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Part One: long before we both thought the same thing

Chapter One: 9 July 2010 - 26 July 2010

9 July 2010

Harry Styles is sitting on the roof of his house contemplating the stars.

It’s 11:11 p.m. on the dot, and the world is quiet.

His mum would have a fit if she knew he was out here. After that time he fell off the roof trying to rescue an injured baby bird, she’s been terrified to let him get any higher than a few feet off the ground without being tethered to something or without following closely, ready to catch him if he falls.

“Can’t have my baby being hurt,” she always said, bopping Harry on the nose when he rolled his eyes.

(Gemma usually pretended to vomit at that display of sappiness, but she always was the more independent of the two of them. She doesn’t need Anne’s overwhelming affection to be happy, she just is. Happiness radiates from Gemma; Harry absorbs it.)

Harry tips his head back against the side of his house, the gentle sparkle of a starry night raining down on him. He’s always loved the stars. Cliché as it possibly could be, he likes that the heavens make him feel small. Galaxies and celestial bodies fly around in the air above him—how could his problems seem big compared to that? How could his tiny anxieties amount to anything? How could it be this hard, in the grand scheme of things, to pick one audition song?

The wind ruffles the pages of his journal; on the worn sheets are lines of carefully amassed text scribbled over several months of contemplation, and then crossed out and highlighted over and doodled around in the weeks following. Two full columns of songs he loves to choose from. He has preliminary X Factor auditions in fourteen hours. He should have chosen his song weeks ago, instead of pretending everything was taken care of and cheerfully ignoring it. He can’t breathe with the weight of his decision heavy on his shoulders. He can’t breathe with anxiety pressing in on his lungs. He can’t breathe.

Stars, look up at the stars. Miles upon miles away. Twinkling innocently and proof that there are bigger things in the universe than what song he’ll sing to the X Factor producers in less than twenty-four hours, even though they’re the same producers who could potentially pass him on to Simon Cowell and a chance at fame. The stars will keep shining even if he chooses the wrong song and performs it terribly and doesn’t even get a chance to perform on camera. They’ll also keep on twinkling if he doesn’t pick a song at all, and instead just screams at the producers in terror when it's his turn until he’s escorted out.

Harry looks back down to his journal in his lap, a gift to himself with his first week’s wages at the bakery. It’s usually full of scribbled sort-of poetry and doodles, but now it’s open to the well-thumbed list of songs that is currently the bane of Harry’s existence. He uncaps his pen and crosses off a song by The Script and a couple of Elton hits that were put on the list more for sentimentality than anything else. He narrows his eyes and runs through a few choruses under his breath to ensure he still remembers all of the lyrics, striking through more and more song titles as he sings his way down the list. He scratches off a Rihanna song because he’s not sure he could do it justice and a Bryan Adams song because he can’t remember the words. After a few more minutes of progress, he’s down to only a couple of options.

His eyes flit back to three words toward the top of the potential song list, traced over with careful green highlighter ink. Isn’t She Lovely is an official Styles Family Staple, a favorite when he and Gemma dance around the kitchen and sing and joke to keep their mum company while she cooks dinner every night.

It’s more than that, though: Isn’t She Lovely makes him think of a pastel-tinted future: a baby girl in his arms and a (for the time being) nameless, faceless partner with their arm wrapped around Harry’s waist. A Marker on his skin, though he can’t even begin to guess at the pattern it will someday take. A soulmate in his life. A family being built.

It’s 11:11 p.m., and Harry Styles is sixteen years old. He wants fame, yes, he wants recognition for his talent. He wants to make people happy and to bring strangers closer together. He wants to make a change in the world, even if it's only in the worlds of a few people. But, more than anything else, he wants love. He wants a Bond that withstands the test of time, a soulmate who loves him even at his absolute worst—when his skin is all broken out and his hair is greasy and he's cranky from lack of sleep. He wants someone to pour his affection into, to rebound his love back to him tenfold. And he wants it now.

He makes a wish on all the stars in the sky that he'll soon find his soulmate and begin his happily ever after. He doesn’t care that he’s not legally old enough to vote or volunteer for war or to drink, he’s old enough to know he’s ready to fall in love.

Pinpricks of light shine in the inky darkness of the sky, and Harry Styles sings Stevie Wonder into the sleepy silence.

...

No one has ever really confirmed exactly what it is that causes soulmates to Bond.

It’s chemical, biologists have claimed for centuries. Chemicals in the brain alert someone to their best possible chance of having healthy offspring and continuing the species. It’s an evolutionary advantage.

But, came the psychologists and philosophers not too long after that, how does that explain non-heterosexual soulmates? How are infertile adults able to Bond? Or, in rare cases, couples that Bond before puberty? These instances are less common than heterosexual adult soulmates, but they do happen. None of these create the greatest potential for the procreation of healthy children, and, in fact, each of these would suggest something deeper than pure chemical reactions to the proximity of potential offspring bearers.

Thousands upon thousands of scholars and scientists throughout recorded history have thrown their ideas into the ring. Shared ancestry, blood type, similar diet, potential for reincarnation, scent—you name it, and its effects on soulmates have probably been tested, recorded, and published in androgynology journals. Entire religions and cultural institutions have risen and fallen based on contemporary ideas of what causes Bonding. Some of the latest theories involve geography: in a world of seven billion people, how is it possible that so many people find their soulmates if relative distance is not a factor? Others have began studying the potential for multiple soulmates for a single person, examining the validity of Bonded polyamorous couples.

What is known is this: when a person hears their soulmate speak their full name for the first time, an identifier called a Marker will appear immediately on their body. Markers typically appear as images beneath the top layers of skin, almost identical to tattoos. However, other types of Markers have been recorded: places on the body emitting light, or heat, or sound; hair or eye color changing permanently; even entire limbs or appendages changing color (one famous case included a couple whose hands both turned bright gold, earning them the couple nickname of Midas). Some teenagers that Bond early in their adolescence have been reported to go through immediate growth spurts or voice changes as well. These identifiers are typically considered to be symbolic of your soulmate, like a constant reminder of them inked onto your skin.

Markers do not fade, but can change over time or in specific instances; old folklore from multiple cultures claims that Bonded pairs are not blessed by God until they touch each other’s Markers and see the full effects, though that claim has never been substantiated. On a less romantic note, there have been thousands of recorded cases of Markers changing after a soulmate dies or is found being unfaithful, the most common effect being the Marker turning completely black.

Upon Bonding, couples hold a Bonding ceremony with friends and family, though Bonding ceremony customs and traditions vary from culture to culture. Bonding registration and documentation in most developed countries entitles the couple to medical and legal rights, share of household wealth, and tax benefits. Though legally contracted Bonds and childbirth are possible between two Unbonded people, it’s highly unusual and, in some societies, frowned upon. Since Bonding is triggered by a person’s full name being spoken, most people choose not to reveal their last names to friends or significant others until the relationship is deemed serious enough to consider the possibility of Bonding. Many religions prohibit sex outside of Bonds.

The music and film industries have created trillion-dollar genres based around soulmates. Schoolchildren dream of finding their perfect mates and planning their ideal Bonding ceremonies. The Bonding ceremony industry itself rakes in billions each year off overpriced desserts, dresses and tuxedos, flowers, and honeymoon packages.

To find one’s soulmate is to find one’s other half; or, at least, this is the message spread by priests and reverends, by parents of little girls and boys, by Hollywood, by the seamstress convincing people to buy her expensive, one-of-a-kind Bonding ceremony gown. Without a Bond, the world has decided, a person cannot be whole.

No one discusses the dark side of Bonding. How some soulmates never meet. How some soulmates do meet, but never Bond because one half of the Bonded pair dies or never speaks the other’s full name in their soulmate's presence. How some people only half-Bond, where one person’s Marker appears and the other person’s does not, leaving the Bonded person in a state of limbo and unrequited love, their soulmate meant to be with someone else. How countless Bonds have been found to have been faked for political or financial reasons. How being Bonded doesn’t stop men and women from cheating or running away or deciding that being Bonded is too much responsibility.

Bonding may be what the majority of people look forward to most in life. But for those who have seen Bonding’s damaging effects, it’s a nightmare waiting to happen.

...

10 July 2010

There is nothing more ridiculous than the posturing that goes on in a group of entertainers trying to get on TV.

Louis can handle it the first time the camera crew swings through and the people around him crowd him out to shove their ugly mugs into the lens. Even the second time, it’s fine. Whatever. The third time, however, he grits his teeth and elbows back when he’s shoved out of the way. He can make a fair amount of noise when he feels like it, sure, but he can’t compete with a crowd made up entirely of people taller and older and so much louder than him. Instead he moves back, reaching out to run his thumb over the black silhouette of a butterfly on his mother’s wrist.

It’s an age-old balm to Louis’ irritated nerves. Since he was small, just a baby really, he’d sit on his mum’s lap and stroke the shape on her inner wrist when he was bored or upset. As he’d gotten older and realized what that shape was, what it meant, he probably should have stopped. But he never did—maybe because he’s a little selfish, or maybe because he wants to make the butterfly Marker mean something good for his mum rather than bad. Mostly because it’s familiar, like someone cracking knuckles when they’re nervous or clearing their throat before speaking in front of a crowd.

There’s a girl being interviewed just a few feet away, perched on a stool in the middle of the waiting, judging crowd. Her motions are exaggerated, her eyes wide in theatrical excitement in a way that is reminiscent of the drama club Louis was in back when he was still in school. He’d heard her sing for a different camera crew earlier, and she’s not bad. She’s also utterly unremarkable, just like everyone else except for the blue wave that seems painted onto her shoulderblade, rippling every time she moves her arm. A corresponding yellow sun is bright against the tan skin of the man standing proudly next to her, both of them wearing sleeveless shirts to make sure their Markers are visible. This interview will probably be aired when the show starts; everyone loves a good soulmate support story. Louis watches the two of them until the line moves, just a little, and the interviewer catches Louis’ eye and waves him forward. She flashes Louis a brief smile and consults her clipboard as he settles into place on the stool, his mum behind him and Stan and Hannah holding their place in line.

“Hello, Louis. A few quick questions and we’ll be out of your hair.”

She rattles off a rapid series of inquiries: his age, his influences, what brought him here today, who he’d brought with him. He stumbles through a few answers, feeling utterly unprepared.

“Erm, I’m eighteen. I don’t really know my influences? Like, I guess whatever’s on the radio.” His voice shakes and he looks to the interviewer for support, though her terse nod is anything but reassuring. “That’s my friend Hannah and my other mate Stan over there, and this is my mum, Jay.”

The cameraman pans slightly to catch his mum in frame, and immediately zooms in on her butterfly wrist. She automatically links her arm through Louis’ and steps closer, smiling.

“Hello,” the interviewer says again. “Is your Bondmate here today? We could get a nice shot of the family before we head to our next contestant.” Louis feels his stomach drop, and his mum’s smile turns tight.

