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I would name the stars for you (I would take you there)

Chapter Text

 

&&

Slowly counting down the days
‘til I finally know your name
The way your hand feels round my waist
The way you laugh, the way your kisses taste
I’ve missed you but I haven't met you
Oh but I want to

How I do

 

1 year before

It is the strangest of feelings when love falls apart.

Strange in the sense that you hurt until you feel numb, until you feel nothing at all.

Hollywood lusts after drama; loves a violent end with screaming and cursing and crying in the rain and that one final plea for forgiveness. But the just-not-quite-right kind of love? The kind of love between two people who settle for one another, for comfort and familiarity over passion and risk? That love simply fades away, softly and slowly, like a shadow into the night.

At first, all you see is the sun, warm and comfortable and familiar. You let the false tendrils of hope wrap themselves around your heart, and ignore the impending darkness, the black spots that creep along the edges of your vision, the inevitable ending in which you both realize that your puzzle pieces were of a similar shape but never a perfect fit.  And so, eventually the sun sets and you‒ blinded by the false light of a complacent love‒ don’t feel the chill of dusk until it’s much too late. And then it is dark and you are, all at once, completely alone.

You become a husk of your former self‒ empty and withering, roots yanked out by Fate’s cruel hand‒ clinging onto something that is already gone. You ask yourself who you could possibly be in a world without them, and find the answer in the torn pieces of a photograph featuring your brilliant smile, but hollow unhappy eyes. You are incomplete, one-third of a whole instead of the perfect half you were meant to be… But eventually, you find your soul too weak to even grasp at those waning memories of love and bliss, and it is then that you are forced to let go.

You allow the remnants of what you once were to be tossed and turned in the winds of time, a little lost soul drifting aimlessly amongst a sea of people, almost dead but unfortunately not quite. And then you tell all of your friends that you’ve moved on, tell your mum that she needn’t worry any longer, and trick yourself into pretending that everything’s okay. You make them believe you, politely refuse their offers of help until eventually they stop coming. If you’re destined to be alone, you reason, you ought to well and truly detach yourself from everyone you love.

Because what is real love if yours didn’t turn out to be?

(You promise yourself you’ll never get hurt again.)

And then you flock to the clubs and get shamelessly drunk, picking up anonymous fucks and pretending that they don’t all bear an uncanny resemblance to… to… and you lie to yourself, say you forgot the name when it’s burning like flames on the tip of your tongue. But the curls aren’t curly enough or the eyes are the wrong shade of blue or the feel of those calloused fingertips against your skin is either too rough or not there at all. And you try to forget but you can’t, try to love again but you won’t, try to live again when you haven’t got the heart to.

They are quick to teach you- just as soon as you depart from the seemingly endless fantasy of childhood- that the world is an inherently cruel place. There are drug dealers and thieves prowling the streets at night, hoping to plant the seeds of rebellion in your naïve adolescent brain. There are rapists around every corner waiting to steal your innocence and murderers plotting to end your life. They speak of terrorists and tyrants and nuclear weapons, of genocide and war and forced prostitution. News headlines flash with horrific tales of kidnappings and sexual abuse. But they never say a word about the tragedy of lost love.

They wouldn’t want to scare you after all…

So they tell you, instead, that every good and loving person gets their happy ending.

Even when you don’t.

& L &

This feels right and I’m letting it
And now I know just what to do
Tire of me if you will, my dear
I will not tire of you

And so it is by the most tragic and unfortunate of circumstances that one Louis Tomlinson, aged twenty-two and recently freed from an onslaught of insufferable uni courses for a Masters in English he’s not entirely sure he needed, finds himself standing in front of an abandoned two-level shop in London. It’s in horrible shape, really– the display windows are shattered jagged pieces of glass jutting out like the teeth of some ghastly beast, and the hand-carved wooden sign above the door is covered in so many layers of graffiti as to bear an uncanny resemblance to Raindrops #4 by the prolific, but decidedly less criminal, Bruce Gray. There’s a faded awning attached on only its right side, waving in the breeze like a tattered post-war banner, and an equally as devastated-looking black wrought iron fence lining the short, cobblestone walkway. He likes it, he decides, sizing up the ostensibly derelict exterior.

It has character.

