Late late late. Louis is late. This is not the way he wants to start his first OutSpeak panel of the semester, especially since it’s his bloody program to begin with.
Shoving a manila folder into his leather satchel, Louis dashes out the door of his flat and down the stairs, nearly falling on his face when his foot catches on the threshold of the door to his building.
Luckily, the class he's headed to isn't far away. His block of flats abuts the edge of campus, a prime location for a third year uni student. It's a short jog across the road to the building that houses the university's sociology department, and it just so happens that those courses are the most likely to host his panels.
Louis bursts through the classroom door at ten to noon, hair wrecked from the stiff breeze and his hurried trek to the class. He's still early, technically, but he has a strict twenty-minutes-prior arrival policy and really wants to set a good example for his panelists. He's quite pleased to see that all three of them are already present, chatting with the professor as the students slowly file into the lecture hall.
Taking a breath and swiping a hand through his windswept locks, he crosses the room to where the instructor is tidying papers at a dented metal desk.
"Professor Langley," Louis says, still slightly out of breath from the jog. He really needs to start exercising again, he thinks. He extends a hand towards the portly, middle-aged man. "I'm Louis Tomlinson, the OutSpeak coordinator. Thanks so much for having us here today."
Langley's watery eyes turn into half moons as he smiles, reaching out and clasping Louis' hand harder than is strictly necessary. Ouch. "Mr Tomlinson! It's so nice to finally put a face to the e-mails. We're very excited to have you." He waves a hand in the direction of the seats, a few students curiously watching the exchange. Louis brushes it off; he's used to being treated as somewhat of a novelty in these situations.
"The students have been briefed on LGBTQ terminology, and we're currently studying the sociology of gender, so I'm really looking forward to a great discussion," the professor continues earnestly.
Louis offers an indulgent, closed-mouth smile. It never changes. The instructors always hope for their students to ask really deep questions, but inevitably the conversation will turn to tired topics: Sex. Religion. Coming out. Yawn. Louis is certain he could tell his coming out story in his sleep. Not that there’s anything wrong with those topics, but a little variety now and then would be nice.
Politely excusing himself from the professor, Louis sidles up next to Zayn, his best friend and one of his regular panelists. The raven-haired man is arranging four stools in a row on the stage for them to sit on. Lily and Skye, the other two panelists, are engaged in an animated conversation at the other end of the row of stools.
"You were late," Zayn says simply, his smooth voice pouring out of him like smoke.
Louis' eyes narrow, one hand flying to his hip. "Don't start, Malik. If someone wouldn't have made off with my phone charger, again, my phone wouldn't have died and I would have heard my alarm go off."
Zayn smiles apologetically before fishing the aforementioned cord from the pocket of his fitted trousers. "Thanks, mate. Here you go, though you should really think of getting a back-up charger for when yours goes missing."
"Or you could get your own," Louis hisses, Zayn brushing him off with a shrug.
The argument doesn't have time to escalate further. Louis and Zayn are suddenly being ushered to the stools by Professor Langley, the rotund man clapping his hands to get the attention of his class. "All right, everyone! Settle down!" His voice rings out across the hall. There's a flurry of sound as students settle into creaking chairs, pulling notebooks from backpacks and putting away mobile phones and iPods.
Langley peers over the sea of his pupils, waiting until he's satisfied with the level of noise in the room. "As most of you know if you've been to class at all in the past month, today we have some very special guest speakers.” He gestures to the group of four panelists, settling onto their respective stools. Skye gives a flirty little wave, the manicured tips of her nails flashing brightly.
“I want you all to be attentive, respectful, and thoughtful,” the professor continues, “because there will be an assignment that draws from today's dialogue." Langley pauses briefly, allowing time for a collective groan to issue forth from the undergraduates. He angles his body toward the four panelists, his eyes meeting Louis'. "I'm going to let our guests introduce themselves, and we'll get started." Pulling back the sleeve of his blazer, Langley glances down at the wristwatch tucked under the cuff of his shirt, then he nods at Louis. "I'll let you know when we have ten minutes remaining, sound good?"
Louis dons a vivid smile, hoping to put the more nervous students in the audience at ease. "Perfect, Professor Langley, thank you." His voice comes out light and raspy, like the static underneath the music on an old record player. Louis sits up straight, crossing his ankles under the stool, and allows himself to look over the faces in the crowd for the first time.
"Hello!” He begins brightly. “I'm Louis Tomlinson, and I'm the coordinator of the OutSpeak programme at the LGBTQ Resource Centre. We're going to each tell you a little bit about ourselves, and then we'll open up the floor to questions. Try and think of a few while we're speaking so we don't waste any time." He takes a quick breath before he goes on, the words effortlessly flowing out of him like a well-rehearsed script.
"Before we begin, I want to declare that this is a Safe Space." Confusion flickers across the faces of several students, so Louis goes on to explain: "That means that anything said in this room is going to be assumed to come from a place of goodwill. If you say something problematic, we will politely correct you, and please feel free to do the same." He twines his slender fingers together, settling his hands on his knees.
"We may talk about some topics that can be upsetting or triggering,” Louis elaborates. “If you need to check out of the conversation mentally or physically, please feel free to do so. If you leave the room, one of us will follow you to make sure that you're okay. Any questions?" His eyes alight on a few random faces.
