It's on the last night of the tour, when emotions are high and the boys are well buzzed, that Louis tells them.
"Right, then, band huddle," he calls, from his position on the floor of the consuite, pausing their FIFA game over Zayn's protests and exchanging his controller for the beer he's set next to him.
"Band huddle!" Harry yells, and meets Louis halfway, arms outstretched. Niall ducks under Harry's other arm and Zayn appears by Louis's side, Liam's arms coming to encircle them on the outside.
"Well done, lads," Louis says, impressed. "That was a four-second band huddle from across the room, I think we set a record on that one."
"Well, you do have to take the alcohol into effect," Liam points out. "We could've done better. I say we could've done three."
"Alcohol doesn't affect my speed," Niall argues.
"Of course it doesn't," Louis says, conspiratorially, then, "why are we huddling?"
"You're the one called the huddle." Harry shrugs and makes grabby hands for Louis's bottle, then just holds it when Louis hands it to him.
Louis nods. "I did," he says. "I called the huddle," he begins, slowly, "because I wanted to tell you something." He pauses. "I'm a woman," he says, and raises his eyebrows like he's just trying out the words to see how they sound, in no particular order.
Harry frowns. Then his mouth opens, half-surprised and half smiling, and he wants to say, "we already knew that," but he's not exactly sure Louis' having them on, because nobody's laughing, not even Louis. He finds himself setting down the beer bottle on the nearest chair arm.
Louis is already shaking his head, face falling. "Okay, no, that's..." He takes a breath. "Seriously," he says, and now he makes eye contact with each of them, deliberately. "Like, when I was born, everyone said I was a boy, like, but in my head," he gestures, "up here, I've always felt like a girl." He glances down at his feet for a moment. "It's called being transgender, yeah," he adds, casually, nodding to himself like he's answering a question. He claps Harry and Zayn on the backs, then leans back, out of the huddle. "So, questions from the class? And yes, please, I am aware I have a penis."
Harry rolls the word "transgender" around in his head. He's pretty sure he's heard that word, known its meaning before Louis explained it. He's not familiar with the experience, nor has he thought of Louis as being particularly feminine, certain facial features notwithstanding. But he's heard of news articles of male race car drivers turning into female models, former weightlifters, rock singers. He's just not sure how it works, exactly, but he suspects that's a question too broad to raise at the moment.
"That's not like, what Eddie Izzard says he is, is it?" Niall asks, and Louis shakes his head.
"No, Eddie Izzard's like..." Louis brings his hands forward, gesticulating a scale in the air. "It's like, there's like a trans, wildcard, spectrum, yeah? Eddie's like, a boy who wants to wear dresses over here, and I'm, like, a girl, over here. Who... also wants to wear dresses." He squints, pressing his lips together. "Okay, so. The thing is, Eddie likes being a man, and I..."
"Don't?" Zayn asks.
"Don't feel like I ever was one," Louis says, slowly.
He doesn't know who crowds in first, but suddenly Louis's shoulder is in reach of his mouth, Liam's arm coming round the back to clasp at Harry's forearm where it drapes across Louis' collarbone. Zayn and Niall are hugging Louis from the front and it's easy for Harry to rest his open palm on Niall's hair, Liam saying, "well, I'm glad you told us, Louis, that's really good, that's important," and Harry murmurs his assent, hears all of them agree.
"Ohoho, but that's not all I have for you, lads," Louis goes on, a bit back to his confident voice, though his smile is still shy, shyer than it's been with them since the earliest days of the group, and Harry's heart is fluttering for him, anxious. "I'm telling you all this now because," and he only pauses a brief moment this time, pressing his lips together, before saying, "I'll be changing, 'cause I don't think I can go on like this, like, as a boy, anymore. And since we're a boyband," he raises his eyebrows significantly, trailing off.
"So what?" Niall asks, over top of Zayn's dismissive "and?" and Liam's "Oh, it doesn't even matter."
"We don't care," Harry is careful to say it into Louis' hair, squeezing his shoulder and rubbing it.
"Well, I need to tell Simon, don't I," Louis says. "For a start."
"So tell him," Zayn shrugs. "What's he going to say? You can't be in our boyband anymore?" and he says it mockingly, as though it's ridiculous, but the thought is crossing Harry's mind as well, and Louis glances away like he knows it's a possibility. "We can just be a regular band, mate," Zayn adds, more softly and with a smile, tracking Louis's gaze to get it back on him.
"And the fans are still gonna love you," Liam says, insistently.
Louis cringes, only half joking, at that. "I don't know," he says lightly, "the lot that only want to have sex with me...."
"...will discover they're actually lesbians, I promise," Liam finishes, and they all need the laugh they get from that.
