“C’mon, make a wish!”
Liam stares down at the two candles, the flames on top of the waxy 2 and 0 flickering yellow-orange over the deep trenches of white frosting.
Liam isn’t ungrateful. Nicola and Kiana made this cake for him, in his favorite flavor and everything; they’re the best. There’s no decent bakery in the area, and they took the time to bake this on their own even though they didn’t have to. It’s far more than anyone else did for his birthday. He loves his sister, and he knows that she and Kiana love him too.
It’s just sometimes hard to shake the melancholy that his birthdays always bring.
“Thanks for making this cake for me,” he says, forcing himself out of his self-pity to turn and throw a grateful grin to where they stand crowded behind him on the porch. In the yellow candlelight, Nicola’s face breaks into a small, sweet smile, and Kiana squeezes an arm around her waist. “Really,” he looks between them. “Thank you. You didn’t have to do anything.”
Nicola ruffles a hand through his short hair. “Of course we did. You’re my favorite little brother.”
“I’m your only brother,” Liam rolls his eyes.
“You’re still my favorite,” she declares, ruffling at his head again.
“Ooh, look!” Kiana points up excitedly, and Liam follows the line of her finger. For an instant, the sharp white-blue light of a shooting star, a bit larger than usual, zooms across the inky night sky. It shoots down toward the horizon before it abruptly disappears just above distant treeline.
Nicola nudges his shoulder. “Now you’ve got to make double the wishes!” she says with glee.
Liam laughs, and then he looks back down at the candles and squeezes his eyes shut. The traffic rumbles in the distance, and he takes a measured breath.
It’s funny, because for years, ever since his family moved to Hawaii when he was five years old - and then, even more so four years later after the night of the car accident that took his parents away forever - Liam only ever had one wish. One single wish had occupied his mind every time he’d had a birthday or counted down for the New Year or found a lucky penny, every one of the countless nights that he lay on the porch surrounded by the chirping of crickets and geckos and waited for shooting stars.
Back then, he had wished for a friend. He’d wished for just one person who wouldn’t run away from him, who wouldn’t think he was the weird kid with no parents, who wouldn’t move away or go back home after an extended holiday or simply leave him for a new friend more normal and cool.
It never happened. He had Nicola, sure, and then Kiana; they raised him, and he will be eternally grateful for them. But even from a young age, he understood that no one wants to spend their early twenties babysitting a little brother. That’s why he moved into his shoddy little apartment close to the Pizza Shack and the community college the day after he turned eighteen: so that his sister and her wife could finally have a real home for just the two of them. They never would have asked him to move out, of course, but he knew they must have wanted to finally live free from him. Besides, he’d had enough money saved up from all his part-time jobs to cover half of the rent, as long as he could find someone to pay the other half.
Andy was one of the first people Liam met in college, and he was nice enough as a housemate. Sure, he partied more than Liam and more often than not woke him up at ridiculous hours of the night slamming doors or puking on the floor, but he was fine. Even if they were never destined to become close, Liam had thought they were friends.
Of course, Andy flaked out a month before the lease was up. He left Liam, just like everyone else, leaving him with an empty apartment and no one to cover the other half of the rent a week before his birthday. Which is why he’s here right now, with his sister and her wife and a homemade cake whose candles are beginning to melt into a warped mess from all the time that he’s taking to blow them out.
Liam briefly considers making the same tired wish he’s always made, but in the end it’s too humiliating, even to only himself. Instead, he wishes for nothing and blows out the candles with one sharp breath. He kisses Nicola on the cheek, and when she asks, he tells her his wish already came true because he has the best sister anyone could ever ask for. At least that part is true.
Right foot, left foot. Right up, right down; left up, left down. Easy peasy.
“Harry, watch – “
“Ow!” He isn’t looking up when he stumbles, hard, into a large man on the sidewalk. “Sorry, sorry.”
“Pono, no problem.” The guy waves with a jovial grin and continues strolling down the pavement. Harry watches curiously over his shoulder, but then his left foot catches something on the pavement and he almost falls over again, flinging himself forward and catching his balance just in time.
Harry’s usually not this clumsy. He usually moves around with the perfect poise and grace befitting for the son of a Galactic ambassador. But then again, he’s not accustomed to moving around like this. Where he grew up, the gravity doesn’t pull you down toward the ground quite so hard, and no one has to lift their legs so far up just to move to a new step – not to mention, they don’t have to have these bulky things holding onto their feet.
“You okay?” Niall’s grin has a distinct teasing air behind it. “Do you think you’ll be ready to catch our alien?”
“Yes,” Harry huffs.
“Because at this rate,” Niall continues, “the most identifiable alien here is you.”
“Ha ha,” Harry deadpans even as Niall cackles at his own joke. “Look, it’s not my fault the Earth is so weird!”
“Oi! That’s my family you’re insulting!” Niall elbows him in the side lightly, and Harry rolls his eyes. Niall was clearly chosen for this particular mission because he was already familiar with Earth; his family traces its roots here just a few generations back, and his brother even still lives here. Harry’s family is technically descended from Earth, too – he is 94 percent human, after all – but his family has lived on Gylgrr for nearly a millennium, and they’ve adapted. The fact that Harry had been paired with Niall, and that they are one of the only teams of young humanoids on the force and thus the perfect choice for this particular mission, was merely an unfortunate coincidence.
“Well, it’s still weird,” Harry declares as he narrowly avoids tripping over another rock.
All in all, though, this planet actually does not seem as bad as he had thought. Aside from the weird clothing and higher gravity and stronger friction and the customary manner of walking, it’s a nice place: well-lit by its sun but still comfortable with a nice humidity, and warm enough for him to leave the top buttons of his shirt undone. It’s strange, because he’s always heard of Earth as a fast-paced, primitive, fairly miserable place, but here everything seems blue and green and happy.
“We’re in Hawaii,” Niall says knowingly. “This is, like, as nice as it gets on Earth.”
“Oh, really?” Harry asks, curiosity piqued. “What’s it like in Nireland?”
“Ireland,” Niall corrects him with a laugh. “It’s nice there, too – just different. Bigger, for one thing, and flatter – none of the volcanoes or beaches they have around here. Mostly it’s green, with lots of sheep.” He shrugs. “And it’s farther north, so the weather’s colder, especially at certain times of the year when the sun is farther away.”
“And where are we now? Does it ever get cold?”
“We’re on a tiny group of islands in the middle of nowhere,” Niall snorts. “But we’re by the equator, which is close to the sun pretty much all year round, so it’s always warm here.”
Harry cocks his head. “That does sound nice,” he admits. He doesn’t like the cold and the layers of clothing that come with it.
Niall shrugs. “’s more of a vacation place, for most people. Since it’s so small and kind of isolated. But I like it, too. It’s so different: different environment, different culture. I’ve always wanted to come here.”
As if to prove Niall’s point, a flash of color suddenly catches Harry’s attention. “Ooh,” he coos as he crouches down by the side of the building to peer into the space between the wall and the gutter pipe. A big, neon-green lizard sticks to the wall.
“Day gecko,” Niall informs him proudly as he crouches beside him. The lizard looks up at them through its huge pupils, seemingly unfazed by their presence. It slowly stretches the sticky toes on its right foot up in the air. Then, still looking up at them, it extends its tongue and methodically licks the surface of each of its eyeballs.
Niall pushes his glasses up on his nose. “It’s because they don’t have eyelids, so they have to clean their eyes by licking them,” he explains as the lizard’s tongue wipes at its right eyeball, then its left.
“So weird,” Niall agrees with a pleased wrinkle to his nose. Then he turns. “Actually,” he squints and looks between Harry and the lizard, “I see some resemblance. Are you sure you didn’t actually evolve from them?” He cackles.
“Heyy,” Harry protests. He reaches out to gently pat at the lizard’s silky-smooth tail, and it wriggles to scurry up higher behind the pipe.
“C’mon,” Niall says, and Harry only almost trips as he rises up and scurries after him.
“What can I get for you?” Liam repeats. The afternoon sunlight shines through the boy’s golden eyelashes as the sharp blue eyes behind them zip from one side of the menu to the other and then back again, as if he doesn’t know where to look, can’t focus. The line of increasingly annoyed tourists is building up behind him.
“Um. Sir. What would you like?” He doesn’t say anything, but his eyes seem to settle on a point at the upper-left corner of the menu. “The Hawaiian is our special,” Liam explains, “of course. Do you want one of those? You can add a coke for one fifty.”
The boy gives a quick nod. “Sure.”
Liam sighs in relief as he keys in the order, and he’s even more relieved when Tito steps up to the other register to take on the next customer.
Despite the everyday stresses of customer service, Liam’s job at Tito’s Pizza Shack has treated him well. Convincing tourists that Hawaiian pizza is actually authentically Hawaiian is not a difficult task, and it’s far from the worst job on the island – that honor might go to the hula girls who plaster on smiles and indulge the lecherous stares of a hundred culturally oblivious tourists every night. His is a fine job: the pay is good, and Tito really is an excellent boss, hilarious and kind and always willing to help out when needed.
But even so, a part of him can’t wait until the college semester starts up again so that he’ll get a few days each week when he can just go to classes and come home not smelling like garlic and grease. Then again, he thinks grimly as he rings up the order, if he can’t find a housemate soon, he’ll be spending every spare minute of his time here trying to make up the extra rent.
“That’s eight-fifty,” Liam says. The boy rifles through his pockets and hands over a wad of cash. Liam can’t stop his eyes from bulging out as he realizes that the guy shoved a stack of hundred-dollar bills at him. He must really not be from around here, then. He must be a rich foreign tourist or something.
“Pizza’s not that expensive,” Liam tells him with a chuckle as he hands back most of the bills along with the rest of his change. “It was only eight dollars.” Liam turns around to slide the pizza into the oven to heat, and when he turns back the guy is still standing there, blinking quickly as his eyes scan around the room.
Liam should probably move on to the next customer, but he hesitates. The line has mostly dissipated, and for some reason Liam finds himself caught on the boy, his tanned skin and sharp features and curious blue eyes. Liam wants to know more. “So,” he asks, and the blue eyes settle on him. ”Where are you from?”
The boy shrugs and flicks back his sun-golden hair. “Nowhere.”
“Did you just arrive?” Liam presses. He eyes the guy’s seemingly old, rumpled clothes, a strange contrast to his obvious wealth. Usually the rich kids around here are immaculately dressed, even if they’re only going to the beach.
“Yep, got here this morning,” Blue Eyes says. His voice is high and smooth, with a strange lilt that sounds vaguely English but somehow not quite like anything Liam has ever heard before, and Liam is struck with the sudden feeling that he could listen to that voice forever. He shakes off that foolish thought when the oven dings, and he turns to retrieve the little pizza into a cardboard box and finally hand it over. The guy’s eyes widen, and he pries open the box and stuffs a huge bite of a pineapple-clad pizza into his mouth right there in front of the counter. “This is really good,” he says through the mouthful of food. “Hawaiian.”
“Right,” Liam snorts.
The laser-blue eyes settle on Liam’s again, and the guy raises a sharp eyebrow. “Is it not?”
“Technically, it’s – well, not exactly,” Liam stutters. “It’s only called Hawaiian; it’s popular here, but it was probably invented somewhere else. I mean, I suppose pineapple and ham are kind of Hawaiian foods – though ham isn’t really a food from anywhere, is it, I mean, it’s ham – but just, putting them on a pizza isn’t really traditionally Hawaiian in any way” –
He’s rambling. The boy still has his slice of pizza poised above his mouth for the next bite, one eyebrow sharply arched above. “Okay,” he says.
“Okay.” Liam nods, suddenly acutely aware that he just made a fool of himself. He shrugs and gives a weak smile. “Well, anyway, have a good trip.” The boy nods, already chewing on another bite of pizza, and then he turns and Liam watches him trot away.
“Hey,” Tito nudges him, and it almost makes him jump in surpruse; he didn’t realize how long he’d been staring at the boy’s backside. Liam prepares to apologize to his boss, but Tito just grins. “No flirting with the customers during work hours.”
Liam feels his face heat. “I wasn’t – ”
Tito is already walking away, his shoulders shaking in a deep laugh, and Liam gulps and turns to face the next customer.
Liam sees attractive tourists fairly often, what with working on the beach in Hawaii in the midst of a hotbed of resorts. He sees them shirtless; he sees them wet. He’s used to it, and he usually doesn’t remember them for very long. But for some reason, the encounter sticks with him all day, and the next morning he awakens with the sharp blue eyes and pointy grin still etched into his mind.
Still, tourists come and go, and he’s fairly certain he is never going to see the mystery blue-eyed boy again.
So he’s almost sure he must be hallucinating when he turns the corner toward the shop the next morning, and he sees a familiar silhouette standing a distance outside. Sure enough, when he gets closer, he confirms that it’s the same guy, albeit more waterlogged, the same clothes as yesterday hanging rumpled and soaked off of his body. He’s a distance away from the building, and he seems to be staring out at the ocean.
Liam knows he shouldn’t do anything about it. He should just ignore him; he should go into the shop and open up and do his job. But his heart wins out, and he makes a split-second decision to abandon the front door and jog up to the boy.
“Hey.” The guy turns at his voice, but he doesn’t look startled or surprised; he looks a little lost. “You okay?”
“Yeah, fine,” the guy says breezily. He turns back around and stomps at the lumpy remnants of a sand castle with a sandy bare foot.
“You go for a swim this morning?”
“No?” He pauses. “Well, not on purpose,” he amends with a grumble. He shakes off his hair like a wet dog, specks of salt water flicking onto Liam’s clothes.
“Do you want a towel? We probably have one in the back.” He motions for the boy to follow him around, and he unlocks the back door to the little storeroom where they keep some assorted beach supplies.
“So where are you staying?” Liam asks, as he rummages through for a towel.
“Around.” He gazes out toward the sea, and Liam watches his sight settle on a point on the shore, lapped up by the receding tide. Liam takes only a moment to register the distrustful gaze, and then he puts the pieces together.
“You slept out on the shore, didn’t you? But you slept out too close to the water,” Liam says knowingly.
“I did not!” The guy recoils, indignant, but something about his boyish tone brings out a playful grin.
“You did!” Liam exclaims. “You lay down on the shore at night, because it was so flat and soft when the tide was low, but then - ”
“There wasn’t water there last night!” he protests. “I fell asleep, and when I woke up – ”
“The tide had come in,” Liam finishes. “It does that, you know. You’ve got to stay above the line of algae; If there’s algae, that means the tide goes up that far, see?”
“Ugh,” the guy says distastefully, but there’s still a glint to his eye.
