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heroes of the orange skies

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Don’t waste your life.

Louis feels especially strong about that one, as he caps his Sharpie and taps it against his canine tooth, surveying the shiny black of the marker as it dries on the stall door. It sits next to a random phone number, a crude drawing of a penis, and a wonky flower. Louis wonders how many people sit down on the disgusting toilet seat, and happen to have a pen in their pocket, how many of them decide to pull a pen out and mark the grimy stall door with the golden nuggets of their own destroyed-by-modernity-and-consumerism minds.

Louis likes to think of his offerings as a little bit more prophetic than the immature genitalia and the sex-offers and the doodlings of people who apparently ate something bad for lunch and are seeking the comfort of a public bathroom.

As he watches the shiny ink turn a dull black against the blindingly boring tan metal of the stall door, Louis uncaps his pen again and underneath his chicken-scratch handwriting, signs it with a flourish, the words the rogue glittering back at him. He smiles briefly, smudges the loop of the g, and sticks his pen back into his pocket.

The June air is hot and muggy when Louis walks out of the thai restaurant where he had an existential crisis about his future while staring into his vegetable spring rolls drowning in a puddle of peanut sauce. The spring rolls were drowning in peanut sauce, not Louis, although at the moment where he realized that there was still 60+ years left of his life and he had no plans for any of those 60, Louis would have gladly drowned himself in peanut sauce. There’s only so many times you can start a job, realize your boss is shit, and quit within a week of being hired. Last job he had was taking tickets at the art museum, but after his boss, a pretentious prick with tall hair, told him that the way he was ripping the tickets was “unprofessional” he finally quit, dramatically throwing ticket stubs in the man’s face. It’s too bad too, Louis liked the museum, liked looking at the brochures for the new exhibits while he was bored out of his mind in the small glass box.

He walks down the street, hands in his pockets, avoiding the tall business men hurrying in swarms around him. That’s what he gets for trying to have lunch down here, he supposes. All the Suits are also on their lunch break, briefcases clanking into Louis as he nimbly dodges men with blank faces, women with cell phones pressed to their ears, muttering nonsense about dividends and the stock market, words that fly over Louis’s head as quickly as the clouds scudding across the annoyingly cheerful blue sky.

It’s not so much that Louis is wasting his life, really; it’s more that he just doesn’t know what he’s doing with it. And Louis has always lived by the phrase that time enjoyed is not time wasted, and maybe he’s not enjoying his mindlessness, but he’s certainly not hating it either. The only problem is that he isn’t exactly helpful in contributing to the rent for the small apartment he and Zayn have in a sketchy neighborhood that really shouldn’t be renting out apartments, unless you want to be stabbed while walking home late at night.

The other night while walking home from an it’s-3-am-and-I-need-a-burrito-right-now-or-I-will-commit-homicide outing, Louis is sure he witnessed someone being picked up, in one of those seedy conversations that begin with suggestive eyebrows and subtle innuendos and end with the passenger door of the car being flung open. Not that Louis would know, obviously.

As it is, there’s a man standing outside Louis’s flat building, and Louis gives him a wide berth as he passes him. His trench coat looks far too bulky to be innocent, not to mention it’s like, 90 degrees, so what is he even doing wearing a trench coat in July.

“Honey, I’m home!” Louis shouts as he bursts in the front door, sweat dripping down his forehead from the grueling jog up the 12 flights of stairs in their building. The elevator has been broken since the day they moved in. Louis was all for finding somewhere else to live, because there’s no way he can climb 12 flights of stairs after a night at the club, but Zayn had insisted that this would be a good replacement for actually going to the gym, and so Louis had agreed. Nine times out of ten, though, he wakes up at the bottom of the stairs on floor one or two, where he’s collapsed in a drunken puddle of sweat and idiocy, too messed up to make it up the stairs. The inhabitant of #210 has started to leave Advil outside his door for Louis on Saturday mornings. His name is Liam or something. Louis sees him in the laundry room occasionally – he sorts his whites and brights. Louis kind of hates him for that, but the Advil is a blessing, so. Louis deals with the sight of someone manically sorting their laundry in front of him.

Zayn is slumped on their ratty couch, chin resting on his bare chest and eyes closed, lit cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. There’s a cloud of smoke hovering at the ceiling of the room, but Louis is pretty used to that, used to smelling like cigarettes after having been near Zayn for any length of time. Which is usually pretty often, to be honest.

The Lizzie McGuire movie is playing on the TV, muted. It’s the scene where Lizzie’s parents are trying to get the odd Italian concierge to tell them where Lizzie is. She’s at the concert, living her dream! Louis wants to yell at the screen, but he’s seen this movie a thousand times and knows that the scene will continue on the way it’s meant to, no matter how many times Louis curses the inadequacy of the Italian man. Much like life, ironically, although Louis’s life is sadly devoid of Italian concierges, while outlandishly abundant in determination to continue despite Louis’s best efforts to sleep his life away.

Louis flops on the couch next to Zayn, slumping into him and knocking their knees together. Zayn makes a grunting noise and looks at Louis out of the corner of his now-open eye.

“Do you think I could meet a Paolo?” Louis muses, staring at the TV, watching Lizzie’s mouth move. The only noise is the clunking whirring of their dumb air conditioning that doesn’t actually work and just blows dusty air around the room.

“Probs not, man, think he’s reserved for people like Hilary Duff,” Zayn responds, words garbled around the cigarette as he leans up and stretches, back cracking in a series of pops that sounds incredibly satisfying. Louis likes to watch other people indulge their cravings. It’s a Thing.

“Don’t say probs, Zayney, its dumb,” Louis intones mindlessly. “Do you think I’m wasting my life?

Zayn doesn’t reply for a few minutes, just slumps against the arm of the couch and stares at Louis with one of those gazes that the phrase “looks into your soul” was invented for. Louis’s skin itches with the intensity of Zayn’s look, but ah well. It’s Zayn, he’s always intense, and it’s nothing new.

Zayn takes a long drag on his cigarette, pursing his lips and blows it in a steady stream, straight up into the air. Louis sometimes wishes he smoked – it might make him look more mysterious about the fact that he’s probably wasting his life away. Then again, there’s the added benefit of lung cancer to think about, and the price of mystery is perhaps not worth a lifetime of yellow teeth and smelling like an ashtray.

“Dunno, mate,” Zayn says after a while. He kicks his feet up into Louis’s lap, bare toes wiggling against the fabric of Louis’s shorts. If it was anybody else, Louis would have pushed their smelly sweaty feet off his lap, but because it’s Zayn, he just flicks his toenail and tips his head back against the couch.

“Do you think I should be, like, doing things with myself?” Louis says tiredly, waving his hand in the air to signify the broad expanse of meaning that entails Things. Things, as in, should I go back to school, should I be getting a real job, should I stop spending my Friday nights skyping my little sisters, and instead actually going out and making bank or doing fun and sexy activities with attractive people.

“Do you want to be doing things with yourself?” Zayn asks, in that roundabout way of his. Sometimes, Louis thinks, Zayn is as circular and philosophical as Socrates. Louis would know; he knows Socrates and Kant and Sartre like the back of his hand. Once a philosophy major, always a philosophy major. Or something. That’s a story for another time.

“Even if I did, I don’t know what things I’d do,” Louis says heavily. He leans over, pushes Zayn’s feet off his lap so they rest beside his, lies down and presses his ear against the bony jut of Zayn’s bare hip. He flicks his tongue out and tastes the salty sweat that glistens on Zayn’s stomach. It’s not sexual. He just likes Zayn’s stomach. It’s scrawny, Louis likes scrawny. Zayn’s hand threads through his hair, sweaty at the roots. Louis hopes the cigarette is nowhere near his hair.

“Maybe once you find a thing, you’ll know it’s the thing you want to do,” Zayn muses quietly and lets one of his feet slide off the couch and land on the floor. On the TV, Lizzie is dancing wildly around on stage. This is what dreams are made of. Fuck that, Louis thinks.

“What if I never find a thing?” Louis says softly, and slides his thumbnail across the skin right above Zayn’s waistband of his thin basketball shorts. Zayn doesn’t even play basketball, Louis inwardly scoffs.

“You will,” Zayn counters. Louis shifts and stares up at the ceiling, at the dark moldy spot in the corner where the wall is cracked a little bit. God, this flat is a piece of shit.

“What if I can’t tell it’s the thing I want to do?” Louis mumbles. He sticks his tongue up into the air, then his arms, then his legs, and then lets all his limbs flop back down on the couch.

“Then maybe it’s not the right thing,” Zayn sighs. “What’s up, Lou, something happen?”

Louis shakes his head, stubble scratching against Zayn’s hip. He’s silent for a while, and then “Do you think it’s possible to drown in peanut sauce?”

“If you had, like, an entire bathtub, yeah maybe,” Zayn muses thoughtfully, like the idea of drowning in peanut sauce is one that he has actually given a lot of thought to. Maybe he has, Louis doesn’t know. Sometimes he walks into the apartment and Zayn is just lying there staring at the blank TV like it holds all of the solutions to life’s Great Problems. Louis really doesn’t know what’s going on in Zayn’s mind half the time.

They’re quiet for a while. Zayn eventually unmutes the TV, because it’s getting to the best part, where Lizzie kisses Gordo on the rooftop, in what is arguably the best moment in adolescent TV. Louis wishes he had someone to kiss him on rooftops.

“Good kiss, that,” Zayn grunts.

“Yup,” Louis replies, popping the p. He and Zayn have such stimulating conversations, it quite literally blows Louis’s mind sometimes.

“Wanna get Chinese for dinner?” Zayn breathes out this heavy sigh, melancholy and long-suffering in a way that only Zayn can make a simple expulsion of air from his lungs. Sometimes Louis thinks that Zayn can say a hundred different things with just a sigh. He has no idea what Zayn is saying with this one, except maybe the proposition of Chinese for dinner.

“Yup,” Louis says again, popping the p even louder.

They’re silent again, watching the credits. Cars roar by on the street and the air shimmers around them, hazy from smoke and heat and all those indistinguishable feelings and thoughts that seem to suffocate Louis at all hours of the day.

He presses his nose into Zayn’s hip, rubs it against the tattoos there. “Wanna fuck?” He finally murmurs, muffled against the skin drawn taut over Zayn’s bones.

“Yup,” Zayn responds, popping the p just like Louis.

They laugh, heavy and full of meaning and exhaustion.

Louis thinks, as he watches Zayn’s tattoos blur with sweat as Zayn moves above him, watches the way Zayn’s necklaces bump around on his sinful collarbones, that maybe Zayn is right. Maybe there’s no meaning to anything, maybe everything has meaning. Maybe you could drown in peanut sauce, and it would be the most important thing to ever happen to you.

**

“So I just thought, like, y’know, I should go for it,” Niall’s voice floats up over the stall door, thoughtful and totally blasé about the fact that he is taking a piss while having a conversation with Louis about picking a girl up the previous night.

Louis nods, although he knows Niall can’t see him.

“She was right fit too, yeah, had these massive tits like you wouldn’t believe,” Niall snorts, and then Louis hears his belt jingle, and there’s the roaring noise of the toilet flushing. “Even you, Lou, would appreciate these tits.”

Louis scoffs. He blows gently on the ink that now adorns the garbage-dumpster-green wall of the stall that he’s in.

Wish I was an angel, says the wall. He signs it, the regular signature. He likes the name. The Rogue. It kind of fits him, he thinks. Like maybe he’s a pirate or some sort of dashing street thief. Or maybe he’s just a 23 year old college dropout with an affinity for the smell of Sharpies and public bathrooms, whatever.

“Think I could’ve been an angel in another life, Ni?” Louis asks, as they stand at the sinks and soap up their hands. He stares at Niall’s reflection in the mirror, backwards snapback, red-from-the-heat face, and the tank that’s fallen so far down his chest, he can see the small nubs of his nipples poking out.

Niall stares back at him, half smile quirked at the corner of his lips, like he knows everything, like he knows every goddamn thing about Louis’s thoughts.

“Think you could be anything you wanna be, Lou.”

**

On Tuesday, Louis has just turned in an application at the froyo place a couple blocks over from his and Zayn’s apartment. He wonders, if he gets the job, if he gets free froyo. That’s really the only reason he would ever consider working at a place that had giant pink circles painted onto the walls, in what he supposes is meant to be a cheerful and froyo-y vibe. It gives Louis a headache.

He’s near the small restaurant where he and Niall had picked up their shwarmas the other day, where Niall’s story about Massive Tits had occurred. Sometimes, Louis likes to go back to places he’s written something, see if he still feels the same way. Sometimes he remembers the place but not the words he wrote, and when he looks at it again, at the faded black of his signature, he’s reminded of why he wrote it, and it’s like rediscovering pieces of him that he’d thought he lost. Louis thinks there might be thousands of different Louis Tomlinsons all over the city, immortalized in the four or five words written on a grimy bathroom stall door. It’s kind of why he does it, if he’s being honest with himself. If he can’t succeed as a single Louis Tomlinson, maybe if there’s more of him, he’ll have more of a chance. Or something.

He slips away to the bathroom while waiting for his falafel, and goes to the same stall he was in the week before, where he wrote wish I was an angel.

Under his words, there’s a new note. It’s not a phone number, or a game of tic tac toe, or a pair of boobs. It’s another note.

Maybe you are and you just don’t know it, says the wall. There’s some sort of symbol underneath it, like the person has attempted a signature of their own. After staring at it for a few minutes, Louis decides it’s a bird in flight. Kind of looks like a squashed m. But there it is, shiny black like it’s fresh and Louis whips his head around in the small enclosed space as if he expects the mysterious bird writer to be standing right next to him. There’s nobody there, of course. That would be silly.

Of course, what’s sillier is that someone has responded to one of Louis’s notes. Maybe you are and you just don’t know it. No one has ever responded to what he writes. It sort of makes him feel like someone is watching him, and a shiver crawls down his spine. He doesn’t know if he likes it or not.

Louis eats his falafel on a bench in the park and watches the mothers walk their strollers by, the teenagers with their carefree lives and their expensive rollerblades, the college students with the bags under the eyes and arms.

So, maybe Louis’s an angel.

**

At the Italian restaurant on 4th street, The Bird, as Louis has come to call the mysterious author of the responses, has responded to another note of his. Louis wrote it a few months ago, went back a few weeks later and scratched it out, because he no longer felt like the world is crumbling but he didn’t scratch it out all the way, because maybe the world will crumble again one day. Louis likes to leave room for possibilities. He doesn’t know the future after all, even if he’s maybe an angel.

But regardless of Louis’s own scribblings on the wall, there is another note underneath it, signed with the bird symbol. This one doesn’t look as fresh as the last one that Louis had found. So build it up again, it says.

**

And so it goes.

I have just begun, says The Rogue, in the bathroom of the old Catholic church on Kennedy Avenue. I look forward to the rest, responds The Bird.

Can anyone hear me?, asks The Rogue, in the bathroom of the club where Louis sucks off some older bloke in the stall and then stares at himself in the mirror for a good 10 minutes while the guy goes back out to the dance floor, probably to pick up another twitchy, neurotic drunk kid. I can, replies The Bird.

There are too many directions, states The Rogue, scrawled in huge letters across the wall of the bathroom of the art museum where he used to work, written the day he quit. The Bird says, you only need one.

**

Louis has to sneak past the front desk of the art museum to get to the third floor where the museum’s Romantic collection is. Nick is standing behind the desk, surveying his pride and joy, the lobby of the museum where he rules over all the people who come in and out of the museum every day. His hair is tall as ever, Louis notes bitterly. He’s facing the wrong way, though, and Louis slips into the museum behind a giant gaggle of kids that look like they’re on a school trip. They all look bored out of their minds, and Louis wants to hit them upside the head and enlighten them about all this museum has to offer.

Louis likes art museums. They’re quiet, peaceful. Sometimes he doesn’t even look at the paintings, and instead sits on one of the benches intended for people to rest their legs before trekking off to see Modern Art or Ancient Greek. But Louis likes to sit there for hours, watch the people look at art. Louis thinks there’s nothing as beautiful as watching someone fall in love with a piece of art, and he could sit here all day and if he could just see one person’s face light up as they walk up to their favorite piece of art, or a brand new one that mystifies them, he would be happy. Sometimes he even takes pictures of people as they look at art.

Today, he sits in the Romantics hall. It’s his favorite hall, his favorite artistic period. There’s this painting, right, by David Friedrich, Monastery Graveyard in the Snow (Cloisters in the Cemetery). The title is a bit of mouthful. Louis likes to visit it sometimes and imagine how the painting would be different if the cathedral in the painting wasn’t in ruins, if it was golden and domed and had arching windows, tucked in among the deadened trees. It’s his favorite painting in the hall.

Louis sits near it now, as if drawing energy from it, but he’s already looked at it enough today. There’s something else that catches his eye.

There’s a boy standing in front of a Turner painting. His feet are together, hands clasped behind his back, and head tilted. He’s been standing like that for ten minutes now. He’d walked into the hall with shuffling feet, pulling his bottom lip with two fingers like the hall before this one had presented him with the utmost of difficult universal problems to solve. He had done a full lap around the room, stared at each painting like it held the answers to those difficult universal problems. He came back to the Turner though, eventually, and Louis doesn’t blame him. It’s a lovely one, maybe his second favorite in the hall.

From here, Louis can see the planes of his back shift as he moves his weight from one foot to the other. His plain white tshirt sits beautifully on his shoulders, drawn tight against the muscles and hugging the curve of his pale biceps, which are covered in dark smears of tattoos. The shirt is too short at his waist, in an oddly endearing way. His legs are ridiculously thin and long, and he’s wearing dark skinny jeans that hug the juts of his knees. There’s a backpack at his feet, and Louis can see what looks like a large piece of metal sticking out. He wonders how the boy managed to get that into the museum. Usually Nick takes away everything from car keys to notebooks.

The boy’s hair is pushed up into a wilting half-attempted quiff, probably melting from the insufferable heat. He keeps reaching up, shaking it out with his hands, and then pushing it back up. Louis is sorely tempted to go over and run his hands through the dark curls. Louis likes curls, sue him.

After twenty minutes of ogling the boy’s tiny bubble butt in his skinny jeans, Louis stands up abruptly. All the boy has done is frowned intensely at the Turner painting, and Louis is determined to know 1) what he’s thinking about and 2) how he got that backpack past Nick’s hawk eyes

Louis walks up to the boy, stands at his elbow and stares at the same painting he is, the same blue horizon lining the golden sunset in the painting. When Louis accidentally bumps the boy’s elbow, he briefly glances at Louis and his forehead twists slightly in consternation, but then he goes back to staring at the painting.

