Actions

Work Header

In This Light

Chapter Text

PART I - PROMO SEASON

November

Harry zippers his bag. As the metal scratches against metal, rose coloured fingers of light crawl across a pale gold sky. Dusty yellow sunlight leaks through sheer curtains and spills across the floor of the hotel room that smells strongly of soap and faintly of burnt coffee. His shirts will wrinkle in his too-small bag. His flight will be delayed.

Outside his window and hundreds of metres below, lights begin to appear in the windows of flats and office buildings like the first stars at night and people spill out of doorways and onto the streets carrying coffee cups and bagels wrapped in paper. New York City stretches and rubs the dust of sleep from its eyes.

Harry hasn’t slept at all.

He pushes his bag beside the door and sits down on the plush white comforter. Tucking one leg beneath him, he pries open the lid of his laptop. His fingers flutter over the keypad as he opens his browser to a search engine and types into the search bar: Louis Tomlinson.

He scrolls.

The moment hangs, heavy as velvet and delicate as silence.

He snaps the lid shut, tucking the laptop into his bag. A car horn blares from below as he steps out into the hallway. He hits play on his iPod, his headphones tucked into his ears so that he doesn’t hear the door as it closes behind him.

* * * * *

“Yes, this is Harry Styles.”

Harry’s phone is nestled between his shoulder and his ear. The back wall of the duty-free shop is lined with hats and scarves and he stares up at them, scanning for something he might be able to take with him. He spots a floral print scarf and runs his fingers across the fabric. He imagines pairing it with his black blazer and a pale-coloured button-down. He leaves it hanging on the hook.

“Excellent,” comes a terse voice from the other end of the line. “My name is Simon Cowell, I’m with Louis Tomlinson’s management. I’m sure you’ve been expecting my call?”

Harry thumbs the rim of a felt black fedora. “I have.”

“Great. I was hoping we could establish a bit of a timeline.”

“A timeline,” Harry echoes. He can smell coffee from somewhere nearby. As he walks out of the duty-free shop, he gives the cashier a polite smile and nod, and heads in what he hopes is the direction of a Starbucks.

“Yes. We are excited to have you as a new member of the team, seeing as how you have worked with the likes of other pop artists such as Niall Horan, and we are anxious to know when we can expect you to return to the UK. We have quite a busy few months ahead of us. I’m sure you understand, Mr. Styles.”

The airport is blissfully quiet this early in the morning. After years of traveling privately with Niall, the bustle of an airport at rush hour would threaten to ruin him, especially with his already fraying nerves. He catches a glimpse of a green logo.

“I understand.” Harry’s voice is rigidly formal. It’s a habit he has, falling into starch-pressed formality when inside, he’s ready to buckle from nerves. He’s kind of an all-or-nothing sort of person. “I am traveling out of New York this morning and will most likely arrive in London this evening. When is the first day you would like to have me on site?”

“If possible, we would like to have you join us for a meeting with Mr. Tomlinson tomorrow. Do you think you can manage that?”

Tomorrow. Harry’s head spins. He feels full of air, ready to pop under the slightest pressure. Blessedly, he steps into line at Starbucks and begins to scan the menu, wondering which drink contains the most caffeine. He wonders if there’s any more direct route than his digestive system for the caffeine to enter his bloodstream.

“I can manage that.”

As he says it, he hopes it’s true.

“Wonderful. Have a good flight, Mr. Styles. We’ll be in touch.”

Harry mumbles a farewell, then presses the ‘end call’ button, shoving his phone into his pocket.

When he’d called Gemma last night to tell her that Niall’s team had replaced him with a new wardrobe stylist, she’d hummed something about how this was a great opportunity, about how Harry had always been a live-in-the-moment kind of person, about how much he’d grow because of this change. Then she had reassured him that at least it wasn’t Niall’s decision; that at least it had been his team. Which Harry thought negated everything she had just said about it being objectively wonderful. But she is his big sister, and offering unconditional encouragement is something big sisters just do.

She is right; Harry knows exactly what it is to live in the moment. But even as he travels the world and embraces novelty, he has always needed constants. For years, the job he loved so much—lead wardrobe stylist to international popstar Niall Horan—served as that constant, but when Niall announced a co-tour with Josh Devine and his team decided to hire one stylist for the two of them, his job went from being a constant to a sudden ending and Harry had never felt so unsteady.

At the counter, he orders a hazelnut mocha and leaves a five dollar tip in the barista’s tip jar. Her smile is brilliant as Harry turns to leave, and he almost stops to thank her for it. He needs something bright today.

He walks slowly in the direction of the terminal, his footsteps plodding and unhurried. He takes a lazy sip of his mocha, wrapping his hands around the cup to warm up his hands. He thinks about the combination of coffee and chocolate, and about the splintered yearning feeling of leaving things behind. It’s a jagged ending, and it burns his throat like saltwater.

He’s not in a hurry.

* * * * *

Liam is already there when Harry pushes through the door to his flat, shouldering his black Italian leather Givenchy tote.

“Welcome home!” Liam bellows, lifting one arm from his side. He’s seated on Harry’s sofa, his other arm tucked behind his girlfriend, Sophia, who grins at Harry through a curtain of thick brown hair.

“Oh, hey, Soph!” Harry greets her without batting an eye, dropping his bag onto the floor beside the doorway with a soft thud. “Love the haircut, babe.”

“Thank you, darling,” Sophia smiles, digging a finger into Liam’s ribs, earning an embarrassingly high-pitched squeal from him. “Took this one three whole hours to notice.”

“I told you, you’re always pretty, Soph,” Liam protests. He turns to Harry, gesturing to himself. “What about me, Harry?”

Harry crouches to pull open the zipper of his tote, digging through its contents. “You’ve had the same haircut for like two years, mate,” he replies without making eye contact. “No one’s impressed.”

Liam scowls. “I didn’t mean my haircut. I meant what about my excited greeting?”

“I haven’t seen Sophia in, like, three months. I saw you yesterday morning before you left New York to fly back here.”

“True,” Liam sighs.

Harry plucks a bottle of expensive moisturiser from his bag. It’s lightly scented—citrus mint—and he squeezes a coin-sized amount into his palm and rubs his hands together, smoothing the lotion over both of his tanned forearms. He can’t jump into the shower yet, with Liam and Sophia visiting, but he needs to freshen up like you need to stretch your cramped legs after a long car trip, so the lotion will have to do.

“So what are you doing in my flat, exactly?” Harry questions. “And how did you beat me here, anyway?”

As soon as the question leaves his lips, Harry wonders why he even bothered to ask. Liam has his shit together like no one Harry’s ever met. He also has Harry’s shit together. And up until yesterday, he had a designated file folder in his brain for Niall’s shit, and he kept that together, too. Harry had hired Liam as his assistant, yes, but there was never a doubt in Harry’s mind who was truly running things behind the scenes. It’s not for lack of trying on Harry’s part; it’s just that Harry forgets things, and Liam, well, Liam is a freak of nature.

Harry is the creative mind in the duo, and Liam is...well, pretty much everything else.

“I offered to book your travel for you, mate,” Liam reminds him, “but you refused. You could have been home hours ago, like me.”

“Did you get to sleep on the aeroplane?” Sophia asks.

Harry caps his lotion and tosses it back into the bag, not bothering to zip it back up. “Yes, mum,” he teases. She sticks her tongue out at him, but he knows it’s nothing if not affectionate.

“Anyway,” Liam declares. “I keyed into your flat with the key you gave me last year and I was honestly sorely disappointed by the state of your kitchen.”

“What’s wrong with my kitchen?”

“Well, your cabinets, really,” Liam admits. “Not a bottle of beer or a bag of crisps in sight.”

“Liam, we’ve been on tour for, like, six months.”

“Well, anyway, that’s why I left Sophia here to freshen the place up while I went to get us this,” Liam explains, reaching beside the arm of the sofa and retrieving a six pack of beer. “Call it a housewarming gift. I’m nothing if I’m not a party-thrower.”

Harry raises an eyebrow. “Liam Payne? A party-thrower?” He gratefully accepts a bottle of beer from the pack, popping it open on the lip of the table beside the sofa. Leaning over the table, he peers into the opening at the top of the table-top lamp. “Soph, did you dust my lampshade?”

“I did,” Sophia grins, yanking the top off her own beer bottle. “Proper housewife, I am.”

“Shit, I ought to start paying you,” Harry says, dropping onto the floor beside the sofa in a cross-legged position.

“So, what all do you know about Louis Tomlinson?” Liam asks, reaching for his laptop, which sits on top of the cushion on the other side of Sophia.

Harry shrugs. The beer is bitter and bubbly on his tongue, and it’s warm on the way down. “Not much, if I’m honest. I might recognize a song or two of his.” He absently taps the bottom of the bottle twice against the toe of his shoe. “I googled him back in the hotel room in New York before I left.”

“Me too,” Liam admits. “He’s a cute little fellow.”

“Cute?” Harry snorts. “Why cute?”

“Well, in some videos.”

“You watched videos?” Harry asks, incredulous.

Liam pries open the lid of his laptop, moving over on the sofa to make room for Harry to sit. “Just some interviews. Wanted to know what he’s like,” he shrugs.

“Well, let’s see, then,” Harry prods.

Liam types ‘Louis Tomlinson interview’ into the YouTube search bar, selecting the first result that appears when the page has finished loading. It’s an interview on the Ellen Degeneres show, presumably taped earlier in the summer. They’re discussing the end of his European tour and, for some reason, his favourite breed of dog. He’s small in stature, but large in presence, and he evokes raucous laughter from the audience with almost every answer he gives.

“You’re really meeting him tomorrow, yeah?” Liam points to the tiny laughing figure in the video. “You nervous?”

On the screen, the miniature digital Louis Tomlinson rises from his chair to demonstrate his signature dance move. “Stop the traffic, let the people through,” he says, waving one hand through the air, the other resting behind his head. The crowd erupts in boisterous laughter.

“Nah,” Harry shrugs. “Seems nice enough, I guess.”

* * * * *

Harry hears him before he sees him, and he guesses most people who have met Louis Tomlinson would describe the affair in a similar way.

“Harry Styles,” comes a loud, raucous voice from behind him. “It’s perfect.”

Harry swivels in his chair, and he takes in golden skin, blue eyes, and piercing cheekbones, sharpened by the harsh light of the conference room. In some ways, Louis looks just like the person his search engine results revealed, but his physical presence evokes so much more. He exudes a vibrant energy that draws attention in the room like static electricity.

Harry stands up from his chair, offering a hand. “What’s perfect?”

Louis grips Harry’s hand firmly, and something sparkles in his eyes. Harry isn’t sure what light Louis' eyes are reflecting, because it certainly isn’t the sterile glare of the fluorescent ones above them. It’s warmer, and glitters with laughter.

“Your last name. A wardrobe stylist named Styles.” Louis claps Harry’s shoulder with his free hand, and a grin crawls across the angles of his face. “Must be destiny.”

Harry chuckles, letting go and running his hand through his hair. “Must be,” he shrugs.

Simon clears his throat from across the table. “Gentlemen, everyone please take a seat.”

Cool air hums from the vent in the corner and Harry shifts in his chair, rubbing his hands along the smooth material of his trousers. He watches as Louis sits down across from him, his arms crossed over his chest, radiating calm, smooth confidence. Two other men wearing tailored suits and pinched expressions occupy the chairs lining the table.

“Quite a generous welcome for a new stylist,” Harry muses. “Not sure I’m worth all that.”

A low chuckle ripples through the room like a stone cast into glassy water, and Simon trains his expression into subdued amusement. His suit is tight in the arms, and a bead of sweat trickles down his neck and disappears into the thin fabric of his plain white shirt.

“We have some admittedly...sensitive matters to discuss. This is Richard Griffiths,” he gestures toward the beefy man to his left, whose face is pink and pinched like he’s nervous and sunburnt. His bald head glistens in the sterile light of the conference room. “Griffiths is the head of our publicity department. And this,” he continues, motioning to a slender greying man with deep wrinkles on either side of his eyes, “is Harry Magee. He is our legal counsel here at Simco Management.”

“Pleasure.” Harry reaches across the long, shiny table to shake the hands of both men. Their grips are cripplingly tight. Harry leans back, smoothing his hands along the lapels of his Saint Laurent suede jacket in a reflexive gesture of discomfort, despite his trained demeanor of calm composure and formality.

“Now. Can I offer you some water, Harry?” Simon asks.

Harry nods. “Please.”

The sun is warm on his left side where it filters in through the open blinds over the vast glass window. Simon pours cold water into a tall glass, ice cubes clinking against the sides as he slides it across the table.

“Let’s get started, shall we?” Simon leans across the table, spreading his fingers on the smooth surface. His eyes dart between Louis and Harry, his expression professional and unreadable. “Harry, I hope you had a pleasant flight yesterday. Thank you again for being here. We’ll bring you up to speed. Louis begins his first US tour this February, are you aware of this?”

Harry glances across the table at Louis, praying his expression conceals his cluelessness. He’s never been a tabloid reader, to say the least, and he knows little more about Louis Tomlinson than what his cursory Google searches revealed yesterday. By the slight knowing curve of Louis' smile, he doubts he’s concealed much of anything. Still, he nods, his lips pressed firmly in a thin line.

“Yes, I’m aware.”

“Excellent.” Simon presses his fingertips together under his chin. “The US is a new market for us, so we have plans for three months of promo by way of photoshoots, talk show appearances, and so on, prior to the launch of the tour. This is where you come in.”

Harry nods, turning his glass in circles on the table. Condensation gathers on the sides, trickling down in droplets and pooling around the base. He tips it back on his lip to take a sip.

The heavyset bald man to the left of Simon—Richard Griffiths—clears his throat and opens his large mouth to speak.

“In two days, we have a photoshoot for the tour announcements. We’d like for you to come up with ten to twelve different looks, of which Mr. Tomlinson will choose eight. Will this be enough time for you?”

“Certainly,” Harry agrees. “Can I ask some questions to get a feel for what you’re looking for?” He directs his question toward Louis, who remains noticeably and, from what Harry knows of him so far, uncharacteristically silent. Louis glances, expectant, toward Simon, who noisily clears his throat.

“You can direct your questions to me for the time being,” Simon replies. “We would like to keep relatively tight control of Louis' look for now. Our goal is to display an image that is most highly marketable in the States, you see?”

Harry’s eyes dart over to Louis, and a stone wall would have offered more emotion than Louis' inscrutable expression. His back is painfully straight in his chair.

“I see.”

“We’re looking for relatable. We want casual, fun-loving, ladies-man Louis Tomlinson. Ideally, his wardrobe selections will display these traits.”

Harry struggles to imagine Louis' tight cuffed jeans and scoop-neck pale purple jumper swapped for a skater tank and baggy trousers.

“I understand. Ten to twelve party boy looks by Friday.”

Simon chuckles. “Let’s not call it ‘party boy.’ But I think we’re on the same page. Ten to twelve looks, please, yes.”

Harry nods, and swallows the rest of his water. He feels the cold liquid crawl through his chest and pool in his belly. Louis has him locked in fierce eye contact, and something wild ripples in his expression.

“We’d like to establish some legal, uh,” Harry Magee pauses, “boundaries, if you will. As Mr. Tomlinson’s stylist, you will be audience to some, um, privileged information, so to speak. We ask that you consent to signing an NDA, which will protect everyone involved.”

“I understand,” Harry agrees. NDA’s are about as rare as publicity stunts in the entertainment industry; that is to say, they’re entirely common and unremarkable. He’s signed his fair share working with Niall.

“Great. Well, that’s all we have for today, then.” Simon straightens his posture, clasping his hands together in front of his chest. “Thank you, Mr. Styles, and again, I want to say how pleased we are to have you on the team.”

Griffiths and Magee both nod calmly, hands folded, their expressions anything but pleased.

“Pleased to be here,” Harry replies, mimicking Simon’s polite smile.

Simon gathers his papers into a folder, snapping the folder shut and giving a quick nod as he reaches for the door. His two companions do the same.

As soon as Simon and his followers are in the hallway, Louis is on his feet next to Harry’s chair.

“I was rude,” Louis proclaims, offering a hand once more. “I never properly introduced myself. I’m Louis Tomlinson.”

“Harry Styles.” Harry stands up to take Louis' hand and shake it a second time.

“I know.” Louis grins. “Heard all about you. Your Niall, he’s a big fan, from what I hear.”

Harry ducks his head, a smile pulling at his lips.

“I’m sorry about the co-tour thing. ‘S unfair. Selfishly, though, I’m glad it means I was able to hire you. You come with glowing recommendations.”

“Thank you,” Harry says, and the smile pushes through. “I appreciate it.”

“How about drinks?” When Harry hesitates, Louis quickly adds, “On me, of course.”

Harry lifts an eyebrow, placing a hand on his hip. “Do you always invite new members of your team for drinks?”

“Does it matter? I’m inviting you now.”

“Charming.”

Pausing, Harry grins.

“But I'm in.”

* * * * *

That night, exchanging backstories over beers, Harry feels warm inside a buzzing, noisy bar on a chilly November night. And as condensation gathers on the windowsills and the music pulses heavily through the smoky bar air and Louis downs two more beers than Harry does, Harry is surprised by three things.

First, Louis is overflowing with questions about Harry.

Second, he asks those questions as if he truly wants the answer rather than an excuse to fill up empty space with words.

And third, Harry opens for Louis like a book, and he doesn’t mind, because every page he gives him, Louis tucks into his pocket like a favourite poem.

* * * * *

“Hey, mate. How’d it go last night?”

Harry takes the coffee cup Liam is holding out for him, wrapping his cold hands around the sides and inhaling the spicy scent of cinnamon-tinged steam from the opening at the top.

“Mmm. Thank you so much, Li. Cinnamon latte?”

Liam nods, a wide grin pinching at the corners of his eyes. “Yep.”

“Yum. Thank you,” Harry repeats. “Knew I kept you around for a reason.”

As they walk shoulder-to-shoulder down the bustling London street, Harry is grateful to have Liam with him. He had hired Liam as his assistant shortly after Niall’s previous stylist moved on to work for GQ and Harry was promoted from intern to stylist. Liam had been grateful to leave the tyrannical executive he had worked for before Harry, and Harry was just thankful to have an extra set of hands and a friend to join him on his shopping excursions. And now, as rushing bodies press in on all sides and car horns shriek carelessly as they walk down Oxford Street, Harry clutches the coffee Liam generously brought for him and thinks about Niall and backstage dressing rooms and things he left behind in the US and he thanks God or the stars or whoever was responsible for making sure that Liam wasn’t one of those things.

“So?” Liam asks, lifting one eyebrow, glancing at Harry across the lid of his coffee cup. “Last night? The meeting? How’d it go?”

“It went well,” Harry answers, nodding generously. “The manager’s pretentious and kind of overbearing, but Louis' a nice bloke.”

“I knew he would be.” Liam dodges an oncoming bicyclist, bumping into Harry’s side. He reaches out a hand to grasp Harry’s arm. “Sorry, mate. What’s with the manager?”

Harry shrugs. “I don’t know. They’re trying to break the US market and they’re manipulating Louis' image pretty strictly in order to do it, so I mean…” He takes a sip of his latte. “Yeah, he’s just controlling. A pain in the arse, if I’m honest.

“That poor Louis. Classic closet case, innit.”

Closet case? Like, as in…?

“What?”

Liam waves his hand dismissively in the air. “Well, you know. I read some things here and there while I was messing around on the internet yesterday. It’s all just rumours, but it would explain the rigid image control.”

Harry shuffles through his memories of last night at the bar, searching for an off-hand comment or uncalculated remark that could substantiate the claim. If Louis had said something, Harry would have remembered it. Wouldn’t he?

He just nods, pressing his lips together. Dull unease curls around his stomach and burns like acid in the back of his throat.

“You sure you’re okay helping to build someone’s closet?” Liam prods.

“You don’t even know if the rumours are true, Liam. You can’t believe every fucking thing you read,” Harry snaps.

Liam recoils almost imperceptibly, his expression bruised, though he quickly regains his composure.

“I’m sorry,” Harry apologizes. “I didn’t mean to yell at you. I just—”

“It’s okay,” Liam reassures him, playfully nudging at him with one elbow. “It’s a lot for you. This...all this. I’m sorry about that.”

And, oh, god, why is Liam apologizing to him? Why has Harry been such an arse lately?

The truth is, no, Harry would not be okay with being used as a tool to build someone’s closet. Closeting is rampant in the entertainment industry, and Harry has seen firsthand the damage and torment it can cause a closeted individual. Luckily for him, he has never achieved the level of fame that often requires a closet, but he has seen enough that his stomach lurches at the thought of being involved in the process in any way.

But Louis' image control is not the same as a closet. If he was to be closeted, the topic would have come up in the meeting last night. Wouldn’t it?