“Aha, here’s a towel!” He hands it over, and then guy wraps it around his shoulders.
“I’m Liam, by the way,” Liam blurts out. He turns and extends out his hand.
The guy stares at it for a beat, and then slowly extends his own hand to give it a weak shake. “Louis,” he says after a moment. Louis. Maybe he’s French.
“So are you planning on getting a hotel around here?”
“Nope,” Louis shrugs.
“Oh. Doing the camping thing for awhile, then?”
“How long are you staying?”
“I’m not sure,” Louis wrinkles his nose. “Don’t have any concrete plans yet. Maybe a few months, or maybe a few years. It depends.”
“Oh, okay.” Liam squints skeptically. “You didn’t come with anyone, or anything?”
“Nah,” he wave dismissively. “Just needed a change.”
They get a lot of these types around here: young drifters who don’t know what to do with their lives, or rich kids with the luxury of taking a year off to find themselves. Hell, maybe this guy looks young for his age and he’s actually a rich businessman having a late-quarter-life crisis. In any case, if he’s planning on staying here for long, he’s going to need somewhere to stay.
What Liam says next, he knows, can’t possibly be a good idea. But he says it anyway. “Do you need a place to stay?”
It’s not the worst idea ever; it solves one of his problems, even. Louis has enough cash to put down for the month’s rent, easy. Besides, the kid is obviously out of his element – he’s basically homeless, and Liam can help him. “I mean, if you needed a place to stay, I have an extra room in my house. You don’t have to,” he adds hurriedly, “I’m just putting it out there. My roommate just bailed on me, and the rent’s cheap.“
Louis looks at him for a beat. “Really?” he asks.
“Yeah,” Liam shrugs. “It’s pretty close to here – nothing special, but it’s a fine place, full kitchen and everything. I work ‘til seven today, but if you meet me back here afterwards, I could show you, if you’d like, so that you can decide.”
“Alright,” Louis nods slowly, a little incredulous. “Maybe. Yeah, I’d like that.”
A pair of seagulls lands on the sand to one side of them. Louis watches them out of the corner of his eye for a few moments, and then he takes off running after them, waving his hands in the air to scare them off. Maybe he’s never seen a seagull before. He looks like a child, face filled with delight as he chases them down, and it makes Liam smile.
Liam finally breaks away and goes to open up the shop. He busies himself starting up the ovens and getting everything from the freezers, but it’s not long before he hears a tapping at the front of the store. When he peers over the counter, Louis’ face is pressed to the glass.
He should probably tell him that the store doesn’t open for an hour, but he already offered for the boy to live with him. And – well, he’s cute, and a little pitiful standing out there all alone and still wet.
“Wanna come in?” Liam relents, heading over to unlock the front door.
Louis bounds inside and looks around with a frown. “It’s empty.”
“It’s not open yet,” Liam says. “We open at eleven. I’m just setting up.”
“Oh.” Louis sniffs at the air. “What’s that?”
“Garlic rolls, probably,” he chuckles. The ovens are preheating the morning serving, and Louis follows the scent back toward the oven.
“Hey, don’t touch that, it’s hot.”
Louis inches forward despite the warning, and Liam can’t have his new flatmate getting caught on fire before he even moves in.
“Hey, I was just getting the drink machine working,” Liam says loudly. “Wanna try some?” The distraction works, and Louis turns back toward him.
“So,” Liam says, sliding a glass of newly mixed pineapple juice toward him. Louis takes a tentative taste and apparently decides it’s good, because he gulps down the rest quickly. Liam suddenly realizes that he probably hasn’t had much to eat or drink, what with sleeping outside all night. Liam opens up the display cabinet and selects a small garlic roll to give to him, too.
Louis is deep in concentration now, inspecting the colorful drink menu. “What’s this?” he inquires, tapping a finger at the picture of a yellow slush.
“That’s a piña colada. Pineapple juice and rum and ice, and some other stuff.”
“Can I have one?”
“How old are you?” Liam asks playfully. Louis looks a bit older than him, but after this morning’s antics, maybe he really is an overgrown child.
Instead, Louis twists his mouth and appears to really think for a moment. “Twenty-one?” he says, voice turning upward in question.
“You don’t know how old you are?”
“I’m twenty-one,” Louis says more decisively, rolling his eyes and stealing another garlic roll. He dunks it in the pineapple juice and takes a bite.
“That’s a bit weird,” Liam laughs.
Louis stays inside until the morning crowds start coming in. Liam keeps sneaking glances at him in the corner until the shop becomes too busy, and the next time he has a second to spare, Louis is standing up by the counter. “Can I go?”
Liam glances up from his dough ball. “Yeah, of course. My shift ends at seven, if you wanna meet back here.”
Louis gives an almost shy smile. “Alright,” he nods.
Liam can’t hold back his grin as he turns back to working the dough.
They were on the wrong island, for one thing.
“This is weird,” Harry complains as he and Niall peer off the edge of the ferry, the white crests of waves reflecting off the boat’s bow in quick procession. It’s brilliant aqua-blue all the way out to the horizon. “On my planet – ”
“I know, on your planet all the oceans are pink,” Niall finishes for him with an eyeroll. Harry huffs, but it’s inaudible over the sound of the boat’s motor and the air whooshing past. Niall shakes his head. “What’s wrong with aqua?”
“Nothing. It’s pretty. It’s just weird.”
“It’s a different planet,” Niall says. “I bet everyone here would think you’re weird, too.”
“True,” Harry hums.
“What’d you get in the shop, anyway?” Niall gestures at his bag.
Harry pulls out his new hat and sunglasses, followed by the shirt. “They gave me a weird look when I got this,” he frowns.
“That’s because it’s a women’s shirt,” Niall says. “Remember? Flowers, pink. Usually means it’s for women.”
“Why does clothing have to be for one or the other?” Harry complains. “It’s fabric. And I thought the whole point was to cover up your body.”
“It is, but – ”
“Why does it matter, as long as you’re not naked? Which, by the way, should be perfectly acceptable too.”
“It’s complicated,” Niall rolls his eyes. “Not everyone can come from a planet of androgynous nudist supermodels like you.”
“Well maybe they should,” Harry huffs. There are too many rules here. “And I happen to like this shirt. It’s soft. And pretty and pink.” He waits a beat and grins at Niall. “Just like the ocean should be!”
“Ha,” Niall snorts, rolls his eyes. Then he looks back out to the ocean.
“Look!” he yells, pointing excitedly. “Dolphins!” Sure enough, a group of dolphins has appeared in the water a distance away, gray fins poking out through the waves. Niall squints. “I think they’re Spinner Dolphins.”
“Spinner? Why are they called spinner – ” But then Harry’s question is answered, as one of the creatures shoots out of the water and spins more than one full rotation in the air before splashing back down on its side. “Whoa.”
“Yeah,” Niall grins.
“Why do they do that?”
“Partly for fun,” Niall answers immediately, “and also because there are these parasitic fish called remoras stick themselves on to them, and spinning flings them off.”
Harry didn’t expect such a comprehensive answer. “How is it that you know everything?” Niall has been pointing out trees and animals and even rocks ever since the moment they got here, and he seems to know most everything.
“I did some reading before we came here,” Niall shrugs. “And I used to study this stuff when I was young. I used to want to be an ecologist or something.”
“Why didn’t you do it?”
Niall shrugs again. “My school didn’t really have a program for that. It’s not like, a real profession back home.” He pushes up his glasses. “‘s why I ended up here, doing this. It’s more practical, right?”
“Yeah, but.” Harry sighs; the story sounds all too familiar. “I’m the same way, actually,” he admits, ducking his head. “I always wanted to open up a bakery, ever since I was a kid. I took culinary classes and everything. But back home it’s all about politics and law - my mum just said I just didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I should get into a career to get ‘real-world experience.’” He sighs and flops his chin down onto his hands.
Niall hums sympathetically, but their attention is soon diverted back to the water as the group of dolphins pops up closer, just in front of the boat. They swim in the current for a time before they swoop synchronized underwater and head back away toward the horizon.
Suddenly, something buzzes in Niall’s pocket. “Aha,” he says, raising the tracking device. “Now we’re actually getting somewhere.” He grins at the device’s slow yellow blink.
“Finally!” It’s taken a while for the tracking device to finally catch on. Harry was half-convinced the thing didn’t even work. “That took long enough.”
Niall hums and gives him a look. “The Earth is a slow place, Harold,” he says. That much is true; their boat is moving about ten times slower than the slowest form of mass transportation he’s ever taken at home. But then again, all things considered, he rather likes it.
“I think it’s alright,” he shrugs. “Slow isn’t bad.”
“Should’ve known, coming from you,” Niall snorts.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Have you heard you talk?” Niall cackles, and Harry rolls his eyes.
“Hey! Well, at least I’m not the one wearing giant glasses on my face when I don’t even need them.”
“Aesthetic.” Niall taps on the frames. “They’re normal here. I’m blending in. Besides, I like them.”
“Blending in, sure,” Harry laughs. Niall sticks out his tongue. God, Harry’s lucky he got paired with someone normal, with an actual sense of humor, and not one of those uptight robots that make up a big portion of the force, or a member of one of the species that doesn’t have any humor in its culture.
The ferry’s horn blares out, and the loudspeaker calls that they’re finally getting close to their destination.
“C’mon,” Niall says, “let’s go back inside and get ready to catch some aliens.”
Liam doesn’t know what he had been expecting when he’d successfully invited a near-stranger to move into the second bedroom of his flat. He had needed someone to split the rent, of course; and he supposes he had been cautiously hopeful they might have a typical, cordial housemate relationship. A tiny, more optimistic part of him had hoped he might even gain a casual friend, someone with whom he could catch up on the weekends or maybe catch a movie or order takeout now and then.
Instead, Liam finds, living with Louis is kind of like having a pet. A loud, brazen, hyperactive full-time pet who also happens to be a highly attractive 21-year-old boy.
Maybe Liam should have guessed that Louis was simply holding back the first times they met. Within a day, he’s practically bouncing off the walls in search of entertainment, and within a week he’s practically bouncing off Liam.
Liam has tried to be a good host. On the first day Louis had officially moved in, after he put down the deposit and officially signed on for the 3-month contract, Liam had offered to show him around. Louis really had nothing on him except for the clothes on his back and his tiny knapsack, so Liam had suggested he could show him to the strip mall nearby to buy some clothes and other essentials for him and his new room. Liam still mostly remembered the long college checklist that he had diligently filled out when he had first moved.
The shopping trip had been chaos. Louis had raced around the aisles of the department store, searching seemingly at random for hats and shirts and who-knows-what, while Liam had followed with the shopping cart reminding Louis repeatedly and in increasingly strained tones that no, he can’t just fling all of the things he doesn’t want onto the floor without putting them back on the shelves. He’s like a tornado; it’s as if some part of him isn’t quite civilized – even if he did start listening and placing things back in their proper spots about half of the time by the end of the trip. Liam probably should have counted it as a win.
Miraculously, they’d left the store after only a few exhausting hours. Louis arrived back home not only with the things he needed, clothes and sheets and food and other essentials that he’d chosen mostly on Liam’s insistence, but also with a slew of completely random items: a toy guitar; an inflatable ball; stickers that looked like constellations, which for some reason sent him into fits of laughter.
The chaos has only increased at home. Louis doesn’t sleep. He’s loud, though not purposely or obnoxiously so; he’s just always touching things and moving things, puttering around his room and the house and strumming on his toy guitar long after Liam and every other sensible person in the city has gone to bed.
He wakes up early, too. Four days later, Liam awakens to a quiet rusting noise followed by a thumping, in a clear little cadence. He looks at the clock: it’s 5:12 in the morning, and he wills himself to go back to sleep for the next hour.
He covers his head with his pillow.
Finally, he figures that going back to sleep is futile. He rubs at his eyes and gets up to investigate.
Of course, when he opens the door, Louis is sitting cross-legged on the floor outside his bedroom.
“Louis,” Liam groans. Louis gives a little wave.
“It’s not morning! What are you doing?” Then he notices the pile of folded paper cluttered around the wall outside his bedroom. Louis, as it turns out, has been constructing paper airplanes and throwing them at the wall. That’s the noise Liam has been hearing all night. Of course.
“Nothing.” Louis throws another paper airplane; it hit’s Liam’s knee.
“If you’re gonna wake me up this early, you could at least make the tea,” Liam groans.
To his surprise, Louis scampers up with that same, pointy smile. “Okay. How do I do it?”
For all that he’s infuriating, Louis is also strangely endearing and eager. Maybe it’s just because Liam still finds him attractive – he can’t help it; he has eyes, and he can’t prevent himself from noticing Louis’ squinty smiles and sharp cheekbones and swooping shoulders. But Louis is also wide-eyed, almost childlike in his reactions to everything.
Liam sighs and leads him over to the tea kettle. “You’ve never made tea at home?” He’s pretty sure tea is common in much of Europe, but Louis shakes his head.
“Well, I’ll show you,” he says, and thirty minutes later the counter is a mess, but at least he has tea.
Liam tries to be a good ambassador for his home. He shows Louis around to his favorite restaurants and has him try sushi for the first time (his look of triumph when he finally masters the chopsticks is adorable). On his night off, Liam even shows him to the little movie theater. They end up watching the new Hulk movie, and afterwards he can’t stop laughing at the looks on Louis’ face as he recounts all of the action scenes. Liam has decidedly less enthusiasm, however, when Louis spends the rest of the day imitating the noises and crushing everything in his path.
Liam doesn’t mind spending a few days being a polite host. But he figures that Louis will eventually stop looking to Liam for direction and begin to figure things out himself, to venture out on his own. But after a week passes and Louis doesn’t let up, it starts grating on his nerves a bit.
The thing is, Liam has accustomed to a certain manner of living. He lives a very scheduled, predictable life: he works, he goes to classes, he comes home, and most of the time he stays home. He might stop at the store or pick up takeout on the way back, and on occasion his sister will invite him over for dinner on the weekend. But other than that, he’s a homebody. He reads and watches movies, he doesn’t really do friends, and he certainly does not go out.
Louis wants to go out.
He wants to go out all the time, and he wants to go with Liam, and Liam doesn’t know what to do about that. Louis will ask him if he wants to do something, will chase him around the house like a puppy, begging for them to go see a movie or go out to eat or shop or do something - and Liam doesn’t need that.
“I don’t like it,” he complains to his sister into the phone, after glancing furtively over his shoulder to make sure that Louis isn’t around to overhear. Liam isn’t mean.
“He just wants to go explore. What’s wrong with that?” Nicola asks.
