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The Next Big Thing

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“Look at this!” Stan shoved his phone in Louis’ face, waving it wildly so there was no hope of Louis seeing the screen, even if he had been awake enough to focus.

“I’m sleeping,” he grumbled, rolling away from his housemate to burrow deeper into his duvet.

“Not anymore!” Stan declared mercilessly. “You’ve got an audition this afternoon.”

“What?” That got Louis’ eyes opening. He grabbed Stan’s wrist, forcing the boy’s hand still so he could read the tiny screen of his phone. “This is an open audition for guitarists.”

“Which you happen to be.”

“No,” Louis corrected, sitting up. “I’m part of a band which needs gigs. Those are the only auditions I want to hear about.”

“You’re not part of a band. You’re part of a drinking club that sometimes plays shit music.” Stan held up an imperious finger when Louis started to protest. “Really shit music,” he corrected.

“Ugh,” Louis flopped back against his pillows. It was true that his current band wasn’t all that he could hope for. None of them could particularly sing, and their drummer was terrible, if only because he was stoned all the time.

“This is a job. That pays money,” Stan said. “You remember money? The thing you pay rent with? And buy food? And beer?”

Louis cracked an eye at the phone still shoved in his face, reading it with slightly more consideration. It had been too long since his last paycheck. He’d gotten fired from his job at the café down the street because he kept calling out sick for band practice, or showing up late and hungover from mediocre gigs the night before.

It wasn’t his fault he couldn’t really commit himself to mopping up people’s spilled coffee for the rest of his life.

The tiny screen in front of his face didn’t offer a lot of information. Just a time and a place. Instructions to bring an instrument and have a song prepared.

“What’s this even for?” Louis grumbled, grabbing the device out of Stan’s hands.

Knowing he had won, his friend subsided, sinking down into the bed next to him. “Doesn’t really say. But they’re only looking for instruments, not a singer. So…”

“Backing band?” Louis supplied with a frown.

“Looks legit, though.” Stan nodded down at the screen. “Nice website. Legit offices. I checked them on google maps.”

Louis gave him a suspicious look. “Why are you putting so much effort into this?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Lou. Maybe I don’t want to be evicted when you can’t make rent next month,” Stan rolled his eyes.

“Fine. I’ll go to the stupid audition. Won’t get it anyway, so don’t get your hopes up.”

“I never do,” Stan grinned, leaping out of the bed before Louis could smack him. He glanced at the clock next to him as Stan scampered out of the room, groaning when he realized it was already noon. The audition was at two, in west London. It would take him at least an hour to get there from Hackney.

“Shit,” he moaned, rolling back over and burrowing his face into his pillow.

“If you’re not up in two minutes, I’m coming back in there with a cup full of ice!” Stan called from the sitting room.

_____________________________________________________________

Louis peered up at the building, guitar case in hand. It certainly looked official. All dark glass and sleek signs. He pushed through the front door and faltered.

The lobby was absolutely brimming with people, instrument cases in hand. There was barely room to stand even in the massive atrium, people packed in tight and lining the walls.

“Name?”

“Huh?” Louis turned to find a bored looking blonde woman in a suit at his elbow, clipboard in hand.

“Name?”

“Uh, Louis Tomlinson. No, with an ‘n.’ Yeah, that’s right,” he corrected, peering over to watch her record his name. There were a lot of names above him. Like, a lot.

“Instrument?”

He shot a puzzled look at the guitar case in his hand. Could she not see it? “Um, guitar?”

The woman didn’t even look up as she scribbled his answer down. “Are you over the age of eighteen?”

“Yes?”

“Legally able to work in the United Kingdom?”

“Yes.”

“Signed with a label?”

“Would I be here if I was?”

At that she spared him a withering glance, before jotting ‘no’ down on her list. “Fill out this form.” She thrust a piece of paper at him. “Hand it back to me when you’re finished.” She was already turning to the people queuing behind him, waiting just to get inside the door.

He shuffled into the mess of people, eyeing the crowds warily. There were a lot of people there. He found a space in the corner and pulled a pen out of his pocket, bracing the paper up against the wall.

Name, contact number, national insurance number, signature. Easy. He propped his guitar up against the wall, and with a nervous look at the people around him, trotted away to return the form to the woman by the door.

“We’ll call your name when we’re ready for you,” she told him, shoving the paper to the back of the pile on her clipboard, not even meeting his eyes.

He returned to his place by the wall and pulled out his phone, typing out a quick, this is a goddamn cattle call. I’m killing you when I get home, to Stan before pulling up fruit ninja. That would at least help pass the time.

Nearly two hours later and Louis was sprawled on the floor, his guitar case propped against the wall next to him, as he counted the tiles on the sleek floor in front of him. People kept being called out of the lobby, and yet it didn’t seem to make a dent in the crowds that pressed in around him. He thought, not for the first time, about getting up and just leaving.

But then he remembered that he’d have to take the bus all the way back because he couldn’t afford the tube, and stayed put. Being broke was shit, basically.

“Louis Tomlinson?”