“What are you thinking about?” Louis demands quietly, bumping his hip against the boy’s. He doesn’t care that he doesn’t know the boy, that’s never bothered him before. All he’s interested in is what’s inside the kid’s mind. Besides, Louis is basically a Turner expert; he thinks he’s practically licensed to interview people about their opinions on Turner paintings.

“What?” The boy turns to look at him, finally tearing his eyes away from the painting for more than a few seconds. He’s got his fingers up on his lip again, pulling at in a way that makes the hair stand up on the back of Louis’s neck.

“What are you thinking about?” Louis enunciates clearly.

The guy stares at him. He has lovely green eyes, like. Like, grass or something. Louis is not a poet.

“I’m, um, thinking about this painting, I guess?” the boy says, his voice slow and syrupy like molasses. Louis thinks that if his voice were a color, it would be a very dark red. Like a rich burgundy, maybe.

“What about the painting?”

The boys laughs, this little snorting thing that huffs out of his nostrils. “I like it.”

“Yeah, me too,” Louis agrees. “What do you like about it?”

The boy’s eyebrows pull together, grumbly and wrinkly. His white tshirt dips very low into his collarbones, showing off a lot of necklaces, and all these black tattoos that Louis can see the shadows of through the tshirt. He has a bunch of tattoos on one arm too. It’s funny, ‘cause Louis has a lot of tattoos on one arm too. The other arm though.

“I like the water,” the guy finally says, turning back to the painting. He reaches out his fingertips, like he’s going to touch it, and Louis almost hisses at him but he stops himself in time, as the boy’s fingers stop in mid-air. He points to the reflection of the ship in the water. It is indeed lovely water.

“How’d you get that bag in here?” Louis asks suddenly, pointing down to the bag, which he sees does actually have a piece of scrap metal in it, and is bulging in other places too, indicating that the bag is full of other mysterious items.

“Oh,” the guy coughs. “I, um, I know the guy at the front desk. Trusts me, I guess.”

“You know Nick?” Louis asks, shocked. He didn’t think Nick had any friends, except maybe Ron the janitor on the weekends. He once saw Nick high-five Ron. It was maybe the only positive form of human contact he ever saw Nick have.

“Yeah, Nick’s cool, one of my best mates. You know him?” the boy’s eyes light up, like Nick is the second coming or something and Louis fights the urge to roll his eyes. The boy was doing so well; tall, pretty, and adorably ineloquent about art. And then he had to ruin it by complimenting Nick Grimshaw. What a dick.

“Used to work here, till he fired me. Told him to take the stick out of his arse and beat himself to death with it,” Louis laughs and shoves his hands into his pockets. “Maybe one of my finer moments, if you ask me.”

“Wait, I know about you, you threw the ticket stubs in his face, didn’t you?” The boy lets out this huge barking laugh, a giant guffaw that makes the other people in the hall glare over at the two of them disrupting the romantic feeling of the Romantic hall. Louis punches the boy in the shoulder and puts a finger to his lips, and the boy nods seriously, eyes glittering with laughter.

“Yes, that was me,” Louis nods, and tries not to think about how warm the boy’s shoulder was.

“Mate, Nick was pissed off about that, thought he was gonna drown himself in vodka that night, it was hilarious,” Tall, Pretty, Green-Eyes chuckles.

Louis shrugs. “Yeah, well, he said my ticket ripping was unprofessional, have you ever heard of such an insult? As if my ticket-ripping was anything other than flawless.”

The boy smiles at him, lips stretching across his face. “’M Harry.” He holds out a giant hand, and Louis grasps it in his alarmingly smaller one. Big, calloused, warm hands. Jesus, boys like these don’t walk into the Romantic hall very often. Usually its families with strollers and moms who need a nice calming sunset painting to look at, or teenage boys in a hurry to go see Ancient Greek statues of naked women. Not usually pretty boys with dorky laughs and nice eyes.

“Louis, nice to meet you,” Louis says, and holds Harry’s hand in his a beat longer than is probably necessary, but fuck it. Harry has a scar on his thumb, pink and shiny. It’s attractive in a way that Louis is sure scars are not meant to be. “What’s in the bag then?”

“Oh, um, scrap metal,” Harry glances down at the bag and nudges it with the toe of his scuffed up Converse. Yes, Louis is quite capable of seeing that it’s scrap metal. He even sees a lethal looking wire sticking out. He wonders what it is that Harry does; maybe he’s some kind of mass murderer and he brutally kills his victims with metal. Yes, it’s probably that.

“What, like, just for fun? Carrying around metal for shits ‘n giggles?” Louis asks.

Harry giggles, like actually fucking giggles. “No, I’m uh—I’m actually a sculptor.”

It is at this moment that Louis displays his knowledge of art that is not just oil and water paintings on canvases. “What, like, pottery?”

“No, not like pottery, Jesus,” Harry laughs shyly. “I mean, yeah, like I make bowls and stuff sometimes, but no I mean. I sculpt.” He scratches his nose self-consciously. “Out of metal.”

Harry makes actual art out of metal, and Louis writes on bathroom stall doors. Clearly Louis is the one with a purpose in life. If there was ever a moment to legitimately say the word “sigh” out loud to adequately sum up his feelings, this would be it.

“That’s like,” Louis struggles for words. Harry looks at him expectantly, green eyes still a little shy. “That’s really fucking awesome.”

“Yeah?” Harry’s face lights up, and he scuffs his toe against the shiny marble of the floor, glancing down. His cheeks are bright red.

“Yeah, fuck, like, what kind of stuff do you do?” Louis has never met a metal sculptor in his life.

Harry shrugs. “Um, I don’t know, whatever I’m inspired by, I guess.” He smiles at Louis, and Louis tries not to feel as if Harry has just opened up his rib cage and peered inside.

“Well, what are you usually inspired by?” Louis asks, and tilts his head up.

Harry looks at him, a small smile tugging at the corner of his lips. “People, usually. I like watching people, they’re…” he trails off.

“Fascinating,” Louis finishes for him. He nods. He knows. It’s probably the same thing as sitting in the hall of an art museum and watching people look at art.

Harry nods slowly, and they just look at each other for a few minutes. It’s kind of the biggest cliché Louis has ever lived in, but he can’t find it in him to care. It’s quiet in the hall, just the whispering sound of people talking quietly, the soft thump of footsteps across the marble.

They turn back to look at the painting, the glowing yellows and blues and reds. Harry nudges Louis’s elbow with his own, and Louis nudges back.

After a few minutes, Harry speaks, still looking at the painting. “Do you like coffee?”

Louis loves coffee. “I love coffee.”

“Do you want to go get coffee with me?”

“I would love to get coffee with you.”

Harry turns and grins at him, green eyes sparkly like a child. “Great.”

“Can you hold like five minutes?” Louis asks. He pulls his tshirt away from his sweaty skin. Despite being air conditioned, the museum is still stifling hot. Harry nods, and turns back to look at the Turner painting, a small smile playing at the edges of his mouth.

In the bathroom around the corner from the Romantic hall, Louis pulls his Sharpie out of his pocket, uncaps it.

I want to inspire you.

The ink dries slowly, but Louis doesn’t wait to watch it. There’s a boy waiting for him.

**

The moonlight is shining behind Harry, casting his hair into this wispy halo, silver shining through the dark curls tousled on top of his head. The back of his neck is long, arched beautifully in a way that makes Louis’s stomach ache. Harry’s head is dipped down and Louis can see the red gold of his cigarette, smoky ashes floating away down into the empty street, quiet at this time of night.

Its almost midnight, a Tuesday. It’s hot, one of the hottest days of the summer according to the radio, and Louis is lying on top of his bed in just his boxers, one of the many dirty pairs that have been lying around his room for days. Louis isn’t exactly productive about doing his laundry, nor can he be bothered to keep his room in any semblance of organization. All he cares about right now is being exactly in the line of the fan that sits at the corner of the bed, but so far all its done is made the dusty and muggy air move around a little bit, instead of actually cooling him down.

From where he lies, he can see the bare knobs of Harry’s spine shift and roll as he uncurls himself from sitting at the edge of the fire escape, pulling his legs back through the rungs and standing up. He stretches, long and feline. He reminds Louis of a panther, all dark hair and cat-shaped eyes and spine curved like a hunter’s bow. The window is open, the distant lights of the city casting a yellow glow into the room; as Harry climbs back into the window, he blocks the light and its suddenly inky black in the room.

Harry flops down on the bed, long arms flapping onto Louis’s legs with a sickeningly sweaty sound. “M so hot,” he moans into Louis’s kneecap, soft breath tickling the hair on Louis’s leg. It’s too hot for a giant lumbering oaf to be lying across his legs, but he allows it for some reason, just like he allows Harry to smoke his nasty cigarettes on Louis’s fire escape. He doesn’t know why he does it.

Harry turns his head, and his eyes glow out from the darkness towards Louis, heavy with green and heat and some indistinguishable thing that Louis can feel sitting behind his ribs, but he can’t put a name to it.

“D’ya wanna do something?” Harry mumbles with his mouth crushed against Louis’s kneecap.

Louis shakes his head. It’s too hot to do anything. He starfishes in the middle of the bed, hands reaching as far as they can to the edges of the bed. It’s a big bed, and he’s completely landlocked in the middle.

Two weeks. Not even 14 days really. 13 days, more late night adventures than Louis can ever remember having, and suddenly there’s this boy, with these ancient bones bigger than life itself, and Louis’s just. He’s just got this burning desire to let Harry know everything about him, to show him his 12 year old diary and maybe tell him about Louis’s vandalism habits, to sit him down and teach him about all the ways Louis is lost and broken, and all the ways he’s tried to find the path again. Louis wonders if the world has ever let Harry down. It doesn’t seem like it, not with his unbridled enthusiasm for everything from rusty metal to secondhand books in the store a few blocks over from Louis’s flat.

It’s alarming, really, how quickly Louis fell into Harry, how by the end of that first coffee date (it’s not a date, Louis reminds himself), Louis already knew the name of Harry’s first pet, his feelings on gun control, his favorite movie. Louis has memorized the way Harry looks when he stretches back in his chair, shirt riding up and the pale skin under his arms, has Harry’s laugh tattooed on his ear drums.

It’s just been a blur of this golden presence all the time, this thing that texts Louis out of the blue with messages about how much he’s craving pineapple ice cream, which Louis doesn’t think is even a thing. One night, Louis gets a text from Harry and all it reads is when do you think you’ll be ready to die?

Louis’s never really thought about it really, and if he ever did, he’d probably ask Zayn who would say something rather unhelpful and vague like whenever you’re done living, I guess.

Louis is not quite that vague and unhelpful, so he just texts back with probably the day after I become the happiest person in the world.

And so it goes like that. Louis finds himself wandering around the dark streets with Harry at all hours of the day and nights, seeing things and talking about things and learning things that Louis never even knew were out there to be learned. Harry is a fountain of useless information and also startlingly wise proverbs that are usually followed by some inane remark about the pigeons in the park. He’s a complete enigma.

Louis closes his eyes. Even his eyelids are sweaty, and there’s a thin film of sweat over his entire body. Louis will always be made for winter and giant sweaters and fuzzy mitts. Never for sweltering heat. It’s not his thing. It fucks with his hair.

There’s movement on the bed, the mattress dips a bit, and when Louis opens his eyes, Harry is right above him, green eyes burrowing into his skull with an intensity that rivals Zayn’s when he’s looking at Louis in a way that means he’s having Thoughts about Louis’s life and is about to hand out completely unnecessary advice.

Harry’s hair flops all over Louis’s face and he spits out a few strands, and Harry just chuckles. His arms are braced on either side of Louis, tattoos standing out in stark relief in the moonlight and streetlights that glow in from outside the still-open window. Louis feels trapped in the most delicious way.

Harry’s breath smells like cigarettes, bitter and smoky, mixed with something sweet like maybe the brownies they’d made earlier. And his lips, they’re like. Right there. Red and bitten raw, which is apparently a thing that Harry does when he’s concentrating really hard on something, like instagramming a picture of his spaghetti. It’s a lengthy process, Louis has seen it the grueling task of choosing the filter.

“What’re you doing?” Louis whispers. The air is too heavy for normal volume of talking, but his whisper still sounds so loud in the darkness caught between his mouth and Harry’s.

Harry shrugs, the muscles in his shoulders rippling in a very distracting way. His mouth is quirked slightly, like he knows what he’s doing to Louis’s heartbeat.

“Just lookin’,” Harry huffs quietly.

“What’re you looking for?”

Harry’s eyes glitter, and if Louis wanted to, he could reach up and tuck his thumb right into the hollows beneath Harry’s eyes.

“You.”

Louis tilts his jaw up on the pillow, watches as Harry’s eyes drop to his mouth and then back up to his eyes. “I’m right here.”

“I know.”

“Well, did you find me?”

There’s sweat pooling in the dip of Louis’s throat, he can feel it. There’s a pen digging into his back. He wants to write this moment on a wall. Wants to write find me somewhere, get the words out. He briefly wonders what The Bird would respond to that.

Harry shakes his head. “No, I haven’t yet.”

The yet rings loudly into the darkness. Louis smiles up at him. No, no he hasn’t. Nobody has. Louis hasn’t even, he doesn’t even know what he’d be looking for to find himself. “Well, good luck with that,” he says quietly.

Harry nods and his eyes are just. They just look right through Louis, like they can see what he had for dinner on Sunday night (uncooked ramen noodles and a flat diet coke); like maybe Harry can see how much Louis wants to kiss him right now, like maybe he can see every word Louis has written on a bathroom stall in the last 13 days since meeting Harry. He wonders if Harry can see how many of those words were about him.

Without warning, Harry falls to the side, arms buckling and he starfishes next to Louis on the bed, arms overlapping; their fingers are just inches away from each other, but neither of them connect their hands.

They just breathe. Louis listens to the rise and fall of Harry’s breath, memorizes the way their ankles are touching. It’s quiet. He feels more at peace with the world than he has in a long time, like the world has finally slowed down and allowed Louis to catch up. Sometimes, Louis feels like he’s that kid in 4th grade gym class that lags behind and has to stop, pant heavily with his hands on his knees and watch forlornly as the rest of the class zooms around the Track of Life and laps him. Sometimes Louis feels like the world is spinning so fast that all he can do is look away and try not to throw up from dizziness. The world never stops though, and Louis never catches up.

Here though, in his silent room at 11:38 on a Tuesday night while a boy he’s only known for 13 days lies at his side, chest rising and falling steadily, Louis feels like maybe he has a chance to breathe. It’s a nice feeling.

**

“You have black marker on your hand.”

“Yes, well, Harold, I use pens a lot.”

“What kind of pens?”

“Sharpies, because I happen to enjoy getting high off the smell.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really, now let’s go get curly fries, to match your hair.”

“That’s hilarious, really.”

Louis has a bug bite on his ankle and it itches like crazy, and Harry’s wearing this shirt that’s barely fucking covering his nipples and making Louis just want to hide in his closet and never come out again. They’re wandering down 9th avenue, the sun beating down on them and making little shimmery waves rise up from the streets. Even the cars are going slowly, like they don’t want to move too quickly in the heat.

“I’m so hot, I want to fly away to the Arctic,” Harry says thoughtfully. He drags his feet horrifically, all the time, but the scraping sound of his rubber soles against the pavement is a noise that Louis has started to block out to the back of his mind.

“Can’t fly without wings, dummy,” Louis sighs. He thinks his shoulders are burning. Literally burning, skin and muscle melting off bone. He’s afraid to look at his skin, in case it’s gone.

Harry flaps his arms lethargically, ape arms waving dangerously in the air. He almost hits a woman waiting for the bus and Harry snorts loudly before sending a charming smile to her, one that she returns hesitantly. Trust Harry to charm someone he almost just decapitated with his fake wings.

The sirens and horns of 9th Avenue grumble by, and it somehow makes Louis feel even hotter. His elbow knocks with Harry’s. His spine tingles. It means nothing, the two events are uncorrelated.

Louis’s mouth is so dry, he feels like he could drink all of the Great Lakes and still be thirsty enough for a raspberry-orange smoothie from The Fruity Booty, which is easily the best smoothie shop in the city, simply because of its name. Louis is a fan of anything with the word booty in it.

“How come you don’t do anything?” Harry does a little jig, knocks his feet together as he skips over a questionable looking stain on the sidewalk.

“I do lots of things, Harold, I sleep and drink smoothies and watch tv, what more do you want from me?” Louis shrugs. He spins around a pole, dangling from one hand, and then falls back into step with Harry, who doesn’t laugh like Louis was expecting him to.

“Yeah, but like. Why aren’t you in school? Or something?” Harry sounds legitimately upset about it, like he hasn’t realized that Louis’s sole activities in life consist of giving and receiving advice to and from Zayn, hanging out his window and checking out the cute boy who lives across the alley, and eating food very late at night.

Louis laughs self-consciously. Maybe those aren’t acceptable activities for the normal society of the world. “Dunno, was in school. Wasn’t my thing.”

“Why not?” Harry links his pinky with Louis’s and then lets go again, so quickly, Louis’s not even sure if it happened or he just made it up. It’s so hot, he could easily be imagining things.

Louis laughs again, dryly. Ironically, cynically, whatever. “You’ve never known doom and gloom until you study philosophy, mate.”

“What, like, Plato? The Republic?”

Literally why does random boy metal sculptor Harry Styles know about The Republic? Louis snickers to himself that Harry probably researches obscure topics for party conversations. That feels like something Harry would do. Louis wisely chooses to omit the fact that in Year 10, he had a date with someone and was so nervous that he actually wrote note cards with topics on them, just in case they ran out of things to talk about. It’s an event Louis doesn’t tend to speak of.

“Yeah, sorta, Plato,” Louis replies. “I mean, no, not really. More like. Sartre? Kinda? Like existentialism, y’know?”

Harry snorts. “No, Lou, I don’t know. I play with garbage all day long, please enlighten me.”

“Like, existence before essence, actions give meaning to life.” Louis laughs bitterly. “Basically we all suck and we’ll continue to suck until we choose not to suck, at which time our self-conscience reminds us that we suck.”

“Is that what the textbooks say?”

“Word for word, chapter eight.”

“That sounds rather…sucky.” Harry laughs like he’s made the wittiest joke since the cavemen invented the knock-knock joke.

Louis pokes him in the elbow. “Yes, Harold, it does suck.” He opens the door to the chip shop and Harry pokes him back in the stomach as he passes. Proper gentleman Louis, opening doors and shit.