Liam knew she wouldn’t be on his side. “I don’t want to,” he pouts. “I’m busy – or trying not to be busy.”
“Come on. He just wants a friend.”
“He doesn’t want a friend,” Liam grumbles. At least, he doesn’t want Liam as a friend. Why would he? “He just wants to use me to show him around, or – I don’t know.”
“Did he say that?” He can hear Nicola bristle through the phone.
“No,” Liam sighs, rubbing his face. “He didn’t say that. But I just know, okay?”
“How do you know –”
“I just do.”
Liam huffs. He doesn’t mind showing him around anyway, but he doesn’t understand why Louis has continued after this long. He could rent a bike and go anywhere on his own. He could walk down to one of the resorts and meet any girl he wanted.
“Look, I have to go to class.”
“Okay, okay,” his sister laughs. “Go on, have a good first day. Love you.”
“Love you,” Liam grumbles.
Liam arrives home on his first day of class, which was followed a particularly grueling afternoon of work, and finds the kitchen sponge shredded into tiny pieces, Louis guiltily grinning above it.
“Louis, stop destroying my stuff,” he groans.
“Sorry.” Louis shrugs. “It was just squishy, and it came apart so easily – ”
“Just – fine.” Liam tries to stop it there. He rises to go to his room.
“Do you wanna do something?” Louis asks, following him and bouncing on his heels.
There’s nothing else to do, Liam wants to say. For a moment he thinks bitterly to the tourist guys that he’s hooked up with over the past years. He’d nearly grown attached to a few of them, but after a week or two, they always said the same thing: they liked him, they said, and they thought Hawaii was nice, but there was really nothing to do here. Maybe it’s true. It’s not like a real city; there’s a few clubs and a few restaurants, the store and the tiny movie theater, and that’s it. There’s nowhere else to go besides the ocean.
“You’re just gonna be sitting there,” Louis whines, eyeing him through the doorway. Liam doesn’t have much to do with his evening, since his classes haven’t started with assignments just yet.
But he also doesn’t want to do what Louis wants.
“Let’s go out.” He’s sitting on the sofa now, cross-legged but still bouncing with energy.
“We could go for a run,” Liam suggests, and Louis wrinkles his nose. Liam smirks. Apparently, Louis only likes running when he’s chasing Liam around. “Why don’t you just go yourself? You’ve been here awhile; you don’t need me.”
“’s no fun alone,” Louis says evenly. The tapping of his foot is growing more persistent, and Liam worries that he might be charging up to blast off through the ceiling or something.
“I wanna do something. Let’s go to that club. Or to another movie. I just got here; you can show me around, like you said.”
His pout sends Liam over the edge. Liam sighs, averting his eyes to look out the window, and that gives him an idea. The summer is ending, but the days are still long, the sky still light late into the evening.
“Do you want to walk over to the west shore and see the sunset?”
“Sunset?” Louis raises a skeptical eyebrow.
“Yeah. It’s something everyone always wants to see, you know. Hawaii sunset. You probably couldn’t see it properly when you were on the beach by the shop before, but we’re close to the west side of the island here and everything, and it sets in an hour.” When Louis doesn’t respond, Liam feels his face heat. “Sorry, maybe it’s a dumb idea,” he backtracks. “Sorry – ”
“No,” Louis interrupts.
“Let’s go,” he says, and he stands up. “Must be nice if everyone wants to see it, right?”
By the time they make it down to the water and set foot on the sand, the sky is already beginning to streak in yellow and orange, the bottoms of the clouds glowing over the ocean.
Louis follows him over the rocks until they find a flat one big enough for both of them to sit. Liam can tell that Louis is trying to sit still; his legs won’t stop jiggling, and he’s taken off his sandals and is digging his toes into the sand. But every once in a while, he’ll squint up at the sky and stop for just a moment, as if taking in the colors is enough, and for that Liam feels proud of his home.
As the sun drops closer to the horizon, the sky grows more brilliant, more red and orange swirls reflecting brilliantly off of the waves. “Do you want to go up closer to the water?”
Liam beckons him forward, and they leave their shoes by the rocks and walk barefoot along the shore just out of reach from the waves. Louis doesn’t say anything, but the more they walk, Liam gets the feeling he’s never seen the ocean before. His face keeps crossing with a vaguely disgusted and surprised look every time the water laps at their feet, and he keeps jumping back, afraid to go any further.
“It won’t come in that fast,” Liam laughs.
“Okay,” Louis says, but he still looks nervous.
“Oh,” Liam realizes suddenly. “Do you know how to swim?”
“Of course I know how to swim!” Louis scoffs. He looks back out and swallows. “Just – this is kind of bigger than I’m used to. And moving.”
“So you’re not from near the ocean?” Liam prompts gently. He feels like he doesn’t know anything about him. Louis breathes in and shakes his head.
“Nope. Learned to swim at school,” he adds.
“Well, it’s just like a giant swimming pool. With waves.”
“Big waves,” Louis says. The waves aren’t huge today, only a few feet, and Liam makes a mental note to take Louis out one day when the wind is right so they can see the truly huge swells that make this island famous for surfing.
They stop and watch as the sun seemingly plummets down, the sky streaked with red and purple now.
“It’s pretty, isn’t it?”
“I suppose,” Louis concedes, toeing the sand, and in an instant everything becomes more brilliant and all they can do is stare as the sun drops down.
Sometimes Liam forgets that this is his home. He forgets to appreciate it, the pristine beaches and sapphire-blue water and brilliant sunsets that other people dream of seeing, that they save up for years to come visit.
“Do you want a picture?” Liam realizes suddenly. “To send to your friends back home, or – I can send it to you when you get a new phone.” Louis didn’t bring a phone, which makes sense – something to do with SIM cards and exorbitant out-of-country fees. “Go over there and I’ll get a photo,” Liam motions.
Louis doesn’t move. “What about you?”
“You want a selfie? Sure, why not,” Liam grins.
Liam holds out the phone and tries to maneuver them into position so that he can fit both their faces and part of the ocean and sky into the frame. They probably look ridiculous – he always scoffs at all the selfie-obsessed tourists out here – but right now, he doesn’t care.
In the end, he has to press his face against Louis’ in order to get a good shot. Louis keeps making faces, crossing his eyes and sticking out his tongue; they look silly, and Liam starts feeling silly. He raises one eyebrow dramatically for a few shots, and then, just before the next one, Louis sneakily pinches at his side. In the next picture, Liam is laughing, chin tucked down and eyes wide with surprise, while Louis looks on with delight. Louis giggles and snatches the phone away before Liam can even think to delete it. Louis does it again, too, until half the photos are Liam either trying not to laugh or laughing blurry into the camera with Louis grinning wide beside him.
“C’mon, one more of just you,” Liam insists. “Now that the sun is almost down. Go on, pose.” He steps back behind the rocks. Louis doesn’t pose, but Liam snaps a candid picture anyway, Louis silhouetted against the sunset.
Louis looks different against the backdrop of the dark red sky. He looks somehow smaller and more alone. It’s not like he’s that vulnerable – clearly he can take care of himself – but it’s something else, something that settles in Liam’s bones and compels him to rethink everything.
Liam could use a friend, he concedes. And, well, Louis needs a friend too, and Liam has no earthly idea why Louis has so persistently chosen him as that friend, but he’s going to try – and not only because they’re stuck living with each other for at least the next three months, but because Liam likes him, and he seems to think Liam is okay, too.
“Hey,” Liam nudges him. He didn’t realize how much time they’ve spent out here; some of the bigger waves are actually creeping up toward the rocks, and the sky has faded to purple dusk. “The tide’s coming back up. We should get our shoes if we don’t want them swallowed up in the sea.”
“Alright.” Louis backs away, and they gather up their stuff with one last look at the darkening sky, a few stars just beginning to peek out. Liam should take him stargazing sometime.
“Hey,” Louis says as they walk across the sand. “Can we watch that Rings movie you were talking about when we get back?”
“Lord of the Rings? That’s like four hours long!” Liam protests. He has class tomorrow morning. But – he can manage. “Okay, okay. Let’s go home.” Liam doesn’t miss the way Louis tucks a pleased grin into his shoulder.
Their vehicle, though disguised as a normal, nondescript white RV, is actually equipped with the latest self-driving technology. It’s capable of much faster speeds than the paltry 30-mile-per-hour speed limit along the island roads, and it gives them plenty of time to talk – and to argue.
“But what if he’s dangerous?” Harry whines. “We’re dealing with an escaped criminal here. And he’s not even a real person; he’s like, genetically modified.”
Niall rolls his eyes from the sofa beside him. “You know that phrase doesn’t actually mean anything, right?” He taps their virtual information book to light it up on their screen, and he navigates to the section on Experiment 28. “I don’t think they did anything drastic to him. And besides, I don’t think they’d send us if he were truly dangerous. He sounds more like a kid - like a teenager with too much intelligence and time on his hands.” Niall flicks through the pages. “Look. ‘Twitchy, energetic, prone to pulling escapes and pranks with no evident reward for him,’” he reads. “And look, it says here that his telltale signature is crude drawings of ‘the genitalia of the human male.’” Niall snorts.
Harry cranes his neck to look at the photo given as example: a decidedly phallic cloud drawn in the sky out of ship exhaust. He can’t help but laugh. “Willies,” he giggles.
“See? Sounds like a normal human to me.”
They continue rolling down the street looking for any new sign of life from the tracking device. The lights had started blinking earlier this morning, alternating between red and green while the device made a dull beeping noise. But now, hours have passed, and nothing has changed. Harry is getting tired and hungry, and judging by the sounds coming from Niall’s stomach, Niall agrees.
“Doesn’t it say anything yet?” Niall peers over at the device.
“I don’t know. It’s the same as before.”
“Gimme,” Niall makes grabby hands and yanks it from Harry’s grasp, and it starts beeping louder. He frowns. “Maybe it’s broken.”
“Maybe we just haven’t gotten there yet,” Harry corrects over the rhythmic beeping.
Niall sighs and squints out the windshield. “Maybe it’s directing us… there.” Niall points, seemingly randomly, at a small building on the beach in the distance.
Harry wrinkles his nose. “There?”
“I don’t care where it’s directing us,” Niall decides. He rubs his stomach. “This is close, and it’s food, and I’m hungry.”
“But our food is here.” They were given several weeks’ worth of meal powder to cook up in their little kitchen here.
“Our food is boring,” Niall says dramatically. “Don’t you want to explore the planet while we’re here?” Harry does, but he doesn’t want to get in trouble with their superiors. “Besides, what if he’s in there, anyway? What then?”
“Shouldn’t we check first?” Harry doesn’t like to break the rules. He’s supposed to be enforcing the rules, for goodness’ sake.
“This thing is probably malfunctioning, anyway,” Niall grumbles, and he shakes it in the air as if that would have any effect on it.
“How does it even work?”
“No idea,” Niall shrugs. “It’s some kind of clone DNA tracker. It’s supposed to be able to track his genetic signature. Or maybe it never worked at all and they just sent us here as a joke.” Niall becomes a little grumpy when he’s hungry, as it turns out. Harry caves in and sets them to park in the next small car park, and they wander across the sand toward the little restaurant.
“Whoa!” Harry had just gained a reasonable confidence in his ability to properly walk on this planet, but this strange, powdery sand substance is throwing everything off. It slides under his feet and makes each footstep feel even heavier, and he nearly falls over approximately every three steps. Granted, at least when he does fall, the soft sand catches his weight somewhat comfortably.
They finally get inside to little restaurant. Harry has never been inside a restaurant on Earth, and the place smells strange, but it’s not entirely unpleasant. Niall orders the first thing on the menu for both of them, and they sit down at a table.
“This is interesting,” Harry comments as he looks around. The walls are decorated with flowers, surfboards and other little knick-knacks, and there’s an open window looking out to the ocean.
“Pizza,” Niall says dreamily. “Wait until you try it.” Harry has gathered that pizza is the name for the weird wedges that everyone is eating around them. He is still skeptical: it seems to come all different colors, and it all smells weird, and he still feels uneasy about wasting their time doing this instead of working. “Oh, c’mon, cheer up!” Niall scolds. “We can keep working in a minute.” He gazes out the window.
“Look. Do you think that’s him?” Niall points outside at a large, bright red man standing on the sand and holding an ice cream cone with two scoops balanced precariously on top. In the moment they are watching, the man bends over to pick something up off the ground, and the top scoop of ice cream tumbles off the cone. Harry and Niall giggle.
“Maybe he’s right next to us,” Harry tries, covertly tilting his head toward the table next to them where a tiny child is scarfing down slices of pizza at an alarming rate.
“Too young?” Niall laughs.
“We don’t know what he looks like. Maybe he looks like a baby!”
“He looks like a young adult human,” Niall says with an eyeroll.
“Or,” Harry retorts, “maybe he’s dressed up so that he looks younger. Or older!” He grins triumphantly. “I would be; if I knew people were after me, I’d dress up like an old woman and no one would know.”
“You would,” Niall snorts. “Ooh,” Niall nudges him conspiratorially, “what if he’s disguised as a waiter!” He gestures to the rather normal-looking brown-haired man approaching them with two trays of pizza.
“Here are your pizzas. Two Hawaiians.” The man nods with a kind smile, but then he pauses and cocks his head. He wipes at his face with a shoulder, and then he starts squirming, his head rolling back a few times as he places the pizzas on the trays. He slaps at his neck. “Um,” he says, voice strained. “Enjoy.”
“Holy shit,” Niall whispers. “Maybe it is him.”
“He is acting weird,” Harry agrees. “But he looks kind of normal.”
“That’s the point.” Niall kicks his foot under the table, his voice a shrill whisper. “That’s why no one has found him for so long. He’s an expert at blending in.”
Harry still can’t tell if they’re speaking seriously, but he plays along. “Okay, okay. So what do we do?”
“We – I guess we watch him,” Niall ponders. He has been holding the first slice of pizza poised in front of his mouth, and finally he takes a huge bite. He closes his eyes in bliss. “Fuck, this stuff is good,” he sighs.
Harry nibbles off of the end of one of his slices. “It’s alright,” he shrugs. It’s chewy and salty and strangely sweet, and surprisingly, he thinks he could get used to it. “The yellow things are pretty good.” He munches thoughtfully; it’s surprisingly sweet and juicy compared to the rest of the pizza. “Pineapple, right?”
“Yep, pineapple.” Niall takes another delighted bite. “Mm. Pizza is one of those Earth things that you really don’t know how much you miss until you experience it. It’s just not the same anywhere else. Cheese, pepperoni, Hawaiian – it’s all fucking delicious.” A blissful smile remains on his face as he finishes the slice, and then another. Harry plucks bits of pineapple off of his.