Surely Louis would have mentioned it at the bar, at least. Harry learned that Louis hates the fuzz on peaches and that he likes to wear socks to bed and that his little sister is terrified of the dark so he used to stay with her and sing her to sleep when they were younger; Louis would have mentioned if he were gay. Probably.

“Yeah, no, I’ll—I’ll figure it out,” Harry mumbles.

Liam grips his shoulder, and Harry warms with the familiarity of his grin, the eyes that close as his mouth opens wide. “You will.”

“Thanks,” Harry smiles back. He gestures toward a massive concrete building lined with columns and sprawling windows. Above the main entrance, an ornate statue of a woman with wings spread stands atop the bow of her ship. “I was thinking Selfridges today, what do you think?”

“For Louis' photoshoot looks?”

“Yes. Simon wants relatable, young, party boy. At the meeting, Louis had on this gorgeous lavender Burberry sweater—” Harry pauses a moment for dramatic effect, theatrically closing his eyes and clasping his hands in front of his chest, then drops his shoulders in a mix of mock and genuine defeat. “But for the photoshoot I’m thinking of starting with Adidas and Topman to see what I can find.”

“Sounds great.” Liam reaches for the door of the front entrance, sweeping his free arm in front of him. “After you, boss.”

* * * * *

When Harry arrives at the studio on Friday morning, he brings with him garment bags of Adidas jackets and Topman tees, Vans in bold colours, and a smoothie cup held by a shaky, nervous hand. Liam is waiting for him outside.

“You’re only three minutes late! It’s a record. Strawberry banana?” Liam asks, pulling the front door open as Harry walks toward him, garment bags tossed over his back.

Harry nods, shifting shoeboxes between his arms. “Yeah. I—actually—hang on—”

“Here, let me,” Liam offers, taking the smoothie from Harry’s hand. “Right around this corner.”

Harry drops a shoebox, and a pair of red Vans go tumbling out, landing in front of his feet. He huffs, dropping the rest of the boxes to scoop the shoes back into their place. Liam clears his throat from the doorway. When Harry looks up at him, he pretends to take a sip from Harry’s smoothie, and Harry throws the left shoe at him, cackling with laughter as Liam folds in half, clutching his stomach.

“I hope you didn’t just make me scuff the soles of those,” Harry teases.

“No, really,” Liam chokes. “Don’t worry about me. Worry about the shoes.”

Harry shakes his head, chuckling as he piles the shoeboxes back up, balancing them in his arms.

“I’m fine,” Liam gasps, flattening the back of his hand against his forehead.

“Please.” Harry rolls his eyes, walking past Liam and into the studio.

“Everything okay, Mr. Styles?”

Simon stands in the hall, fingertips pressed together, back straight as a rail.

“Yes, thank you,” Harry replies, looking past Simon at the set-up of the room.

The studio is, for the most part, a standard photography studio. The floors are smooth, polished concrete, and the walls a dusty red brick. An antique gold chandelier glitters from where it hangs over a pair of brown leather couches. Behind the couches, separated by a black velvet curtain, is a long mirror lined with daylight hollywood bulbs, and in front of it, a stainless steel work table stretching the length of the mirror. A clothing rack sits off to the side.

Harry motions toward the curtained area. “Is this me?”

“Yes,” Simon affirms. “Feel free to set up as you wish. When you’re ready, I’ll come take a look at the outfits you’ve chosen.”

Harry nods. Liam follows him to the wardrobe area carrying the remaining garment bags.

When Louis arrives, it’s eight o’clock and Simon has given Harry’s wardrobe selections a dispassionate nod of approval and the room has filled with photographers and light designers and various team members and assistants and it smells of coffee and cologne and the mechanical sounds of set construction mingle with the low murmur of polite conversation. When the door opens, the room ripples with one collectively held breath.

Harry feels it before he sees it. The energy in the room shifts, as if the air were charged with electricity. He turns and watches along with the rest of the room as Louis walks through the front door.

Louis offers everyone a closed-mouthed grin, his eyes crinkling. He runs a hand across his forehead to adjust his fringe. “Morning,” he chirps, voice soft with sleep.

The room is filled with the murmur of “morning”s and “how are you”s. Louis notices Harry across the room, and everyone follows his gaze as he throws him an excited wave. Harry grins and waves back, and Louis holds up one finger, mouthing, “One second.”

While he waits, Harry sorts through the clothing rack again, double checking that the jackets are with the jackets and the tanks are with the tanks and the—

“Hey there, Styles the Stylist.”

Harry straightens up, turning around to find Louis standing inches behind him. “Morning, Louis. Or—” Harry glances warily around him, worried someone may be displeased with his lack of formality. “Mr. Tomlinson?”

Louis shakes his head. “Louis. Don’t worry about it.”

“Louis,” Harry grins. “Let me introduce you to my assistant, he’s over—”

“Actually, I wondered if I could speak with you alone for a minute.”

“Oh, okay, sure, yeah. These—these curtains—” Harry stretches over the clothing rack to pull the curtain toward him. “These curtains close. Here, let me just—there.”

With the curtains closed, Harry takes a seat at the work table, and Louis sits down across from him, pulling one knee up to his chest.

“So, about the bar the other night.”

Harry feels slightly breathless. He swallows a lump of anxiety that swells in his throat. He nods, urging Louis to go on.

“I guess I just want to make sure that you didn’t get the wrong idea.”

Harry fiddles with a hanger that lies on the floor, kicking it lightly with the toe of his boot. “Wrong idea about what?”

“I don’t know,” Louis shrugs. He gestures to the space between them. “This. I don’t want you to feel like I was hitting on you by asking you out for drinks.”

Hitting on him? Harry feels slightly dizzy from the effort he expends resisting the temptation to analyse the implications of what Louis is telling him.

It’s all just rumours, but it would explain the rigid image control.

Harry kicks the hanger away.

“Oh yeah, of course. I didn’t get that impression.”

“You didn’t?” Louis asks, leaning forward slightly in his chair.

Harry shakes his head. “No, not at all. I just thought you were being generous. Which it was.” He clears his throat. “Very generous.”

“Great,” Louis grins. “I had a good time. You’re alright, Styles the Stylist.”

“I had a good time, too,” Harry says, as if it’s the most simple thing in the world. And maybe it is simple. Or, it can be. Because Louis is good company and his employment is good money and any other complicating factors like sexuality and closets are minor trivialities.

Harry smiles like he believes it, and Louis smiles back like it’s what he was made to do.

“So,” Louis says, clapping his hands together. “What have you got for me?”

Harry jumps down from his chair, wiggling his eyebrows as he says, “I have got a ‘relatable party boy’ treasure trove. Step into my office, where the magic happens.”

Harry pulls a boldly patterned Adidas jacket from the clothing rack. “Look number one. This will be paired with—”

Louis snatches the jacket from Harry’s hand, holding it up in front of him. “What colour is this?” he interrupts, his voice shooting up in pitch. “And what is ‘relatable’ about this godawful pattern?”

“That one was Simon’s favourite,” Harry smirks.

Louis snorts loudly, and returns the jacket to the rack. “Figures.”

“Are you ruling that one out?”

“No,” Louis says with a shrug and a flick of his fringe. “Not yet. Next.”

Next, Harry selects a solid navy jacket with a single white stripe across the top.

“Okay, yeah, this one I dig.” Louis holds the jacket to his chest, one hand on his hip.

Harry wrinkles his nose. “That one?”

“Yeah, this one. Not everyone likes to wear flashy floral jackets like yours, Mr. Styles the Stylist.”

“What’s your issue with patterns?” Harry taunts.

“I don’t have an issue with patterns, I like stripes,” Louis whines, and oh, god. Harry barely keeps from rolling his eyes. Such poor taste, but so endearing.

“Well,” Harry says, “at least we know there’s one thing here you like.”

Louis groans, throwing his body dramatically over the back of the chair. “No offense, Harry, honestly, but these are the worst.”

Harry chuckles, replacing the navy jacket on the clothing rack and sitting down beside Louis. He wonders momentarily what Louis is doing, being a pop star and all. He remembers skimming tabloid articles that popped up on his Twitter feed claiming that Louis Tomlinson, womanizer, slept with 350 women this year alone and that Louis Tomlinson, arrogant rich kid, spends all his money on fancy cocktails in high-class clubs and never leaves alone afterward. For a wild moment, with Louis beside him draped over his chair, defeated, Harry believes that the tabloids had it wrong. He recklessly believes that Louis' hands are open to others more than they are closed and that his heart means more than just a night.

“What would you wear today, if you could choose anything you wanted?” Harry asks.

“We won’t find out, will we?” Louis replies.

He smiles while he says it, and Harry doesn’t say anything, but the non-answer hangs thick in the air.

Harry thinks about Simon and about manipulation and control. He thinks about Louis' bright and bouncy energy and about vibrant colour. He wonders who the first person was to tell Louis he was too much, to ask Louis to tone himself down. And he wonders whether, by knowingly dressing Louis down, he is any different than that person.

He swallows around a thousand “I'm sorry”s as he pulls a third outfit from the rack.

* * * * *

“Haven’t you ever heard of pheromones? They’re sexy.”

Liam pulls his face away from Harry’s shirt to squint at him. “Phero-what?” he yells, his voice barely carrying over the pulsing music of the club.

“Pheromones,” Harry repeats. He pulls a thin black straw into his mouth, sucking in a mouthful of his caipirinha. “It’s another word for ‘sexy man stink.’”

Louis, who is standing to Harry’s left, swaying his hips to the music, snorts into his glass. “Did you just say ‘sexy man stink’?”

“No, listen. Pheromones, they're like, in your sweat. It's a real thing.”

As Harry attempts to explain himself, he briefly wonders how, in fact, he was transplanted from New York City to a photoshoot afterparty in a crowded club in London discussing the biology—or was it chemistry?—of sexual attraction with his brand new employer in less than seventy-two hours.

Louis is chuckling, shaking his head as he leans on his elbows against the bar, and Liam is pressing his fingers into his temples.

“No, mate,” Liam groans. “You just stink. That’s all I was saying.”

“I don't know,” Louis says. He runs his fingertips along the rim of his glass, tipping his head sideways. “Harry seems like an intelligent bloke. Maybe he’s right.”

Louis' sideways grin is making Harry feel like he probably should order another drink. Fast.

Louis tosses back the rest of his own drink, slamming the glass back down on the bar.

“Flirt with me.”

“What?”

“Yeah, come on.” Louis turns in his seat to face Harry. “Pretend I’m just a random person and you’re trying to pick me up. Show me the sexy man stink in action.”

Harry groans, covering his face with his hands. “Oh, my god. Please stop saying sexy man stink. I’ve never regretted three words more.”

Louis laughs, twirling his straw between his fingers. “Don’t worry, mate,” he grins. “I won’t forget.”

“Can we just dance? Let’s just—Liam, let’s go dance.”

“You know...” Louis drawls. He inserts the straw between his teeth, his body forming an ‘S’ shape as he leans one hip against the bar. “You’d think all these sheer shirts,” he continues, waving his hand in front of Harry’s torso, “would wick away the man stink. Don’t you think?”

“Ugh,” Harry groans loudly, throwing his hands in the air.

“Oh, not the shirts,” he hears Liam mutter from behind him as he storms out onto the dance floor.

Harry wobbles pleasantly on his feet as he makes his way into the centre of the crowded room. The air is thick with smoke and body heat, and strobe lights illuminate the crowd of bodies grinding and cheering and joyously spilling drinks on one another. His heartbeat thunders in his ears as he begins to sway his hips to the rhythmic throb of a Beyonce remix.

“You’re a shit dancer,” comes a familiar voice from behind him. Harry feels the exhalation on his neck before he registers the words, but when he turns around, Louis is grinning just a breath away from his face.

Harry pushes Louis back with his fingertips, chuckling. “Shut the fuck up.”

Louis is holding his drink by his head between two dainty fingers, the rest of his hand splayed out in the air. He twists his torso, his narrow waist lengthening as he swings his hips from side to side.

“I love this song.”

“You’re so lucky you get to do this all the time,” Harry marvels. He reaches for Louis' drink to steal a sip, but Louis lets him take the glass. Harry tips it back, swallowing a mouthful of foul, foul liquid. He scrunches up his nose, pressing it back into Louis' chest and coughing, “What is that?”

“Rum and coke. Heavy on the rum.” Louis shrugs. “I knew you looked like the type to sip fruity concoctions and pull funny faces between each sip.”

“That's so unfair,” Harry starts to say, and Louis is laughing like he’d never imagined anything funnier but he stops short when a large hand snakes around his waist. His eyes widen almost imperceptibly.

“Whoa,” Harry mumbles, searching for a cue in Louis' expression.

“Hey, there, gorgeous,” comes a rough voice. A tall, muscular man with a close-cropped blonde haircut is leaned over Louis, whispering into his ear. “Been watching you all night.”

Louis pushes the blonde's hand away, his body noticeably rigid.

“Ah, that’s not creepy. See something you like?”

The blonde groans, his eyes fluttering closed. “Yeah, babe.” He tries to get handsy again, reaching out for Louis’ hips with both hands, but Louis dodges his groping fingers.

Harry scans the crowd, sweeping his eyes from left to right. Where is Liam?

Louis turns to face the man, walking his fingers up the man's chest.

“Well, how about I tell you something?” Louis hums coyly.

“Yeah, tell me.” The man is practically panting and honestly, Harry can feel his cheeks burning with second-hand embarrassment, but what is Louis doing?

“Hey,” the man hesitates, squinting his eyes. “You kinda look like—you know Louis Tomlinson? The singer? You kinda—you look—”

“Yeah,” Louis smiles stiffly. “Get that from time to time. But hey, my friend.” He trails his hand back down across the blonde's chest. “Tonight's not your night.” He gives his hand a slight push, pressing the man backward.

“What the fuck?”

“Sorry, mate,” Louis says, turning to walk back to where Harry's standing.

“What the fuck was that?” The man balls his fists up at his sides, taking steps toward Louis again.

“Hey,” Harry snaps, his voice starting to rise in volume. “Calm the fuck down!”

The man stares Harry down, his face an angry shade of red. “Who the bloody hell are you?” He man turns to Louis. “This your boyfriend? ‘S that what this is about?”

Harry takes a step forward. “Yeah, I’m his bloody boyfriend, so stay the fuck away from him. Go harass someone else.”

“Fucking queers, both of you,” the blonde spits.

When he’s gone, Harry and Louis both attempt to speak at the same time.

“I’m sorry I said—”

“I don’t think I’ve heard—”

“Oh, sorry,” Harry says quickly, shaking his hands in Louis’ direction. “You go first.”

Louis shakes his head. “I was just going to say I don’t think I’ve heard you swear so much in such a short period of time.”

Harry laughs. “You obviously haven’t known me long enough. Sorry I said I was your boyfriend.”

“No problem,” Louis grins, sharp and electric in the lights.

They stand like that for a while, music and heartbeats and the shaking of the floor vibrating around them. Harry bobs his head slightly, tendrils of awkwardness making him aware of...everything. Louis stands still, his empty glass dangling from his fingers where his hand lies limp at his side.

“I have to go home with a girl tonight,” he says suddenly.

“What?” Harry asks, taken aback. “What do you mean have to?”

“Like, I have to.” Louis' vibrant, life-sized energy dwindles in front of Harry's eyes. “Paps are waiting outside for me to leave. The team hired a girl. She’s meeting me in an hour and we’ll walk out together.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, fuck Simon, right? It's just a headline or two. Right?”

Louis shrugs. He busies himself with the examination of his glass. The air hangs thick with things unspoken, an undercurrent of tension making it slightly difficult to breathe.

“My little sister asked my mum today what the word ‘womanizer’ meant.”

Harry feels like his throat is coated with cotton.

“Did she see that in—?”

Louis nods. “Yeah.”

“Louis, I'm—” Harry's shoulders drop. “I’m so—”

“Nah,” Louis waves his hand dismissively. “Fuck Simon. Yeah? I need a shot.” His tone is lifeless, dull to Harry’s ears.

As Harry follows Louis back to the bar, he watches the way his bones ripple under the fabric of his shirt as he moves. He’s struck by how delicate Louis appears in the rare moments when he is decidedly not the centre of attention, when he is blissfully relieved of the duty of being Louis Tomlinson, life of the party.

Harry wonders if you can be protective of someone you've only known three days.

He throws his head back and screams.

“London!”

He screams it to the sky and to the drunk, celebrating crowd and to Louis and to Niall who is far from Harry for the first time in years and to the blonde man who didn't give a shit about Louis. When he’s done screaming, his voice cracks, and he thinks there are way too many people in this world who don't give a shit.

* * * * *

It’s the middle of November and it’s the kind of chilly that is invigorating with a sweater but just plain cold without.

Harry knows this because Liam is sitting across from him at the table outside the coffee shop, happily covered in a layer of wool, and Harry’s exposed skin is prickled with goosebumps. It feels like a rude joke, a cruel metaphor for their relationship, both at work and out of it—with Liam prepared for the weather and Harry sorely underprepared.

Harry grips his latte with both hands, savoring the warmth between his palms. It’s a Friday morning that came gently, and he and Liam are discussing such important things as the most embarrassing movie scenes they’ve wanked to.

“That's not embarrassing enough,” Liam whines. “Everyone's wanked while watching ‘The Notebook’, come on.”

“Alright, alright,” Harry sighs. He taps his thumb on the rim of his coffee cup. “Oh, okay, here's another one. ‘Notting Hill.’”

Harry,” Liam groans. “Do you not understand the meaning of the word ‘embarrassing’? I just told you I wanked to Tarzan twice, and—oh.” He glances around them, tossing a wave to a middle aged woman gawking at them from the next table. He lowers his voice, leaning in across the table. “I told you about my Tarzan thing and the best you can do is ‘Notting Hill’?”

“I didn't say which scene.”

“Oh.” Liam leans back in his chair. “Which scene then?”

“You know the scene where they're at dinner and they overhear some guys around the corner talking shit about her?”

“And she says they have dicks the size of peanuts?”

Harry laughs, nodding enthusiastically. “That's the one.”

“Ew, why the—?”

Harry shrugs. “Douchebags getting served justice by Julia Roberts. Gets me hard every time. Especially the drooling Hugh Grant in the background.”

“You're disgusting,” Liam shudders.

“Do you feel better about the Tarzan incident?”

“Incidents,” Liam corrects him. “And yes. Thank you.”

“You're welcome,” Harry chuckles.

His phone begins to buzz on the table. He picks it up, swiping his finger across the screen and lifting it up to his ear. “Hello?”

“Hello, Harry. How are you this morning? I hope you’ve enjoyed your week off.”

“Yes, thank you.” Harry leans forward, cupping his hand over the receiver to mouth “Simon” in response to Liam’s quizzical look. Liam pulls a pinched face.

“Listen, I was wondering if you might be available for a bit of a...last minute task today.”

“What task is that?”

Simon clears his throat. “Mr. Tomlinson will be photographed on a lunch outing this afternoon, and we were hoping that you might be available to style him for that outing.”

Harry imagines the articles in which the photos will be used, and the captions that will be inscribed below them like an inside joke no one let Louis in on. “What are you looking for?”

“Any of the tour announcement outfits will suffice,” Simon replies. “I realise it’s quite last minute, so just do the best you can.”

Harry pulls the phone from his ear, pressing the ‘speaker’ button and tapping the screen to open his contact list.

“Can I be provided with Mr. Tomlinson’s contact information so that we can determine a meeting place?”

“Oh, yes, naturally.” The sound of rustling papers filters through the speakerphone. “I was under the impression you had been provided that information already. I might suggest you meet Mr. Tomlinson at his home, but I will let you work that out. I have his phone number here. Are you ready?”

Harry presses the plus sign at the top right of the screen. “I’m ready.”

As Simon lists off the series of numbers, Harry copies them into the text box. Under the name section, he types Louis' full name. Then he deletes the last name. Louis would want to be just Louis.

“Thank you,” Harry says when he’s finished, returning the phone to his ear. His voice is clipped and formal. “I will be in touch.”

“Excellent,” Simon returns. “Happy as always to have you on the team, Mr. Styles.”

Harry swallows an overflow of questionable responses and settles on a simple “Thank you.”

When he hangs up, he places his phone face down on the table and takes a swig of his latte, wrinkling his nose at the sweet liquid that has grown cold.

With his elbows spread on the table, Harry asks, “Do you remember where we put those outfits for Louis' tour photoshoot?”

Liam’s eyes dart upward, squinting slightly. “I think—aren’t those still in the garment bags in the car?”

Harry nods. “Probably.”

“Do you need them for today?” Liam asks.

Harry nods again as he stuffs his keys and his phone into his pocket. “Lunch outing with paps.”