When no one speaks up, some students even shaking their heads, Louis claps his hands together, the noise loud and echoing in the respectful silence of the room. He has a brief moment of satisfaction as Zayn startles at the sound.
"Excellent!” Louis enthuses, the giggle he’s suppressing evident in his voice. “Well, let's get started so we can get to your questions! Please remember that these are our personal stories, and that we are not speaking for any one group as a whole."
Part of Louis’ job in putting together panel discussions is making sure that they are representative. Louis tries to keep his panels diverse, including as many different identities as he can to give the students as much exposure as possible. Lily, the first panelist to tell her story, is his sole asexual volunteer. Louis loves when Lily signs up for panels, because the asexual population is so underrepresented and misunderstood. She does a great job handling even the more difficult questions.
The petite brunette is speaking animatedly, talking about how she used to feel alienated and alone when she was the only one of her friends not interested in having sex, before she was able to put a name to her feelings.
Louis' gaze shifts from her to the front row of students, several of them staring at Lily like she has an extra head. Lily doesn't bat an eye, however, finishing up her story with where she is now: living with her partner of two years, about to graduate in the spring, and ridiculously happy.
When Lily finishes her story, she turns to Skye, signalling the end of her turn. The statuesque blonde smiles in reply, flipping her long braid over her shoulder before beginning to speak.
Skye is a transgender woman, in the process of transitioning from male to female. She had come out to her family at eighteen and was badly beaten by her father before being kicked out of the house. Now, a year into living openly as a woman, Skye is confident and poised, vastly different from the shy, introverted girl who had wandered into the LGBTQ Centre in the autumn of Louis' second year.
Skye ends her story with the basics of where she is with her transition—she's taking hormones and has not yet had any surgeries, though she plans to in the future—and then it's Zayn's turn to speak.
Zayn is another person Louis loves to have on a panel. Looking more like a model than a university student, Zayn always ends up with at least one girl slipping him a phone number at the end of the discussion (and more often than not, a guy or two as well). The students are compelled to listen to him when he talks, and how could you not be? The man's easy delivery and bright, intelligent eyes give the feeling that every word he utters is as good as gold.
Zayn also brings a lot to the discussion in terms of religion, talking about reconciling his bisexuality with being raised Muslim. Zayn, unlike the others on the panel, is out at school but has not come out to his family yet.
All too soon, Zayn has turned his large, warm brown eyes on Louis. Louis grins at his flatmate, giving a subtle wink before addressing the class.
"Like I mentioned earlier, my name is Louis. I'm a third year theatre major with a minor in gender studies." He quickly surveys the crowd, seeing signs of boredom, and decides to give the shorter version of his story so they can proceed to the questions. "I've known I was gay since secondary school. I have four younger sisters, and when my sister Lottie got old enough to start gossiping about cute celebrities or boys at school, I found myself joining in. It never seemed to faze her or my mum."
Louis ducks his head, honey brown hair brushing over his forehead. "I've always been a little, ah, flamboyant. I honestly think I was the last person to realise I was gay." There's a smattering of laughter from the crowd. "I was out in my hometown by the end of upper sixth, and even though it was a small community, I felt accepted. It was nice coming to university and being able to start that new chapter of my life being fully open about my sexuality. I never felt the need to stay closeted, because I've been fortunate enough to have a supportive family and amazing friends."
Louis knows exactly how lucky he is, how easy his coming out had been. At times he worries that it makes the other panelists feel worse about their own situations, but he likes to look at himself as the ray of hope to the students in attendance, living proof that coming out doesn’t have to suck.
Once he finishes his abbreviated monologue, Louis pauses for a moment. His eyes flit from face to face, pleased to see that a good majority of the class looks interested again. That's usually the case, but once in a while there will be absolutely no interest from the audience and Louis has to resort to prompting the other panelists with questions until the period is up.
"I'm going to open the floor to your questions now,” he says. “Nothing is off limits, but we will let you know if we don't feel comfortable answering something. You can direct your questions to the panel as a whole or to an individual person." Louis grins out at the rows of students. This is his favourite part of every panel. Sometimes the discussion is intelligent and deep, and others it's lighthearted and kind of ridiculous, but either way there are at least a few fun questions. Even the repetitive questions can be entertaining with the right group of panelists. "So, what do you want to talk about? Religion? Sex? Politics? Fire away."
A few tentative hands are lifted. Louis calls on a girl in the front row with long blond ringlets. "Hi, um, my question is for any of you who are religious. Do you think being gay is a sin?” She sounds nervous to ask, her voice high. “Like, how can you be religious and go against God's Word?"
Louis' eyebrows shoot toward his hairline. He wasn’t expecting such a heavy question right off the bat. Composing himself, he shifts on his stool to angle himself toward the other speakers. "I'm about as religious as a teaspoon, so I'm going to let someone else take this one. Zayner, maybe?"
Zayn nods, one corner of his mouth quirking up. He's used to fielding all of the questions about religion, poor lad. "Yeah, I'll take that one." He nods at the girl. "It's a great question, but again keep in mind that I'm answering for myself, and not all bisexual men or Muslims." He runs a hand along the scruff dotting his jawline, gathering his thoughts. "Like, my religion says that homosexuality is a sin, right? So does Christianity.” There are some nods from the students, all listening in rapt attention. “But it also says that Allah is merciful and forgiving. Everybody sins, that's all there is to it, and my sexuality is no worse a sin than someone breaking fast or eating a bit of pork now and then. It's just a different sin, that's all, and something that is a part of me that I can't change. I believe I was created this way, that my God's plan for me includes me embracing myself for how He made me." He rolls his neck, releasing some of the tension in his shoulders. "It's similar to Christianity. There are a lot of rules in the Bible that people consider outdated, like wearing mixed fibres and not associating with menstruating women. I think homosexuality is the same way."