“No, he’s not around. Sorry.”

The interviewer’s eyes widen infinitesimally and after a stilted apology, Louis is told he can get back in line. Louis sighs, because now his mum will be all anxious and there’s no way his couple of sentences are interesting enough to end up on the air. He watches as they move to the next boy in line, tall and skinny with Justin Bieber hair and a self-confident handshake. His answers are long and well-articulated, just shaky enough that he seems confident but excited; his smiles are wide and sincere and make his eyes crinkle in delight. The camera loves him. The interviewer even laughs at one of his jokes.

The Bieber wannabe moves back to the line after a few more minutes, and Louis, for a lack of anything better to do, keeps watching as an older woman with thick white hair is interviewed, then a girl in her mid-twenties. He’s just looking away when a bright laugh catches his ear, the curve of a dimpled grin and a head of curly chocolate locks. The line shifts forward again and Louis loses sight of the interview station and the person being interviewed, and he shakes his head to clear the sound of a loud, throaty laugh.

Next to Louis, his mother is still muttering about invasive questions. “The nerve,” she says, rubbing absently at her wrist, and Louis thanks every star in the sky when Stan does his best friend duty and sweeps Jay away to find some water and walk off some steam.

There’s hours to go until he even gets to audition, and at this point Louis can’t wait until it’s over.

...

Harry is in awe. The X Factor backstage… it’s just so cool. There are people everywhere, bustling about with their earpieces and paperwork and slightly manic looks on their faces. Camera cords trail along the ground as nervous contestants tremble their way through more interviews. It’s sweaty and hot and a little grimy but it’s fantastic, the edgy energy of lots of loud, talented people trapped in a large room together with no outlet for their energy. It’s the greatest thing Harry’s ever been a part of.

He’s tapping his toes and watching as his name and contestant number get closer and closer to the top of the performance list, which is displayed on a couple of screens at the northernmost end of the room. He twiddles his thumbs, jokes with Gemma and his best friend Jonny, endures his mum’s fussing and playing with his hair. He makes conversation with everyone around as the crowd shifts and moves, striking up a hilarious joke contest with a loud blonde girl a few years older than him and drinking in buckets of advice from a fifty-year-old opera singer. He paces in tight circles and gives multiple interviews to different cameramen and waits and waits and waits some more.

But minutes turn to hours, waiting turns to worrying, and the adrenaline drowns the happy butterflies in his stomach and replaces them with upset bees.

“Bathroom!” he announces loudly when the buzzing in his veins starts to drown out the noise around him. He slides through the crowd and follows some signs to a back hallway bathroom. When he steps inside, the sweet bliss of silence is soothing to his poor ears. He leans back against the door, just trying to breathe as deeply as he can while he has a moment to himself.

It happens quickly: in the space of a few heavenly silent seconds, Harry somehow finds himself clinging to the sinks, legs akimbo against the tiled floor. The back of his head is bursting with pain, his vision exploding in yellow and black. The only thought bouncing in his head is the one that tells him choosing a door as a resting place was probably a mistake.

“Oops,” he giggles to himself dazedly, vision swimming.

“Hi?” someone asks, presumably the one that bashed his skull in with the back of the bathroom door. Apparently they piece the scene together, because they suddenly let out a panicked yelp. “Oh, shit! I’m so sorry, mate!”

“Uh… it’s. It’s fine.” Harry says. The bathroom lights are very, very bright. And also maybe stabbing him through his eyelids. But really, everything’s fine.

“It is not fine!” the panicked voice shrieks. Whoever it is that kind of assaulted him with a door is extremely loud. “You’re talking really slowly, I think I gave you brain damage!”

Harry frowns. “I always talk like this.”

There’s a moment of silence, then an embarrassed giggle.

“Oh my God.”

Harry blinks again to clear his vision, and finds that he’s nose-to-nose with a very tan, very blue-eyed stranger. It seems highly unfair that Harry's face is basically pressed up against the face of the most attractive boy he’s ever met, and that this fantastic turn of events could only occur while he's kneeling in pain on a bathroom floor and completely unable to enjoy the experience. He grins dopily, the boy grins back, and then their laughter is echoing off the bathroom walls.

“Honestly,” the boy says, offering a hand and helping Harry to his feet, “you shouldn’t just loiter in doorways. It’s going to cause you actual brain damage some day.”

“And then I’ll talk even slower,” Harry says, and feels his lips tug up when the boy laughs delightedly.

“Exactly.” He turns to a urinal but doesn’t move to use it, just staring into the white porcelain like he expects it to do a trick. Harry raises a single eyebrow when the boy looks his way, and all he gets is a shrug in response. “Told my mum I had to wee, but I think I actually just needed to get away from her.”

“Ah, right. Parental escapism is why I’m here as well,” Harry says, nodding. He leans against the nearest stall. “It’s just so-”

“Loud,” the boy finishes for him, and Harry laughs weakly.

“Yeah. And-”

“Scary.”

“Terrifying.”

“Definitely.”

It’s quiet, the both of them grinning down at the floor. Harry scuffs the toe of his boot along the tile grout.

“I heard you practicing, out in the main room,” the boy says suddenly, thumbing over his shoulder. “You’re really good, you’re for sure getting through to the next round.” Harry feels his face flush.

“Oh, thanks!” he says breathlessly, and then automatically coughs because wow, Styles, be cool. “I really hope so, it’s a great opportunity.”

“Yeah, you’re something special,” the boy says, nodding decisively. “You’re gonna go far, kid.”

Harry laughs again. The sound echoes back to him as a shrill cackle off the tiled walls, because Harry is about as cool as a whistling tea kettle. But, “The Offspring?”

“Dance, fucker, dance,” the boy agrees solemnly, and Harry doesn’t care that his laugh is too loud, because this may be the funniest person he’s ever met. It helps when he gets a sunny smile in return. “Let’s take a picture!”

“Here?” Harry asks, gesturing at the bland bathroom wall behind him.

“Sure, why not? Someday I’m gonna need proof I met the biggest star in the world in a backstage bathroom. And I can use it as blackmail when you’re rich so you can buy me things.”

Harry laughs again and they pose for increasingly silly pictures for the next few minutes, ending with one where the blue-eyed stranger is licking his dimple and Harry is rolling his eyes in exaggerated bliss.

There’s a knock at the door and a harried-looking man with a badge and a clipboard leans his head into the bathroom. “Harry Styles?” he asks, glasses slightly askew.

Harry jumps a little—he’s never heard his last name used so casually up until today, mostly because he’s told very few people what it actually is. This isn’t the real world, though, it’s show business, and every person affiliated with the show who’s spoken with him so far has used his last name. It’s usually a small thrill, hearing someone else say his full name for the first time. It doesn’t happen often, but it always sends as shiver zipping through his limbs when it happens to him, typically wiping his mind clean of whatever it was he was about to say, and what he just heard, and everything else, really. It’s not quite as exciting when the fourth assistant in a row uses it like it’s no big deal, though.

“That’s me,” he answers.

“You’re on next, your family is at the front of the line.”

Harry gulps, the calm serenity brought upon him by his bathroom trip fleeing right along with the breath in his lungs. “Great,” he says eventually, but the man is already long gone. He fixes his fringe in the mirror, and turns to face the other boy, who automatically sticks out his hand.

“It was nice to meet you. Good luck…”

“Harry Styles,” he says, shaking the the boy’s hand and feeling more mature than he ever has before. His full name sounds strange rolling out of his mouth, but he has the strangest feeling that the sunshiney boy next to him should hear it. “Thanks.”

“Louis Tomlinson,” the boy says in return, along with a grin. There's a loud noise outside the door, so Harry nearly misses it when Louis says, “And you’re very welcome, Harold Styles.”

Harry’s brain goes blank for just a moment, an echo of Louis’ pretty voice wrapping around his last name filling all the space in his brain; it’s not very exciting when random assistants say it, but Harry likes the way Styles sounds as it drops off of Louis’ tongue.

He does feel a tiny swoop of disappointment, though, when he realizes that Louis said his last name and nothing wildly dramatic happened like a Marker appearing on his skin. And he called him Harold, which was weird. But, before he can contemplate that line of thought any further, the assistant returns to pull him away from the nicest person Harry has ever met in a bathroom.

...

The door swings shut and Louis collapses against it, forgetting all the advice he’d just given Harry about lingering in doorways and potential brain damage, feeling as though his heart will completely beat through his chest and fall to the grimy floor. He hasn’t said anyone’s full name in years, not since he and Stan had whispered each others’ out loud a few years back and winced in anticipation of potentially Bonding. He doesn’t know who was more relieved at the lack of Markers appearing, him or Stan.

Not that he doesn’t love Stan, he does. It would just be a little like being Bonded to his brother, so he’s happy just to have him as a friend.

But apparently Louis just goes around telling random kids his full name in bathrooms now, decorum and self-restraint be damned. And he said the guy’s name in return! Sure, the guy was cute in a dimpled, baby-faced charmer kind of way, and sure, he has the voice of a gravel-throated angel and is probably going to win this entire competition, but still. It doesn’t matter that Louis had the fleeting thought of I don’t think I’d mind being Bonded to him because he’s not, he said Harry’s name and nothing happened and that’s it, he’s officially the rudest person ever and he didn’t even get a soulmate out of the ordeal.

Louis shakes away all lingering thoughts of wide smiles and curly hair and makes his way back to his little cheering section. His mother is standing on tiptoe, presumably searching for him above the crowd. When she catches sight of him, she waves frantically.

“Louis, love, you’re almost next!” she exclaims, and Louis glances up at the list of performers blinking on the screen nearest the stage. Sure enough, right under 165998 - Harry is 155204 - Louis. He feels his knees lock up in pure, unfiltered fear, and he coughs at the feeling of something trying to crawl its way up his throat.

“Right,” he croaks. The same assistant that had barged into the bathroom to collect Harry finds their group and pulls them forward, away from the crowds “backstage” and to the actual backstage, just behind the curtain. Louis does another quick interview next to his mum and his mates, and then everyone except him is hustled to another location to be recorded for reactions as they watch him perform.

Louis grips his microphone tight in his hand, but he may as well be holding a bar of soap with how sweaty his palms are. It’s just him and his thoughts and a screen beside him, showing the empty stage. A few dozen feet in front of him is the assistant and, he assumes, Harry, but the stage lights are too bright to see anything but his silhouette, his curly hair his only identifier. There must be some kind of signal, because the assistant pushes Harry forward and suddenly he’s there on the screen next to Louis, stumbling onto the stage.

Louis can’t help his grin as he watches the boy field questions from the judges.

“Erm. I… work in a bakery,” he says at one point, and Louis giggles into his palm at Harry’s slow syllables, as though each word is weighed for its true worth before he says it. Louis thinks it’s adorable.

