouthful of Harry's sandwich. "You should've led with that, mate. Gone where?"
"He swanned off to America, like the criminal he is." The words tasted sour in his mouth. All the investment he had put into that git as his Danny Zuko, and this was gratitude for you.
"Pretty sure the criminals went to Australia," Niall corrected. "Though I guess it all kind of worked out the same, didn't it?"
Harry ignored him. "His family moved to Los Angeles over the holiday. He never said a word about it to anyone."
"Los Angeles?" Louis wrinkled his nose. "Who would want to live in Los Angeles?"
"I know, right?" Harry said, then shook his head. "But that's not the point. The point is that we are performing this show in less than two months, we were barely competent to begin with, and now I have no leading man."
"What a giant arse," Louis declared in solidarity. "He never deserved that role anyway. You want me to go to Los Angeles and break his legs?"
"No." Harry shook his head again. "That's not what I want you to do."
Louis looked slightly disappointed. "I can help you audition for a replacement," he offered. "I know the show like the back of my hand."
"I know you do." Harry grinned wider. It was almost adorable how Louis was completely missing the plot. "But that's not what I want you do, either."
"Do... you want me to do anything?" Louis' face twitched between confusion and the uncharacteristic caution he had adopted over the holiday. Harry was torn between loving Louis for it and feeling guilty for causing it.
"Yes," he answered with little curl of anticipation. "I want you to be my Danny Zuko."
Louis' gape of shock made the lead-up worth it. "Me? You want me to take the part?"
"Obviously," Harry said with a soft smile as their friends started whooping and pounding Louis on the back.
"Who else could do it?" Niall crowed. "You were born for that part, Lou."
"You really were," Liam agreed with a quieter smile. "You should do it."
"Of course he's going to do it." Zayn thumped him a few times on the chest. "I might even buy a ticket."
"Well?" Harry asked in a low voice, just for Louis, but he was already grinning hard.
"Well...." Louis shook his head as though he still couldn't quite believe it, but then his grin burst over his face. "Of course I'm going to do it."
Harry punched his hands straight up in the air with a whoop of glee. Then he fell forward as Louis almost strangled him into a hug. Still he couldn't stop grinning, cheek smushed against Louis' shoulder.
Soon enough the excitement died down and the other boys started pestering Liam for information on his pre-Easter hook-up with Danielle. Harry, who had already heard every detail from Louis, scooted around until their shoulders pressed together. "I'm really excited to get you for the show," he said quietly.
Louis ducked his head, but couldn't hide his beaming smile. "I can't believe you even want me, but I'm excited, too. It's going to a right laugh, isn't it?"
"Yeah, kind of wanted to talk to you about that." Harry nudged his knee gently. "You're going to take this seriously, aren't you?"
"Of course." Louis looked up, face flushing with a faint mortification Harry hated to have caused. "Look, I know maybe I haven't put much into classes here, but I do know how to work hard when I need to."
"I hope so." Harry leaned against him, relishing Louis' solid warmth after a fortnight confined to ephemeral phone calls and text messages. "Exams aren't as far away as you think, and I want you to come to uni with me."
It was the first mention either of them had made of the long term, and Harry held his breath waiting for Louis' reaction. A giddy rush filled his head when Louis' eyes crinkled with happiness. "Thanks, Mum." Louis tried to roll his eyes, but he was still grinning too hard. "I'll take that on board, I promise."
"You better." Harry took a bite of Zayn's sandwich. Yep, that was ham. He made a mental note never to join a religion with dietary restrictions. "You know, I know we're kind of a mess as a company, but I really want this to go well."
Louis smiled and hooked his chin on Harry's shoulder. "Don't worry, baby," he murmured in a voice that made hot-cold prickles break out over Harry's skin. "I'm going to make you look good."
The next six weeks were the best of Louis' life (hands down, no competition, not even when he and Stan got to go to South Africa for the World Cup). Between footie, the play, and finally paying some attention to his studies, he was working harder than he ever had. He had to cut back most of his shifts at the bakery, but it didn't matter how much money he made since he didn't have time to spend any of it.
Strangely, Louis developed a taste for hard work. The feeling of accomplishment was addictive, especially after his first high mark on an assignment. He had joined Liam's music technology and business classes out of a lack of any better ideas, but once he started paying attention, he found he had an aptitude for both and liked them as well.
Only the lack of his family cast any shadow on his happiness. Liam's family fed him, loved him, cheered at his games, indulged his singing and horseplay at all hours. But he still wanted to show his mum his improving marks, show off his dancing to his sisters, drag Stan out onto the football pitch with them.
When memories of their black-clad figures at his funeral started haunting his thoughts, he drove them out by revising harder.
Revising also helped distract him from his ongoing desire to snog the hell out of Harry. They spent almost all their time together, either on the football pitch or in the rehearsal studio, and as much as Louis tried to give Harry space to figure out whatever he needed to figure out, the connection between them was only intensifying.
He spent way too much time smiling stupidly at Harry whenever Harry did something sexy, like directing the dancers, or blocking a goal, or breathing. But he supposed that was all right, since he caught Harry doing the same when Louis took charge with the squad or his cast mates. It made Louis feel like a king for the first time in his life.
And though they held themselves back from kissing again, they let themselves touch and cuddle and hug to a point that could barely be called platonic. Just having Harry's arms around him, breathing in his scent, feeling him breathe, was as satisfying as an orgasm.
Well, not really. But they had the text messages for that.
Liam had already gone to sleep, but Louis still lingered over his finance textbook, determined to twist his head around this module. His motivation flagged (along with his eyelids) almost into slumber until his text alert went off.
He was smiling and reaching for his phone before he even opened his eyes. Only Harry ever texted him at this late hour, and when he did, it was because his inhibitions had gone to sleep before he did.
As expected: I just tossed off thinking about you in that leather jacket.
Louis grinned and shifted against the mattress. They'd just had the final costume fittings, and Harry's eyes had glazed over quite satisfactorily when Louis had emerged in full Danny gear.
A second later the phone lit up again. Sorry, was that too much to say?
He laughed; Harry had said much worse, and Louis had saved the evidence. No I think it's hot, he sent back. He put the phone on his pillow and started clearing his books and laptop off the bed. Now that he was distracted by Harry, college would have to wait its turn.
When he flopped back down and picked up the phone again, he had several more messages.
Good. I didn't mean to be inappropriate.
Okay I did mean to be
As long as you like that
Louis are you wanking right now?
Are you getting off to me getting off to you?
Fuck that's hot
Louis laughed and reached over to turn off the light. Then he turned over onto his back and slid his hand into his briefs. He hadn't been doing that, but it was a damn good idea.
"Just once," Louis said dreamily, looking around at his squad. They looked back at him adoringly, even Liam, even Aiden, who had surrendered the captain's armband without protest ages ago. Of course, the only one Louis really noticed was his goalkeeper, stalwart and adorable in his yellow kit.
"Just one match in this entire godforsaken season, I want to win," he went on. This was (without question as they had lost every single previous one) their last match of the year. Their personal championship in Louis' eyes. "Can we manage that, lads?"
They all cheered in unison, with as much grit and moxie as was reasonable to expect from Englishmen. Louis clapped each one of them on the back as they filed out of the locker room. Harry came last, and Louis gripped his shoulders.
"We'll never get more than one goal, and that only if we're lucky," he said. "I'm counting on you, Hazza. You can't let them get anything through."
Harry looked at him, eyes wide and fervent. "I will annihilate anyone who tries."
"Good lad." Louis squeezed his arm with a smile and turned to follow the others.
Harry caught his hand before it fell. "Lou, wait."
His fingers tightened on Harry's by instinct, letting Harry reel him back. "Yes, keeper of my heart?"
Harry stopped with the first syllable still in his throat, almost visible until he beamed at Louis, ecstatic. Louis returned it, ebullient with pride at a pun so atrocious as to make Harry so very happy. Finally, Harry cleared his throat and coughed a little bashfully.
"I just wanted to say that what you've done with this team, with our cast, your classes, even...." He smiled again, softer. "I just think you're really special. I'm sorry I ever said you didn't take things seriously."
"No, I'm glad you did." Louis shrugged, embarrassed and pleased. Then another punny thought made him take a step towards Harry with a coyly predatory grin. "I figured I better shape up."
Harry's eyes widened as he took a small step back towards the bank of lockers. Another step brought him up against it. Emboldened by the flicker of Harry's tongue over his lips, Louis caught Harry's hands and interlaced their fingers.
"'Cause you need a man." He stepped up against Harry, lifting their joined hands up against the lockers on either side of Harry's head.
"And my heart is set on you," Harry whispered, gaze dropping to Louis' mouth.
Louis leaned in until their noses brushed, until he felt Harry's breath. "For luck?" he murmured.
Harry caught his lips in answer; his kiss was as sweet as Louis remembered. Sweeter, even, for all the weeks Louis had waited to feel it again. The first time had overwhelmed Louis with surprise and greed for as much as Harry would give him. Now he savoured each soft, gentle press of their lips, unhurried despite the team out on the pitch waiting for their captain and goalkeeper.
When they reluctantly parted, Louis felt calmer, with tingles of energy racing up and down his limbs. They grinned at each other one more time and then Harry pulled his gloves on as they headed out to the pitch.
Eighty-eight minutes later, Louis was filthy, sweaty, and with the boot prints of three out of St Michael's four defenders all over his arms and legs (and bum). The score stood at a surprisingly promising 0-0 as the ball sailed over the crossbar of the Teasdale goal, leaving Harry leaping attractively though unnecessarily below it.
Aiden took the goal kick for Harry, sending the ball halfway down the field to Liam who simply barreled through the defenders who ran to block him. Louis sprinted parallel along the sidelines, putting on a burst of speed to outpace the defender trying to stick to his side like glue.
"Liam!" he shouted, but Liam was already sending the ball straight to Louis' feet.
And then it was just Louis and the brick wall that St Michael's called a goalie. All the angles came together in Louis' mind as he blocked the right back with his arm and took his last shot.
The ball flew straight and fast toward the corner of the net, at least three metres to the right of the goalie, who leaped sideways, flying horizontal to the ground to intersect with the ball at an almost perfect right angle. Louis' perfect, heroic goal slammed into the keeper's head—and bounced straight back out of the net.
Louis lunged for it, but the St Michael's left back already had it and sent it soaring back down the pitch to their best striker. Who had somehow been left undefended.
Louis ran; they all ran, but it was much too late. One shot opportunity remained. It wasn't theirs, and it was down only to Harry to stop it. Harry stood poised in front of the goal, chin lifted and eyes closed as though the universe was telling him which way to dive.
"Blow the damn whistle," he heard Niall screaming from the stands.
"Come on, Hazza!" Liam yelled as he pelted down the field.
Louis couldn't say anything, heart frozen in his chest. The second the striker's foot connected with the ball, Louis stopped dead and watched helplessly as it flew toward the goal.
Harry was already in the air, stretched out, gloved hands straining toward the ball. The ball seemed to skim his fingertips and Louis' heart sank.
But then Harry's fingers bent and brought the ball into his grip. He had it clutched to his chest by the time his feet hit the ground—and then he stumbled, wobbling right on the goal line. He started to fall backwards into the goal, and Louis forgot to breathe.
Then Harry twisted himself around so that he hit the ground just outside the goal line, curling around the ball like a pill bug just as the ref finally blew the whistle.
"Oh my God, it's a draw," Louis breathed, drinking in the 0-0 still on the scoreboard, and then shouted it. "It's a draw! We got a draw!"
One by one his teammates took up the cry as they started racing pell-mell toward the goal. The St Michael keeper jogged up beside Louis, looking puzzled. Louis jumped onto him, pounding his back and screaming in his ear. "It's a fucking tie, mate!"