He steps gingerly over the holes in the walkway as– quite predictably– more than a few cobblestones are missing, and hops up three cement steps to the front stoop. He digs in his pocket for a moment and eventually produces a rusty golden key, the likes of the flying keys in one of those Harry Potter movies‒ minus the wings of course. The lock on the shop’s decrepit door is as equally old and rusty, layers of paint peeling all around it like strips of wallpaper or skin, he supposes, in a more morbid sense of the word (he is a writer after all, pay no mind to such artistic comparisons). It takes several attempts before he finally manages to jam the key in the lock, having to jiggle the knob quite violently to release the latch. He supposes the neighboring shopkeepers ought to think he’s some sort of traveling vagabond, breaking into an abandoned shop to smoke some pot and sleep for a week or two.

Better they think I’m mad and keep away, he muses, than have them flocking to my door like pigeons with their incessant chatter.

With one final groan of protest, the heavy door swings open, revealing an inner sanctum untouched by human hands for nearly twenty years. No one wanted this property, he was told, and that’s exactly why he bought it. The foreboding two-story brownstone lies squeezed between a quirky thrift store painted a cheery yellow and kitschy self-proclaimed “sex emporium” called Kitty’s– its sign an outline of a provocatively posed young woman highlighted in pink neon. Tucked away in a nearly-hidden side street in inner-London’s artsy Camden Town, it’s neither the most accessible nor ideal of business locations. The real estate agent had sold it to him for little more than £20,000‒ an absolute steal despite its dreadful condition. He hadn’t even visited the residence, bought it solely from verbal description alone. The agent had thought he was joking at first, but once she’d established his genuine interest, there was little to do but sign a few papers and he was settled. Apparently, she’d been just as eager to get rid of the property as he was to buy it…

A swirling cloud of dust erupts as he shuffles inside the front door. Rats scurry about in a panic, dodging the sun’s rays under oddly-shaped lumps draped in‒ what were probably once starched white‒ linen sheets. The floor, the walls, everything really, is covered in a thick layer of fuzzy, grey dust. He absentmindedly runs a finger across one of the lumps as he walks by and is genuinely surprised when the object in question is not some sort of furry deceased animal but, in fact, just an old bureau. So, despite the dirt and the mess and the obvious need for repairs, Louis finds that he’s already fallen in love.

It’s perfect, he thinks, and for the first time since… well since it happened, he feels himself genuinely smile.

To any passive observer, his recent purchase would seem quite the foolish decision, judging by the property’s absolutely deplorable condition. But one final glance at the precariously hung chandelier and the peeling wallpaper and the moldy floorboards does nothing but convince Louis that he’s found himself a brilliant new opportunity.

Generally speaking, if he cannot fix himself‒ an undertaking which has thus far proven thoroughly impossible‒ he can at least fix something.

&&

1 year after

Brrring..

The jingling of the little bell over the front door sounds through the shop, echoing softly past rows and rows of bookshelves as far as the eye can see (or rather those occupying the first floor of an ostensibly miniature–sized London bookstore). A lissome, brown-haired young man sits at a desk near the back, scribbling furiously in a tattered moleskinee. He curses once‒ for a misplaced word which he quickly marks out‒ and again as the bell’s interruption causes an unsightly dark smudge in the margin of his notebook.

(It’s Sunday, a slow day‒ or what was supposed to be a slow day‒ and he’d been foolishly hoping that there wouldn’t be any interruptions whilst penning the last of the poems for his latest collection, one which his publisher was absolutely demanding be finished by the quickly approaching deadline. And, of course, this final poem was giving him particular trouble. Perhaps it was due to the rather sensitive subject matter, but either way he’d been working on it for hours and had just established a sort of flow to his work when of course a customer had to arrive.)

He stands up begrudgingly from his place of work and prepares a cheery smile as to properly welcome the visitor to his shop. He moves quickly to the front of the store, smoothing out his rumpled sweater and mentally preparing his oft-rehearsed greeting. “Hello, I’m Louis Tomlinson. Welcome to Tales Resold, the finest antique bookstore in London. Are you looking for anything in particular?”

But it’s then that his eyes catch a familiar flash of blonde hair and the need for all formalities disappears, along with the exaggerated grin threatening to strain his cheek muscles.

“For god’s sake, Niall,” he cries out in frustration, “Can’t you leave me alone for one day?”

The blonde boy just grins, ignoring the rather rude greeting. He reaches into a pocket in his trousers, unwraps a half-crumbled pastry, and proceeds to take a large, unmannerly bite.

“Er’ gon’ pain’ tha’ do?”  Niall asks, and it’s a wonder that his thick Irish accent remains even the slightest bit intelligible through a mouthful of apple and flaky bread.

