The train pulled into the station precisely one minute earlier than it ought to have, and Louis bounded excitedly onto the platform, dragging his suitcase behind him. Wearing a grey and white striped shirt, braces and brown three-quarter length trousers, he was proudly showing off his tan. His hair was ruffled and his eyes bright, and there was an air of excitement in his stride as he bounced onto the platform and almost ran straight into his dad, who was excitedly waiting for him with almost the same amount of enthusiasm as he had.
“Dad!” cried Louis, throwing out his arms and hurling them around his father’s neck, coming rather close to picking the older man up and spinning him around like he would with one of his sisters. Smelling like coffee and old books, his dad had always been a soothing person to hug, and today was no exception. He squeezed Louis hard.
“Louis, son! Good grief, look at the colour of you! What have you been doing all day to get a tan like that? Let me look at you!” Louis’ dad held him at arm’s length, his face split into a grin as he examined his son, back off his holidays at long last.
“Playing football, mostly,” Louis grinned, “and singing. It was great. They taught us how to tie knots and pitch a tent, and Ian fell into the stream on the second day while we were fishing and ended up with seaweed draped all over him. It was brilliant!”
Sighing wistfully, his dad thumped Louis on the back. “Ah, what I wouldn’t give to have been there! Those were the days! Did you toast marshmallows?” he asked eagerly.
Radiating smugness, Louis told him, “Of course.”
“Oh, you! Don’t tell me anymore; you’ll make me sick with jealousy! Come here, pass me your case. Let’s go home. Your mother has been going absolutely frantic, waiting for you to come home. I told her not to make a fuss, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find a ‘Welcome Home’ banner waiting for you when we get back.” Picking up Louis’ bulging suitcase, the older man tutted fondly. “I swear this is twice as heavy as when you left.”
Shrugging, Louis said playfully, “Are you sure? Maybe it just feels like it. You’re not getting any younger, you know.”
“Oi! Cheeky.” Giving him a pat on the shoulder, Mark started dragging his son’s case across the platform with a grin on his face. “Let’s get you home, before I start getting phone calls demanding to know why you’re not back yet. The twins want you to play with their new ball, and your mother is just dying to feed you up. I reckon she thinks they’ve been starving you out there.”
“Oh, they have. Dried bread and water every day. I’m practically wasting away!” Louis pounded his newly toned stomach with a grin. “Would you listen to that? Completely hollow.”
“We’d better get you home, then. Otherwise there’ll be nothing left of you by the time we get there.” His hand on Louis’ back, the older man guided Louis kindly towards the car park with his whole face lit up. It was good to have his son back again.
He got out of the car with a grin on his tanned face, and walked straight into his mother’s arms.
Her crucifix necklace was cold on his neck as it brushed against his skin, and her arms were warm around him as she hugged him tightly. It had been just over a month since he’d seen her last, and he’d missed her horribly. Still, it wasn’t as if he hadn’t enjoyed Bible Camp. It had been really fun, actually; he’d made a lot of friends. But he was a family sort of guy, and he’d missed them all so much that it almost hurt some nights; he was glad to be home again.
The girls were milling around him, grabbing his legs and tugging on his trousers and squealing in excitement, and he would have been lying if he’d said he wasn’t flattered by the attention. Daisy and Phoebe were shrieking at him in delight, Fizzy seemed close to tears, and Lottie was hugging him from behind while his mother squeezed him from the front. They were a hugging mess, and Louis couldn’t help but laugh. He’d missed all of this so much.
It had been his decision to go to Bible Camp for the summer, and he’d loved every second, but he was ridiculously glad to be back with his family all hugging him hard. He already knew that the next couple of days would be filled with chatter as they all tried to fill him in with what he had missed – in other words, every detail of their lives that he happened to not have witnessed firsthand.
Their family was large, and although there had been plenty of people to hang out with over the summer, he’d missed the girls and their infectious giggles and equally infectious excitement, and their enthusiasm and the way they loved to hang on to him wherever he went and he never seemed to get irritated by their constant pleas to play with them. Most of the people he’d met had been his own age, and Louis loved little kids. He enjoyed their company.