"Uh," the boy said, but Louis was already sprinting down the pitch to where his own goalkeeper, his perfect, beautiful keeper, had disappeared under a pile of Teasdale players.
"Off! Outta the way." Louis grabbed Matt, the top of the pile, by the back of his shirt and tried to shift him to no avail. "Coming through!"
He gave up and dropped down to burrow his way into the sweaty man-pile from underneath. After probably ensuring that several of his teammates weren't going to have children, he found Harry's upside down face. "You!" he shouted with as much breath as he could get with Aiden's knee digging into his back. "I love you!"
Harry wheezed a laugh as Louis started smacking kisses over his sweaty face. "Louis called me the keeper of his heart," he told Liam, whose face was somewhere around his armpit.
Louis groaned and kissed Harry's upside down mouth to shut him up.
They ended up carrying Harry on their shoulders back to the locker room, with the St Michael's squad and coaches watching with baffled amusement. Louis just gave them a cheery wave as they passed. Let them scoff. They'd probably drawn loads of matches before. This was special.
As soon as the rest of the team had piled into the locker room, Louis grabbed Harry's arm and pulled him back out into the corridor and down to one of the disused equipment rooms. There among the broken field hockey sticks and ripped shin pads, he shoved Harry up against the wall and kissed him properly, joyfully.
"You," he muttered between hungry kisses. "You were brilliant."
Harry giggled and tilted his head back so Louis' mouth fell wet on the soft skin of his throat. "Was I? Tell me more."
"Gorgeous." With Harry so open and receptive under him, Louis felt drunk with liberty. He bunched Harry's jersey up in his fists, teasing it up to the waistband of his shorts to make Harry squirm. "God, Hazza, when you took that leap? You were so fucking hot. I could have come in my pants."
Harry let out a small whimper as Louis' hand slid down between them, this time bunching up Harry's shorts and massaging his cock through the fabric. "I'm gonna if you keep that up," Harry warned.
Louis rubbed him a bit more until Harry writhed the tiniest bit between Louis and the wall. He had no idea what he was doing, but he knew with perfect clarity what he wanted to do. "Gonna get my hand down your pants, Haz. Is that all right? Can I do that? Wanna make you feel good."
Harry nodded almost violently and arched against him. Louis plunged his hand down into Harry's shorts, pushed aside his straining jock strap, and then Louis had another boy's cock in his hand for the first time.
"Christ," he groaned into the curly wisps escaping the headband at Harry's temple. He felt boneless, melting into Harry except for the grasp of his hand and the rapid stiffening between his own legs. "Fucking hell, you feel so good."
"I'm all sweaty," Harry whined as Louis began to stroke him.
"I love it." Louis squeezed him harder as he got harder. The sweat made him just slippery enough for a good wank. "You feel amazing. Gonna come just from touching you."
Harry whined again. "No, wanna touch you, too."
"Not with those gloves on, babe." Louis laughed as Harry hurriedly pulled off the spiked goalie gloves and then plunged both hands down the back of Louis' shorts. He squeezed Louis' bum and pulled Louis against his body so that his cock rubbed against Harry's thigh.
His arousal, already intense, spiked until Louis trembled with the effort not to come. He had hoped to last a little longer until his first shared orgasm, at least impressive enough so Harry would want to have sex with him again. But the edge was so close, so much tension built in his balls, his groin, to the base of his spine.
And then Harry went first, utterly unashamed, shooting over Louis' hand and moaning into his neck. Louis followed, grateful until even his gratitude blurred out into the white space of pleasure and terrifying love.
Harry measured the rest of the term in the space between kisses. He counted each day by the time left before Louis touched him again: a stolen kiss between classes; a dance in the empty studio; gasping on the edge of his bed as Louis' mouth explored between his outspread thighs.
The morning after the last football match, Harry took off all the bracelets. He replaced them with a watch of Robin's that covered the mark well enough and made Robin's eyes mist over when Harry asked if he could have it. It was a solid, heavy watch, but it felt so much lighter.
He recognized the precipice in front of his feet. He saw what lay beyond it and how close he was to giving himself away completely. The fact that he might not be his own to give mattered less and less every time he let himself touch Louis. The more he let himself look at the mark, the less he cared about it.
Besides, he had so many other things to worry about as the school term came to a close. He had to keep Louis from setting fire to the bakery. He had to revise, which he couldn't do around Louis or no actual revising would get done. Footie practice was done, but their drama performance was rapidly approaching.
In that area, at least, Louis had taken a massive portion of the stress off Harry's shoulders. As soon as he'd arrived to take on the role of Danny, the rest of the cast had flocked around him like slightly crazed ducklings running around their utterly mad mother duck. Effortlessly, Louis started managing the whole company, so no one really noticed when Harry wandered off to check on the set builders.
A director with greater ego might have resented that, but Harry only felt relieved. He was too nice, too conflict avoidant to really be a good director; he could admit that now that he didn't have to be. He'd cringed the first time he heard Louis yelling at one of the Pink Ladies, but within minutes she had corrected the vocal quirk that had been driving Harry crazy for months.
"You really think we're ready?" he asked Louis late the night before the performance. He was curled up on Louis' bed, limp with the nice, stress-relieving handjob Louis had just given him.
"Of course," Louis answered, blithely sucking Harry's come off his fingers. Harry groaned and rolled over to get Louis' dick into his mouth.
By the time they were less than an hour from curtain, the stress relief had long since been chased out by a lot of fucking stress. Everyone backstage had gone completely mad, and they all wanted Harry to do something about it.
"I feel very poorly, Harry." Ellie shivered in Sandy's first summer dress, though the cramped backstage corridors were sweltering.
"You're just nervous, babe," he soothed as she huddled against his chest. Please, God, let her just be nervous.
"Think she's got that thing that's going around," Louis whispered after Harry had dispatched Ellie to get her hair done. In case Harry hadn't deciphered what 'thing' meant, Louis mimed the rather violent theoretical expulsion of whatever Ellie might have had for lunch.
"Right." Harry felt a little like vomiting himself. "She just has to hold it together for three more hours. Three hours, that's all I'm asking."
"Let's ask for a bit more than that. Niall's got his hopes up for the after party."
"Did you tell him about the—" Harry mimicked Louis' gestures, though with a little less graphic enthusiasm.
"Nope," Louis said. "Didn't want to dash his dreams. Or make him overconfident."
Harry started to answer, but shut up when Niall and Liam trundled by, heaving the heavy plastic and particle board Greased Lightning Zayn had painted between them. They both glared at Harry as they passed; he gave them a half-hearted thumbs up.
When he turned back, his mum, Gemma, and Robin were weaving their way through the swarms of frantic actors and stagehands. Louis was already hugging Harry's mum before Harry had finished processing their presence.
"Are you nervous, sweetheart?" she was asking, her hand on Louis' cheek.
"Is he nervous?" Harry sputtered. "What about me? All he has to do is sing."
"And dance," Louis reminded him. "And look handsome. And pretend I like girls."
Mum chuckled and patted his face again. "You already have one of those down. John Travolta, eat your heart out," she said, and quite correctly, Harry had to admit. Louis looked devastatingly fit in his tight jeans and black leather jacket.
"We'll see about the rest of it," Gemma added with a friendly smirk.
Louis pretended to stagger back, wounded through the heart, until Gemma cracked and laughed. "Right, I'm off to get handsomer. Don't let this one completely freak out." He got a hug from Robin, then kissed Harry on the cheek and scuttled off towards his dressing room.
Mum finally came and hugged her actual (though Harry was starting to suspect second-favourite) son. "We have to go find our seats so Robin can set up the camera. I just wanted to tell you that everything's set up for the party tonight. And Robin and I are all checked into our little B&B, so no worries about us spoiling the atmosphere."
"Thanks, Mum." Harry's mood brightened for a moment. "You're the best."
"No, it's just that not every mum is blessed with a son she can trust to have a party in her absence," she replied. "That being said, Gemma will be keeping an eye on things, and when she says the party's over, it's over."
"Don't worry, squirt, I won't bring you down," Gemma said before he could roll his eyes. "I even brought some mates home with me, so your little friends can get rejected by real uni women."
Zayn would see about that, Harry thought, but kept his mouth shut as his sister hugged him. His nerves started jangling again through hugs from his mum and Robin, and suddenly he didn't want them to leave him alone to be responsible for everything all by himself.
But then his mum said, "All right, love, we're off to find the best seats. I'm sure you have loads of important things to be doing."
"Loads," Harry agreed, and hoped they didn't notice that his voice came out a little strangled. He had also changed his mind: he wanted them to leave very, very quickly because he did have one important thing he really needed to do.
He shooed them off. And as soon as they were out of sight, he turned and raced to the loo, where he threw up dramatically enough to impress even Louis.
By the time they reached the final act, Harry had achieved serenity. The show, against Harry's every expectation, was going perfectly. Too perfectly, perhaps, but the dress rehearsal had also gone perfectly, so maybe the universe was determined to disprove Harry's lack of faith in his cast.
Lack of faith in anyone but Louis, of course, because Louis shone on the stage like he was born to it. His natural singing voice was light and sweet, but Danny brought out a raw edge to it, gritty and real—and dirty enough that Harry fought a boner whenever he stopped to listen.
Not that he had much time for that. "Grand finale!" he shouted as he dodged Danielle flying off the stage for her costume change. "One more number, people, you can do it, you brilliant, gorgeous things."
"Harry," Ellie said behind him.
"Just a sec, love. Niall! Get the thing off the stage—yes, that thing, you were at dress, weren't you?" He started to turn back to Ellie, but then Louis appeared in the corner of his eye, and Harry stopped caring whether anyone else was still in the building.
Louis had already changed into Danny's last outfit—black jeans that molded to every curve of hip and leg and a black t-shirt that made his biceps look almost bulgy. His charity shop American letterman jacket hung from one hand; when Harry looked at him, Louis slung it over his shoulder with a cocked hip and saucy grin. "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr Styles."
Harry had to swallow a few times before he could answer, and even then it was beyond him to come up with anything other than, "You're amazing. Fucking amazing. Have I told you yet how amazing you are out there?"
Louis actually glowed in response. "Well, if you can't remember, I suppose you'll just have to tell me again."
"You're amazing," Harry told him and took his face between his hands to kiss him. "And you're on. Places, everybody!"
He got Louis into his letterman jacket and hustled him back out onto the stage with his T-Birds. With a quiet sigh of pride and relief, he saw the lights come back on and heard the raucous start of the scene. Just a few more minutes and they were home free.
Oh, shit, he'd forgotten poor Ellie, who probably needed an encouraging hug more than Louis did. "I'm sorry, babe," he said as he turned around. "What did you—oh, fucking hell."
As the words came out of his mouth, a cascade of vomit was coming out of hers, spewing all over the floor and her costume. For a long, horrifying moment, Harry thought it was never going to stop. Someone else shrieked in horror, and then Danielle was running to Ellie's side and wrapping an arm around her shoulders.
That snapped Harry out of his shock. "Ellie, baby, are you all right?" he asked, putting a careful hand on her non-vom covered arm.
"Of course she's not all right," Danielle snapped as Ellie started to cry. "All her insides are on the outside, for God's sake."
"Right, right, okay." Harry tried to take a deep breath to clear his head, but the reek of vomit made him gag. "Ellie, love, it's all right, we can get you cleaned up. Can you sing? Can you still go on?"
"Of course she can't go on," Danielle said, and as if to back her up, Ellie bent over and started heaving again.