Louis can’t help but smile softly despite his mate’s disgusting eating habits. It’s a joke they’ve shared since he bought the place nearly two years ago. Over the years, he’s spent countless pounds and hours of labor repairing every inch of the shop, but for some odd reason he can’t bring himself to repaint the front door. He’d once likened the dilapidated shop to his own life, a condition of brokenness that was seemingly irreparable. Though there eventually came a point where he no longer felt quite so broken, he supposes that the unfinished door serves as a reminder of his lingering imperfections. Even now the forest green paint is peeling something awful, but the sting of nostalgia he feels at the thought of painting over the original is enough to keep him from buying a liter and getting it over with.

“Suppose I will soon enough,” he replies earnestly, though by Niall’s chuckle it’s clear that he’s anything but believable.

It’s then that the blonde boy lets out a sudden resounding belch, having polished off the last of his tuck. He takes a hand to the crumbs dotting his mouth and chin, and wipes them off on the thigh of his trousers.

“Been swiping merchandise from the bakery again?” Louis asks, remaining unfazed by the Irishman’s lack of basic table manners (he’s had years to become immune to it after all).

Niall, for his own merits, looks surprisingly offended. “Course not,” he protests, “I’d never.”

“Must’ve had a quick shag with Josh behind the counter then,” Louis teases, “Convinced him to give you a free one, did you now?”

Louis cackles and ducks as Niall’s fist swings playfully toward his head.

“Arsewipe,” Niall mutters, his cheeks painted a brilliant shade of red.

Josh is a cheery lad with a boyish face who owns an organic bakery a few streets over. The three of them, along with Liam, Louis’ sensible old uni roommate in his first year teaching at a posh secondary school in Brook Green, often frequent the local pubs on the weekends. These outings usually involve Louis perched on a barstool scribbling poems on a paper napkin, Liam‒ who even after all these years still half-heartedly claims sobriety having had, at one point, only one kidney (medical miracle or summat)‒ keeping careful track of how many pints each of the others have consumed and providing the appropriate warnings (“Niall, that’s four you’ve had already and no, I don’t care how Irish your blood is!”), and Niall and Josh drinking into oblivion whilst obviously desiring to do a bit of covert fondling in the washroom in the back.

“Me and Josh are just mates, Lou,” Niall remarks with a not-so-subtle sigh, picking at the ragged hem of his ‘artfully destroyed’ white top.

He plucks away a loose thread with a quick pinch of his fingers, and looks up, face brightening. “And anyway, I’ve got me eye on a fit brunette who just moved into the flat on the fourth floor.”

He pauses a moment, seemingly struck by the memory of his new neighbor.

“Her legs, mate…” he continues, with a wistful sigh, “They’re like… like… the best legs ever… in the world.”

“Very articulate,” Louis comments, an amused smirk gracing his lips, “and I presume you utilized your incredible way with words to sweep her off her feet?”

Niall scoffs. “Give me some credit, Lou. As Mark Wahlberg once said ‘actions speak louder than words but not nearly as often’ and I’m‒”

“I believe that was Mark Twain, actually,” Louis interjects, “though the first bit is actually an ancient proverb, likely Greek in origin, first recorded in English in the late 17th century.”

“Wahlberg, Twain, same difference,” Niall replies with a shrug.

Louis laughs good-naturedly. “And I suppose you think ‘quick to kill, I gets ill, I make ya blood spill’ is the opening line to Tom Sawyer?”

“I’m pretty sure that was in there somewhere, yeah,” Niall says, smiling.

“Right, of course,” Louis nods in agreement, “It’s a wonder you aren’t an English major as well… Anyway, you were saying? The bird in the flat on the fourth floor?”

“Right,” Niall says, puffing his chest out, “As you know, I’m a man of action, so I helped her carry some boxes up to her flat ‘nd offered to cook her a ‘welcome to the complex’ dinner ‘nd everything.”

“Oh, is that right?” Louis questions, raising an eyebrow doubtfully, “Well then, I hope you’ve bragged to her that your culinary specialties include burnt steak and half-cooked pasta dishes, unless you’ve suddenly become a five-star chef without my knowledge?”

Niall glares‒ opening his mouth to no doubt protest his mediocre cooking abilities‒ but apparently decides against it and quickly changes the subject instead. “So what were you up to then before I stopped by?”

Louis sighs, glancing back at the still unfinished poem lying on his desk. “Trying to finish that last poem before my publisher bites my head off,” he replies.

“You mean the poem?” Niall asks with a knowing look.

“That’s the one.”

“C’mon Tommo,” he protests, “you’ve been working on that one for what? Three years now?”