Harry pulls back from the hug a bit. "So does that mean you've already started?" he asks, trying to remember what little he knows about snippets of articles he's read. "Like, what do you need? Is it clothes, or makeup, or," he shrugs one shoulder. The thought of Louis buying, or wearing, ladies' clothing, not as a laugh but as a way to feel better about himself, or feel normal at all, is strange to Harry, like learning any new secret about any of the boys is at this late stage of their friendship, but it excites him, too, like Louis is about to start something amazing and he gets to be a part of it somehow.
"Yeah, that," Louis nods, "and hormones, so I'll need to meet an endocrinologist, so having Simon's support is kind of important."
"But do you need anything from us?" Liam asks. "Do you want us to call you something different, or something?" and Niall adds,
"Yeah, what, are you gonna change your name?"
Louis is back to biting his lip as he looks around to all of them. "Could you just, for now, and I know this is gonna be weird, but--"
"It won't be weird," Harry assures him, to hums of approval from the others.
"-if you could, like, use feminine pronouns for me? That would be," Louis blows out a puff of air. "That would be really nice."
"It's done," Niall says simply, then, "can we hug again?" and, from Louis' armpit when they've crowded back in, "we can ask more questions later, right?"
Harry snuffles a laugh into the side of Louis' neck and feels Louis, feels her, he thinks deliberately, vibrate an "mmm-hmm, definitely." This is going to be amazing, he thinks. Louis's going to be amazing.
They all wanted to go in with Louis when she gave Simon the news, Liam most of all for the moral support, but Louis wasn't comfortable enough with it. "There could be tears," she'd sighed dramatically, hand over her heart, but Liam could see her hand trembling as she held it there.
"We'll be right out here when you need us," he had vowed, slinging an arm around Zayn, starting a chain of hugs that brought in Niall and Harry so they presented a united front. "No matter what he says, all right?" He wasn't sure what they were going to do if Simon wasn't all in for Louis's news, though he couldn't imagine why he wouldn't be. He had to admit that it was one thing to be relatively hands-off in letting the boys assert their own personalities, musical and fashion tastes and modes of interaction, and another to support a member of a world famous boyband who didn't want to be a boy. It still fell under the same umbrella to Liam, though. Simon had always supported Louis being herself. Just because they'd switched the pronouns didn't mean Louis wouldn't still be the Louis he always knew.
He'd given it a lot of thought in the evening after Louis had told them, trying to accustom himself to thinking of Louis the way she'd asked. When it came down to it, there wasn't much he imagined would have to change between them, except that maybe Louis would stop trying to hit him in the balls because there would no longer be a fair means of retaliation. He rather doubted that would actually stop her doing it, though.
Louis comes out of Simon's office, face carefully neutral, and they all crowd round, gently touching her about her shoulders and hair until she pulls her hands free of their ministrations and grins broadly, giving two thumbs up. Liam whoops and loops his arm around Louis's head, pulling her down to press her cheek to his chest, shaking her a little when he feels her arms snake around his waist. Niall and Harry are jumping, making the whole group hug sway, Zayn tugging the other way holding them tight and steady, and Louis's saying, "so I told him, Simon, really, you don't need to cry, I won't leave the band, all right, I'll stay--"
"This is incredible," Liam declares to the air above Louis's head, and catches Zayn's eye. "Thank you, Simon," they shout back to the door in unison, laughing at their same-mindedness. Liam hasn't the foggiest idea what's going to happen, but he knows it's going to be incredible.
It's a relief for all of them to be able to return home to the UK on hiatus, especially for Louis to start seeing a doctor and begin treatment. Zayn's surprised by all the things Louis is going to have to do, though he realizes he's never really given it a lot of thought. He'd sort of just figured Louis could start wearing dresses and makeup and then get some surgery and that would be all there was to it. Instead, Louis's mentioned things like electrolysis and he's found out some about hormone therapy from Googling, and Zayn knew, really, that women and men had different hormones and that they affected them differently, but outside of periods and pregnancy he'd just not thought oestrogen would be something someone would need to have in their bloodstream.
"It's like it itches, sometimes, testosterone, you know?" Louis has her feet up on Zayn's coffee table, bottle of beer resting on her stomach where she's leaning back on Zayn's sofa. "Tickles, like, I get these feelings, these urges, and it's just like, ugh, stop, just go away."
Zayn makes an uncertain face. "I guess there's your sign, then," he says. "I've never felt like that."
"Really?" Louis wrinkles her nose at him.
"Yeah," Zayn shrugs. "I can't say I feel it, ever, I just feel... normal. It just is. I'm a man, that's how I feel. I don't even know what it would feel like to... I mean, how do you feel a hormone?"