Harry hopped backwards to dodge the spatter. "Right, right, oh, God." Gingerly he rubbed Ellie's shoulder and raised his voice. "Could somebody please find an actual adult who can deal with this? Thank you. Danielle, you know the song, right?"
"I'm a dancer, my voice can barely handle Rizzo and you know it."
"Shit. All right, who else knows this song?" He had barely gotten all the roles cast in the first place; he hadn't even thought about understudies. "Come on, you've all seen the movie, it's famous."
All the girls stared at him, shaking their heads, not knowing the words or the choreography or both. Harry thought he was going to be the one to throw up this time. Again. Behind him, Louis' voice projected loud from the stage: "You know you mean a lot to me, but Sandy does, too."
"Oh, God," Harry whispered, panic rising.
"I'm going to do anything I can to get her, that's all."
And that was all--Sandy's cue to saunter out and blow Danny's mind. But there was no Sandy, and the entire theatre was hit with the one sound a director never wanted to hear during a musical: silence.
The audience started to stir, and he could hear Louis clearing his throat. "I mean it, lads, I'll do anything."
Everyone was staring at Harry, waiting for him to fix this.
"Really, anything. Anything to get Sandy."
The show must go on. That was the number one, the only important rule of theatre. The show had to go on if they had even one person left who knew the lines. And apparently one was all they had.
"Absolutely anything to get Sandy out here. Right. Now."
Calm settled over Harry now that he had a plan, even if it probably was the worst plan ever. He was already dressed head to toe in black. All he had to do was grab Louis' abandoned leather jacket from the wardrobe rack.
The audience was muttering loud enough that Louis had to raise his voice even more. "I'm really serious about this. I just want Sandy."
Then he was going to get her. They all were, and suddenly Harry felt Sandy's wicked smile curving his own lips. He was about to go get his man and rock the socks off everyone else. He couldn't wait.
The audience fell silent when he stepped out onto the stage. Louis threw him a worried glance. Everyone thought he was about to make an announcement. Ha.
He hit Sandy's mark and struck a sultry pose, letting the jacket slide just over the curve of his shoulder. Louis' eyes widened into perfect circles the moment the penny dropped. "Sandy?" he said, voice high and strangled.
Harry took his time curling his tongue against his teeth in his best Olivia Newton-John. "Tell me about it," he purred and licked his lips. "Stud."
The audience figured it out in waves until the whole theatre rumbled with laughter and applause. He heard a high-pitched wolf whistle that had to be either Zayn or Gemma. The T-Birds were still gaping at him like stunned cows. It would have been the best acting they'd done all term, if they had been acting.
But Louis—Louis' face shone like the sun, like Harry had just given him the best gift in the world, played the best prank ever and let Louis in on it.
The music finally started while the audience was still cheering. Harry roughed up his hair, flipped back his fringe, and began wiggling his hips to the beat. A few beats after, Louis got his composure back and started moving in sync with him, looking Harry up and down like he was a man-sized stick of candy Louis was dying to lick. Which was exactly what it felt like when Louis started singing.
They threw off their jackets. Louis fell at his feet. Harry pushed him back with a booted foot even as Louis looked up at him adoringly. He sauntered away and Louis chased him, and then the dance really started.
It turned out that Harry didn't actually know the choreography that well. After a few confused exchanges, he shrugged at Louis with a grin and went freeform, prancing around him. It was going to end up more of a panto than a proper musical, but everyone would get their money's worth. Louis' mouth stretched wide with silent laughter even while he sang.
"The power you're supplying—it's electrifying!" The line ended on a squeal when Harry poked him in the shoulder and Louis pretended to fall over, zapped, while the audience roared with laughter.
Harry caught him by the shoulders and danced him backward. His whole body felt lit up, half his mind reliving the memory of when they'd danced like this before. "You better shape up," he sang and saw the memory catch in Louis' eyes as well. "'Cause I need a man—and my heart is set on you."
He lost the next lines in a breathless laugh as Louis grabbed him and twirled him. When Louis let go of his hand, Harry kept spinning across the stage, lifting his arms in a pirouette. By the time he stopped, Louis was sliding across the stage on his knees, skidding to a stop at Harry's feet just as the chorus started.
As they ooh-ooh-ooh'd at each other, Louis took a sidelong glance at the audience. Harry followed his gaze and grinned. A scattering of people had stood up and most of them were dancing—except Gemma, who was holding up her iPhone and looking like Christmas had come early.
By the time they got to the last verse, most of the audience was on their feet and dancing. Harry forgot to watch them when Louis stepped up close to him. "I better shape up, 'cause you need a man."
"I need a man," Harry echoed. A thrill shot down his spine and pooled in his groin. He grabbed Louis around the waist and pulled him against him. "Who can keep me satisfied."
The gasps and cheers were very satisfying, though no match for the heat in Louis' eyes. "I better shape up," he sang again. "If I'm gonna prove."
"You already proved," Harry sang back. "That my faith is justified."
Louis' eyes went wide and shiny at the changed lyric. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure." Harry grinned, almost shouting. "Down deep inside."
"You're the one that I want," they sang together, beaming. Harry's heart sang louder than his voice. He had never meant anything more in his life.
Around them, the T-Birds and Pink Ladies jumped around, waving their arms to get the audience to sing along. The theatre reverberated with it, and as they segued into the finale, Harry waved his arm at the rest of the cast and crew to come out and dance.
For his part, Harry stayed pressed close to Louis, looking at him with Sandy's adoring gaze, but not thinking about their characters at all. The finale swirled around them in a blur of chang-chang-changitty-changs and shooby-doo-wop-she-bops, until finally the music swelled and faded one last time and Louis was dragging him off stage.
Louis pulled him into a fierce hug as the first group of players ran out for their bows. "You're fucking amazing."
"You, too." Harry buried his face in Louis' neck, fighting back tears of exhilaration and relief. "Fucking amazing. You were born for this."
"Yeah, maybe." Louis laughed, a giddy, almost disbelieving sound. "Both of us were."
A few hours later, Louis still had Harry in his arms, still dancing, this time in a slow sway amongst the crowd filling Harry's house. The after party was as much of a chaotic hit as the show had been.
"Well done, mate." Another boy Louis didn't even know clapped him on the shoulder and then pointed at Harry. "And you!"
Harry, who still had one of the roses from the bouquet the cast had given him tucked behind his ear, grinned lazily as he lifted his head from Louis' shoulder. "Thanks, mate. Show must go on and all of that, you know."
Niall came by with beer bottles (not provided by Harry's parents) stuck between all his fingers. "Sick party, Haz," he said, handing them each a beer before moving towards Liam, who was whispering to Danielle in the corner.
Louis let go of Harry enough to take a swig of the fresh beer. He had barely swallowed when Harry's hand gently moved the bottle away from his lips.
"Don't get too pissed," he said.
Louis raised his eyebrows. "Why not? I think we've earned it."
Harry licked his lips and then pressed his mouth to Louis' ear. His hot breath sent a full-body shudder through Louis as he spoke. "Because I want to go all the way with you tonight."
His mind blanked out, probably because all his blood was rushing to fill his cock. He sucked in some air and pressed his forehead to Harry's shoulder.
Harry rubbed his back (not even pretending to actually soothe). "Is that a yes?"
Louis pulled back enough to rub his nose against Harry's. "Yes," he breathed over Harry's lips before pressing hard against them. "That's an immediate, unconditional yes."
"Thank God." Harry returned the kiss just as hard and grabbed Louis' hand. "Come on. My room has a lock on the door."
As if Louis did not already have enough of a situation going on in his pants; the thought of making love to Harry while all their friends and schoolmates continued to party downstairs, totally oblivious, gave his erection another surge of blood. "Abandoning our guests?" he teased, rough through his dry throat. "Harold, so irresponsible of you."
"Gemma's the responsible one tonight." Harry flashed him a toothy grin as he turned to lead the way. "Mum said so."
Louis let Harry pull him through the crowd, the music and noise drowning out his snickers. Anne had been sweetly supportive of her son's burgeoning relationship with Louis, yet somehow he doubted she'd set things up so they could go have sex with each other.
But Louis had been consumed with wanting Harry since he strolled out onto that stage, sexy and ridiculous and beautiful. Or maybe it had been since the day Louis met him. He was not going to deny Harry anything he wanted.
"Oh, H, there you are." Gemma appeared in front of Harry out of nowhere. Louis caught himself on Harry's shoulder with his free hand when Harry stopped dead. "I want you to meet my mates from uni."
"Gem." Harry's voice held a whine that made Louis swallow hard and press up against Harry's back.
"They set up your entire party—and bought you illegal booze, by the way—while you were sashaying around making a fool of yourself," Gemma scolded. "And becoming YouTube famous, if I have anything to say about it."
Louis sighed and propped his chin on Harry's shoulder while Gemma introduced her friends. His dick rubbed half hard against Harry's arse; he idly rocked forward to make Harry stutter as he greeted them.
Then one of the uni girls stepped forward and Louis' whole body went stiff, unpleasantly so. Shit. He knew her. He knew her—Eleanor Calder, daughter of the Marquess of Barbury.
His mother had invited the family to Balmoral the previous summer, along with several other families with children of the right age to be eligible for the consort's mark. Louis had avoided all of them as much as possible, just on principle, but a handful of awkward dinners with Louis at his mother's right hand meant that she had seen his face.
He tried to duck down behind Harry, but Harry was already pulling him around to his side. "And this is my...." He paused and ducked his head against Louis' with a little smile. "My boyfriend, Louis."
A warm thrill at the word quieted his nerves long enough to brush a kiss over Harry's cheek. But even though his eyelashes fluttered, he could still see Eleanor out of the corner of his eye. Fuck, she was staring at him, eyebrows drawn together in a delicate frown.
He squeezed Harry's hand one more time before letting go and extending it to Eleanor. "Hello!" he chirped, as bright and lively as he could project, and as unlike the sullen little prince she had met. "Tomlinson. Louis Tomlinson."
She took his hand, but before she could say anything he had turned to the next girl and was repeating his introduction. As soon as the last girl dropped his hand, Harry reclaimed it and pulled him away. "Quick, while she's distracted," Harry hissed and made a break for the stairs.
Louis followed eagerly, but cast a last glance over his shoulder as they went. To his relief, Eleanor had lost interest in him. She was bent over Gemma's shoulder, watching something on her phone. He grinned and by the time they reached the top of the stairs, Eleanor was the furthest thing from his mind.
Harry pulled him past two people making out in the shadows and into his bedroom. Louis watched as Harry closed the door. When he locked it, Louis took a deep but sharp breath, anticipation washing through his belly and down his spine.
He stepped close to Harry as the other boy turned to him. "Hi," he said softly into the hush of the room. The music downstairs throbbed distantly, like another world that couldn't touch them as long as Harry's door stayed locked.
"Hi," Harry answered with a smile so sweet that Louis had no choice but to take Harry's whole face between his hands and kiss him.
Harry melted against his mouth, catching Louis' hips in his strong grip. As they kissed, Louis' hands slid down Harry's neck and slipped over the slope of his shoulders to rest on his chest.
The kiss ended with Harry gulping in air like he'd forgotten to breathe the whole time. Louis felt a little breathless himself, but the compulsion to kiss hadn't lessened. He pressed his open mouth to Harry's collarbones, then his shoulder, until his breath dampened the soft fabric of Harry's t-shirt.
Harry dropped his face to press into the junction of Louis' neck; a soft moan vibrated into Louis' skin. Competing sensation traveled upward to meet it from where Harry's thumbs lightly stroked under Louis' shirt, just above the waistband of his jeans.
Louis stepped back after a minute. He stroked his hand through Harry's curls as Harry straightened up and blinked at him. Dazed was a beautiful look on him, and Louis could not resist placing kisses on his jaw.