The line is long, but Louis has been waiting for curly fries since last Tuesday, which is the last time he had them. Louis is always in a constant state of craving curly fries, and he graciously assumes that everyone else in the world has that same craving, Harry included.

“So you dropped out of school because life sucks?” Harry guesses. He’s standing too close to Louis, way too close, and he could blame it on the large amount of people in the shop, but like, really. Does Harry’s hand have to almost be in his pocket? Louis pretends like he’s not constantly fighting the urge to just shrink Harry and put him in his pocket and carry him around all the time.

“I like to think the decision process was maybe a little more thought-out than that, but yeah, basically, that was it,” Louis shrugs. “If I’m so flawed and, like, destined to suck, why fight it?”

Harry lifts his first in a pathetic attempt at a victory pump. “Fight the system,” he cheers weakly.

“No.” They move up in line a few feet.

“Okay.” The woman taking orders at the front is snapping her bubble gum, and Louis wants to pull it out of her mouth and stick it in someone’s hair, just to see what kind of mayhem that would cause.

“I’d fight it, I think,” Harry says thoughtfully, after a few minutes of silence. Louis had been contemplating the menu as if he would ever consider getting something other than his usual.

“Fight what?” Louis hums. No, curly fries it is. Curly fries and a chocolate shake. It’s too hot for burgers.

“Life, y’know,” Harry sighs heavily. He drops his forehead onto Louis’s shoulder briefly, as if his head is just too heavy to be held up on his neck. It is a bit of a twiggy neck. “Like, why does life have to suck?”

“Because Jean-Paul Sartre said so.”

“I don’t even know Jean-Paul Sartre, and I definitely can’t pronounce his name.” That’s true, Harry keeps pronouncing it as “Sarter” and Louis just wants to kick him.

“Doesn’t matter, he said so, gotta listen to him.” Louis cannot believe he is having a conversation about existentialism on a Thursday in a crowded chip shop. Since when is this his life?

“Think I’d rather decide my own fate, y’know?” Harry tilts his head and considers the menu.

“Unfortunately, Haz, the point of fate is that it’s already decided,” Louis chuckles, and steps up to the counter. The girl snaps her bubble gum at him, eyes deadened inside. Louis figures he’d probably have dead eyes too if he was selling fries on this hot of a day. Especially in that outfit. He shudders.

Once they’re seated, corner table by the window, shaded by the giant tree planted in the middle of the sidewalk (Louis finds that inefficient, albeit shady and convenient for himself), Harry picks up the conversation as if they never lost the thread of it.

“Yeah, but, I wanna do things my way, I guess.” Harry argues. He makes an awful gurgling noise with his milkshake and then smiles at Louis, white teeth and flushed cheeks and prophetic words. “Wanna be the hero in my own life.”

Well, then. Louis smiles down at his plate of fries swamped in ketchup, and listens to the sounds of Harry happily sucking away at his milkshake, completely unaware of the effect of his words on Louis.

“I’ll be right back, yeah?” Louis pushes his chair back and snakes his way through the edges of the crowded line, hurrying away before Harry can respond.

The bathroom isn’t empty, but that’s never bothered Louis. He closes himself in the stall nearest to the door. It smells. Of course it does, it’s a bathroom.

He pulls out his Sharpie and twists the cap around a few times before pulling it off and sticking it in his mouth. For safekeeping, he tells himself. No way is he going to put his Sharpie cap down on any surface in this bathroom.

Be the hero in your own life. Louis writes it in a clean spot, devoid of any other inane doodles, and then signs it, smudging the g in rogue as is customary. For the amount of times that Louis is here buying fries, he’s never actually written anything here. Trust Harry Styles to cause important moments to happen in a fucking chip shop.

When he goes back out to the main area, Harry has his feet on Louis’s chair and his head is tilted back and to the side, and the way his neck is arched is so lovely it makes Louis’s stomach hurt. He’s lazily watching the people walk by outside, lids half sunk, absent-mindedly cracking his knuckles. Long, lean, absolutely devastatingly confident and oblivious to everything.

Louis drops into his chair, shoving Harry’s feet off, and Harry tilts his head to smile at Louis, eyes half-lidded and hazy. Louis eats a few fries and tries not to look at Harry.

“Tell me what my superpower is,” Louis demands suddenly. His fries are soaked in vinegar, exactly the way he likes it. Harry says it’s bitter, like him. That’s true.

Harry cocks his head and smiles softly. He laughs to himself, and Louis itches to know what it is that he’s laughing at, but then Harry is opening his mouth, and he says “You make people shine.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means you make everyone around you feel like the best versions of themselves.”

“Is that a superpower?” Louis wonders aloud. Harry just nods, his cheeks a little pink. He rests his chin in his hand, and stares across the table at Louis.

“Well?” He prompts. “What’s my superpower?”

Your superpower is that you make me want to stop writing on bathroom walls and instead just tell you everything. Your superpower is that when I’m around you, I feel like I’m doing the most important things of my life, even when we’re playing Jenga on the floor of my kitchen. Your superpower is that you make me feel like I have wings.

Louis doesn’t say any of those. Harry knocks his knee against Louis’s under the table, and a triangle of sunlight hits him directly across his face, illuminating the dark shadows of his eyelashes, and lighting up his eyes to an almost seafoam green. He is exquisite.  

“Your superpower is that you cause extraordinary things in an ordinary world.”

Harry just leans back in his chair and smiles quietly at Louis.

Extraordinary in an ordinary world.

**

July passes slowly, all smoky heat waves and late-night conversations about the color of dawn, the sound of Harry’s throaty laugh and his quiet wandering voice, and Louis has never felt so calm.

**

“Hold still, Lou, Christ, you’re gonna make me cut your ear off,” Harry huffs impatiently against the back of Louis’s neck. Goosebumps erupt under Louis’s hairline, despite the muggy heat in the apartment.

He stops fidgeting, sits his hands under his bum and squeezes his eyes tightly, trying to ignore the sound of the scissors and the cool blade of the metal against his sweaty neck. His hair is too long, and Harry, who claims he has good hands (because he’s a welder, is what is implied, but Louis can’t stop giggling every time Harry says it), has offered to trim his hair, which is how Louis finds himself in one of their uncomfortably straight-backed chairs in the kitchen. Zayn’s in the other chair, hair falling over his forehead softly as he buries his nose in some worn paperback that has several dog-eared pages. Louis never dog-ears his books, he says it ruins their dignity. Zayn says it means the books are loved. They’ve never agreed on it, and thus they have two copies of most books in their shared collection. It makes moving into new apartments a bitch, but Louis’s small stack of books in his room is his pride and joy and he refuses to let the romantic in Zayn ruin them.

“What’re you reading, Zayn?” Harry’s fingers brush gently against the back of Louis’s neck, and he feels some hair fall down the neck of his tshirt.

“Harry, I’d really appreciate it if while you had a pair of scissors near my head, you would concentrate on what you’re doing with them,” he gripes, and can almost hear the sound of Harry rolling his eyes above Louis’s head.

“Um--”, Zayn’s voice sounds like he’s gurgling from underwater, as if they’ve pulled him out from under a spell and he’s just reentering the world, blinking like a newborn baby, “it’s called The Cellist of Sarajevo.”

Harry hums, and snips some more hair off. “What’s it about?”

Zayn blinks a few times, eyes wide and owlish behind his thick black glasses, surprised as if no one’s ever asked what he’s reading about. Louis tries to sometimes, but usually loses interest by the time Zayn is really getting excited about whatever he’s talking about.

“Um, it’s about, like, a cellist,” Zayn laughs quietly at himself, “in Sarajevo.”

“Really, wow, how gripping.” Louis crosses his eyes at Zayn, and Harry flicks the side of Louis’s neck in admonishment.

“Don’t listen to Louis, Zayn, I’d like to hear about it,” Harry asks encouragingly. Something thumps painfully in Louis’s chest at that, and he’s grateful to Harry for drawing Zayn out of his shell.

Zayn nods slowly and pulls his legs up onto the chair, in a move that Louis recognizes as his attempts to make himself smaller when he becomes the subject of interrogation. He hugs his knees to his chest, tucking his chin into the crevice between his knobby bare knees. His legs are pale, as if he hasn’t seen the sunlight in days. Louis supposes he probably hasn’t; Zayn spends most of days asleep, and then lives at night, but even then he rarely leaves the apartment. He sits cramped on the moth-eaten arm chair in the living room, with the window cracked for the smoke from his cigarettes to escape, and he reads and writes. Louis thinks he might be writing a book; Zayn is very private about these things, though, so he’s not really totally sure. All he knows is that some mornings, when Louis is leaving the apartment to do whatever it is that he spends his days doing (not even he knows), he usually finds Zayn dozing in the arm chair, neck cricked at an awfully uncomfortable-looking angle, book crumpled on his chest as if he fell asleep in the middle of reading. It makes Louis sad sometimes, and he always tries to drag Zayn out to the club, to meet people. Zayn claims he talks to the Advil-fairy Liam in the laundry room sometimes, and Louis is praying that one day, they’ll have wild sex all over Liam’s whites and brights. Zayn needs it, he thinks.

Zayn heaves a big sigh, and pulls an unlit cigarette out from behind his ear, where he keeps them when he’s too lazy to wear pants, with pockets. He lights the cigarette, and Louis watches the thin skin of his red lips wrinkle around the cigarette, the concentration in his eyes as he sucks the smoke down his lungs. Grosses Louis out to no end, but he can never stop watching Zayn light his cigarettes. It’s mesmerizing. He watches as Zayn taps the cigarette against the ashtray that sits beside their salt and pepper shakers that Louis’s sister made in her class at school. They’re lumpy with clay, and painted an alarming shade of canary yellow, but they’ve moved with Louis and Zayn every time they change apartments.

“It’s a true story, I guess, about a cellist who played in ruined buildings during the siege of Sarajevo in the 90’s.” Zayn lets the cigarette hang out the corner of his mouth, and folds the corner down on the page he’s on. Louis cringes. “But the real cellist of Sarajevo was, like, pissed when the book was published.”

Louis looks down at his bare feet, and let’s Zayn’s quiet voice float around the kitchen. Zayn doesn’t like when people stare at him when he’s talking about something he’s passionate about.

“Why?” Harry murmurs, as if he too can tell that Zayn is walking on fragile ground here. His voice is right near Louis’s ear, like he’s leaned down to snip a bit of hair right by the curl of Louis’s ear. Louis can feel his breath, warm and ghosting across his neck.

Zayn shrugs. His eyes are downcast, fingers running up and down the cracked spine of the book. “Claims the author stole his identity and turned him into a hero.” His mouth quirks sadly.

They’re quiet for a while, just the sound of Harry’s scissors snipping and the small huffs of breath as Zayn puffs away on his cigarette.

“Didn’t he want to be a hero?” Louis finally ponders.

Zayn smiles softly and pushes his glasses up his nose with his knuckle. “Not everybody wants to be a hero, Lou.”

“What do they want to be then?” Harry asks, and sets the scissors down on the counter. He leans against it, now in Louis’s vision, and crosses his arms against his chest. His shorts hang low on his hips, exposing a strip of stomach that makes the inside of Louis’s mouth dry. Louis looks away.

Zayn’s quiet for a moment and the kitchen is silent. Louis and Harry watch him let out a stream of smoke that rises to the top of the kitchen, hovering around the dusty and cracked light fixture that’s barely emanating any light. He sets his chin on his knees. “Some people, y’know, they just want to be.” He shrugs.

Louis stands up out of his chair and shakes his shirt out, snipped hairs falling out of the back. He lies down on the cool linoleum floor and before he closes his eyes, he sees Harry watching him, soft eyes tracking his movements. Louis smiles secretly and then closes his eyes so all he can feel is the cool tile against the back of his sweaty knees, and his freshly cut hair falling against his forehead. He sighs. “Be what?”

“Just be human, I guess,” Zayn hums quietly. “Some people are content just existing.”

Louis thinks about that for a while. He doesn’t know if he falls under the category of people who can be content with simply existing. He suspects Zayn is happy knowing that there’s breath in his lungs and blood in his veins, thinks that Zayn probably doesn’t need anything more than that.

“I wouldn’t be,” Harry says thoughtfully. “I think I’d want more, to be more than just existent.” Louis opens his eyes and looks up at Harry, at his hair curling around his ears and his tshirt gaping on his collarbones. He watches as Harry slides down the counter until he’s sitting on the tile, impossibly long legs stretched out, and toes bumping into Louis’s shoulder.

Zayn shrugs minutely, and the light glares off his glasses so Louis can’t see his eyes behind the thick frames. His eyes could be closed for all Louis knows. Louis wants to touch him, so he crawls on his hands and knees over to where Zayn sits, and with his fingers spread out like he’s playing a piano, he taps all ten of Zayn’s toes where they’re curled on the edge of his seat. Zayn smiles down at him, soft, with his hair brushing past his eyebrows. He needs a haircut too. At this angle, Louis can see the amber liquidity of his eyes, and it comforts him.

It’s quiet in the kitchen, with the dying sun shining through the dusty windows and the smell of Zayn’s cigarette curling around them. The red gold of the sunset streams through Harry’s hair, casts shadows where his eyes are closed, head tilted back against the handle of their knives and forks drawer, and his large hands are folded in his lap, like he’s praying. With a rustle, Zayn picks up his book again and Louis closes his eyes and simply exists.

**

The next Friday, Louis starts his job at the froyo bar. It sucks. It’s hot and sticky and by the end of the first hour, he hates the sight of the containers filled with toppings. He has to control the urge to throw the chocolate-covered strawberries against the opposite wall from the counter, just to see what it would look like splotched against the giant multi-colored circles.

It’s empty in the shop, and Louis’s cleaned every surface he can be bothered to clean, and everything’s restocked the way it’s supposed to be. This is, without a doubt, the most boring job he’s ever had, and that’s saying something, because he once worked a job where all he did was sit in a cubicle and call people to remind them about their dentist appointments.

When the bell rings, Louis looks up eagerly from where he’d been contemplating death by asphyxiation via the brownie bits sitting so invitingly in their little container. So tempting. What a delicious way to die.

It’s the man, Liam, from the 2nd floor, Liam with the Advil and the whites and brights. His vneck has so obviously been ironed that Louis almost rolls his eyes. Who irons tshirts? Who even washes tshirts?

“Hey, man,” Liam nods. “Louis, right?”

Louis nods. Yes, he is Louis. “That would be me. And you’re Liam, and you sort your whites and brights.”

Liam nods and laughs self-consciously and shifts his weight from one foot to the other, his hand gripping the back of his neck when he tilts his head down. He’s tall and broad and delicious in a way that Louis is usually very interested in, but for some reason, as soon as he starts imagining laying Liam out and eating brownie bits off his nipples, all that pops into his mind is Harry’s laughing face, and Louis’s stomach clenches painfully. Well, alright then.

“Have you ever been here before?” Louis asks. That’s one of those questions he’s supposed to memorize, and ask every person who comes in. Louis doesn’t understand, because as far as he can tell, it’s really fairly simple to crank froyo into your cup. Liam apparently agrees, because he nods again (there is a lot of nodding happening), and smiles before shuffling off to grab a cup.

Louis watches as he contemplates the froyo flavours, hesitating around strawberry cheesecake, before moving back to the fat-free lemon tart. Louis had him pegged for a fat-free type from the beginning. Nice to see that his flavour-predicting skills have been honed to a point in the five hours since he started his shift. That will be a great skill to put on his resume.

When Liam comes back to the register, his cup is filled to the brim with berries and Louis resists the urge to roll his eyes. What is the point of getting froyo if you’re just going to make it into a fucking fruit salad? Louis likes to get the most toppings he can fit into his cup.

As Liam fumbles around with his wallet, he laughs like he’s just realized something. “It’s 8 pm on a Friday night and I’m getting froyo by myself, I’m probably making a great impression on you.”

Louis shrugs. “Mate, I’m the one selling you the froyo on a Friday night, my life isn’t exactly a whirlwind either.”

“Yeah, well, I was supposed to have a date tonight, but, y’know, one of those classic cases of being stood up.” Liam laughs and his eyes crinkle at the corners, eyes in half-moons. He looks oddly peaceful about the fact that he was just stood up.

Louis chuckles and taps his fingers on the horrifically pink counter. “I didn’t realize that was a classic thing.”

“It is for me.” Liam eats a spoonful of his yogurt, the tanned curve of his throat bulging as he swallows. “This guy texts me half an hour past when we’re supposed to meet, and gives me that excuse about having forgotten he had to work tonight.”

Louis raises his eyebrows but doesn’t say anything, and he sees Liam visibly relax. So, that’s an interesting development. Suddenly, Louis remembers Zayn sitting at home, with cigarette ash collecting in the lines of his palms as he turns the delicate pages of his beloved books, and bing, if Louis were a cartoon character, there would be a light bulb going off above his head.

Louis eats a gummy worm, which is strictly prohibited, and while it hangs out of his mouth, he says offhandedly, “you doing anything tomorrow night?”

Liam’s eyebrows shoot up, surprised, but he doesn’t run out of the store, which Louis counts as a plus in his book. “I guess not, no?” He laughs hesitantly.

“Great, because you know my roommate Zayn? Tall hair, glasses, smokes like a fucking chimney?”

“Oh. Oh,” Liam turns bright red and looks down at his yogurt, swirling his spoon around in his cup. Louis inwardly fist-pumps. “Yeah, yeah I know him, he told me he liked my batman tshirt once.”

Perfect.

“Yes, that would be him.” Louis is such a great friend, he should be getting a medal for this. “Take him on a date. Out to eat, to a movie, go fucking star-gazing, whatever. It’d be good for both you.”

Liam shyly looks down at his froyo again and coughs awkwardly. “Um, wouldn’t that--” he trails off.

“What, wouldn’t it be what?” Louis says impatiently. He needs this to work, he needs Zayn to get out of the house so he doesn’t shrivel up and die in a pile of dusty books and cigarette ash.

“I mean, you two aren’t together?” Liam’s cheeks are pink.

Louis laughs loudly. “No, definitely not.”

“Oh, it’s just--,” Liam shuffles his feet, “I saw you two outside the building once, you looked like, um, like you didn’t really want to be interrupted.”

Now it’s Louis’s turn for his face to be burning. He can only imagine what he and Zayn look like when they’re drunk and horny and trying to get into their building. Probably not a G-rated sight, especially for someone like Liam who probably blushes when he sees a woman’s bra in the laundry room.