"It's so weird. Like I feel like I need to crawl out of my skin sometimes." She wriggles suddenly, as though to illustrate the point, but it doesn't seem like anything Louis wouldn't do ordinarily, and Zayn finds that interesting.
"D'you think that's why you are sometimes, you know," he gestures. "Kind of all over the place, like."
"I dunno," Louis says, sincere. "I think I've always been like that. So, maybe." She shrugs, takes a swig off the bottle.
"But you can still have a wank and everything, right?" Zayn glances at Louis sidelong when he says it. They've talked about this, wanking, before, but not like this, not with the kind of forthright honesty Louis's been giving about her discomfort with being a boy, and Zayn's curiosity is insatiable. "I mean, does it bother you? Getting hard ons, like?"
Louis tilts her head. "Yeah," she confesses. "It's kind of, like, you can't ignore it?" and Zayn nods, knowing. "I mean, I've tried," Louis chuckles, giving a wry smile, "and the wet dreams are... much, much worse."
"Because you can't even control that," Zayn guesses, and Louis nods, glancing down at her bottle, fiddling with the label.
"It didn't always," she clarifies, sitting up straighter now. "Bother me, not all the time, just... it's been getting harder." Zayn slides up closer to her and puts his arm around her shoulder, and she tilts her head into the crook of his neck, blowing a puff of air through her fringe. Louis's never been particularly broad-shouldered, testosterone or no, but she's built stocky, and Zayn wonders how much that will change when she's getting the hormones she needs, how much of Louis is just the way Louis is and how much is down to the chemicals in her body.
"You know you can wear a dress over here anytime you want," he offers, and Louis laughs, covering the sound with her hand.
"Will do, next time," she promises.
Louis has been on oestrogen and androgen blockers for a month before they regroup for their tour, and Niall can't help but feel she should look more different when he gives her a hug at the airport, can't help glancing at her jawline as he's sat across from her in the van, taking in her chest, her hands. He's not sure what he's looking for, aside from boobs, but at any rate, Louis catches him when his eyes flicker up from her thighs, and sighs haughtily.
"Honestly," she says, raising an eyebrow, "the cheek of you, undressing me with your eyes. You could just ask, you know."
"Oh, just ask you if you've got any boobs, then?" Niall shoots back, and he means it sarcastically, but in retrospect it comes out a bit rude. Oh well, he thinks, that works too.
"Boobs, no, penis, still, yes," Louis says, counting off on her fingers, "although a whole new world of areolas and nipple sensitivity has opened up for me - who knew?" Harry barks a laugh, and Louis talks over him. "What else, hmmm... yes, I sleep better, yes, I shave my legs, no, I do not put barrettes in my hair, yes, I have girly pajamas, no, you can't see them, yes, I smell different - you'll thank me for that - and," she tilts her head, "some strange things happen to me when I masturbate."
"Jesus," Niall laughs, clapping, while Zayn throws a hand up over his eyes and says, "mate, did you really need to tell us that," and Harry says, "strange like what?" a half-smile spreading across his face. Liam grins at them all, gaze flitting between them like he can't decide whom he loves more at that moment.
"Well, it's not interesting if you've not got boobs," Niall finally says, folding his arms in mock disappointment. "Do you feel better, though?" he adds. "And are you going to get a bra?" He shakes his head, laughs at himself. "Really, I'm just interested in the boobs, so you can answer that in any order."
"Nice, Niall," Louis drawls, giving him a sidelong look. "I do have a bra, and I do feel better, cheers, mate." She stretches, kittenish, with her eyes screwed shut, yawning as she does it. "But it's like... now I'm seeing what's happening, I just want more and more of it. I'm greedy for it, you know," she says, pressing a hand to her chest. She pats herself there a few times, absently, before sucking her lower lip into her mouth, chewing on it. "And yes, sometimes I get a bit emotional," she says softly, and glances up to the ceiling of the van, blinking. Suddenly brusque, she declares, "tears incoming, fuck off and look away."
They all busy themselves looking out the window while out of the corner of his eye Niall can see Louis dip her face into her hands for a moment before tossing back her fringe and issuing a shuddery breath. "I'm fine, I'm fine," she mutters at last, brushing away Harry's hands when he reaches out for her, but leans back onto his outstretched arm all the same, sighing happily and lifting a leg to drape onto Liam's lap. "I hope you don't all stop fondling me when I've got boobs," she says, squirming to get comfortable. "It's the very best part of being a lad with you lot, if I do say so."
"Only if you don't mind when we snap your brassiere," Niall says, and Louis shoves two fingers in the air at them when Zayn laughs, "oh, yeah, we have to do that."