"How do you want to do it?" he asked. His teeth scraped lightly on the hard edge of Harry's jaw and the soft underside.
Harry tipped his head back, eyes closed, lips parted. "Uh," he mumbled, words coming slower than usual. "In bed?"
Louis giggled against his throat, closing his eyes and feeling a little light in the head himself. No wonder, when all his blood was pulsing between his legs. "No, stupid boy. I meant whose cock is going to go where?"
"Oh!" Harry opened his eyes and looked at him, pupils huge with arousal. "I thought... maybe you in me? If you liked."
He had to put his hands on Harry's waist to steady himself. "If I like. Jesus, Harry."
Harry gave a breathless, nervous laugh. "I've always wanted to know what it would feel like."
"So you've never...?" Louis had to stiffen his arms to keep himself from rubbing up against Harry's body and coming where he stood.
"Never." Harry's giggle lost its nervousness as he kissed Louis' cheek. It could almost have been chaste except for his words (and his boner). "You're the only one who's ever even touched my dick. And you...?"
Louis snorted and pushed against Harry's chest with one palm, using it as an excuse to step back and get some cooling air between them. "You're the only one who's ever even touched my lips, Harold. What do you think?"
Harry's eyes cleared a little, but his slow grin made Louis' brain short out again. "I think maybe we'll only need half of what I've stashed in the bedside table."
"Right." Louis closed his eyes until his heart stopped trying escape through his ribcage. Then he and his hard dick turned and waddled over to the table next to the bed, where the duvet was already drawn down in welcome. He opened the drawer and found a large box of condoms and an even larger bottle of lube.
He stared at them. Harry had bought these for them to use together. He'd bought them thinking about Louis, about having Louis' cock inside him. Louis reached for the lube, fumbling it once before holding it up. "I think this is the biggest bottle of lube I've ever seen."
Harry came up behind him, pressing against his back from shoulder to cock. "I'm ambitious. Once we do this, I'm hoping we'll just keep on doing it."
"Give me a nap and a cup of tea, and the world's your oyster, mate." His shaky laugh turned into a shaky sigh as Harry's fingers slipped around his waist and began undoing the button on his jeans.
"Mm, oyster." It made no sense, but the curl of Harry's tongue against the shell of Louis' ear made it hot. Louis tipped his head back against Harry's shoulder and took his turn fading into a daze while Harry's sure hands began to push his jeans and pants down over his hips. If they could just keep one of them coherent at a time, they might get this done.
Harry muttered more sweet nonsense into the crook of Louis' neck as he carefully eased the bunching fabric over Louis' erection and pushed it down. He got impatient then and let go. The jeans and pants caught halfway down Louis' legs while Harry's fingers caught the hem of Louis' shirt and pulled it up and off.
Louis had never felt more naked than this, even with his shoes still on and his jeans bunched around his knees. The softness of Harry's shirt rubbed against his back; the rough bulge of Harry's denim-covered cock rubbed against his arse. If he got that cup of tea, or at least the nap, he thought he might quite like to have his turn receiving Harry.
He only realized he was clutching the bottle of lube to his bare chest when Harry gently removed it from his hand. The cap snapped, then snapped again, and then Harry's wet hand closed around Louis' cock and stroked. The thrill of cool lube between hot dick and warm hand, the sharp sting of new arousal served to wake Louis from his trance.
"You're doing this all backwards," he complained. He arched his back with a hiss of pleasure, pushing his hips up into Harry's strong fingers. "You're supposed to get naked and lubed before me."
"And you said you didn't like telling people what to do." Harry caught a bit of skin on Louis' neck and pressed it between his teeth until sparks of pleasure made Louis twitch in his arms. "Besides, I thought you'd never done this before."
"I told you I was taking my revision more seriously," Louis retorted, as primly as he could with Harry's thumb coaxing precome out of his slit. "I am a student of many disciplines."
And he was going to embarrass himself if Harry kept squeezing and rubbing him like that. Louis pulled himself out of Harry's arms (and hand) with an effort of will and wrestled the rest of his clothing off. Harry looked more startled than he honestly should have been when Louis spun around and began attacking Harry's jeans.
He didn't bother with full nudity. All he needed was to get Harry's flies open and his cock out. He growled and shoved Harry's arse onto the edge of the bed to accomplish his mission.
"Hey," Harry started to drawl, but the word cut off with a gurgle when Louis' mouth closed over the head of his cock. It was far from the first time Louis had sucked Harry's dick, but from the noises he kept making, anyone would have thought he'd never gotten head before in his life.
Louis hummed with gratification, which made Harry even louder. But when Harry's fingers dug into Louis' scalp, he took it as his signal that Harry'd had as much head as was good for him.
"No," Harry whined, reaching for his hair again as Louis pulled away. "More, please."
"Would love to, but you'll have to wait," Louis tutted, pulling Harry's boots off and then dragging his tight jeans down his long legs. "I would rather you come while I'm in you, and I am not lasting long enough to make you come twice."
"I could hurry," Harry offered plaintively, but he was pliant in Louis' hands as Louis finished undressing him, soft everywhere except between his thighs where he was rigid and wet from Louis' mouth.
Only when Louis reached for his wrist to remove his watch did Harry resist. Louis kissed his palm and coaxed him until Harry let him unfasten the watch and let it slip off his wrist, revealing the deep red mark from the burn Harry got the day they met.
"Does it hurt still?" Louis brushed over it gently with his thumb.
Harry shook his head. Louis kissed it to show he thought it was as beautiful as the rest of Harry—and the faint shadow dissipated from behind his eyes, leaving Harry relaxed and pliable again.
Louis pressed him back onto the sheets. He drank in the sight of Harry's long, pale limbs as Louis arranged him over the bed. Harry hummed with happiness, eyes half lidded as Louis gently settled his head onto the pillow.
Then Louis frowned and looked around. "What'd you do with the lube?"
Harry blinked at him, unconcerned. "I dunno."
He found it under the bed. "Butterfingers," he teased as he crawled onto the bed next to Harry and opened the bottle.
"Lubey fingers," Harry corrected and chortled.
Louis stroked his fingers over Harry's soft inner thigh with a fond smile. "I love your terrible jokes," he said. Harry smiled back and spread himself wider for him. "I think I wouldn't mind hearing them for the rest of my life."
Something seemed to choke behind Harry's eyes at that, some hurt that made Louis recoil, sure he'd overstepped and ruined everything. But Harry caught his hand and held onto it. "D'you mean that?"
Louis had no idea what the right answer was, but he didn't try to guess. He couldn't give Harry anything but the honest one. "Yes. Of course I do."
Harry laughed, something nervous, much higher-pitched than just moments before. "Then I'll tell you a million of them. Just don't let me go. Promise you won't."
"I promise. I won't. Never." Louis didn't hesitate, didn't have to think about it. He wasn't sure he even could wrap his thoughts around the confluence of events that had brought them together, a royal prince turned commoner and a common boy who should have the world kneeling at his feet.
Instead, he had Louis and always would have, if Louis had anything to say about it.
"Don't," Harry agreed as he pulled Louis' hand back between his thighs. "Don't."
And he kept saying it over and over, like some tantric mantra, blissed out, eyelashes damp. He mumbled it into their kisses, said it as Louis opened him with slick, nervous fingers, through the fumbling joy of entry, until at last Louis robbed him of the power to say anything at all.
Louis dreamt of drums. He'd forgotten his mum's birthday; he must have, he could hear the bands playing outside the palace, drums rattling, as the troops marched into place to salute their monarch. Rattle, rattle, rattle, thump, thump. He wished they'd stop.
Slowly, in a gradual surfacing, he realised he had been asleep. No drums, just Harry's heartbeat under his ear. They had napped together before, but Louis had never spent the entire night in Harry's arms before.
But no, Harry's heart didn't beat like that, in rapid thuds and long pauses. And Louis wasn't curled against his chest this time; he was draped over Harry's back, arm around Harry's waist, legs interlaced. Harry's head rested on Louis' bicep, and Louis took a deep breath of Harry's hair before another round of thuds reminded him there was something wrong.
The door. That was it. Someone was pounding on Harry's bedroom door.
Louis was not interested. "Go 'way," he mumbled into Harry's neck.
Harry stirred against him, but the pounding stopped. Satisfied, Louis started to drift back into dreams—until he heard Liam's voice hissing outside the door. "Lou! Louis, are you awake?"
No. No, Louis was not, not properly speaking, and he quite preferred it that way.
"Louis! Fuck's sake, mate, open the goddamn door."
That registered. Louis' eyes flew open, and Harry startled awake in his arms. Liam (stolid, soft-spoken Liam) rarely cursed so vehemently.
"Is the house on fire?" Harry slurred as he struggled to extricate himself from the tangle of sheets and Louis. He stumbled to the door as Louis reached for his clothes. The clock read 03.00 and something about the way Liam was calling his name made him want his armour back; tonight's vulnerability was only for Harry.
Harry unlocked the door and Liam immediately pushed past him, ignoring Harry's nudity. "Louis," he said, panting a little. "Jesus, get your clothes on."
Louis was already pulling his jeans back on. He threw Harry his as well, though Harry would probably not think twice about walking out naked in front of whatever remained of their party guests. "I swear to God, Liam, if this is another Danielle crisis—"
"Louis, your m—" Liam cut himself off, glancing sideways at Harry. "The Queen is here."
And the bottom fell out of Louis' world. He froze with his jeans halfway up his hips, brain going cold and blank and refusing to process the situation.
His trance only lasted a second—Harry's tiny, strangled cry of distress shocked him back into awareness. For a second Louis' chest constricted; did Harry know who he was?
But Harry wasn't even looking at Louis, instead staring at Liam like he was willing him to start laughing over his prank. Of course it was shocking to have the Queen suddenly show up at one's house. Louis relaxed a fraction. He could still save this, if he was truly the actor Harry gave him credit for.
He finished doing up his jeans and pulled his t-shirt back on. After a second, Harry pulled his own jeans on, and Louis brought him his shirt and boots. When they were both fully dressed, Harry started back towards the bed. "My watch," he protested when Louis caught his arm and steered him back towards the door.
"Do you honestly care what time it is right now?" Louis felt calm. It was a fragile calm; he clung to it like he clung to Harry's arm.
Downstairs, the house still buzzed with activity, though it no longer resembled a party. With a jolt, Louis spotted one of his mother's protection officers standing by the front door. Another two stood in front of the door leading into the sitting room.
Eleanor stood with Gemma in the doorway to the kitchen. She looked up as he came down the stairs, and he knew exactly why his mother was here. I'm sorry, she mouthed as he passed. He ignored her.
Niall and Zayn huddled as close to the sitting room door as they could, craning their necks to try to see inside. Zayn spotted Louis and elbowed Niall to turn around. "Mate, why is the Queen here looking for you?"
Louis didn't answer, but he steered Harry over and slotted him securely between them. Harry would need them if Louis couldn't pull this off.
Liam faced the protection officers with a firm chin and voice, though Louis could see the nervous tension in the line of his back. "This is Louis Tomlinson," Liam said, bringing Louis to step up beside him.
Clearly they already knew exactly who he was; Louis had seen their eyes widen as soon as they saw him. But Louis stared back at them with even wider eyes, just a common boy overwhelmed by this royal invasion.
"I'm coming with you," Harry blurted, reaching for his arm. He still looked stunned and terribly confused.
Louis shook his head before the officers could, trying for a reassuring smile. "Stay here. I'll tell you everything afterwards."