Louis sighs loudly, idly toying with a loose string on the hem of his knit jumper. “I know, I know,” he replies, sighing again, “I wanted this poem to be the opening to the collection, but it’s still missing something…”

“It’s always missing something,” the blonde boy remarks, moving to lean against the edge of one of the wooden display tables. “Or someone,” he adds under his breath, though Louis is quick to scowl at the aside.

“This poem tells a story and it’s very personal, alright?” Louis snaps, softening his voice at the brief flash of hurt in the blonde’s eyes, “I’m sorry, what I mean is, I just can’t decide if I want it to have a happy ending. I don’t feel as if it deserves one, since it’s… since it’s not what I got, you know?”

He hears Niall “mmm” sympathetically, and continues, “But my stupid brokenhearted words from years ago stare back at me from the paper as if I’ve betrayed them, as if I’ve written them into existence the wrong way.”

“People do love happy endings, Lou,” Niall says, always frank, “They’re, well, happy.”

Louis makes an affronted noise. “What they are is disgustingly optimistic.”

Niall gives him a patronizing look. “You know, maybe if you’d actually let me read your poem, I could tell you if it’s any good or not.”

Louis looks back at the journal again, which rests wide open and vulnerable on the desktop, mentally gauging the speed he’d have to travel to prevent Niall from snatching it up first.

“You’ve read some of my other work,” he dissents, avoiding the other boy’s pejorative gaze.

Niall snorts. “Yeah, sure, I’m a big fan of your depressing poems about grey clouds and endless rain.”

“They’re not depressing.”

“Well they’re not exactly romantic tales of love in the English countryside either, are they mate?”

Louis lets out an offended gasp and reaches over to playfully shove the other boy off balance. Niall opens his mouth, probably to let loose a string of colorful curses, but he’s interrupted by Louis’ phone chirping loudly in his pocket. Louis takes a step back and pulls out his mobile, the alert on the screen reminding him to turn on channel 4.

“Erm, maybe you should go?” he tells Niall, glancing over at the stairs that lead up to his living quarters on the second floor. He’s almost certain to miss the gossip if he doesn’t get to the telly soon.

“Right, that’s not happening,” Niall replies, “Why so anxious all of a sudden?”

Louis panics and blurts, “My show’s on so I ought to-”

“Lou, are you watching that gossip garbage again?” Niall asks, eyes narrowing, “You know that little fucker will be on it as always.”

“It’s for inspiration!” he protests weakly.

“Chronic depression more like it,” Niall grumbles, “That boy’s shagged England’s housewives more times than their husbands have.”

Louis opens his mouth to argue once more, but the Irish boy is already past him and climbing up the stairs.

“Well c’mon then,” Niall sighs, a hand motioning upward, “We don’t want to miss it.”

& H &

“Harry Styles, who was recently named the UK’s most desirable bachelor, is involved in yet another pregnancy scandal, this time with a married woman ten years his senior-”

“Turn it off, Zayn.”

“Styles is due in court on the twelfth to determine whether he will be forced to take a paternity test to determine the father of the child-”

“I said turn it off!”

“Harry, you can’t keep ignoring this.”

“Fuck off.”

His body protests the sudden shock of cold as the covers are yanked off of his sleeping form. He sits up, wrapping the blankets around his naked lower half and flipping the bird at the dark-haired boy who’s supposedly his best mate.

“You’re acting like a right prick, you know that?” Zayn remarks, eyes locked on him in a steely gaze. “You’re always a joy to wake up, especially when you’re hungover.”

“Stop staring at me, fucking slag,” Harry hisses, dramatically pulling up the blanket to hide his now-exposed chest. He’s forever trying to get a rise out of Zayn, but the older boy doesn’t even flinch at the insult, just glares at him with palpable disapproval.

“Calling people names you know aren’t properly offensive?” he comments, voice infuriatingly calm, “Very mature.”

“Haven’t you read the papers, Zayn? I’ve apparently fucked more women in a year than you’ll fuck in your entire life,” Harry ripostes, reaching down to grab a pair of black Calvin Kleins off the floor.

“Don’t act like you’re proud of that,” Zayn says, watching solemnly as he slips on the boxers and a dirty t-shirt. “Least I’ve been in love.”

The slight is meant to sting and it hits its mark. His fists clench reflexively and he leaps up, grabbing a handful of Zayn’s t-shirt. “Fuck you,” he spits, “You know I have.”

“Yeah, but he fucked you over. Shit happens. Now put some fucking trousers on.”

Harry glares, moving about the room as slowly as possible. “He didn’t fuck me over, Zayn. He chose his career and I chose mine. Now we’re both famous and management pays him enough not to slag off about me on national radio. It’s fine.”