The crowd laughs at the cute boy on stage, and Harry seems to settle a bit. His grin is the slightest bit brighter when Louis Walsh asks him who he sings for.

“What, like my inspirations?” Harry drawls, half his mouth quirked in a small grin. “Well, there’s my mum and my sister, they’re both here with me.”

The judges smile politely, and Louis can see Harry casting his mind around for something interesting to add.

“I also have a biggest fan, we just met backstage,” Harry says, and Louis feels his stomach flip. Oh, Christ, Harry’s going to tell everyone how embarrassing Louis was backstage and then he’ll have to immediately follow him out there. That’s, God, that’s mortifying. He’s eighteen, he’s not supposed to be swooning over sixteen-year-olds with dimples and baby fat. Especially sixteen-year-olds who are decidedly not his soulmate.

“A biggest fan, already?” Simon asks, smirking, and the crowd titters. Harry nods delightedly.

“Yes, he’s another contestant. We met in the loo.”

“And who is this biggest fan?”

Louis puts both hands over his face, blushing so hard he feels like even his palms are hot with embarrassment.

“His name is Louis Tomlinson.”

Louis’ left arm burns as though it’s been touched with a hot poker. It hurts, fuck, it hurts so bad he has to double over to catch his breath. The heat blooms outward from a thin line up the front of his forearm, and Louis pushes his fist against his mouth to keep from screaming. His microphone drops to the floor, entirely forgotten. He shoves his sleeve up to try and figure out what the hell is going on—

And stops dead when he sees the black edge of something on his forearm. Something that definitely wasn’t there when he got dressed this morning.

No, Christ, no.

Not here, not now.

Not him.

Louis needs his mum. Immediately. He tries to rush around the corner to the viewing area but a hand stops him. The assistant looks him over with kind eyes.

“Nervous?” he asks, and Louis shakes his head frantically but it doesn’t matter, the guy is much bigger than him and has no problem dragging Louis back up to his spot and his abandoned mic. “Don’t worry, it happens to everyone. It’s only a few minutes, and the whole thing’s done.” He smiles, but Louis can’t return it. He accepts the microphone again automatically, his arm moving independently of his brain.

“I-” he starts, but then clamps his teeth together. He can’t tell this random stranger what just happened, not before he’s even told his mum. And definitely not before he’s even sure what actually happened.

Maybe it’s a fluke. Maybe Louis got a- got a cramp, or got stung by a bug, or scratched himself, it could have been anything, really, and maybe he just imagined seeing something black on his arm. He slowly pushes his sleeve up again, hiding it from the view of the assistant and the backstage cameras. About six inches above his wrist he stops, because he hadn’t imagined it. There it is, the edge of some kind of image, big enough that he can’t see the entire design without pushing his sleeve up any higher.

Oh, God, he’s been Marked. It’s real. It actually happened.

And his soulmate, the goofiest, prettiest kid he’s ever met, isn’t Bonded back to him.

Harry is still on stage, and it can’t have been more than a few seconds since Louis’ entire world was turned upside down because his singing is just beginning to reverberate through the room. He’s good, his version of Isn’t She Lovely scratchy and youthful but clearly performed with loads of talent, and he’ll go through to the next round, no problem.

Louis suddenly feels like his wrists have been tied to two cars that both take off in opposite directions: he wants to both get through to the next round alongside Harry and to be sent home to never see Harry ever again.

Harry finishes his allotted minute of singing, and the judges are all smiles. Louis Walsh does his customary bit of disagreement over Harry’s experience. When the crowd boos, Harry adds a tiny little rebellious “boo” of his own and the entire room falls a little bit more in love with him. Louis included, against his very stubborn will.

He’s dying a little, like he's been given a thousand papercuts that are going to bleed him out but take decades to do it. It hurts, and even though he’ll live for now, it’s lethal all the same.

Louis Walsh says no, but Simon and the guest judge say yes. Harry Styles is through to the next round. He beams and waves and leaves the stage, and suddenly it’s Louis’ turn.

The walk across the stage takes approximately a thousand years, and Louis is winded with terror by the time he reaches the X marking the middle. He can’t hear anything over the pounding of his pulse reverberating against his eardrums. He pivots to face the judges, the darkened faces of the crowd, and cameras that are recording his every move for anything interesting to broadcast to the nation.

His arm still burns, so he he tugs at his sleeve.

(He's hiding his Marker. It’s been three minutes since he Bonded to a relative stranger who didn’t Bond back. He still isn’t okay.)

“Hello,” he says, and he prays a fervent thanks for drama classes that ingrained facial control into his life. His voice only shakes a little. “I’m Louis.”

The crowd puts two and two together and giggles break out, and the sound is so much louder out here that Louis immediately starts sweating.

“Ah, our famous superfan,” Simon says, and Louis tries to shrug. Nonchalance is far beyond his reach at this point, but he can aim for honest.

“He’s good, you can’t blame me.”

“No, we can’t,” the guest judge, Nicole, smiles. “Tell us about yourself, Louis.”

“Okay, well, I’m eighteen, from Doncaster.”

“And your family?”

“My mum is here backstage, and I have four little sisters.”

No one asks the follow-up question, and so the whereabouts of his dad remain undisclosed. But the crowd shifts restlessly, as though the mention of an Unbonded mother is making them uncomfortable. Instead of the hot flash of anger Louis would normally feel on his mum’s behalf, he just feels empty. That’s his life, now. He’s Unbonded too.

Well, half-Bonded, if he wants to get technical about it. He doesn’t.

Emptiness that he’d barely held back while he waited behind the curtain makes a break past his defences, seeping into his bones and weighing him down like stones in his pockets. He’s drowning and there’s not even any water in sight.

He can’t talk anymore, just nodding when the judges tell him to go ahead. He’s being recorded for national television, he’s in a room with three celebrities, thousands of audience members, and a whole horde of people backstage watching his every move for weaknesses. He can’t say anything, he can’t scream, he can’t cry.

So he sings.

His first line is shaky, and he fears that his aching ribs won’t let him get through this with any sort of dignity. But then the weight in his chest breaks through his ribs and leaks out through his voice. Louis sings Hey There Delilah and it’s no longer about hope for a future with a pretty girl, but instead about lost love, and wearying unhappiness, and crushing inevitability. Tears prick at his eyes as he sings it’s what you do to me and he hopes, just a little, that his own little heartbreaker is watching Louis drown onstage.

Somehow, miraculously, he makes it to the end of the song. He tries to smile, tries to listen for his fate, but he can’t really hear what anyone’s saying over the rushing of blood in his ears. He nods when the judges look like they’ve said something serious, and smiles when they smile. He hears only three words:

Yes. Yes. Yes.

He’s going to bootcamp.

...

Part of the backstage area is cordoned off specifically for those who have been voted through to the next round. There are several crews around to do even more interviews, and bottles of water and snacks. There’s also a large screen set up so they can watch the other contestants, and this is what Harry makes a beeline for as soon as he’s hugged his mum and sister and jumped up and down just a little to celebrate getting through.

Louis is there on screen already, standing center stage with his nice flippy hair and shiny blue eyes and… well. That’s about all there is in common with the charming, bouncy Louis he met in the bathroom and the Louis out on stage now.

Harry feels a twinge in his gut for his new friend. He looks utterly lost, eyes caught in the mid-distance and dazed, hands shaking so hard his microphone makes little noises each time it scrapes his shirt. Maybe he’s just nervous, but it looks so much worse than a bit of nerves.

The first thing Louis says, though, is that Harry is good. And yeah, Harry is pretty proud of his voice, but Louis says he can’t be blamed for being a fan and Harry feels a bit like he’s swallowed a star. Gemma elbows him hard and sends him an evil smile.

“Someone’s got a cruuuuush,” she sings, and Harry doesn’t pull his eyes away from the screen when he flips her off. She huffs, and their mother tuts, but he’s too busy to notice.

Louis starts singing, and Harry winces a little at the first missed note. But something happens after that, a switch is flipped, and suddenly the emotion in Louis’ voice is dialled up to eleven and each word is heartbreaking, gut wrenching. Harry’s always been a bit sensitive to the emotions of others, and tears gather in his eyelashes before he even realizes it. He’s not alone, though; nearly everyone paying attention backstage is in the same state, and cameras in the audience catch several people wiping wet streaks from their faces.

The song ends, and the judges seem stunned.

“Wow, Louis, that was…” Nicole starts, but the crowd stands and cheers over the end of her sentence. Harry beams, happy for his friend—he got a standing ovation at auditions, that’s amazing—but Louis seems unmoved. His eyes are resting somewhere just above the judges’ table and his smile is slightly vacant. He keeps tugging on his left sleeve.

“That was breathtaking. Your emotion was on point, I really felt it,” Nicole continues. “You should be very proud of your voice.”

Louis keeps on smiling, and nods.

Louis Walsh leans forward. “Louis, I wasn’t sold at first. You had a rocky start there, and I was about to make the same argument about you that I made about Harry that went before you, that you weren’t ready.” Boos flood the air around him, and he waves them away. “But, but, by the end of the song you changed my mind. You have some talent, and you’re clearly here to win.” Louis nods again, but stays silent.

Next is Simon. “Louis, I like you. You need a little vocal coaching and we need to do something about those nerves, but once you hit your stride you stayed with it. Work on getting comfortable, work on holding your notes, and you’ll go far.”

They vote, and unanimously send him through. Harry cheers, high fives his mum, and turns back to the screen to see Louis nod once more and say a tiny “thank you” into the mic.

Harry, feeling fizzy with excitement for himself and his new friend, jumps the rope and skips backstage. Louis is just reaching the end of the stage, and Harry watches him drop the mic with a low thud and immediately bury his face in the shoulder of a woman who Harry can only assume is his mum. Two other people stand nearby, looking confused.

Harry creeps forward, suddenly unsure of his welcome and feeling like he’s intruding.

“Louis?” he ventures, his voice small. Louis’ back stiffens.

“Hey, Harry,” he says, voice cheerful and yet somehow wrong. He lifts his face from his mum’s neck and his eyes are red and puffy.

“Congrats?” Harry hadn't meant to make it a question, but it seems appropriate now with Louis looking like he’d just been given the worst news of his life, not three yeses after a standing ovation from his first ever X Factor performance.

“Thanks, man. You too, congrats.”

“Thanks.”

It’s awkward. Harry shifts from foot to foot, feeling incredibly out of his depth. Louis is looking everywhere but at Harry. Whoever followed Louis out on stage has begun belting out Celine Dion and the sound of it floats between them in the air like choking dust.

Near, far, wherever you are

Louis finally breaks the silence. “Right, erm. We- we have to go.”

Harry snaps his eyes up, a little hurt.

“You aren’t staying? There’s an afterparty for everyone that got through today.”

Once more, you open the door

“I know, I just. Can’t.”

“But-”

“Sorry, Harry.”