Harry frowned, his jaw taking on that stubborn jut Louis knew all too well, but he subsided when Liam stepped over and put an arm around his shoulders. Louis nodded as he passed them. He would have to tell them the truth after this (if he was given the chance), especially Harry, who should have known long ago if Louis was honest.
When he stepped into the sitting room, his heart constricted painfully in his chest. His mother really was there, sitting on the edge of the settee. To Louis' surprise, Stan was sat next to her.
She even looked like his mum, not the Queen, dressed in trousers and a simple top, hair pulled back into a ponytail. She wore no make-up, not even to conceal the dark circles under her eyes, which looked bloodshot when she looked up and saw him.
"Louis," she croaked. She pushed herself to her feet and stepped forward, reaching out for him.
Every muscle in his body ached to throw himself into her arms and sob into the comforting softness of her shoulder. Only the way she said his name, 'Lewis,' held him fast. It sounded wrong in his ears; he was Louis now, Louis who belonged to Harry.
He forced himself to flinch away from her embrace. She pulled back as though he had slapped her. "Your Majesty," he said and took another step back. He didn't want to smell her familiar shampoo, or the scent of her fresh-laundered clothes. "I—you wanted to see me?"
She shook her head, baffled. "Louis," she said again, still wrongly. "I don't understand. What happened to you? Why are you here?"
His first instinct (as it always had been) was to look to Stan for support. But Louis Tomlinson didn't know Stan. Instead he looked down at the floor, forcing himself down into the role of confused, frightened, ordinary boy. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but I don't understand. This is my boyfriend's house. We were having a party for—"
"Stop this at once, Louis." Her brows drew together in what Louis had called her thunder face when he was small. She pivoted on her boot heel and stalked back to settee with a sharp gesture at the chair sat opposite. "Sit down."
He obeyed—in either of his lives, he wouldn't have a choice about that. "Ma'am," he said and allowed himself one curious glance at Stan. He regretted it when he saw Stan staring back at him like he'd stare at a ghost, or a freak of nature.
"I think you can imagine how I felt," his mother began as she lowered herself down onto the edge of the settee again. "Being woken in the middle of night with the news that the Marquess of Barbury had phoned to say his daughter just saw my son at a party. My dead son."
The tremor in her otherwise steely voice almost did Louis in; he'd done so well convincing himself she wouldn't mourn him too much in the end. He looked down and tried to distance himself from his own words. "I'm sorry, ma'am. That must have been very difficult for you."
"Very difficult?" Her hand clenched into a fist atop her knee. "William Louis, is that all you have to say to me?"
Slowly, he lifted his gaze to meet her eyes with a calculated look of pity. He had never hated himself more than he did in this moment, but—Harry. If he had any pity on her, Louis' last glimpse of Harry would be as a blur in the corridor as she whisked him away forever.
"I'm really very sorry," he said. "But I'm not your son. I'm Louis Tomlinson from Manchester, and I'm definitely not a prince."
"What kind of fool do you take me for, Louis?" Fury and hurt creased her features, and she reached into her pocket to pull out her mobile. Louis noticed with a start that it was a much newer model than she'd had before. He wondered how she broke the old one and what else had changed in his family since he left.
She tapped at it for a minute, and then huffed in frustration and handed it to Stan. He shot Louis a hooded look before he swiped across the screen a few times. Tinny but familiar music broke the silence in the room.
Stan handed the phone back to Louis' mother. "Do you think I don't know my own son's voice?" She held the phone out to Louis, an accusation. "I listened to you sing since you could talk."
He took the phone, careful not to let his fingers touch hers (that would be too much for both of them). On the screen, he and Harry danced across the stage, playful and glowing and visibly in love. He smiled despite himself. Gemma had got great video.
"You take pleasure in this?" asked the Queen in the voice that (Louis had learnt young) meant consequences.
That voice got his back up, as it always had and as he badly needed now. He let his natural obstinacy lift his chin to meet her gaze with perfect calm. "Sorry. It's just that my boyfriend and I are quite hot together, aren't we?"
The thunderstorm finally broke. "Enough." She stood up again, taking the phone with her. "We will discuss this at home when you've had time to think."
She was going to call the guards in another second. His calm vanished all at once. If she took him away, it was all over.
Desperate, obvious inspiration struck. His right hand was resting on his thigh. Slowly, he slid it forward and arched his wrist as though stretching it.
Stan had a lifetime of training to stay aware of where Louis' hands were at all times; if he couldn't see them, they were probably about to do something to him. When Louis' hand moved, Stan's eyes flicked toward it on pure instinct. Louis had always known Stan was cleverer than he let on. Within seconds, his eyes bugged out as he noticed what Louis was silently begging him to notice.
He reached up and caught the Queen's elbow before she could take a step away. When she frowned down at him, he pointed wordlessly to Louis' hand.
It took her longer than it had Stan to notice what wasn't there. She'd had a lifetime—her own and his—to become inured to the gods-mark. She saw it every day on her own hand, had seen it every day on his, until she stopped seeing it at all.
No sound came out of her, though Louis could hear her shock and confusion as if she'd shouted. She sank back down to the settee. This time when she reached for his hand, Louis let her take it.
Out of long habit, her thumb stroked over the skin where the mark would have been, if Louis had been her son. Figure it out, Mum, he begged her silently. What point was there to tearing him away from the life he'd built, from the boy he loved, if he had already lost his birthright?
Now she was the one who wouldn't meet his eyes. She turned her head slightly to her right. "Stanley?"
Stan did meet his eyes, and for the first time in their lives, Louis couldn't read his face. "There's no known way to remove the gods-mark," he said. A flash of shared memory flickered between them; God knew they had tried. "If he doesn't have the mark, then he can't be the prince. This was all just a mistake."
His mother stayed bowed over Louis' hand for another moment. Thank you, Louis mouthed to Stan over her head. Stan responded with a small, sad smile, and Louis' heart broke just a little bit more.
"Then my son is truly gone," she finally said. When she released his hand, his fingers twitched with the urge to grab her and hang on. "We apologize for the intrusion."
Louis couldn't speak around the cotton wool that seemed lodged in his throat and sinuses. If he did, it might dissolve, and then so would he. They stood up to go, and he trailed behind them to the door into the corridor.
Outside, everyone clumped in the same places they had been before, swiveling to look as the Queen emerged. Only Harry ignored her, looking past her for Louis. "Lou?" he called and moved to step past the Queen as she passed him.
The pressure in Louis' throat eased at the sight of him. It was worth it, Harry was worth all of it, and maybe someday—
Harry brushed past the Queen, who didn't seem to notice him until Harry suddenly cried out in agony. Louis' heart seized up at the sound, his thoughts flying wildly to assassins and snipers. The protection officers tensed, obviously thinking the same.
The Queen paused and glanced behind her at Harry, who clutched his wrist where the scar from his burn lay. But that couldn't be—
Quick as a snake, she seized Harry's hand. He tried to pull away, but her grip (Louis knew too well) was an iron vice. She drew his arm up into the light until everyone could see the angry red slash across the back of his wrist. Harry looked at her in pure, inexplicable terror.
"We've been looking for you for a long time, sweetheart," she said gently, and for the second time in an hour, Louis' whole world crumbled around him. That was no burn; it was the goddamn mark of Aragon.
"No," he croaked, voice and heart breaking.
The Queen dropped Harry's hand. "Bring him," she said, and the guards closed around her, trapping Harry between them.
Louis opened his mouth, but nothing came out. His ears buzzed and his vision blurred, and his limbs couldn't have moved even if he'd known what the hell to do.
Gemma found her voice first. "Hey, stop! Where are you taking my brother?" She lunged for Harry, only to be pushed back by one of the protection officers. "You have no right to take him anywhere. Let him go!"
Liam and Zayn grabbed her arms and held her back when she tried to run after them. She struggled against them, still shrieking. "You can't take him! He doesn't want this! I'm calling the fucking police!"
But the Queen did not stop. Not even Stan looked back as they swept Harry out the door and let the door slam behind them.
Louis' knees finally buckled under him. He sank to the floor and stayed there for a long time.
This was a nightmare. It had to be—Harry was really still asleep, safe in Louis' arms, his only worry the slight soreness in his bum and getting the house picked up before his parents came home.
"Please, this is just a mistake," Harry pleaded as the Queen's guards herded him toward the line of black Range Rovers parked on the street. "I'm nobody. I'm just a commoner. You don't want me."
The Queen paused next to one of the vehicles, and Harry's heart lifted, sure she had seen reason. She turned to him and lifted his chin to look into his eyes, even though he was taller than she was. "Somehow, my dear," she said, "I don't think there's anything common about you."
Then she got into the Range Rover, leaving Harry to be hustled into one of the other vehicles. The boy who had accompanied the Queen got in next to him, ruining his brief, hysterical plan to throw himself out the door and take his chances with the tyres and asphalt.
"I'm Stan," the boy said as the convoy got underway.
Harry turned to stare at him, still half in his nightmare. He looked friendly enough, as much of him as Harry could see in the dark car. "All right. But I still don't know who you are," he said, no emotional reserves left for courtesy.
"Ah." The self-proclaimed Stan nodded with an odd air of disappointment. "I thought maybe he had mentioned me."
"Who?" He had nothing left for riddles, either.
Stan nodded again, with some meaning well beyond Harry. "You're the boyfriend, I take it?"
"Yes, I'm Louis' boyfriend." He said it defiantly, even though he had no idea if it was still true.
No, it had to be true. Whatever they did to him, whatever they thought they could make him do, he belonged to Louis. Tonight Louis had taken down the last of Harry's protections. He had given up everything to Louis, his body and his heart. For the first time he could remember, he'd felt completely free as he'd laughed into Louis' mouth, sticky and sated, Louis' body still joined to his.
Harry covered his face with his hands to hide the way he could feel himself crumpling. Love had made him a fool; fate had made him careless. Now he and Louis would both pay for it.
"I'm really sorry," Stan said after a minute. "I really don't.... I don't how things got so mixed up like this."
Mixed up. Yes. Harry clung to the words. "Right. It's just a mix-up, yeah? They'll sort it and let me go home?"
Even in the dappling of light from the passing street lamps, he could see the pity in Stan's eyes. "That's not what I meant. We've checked every eligible person between ten and forty. I'm afraid you're it, mate."
In his heart, Harry had already known that. Denial had given him hope. Now the confirmation stripped it away, leaving only a numbness he thought must be what despair felt like.
They drove in silence for a long time. Harry had left his watch and his phone behind (no, he hadn't left them, he'd been taken), so had no way to judge how long he'd been here (how long since he saw Louis). Eventually he spotted a road sign that showed they were nearing London.
"You'll have time, you know. To adjust." Stan's voice broke the silence and made Harry jump in his seat. "Lottie's just fifteen. Her mum will want to make the engagement official sooner than usual, I suspect, given the circumstances. But still. You'll have time to figure things out."
Harry said nothing. There was nothing left to figure out. Nothing could reconcile him to this.
After a few minutes, Stan tried again. "Since you haven't tried to pull out your phone, I guess you didn't have it on you?"
"No," Harry said. He bit back a sarcastic thanks for the reminder that this was the longest he'd gone without texting or talking to Louis since they'd met months ago.
Then Stan dug into his pocket and pulled out his own mobile. He unlocked the screen and handed it to Harry. "Here. You can call him, if you want."
Harry sat still, staring at the phone. "Will they ever let me see him again?" he asked instead of taking it.
The twist of Stan's lips was enough of an answer even before he spoke. "You won't be locked in the Tower or anything. Someday you'll talk to whoever you want. But... not for a while, I think."
Harry nodded, inhaled to steady himself, and took the phone.