He didn’t think his mother had ever held him any tighter. Her hands were on his back and she showed no sign of letting go of him; you would have thought she hadn’t seen him for years. That was what it felt like, if he was honest. She was like his best friend, really; it was unbelievable how much she meant to him. Daily phone calls hadn’t been anywhere near enough; Louis was a cuddly guy, he wasn’t ashamed to admit it, and what he’d missed the most had probably been the soft smell of cooking and perfume and wax crayons that was his mother. He kissed her on the cheek and hugged her very hard, just to show how glad he was to be back.
“Welcome home, Lou,” his mum whispered into his hair, squeezing him tightly.
“It’s good to be back,” Louis chuckled, stepping out of the hug while the twins capered around him, two blonde, eight-year-old blurs. “I’ve missed being deafened. It was far too quiet out there for my liking. Nice to hear some healthy screams.”
Jay smiled fondly. “They’re glad to have you back. We all are. Calm down, girls, you’re going to knock him over!” she warmly chided, but of course they took no notice; Daisy was attempting to climb Louis and sit on his shoulders, grabbing handfuls of his clothes to try and haul herself up, while Phoebe squealed in encouragement and leapt crazily up and down, chanting Louis’ name. More dignified than the younger ones, Lottie and Fizzy were hanging back, but clearly they were eager to be hugged too, and with a laugh, Louis waded towards them with a twin clinging to each leg and put an arm around each of them.
“I’m not so sure about that,” Mark told her wryly as he hauled Louis’ suitcase up the driveway, “I swear he wasn’t this solid last time we saw him. I don’t know what’s bulkier; his suitcase, or him! Have you seen the muscles on that?” He teasingly squeezed Louis’ admittedly rather impressive bicep, which Louis flexed proudly.
“Someone’s been working out,” teased Lottie, “all my friends will fancy you even more than they do already. What with the tan, and the muscles, everyone’s going to scream when they see you!” She giggled and covered her hand with her mouth, as if to giggle was a demeaning and childish thing and she was above it all.
“Who knew that Bible Camp could be so good for you? Maybe you should go, Fiz. Get some muscles on you?” Louis playfully slapped his quietest sister on the arm, noticing that she was saying remarkably little, especially when compared to the other girls.
Felicite managed a very small smile, which quickly slid off her face. But before Louis could reach out in brotherly concern and ask if she was already, he was once again being caught up in the whirlwind that was his other sisters, who whisked him away with cries of delight and started tugging him inside without allowing him a second to argue – not that he would have, anyway. He had missed them all too much to protest to anything.
Still, he resolved to talk to Felicite at the first available opportunity. Even in that brief glance, he’d seen that the sparkle was missing from her eyes, and she looked limp and tired, almost unenthusiastic despite her valiant attempt to look cheerful. She’d never been a particularly convincing actress. He didn’t like seeing her look even slightly miserable.
If there was a mystery, Louis would get to the bottom of it, and the mischievous glint would be back in her eyes before she’d had enough time to so much as contemplate continuing to mope.
Lottie Tomlinson was at the age when gossip is one of the most fascinating things in the world, which was why as they all sat in the pews of the local church, waiting for the service to begin, she was sat beside him, scrunched up close, whispering juicy secrets into his ear that he wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to. He loved his sister, but there was no chance that he was even going to feign interest in the fact that Mandy from over the road had turned up to her daughter’s christening wearing the same dress that she had worn to Sara Manning’s wedding six months before, even though Lottie was treating this as if it was the height of scandalous behaviour. Bored, Louis scanned the congregation, looking for familiar faces amongst the masses; Liam in particular. Liam was his best friend, who’d caught measles and in an untimely twist of fate had been unable to come to Bible Camp with him. Louis had missed him so much that it had been physically painful, rather similar to how he’d felt about being away from his family. He’d never been truly alone the whole holiday, but the loneliness he felt had ached.