“Um, no, we used to like, sorta,” Louis waves his hands around, “be like, whatever, fuck-buddies, I dunno.” Eloquent as ever.

“So, it’s not a thing anymore?”

Louis shakes his head and sticks his hands inside his apron. “Nope, not really.” Harry’s face floats to the front of his brain again, but he bats it away. Mental batting.

Liam coughs into his fist and smiles cautiously, and, Louis thinks, hopefully. “Okay, um, yeah then. I mean, kinda odd isn’t it?”

Louis shrugs. Zayn needs it, and if Liam is so passively accepting other boys standing him up, then he needs someone like Zayn, thoughtful and focus and far too sensitive for his own good. “I’m a pretty good judge of character, if I do say so myself.”

Liam tilts his head, and there’s a twinkle in his eye that tells Louis that here is a boy he could easily be friends with. “So what’s my character like?” He puts the word character in air quotes, and it’s easily the most endearing thing Louis has ever seen. Zayn will never get over this.

Louis hums and stares at Liam, brown eyes and his thick eyebrows and shorn hair. His torso is unfairly long and narrow, and Louis stubbornly doesn’t compare it to his own curvy hips and tummy. He’s wearing a pair of regular black Chucks, and he looks fairly regular and non-threatening, but he did get blackberries on his froyo, and Louis just considers that an offense to all other types of berries. Regardless, he’s pretty sure he can pin Liam down to a T.

“You live by yourself, but you have a mother that you talk to often and that raised you well; you work out,” Louis winks at Liam and he blushes, “you do some sort of job where you’re outside a lot, either that or you go on vacation a lot; you probably dust your blinds every so often, and I bet your carpet always has vacuum tracks; math isn’t your strong suit, but it doesn’t matter because I don’t think your job requires very much mathematical genius; and you sort your laundry like some sort of asshole but you’re actually very nice because you get the extra-strength Advil and not just the shitty regular kind, and you leave it out for drunk dickheads.” Louis smiles big and cheesy and knowing at Liam, who just stares at him, mouth open and his fuzzy eyebrows scrunched together.

“How do you know all that?” Liam asks, shocked.

Louis just smiles. “How’d I do?”

“Right on almost all accounts, actually.”

“What didn’t I get right?”

“I broke my vacuum last week, so no more vacuum tracks.”

“Ah, bummer.”

“How’d you get the math thing?” Liam inquires.

“You took too long sorting out your cash, mate, it just wasn’t that hard.”

Liam laughs and chucks his now-empty yogurt cap in the trash. “And what outdoor job do you think I do?”

“Construction, I think, because you have a bruised fingernail and great biceps, and a tan line right at the top of your forehead, which makes me think you wear some sort of hat, maybe a hard hat.”

“What the hell are you doing working in a yogurt bar, you should be a detective or something!” Liam exclaims, smiling so big his eyes almost disappear.

“My talents are wasted weighing yogurt, aren’t they?” Louis laughs. “So about that date?”

Liam chuckles. “Yeah, I mean? Should I just like, come upstairs?” His eyebrows quirk quizzically and he laughs like this is the weirdest thing he’s ever done. It probably is.

“Be at our door, which is #1204, by, like, 8 pm,” Louis writes their door number down on the back of Liam’s receipt and folds it into a tiny airplane, which he throws at Liam’s face. Liam doesn’t even react, and Louis already likes him. “S’weird that the apartment numbers go up into the thousands, but there aren’t a thousand apartments in the building, right?”

Liam cocks his head. “Have you ever been to the 8th floor?”

“Nope, never, I just wave at it as I crawl up the stairs.”

“Yeah well, they’re missing a huge chunk of numbers. It goes from, like, eight-fifteen right to eight-ninety-three. Weird, huh?”

“The building is shit,” Louis laughs. “So I’ll see you tomorrow night? I’ll make sure Zayn is appropriately prepared.”

Liam grins. “Is it odd that I’m, like, excited?”

“Yeah, probably, because for all you know, Zayn could be a mass-murdering lunatic and I’m just his accomplice.”

Liam nods seriously. “Yes, that is a risk I’m taking.”

“It is, Liam, you should perhaps learn some form of self-defense by tomorrow night.” Louis karate-kicks an empty stack of plastic boxes that fall over with a loud crash, but fortunately, Louis and Liam are still the only ones in the shop.

They stare down at the boxes and then Liam breaks into giggles that rock his whole frame, and Louis can’t help but join in.

When they finally catch their breath, Liam holds his fist out for a fist-bump (he was probably in a frat in college). “See you at eight, Louis.” He salutes and walks backwards out of the store, only turning when he reaches the door. It jangles loudly behind him, and Louis watches as he hurries down the sidewalk, stepping a little more bouncily and a giant grin on his face.

Louis feels like fucking Gandhi.

**

The next morning, when getting coffee at the place down the street from their apartment, Louis finds more words from the unknown person, same generically loopy writing, same symbol.

Louis’s note, written who knows when, says i have a foggy soul, and is framed by a halo of flowers, which Louis absolutely did not put there. Like he would ever draw flowers around his words.

Written underneath the words, there’s another note in blue Sharpie, i’m trying to find you in the fog.

When Louis walks out of the coffee shop, helplessness blues by the fleet foxes is playing and he doesn’t know what to think.

**

Zayn’s mouth gapes open when Louis tells him that he’s set up a blind date for him. Well, not exactly blind, since Liam did say that he and Zayn had interacted adequately enough for Zayn to feel comfortable commenting on Liam’s superhero apparel. But nonetheless, when he walks into the kitchen with his conciliatory coffee and alerts Zayn to the fact that he has a date, Zayn’s face drops and his morning cigarette droops out of his mouth like it can’t believe the words Louis is saying.

“A date?” Zayn grumbles, eyes wide. He pushes a hand through his hair, sticking up all over the place. He’s clearly just woken up.

Nodding, Louis hands one of the coffees to Zayn who accepts it with a grunt and a glare, sucking it down while holding the limp cigarette between two of his fingers, ash dropping to the floor, unnoticed by either of the two boys.

“Why?” Zayn sticks a piece of bread in the toaster, and Louis’s slightly offended because really, he’s standing right here and the least Zayn could do is toast some bread for him too.

“You need it.”

“I don’t need anything.”

Louis rolls his eyes. Zayn is so melodramatic, standing there with his wing-ding tattoos and his broody cigarettes and his pirate earrings and his determination to be aloof.

“You need this,” Louis says firmly, and puts his own bread in the toaster, glaring at Zayn while he does so.

Leaning against the counter, Zayn stares at Louis, eyebrows pulled down low on his face. He’s got a little bit of sleepy gunk in the corner of his eye and it’s oddly endearing and god, Louis loves Zayn so much.

“Is this like--” Zayn closes his eyes briefly and the toast pops up, but they both ignore it. “Is this some kind of subtle way of telling me that we have to stop this thing between us?”

And that, that’s just shit, and Louis’s stomach drops out onto the floor. “Zayn.” Louis pulls his toast out of the toaster and slathers raspberry jam on it. “Zayn, we haven’t been a thing in a long time.”

“I thought we were.”

Louis looks at him. “Sleeping together when we’re bored isn’t a thing, Zayn.”

Zayn flinches, but it’s true, so he nods. “Is this about Harry then?”

“Why in fuck’s name would this be about Harry?” Louis doesn’t look Zayn in the eye, and stoops to open the fridge, searching for his favorite blueberry pomegranate juice. Zayn hates it, he drinks strawberry mango and Louis thinks that’s just the grossest combination of fruits in the world.

Zayn bumps hips with him and reaches over his shoulder for his own juice, sitting on the shelf of the door next to his organic shit and his weird seed bread. Louis’s processed junk food is on the shelf below that. Everything in their fridge is very organized.

“You want him.”

Sputtering on his juice, Louis glares at Zayn and kicks the fridge door closed with the side of his foot. "No, I do not, and even if I did, that’s not why you have to go on this date.”

Zayn grins like he’s won some sort of contest and any loving feelings Louis was thinking towards him earlier are gone, zapped away by the cat-got-the-canary smile on Zayn’s face. He hates Zayn, really, he’s a horrible best friend.

“Lou, do you have a crush?” Zayn sticks a twirly straw in his juice cup and blows bubbles in it, looking at Louis with his eyes twinkling through his black fringe hanging in his eyes.

“No.” Louis stamps his foot for emphasis. “No, I don’t.”

“Why are you stamping your foot?”

“For emphasis!” Louis exclaims and jumps so both of his feet stamp on the yellowed tile floor.

“It’s okay if you have a crush you know.” Zayn smiles gently. He has a juice mustache.

 “I don’t have a crush.”

“Okay, Lou.”

        **

“I think I have a teeny crush on Harry.” Louis flops onto Zayn’s bed a couple hours later, as Zayn stands in front of his full length mirror, appearing to be contemplating between two absolutely identical pair of black jeans.

Zayn just nods. “I know.”

“Do you think he knows?”

Zayn turns around and gives him a sympathetic smile. His hair is tall, quiffed up with gel and he looks all suave and mysterious in a way that Louis couldn’t even dream of achieving.

“You think he knows,” Louis sighs heavily.

Zayn shrugs and pulls his shirt over his head, careful not to knock over his carefully constructed hair. “Dunno, Lou. I couldn’t tell for months that you liked me.”

Louis throws Zayn’s Lightning McQueen pillow at him and misses by a foot. He doesn’t even know why Zayn has a Lightning McQueen pillow. “I didn’t like you, I just wanted to fuck you.”

Zayn’s laugh is muffled when he pulls on a plain white tshirt, emerging from the collar with a pop and a laughing smile. “Same thing.”

Louis is quiet for a while, watching as Zayn putters around, picking through his huge collection of worn leather jackets. He sits on the bathroom counter while Zayn carefully shaves, leaving a small amount of scruff that Louis runs his finger along to feel the scrape of it. Zayn smells like aftershave when Louis is up this close, and he’s reminded of why he and Zayn were once absolutely breathtakingly in love.

Apparently, when flies fall in love, they do it so hard they never fall in love with any other flies ever again, because the synaptic coding in their brains is rewritten. Louis smiles and bangs his heels on the cupboard doors.

“What do you think I should do?”

Zayn meets his eyes in the mirror, foam sitting at the corner of his lips while he brushes his teeth with his light-up Batman toothbrush. Louis’s is Spiderman, they bought them together when they were insanely drunk one night.

Zayn leans over and spits into the sink, gargles with mouthwash and then turns to face Louis. “What do you want to do?”

“I kinda just want to hold his hand.”

Zayn smiles softly and thumbs across the dreadfully unshaven line of Louis’s jaw.  “Then you should tell him.”

**

Harry comes over as Zayn has his ninth fit of reluctance about the date, but Louis and Harry manage to calm him down by assuring him that Liam knows he smokes, so if it’s really unbearable, he can excuse himself for a smoke break and then head off home before Liam even knows what hit him.

Louis thinks vaguely that he and Harry probably aren’t very good people.

As expected, Zayn makes some sort of transformation from adorably dorky to sexy and charming five minutes into Liam’s arrival, fluttering his eyelashes at him until Liam’s cheeks are bright red and Harry’s face has turned purple from trying not to laugh. Louis insists on taking pictures of the two of them with his phone, exclaiming that “it’s just like prom!”, and Zayn stares all broodingly into the camera with his lower lip pushed out in a pout, arm around Liam, whose face is open and happy like he really has won the champion prom date.

Louis hopes for both their sakes that the date is perfect, because he’d hate to see the puppy like smile on Liam’s face slide off when he realizes his date has ditched him, and Zayn will turn into some kind of Ms. Havisham, lying like kind of melancholy poet on the couch, smoking cigarettes until he burns a hole in his throat.

Yes, this date has to go well, for everyone’s sakes.

Louis and Harry hang out the front door, waving to Liam and Zayn as they awkwardly trip down the hallway, shoulders bumping shyly. Louis has a fleeting image of what it must be like to be a parent and watch your firstborn head off on their first date. It’s an awkward thought.

He calls out down the hall after them, careful not to step on Harry’s head where he’s lying on the floor, face sticking out past the door frame, his cheek smushed on the hallway’s ugly green carpeting that looks like cauliflowers. “Liam!”

The two boys turn around, Liam’s eyebrows raised. “What?”

“If you fuck him up, I’ll fuck you up.” Louis frowns at Liam so hard, his forehead actually hurts, and he shoots double guns at the two boys, and then pulls Harry back into the apartment and slams the door behind them.

Harry stares up at him from the floor, mouth pulled into a loose and lazy grin. “Hey.”

Louis drops down beside Harry, foot knocking into their umbrella stand. “Hi.” His skin is itching just looking at Harry, so he turns his head away from the inch of skin shown at Harry’s hips where his tshirt rides up. The fabric is so thin Louis can see Harry’s nipples through it. Fuck.

“What should we do tonight?”

Louis’s silent, contemplating Harry’s question. They could play Guess Who; he found the game under his bed the other day and he’s been wanting to dominate Harry in it for days. The game, not the bed. Although maybe the bed too.

They could make dinner and watch Zayn’s taped episodes of What Not to Wear. Zayn claims he actually likes watching people’s transformations, but Louis knows Zayn only watches for Clinton.

“Let’s go out,” Harry says after a while, and leans up on one elbow to peer down at Louis, his hair falling in his eyes, mouth quirked up cheekily.

The concept is foreign to Louis these days, since all his time has been spent wandering around eating food and discussing the philosophy of life with Harry. He hasn’t shagged anyone in a month and a half, it’s a weird feeling for Louis. Maybe that’s what he needs, to get Harry out of his system and have a good fuck in a dirty bathroom stall at a seedy club. He can’t imagine that’s really Harry’s style, and it’s absolutely Louis’s, so they probably wouldn’t even be compatible. He disregards the fact that relationships are not built on correlation between hook-up methods, and decides that yes, they will go out, he will get drunk, and he will fuck someone who is not Harry.

Louis spends ages getting ready, partly because if he’s gonna fuck a random person, his hair needs to look perfect, and partly because he likes watching Harry get impatient, sighing heavily from where he lies in Louis’s bed, sheets pulled up past his fully clothed legs. His hair is fanned out on the pillow, dark against the fabric and he almost looks like Snow White, but Louis banishes that thought because that is not the point of this evening.

**

The club is loud and dark and pulsing by the time they show up, the dance floor throbbing with people entwined in each other, lights glancing off exposed skin and illuminating twisted figures writhing around, holding dirty secrets in the dark spaces between them.

Less than an hour later, Louis is drunk and his skin is burning with the touch of the man behind him, large hands resting on his hips, squeezing possessively every time somebody notices the way the blue lights dash off Louis’s cheekbones and his ass presses firmly against the well-muscled person behind him.

Last time he saw Harry, he was at the bar, leaning over a girl with long straight blonde hair and thick, beautifully groomed eyebrows, a wicked twist in her mouth as she looked up at Harry. Louis’s stomach had collapsed painfully and he’d reached out for the closest male near him and now here he was, with some man’s bitter breath warming the side of his neck.

As Louis and the man pull out of the dancing throng towards the loo, he catches Harry’s eye, Harry who stares at him from across the dark room with heavy eyes and his mouth in a flat line.

With his back pressed up against the cold metal of the stall door, and his heels digging into the back of his thighs, Louis sucks the dark haired man off, stubbornly ignoring the way he doesn’t have a dimple and the way his hair is perfectly straight.

When the man offers to get Louis off, he waves him off with an eye roll. “Gotta piss, love, another time.” There won’t be another time, of course, but the man shrugs and lets himself out of the stall.

With a sigh, Louis shakily lowers himself to the floor of the bathroom, choosing not to think about the stickiness of the tile or the fact that there’s probably a line of people waiting. The alcohol is clouding his mind, hazy and thick like fog, but he’s sober enough to realize how pathetic he is right now, hiding out in the bathroom while Harry probably gets off with the beautiful girl at the bar.

His jaw aches. The man had a big cock and he’d shoved into Louis’s mouth kind of roughly, so that the hinges of Louis’s mouth locked painfully. He clenches and unclenches his jaw a few times to get the feeling back. The taste of come sits bitterly in the back of his throat and he wishes had had some gum or something.

Louis pulls his phone out of his tight jeans, unlocking it and staring at the background image of him and Harry, last time they got drunk and had ended up buying a fish from the pet store. The fish had died three days later and they’d given it a proper funeral, burying it in the loose dirt at the park. He’s pretty sure Harry cried, but he can’t remember if it was from sadness or laughter.

im so drunk z wnt to flush msefl down teh loo

Zayn responds within seconds and Louis blesses his lucky stars that his best friend is attentive to his needs even when he’s on a date. lou i love u drink some water not out of the toilet ok

Louis snorts. thnk h is gttin offfff w/ sum1 :(

:( be safe when ur getting revenge babe

Louis thinks it’s sad that Zayn knows him so well. alrdeady did he had a ckok teh size of a bbbasball bat z it sucked

lou u know i want u to b happy but u gotta want to b happy too

Louis doesn’t text back after that. He doesn’t need the truth tonight. He knocks his head against the wall, listening to the sounds of people getting it off in the stall next to him, low grunts and the slick sounds of someone being drunkenly fucked. It feels obscene to be hearing the sounds of someone else’s pleasure, but Louis sits there anyways, feeling like the lowest kind of human being.

“Anyone got a pen?” he says after a while, not expecting an answer, but seconds later a Sharpie rolls under the door. He wonders what kind of person brings a Sharpie to the club, but at the moment, that’s not his most pressing thought.

The stall doors are disgusting, covered in doodles of boobs and dicks and drunken meanderings. Someone has drawn a lovely replica of what looks like the Hogwarts castle, owlery and all. Louis contemplates writing a congratulatory note under it before he realizes the person probably won’t ever see it. It makes him sad.

Louis’s hand is shaky and it takes him far too long to scrawl the words across the metal, but when he’s done, he sits back on his heels and admires his drunken handiwork. The loops of his g’s are wonky and his l’s are much longer than they should be, but the words I think I’m falling in love shine sadly back at him, as if they can sense his desperation in writing it.

He signs the note, takes a piss and stumbles out of the loo back into the dark moving masses of people. The DJ is playing some weird jangly version of what Louis thinks is supposed to be Usher. He hates Usher. He hates the DJ and he hates the club and he really wants a smoothie.

Louis finds Harry at the bar, still with Eyebrows Girl, whose skirt is so short that Louis finds himself sneering at her, something he feels vaguely guilty for but in the moment, all he wants to do is wedge himself between Harry and the girl.