And my heart will go on and on

Louis is still wrapped up in his mum’s arms and his eyes are still glassy and Harry’s insides still ache because this should be a happy moment, right? It’s a good thing. Louis and his group are making their way past him and he cannot take it, it’s not fair that his new friend is sad on such a good day, so he jogs forward and catches the back of Louis’ shirt.

“Louis, can I get your phone number?” Louis turns around slowly, his eyes wide and red. “Please? Since, you know, we’ll be at bootcamp. Together. I mean, not together. Because technically we’re competing against each other? But I still want to be friends.” Harry feels the flush of embarrassment, but keeps going. “And I can be your biggest fan too, since you’re mine. I mean. Sorry.”

Love can touch us one time
And last for a lifetime

“I… yeah. Um. Sure.”

“Really?” Harry squeaks, feeling a smile breaking across his face. Louis doesn’t smile back, but there’s a bit of an answering twitch at the corner of his mouth.

“Yeah, course. Here, lemme see your phone.”

Harry doesn’t know what happened in the twenty minutes between he and Louis taking selfies in the bathroom and him turning into this, this quiet boy whose hands tremble when they brush Harry’s and whose quiet sniffles can still be heard over the Titanic theme being belted onstage. Harry doesn’t know what it was, and Louis doesn’t say, but they’re exchanging numbers and Harry feels a little bubble of hope that bootcamp might be fun with someone he knows by his side.

He watches Louis walk away when they’re done, nearly propped up between his mum and the boy who’d introduced himself as Stan. As Harry watches them leave, he inexplicably feels a little like he’s watching a good percentage of his internal organs walking away from him.

And in the background, Celine’s signature song is being warbled into the rafters.

Near, far, wherever you are
I believe that the heart does go on

...

14 July 2010

The thing about being half-Bonded to someone, Louis discovers, is that the majority of your time is spent hating that other person for doing this to you. It’s not a front-of-the-mind thing, more like a rock in your shoe: it kills at first, but eventually the pain fades to the background. It hurts, that realization that you’re not the perfect match for your own perfect match. You hate them for making you re-examine everything you thought you knew about yourself. You hate them for dredging up every insecurity and hidden fear. You hate them; Louis hates Harry, but at the same time he really, actually doesn’t. Beyond the logic that implies that Harry did not force Louis to Bond with him, Louis just cannot find it in him to hate the friendliest, sweetest human on the planet.

Because, Louis has also discovered, that is who he is Bonded to. His soulmate is a boy who apologizes when it rains because rain seems to make people unhappy, although he personally believes it feels like the world is having a nice cool shower. Harry texts Louis pictures of a range of baby animals, from cats to dogs to elephants to rabbits, because he isn’t sure which is Louis’ favorite and he wants to cover all his bases. Harry Motherfucking-Ray-Of-Sunshine Styles adds a kiss to the end of every text and doesn’t seem to have let Louis’ lack of replies to any of his fifty-seven messages dampen his spirits or enthusiasm.

Another one buzzes an alert to Louis’ phone as he contemplates life and irony and his complete lack of good luck.

(10:34 a.m.) Harry: Good morning! x

Louis sighs, hates Harry for a few seconds, feels bad about it and takes it back, and rolls over. It’s past time for him to get up, anyway, and at this point he’s just putting off the inevitable.

He has three items on his to-do list for today, and as it’s been four days since he returned home from auditions he can’t really make any excuses to hide in his room any longer. His sisters seem to think he’s contracted some sort of contagious disease (Variations of “Lottie told me you have measles but that’s not a real thing, right Lou? Measles aren’t real, right?” have been shouted through his bedroom door multiple times) and Louis still hasn’t answered any of Stan’s calls or well-meant texts. He also hasn’t showered in three days and has only eaten whatever his mum leaves on his nightstand while he pretends to be asleep. He’s pretty sure it’s been a full day since he even bothered to get out of bed, which is an issue.

He still hasn’t looked at the Marker on his arm.

The thing is, Louis had spent the drive home from auditions and the first night back home in Doncaster being horribly, terribly upset at a large number of people and things: himself, Harry, X Factor itself for forcing them into a room together, Simon Cowell for creating the damn show, the French just because he felt like it, and, lastly, whatever deity decided it was a good idea to link people together through highly noticeable tattoo-like Markers that appear instantaneously (and painfully, though no one ever saw fit to warn others about that part) on their skin. That first very long night was spent analyzing every conceivable flaw Louis could find inside himself that wouldn’t allow his soul or conscience or chemicals or whatever to align with Harry’s and cause him to Bond to Louis in return. After that horrible self-reflection period he moved on to mourning, soaking his pillow through with tears until he had to flip it just to find a dry spot to cry some more.

Louis had used the next day to go over his options, and while it really wasn’t much of a decision, he wanted to take his time thoroughly examining each possibility. Essentially, he could either not return to X Factor and head to uni in a few weeks for the fall term (never really an option, as school is the worst and Louis really, really wants to be famous), he could call/text/smoke signal/send a carrier pigeon to Harry and let him know the situation and get his input (again, no. What hell would be worse than telling the happiest kid on the planet that he ruined your life by not being your soulmate?), or he could go to bootcamp, pretend nothing strange happened and the post-audition breakdown was all due to nerves, and that the Marker was actually a tattoo he’d had all along.

It absolutely sucks, but the choice is obvious.

With that done and dusted, he came up with his checklist, which brings us to today.

1. Actually look at the Marker on his arm, seeing as how it will never go away and he has to pretend he’s not only familiar with it, but that he’d went and had it tattooed onto him on purpose.
2. Tell his sisters he isn’t dying of some as-of-yet unidentified illness, and then also tell them he’s half-Bonded to someone they’ve never met and probably never will meet, at least as long as he gets a say.
3. Have a bit of a cry with his mum.
4. Gather up and pack all his long-sleeved shirts, because he’s going to pretend his Marker is a tattoo and practice that backstory until it seems natural, but getting away with not talking about it at all would be even better.

So yeah, busy day. He’ll also probably bathe at some point.

The first item on the list is the easiest and also the hardest. Louis doesn’t want to know what the physical representation of Harry Styles is where it’s appeared under the veneer of his skin. He doesn’t want a symbol of unrequited love so blatantly on his arm; he never wanted a soulmate to begin with. Never wanted to be Bonded. Never wanted anything except maybe to perform in front of people and have some fun with some mates. But that hope has been flung out the window and here he is, Bonded, Marked, and wearing three-day-old Depression Sweatpants.

Louis scoffs at his own thought process: drama runs deep in the Tomlinson veins, but even this is too much. He needs to man the fuck up and just do it. Louis sits up (dislodging days worth of crumbs and dirty socks and all manner of other unpleasant things) and strips off his sweater, allowing himself one deep breath to steel himself.

It’s a dagger.

The majority of Louis’s brain freezes immediately at the unfamiliar new addition to his body. It looks like a traditional sailor tattoo, all bold lines and subtle shading. It runs crookedly across his forearm, the point angled towards his inner wrist. It’s pretty badass, if he’s being kind to himself, and in this rare instance he actually is. It’s something he may have actually considered as a real tattoo one day when he was older and bolder and Abercrombie & Fitch did not take up the biggest percentage of space in his wardrobe.

The tiny part of Louis’ brain that is still functioning after the somehow still-shocking appearance of his Marker is screaming in terror. This isn’t some tiny silhouette or text Marker that he might be able to hide or cover with some sparse makeup now and then, this thing is fucking huge. He’ll never be able to wear anything short-sleeved again without constantly being reminded of this dagger on his skin. He’s fucked, completely and utterly fucked.

Okay, judging by the stampede of girls that barrel into his room, Louis’ screaming hadn’t just been internal.

It’s silent when his sisters all notice the Marker. Then, as things tend to do in households containing teenage girls, everything erupts all at once.

Phoebe and Daisy throw themselves onto the bed, taking turns prodding at Louis’ arm and screeching questions at him.

“Did you get a tattoo?”

“Mum’s gonna kill you!”

“Can I get a tattoo?”

“Why did you get a knife? It’s so scary!”

Fizzy has slumped against the doorframe, her hands covering her mouth as if holding in screams.

“Why didn’t you get it in color?”

Lottie is nowhere to be seen, but the clattering of footsteps on the stairs proves that she, like Louis, prefers to run rather than deal with avalanches of emotion. Meanwhile, Daisy and Phoebe are still screaming.

“Yeah, pink would have been so cool!”

“Or red!”

“Yeah, red!”

“Alright!” Louis shouts over the din. “Sibling meeting in ten minutes. I will meet you all downstairs on the sofa after I fetch Lottie.” None of his sisters move, though they are all at least quiet now, the twins pouting petulantly and Fizzy’s fist scrubbing dully against her eyes. “Go!” he cries, and they scatter like birds.

Louis puts his head in his hands and allows himself just one second to fall apart. A horrible, dark-humored portion of his brain spouts that it was quicker than he thought it’d be to cross two items off his checklist, though the rest of him hates himself for letting his sisters find out he’s Bonded in the worst way possible.

And then he sucks it up, throws on a sweater, and makes his way to the backyard where, as he knew she would be, Lottie is sitting up in the old tree in the backyard.

Louis hoists himself up next to her with the help of years of muscle memory, his foot easily finding the knot that serves as the first foothold. When he settles on the thickest branch next to Lottie, the silence swallows them for a little while. Louis feels his heart pounding in his ears and his throat and even his stomach. He didn’t think it’d be this hard, to tell people that the Tomlinson version of a nightmare has come true.

But Lottie had been there through the whole original mess that caused his distaste and fear of Bonding in the first place. Louis and Lottie were each other's lifelines, simultaneously the people drowning and attempting to pull each other to shore. Fizzy was there too, of course, but she and the twins were far too young to remember thrown plates and shrieked insults and choked sobs from their mother’s room at night. Fizzy and Daisy and Phoebe had slept completely through the terrible final night, the one Louis had spent with his arms wrapped around Lottie as she sobbed into his shoulder, both of them huddled behind his coats in his wardrobe and listening to the car drive away.

Louis and Lottie, and their mum as well, they don’t see Bonding as a blessing. They see Markers as manacles rather than symbols of love.

He swallows hard, any words of consolation he might have had for his sister dying terrible deaths in his throat. They sit in the quiet of a Yorkshire morning and breathe, because breathing is key to survival and surviving is what they do.

Slowly, cautiously, Lottie reaches for Louis’ left arm. She pushes his sleeve back and they both stare at the dagger.

“It’s not… what I expected,” Lottie says quietly, and Louis is still just trying to breathe, so it sounds a little like she’s shouting at him while he’s submerged underwater. But he nods, and clenches and unclenches his fist a few times.

“I know,” he says. “The whole thing is pretty unexpected.”

“Yeah.”