“Well, back to business,” Niall says through his last mouthful of food. The guy is capable of eating a freakish amount of food in record time. “So, I don’t know if that was actually our guy or not, but this is as good a starting point as any, right? We can stake it out over here for a few days, until the tracker gives us something else. Okay?”
“Okay.” Harry nods. The waiter has come back out gone to tend to another table, but as soon as he stops moving, he slaps at his neck and wriggles his back in visible discomfort. He’s certainly acting weird enough.
“Hey!” While Harry was looking away, Niall had snatched one of the remaining slices of pizza from Harry’s plate.
Niall grins guiltily, and Harry wags a finger, even though there’s no way Harry could finish the whole thing himself. “Are you sure you’re not just saying we should stay here because you want to eat more pizza?”
Niall shakes his head. “Never!” Then he stuffs another bite in his mouth.
“Louis.” Liam stomps into the back kitchen. “If you shoot me one more time, I’m going to take that water gun away from you, and you’ll never see it again.”
“You shot me in the bum!” Liam screeches. “People are - that’s a hygiene hazard, Louis. People are gonna think - ”
“What, that you pissed yourself?” Louis guffaws. “I hit your back. I don’t think that’s how it works.” He waggles his eyebrows, and Liam refuses to acknowledge it.
“Not to mention the people at my table must think I’m crazy!” Liam protests. Warm water on the neck tickles, and he definitely gave some of those tables a weird impression with his squirming.
“Then they’re right,” Louis shrugs, moving close and giving him a poke in the side before scampering back away.
Liam can only fight his smile for so long.
Lately, he has been letting Louis hang around the restaurant during his work hours. Louis seems to like it, and he does provide Liam with endless entertainment, despite his antics.
Last night some kid had left behind a little plastic water gun under a table, and Liam had made the unfortunate decision to show it to Louis. Louis has been shooting Liam with it all day, sneaking faint spritzes and full-on blasts and everything in between.
Liam is working a full day waiting tables today, and by the end he’s both grateful and exhausted for Louis’ presence. He actually saved Liam a few times, when they needed more supplies from the back but Liam couldn’t leave the register. But then, he also still hasn’t let go of the water gun.
Even after closing, he chases Liam up the steps to their apartment, in the dark, shooting a constant stream of water at the center of Liam’s neck with startling precision. Clearly, any of trace of concern about making Liam look entirely unpresentable at work have dissipated.
“Stop it!” Liam holds out his hand and tries to flick the water back at him, but Louis just cackles and chases him through the doorway.
Louis races after him through the house. Liam weaves behind the couch, but Louis finds him and towers over him shooting the top of his head. He tries to jump over the back of the sofa and duck down, but then the water hits the wall beside the bookshelf.
“Hey,” Liam yelps. “Stop it!” He grabs the framed picture to move it a lower shelf. “Seriously.” He stands guarding it protectively, and finally Louis stops shooting for a moment. “This is important, okay?” It’s a photo of his family, back when he was nine, his mom and dad and Nicola standing on the shore in front of some palm trees. His dad is making a silly face, and Liam and Nicola are clearly trying not to laugh.
“Who is that?” Louis asks with a squint, curiosity piqued.
“It’s my family,” Liam grits out, gingerly setting the picture back down. Louis examines it for a moment and then turns away, narrowing his eyes at Liam before casually surprising him with another shot of water right in the stomach.
Liam can’t get a good reading of him. He’s not mean. In truth, he’s more like a kid who can’t control himself when he sees a water gun or an opportunity to destroy something. Liam has been trying to not let it get on his nerves, but Louis just seems incapable of stopping to take something seriously.
But, well. As the old adage goes: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Liam leaps over the sofa.
“That’s it, I’m gonna get you back,” Liam warns, stalking through to the kitchen. He swipes a bottle of water from the fridge, and Louis squeals and runs out, clearly aware of the plan. Liam races after him, avoids the door that Louis slams behind him, and chases him outside to the porch. Finally, Liam corners him. Louis’ gun is useless against his weapon. He grins as he dumps the entire contents of the cold water bottle on Louis’ head.
“Hey!” Louis yelps, and Liam crows, giggling. Louis tries to get him back, but the gun is almost empty, and besides, he looks a bit ridiculous soaking wet spritzing Liam with a pathetic little stream of water.
“Next time,” Louis wags a finger ominously.
Liam laughs, breathless from all of their running. He hasn’t felt this much like a child, hasn’t had this kind of proper fun, in a long time. His childhood was a blur of bills and work and the military psychologist and trying to keep his head low in school.
Louis laughs, too, but he’s watching Liam curiously now.
“What?” Liam asks.
“I’ve never seen you laugh this much,” Louis says finally. “I like it.”
“Stop it,” Liam looks down at the ground, suddenly bashful. Louis pokes him in the face. “You’re gonna get me wet!” Liam protests. At that, Louis gives a wicked grin, and then he actually jumps on Liam, thoroughly clobbering Liam’s clothes in water as he clings around his middle.
Ever since they went out to see the sunset, Louis has become more tactile. Maybe it’s because he’s becoming more comfortable with Liam, or maybe it’s because Liam is clearly growing more accustomed to him. Liam should probably get him to tone it down, but, well, he doesn’t exactly mind the attention.
Sometimes he feels like Louis is just watching him, like he’s fascinated by Liam’s very existence. In reality, though, it’s more the other way around. Liam has to admit: Louis quickly becomes the most interesting part of Liam’s life. As much as his hyperness drives Liam crazy, he’s got Liam out more than ever.
Liam continues letting him hang out at the store, and he actually starts helping out in earnest, thawing the rolls of frozen pepperoni and vegetables and refilling the drink machines. He even starts helping with topping some of the delivery pizzas. Tito doesn’t mind, as long as Louis doesn’t bother him and follows the hygiene code well enough. Louis works quickly, and Tito seems to like him, though he always throws Liam not-so-subtle winks when he’s around.
It takes Liam an entire two days to realize that Louis has been drawing crude outlines of dicks out of the toppings on all the pizzas. Two days. Dozens of mortified people must’ve opened up their pizza boxes to find Louis’ artwork. Liam wouldn’t even have noticed if he hadn’t accidentally forgotten which pizza was which, and then opened up one the boxes to find the pepperonis very artfully arranged in a definite long shape with two circles at the bottom.
“What, you told me I could help!” he protests, obviously biting back a grin.
“Yeah, but not – “
“I just put the pepperonis on, like you said!” He blinks innocently.
“Just – go outside,” Liam says through his teeth.
It’s only the next day, when he leaves in the early afternoon to bike to class, that Liam notices the new dick-shaped carving in the wooden bannister outside the restaurant. It’s meticulously carved in and covered with black Sharpie, stark beside the crude initials and hearts and bits of writing that they’ve left there for the novelty. A penis.
To make matters worse, some potential customers walk by while he’s trying to scrape it off, and they catch him in the act. He looks up too late, and he watches in horror the exact moment when they realize what the picture is. One of them looks at the other before bursting into a dimpling smirk.
“Sorry,” Liam grimaces.
“Oh, no problem,” one of the guys says, and they walk by whispering to each other, probably scandalized. Liam throws his head back and grits his teeth. Louis.
He’s still riled up to reprimand Louis when he comes back from class. The bike ride is always long and hot at this time of day, and he’s looking forward to his afternoon smoothie when he walks into the kitchen to find the walls covered in a gloopy purple mess.
“Louis! What did you do?” he grits out in anger. “First you’re vandalizing the shop, and now you’re wasting my smoothie and making a mess –”
“I’m sorry!” Louis says, gripping clumsily at the sides of the container. “I just – you always make this when you get home, so I thought I’d help, but then it just exploded.”
Liam rubs a hand through his hair and surveys the mess. Much of the smoothie still seems contained to the area around the blender, but the cabinets and floor and a few parts of the walls are also speckled in purple. In the center of it all is Louis, spotted in blotches of purple smoothie and actually looking almost remorseful.
“Did you snap in the cap hard enough?” Liam sighs, deflated.
Louis slumps his shoulders and shakes his head. “I put the cap on and pressed the button and then…”
“This thing’s ornery,” Liam says. “It’s kinda old. You have to snap the top in and jiggle it around, or else it will fling off and” – he waves around the kitchen.
“I’m sorry,” Louis repeats. He looks downcast, and it twists Liam’s heart.
“Hey, it’s fine.”
“Um. You know, I can leave, if you want me to.” He sounds a little pitiful, and Liam feels guilty that he was about to yell at him. Liam would never consider kicking him out after all of this.
“No, Lou,” he says softly, the nickname slipping out. “It’s okay. I’d never kick you out or anything.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Liam says. “Just – please, no more dick drawings anywhere around the Pizza Shack? Please?”
Louis considers. “Fine,” he harrumphs.
“Good.” Liam scoops his hand against the counter and flicks a bit of smoothie onto Louis’ face.
Louis sticks his tongue out to lick it. “Hey, this is actually pretty good.”
“It is my recipe,” Liam says pointedly. Louis giggles.
If it devolves into a whole thing, wrestling smoothie into each other’s hair as they try to clean up, then Liam doesn’t have to tell anyone.
Harry and Niall have been watching him all week, in between scarfing down various flavors of pizza, fruits of all colors and shapes, and anything else they can get their hands on (Harry’s only regret so far was the strange local canned meat known as Spam, although Niall seemed to like it just fine). Harry has even experimented with some baking using the local ingredients and the little bus kitchen; his pineapple muffins were pretty good, if he does say so himself. All in all, it’s been a successful trip – especially because they’ve nearly completed their job.
They’ve definitely found him. It’s perfectly obvious. He’s always twitchy and running around manically, both at work and where they’ve seen him through the window outside his flat. They even sneaked up on him carving a penis into the wood outside the pizza shop he seems to work at. And one of the pizzas that they got delivered had a dick drawn on out of pepperoni, for goodness’ sake. It couldn’t be any more obvious.
And better still, he genuinely doesn’t seem to suspect a thing. He shows no sign of discomfort when they speak to him, and he’s never noticed when they follow or watch him. It makes him feel like they’re proper secret agents.
“So what do we do now?” Harry asks as they sit in the sand, sunglasses perched on their faces. He knows it’s technically because the sun can burn their eyes, but he mostly likes the sunglasses because they make feel even more like a secret agent in one of the local films.
“We’ll just need to do a final verification scan on his DNA,” Niall says, squishing the sand through his toes.
“And then we call it in and go back?” Harry actually feels a little sad about going back, to be honest. It still feels as if they’ve just gotten here, and he’s actually grown to rather like it. His last assignment was on a planet where everything smelt like sulfur.
But that’s the job. He sighs and scratches at the sand.
“What? You don’t want to?” Niall inquires.
Harry shrugs without responding.
Niall must agree, because he looks sideways and bites his lip. He pushes his glasses up on his nose before nudging Harry’s side. “So I was thinking,” Niall says, and there’s a tiny sparkle in his expression that catches Harry’s attention.
“It’s only been a week,” Niall says, “and no one really expects us to be done yet, right? They’ve not even called to check in or anything.”
“Right,” Harry answers slowly.
“So I was thinking. What if we don’t tell them?”
“What do you mean?”
Niall taps his foot excitedly. “What if we put it off a little bit? Just a week or two. So we can do some more exploring, enjoy this place while we have a chance. He’s got a bloody job; I don’t think he’s planning on leaving anytime soon. We can turn this into a proper vacation, and keep tabs on him in the meantime. If anyone asks, we’ve got a suspect but we’re still working on verification. True enough, innit? What do you say?”
“That,” Harry says slowly, “kind of sounds like an amazing idea.” If it works, that is. Harry doesn’t like lying; but then, Niall is more experienced than him, so maybe it’s okay. They wouldn’t even be lying, not really. They do have a suspect, and they are working on the final verification.
“Then let’s do it,” Niall declares, stretching his legs on the sand. “I could get used to another week of this. Exploring, with a just touch of spying.” He grins.
“What’s this guy’s deal, anyway?” Harry asks as he builds together a pile of sand. He’s been meaning to ask. “I know he stole the Grand Admiral’s ship, but why’d he do it? Who is he, anyway?”
Niall looks from side to side and lowers his voice. “Remember that unauthorized cloning operation about five years ago in Sector 21?”
“Sure,” Harry nods. It’s all anyone talked about during his last year of primary school: some insane scientist had started a cloning operation in another system and was conducting genetic experiments, planning on making some sort of super race – that is, before the Federation found out and promptly shut it all down. “What about it?”
“Well,” Niall bites his lip. “There was one clone who didn’t go with the authorities when they raided the place. He escaped.”
Harry’s eyes widen. “How?”
“He’s apparently some kind of ace pilot. He stole one of their ships and just flew off. They pursued him for more than a year before they finally got lucky and caught him - and then he escaped again, less than forty-eight hours later. They kept hunting after him, on and off, but they still couldn’t get him.” Niall shakes his head.
“This is the weird part. He disappeared for more than two years. Nobody knew where he was; they never found any sign of him. He just vanished. They thought he might’ve been gone for good, but I guess they never really stopped looking, because last year, he showed up again. They cornered him near Sector 34, you know, one of those military solar systems, and that’s when he stole the Grand Admiral’s ship. They’ve been chasing him down ever since, and I reckon that’s how he finally landed here.”
“Crazy,” Harry shakes his head. “It’s a little sad, though.”
“What? That they can’t find him?”
“No, that he’s been so alone,” Harry flops in the sand.
“You’re such a romantic,” Niall snorts.
“That’s why my mum made me join the academy in the first place,” Harry laments, kicking down his pile of sand. “She said I had too many romantic ideas. Said I needed more structure.”
“Hey,” Niall nudges him. “We don’t have to think about that right now, remember? We’re on vacation.” He kicks his legs out in the sand again and grins. “So, what do you wanna do tomorrow?”
Louis’ energy still goes nonstop. Despite their friendship, he’s still seemingly always nagging Liam to take him somewhere or do something – except now he’s tugging on Louis’ shirt and poking his stomach and jumping on his back (the day he discovered Liam could actually carry him piggy-back-style was a day filled with glee). The thing is, Liam doesn’t exactly mind.
He might possibly be developing a tiny crush. It’s only a little inconvenient, though, as Louis doesn’t seem to notice. And besides, Louis doesn’t even know that Liam is into guys.