Zayn raises an eyebrow, but chooses not to comment on his obviously skewed definition of “fine”.

Harry’s hand is still on Zayn’s collar, the tension in the room thick enough to slice a knife through. “If Nick bloody Grimshaw,” Zayn says after a moment, the name like a dirty word on his tongue, “can flaunt his sexuality for millions of people every morning, why can’t you just date who you’d like to?”

Harry sighs, releasing the fabric and turning away from Zayn’s accusatory gaze. “You know why not,” he says, simply, “It’s about my image. Sex sells ‘nd all that.”

“Stop spouting your publicist’s shit and just admit that you made a monumental mistake signing that contract two years ago,” the dark-haired boy castigates, “one you’re certainly not fixing by fucking every woman that makes eyes at you– or pretending to, at least.”

 “Things are different now,” Harry says defensively.

“But do they have to be?”

Harry sighs again, running a hand through his tangle of curls. “Fuck Z, I don’t know, okay? I don’t know. I just do what they tell me. In fact, as you so kindly pointed out, I’m contractually obligated to do what they tell me.” He pauses, bites his lip, and adds “and it’s not true, you know.”

“What’s not true?” Zayn asks, eyes narrowing.

“That pregnancy rumor,” he explains, pulling on a pair of tattered black skinnies, “It’s supposed to spark public interest because the album’s set to drop next month.”

“Well that’s incredibly fucked up,” Zayn comments dryly.

He barks out a laugh, bitter and aggrieved. “Yeah well, what part of my life isn’t?”

 “Oh, I don’t know? The part where you make millions for having a pretty face?” Zayn remarks, the barest hint of resentment in his voice.

“You think I’m pretty?” Harry teases, batting his eyelashes, “Oh Zaynie, you’re too much.”

“And you’re insufferable,” the dark-haired boy replies, turning to leave. He expertly dodges the dirty sock that Harry launches his way and gives him an indignant look. Pausing momentarily to lean against the door frame, he says, “Anyway you’ve got an interview at Radio One in an hour, so I’d suggest you get dressed.”

“Yeah, fuck that,” Harry replies, waving his hand dismissively.

“I’m serious, Haz,” Zayn warns, “You’re running out of chances to prove that you’re still a marketable popstar, and not some immature twenty year old twat with an out-of-control drinking habit.”

Harry flips him the bird as he walks out, but the dark-haired boy is already gone.

& L &

Louis grabs the remote and clicks the TV off with resounding finality.

“Fuck that stupid, heartbreaking, womanizing twat,” he spits, resting his head in his hands.

“Cheer up lad, I’m sure they’re just rumors,” Niall remarks, rubbing his back in comforting circles.

 “D’you really fink so?” he blubbers, looking up at Niall with wide eyes.

It takes mere seconds before his doe-eyed, hopeful façade has the Irishman in stitches.

“C’mon,” he protests, throwing his hands in the air indignantly, “that was brilliant!”

 “Jesus Christ Lou,” Niall wheezes between spouts of raucous laughter, “Just be thankful that you’ve perfected this whole ‘bookkeeping poet with a bizarre indie music fetish’ thing you’ve got going, because the rest of your acting is absolute shite.

“Excuse you!” Louis replies with mock disdain, “I’ll have you know that I graduated with a double major in English and drama from one of the UK’s top universities!”

“Now the English part I believe,” Niall quips, a chuckle escaping his lips before he’s even finished the sentence.

His attempt to leap over the back of the couch before Louis can tackle him is ultimately futile; he’s pinned to the ground and begging for mercy within a millisecond of his wry utterance. Louis puts a finger to the blonde boy’s lips as he wriggles beneath him, effectively silencing his desperate cries for mercy.

“In all seriousness,” he says, well, rather seriously, dusting himself off and helping Niall up from his place on the floor, “I could honestly care less what flavor-of-the-week middle-aged socialite that pretty popstar is sampling for afternoon tea. It’s just an awful coincidence that my love for trashy gossip telly and his tendency to be featured on said trashy gossip telly happen to coincide.”

“Right, of course,” Niall says, giving him a patronizing look, “And I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that‒ and I quote‒ ‘his collarbones are worth salivating over’ or ‘imagine tugging on those curls with that pretty face nestled between your legs’ or my personal favorite‒”

“Out of context!” Louis cries, “Out of context! I was right pissed when I said that and you know it!”