Louis catches himself nodding along with Zayn enthusiastically. God, the dark-haired man is so eloquent. It's hard to believe the man sitting next to him would much rather keep to himself, when he's so suited for being in front of an audience. He glances to the blonde, and, seeing that she seems satisfied with Zayn's answer, calls for another question.
There are a few more generic questions. "Do you think being homosexual is a choice?" "What are your thoughts on gay marriage?" The usual.
Eventually, a redheaded man with freckles near the back of the room asks Lily about how her relationship with her partner works if they don't have sex.
Lily twirls a piece of hair around one finger. "For us, it's the same as any other relationship. We go on dates and cuddle and bicker over silly things. She leaves dishes in the sink and I use the last of the milk and don’t buy more. She tells me about her day and I bring her breakfast in bed. The only difference is that we don't have sex.” She smiles, hands spread out in front of her. “In my opinion, if sex is what defines a relationship, it isn't very fulfilling in the first place, you know?"
Louis could listen to Lily talk all day. Because she’s his only asexual panelist, he brings her along as often as possible. Being a very, ahem, sexual person himself, he's absolutely fascinated with her identity. He learns something new about her every time she opens her mouth, and she is the sole reason he's no longer ignorant about that segment of the LGBTQIA community.
When Lily finishes speaking, another round of hands goes up, more bravely now. Louis focuses on one near the middle of the lecture hall. "You there, with the curls," he calls. The students sitting nearby snicker.
The boy flushes, quickly pulling his hand out of the air. He looks up at Louis, cheeks still tinged pink, worrying his bottom lip with his teeth. "My question is for you, Louis," he says, and Louis is surprised such a low voice comes from the cherub-faced student. "Erm, have you ever had any girlfriends? Like, before you came out?"
Louis smirks at the gravelly-voiced boy. "Define girlfriends," he replies, earning a laugh from his fellow panelists and several of the students as well. "I did actually, yeah. In high school I dated a girl for quite awhile because it was expected of me. We even had sex a few times, and I hated it, but chalked it up to us being virgins. It never got better, though, and that kind of confirmed my suspicions." He sits up straighter, tugging his baseball shirt over the slight swell of his tummy. "Since then it's been strictly men, and there's no going back."
Louis is about to call on a girl a couple rows behind the boy, but hesitates when the same hand is immediately back in the air. Louis wants to ignore the curly-haired man and call on someone else. He really does.
But... he also would like to hear those distressingly pink lips ask another question. "All right, Curly, one more," he says, unable to help the smile ghosting across his own lips.
The man beams graciously, the dimple cut into his cheek reminiscent of a comma. It certainly gives Louis pause, anyway. "Right, well, erm..." The student stumbles over his words, one hand pulling at the sleeve of his black shirt. "What made you decide to try, you know, things, with a man? What was it like?" He isn't meeting Louis' eyes anymore, cheeks crimson with embarrassment.
Curious about this bashful, endearing boy, Louis leans forward, one elbow on his knee and chin resting on his fist. "I met someone the summer before I started uni who was gay. I was into him, and he was into me, so we gave it a go. It was clumsy, like any first time, but the parts that were good were really good," Louis says, flicking his eyebrows up suggestively. The dimpled man nods slowly, looking like he desperately wants to raise his hand again, but he refrains. Louis reluctantly lets his gaze slide back to the pigtailed girl he was going to call on earlier.
For the rest of the panel, Louis' eyes keep going back to the boy, taking in bits and pieces of him with each brief glance: unruly, rich brown curls swept messily across his forehead; large, innocent features on ivory skin. Louis can't help himself wondering what the tight, black v-neck he wears smells like, and about the torso hidden underneath.
"Ten minute warning, Mr Tomlinson," Langley's voice rings out from behind Louis, making him jump, and it’s Zayn’s turn to snigger. Collecting himself, Louis slides off of his stool in one fluid motion and digs the manila folder out of his bag. "We have time for a couple more questions, but while we're talking, I have some feedback forms I'd really like for you all to fill out." Louis procures a stack of printouts, setting them down with a thwack on the desk at the end of the row. "If you could take one and pass it along? Thanks. This feedback helps us make our program the best it can be, and also lets us know how effective these panels are." Once the papers are being distributed throughout the class, Louis returns to his seat and calls on a boy in glasses with a question for Skye.
Skye's description of the process of legally changing your sex ends up filling the rest of the period. As soon as she finishes speaking, there is a clamour of students stuffing things into bags and extracting themselves from their chairs. "Please pass me your forms on the way out! Thank you so much for having us and for all of your wonderful questions!" Louis calls over the din.
Nearly everyone hands him a completed form as they exit the lecture hall. He briefly makes eye contact with the curly-haired boy, their hands brushing as Louis takes the paper from him. The contact sets Louis’ skin alight, making him shiver even in the warmth of the stuffy classroom. The young man opens his mouth to say something, but then there's a surge of students rushing to leave, and just like that—he's gone.