It’s quiet again, but it’s a better kind of quiet. Birds chatter overhead, a car drives through the neighborhood. The old lady from two doors down shouts to turn the damn telly off, Robert, and help me with these groceries. Louis breathes in, and Lottie breathes out.

She extends a blue nail-polished finger and traces the outline of the weapon that will forever be on her brother’s arm.

“It’s a little cool,” she admits grudgingly, and Louis chokes a laugh. “At least it doesn’t seem to be anything sappy.”

“Right. Better than their name inside a heart.”

“Or an infinity sign with their initials.”

“Or a quote, God, can you imagine?”

No lies, just love.

Love conquers all.

“What was that one we saw when we were shopping, do you remember? Like half a smiley face that lined up with the other person’s when they held hands.”

Louis snorts and Lottie giggles into her palm, and maybe everything will be okay.

 

 

Inside the house, Phoebe and Daisy and Fizzy are sitting quietly on the sofa, simultaneously silent for probably the first time ever. When Louis leads Lottie into the room, he holds up a hand before Daisy and Phoebe can launch into another interrogation avalanche. He breathes in, clasps his hands together, and:

“Girls, this isn’t a tattoo. It’s a Marker.”

It hurts, watching Fizzy’s expression collapse again. She’d suspected, of course, but Louis confirming what she’d feared is horrible, a punch to his already sensitive gut. The twins don’t know how to react, their little brows furrowed as they take in Fizzy’s tears, Lottie’s hand wrapped tightly around Louis’ wrist.

Daisy stands and approaches Louis like she would a feral cat. She touches his Marker again and looks at Phoebe, who reaches out to touch it as well.

“This doesn’t change anything,” Louis says, mostly to fill the silence. “It doesn’t have to, and I won’t let it.”

“So you aren’t Bonded?” Phoebe asks tremulously, channeling the despairing emotion in the room.

“Well,” he sighs. “Technically I am, yes. But I’m, um. The only one that did.”

Fizzy chokes. “You half-Bonded?” Louis nods, hating that he can’t just say he Bonded like a normal person, giving his sisters some kind of hope that Bonding doesn't always equal bad news. But he can't, and there’s no hope at all being half-Bonded. Tears swim in his eyes as well, but he clears his throat and pushes them back.

“Who is it?” Daisy asks fiercely. Phoebe nods sharply beside her. “We can tell them that wasn’t very nice of them.”

Louis huffs a laugh and gathers his two littlest sisters to his chest, thanking whoever is up there for their innocent ferocity, like baby tigers squeaking little roars. “I’m not telling.”

“But-”

“No, Phoebs. I’m not telling any of you, because I don’t want you hating anyone on my behalf. Especially since they didn’t ask for this to happen either.”

Lottie leans into Louis’ right side, and Fizzy moves to his left. He presses kisses to all their foreheads as Lottie whispers into his sleeve, “It isn’t fair.”

“No,” Louis agrees. “It isn’t. But we’ll be okay.”

He slips his phone out of his pocket, sighs, and opens Harry’s string of unanswered texts. If he’s doing this, he’s going to do it right.

(10:34 a.m.) Harry: Good morning! x
(10:58 a.m.) Louis: Good morning Harry . Ready for bootcamp ?

 

 

Later, Louis does some research so his fake-tattoo backstory seems legitimate.

Daggers, apparently, symbolize the harsh reality of life. They represent the strength needed to endure, and can be a reminder to stay strong or keep at it.

The irony of it all is enough to send him into hysterics.

...

20 July 2010

Harry thought he knew what to expect from bootcamp. A little singing, a little dancing, some nerve-wracking waiting, sure. But this? This was not expected.

Rain is thundering down on Wembley Stadium, and even though the roof has been closed as much as it can and the stage is protected, the downpour is causing issues in other areas. Currently, all the contestants in the Boys category are following a vocal coach like lost ducklings, their assigned practice room having flooded from a forgotten open window. All three of the other categories are already deep into practicing their group songs, and Harry is shaky and nervous at the thought of being unprepared in front of the judges.

It doesn’t help that he’s soaking wet, because while the stage and seats had been protected from the rain, the outside edges of the stadium floor hadn’t and that’s where they’d been corralled for a few minutes until their vocal coach had found them to lead them away.

Even before the rainstorm of Biblical proportions had begun it had been a not-great day. The clipboard-bearer that Harry had tried to check in with this morning hadn’t had the latest updated list and his name wasn’t under the correct category; so, for a solid ten minutes he was terrified that he wasn’t actually supposed to be here and that he’d dreamed up the whole making-it-through-to-the-second-round thing. After that had been sorted (with profuse apologies from all involved), he’d slipped and fell into a mud puddle and couldn’t go change because they’d taken his suitcase at check-in. He’d missed breakfast this morning because he accidentally slept through his first alarm and had been forced to wolf down some crackers for sustenance, which sat like lead weight on his churning stomach. And he’s pretty sure Louis from auditions has avoided him all day.

Which, well, in the grand scheme of things, the last one might not seem like the biggest deal. But it still stung, because Louis had texted him back a week ago; they’ve had multiple conversations and they’d even talked about bootcamp and here they are, at bootcamp, and Louis has not said one word to Harry.

Not that Harry let him get away with that easily. The entire crowd of contestants had been arranged on the stage for a welcome from Simon and Louis Walsh, so while everyone was catching up with people they’d met at auditions, he’d slid his way through the group so that he was always within polite speaking distance of Louis, trying (and failing) to catch his eye. He’d built up his courage and turned to start the conversation himself several times, only to find Louis deeply engrossed in speaking with other boys. (Which, yeah. Harry didn’t really like that, it made something strange and hot flush up the back of his neck. But he couldn’t interrupt, that would be rude.) He’d even bumped into Louis once, and that one was even an accident. Louis had taken one look at him, made an odd squeak, and then walked quickly away.

It had made for a not-quite-pleasant afternoon, that’s for sure. It didn’t help that Harry wasn’t going to have to concentrate hard to learn the Boy’s group song; he’s been singing Michael Jackson since he could walk, Man in the Mirror would be no stretch for him.

And now here he is, curls weighed down with water and feet slipping on the slick tile of the Wembley hallways. Harry blankly follows the boy in front of him, no idea where the group is heading until the people in front suddenly stop. They’re in a stairwell, one of their vocal coaches at the front of the group yelling something into his phone.

“Stay here!” is his last command before he storms off, leaving the collected forty-odd guys standing awkwardly in the silence.

Harry leans against a railing, looking over the rest of the group from his vantage point. Some of them have already sat down, claiming whole stairs for themselves. Others have started talking, but their words are impossible to make out over the roaring thunderstorm echoing off the brick walls.

“Well t’is is fecking awful,” says a voice next to Harry, and he turns to see a bottle-blonde boy grimacing as he wrings the water from his sweater sleeve. Harry chuckles quietly and nods.

“It is, yeah,” Harry agrees. “Not what I thought I’d be doing today.” The blonde nods, shaking out droplets from his hair like a dog. Next moment, he’s sticking out his hand.

“Niall, ‘m from Mullingar, Ireland.”

Harry shakes it. “Harry, Holmes Chapel, England.”

“Good to meet you, Harry,” Niall says.

“You as well.”

“Seriously, though, this is awful timing. I don’t know all the lyrics to the song, and I don’t wanna be staring at my paper when the vocal coaches are picking out the weak ones.”

“I’ll help,” Harry volunteers immediately. Niall flashes a grin and pulls out the heavily folded and very damp lyric sheet they’d all been handed before setting off on the journey to their new practice room.

“This one,” he says, pointing out a line in the second verse. He hums a little, stops, and frowns. “I’m just having a hard time hearing it, ya know? I usually pick songs out on guitar while I’m learning the words so I get the notes faster.”

“You play guitar?”

“Oh yeah, I’m way better at guitar than singing. But being good at both is even better, so that’s why ‘m here,” he answers cheerily. “Left me guitar with the luggage, though, didn’t think I’d need it.”

“There’s one,” Harry points down at another boy and the black case propped up next to him. “We could borrow it?”

“Good idea!” Niall says, immediately bounding down a few steps to talk to the guitar owner. He brings the guitar and the boy over to Harry just a few moments later. “Harry, this is Christian. And this is Christian’s guitar.”

“Nice to meet you,” Harry stands and shakes Christian’s hand, but he only gets a tight nod in return. Harry doesn’t know Christian at all, of course, but he looks nervous, lips tight and skin clammy. “Are you okay?” he whispers, leaning close.

“Hate thunderstorms,” Christian says, opening his mouth as little as possible. “Not great with small spaces, either.”

“Ah,” Harry says, looking around at where they’re a little trapped on a small, crowded stairwell that echoes with rumbling thunder every few minutes. He pats Christian on the back in sympathy.

Niall has plopped down on the step above them, strumming quietly. He reads the lyrics from the sheet as he plays, hitting the strings perfectly but going off tempo with the words. He huffs, starts over, and cuts himself off after he messes up the lyrics again.

“Here,” Harry says, settling next to Niall and pulling Christian down with him. “Play it again.”

Niall does, strumming easily. He gets to the top of the verse and Harry sings quietly.

I've been a victim of a selfish kind of love
It's time that I realize
That there are some with no home, not a nickel to loan
Could it be really me, pretending that they're not alone?

Niall nods along, joining Harry at the top of the next line.

A willow deeply scarred, somebody's broken heart
And a washed-out dream
They follow the pattern of the wind you see

Christian lends his voice, barely more than a whisper, as they finish.

'Cause they got no place to be
That's why I'm starting with me

Niall strums the last line and laughs brightly. “That was excellent, mates! It’s the nickel line that’s getting me, but I think I see it now.”

Harry turns and beams at Christian. “Your voice is amazing!”

Christian flushes pink and looks at his shoes. “Thanks,” he mutters.

There’s a small cough behind them. They turn to see a boy Harry’s pretty sure he remembers from auditions, with serious brown eyes under a furrowed brow. “Hey, lads, mind running through that again? I wanted a little more practice as well.”

“Sure!” Harry says, and the boy scoots forward hesitantly to sit between him and Niall, who starts playing at the top of the song this time. By the chorus, a few other nearby boys have lended their voice to the fray as well and at the end, a shockingly beautiful boy with dark hair and sharp features hits a bell-clear high note and sends the entire stairwell into surprised silence.

“Start over!” someone calls, and a few other voices agree. Niall cracks a grin, standing and pulling Harry up next to him, and they launch into the song for the third time.

I'm gonna make a change
For once in my life

It’s shaky to start, Harry adjusting to hitting the low scrape of the first few notes more loudly than he’d been singing earlier. Christian and the other boys next to him join on the next line, and the chorus hits with all forty guys singing along. It’s rough from lack of actual practice, voices overlapping and echoing strangely off the walls, but it’s still pretty good. The song wraps up, everyone laughs and cheers, and someone shouts, “Again!”