“Doesn’t make it untrue, does it?” Niall replies, “Power of the subconscious mind ‘nd all that… And anyway you’d be on your knees in a blink if that bubblegum crooning self-proclaimed popstar suddenly discovered a newfound passion for dusty old books.”

The Irishman playfully fluffs up his hair and pouts his lips. “Hello I’m Louis Tomlinson and welcome to Tales Resold,” he continues, pitching his voice an octave higher in an awful attempt at femininity. He starts down the stairs to the main level, swinging his hips and waving his hands around dramatically.

“Could I interest you in our evening special?” he squeaks, turning back briefly to flutter his eyelashes as Louis follows him down. “It’s called ‘fuck me and the books are free’.”

“Niall!” Louis squawks, looking indignant, “I’ll have you know that I would never proffer away my expensive high-quality merchandise in exchange for sexual favors.”

They reach the main floor then, with Niall still giggling elatedly at his frankly awful impersonation.

“And anyway,” Louis continues flippantly, “even lovely ladies’ man Harry Styles would forget all about the books the minute he laid eyes on the devastatingly fit bookkeeper.”

“You’re right, of course,” Niall replies, sighing dramatically, “S’pose I’ll have to take down that FREE BLOWJOBS FOR POPSTARS sign I put in the window on me way in.”

Louis pauses, pretending to consider this seriously.

“Nah, leave it up,” he says after a moment, tidying up the front desk and pulling his wallet out of the side drawer, “Never know when we might have Robbie Williams strolling by feeling a bit randy.”

“Sick Lou,” Niall replies, wrinkling his nose, “He’s like forty… and married.”

Louis shrugs, pocketing his wallet and plucking the shop keys off a hook on the wall.

“No popstar can resist free blowjobs, young Niall,” he says sagely, ruffling his mate’s bleach blonde hair. He puts away the last of the scattered pages of manuscript, tucks his trusty miniature moleskine into his back pocket, and double checks the cash register before leaning down to grab a pair of faded red VANS from under the desk.

“Business is slow today,” he says as he slips them on, looking up to see Niall already collapsed on the old floral sofa by the front door. “Think I’ll close up early. Fancy a pub night? I know it’s a Sunday, but we’ve no reason to pretend we’ve got lives anyhow.”

Niall’s spirits are apparently revived at the mere suggestion of a pint as he shoots up into a sitting position and whips out his mobile to invite Liam and Josh to join them.

“I’ll take that as a yes, then?” Louis remarks with a fond smile, locking the door behind them as Niall hails a taxi to their favorite pub near Liam’s flat. He plans on having fun tonight, and dammit, he’s going to have it.

Never mind that his agent and publisher are going to kill him if he puts off finishing the last of his poetry collection any longer or that he’s promised himself to call his mum and the girls at least a dozen times this month or even that he hasn’t had a proper shag since The Bastard Who Shall Not Be Named (blowjobs in the loo at dirty clubs really shouldn’t count) and he’s resorted to lusting over a daft, curly-haired popstar who probably has more STDs than he’s got books in his shop…

Really. Never mind all that.

Louis Tomlinson’s got his life absolutely under control…

Absolutely.

& H &

Harry is drunk, and spectacularly so.

(Never mind that it’s only ten-thirty on a Sunday evening. It’s not like he “works” Mondays anyhow.)

He’s at his favorite club, dark and anonymous, paying double for every drink in exchange for the bartender’s silence (he’s already paid off the bouncers enough times that they know not to talk). Of course, if he were here to pick up a girl all this wouldn’t matter, but tonight is one of those nights when he’s really really not.

The music pulsates in time with the alcohol in his veins and‒ after one last shot‒ he makes his way to the dance floor. He’s thrashing about wildly, body moving with abandon, when he feels a pair of hands grip his waist and pull him closer. He whirls around and takes in the stranger standing before him, or rather, what he can make out through the dark and the smoke. His chin tilts up a bit as the man is slightly taller than he is (a surprising feat considering his own stature) with a striking jawline and artfully disheveled brown hair gelled into a tall quiff.

“Dance with me,” he purrs, slipping a leg between Harry’s own and pulling him closer.

The resemblance is striking and Harry feels his resistance slip away with a flash of eyes that aren’t-quite-green-but-close-enough.

 “Yes,” he breathes, moving his hands to grip the stranger’s thin hips.

They rock to the beat of the music, hips slotting together with delicious heat and friction. Their pace increases and Harry feels his cock respond almost immediately, a soft groan escaping from between his lips.