September ends without ado, slipping silently into October with rich autumn hues and falling leaves. Louis is folded into the computer chair at the front desk of the LGBTQ Centre, trying to get some work done during his second-to-last shift of the week. There had been another panel since the one for Langley's class, and Louis desperately needs to compile the responses from the feedback forms before Coming Out Week's hectic schedule.
It’s a fairly quiet afternoon in the centre. Nick, the coordinator, is hunched over his desk, working on programming for Coming Out Week. A few students are sat at a table, homework spread across the surface. Someone is napping on the overstuffed tan sofa, curled up in a crocheted rainbow afghan.
Louis hums to himself and turns his attention back to the computer monitor. The forms are anonymous and fairly simple: There’s a section for students to rate their attitudes toward the LGBTQ community both before and after the panel, and a section for comments about the panel itself. Louis loves reading through the comments, seeing what people gleaned from the discussion and how he can make the program even better. OutSpeak had become his baby when he accepted a student staff position at the Resource Centre last September, and a year later he's quite pleased with what the program has become.
Louis is making quick work of the stacks of papers, typing comments from each one into a spreadsheet before returning it to a folder marked with the date. In his personal life, Louis is clutter and chaos. Work, however, is an entirely different story.
He tucks away the form he’s just finished with the others, turning to the next one in the pile. His eyes skim down the page, taking in the loopy penmanship sprinkled over the form. They widen when he reaches the last box, headed with "Any other questions/comments?" The panel attendee had completely filled in that area, writing so much that an arrow pointing to the other side of the paper was necessary.
Thank you for the panel and answering all of our questions. It really made me think. I have a few more questions and think I might like to talk to someone from your office. I know these forms are meant to be anonymous but my email address is email@example.com. If you could have someone get in touch with me that would be brilliant. Thanks again! H.
Louis reads over the words a few more times before setting the paper aside and scooting his chair closer to the outdated desktop computer. He wastes no time (well, other than the time it takes the dinosaur of a computer to load anything) in pulling up the Resource Centre's email client. Opening a new message, he carefully types in the address from the form. He feels slightly guilty that he put off looking through the paperwork so long, hoping the person who had submitted that form didn't think they weren't going to get a response. Louis' fingers quickly flit over the keys, able to type fairly well without needing to look at them.
Good afternoon! I'm terribly sorry for not getting back to you sooner, I'm afraid I've only just seen your feedback form. I just wanted to thank you for reaching out to us and commend you on the bravery that it took, so well done. If you feel comfortable doing so, you can drop by our office anytime during business hours (listed in the signature of this email) or one of us can come to you. Just let us know what works best, we're happy to help. Cheers!
Louis Tomlinson, OutSpeak Coordinator
Checking over the message for any grievous errors, Louis is satisfied and presses 'send.' He's curious as to who H. E. Styles might be, which of the many students in that classroom might have most needed to hear that panel discussion. And if his thoughts keep returning hopefully to curly locks and a shy smile, well.
The rest of his shift passes by without excitement. He finishes filing his paperwork, sets up a few panels for the coming weeks and emails his pool of panelists asking for volunteers, and fills the bowl of free condoms and dental dams sitting on the reception desk of the Centre. It’s one of the many perks of visiting the office regularly; he can't remember the last time he actually had to purchase condoms.
The end of Louis’ shift comes quickly. He's just gathered his things into his bag and is about to push his chair away from the desk when he decides to check the email account one last time, for the hell of it.
Much to Louis' delight, there is a new message sitting unread at the top of the page. He clicks on the message, sent from one Styles, Harry Edward.
Thanks so much for getting back to me! I really quite enjoyed your panel, thanks so much for answering my questions. I'm actually a little nervous about visiting the Centre, so would you be opposed to meeting for coffee sometime? I know you said anyone from your staff would be willing to meet me, but I think I'd prefer it to be you if it's not too much trouble. Familiar face and all that. Let me know!
Harry Styles .xx
Louis can't help the grin spreading across his face. He’s almost certain that this Harry is the same boy who had asked two questions at the panel, both directed to Louis. It also makes Louis' chest flutter that a stranger feels comfortable enough to discuss such a sensitive subject with him in particular. That’s one of the things he strives for in his work, to be approachable. He has secret fantasies of taking over the LGBTQ Centre someday after his graduation—if Nick ever leaves, that is.
Fishing his phone out of his pocket, he pulls up his mobile email client. He taps out a quick reply to Harry from his personal address, asking for the other man's schedule (and definitely not signing it with a smiley face that perfectly matches Louis’ current expression). Once the message sends, he pockets the device and shoulders his bag, grinning madly the entire walk back to his flat.
Louis fumbles the key in the lock for a moment, having to turn it a few times to get the mechanism to disengage. He and Zayn have shared this flat for the last year, ever since they had decided to both move off campus after their first year, and neither of them have ever gotten around to calling maintenance to fix the damn door.
Once he successfully bests the lock and makes it into the flat, he kicks off his TOMS, adding them to the pile of shoes next to the entryway.
Zayn casts a lazy look over his shoulder from his spot on the couch, beer in one hand and a PlayStation controller in the other. "Hey, mate," he calls, his voice soothing and slightly rough. Louis guesses there is about a ninety-seven percent chance the other man has just finished smoking.