When Harry reaches the car, he shuffles through the garment bags until he finds the jacket he’s looking for, quickly tucking it into a bag which he labels with Louis' name. It sits beside him on the passenger seat as he drives to Louis' house.

He chooses the navy jacket with the white stripe across the top—the one item in all of the twelve outfits that Louis liked—and he does the best he can.

* * * * *

When Harry pulls into the drive later that afternoon, Louis is standing in the doorway with a grin wide enough to split his face and two hands full of Chinese takeaway.

“Thought Chinese might make it all better.” Louis shrugs his shoulders, his voice bright. “Usually does the trick for me.”

Harry jumps out of the car, slamming the door behind him. “God, hey. Hi. How was your trip?” He bounds up the walkway to stand, beaming and breathless, beside Louis. “Fuck, that smells good.”

As Harry thumbs through the bag Louis holds in his left hand, Louis gently swats the back of Harry’s head. “I was only gone a week, mate, not a year.”

Harry realises in a moment of private clarity that this is the first time he’s seen Louis as, well, Louis. His hair is feathery and sticks out in at least seven directions, and a thin jumper clings to his shoulders as it drapes across his collarbones. He looks vulnerable, but assuredly so, and, apparently, he still speaks with a carelessness that shows he’s important but makes it look effortless.

“Well? How did you like sunny Los Angeles?” Harry asks, lowering the pitch of his voice with a dramatic flourish.

“The trip was all business, young Harry, no pleasure,” Louis taunts. “Well, there was some. Pleasure.” He wiggles his eyebrows. “If you know what I mean.”

Harry elbows him in the stomach, giggling. “You would.”

“It’s true,” Louis says solemnly. “The blokes are much hotter.”

Harry laughs, brushing past Louis to open the door. “Can we eat? Please? It’s past my lunchtime.”

It isn’t until after Harry helps himself inside and spreads the cartons of takeaway across the table, shovels forkfuls of lo mein into his mouth and spews pieces of chewed noodles every which way as he pulls the jacket and matching jeans from the garment bags, attempts to fix Louis' hair for him (“I survived twenty-three years with good hair before I met you, Harry, now fuck off.”), fails to convince Louis to wear his glasses (“Black frames with a navy jacket? I thought you were better than that, truly.”), and sends Louis out the door for his pap shots right after stealing the last dumpling directly from his plate that Harry realises—Louis said blokes.

The blokes are much hotter.

It’s a word that takes Louis a split second to say, but it takes Harry months to determine its significance.

* * * * *

Weeks pass and they fall gently, gracefully into step.

On days when photoshoots or public appearances are scheduled, Harry wakes up early in the morning, Liam brings three coffee cups instead of two, and Louis starts to nap on the couch in the dressing room instead of his break room. The dressing room smells faintly of cigarette smoke and Louis' hair gel, despite the fact that Louis has his hair done by Lou Teasdale, the hair stylist, in the next room over, and Harry lives for the eye roll he gets when he makes twisted faces at Louis from behind the camera.

On days off, Harry and Liam spend the afternoons wardrobe shopping, and Harry carries Louis around on speakerphone. Harry does his best to describe the ugly pieces that Liam points and laughs at, and Louis asks important questions like what character from “Friends” does Harry think he’s most like and what should he order for dinner. Harry tells him he should make something homemade instead because it’s healthier that way, and on the way home, he stops at the coffee shop, where he orders the cappuccino creation Louis loves and always lets Harry steal sips of.

One night, after a day when late November had begun to taste like December, while Harry is in his flat sipping on tea, flipping through the latest issue of “Vogue” and wondering if he could convince Simon to approve a cashmere Hermes sweater for Louis' appearance on James Corden, Louis calls.

His name lights up on Harry’s screen.

“Hey, Lou.”

“Hey. I’m sorry it’s so late.”

“It’s okay,” Harry reassures him, flipping the magazine shut and placing it beside him on the couch. “Was just reading for a bit. What’s up?”

From the other end, he hears Louis pull in a ragged breath.

“Louis?”

“I’m sorry, I just—I feel so—I didn’t know who else to call,” Louis chokes out.

Worry curls in Harry's stomach. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Silence lingers for a beat, and Harry imagines Louis swallowing and pushing his fringe aside with the backs of his fingers. Then the words begin to fall from his mouth, sliding over one another on the way out.

“Most of the time I’m okay with this. I mean, it’s a fucked up mess, and it’s fucked up that my little sister has to read about me being some—some kind of womanizer, but it’s temporary. They’ll sell their papers and I’ll sell my albums and people will have their fun gossiping and then life will go on. Because there will be bigger news than who I bring to bed with me and because people forget. But then things like this happen and it’s not just me getting screwed over and it’s not just—fuck, Harry, it’s not just me getting hurt by this.”

“Louis—”

“And honestly, fuck Simon for implying I don’t work hard enough. I work my arse off and I have nothing to show for it, I have nothing—” Louis is cut off by a violent sob.

“Louis—Louis, hey. Just breathe.”

Again, Harry hears his jagged breathing.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asks, softening his voice to a gentle murmur.

“Yeah,” Louis replies after a beat. “Sorry for going off.”

“Hey, Lou, come on, don’t apologise,” he says firmly. “Hey, you know what, why don’t I come over and you can go off as much as you’d like?”

Louis hesitates, seems to think for a moment. “Actually, could I come over yours? I need to get out of this house.”

Harry tells him he absolutely can, and he makes a second cup of tea for Louis while he waits. He pulls an extra blanket from the closet at the end of the hallway and drapes it across the back of the couch.

When Louis lets himself through the front door twenty minutes later, his eyes are rimmed with red and his shoulders hang heavy and weary.

Harry knows when to ask questions and when to wait gently. So he just says, “I made you some tea.”

Louis smiles weakly, accepting the mug from Harry and blowing steam across the rim. He hums his thanks and sinks into the couch, curled into himself. After taking Louis' coat and hanging it by the door, Harry sits beside him, tucking one leg under the other.

They sip the sweet liquid, glancing around the room through clouds of cinnamon-laced steam. The silence, like tea, is smooth and warm, and there’s something sweet and intimate in it.

When Louis begins to breathe rhythmically again, he shifts in his seat. “Do you know Believe in Magic?”

“The children’s charity?” Harry clarifies.

Louis nods, his eyebrows furrowing. “It means a lot to me. I never—I’ve never lost anyone young like them. But when I look at them, those little kids, I—” Louis catches a tear from his right eye before it has a chance to slide down his cheek. “I see my sisters.”

Harry nods. He could move his hand mere centimetres and rest it on Louis', but he places it in his lap instead.

“And I think, they don’t get a chance, you know? I’ve had more of a chance at life than any of them ever will, and I—I’ve wasted it.”

“Louis, no, you haven’t wasted anything. You’re doing what you love, that’s—”

“Am I?” Louis cuts him off.

Harry stares blankly, and words fail him.

“I love to sing, Harry. But when was the last time this job had anything to do with singing?”

Louis places his mug on the floor in front of his feet, resting his hands in his lap. His palms face upward, open, empty, as if to say ‘I have nothing left.’ He doesn't break the silence with it, but Harry hears him.

“Every year around Christmas time, Believe in Magic hosts a giant charity ball. It’s a big deal, too.” Louis gestures with his hands as he speaks, his voice picking up speed. “They get a lot of donations from it, through auctions and stuff, and celebrities make appearances, which obviously gets a lot of press.”

“Christmas time?” Harry asks, hesitant due to Louis’ abrupt change in affect. “That’s in, like, a month.”

“Exactly. I thought, how amazing would that be, to be there this year? So I mentioned it to the team, sort of asked for the day off, you know?”

“Right.”

“And Simon said I am not to attend under any circumstances.” Louis places finger quotes around the end of his sentence, then drops his hands, limp and defeated, to his sides.

“He—what?”

“He said no.”

Harry blinks, shaking his head. “Why would he—?”

“It’s about the image now, Harry. I have an image that I am contractually bound to push.” Louis spits the words out, but his vehemence is marred by the tiredness in his voice.

“What, and Louis Tomlinson the popstar can’t have a good heart?” Harry says roughly.

Louis' shoulders heave as he forces a response. “This isn’t just about me anymore, though. This is about the kids. Think of the all the press coverage there would be if I went, think of all the new donors. Think what my fans could do for Believe in Magic.” Louis is trembling now, the volume of his voice increasing with each word. “They’re so dedicated, Harry, they’re so dedicated and these kids need hope so badly and I can scream it and scream it and scream it—” he sobs, pounding his fist on his knee with each beat, “but if my team has me muted, there’s no one to hear.”

Harry’s fight drains out of him at the sight of Louis beating himself up, and he reaches out, placing a palm on Louis' back. He rubs gently back and forth, whispering “I hear you, I hear you,” over and over again. Eventually, the fight empties out of Louis too.

“All of this,” Louis says, his voice brittle, “Is it because I don’t work hard enough?”

“What—? Louis, no.” Harry blurts before asking, “All of what?”

“The image control. Simon said it’s supplementary, said it’s to make up for what I don’t do myself. Like, I can’t sell enough albums myself.”

“That’s bullshit,” Harry cries. “That’s complete bullshit. You work harder than anyone I’ve ever met. Simon is scared. He’s trying to justify his pushing you so hard, and he’s hoping to drag you down in the process. Lou, please don’t let him do that to you.”

Louis looks at Harry, studying his face, and a tear spills out of the corner of one eye. Harry’s hand twitches with the urge to wipe it away with his thumb. Louis’ eyes are the colour of stormy waves.

“When was the last time you did something that you wanted to do?” Harry asks gently.

Louis shrugs, looking away. “I don’t know. Not much I want, really. I don’t think.”

And Harry doesn’t think that Louis sounds like the kind of person who can’t find anything in the world worth wanting. He thinks he sounds like someone who has been told a thousand times that whatever he wants, he isn’t worth receiving.

“Okay.” Harry lets go of Louis then, and he rubs his hands together to rid himself of the sudden feeling of emptiness between them. He straightens up, smiling. “Grab your coat. I want to show you something.”

* * * * *

“Harry, why did you take me to the Golden Jubilee Bridges? I’ve been here a thousand times.”

Harry grins.

“You haven’t been where I’m taking you.”

In front of them, the vast bridges stretch to reach across the Thames, their pylons thrust toward the sky like the heads of spears. Below, the gentle water catches the lights from the buildings on shore and sends it out in glittering diamond ripples.

“Did you know this bridge was the scene of a violent murder in 1999?”

“Good thing we’re not going up there, then,” Harry winks, limbs swinging in the sharp night air.

Bypassing the wide staircase leading up to the footbridge, Harry leads Louis under the bridge where it stretches across the motorway. The motorway, which during the day bustles with cars traveling back to back in a frenzy of traffic, is empty now, and they cross against the traffic lights, running with wild laughter bubbling from their lips.

Across the motorway, set back into the embankment, a brick wall separates the pavement from the river on the other side. A narrow set of uneven stone steps is nestled between the wall and the embankment, and Harry hurries down, motioning for Louis to follow.

“What is this place?” Louis' voice is a low, raspy whisper, as if the silence that encircles them is too precious to disrupt. He’s looking out across the water, and at the underbelly of the bridge that looms above them.

“My favourite place in the world.”

“It’s damp and smells like a muddy arsehole.”

Harry chuckles, one hand digging in the pocket of his trousers. “Look behind you.”

“I can’t see a thing behind me, Harry.”

Harry flicks on the flashlight he pocketed on the way out of his flat, bathing the brick wall behind them in light. Moss lines the bottom where the water climbs up the embankment after it rains.

Louis blinks. “Wow,” he exhales. “Wh—what is all this?”

Louis reaches out to brush the surface with his fingers. Across the brick—some carved, some spray-painted, some scribbled in Sharpie—are words. Lines of poems, bits of song lyrics, and other unfamiliar words, all scrawled across the weather-worn brick; declarations of love, refrains of hope, despair softened by the rhythm of a haiku.

“This is where I come when I need to be reminded of humanity.”

Mesmerized, Louis draws one finger across the rough brick, tracing a line that reads “we stayed up all night.” It’s dated nearly two and a half years ago.

“What do you mean?”

“The industry, it takes something from you. From everyone,” Harry explains. “It makes monsters of some, and heroes of others. The monsters steal and bully, and the heroes pretend to be immune. But here…” He trails off, pressing a thumb to the corner of one inscription, written in black marker.

I am a brilliant sunrise and you prefer to sleep in.

“Here, it’s so raw. So...human. To stand in a place where hearts come to break.”

I am changing more than I am staying the same,” Louis reads aloud, tracing the inscription with his fingertips. His voice is quiet, reverent.

Harry nods. Breathes. He exhales heavily, rising onto the balls of his feet.

“I first found this place a few years ago, and since then, a lot of the words have worn off. Isn’t it strange?”

“Isn’t what strange?” Louis asks, turning to face him. Everything about him is soft and catches the moonlight just so, and Harry can’t tear his eyes away.

“Time.” he replies after a few heartbeats. “The way things change even when we’re not there to watch it. If I wrote something here and never came back, it could stay forever or it could fade within months. Someone could stumble across this wall in five years while they’re drunk and trying to escape the rain and see what I wrote when my mum passed away and they would know, but I never would.”

All part of the story.

“Your mum died?”

“Yeah. Four years ago,” Harry breathes, and it comes easily as if it's not the first time mentioning it to anyone in years.

In the hush of the night, Louis reminds Harry less of the brilliance of the noon-time sun and more of the wistful glow of the moon.

Be more observant.

“She’d be proud of you, you know.”

“You think so?” Harry murmurs.

“I do.”

“How come?”

Louis exhales, and a cloud of condensation hangs tenderly in front of his mouth. He pushes one hand back over his hair and rests it behind his head.

“You said earlier that I’m making the most of my life because I’m doing what I love, but you’re the one who’s living their dreams, here. You’re unapologetic. You wear stupid jackets with busy patterns and you drink girly cocktails and you would intelligently, politely, and tactfully fuck up any person who questions you for that.” Louis drops his shoulders, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. “Not all of us could say that.”

Harry studies the way Louis' eyelashes cast fluttering shadows across the tops of his cheeks. “Do you ever regret it?”

Louis' eyes glitter in the dim light as he lifts his gaze to make eye contact, and Harry’s breath catches in his throat.

“Regret what?”

“All this.” Harry makes a wide sweeping gesture with his arm. “Fame.”

Louis shakes his head slowly. “I wouldn’t say regret. I regret hurting people. I regret times I’ve taken what wasn’t mine and times I’ve been insensitive to people I love. I regret things that I’ve done, but I don’t think you can regret things that just happen to you.”

Harry watches as Louis trails his fingers along another set of words etched into the brick.

I am not a riddle to be solved.

He slides his back down the wall, landing on the ground and pulling his knees into his chest. Louis follows, his legs flung out wide in front of him. Their hips are touching, and their arms, and Harry’s skin burns at the points of contact, even through the layers of fabric between them.

“Sometimes things that just happen to you can be good things.” Harry’s voice is a whisper now, and Louis leans in closer to hear.

“They can,” Louis agrees. “I like to think, though, that when I look back on my life, the best things will have been things I chose for myself.”

“Be your own hero, huh?” Harry props his chin on his knee, looking up to smile gently at Louis.

“No. No, not quite that.” Louis is quiet for a moment, and Harry can see him turning a thought over in his mind, examining its every curve and corner. Then, he adds, “I just don’t want to be someone who simply lets life happen to me. For better or for worse. Not enough people take ownership of their lives. They romanticize it, call it fate. Or they curse it, call it bad luck. I just want to know that my life is a life I chose.”

Harry pulls on his bottom lip, his brows furrowing.

“Do you think it is right now? What you chose?”

Louis draws his legs back then, toward his body, closing his eyes and exhaling wearily.

“I don’t know,” he admits finally. He rubs his thumb in circles on his thigh, eyes fixed downward, and swallows hard. “That’s what scares me.”

Harry turns his head to the side, scanning the writing on the wall, looking for inscriptions he’s never seen before. Just above his right shoulder, in white paint, is a quote.

We agreed to love each other madly.

Jack Kerouac, Harry recognizes. On the Road. One of his favourites. His chest burns as he remembers his favourite quote from the novel. He watches Louis, gazing across the river, his eyes red-rimmed with emotion and exhaustion, as the words flash across his memory.

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time…”

Once, Louis had called Harry just to tell him that he learned of a word to describe the agonizing frustration of being trapped in only one body that can only occupy one place at a time. Onism, he said, was the word. Harry had confessed that he had never felt onism before, but when they’d hung up, Harry had written it down because he had always felt that there was something about Louis that was too big and too bright for the tiny people and the tiny world that surrounded him.

“...the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

Beside him, Louis burns, burns, burns, and time is frozen.

* * * * *

“Could you please hold still and stop shaking your arse in my face?”

Louis cackles, placing his hands on his knees to wiggle his bum backwards.

“Knock it off, Louis, I’m trying to hem your shirt, for god’s sake hold still.”

“Fine, fine,” giggles Louis. He straightens his posture, clasping his hands together in front of him. “Better?”

“Better. Thank you. Move again and I’ll stick you with this needle. Your choice.”

“Why does the shirt need hemming anyway?”

Harry sighs, exasperated. “The fact that I am hired to keep your wardrobe in order should preclude the need for me to even answer questions like that. But, since you’re such a pest—”

“Persistent,” Louis interrupts. “I prefer persistent.”

“Since you’re such a pest, I’ll humour you. The shirt looks baggy and ridiculous and that’s why I’m hemming it.”

You’re baggy and ridiculous.” Louis is standing with his hands on his hips, and he actually stomps his foot, the retort lightning-quick off his tongue.

“Alright.” Harry stands up from the chair, tucking his needle and thread back into his sewing kit. “You’re free.”

Louis stares in the mirror, rolling his shoulders and pulling on the hem of his shirt, adjusting its fit on his body. He leans forward, tousling his hair, then pushes his fringe off his forehead.

“How was the party last night?”

“Oh, Janet’s thing?” Louis turns to the side, glancing at his arse in the mirror. “Met someone. Or so I thought. In hindsight, I think I just had one too many drinks.”

Harry clears his throat. “Met someone?”

“Yeah.” Louis shrugs, then turns around to face Harry, leaning back on the bar with his arms folded. “Briefly. Not an overnight thing. They approached me, they were fit and had a dirty mouth, I was drunk and had willing ears. You know how people in clubs are.”

“Mmm,” Harry agrees. “People.”

“People,” Louis echoes, popping the ‘p’ sounds.

Harry feels himself getting squirmy, like he needs to do something with his hands, so he pulls the box of jeans across the floor and begins to fold them.

“So Janet Jackson, hm? What’s she like, anyway?”

Louis drags a chair over, straddling it backwards. “Loves pink drinks with little umbrellas and dances like a maniac with a raging zest for life.” He grins a wide, manic grin. “You’d love her.”

“Sounds like it. Can’t believe you went to Janet Jackson’s holiday party.” Harry is chuckling as he tucks another pair of jeans into their box. Louis just shrugs his shoulders, so Harry asks, “You nervous for today?”

“Nervous for what?”

“The taping.”

“Mmm.” Louis rests his chin on the back of the chair. “Nervous I won’t know what to say? Nah. I’ve been on Corden before, and James is practically a buddy of mine by now. Besides, not like it’s live.”

“But?”

“Well. Nervous I’ll forget my lines? A bit, yeah.”

Harry raises his eyebrows. “Your lines? Is the team telling you what to say?”

Louis chuckles, raising his hands above his head, then dropping them back down to his sides.

“Of course they are. I’m just a normal lad, would be more than willing to date a fan, favourite hobbies include video games and smoking weed, but I’m only to hint at that one. Pass it off as a joke, yeah?”

“I mean, that’s…”

Oh! And I sleep on the tour bus. Did you know that? Love the tour bus. And video games. And video games on the tour bus.” Louis is counting each item off on his fingers.

“You have a tour bus?”

“Not at all,” Louis laughs, shaking his head.

Harry places the last pair of jeans in the box, and snaps the lid on. He kicks his feet up to rest them on top of the box, folding his hands loosely in his lap.

“Louis,” he starts off slowly. “I know it’s not my place to say. But...hear me out.” He takes Louis' silence as permission to continue, so he does. “You have influence. You have power over people. You could change this, I bet you could, if you wanted to. Don’t you want—”

“I try not to do too much wanting, Harry.” Louis smiles, as he always does, while he says the words that rip through Harry’s heart. “It makes the now an easier place to be.”

Before Harry can breathe, and long before he can formulate an answer, Liam bursts into the room, jittery with excitement.

He’s practically bouncing on his feet as he exclaims, “Mates! You better get your arses into the other room. There’s an entire table full of cakes and pies and biscuits. You’ve got to see for yourselves.”