“Hey, Lou!” Harry’s grin is wide and drunk, his cheeks flushed and eyes bright with alcohol, hair mussed up like he’s been running his hands through it, which Louis knows he does when he’s drunk. He hates that he knows that. “This is Cara, she’s a model!”

Louis nods at both of them and signals for a shot, which he downs and slams back on the counter. Fuck, he hates tequila, it tastes like dinosaur piss, which he has never tasted but suspects would probably taste like tequila.

“What d’ya think dinosaur piss tastes like?” He wonders out loud, and Eyebrows Girl gives him the weirdest look, but Harry immediately tilts his head like he’s seriously considering Louis’s question.

“Probably like a mix of that non-alcoholic beer shit, and then also the water that’s left in the fridge drawer where the lettuce and broccoli live.” Harry nods firmly, like his definition of dinosaur piss is the definition to trump them all, and Louis has to admit that it might be, because that does sound a lot worse than just plain old tequila, although he still hates tequila.

“I agree, Harold.” When he looks back over at Eyebrows Girl, she’s gone, but Harry doesn’t look all that put out, instead still smiling at Louis all drunken and happy like Louis didn’t just chase away his shag-of-the-night.

“She was right fit, that girl,” Louis says and takes a sip of the bright pink drink that Harry’s been nursing. It has an umbrella in it, which god, that’s just so incredibly Harry that Louis almost wants to stick out his eyes with it.

“Was she?” Harry laughs and takes back his drink. “I hadn’t noticed.”

Louis gives him a look, and Harry gives it right back

“Cmon, let’s dance.”  Harry’s eyes are dark, his mouth pulled up halfway, quirky and jaunty like he doesn’t have a care in the world. Louis hates that, but he nods anyways and lets Harry pull him back out onto the dance floor.

They dance much too closely and not closely enough, the crowds pushing them together until Louis can feel the heat of Harry’s body emanating towards him. His skin is sweaty, glistening on his collarbones above the tshirt he’s wearing and Louis longs to lick along the ridges of his shoulders and taste the salt, but he holds himself back and doesn’t wrap his hands around Harry’s narrow waist, like he wants to.

Instead, they dance with a couple inches between them, inches that are full of everything Louis wants to say and is too afraid to, everything he’s ever written on bathroom stall doors. Harry stares down at him, hair sticking to his forehead and eyes hooded and Louis shivers under his gaze, can feel Harry’s eyes roving his body like asteroids, flitting around like he can’t decide which part of Louis he wants to look at the most. Louis shivers under the attention and pretends like Harry’s looking at him like Louis wants him to.

**

They stumble out of the club at some hour that Louis can’t be bothered to know, drunkenly making their way down the street past couples under street lights and taxis full of people without any inhibitions. Louis envies all of them, for the easy way that they attach themselves to each other. He wants that.

Despite the incessant heat, goose bumps rise on Louis’s arms as they amble down the dark streets until they’re alone, no cars around, no people, just flickering street lights and the shadows of tall buildings cast in dark relief against the silver moon that’s washing everything in a glow. Harry’s skin is pale, creamy with his flushed cheeks, and his long arms bumping into Louis’s.

“’M so drunk,” Harry mumbles, and he almost runs into a street lamp before Louis grabs him, bringing them to a stop under the halo of the light. Bugs buzz around the light, causing it to flicker wildly, and Harry’s eyes change rapidly from green to gray to gold and back again, electric like ocean tides and meteor showers. Louis is too drunk to be making cosmic metaphors about Harry’s eyes, but what can you do.

Harry reaches out and grabs Louis’s jaw, long fingers grasping at him, pressing against the soreness. “You’re really beautiful, Lou, you know.”  Harry smiles, small and innocent like he has no idea what he’s doing to Louis.

Louis shakes his head, but Harry grasps his jaw in both hands, forcing him to nod up and down, little snorts of laughter escaping from his nose. It’s all Louis can do not to reach up and close the distance between them and lick the alcohol out of Harry’s mouth.

Harry brings their foreheads together, pressing against Louis with his fingers still holding Louis’s jaw as if he’s made from glass, surprisingly delicate for a boy who twists metal into art for a living. His breath is sour from alcohol, warm against Louis’s upper lip and Louis can just feel Harry everywhere, feel their toes nudging together and the heat of his skin warming Louis’s, and his fingers fitting into the indents behind Louis’s ears.

“You know, sometimes I think we could fucking rule the world,” Harry murmurs, the words soft and catching in the space between them, hovering, while pieces of Louis’s heart splinter off and float away.

**

There’s a public pool near Louis’s apartment, where Niall taught swimming lessons for exactly three days before he was fired for getting into a cursing competition with a 12 year old boy. Niall likes to tell that story at parties, to loudly regale an audience with all the curse words the infamous 12 year old boy. Apparently Niall took him out for ice cream after he was fired, just because he was so impressed with the kid’s mouth. Niall is a strange human being, Louis thinks.

Louis and Harry stand in front of the imposingly tall chain link fence that separates them and the shimmering cerulean water that lies just ten feet away, temptingly cool-looking against the slick heat that covers them like a blanket.

From where they stand on the pavement, they can see the dark rec center and the perfectly still diving boards, the empty life guards chairs.

Louis has no idea what they’re doing at the public pool, but as they passed, Louis still reeling from the moment under the lamp light and his stomach jumping everywhere, Harry had flung out one long ape arm and stood staring at the pool with his mouth gaping open like he’d never seen a public pool before. His eyes had lit up, and before Louis knew it, the two of them were pressed up against the chain link fence, the metal cool against Louis’s heated skin. His blood feels too hot, especially with the way Harry is pressed up against him, warm and wriggling around with excitement.

“Lou, oh my god, Lou,” Harry turns to him, eyes shining and wide like a child. “Let’s go swimming, Lou,” and before Louis can react, Harry is turning on wobbly legs to scale the chain link fence. He is as graceful as a baby elephant, legs flailing as he pushes himself up to the top, jeans stretching sinfully tight against his slender thighs.

There is no way Louis is climbing a chain link fence any time soon; Louis will do all sorts of things while drunk: he will shave a penis in Zayn’s leg hair while he’s asleep, he will perform strip teases on top of bar counters, he will let all types of people do all types of things to him. But he will not climb a metal fence, ass hanging out behind him, while the current object of his affections watches him blunder his way down the fence. That is not a thing that will be happening tonight. The alcohol in Louis’s bloodstream agrees with him, as does the small voice in his head saying “Louis Louis Louis this is a bad idea!!!! You don’t want to rip your pants!!!! You don’t want to make a fool of yourself!!” The voice sounds suspiciously like Liam’s.  

Shaking his head, Louis rattles the fence a little bit so that Harry, sitting at the top, shrieks loudly and grasps the chains with his fingers, glaring down at Louis. “C’mon, Haz, get down, let’s go home.”

“No, I want to go swimming.” Harry is petulant, mouth pulled down in a pout, the red bow of his lips enticing. Louis wants to bite him.

“I don’t.”

“Yes, you do. It’s hot out and we were dancing, of course you want to go swimming.” Harry waggles his eyebrows at Louis, and turns and hops down off the fence, landing with a clumsy body roll that he stands up out of like some olympic gymnast, throwing his arms in the air and tucking his little bum in. Louis hates him, god, he hates him so much.

“Louis,” Harry walks up to the fence, in front Louis, face inches away from Louis’s. He has freckles on his little sunburnt nose, golden from being out in the sun so much this summer. He leans right up close to Louis, till their noses are almost touching through the fence, and his eyes are shining dark green, glowing from the hazy blue of the lit-up pool behind him. “Louis, you want to go swimming.”

Fuck. It is increasingly harder to resist Harry when his glassy eyes are staring at Louis like that, when, for the second time in thirty minutes, Louis can feel Harry’s warm breath brushing against his upper lip. He feels dizzy, disoriented, drunk. On what, he doesn’t know. Alcohol or Harry, it’s basically the same thing.

Shakily, Louis swings his head back and forth, and concentrates on the small hairs at the inner corners of Harry’s eyebrows, so he doesn’t have to look at the way Harry’s eyes are piercing through him.

Harry reaches through the fence and pokes Louis in the cheek. “Yes, you do.” The poke turns into a stroke, and Louis’s skin burns where Harry’s finger slides down his cheek bone until he can feel the sharp point of Harry’s nail at the corner of his lips. He shudders.

“I’m drunk, I can’t climb a fence.”

“You can, Lou,” Harry croons. “I did it and I’m not exactly graceful!”

Louis snorts and Harry grins, that painfully wide and dopey smile he does where he looks surprised to have made Louis laugh, and then infinitely pleased with himself.

When Louis reaches up and grasps the cold links between his fingers, Harry gives a little cheer and backs away from the fence, stripping off his tshirt as he goes. Louis swallows past his dry throat, watches as the now-familiar tattoos of Harry’s chest and arms glow on his tanned skin, inky black in the darkness. Louis hates Harry with a burning passion.

When Louis lands decidedly ungracefully on the other side of the fence, Harry does some sort of weird cheerleading routine where he attempts a high kick, the muscles in his stomach rippling as he dances around.

“You’re an idiot, oh my god.” Louis pulls his own tshirt off, the fabric sticking to his sweaty back, and he doesn’t miss the way Harry’s eyes rove over him, reading the words on his chest.

Harry shrugs. “It is what it is, y’know?” He grins wildly and then plops down on the wet-with-dew grass to peel his skinny jeans off his legs, revealing incredibly tight black briefs, the elastic of which are fitted against the the sharp v of his stomach, hip bones jutting out like the bones of a baby bird. Louis’s mouth simultaneously dries out and fills up with saliva and it’s a rather disarming sensation as he’s rooted to the spot, watching the muscles in Harry’s back as he walks to the edge of the pool, toes curling over the lip of the concrete. The backs of his thighs are pale, hair shining silver in the moonlight. For some reason, the backs of his knees strike Louis as absolutely adorable, little red crease lines, sweaty from his jeans, and Louis hates himself for the sentiment.

“Cute panties, Haz.” Louis shucks off his own jeans and comes to stand next to Harry, watching their shadows ripple in the water. There are small underwater lights glinting off the tile floor, throwing beams of light up onto their almost-naked bodies.

“Thanks, I know I’m pretty,” Harry giggles and snaps the elastic of his briefs against his hip, and without warning, cannonballs into the pool, water sloshing up into the sides. Louis yelps, jumping back, and watches the dark form of Harry underwater as he stretches out, hair gliding around in his head like something from the Black Lake in Harry Potter. Louis is so drunk.

When Harry surfaces, biting at Louis’s toes, he shakes his hair around, water droplets pelting Louis’s bare legs. “You’re a menace, Styles.”

Harry just nods peacefully. “You gonna get in?”

“No. I’m going to sit here and watch you be a mermaid.” Louis plops himself down on the side of the pool and kicks his feet in the warm water, flicking water at Harry’s face with his toes.

Harry pouts and flips backwards with a loud splash, wiggling around in what Louis assumes is supposed to be a mermaid impersonation, but really it just looks like Harry is trying to escape some sort of bonds. Oh god, Harry Styles and bondage, Louis wants to throw up.

Harry bursts out of the water with a loud growl, teeth bared. He looks like a wet lion cub. He is ridiculous. Louis is ridiculous.

As Harry walks closer to Louis, water breaking around his narrow hips, Louis’s heart rate speeds up, jumping out of his chest, banging so loud he’s sure Harry can hear it over the distant rumble of cars and the quietly moving sounds of the water. Under the surface, Harry’s thumbs rub over the points of Louis’s ankle bones, feather-soft and delicate until his fingers are circling Louis’s ankles, holding him in place.

“What are you doing?”

Harry shrugs, the corner of his mouth pulled up. He doesn’t answer, and Louis watches as he slides his hands up Louis’s calves, up past his knees, gazing at Louis intensely as he shivers.

“Cold?” Harry’s voice is soft, echoing around the water and it sounds almost ghostly, hollow.

Louis shakes his head. The opposite really, he can feel the heat from the muggy night licking at his shoulders, moist and deafeningly heavy, and the heat from Harry’s body traveling through the couple inches of water between them.

Harry’s hands stop moving when they’re flat against Louis’s bare thighs, thumbs pressing into the soft skin of his inner thighs, and pinkies just barely touching the edges of Louis’s briefs, dry except for the edges where Harry splashed him. Mind reeling, Louis feels as if when Harry takes his hands away, the brand of his palms and the whorls of his fingerprints will be burned into his skin, matching perfectly with the wideness of Harry’s hands, slender and tanned against the pale skin of Louis’s thighs.

So this is how it is: Louis sits on the edge of the pool, legs dangling into the warm water, and Harry, Harry with his eyes and his mouth and his hands on Louis’s thighs, is smiling at him softly with water clinging to his eyelashes, mouth quirked up, red and glossy with pool water. His thumbs are moving in small circles and Louis has a brief flash of self-consciousness about his thighs, before Harry leans in and noses along the edge of Louis’s jawline, breath hot on the side of Louis’s neck. He wonders if Harry can see his pulse jack-rabbiting in his throat, loud and thumping in the quiet space between them. He wonders, as he feels Harry’s breath warm on the shell of his ear, if Harry can sense the twitch in Louis’s fingers, desperate to reach for Harry and instead sitting clenched into fists beside his hips.

The water sloshes quietly against the side of the pool, and Harry stands perfectly still between Louis’s thighs, only his thumbs moving, as his nose is buried in the hairs behind Louis’s ear, his breath tickling the sensitive skin behind there. Words run rampant in Louis’s mind, what are you doing and can i touch you and christ am i in love with you and most of all, i want you i want you i want you.

“You smell good.” Harry’s voice is muffled in Louis’s hair, and Louis draws deep breaths, unaware of the fact that he was barely even breathing.

“Like what?” Louis says softly, staring past Harry’s shoulder at the 3 ft depth sign that shimmers just under the water. He can see the shadows of their bodies on the bottom of the pool and they look like one person.

Harry pulls back and slides his hands down Louis’s legs until his thumbs tap on Louis’s knees, in some kind of beat that only Harry must be able to hear. Harry hums softly and grins, dopey, eyes still kind of glassy from the alcohol. “You smell like yourself.”

“Is that good?”

Harry tilts his head and nods. Under the moonlight, and with the glow of the pool behind him, his eyes seem electric, flecks of gold light dancing around the black of his blown pupils, rings of sea green surrounding. He stares at Louis, and Louis stares back. A siren goes in the distance, long and low and wailing. Louis wants to touch Harry’s collarbones and trace the sparrows with his fingernail, he wants to know what Harry sounds like when he’s being kissed, he desperately wants to know if Harry can tell just how quietly Louis has slipped into wanting him so badly it feels like a constant ache against his bones and his eyeballs, against his joints and his spine until he feels bruised and battered by the intensity of his feelings for this person before him. He wonders if Harry feels the same.

They’re startled out of the staring contest by a loud “hey!” and the jangling noise of keys hanging on someone’s pant loops, and when they look up, an immense man is huffing and puffing towards them, face red and shaking his fist at them. “You’re not allowed to be here!”

Harry lets out a peal of laughter and hauls himself out of the water, and Louis only has a few seconds to gawk at the way Harry’s biceps bulge as he braces himself on the edge of the pool, before Harry is grabbing his hands and their clothes and pulling Louis up the side of the fence, knees knocking together and hands scraping painfully on the sharp metal of the fence.

The man’s yelling fades into the distance as the two boys sprint down the deserted street, wet feet slapping against the pavement and their jeans flying like flags behind them as they escape like birds in flight. Louis’s heart is beating so quickly it feels like it’s going to fall out of his chest and when he looks next to him, Harry’s head is thrown back with raucous laughter, neck bared and wet curls whipping against his face. For a moment, it looks like he’s going to take flight and Louis suddenly feels sad, terribly awfully sad and he doesn’t know why, so he pulls Harry to a stop, a block away from the pool, where the streets are silent and ghostly, illuminated by solitary circles of lamp light.

“Man, that was great!” Harry’s out of breath, chest heaving, eyes wide and open with laughter. “Felt like a bird!”

Louis nods slowly. He wishes he felt like a bird. “We should go home.”

When they reach Louis’s building, he expects Harry to stumble into the stairwell with him, but he halts on the sidewalk, fingers twisting together anxiously, his eyes still glinting slightly with laughter, but mouth pulled into an apologetic smile.

“Aren’t you coming in?” Louis asks, one foot in the door. All he wants is his bed and he wouldn’t mind a warm presence next to him, has gotten used to there being a double indent in the pillows after a drunken night with Harry.

Harry shakes his head and, oh. “Think I should probably sleep my hangover off in my own bed.”

And that’s just. Okay. That’s okay, it’s not as if they have some unspoken pact that they always sleep off their hangovers together, just so they can both have moral support in the mornings. But Louis nods jerkily and lets the door slam between him and Harry, turning towards the stairs so he doesn’t have to see the surprised look on Harry’s face.

Louis is good at sleeping on his own, he did it before Zayn and Harry, he can do it now.

The apartment is dark and empty when Louis lets himself in. Zayn must not be home yet, because his shoes aren’t by the door and the kitchen is exactly as Louis and Harry had left it after having a quick dinner of Lunchables. Louis doesn’t think he’s ever gone to sleep without Zayn in the apartment.

Unsure if he can make it to his bedroom, Louis flops on the couch, peels his wet underwear off, and spreads himself out on the couch, trying to get the cool air from the open window to hit him perfectly.

He can still feel the alcohol swimming in him, the rush of adrenaline from running away, the pure energy that he always associates with being in Harry’s presence, but it’s not enough to numb the fact that Louis is painfully aware of how alone he is.

**

Louis wakes up the next morning with the sun directly in his eyes, a weight on his legs, and the soft clinking sound of a spoon against a bowl.

“Hi.” Zayn’s morning voice is rough, foggy with sleep and cigarettes.

Louis blinks, eyes gummy and head pounding. “Hi.”

Zayn is sitting on Louis’s legs in boxers that Louis is pretty sure are Niall’s, because they have small green shamrocks on them, and a sweatshirt with the collar ripped open to expose the tattoos on his collarbones. There’s milk dribbling down his chin and he’s spooning what looks like cheerios into his mouth. There are purple circles under his eyes. Louis wonders when he got in from his date last night.

Mumbling blearily, Louis gropes around for Zayn’s bowl and Zayn rolls his eyes before handing the cereal to Louis, who eats a few bites slowly. Frosted Cheerios. It’s the only kind of cereal Zayn ever eats.

“Don’t eat all of it, you twat.”