They’re even better the second time, and by the third time some boys are improvising, launching into harmonies and pulling out high notes. Harry, Niall, Christian, and the serious-faced boy who sat by them weave their voices together, and Harry feels his grin split his face when even Christian starts smiling. Niall is rocking back and forth, dancing in what little space he has.

Harry bounces a little, closes his eyes and singing as loud as he can, that's why I want you to know, and when he opens his eyes he notices someone watching him. Louis is halfway down the next flight of stairs and half-hidden behind some tall guy with a fedora, but Harry can still see he’s singing just as loud as Harry is. Harry expects him to look away, to avoid contact like he has all morning, but Louis just smiles back, his eyes crinkling, and the sunshine in his grin seems bright enough to clear the clouds outside and send Harry’s heart into overdrive.

A few guys have pulled their phones out, recording the spectacle of forty soaked X Factor hopefuls jamming on a flight of stairs in Wembley Stadium. Harry just laughs, and sings, and laughs some more, tilting his face up like a flower searching for the sun.

Just as Niall is about to launch them into the fifth repeat, a throat clears and catches their attention. Simon Cowell himself, followed by Louis Walsh and their vocal coaches, stands in the doorway to the first level, one eyebrow raised.

“Very impressive,” he says, amused. “Let’s see what you can do when you aren’t in the worst acoustic corner of the stadium.”

A weak cheer goes up around them as the boys gather their things to follow Simon into the hallway. The serious-eyed boy falls in step with Harry and offers his hand.

“Liam,” he says, smiling a little.

Harry grins back. “Harry. This is Niall,” he pokes the blonde in the back, and Niall waves over his shoulder, “and Christian.” Christian just smiles, but he’s looking much better than he had been as they make their way to an empty lounge. The vocal coach leads them through the song as a whole group three times, then separates them out into groups of five or six. He points Christian, Harry, Niall, Liam, and one other boy into a corner of the lounge.

“You five can work on the song together, someone will be by to hear you in a few minutes.”

Christian and Liam immediately settle against the wall, while Niall and Harry turn to the new guy.

“Tobias,” he says, shaking hands all around. Niall introduces everyone else, and they launch back into the song without preamble, Niall leading on guitar.

It’s so much better without the echo of the staircase and thirty other guys trying to outdo them. Liam and Harry’s voices are similar enough that they blend well, and Niall’s rises higher to take a light melody that winds around them. It sounds amazing, and it’s fun, repeating the chorus a few times so they can point out little flaws for each other to fix.

Christian slides closer and closer to Harry as they continue, his thigh pressed against Harry’s. Every time Harry compliments him, he flushes and stammers. Niall won’t stop giggling and nudging Christian in the side, and while Harry isn’t in on the joke he smiles anyway, because he likes Niall and he likes Christian and he likes that they are getting along.

Harry almost forgets that Simon is there, watching them all and evaluating their every move. He just sings, smiling through it all and winking at Liam to make him laugh, and doesn’t remember anything is different until Tobias suddenly freezes, coughing unexpectedly.

“Again,” Simon’s voice says from behind Harry, and Niall strums a few chords to start them over. Liam, Tobias, Harry, and Niall launch into it once more, but Christian just mimes the words, his face sweating again. At the end Niall stumbles a little over the words, but Harry and Liam cover him and they finish strong. Harry turns to see Simon look each of them over, nod, and walk away. When he leaves, Christian breathes out unsteadily, but otherwise doesn’t mention anything. His leg is shaking where it’s touching Harry’s.

Eventually, the groups are split up and switched around, and Harry meets four new boys: a boy about his age named Tom, two guys in their mid-twenties named Jeff and Raul, and the boy who’d hit the amazing high note on the stairwell that caught everyone’s attention.

“Zayn,” he introduces himself shyly, fist bumping against Harry’s.

This group is harder to work with, as Jeff and Raul compete to be the loudest and Tom keeps going off-key at the loudest possible moments. Zayn works an octave above Harry, reaching for notes that astound Harry, missing a few but hitting most of them. Simon comes by again to listen, a vocal coach following him, but this time doesn’t say anything.

The groups switch again, and Harry is put with Liam again while meeting a few new boys, Jack and Will and Ralph. Then again, and Harry’s back with Christian and Tom and two others, Bill and Aiden. And then finally, finally, the vocal coach announces that this will be the last group switch before they rejoin as a full group.

Harry gets sent to a corner to start a new group, then Niall joins him with a cheery high five, then a ginger kind Harry hasn’t met yet, a man in his early twenties who looks outraged to be stuck with a bunch of teenagers, and, lastly, 

“Louis!” Harry says excitedly, bouncing on his toes before scooping Louis into an impromptu hug.

“Oh. Hi,” Louis says, and when Harry lets him go he looks bemused, but he’s still smiling at least. “I’m Louis,” he says to the rest of the group from the circle of Harry’s arms, waving a little.

“Nice to meet you, Louis,” Niall says, nodding once. “Let’s do this shit.”

It’s the best group yet, Harry thinks joyfully. The guy in his twenties (“Nicolo,” he’d grunted when Niall prompted him for his name) has a strong, bright voice, which melds well with Niall’s and the other boy Harry doesn’t know (“Mark,” he’d squeaked). Harry, to his utter delight, finds that his and Louis’ voices wrap around each other like they’re doing it on purpose, Harry’s raspier and Louis’ clearer, Harry low and Louis high.

They sing the song again, and again, and again, and each time Louis and Harry get a little louder, a little more confident, and soon they’re making up the main part of the vocals, Nicolo is taking the upper harmony above them and Niall and Mark tangling around their melody as well. Harry meets Louis’ eye and they smile, rounding out a final chorus perfectly.

“Well done,” comes a voice from behind them, and Harry realizes they’d been the last group singing, Simon and his coaches around him all watching and looking slightly impressed. Harry beams.

This might be the greatest day of his life.

...

At the first possible moment, Louis makes a dash to a nearby bathroom and away from Harry Styles, slamming the cubicle door and latching it roughly. He collapses against the wall, a tiny part of him thankful that Wembley bathrooms are a lot cleaner than public bathrooms tend to be.

The rest of him not focused on bathroom sanitation is nearly comatose with pure, blinding panic.

The plan, carefully thought through and meticulously checked for any holes with the help of his sisters and his mum (leaving Harry nameless and staying gender neutral throughout, just to make sure there were no forthcoming threats on Harry’s life from the Tomlinsons or Stan), was for Louis to play it cool. He would tell Harry that he hadn’t felt well during auditions, had come down with a stomach bug and been bedridden when he’d made it home. This explained his reaction after his audition, why he couldn’t stay for the afterparty, and why he hadn’t answered Harry’s texts for a few days. He brought only long-sleeved shirts so the dagger itself wouldn’t even be an issue. He was going to be friendly, sure, but professional. Hello, Harry, it’s good to see you too. Why yes, this is exciting. Conversation over.

But then he actually saw Harry, and that all went flying out the window. Along with any shred of sanity, credibility, and composure to which he tried to cling.

Because Louis had prepared for Harry’s charming side, his kindness and sweetly innocent commentary. He’d forgotten entirely that he was also the most beautiful thing Louis’d ever laid eyes on, all softened angles and wide green eyes and, God, Louis had taken one look at his massive hands and actually whimpered. (The boy next to him had heard and taken a careful step away from Louis, averting his eyes like Louis had dropped to his knees right there in the mud. In that guy’s defense, though, the possibility of that happening was very real.)

It’s not fair, honestly, Harry just throwing himself around while he’s all chocolate curls and dimpled smiles. Other people have to focus, and then there’s a Harry Styles just out there existing and being so damn happy he’s like delight personified.

So the plan was completely scrapped from the word go, tossed wherever he’d thrown any hope of making a graceful exit from this competition with any semblance of dignity. Rather than interacting with Harry early and getting it out of the way, he’d struck up a dozen forgettable conversations to ignore him and then escaped the immediate area as soon as he could. Louis came up with increasingly inventive hiding spots while they waited on the main stage for their welcome from the judges, crouching behind taller guys and infiltrating some of the nearby groups and even, once, stealing someone’s hat, sending desperate texts to Stan and Lottie through it all.

They were both sympathetic, but unyielding.

(9:32 a.m.) Stan: i don’t care how pretty they are lou. u have to go talk to them.
(9:32 a.m.) Stan: also TELL ME WHO IT IS

(9:53 a.m.) Lottie: grow some balls !!! you can’t avoid them forever !!!
(9:56 a.m.) Lottie: and quit telling me about their bum i don’t care !! it’s weird !!!

It was bad enough when they were in the same general area, Louis orienting himself around Harry like he’s the bloody North Star. But then, of course, it got worse.

A streak of lightning, a clap of thunder, a flooded practice room, and then forty boys found themselves soaking wet and trapped together in a tiny staircase with no supervision. Louis couldn’t stop shaking, his hair was dripping straight into his eyes, and his shoes were so soaked that each step caused a flood of murky water to pool around his ankles. And then Harry, perfect Harry with his still-springy curls and clinging shirt, had started singing with some blonde kid holding a guitar and some other guy who looked at him like he was John Lennon’s angel sent to save them all. His sweet voice had filled the air and drew almost everyone’s attention without him even realizing. Louis hadn’t been able to look away as he’d sang, dancing gleefully around the guitar player and another angry looking one with Bieber hair.

Harry had opened his eyes to see Louis watching and had lit up like a fucking solar flare, bright and just dangerous enough that Louis knew he should look away. But he couldn’t.

Louis couldn’t concentrate once they’d finally moved into their new room to practice, his voice small and overwhelmed amidst all the others. It wasn’t until the last group, when Harry had greeted Louis with a massive hug that he didn’t deserve and a smile that cut right through his ribcage, when his voice twined with Harry’s like sparks and tendrils of smoke, gravelly and bright in equal parts, that Louis even felt he had a chance to make it to the next day of bootcamp.

And Simon had seen it all. And Harry had been radiant. And Louis had to be far, far away, preferably as soon as physically possible.

So as soon as Simon’s back was turned, Louis had sprinted for the bathroom.

Louis digs his phone out of his pocket, ignoring the latest message from Lottie (talk to them yet ???) and going straight for his mum’s contact. He doesn’t care that it's the middle of the day, that she's at work. He needs someone that can actually help him through this ridiculous pain in his heart, a rib-cracking squeeze of his insides like a giant fist around his torso.

“Mum,” he gasps when she answers, tears already running down his face and collecting on his lap. “Mum, I can’t.”

“Oh, Lou,” she sighs, and the noises of the hospital in the background fill the quiet for a moment. “I told you it would be hard.”

“I didn’t know it would be this hard though,” he sniffs.

“I know, love. The first bit’s going to be the worst. But you were so sure you wanted to do this, and you can’t give up now, right?”

“Maybe I should just go home. I overestimated myself.”