Louis twists in his chair to face the door. “Do they have those little shortbread things,” He holds up two fingers in the air, an inch or so between his pointer finger and thumb. “The ones with the—”

“Chocolate drizzle!” Liam exclaims, clapping his hands together, his face bursting into a grin.

“No, what about the—”

“Raspberry jelly, right?” Harry interrupts. “You like the raspberry?”

Louis grins at Harry, pleasant surprise glistening in his expression.

“Yeah. That's what I was going to say.”

Harry grins back, pushing his hair back with his hand.

“I thought so.”

Liam clears his throat from the door. “Um.” His gaze flickers back and forth from Harry to Louis, who are beaming at each other. “Right. Okay, well since you two are—I'm just gonna—”

“Wait, Liam.”

Liam is already halfway out the door, but he pauses, turning his head to glance at Harry.

“Yeah?”

“I had to hem Lou’s shirt. Could you take a look and see if it looks even to you?”

“Sure,” Liam agrees.

Harry gestures to Louis with his hands, signaling him to stand up. Louis stands, stepping sideways and away from the chair with his arms raised slightly. Harry walks behind him, reaching his arms around Louis’ waist to reach for the front hem and pull it tight, away from his body.

He pops his head over Louis' shoulder. Louis smells like hair gel and spicy cologne.

“What do you think?”

Liam squints, leaning his head sideways.

“Mmm. Let it go now?”

Harry drops the hem and Louis lowers his arms.

Liam furrows his brow, then walks a circle around Louis, who is mimicking Liam’s solemn, focused expression.

“Looks good,” he finally declares. “Fine stitching. What shoes did you pick to go along?”

“The red Vans,” Harry replies. He gestures toward the shoe rack in the corner. “They’re still over there, though. The diva won’t put them on until the last minute.”

“I like to be free.” Louis drops back into the chair and lifts both feet in the air, wiggling his toes.

Harry wrinkles his nose, swatting Louis' feet away with the back of his hand. “Oh my god, those smell terrible.”

“I know,” Louis answers, and a grin splits his face.

“Why are you proud to have such disgusting feet?” Harry shuffles through the rack of t-shirts. “One of these days you’re going to forget to wear shoes altogether.”

The irony of Louis’ statement on freedom isn’t lost on Harry.

He pulls a grey shirt from its hanger, holding it in front of his torso. “What if you unbuttoned your shirt and wore this underneath?”

Louis tilts his head to the side, considering. He shakes his head.

“Nah. I prefer the shirt alone.” Harry nods and replaces the shirt. “And why do you say that like it’s a bad thing?”

“If you walked into James Corden barefoot, I would be fired, Louis.”

“But then who would listen to my constant bitching? That’s why you’re my best mate.”

“Wear your shoes then, princess.” Harry tosses a pair of socks at Louis, who catches them in the air with one hand.

Princess?” Louis gapes. “That’s rich, coming from the boy wearing gold boots.”

Three soft knocks come at the door, and a petite brunette girl in a lavender blouse and fitted black skirt pushes it open enough to slide through.

“Mr. Tomlinson, you’re on in five.”

Her smile is sweet as Louis thanks her and she scribbles something on her clipboard. She walks back out into the hall, closing the door behind her.

Harry plucks the red Vans from the shoe rack with his thumb and pointer finger. He presses them into Louis' chest, smirking as Louis glares at him. “Don’t forget these.”

Louis takes the shoes from Harry, dropping them on the floor. “We’re not done here,” he grumbles as he slides his feet inside.

“Oh, we’re not?”

“No, we’re not.” Louis sinks to the ground to tie his shoes. “Princess, honestly...” he mutters to himself, shaking his head.

On his way out of the dressing room, Louis vows, “I’ll be back during the break,” and then he disappears into the hall.

Harry chuckles to himself, listening as Louis' footsteps fade.

“I know.”

* * * * *

A few minutes after the taping had started, Liam had wandered into the dressing room, his chin dusted with powdered sugar, and plopped down in the chair next to Harry.

At shows like this, there's always a monitor in the dressing room for the styling team to watch the taping. Harry doesn't watch from the audience because he has to be ready for touch-ups between shots, and because he's expected to clear out of the room as soon as the taping is over. With Niall, he'd always kick back and watch from his little monitor while he packed up, making mental notes of things to tease him about when he returned during the break. Today, though, he's too nervous to watch, so when Liam had asked about the monitor, he'd lied.

“Broken,” he'd said with a wave of his hand. “Tried turning it on a minute ago.”

“Hmph,” Liam had mumbled, and then he had pulled a powdered sugar doughnut from his jacket pocket.

When the dressing room door is flung open fifteen minutes later, Liam is standing behind Harry, his back rounding as he hunches over, twisting Harry's hair into a braid.

The door opens all the way and hits the wall beside it. Louis stands in the doorway, his chest heaving, gasping for breath.

“Harry,” he pants, “I know I'm a massive shit, but I—”

He pauses, then tilts his head to the side, eyes narrowing slightly with confusion.

“Liam, what are you—?”

Liam's hands are frozen, three sections of Harry’s hair wound around his fingers. His mouth forms a round ‘o’ shape, and his eyes bulge out slightly. “Uh.”

“You know what,” Louis waves his hands in front of him, shaking his head. “Never mind. I don't even want to know.”

Harry erupts in a fit of giggles, covering his face with his hands. Liam releases Harry's curls, shaking out the half-decent braid into which he'd managed to twist them.

“He's just,” Harry blurts out between giggles, “learning new skills. Is it break already?”

“No, I have this, um.” Louis tugs at the hem of his shirt, and Harry peels himself off of his chair to look closer. “My shirt—”

Liam cuts Louis off with a loud cough. When both Harry and Louis turn to look at him, he pats his pockets, glancing around the room.

“Oh, look at that, I'm all out of biscuits. I'll, uh—” He shrugs, then points his thumb over his shoulder toward the door. “I'll go restock.”

As he scurries out of the dressing room, he nudges Harry with his elbow, and Louis raises his eyebrows quizzically.

“What's with him?”

“I don't know, he's been weird lately.” Harry pulls his sewing kit from the work table that stretches across the front of the mirror. “What's wrong with your shirt?”

“The part you sewed came out.”

“The part I sewed.”

Louis nods.

“Louis.”

“What?”

Harry glances up at Louis from the floor, where he's kneeling in front of him. “I hemmed the entire bottom of the shirt.”

“Okay?”

Harry holds up the section of fabric he's inspecting between his fingers for Louis to see. “How did you manage to pull out the entire thing?”

Louis traps his bottom lip between his front teeth, eyes wandering, his gaze landing everywhere but on Harry. “I don't know. It got caught.”

“On?”

“Harry, I go back on in five minutes.”

“Christ, alright, alright,” Harry concedes. “Hold still.”

He pulls open the zipper of his sewing kit, selecting a needle and a spool of black thread from one of the small compartments. Still kneeling in front of Louis, he pulls one end of the thread into his mouth, rolling it on his tongue. He cuts the other end with a shiny silver pair of scissors.

As Harry threads the needle, Louis shifts above him.

“Louis—”

“Oops, I'm sorry,” Louis blurts. “Am I squirming? I didn't mean to.”

“It's okay,” Harry assures him with a quiet laugh. He pokes the needle through the thin fabric, pulling it from the other side with his thumb and pointer finger. His stitches are tiny and precise, and he makes quick work, despite Louis’ shuggles above him.

Pulling the last stitch through, he ties a knot at the end and breaks the thread with his teeth.

“Okay, you're done.” Harry smiles as he zips the sewing kit closed and stands up straight on his feet. Then, he adds, “Again.”

Louis smooths the front of his shirt with his palms. “Thanks.”

“You're welcome.”

Louis hesitates, presses his lips into a thin line, then shakes his head in an almost imperceptible motion. He turns toward the door, and then:

“Harry?”

“Yeah?”

Louis opens his mouth to speak, but Harry hears the breath catch in his throat. Like a spark, the moment flashes, and then it is gone. “Nothing.”

“Are you sure?” Harry asks.

Louis nods, jerky and defensive. “Yeah.”

“Okay.” Harry leans back against the work table, his palms supporting him on either side. He clears his throat. “Is, um. Is everything going okay out there?”

Louis' face softens, and he tucks one hand into his pocket, bouncing once on the balls of his feet. “Yeah, not too bad.”

“Good.” Harry grins at Louis. He stretches out one hand, which he curls into a fist. “Now go kill the rest of that interview.”

Louis bumps Harry's fist with his own, then disappears through the doorway. His grin leaves a trail of glittering dust behind him, and his chirped “thank you” echoes like a song from the hall.

Harry is smiling as he turns away, and when he whispers “I’m so proud of you,” he and the box of jeans are the only ones who hear.

* * * * *

December

“I’ll have the quinoa porridge with chopped dates and almond milk, please.”

Gemma snaps her menu closed, placing it beside her on the square wooden table.

“Certainly,” the waitress nods politely. “And for you?”

Harry drags his finger across the menu page, pointing to his brunch dish of choice.

“May I please have the tomato and avocado on rye?”

“Onion and coriander salsa with that?”

“Yes, please,” Harry grins.

The waitress holds her hand out for the menus, and Harry hands them over with a sweet “thank you” and another smile.

As the waitress turns to walk back toward the kitchen, Gemma smooths her hands over her skirt, then folds them in her lap.

“Cute place,” she says, gazing across the mostly empty dining room.

Greenberry is set back on a little street in the heart of Primrose Hill. The rear wall of the cafe is lined with exposed brick, and the front is paneled with floor-to-ceiling windows. The sunlight spills in through the glass, pouring lazily over the rustic wooden tables and floor panels. A tiny orchid plant sits in a handmade pottery vase in the centre of the table, two round glasses beside it, and the wooden tabletop is bare, save for two brown parchment placemats.

“It’s my favourite,” Harry hums. “They serve the best cappuccino.”

Gemma raises an eyebrow, the right side of her mouth lifting slightly higher than the left.

“Since when do you drink cappuccino?”

She lifts her mug up to her lips to blow steam from the surface of the wild rooibos tea Harry had recommended, glancing at him from across the rim.

Harry shrugs one shoulder.

“I don’t know. Recently. A month and a half.” When Gemma narrows her eyes slightly, he adds: “Or so.”

“Mmm.” Gemma sets the mug back on the table, flattening her palm over the rim. “New job, new tastes, I guess.”

In place of an answer, Harry takes a sip of cool water from one of the glasses in the centre of the table.

“Speaking of new jobs,” Gemma continues. “How does it feel to be back in London?”

“Feels good to live in a flat again, instead of in a hotel room,” Harry replies, relaxing further back in his seat. “It’s the little things, you know? Like, I never burned candles on the road, never cooked my own meals. Missed cooking a lot.”

Gemma’s eyes widen. “Never cooked your own meals?”

“Not one.”

“For, what, six months?”

Harry chuckles. “Eight.”

“Oh my god. Are you alive?” Gemma leans across the table, reaching toward Harry to press two fingers to his neck. “Do you still have a pulse?”

Harry swats her hand away, giggling.

“Surprisingly, yes, I did survive.”

Gemma swallows her laughter, shaking her head. Her dimples carve deep into her cheeks, just like his own, and Harry cherishes the reminders of their similarity.

“What about you?” Harry prods. “I saw one of your articles online the other day. I think someone on Twitter retweeted it. My big sis, writing for a major fashion journal,” he grins, resting his chin on his clasped hands. “So proud.”

“Ah,” Gemma shrugs, a faint rosy blush painting her cheeks. “It’s been good, yeah. The Styles siblings, taking the fashion world by storm,” she declares, lowering the pitch of her voice. She raises her water glass in time with her words, pretending to offer a toast.

“Hear, hear!” Harry laughs, meeting her glass in the air with his own.

“Mum would be so proud,” Gemma muses.

“Remember when she used to give us those little fashion lessons every morning before school?”

Gemma giggles, lifting her hand to catch the sound in her palm. “‘Never wear navy with black, my lovebugs,’” she mimics.

Harry shakes his head, his heart swelling pleasantly in his chest at the fond memory. “‘Clothes are inevitable,’” he begins, and Gemma chimes in to repeat in unison, “‘They are nothing less than the furniture of the mind made visible.’”

“Mmm, she was amazing. I miss her,” Gemma hums, and Harry does, too, but it doesn’t feel heavy. It feels bright, and Harry wonders if Louis was right—if his mum really would be proud.

“Me too,” Harry smiles, reaching across the table to give Gemma’s hand a quick squeeze.

“So, but, honestly. You didn’t really give me an answer.” Gemma places her elbows on the table, leaning in slightly. “How is the new job?”

“It’s good.”

“Good?”

“Really good, actually, yeah.” Harry smiles, carding his fingers through his hair and looking away momentarily.

“Really good?” Gemma is stirring her tea with her spoon. She takes it out, licks the honey from the dip of the spoon, and narrows her eyes. “Why are you doing the hair thing?”

Harry drops his hand in his lap. “What hair thing?”

“Who did you meet?”

Harry’s mouth opens and closes like a fish, his eyes bulging as he stammers. “Who did I—no one. What? I didn’t meet anyone.”

Gemma stares at him, her gaze icy. “I’m hurt.”

“Oh, my god,” Harry groans. “Gem, I swear.”

Harry, I swear to god.” Gemma closes her eyes and presses the heel of her hand to her forehead.

What?”

“That’s not what this is about?”

“What what is about?”

“Okay, I have a quinoa porridge with almond milk?”

Harry and Gemma both turn sharply toward the waitress, who is cradling a dish in each arm. She glances at Harry, then at Gemma, and back again. Her expression is laced with confusion.

“Is everything alright?”

Harry and Gemma are both leaned nearly all the way over on the table, and they realise this at the same moment, leaning back in their chairs and straightening their posture. Harry rolls his shoulders, giving the waitress a reassuring smile.

“Yes, of course. That was quick. Fast service, as always.” He flashes her a grin, softening his voice to a low drawl.

The waitress blushes, returning Harry’s grin. “Yes, sure, no problem.”

Harry points to the space on the table in front of Gemma. “The porridge is hers.”

Nodding, the waitress places a white ceramic bowl of porridge topped with a sprinkle of chopped dates in front of Gemma, who murmurs her thanks with a polite smile.

“And the avocado toast for you?”

“Yes, thanks so much.”

It isn’t more than a moment after the waitress leaves the table when Gemma leans across the table again, hissing through her teeth.

“I thought this was a news brunch.”

“A news brunch?”

Yes. You asked me to join you for a nice brunch, you have this—this—” She waves her hand in front of Harry’s face. “This creepy glow on your face. And you’re acting really fucking weird. And you don’t even have news for me?”

“What glow?”

Gemma groans loudly and lets her head fall to the table. “Harry.”

“Okay, sorry,” Harry says, defensive.

Gemma lifts her head and sighs dramatically. “It’s fine. It’s fine.” She picks up her spoon, mixing the dates and almond milk through her porridge, a few drops of milk spilling over the side.

Harry kicks her foot gently with the tip of his shoe. “Next time I have news, I’ll invite you for brunch just to tell you.”

Gemma shovels a spoonful of porridge into her mouth. “Sure, whatever,” she mumbles with her mouth full. Despite her best efforts, a smile plays at the corner of her lips.

“Promise.”

Harry picks up his knife, cutting his avocado toast in half. He takes a bite of one of the halves, the toast crunching between his teeth.

“When you realise you’re in love with whoever the guy is,” Gemma says, waving her fingers in a circle in the space between herself and Harry, “you better bring me to the poshest breakfast in London.”

Crumbs spray from between Harry’s lips as he bursts into laughter, rolling his eyes and wiping his hands down his front. “Okay, Gem. I wouldn’t prepare your order yet, though.”

“Speak for yourself,” Gemma replies. She shakes her spoon at Harry, bits of porridge dripping onto the table. “I’ve heard The Chiltern Firehouse’s black truffle scrambled eggs are to die for.”

January

* * * * *

Fallingforyou - The 1975

When the Christmas season arrives with its cold, wet days and bursts of twinkling lights on the trees, everything is momentarily softer and brighter. Harry, Louis, and Liam spend their last day in London before Christmas wandering down Oxford Street, where a canopy of white lights criss-crosses overhead and the streets are lined with trees wrapped in brilliant greens and blues. Strands of bulbs glitter in the windows of shops like stars, and cars come and go like visitors to admire the spectacular display. With his hat, no one tosses Louis so much as a second glance, so they sit and share a bottle of rich red wine between the three of them, and they are weightless and free.

On Christmas Eve, Louis hosts a holiday party at his house, and Harry brings two things: Gemma and a batch of homemade gingerbread cupcakes with salted caramel icing. Louis loves them both.

Louis spends the days between Christmas and New Year’s at his mum’s house, and Harry doesn’t see him for eight days. Gemma whines that Harry is being grumpy, but he insists that it’s just post-holiday stress. Once, while they’re out shopping for outfits for the New Year’s Eve party that night, Harry spots a black and white striped jumper with a deep scoop neck. He drapes the jumper in a size small over his arm and heads for the checkout. Confused, Gemma says she thought Harry wore a medium, and Harry waves her off with a toss of his hand.

The day after New Year’s, Harry makes a stop at the store, and then drives the fifteen minutes to surprise Louis at his house.

Harry rings the doorbell and counts to ten, bouncing on the balls of his feet to keep warm, his freezing fingers curled around the handles of two bags. Before he reaches the number three, Louis flings the door open and grabs Harry by the shoulders, ushering him through the doorway.

“Harry! I was wondering how long it would take for you to get your arse over here to come see me. It’s fucking freezing out there. Come on, get inside.”

Dry, icy air floods the warm entryway as Harry steps inside and closes the door behind him. He sniffs a few times.

“What is that? It smells delicious.”

“I made soup for dinner,” Louis replies, voice lilting and bright. “The minestrone recipe you sent me.”

Harry raises his eyebrows. “No way.”

“Yes way.” Louis' eyes glitter, his lips stretched tight over a closed-mouth grin.

“Well I, for one, am impressed,” Harry announces. He shifts both bags to his right hand, shrugging out of his jacket with his left arm.

“You said it was healthier, and the recipe was simple enough,” he shrugs, but his tone betrays a hint of pride. “Here, let me.”

Louis reaches for Harry’s bags, but Harry pulls them out of his reach.

“You can’t look yet, it’s a surprise.” When Louis opens his mouth to whine, Harry holds up one pointer finger. “And yes, I know you hate surprises, but I don’t really care.”

“Ugh, fine,” Louis huffs. He stalks back into the living room, Harry following behind him, and plops down on the sofa.

Harry continues into the kitchen just around the corner. He empties one of the bags, placing two small cartons of ice cream on the work surface. Digging through the drawers underneath, he searches for two spoons.

“What are you doing in there?” Louis calls from the living room.

“Oh, here they are,” Harry mumbles. He pulls two silver spoons from the silverware organiser, which is a misleading name for the container that holds Louis' silverware, which is decidedly not organised at all. “Why are your drawers such a mess?” Harry yells.

“You come into my house—” Louis begins, but then he pauses when Harry rounds the corner holding the ice cream cartons and the spoons. “Ice cream!”

Harry nods, smiling. “Salted caramel.”

“But Harry,” Louis whines, patting his stomach through his shirt. “My New Year’s resolution.”

“Yeah, well, my New Year’s resolution is to rescue you from your stupid New Year’s resolution.” Harry walks over to Louis on the sofa. “No desserts? Do you hate yourself that much?” He pries the lid off of one of the cartons, digging a spoon into the top. He tilts the carton in Louis' direction. “Eat the ice cream.”

Louis glowers at him, but the right side of his mouth twitches upward.

“Please?” Harry’s voice is sweet and pleading.

A moment or two passes, neither of them willing to budge, before finally a smile pushes through, and Louis giggles.

“Fine.” He reaches for the carton, tucking a spoonful of ice cream into his mouth. “Thanks, love,” he adds around the mouthful.

Harry’s skin prickles at the word.

Love.

He clears his throat and pulls off the lid of his own ice cream. He clumsily sinks into the sofa beside Louis, balancing the carton on his stomach and propping one arm behind his head. Taking a large spoonful, he utters a low moan of pleasure and Louis kicks him, giggling.

“What? It’s so delicious.”

“You know what this needs?” Louis muses.

“What?”

“Ginger liqueur. I have some left over from my Christmas party.”

“Mmmmm,” Harry agrees on a drawn out moan. “Like my gingerbread salted caramel cupcakes.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Louis shoves off the sofa with both hands and walks, hips swaying, into the kitchen. He returns moments later with a nearly full black bottle of The King’s Ginger and two shot glasses. Setting them on the floor in front of them, he settles back onto the sofa.

“Salted caramel is my favourite. How did you know?”