In fact, it was only when Lottie said perhaps a little more loudly, probably to gain his attention which she had doubtlessly noticed that she didn’t have, “You see that woman over there in the black hat? Mrs. Cox, you remember her, don’t you?” and saw Felicite’s head jerk from the other end of the bench like she had been punched in the face, her cheeks flaming bright red, that he started actually listening. Whatever Fizzy’s weird behaviour was about, Mrs. Cox had something to do with it. All of a sudden, he was interested, and it definitely showed.
Pleased, Lottie continued, “She used to run all the bake sales, remember? And she’d slip us biscuits and things when we walked past, and then wink at us and put her fingers on her lips, like everyone hadn’t seen her do it. Fiz used to think she was an angel, when she was very little.”
His littler sister’s cheeks were growing redder by the second, and somehow Louis didn’t think it had much to do with the fact that she’d once mistaken Mrs. Cox for an angel in her distant youth. When Louis thought about it, he did remember. She was a strikingly beautiful woman who always wore a smile no matter what her mood, even if the lines on her forehead showed that she didn’t feel like smiling at all. More beautiful than most women half her age and with the kind of smile that made everyone else’s mouths twitch instinctively, she’d been absolutely lovely. He couldn’t blame Felicite for thinking that she was an angel. It wasn’t a bad analogy, really.
“Yeah, I remember her,” he said softly, as people continued trickling in through the doors at the back and taking their seats. Rather than twisting in his own seat to watch them come in, in case he spotted Liam’s face amongst the newcomers, he was attentively listening to Lottie.
“Her son, Harry, caused quite a scandal a couple of years ago, I don’t know if you remember. You don’t tend to pay attention to these things. He stopped coming to church, refused to be confirmed, and all of a sudden started wandering around wearing eyeliner with bits of metal poking through his face and illegally getting tattoos inked all up his arms, dressing like an undertaker and listening to the kind of music that makes you want to commit just so that you don’t have to listen to it any more. He was about fourteen at the time. Before all that, he’d been a totally innocent little churchgoer like everyone else; curly hair, big eyes, looked like a fluffy little choirboy – no one would ever have thought he’d go off like that. But all of a sudden he rejected the church, rejected everyone, and went off on his own. She could barely keep her head held high in this neighbourhood after that.” Lottie sucked in a breath, clearly getting into her story.
It hadn’t escaped Louis’ notice that Felicite was trembling. Rather than being scarlet, her skin had drained of all colour so that she sat there looking white and sickly, staring into space without blinking, biting down hard on her lower lip, shaking all over and looking like she was holding back a sob. Concerned, Louis looked around for the source of her distress, but all that he could think of was how she had reacted when Harry’s family had come up. Almost as if the names meant something different to her than they did to everyone else.
“Well, as if Harry becoming a punk wasn’t bad enough, about three days after you’d left, he decided to come out as gay. She tried to keep it hushed up, but he wasn’t having any of it – he was gay, and he was proud of it, and he was going to tell anyone and everyone whether they asked or not! Short of getting a megaphone and screaming “I’M GAY!” or getting HOMO tattooed on his forehead, he couldn’t have made it much more obvious, really. Everyone was stunned; they expected her to throw him out. She didn’t, of course, but forget struggling able to hold her head up; she can barely take her eyes off the floor, now. She daren’t even look at anyone for shame.” Impressively leaning back, Lottie nodded conspiratively at the enormous hat hiding the woman like a giant umbrella on her head.
Leaning around Phoebe, who was sandwiched between her and Louis, Jay hissed, “It’s absolutely sickening. She needs to drum some sense into that boy – discipline, that’s all he needs! She should never have tolerated any of that nonsense in the first place; she should have cracked down hard and stamped it out of him before it could get this far. He’ll be turned away from the pearly gates in a heartbeat, you mark my words.” She nodded seriously, not even bothering to lower her voice – and several rows away, Mrs. Cox’s shoulders had stiffened. Clearly, she could hear every word. Not caring at all that the mother of the boy she was gossiping about was obviously listening, Jay continued, “homosexuality is a disease, and she should be focusing on helping to find him a cure, not sitting back and letting him walk all over her! If it happened to one of my children, I wouldn’t take a moment’s rest until I’d set you straight again. Pardon the pun.” She chuckled darkly.