Liam doesn’t keep it a secret, per se. He’s not uncomfortable with himself, not since the days back at school when the other kids used to call him names – pansy, fag, mahu. Even then, when part of him knew it was a little true, he’d never responded. He’d tried dating girls, briefly and without success, and then he’d hooked up with a few guys who were obviously interested – with a little more success – but that’s that. He just tends to keep himself to himself. He always has.
Except. Except Louis makes him not want to keep to himself, just a little, and Liam doesn’t know what to do with that. Sometimes Louis will poke him or squash up to him on the couch, and Liam will push back, poke him or grab his hand or get him in a headlock, and – it’s no big deal. Sure, sometimes it gets Liam a little flustered when he realizes it, but that’s just how Louis acts around everyone, bouncy and tactile and a bit annoying.
Liam indulges his whims at times. They go out to restaurants Liam hasn’t been to in years. Liam shows him to parks and back to the beach, where they build up elaborate sand castles until Louis can’t bear to not destroy them and Liam lets him. Liam takes him to art galleries and to the museum. He has pride in his home, and he tries to explain what he knows about Hawaiian culture: what a real luau is like; the vibrant art of hula dancing; the fact that leis aren’t just silly necklaces but were actually a traditional symbol of love and respect. Louis listens and absorbs it all with rapt attention.
Liam can’t spend all of his time chasing Louis out to new and exciting places, though. Their compromise is to watch a lot of movies. Louis seemingly has not seen any of Liam’s favorite movies before, and Liam grows to delight in showing him so much for the first time. It has nothing to do with the way that Louis always squashes up against him on the couch, the way his eyes light up equally transfixed by the gunfights and explosions as by the romance scenes.
They’re in the middle of The Dark Knight, sharing a bowl of grapes between them, when Liam’s phone rings.
“Hey, Nic,” Liam answers as he pads to the kitchen. Louis is still fixated on the movie, and Liam speaks quietly leaning against the counter.
“Hey, Li. I haven’t heard from you in a while,” she comments.
“Yeah, I’ve been busy.”
“How’s work? Your classes keeping you too busy?”
“No. It’s just my new housemate – Louis. ” He smiles as he watches Louis’ expression react to the current scene. “I’ve been showing him around some more.”
“Oh?” Nicola’s voice quirks up. “Well, you sound good. I’m glad you’ve been getting out,” she teases. “You don’t get out enough.”
Liam rolls his eyes. “Yeah, sure.”
They talk some more, catching up on her life and his classes. Then, an explosion sounds from the TV, and Louis jerks back; Liam can’t help but laugh.
“Oh, nothing,” Liam laughs. “He – we were just watching a movie.”
“Ah,” Nicola says. “I’ll let you go. See you soon? Hey, do you wanna come to ours for dinner next Friday?”
“You can even bring Louis, if you’d like,” she says in that same quirked-up voice.
Liam doesn’t have the patience to respond, especially because Louis has finally noticed his absence and is looking over the couch at him now.
“Okay,” she laughs, “I’ll let you go. Love you, Li.”
“Love you too,” he says before padding back to the sofa, where Louis has paused the movie.
“Where’d you go?”
“Just my sister on the phone,” Liam shrugs. “Let’s keep watching.”
“Your sister,” Louis repeats, pondering.
“Yeah.” Liam pulls the family photo down from the shelf by the couch and taps on the smiling girl standing to the left.
“Who’s - ” Louis squints. Suddenly his eyes widen and he looks between Liam and the picture. “Is that you!?” He sounds incredulous, filled with glee, and Liam grimaces.
“Yeah.” He’s always thought he was an awkward-looking kid, round-faced and perpetually pouting.
“You’re so tiny!” Louis crows. “And this is your sister?”
“Yeah, Nicola.” Liam smiles, grateful for the change of attention. “She lives here on the island too.” Louis’ sight flits to the other members in the photo. Liam pauses. “And that’s my mom and dad.”
“Are they here, too?”
“No. They died when I was young,” Liam says evenly. “Not that long after this photo, really.” He swallows. “Car accident.”
“Oh.” Louis blinks.
“Yeah, it’s alright,” Liam shrugs.
Louis’ eyes meet his. “I’m sorry,” he says suddenly.
“Thanks.” Liam usually doesn’t like to bring it up. It always makes everyone uncomfortable, like he’s put on a record of funeral hymns at a party or something.
Louis doesn’t look uncomfortable, though. He looks sincere, and a little curious, and Liam doesn’t feel awkward. “It was hard for a while,” he continues, unprompted, “but my sister – she’d just turned eighteen – and she practically raised me from then on.” He’s never been modest about his sister. “She’s pretty amazing.”
“Yeah, sounds like it,” Louis smiles.
“Hey, you know, we actually were planning to have dinner at her place later this week. Her wife, Kiana, cooks a mean roast. And she said you’re invited too, if you want. Do you want to come?”
Louis’ eyes widen. “Really? Okay.”
Liam pauses. “You have to behave, though, okay?” Liam says it mock-sternly, even though he actually means it. He can’t have Louis destroying his sister’s house.
“I will,” Louis pouts.
“No, I mean, you have to be nice, and also not make a mess throwing food at me or anything.”
“When have I ever done that?” Louis sticks out his tongue and pegs Liam with a grape.
Harry and Niall try to avoid completely slacking on their job. Between their idle exploring and beach-going, they do still track him occasionally, writing down evidence in their little tablet. Today, they’ve ended up following him to, of all places, the community college.
“What do you think he’s doing here?” Niall asks as they exit the car they’ve been taking to get around more discreetly.
“I dunno.” Harry shrugs. “I feel kinda bad.” He snubs his toe against the grass.
“What if he’s trying to reform himself or something?”
“What if he’s trying to tie everyone’s shoes together,” Niall snorts.
“I’m just saying. Maybe he wants to get a fresh start or something.”
Niall rolls his eyes. “Naïve,” he says, and Harry pouts. “Ugh, look; now we’ve lost him! Gimme the tracker.”
Harry pauses. “I thought you had the tracker.”
“No, you do – wait. You don’t?”
“No,” Harry shakes his head slowly. They must have left it in the RV when they left so early this morning.
“For chrissakes,” Niall throws his head back. “Look, I’m gonna go look for him. Or look around. I don’t know.”
“I’ll stay here, I guess.” The quad common area, with its spacious lawn and little fountain, seems like as good a place as any to wait to find someone.
Harry sits by the fountain all morning drinking in the sunlight. He doesn’t see their target, but he picks up a few conversations with some nice people walking by. There’s a food truck idling on the street beside him, and he walks over to it when he gets hungry and business looks slow. The owner, Carla, is nice, and they get to talking about cooking and baking and what it’s like to open a food truck. “I always liked cooking,” she says, “so I figured, why not try to do something with it?” She took the plunge and started the truck last year, and business has been going fine. And Harry can see why: her burritos are delicious. He wishes the concept of food trucks existed on his home planet.
By the time Niall returns a few hours later, all traces of anger have left his body. Instead, his eyes are wide and glassy, and he’s immediately talking a mile a minute about the ecology class he wandered in on.
“Did you know that there are 170 species of ferns living in Hawaii, and 65 percent of them live only here?” he asks excitedly. (No, Harry did not know that; he didn’t even know what a fern was until a few days ago when Niall pointed one out). “In all there are over three thousand native species here, but then there are hundreds that were introduced by people who came on boats. And there’s only two native mammals, a bat and a seal, and a ton of native birds and reptiles but no snakes, and they’re still discovering new species of beetles on the tops of volcanoes, can you believe that, and…”
“Slow down,” Harry laughs, but Niall continues, revealing the (at least to Niall) riveting conversation he’d had with the professor after the class regarding the mating habits of land snails.
“’It’s just really cool that people study this here,” he says, grinning.
“So you didn’t find him, I take it?”
“Who? Oh, nah,” Niall shrugs. “How could I? This place is big, so many classes. Man, it’s nothing like home.” He pauses, looking out into the distance for a moment.
“I think I’m gonna come back here for a while,” Niall says decidedly. “I was thinking, maybe right after this. I really like it here. I think I might enroll in some classes.”
“You should,” Harry agrees, “it’d be good for you. You fit in.”
“Thanks,” Niall laughs. “You know, you could stay, too. We could get jobs, and live here…”
“I don’t think so,” Harry frowns. “My mum would not approve of that.”
Truth be told, he’s not entirely eager to leave, either. He’s grown rather fond of this planet. It’s so laid-back, nothing like his home of regimented schedules and bland, powdered food and no appreciation for good cooking. Well, maybe he can add it to his list of possible home planets once he’s rich enough to make that kind of decision. His mum would certainly scoff at the idea of living somewhere so primitive, and it’s not perfect, but he thinks it would do.
“So what?” Niall says. Harry shrugs his shoulders. “You’re an adult.”
“I guess,” he answers half-heartedly, even though he knows it won’t happen.
Niall pats him on the back. “You should think about it.”
“You promised,” Louis pouts.
Liam may have promised, in his morning-sleepy state, to take Louis to a club tonight.
“I did no such thing.” Liam stares at his textbook, another equation boring into his head.
“You’ve been looking at that page for ages.”
“I have not!” He has, but it’s the first quiz of the semester and he wants to stay on top of things, okay?
Then again, he can finish studying tomorrow, and he’s not getting anywhere right now anyway. “Okay, fine.” He closes the book. It’s useless when Louis gets like this, and he did promise. “But only tonight, okay? I’m not making a habit of going to these places.” Clubs have never really been Liam’s scene, but they were talking last week after watching a movie, and Liam mentioned the place nearby, and ever since then Louis has been fixated on the idea of going.
He eyes Louis. “What are you gonna wear, then?”
Louis, it turns out, knows exactly what to wear. He chooses a red shirt that swoops down below his collarbones, and his legs are clad in black skinny jeans, just above his ankles and skin-tight up his legs, and it’s… really hot. Liam feels a little outdone, even though he knows that his own tight shirt modestly shows off his abs.
He hasn’t gone to the club since the last time he had a fling with a guy, almost a year ago. What if someone wants to take Liam home? What if someone wants to take Louis home? Maybe that’s why Louis wants to go here in the first place. The thought makes his mouth feel dry. But, he reminds himself, Louis can do whatever he wants. He can bring a girl home if he wants, even; it’s his own room. It’s none of Liam’s business what – or whom – he does.
“You look good,” Louis grins as he emerges from his room, looking Liam up and down.
Liam looks away. “So do you,” he mumbles.
They arrive at the club early, the evening rush just beginning, and Louis’ eyes widen like saucers. It’s not one of the very touristy clubs, but they still cater to the tourists in some ways; they’re giving out leis in the front, and Liam rolls his eyes.
Louis picks out two, a blue and a yellow, and strings them around Liam’s neck. Liam lets him.
Louis immediately drags him out to dance - drags him out to dance. Liam feels a little uncomfortable, but they’re dancing far apart, not touching or anything, and the way Louis is moving, easily and with a huge grin, makes Liam relax and move to the music.
Eventually, a young woman cuts in, and Liam takes that as his cue to head to the back bar. He orders a drink and makes small-talk with the bartender while he waits. Louis comes back thirty minutes later, face flushed with exhilaration and, Liam thinks, alcohol. He gulps down the rest of Liam’s drink. “C’mon, come back out,” he whines.
“Nah, you go,” Liam waves. Louis shrugs and heads back out.
Liam can’t help but watch him. He’s dancing with a tall brunette woman now, and she’s cute. They’re not close, hardly even touching, but her head is thrown back in laughter and his eyes are glinting with joy as they shout to each other over the music. Liam orders another drink.
Then, his eyes flit onto something else he recognizes: it’s Todd Jackson, looking the almost exactly the same as he did two years ago when they were in high school, the same cocky stance and flat hair and slimy smile as he talks to an uninterested-looking girl on the other side of the room.
Liam looks away and covers his face. It’s stupid. He knows he doesn’t look the same; he’s cut his floppy curls since high school, his hair now cropped close, and he’s broadened out, too, from working out so much more. Nobody around here ever recognizes him anymore. But still, he can’t help that instinctive, familiar sense of dread dropping in his stomach.
Of course, it’s at this inopportune moment that Louis reappears beside him. “Why aren’t you dancing?” he whines. He moves around to the front of Liam’s chair, and then he sees Liam’s face. “What’s wrong?” he demands instantly, eyes narrowing. Liam was really banking on Louis not noticing him, but apparently the alcohol has given him even more perspective than usual.
“Nothing.” Liam swallows carefully. But then a blur of motion catches his attention, and his eyes betray him by flicking to check on the scene for just a moment.
“Liam.” Louis has followed his gaze precisely, and - God, Liam knows that glint in Louis’ eyes, and he has no idea what embarrassing fate will befall him if he doesn’t give Louis an answer. His brain is too fuzzy to come up with anything but the truth.
“I used to go to school with that guy,” he shrugs, covertly tipping his chin in Jackson’s direction. “Was kind of a dick. That’s all.”
Louis whirls back to him, eyes narrowed. “A dick, as in how I can be a dick? Or – ”
“As in he beat me up a few times,” Liam shrugs, eyes not meeting Louis’. “Shoved my clothes in the toilet in the locker room. Got the other kids to call me parentless payne for a while in middle school.“ He shrugs, sees Louis’ mouth forming a thin line, eyes sharply focused. “It’s not, like, a big deal; it’s all normal kid stuff. Just weird memories, is all.” It’s dumb, but after all this time it still turns his stomach into a tight ball. Then again, the guy is clearly skeeving out the girl he was talking to, so maybe nothing has changed.
Louis’ eyes suddenly light up in that way they do. He presses a hand in his pocket and backs up.
“Louis…” Liam warns. But Louis is already making a beeline for the dance floor, over to the girl who was dancing with him a moment ago. He stands on his tiptoes to whisper into her ear. Something makes her recoil, but then he says something else and she nods.
Louis watches as the two of them cross the crowd toward Jackson. The brunette taps him on the shoulder and drags him out to the side of the dance floor. Louis carefully slinks behind the two of them, bopping to the beat alone for a time.
It’s a little pathetic the way that Liam is staring at Louis. Louis is standing beneath the colored lights now; they’re throwing red and purple shadows across his hair and skin as he moves, and he looks radiant. Liam hardly notices when he slides up behind Todd. At this point he and the brunette are dancing vigorously and a little ridiculously, hands on each other’s hips. Liam can’t tell what Louis does, but he stands behind Todd for a few moments, and then he’s standing up on his tiptoes and nodding at the woman over his shoulder. She smiles and shimmies away from both of them, and Louis slides back through the crowd toward Liam.
“We should probably go,” he grins.
“What – what did you do?”