The thing is, Liam observes with awe, that Louis is just as laddish as ever on tour, during shows and appearances and interviews, seems just as comfortable flirting with fans and reporters alike. He marvels at how long it must have been that Louis' been doing this, making being a boy seem effortless when she's made it clear that she never felt quite right at it. She seems a bit wound down, though, this tour, a little less manic, and when he asks if she's noticed, she shrugs.
"Sometimes I just don't feel like I need to," she says, "bounce around, like it's okay to be in my own head and just... stay here." She gets up suddenly. "I still have the energy, though," she says, "race you," and takes off down the corridor backstage, dodging Zayn on his scooter with a shriek. Liam gives her the head start and then swiftly closes the distance between them, weaving past Niall who stops in the middle of the corridor to watch them go by, oblivious to the traffic hazard he's being. But Liam's legs are longer and he's got the stamina, so when Louis flags on the return trip he passes her up, catching her round the waist with his arm and pulling her in a circle to disorient her before continuing on. He slows after a moment, though, noticing a difference.
"You're lighter," he says, turning to point at her, and he's only slightly winded, though Louis's doubled over, wheezing dramatically.
She shakes her head. "Not really," she says. She gestures to her torso. "Lower center of gravity," she gulps, "I guess. Jesus, sometimes I forget you run like this for the hell of it, Payne."
"Don't be a baby," he mumbles, then, "really? It's made a difference already? It's only been a couple of months, hasn't it?"
"Well, I am getting hips, you know," Louis says, almost proudly, snapping out of the theatrics. "My trousers are, like, fitted, more than usual, around them." She gestures down and outward with her hands, before placing them both on her backside. "Everything I eat is gonna spend a lifetime on my hips, from now on. I'm literally going pear-shaped. How incredible is that?" She winks at him.
He grins back at her. "Pretty incredible," he agrees, and is overwhelmed by the desire to pick her up, or twirl her, or wrestle her to the floor, and he knows Louis said he could continue to do all those things, but right now he just feels like she's smaller, somehow, and he's thrown for a moment, uncertain. Louis has opened her mouth in the awkward half-second of silence and Liam doesn't think about it anymore, just jumps on her back without warning.
"Speaking of things that are not lighter," Louis grunts, hoisting Liam up with her hands under his knees, and the moment has passed.
"We couldn't help but notice," the host says, gesturing to where Louis is sat nearest the co-host, "Louis, here, has been looking really good recently, really healthy--"
"It's true," Harry says, grinning, drawing a finger in the air around Louis's face. "It's true. D'you see the glow?" His grin grows wider when Louis tosses a look over her shoulder at him, as he tries telepathically urging her out of her funk.
Louis's been growing out her facial hair in preparation for an electrolysis session, and Niall had asked, just that morning, if it bothered her; she'd given him a tight smile, lips pushed together, that answered the question, but wouldn't say any more about it. So Harry knows it has her out of sorts, sullen, warring with the progress she's been making with her hormone therapy.
But the fact is that she is glowing; her cheeks look fuller and softer already and most of the time she's beaming with satisfaction, drawing her hand down the shadow of her sternum in wonder when she thinks nobody's looking. So today, Harry thinks, today she could use the ego lift.
"He does have a bit of the glow about him," the host is saying, turning to her co-host and nodding. "So, Louis, is it the hair? What are you eating? What's your secret?"
Louis raises her eyebrows at Harry, smirking, before turning back and raising her mic to her lips. "I'm actually on a very strict regime, these days," she says, "mayonnaise in the hair, bath salts, I'm exfoliating. Eating lots of carrots," she nods, and holds the host's gaze through Niall's outburst of laughter. "It's very healthy, thank you for noticing, darling."
Eleanor was of course one of the first people Louis came out to, and they'd agreed to try and make their relationship work, long distance and gender reassignment and all. Since Eleanor hasn't been able to make it out on tour for a visit, Harry goes to Niall's hotel room with the idea to cheer Louis up by Googling lesbian sex, all under the guise of doing helpful research into Eleanor's and Louis's bold new frontiers. They text Louis links saying things like "hav u 2 tryd this one?" and "how bout dis?" until Louis texts them back with
"prty sur the porn we r makng is 4 spcialty section
eat ur heart out :) xx"
Niall mutters, "if she thinks that means we're going to stop Googling, she has another think coming," and they both laugh, but once they start looking specifically for transgender porn, it's actually pretty difficult to find anything that treats the subject with respect, which is something Harry hadn't really thought of before when it came to looking for porn. He's used to seeing and ignoring rude nicknames, but somehow seeing other women like Louis - and he does find it easier thinking of her as a woman now, despite her being in what she calls "boy mode" for so much of the tour - being summed up so crudely by their body parts seems especially hurtful.