“Mum,” Louis pleaded. He wanted to tell her to shut up, but ‘honour thy mother and thy father’ had always been, to him, one of the most important commandments he could think of, so he bit back the reprimand and settled for a reproachful glance instead.
The enormous black feather on Mrs. Cox’s hat was shaking like a leaf along with the quivers of the rest of her body but that was the only other indication that she had even heard them. In fact, Louis wasn’t sure who was shaking more – the woman who they had just been badmouthing, or his own little sister, who sat with her lips pressed together on the end of the row apparently struggling not to burst into tears.
Louis exited the church feeling incredibly ashamed of his family; he knew that he’d never be able to meet Mrs. Cox’s eyes again. He deliberately walked ahead of them, leaving them all to trail behind because he didn’t particularly want to be associated with them. He’d just reached the gate of the churchyard when he spotted the boy patiently waiting on the pavement just outside.
He had curly brown hair that fell a little over one eye; it was a ruffled mess, like he’d got out of bed, dragged his fingers through it, shook it into a new arrangement on his head and left it like that. His eyes were subtly outlined in black, making them look darker, so that Louis couldn’t tell what colour they actually were from the distance he was at. He had a pair of silver angel bites that glinted in the sun – ironic, Louis thought, considering they were outside a church. A short-sleeved band t-shirt (Pink Floyd, Louis noted; he was pretty sure he’d heard of them) seemed to be a glaring contrast to Louis’ suit – his mother always insisted that he was well-dressed for church. A cobweb was tattooed on each elbow, and he also had what seemed to be a quote in italic writing inked up his left arm. He also had a single ring through his lower lip.
His wrists were decorated with bracelets, the most noticeable one being a rubber wristband in a rainbow pattern, and the meaning of that was pretty clear, bearing in mind the revelation that Lottie had given him only an hour or so before. Most of the others were bits of thread braided together, weird beaded things or rubber strips that were more like elastic bands than bracelets. He wore Converse sneakers a lot like the ones Louis had at home, only dirtier, and tight black jeans, and he was very pale. There were dark circles underneath his outlined eyes, making them look darker; he looked exhausted, like he needed a good night’s sleep. Probably been up partying all night at some gay bar three towns away, Louis forced himself to think, but he didn’t really believe it.
Surprisingly, though, the boy didn’t look at all threatening – he was just stood quietly waiting, and as Mrs. Cox shoved past Louis, determinedly holding her head high so that the feather on her hat quivered as she walked, she strode straight up to the boy and laid her hand on his pale arm. He smiled warmly at her, laid his big hand over hers and squeezed. Then, they both turned around, he delved into his pocket and brought out a pair of car keys, unlocked the black mini cooper behind him, and even hurried around to open the door for her before he got in himself. Louis felt himself soften at the sight, and then shook himself. What was wrong with him?
Still, that was his standard response to anything vaguely sweet; he should have expected it, really. He was a massive softy at heart; he was the type who cried at soppy films and melted at the sound of a baby’s laughter. It made sense that the sight of an incredibly sweet boy who looked like he ought to be beating up grandmas in his spare time, not opening car doors for his mother.
He turned around so that he didn’t have to watch them drive away, feeling horribly guilty for some reason. Okay, so maybe the boy looked a little odd, and his fashion sense was definitely weird, but –
Ugh. His whole helplessness towards anyone who seemed like they needed help in some way would be the death of him. He just couldn’t resist a sob story. Rubbing his eyes, Louis shivered and attempted to banish all thoughts of the boy before they could sneak up on him and he could start caring for the kid like he was another of the stray cats that he’d found wandering around outside and brought into his home. He had eight of them now, and they all liked to miaow and wind their slender, fluffy bodies around his legs when he walked in; he didn’t need a weird boy with strange clothes and dark eyes to add to the bunch.
Shut up, he told himself firmly. Stop it right now. You don’t want to get mixed up with a guy like that, no matter what kind of misunderstood puppy act he’s got going on. Don’t you dare get all mushy and attached, and start caring about a misfit like that, Louis Tomlinson. Don’t even think about him.
Little did he know it, but that was going to become an incredibly recurring thought over the course of the next few weeks.