Suddenly, Liam notices, people are starting to step back and give Todd weird looks. They’re laughing at his back, and he’s craning his neck backwards in an attempt to see what the fuss is about. When he turns the other way, Liam catches a glimpse of his back: There, outlined in thick black marker on his white shirt, is a large sketch of a penis, intricately drawn with pubes and veins and a few droplets coming out the tip and everything.
Louis waves a sharpie in his hand. “Really, we should go.” He grabs Liam’s hand and pulls him toward the door.
“Louis!” Liam laughs despite himself. It’s funny, okay, even if it falls under the category of misbehavior that Liam probably shouldn’t encourage.
Louis’ laughing, too, and he’s pulling Liam onto the street, still holding his hand as they walk giggling down the sidewalk, and god - Liam has never held hands with a guy in public before. He doesn’t even know if he’s held hands in private. He knows this isn’t actually holding hands, holding hands, but it’s something and Louis doesn’t seem to care at all.
By the time they get to the stoop of their apartment, they’re still breathless practically doubled over in laughter. The whole thing makes Liam feel drunk, even more than just the alcohol. Liam fumbles through his pocket for his keys, Louis laughing and grabbing his hand back until he looks up at Louis’ grinning face, cheeks pulled high, eyes squinted into slits with laughter, and -
Liam really wants to kiss him.
The thought hits his brain like a sharp needle through a balloon, piercing his mind and knocking the air out of him in one sobering instant.
He wants to kiss him. And that’s – not okay, really, to be thinking of Louis in that way. He reprimands himself. But Louis is licking his lips, fingertips pressed into Liam’s skin, and Liam wants. He’s allowed to want, he decides, even if he can’t have it. He shakes his head and twists his arm free to unlocks the door, and he playfully shoves Louis inside.
As always, they end up watching TV on the sofa. Louis rests his feet on Liam’s lap, and Liam begs his feelings to simmer down, and they do, eventually.
“Thanks for tonight,” Louis smiles, nudging Liam’s shoulder lightly.
“Thank you, too,” Liam says, meaningfully, and Louis must notice because his mouth twists and his eyes narrow a bit.
“No problem.” He shrugs, and then looks at Liam again, a question shining in his eyes.
“Why was that guy such a dick to you, anyway? I can’t imagine anyone being mean to you, to be honest.” He tries to pinch Liam’s cheek but ends up closer to his ear.
“I don’t know,” Liam shrugs. “I guess I was just there – if I hadn’t been there, they’d have chosen someone else. But. He had a lot of friends, you know, and they all just decided. I was an easy target.”
Liam hesitates. He’s too drunk for this. “Cause. Um.” Fuck. But here it is. “You know. I’m gay.”
He holds his breath, but Louis doesn’t waver. After a pause he raises an eyebrow. “So?”
Liam shrugs, a bit deflated. “So, I don’t know. He didn’t like that. Guys don’t like that, sometimes.” Most of the time, he thinks. Louis looks confused and a little taken aback. “It’s probably not a big deal where you’re from.” England is supposed to be more open-minded than here. Even in a bigger city around here, it might not matter so much, but in this town, it’s never been entirely acceptable, especially when he was growing up.
He gets the distinct feeling that Louis’ getting indignant about it, that he might go on a rant about discrimination or something.
The funny thing is, that wasn’t all. Nicola never got shit for it. Maybe it wasn’t only that he was gay, but also just because he was him. “I don’t know,” he continues. “I was just never quite like the other kids. I don’t know why.”
Louis huffs. “What, and that’s a bad thing?”
“I dunno, people just thought I was weird, no matter what.”
Louis looks at him. “Then people here are weird.”
“No, I’m weird. It’s just –” and he can’t finish the sentence, because Louis is clamoring into his lap and tickling him into submission.
Harry is trying on his new fedora in the RV when the call comes in. The com beeps loud and persistent on the table beside him, and Harry startles and looks around. Niall had just popped out for a minute to buy a snack, and Harry hollers for him helplessly, but the com continues beeping, and someone has to answer it, so Harry does.
“Hello. This is Officer Styles,” he answers dutifully. He feels instantly guilty when he hears the voice that replies: their captain.
“Hello, Officer,” she says smoothly. “We are requesting a status update on your current mission.”
“Um.” Harry stutters.
“Have you found the target?” She has a distinctly unimpressed tone that suggests they have zero expectations that the ragtag team has had any success. “Or shall we send in another team?”
Harry’s throat prickles with discomfort. He hates lying, but even more than that he hates being looked down upon. He’s also feeling a bit sleepy right now - the natural darkness outside is still messing with his brain – but still, all of that probably is not enough to excuse what he says next.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, we have located him,” he rumbles just as Niall throws open the door.
Niall clearly heard what he just said, and he' looks appropriately horrified, frozen and wide-eyed in the doorway.
“Really?” He can picture her raising a green eyebrow. She seems genuinely surprised, and he smirks. “Did you acquire the proper verification?”
Harry pauses, and a sigh comes through the other end. He juts out his lip. “Yes, we have verified it.”
Niall is silently screaming from the doorway, shaking his head quickly and motioning no, but it’s too late.
Harry grimaces. What – in truth, they have found him. They’ve been watching for weeks, and they’ve seen all the evidence. He fits every one of the criteria that they have. Even if they haven’t quite completed the DNA test they’re supposed to do, it’s still obvious.
“Excellent,” she hums.
Harry ignores Niall’s death glares as he agrees for them to wait until the reinforcement ship arrives to take Experiment 28 – and them – away.
Everything will be just fine.
“Liam!” Nicola greets him, crushing him in a hug just moments after he rings the doorbell.
“How’s it going?” Kiana hugs him, while Nicola steps back.
“So,” Liam coughs. “This is my friend – er, new housemate, Louis.”
“Nice to meet you,” Louis says calmly. “I’ve heard a lot about you.” He extends a hand, just like they practiced. Like a proper civilized person. Liam grins, and he beams even wider when Nicola pulls Louis into a hug.
“It’s so good to finally meet you!” she says. Liam thinks he sees her wink at him over Louis’ shoulder, but he can’t be sure. In any case, he ignores it.
Louis actually acts like a perfectly good houseguest. He helps set the table, eats with the fork and knife, laughs and tells jokes and gets on with everyone, all the way up to offering to help clean up. He and Kiana wash the dishes, while Liam and his sister take out the garbage.
“So, Louis is nice,” Nicola says.
“Yeah.” Liam tosses the bag into the dumpster
“And cute,” she says pointedly and nudges his hip.
Liam shrugs. Then, the realization belatedly hits him. “Oh, no. We’re – he’s just my housemate. We’re not – ” he sputters.
Nicola raises an unconvinced eyebrow.
“But you want to.”
“Just a little,” she says knowingly.
“Fine,” Liam huffs. “A little.” Admitting it somehow makes it more real, and he looks back furtively.
“There you go,” Nicola says, pinching his cheek. He swats her away.
“But it doesn’t matter,” he says, “obviously.”
Nicola snorts. “The way he looks at you? I mean, I know you can be clueless, Li, but you can’t possibly be that clueless.”
“What do you mean? What way that he looks at me?”
“Like you put the sun in the sky, or something,” she says. “Just – don’t give up just yet.”
“Liam, get in here! There’s pie!” Louis’ voice hollers.
Liam avoid his sister’s gaze and tracks back inside where they’re serving slices of strawberry pie. “Thanks,” Liam says as Louis slides a plate to him. Then Louis’ hand slips into the dollop of whipped cream on his plate.
Liam watches the tremble of Louis’ fingers as he eyes the whipped cream, then Liam. For one hopeful moment, Liam thinks he might not do it. But then, he does: he reaches out and smears the whipped cream on Liam’s nose.
“Hand must’ve slipped, oops,” he says with a shit-eating grin, and Liam pointedly ignores the giggles coming from his sister and Kiana.
“You’re gonna pay for that,” Liam warns, and Louis sticks out his tongue, and - well, although they avoid making a mess of the table, they both need to go wash their faces a few minutes later.
In the evening, they all end up on the sofa looking through Nicola’s photo albums. Liam had tried to steer them away, but now Louis is gleefully laughing over their kid pictures: young Nicola holding him as a screaming, red-faced baby with the proudest grin on her face; the two of them running around on the beach together kids with Liam toddling after her; their whole family posed in front of their first house here.
“Your parents, right?” Louis inquires gently, when Nicola lingers on the grainy photograph. Liam is probably eight years old, Nicola seventeen or eighteen, her hair pulled in a ponytail and a thin smile on her lips.
“Yeah,” Liam nods, tracing his hand lightly over the page before turning to the next one. There, it’s just Liam and Nicola by the water.
“That’s just before we moved,” she explains. “Our old house was right there on the water. But then, Li and I moved here.”
Eighteen years old. She was a kid herself, barely old enough to legally care for him. Liam still doesn’t know how she did it.
“You did a really great job with him,” Louis says.
“I did, didn’t I?” Nicola beams. She pinches his cheek, and he scrunches his nose and pulls away. Louis laughs.
“So where’s your family from?” Nicola asks, turning to Louis. “Liam said you’re not from around here.”
Louis blinks and raises his shoulders in an easy shrug. “Oh. I don’t really have one.” Liam’s never asked him about it before in detail. He’s always assumed that Louis’ family was somewhere far away, back in England or something. Sure, they clearly haven’t spoken since he’s come here, but Liam has never considered the possibility that Louis had no one.
“Really?” Liam blurts out.
“Nope,” Louis shakes his head. “No family to speak of. I guess – I was raised in kind of a, uh, group place, for a while. But after that it was always just me, pretty much.” Liam wants to inquire further, but he gets the feeling Louis doesn’t have much more to say. Liam desperately wants to know where Louis came from, how he turned into the amazing, bright shining boy that he is today, but he figures it’s a conversation for some other time. He’s probably weary of the questions. Liam remembers the questions, too, every time he met someone new.
“Hey,” Nicola says, reaching for Louis’ hand gently. “No matter what, you have a family now, okay?” She pauses. “Have you ever heard of ‘Ohana?” Liam smiles. Of course she thought to bring out ‘Ohana. She used to repeat it to him over and over every time they fought, every time he’d yell at her to go live at college and just leave him. ‘Ohana means family. We stick together and nobody gets left behind.
Louis shakes his head. “No.”
“It was – our mom and dad always said it. It’s a Hawaiian word, part of the culture here,” she explains. “’Ohana basically means family, but it’s also more than that. It means everyone you promise to be there for, the people that you’re bound to.” She pauses. “So, if you want, you can be part of our little ‘Ohana, okay?”
Louis smiles, the corners of his eyes crinkling up. “Really? Thank you.” He says it as genuinely as Liam has ever heard.
They have so many photos. Their mom always made a point to bring the camera everywhere and take pictures of them, and after her death, Nicola had taken over. Liam hadn’t appreciated it at the time, but she has so many pictures of him and their life over the years.
He’s not appreciated a lot, really. He feels suddenly self-conscious and guilty that he’s felt so alone his whole life. At least he had a sister, a wonderful loving sister, a family. Louis had no one.
“Look at that one!” Louis crows, pointing to a picture of Liam as a chubby-cheeked eleven-year old. Liam grunts and flips the pages away.
“And this?” Louis says gleefully, and it’s even more embarrassing.
“That’s two years ago,” Nicola answers helpfully, and Liam groans. It’s when he grew his hair out at the end of high school, long curls that looked like macaroni.
“Your hair is so curly,” Louis says delightedly, and when Liam doesn’t respond he crowds over to him and pats at his head.
“That’s why I shaved it,” Liam pouts, but Louis rubs his head anyway, looking between him and the photo with glee.
He tries to skip the next picture, but Louis stops him.
“That’s the bowling birthday party I had,” Liam says evenly. No one came. John and Christian might have come, but they were both on vacations for the end of the summer. He’d ended up alone except for Nicola, and she’d just gotten with Kiana, and Kiana arrived later with a whole bag of presents. Liam hadn’t realized that she must have been out all night trying to get enough to make up for the lack of guests. As if on reading his thoughts, she pulls him toward her on the couch and kisses the side of his head.
There’s birthdays and silly outings, and the time when he was thirteen and Nicola had somehow saved up enough for them to go on a little vacation. They’d camped on the beach for four days, and they’d surfed all day and stuffed their faces with hotdogs and roasted marshmallows in the evenings. He can still remember the lopsided little tent in the picture.
“You know how to surf?” Louis asks, wide-eyed pointing at a photo of small Liam in a wetsuit, surfboard clutched under his arm. “You never told me!”
Liam hasn’t surfed in forever, not since the ninth grade when he had tried to show off to the other kids at the beach by his school. He’d gotten properly good at it that summer, and he’d thought that maybe, doing something cool would in front of the other kids would make them think he was cool, too.
They’d taken his clothes while he was showering. He’d had to walk home in just his towel. He’s never picked up a surfboard since.
“Can you teach me?” Louis asks, bouncing on the couch, and Liam wants to decline, but those eyes beg him to say yes.
“I don’t know,” he grimaces. “It’s been a while.”
“Tomorrow afternoon,” Louis declares. “It’s perfect. Teach me tomorrow.”
Nicola looks back and forth between them.
Liam sighs. “Erm. Maybe.”
“You’re the best!’ Louis says, leaping over to cling onto him like an octopus.
“I still have our boards and rashguards in a closet somewhere,” Nicola winks. “Let me go get them.”
Louis’ eyes shine, and how can Liam – how can anyone – possibly say no to that?
“I thought you surf in the water,” Louis complains. Liam has him set up balancing on the board on the sand, the same way that Liam learned, the same way that everyone’s supposed to learn, as far as he knows. He guides Louis through the motions again: lie down in the center of the board, get up on your knees (“if you insist,” Louis had said with a waggle of his eyebrows, and Liam hadn’t known what to do except throw a handful of sand at him). Then they slowly stand up, maintaining balance with arms outstretched. “Are we done yet?” Louis asks again, purposely leaning over to bump his fingers against Liam’s, wind them around and grab the sleeve of his wetsuit. He nearly pulls him over.
“This is how you learn,” Liam explains, trying to keep his voice level enough to hide his getting flustered. Louis needs to stop touching him; the material on his wetsuit is too tight for this. “You didn’t even like the water when you got here.”
“Because it tried to drown me,” Louis shrugs. “Now I’ve conquered the water. I will be one with the water.“ Liam can’t help but laugh, and Louis balances on one foot before making a whooshing noise, grabbing Liam’s hands and wrestling him to the ground.
“Okay, okay,” Liam relents. “Fine, we can get in the water if you want. But when you wipe out, don’t come crying to me,” he adds primly.