Louis pads barefoot across the rough and creaking wooden floor, flopping into the mismatched arm chair sitting diagonally to the couch. "Hey, Zayner," he replies, curling up against the ghastly floral print of the chair. Their furniture is a hodge podge of thrift shop finds and hand-me-downs from family members, but it's good enough for the two men living there. The nice flat panel TV and collection of gaming consoles sits in stark contrast to the worn furnishings.
"How was your day?" Louis mumbles against the arm of the chair, idly picking at a spot where the stuffing is poking out.
Zayn finishes off his beer and sets it on the coffee table with the assortment of empty bottles already there. "It was all right, I suppose. I saw Liam."
Louis is upright in an instant, his legs tucked beneath him as he leans over the arm of the chair toward Zayn. "Liam? The cute boy who works at the printing centre?" Louis gushes.
Zayn's cheeks colour as he fiddles with the controller in his hands. "Yeah, that's the one. Nick needed someone to go pick up the printed calendars for Coming Out Week."
"And you volunteered."
"Yeah, I volunteered."
Louis rolls his eyes in mock exasperation. "Zaaayn. Why don't you just talk to him? I've seen him, and he seems like a really nice bloke!"
Zayn looks quite affronted, heavy eyebrows knit together in a scowl. "I did talk to him, thanks," he replies bitterly.
"'Is my order ready' doesn't count, I'm afraid. Does he even know your name?"
Zayn's scotch brown eyes fall to his lap. "I wear my name tag in there when I pick up orders," he mumbles, barely audible.
Louis reaches across the space between them to lightly squeeze Zayn's leg. "Oh, mate, you have got it so bad for that boy. What are we going to do with you?" he asks fondly.
Zayn meets his gaze, pasting on a helpless smile. "Keep letting me fetch the printing, I suppose."
Louis laughs, a ringing sound that permeates the thickness that has settled in the flat. "And I shall. Remind me tomorrow to convince Nick that I need more feedback forms for OutSpeak."
The previous smile is replaced with one that lights up Zayn's entire face. "Thanks, mate. You're the best."
Louis hums in agreement before unfolding himself from the chair, wandering into the kitchen to fetch himself a beer. He grabs another for his flatmate as well, opening both bottles against the countertop before returning to his seat.
"So," he says timidly, tapping lightly against the bottle in his hands.
"So?" Zayn echoes, arching an eyebrow. He takes a long pull from his beer, Adam's apple bobbing in the smooth, fawn-coloured skin of his throat.
Louis picks at the label of the bottle. "I went through the feedback forms from our panel for that sociology lecture the other day."
"Cool. Anything good?"
"You remember that boy who asked me two questions?" Louis asks, wondering if his friend had noticed the dimpled student as well.
Zayn thinks for a moment, recognition slowly creeping across his face. "Oh, yeah, the one with the hair," he says, waving a hand around his head to indicate the mess of curls. "What about him?"
"I think I've been emailing him."
"Yeah? What makes you say that?" Zayn asks, his lips pulled down in a hint of a frown.
Louis takes another drink, then sets the half empty beer on the wobbly side table to his left. "One of the forms had an email address on it, asking for someone to talk to. I think it's him. He mentioned asking me questions." Louis isn't sure why he feels so anxious talking to Zayn about this. He's met with several other questioning students before. It’s never a big deal, and on a couple occasions he'd come out of the meetings with a new friend. So what is it about this Styles kid that has him so on edge?
"He wants to meet for coffee," Louis adds lamely, and Zayn's eyebrows creep higher on his forehead.
"Just coffee, yeah?" Zayn says evenly.
Louis blinks at Zayn, knowing exactly what the other man is implying. Not because he has ever used one of these meetings to hook up with someone before, nor would he, but he does possess a certain amount of notoriety for being, shall we say, very giving with his affection. Bristling a little, Louis crosses lean arms over his chest. "Yes, Zayn, just coffee. I'm not going to corrupt this poor confused lad." Even if he is quite striking and I can't stop thinking about how that throaty voice sounded saying my name.
Zayn lets it go, eyebrows relaxing and returning his attention to the game he has paused on the television. "Whatevs, mate. Just be careful, yeah? You know people like to talk shit." He spares Louis a brief glance, winking one amber eye in his direction. "Wouldn't want to tarnish your sterling reputation and all."
With a squawk of indignation, Louis pulls the throw pillow from behind his back and chucks it at Zayn. "My reputation is spotless, I'll have you know! That's it, I'm not having this kind of abuse." He springs out of the chair, claiming his bag from where he had tossed it by the door and sticking his nose haughtily in the air. "If you need me, I'll be in my room."
"Probably creeping on that poor lad's Facebook," Zayn replies in a sing-song voice.
Louis scoffs. "The thought never even occurred to me," he shoots back, pretending to stomp away angrily. Nevertheless, he shuts the door to his room firmly behind him and flops down on his bed, pulling his battered laptop from his book bag to power it up. Navigating to Facebook is second nature. Louis casually checks his notifications and writes a few birthday messages on people’s walls before he finds his cursor hovering over the search bar.
"Don't do it, Tommo. What does it matter if it's the same guy? You're just doing your job, is all," he tells himself under his breath. He thinks for a moment, fingers tapping lightly across the trackpad. Screw it. It doesn't matter. So I'm checking. He moves his fingers over the keys, tapping out Harry Styles and pressing enter.
Several results pop up, and Louis has to lean close to the screen to squint at the column of tiny photos. He skips past the first two results, one too old and the other quite ginger, before clicking on the third.