At some point, Gemma must have called her parents, because Anne and Robin burst in the front door when it was still dark outside. Gemma fell into her mother's arms in tears, and Robin closed his own arms around both of them.
Louis still sat on the floor where he had landed when Harry was taken. Liam and Zayn flanked him, shoulders pressed tight on either side. Niall had his arms looped around Louis' neck from behind. They were the only ones left in the house and were probably the only thing keeping him even partially upright.
His head rested on his knees, gaze fixed on his feet. He could still hear Gemma crying, so a flutter of surprise disrupted his fugue when Anne's feet stepped into his vision. His heart started beating faster, bringing him closer to the surface, until finally he had to look up at her.
She looked down at him, eyes glittering with the tears Louis had caused. "Oh, sweetheart," she said. "I'm so sorry."
He blinked. The words hovered just inside his ears, refusing to sink in. She was sorry? "What?" he croaked.
Anne started to lower herself down onto the floor. Louis tried to reach out to stop her, but the other boys were already moving away to let her sit next to him. She wrapped him in her arms, ignoring his hand trying to push her away. "I'm so sorry, baby," she said again.
"You can't be sorry," he insisted into her shoulder. "This is my fault. It's all my fault."
"How could it be your fault, love?" she soothed. "If anything, it's my fault. I knew about the mark, but I let it be. I should have protected him better."
Gemma gasped above them. "You knew?"
"Of course I knew." She hugged Louis tighter with one arm and reached up to hold her daughter's hand with the other. "I've been watching for it on two children for years. When he started trying to hide it, there was nothing else it could have been."
"He thought you'd send him away," Gemma said. "He thought you'd make him turn himself in."
Anne closed her eyes in pain, then dropped Gemma's hand to wipe them.
"I didn't even know Harry was eligible for it," Louis said, hugging her back to distract her. "I thought he was just...."
Ordinary was the word on his tongue, but he swallowed it in denial. He had known from the moment he saw him that Harry Styles was the opposite of ordinary.
"Barely eligible," Anne said. "We are a very, very distant off-shoot of the Earl of Lonsdale's line. I thought we'd been forgotten when nobody came before."
"I suppose they must have searched the genealogies more thoroughly when no one else turned up," Robin added as he rubbed Gemma's back.
"I suppose." Anne took a deep breath and let it out very slowly as though to calm herself. "Still, how odd for the Queen herself to show up in the middle of the night like a burglar."
"She wasn't here for Harry." Louis pulled out of her arms; the guilt made him itch. "She was here for me."
Everyone else had already known that, though no one had yet asked him why. Only Anne and Robin looked startled. Louis avoided their gazes, looking up at Liam, whose lips twitched in a tiny, encouraging smile.
"You?" Anne asked. "But why would she come all the way here for you?"
"Because I'm her son," he said and watched the shockwave radiate through the room.
"You're...." Anne trailed off as though her own thoughts interrupted her. Louis watched her eyes as she put the pieces together: Louis' abrupt and unexplained appearance in Manchester; Peggy Payne's former occupation; the lack of a body in the royal coffin.
"Holy shit," Niall said. "You're the fucking prince."
Louis managed a wry smile, but before anyone could ask for a better explanation (which Louis felt quite unprepared to give), his phone buzzed in his pocket. He jumped; he'd forgotten that it had stayed in his jeans when Harry had taken Louis out of them.
He scrambled to pull it out. The screen flashed with a very familiar number. Louis swiped his thumb across the screen to accept the call. "Stan? Where are you? What the fuck does she think she's doing?"
All the air squeezed out of his lungs. "Hazza?" he said and Anne gasped beside him. "Baby, where are you?"
Gemma started to make a grab for the phone, but Robin pulled her back. Louis hunched over, covering his other ear with his hand. He'd been so selfish tonight; why stop now?
"Still driving." Harry's voice sounded rougher than usual, choked, but still the most beautiful sound in the world. "But we're almost to the Palace, I think."
"Christ," Louis breathed. Harry might as well have said he was almost to Mars, for all that Louis could reach him there.
"So I don't have much time and I don't know if I'll get a chance again. Stan leant me his phone so I could—" Harry took a breath, cutting himself off. "I have a lot I need to say to you, so please, Lou, don't interrupt me."
"All right," he whispered. He wasn't sure he could say more than that; the tears had finally started to escape as soon as he heard Harry's voice.
"I need to tell you that I love you so much, Lou, so, so much, and I'm so, so sorry."
He could not take one more apology. "No, it's not—"
"Louis, you promised," Harry chided. "I am sorry, because I should have told you. I knew all along this could happen, and I let you fall in love with me anyway. I knew I shouldn't, but I was so selfish. I convinced myself it would never come to anything, just because I wanted you so much."
"Neither of us ever had a choice about that." Louis smiled, grim and fond, against his knee. At least he understood now why Harry had tried to wait, even if his sweet, misguided caution had cost them precious weeks they'd never have now.
"No," Harry admitted. Then, "Shit. We're pulling in the gates."
Louis' throat closed up. He struggled for something to say, but he was crying harder now and Harry was racing on.
"I need you to know, it's not just that I love you. I love you because you're the best person I've ever met. You're clever and funny and generous. I never laugh like I do with you. And I'm so proud of you. I know you never thought too much of yourself before you came here, but fuck, Lou, it's been incredible, how strong you are, how everyone looks up to you. You've done so much just in these few months, and you're going to do so much more. I just wish I was going to be there to see it."
"Harry," Louis managed to choke out, full-out sobbing now. He had so much he needed to say to Harry as well, but he wasn't as clever as Harry thought he was. No words made it through the screaming panic in his brain, the ticking of each second they had left.
He heard the sound of the car doors opening and Stan's voice saying Harry's name. "Fuck, fuck, fuck," Harry swore. "Lou, Lou, please—"
A cacophony of voices and noise drowned him out just before the line went dead. Louis let the phone fall from his hand and gave in to the sobs wracking his body. Anne's hand pressed flat in the middle of his back, startling him; he had quite forgotten anyone else was there.
Lou, please. What had Harry tried to ask of him? What could Louis possibly do?
Disjointed images filtered through the fog in his head. Harry had only asked one thing of him tonight. He could still feel Harry writhing under him, feel the clamp of Harry's fingers on his arms, hear the rough gasp of his voice over and over. Don't let me go.
He'd made that promise without knowing what it meant. But then, Harry hadn't known of whom he was asking it.
Something cool settled into him; not a chill and nothing calm, but an icy fire through his spine. His sobs had stopped when he wasn't paying attention. He lifted his head and wiped his eyes.
Then he turned to Anne and tried to put everything he owed her (for Harry, for the great wrong Louis had done them) into his voice. "I'm going to get him back."
She said nothing, only studied him for a long moment before nodding once and pressing his phone and her car keys into his hand. Louis kissed her cheek before he pushed himself to his feet and made a beeline for the front door.
"Can you even drive?" Liam shouted after him.
Louis ignored him, ignored everyone else, and let the door slam shut on his words. That was the wrong question in any case. Louis didn't have a license to speak of, but he had driven cars around various royal estates since he was a much younger lad.
He got in Anne's car and drove. He had no plan other than to follow the signs to London. But when he approached the edge of the town, he changed his mind at the last second and veered off in a different direction, ignoring the honks of the early morning commuters around him. West. He was going west.
Harry sat on a hard piece of furniture in a cold room and waited. They had herded him into the room like a lost sheep into a pen and then left him there alone. A polite but clearly distracted woman in a crisp navy blue suit had come in briefly to check on him some time ago.
"I want to call my mum," he'd demanded. They couldn't deny him that; he was still underage.
"Of course," she assured him before she hurried off. "Someone will bring a phone to you very soon."
But no one had. Not a phone nor even a cup of tea. He knew it was barely past dawn so maybe they were a little short staffed, but he could hear a chaotic bustle of activity going on somewhere. Occasionally people walked past the door, and once he heard someone saying his name.
They had taken the time to lock the door from the outside, he discovered when he couldn't sit still another second. Not going to risk their prize stud wandering off, he thought and sat back down.
If they ever did bring him a phone, maybe he should call the police and report his own kidnapping. Or he could call a newspaper, or the Mirror, or something. If he embarrassed them enough, maybe they wouldn't want him anymore.
Stan's voice wormed its way out from his memory. Checked every eligible person...you're it, mate.
Even his breathing echoed in this empty room with its high gilt ceilings, enormous classical paintings, and old, hard chairs and tables and some large wood thing he didn't have a name for. If he had a cup of tea, he wouldn't even know where he dared set it down.
He just wanted to go home. He wanted to be home, cuddled up on their big squashy sofa, his head in Louis' lap and Louis' fingers stroking his hair. Or better yet, he wanted to be in bed, warm and safe in Louis' embrace.
He wanted to turn back time and never unlock that bedroom door.
One night with Louis. He'd gotten one night, and not even the whole night. Harry tried to be a good person: respectful to his mum, polite to his elders, kind to animals and people alike, reasonably nice to his sister. He couldn't imagine what he'd done to deserve this.
He lost some more time to self-pity, until finally the doorknob rattled. Harry sat up straighter and gripped the arms of his chair. He felt ready for battle. If they thought he was just going to roll over, they had another think coming.
The door creaked open slowly, with such caution that Harry got annoyed. He wasn't actually going to attack anybody. Mostly he just wanted to know what was going on.
Finally a head of glossy blond hair poked through the crack and swiveled until its owner spotted him. Then he got a glimpse of blue eyes and a rounded pink mouth gaping at him before disappearing.
A moment later the door opened wider and his visitor took a hesitant step inside. To his surprise, it was a young girl, even younger than Harry, in a flouncy dress and heels that looked much too big for her. She stared at him openly now, with eyes lined with too much mascara that only made her look younger and more innocent.
"Hello?" Harry tried when the silence stretched until it was plucking at his nerves.
The girl startled as though she hadn't expected him to actually see her. "You're him, aren't you?" she blurted. "The one Mum found with—"
She pointed toward his wrist, and that was when he finally saw her hand and the small cross marked above the joint between thumb and wrist. "You're Princess Charlotte," he said and tried to hide the wave of nausea roiling through him.
"How did you know?" she demanded. Then she glanced down at her hand and her stunned look turned sheepish. "Oh. Of course. This thing."
"You don't sound very happy about it," Harry ventured. If she was as discontent as he was with this whole arrangement, she could be an ally in setting them both free.
She wandered over to the chair next to his and slumped down into it. "It was never supposed to be me," she said. "I was supposed to go to uni and find a boyfriend and do things."
"Yeah? What were you going to study at uni?"
"Sociology, maybe." Her eyes lit up at the thought, but only a breath later the light extinguished abruptly. "But then my stupid brother had to go and get himself killed. He ruined everything."
The words sounded petulant, but Harry heard the grief underneath it. "I'm so sorry," he said and hesitantly reached out to touch her arm. "I know I would die if anything happened to my sister."
Her eyes squeezed shut just as the tears began to overflow. She buried her face in her hands with a moan. "Oh God, now I'm the one ruining everything."
"No, no!" He squeezed her arm harder. "You're not ruining anything."
"I've ruined my whole face." She peeked out, revealing the smears of mascara and eyeliner around her eyes.
She looked like a very sad raccoon, but after seventeen years with Gemma as his sister, he knew better than to even let himself think that in her presence. "You're gorgeous," he told her, because her big blue eyes really were beautiful.
Charlotte glowed at that. "So are you," she said, almost reverently, and Harry winced. That wasn't the direction he'd meant to take this.
"Tell me about him," he said hastily. "Your brother. No one knows much about any of you."
"Mummy's doing," she said. "I mean, I'm grateful for it, but it's sad that no one else knows how amazing Lou was."