Louis does wipe out almost immediately, and then again, and again, but he proves to be a freakishly fast learner. He watches raptly as Liam stands up to ride a few small waves. Louis tries again and again, and only a few dozen attempts go by before he rises up and balances for a full five seconds over the wave.
“This is awesome!” he whoops, even after it crashes down on his head. “C’mon,” he yells, shaking water from his head. “C’mon, let’s go together!”
It might be the most fun Liam has ever had. Somehow he’d forgotten how good it feels to balance on top of the water and look out over the vast ocean to shore, to feel the curl of a white wave beside his face, the water lapping at his toes. And having Louis beside him only makes everything more fun, as Louis is always whooping and counting how long he can stay on top of the water, laughing as Liam tries to show off some little tricks and then making ridiculous attempts to replicate them.
“You’re so good,” Louis says after they both crash down from a wave, and they’re treading water a little farther out, both breathless from the activity and laughter. Louis’ eyes are brighter than Liam has ever seen, reflecting the sky and the ocean in a perfect blue. His hair is dark plastered around his face, and Liam never noticed the dusting of freckles on Louis’ nose until now. “Watch out!” A wave crashes over him, and a moment later Louis comes up laughing, having ducked down beneath it just in time. “You should pay more attention,” he says.
Even after Liam’s energy level drops, Louis keeps going. Liam watches him, treading water holding onto his surfboard from the distance as Louis rises up on wave after wave, his technique and balance steadfastly improving.
It makes a pretty scene, Louis and the white waves and the perfect, Hawaii blue water. He can hardly take his eyes off of him. At one point, a flash of motion catches his eye from the otherwise-empty shore, two figures puttering around on the sand, but then he looks back.
It takes him a moment to realize that Louis is gone. “Louis?” His surfboard is bobbing out alone. “Louis!”
He paddles over to it as quickly as he can. “Louis!” He reaches the surfboard and looks around for him. In a moment, he realizes that the leg rope is still attached - but then something is grabbing at Liam’s ankle. Louis emerges up in front of him, laughing.
“Louis! I thought you were drowned or something!” he grips him hard around the shoulders.
“No, no.” He glances at the shore before turning back to Liam, grinning. “I can hold my breath for a long time.”
“Don’t scare me like that.”
“I’m sorry.” He sounds sincere, the corners of his mouth curving down into the trace of a frown.
“It’s okay. I just worry. I like you a little, you know,” he says without thinking.
Louis pokes him in the chest. “I like you a lot,” he says.
“I like you a lot, too,” Liam replies carefully, suddenly aware of something heavier between them. Louis doesn’t mean it that way, of course. Someone like Louis doesn’t just like someone like Liam, but then again -
Louis squints at him.
Louis’ face is smiling and streaked with salt water and it looks like the sun, his eyes shining blue like the ocean, and Liam could stay here all day, all night, forever, and.
He wants to kiss him. Louis’ eyes shine back at him as they tread in the shallow water beside their surfboards, so close together that their feet occasionally brush against each other when they ebb over the waves. Liam wants to kiss him, and god, the way Louis is looking at him now, bright and open and intense, he thinks Louis might even want him too, too. Louis licks his lips, and his eyes flick between Liam’s mouth and eyes for a moment, and maybe it’s only the ebb of the water, but he comes closer, and Liam leans forward too, heart pounding. He’s so close he can feel the warmth radiating off of Louis face -
“Ouch!” Louis jerks back in the water. “Fuck, ow!”
Through the water, Liam can tell he’s clutching his left foot, struggling to stay afloat. “Fuck, owwww,” he winces.
Liam takes hold of his arm to steady him in the water. Jellyfish, or –
“You’re not, like – you’re not bitten by something, right?” Liam panics for a moment; there usually aren’t sharks around here, but he can’t be sure.
“No, shit, it just - fucking stings,” he grits out.
“Okay,” Liam sooths, trying to stay calm. “Okay, let’s get back. Something must’ve stung you.” Liam struggles to walk them back to shore as Louis curses, mainly with words that LIam has never even heard before.
They hobble up onto the shore, and finally Liam pries Louis’ hands off of his foot to see. “Oh, shit. Sea urchin.” Louis has a few quills hanging out the bottom of his foot, but fortunately they’re far enough out. Liam asks and then yanks them out swiftly. They leave behind angry red punctures, and his whole foot is beginning to swell, and it must hurt something awful.
“It hurts,” he whimpers. But suddenly, he looks strangely scared. He keeps glancing around.
“I’m gonna go get the car –“
“No!” Louis cries, clutching at his arm. “Stay with me.”
“Okay, okay. Come on,” Liam sooths.
Louis puts his arm around Liam’s shoulder and they hobble back home. Louis’ face only grows more clouded over. “It’ll be okay,” Liam says, but Louis still seems nervous and tense. Something is off about him. He keeps testing his weight on his foot, pulling his weight off of Liam’s shoulder.
“Don’t put pressure on it,” Liam has to chide. “We’ll get home and soak it in some warm water and get you some painkiller. It’ll be fine, okay?
By the time they get home, Louis is panicking. “Soap and water,” Liam says sternly, forcing him to hold his foot over the bathtub. He sprays some antiseptic before filling the tub. “You’re supposed to soak it for a half hour.”
Louis refuses. “It feels fine,” he says suddenly.
“Louis, the internet says – “
“Look, it’s fine now.” He holds out his foot, and it actually looks strangely better. The swelling has gone down, and even the puncture wounds have faded to pink.
“What?” Liam asks, confused. “But it was swelling a moment ago. How is it getting better this fast?”
Louis’ eyes widen. “It’s not.” He brings it up slowly. ”See? No, ow, it hurts. A little.”
“Erm. Well, you should still soak it, and here are some painkillers if you need them – “
“What was that?” Louis jerks abruptly back.
Liam frowns. “I didn’t hear anything.”
“Shit,” Louis says, face clouding over.
“Are you o-“
Louis paces into the living room, and Liam follows until Louis whirls around. “Let’s go to a volcano,” he says immediately, strange grin suddenly plastered on his face. “You told me we could go up and see one.”
“Okay,” Liam says slowly.
“Okay.” Louis makes to open the front door.
“Whoa, not right now,” Liam laughs. “It’s late, and you’re - ”
“Come on,” Louis pouts.
“Look, maybe on my next day off. Maybe next Monday.”
Louis looks to the left and right, then back at Liam, as if trying to make a decision. He grimaces. “I have to go now.”
“To the volcano? Louis, we can go next week.“
“No. I – I’m sorry. I have to go.”
“What?” Liam laughs. “What, are you on the run or something?”
Louis doesn’t laugh or smile in response. “No – kind of – I can’t – I just have to go, okay? I’m sorry.”
“Lou – ”
And then he races out the kitchen, and Liam hears the back door slam shut.
Only moments later, a sharp rapping sounds on the front door. Liam turns and exhales in relief; Louis must be back. All of this must have been some kind of strange, elaborate prank.
But when Liam opens the door, Louis is not outside. Instead, two men stand in the doorway. Liam squints into the darkness and thinks they look vaguely familiar, but he can’t tell. They’re dressed strangely, all black and formal. “Erm. Hello? How can I help you?”
The smaller one, the one with glasses and streaky blond hair, clears his throat. “Experiment 28,” he says authoritatively.
“I am Officer Niall Horan with the United Galactic Federation security force, and you’re under arrest.”
The other man nods in agreement.
“What?” Liam laughs. He doesn’t have time for this.
“We are taking you back to carry out your extended sentence.”
Liam looks between them. This has to be some kind of strange joke, something Louis came up with while he was bored. “What? Who are you again?”
“Don’t play dumb with us.” The taller one wags his finger seriously. “We know that you’re not from here, that you’re - an alien.” He whispers the last word. “We know that you stole the vehicle that brought you here. You’re unauthorized to be on this planet.”
“This is crazy.” Liam shakes his head in disbelief and stifles a laugh. “I can assure you I’m not an alien. I’m – I was born in Nebraska. I moved here when I was five, so I don’t see how I could’ve stolen any vehicle to get here -”
“Don’t try to be clever with us,” the blond one warns, and Liam is surprised by their persistence. He’s even more surprised when they grab him by the arms and pull him away from the house.
“Hey! Stop it!” Liam tries to resist, but there are two of them, and they’re strong as they pull him toward their car. “Stop – ”
And then he feels a strange jab in his shoulder, and then he can’t resist at all anymore, can barely even move. Then they shove him into the car, and then everything goes black.
Liam awakens to the sound of hissed whispers. Panic sets in his throat as he remembers the last events that happened to him: kidnapped. He still feels like this whole thing must be a dream or a prank.
He blinks as his eyes regain focus, slowly adjusting to the light, and he looks around the unfamiliar room. The room is tiny, filled with what looks like strangely themed technology, and he’s currently lying on some kind of fabric sofa. His shirt is rucked up to his stomach, but only up to a little above his bellybutton, which seems bizarre. Stranger still, he doesn’t appear to be restrained at all.
He’s still too tired to move, anyway. His limbs feel like lead, and his head is pounding, but he flits his eyes around to take in the rest of the scene. The two men who had grabbed him are at the other end of the room, their heads turned away from him as they huddle in the corner speaking in shrill whispers.
“We should just let him go,” the blond one says. “Just drop him back – ”
“But we need to make sure he’s okay,” the other argues. “Niall, what if we hurt him?”
“And then what are we supposed to do, Harold? He’s already seen us!”
“I didn’t know!” Harold exclaims as he rakes his hands through his hair and pulls on the ends of the curls. “Why didn’t I just go to culinary school?” he laments. “I knew I’d hate this job.”
Yeah, Liam thinks. Something about this kidnapping scheme doesn’t seem quite right. Liam finally gathers the strength to shakily, slowly, sit himself up. From the better vantage point, he looks around for an exit, but doesn’t see a door, or even a window.
“But what if he’s – ”
Suddenly a cough explodes in his throat, and he hacks involuntarily. Both men whip their heads around to stare at him with huge eyes.
“Awake,” the blond – Niall - gulps. He breaks into a guilty grin. “Hi!” he waves, much too genuine and cheerful for the current situation. Liam doesn’t respond. He tries to stand up, but he can’t; instead he clamors up holding onto the couch and props himself against the wall. Finally he levels a look at them and clears his throat again; his limbs feel heavy, but he can already feel his energy coming back. It’s only a matter of time. If he can find an exit, he thinks quickly, then he can probably lull them into thinking he’s still weak, and then he can run. “How are you feeling?”
“Listen,” Liam says carefully, eyes level. “I don’t know what this is, exactly, but you can just let me go. I’ll just get out of here, and we can forget this ever happened, okay?”
“See?” the curly one nudges.
But Niall stands firm. “Look, um. We’re sorry, but it doesn’t make sense – you were on our tracking device. It was you, we’re sure of it. You’re our alien, Experiment 28, from Sector 21. We were sure of it. But you have - ”
Suddenly the shelf behind them flings open to reveal a hidden door. “He’s not the alien!” comes a familiar voice. Louis.
“I’m the alien, okay,” Louis says, holding out his hands. His eyes catch Liam’s for a split-second, dark and guilty. ”Let him go.”
Their mouths gape.
“Louis, this is insane.” Liam says immediately. “Look, this isn’t the time for jokes. Neither of us are aliens, we’re just normal guys. I was born in Nebraska. Louis’ from England. You’re both crazy. C’mon, Louis, let’s go.”
“Um.” Louis spreads his hands guiltily, leveling a look at Liam’s forehead. “Actually. I. The thing is, I am.” He pauses, swallows. “An alien. A clone.”
Louis slowly raises the seam of his shirt. Liam doesn’t notice anything unusual at first: toned abs and a tan, curvy, smooth and frankly gorgeous tummy -
“You don’t – “ Liam furrows his eyebrows and points. “You don’t have a belly button!”
“But that doesn’t mean anything,” Liam says. “It doesn’t mean he’s from outer space, or that he’s a clone or anything. So what?”
Niall is pointing a triumphant finger. “It is him!” He twists his mouth. “But then how…” he wonders, looking between them and squinting his eyes. “Wait. Did you know about this? Are you an accomplice?”
“No,” Louis answers for him. “We only met a month ago. He didn’t know. Honest.”
“You two must’ve been inseparable if we thought it was him all along.” Niall shakes his head.
Liam would blush at the implication, but his head is still spinning more than anything. “Can someone please explain what’s going on?”
Louis glances back apologetically, hanging his head. “I didn’t mean to bring you into this. I just – I figured they were looking for me, and I needed to hide, and you were so nice – I thought I could blend in. I thought they’d maybe give up. I didn’t think that they’d decide that you were me, I promise.”
“Wait,” Liam says, trying to keep his voice from wavering. “You were just with me because you were trying to blend in?”
“No!” Louis says quickly. “Well, at first, a little, but well. I’m not so good at blending in anyway, am I?” He laughs shortly. “I liked staying with you. Really. I like you.”
Liam tries to laugh it off, but he feels his face heat a shade anyway. He clears his throat, his head still spinning from everything. “So, what about all this?” He waves his hands around, and apparently they get the point, because Louis looks back again.
“I. Um. May be an intergalactic criminal? Just petty stuff,” he adds quickly. “Well, a lot of petty stuff,” he amends with a grimace. “Like, spaceships and stuff.”
“The Grand Admiral’s ship!” Harry reprimands, and Louis grimaces. “Not to mention the police cruiser you took when you ran away in the first place. You’re a wanted criminal.”
“Barely,” Louis grumbles. “If I was dangerous they’d’ve sent someone more qualified than you lot.” He eyes them up and down.
“That’s – ”
“Probably true,” Niall concedes with a laugh. Then his face turns dark. “But hey, you’re here now, and we have to get you back.”
“Wait,” Liam stops, brain finally catching up with him. “So you’re all from – ”
“From outer space?” Harry supplies helpfully. “Yes. But we’re humans.” He gestures between himself and Niall and juts his chin proudly. “Niall’s Irish. My family was from England, about a thousand years ago before moving out.”
“And you?” Liam turns toward Louis shakily.
“I’m – um.” He shrugs, helpless. “What did they say at my last trial? ‘Something of a genetic experiment gone awry, unfit to walk among us.’”
Liam frowns. “That’s not nice.”
“Well, it’s true,” Louis shrugs.
“The force has been chasing him for years,” Niall says sternly. “He’s practically a legend. No one’s been able to catch him until now.”
Louis raises his chin with pride, but Liam doesn’t see a crafty escape-artist criminal at all. He’s just a boy, and he looks small and sad, defeated. “Look, you can take me,” he says, arms outstretched. “Just – just let Liam go, okay? He didn’t do anything. I’ll go back to whatever asteroid that you were gonna put me on.” He says it with glum resignation. “My time is up.” Asteroid. Exile. Liam puts the pieces together.