“Lou, no. Listen, baby, you’re the strongest person I know. If it…” There’s the small sound of her breath hitching and Louis sobs too, a sharp-bitten off breath. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d not have made it through my rough time. You stepped up, and you survived. That’s what we do, right?”

“Right,” Louis whispers.

“So what you need to do now is whatever will help you survive. If that means ignoring him, you do that. If that means becoming his friend, be his friend.” Louis hums, but otherwise stays quiet. “Wanna hear my advice, babe?” she asks.

“Yeah.”

“Talk to him. Take a chance. It’ll only be worse if you don’t and you’re left always wondering what could have been.”

“But-”

“There’s a reason this happened, love. It may be fate, it may just be brain chemistry, I don’t know. But I do know that it happened and something like that pulls you in for a reason. Go figure out what it is.”

“Yeah, I will,” Louis says, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. “I will. I can.”

“Good. I love you, Lou.”

“Love you too, Mum. Call you later.”

Louis allows himself a minute to catch his breath, and rubs away the last few tears that escape. Breathe in, breathe out. He can do this. He can do this. He can do this.

He can’t be for Harry what he would kill to be: a proper soulmate, his other half in body and mind. (Louis may be adverse to the idea of Bonding in general, having watched the collapse of his mother’s relationship and forced to deal with the aftermath. But with Harry, it may not have been so terrible; too bad he'll never get the chance to find out.) There is someone out there who is destined to be all that for Harry Styles, and Louis hopes that whoever it is will realize the gift they’re getting.

Until then, until a Marker appears on Harry’s skin and he’s whisked away for his fairytale romance, Louis can be a friend to him. He can work his way through this ridiculous singing competition by Harry’s side for as long as they allow him to be there, and he can keep in touch when they inevitably go their separate ways. He can build up a well of memories for the day he has to let this kid go; Louis will never have a full soulmate that he Bonds to and who Bonds back, he may never have a real relationship beyond a few dates before the other person realizes that Louis has already been claimed, but he can have this, some stolen time with the soulmate he's not meant to keep.

He can do this.

He opens the stall door and nearly walks into a teary-eyed Harry standing right in front of him, arms already reaching out to pull him into their second embrace of the day.

“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, I’m so sorry. A crew member sent me to get you because we’re going for lunch. I didn’t mean to listen!” Harry babbles into Louis’ shoulder. “I just want you to know that you aren’t alone, and that I’m scared to perform again too. It’s terrifying, but it’s an amazing opportunity.” He pulls away and shoots Louis a tearful smile. “We can do this!”

There’s no way Louis can do this.

...

Harry stands on a spotlit stage, blinking and sweating. Twenty other boys from his category are in a line beside him, their every nervous twitch caught by the camera lenses, every uncomfortable throat clearing and shoe squeaking on the stage floor causing them all to jump. The Boys category had been split into two groups after the group performances: one group going forward and one going home. The other half has already been led back onto the stage, shaking and shivering, to hear their fate. Now it’s Harry’s group’s turn.

Harry wants to feel sure that he’s in the group going to the next round rather than being sent home, but there were good singers in the first group, including Tobias (who Harry’d heard had a breakdown on stage, but he hadn’t seen it for himself) and Christian and Mark.

The judges and coaches are watching them like cats watch fish in a bowl.

Harry’s eyes are drawn to Simon. The others don’t scare him, not really; he knows Louis Walsh has a little bit of pull, obviously, but he’s seen the way Simon is treated like backstage royalty wrapped in a tabloid cape. If he wants people in, they’re in. And if he wants them cut, they’ll be cut.

Harry jerks when Dermot steps forward, mic in hand even though he’s standing right next to the group and they can all hear him perfectly fine. He gives a short spiel commending how hard they’ve worked, how accommodating they’ve been with the weather difficulties.

Harry nods along with the rest of the boys, but his heart is pounding a little too loudly to take anything in. Niall is to his right, brushing his shoulder against Harry's as he rocks back and forth on his heels. Louis is on Harry's left, his arm burning against Harry's even through two layers of fabric. Harry reaches out and twines his fingers in each of their sleeves. Just the simple fact that Harry is even able to do that, to be next to Louis without him averting his eyes and turning away, tells him that today may be going better than he thought. 

Harry had always assumed heartbreak was a flowery description of sadness thought up by some melodramatic poet swooning across his chaise lounge, but then he’d followed Louis into that bathroom earlier, heard him sobbing on the phone to his mother and actually experienced it for himself. His blood had left his limbs to thunder towards his chest so suddenly that he’d swayed on his feet, nearly braining himself on a bathroom door for the second time in Louis’ presence. Heartbreak apparently doesn’t just mean sad; it’s gut-wrenching anguish, the taste of bile at knowing someone good is hurting and the twist of his stomach at the sound of their tears. Hearing Louis' quiet admission of "I overestimated myself" had tears pooling in Harry's eyes.  

Louis had been crying over his fear of performing, and Harry had cried over Louis.

But then Louis had stumbled out of that bathroom stall and seen Harry, blotchy-faced and tear-stained, apologies for eavesdropping dribbling from his lips, and he’d smiled. He’d wiped the wetness from Harry’s cheeks and grinned, his own eyes still red around the edges but his smile sparkly enough to outdo a diamond mine.

“You’re absolutely correct, Harold,” he’d murmured in answer to Harry’s horrified rambling. “We definitely can do this.”

And then, just like he hadn’t avoided Harry all afternoon before sneaking off to have a cry in a bathroom, Louis stuck to Harry like glue for the rest of the day. Where Harry went, Louis went, joking and giggling the whole time, and Harry was so ecstatic it felt like happiness was pouring from his pores, settling like glitter on his bones.

Then they were finally led back on stage for the group performance, finally allowed to sing like their lives depended on it. Harry and Louis had been in the third group to circulate to the stage during the Boys performances and Louis shone like starlight, his voice high and strong and soaring. So when it came to his turn, Harry had belted out they follow each other on the wind you know straight at Louis, bent nearly in half as he scraped for every last bit of vocal power.

It had felt amazing, the best performance of Harry’s life, and he and Louis and Tom and Niall and Christian had all skipped giddily as they’d made their way off stage, convinced they’d made it through to the next day.

Then the waiting had begun, and the weird anxiety cocktail of adrenaline and fear poured energy into their veins so that soon they were bouncing off the walls rather than just vibrating in their seats. Louis and Niall had teamed up to dance in a circle around Nicolo whenever he moved until he got so angry he complained to the staff, and then they threw grapes at him from across the room and pretended they were falling from the ceiling. Harry, when questioned about the amount of fruit littering the ground around Nicolo, laughed so hard that he’d nearly lost his voice. After being told off, Harry and Louis had spent a good hour unwinding with their sides pressed together as they sat against a blank stretch of wall, chewing idly at sandwiches they’d scavenged from Mary in the Over-25s group and grinning at each other for no reason.

“Got a stomach bug right before our auditions,” Louis had said between bites, waving his arm vaguely and continuing a conversation Harry can’t recall starting. “I don’t even really remember singing, I just knew I got through. Woke up a few days later to some fuzzy memories of being on stage and just a very small number of texts from you.”

Harry blushed, remembering his dozens of unanswered messages about everything from salad to elephant pet names (because Dumbo is the obvious, right, just like you could really only ever name a pet lion either Simba or Nala, so what other name could you possibly give an elephant? Dumba, for a girl, perhaps, but otherwise options are very limited. The question still haunts Harry to this day). Louis had just ruffled his curls and declared it charming rather than creepy.

But now, well, with Dermot stepping back into the shadows and Simon’s eyes trained on them like a sniper spotting a target from a nearby hilltop, Harry tries to think back over every second of the whole day to check for weaknesses. There’s so much that could have tipped the scales, so much he may have done that could have hurt his chances.

The gleaming red light of the camera seems bright in the gloomy darkness behind the judges. Harry stares at the shine glaring off the makeup on Louis Walsh’s forehead because he can’t really focus on how enormous this is, how even if he gets through tonight he’s got to do it all again tomorrow.

The air is lodged in his chest, almost choking him. Beside him, Niall is rocking on his toes and Louis is frozen, his breath coming out in sharp bursts.

Simon picks up a mic. Harry’s heart stops.

“Boys…”

Oh God oh God oh God OH GOD

“...It’s good news.”

Niall jumps a foot in the air. Aiden hugs everyone near him, including Liam, who’s collapsed into tears. Tom beams, his hands behind his head and staring at the ceiling. Zayn just walks away, shaking his head like he doesn’t believe it.

Harry loses all control of his actions, that’s his only excuse. When he turns to face Louis in slack-jawed amazement and finds him already there in his space, beaming, he tackles Louis to the ground in a pile of uncoordinated limbs and fanatic excitement. Despite finding himself trapped under nearly six feet of lanky, still-damp-from-rain teenage boy, Louis looks beyond ecstatic. He frees a small hand and pats Harry’s face gently.

“We did it,” he whispers, smiling so hard his eyes are sky-colored crinkles.

“Yeah,” Harry says breathlessly, ignoring the outbreak of laughter from everyone nearby and the whirring of cameras capturing their every move because this is the best day, ever, of his entire life. Ever.

...

Time passes in strange drips and drags for Louis throughout the rest of the day after they've passed their first test, disjointed and surreal. Moments stand out in sharp relief against the fast-paced rush that seems to define their time at bootcamp

 

 

He watches Harry say goodbye to what seems like every single boy who was cut, hugging them and wiping their tears. He spends a full ten minutes with the guy who had sang with him and Niall on the stairwell, a quiet boy who Louis hadn’t paid any attention to anytime he wasn’t smiling at Harry or laughing at his jokes. Louis inches closer to them while feigning conversation with Zayn and Aiden, straining to catch anything.

“...think you’re going to go really far on this show,” the boy is saying softly, “and I hope you win it, of course. And you’re probably going to forget all about me when you’ve got your recording contract or whatever.”

Louis watches Harry frown and shake his head. “Course I won’t, Christian.”

Christian grins weakly and shakes his head as well. “I hope not. I just want to say, if you ever find yourself near Essex, look me up. Maybe, um,” he blushes fiercely. “Maybe we can spend some time together.”

Louis knows that, logically, he has no real claim on Harry at all and was actually sort of rude to him through his highly successful Avoid Harry At All Costs campaign.

It’s just.

Louis has always had a jealous streak a mile wide, and Christian is smiling hopefully and won’t stop touching Harry’s arm. Louis turns away, tries to stay engaged in his conversation with Zayn about what to expect tomorrow, but—

“That sounds very nice, thanks,” he hears Harry reply. Maybe Christian realizes the vagueness of Harry’s answer at the same time Louis does, because when Louis peeks back over his shoulder Christian’s brow is furrowed and he looks as though he used up all his courage asking Harry out the first time, and now is stuck wondering if his answer actually meant yes or no.