(It’s been far too long…)

The stranger pauses, sensing his building urge, and tilts Harry’s head up to press their mouths together. The taste of his lips is familiar and intoxicating‒ not quite the same as Harry remembers, but just enough to make his heart beat quicken and his pupils widen with arousal. He grinds their hips together more forcefully, letting out a quiet moan as the man’s hand slips between them to cup his hardening length. He reaches back to thread his fingers through the taller man’s hair and‒

Bzzz.

His phone vibrates in his pocket, obnoxiously buzzing against his thigh and that of the stranger grinding up against him.

“You gonna get that, mate?” the man whispers against his mouth.

“Mmm,” Harry offers in reply, leaning in closer to trace his tongue along a vein in the other man’s neck. His lips find his way to the stranger’s ear, mumbling, “Maybe after we fuck.”

His phone buzzes again and he sighs, pulling it out of his pocket and carelessly tossing it on the floor. He’ll tell his manager that he lost it, receive a half-hearted lecture about being more responsible, and have it replaced within the week. He’ll have someone wipe his account from his laptop in the morning.

“My flat or yours?” the stranger asks, interrupting his thoughts as he slips his hands under Harry’s t-shirt.

“Mm, it’ll have to be yours,” he replies, shuddering at the feeling of warm skin pressed against his own and the intoxicating, musky scent of sweat and arousal. He lets the man lead him out of the club, eyes bloodshot with temporary bliss and fingertips tingling with desire.

(It’s been far, far too long…)

& L &

Louis and Niall arrive at the pub around 9:30.

It’s an old family-owned place with battered booths and chipped barstools and a bartender who’s usually not good for any drink that requires more preparation than pulling a pint of whatever’s on tap, but it’s fairly close by and comfy and not horribly overcrowded for a city pub, so they can’t really be bothered to spend time looking for another.

They spot Liam and Josh at their customary table in the back corner. Predictably, Josh’s pint is already half-gone, while Liam keeps taking tiny sips of whatever fruity concoction he’s decided to try this time, making awful faces after each one.

“Greetings lonely lads!” Niall calls out loudly, earning a few glares from the weekend working crowd leaning exhaustedly against the bar.

Of course, he doesn’t notice and continues to make his way over to the table still obnoxiously chatting up everyone in sight. He slides into the chair next to Liam, clasping a firm hand on his shoulder, and reaching down to take a swig of Liam’s neon pink monstrosity.

He splutters, picking up a napkin and spitting into it, before declaring, “Jesus Christ, Liam, what in the name of‒”

Liam cuts him off with an exasperated, “Yes, Niall, I know it’s awful, but I’d really rather drink this than that black tar you down on the regular” and pinches his nose, bringing his lips to the edge of the glass and swallowing another mouthful.

Josh is almost in stitches at the expression that Liam makes as he gulps, gleefully explaining to the others that “he asked for something a bit sweeter and Eddie–the new bartender-in-training– filled the glass with a splash of vodka and every fruit-flavored rum they kept in stock”.

It’s at this very moment that Eddie– a lanky, disheveled-looking blonde clad in all black– waltzes over from the bar with another brightly colored ‘death punch’ in hand. Niall and Josh are fighting back tears as he sets it on the table in front of Liam with a wink and a sultry “it’s on the house, pretty boy”. Louis can’t help but chuckle at Eddie’s retreating form, his hips swinging rhythmically back and forth like an extra in a Beyoncé music video.

“Looks like you’ve got quite the admirer, Li,” Niall hoots, Josh collapsed on his shoulder and snickering into his t-shirt.

Liam glares at the pair of them, defiantly taking a tiny sip of his new drink, and attempting to muffle the resulting cough into the sleeve of his thin jumper. He looks down at the Pepto Bismol pink cocktail woefully, a deep frown etched across his features.

 “Surely he doesn’t intend to woo me with this?” Liam proposes doubtfully– in the closest approximation to mean that Liam Payne could ever achieve– which of course sends Niall and Josh into more hysterics.

Louis resorts to spending the next two hours or so patting Liam on the back sympathetically, the poor lad complaining that he can’t not finish his second atrocious excuse for a drink because that would be “so completely rude, Louis, I’d feel awful!” and listening to Niall and Josh discuss footie stats and pointedly ignore their mutual attraction for one another.

Around twelve-thirty, however, things finally get interesting.

There’s a sudden, resounding BANG and every patron in the pub looks up to see a dreamy, raven-haired stranger slamming the front door open so hard it knocks a couple of framed photos off the wall. Alright, well, maybe Louis was the only one thinking “dreamy” and “raven-haired” in addition to “I’d love to have that beautiful specimen bend me over the bar and fuck me until I can’t walk straight” but still… his entrance is certainly surprising.