Harry shrugs, flattening his tongue in the curve of his spoon.

“I didn't actually know. Lucky guess. You ate the icing off of, like, six of those cupcakes I brought.”

“Good guess,” Louis giggles. “What else don’t you know about me?”

“Hmm.” Harry taps his spoon on the side of his carton, his eyes darting upward as he thinks. “I can’t believe I’ve never asked this. What’s your favourite movie?”

Louis swallows a massive bite of ice cream, gazing hesitantly at Harry.

“If I tell you, you’re not allowed to laugh.”

“I won’t laugh.”

Swear you won’t.”

“Just tell me,” Harry says, rolling his eyes. He lifts another spoonful of ice cream to his mouth.

“Alright,” Louis sighs. “Notting Hill. That’s my favor—what? Harry, what? Are you okay? You total dick, you said you wouldn’t laugh!”

Harry sputters and coughs, pressing a hand to his chest. “Oh my god,” he chokes. “I just inhaled my ice cream, fuck—”

Louis grimaces, absently stirring around the melting edges of his ice cream with his spoon.

“That’s your own fault for—oh really, Harry. It’s a good fucking movie, okay, like, have you ever—”

“That’s my favourite movie, too,” Harry gasps through his coughing and laughter. “I love that movie so much, I can’t believe it’s your favourite!”

“It is?” Louis asks, sitting up straight on the sofa.

“Yeah,” Harry says with matching excitement.

Then Louis narrows his eyes and points accusingly at him. “You’re not taking the piss?” he demands suspiciously.

Harry shakes his head vigorously. “I’m not, I swear. Pinky promise,” he adds, holding up his little finger to Louis, who visibly relaxes into Harry’s pinky swear.

“Then holy shit, what the fuck are we doing?” Louis cries. “Let’s watch it!”

As Louis excitedly grabs the movie from the cabinet and sets it up on the telly, Harry pours them each a shot of ginger liqueur. Louis presses play, and they clink their glasses together, tipping them back and chasing their shots with spoonfuls of salted caramel ice cream.

“Mmm,” Harry hums. “Just like a cupcake.”

“Tastes like Christmas in my mouth,” Louis mumbles in agreement.

Harry and Louis lay sprawled out on either side of the sofa, taking lazy sips of ginger liqueur and their now-melted ice cream. The air around them shimmers with warmth and puffs of alcohol breath. On the screen, William Thacker is saying, “Do you always say no to everything?” Anna thinks and then replies with a smirk, “No,” and Louis' silent giggling shakes the sofa.

Harry’s limbs grow heavier as the alcohol runs warm and thick through his veins. His head is propped up on a pillow against the armrest, his feet draped sideways over the edge of the sofa. Louis has his legs tucked in close to him, his eyes absolutely glued to the telly.

In the movie, William is attempting to climb the garden gate, and Anna is by his side, giggling every time he blurts out “Whoops-a-daisy.”

Grinning, Louis nudges Harry’s foot with one of his wool-socked toes.

“You probably say ‘whoops-a-daisy.’”

He probably does.

“I do not,” Harry lies, slow and warm.

“Shhh.” Louis kicks him again. “I love this part.”

Harry has seen the movie so many times he has every scene memorized. He listens to the dialogue, but he’s not looking at the screen; he’s watching Louis across the couch.

William is grumbling as he struggles to climb over the gate, and he finally falls with a ‘thud.’ A gentle guitar melody begins to float through the speakers as he mutters, “Now what in the world could make that ordeal worthwhile?

Louis pulls his bottom lip between his teeth, leaning forward, eyes fastened on the screen.

On the screen, Anna draws William in for a deep, warm kiss. Across the sofa, Louis bites down hard on his lip, his eyes soft, hands clasped in his lap. He smiles slightly, his cheeks pressing up on his eyes and causing them to shrink in size. His expression is excited—reverent, almost.

“I love this song,” he whispers.

Ronan Keating’s “When You Say Nothing At All” drifts through the warm, dimly-lit living room, and Louis hums along, and everything is a warm auburn colour.

“Sing it, then,” Harry says, nudging Louis with his knee.

“No,” Louis replies. “I don’t like to sing my favourite songs. If I’m singing, I’m not listening.”

Harry takes a sip of ginger liqueur directly from the bottle, then passes it to Louis, who reaches out for it. Harry chuckles, shaking his head.

“Louis Tomlinson, you make no sense to me,” is what he says. What he means is, “You’re perfect.

* * * * *

Mess Is Mine - Vance Joy

Sweat prickles on Harry’s skin and gathers in the crease of his neck. He opens his eyes and he is hot. Two fleece blankets sit heavy on top of him, save for one foot that pokes out from under the right corner. He squeezes his eyes shut, rubbing them with the heels of his palms, and kicks the blankets onto the floor.

His arms stretch over his head, and his back protests with a few popping sounds. As he sits up on the sofa, he finally registers his surroundings.

He’s on Louis' couch, in Louis' house. Sometime between his latest memory of last night and now, Harry had fallen asleep where he’d been sitting last night, and Louis had covered—absolutely smothered—him with blankets.

Harry retrieves the blankets from the floor to fold them. Sunlight trickles in through the half-closed curtains and gathers on the floor in delicate, rippling pools of light. Absently, he lifts the corner of one blanket to his face to inhale the scent of the plush material, and it smells the way sunshine feels on tanned skin; warm, musky, a hint of citrus.

The house is quiet, and Harry moves, delicate and slow, across the floor. Silence clings tenuously to the walls like spiderwebs in the ever-brightening room.

In the kitchen, Harry rummages through Louis' drawers. True to character, Louis has left the kitchen an organised disaster; everything is hidden out of sight and the counters wiped clean, but in the drawers, cups are haphazardly tossed in with knives, and pots with plates. Harry shakes his head, smiling to himself, as he retrieves the frying pan he was looking for from under a stainless steel mixing bowl.

Later, when Louis rounds the corner and steps into the kitchen, all squinty eyes and soft edges, Harry is spreading butter on the last piece of toast.

“What's all this?” Louis asks, voice rough with sleep, gesturing to the spread on the counter. A pair of grey joggers hang low on his hips, and his hair sticks out on one side.

“I made breakfast,” Harry answers brightly. He snaps the lid back on the butter container, and rests his palm on the work surface, leaning his weight on one arm. “It was the least I could do, crashing here uninvited and all that.”

“Uninvited? Don’t be a twat. You have a standing invitation.” Louis sweeps his eyes over the dishes on the counter, which are piled high with poached eggs, bacon, and toast. “Especially now that I know you'll cook a full English in the morning.”

“Nearly,” Harry corrects him. “No beans, though.”

Louis shrugs. “The bacon is the best part anyway.”

When Harry serves them, he splits everything in half, but he gives Louis some of his share of bacon. If Louis notices, he doesn't say so.

Harry takes a bite of toast and shuffles his feet under the table.

“You nervous for tonight?”

Louis pushes his eggs around his plate with his fork. “For the Brits? It's hard to say.” He shovels a bite of eggs into his mouth, continuing to talk as he chews. “Award shows are never my favourite things. It's a completely different atmosphere than, say, a talk show, but—” he swallows, wiping the corner of his mouth with his sleeve, and shrugging one shoulder. “—you get used to it.”

Harry just nods and takes too big of a bite of his toast, because he is at Louis' house and eating breakfast at Louis' table and there are a thousand things he wants more right now than to talk about work as dawn turns to day and Louis hums under his breath across the table.

Bringing up work made the air feel thick and heavy, so there is a quiet that feels clumsy between them as they finish their breakfast. Harry is using the last few bites of toast to clean the egg yolk off his plate when Louis finally says it.

“Harry?” he says, fork loaded with eggs and poised in the air as if he finally got the courage halfway through a bite.

“Yeah?”

Louis shifts in his seat, placing his fork back on his plate and furrowing his brow. “I, um...there’s something I need to tell you.”

Harry senses something and pulls his chair across the floor to sit closer to Louis, their shoulders nearly touching. “Yeah, anything, of course.” If Harry was good at anything other than his job, it was at figuring out what people needed at most times, and right now, Harry sensed that Louis just needed someone to listen.

“It’s not that, um,” Louis pauses, coughs into a white-knuckled fist. “It’s not that I didn’t want you to know...what I'm going to tell you. It’s more that, if you didn’t know, then with you, things could be...different.”

“Different how?”

“Different like...from the rest of my team.”

There’s a long beat of silence, and Louis slides his palms up and down the fabric of his joggers, a nervous habit that hadn’t taken Harry long to figure out was Louis' attempt to calm himself when things pressed in too close and heavy. And then:

“I’m gay.”

Louis lets it out like a breath he’d been holding, and glances, expectant, at Harry.

“Louis, were you—were you afraid to tell me? You know I’m gay, I would never have…” Harry trails off, shaking his head, and his heart aches to think of Louis being afraid of him. To think of Louis being afraid of anything at all.

“Yes, but...not because of anything I thought you might have said or thought.” His voice catches on the next few words. “It was because of me.”

Harry bites his lip to suppress the automatic reassurance and gently urges him on with a look.

Louis draws a ragged breath, his shoulders trembling as he continues.

“When I met you, there was something about you. Something comfortable, something that made me feel…okay, when it had been a long time since I’d felt anything close to okay.” He pauses, then offers a small smile and a self-deprecating shake of his head. “This is so fucking cliche, god.”

“No, don’t—” Harry remembers the first night in the bar with Louis, two months ago when November was just beginning and he was still jet-lagged from the trip home from New York and Louis made everything warm and easy. “I felt the same,” he says gently.

“It was just—” Louis rushes on. “—you were here and you were good.” His voice breaks in the middle of his sentence, but his demeanor is determined. “From the beginning of this singing thing, I knew I’d be dealing with a closet. At least for a while. I started so young,” he shrugs. “I guess letting me come out at such a young age seemed too big a risk to my management at the time.”

Harry nods along with Louis' words, silently encouraging him to continue. Now that he’s gotten himself talking, he doesn’t seem to need further reassurance, and the words are freely tumbling out.

“So I’ve pretty much always been the classic closet case. My last stylist, Caroline, she was lovely. She really was, but I knew that to her, I wasn’t me, I was just the gay boy she made to look straight, you know?”

“I do,” Harry says gently. “Did that bother you?”

“Not really, if I’m honest. It was a shit part of the job, but it was still just part of the job to me.”

“I understand that. And what about now?”

“Well, that’s—that’s the thing.” Louis glances down at his lap and Harry holds his breath. “That’s why I didn’t tell you.” His voice is so thin, so honest, and he grimaces as if the words burn his throat on the way up. “For the first time, the idea of you not seeing me, that bothered me. I wanted to be so much more to you than a strategy, more than a problem to solve.”

“Louis, god, you are, you’re so much more—”

“But would I be if you had known from the beginning?”

Yes,” Harry says, earnest, pleading. “From the moment I met you, when you walked into that conference room with that goddamn loud voice of yours, I knew you were special. I knew they’d try to contain you, but I also knew they’d never truly be able to.”

“I think I’m…” Louis trails off, and his hands tighten into white-knuckled fists. His shoulders shake as a sob escapes his lips. “I’m finally fed up. I don’t—I don’t w-want this anymore.”

Harry lifts his hand to rub Louis' back between his shoulder blades. “What do you want?”

“So much,” Louis breathes. “So much. Freedom. I want to wear my favourite purple jumper tonight to the Brits, the one I wore during that first meeting with Simon hoping to make a good first impression on you. Did it work?” Louis chuckles without a hint of humour, shaking his head and continuing before Harry can answer. “Sad, isn’t it? Wearing clothing hoping it will communicate things about you to people, things you can’t just say out loud. I want—I want to be a real person instead of a fabrication of someone else.” Louis' voice grows weaker, shakier. “I want to stop saying ‘you get used to it’ when wh-what I really mean is—is ‘you b-become n-n-numb’—fuck, I’m sorry—I’m—”

And in front of Harry’s eyes, Louis collapses.

“Oh, Louis.” Harry wraps his arms around Louis' trembling torso, and he feels so fragile, so small as Harry pulls Louis into him, gently rocking back and forth. Pressed into Harry’s chest, Louis weeps, his tears soaking Harry’s shirt. “Shhh. Okay. Oh, love,” Harry murmurs. “Just breathe.”

“I’m s-s-so sorry,” Louis whimpers into the damp fabric.

“No, shhh, no.” Harry runs his fingers through the back of Louis' hair, cradling his shaking frame, and the sight blurs as tears gather in Harry’s vision. He rubs Louis' back in circles, and Louis melts into him.

They tremble together, and the world spins madly on around them, careless to the cracks in their fragile frames.

Finally, Louis' sobs grow quiet, until he’s left sniffling softly into Harry’s shoulder. Harry turns his head into Louis’ hair and whispers, “Can I tell you something?”

Louis sits up, wiping his running nose with his sleeve. He points to the wet spot on Harry’s stomach. “Oh, god, gross, I’m so sorry.”

Harry looks down and releases a breathy laugh. “Don’t worry about it.” He reaches out to Louis' face, drying a tear with the pad of his thumb. “It’ll dry. It always does.”

“What were you going to say?”

“Do you mind if I ramble a bit?”

Louis nods. “Please.”

“I think...” Harry begins, drawing in a deep breath. “...if you want it, whatever ‘it’ is, you can have it. You could pluck the moon from the sky, if you wanted to, and the stars would follow right behind. You can do anything, Louis Tomlinson. You want freedom, you can win it.”

Louis sniffs and leans his head on Harry’s shoulder.

“And that’s why they’ve taken so much away from you,” Harry continues, leaning his head on Louis’ and lowering the volume of his voice. “When you think you can never get what you want, then you stop wanting things altogether. And god knows, Louis, what you want, you get.”

Louis lifts his head to look at Harry, and his eyes are deep and wild like the ocean after a storm.

“When I look at you,” Harry whispers, “I see someone who still has so much left to do, so much left to experience.” His eyes flicker between Louis’, desperate to capture him, desperate to make him understand. "No matter how much you’ve been hurt by Simon, the media, your fans; no matter who they’ve tried to convince you you are, you are still Louis. You are still Louis who loves to sing, Louis who loves to wear stripes, Louis who loves his family more than anything.” Harry lets the moment hang for a breath, then he places his hand over Louis’. “They can’t take those things.”

Harry can hear every shaky breath that Louis takes. If he weren’t listening closely enough, he wouldn’t have heard when Louis speaks, barely above a breath.

“You think so?”

Harry clutches Louis’ hand, giving it a quick squeeze. “I do.”

Louis glances down at his plate, and pushes it toward the centre of the table. “I think I got tears on my toast.”

A beat passes, then Harry and Louis both erupt into giggles, Louis covering his mouth with his hand and his eyes crinkling.

“Hey, I almost forgot.” Harry stands up from the table, pushing his chair back and walking over to the work surface where he had placed the second bag he brought the night before. “I got you something.”

“Got me something?” Louis sniffs loudly, rubbing his nose with the back of his hand. “We said no Christmas gifts, Harry.”

“I know,” Harry grins. “It’s not a Christmas gift. It’s a New Year’s gift.”

Louis sighs, shaking his head. “You’re such an idiot.”

“Close your eyes.”

Louis does, and Harry takes the striped scoop neck jumper he’d bought with Gemma from its bag. He unfolds it, and holds it up by the shoulders in front of his torso.

“Okay, you can open them.”

Louis opens his eyes, and then widens them. “Is that for me?”

Harry grins, and nods. “Of course it is.”

Louis places both hands over his wide open mouth, surprised laughter leaking out from the cracks between his fingers. “Oh my god, I love it.”

Harry hands the jumper to Louis, who opens it up and holds it in front of him to get a better look.

“I saw it and it just kind of screamed your name to me,” Harry shrugs.

“Where am I wearing it?” Louis asks, lowering the jumper to his lap.

“What do you mean?”

“Like, what’s it for? Is it for the red carpet tonight?”

“Oh!” Harry’s eyes widen slightly. “No, it’s not for anything. It’s for you, to wear whenever you want.”

“For me?”

Harry smiles. “For you.”

Louis lifts the jumper up again, takes another look, then hugs it to his chest. “Thank you so much.”

He stands up from his chair to hug Harry. He nestles himself under Harry’s arms, which are wrapped around Louis' shoulders. Louis presses his face into Harry’s neck, and Harry almost doesn’t hear when he whispers something else.

“For everything.”

* * * * *

That night, Harry and Liam are humming along to Beyonce in the dressing room when a series of loud knocks comes from the direction of the door. Harry tosses the pair of shoes he’s holding into the box across the room, and bumps Liam’s fist when both shoes make it in.

“Come in,” he calls.

The door opens, and Simon steps through, a polite smile stuck to his face. He offers a stiff nod, which Harry begrudgingly returns.

“Evening, gentlemen,” Simon says, voiced sharp and clipped. “Quite a big night tonight, wouldn’t you agree? The British Music Awards, and Louis presenting an award. We are looking forward to seeing what you’ve put together.”

Liam and Harry mumble a strange mixture of phrases like “we are, too,” and “thank you” while Simon glances around the dressing room.

Against the far wall, an outfit consisting of trousers and a blazer hangs on a hook and Simon gestures to it with a wave of his hand. “May I?”

“By all means,” Harry deadpans. As Simon crosses the dressing room, Liam shoots Harry a warning look, which Harry shrugs off.

“Ah, yes,” Simon says. He fingers the lapel of the blazer. “I like the red accents here. Although I wonder, have you considered casual black jeans instead of these more formal trousers?”

“I have considered a lot of things,” Harry replies flatly.

Liam’s eyes nearly bug out of his head, and he launches himself between Harry and Simon. “What, um, what makes you suggest that, sir?” he stammers.

“Merely thinking out loud. You are the experts, of course.”

Harry wishes he could roll his eyes all the way around, but he knows even then it wouldn’t be far enough.

“I’m curious, though,” Simon continues. He backs away from the outfit on the hook, hands on his hips. Harry presses his lips into a thin line, and Simon scans his eyes up and down the set. He gestures to the outfit with one hand which dangles from his limp wrist. “What shirt will Mr. Tomlinson be wearing underneath the blazer?”

“He’ll be wearing a graphic tee from his personal collection.”

Simon’s eyebrows dart upward. “His personal collection?”

“Yes, sir,” Liam cuts in. “It was a recent purchase. He asked to incorporate it, and we expect it will be...appropriate, you might say.”

“Hmm.” Simon steeples his fingers together, pursing his lips slightly. “Appropriate. Yes, well. Thank you.”

Harry and Liam both nod.

Simon pulls the door open, tossing one last glance around the dressing room. “You are welcome to help yourselves to a glass of champagne in the room down the hall, should you find that satisfactory.”

“We might need the whole bottle,” Harry mutters, then he grunts when Liam hisses and elbows him in the stomach.

Simon coughs uncomfortably. “Right. Well.” He steps through the doorway, and retorts, “Always a pleasure, Mr. Styles.”

* * * * *

Gimme Some Lovin’ - The Spencer Davis Group

Louis is panting when he crashes through the door and into the dressing room twenty minutes later, all frantic energy and electricity under his skin. “Fuck, I’m so excited.”

Harry grins, jumping up from his chair and rushing to Louis. “Did you bring it?”

“No shit I brought it,” Louis laughs as he pulls a small bag from behind his back and hands it to Harry. His hands are shaking, but a frenzied excitement emanates from him like a pulsing cloud.

Harry opens the bag and squeals when he sees the contents.

“Let me see,” Liam calls from where he’s leaning up against the work table.

Harry tosses the item to Liam, and Liam grins, nodding slowly as his mouth widens. “Sick, mate. Just brilliant.”

“Oh my god.” Louis shakes his hands at his sides in an attempt to release some of his nervous energy. “I can’t believe we’re doing this. I can’t believe we’re really doing this.”

He’s bouncing and wiggling, but Harry places a hand on Louis' shoulder, and Louis stills. His eyes grow suddenly focused as he watches Harry’s expression.

You’re doing this,” Harry says, and, oh god, he feels so proud. He feels so proud, it’s pressing on him from the inside out and he feels he could burst with it.

Liam steps behind Louis and drapes the item over Louis' shoulder, followed by a quick, reassuring squeeze. Louis reaches up to place his hand over Liam’s. With Harry in front him and Liam behind, Louis' posture is straighter and his expression confident, and Harry wants to keep this moment, wants to remember the way Louis looks so strong, wants to remember the muffled roar of the crowd that gathers outside and the way that, in this moment, none of that matters at all.

“Well, what are you waiting for? Put it on,” Harry urges.

Louis releases a quick breath and rubs his palms together. “Okay,” he says, and it feels like a declaration. Reaching behind him and gripping his collar, he pulls his shirt off over his head.