The profile picture is of the same curly-haired brunet from the sociology class, clad in a black blazer over a simple white shirt. Louis' breath catches momentarily. He knew, just knew, that it was going to be, but the confirmation still takes him by surprise.
He skims over the rest of Harry's profile, but unfortunately not much is visible without adding Harry as a friend. Louis groans, pushing the laptop away and burying his face against the mattress. He just wanted to know more about the boy he was going to be helping, that's all.
There is absolutely no attraction there whatsoever, he tells himself.
"All right, Louis?" Zayn's muffled voice calls from the kitchen, followed by the sound of a load of empty bottles being dumped into the garbage bin.
"Fine, thanks!" he manages, not bothering to lift his face away from the bed. Sighing dramatically, he rolls over to his back and pulls his mobile out of his pocket. His eyes snap to the notification bar at the top of the screen. One new email. He taps it open, and sure enough the message is from Harry.
Harry had sent along a copy of his schedule, as well as his phone number. "In case it's more convenient for you to text," Harry had written. Louis saves the number to his phone, heart thudding heavily as he opens up a new text message.
This is Louis from the panel!
A few moments pass by, and then:
Hiii, Louis from the panel! :D
Louis rolls his eyes, smiling at the emoticon and the drawn out "hi."
I notice you have some free time tomorrow afternoon. We could meet after my shift? 2 pm at the coffee place near the student union?
Another couple of moments, and his phones chimes.
Sounds great! I'll see you there! I'll be the one with the curly hair and the purple hoodie. .xx
Louis absolutely cannot believe this boy. It’s like texting in high school all over again, with the kisses and smiles. Then again, according to the feedback form he’d turned in, Harry is only a fresher.
"Exactly, he's a baby and you're going to leave him alone," Louis tells himself firmly, firing off a quick See you then! before pocketing his mobile and digging his textbooks out of his bag.
Harry doesn't text again for the rest of the evening, and Louis tries not to check his mobile every so often just in case.
Friday crawls by, agonisingly slow. Louis has two lectures to attend that morning, New American Theatre at nine and then Performance of Literature at ten, and neither fifty minute class has ever seemed to last as long as they do that day. When Louis finally pushes out of the Fine Arts building at precisely 10:52 am, he only has to get through a short shift at the LGBTQ Centre before meeting up with Harry.
As Louis strolls across the scenic campus to the student union, where most of the student life offices are located, he finds himself feeling rather optimistic. Though it’s a fairly dreary day, all grey skies and autumn breeze carrying a warning bite of winter, Louis takes the time to appreciate how green the grass looks against the hazy sky, how the leaves that have already changed colour seem like stage lights hung in the trees. He's grinning like a maniac, he can tell, not hesitating to flash his toothy smile at anyone who dares make eye contact with him. It's simply a good day, he tells himself, not allowing himself to ruminate on why he’s feeling so chipper. It certainly has nothing to do with Harry Styles.
The Resource Centre is in a tizzy when Louis steps through the door. Zayn is sitting at the front desk, his face adorned with thick-framed glasses today. "Run," he mouths at Louis, jerking his head towards Nick's desk.
Louis follows Zayn's motion and sees Nick, stood over his desk with the office telephone clutched tightly in his fist. He's yelling something about room reservations and gesticulating wildly with his free hand. One overzealous flail sends a large, neat stack of fliers to the floor, scattering the colourful paper around his desk like enormous confetti.
With a sigh, Louis exchanges a knowing glance with Zayn before moving to pick up the multicoloured clutter. The fliers are advertising key events for Coming Out Week, the Centre’s largest event of the term. There will be panels, speakers, and activities all week long, culminating in National Coming Out Day. Now, only a week and a half away, all of the student staff members (and Nick, apparently), are starting to stress about everything coming together properly.
He's just finished tidying up the mess Nick had made when the coordinator slams down the phone, throwing himself into his padded desk chair like a child having a tantrum. "I hate dealing with the administrative staff!" Nick moans, pressing the heels of his hands over his eyes.
Louis places the stack of fliers back on the desk, carefully nudging them away from the edge in case any more flailing should occur. He shifts his weight to one leg, sliding his bum up to barely rest on Nick's disorganised desktop. "What's happened now, then?"
Nick drags his hands down away from his eyes, pulling the skin of his face into a ghastly expression as he does. "They've double booked one of the lecture halls we need this week, the one for our keynote speaker." He groans, releasing his face and clasping his hands together under his chin. "We spent a huge chunk of our budget on this, and now we don't even have a room." He turns his drooping blue eyes on Louis, sticking out his bottom lip. "D'you think you could..."
"Spend my shift looking for suitable spaces we could use instead?" Louis supplies, his voice flat.
“Excellent!” Nick claps his hands together before spinning his chair away from Louis, needing nothing further from his staff member. "Let me know what you find out so I can send out an email about the location change!"
Louis slides off the desk and trudges over to the table closest to the front desk. He had not planned on wasting an entire shift doing Nick's bidding, but he isn't all that surprised. Last year he spent every shift for a week sorting Skittles, separating the colours into different jars to fashion a table decoration for an event that lasted all of two hours. Louis never wants to see another Skittle again in his life.