Louis’ head came up fast, seeking out the woman at the door—a dead ringer for the blonde who had taken his name when he first came in, all severe ponytail and sleek suit.

“Me!” he called, hobbling to his feet, knees protesting the time he had spent on the floor.

The woman looked unimpressed.

Louis reminded himself that he was a good guitarist—better than the band he was in, better than the gigs he had played. It didn’t matter, he told himself, that a hundred guys had gone in before him. His hands shook as he arrived at the woman’s side.

“Right this way.” She spun on her heels and was off down the hall before Louis’ brain caught up with him, leaving him striding breathlessly after her. She paused at an open door and nodded him in.

If he had hoped the room would give him some indication of what kind of job this was, he was going to be disappointed. It was just a small conference room, with a drum kit set up in one corner and a mic placed haphazardly near it. Three men in casual, but somehow crisp attire sat at a table at the far side of the room.

“Name?” One asked.

“Louis Tomlinson.”

The man ticked something on a sheet of paper.

“You’ve got five minutes. Play something.”

Louis forced himself not to just gape, setting down his guitar case and opening it with shaking fingers. The men had given him no indication of what they wanted, what they were expecting.

Louis was just glad he had tuned the guitar in the lobby while he waited. He slung the strap over his shoulder and approached the mic. “Did you want me to sing, too?”

The man in the middle of the table looked up, shrugging. “You can if you want to.”

Louis did not want to, but it was what he was used to. He did the vocals for his shit band, after all.

He stepped up to the mic and closed his eyes, centring himself, trying to forget about his five minutes ticking away and the unimpressed stares of the men at the table. Finally he raised his hands to the strings of his guitar and began to pick out a tune. After a moment he began to sing—the Fray’s How to Save a Life. It was a song he could play in his sleep, and his fingers moved over the strings confidently.

His voice wasn’t as strong as his playing, but at least he knew this song. He knew how to make it sound good.

As the song came to and end he opened his eyes, his voice faltering for a split second as he saw the blank stares of the men at the table.

“Thank you, Mr. Tomlinson,” one said as he finished. “You’ll hear from us in the next day or so if you get called back.”

Louis knew a dismissal when he heard it and packed his guitar away quickly, his movements halted and unsure under the eyes of the three men. He searched their faces for any sign of how he had done, but honestly couldn’t tell. It didn’t look like they thought anything about him, one way or another.

Defeated, he shuffled out into the hallway. Another day wasted, he thought with a sigh, letting himself out of the building. The lobby was still packed with hopeful musicians.

_____________________________________________________________

The ringing of his phone jerked Louis out of sleep and he glared into the dim half-light of the morning. Glaring didn’t make the ringing stop, however, and so he hazily groped at his nightstand, seeking the sleek shape of his phone.

“’lo?” He mumbled.

“Mr. Tomlinson?” A crisp female voice had his eyes snapping open.

“Yes?” he sat up, pushing the sheets away from his mouth so he could speak clearly.

“I’m calling about your audition on Monday.”

“Yes?”

“We’d like you to come back in.”

Louis stared blankly at the foot of his bed, trying to process the words. “You’re calling me back?” he finally asked dumbly.

“Can you come in at eleven this morning?”

Louis had no idea what time it was, but he was already nodding, despite the fact that the woman couldn’t see it. “Yes. Yes, that’s fine.”

“Please be ready to play a different song than Monday, and to learn a short piece of music while you’re here,” she said, voice efficient and uninterested.

“Yeah, sure. Um, thank you?”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Tomlinson.” The call disconnected.

Louis pulled the phone away from his ear, staring down at the screen dumbly. It was only eight in the morning, but there was no way he was going back to sleep.

“Stan!” he bellowed.

He had gotten a call-back. He couldn’t believe it.

_____________________________________________________________

When he walked through the doors at 10:45, the building felt different. There were still people there, but far, far fewer than two days before, and the energy in the air was different. Charged. Everyone seemed more nervous, more excited. Now that they had made it past the first open audition, people were beginning to think that this could be their chance.

Louis was beginning to think that this might finally be his chance.

He paused at reception, an entirely different woman sitting behind the low desk. “Hi, I’m Louis Tomlinson? I have a call back?”

Her fingers flew across the keyboard of her computer, and then she gave him a smile. The first he had seen in this building. “I’ll let you know when they’re ready for you, Mr. Tomlinson.” She held out a piece of paper. Thinking it was another form, Louis was surprised to glance down and find it was sheet music. “You’ll have time to rehearse it, don’t worry,” the woman said kindly. “We’ll call you into a practice room first.”

“Okay. Thanks,” Louis gave her a tentative smile back, turning to the rest of the room and eyeing its occupants.

He could see maybe a dozen guys with guitar cases. It was still a lot of people, but…not nearly as many as Monday.

In fact, Louis thought with a grin, it wasn’t such bad odds.

He settled himself down on the floor again, next to a serious looking boy with dark brown hair curling over his ears.

The boy’s eyes flickered up to his as Louis slid down to the floor. “Guitar?” he asked, glancing at the case in Louis’ hand.