The name hit Harry like a blow to his chest, until his brain caught up with his ears. Of course, nobody would have called William Louis by his full name all the time.
"He was such a shit to Mummy sometimes," she went on. "But he was so kind to me and Fizzy and the twins. Mummy's so busy, you know? So Louis was the one who raised us, mostly. He was always there. He always made me laugh when I felt bad."
She started crying again, tiny little hitches of breath. Harry rubbed her arm as comfortingly as he could and sniffed back tears of his own—compassion for her loss mixing with renewed grief for his own. "I really am sorry."
"I just wish I could hug him one more time, you know?" She wiped the back of her hand across her eyes. It didn't improve the raccoon situation, but at least she no longer seemed self-conscious around him. "Those last few days, he and Mummy were fighting so much. He was so angry and depressed, so I just avoided him. Just left him alone."
"It's not your fault." He remembered whole weeks of sidestepping Gemma when one of them was in a state over something that seemed so silly after it was over. "It's just life. He knew you loved him."
She gave him a wobbly smile. "You're quite wise, aren't you?" she said, and then suddenly he had his arms full of damp princess. "I'm so glad it's you. If I get to have you, I think maybe I can do the rest of it after all."
His hand froze mid-pat as his heart plummeted. Oh, shit. He had only wanted to be kind to a grieving, frightened girl. He hadn't meant for her to imprint on him like a duckling.
Before he could figure out what to say, the door hinges gave a longer, louder squeak and suddenly the bloody Queen was in the room again, trailed by a half dozen people in suits. She stopped and raised her eyebrows when she spotted them.
"Well, this is not where I expected to find you, Lottie," she said to her daughter. "Though I suppose I should have."
Charlotte straightened up, though she still perched on Harry's leg, and gave her mother a beaming smile. "Sorry, Mummy, I just had to come see what he was like. And I'm so glad I did. He's so wonderful."
The Queen smiled back, striking renewed terror in Harry's heart. "I'm so glad that you two are getting on so well."
"I'm gay," Harry blurted, panicked.
Two sets of identical royal eyes looked at him. Neither seemed particularly concerned with his statement.
"Really, really, one hundred percent gay," he emphasized.
Charlotte just laughed and kissed his cheek. "Idiot, it's not like I'm trying to get you into bed any time soon? Besides, everyone's sexuality is fluid these days, right? I wouldn't mind kissing a girl."
"I would," Harry said as firmly as he could without sounding like an ass.
The Queen smiled, compassionate and unrelenting. "It would hardly be the first time. We all have sacrifices to make for our country."
A bit of rage was starting to build inside his head. Harry saw no reason he needed to sacrifice his entire identity, not to mention his happiness, just because their parliament and monarchy refused to tell a five hundred year old Pope to go fuck himself.
He had just opened his mouth to emphasise that point when the princess jolted against his shoulder as though she'd heard his thoughts. "Mummy!" Her cry rose through the last syllable until it was almost a shriek. "Oh my God. Mummy."
Charlotte slid off Harry's lap and held her hand out. Harry stood up so he could peer over her shoulder as the Queen hurried to her daughter. All her lackeys followed, circling around until the two royals (and Harry) stood inside a small forest of suits.
At first, Harry didn't know what he was supposed to be looking at. Smears and blotches of mascara and eye shadow streaked her trembling hand. Even the Queen looked momentarily baffled until Charlotte lifted her eyes to her with ill-concealed hope and fear.
"The gods-mark. It's gone again, Mummy," she said and the entire room exploded into chaos.
The sun had not yet cleared the roofs of the surrounding houses when Louis pulled up in front of the tiny church in Liverpool. He had no idea what he expected from this detour, but he had an overwhelming sense of unfinished business that overrode even his urgent need to get to Harry.
As it had been on his first visit, the church stood quiet and empty when he strode through the doors and up the aisle. "Father Craig?" he called. "A word with you, please."
He could hear echoes of his mother in the tone of his own voice. His mouth twitched with wry resignation. But whatever authority he had summoned into his voice, it failed to summon the priest.
Louis paced up the aisle and around the altar, driven by an itching in his muscles and a static in his head. Both had started the moment he lost Harry's voice and got progressively worse during his hour alone with his thoughts in the car.
He felt full and empty at the same time. He brimmed with something—anger, frustration, love, readiness (like all of them and none of them at once).
"I don't get it," he finally burst out as he spun on his heel to look up at the crucified Christ above the altar and the stained glass behind it. "What is this bullshit? My comeuppance?"
He wasn't sure to whom he was speaking—God, Jesus, the long-dead Cardinal de' Medici. But he knew he was very angry with whoever it was.
"Is this your idea of a joke?" he demanded, striding up to the altar itself. "Giving me the love of my life and then oh, oops, your sister gets him? You think that's funny? Well, I don't think it's fucking funny, mate."
He clenched his fists and brought them down so hard on the altar top that the candlesticks rattled. One wobbled and fell over, a fleeting satisfaction.
But the petty gratification faded quickly and his fury drained with it. When it did, he realized the fury had been the only thing keeping him going. The restless jump of his nerves hadn't eased, but he couldn't indulge it without having a bit of a sit-down.
He trudged back to the pew where he had spent his first lonely night of freedom. The stained glass saints watched him from the windows; their cool gazes might have been accusing him, mocking him, pitying him. They absolutely were judging him.
Louis sank down onto the hard wood bench and leaned on the back of the bench in front of him. He buried his head in his arms. "I don't know what you want from me," he mumbled, exhausted. "I don't know what the fuck you expect me to do."
He closed his eyes and let his breathing slow. His head felt light and empty from crying, though it still buzzed too loudly for sleep. His limbs felt heavy, the toll from too much stress and too little sleep. And sex. He had held nothing back from Harry, and was grateful for it now.
Slowly his mind drifted into, if not peace, at least stillness. Everything paused.
And then it hurt. Massive, crushing pain bearing down through the top of his skull, into his neck and down his back, radiating out even to his finger and toenails. He couldn't breathe, not even to scream.
Just when he thought (hoped) he would black out, air whistled back into his lungs like a vacuum released. The realisation came: the pain was not in his head or his back or his limbs at all. All of it radiated from his right hand.
Gradually the pain faded as though his shifting awareness was reshaping it, drawing it out like poison. Soon only the one spot hurt, though it hurt deep down into sinew and bone. His hand clenched on the pew in front of him; the tension eased the last of the pain.
Louis swayed in his seat, eyes still closed, dizzy with the sheer physical relief. He felt no hurry to look down at his still-throbbing hand. He already knew what he would see.
"You're quite the comedian," he slurred and slumped against the pew back. "I must be the best entertainment you've had in centuries."
His fingers finally unclenched from the pew. He peeled them off one by one, stiff like frostbite, and then held his hand up into the dim morning light filtering down through the saints and sinners. There it was: the simple black cross that changed the world.
Whoever was running this show was a drama queen as well as a comedian. Certainly no one had ever mentioned this kind of agony when the gods-mark had appeared the first time when he was six months old. Of course, he had probably been squalling over everything back then, so maybe no one had known the difference.
Still, if it was drama they wanted, Louis could work with that. He'd give Britain a saga for the ages, and then he'd play himself in the bloody movie. Drama he could do; he was born for it.
He stretched his arms over his head, arching his back until it popped, and stood. Energy trickled back into him, slow but steady, as if someone had plugged him into a wall charger. Maybe it came from the gods-mark itself. It felt like a familiar burden settling back on his shoulders—but it also felt like power.
On his way out the door, he passed his favourite craggy-faced priest coming up the steps. "Why, hello, lad," Father Craig said with a shock of recognition. "Louis, wasn't it? Everything all right?"
Louis paused on the same step and considered. "Nothing's all right, if I'm honest," he said. "But I'm going to go start fixing it."
Gemma had never been much for crying. Mum, as much as he liked to tease her about her weepies, really only teared up on occasion from sentimentality. Harry himself had always been the weeper of the family, but not if he trained for a decade could he compete with Princess Charlotte.
He had no idea how much time had passed since the gods-mark had vanished from her skin, but he felt like he had aged. Once again Charlotte soared into ecstasy, then plunged into despair. Rinse, repeat.
Dozens of Palace staff milled around helplessly, trying not to look at her. Even the Queen looked at a loss for what to do as her daughter wept into her neck, reduced to meaningless shushing sounds and a steady back rubbing that was going to give her a repetitive stress injury if things kept on at this rate.
"Meredith," the Queen called softly to one of her aides. "Has there been any word from Fizzy's school?"
The aide stepped away and murmured into her mobile for a few minutes before she turned back to the Queen. "They woke the princess. She has no mark."
The Queen's lips tightened. "Then check on the twins, please. They should be awake by now."
Meredith went off, but soon returned and shook her head: neither of the twins had gained the gods-mark either. The littlest princesses wandered in themselves shortly after, bright and curious in matching pink pyjamas.
"Mummy, what's wrong with Lottie?" one of them asked. She poked Charlotte in her knee as though testing her reflexes.
Charlotte had subsided into sniffles, but her face crumpled again. "Oh, God, something's wrong with me. Something must be wrong with me."
"There is nothing wrong with you, baby," her mother replied fiercely, but it was too late to forestall another deluge.
When they saw their sister in tears, the twins tried to comfort her, but after failing as badly as everyone else had, they started wailing in sympathy. Full bedlam broke out in the already chaotic room.
"Lovely," the Queen said, lifting a hand to rub at her temple. "We're going to need to start going through the rest of the line—discreetly, for the love of God. And someone bring some tea."
Harry perked up a little at that, though he suddenly had a twin clinging to his legs and crying into his hip. "Oh... hullo there, sweetheart," he said and patted her head. He loved little girls and hated seeing them upset, but this entire situation had escalated well beyond Harry's skill level. He had only ever had an older sister.
Louis would have known what to do, Harry reckoned. He had a whole passel of little sisters, and though he never spoke of them, Harry knew he'd been close to them. Louis would have calmed them all in a moment, and then he would have held Harry close and made him a cup of tea. Louis made the best tea, even better than Harry's mum.
Tears prickled in his sinuses. Harry blinked them back and scolded himself. He couldn't let himself think like that; he was on his own in this bizarre place, and he had to keep his defenses up.
One by one, the entire line of succession to the British throne were contacted. Somewhere between the Duke of Gloucester and the Earl of Ulster, a man in livery hurried in with an actual silver platter. Harry eyed the teapot with a passionate longing that would have made Louis jealous if he'd seen it.
Someone detached the princess from Harry's leg and hustled her over to the tea. Harry wavered, unsure if he should follow. But there were only four teacups on the tray, one for each of the royal women. Harry sighed and retreated to the edge of the room, putting his back against the wall for security.
At least they seemed to have forgotten all about him for the moment. While he had never gotten his phone call home, nor anything resembling breakfast, neither had anyone said anything menacing about his future in a few hours. Every once in a while, someone came over and grabbed his arm to make sure the mark of Aragon had not changed. Whoever the next sovereign would be, apparently Harry was still destined to marry them.
Not the Countess of Wessex, Harry prayed silently, just in case God was still thinking things over.
He was still close enough to hear when an aide came in and went straight to the Queen. "We've gone through the top fifty ma'am. Nothing. The Archbishop is on his way."
After that, more people in suits started showing up: staff from the Cabinet, the Parliament, even Prime Minister Cowell's chief of staff. Several clergy joined the party as well; the Archbishop of Canterbury was still en route, but they had collected the Dean of Westminster, the ambassador from the Vatican, several other priests, and even (oddly) a pair of rabbis.