Louis shovels a few more bites in before handing the bowl back to Zayn and sitting up so that he can rest his head on Zayn’s shoulder, feeling the muscle shift under his ear as Zayn resumes eating.

“How was your date?” Louis traces circles on Zayn’s knee, finger smoothing down the soft black hairs that scatter the sides of the bony jut of his knee.

Zayn shrugs minutely, but Louis knows better. He knows that Zayn wouldn’t be sitting here waiting for Louis to wake up, if he didn’t have something great to tell him.

“It was good. He’s sweet. ”

Louis hums and pulls his legs out from under Zayn so he can drape them across Zayn’s own legs. Zayn will tell him about Liam on his own time, he’s guessing. He hears Zayn put down the bowl, and then there’s the tell-tale flick of the lighter and a cloud of smoke fills Louis’s nostrils, acrid and bitingly bitter for how early in the morning it is. He checks his phone. It’s noon. Whatever.

“How come you got home so late?”

Zayn coughs.

“Actually, I didn’t get home till,” Zayn coughs again and his fingers touch his lips gently while he breathes in the smoke, “like, this morning.”

Oh. “Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“That’s good.”

Zayn shifts so his cheek is lying against Louis’s hair, which he’s pretty sure is stiff with sweat and gel and christ, there’s probably come in his hair.

“Is it?”

“Is it what?”

“Good. Is this okay?”

With a sigh, Louis pulls away from Zayn and lies back down on the couch, head nestled on last night’s jeans, which he apparently tried to use as a pillow. Louis isn’t surprised he has a major crick in his neck. “Of course it’s okay. I want you to be happy.”

Zayn nods and offers the cigarette to Louis, who shakes his head but grabs it anyways, clumsy between his two fingers. He’s inexperienced. He takes a long drag, choking a little bit on the cloying smoke in his throat. Louis knew there was a reason he didn’t smoke.

Zayn peers down at him, big bulky glasses slipping down his nose a little bit, so that Louis can see the small red indents on the side of the bridge of his nose where his frames sit. The dents make Louis inexplicably sad. “I want you to be happy too, you know.”

Louis nods. He’d like to be happy too. He stands up from the couch, walks down the hallway leaving Zayn on the couch with the sun illuminating the coils of smoke in the air, and collapses face down in his bed.

**

Lying on his bed face down with the sun burning his bare back, Louis contemplates his situation. He is, at this very moment, desperately hungover. His back hurts from not moving for a couple hours, and he’s pretty sure he put his head in a plate of nachos when he flopped on the bed. Louis reaches up, touches his hair. Yep, that’s salsa. He is lying in nachos and has, until now, not realized it.

Oh, right, and Louis is also possibly in love with a boy he’s only known for a few months.

He thinks very hard about those words and then gives himself a break from thinking and slowly eats a Kit-Kat he finds under a stack of People magazines that he will never admit to reading. He mumbles the words into his pillow so only his stuffed penguin can hear them. Louis rolls over onto his back so that he’s staring up at the decrepit ceiling fan with the maze of spider webs that adorns it.

“I like Harry.” He tries the words out in his mouth, and they taste old and dusty as if they’ve never been used, but have been sitting tucked up on a shelf, waiting for The Right Time.

Louis sits up so that he can see himself in the mirror that leans against the wall opposite the foot of his bed. His tummy rolls out past his boxers and he pushes lethargically at it, watching it dimple. Louis sighs heavily. He should maybe start going to the gym again. Louis stares at himself in the mirror, at his greasy hair that’s flat on one side, at his glasses slipping down his nose because his face is so sweaty from lying in the sun all afternoon. It’s 4:38 pm, says the green numbers of his alarm clock. Louis has a headache the size of a polar bear, just sitting on his brain.

“I like Harry.” Louis watches his lips form the words and they fall like dead butterflies out of his mouth. “I like Harry.” Louder, this time, so that his voice scratches a little bit from misuse.

Louis gets out of bed, legs wobbling a little bit, since this is the first time he’s stood up since he collapsed in his bed earlier. The sun is shining in angular shapes across the wood floors and Louis jumps from sun shape to sun shape until he’s standing in front of his window, which is open, the sounds of cars and sirens roaring in. A loud clanging metal noise floats up to Louis’s window, and he leans out to watch someone throw their trash in the trash bins at the back door of the apartment building

Louis plants his hands on the window sill and leans his head out as far as he can without falling. “I HAVE A FUCKING CRUSH ON HARRY!” A bird squawks, alarmed, and alights in a flurry of wings from the edge of the fire escape. The man with his trash nervously looks around. Waving cheerily down at him, Louis grins, and says quietly to himself, “I could maybe be in love with Harry.”

Louis whirls around, sprints across his tiny room, whips open the door and slides down the hallway, coming to a jerky stop in front of Zayn, who’s doing yoga in front of the TV, where Wizards of Waverly Place is playing. Louis doesn’t know what it is about Disney Channel, but it seems to be the most popular thing to watch in their apartment. Whatever.

“Zayn.”

Zayn grunts.

“Zayn, come out of downward dog.”

Zayn looks at him upside down, through his skinny legs. His hair is hanging in his eyes, glasses barely hanging on to his nose. Louis thinks it might be a smart idea to remove one’s glasses before attempting upside down yoga positions. “What?”

“I’m in love with Harry.”

Zayn sinks to the ground with a long sigh and lies flat on his stomach, face squished on his bright pink yoga mat. Louis’s heart hurts, so he pads over and lays down next to Zayn, pushing their faces together so their noses are scrunched together and he can feel the plastic of Zayn’s glasses bumping against his cheekbones.

“I’m in love with Harry,” he repeats, softly. “What do I do?”

Zayn stares at him, eyes soft, purple hollows under his eyes from staying up too late reading and writing and being Zayn. “What do you want--”, but Louis cuts him off.

“Zayn, please do not be all Socratic right now, I need you to tell me what to do.”

Zayn shifts forward, his upper lip catching against Louis’s in a small smile and he breathes out, content. “You have to go get him.”

“I do?”

Zayn blinks once, slowly, in confirmation.

“When?”

“Right now.”

“Right now?”

Zayn nods.

“Okay.” Louis jumps up, careful not to kick Zayn in the face, and Zayn rolls over, resting his head on his elbow. “Okay.” He can do this. He can go and get Harry, he can go tell and Harry how he feels. That’s easy. It’s easy.

“I have to go.” He stares at Zayn, at Zayn’s quiet smile and his bare chest and his floppy hair.

Zayn nods. “Yeah, you do.”

Louis pulls on his shoes, grabs what he thinks is Zayn’s tshirt from the back of the couch, and ignores the fact that he’s wearing three day old boxers and not much else.

Just as he wrenches open the door, manic energy coursing through him, Zayn’s quiet voice stops him from the living room. “Lou.”

“What?” Louis pops his head back.

Zayn’s back in downward dog, baggy shorts hanging all over the place. He’s taken his glasses off and he looks soft and happy. Zayn smiles at him upside down. “Good luck.”

Louis nods briskly, salutes Zayn with the hand that isn’t holding his phone, and slams the door behind him.

 

**

“You have food in your hair.” The boy’s eyes are wide and blue and he’s clutching his mother’s purse tightly like he thinks Louis is going to suddenly start flailing around like a madman.

The bus bumps over the pothole on 94th street, the one that Harry tried to give a turtle a bath in once. Louis calculates in his head that he is three stops from Harry’s studio, if he remembers correctly.

Louis touches his hair. He pulls a green pepper out and offers it to the little boy, who shakes his head slowly. “No, thank you, I m not supposed to take food from strangers.” His mom (Louis assumes) is resting her head against the window, with headphones in. Louis wants to tell her how impressed he is with her son’s manners.

Louis nods. “That’s good.” He pops the green pepper into his mouth.

The little boy is staring at him.

“Where are you off to?” Louis asks him. He makes a show of admiring the boy’s Power Rangers backpack, and gives him a dramatic thumbs up, at which the boy blushes.

“I am going to my friend Jimmy’s birthday party. He’s turning eight.” The boy clumsily holds up nine fingers.

“What did you get him for his present?”

The bus driver calls out, “94th and Winston!”. Two stops.

“I got him a toy dinosaur, because its our favorite kind of animal. Where are you going?”

Louis smiles down at him. “I’m going to tell my true love that I want to be with him.”

“Is your true love a boy?” The kid’s eyes are huge and wondering, framed with short little blonde eyelashes.

Louis nods and the boy breaks out in a huge smile, little square teeth and chapped red lips and chubby cheeks. “I hope he loves you back!”

Louis laughs a little bit. “Me too, kid, me too.”

**

Harry’s studio is some old warehouse that a friend of his dad’s is letting him use as a work place. It’s situated on the corner of a very busy street, and a very deserted street, allowing for an entire side of the building to be used as a place for huge piles of scrap metal lying in what looks like random clumps, but Louis knows, having been on a tour of the scrap yard, that it’s actually all very organized.

He can see Harry’s bike leaning up against the side of the door, so at least Louis knows he’s here. Louis hops off the bus, waving to his new friend whose face is plastered to the window of the bus. Louis stumbles a little bit against the curb and stares up at the warehouse, at it’s huge metal sliding door, and determined, he stalks over to it.

With a clang and a groan, the door slides open, banging into place with an almighty crash.

Harry is standing at his welding table, wearing a huge mask that makes him look like Iron Man, and a long apron wrapped around his narrow waist. He’s leaning over his table, sparks flying from the stick type thingy that he’s holding, and a massive misshapen form of metal is on the table in front of him, red hot and glowing.

Louis sees none of that. All he sees is the sharp muscles in Harry’s back jumping out under his grimy tshirt, the sweat shining on the back of his neck, and most of all, the absolutely huge and overwhelming collection of sculptures that are gathered on one entire half of the studio, tall and sharp-looking and all roughly the same shape, Louis realizes after a beat, all birds in flight, supported by tall rods. There are even a few huge sculptures, sheet metal for wings, hanging from the ceiling, suspended by twisted cords. A shiver runs down Louis’s spine at the sight of one of the huge painted black and red sculptures, eyes of blackened washers and a gaping mouth made of what looks like huge jagged sheet metal. It seems to be flying right at Louis, wingspan huge, at least eight feet across.

When Louis closes the door behind him, it slams again, and this time, Harry looks up, face hidden behind his welding mask, huge welding mittens covering his arms up to the elbows. His tool thing flickers out, and the gassy and sparking sound dies, leaving only silence, and the occasional sound of metal clinking together as the birds hanging from the ceiling shift against each other. The only light comes from the dozens of sky lights scattered across the roof, patches of sunlight patterned across the cement floor.

Louis and Harry stare at each other. Or at least, Louis thinks Harry is staring at him. He’s still wearing the welding mask so he could be staring at something above Louis’s shoulder, for all he knows.

“What are you doing here?” Harry’s voice is muffled, and he pulls his huge mittens off, revealing his ridiculously long and tanned forearms, his knobby elbows.

Louis swallows sharply and wipes his sweaty hands on, what he realizes now, are the same old boxer shorts he was lying in all day. Well, that’s embarrassing. “I have to tell you something.”

“Why is there salsa in your hair?”

“I laid in some nachos.”

Harry just nods, the metal of his visor thing clinking slightly. His curls are pushed up behind the mask, in little wispy horns. Louis wouldn’t be surprised if Harry was wearing a headband underneath that mask.

“What are those?” Louis gestures towards the collection of sculptures, the big ones hanging from the ceiling, the small and medium ones standing in one Louis assumes is supposed to be some sort of flock formation, or whatever the name is for a large amount of birds.

With a clank, Harry pulls off the welding visor, and drops it on the steel table with a loud bang. He is indeed wearing a headband under his mask. His face is red, sweaty, and he rubs his hand across his face, pushing one finger into the corner of his eye. The hollows of his eyes are dark and purple, bruised, the rims of his eyes red, and Louis wonders if Harry is hungover, or how much sleep he ended up getting last night.

Clearing his throat slightly, and wiping his hands on a grimy rag, Harry says “it’s um--”, he coughs self-consciously and wipes his tshirt sleeve across his forehead, “it’s kinda like, ehm, this thing, like...”, he trails off, “an identity thing, I guess, it’s--”.

“Why didn’t you come up last night?”

Harry stops mumbling and looks straight at Louis, eyes light green and piercing. He shrugs slowly, the collar of his tshirt slipping to side, exposing his sweaty and sharp collarbones. Louis wants to bite him, he always wants to bite him.

And all of a sudden, Louis is so mad, he’s so furious he’s positively shaking with it, and he stalks over to Harry until he’s just a couple of feet, close enough that he can see Harry’s chest heaving under his tshirt, can see the small droplets of sweat all along his hairline. Louis is seething, fists clenched at his hips and god, if he didn’t love the look of Harry all sweaty and hot and manly, he would punch him right in the face because fuck, he is such a dick.

“Fuck, you are such a dick!” Louis explodes, and lunges forward to sharply poke Harry in the chest. Harry just glances down at his chest and then back up to Louis’s face, as Louis hops away from him again, too mad and flustered and fucking sexually frustrated to be that near him. “You! You do these things! You walk around with that mouth and you’re so dumb and you know what!”

“What?”

“I want to kiss you!” Louis yells. His voice echoes around the steel walls of the warehouse, floating back to him with a loud ringing. “I want to kiss you all the time and I fucking hate it! But you! You stand there with your eyes and god, you’re nice to Zayn, and that turtle! And you drink girly pink drinks and you make it look so sexy I can’t stand it! And this! This!” Louis gestures with a wide sweep of his arm over to the sculptures. “You make art! You legitimately make art and I’m just, like, fucking around doing nothing and you’re walking around being some sort of fucking hero!”

Harry is quiet, watching Louis, and his lack of response makes Louis so mad he wants to cry, which is an unfortunate addition to Louis’s anger sometimes. There’s nothing worse than crying while yelling at someone.

“And! You know what else??!”

Harry shakes his head. Louis can’t read his expression, mouth set in an emotionless line, eyes closed off.

“I love you!” Louis shouts, and Harry steps back with the force of his shout, his eyes widening slightly at Louis’s giant outburst, ringing around the tall ceilings and reverberating slightly. “But like, this,” he flails his arms between the two of them, “this doesn’t happen to me! Like two months ago I was fucking Zayn on our couch, you know, and like, now I’m just, like, I don’t even know!” Louis is stumbling along with his words now, talking too quickly to get them out, and he wishes Harry could just peek into his brain and see everything’s swimming in there, instead of him having to form it into words. Louis wishes he could just step forward and kiss the sweat off Harry’s face, but he knows, he knows he has to get this out, now, or he never will.

“You just make me so--”, Louis sighs and slumps his shoulders, shrinking back into himself, his voice dropping to a normal volume with a huff,, “mad. Y’know? You make me mad because I just--”, he coughs and rubs his hand across his nose, “I realized that nothing matters unless you’re there. And that, like, I could really easily be in love with you. I already am, I think.”

Louis’s chest is heaving and he can feel sweat prickling at his hairline, can feel the salsa dripping down his neck. He feels disgusting and hot and sweaty and anxious and he’s put literally everything he has on the line for this boy, his dignity and his pride and even his fucking lifestyle, he’s thrown it all away because of this person standing in front of him, Harry, with his clasped hands and his attentive gaze and Louis, he just wants, he wants all of it and he wants to be able to say this as many times as he can per second. He wishes he could just carry a cd player around with him all the time so that in the background of every conversation with Harry is a mantra of Louis saying i love you i love you i love you over and over again, and maybe that way, Harry won’t forget.

“Say it again.” Harry’s voice is low, shaky.

“What?”

“Say it,” He gestures. “Again.”

“I think I love you.”

“Say it louder.”

“I fucking love you, I feel like I’m gonna burst with it.” Louis’s heart is pounding so hard he almost can’t hear Harry’s next words.

“Say it really loud.”

“I’M IN LOVE WITH YOU!” Louis yells it so loud that he can’t hear the exhilarated laugh that explodes out of Harry as his scream echoes around the steel wall, but he can see the astonished look in Harry’s eyes, he can see the arch of the column of Harry’s throat as he throws his head back, laughing like he just ran up a mountain or saved someone’s life. Like maybe he just barely escaped drowning in peanut sauce.

Harry’s giggles die off and he looks straight at Louis, a small smile playing around the edges of his lips, flushed and pink against the tanned skin of his face. “C’mere.”

“Why?” Louis frowns at him.

“Just c’mere, god, you’re so obnoxious.”

Louis walks forward until the tips of their toes meet and he can feel the heat of Harry’s body, can see his eyelashes up close, tangled at the corners, green eyes wide and, Louis hopes, adoring. Harry reaches up with one rough thumb and presses it into the hollows of Louis’s eye, stroking the skin there and then he grasps Louis’s head in both hands, fingers fitting into the indents behind Louis’s ears and thumbs stroking against his cheekbones. His hands are huge, sweaty and rough with callouses and Louis can feel every particle in his body flipping upside down, electric like he’s just stuck his finger in a socket.

Harry leans in close, his mouth almost brushing Louis’s, and Louis has to keep himself from jolting forward to press their lips together, but then Harry is speaking. “You are, without a doubt, the most annoying person I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.”

With an indignant snort, Louis pulls back, but Harry’s hands on his jaw keep him steady before Harry leans in again, and Louis’s skin burns where Harry’s mouth gently touches at the corner of his mouth, the corner of his eye, in the hollows of his cheekbones. Louis can see his pulse jumping in his throat and it comforts him to know that Harry is just as nervous as Louis. When Harry speaks again, he says his words muffled in the side of Louis’s neck, mouth brushing against his jugular. “I’ve been in love with you since you asked me what I thought of that Turner painting. I’ve been in love with you since the night you told me that you have recurring nightmares of your feet being glued to the ground. I’ve been in love with you since the day I watched you talk on the phone to your mom for hours and I couldn’t stop watching you smile.”

Louis feels buffeted by Harry’s words, and he wants to step back and turn away, to hide his face while he listens, to take it all in without having to stare into Harry’s eyes as he pulls his face out of Louis’s neck to stare at him, inches away. He continues. “I’ve been in love with you since that time you said that all you wanted out of life was a garden and four kids and season tickets to every Man-U game. I’ve been in love with you for exactly 60 days and 8 hours, and I really want to kiss you right now.” Harry smiles softly at him, the corners of his mouth tucking into his dimples, deep and pronounced.

Louis can’t breathe. He cannot fucking breathe. He juts his chin up towards Harry. “What are you gonna do about it?”

Harry rolls his eyes, and as he mumbles “most annoying ever”, he touches their mouths together so lightly Louis feels like he’s going to pass out, blood thumping around in his head, feet are asleep, and when he wraps his hands around Harry’s neck and up into his hair, he can’t feel his fingers.