* * * * *

Louis is on the red carpet. Right now. He’s there, he’s wearing it. And he’s having his picture taken in it.

Harry is pacing back and forth in the dressing room, pushing his hand anxiously through his hair.

Liam chuckles, tipping his glass back on his lip to take a sip of champagne. His eyes track Harry back and forth across the floor. “I think you’re more nervous than Louis is, mate.”

“Of course I’m nervous, Liam,” Harry sighs, exasperated. “What time is it?”

“Nearly six-thirty,” Liam replies, glancing at his watch. “He’s probably already done on the red carpet by now.”

Harry nods, and swallows thickly, resuming his pacing. “Do you think he’ll come back here?”

Liam rolls his eyes. “When has he ever not spent every moment in here with you?”

“So, is that a yes?”

“I’m going to go get you more champagne,” Liam sighs. “Just take deep breaths. He’ll be back here before seven, I’m sure.”

Harry mumbles under his breath and sinks into the sofa in the corner, tossing his head back on the armrest. He doesn’t see Liam leave, but he hears the door shut behind him. More champagne. Yeah, that sounds good.

He reaches into his pocket and curls his fingers around his phone. Maybe he’ll check Twitter to see if any photos of Louis on the carpet have been posted yet. He follows probably thirty-some Louis Tomlinson fan accounts; on days off, he sometimes checks them to see if Louis has taken new photos with fans, or if any more unseen photos from the earliest days of his career have been dug up. Days off are the best days for that sort of thing.

As he types in his passcode, he pauses, his finger hovering over the screen. Nervousness curls in the pit of his stomach.

On second thought, maybe checking Twitter can wait.

He glances at the time at the top of his screen. Slides his phone into his pocket. Checks his wristwatch.

Time creeps slowly along, taunting Harry, widening the gap in time between when he sent Louis out the back door to the red carpet and when he will return, carrying the reactions of fans, the media, Simon. Harry waits for Liam to come back with more champagne, for Louis to come back with his smiling face. He waits, and he hopes, and hopes, and hopes.

Suddenly, the door is thrown open, hitting the wall next to it with a loud crash.

“What. Have. You. Done?”

Simon’s frame looms in the doorway, his face a deep red, hands balled in tight fists at his sides. His knuckles are white, and his pupils are an angry black.

So, now, then. Harry is going to deal with this now.

“Excuse me?” He rises to his feet.

“The shirt,” Simon snaps. “You were well aware of this.”

“I was.”

Simon takes four steps toward Harry, who stands his ground, his expression firm and unflinching.

“I didn't think I would need to specify for you, Mr. Styles, that Louis is not under any circumstances to be dressed in a rainbow.”

“The shirt is one of Louis' personal—”

“I am well aware to whom the shirt belongs. And you,” Simon hisses, pressing a finger to Harry's chest, “are well aware that you are expected to operate under a very specific set of guidelines, established for an equally specific purpose.”

“I understand.”

“So do you understand, then, the reaction this will cause? The assumptions it will lead people to make?”

“You mean the, uh,” Harry clears his throat for emphasis, “true assumption that Louis is—”

“Please—” Simon cuts him off with a firm near-shout. “—reconsider what it is you are about to say.”

“Oh, shit, silly me,” Harry spits. “I thought we valued the truth. I thought we allowed people basic human dignity.”

“Hasty, and potentially costly, self-expression is not the same thing as dignity,” Simon hisses. “And seeing how undignified your behavior has been, I'm unsurprised that you don't know that difference.”

“Costly,” Harry challenges. “What a word to choose. Is this about Louis? Or is this about lining your pockets?”

Simon draws back, rolling his shoulders back and composing his expression. He fixes Harry with a stony glare. “Consider this a warning. It will be the only one of its kind.”

Harry returns the glare, and they stand, face to face, waging a battle of endurance.

Finally, Simon speaks, and it’s harsh but harmless. They both know, without saying it, that Harry has won this particular battle. “Well, I'll leave you to it, then. You have a wardrobe change to attend to.”

Harry lets him leave, just like that, without saying a word. His gut screams, pleads with him to fire back—god knows he has enough to say to Simon. But he doesn't. And he's okay. Because right now, at quarter to seven in the dressing room at the Brit Awards, is not the time to fight. But right now, at this point in Louis' career, as he has begun to cry out for freedom—well, there is no better time to fight. And fight, they will.

Once Simon is gone, Harry sinks back down onto the sofa and props his feet up on the fold-up chair in front of him. He releases a long, heavy breath. Swiping his thumb to unlock his phone, he clicks on the Twitter icon. In the search bar, he types ‘Louis Tomlinson brits.’ Pictures begin to load on the screen, and there he is, there he is, with his wide-legged stance and his grey pocket tank with a faded rainbow printed across the chest and a white lightning bolt emblazoned over top. If tears gather in Harry’s eyes as he scrolls through the photos, he wipes them away with the back of his hand just before Liam steps into the dressing room carrying two flutes of champagne, so no one has to know.

* * * * *

When Louis comes barreling through the door of the dressing room, he launches himself at Harry, who stands at the mirror twisting his hair into a bun.

“Whoa,” Harry grunts as Louis slams into his torso. He giggles as Louis loops his arms around Harry’s torso and bounces on his feet. “Careful, okay, wait, careful, you’re going to hit my—ow!”

In his bouncing, Louis bumps Harry’s chin with his shoulder, and he pulls back, cupping Harry’s jaw with both hands. His worried gaze flickers between Harry’s eyes, a crease forming between his eyebrows.

“Shit! I’m sorry, Hazza, are you okay?”

“Yes, yes,” Harry nods, laughing. He winds his hair tie around his hair and pulls his bun tight. “I’m fine.”

Louis keeps a firm grip on Harry's face, staring in exhilarated disbelief. He is a fireworks display in the split second before it explodes and shatters the night sky into a million glittering pieces. His trembling shakes holes in his skin, and through them, the light spills out.

“I did it,” Louis whispers, and his eyes widen slightly as if the very words surprise him.

“You did it,” Harry echoes.

Louis drops his hands, urgently patting his pockets for his phone. “You have to see this.”

Harry’s jaw tingles with the warmth that Louis' palms left behind.

Louis digs his phone from his pocket, and his lips tremble as he thumbs through pages of tweets. “Look at these. Just, look at all of them.”

One after another, the tweets filter in. Frantic. Shocked. Proud. Supportive.

“‘My sweet, proud, rainbow angel baby.’” Harry chuckles as he reads. “I like that description.”

Ordinarily, Louis would have come back at Harry with something quick and witty. Probably something about how he truly is an angel, and Harry had better not forget it. Right now, though, he's just shaking his head in disbelief, his eyes misty and glistening in the light from the bulbs above the dressing room mirror.

“They are so proud of you,” Harry murmurs. Partly because it's true, and partly because he loves to watch Louis bask in the support and the magic of it all.

Louis just nods. He moves like he is in a trance.

“Here, look at this one.” Harry opens a picture on his phone of a manip of Louis in his rainbow tank and royal robes. An ornate, golden crown rests atop his head. “Quite royal.”

Louis grins. “They have this thing, my fans do. They sometimes call me King Louis. Like, after Louis XIV.”

“The Sun King,” Harry replies.

“Yeah.”

It fits. It fits so well, and Harry is grinning at Louis and he feels the smile all the way in his belly. “Nice,” he says.

“Harry?”

“Yeah?”

“I don't present my award until eight.”

Harry points to his phone screen. “I know. Your update accounts are furiously trying to figure out where you are right now, and why you’re not in your seat in the audience.”

Louis sighs, flopping onto the sofa on his back. “Let them wonder,” he says with a wave of his hand. “Can I stay back here with you?”

“Yes, of course, always,” Harry answers.

Louis mumbles contentedly, and Harry plucks the two half-empty champagne flutes from the work table. He hands one to Louis, who tosses it back in one gulp, his head pillowed on the arm rest of the sofa. One arm is tossed carelessly above his head, and a few stray strands of hair escape from his near-perfectly molded quiff.

Harry sips his champagne slowly, and the bubbles pop and fizz in his smiling mouth. “Cheers to King Louis and his rainbow,” he says with a flash of his glass.

Louis answers, “Cheers,” and it feels like the world is on fire around them. Beautiful, beautiful fire.

* * * * *

Late January comes like a cold gust of wind through a bedroom window. Ivory pillows of snow line the streets on either side, and the morning air smells crisp and hangs thick with frost. It is on one of these mornings, the mornings that demand a second cup of tea, that Niall calls.

“Ni!” Harry cries into the receiver. “No fucking way.”

“Way,” Niall laughs from the other end. “How've you been, Haz?”

“Good. So good. How's the tour?”

“Sick, mate. Yeah, really sick. Just played San Diego last night.”

“San Diego?” Harry’s shoulders shake as he begins to laugh. “Do you—do you remember last year—”

“Harry, shut the fuck up.”

“—when you—ah!” Harry clutches his stomach, leaned over in laughter at the table. “When you—”

Yes, I remember, okay—”

“When you totally wiped the fuck out.”

“I hate you,” Niall groans.

“I thought you’d have a concussion, the way you smacked your head on the railing.”

Niall sighs, and there's silence on the line for a few moments. Then he begins to giggle, his famous loud, honking giggle.

“It trended for like thirty-six hours.”

Harry throws his head back and cackles, slapping his knee with his right palm.

They laugh together, and for a moment, it's just as it was three months ago in a little dressing room at a city venue before Harry was transplanted like an appendage Niall no longer had any need for. It's like they're in a room together and not separated by the distance of half the globe.

“Hey, so I'm calling because I've got a break coming up,” Niall explains, his tone drifting into something more serious. “I'll be back in the UK next weekend, will you and Li be around?”

“Yeah, yeah, we'll be here,” Harry replies eagerly. “How long are you back?”

“Couple of days in London, then I'll probably stop by my hometown and visit the family.”

“Well, you're welcome to stay at my flat for however long you're here,” Harry offers.

“I might do just that. Oi, when was the last time anyone took you out to an over-priced dinner at a posh restaurant?”

Harry chuckles. “Not since you in New York, Ni.”

“Well, check with Liam and clear your schedules, then. It'll be just like old times. And you'll have to tell me about this Louis Tomlinson character. Never officially met the fellow.”

“I will,” Harry assures Niall, and he wonders where on earth he could possibly begin.

“Sick. Alright, mate. See you next weekend, then.”

“See you next weekend,” Harry echoes, and yeah. That feels good.

* * * * *

Louis' breath is already tinged with alcohol when the driver pulls the car to a stop in front of the Greek Street Soho House, and he leans in front of Harry to glance out Harry’s window. He lets out a low whistle. In front of the entrance, paparazzi flutter like moths under the lights, their camera lenses poised to capture the approach of every A-list guest to Nick Grimshaw’s birthday party.

“‘S a lot of paps for a birthday party,” Louis observes as he leans back in his seat, adjusting his jacket on his shoulders.

“It is,” Harry agrees. “You ready?”

Please, Hazza,” Louis chuckles with a flick of his wrist.

“What?”

Louis draws his hands down his torso in the air, gesturing at himself. “Look at this ensemble. I’m turning myself on. The camera is going to love me.”

Harry’s eyes scan the fitted black jacket, and his gaze is drawn to the middle of Louis' torso, where the jacket pulls in to accentuate the narrow curve of his waist and then flares out to flaunt the bloom of his hips. Heat prickles at the back of Harry’s neck, and he finds it peculiar how stuffy the car feels all of the sudden, despite the biting cold outside.

“Well, hey, that’s not fair. I dressed you. Don’t I get partial credit?”

Louis laughs, and the light catches in the small beaded medallion on his left breast pocket through the car window. “For turning me on?”

“What—no,” Harry sputters. “You twat, I meant the outfit.”

Louis grins, and there’s too much self-satisfaction in it for Harry’s liking, so for good measure, he adds: “If you bother me, I’m not going to give you the run-down of what you’re wearing. If anyone asks who your jacket is, you’re on your own.”

“Harry!” Louis clutches frantically at Harry’s sleeve. “Oh my god. Do you want me to be humiliated?”

Harry giggles and pushes Louis' hands away. “Be nice to me.”

“Fine. Whatever,” Louis huffs. “I don’t need you. My jacket is Alice McQueen, and my shirt is Giv-etch-ny. And my shoes,” he pulls his right foot up to cross it over his left thigh, “they’re, um—fuck. Who are my shoes?”

Harry groans, placing his palms over his face. “You are literally a stylist’s worst nightmare.”

Louis sticks out his lower lip, his eyes wide and pleading. “I’m fashion illiterate. Give me the answers. Please?”

“Okay,” Harry sighs. “Your jacket is Alexander McQueen, and your shirt is Givenchy. These buttons—hey, wait. Your favourite jumper? The lilac one?”

Louis quirks one eyebrow, confused. “Uh, yeah?”

“That’s Burberry. It’s absolutely gorgeous. And you have this great top from Saint Laurent, you know your geometric print one?”

“The green one?”

Harry nods. “Yeah, that one. You can’t be fashion illiterate with pieces like those.”

“I don’t know,” Louis shrugs. “I like what I like. I hate all this fuss about name and brand.”

Harry pinches the bridge of his nose with his fingers, squeezing his eyes shut. “Stop that before you kill me.”

“Sorry,” Louis giggles. “What were you saying about my buttons?”

Releasing a deep, dramatic sigh, Harry fingers one of the buttons on Louis’ red button-down shirt. “The buttons on your Givenchy shirt—say it with me—”

“Givenchy,” Louis repeats in unison with Harry.

“Good. So, the buttons are real gold, if anyone asks. Or even if they don’t. You probably could work it into the conversation, because it’s cool. And the shoes are just black loafers. Saint Laurent.”

If Harry’s honest, the shoes are his favourite piece of the whole ensemble. Selecting the various components had been one of Harry’s favourite projects to date. With parties, especially lavish birthday parties for Academy Award nominated actors like Nick Grimshaw who were a bit more, say, creative about their celebrations, there was much more room for experimentation than highly calculated photoshoots and promotional appearances. Sure, Louis would be papped entering and leaving the party, but everyone knew parties were an occasion for outlandish outfits and bold pattern combinations. Didn’t Katy Perry once arrive to Perez Hilton’s birthday party riding on an elephant? Harry could definitely get away with dressing Louis in some of his favourite designers.

Plus, Louis Tomlinson in Givenchy. Be still, Harry's beating heart.

“McQueen. Givenchy. Good old YSL. Got it. Ready?” Louis points his thumb toward the entrance of the Soho House.

“Yep,” Harry confirms. “Want me to hang back and let you go ahead?”

“What? No way,” Louis answers, wrinkling his nose as if he’d never heard anything more ridiculous. “Walk with me, Styles the Stylist.”

When they step out of the Range Rover, the crisp night air is flooded with the sounds of camera shutters bursting and paparazzi yelling Louis' name. Harry ducks his head, peering up through the curls that fall over his face. In front of him, illuminated by bursts of light from the flashbulbs, Louis walks with his shoulders thrust back and his head swivels side to side, grinning wildly. A crowd of fans stands off to the side, held back by a wall of security, and they call to Louis, who makes a point to pause and wave at them. He turns on his heel and disappears into the doorway after blowing one last kiss, and Harry can’t help but marvel as Louis seems to float on air at the fact that, all the bullshit stunts and image control aside, something deep inside Louis was born for this.

Inside, Harry follows Louis toward the bar. A Calvin Harris song pulses in the dimly lit room, and when Louis looks behind him to draw Harry to his side, his face is illuminated by green and red flashing lights.

Louis saunters up to the bar and motions the bartender over with a wave of his hand. The bartender is an unearthly type of gorgeous, with jet black hair that sits careless of gravity atop his head, swept over his forehead with a certain calculated nonchalance. As he leans across the bar and purses his lips forward, his cheeks hollow and his cheekbones look poised to pierce through his skin.

“I’m Zayn,” the bartender drawls. He’s looking at Louis like he’d like to take a bite out of him. Harry taps his fingers impatiently against the seam of his trousers.

“Louis. Delighted,” Louis replies politely. “Two pale ales, please.”

Zayn pushes his fingers through his silky hair and shoves off from the bar. “Coming right up.”

“He thinks you’re hot,” Harry whispers when Zayn is out of earshot.

“It’s the Alexander McQueen. Didn’t think I’d have to tell you that,” Louis winks.

“Good memory,” Harry remarks, and he takes a gulp of the pint Zayn has placed in front of him. He slams it back down on the counter with a loud “Ah!” and wipes foam from his top lip with the back of his hand.

“Thanks, babe,” Louis says when Zayn personally hands his pint to him.

“What else can I do for you?” Zayn asks, his voice low and raspy.

“I’ll let you know when I get right about here.” Louis points a finger about an inch above the bottom of his pint glass. “In the meantime, can I start a tab?”

“A tab?” comes a booming voice from behind them. Harry and Louis whirl around, and Nick Grimshaw stands before them, arms outstretched. “Darlings, it’s on me tonight.” He turns to Zayn, who is bent nearly all the way over the counter. “And Zayn, keep it in your pants for at least another hour out of respect for the holiday, would you?”

Zayn rolls his eyes and turns to the next cluster of people gathered at the bar demanding fruity pink drinks. Which, hey, Harry can respect a nice pink drink. He never leaves a bar without a little paper umbrella. He has a collection of them in a drawer in his flat.

“Nick! How are you, mate?” Louis cries. “Happy birthday!”

Nick draws Louis into a crushing hug, then pulls back to thrust a hand out toward Harry. “You must be Harry Styles,” he guesses.

“The one and only,” Harry confirms with a smile. “Happy to be here. Love the jacket. Gucci?”

Nick sports a red leather jacket, embroidered with a bold floral pattern in a variety of bright colours. He lifts his arms and twirls in a circle. “Like that? Gucci, indeed. Love a man who knows his designers.”

Harry elbows Louis directly in the stomach, and Louis doubles over with a loud grunt. Harry stifles a laugh. “An important quality,” he agrees.

“Alright, mate?” Nick directs his question toward Louis, whose eyes could shoot daggers through Harry, if he weren’t skillfully avoiding eye contact.

“Alright, yeah.”

“So tell me,” Nick prompts. “When’s the tour start? The states, yeah?”

Louis swallows a sip of his beer, nodding. “Next week, actually. A week from today. We leave next Thursday.”

“Where’s the first show?”

“New York City. Starting on the East Coast and working our way west.”

Nick lifts his eyebrows. “New York, huh? Been too long since I’ve been there. How about you, Harry?”

“Actually, I was in New York when I was hired to work for Louis, so,” Harry shrugs. “Not too long.”

“Not being too difficult for you, is he?” Nick teases, nudging Louis with his elbow. “I know he’s a pain in the arse sometimes.”

Harry chuckles. “He’s been alright so far, I think.”

“Cheers to that!” cries Louis, and he clinks his pint against Harry’s, tossing back a gulp. “Get the fuck out of here, Nick, go enjoy your party.”

“Cheers to growing old!” Nick yells. “Good to see you, mate. And Harry, lovely to meet you, you fine piece of arse. Don’t cut your hair, okay?”

Harry barks a laugh, unconsciously reaching up to card his fingers through his shoulder-length curls. “Don’t worry,” he assures Nick. “I’m not planning on it anytime soon.”

Nick points a finger at Louis and waggles his eyebrows before disappearing into the crowd on the dance floor.

Louis steps back up to the bar, and Zayn scurries over to him in less than three seconds. “Two rum and sodas, please.” Harry makes a disgruntled sound on Louis' right side, and Louis sighs, pressing two fingers to his temple. “Sorry. Does a cosmopolitan come with a paper umbrella?”

Zayn narrows one eye. “Um. Yes?”

“Okay, excellent. One rum and soda, and one cosmopolitan, please.”

When Zayn slides their drinks across the counter, Louis snatches the umbrella from Harry’s drink and tucks it behind Harry’s ear. He presses the bright pink cocktail into his chest. “Better?”

Harry nods, grinning as he takes the cocktail from Louis. “Better.”

Louis rolls his eyes, but his smile is soft and affectionate as he takes Harry by the crook of his elbow and declares as he lifts his drink into the air, “Come on, Curly, let’s mingle.”

* * * * *

As it turns out, mingling mostly consists of Harry sipping on cosmos and caipirinhas while elite party guests flock to Louis' side, fumbling for a few moments of his undivided attention. Some guests—tall blonde models, mostly—tip their heads back and laugh loudly with pink-stained mouths open, and their hands linger a little too long on Louis' arm. One girl, swaying unsteadily on her feet, begins to flatten her body against him, her mouth searching below his jaw. Harry bites down on a snappy remark, but Louis simply smooths a hand over her hair and whispers “come here, love,” as he helps her over to the plush grey sofa in the corner. He asks one of Nick's friends who is lounging on the sofa to keep an eye on her, and not to let her have another drink.