"Now, that's just rude," he says abruptly, as they bring up one last video, and Niall agrees, shutting down his laptop entirely.
"Are you busy?" Harry pushes past Louis when she answers her hotel room door. "I can't sleep." He shucks off the sleep boxers he wears solely for roaming the hotel halls, and pauses on the way to Louis's bed to turn and add, "and are you wearing girly pajamas?" because it looks like that's what she's wearing; a camisole and shorts, genuine girly shorts, and an elastic headband holding back her fringe.
"No," Louis says at once. "I mean, yes." She starts to fold her arms across herself, then seems to think better of it because Harry's seen them already; soft bumps poking out a bit where her pecs used to stand out normally. Harry's not sure she could wear a bra just yet, but he's reminded of when Gemma was eleven and stopped running around the house with just her pants on, started wearing undershirts all the time. It's as though he's just realized Louis's going through a second sort of puberty of her own and Harry feels suddenly awkward, like he's intruding.
"Sorry," he apologizes reflexively. "I didn't mean to-- if you were," he gestures vaguely with his finger at her. "You said we weren't meant to see these, so."
"Well, I didn't have to open the door, did I," Louis counters, coming to meet him back at the bed. She reaches across herself to scratch her elbow. "It's something I have to get used to as well."
"You should do," Harry agrees, folding Louis into a hug when she sits down with him between his outstretched legs in front of the headboard, poising his chin above her left ear. "You don't need to hide from us, you know. We all support you." When she hums noncommittally, he presses his mouth to her hair. "Can I ask you a question?" he murmurs, and Louis nods.
"How are things with Eleanor?"
"Oh, you and Niall still fantasizing about us, are we?" Louis twists in his arms to tut at him, but Harry is quick to protest.
"No, that was just," he shrugs, uneasy, "rude, really. We were trying to be encouraging, but. How are you really?"
Louis leans back against him and absently reaches for a drooping camisole strap. She is silent for a moment, head rising and falling with Harry's breaths. Then she sighs. "El and I are... like, there's a part of me that thinks we can still make this work out," she says slowly, "and then I think, like, if she's straight, well, then she's straight. How's she ever going to be happy when I'm basically saying, like, 'here's a penis, you can't touch it?' I mean, it's not fair, really. So, maybe I get to be lucky, and maybe I don't."
"Well," Harry says, "have you tried, you know." He waves a hand. "There's still toys and stuff."
"I'm pretty sure she likes my actual penis," Louis says. "It's not a bad penis, I'll have you know. I can see how someone could get attached to it."
Harry blows out a gust of air. "That's not very uplifting, mate."
"You're right, it's not," Louis agrees. "Tell me I'm pretty."
"You are," Harry says, without hesitation. "You look good--" he pushes his fingers through her hair, "--like this. Really. And--" He pushes up on Louis's shoulders until she's sitting up on her own, looking back at him quizzically. "Your--" he gestures at his chest, drawing two circles in the air with his fingers, then gives her the thumbs up, grinning.
Louis tries to give him a horrified look, but can't keep the corners of her mouth from turning up. "You're such a twat," she says.
Eleanor calls Louis one night while they're on the bus, while Zayn and Liam sleep and Niall nods off to a movie, and Harry's watchful, checks the time and Louis's mood and plays Angry Birds with his earbuds in but the volume turned down. He makes sure not to turn his head when, after a few minutes of hushed conversation, she gets up and takes the call back into the lounge, and he hopes, really hopes, that it's so that she and Eleanor can have specialty lesbian phone sex.
He starts awake some time later to the Retry screen and everyone's still asleep with Louis still in the back somewhere, so he makes his way down the aisle, finding the door to the lounge open and Louis's bunk curtains drawn shut. "Hey, Lou," he says softly into the cloth, "you awake?" and she takes so long to answer that he's about to walk away when he hears her say yes, but her voice is all wrong and quiet, and his heart sinks. "You all right," he asks, already parting the curtain to shuffle in, and Louis is already shifting over close to the wall for Harry to fit. This close, he can hear her sniffling, hitched breath, and the pillow is wet beneath his head, so instead of waiting for an answer, he simply wriggles his arm under Louis's shoulders and rolls her back over to him. She thuds her forehead against his shoulder a couple of times, breathing harshly with her fists pressed against his chest, before settling in and letting him just hold her.
"So, El and I broke up," Louis breathes into Harry's neck, voice thick with tears, and he nods, smoothing a thumb over her shoulderblade.
"I'm sorry," he mutters against her temple. "I'm so sorry, Lou," he says, and she hiccoughs. "Want to talk about it?"