Harry’s mouth opens around Louis’s, wet and hot and Louis’s lungs collapse on him as Harry’s hands slide down his neck to his shoulders, one huge hand spreading down his spine to hold onto his hip underneath his ratty tshirt, the other hand holding him place on his shoulder. Louis feels small, like Harry is towering over him, and he pushes up onto his tip toes to press more insistently into Harry’s mouth, licking into his mouth and tasting the obscene taste of harry harry harry, of coffee and cigarettes and something metallic that stings Louis’s tongue deliciously.

“I’ve been,” Harry presses his mouth to the corner of Louis’s, “wanting this”, he bites along his jawline, “for so long.” He breathes out heavily and noses along Louis’s jawline, tilting Louis’s head back with his fingertips as he goes, his warm breath tickling along the sensitive skin of Louis’s neck.

“How long?” Louis pants, fingers grappling to get a hold on Harry’s sweat-slick neck, and curling his fingers tightly into the wisps of hair at the back of his neck.

Harry pulls back, eyes searching Louis’s face. “Since you told me about Nick insulting your ticket-ripping. I wanted to kiss you right then, in front of everyone in that dumb museum.”

Louis groans and hauls Harry back in, kissing him hard, mumbling against his mouth, “it’s not a dumb museum.”

Harry snorts, “It is so, but I love it because you love it. Now shut up and kiss me, you fool.” He bites at Louis’s mouth, sharp nips, and then with a grunt, his hands clutch at Louis’s thighs right below the curve of his bum.

Feeling himself being lifted into the air, Louis squawks before he lands on the cold, hard surface of the welding table, the metal freezing through his thin boxers. His heels bang against the steel side, clanging loudly, and they both jump at the sudden noise, then laugh.

Harry’s breath is coming out in short huffs, warm and heavy against Louis’s collarbone, and he drops his head to the base of Louis’s throat, catching his breath. Louis threads his fingers through Harry’s hair, the soft and silky strands slipping through his fingers, flattened in places from the mask.

“Why aren’t you wearing pants?” Harry mutters, fingers slipping under the edges of Louis’s boxers, warm and calloused against the soft skin of Louis’s thighs. This feels alarmingly similar to the previous night in the pool, and Louis prays to god that no burly security personnel will burst in on them right now.

“I was in a hurry.”

At that, Harry looks up from where he was watching his hands creep along Louis’s thighs, and he grins happily at Louis. “In a hurry to come scream at me, you mean?”

“Yep.” Louis pops the p.

Harry’s hands are sliding underneath Louis’s boxers now, feather-light strokes, and Louis shivers, feeling goosebumps rise on the back of his arms.

“I’m gonna suck your dick now, okay?” Harry looks up at him, eyebrows raised questioningly, innocent and guileless, pink lips open so fucking invitingly. Louis feels like the breath is knocked out of him and he just nods wordlessly as Harry hooks his fingers in the stretched-out waistband of Louis’s striped boxers.

Harry kisses him slowly, licking across the inside of Louis’s bottom lip, and along the ridges of his teeth, smiling against his mouth like he can’t contain it, and Louis knows, he knows how it feels because it’s as if fire is shooting out of his fingertips, as if his eyes are burning in their sockets, like all his limbs have become detached and are floating away.

As Harry moves to attach his mouth to Louis’s neck, Louis looks over Harry’s shoulder towards the masses of sculptures across from them, the huge intimidating wing spans and the wide open beaks, the skeletal structure of each delicately massive bird.

There’s one in the corner. It’s smaller than the rest and it’s painted a sky blue, made out of what looks like braided metal strips. Its wings are curved gently, arched in a perfect bow, folded against the body of the bird. As Louis stares at it, at its solitude and isolation from the rest of the birds, he feels as though he’s in the air, joining the sea of birds hanging from the ceiling in flight, and it’s as if he’s soaring.

**

It’s not until later, much later, late enough that the only light in Harry’s room comes from the small light on his balcony, and the silvery glow of the full moon, that Louis sees the text from Niall. Louis is lying in Harry’s bed, sheets pulled up on his bare legs, and he’s warm and sated and there’s a Harry-shaped indent in the bed next to him, and Harry-sounding whistling coming from the kitchen where he’s making them late-night eggs and bacon. Louis is sweaty and sticky, and his bum is starting to cramp a little bit from being in bed for so long, but he’s so content and fucked-out; he never wants to move ever again, would love to lie in Harry’s bed forever and smell his cologne and cigarette smoke on the pillows, and look down the hallway at the naked Harry puttering around the kitchen whistling Beyonce.

When he checks his phone, there’s a message from Niall, at 11:45 pm, although it’s 2 am now.

Saw one of ur notes mate at the dancing daisy sumthin u wanna tell ur best mate niall?

Niall is the only person who knows about Louis’s habit, because Louis can’t lie to him, and also because once when Louis was writing something and not responding to one of Niall’s long monologues about the best way to finger a girl, Niall had slid his head under the stall door and caught Louis in the middle of writing a note, so. It was hard to keep it a secret after that.

The Dancing Daisy is the club Harry and Louis were at the previous night, and he smiles, because he remembers what he wrote: i think i’m falling in love.

Before Louis can respond, another text buzzes in from Niall. sum1 wrote u back

With anxious fingers, Louis texts back, heart in his throat, what does it say. With a jolt he realizes that his anonymous responder must have been at the club last night, probably at the same time as Louis, and he feels a weird creeping sensation under his skin, knowing that someone who has seen Louis’s most intimate thoughts was in the same room as him, and he didn’t even know it.  It feels strange to be so anxious about some anonymous person with a bird signature, to feel like there’s a connection there, but this person seems to find Louis worth responding to, and everytime Louis sees a new response, he feels as though someone out there in the universe is watching him with his daily struggles, and sending him little supportive notes via, like, carrier pigeon or owl delivery or smoke signals. Or something. Something revolutionary and exhilarating - it doesn’t feel like they’re communicating via bathroom stall doors, it feels like they’re communicating through tremors in the galaxies or earthquakes of massive magnitude.  

its signed by sum weird symbol lol me n josh can’t figure out what it is

why are you and josh in the same bathroom stall, the symbol is a bird, and christ ni the response what is it

Niall doesn’t respond for a while and Louis lies in bed, phone lying on his face, waiting for it to buzz, fingers anxiously tapping against the mattress. It’s not until twenty minutes later, just as Harry is walking in balancing two plates and two tall glasses of milk, a wide smile on his face, that Niall texts back and Louis hurriedly unlocks his phone to read the text.

“What are you smiling about?” Harry curls himself onto the bed, dropping crumbs from his mouth where he’s holding a piece of toast.

Louis shakes his head, a small smile on his face as he gazes down at the tiny letters on his phone. He likes Harry, might even love him, probably, most likely, pretty much definitely, but this thing, its weird and it feels like something else entirely and it’s all Louis’s, and he’s not sure he’s ready to give that up for a boy with eyes that make Louis feel on top of the world.

While Harry munches on his toast and occasionally makes small appreciative noises, leaning against the headboard with his eyes closed blissfully, Louis rereads the text three times, and each time he reads it, his skin prickles.

it says me too

**

Harry spends a lot of his time in bed, Lous is realizing. This is not some sort of breakthrough discovery for Louis, because he is well-aware that Harry dozes like a cat, frequently and seemingly at random, and that he can fall asleep in any position or situation.

Whenever Louis texts Harry, seeing what he’s up to, and expecting some sort of exciting response like i’m buying sour cream or i’m wanking in the shower to the thought of your eyelashes or i’m creating a revolutionary sculpture that will be shown at the Institute, he instead gets some form of i’m napping or i’m in bed watching science channel or just getting out of bed to come and fuck you. Which, granted, is incredibly exciting, since Louis never knows whether texts from Harry are going to cause him to stop and ponder his own existence, be bombarded with images of sleepy kitten Harry, or immediately be turned on beyond belief and waiting anxiously at his door for Harry to show up, a smirk on his lips and his fingers already reaching for Louis.  

The point, Louis tells himself as he writes in “Prospero” for “sorcerer in Shakespearean romantic comedy”, is that he and Harry find themselves in bed a lot, and more often than not it’s not even sexual. They just enjoy being in bed. Not to mention, sex is not confined to the bed. They christened Harry’s couch in the first twenty-fours since The Declaration.

“H, what’s a seven letter word for repetitive design?” Louis nudges Harry’s head with his elbow and Harry mumbles something into the pillow where he’s lying next to Louis, face smashed into the mattress while he naps on the bed beside him. It’s a Wednesday, a week or two after The Declaration, and the August afternoon sun is casting striped lines on the bed, shining through Harry’s weird wooden blinds, and Harry’s air conditioning works, so it’s blissfully cool in the apartment. Louis is sitting up against the headboard, ankles crossed, toes wiggling to the sounds of Passenger wafting across the room from Harry’s complicated sound system. He’s got a hot cup of tea on the beside table, and he’s reveling in the calmness of the moment, and the small snuffs of Harry’s breath against his hip, the warm skin of Harry’s shoulder pressing against his thigh.

“Sorry, didn’t hear that, what’d you say?” Louis taps the pen against his lip and stares down at his crossword. It’s from, like, 2009, because Harry keeps all his newspapers for his art, but Louis is too poor to buy his own newspaper, so he does the crosswords from Harry’s old ones.

Harry lifts his head. He’s got a red line across his cheek and his curls are all mussed up. “Pattern.” He smiles up at Louis, loose and sleepy, and then lets his head flump back on the pillow.

Louis hums. Well, that fits. “Thank you, babe.” He smiles down at Harry, at his tattooed arm covering his eyes from the glare of the sun, at his bare back with the dappled sun making designs on his skin.

He moves on to to the next clue and Harry’s breath is a steady rise and fall next to him.

**

Here’s the thing: Louis often does not feel like a human being. In fact, he often feels like somewhat of a robot. And it’s curious, because for someone who has a startling amount of apathy towards the world in general, he feels very trapped in the routine and day to day activities of his life. Just once, he thinks, he’d like to do something life-changing or insane. Some days he contemplates stepping in front of a bus, not because he’s suicidal, just to see what would happen, just to exercise his own free will. He likes to say things and do things that are unreasonable and unnecessary, but it’s nice to know that he can do it, if he wants to. Some days Louis is overwhelmed by his own freedom, by the fact that with one little action, he could change the course of his entire life. And he’s constantly consumed by a desire to make things happen, really big things, things that will set the rotation of his own private earth off kilter. He wants to do something that will make people point and whisper and say “there he goes, he’s The One”.

Being with Harry feels like that.

They stand outside Louis’s apartment building at 11 at night, Harry smoking and flicking his ashes onto the grimy sidewalk, just standing there sharing ear buds, with Cat Power softly crooning in their ears. They’re not talking to each other, because they don’t need to. They’re ordinary humans existing ordinarily, doing insignificant things like splitting a cigarette on the street while an ambulance screams from across the city, and a man with his dog walks by.

But something so ordinary as being next to Harry feels like some monumentally important moment, like people walk past them, and continue to turn their heads as they walk away, because they can’t stop watching the tall boy with the lazy mouth around his cigarette, softly bobbing his head to the music, and the small boy fidgeting next to him, scuffing his feet and tying the headphone cord into a knot. Louis feels like they’re this Thing that is happening, some big shift in the cosmos, like they’re on the brink of something huge, and every time Harry looks at him or strokes his hip with his fingers as he’s making dinner and Louis is reading at the table, Louis shivers and the air ripples like something has changed.


**

“So, you’re the one who’s got our Lou all tied up in knots, eh?” Niall stares directly at Harry, yellow hair glinting in the harsh sun. A zebra brays somewhere to their left, and Louis knows that normally Niall would have his face pressed up against the bars of the zebra enclosure, but right now they’re standing by the little station where you can buy food to feed the goats with, and Niall is staring at Harry with a little line between his eyebrows and his hands on his hips.

Louis rolls his eyes. “Shut up, Niall, I’m not tied up in knots.”

Niall doesn’t even bother glancing at him. “Yes you are, Lou, you texted me the other day to wonder if Styles-Tomlinson was too long of a surname.”

Harry looks gleeful and Louis wants to punch Niall. “That’s a dirty lie, Horan.”

“It’s not. You said, and I quote, does Styles-Tomlinson sound good or do you think people will think less of me because my name comes second?”

Louis shakes his head and pokes some feed pellets through the bars to the goat that he has affectionately named Arthur. “Listen to Niall being a brat, Arthur, and remind yourself never to have an Irish friend.” The goat nods its head wildly, and Louis looks triumphantly over at Niall and Harry, but they’ve already walked away towards Liam and Zayn, who’re standing next to the giraffe enclosure, looking anything but interested in the giraffes. Instead Liam is staring at Zayn with something like awe, while Zayn shuffles his feet and say something with a small smile, hands in his pockets.

For some reason, Harry had woken up that day and decided that it was the perfect day to go to the zoo, and so Louis had dragged Zayn out of bed and gotten him to call Liam, and texted Niall, who was, of course, more than excited to go to the zoo. Apparently Niall goes to the zoo a lot, and when Louis asks him who he goes with, Niall just shrugs and says “mate, ya don’t need friends to look at the dolphins,”, which, retrospectively, was an odd thing to say, since their zoo doesn’t have dolphins. Louis assumes it was some sort of big metaphor for the transience of life. Or something.

He hurries over to the four boys; it’s probably not wise to leave Niall with Harry - any moment now, Niall will probably be telling embarrassing stories about Louis. As it is, when Louis reaches the other boys, Niall is in the middle of telling a story to a giggling Harry about the time when Louis was 13 and failed a spelling test and ran away from home for an entire four hours, hiding in Niall’s shed in his backyard because he wasn’t brave enough to actually buy a train ticket for the city.

The story, Louis thinks, is oddly still relevant to Louis’s feelings about life in general - wanting to do something big, and not being brave enough to.

“Alright, alright, enough embarrassing Louis time, lets go look at the pandas,” and at that, Niall’s face lights up and he whips out his map to see where the panda enclosure is. Louis thinks that by now Niall wouldn’t need a map, but maybe he’s enjoying his role as tour guide.

Later, the five boys are on a blanket on the hill by the Reptile house, enjoying peanut butter sandwiches prepared by Harry, who included bags of carrot sticks as if he was packing lunches for his children, when Niall pipes up with his mouth full of sticky peanut butter. Liam looks slightly askance at his lack of manners, but doesn’t say anything - clearly he doesn’t feel comfortable enough yet to tell Niall that he’s got peanut butter in his eyebrow. Louis and Zayn are just too much of dicks to alert him, and Harry probably hasn’t even noticed yet, preoccupied as he is with taking pictures of clouds with his phone. Dirty hipster.

“So, Harry, mate, you do anything cool? Go to school, have a job?” Niall’s chicken legs are taking up most of the blanket, so that the other boys are crowded to the edges, trying to stay off the hot and sticky grass.

Harry snaps out of his cloud reverie and slowly sits up. His nose is sunburnt and Louis has to resist the urge to nag him about putting sunscreen on, because that feels too couple-y. “I’m actually an astronaut,” Harry says slowly, licking his lips. “I’m set for an expedition in September. Going to the moon.”

“No shit!” Niall looks impressed and Louis sees something twitch in Zayn’s mouth like he’s trying to keep in his laughter. “Must’ve had to do a lot of school for that!”

Harry nods seriously. “Years and years. I’m still only a beginner astronaut.”

Niall hums. “I’ve always wanted to meet Lance Armstrong, see what it’s like on the moon.”

At that, Zayn snorts loudly, juice spraying out of his nose and soaking Liam, who yelps and starts batting at Zayn, who’s laughing so hard he’s choking.

“Niall, sweetheart, Lance Armstrong is the bicyclist.” Louis pats him on the knee once and tries not to giggle at Niall’s crestfallen expression. “Neil Armstrong is the man on the moon.”

“And I was kidding,” Harry adds. “I’m an artist.”

With the sounds of Liam slapping Zayn on the back in an attempt to get him to stop choking, Niall brightens considerably. “Well, that’s still pretty cool! Not as cool as being on the moon, but,” he shrugs. “What kind of art?”

“He sculpts metal, Niall,” Louis pokes him in the side and steals one of his carrots. “What is this, the Spanish Inquisition?”

Niall glares at Louis and pulls the carrot right out of Louis’s mouth before popping it into his own and chopping down rather aggressively. “No, I just want to get to know him. I already interviewed Liam, like, ages ago, but you’ve been keeping Harry a secret from us!”

Louis looks at Liam, who nods in confirmation. “Niall knows everything about me now, from my favorite color to my social security number.” He pats Zayn on the back one more time, lingering a little bit and stroking his hand down Zayn’s spine, and Louis smiles fondly at them, feeling like the best matchmaker in the world. He did that, all by himself, he made that happen. He is such a great friend.

“I don’t mind, really,” Harry shrugs.

Niall grins smugly at Louis. “See? Get your panties out of a knot, Tomlinson. So, Harry, metal, eh? Anything cool?”

Shifting on the blanket and tucking his bare feet into his lap, Harry hums thoughtfully and scratches at his nose. “I do a lot of, um, like--”

“Birds,” Louis finishes. “He likes birds.”

At that, Niall shoots Louis a surprised look with his eyebrows that he thinks is supposed to be meaningful, but it’s Niall, so he was probably just choking on a carrot or having indigestion or something, so Louis doesn’t think anything of it, and Niall looks away from him after a moment.

Harry nods. “I do.”

“Let’s go see the birds,” Liam interjects. He’s reaching around the circle to grab everyone’s pieces of Saran Wrap from their sandwiches so they don’t blow away in the wind, and he balls them up and stuffs all their garbage into the paper bag that Harry had packed their lunches in.

Zayn nods like Liam has made some sort of important pronouncement about the state of the world and he couldn’t be in any more agreement, so that’s that, and they trek off to the see the birds, where Harry stands with his nose against the glass staring at the colorful birds, and Niall complains that he wants to see something big and furry. All in all, Louis spends the day feeling as though he’s babysitting a bunch of children and in all honesty, he can’t remember the last time he had so much fun.

**

i want to meet you

Louis stares at the small words. It’s the second part of a response to a note of his own. Louis’s note says i wonder where you’ll be in the apocalypse. He wrote it four days ago, after a particularly enlightening conversation with Harry as they’d wended their way home from Harry’s studio back to his apartment. Louis was all in a flutter because someone on the news had mentioned Judgement Day and was going on and on about who would be in heaven and who would be in hell. Louis couldn’t stop thinking about it, and finally brought it up with Harry, who said he didn’t believe in Judgement Day and that heaven was different for everyone. The morning after, when Louis was walking to work, he stopped for coffee and wrote this note. And now, four days later, there’s a response.