At the very least, focusing on trying to find a room for the speaker occupies his mind and keeps him from thinking about his impending meeting with Harry. Next to him at the table is Kyle, a second year student, who’s making a slew of buttons to hand out during Coming Out Week. One of his creations, a button with "yes, homo!" in rainbow letters emblazoned on a black background, is pinned to the front of his pastel yellow polo.
Kyle chucks his latest masterpiece into a heap with the others he's finished, a graphic of the asexual pride flag with "Ace" in stylised letters in the centre. He leans his forehead against the button making machine. "Is it always like this?" he mutters, new to the staff and clearly unprepared for this type of frenetic enterprise.
Louis lets out a bleat of laughter, slapping a hand on Kyle's slumped shoulders. "Oh, my dear lad, you have no idea." When Kyle wearily raises his head, something akin to horror in his eyes, Louis continues, "Just wait until the spring. Pride Month, innit? A whole month of programming."
Kyle lowers his head again, groaning loud enough that the students reading on the couch toss him a curious stare. Louis waves them off, smiling, before turning back to his laptop.
It's 1:50 when Louis finally manages to find a suitable room to reserve for their keynote speaker. Swearing under his breath, he fills out the reservation form as quickly as possible and hastily forwards the confirmation email to Nick. The coffee shop is just downstairs, but Louis had been hoping to get there first. He doesn't want to make it too obvious he knows exactly what Harry looks like.
A mere eight minutes later, Louis is breezing through the door of the coffee shop, fluffing his fringe with one hand while locating his mobile with the other. No text from Harry saying he's arrived yet, so that's a good sign. Had Harry been early to the panel? Louis can't seem to remember, didn't have an impression of him before he picked that hand out of those around it to call upon.
He glances about the shop, looking for the purple hoodie Harry had mentioned.
His phone vibrates in his hand then, making Louis jump and drawing a glare from the girl he very nearly stumbles into. Muttering an apology, he peers down at a new text from Harry.
I see yoooou. :)
Louis shakes his head slightly at the boy's seemingly endless supply of vowels. He’s just lifted his gaze to check the other side of the shop when he collides with a warm, lean body.
"Sorry, sorry!" Louis yelps, gripping the biceps of the person to steady himself. His eyes travel from the purple clad forearms underneath his hands, up a flat chest bearing the word "Hollister," and settling on the face of Harry Styles.
"Did I scare you?" Harry asks, an edge of amusement in his voice.
Louis quickly releases Harry's arms, smoothing the front of his own short-sleeved button-down shirt. "Ah, a bit, yeah." He cocks his head to the side, taking in the boy in front of him from the scuffed Converse on his feet to the striking green of his eyes. "You're, er, taller than you look sitting down."
Harry emits a sound rather like a duck getting stepped on, clasping his hands over his mouth the moment the noise leaves his lips. He stands like that for a moment, staring at Louis over his overlapping hands, before his shoulders start to shake in silent giggles.
Unable to resist, Louis finds himself laughing along as well. It isn't until a man clears his throat loudly that Louis remembers they're still stood in the middle of the floor of a busy shop. Louis grins apologetically and lets the man slide past while Harry recovers from his fit of laughter.
"I'm sorry, I have no idea why that was so funny. I don't think I've ever made that noise before," he says, smiling widely enough that his dimple makes an appearance.
Louis returns the expression, eyes crinkling around the edges. "I think you'll find I'm quite funny all the time, young Mr. Styles. Now why don't we get something to drink and find a place to sit?"
After they've both obtained drinks from the bubbly barista, Harry and Louis wind through the maze of tables to a little booth in the back corner. Louis climbs in first, tucking his bag against the wall and sliding his steaming cup of tea across the table. Harry follows suit, his knees momentarily bumping against Louis' as he sits opposite him.
Harry takes a sip of his latte, eyes fluttering closed as he savours the taste. "The first pumpkin flavoured beverage of the year is always the best," he explains to Louis, setting the paper cup down. He traces over his name on the side, scrawled in the barista's rounded penmanship.
They sit there for a few minutes in a sombre silence. Louis had worried it was going to be awkward, as talking about personal details with strangers tends to be, and he never really gets used to it. "So," he ventures finally, unable to bear the heavy atmosphere of their booth. "What did you want to talk to me about, Harold?"
Harry's full lips curl up at the moniker. "It's just Harry, actually," he says, voice a little shaky.
Louis takes in the clench of Harry's hands around his drink and the teeth marks still visible in his bottom lip from where he'd been chewing at it. The lad is clearly nervous. Louis reaches out a hand and gently squeezes Harry's forearm. "Well then, Just Harry, I'm all ears. Whatever you say stays between the two of us."
Harry's widened eyes flick back and forth between Louis', looking every bit like a startled deer. He takes one more swallow of his coffee, holding the cup to his mouth just a bit longer than is necessary, before returning it to the table with a wavering sigh. "I don't really know where to begin," he says quietly, sounding so much smaller than he is.
Realising he's still clasping Harry's arm, Louis gives it a reassuring pat before threading his own fingers together on the table in front of him. "It's okay, mate, take your time. I've got nowhere to be, okay?" Louis says soothingly. "What was going through your mind when you put your email address on that form?"
Harry traces the grain of the wooden table with one long, elegant finger. His eyes follow the progress, lashes a dark halo against the pale skin of his cheeks. "I've wondered for a long time, you know?" he says finally, voice a shade deeper than normal. "I'm from a pretty small town, and there aren't exactly any... gay people there," he whispers the word "gay" as if he's afraid of someone hearing.