"No," Louis whispers, huffing a small laugh. "God, I've never cried so much in my life." She sniffles. "And I know, if we'd broken up before all this, I'd be sad, I know I'd have cried then, but this is," she shakes her head. "I can't stop. I can't stop them coming," and she pulls her lips into her mouth, squeezes her eyes shut against an alarming amount of tears and sobs, curling up into Harry.
Harry lets her get it out for a while, murmuring "I know," and "you're all right," unsure if what Louis really needs is commiseration or distraction, because if this had been before, Louis might indeed have gone off somewhere and cried, but then he'd have stopped straight away, and wanted to go out and do something with the boys.
"Want me to get you some ice cream?" he ventures at last, and Louis pulls away from him, dragging her hand over her wet face.
"Oh, god, please, I need some to be in my mouth right now," she says, and there are still tear tracks on her cheeks and her eyelashes are thick and clumpy, but for the moment Harry can smile fondly at her and get her smiling back, thinks, okay, this isn't so different, and we can do this.
On their next easy day with only one show and no interviews to field, the boys and Louis agree to meet in Liam's room for a movie once they've all cleaned up after the performance. Niall's already finished and is picking away at the remains of his room service when Louis comes to the door, her overnight bag slung over her shoulder. Her beanie's pulled over her damp hair and she's in a baggy jumper and jogging bottoms.
"Can I use your toilet, mate?" she asks, grinning apologetically. "I'm out of counter space in mine, can't find a fucking thing."
Niall frowns. "What the hell do you need counter space for, to make a wee?"
"Girls just need-- surfaces," Louis says, matter of factly. "Why d'you suppose there's all those couches in women's toilets, eh?" and Niall's actually pretty sure they don't, but he steps aside with a
"whatever, mate," and allows Louis to bustle past.
Louis takes another half hour in Niall's toilet, and he really doesn't want to know what's keeping her, but he can hear her moving about, shifting things, so he answers Liam's and Zayn's questioning texts with "fuck if i kno" and "probly wanking 4 all i care," until she finally calls to him through the door.
"Yeah," he says, shoving a packet of Skittles into the pocket of his jumper and looking for the remote to turn off the telly.
"Is anyone else out there?"
"No," Niall says, "but if you don't hurry, I'm gonna leave, and we are seriously gonna start this movie without you." Of course he's not going to leave, and Louis will probably whinge about it, but she does work faster under threat.
"Well," and Louis draws it out slowly. "Can I show you something?"
Niall gets up from the bed and makes his way back over to the toilet. "Sure," he says. "Everything okay?"
Louis cracks open the door so that Niall can only see one eye and its corresponding raised eyebrow, then swings it open all the way. He barely has time to register that she's changed clothes -- she's wearing a tighter t-shirt instead of the jumper and, strangely, he glimpses her navel above the waistband of a pair of jeans -- before a swift movement of her hands draws his attention back up, and he realizes Louis's yanking the shirt up, hooking it under her armpits.
"Boobs!" Louis hollers at him, face stretching into a ridiculous grin over the bottom of her t-shirt. She's wearing a bra.
Niall blinks. "You're well fucking fit," he laughs, and he gets it now, takes it all in; the jeans on Louis's hips, the smoothness of her hair, blown dry so it swoops low over one eyebrow. He's never seen her eyelashes dark like that, and realizes with a jolt that, jesus, she's wearing makeup. She's made herself up for movie night, and showed him her boobs. This is officially his favourite night of the tour.
"Yeah, well," Louis is saying, tugging her shirt back down, "I promised I'd show you. But you can't have them! They're mine." She flicks her hair, studying the wall next to her for a moment. "Is it all right, then?" she asks the wall, extending one arm out to the side while the other gestures down her body from torso to thigh.
"Yeah, it's good," Niall nods, as his gaze sweeps over her. "Those are girl's jeans," he adds, dumbly. The crotch is short on them, too short for Niall to imagine how they could be comfortable, and for a moment all he can think about is the evening he spent sat with the boys around the computer in Harry's room reading on the internet about tucking, jaws hanging open and muttering,
"that is just not possible, there's no way," and Liam saying, "hang on, hang on a tic, I just have to see," running into the toilet, and a few moments later yelling,
"holy shit! Holy shit, how does that-- that is amazing, that is just--"
"Would you tell me something," Louis is saying now, "honestly?"
Niall's head jerks up and his hands slide into his pockets. His fingers brush against the Skittles, neglected and forgotten. "Sure."
"If you didn't know me right now," Louis says, gesturing to herself again, a once over. "Stranger on the street... d'you see a lad?" She stops herself worrying her bottom lip between her teeth and attempts a small, uncertain smile. Her lips are glossed, pinkish.