In green marker, a little bit smudgy and messy, like the person was in a rush, the note says next to you, and Louis’s heart is in his throat. After that, in tiny letters, it says i want to meet you.

Louis leaves without buying his double whip frappucino.

**

Niall is looking at Louis with something like incredulity on his face. They’re sitting on the hard floor behind the counter at the record shop where Niall spends most of his days. It’s after closing time, dark outside. The shop is on a busy street, so club-goers and shoppers are still bustling by and they can hear the dull roar of life happening beyond the doors of the shop, but here in the safety of the darkness behind the counter, Louis is comfortable, resting his head back against the side of the counter.

“So what you’re telling me,” Niall says, and runs his hand through his hair while bringing the joint back to his mouth and taking a drag, “is that somebody who seems to get you,” he puts emphasis on the word get, “wants to meet you, and you’re afraid to.”

Louis nods.

“Why?”

“What if the person isn’t what I thought they would be?”

“What do you mean?” Niall passes the joint to Louis. The shop is going to smell disgusting by the end of this conversation, and Louis doesn’t envy whoever it is that has to open shop in the mornings, and will have to air out the vague smell of weed.

“Like, what if,” Louis waves his hand around, the smoke trailing after him, “what if this person is a forty year old pervert?”

Niall just looks at him. “Who do you want it to be?”

Louis sighs and inhales some of the smoke into his lungs, coughing a bit, because it’s been awhile since he really had a conversation with Niall, and thus it’s been awhile since he smoked weed. “I want it to be somebody that I feel, like, an instant connection with, y’know? Like, we’d get on from the word go.”

Niall nods and tilts his head back against the counter, closing his eyes. They sit in silence for a bit, and the moonlight breaks over the lip of the counter making the hair’s on Niall’s bare leg shine silver. His face is in complete shadow from the snapback balanced precariously on his head. “Does Harry know about this?”

No. No, he doesn’t, and it’s something that Louis has been trying not to think about. He shakes his head. “No.”

“Are you going to tell him?”

Louis shrugs.

Taking the joint back from Louis, Niall sticks it in his mouth and crawls over on his hands and knees till he’s sitting next to Louis. He takes Louis’s hand in one of his, and just lets their clasped hands dangle loosely between their knees. His nails are bitten short, and he’s got a list written on the back of his hand. From what Louis can tell, Niall needs to do his grocery shopping, although based on the list, his “grocery shopping” consists of buying beer and cheese and condoms. Louis wonders who Niall is having sex with. He doesn’t want to know.

“I think you should meet this person.” Niall’s voice floats away between them, a little rough from the smoke, and he sounds mystical and prophetic.

“I want to, I think.”

Niall taps his thumb against the back of Louis’s hand. “You can do whatever you want, Lou.”

“The question is, should I do whatever I want?” Weed always makes Louis circular, makes him go on and on about the frailty of human mortality.

Niall looks over at him, half his pale face in moonlight with one blue eye shining out. It’s eerie. The other half of his face is in shadow, dark but for the hint of his jawline. “Life is too short not to do and be everything we want, Lou. If we only ever did what we were supposed to do, we’d hardly be classified as human beings.”

“When did you become a theorist on free will, Ni?” Louis sighs heavily and shifts so their sides are lined up. This is his favorite Niall. Warm and cuddly, handing out wisdom to Louis like he’s got bottomless oceans of it inside of him. He probably does. Probably has seas and rivers and lakes of wisdom just running through him, waiting for people to open the dam and let him say what he wants. Louis feels sad that nobody has thought to unleash Niall on the world, and that he’s stuck in this record shop, selling music he would rather be creating.

“When you decided you needed someone to tell you how to live your life, Lou,” Niall says quietly. “You gotta stop asking people for advice, and just do things, y’know? Exercise your own free will. Go meet this person and be blown away by them and then leave them and move on and go home to Harry.”

“What if I can’t leave them?”

Niall shrugs. “I dunno. Guess you’ll know when you meet them.”

**

When Louis gets home that night, Liam and Zayn are sitting at the kitchen table, staring at something on the table. He kicks off his shoes and grabs a poptart from the open package on the counter before wandering over to where the two boys are hunched over a glass bowl with an electric blue and red fish swimming in and out of plastic reeds.

“Did you guys buy a fish?” He’s spilling raspberry poptart crumbs into Liam’s hair as he stands over them, but he too is enthralled with the ethereal waving of the fish’s red fins, and he doesn’t notice.

Zayn looks up at him, eyes wide and shining like he’s seen the 8th wonder of the world. “Isn’t he beautiful?”

Louis snorts, but nods. The fish is staring at the three boys, gently swaying in the water and Liam reaches out and taps once against the glass, watching as the fish darts away.

“His name is Benjamin,” Liam breathes out, like he’s afraid that if he speaks any louder, the fish will be emotionally scarred by the volume of his voice.

They stare at the fish for a few more minutes. “Are you guys high?” Louis asks, and plucks Zayn’s glasses off his face and puts them on. Everything is blurry and he feels a bit sick, so he sticks them back on Zayn’s face, lopsided and crinkling down the top of his ear. Zayn barely even notices.

“No.” Zayn reaches out and wraps an arm around Louis’s hips without looking away from the fish. “Are you?”

Louis laughs. “Yeah, probably.”

“That’s nice,” Zayn sighs dreamily. “Look at Benjamin, isn’t he cute?”

Louis nods but neither of the two boys see him. He grabs another poptart. “I’m going to bed.”

“Ok, Lou.” Liam doesn’t even look at him. Louis goes over to the fridge, drinks milk straight from the carton, which he knows Liam hates so much. But you know what, Liam doesn’t live here, so Louis can do whatever he wants. Free will.

“I’m going to do big things tomorrow, guys.”

There’s no answer.

“I think I’m going to move to Morocco tomorrow.” Louis puts the carton back in the fridge and writes the word suck my dick out of the fridge word magnets they have. He doesn’t know why they sell packets of word magnets with dick in them, but he’s not complaining.

“Have fun, babe,” Zayn says and scoots his chair closer to Liam’s, and rests his head on his shoulder to stare at their fish some more.

Louis is sure they are high.

**

The next day, Louis goes to the coffeeshop, and underneath i want to meet you, he writes 9 pm, friday, crawley park on the bridge. He leaves with his heart in his throat and his hands shaking.

**

Friday dawns gray and overcast, and Louis wakes up with the sense that by the end of the day, he’ll be a whole new person. But that’s absurd. It’s just one person, just an anonymous person that’s responded to over fifty of Louis’s notes all over the city,  just somebody who saw something of importance in the words that Louis scribbles all over the most banal places.

He spends the day with Harry, napping on the couch in the studio while Harry drifts in and out, puttering around in the scrap yard to collect and organize metal for a project that he doesn’t seem to understand well enough himself to be able to tell Louis about it. So Louis just watches him sit on the floor and organize washers and screws and nails into empty paint cans, and saw giant pieces of metal in half. Louis brings his book to the studio and lies on the couch with his ipod in, eating pringles and reading The Hobbit, while the flickering and roaring sound of Harry’s work is a dull background to his day.

At 7 pm, they’re eating a dinner of cucumber and salami sandwiches on the floor of Harry’s studio. They’re quiet, Harry tired after a day of working, and Louis anxious about his meeting with The Bird that evening.

“I gotta go home soon.” Louis clears his throat and picks a cucumber out of his sandwich. Harry looks up. “Promised Zayn we’d do a Star Wars movie night tonight.” He doesn’t look at Harry when he says it. It’s not like he’s ashamed exactly, because he and Harry haven’t actually defined what they are yet, so he’s at leisure to meet with whoever he wants, but he doesn’t like lying to Harry.

Harry coughs. “No, that’s alright, Lou, I, uh-”, he pulls at his lip in that way that caught Louis’s attention the first time he ever saw him, “I’m gonna work on this a bit more.” He gestures towards the piles of metal sitting near his work station.

Louis nods.

**

It’s starting to rain when Louis heads over to the park. He hopes it doesn’t deter the person from showing up, because as much as Louis finds it romantic to be meeting someone in the rain, he really doesn’t want to stand on the bridge in the rain for someone who isn’t going to show up.

The drizzle is cold, sliding down the collar of Louis’s shirt and making goosebumps rise on his arms. By the time he’s standing at the bridge, staring down into the water, he’s soaked, tshirt sticking to him and hair flat against his forehead. The rest of the park is a blur around him, puddles forming in the grass, and the rain is now coming down so hard he feels as though he’s being drummed into the earth. The roar of the rain on the pond below the bridge is loud, and Louis puts his hood up, feeling it get sodden instantly.

The park is empty, but for a few joggers sprinting to get out of the rain. Louis can’t see the street from where he’s standing, and the tall trees block the view of the skyline, so Louis feels as if he’s in the middle of nowhere, trapped in this torrential downpour and awaiting the arrival of an unknown person.

He leans against the railing of the bridge, the cold metal freezing his forearms through the sopping wet sweatshirt. The sky is heavy and gray as steel, foggy and blurry with rain, and Louis feels as though he’s in a Jane Austen novel, waiting in a rainy field for his Mr. Darcy to show up. Louis has always liked the rain - he likes the feeling of rebirth after the downpour is over, likes the smell of wet earth, likes seeing people venture out after the storm. He likes the sight of people huddled under awnings in the city, waiting out the storm. He likes the feel of wearing wet shoes, of being so incredibly wet that he feels like a drowning man, a feeling that Louis knows intimately.

“Lou?”

Louis turns around, and Harry is standing there. His jeans are soggy and clinging to his skinny legs, curls soaked and hanging around his ears, water clinging to his eyelashes and framing the bright green in droplets. His brows are drawn together, confused.

“What’re you doing here?” Louis asks slowly. This isn’t right, this is not what’s supposed to be happening. Louis pulls his hands inside his sweatshirt sleeves and stares up at Harry, Harry with his wet face and his wet clothes, his hands shoved deep inside his jacket pockets.

Harry looks around, past Louis down the bridge, as if he’s looking for something, and Louis turns his head to see what it is Harry is looking at. There’s nothing there. Louis thinks he might be having an out of body experience, because his feet don’t feel connected to his legs and his hands don’t feel connected to his arms, and he has to control the urge to jump over the railing into the water below, to escape the confused look on Harry’s face.

Harry quirks his mouth gently. “I’m, uh--”, he coughs slightly, throaty and wet, and Louis can tell he’s just smoked a cigarette, “meeting someone, I guess. I think. I thought?”

Louis can’t breathe, genuinely cannot push air in and out of his lungs, because no, no there is no way that Harry is the person who’s been responding to his notes, and then wham, all the pieces clunk into place in Louis’s head: Harry’s obsession with birds, the marks all over his hands that Louis had always assumed were from welding but he now realizes were pen marks. The way Harry has always thought carefully about all of Louis’s inane remarks, and given them truthful answers. Just like the person responding to the messages. Louis wants to cry and he doesn’t know why, he’s not even sad, he’s just so astonished by this turn of events.

“Who, exactly, were you supposed to be meeting?” Louis asks, carefully. He can tell by the tightly drawn line between Harry’s eyebrows that he hasn’t figured it out yet, and Louis feels like his heart has fallen out of his chest at the thought that this person who stands before him is all at once Harry, who somehow in three months has made Louis feel like he could fucking fly, and is also a mysteriously anonymous person who Louis has been feeling increasingly attached to as the months go by, has memorized the loops and curls of his writing, the smudge and the tilt of the bird symbol. He wonders how he never recognized Harry’s handwriting, because he’s seen it more than a dozen times, but it never occurred to him to compare it to writing he’d seen elsewhere.

“Well,” Harry takes a deep breath, “it’s a long story.” A drop of water runs off his jawline, and Louis wants to lick him, wants to touch him so badly he aches with it, but he squeezes his hands into fists inside his sweatshirt sleeves and nods at Harry, telling him to continue. “There’s this person, they write things, like, on bathroom walls?” He laughs kind of self-consciously, “and I just, like--” he shrugs, “felt connected to them. Somehow.” Harry looks all anxiously at Louis, and Louis realizes that Harry thinks Louis is mad at him for meeting with another person, and for a second Louis is jealous that Harry would go and meet with somebody he didn’t know, but then Louis realizes he’s doing the same thing, and that it’s absurd to be jealous of himself, and then there’s just this rush of energy, pure white-hot adrenaline burning through him when he realizes there aren’t two such extraordinary people out there. It’s Harry, it’s just Harry, it’s all been Harry this entire time and Louis is blown away by the force of it, by the pure wonder of this person standing before him.

“Harry,” he breathes. His voice is almost lost in the rain plummeting down around them, but he knows Harry can hear him because he leans forward, and his mouth is so red and wet from the rain, and when Harry reaches out to thumb at the curve of his neck, Louis closes his eyes at the electric touch. “Harry, it’s me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Louis takes a deep breath. “That’s me. I’m me. I’m--”, he struggles for words, “I’m the person you were meant to meet.”

“I don’t...understand.”

“I’ve been writing on bathroom walls for years. I am the Rogue. It’s me.”

Louis hears a slight intake of breath, and then the heat of Harry is right up against him, and he can feel Harry’s lips against his closed eyelids, soft and brushing against the thin skin. “Louis.” Harry’s voice is soft and tender in the small space between them, his warm breath in direct contrast to the chill of the rain glossing on Louis’s face.

Louis opens his eyes and Harry is staring at him, green eyes wide in wonder. “I love you,” Harry whispers softly, his voice underlied by the rhythmic pounding of the rain on the bridge. “I love you so much I can’t even breathe with it.”

Louis blinks, his wet eyelashes against his cheeks, and kisses Harry, the rain mixing between their mouths, wet and chilly, but Harry has his hands tucked into the pockets of Louis’s sweatshirt, and he’s pulling him to his body. The sky opens in its final downpour, and they tilt their faces towards the gray sky, the rain loud and rushing on their skin, and Harry begins to laugh, pure exhilaration and Louis joins in, because god, he can’t believe this, he can’t believe what’s just happened. He feels like he’s in a movie, but it’s real, it’s so real, and he wants to jump around and scream it from the bridge, wants to brand it on the inside of his eyelids so he never has to live without this moment of knowledge.

He pulls away from Harry’s embrace and turns towards the railing of the bridge, leans over and with his mouth open so wide that rain collects in it, he screams at the top of his lungs “I’M IN LOVE WITH HARRY STYLES!!!!” A family of ducks hiding under the bridge quack up at him and he laughs, looking out at the park laid below him, foggy and drowning in the rain. He turns to look at Harry, a wild grin on his face, and the look in Harry’s eyes makes Louis weak at the knees. “I love you,” Louis says, and reaches out with wet fingers to touch the line of Harry’s jaw.

Harry smiles at him, kisses the tips of Louis’s fingers, and then moves to the railing of the bridge, and yells, “I’M IN LOVE WITH LOUIS TOMLINSON!!!” and Louis shrieks with laughter. He feels insane, like he’s burning up with the force of his emotion in that exact minute, and he grabs Harry’s hand, winding their fingers together.  

“C’mon,” Louis says, and brings up their clasped hands to his mouth to kiss each of Harry’s knuckles. “Take me home.”

**

The rain slides down the window, blurry, and loud on the roof and Harry worships Louis’s body with his hands and tongue, and in sheets thick with the scent of wet skin, they make love in rhythm to the sound of the rain outside.

**

“Niall, it was Harry.”

“Who was Harry?”

“The person responding to my notes.”

“Oh, Lou.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m so proud of you.”

“I’m, um,--” Louis coughs and rubs his mouth, trying not to smile, “I’m proud of myself.”

**

“Okay, count to fifty, and don’t take the blindfold off before I tell you,” instructs Harry, knotting the blindfold behind Louis’s head. He slips his fingers down the back of Louis’s collar, and Louis giggles and shivers slightly.

“Okay.” Louis stands in the warm studio, hands clasped behind his back and everything is dark. The sun shining in the skylights is warm on his skin, and it’s another hot day, but the recent rain has made everything green and soft in the way it is only after a giant rainstorm.

Louis can hear the clanking sounds of metal and the shuffling of Harry’s feet, and he counts aloud the last five seconds, “forty-six, forty-seven, forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty.” He puts his fingers at the edges of the blindfold but doesn’t pull it off yet. “Can I look?”

There’s a last loud bang of metal, and then Harry says “yes”, and Louis slips the blindfold off his eyes, blinded at first by the bright sun streaming in, and then he focuses on Harry, and beside Harry, a large shape hidden underneath a white sheets.

Louis rolls his eyes. “Haz, the point of a blindfold is to surprise me, you don’t need a sheet too.”

Harry laughs and shrugs. “I like surprises. Ready?”

Louis nods, and Harry whips off the sheet, revealing a huge metal structure. It’s painted a creamy white and constructed of what looks like thousands of small pieces of metal molded and twisted into two larger pieces, in the pattern of what Louis thinks is feathers. The two huge shapes are joined at one edge and extend at least four feet on each side, to a width of eight feet, tapering into fine points. And then Louis realizes.

“It’s wings.”

Harry nods. “For you. So you can fly.” He smiles sweetly.

Louis steps forward and runs his fingers over the polished metal, feeling how cool it is on his skin, the glossy finish of the paint. The edges are dangerously sharp, honed to a fine point and Louis thinks he could slice open his finger if he slid it along the edge. It’s strikingly similar to how Louis views himself, and he almost cries. He can imagine Harry out here, late into the night, hunched over his table with sparks flying as he carefully welded each feather together, the little line between his forehead that Louis loves so much, the slight quirk of his mouth as he concentrates. He can imagine Harry’s proud smile when he’d finished.

He’s dumbfounded. “Why?”

Harry steps forward and takes Louis’s hand in his, runs his fingertips along the tips of the feathers, where they’re painted the palest of blues, blue like the sky after a fresh rainfall.

Harry reaches out and strokes his thumb down from Louis’s ear to his chin, and ducks his head before looking back up at Louis, eyes sparkling. He smiles at Louis, soft and so in love that Louis almost can’t breathe. He is lovely, absolutely extraordinary.

“So that you can fly like you’ve always wanted to. So that you don’t have to rely on others to get you in the air.” Harry steps forward and puts his hands on either side of Louis’s face, framing his jaw with his big hands. “So that you can be an angel.”