Eventually one of the otherwise useless aides had summoned the twins' nanny, who had come and clucked them away back to bed or their ponies or whatever small princesses did with their time. Several cold cups of untouched tea sat around Charlotte's feet, having failed to soothe any of the royal women. Harry eyed them with envy.
He also, from time to time, eyed the door. If he waited until one of the flurries of activity when a new person arrived to moan over the future of the monarchy, maybe he could slip out unnoticed. He doubted he could make it out of the Palace (and if he did, they would know where to look for him anyway). But he might be able to find an unsupervised phone and steal one last moment with Louis.
Opportunities came and went, but Harry stayed put. Just another minute, he thought each time someone came in. This could be the moment they decided to just send him home of their own accord. After all, Harry was useless to them if there was no future monarch to marry him off to.
"We have people combing through de' Medici's writings," another cleric was saying. "But so far it's quite clear: the gods-mark can only be removed by the death of its bearer."
Harry winced about three seconds before Charlotte let out another wail. "So I'm dying? Oh God, I'm dying. I'm going to die."
"Oh, for the love of buggering baby Jesus," the Queen finally snapped. "You are not going to die, Charlotte."
Harry's spine straightened on instinct. He knew that tone; he had heard it out of his own mother's mouth many times.
Charlotte seemed less impressed. She struggled out of her mother's arms and gestured wildly to the stunned and discomfited cleric. "You heard what he said! The gods-mark only disappears when you die. So I'm going to die, too, like Louis."
"You're not going to die, Lottie." It was a new voice, from someone standing in the doorway where Harry couldn't see them. But not a new voice, not to Harry. His brain whirred, trying to process it. "And trust me, the Church doesn't know shit about anything. No offense, Father."
Charlotte whirled around and the Queen jumped to her feet. Neither of them said a word. For the first time in hours, no one in the entire room said a word. Harry's heart pounded, the loudest sound he could hear, because that voice was—
Louis stepped into view as he strolled into the room, eyes on the royals and missing Harry entirely. He still wore the rumpled jeans and stained Toms he had thrown on when they'd been rousted from Harry's bed early that morning, but he moved like they were a bespoke suit and expensive shoes.
Or a knight's shining armour. Harry's knight, come to rescue him from an actual castle. He opened his mouth to call Louis' name, but his mouth had gone desert dry and his throat barely emitted a croak.
No one else said a word either, every eye focused on Louis in some sort of stunned amazement. Oh God, Harry had to get his feet to move, they had to run, because clearly Louis was about to be arrested and thrown in the Tower or something, and probably interrogated until he told them how he'd got into the palace in the first place and Harry couldn't let that happen, not because of him, and—
"Well? Isn't anyone going to offer me a cuppa?" Louis said, and thank you, that really was the least you'd—
"Louis?" Charlotte said, but she said it wrong, said it Lewis, and then said it again. "Louis!"
She stumbled forward and looked like she would fall over until Louis caught her in his arms. "Yeah, it's me, baby girl," Louis said and pulled her tight against him. "I'm here, and I'm sorry, and you're going to be all right. I promise."
The room burst into a chaos that made the previous chaos look like a ballet recital. Harry felt dizzy. He felt really, really dizzy.
People swarmed around the royals (and Louis—Lewis—Louis) until Harry couldn't see even the tops of their heads anymore. Harry pressed back harder against the wall, the moulding digging into his spine. He should have run. When he had the chance, he should have run, before the entire world turned on its head.
Louis. Louis. Prince William Louis. Louis William Tomlinson, who'd appeared out of nowhere just days after the prince had gone missing. Who lived with the Paynes, with Liam, whose nan had once worked for the royal family. Who had four little sisters and a mum he thought he'd never see again.
"Jesus," Harry whispered, though no one would have heard him even if he'd shouted it.
They did hear it when the Queen (the Queen, Louis' mum, the Queen) shouted. "Everyone, leave us!" As the crowd shifted in surprise, Harry got a glimpse of her face: tears streamed down her cheeks, but her stentorian voice reverberated in the very corners of the ceiling. "That means get out. Now."
Some fled immediately, either scared of the Queen or eager to run and gossip. Others seemed to think she didn't mean them, mostly the government lackeys and a few of the priests. They learned differently in short order, and soon the only people remaining were the royal family. And Harry.
Once the door finally shut behind the last reluctant suit, the Queen finally reached for her son (Jesus, Louis was her son and Niall was going to laugh so, so hard). He was still holding his sister and stroking her hair, but let go to embrace his mother. Charlotte glowed as she stepped back, even brighter than when she'd developed her abrupt crush on Harry (and Jesus, he'd just slept with her actual brother mere hours before).
Mother and son murmured to each other for a few moments before the Queen stepped back enough to cup Louis' wet face in her hands. "I love you," she said, and then dropped her hand to catch Louis' hand in hers. "But it may be a while before I forgive you."
Her thumb stroked the black mark on Louis' hand. Both of them looked down at it between them. Harry closed his eyes, because that mark on Louis' hand was something his brain wasn't ready to deal with yet.
"I know," he heard Louis say softly. "And I know we have a lot to discuss, but I need to see Harry first. Where is he?"
Eyes still closed, Harry felt the moment Louis noticed him. He heard the soft shuffle of Louis' footsteps as he came closer and felt the prickling heat of Louis' regard all over his body.
Louis stopped in front of him, and then Harry's body tensed with the shock of Louis' hands settling on his shoulders. His thumbs stroked the skin of Harry's neck. Harry let out a shaky breath and let his forehead fall forward against Louis'.
"Hazza," Louis whispered, only for Harry. "Love, why don't you want to look at me?"
Harry's mouth tightened almost to a smile, sheepish. "'Cause I'm afraid," he said. "That everything's different now. That you won't look at me the same way."
Louis sighed, and Harry's heart dropped—until he inhaled that same warm breath an instant before Louis' mouth pressed to his. Harry met his sigh and his lips, bringing his hands up to cradle the back of Louis' head as they sank into the kiss.
He had a vague awareness that Louis' mum and sister were probably watching them kiss, but the little shivers of joy under his skin consumed his attention. Harry smiled wider and wider until they slowed into soft pecks to each other's lips.
Louis kissed his cheek and lifted his hands to Harry's face. He stroked Harry's eyelids until Harry let them flutter open. Louis' eyes smiled back at him, deep and blue and tired and completely Louis. "Hi," Harry said, dumb with love.
"Hi," Louis replied. "You all right?"
"Yeah, all right." He still had some complaints, but they couldn't touch this relief.
The confidence Louis had swaggered into the room with faltered. "Are you angry with me? For not telling you?"
Harry shrugged and caught Louis' hand. He held it up between them to examine the mark, then held up his own wrist next to it. With his free hand and a look of wonder, Louis touched the mark of Aragon, already faded to a lighter red. "There were a couple things I may have forgotten to tell you, too," Harry said.
Louis started to laugh, but suddenly Charlotte's excited voice pierced their bubble. "Louis is back," she was shrieking into her phone. The Lewis sound grated on Harry's nerves more than before, because that Louis wasn't the one that belonged to Harry. "He's alive, Fizz, he's alive and he's back, and now everything can go back to normal."
"Not so fast there, pipsqueak," Louis muttered, which eased a little more of the tension from Harry's neck.
His mother had come close enough to hear him. "We need to talk about what happens next. There's been too much fuss this morning. We have to tell the government and the Church something."
"I don't really care what you tell them." Louis slid his arm around Harry's waist and cinched him close to his side. Warmth spread through Harry's middle, intensifying as Louis continued. "But I'm taking those last three years you promised me. I'm going to stay Louis Tomlinson. I'm going back to Manchester, and I'm taking Harry with me. We're finishing college, we're going to uni, and then after that we can talk about what happens next."
Slowly, the Queen raised her eyebrows. "I can let you stay hidden, if that's truly what you want, but I can't let you stay dead. What explanation did you intend to offer for your resurrection?"
Louis cast his eyes down, shame flitting over his face. Harry frowned. He couldn't yet put together why Louis had run or how he'd freed himself from the gods-mark, but he knew Louis had never been meant for a gilded cage any more than Harry himself.
But the Parliament, the Church, the British people, they wouldn't understand that. They would only see a spoiled prince who had run from his responsibilities, putting his family and country through enormous grief.
"You fell," he said decisively. "Off the boat."
Louis' head snapped up to gape at him. "Jet ski," he corrected absently.
"Whatever," Harry said. "You hit your head, you almost drowned, and when you washed up on the beach by some miracle, you had lost your memory."
"And the gods-mark left him because he wasn't himself anymore," the Queen continued slowly, and Harry grinned at her, tension easing at last.
"But you found out where he was and went to him in the middle of the night," he said, and she started to smile back. Her eyes were going all misty; he suddenly couldn't wait to introduce her to Mum. "And when he saw you, he remembered."
Louis turned his head, nose brushing Harry's shoulder. "It's even almost the truth."
The door banged open again as the twins burst back into the room, screaming their brother's name and crying. Harry tried to step back, but Louis caught his hand and held it even as he drew both his baby sisters against him with his other arm.
As Louis cooed to them, Harry's eyes dampened again. Louis was even more beautiful with his family, something Harry never thought he'd get to see. Despite how strange it all still felt, Harry thought he would like being a part of Louis' family, as much as Louis was of Harry's.
As though the dam had burst, more people started flooding back into the room. The Archbishop had arrived along with the rest of the clergy, and they proceeded to verify the gods-mark, mainly by dousing Louis with holy water from at least six different denominations. Prime Minister Cowell arrived in person along with the Cabinet and half the Parliament, and soon everyone was shouting their (mostly stupid) opinions on what they should tell the press.
"Do they think I drew it on with a biro?" Louis muttered when the arguments escalated to a high enough pitch that he and Harry could slip out of the room and sag down onto a bench in the corridor.
"I'm pretty sure they think you're a vampire," Harry said and giggled when Louis clamped his teeth down on Harry's shoulder. He kissed the top of Louis' head and squeezed his hand, then paused. "Why did you come back? You should have waited to see what happened. They might have let me go."
"They wouldn't have." Louis kissed the spot he had bitten and straightened up with a serious look. "But either way: if you recall, I made a promise about that."
Heat flushed Harry's cheeks. He had forgotten his desperate, mortifying cries under Louis' body when he had finally let himself go and gave himself into Louis' hands. Even then he hadn't known how deep that trust ran.
"Besides," Louis went on, voice dropping. "After I spent a night with you, I knew I never wanted to spend another one without you. So I had to move fast, didn't I?"
Harry didn't answer, too caught up in Louis' eyes to think of anything but the night to come and the night after that, and all the ones to follow. Another burst of shouting from inside the room startled him out of his haze. Louis laughed and poked him in the side.
He poked Louis back, but his smile faded in a tiny backwash of anxiety. "What happens in three years, Lou? I can't even imagine... all of that."
"My mum's going to live a long time. Anything can happen; we should know." Louis shifted to get his fingers into Harry's curls. "The only thing I'm committing to is you."
Harry relaxed and let Louis pull his head down onto Louis' shoulder.
"In the meantime," Louis went on. "Coming back from the dead and bringing my consort with me will probably have some perks, knowing my family. What do you want? A castle? A duchy? France?"
He hummed and closed his eyes. "Tea?" he said hopefully. "You make the best tea."
"Coming right up," Louis said, though he didn't stop petting his hair. "On the house."
"Maybe a bacon sandwich?"
"Don't push your luck there, Styles."
Harry laughed. "At least this explains your complete lack of all other life skills."
A few seconds later, Harry was sprinting down the corridors of Buckingham Palace, still laughing, an indignant prince hot on his heels. He thought he might just let himself be caught.