It’s not fair, though. It’s not right that they can just come and take him.
“Wait,” Liam says, finally reaching for Louis’ arm. “But there’s nothing wrong with you,” Liam tries helplessly. “You can’t just go.”
“I kind of have to,” Louis stammers, lips curled in apology. Regret shines in his eyes as he takes a step toward Liam, then another step back. “I’m really sorry about everything.”
“But.” Liam swallows. They can’t just take him away. Not when he’s already become one of the best friends Liam has ever had, not when he was just starting to think that -
Louis bites his lip and finally looks up to meet Liam’s eyes. “What?” It takes Liam’s breath away, still, and he doesn’t avert his eyes from Louis’ blues as he takes a shuffling step forward, his legs still wobbly. Louis reaches out to steady him on impulse, the touch warm and unexpected. Liam leans into it more than he has to.
Somewhere in his mind, he registers Harold swearing under his breath, but right now it’s like he has tunnel vision, too busy trying to control his own pounding heartbeat as Louis takes one more tentative step toward him, eyes flicking ever so quickly to his lips.
A surge of adrenaline pulses into Liam’s body. Suddenly he feels able to hold himself up, and - well, if Louis is going to leave anyway, then he might as well. He sways forward toward Louis, slowly stooping down just a little and reaching to touch Louis’ chin. And then, he does what he has wanted to do for weeks, aching to do, really, since the very first day they met. He leans forward and kisses Louis.
Louis tastes like salt water and sweetness. He seems surprised at first, shocked motionless with his lips warm and pliant against Liam’s, but then he moves into it, letting out a little mph noise as he kisses back. The way Louis kisses is somehow different than Liam would have expected, and yet it’s also exactly the same as everything he knows about Louis: gentle but enthusiastic, intense and wholehearted and sweet. Liam never wants it to end. He wraps his hands around the curve of Louis’ middle and allows the moment to freeze in time: the pulse pounding through his head, the persistent press of Louis’ lips sliding against his, and the warmth of Louis’ waist as he holds on to him to keep steady.
They finally separate, just an inch, close enough that he can still feel Louis’ breath. Liam still can’t look away from those blue, blue eyes, and Louis gives the sweetest little lopsided grin, just on the edge of bashful, eyes crinkling in the corners. Liam can’t help but smile back. He feels like his heart has risen up to his throat.
Then he remembers where he is, the background slowly crashing back into focus. He swallows.
“Oh, no,” whimpers a voice that belongs to neither of them.
“Oh, no.” Harry’s hands have involuntarily risen to clutch together by his chest, and he must look pathetic staring at him like this.
It’s just - they can’t separate them now. They can’t. They’re in love. Harry turns to Niall for moral support, but he doesn’t look much better, face twisted in a pitiful grimace.
It’s even worse the second time they kiss, deeper and more confident and sure, pulling in together like the climactic scene of every romance movie Harry has ever loved. They fit. They fit, and they’re in love and bloody adorable and Harry has absolutely no idea how he’ll be able to break them apart.
Luckily, he doesn’t have to: a new voice sounds in the room. “What is this?” Harry whips around in shock to see the familiar form of their Lieutenant, Zayn, sliding through the door.
“Hello, Z- er, Lieutenant Malik,” Niall starts, straightening his stance. “We were just – ”
Liam and Louis have broken apart by now, and Louis is squinting at Zayn’s back with a curious look. Zayn must follow Harry’s line of sight, because he turns around, rubbing at his eyes. Then he jolts in surprise. “Louis?”
“You know him?” Niall and Harry say simultaneously.
“Zayn!“ Louis whoops with a grin. “Remember me?”
Zayn squints at him for a moment, seemingly incredulous. “Louis? From the Quasar Academy.” Then his eyes widen. “You’re Experiment 28? That ” – he cocks his head to one side as if processing - “that makes perfect sense, actually.”
“Wait,” Harry says slowly, everything clicking together in his mind. “That’s where you went when you went missing for those two years?”
“Yeah,” Louis shrugs sheepishly. “Education and all that. Er. Also, the ship wouldn’t start up again and I couldn’t get it fixed without drawing undue attention, so.”
“So you pretended to be a new student.”
“Yep, hacked into the system and gave myself a name. Louis Tomlinson. I fit in well enough.”
“Right,” Zayn snorts, like it’s an inside joke, before turning to Harry and Niall. “We were roommates. They used to call him Mayhem, for all the pranks he’d pull. Louis nearly got himself kicked out every day. ”
“I did get kicked out,” Louis rolls his eyes.
“Only after he backed up the sewers, reversed all the signs, and stole everyone’s left shoe,” Zayn supplies.
Louis grins. “Except for yours. “
“Because I hid it,” Zayn says pointedly.
“I could’ve found it,” Louis retorts, and Zayn laughs.
“Maybe,” he says with a shake of his head. “I can’t imagine what mayhem you’ve been wreaking here.“
“Actually.” Everyone turns to Liam’s voice. Harry had nearly forgotten that he was even here. “Actually, he’s been really good here.” Liam presses his lips together; he sounds cross. “He’s been living with me, and he’s been great. We’ve been perfectly fine. I’m not sure what the problem is.”
Zayn squints and looks between them for a moment, gaze settling on Louis. “You know, you do seem different,” he says, voice a little softer.
“And I’m not letting you take him,” Liam continues. “He’s ‘ohana now. ‘Ohana means more than any of the rules where you’re coming from.”
“O-ha-na?” Zayn sounds out, lifting a skeptical eyebrow.
It’s Louis who responds first, strangely bashful all of a sudden. “It means, um, family. But like, extended family, you know? The people you look out for.”
Zayn’s face softens. “You have changed, haven’t you.”
“And that’s why you can’t take him.” Liam raises a protective arm around Louis’ shoulder.
Louis pulls away. “You don’t have to do this,” he says. “I’ll just go.”
“But I don’t want you to.”
“But.” Louis looks nervous suddenly. “But, how can you still like me? Now that you know.”
“Lou,” Liam starts. “You’re amazing. I mean, I always thought you were kind of amazing, and now I know you’re this – this traveler, adventurer. I’ve never met anyone like you. It doesn’t really matter why you’re you,” he shrugs, “I just really like that you are.” When he finishes, an adorable flare of red has risen in Louis cheeks.
“I don’t think we should take him,” Harry blurts out suddenly. He swipes at his misty eyes and stands up taller. Niall’s eyes widen, but he stands by him. “I just – he’s doing fine. Why can’t we leave him?”
“We have a job,” Zayn says patiently, but his eyes squint, not entirely unsympathetic. “I’m supposed to get you lot home. All of you.”
“And who are you, anyway?” Liam inquires, feet squared.
“He’s our Lieutenant,” Niall supplies, face contorting with apology. “And what he says, goes. Sorry.”
They all turn to look at Zayn expectantly, and Harry gets the feeling that they’re all on the same page.
Zayn twists his mouth. “Alright,” he relents after a moment. “I might – might – have an idea that could work. No promises.”
“What is it?” Louis asks, wringing his hands.
“I’d have to check. There are no guarantees. But maybe we could work something out so you could carry out your sentence here.”
“Here?” Harry’s eyes widen. Exile here doesn’t make very much sense.
“Look, this is a pretty primitive planet” – Zayn turns to Liam for a moment - “no offense to you. But it’s not a bad choice for a low-risk probation. We could set Louis up with the papers you need, and he’ll get a few years, tops, as long as he behaves.”
“And what if I want to stay longer?” Louis asks, almost shyly, side-eying Liam.
“Then – that’s acceptable, too, I suppose.” Zayn says with a soft grin.
Liam wraps his arm more firmly around him.
“The only thing is,” Zayn continues, “for this to be approved, we’d need to keep few people on the ground here. It’s protocol in case something goes wrong, to ensure everything’s in order. You’re still on probation, after all.” Louis’ face turns sour, and so does Liam’s. “Ideally,” Zayn continues, “we could find someone or two from the police force.” Harry realizes that Zayn is pointedly looking between Niall and him. “Someone who doesn’t mind staying here, and who already possesses basic familiarity with this planet, and with you.”
“Do you mean – ” Harry starts.
Niall gives him a look. “Do you mean us?”
“Of course, you don’t have to,” Zayn says with a shrug. “But I’m just saying. We might not be able to get anyone else. This way, the arrangement could work.”
“Here?” Harry asks, still incredulous. “You mean – we could all stay?” He could get paid to stay here, with the sun and the sand and the plants and the way the salt water smells. Harry practically swoons.
Niall’s eyes widen, too. “I – my studies. I could finish my studies, learn more about the ecosystem here. God, that would be –.” Harry and Niall look between each other. “I’m in.” Niall says resolutely, and Harry nods, too.
Zayn disappears for nearly an hour, working out the details with his superior. Meanwhile, Harry and Niall stand facing Liam and Louis, their awkward attempts at making small-talk falling flat.
“We’re sorry about everything,” Harry says finally.
“You should be,” Louis huffs.
“Are you okay?” Niall asks Liam, concerned. “It was only a mild sedative, but it was made for, erm, Louis’ heightened immune system, not yours. So it knocked you out a bit more than we aimed.”
“I’m fine,” Liam says. “Just a little woozy.”
“You’ll be fine in no time. Sorry about that, by the way,” Niall says guiltily.
Harry rubs at his neck. “We shouldn’t have assumed – I shouldn’t have assumed anything without checking. It’s just, you two must have been so close together all the time. And you act so similar.”
“We really thought we knew,” Niall supplies, hanging his head.
“You’re cute together,” Harry says finally. Louis laughs, and Liam blushes.
“You really are,” Niall agrees, and they must be doing something right, because they all look a little less angry now.
“Maybe we got off on the wrong foot,” Harry tries. “I’m Harry, and this is Niall and maybe we could be friends?”
“Sure,” Louis grumbles with an incredulous snort.
“Friends,” Liam repeats, face twisting. Then his eyes meet Niall’s. Niall’s face looks pitiful, remorseful, and Harry knows his must look the same, because Liam looks between them and sighs, exasperated. His expression softens. “If we get out of this, then yeah, maybe.”
Louis rolls his eyes. Liam gives him a look and then leans in and kisses the frown right off his face. Harry only swoons a little.
“Hey!” Harry shrieks, his mittened hands raising the cookie sheet up above his head away from Niall’s outstretched fingers. “No swiping my icing!”
Niall rolls his eyes in a mock pout and swoops over to the other side of the kitchen. Liam covers his pile of shredded cheese protectively, but Niall steals a pinch anyway and deftly drops it into his open mouth. Liam sighs and motions at the front counter. “I think someone’s coming; go take their order.”
That Niall is the best person to man the front of the store is only a half-joke. He’s taken on various roles since joining the restaurant staff at the start of the winter high season, but Niall does seem to possess a certain charm to convince customers to upgrade their smoothie or buy just one more tiny cupcake.
Tito’s Pizza Shack and Bakery is doing better than ever. Convincing Tito to add on a bakery had taken a bit of time; at first, he’d only agreed for Harry to sell his baked goods in the store, and he’d had to do his baking at home. But soon enough, word had spread and they started selling out nearly every day, so Tito had agreed to clean up some of the unused space in the back to turn into a tiny bakery.
“Another Hawaiian.” Louis declares as he slides in from the front of the restaurant, wiping his hands on his apron and tacking the piece of paper to the order wheel. Then, his face softens, and he leans in and gives Liam a kiss on the cheek. Niall wolf-whistles at them and Liam’s face heats, even after all this time. Louis just grins.
After getting over the tiny fact that two of them kidnapped Liam, the four of them have actually grown quite close together. They had kept their distance in the beginning, when Louis and Liam hadn’t wanted anything to do with them; but one can only accept so many apology cupcakes before relenting. Even if they are ostensibly here to keep an eye on Louis, it quickly became clear that Harry and Niall are good people. Liam has grown to love them – they’re hilarious, and fun, and kind and filled with all sorts of strange wonder about the planet. Stranger still, they both seem to properly like him. The four of them have even rented a nice little house together. It’s a win-win, really.
It’s a bit ironic, given his typical insecurity, that of all of the people who could leave him, literal spacemen seem to be the most likely candidates. But Liam isn’t worried. He honestly can’t picture them anywhere else in the universe (even now that he’s seen actual pictures of other planets) – and neither can they. And Louis, well – he’ll always have Louis.
“Are you daydreaming?” Louis says, sneaking his arms around his waist from behind.
Louis moves his head to Liam’s ear, breath close enough that Liam shivers. Louis brushes his lips to the shell of his ear and whispers, “get back to work.”
Later that night, Liam and Louis are lying out on the porch, shoulder to shoulder with their hands softly entwined. The palm fronds above them silhouette and sway in front of the moonlight, and it looks like something out of a postcard. The island truly is that beautiful.
A spot of light flits across the sky, and Liam points up. “Look at that,” he grins.
“Wonder where they’re going,” Louis yawns.
Liam looks sideways curiously, the side of Louis’ face illuminated in the soft light. “What do you mean? Isn’t it just a shooting star? A meteor?”
Louis turns to look at him and raises an eyebrow. “Could be, but it‘s a bit big, and an odd color, I think.” He squints. “More likely a ship.”
Liam swallows, not quite wrapping his head around the implication. “But I’ve seen them loads of times. I never knew they could be spaceships.”
“Sure.” Louis squeezes at his hand. “Could’ve been me, even.” he grins. “I used to like coming by here whenever I had a ship. It’s a nice solar system, you know. There’s not nearly enough blue planets out there. Plus you’ve got that big one with the rings – I love that one.”
Liam wants to say something cheesy about how Louis’ eyes look like blue planets from here. Instead he quells the thought and asks, for probably the hundredth time since he found out about Louis: “don’t you miss flying around out there?”
“Nah,” Louis responds, giving him a look and nudging his foot against Liam’s. “It was fun, but.” Then he looks back up, suddenly bashful.
“It’s just, it was fun and all, but it’s like - I never really belonged anywhere, you know? I feel like I belong here. With you. ‘Ohana, I guess.” God, Louis can get so sappy, and Liam loves it. Liam loves him.
“I love you,” he says, turning to press their shoulders together.
“I love you, too.” Louis smiles, squeezing his hand. It’s so easy. Liam looks back up at the sky and almost laughs at the perfect absurdity of it all.
The fact that all these years he’s been wishing on shooting stars, he may have been wishing on Louis all along.
And now, finally, his wish has come true.