When Louis returns to Harry’s side and curls his fingers around the handle of his pint glass, Harry shakes his head, eyes fixed on Louis. “You’re incredible.”

A surprised sound escapes Louis' lips as he turns to look at Harry, one eyebrow raised. “Me?”

“Yeah,” Harry replies. “You haven’t had a moment’s peace tonight. Everyone wants to talk to you, and yet somehow, you still treat every person like there’s no one else you’d rather talk to. And that girl,” Harry gestures toward the model on the sofa, who has blessedly dozed off with her head pressed into the armrest, “she was all over you. You didn’t have to be kind to her.”

Louis shrugs, and swallows a gulp of his beer. “We’ve all had a few too many once or twice, Hazza. ‘S no different.”

And, well. Harry’s always been a relatively confident person. He’s comfortable in his skin and knows damn well that he’s known for his quick humour and clever charm. But tonight, as he watches Louis schmooze A-list award-winning musicians and actors, watches him charm the pants right off Kate Moss and Cara Delevingne, and reduce David Beckham to giggles—yes, giggles—Harry has the distinct realization that Louis is just so much more than Harry could ever hope to be.

Louis is the kind of person who owns places and people and things, and people fight for his attention, but he is still gentle with drunk blonde models who hurl themselves at him and he still loves Notting Hill and cries when he worries he isn’t living life to the fullest. Which Harry finds preposterous because he can’t think of a single person who has met Louis and hasn’t come away the better for it.

“When I was younger, my mum...she used to say, ‘For the next five minutes, the person in front of me is the most important person in the world.’” Harry leans an elbow on the bar, smoothing his palm over the cool surface. “I think about that all the time.”

Louis smiles gently, placing his hand over top of Harry’s. He strokes the back of Harry’s hand with the pad of his thumb. “Your mum said that?”

Harry nods. “Yep. Always.”

“What was her name?”

“Anne,” Harry answers.

“Anne sounds like a wise woman.”

Harry doesn’t know whether to say She was, or Thank you, or I wish you could have met her, and maybe that’s because all of those things are true all at once. He smiles back at Louis over the rim of his glass.

“Louis Fucking Tomlinson!” comes a shout from behind them.

Louis glances over his shoulder and a wide grin splits his face in two. “Ed Bloody Sheeran!”

“What the fuck are you doing here? Thought you’d be in the states!” Ed cries, clapping Louis on the back with a strong hand.

“Another week yet,” Louis explains. He tugs Harry closer by the crook of his elbow. “This is Harry.”

“Lovely to meet you, Harry,” Ed grins, offering a crushing handshake. Wild, fiery red hair sticks up in seven different directions around his head and curls behind his ears. “You taking good care of my mate, here?” he asks with a nod toward Louis.

“Only the best,” Harry assures him.

“Does he talk in his sleep?” Ed stage-whispers. “I feel like he would be the type.”

“Does he—what?” Harry laughs nervously. “I don’t know.”

Louis chokes on his beer, his eyes widening. “Um, Ed,” he blurts out. “Harry is my wardrobe stylist.”

Ed’s eyes bulge with laughter, and he presses a hand to his chest as he chuckles. “Shit, mate, That’s a bloody shame. You're really not—?”

No,” Harry and Louis chime in unison.

“Well, fine, then. Harry, Louis' not-boyfriend, tell me about yourself.”

Harry turns to lean his back against the bar. “I'm originally from Cheshire. I studied law at the University of Manchester but, like, it wasn't for me, you know? So on a whim, I applied for an internship under Niall Horan's lead wardrobe stylist.” He stirs his little black straw through the pink liquid of his drink, watching it swirl in the centre. “I figured, hey, I love fashion, why not give it a go? And,” he shrugs, “the rest is history. As they say.”

Ed makes an elaborate hand signal at Zayn across the bar, and Zayn lines up a round of electric blue shots. “And now you're working for this twat, hey?” Ed says with a toss of his head toward Louis.

Harry chuckles. “You could say that.”

When Ed hands them their shots, Harry's vision is already beginning to swim around the edges and he's leaning heavy on the bar, but he tosses it back and follows easily when Louis drags him toward the dance floor.

In the centre of the room, sweaty bodies are packed tightly together, and everyone moves to the same throbbing rhythm. Nick stands in the centre, his hands above his head, swaying his hips as guests around him hoot and cheer. Harry is pressed close between Louis and Ed, and he slings his left arm over Louis' shoulder, draped from his neck as he dances to the music that vibrates through the room. Louis is grinning at him as he moves, the coloured lights reflecting off of his teeth.

“You're so embarrassing,” Louis teases with a finger to Harry's side.

Harry giggles, his body folding at the point of impact as he pulls away from Louis. “I'm just feeling the music, Lou,” he explains, dragging one hand down his torso, maintaining eye contact with Louis for the entirety of the motion.

Louis drags his teeth over his bottom lip and his gaze darkens momentarily. Then, as quickly as the change came over him, his eyes snap back up to Harry's and he draws him in with a hand to his waist.

Louis tucks his face into the space between Harry's jawline and his neck, and whispers, “Come here. I just saw someone I want you to meet.”

“Who is it?” Harry asks, his voice hurried and excited.

“You'll see, come here,” Louis insists.

Pulling Harry by the arm, Louis leads him across the dance floor. In the far corner, Louis points to a row of red stools, and murmurs “Over there, on the right.”

Sitting on the far right stool is a woman with long black hair, twisted into a silky ponytail. She wears a tight black mini-dress with a plunging neckline, and a fitted white blazer is left unbuttoned over top. She holds a glass of champagne between three painted fingers with a practiced carelessness, and her massive gold hoop earrings glitter in the strobe lights from the dance floor.

Harry grips Louis' bicep so tightly that Louis gasps and pulls away, rubbing his arm. “Is that—”

“Yes,” Louis replies, his voice hushed.

“Am I about to meet—”

Yes.”

Louis,” Harry hisses. “You have to warn me about these things, I can’t just—I can’t just go casually introduce myself to the queen of pop.”

“Go,” Louis urges, pressing a palm to the small of Harry’s back to push him gently forward. “She loves cute things like puppy dogs and baby chicks and you. She’ll love you.”

“What should I say?”

“Whatever you want to say, you idiot. Since when does Harry Styles get nervous?”

“I don't know. Can't you introduce me?” Harry whines. He's still holding on to Louis' arm as if he'd surely float away if he were to let go.

Louis turns his gaze toward Harry, who does his best job of putting on a sweet, pleading face. Louis rolls his eyes, softened with affection, and taps the paper umbrella behind Harry's ear with his pointer finger. “Fine,” he concedes.

Harry grins, pulling Louis in for a quick squeeze.

Louis steps up to the woman and taps her lightly on the shoulder. She turns around to face Louis, her features warped with momentary confusion, but then realization spreads over the sharp angles of her face.

“Louis!” she exclaims. “How are you, babe?”

“Lovely, lovely. How have you been, Janet? How is The Voice treating you?”

And oh my god, Harry feels like he's going to pass out. Louis is on a first name basis with Janet Jackson and it doesn't even look like it fazes him.

“Very well, yeah. I'm loving it.” Janet leans around Louis to point a long, black fingernail at Harry, who has adjusted his leopard-print Burberry blazer ten times since she began to speak. “Is this your Harry?”

Harry's fingers still on the buttons of his blazer. The words your Harry trickle warm through the inside of his rib cage like a hot cup of earl grey. A warm tea daydream. The idea of belonging, somehow, to Louis is a comfortable one, and Harry doesn't have to stretch to imagine a time when he might enjoy something like that. He supposes that he already belongs to him in a way, as his wardrobe stylist, his best friend. It fits, somehow, like a pair of wool socks or an old sweater.

“My, um. My stylist, yes,” Louis answers, and the warmth in Harry's chest runs cold.

Cups of tea are always gone long before you think they ought to be. Daydreams, too.

Harry needs another shot.

“Babe, I can't believe how much I love your blazer. Leopard print, so bold. I love animal prints. And to pair it with a sheer shirt underneath?” Janet grins. “Brilliant. Harry Styles, it's a pleasure.”

She offers a hand, which Harry gratefully accepts. “Thank you so much, ma'am. I can't—I'm so happy to meet you.”

“Janet, darling. Please,” she smiles.

“Janet,” Harry replies with a wide grin. “How are you enjoying The Voice? I have only had time to catch an episode here and there, but when I found out you were going to be a judge,” he pauses, hesitant to verbalize his secret fan-boy tendencies. But he's starstruck, fragile, and halfway intoxicated so he gracefully says, “I almost shit in my pants.”

Janet tosses her head back to laugh, fanning the fingers of her free hand across her chest. Harry is shocked he doesn't hear Louis cackling from behind him, so he turns to look for him, but he has disappeared.

“It's a lot of fun, yeah, I love it.” Janet plucks a green and gold glass bottle from the table in front of the stools. “Champagne?”

Harry nods. “Please.”

Janet pours him a glass, and when the bubbling liquid catches the green lights from the dance floor, it looks like a glass of tiny glittering emeralds. Harry washes down half the glass in one gulp.

“The most fun part, and I know you'll appreciate this,” Janet explains, “is the outfits. Red carpet occasions are few and far between, and tours require a limited wardrobe. But television,” she continues, lowering the pitch of her voice and leaning in closer to Harry, “everyday's a new day.”

“Do you have stylists?”

“Why, are you looking?” Janet winks.

Harry smiles shyly and ducks his head to look down at his shoes, the gold tips of his boots pointing inward.

“I'm just kidding, babe,” Janet reassures him. “We do have stylists on the show, but I don't have any of my own. I'd like to, but I have to find the right person.”

Harry nods. “Of course. When it works, you know it.”

“Definitely,” Janet agrees. “If you're ever looking, give me a call,” she says with a wink.

Harry thanks God or Jesus or whatever force of nature is responsible for restraining him from passing out cold on the floor. Dressing Janet Jackson? His pop-music-loving heart flutters at the thought.

“So how is it, working for Louis?” Janet asks.

“Oh, it's so good,” Harry hums, happy—eager, even—to talk about Louis. “He has such great taste, it amazes me sometimes. He's picky about his personal wardrobe, but he's flexible when it comes to public occasions. Always willing to experiment. That's pretty much how he is in all of life, though,” he admits. “He's so fun to dress.”

“He’s choosy, that one,” Janet agrees, spreading her fingers across the rim of her champagne glass. “But I love him for it.”

“Don't we all.”

When Louis returns, Harry and Janet are side by side on the grey sofa. Janet's legs are crossed and she leans toward Harry, who is lying comfortably back on the pillows, one arm propped behind him.

“Lou!” Harry cries, patting the empty space next to him. “Come sit!”

Louis does, and when he sinks into the cushions beside Harry, Harry pulls him closer with one arm, ruffling his hair.

“Sorry I disappeared, I thought I'd give you your moment,” Louis whispers in Harry's ear.

“Oh it's fine, babe,” Harry slurs, drawing out his vowels.

Louis giggles. “You're so drunk.”

“I am,” Harry agrees. And gloriously so.

“Oi, Janet, you were supposed to be watchin' Curly, here.”

Janet waves him off with a flick of her wrist. “I'm no one's mum, darling. Have a lovely night, you two. Pleasure meeting you, Harry.”

Harry and Louis mumble their agreement, and Janet prances away.

Louis' head is nearly resting on Harry's shoulder, so when Harry leans to his side, his head lands on top of Louis'. Neither of them move.

“Where did you go off to?” Harry mumbles.

“Went to talk to Ed. Forced me to do more of those awful blue shots.”

Louis giggles, and Harry's body shakes with it.

“I think Janet offered me a job.”

“What?” Louis shouts.

Harry is giggling as he presses an index finger to Louis' lips. “Shhh. Don't scream.”

Louis groans. “Hazza, we're at a party. Besides. Janet can't have you, because you're mine.”

Suddenly, a great cheer explodes from the crowd on the dance floor. A rich voice echoes from the speakers.

"Now I've had the time of my life..."

Harry bolts upright, and emits a high-pitched squeal. “I love this song.”

He glances at Louis, fully expecting to catch his teasing laughter, but Louis is just nodding along, grinning gleefully.

"No, I never felt like this before."

“Come on,” says Harry. He shoves off from the couch and extends a hand back toward Louis.

“What?” asks Louis.

“Dance with me.”

Louis hesitates, glancing between Harry's hand and his waiting grin.

“Come on, Lou.”

"Yes, I swear, it's the truth..."

“Oh, what the hell,” Louis says, and he places his hand in Harry's.

Laughing madly, Harry draws back, lifting their joined hands into the air.

"And I owe it all to you."

Together, they float across the floor toward the centre of the room. They wobble pleasantly on their feet, and sway their hips with both hands joined in the air.

When the chorus comes, the room belts out the tune, and the floor shakes with the volume of it.

“I had the time of my life,” Harry sings, and it sounds more like yelling and feels more like flying.

“I've never felt like this before.”

Louis ducks under Harry's arm and twirls once, twice, three times. At the end of the third twirl, Louis missteps and begins to fall forward.

“Yes, I swear, it's the truth,” the room sings.

Louis reaches out for Harry, and tries to steady himself by holding on to Harry's shoulders. He trips over his feet, and falls head-on into Harry's chest.

Harry is laughing hysterically as he catches Louis, winding his arms around his small torso to steady him.

Louis giggles, too, and sings along into Harry's neck.

“And I owe it all to you.”

* * * * *

When Harry wakes up the next morning, it’s with groaning and grumbling and a dull throbbing in his head.

He rolls over and presses his face into his gold satin pillowcase. The smell of sweat and alcohol-tinged morning breath wafts up to his nose as he breathes in and out through the silky material. Flinging one arm out from under the plush white duvet, he gropes blindly for his cell phone on his bed side table. When he knocks over a bottle with a noisy clatter, he flinches, startled by the sound. He lifts his head, rubbing one eye with the back of his hand, to see what fell.

On the table is a small white bottle of painkillers, which he knocked over on top of a note scribbled hastily on bright orange paper. He plucks the note out from under the pill bottle and rolls over onto his back to read it.

Morning, sleeping beauty. Here’s a little something for the headache you’re bound to have. Lucky for you, I’m the greatest best mate there is, and I got you home in one very drunk piece. Text me when you leave to pick up Niall. xxxx L

Harry inhales deeply, his stomach muscles contracting as he hauls himself up to a sitting position. The sheer curtains flutter into the room as a breeze whispers through the window, and Harry shivers slightly as he pushes the duvet off of his torso and swings his feet onto the floor.

First breakfast, then the airport to pick up Niall.

Harry shuffles through his drawers and selects a pair of dark wash jeans and a white button-down top with thin navy blue stripes, which he buttons to his navel. He shakes out his hair, winding a few strands around his fingers to set the curls, then changes his mind and sweeps it into a high bun.

On his way out of the room, he reaches for the orange note lying on the bed. He reads it a second time, then folds it up, and tucks it into his back pocket.

* * * * *

“‘Lo, boys,” Louis chirps brightly as he ducks into Liam’s silver Audi, balancing a tray of Starbucks cups in his right hand. He transfers the tray to his lap as he shifts in his seat, then pulls the door closed with a slam. With his left hand, he lightly pats Harry’s knee. “Alright this morning, mate?”

Harry groans, sliding a palm across his face. He leans his head back against the headrest and employs every ounce of strength he possesses not to imagine the embarrassing things he undoubtedly blurted out last night while he was in a shamefully intoxicated state. He should blame it on the endless supply of fruity drinks he kept plastered to his palm all night long, but he blames Ed instead.

“Those bloody blue shots, Lou, they did me in.”

“Ah.” Louis is smirking, and he shoots Harry a knowing look. “The blue shots, eh?”

“Hey, Liam,” Harry calls up to the front seat. “How about some music?”

Louis chuckles, plucking a straw from the tray and tapping it against his thigh to open the paper. “Was it the shots, then, that made you say that thing about—”

Liam! Press play, please!”

“—about wanting to lick peach rum from my—”

“From your collarbones! Yes, I know, fuck, can we just, can we move on, please?”

Louis chokes on a shocked burst of laughter, clapping his hand over his mouth to catch the sound. “You remember that?”

“I wish I didn’t,” Harry groans. Because, yeah, he remembers that part. The part just a moment after Louis steadied himself after falling into Harry during “I’ve Had The Time Of My Life,” the part where Louis' collarbones looked utterly sinful in his half-unbuttoned Givenchy shirt and Harry suffered a momentary lack of judgment. At least, judging by Louis' reaction, that was the worst of it. At least he hadn’t admitted anything more private.

Liam is chuckling in the front seat, and Harry reaches around the headrest to swat him lightly over the head. “Shut up,” Harry mumbles.

“‘S alright,” Louis reassures him, giving the loose bun piled on top of his head a light squeeze. “I’m just taking the piss, love. I brought Starbucks,” Louis offers.

“Peace offering, I like it,” Liam tosses back over his shoulder. “Give it here.”

Louis pops a cup out of the tray and slides a stirrer through the small opening at the top. He passes it up to Liam, whose grin reminds Harry of an excited golden retriever puppy offered a treat from his beloved owner’s palm.

“I got you an Americano because I know you take your coffee strong,” Louis explains. “And for you,” he turns to face Harry, handing him a milky white iced drink and a straw, “I picked something you've never tried before, but I think you'll like it. Plus,” he adds with a shrug of his shoulders, “I know how you are about hot drinks when you're hungover, so iced it is.”

When Harry takes a sip, he can tell that Louis even remembered to ask for soy milk and it's all just so Louis that Harry could cry. Either that, or the drink Louis ordered for him is just that delicious.

“What is this?” Harry asks. “It's incredible.”

“It's an iced white chocolate mocha, with three pumps of hazelnut syrup,” Louis explains, taking a sip of his own cappuccino.

Harry closes his eyes, releasing a moan of pleasure, earning a kick in the shin from Louis. As much as Louis teases him, though, he always indulges him.

“You get creepy when you think something tastes good,” Louis mocks him, wrinkling his nose in feigned disgust.

“Creative flavour combinations make me horny.”

“Harry!” Liam cries from the front seat. “How many times do I need to tell you not to say you’re horny in front of me?”

“It freaks him out,” Harry leans across the back seat to whisper in Louis' ear.

“It freaks me out!” Liam declares

Harry and Louis dissolve into giggles, and Louis leans forward, covering his face with his hands.

“What are you laughing at?” Liam whines, his voice shooting up in pitch.

“Are you kink-shaming Harry’s Starbucks kink?” Louis challenges, swallowing his laughter.

Kink?” Liam glances at the white cup in his hand, makes an uncomfortable face, then gingerly places his cup into the cup holder in the centre console.

“Oh, god, yeah,” Harry moans. “Fuck, baby, I want your hot foamed milk in my mouth.”

Liam accidentally knocks his coffee cup over with his elbow, swearing under his breath as he fumbles under the passenger seat for his phone. He snatches it from the floor, frantically groping for the aux cord.

Louis is wheezing with laughter as he joins in. “Yes. Yes. Oh god yeah. Squirt your whipped cream on my face, daddy,” he pants.

Liam makes a gagging motion, pressing play on his phone and turning the music up so loud that Harry can’t even hear his own hysterical laughter.

Across the car, Louis is wrinkly-eyed, bursting into a thousand glittering pieces, which float warm and golden and bubbly through the stuffy air of the back seat. Harry would dedicate the rest of the life to the task of making Louis laugh if he could, and he feels drunk on the power it gives him.

Harry peels his gaze away from Louis, looking out the window at the buildings that line the motorway, blurring like brush strokes on the horizon as the car speeds past. He nods his head along to the beat of the music that screams from the speakers, and begins to worry he may be losing his mind.

* * * * *

I hate airports, Harry thinks as he, Louis, and Liam press through crowds of rushing travelers lugging oversized suitcases across sterile tiled floors. They’re nearing the gate, and the air smells like cheap takeaway food and cleaning fluid.

“I love airports,” Louis murmurs and he looks so small and silly, the way his tiny frame is drowning in his navy Adidas jacket with the hood up so that he can travel undetected through the terminals, but his expression is so serious and so heavy with thought and meaning that Harry pauses to urge the train of thought along.

“You do?” he asks.

Louis nods, peering up at Harry from behind his hood, and Louis can’t help but giggle at how young it makes him look. “Don’t you?” Louis replies.

“I don’t know,” Harry shrugs. “It all feels so chaotic to me. I like flying, but inside the airport, I don’t know. Everything is hurried and time moves in a weird way.”