“Yup.”

“Drums,” the guy offered. “I’m Liam.”

“Louis.” He stifled a laugh as the guy actually extended a hand to shake, gripping tightly and giving him a firm pump up and down. Just like he was probably taught in business school or wherever he had wandered in from.

He really didn’t look like a drummer.

“This is crazy, isn’t it?” Liam asked, nodding at the room at large.

“Yeah. I really didn’t expect to hear back,” Louis admitted. When Tuesday had come and gone and his phone hadn’t rung except for stupid calls from Stan, he had pretty much given up hope. “I just wish we knew what it was for.”

Liam looked surprised. “You haven’t heard?”

“No? They told you?” Louis frowned. He thought it was all supposed to be hush-hush.

“No. But people were talking on Monday,” Liam confided, lowering his voice. “I hear they’re hiring a backing band for Harry Styles.”

Louis stared back at him, blank. “Who?”

Liam’s eyebrows edged up another notch. “Harry Styles? He came in third on the X-Factor this year?”

“Oh. I don’t watch that,” Louis rolled his eyes. The X-Factor was for wannabes and losers. And they sang crap, manufactured music. His band might not have been great, but they were real, and that was more important.

“Well, he got signed to SyCo, even though he lost. And I heard now they’re putting together an album. Hence, the backing band.”

“So he’s like…a pop star?” Louis asked, wrinkling his nose.

“Yeah, I guess,” Liam agreed easily.

“What, like Justin Bieber?”

Louis was being sarcastic, but Liam nodded eagerly. Louis felt his heart sink. He wanted to question the boy more, but suddenly the girl at the desk called out the name, “Liam Payne,” and Liam jumped to his feet eagerly.

“Good luck, mate,” Louis said when the boy met his eyes. Liam gave him a big grin before striding off, disappearing through the large double doors at the back of the lobby.

Louis fidgeted where he sat. He had never watched a single episode of the X-Factor. When he was a teenager, his girlfriend at the time suggested he go out for the Manchester auditions. Hannah had been a nice girl, but Louis had known in that moment that their relationship was doomed.

He didn’t do pop music.

But maybe Liam was wrong. He seemed like a nice dude, and all, but nothing he had said was more than gossip.

Besides, Louis really needed a paycheck.

Unlike Monday he only had to wait about thirty minutes before they called his name. He was led to a room nearly identical to the one he had initially auditioned in and told he had fifteen minutes to learn the music in front of him. Louis frowned as the door shut behind him. That was basically no time at all, but he had been eyeing the sheet music since the second it was handed to him, and he was a fair enough sight-reader. He picked up his guitar and started going though the notes, trying to set down the tempo.

It wasn’t the worst song he had ever heard, although it was a bit more upbeat that the stuff he and the band normally played. He didn’t really like how peppy it was, and he imagined that with lyrics he’d like it even less.

But he wasn’t here to like it, he reminded himself, in a voice that sounded remarkably like Stan in his head. He was here to play it, and hopefully get a job out of it. And pay the rent, his mental-Stan added petulantly.

The fifteen minutes were up faster than seemed possible, and he was led to yet another conference room, all beige walls and white carpet. More impassive men sat at a table in front of him, and Louis couldn’t even pick out if any of them were the same as on Monday. From their polo shirts to their haircuts, they were all basically carbon copies of each other.

The audition was nearly the same as the last—Louis played, they watched, and no one said much of anything. One of the men, though, nodded when he played the music he had been given. A nod, he hoped, of approval.

“Thank you, Mr. Tomlinson,” He said as Louis packed up his guitar. “You’ll be hearing from us.”

Louis let out a sigh of relief as he exited the building. It was the most intensive audition process he’d ever been through—not that he’d been through a lot—and he just didn’t know what to feel as he stepped out on the street. He had played his best, but who was to say his best was good enough?

_____________________________________________________________

That night, safely ensconced in his bedroom, away from Stan’s prying questions, and with a beer to hand, Louis loaded youtube, and typed “Harry Styles” into the search bar.

The first video that came up was titled “Harry Styles is The Cutest Thing in the World!!1!”

He blanched, draining half his beer before he revised his search to “Harry Styles X-Factor.”

The top video was called “Harry Styles Congratulates Matt,” but Louis clicked on it anyway.

It was obviously from the finale of the last season of the X-Factor, when someone called Matt Cardle had apparently won.

But the video just showed a teenage boy pulling the winner into a hug, pressing his lips close to his ear, and very audibly saying, “Think how much pussy you’re going to get.”

Louis closed his browser in disgust, unwilling to watch any more. The kid hadn’t even looked of age, and that’s all he could think to say to someone who had just won a major recording contract? Sure, Louis had used the band to pull now and then, but he was in it for the music. The kid was obviously only on the show for the fame. Louis wondered if he could even sing. He had lost, after all.

Louis finished the rest of his beer with a scowl on his face. He just hoped that what Liam had told him had been wrong.

He wanted nothing to do with Harry Styles.