Picking at a gouge at the edge of the table, he continues. "I never thought to question myself. I dated girls all through my schooling and I, erm, had sex a time or two. It was never like people say it's going to be, fireworks and all that. I just figured I had built it all up in my head so much—sex, romance, dating—that the real experiences couldn't stack up." He shrugs helplessly. "I thought I had ruined myself for relationships."
Louis watches the man speak, not wanting to interrupt for fear of making Harry clam up. Harry's cheeks are flushed, his lower lip trembling ever so slightly, and Louis wants nothing more than to reach out and take this fascinating creature's hand. He doesn't, though, opting instead to place an elbow on the table and prop up his chin.
Harry watches Louis' movements distractedly. "Once I got to university this autumn, taking sociology courses, talking about gender and sexuality, it made me think. Maybe my expectations weren't too high, but maybe I hadn't tried it with the right person, you know?" His eyes meet Louis' then, eyebrows drawn up in a pleading look of fear. "I think I might be gay, Louis." He sits in stunned silence for a minute, hand flying to touch his lips as if they had betrayed him somehow.
"That's the first time you've said it out loud, isn't it?" Louis asks gently, his voice scratchy and warm.
Harry nods fervently, curls bouncing and eyes slowly glossing over with the threat of tears.
Oh, dear. If there's one thing Louis can't handle, it's seeing pretty boys cry.
"Hey, hey, it's all right," Louis soothes, finally giving in to the urge to reach out and cover one of Harry's hands with his own. He marvels at how small and delicate his hand seems on top of Harry's larger ones.
Harry appears to be thinking along the same vein. He flips his hand over, clutching onto Louis' like a lifeline. He doesn't keep hold for long, though, pulling away and scanning the crowded coffee shop for a sign that someone might have seen.
Satisfied that the hand holding has gone unnoticed, Harry turns back to Louis. "Sorry for pulling away. I just don't need a bunch of people making assumptions when I'm still trying to sort it out myself." He guiltily avoids Louis' concerned gaze.
"Don't worry about it. I should have asked if it was okay."
"Yeah. It was. Thank you," Harry says, managing a smile despite his watery eyes. He clears his throat. "I think the panel is what really did it for me, though. Hearing you talk about how you'd always looked at men without a second thought, it made me think about all the times I've caught myself appreciating how fit some guy was." His smile wanes. "And now I'm just confused. I've spent my whole life thinking one thing, and suddenly there are all these different options. How am I supposed to know?" he implores.
Louis' heart aches for the distraught boy in front of him. Coming from a very open, accepting family, he had never had to fight his way out of the closet. Hell, his closet hadn't even had a door. Yet here Harry is, seemingly trapped in an entire dressing room and not knowing which wardrobe would lead him out of Narnia.
"We'll figure it out, all right? You and me. You don't have to do this alone, Harry," Louis says, holding out a hand once more but not touching Harry's without permission.
Harry's tears finally do spill over, running down his cheeks. When he smiles at Louis, a couple catch in the curve of his dimple. "I'd like that," he nearly whispers, reaching out and clasping Louis' hand in his own.
Harry's hand is warm and smooth, and Louis gives it a gentle squeeze before relaxing his grip so Harry can pull away without feeling awkward. "Why don't you come by the Resource Centre sometime? I can show you around, introduce you to some people." At the hesitant look Harry gives him, Louis adds: "Not everyone there is gay. We have staff members who are allies of the LGBTQ community, and no one in the Centre is going to gossip about you being there."
Harry looks slightly more relaxed, though still unsure. "I'm scared," he admits, that deep voice of his suddenly small. The tears that had finally begun to subside return in full force.
"It's okay to be scared. But lucky for you, you're in a place with a ton of resources and people who want to help you. You're not some lonely teenager still living at home with no one to turn to." Louis bares his teeth in an exaggerated smile. "I happen to be an expert on being a homosexual, Harry Styles, and I would be glad to take you under my wing."
Harry laughs at that, pulling the sleeve of his hoodie over his hand and swiping at his damp cheeks. "Yeah, all right." He lifts his chin slightly, the tiniest of smiles pulling at his rose pink lips. "Thanks, Lou."
Louis' heart flutters at the nickname, his cheesy grin morphing into one of delight. "Well, you have my number. Text me any time, all right? And not just when you need to talk about this. Want to meet the same time next week?"
"Sure, sounds great," Harry readily agrees, the red of his teary eyes making his irises a brilliant green. He pulls his mobile out of the pocket of his sweatshirt, checking the time. "I actually need to get to a meeting for a project, if you don't mind?"
Grabbing his forgotten tea, long since cold, Louis slides out of the booth and stretches. "Yeah, I need to get home as well. Zayn—you remember him from the panel?—He and I have plans tonight and I haven't a clue what I'm going to wear." Harry chuckles and Louis extends his hand. "It's been a pleasure, Harry."
Still giggling, Harry shakes Louis' hand, his fingertips brushing against the inside of the shorter man's wrist. "Thanks so much, Louis. Just knowing I have someone in my corner makes me feel so much better." He releases Louis' hand and shoves his own into the pocket on the front of the hoodie. "I'll text you," he says as he turns to leave the shop.
"I'm counting on it!" Louis calls after him, bright voice carrying over the din of the busy café. And, he thinks to himself, he really is.