Niall thinks about it for a while, wants to answer as objectively as he can, because he knows Louis needs to pass as a woman out there, in the real world, and not just in this room or in this band. It's hard because it's Louis, and Louis's always had a look about her, from certain angles, almost feminine, pretty smile and everything. But now Niall can see the outline and gentle swell of her bra under her t-shirt, the softness of her belly beneath its hem and the low waist of her jeans, the slightest flare of a curve. He can barely see anymore what was once the sharp line of her jaw, the high jut of her cheekbones.
After a moment of Niall's silence, Louis starts jiggling a leg, obviously displeased with the lack of an immediate response. Her lip goes back into her mouth, a crease appearing between her eyebrows and her lips set into a hard line across her face. Her jaw muscles twitch, and Niall's struck by the sudden contrast, the almost aggressive masculinity of it. "No, that's not going to work," Niall says quickly, shaking his head. "You're gonna have to stop doing that, that thing you're doing with your mouth, that's--"
Louis straightens immediately as though she's been shocked, and her face goes neutral again. "Working on it," she says, relexively, nodding. She raises her eyebrows. "I'm working on it."
"It's good, you're doing good," Niall assures her, taking both of her hands in his. "Stranger on the street,” he shakes his head, “you're not a lad. No one's gonna think that. Not when you look like this."
He catches the barest flicker of a smile passing over her face in the moment before his phone buzzes from the nightstand, and he can hear Louis's ringtone go off from somewhere in her bag, and then they're cursing, scrambling to get to Liam's room before the others send someone after them.
They don't end up watching the movie anyway, with the rest of the boys interrogating Louis, twirling her and petting her hair, Harry trying to fit his hands in the span between her t-shirt and jeans. Niall simply grins through it all, and then snaps the back of her bra, hard, when she's not paying attention.
This is how it is for the rest of the tour: Louis and the boys have a concert, and take the giddy, adrenaline-fueled ride back to the hotel, where Louis shucks the Spanx undershirt she's taken to wearing for quick changes. She dresses as herself for a few hours, everyone hanging out in someone's room or the other until the lot of them are knackered and have to drag themselves off to bed.
It's less spontaneous than their past gatherings have been, where they tended to naturally gravitate into pairs or trios, or give themselves off-night space alone to keep from getting too cross with one another in too-cramped-accommodations, but five months into this leg of the tour Louis's changed so much already that the boys feel a bit like they need to get it out of their systems, do all the touching and questioning that they can.
Simon's set the official press release date for when they return home on hiatus, with the intent that Louis will join them as full-time female when they add more tour dates at the end of the year; time enough for Louis to publicly change her name and be fitted for a new wardrobe, for new photo shoots, time enough for them to wait out the media storm and assess the situation afterward.
But there's an awkwardness, too, now, because fans have started to notice and track the changes in Louis. #louistakeoffyourshirt is trending on Twitter, which is thankfully better than the #tommoscruff from a month earlier, but there's also rampant speculation about the causes of what fans think of as Louis's recent weight gain. Theories range from her binge eating due to not having enough solos on the new album, to her having a serious drinking problem, and every imaginable scenario in between. They hate worrying their fans, but then Liam stands over Louis in the consuite the last night of the tour with a grave expression on his face, beckoning at Louis where she's sat on the sofa, saying,
"All right, mate, give me the bottle. You've had enough,"
and Zayn can't help but shake his head and chuckle.
Louis clutches her beer to her chest. "Never," she gasps. "You can't make me!"
"Nope, this is an intervention," Liam soldiers on. "Look at yourself, look at how you've let yourself go." He waves his hand at her. "Your beer gut's turned into your arse, your arms have gone spindly, it's given you breasts; this is terrible."
"But," Louis says in a small voice, "I love alcohol and it loves me." She pouts, raises the bottle to her cheek and nuzzles it, which puts it in the perfect position for Zayn to pluck it from her fingers.
"Cheers," he says, winking, and jumps off the sofa and out of reach, when she yelps and lunges at him. A chase, then scuffle, ensues; Harry and Liam gleefully push furniture out of the way so that Zayn has fewer obstacles, Niall providing commentary in an RP accent and counting down each time someone successfully gets a pin, until Louis's slapping the ground, laughing, tears at the corners of her eyes.
Zayn finishes off the beer, fairly won in battle, flops over and tilts his head back on Louis' arm as they giggle it out, crossing himself to take her left hand in his right and tug at it fondly. They grin at each other and Louis pets Zayn's shoulder with her fingers lazily. When he turns his head to examine Louis's forearm, he's no longer alarmed by the smoothness there, the barest dusting of hair, but then he twists, lets go of her hand to tentatively squeeze her bicep. There's still some bulk there, muscle still firm, but it's been ages now, and Zayn's well aware the muscle loss isn't just because Louis's stopped working out with them at the gym. "Remember when you were so proud of your biceps," he says, taking her hand again. "When you couldn't stop touching them, or looking at them?"