“Time doesn’t exist in airports, mate,” Louis explains as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “I mean sure, there’s departure and arrival times, but look around,” he says, gesturing toward the shops and restaurants that line the spiderweb of halls from one terminal to the next. “These stores never close. There’s always someone around. And trust me, when you’re jet-lagged and wide awake at godforsaken hours, the nice old bloke behind the counter at the duty-free shop who’s awake at the same time as you is surprisingly comforting. No place experiences four A.M. like an airport.” Louis shrugs, tugging at his zipper, fidgeting as he often does during one of his longer speeches. “It’s the reason I miss flying commercial sometimes.”

“I guess that just feels eerie to me,” Harry admits, and he imagines that probably no one experiences four A.M. like Louis. After all, Louis is the personification of the single first ray of sunlight on the very cusp of a new day, the promise of a fresh new beginning to come, the excitement of light after a long night of dark silence.

“We should sneak away and fly commercial while we’re on tour,” Louis whispers.

“No,” Liam snaps from the other side of Louis. His brow is set, his expression stern.

Harry and Louis both turn to glance at him, fighting back giggles. Liam has been in a sour mood ever since they ganged up on him in the car. Harry doesn't know how much of it is genuine frustration and how much of it is Liam being moody and dramatic due to lack of sleep, but either way, Harry knows to give him his space. Harry loves Liam dearly, like the brother he never had, but they bicker like brothers, too.

“Yes, father,” Louis says sarcastically, chuckling when Liam shoots him a look that says watch yourself.

When they reach Niall's gate, Niall is already waiting for them, his hair covered by an Ireland snapback and his eyes shaded by a pair of sunglasses. When Harry sees him, he takes off running, his arms flung out wide. He nearly bowls Niall over when they collide, a giggling ball of energy and joy and excitement.

When Harry releases him, Niall reaches for Liam, who winds his arms around Niall's waist and lifts him off the ground. “I'm so glad you're here. These fuckers,” he mumbles with a pointed gesture toward Harry and Louis, “have been torturing me all morning.”

“Niall, this is Louis,” Harry introduces them, drawing Louis closer by a hand on his elbow.

“Sick, I'm so happy to finally meet ya. You're an absolute legend,” Niall grins. Louis offers a hand, but Niall bypasses his gesture and pulls him into a tight hug. “I'm a hugger, hope ya don't mind.”

“Course not,” Louis assures him, clapping his back twice with an open palm. “I've heard plenty about you.”

“All bad things, I hope,” Niall winks exaggeratedly, sticking out his tongue.

“Very,” Louis confirms.

“Now, what have you been doing to my Liam?” Niall asks, slinging arm around Liam's neck as they begin to walk back toward the car.

“They were making kink jokes in the car on the way here,” Liam reports, and his degree of whiny-ness would arouse jealousy in a two year old.

“Kink jokes?” Niall repeats, incredulous. “Mind if I don't ask?”

“Fine,” Liam sighs. “Just sit in the front seat with me on the way back.”

“Sure, mate. If I'm honest, though, I thought you'd be used to Harry's sex jokes by now.”

“It's worse with this twat around,” Liam groans, gesturing to Louis, who preens at the accusation. “You don't know the half of it.”

Harry offers his open palm, which Louis slaps, grinning as they high-five to being partners in crime.

When they've settled into their seats in Liam's car and Niall's luggage has been stored in the back, Niall turns his head, the blue-ish glow of his phone screen reflecting on his face. “So where to for dinner tonight, mates?” he asks.

“Can we do lunch instead?” Liam requests. “I'm ready to die of starvation.”

“Sure,” Niall shrugs. He turns around in his seat to face the back. “You okay with that, Hazza?”

“Works for me,” Harry confirms.

“Louis, you're welcome to join us. My treat,” Niall offers.

“Thanks so much,” Louis replies politely, “but I'm afraid I can't make it. I have a papped outing this afternoon.”

Harry reflexively clenches his jaw, and tucks his hands under his thighs to keep from balling them into white-knuckled fists.

“Oh, no problem.” Niall is cool and casual, and he punctuates his sentence with a wave of his hand.

When they drop Louis off at his house and Niall reiterates how tickled he is to have met him, Harry is left alone in the back seat and he can't shake the anxiety disguised as the tension in his jaw.

He doesn't know why, but he hopes Niall and Liam don't ask him about work at lunch. Hopefully they don't ask about Louis at all.

* * * * *

When the waitress has taken their orders and collected their menus, and Liam has shamelessly trailed her path all the way back to the kitchen, mesmerized by the sway of her hips, Niall clears his throat and steeples his fingers together, leaning forward on the table.

“So, Hazza,” he begins. “How is it working for Louis now?”

God fucking damn it.

“It's alright,” Harry replies, grasping for words. “Louis is...yeah, he's great. We got on from the word go. But it's, uh,” he pauses, clears his throat, “I have a little less freedom when it comes to outfit selection.”

“Mmm,” Niall nods, signifying his understanding. “Image stuff, I'm guessing?”

“Have you heard?”

“Industry secret. Or, not-so-secret, I guess.”

“Ah.” Harry picks at the paper wrapper that his straw came in, tearing it into minuscule pieces and piling them in the dip of his spoon.

“You styled his outing today,” Liam points out. “Is he going to be papped with a girl?”

“Yeah, another mystery blonde,” Harry grumbles bitterly.

Niall groans, taking a sip of water from the crystal glass in front of him. “That's promo season for ya.”

“Why?”

Niall tilts his head, his expression quizzical. “Why what?”

“Why does promo season have to be like that?” Harry asks.

“Oh, I don't know, mate,” Niall answers with a shake of his head. “Just how it is, I guess.”

And okay. That's all well and good for Niall who can shrug things off, Niall who takes an eternity and a half to become angry. But it's not well and good for Harry, who is ready to crumble under the weight of the knowledge that for three months, he has spun lies to millions of people about who his best friend is.

“No, see, that's not a fucking good enough answer for me.”

Liam and Niall exchange a worried glance, and Liam reaches over to place a soothing hand over Harry's tight fist. “Harry?”

“What, does this not bother you?” Harry snaps.

“Well, of course it does,” Liam flinches. “But...I think it's hurting you more than it's hurting me.”

“The closet is such bullshit, you know?” Harry explains, his voice desperate. “There's nothing more stifling than that. Than the suppression of who you are.”

Liam rubs circles on the back of Harry's hand with his thumb, nodding his head to urge him on.

“And, like, I know it's not going to last forever,” Harry continues, “but it's really wearing on him. You should have seen him after he wore that rainbow tank at the Brits. He was a new person.”

“There's some separation between work and real life, though,” Niall assures Harry. “At least his real friends and family know.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Harry concedes, but only because he doesn't know how to express in words the feeling of watching Louis—bright, sparkly, effervescent Louis—be forced to shrink himself. It's like every colour of the rainbow trying to fit into one single shade of brown. His fans say he's beautiful, precious, wonderful, and they call him a lovely shade of yellow, and it's all so frustrating because only Harry knows that Louis is really gold.

“You know,” Liam murmurs, smoothing a hand over Harry's wrist, “you don't have to keep this job if it's too hard for you.”

“He's right,” Niall agrees. “The closet is fucked, and you can always leave if you need to.”

“I heard Janet Jackson offered you a job,” Liam smiles with a gentle elbow to Harry's side.

“She did,” Harry chuckles, but there's little humour in it. “I don't know, I don't think I can leave.”

“Why not?” Niall prods.

“I just can't,” Harry sighs. “I need to be here for Louis. He said it's different with me.”

“What's different?” Liam asks.

Everything, Harry wants to say. It's different for me, too.

“I just feel like we can change the situation. I can't explain it. It's just a feeling I have.” Harry tightens and releases his fists, feels the tension build and then dissipate. “He has the same feeling.”

“Okay,” Niall says with a sigh. He watches Harry, his expression etched with concern. “I just don't want to see you keep a job you're morally opposed to for the sake of a friendship.”

For some reason, Harry's jaw clenches at the word 'friendship.' “How could I leave because it's too hard for me when he's the one being closeted?”

“Fair enough,” Niall agrees.

Harry sighs, and picks up his spoon, dumping the little shreds of his straw wrapper onto the tablecloth.

“We're here for you mate, okay? Especially me, since I'm here every day,” Liam offers.

“Thanks, mate,” Harry nods.

“Love you, you bloody good-hearted man,” Niall assures Harry affectionately, mussing his hair.

When the waitress brings their food, it's almost a normal lunch, just like old times. Liam flirts with the cute blonde waitress so blatantly that Harry and Niall blush an even deeper red than the waitress does, Harry spills sauce on his brand new Gucci jacket as he always tends to do, and Niall earns an odd look from the waiter when he requests a cheap brand of beer in what everyone knows is the poshest restaurant in London.

Except that between sips of beer in Niall's case, and red wine in Liam's, both of them watch Harry with worried eyes, as if he were an alarm that could go off at any moment.

But it's almost like old times. Almost.

* * * * *

Four Walls - Broods

“I thought you hated turkey,” Harry giggles into his phone. He’s sprawled out on the sofa, and “Chopped” is playing, muted, on the telly screen. Evening sunlight drips lazily from the window.

“Well, I do,” Louis explains on the other end. “But it was a turkey sandwich with avocado, and I know you love shit with avocado on it so I wanted to order it so I would be able to tell you whether it was good.”

“That makes no sense.”

“Does too, Hazza,” Louis protests. Harry can hear the sound of a car starting in the background, and he assumes Louis must have called him on his way home. “And it was good.”

“If you like turkey,” Harry clarifies.

“Yes. See? You’re welcome. It was a good place, we should go sometime in the next few days before we leave for tour.”

“Mmm, we should,” Harry agrees. He shifts onto his side, resting his head in his palm, and tugs his blanket up his torso. “So it was good today?”

“Yeah. It was fine, yeah. The girl was nice. Her name is Julie. She works in, uh…” Louis trails off, and Harry waits patiently for his train of thought to return to speed. “Sorry,” Louis continues. “I got distracted. I’m driving. But yeah, she works in music production, actually. We went out for afternoon drinks after lunch, and then she gave me a tour of her studio. It’s late now, innit?”

Harry nods, even though he knows Louis can’t see. “Like eight or so, yeah.”

“Julie got a cosmopolitan and I asked if I could keep her umbrella,” Louis announces proudly. “I think we should start a collection on the road, like you have at your flat.”

“Sounds good,” Harry says, pressing a fist to his smiling lips. “Louis?”

“Yes, Hazza?” Louis chuckles.

“I have an avocado joke.”

“Have you been thinking about telling me this joke since I mentioned the turkey and avocado sandwich?”

“Yes,” Harry admits shyly.

“Okay, let’s have it, then,” Louis urges, laughter coloring his voice.

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Avocado,” Harry giggles.

Through the phone, Harry can hear little puffs of air as Louis laughs fondly through his nose. “Avocado who?”

“Avo-ca-do cold.”

Laughter filters through the tiny speakers and lodges itself directly, sugary sweet and feathery light, into Harry’s chest. “A cold? You poor sick little thing,” Louis teases. “Shouldn’t you be getting to bed early, then?”

“I actually am quite sleepy,” Harry confides. It’s only eight o’clock, but with the mention of sleep, a yawn tickles at the back of his throat and he tosses his head back, his mouth stretching wide.

“I can tell,” Louis chuckles. “Turn off ‘Chopped’ and get into bed, yeah?”

“How did you know I was watching that?” Harry gasps, but really, he stopped being surprised by Louis' knowledge of minuscule details a long time ago.

“It’s a Friday night and you’re in your flat alone,” Louis comments. “I’m good with my inductive reasoning.”

“I think it’s deductive reasoning,” Harry corrects him through another yawn.

“Whatever, smarty pants,” Louis dismisses him. “Thanks for the laughs. G’night, petit avocat.”

When Harry hangs up, he’s smiling quietly to himself because Louis, silly Louis, affectionate Louis just actually ended a phone conversation by calling Harry a little avocado in French.

While he is giggling about the fact that ‘petit avocat’ also means ‘little lawyer’, and picturing himself in a ridiculously plain black suit every day as a miniature sized legal professional—he had studied law in uni before dropping out, after all—he hears a soft knock at the door to his flat.

Harry calls out “Come in!” without lifting his head from the arm rest. On the telly, a woman with dyed red hair wrapped in a floral headscarf is running from one station to the next, frantically scooping a lumpy yellow substance from a tin can.

The door opens with a soft clicking sound, and squeaks quietly on its hinges as Liam opens it just wide enough to slip through. “Hey,” he murmurs as he closes the door gently behind him, and it’s welcome and familiar like the first mug of coffee at home after months of cheap aeroplane coffee in paper cups.

“Hey,” Harry echoes, sitting up on the sofa and smoothing the blanket over his lap. He pats the empty space beside him. “What brings you over here?”

“Just wanted to check on you. I was worried you’d be shaken up from our conversation this afternoon at lunch.”

“Oh, yeah, I’m good.” Harry replies casually. “Just got off the phone with Louis, actually.”

“How was his lunch outing?” Liam asks, arranging himself on the sofa beside Harry.

“Really good. He and the girl hit it off, which is lucky,” Harry answers. He fidgets with the corners of his phone case in his lap, then flattens his palms on either thigh. “Do you want some ice cream?”

Liam laughs, his eyes disappearing under layers of giddy wrinkles. “Do I? Which flavour is the question.”

Harry shoves off of the sofa and pads into the kitchen, the hems of his joggers dragging on the floor where they’re tucked under his heels. He pulls the door to the freezer open and a cloud of cold, wet air spills out. Two cartons of ice cream sit one on top of the other in the far corner.

“I have mint chocolate chip and just plain chocolate,” Harry calls back into the living room.

“Hmm,” Liam considers. “What about a scoop of each?”

“Good choice,” Harry agrees.

Cross-legged on the sofa, Harry and Liam tuck into their bowls of ice cream. When he’s finished, Liam licks the melted green and brown mixture from his spoon, placing it in his bowl on the floor in front of his feet. He turns to Harry, who giggles at the brown outline of dried ice cream around Liam’s bottom lip. Liam wipes it away with the pad of his thumb, then tucks both hands in his lap, sucking in a breath.

“Okay,” he begins slowly, cautiously. “Harry, listen to me. I know you don’t like to talk about yourself much, but are you willing to talk to me about something?”

He’s right, is what Harry is thinking. He doesn’t like to talk about himself. Especially not in a way that can be interpreted as sad or unhappy or in need of comfort. Ever since his mum passed away, he’s been careful to draw more distinct lines between where he ends and others begin, because every time he told someone about his mum’s death, they became visibly upset, and some of them even cried. Harry would rather let the sadness pool in his stomach where it cannot be seen, despite the ache it gives him, if it saves him the guilt of feeling as though he caused someone else’s sadness. In four years, he’s told only three people about his mum’s death: Niall, Liam, and Louis, and the latter felt more like an accident, a secret that gave itself away in spite of him.

But Liam looks so earnest, with pools of affection and pity for eyes, so Harry concedes.

“Yeah, we can talk.” Harry places his bowl inside Liam’s, and begins to move toward the kitchen to wash them.

“Wait,” Liam calls from behind him. “You can wash those in a minute. Sit with me.”

Reluctantly, Harry lowers himself back down onto the sofa.

“I know this whole job change thing happened like, three months ago,” Liam begins, his voice low and calm. “But I realised I never asked you what you thought about it. When it happened, you know? And like, I assumed it was stressful for you, because—well, how could it not be?” he rambles, his voice picking up speed. “But you were closer to Niall than I was, since you worked with him for so long. And I figured, shit, it’s taken me three months to say anything, but better late than fucking never, right?”

Harry hums, nodding his head, brow furrowed as he sifts through his thoughts. “Um,” he mumbles. “So what are you asking?”

Liam pauses, his eyes scanning the room. He takes a short breath. “I guess…” he says thoughtfully. Then he directs his gaze at Harry. “How was the change for you?”

“Okay,” Harry nods. “Well...unsteady is the word I would probably use. I felt really unsteady. No one likes...change.”

“No, they don't, that’s true. Do you still feel that way?”

“I’m not sure,” Harry admits. “I’ve loved being back in London, living in my flat,” he explains, gesturing around the room with both hands, “and Louis is, like, my best mate.”

“What is it, then?” Liam prods, and his voice is so soft and gentle that Harry can tell he’s treading lightly. This is the kind of thing Harry hates, being treated like he’s fragile. “Is it the closeting?”

“I mean, no—well, yeah,” Harry stammers. “Yeah, that fucking infuriates me sometimes but I do feel like we’re getting somewhere. Simon, he’s on edge, have you noticed? I think he knows his plot has an expiration date.”

“But it’s wearing on Louis.”

“Yeah,” Harry heaves, and his shoulders drop slightly. “It is.”

Liam shifts on the sofa, placing a palm on Harry’s knee. Harry glances up to make eye contact, and Liam is all soft eyes and concern. “What about you?” he asks. “What’s wearing on you?”

“What, have I been acting like there’s something wearing on me?”

Liam nods slowly, carefully, and Harry slides two hands across his hair and behind his head, the blanket slipping off his legs and onto the floor. He rests his hands behind his neck for a moment, then drops them into lap again, shaking his head once, twice, and a third time.

“Okay, let’s say that tomorrow, Simon phones you and says ‘That’s it, you’re sacked, pack your bags.’ What would you say?”

“I’d tell him to bugger off, fuck, Liam,” Harry grimaces.

Why?” Liam asks, and paired with his pointing finger, it’s the kind of question Harry knows is meant to make a point rather than to glean any information.

“I like this job,” Harry replies, impatient.

“Okay, do you like the clothing you have to choose from for Louis' current look? Is this job allowing you to showcase your creativity?”

Harry hesitates, then sighs. “No.”

“Do you like his management team’s business approach? The closeting?”

“No.”

“Do you like the idea of being on tour in the US for six months while your sister and your friends are still in London?”

Harry hangs his head, pressing his fingers into his closed eyes. “No,” he admits, regretful.

“Then?” Liam prompts. “You must like something. What is it? What’s left?”

“I like working with you,” Harry attempts weakly. “You’re a great...a great assistant.”

Liam squeezes Harry’s knee, where his hand still rests. “Where you go, I follow, and you know that. So what are you really staying for?”

Harry rubs his eyes with the heels of his palms, and lifts his head to glance around the room. It’s grown dark outside now, and the silence is so thick it’s almost cumbersome, save for the low hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen. The delicate scent of mint floats up from the bowls at their feet.

Who are you staying for, maybe?”

Harry can hear his own breathing, the mocking thump of his own heartbeat in his chest. He is the personification of hesitation as he rolls the hem of his shirt between his fingers and attempts a regular breathing rhythm in the midst of the tension that rolls dense and bulky in the air. He swallows, and it’s the loudest thing he’s heard tonight by far.

“Louis,” he exhales.

Liam reaches for Harry’s hand and squeezes it so tightly that both of their knuckles turn white.

“Is that the answer?” Liam asks, and yeah, it’s the answer and it’s also the question, it’s the thing that’s keeping the moon at bay and the thing that draws the tide ashore. It’s the tune carried in the bird songs at the first light of dawn, it’s the spaces between Harry’s ribs and the thing that draws the stars across the deepening velvet sky, and it’s the beginning and the end of all things.

“I'm in love with him,” Harry breathes, because what else can he do but love him?

“You’re such an idiot, Hazza,” Liam whispers as he circles his arms around Harry’s shoulders and tugs him into his chest. “Such an idiot.”

“I know,” Harry agrees. “I know. I mean, fuck. I work for him.”

“No, no, that’s not what I mean,” Liam replies, stroking a warm palm over Harry’s mangled curls. “I mean you’re an idiot because you thought I couldn’t see.”

“You knew?”

“Of course I knew. You two are like…” Liam turns one palm upward, searching for the words. “...twin stars. Two petals on the same yellow flower.”

Harry exhales through his nose. “How long have you known?”

“Do you remember when we were out having coffee and Simon called? Something about a last minute pap walk?”

Harry nods. “Yes?”

“You went right out to the car and picked out his favourite navy jacket, the only piece in all of the original ten looks he liked, and I just knew. You cared for him so quickly, so easily.”

Groaning, Harry ducks his head, tucking his nose into Liam’s shirt. “You should have told me.”

“You had to figure it out for yourself, babe.” Liam’s voice is hushed, and he continues to stroke the mess of Harry’s hair. “When did you realise?”

“Well…” Harry sniffs. “Now, really. Before, it was just this...this feeling of madness I didn’t have a name for.”

“I’m proud of you,” Liam murmurs into Harry’s curls.

Harry’s chest is tight as he whispers his thanks, and it feels like his head has been pumped full of cold air. He’s thankful to be sitting, to be somewhere quiet, to be circled in Liam’s arms.

“So what now?” Liam wonders, echoing the question that rattles around inside Harry’s skull, and a siren wails in the distance through the walls of his flat, and Harry knows everything and nothing at all.