 

 

A few minutes later, after Harry hugs Christian one last time and he makes his way back to Louis’ side, Louis loses all self control and lets the question burst: “You know he was sort of asking you out, right?”

“Yeah, I know,” Harry shrugs. “He’s nice, but there wasn’t really anything between us. I think when I meet someone that’s going to be important in my life, I can tell.”

Louis, mollified and a little surprised that Harry’s innocent act worked as well on him as it did on Christian, leans against Harry’s shoulder and tries to hide his smile.

“Sort of like when I met you,” Harry continues, happily nudging Louis with his elbow.

Louis’ heart suddenly expands to take up all the space inside his ribcage. It’s a not entirely unpleasant sensation, so he just smiles the best he can and turns to talk to Aiden for a while, feeling like his insides have become coated in sugar.

 

 

During some free time that afternoon, Harry is dragged away to do a bit for the ITV cameras. He comes back flushed and looking upset.

“I had to, uh, go on a date? Like a fake date, with a girl who’d told the crew she thought I was cute. And then I was filmed talking to a couple of other girls, and at the end they all showed up at the same time like I was cheating?” He shrugs, frowning. “I think they’re trying to say I’m, like, a player or something. Which, clearly not, you know? I’ve never dated anyone. I mean, they ended it funny—that Wagner guy came up and pretended I’d been texting him too, and then he carried me off. But like, yeah. It was still weird.”

Louis wants to laugh (and to pour water on whatever chick is walking around talking about how cute Harry is—because yeah, he is, but they can just back off) but he also wants to pull Harry close, to wipe the genuinely troubled look off his face just at the insinuation that he might fake-cheat on a fake-date.

He cheers Harry up with another round of Let’s Throw Things Down Nicolo’s Shirt.

 

After a late dinner at the hotel, a sheet is passed around with the song options for the individual performances in two days. Louis stares at the familiar titles so long that everyone else at the table has signed up before he’s even caught his breath. He scribbles down a few choices next to his name, and then excuses himself to his room to throw up a couple dozen times.

With the whole getting-to-know-his-soulmate debacle, he’d forgotten all about things like solo songs and more elimination rounds and the possibility of watching Harry and Niall and Aiden and Zayn and all the rest of his new friends move on to the next round without him. He lays in the dark and tries not to think about the fact that he has to prove once more that he deserves to be here.

 

 

21 July 2010

The second day of bootcamp is a thousand times more difficult than the first.

Louis and the other boys had been able to get away with pranks and games throughout the first day with minimum interference, earning glares only from Nicolo, who is the most uptight person in their category and probably in the entire country. On the second day, though, dirty looks are thrown at his little group of friends the first time they burst into loud laughter, and they quickly learn that every time a batch of faces is sent home, the mood grows more and more somber.

From then on, the boys work just as hard as everyone else to impress the judges. Louis doesn’t speak to anyone more than the necessary niceties in passing, and it isn’t until the entire Boys category is halted in the middle of their choreography run-through that they can even chat.

“What’s goin’ on?” Niall asks, wiping his red face with a towel and pointing at the conference going on at the judges’ table. Louis shrugs, watching Simon sigh and stand up, but Aiden leans in conspiratorially.

“Heard somebody walked out, didn’t want to dance. I think whoever it is was embarrassed.”

Harry seems shocked. “They’re giving up because they’re embarrassed of dancing in front of people?”

“Not everyone has your moves, love,” Louis teases, miming Harry’s signature step-clap-step-clap that he uses every time the choreographer yells to freestyle. Niall collapses into giggles while Harry shoves Louis away with a huff and a poorly concealed smile. They catch up on gossip with Tom and Paije and Liam while they wait: some girl came in half-drunk and with something suspiciously white dried in her hair halfway through vocal practice yesterday, two guys were sent home already for smuggling in coke, one girl didn’t sleep in her room last night but won’t tell who she stayed with.

“Look, it’s Zayn!” Harry whispers a few minutes later, and, sure enough, Simon reappears with an abashed Zayn in tow. They all take their places for the dance one more time, and Louis almost trips when he finds himself watching Zayn instead of focusing on the actual song. Zayn isn’t even that bad of a dancer—sure, his freestyle is awkward, but everyone’s freestyle is awkward. Harry had laughed so hard at Louis’ jazz hands the first time through that he’d had to pretend he was choking to be able to take a break and gulp some water. Louis makes his way toward Zayn as the Boys are dismissed and the Girls category takes their place on the stage.

“Not too bad, Zaynie,” Louis says, ruffling his hair. Zayn grins half-heartedly and pushes Louis’ hand away.

“It’s just, it’s embarrassing, innit? Like I can’t do what those other guys can do, so—”

“Neither can I,” Louis shrugs. “If I tried to breakdance or flip or do the fucking Stanky Leg then I’d probably break every bone in my precious, toned, naturally gorgeous body.” He runs a hand down his hips, showing off the goods.

Zayn cackles. “I would pay good money to see you do any kind of dance with the word stanky in it.”

“Oh really?” Louis says, arching an eyebrow.

And that’s how Louis becomes the center of a one-man dance circle in the stage wings, taking suggestions from the audience and making up any that he doesn’t know, immediately declaring his version as the correct one and whatever YouTube has to say against that is “false, thank you very much.”

At one point Louis catches Harry’s eye in the midst of the crowd. The laughter on his face is so bright that Louis can’t breathe for a moment.

 

 

22 July 2010

Individual performances feel like they stretch somewhere between fifteen minutes and an entire eternity. There’s a girl that raps and a dancing duo with paint on their face and voices that can do things that Louis’ definitely can’t. He slips into a state where he isn’t even listening anymore, just running through the words to Just Haven’t Met You Yet over and over until he starts answering in lyrics.

(“Nervous, Louis?”

“I might have to wait, I’ll never give up. I guess it’s half timing.”

“Erm. Sure?”

“And the other half’s luck.”)

Harry disappears from his side at one point and reappears on stage, giving Louis something solid to focus on for a couple of minutes while he croons an Oasis hit. He catches a flash of blonde that might be Niall, a dark head and a high note that might be Zayn, hears Liam say something about why he has the X factor. He sees a flash of that blue shirt that Aiden is wearing. Bits and pieces that make up people that Louis has sang with and danced with and joked with for the last four days.

Far, far too soon, there’s a tap on Louis’ shoulder and a whispered, “You’re up soon, love,” from a headset-clad woman with frizzy brown hair. Louis accepts the pats on the back from the others, and trips his way to the waiting area.

Somebody named Rebecca goes before him. She kills it. He can’t breathe.

Then he’s out on stage and trying to do Bublé justice. He can’t remember any of it, just the overwhelming nerves before he opens his mouth and the silence that echoes before the polite applause when he’s done. Simon watches him with sharp eyes and whispers to Louis Walsh as he leaves the stage, and then Dermot is grabbing him by the shoulder and asking how he feels.

“I- I don’t,” is all Louis can get out, and then Dermot grimaces and points Louis toward a chair as he hyperventilates.

 

 

23 July 2010

It’s the final day of bootcamp, and the contestants are all out on stage for the last time as a full group.

“There’s been some changes,” Simon says, and Louis squeezes Zayn’s arm until his knuckles are white.

The Over-25s are now the Over-28s. The Boys category has now gotten even more competitive, and Louis mentally prepares for the phone call he’s going to have to make to tell his mum he’s coming home. He’ll have to register for the fall semester at the University of Manchester soon, as long as he isn’t past the deadline. Is it too late to get housing close to campus? He’ll probably need to find a roommate.

There’s definitely no way he’s going to the Judge’s house, that’s for sure.

The acts lurch their collective way off stage to wait again.

 

 

The Boys are the last category left backstage to hear their fate. As they’re called forward to line up, the atmosphere is quiet but thrumming, like the tense silence in the seconds between rolling thunder. At least it’s right to the point: it takes only a couple of minutes to space them evenly and start the roll call. Louis listens in growing desperation as names are slowly announced, boys disappearing offstage with fist pumps and exhilarated grins.

John. Nicolo. Paije. Aiden. Marlon. Karl. Matt. Tom.

He didn’t make it. They didn’t make it.

Harry finds Louis and buries his face in his shoulder as they’re walked back off the stage, hitching sobs muffled in Louis’ shirt. Zayn attaches himself to Louis’ other side.

Niall and Liam both get accosted by cameras and walk away mid-sentence, tears falling too hard to continue. Niall pulls his sweater over his face to hide his sobs, and leans his face into the middle of Zayn’s back. Harry yanks Liam into the forming cuddle pile as well.

Louis wants to fall down, to collapse under the weight of his grief, but he can’t—he has to stand up for these boys who are trusting him to hold them up.

“Don’t leave yet, guys!” the headset-wearer calls. “Got some last-minute instructions.”

Louis doesn’t care. His heart is crushed and mangled and left to rot on the dusty, scuffed floor of the Wembley stage, and it’s breaking from the weight of the boys sobbing into his shirt from all sides, and it’s whispering tiny truths like you weren’t good enough anyway and now you can quit him cold turkey.

Louis knows that was what he wanted once. He doesn’t want that anymore.

 

 

“I’ve got five names here, the judges want you back on stage,” the headset-wearer says (and Louis maybe should have learned her name, after all this emotional connection they’ve shared. Harry probably already knows the names of her kids and her cats and her Sunday badminton teammates). “Zayn, Liam, Harry, Niall, and Louis. Follow me.”

“Probably just want to get more footage of us crying,” Zayn mumbles, and Louis silently but strongly agrees. They can’t pass five more boys on to the Judge’s House, they’ve already increased it from six acts per category to eight to accommodate the two judges who couldn’t make it to bootcamp. They aren’t going anywhere; they’re just being squeezed for more primetime tears.

Louis follows Zayn out onto the stage and notices four girls coming up the other ramp to join them as well. They’re holding hands. Louis wants someone’s hand to hold if he’s going to be told once more that he doesn’t belong here, so he settles for gripping Niall’s jacket in his fist.

It’s Nicole that addresses them. “Hello,” she says softly into a microphone. Her voice fills up the massive stage, which had seemed so small when a hundred other acts were around them. Now Louis can feel the open space behind them and it seems wide as an ocean at his back.

“We’ve thought of each of you as individuals.” Well, yes, that’s how they auditioned. Louis contains his bitten-off scoff—they aren’t going to make this quick, they’re drawing it out painfully slowly. “But you’re too talented to let go.”

That’s, well. Louis is going to have to make sure his mum records this episode somehow, he wants that as a ringtone. Something he can take to his mates and any moron geography teachers back home. He might be going home, but he’s talented.

Simon’s voice is a wrecking ball through Louis’ carefully constructed wall of denial.

“We’ve decided to put you through.”

This time, it’s Louis that does the jumping. He flings himself into Harry’s arms and all he can think is I get to keep him for just a little longer.