Louis shoots him a smile. "I'm still proud of them," she says, though they both know she means it differently now.
"You could still come work out with us if you want, you know," he offers. "I mean, we could use the company, yeah?"
"Yeah," Liam says, sinking down on the ground next to them. "We miss you coming down the gym, having a laugh with you." Zayn just nods, because he does miss her; there aren't many things she won't do with the boys any longer, and he's not bothered as much that she won't lay out by the pool with Liam because he knows that's just until she can come out and wear a proper bathing suit and everything, but little things like the way they used to lift weights together... he misses those moments.
Louis nods as well. "I know," she says, stroking Zayn's wrist with the back of her index finger. "I'm just not sure if..." she tips her head one way, then the other. "If that's something I like, or if it's something I'm just used to, you know? I don't really know what kind of girl I am, just yet." She raises her eyebrows at him. "You usually get a few years to work that out for yourself."
"I understand," Zayn smiles back, and he does. She's been trying all sorts of things - outfits, accessories - and to him, to the other boys, they all look good, but Louis is frequently skeptical, saying,
"I'm not sure about this dress," or
"I will learn to walk in these heels if it fucking kills me,"
and he's seen her squinting at herself in various toilet mirrors dubiously, drying and re-wetting her hair and doing different things with her fringe that all look more or less the same to him in the end.
She's started tucking her hair back behind an ear on one side and he can see her part from here, the neat clean line of it; he wonders for a moment if it's still going to be all right to muss her hair up, to wriggle his fingers in it and make her spend the next five minutes trying to fix it like a cat whose fur got rubbed the wrong way.
"I'd like to think I'll continue enjoying sport," Louis goes on to say. "I still like football, don't I?" She sits up abruptly and crawls over Zayn and Liam, clambering back up onto the sofa. "Oh, oh-- oi, I could be Sporty Spice!" she announces to the room, grinning, and Harry nudges her from his spot on the sofa, smiling back. "Colours of the world!" Louis yells, pulling her arm free to pump a fist in the air.
"Spice up your life," Harry drawls, not missing a beat when it comes to Louis's thought processes.
"Every boy and every girl!"
"Spice up your life," Zayn murmurs, joining in.
"Okay, yeah, I'm on board with this, I like this," Louis says. "Where's my phone, I need this in my iTunes."
Zayn takes the opportunity to try out his theory, reaching up to push his fingers into her hair where her head is bowed, and drag his fingers across her part. She smacks him away absent-mindedly while she retrieves her phone, fussing about at smoothing her hair back down with one hand. He smirks at the top of her head.
Niall is bobbing his head as though the song is playing on, sings softly, "if you're having a good time," before falling back into muttering the lyrics to himself, and a moment later Louis has it all downloaded and turns it up loud for the rest of them to hear.
They barely know any more of the words than they've already sung, but Louis pulls Liam up to his feet to dance with him, and before long they're all standing, trying to sort out which of the remaining Spice Girls they each would be, Liam protesting, "Ginger Spice? Really? I'm Ginger Spice?"
"Can I get a band huddle, boys?" Louis shouts over the music, quickly patting her hair again, then draping her arms over Liam's and Niall's shoulders. She pulls them in to her. "Hello," she says, when their shoulders are all finally touching, and they all grin at each other for a moment. "Are we all right, lads?"
"Of course, you know that," Zayn says, mingling with a chorus of affirmative noises from the others.
Louis just nods, glancing at each of them. "Right," she says. "Well, you know I love you. I wouldn't be me without you, eh? I mean," she cringes, "really, really wouldn't be me without you."
She opens her mouth and pauses, closes it, looks like she wants to say something more, but can't. Niall tugs her closer until he can wrap his arm fully around her, prompting everyone else to close in. Harry's hair is in Zayn's ear and there's a hand on Zayn's arse but he doesn't know or care whose, and a snuffling sound comes from somewhere in the middle of the hug; he hears Louis's quiet mutter of "dammit, dammit, I told myself I wouldn't."
It's Louis who breaks them apart eventually, pushing at them until they reluctantly give way. She passes her hands over her face, and claps everyone within reach on the shoulder. "Good, good," she says, blowing out a gust of air, and as Zayn watches, the expression of vague uncertainty she's been wearing so much it's almost become a second skin gives way to a fond mischievousness that is unmistakably Louis.
Then she holds down the front of her skirt, yells "hi! Ci! Ja! Hold tight!" and places a well-aimed side kick into Liam's bollocks.