Eddie is hurling all sorts of profanities at the deliciously leather-clad intruder from his place behind the bar, but the guy hardly spares him a glance as he boldly addresses everyone in the room.

He whips his clearly expensive phone out of the pocket of his clearly expensive designer jeans and points at a small blue digital dot blinking cheerily on the screen.

“So my lovely little locating app,” he starts, and for fuck’s sake, Louis despairs, even his voice is sexy, “is telling me that someone here found a phone that doesn’t belong to them tonight.”

He looks around the room sternly, several patrons even refusing to make eye contact with the gloriously handsome and intimidating stranger, when finally a younger lad with bushy eyebrows stands up and whips an equally as expensive looking phone out of his own pocket. He stumbles over to Mr. Fuck Me and hands him the device with a shrug and a heavily slurred, “Here mate, relax… I watched some guy basically throw it ‘cross the club earlier and figured he didn’t really want it, but whatever, it’s yours.”

The stranger sighs deeply‒ like this is apparently a regular occurrence‒ and takes the phone, nodding once firmly and slipping it into the pocket of his leather jacket.

He turns to leave, but Niall (already three pints in and still upright, the Irish bastard) calls out, “Hey mate, have a sit for a ‘mo!” and cheerily pats the seat next to him, left empty when Josh had ducked out around eleven citing an early shift at the bakery the next morning.

Tall Dark and Handsome pauses in the doorway as Niall concludes his invitation with a hearty “Pint’s on me, looks like ye could use one!”

He takes out his phone again, blinks a few times at the screen, and sends a quick message before swaggering coolly back across the pub and taking a seat with an artful kind of practiced nonchalance that makes Louis’ breath catch in his throat.

“Cheers, mate,” he says, nodding as Niall slides a newly filled mug his way.

He plucks a cigarette from behind his ear and digs around in his pocket before producing a cheap lighter‒ probably the only cheap thing about him. He glances up briefly at Eddie as if asking permission, but the bartender just shrugs like he could really tell fucking Marlin Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire what the fuck he can and can’t do. His mouth twitches briefly into a subtle smirk as he flicks the lighter once and touches the flame to the tip.

“I’m Zayn,” he says casually, addressing the three of them as he puts the lit cig to his lips and blows a perfect smoke ring.

Louis might be in heaven.

“I’m Niall,” Niall says, gesturing to himself and grinning brightly.

To Zayn’s credit, he doesn’t seem put off in the least by the Irishman’s unabashed and genuine friendliness.  In fact, if Louis could just keep his eyes off of the Vogue model’s deliciously angular jawline for more than a second at a time, the small smile on Zayn’s lips would suggest that he’s even a little refreshed by Niall’s sunshiny attitude.

“’nd these are me mates, Lou and Li,” Niall continues, gesturing across the table, “Well, their real names are Louis and Liam, but fuck if that’s not a mouthful.”

“It’s really not,” Liam cuts in quickly, almost as if he’s embarrassed… and wait a minute… is that a faint bit of pink spreading across his cheeks? Is the sexually unaffected Liam Payne really blushing?

Zayn chuckles softly, slowly turning to place his full attention on the source of the interruption, who‒ if he wasn’t red before‒ now resembles a prepubescent schoolgirl with a crush on her ruggedly handsome instructor. The dark-haired lad’s eyes move slowly down Liam’s body and back up, seemingly taking in every inch of the charmingly innocent, but also admittedly attractive site before him.

Louis definitely sympathizes with Zayn in this moment, as he himself had half-heartedly tried and failed to flirt his way into the schoolteacher’s pants when Niall had first introduced them at uni, setting them up to room together. What? The sexy loose curls (now shorter and straighter but still just as sexy) and the thickly sculpted arm muscles were totally calling out his name. And anyhow, Liam had blushed like mad when he’d made his advances and politely declined, telling him that he wasn’t really interested in a “fleeting sexual tryst” no matter how many times Louis promised he wouldn’t call him ‘Professor Payne’ in bed. Seriously. Those exact words.

So up until this interesting little development, Louis had just assumed that the sweet, Liam ‘Virgin Mary’ Payne was too pure to be interested in anyone, especially after his first and only relationship ended so awfully…

Clearly, Louis could not have been more wrong.

“So Zayn,” he says a bit defensively, interrupting the sexy stranger’s visual deflowering of one his best mates, “what do you do for a living?”

The bastard definitely takes his sweet time tearing his eyes from Liam’s right bicep. “I’m a music producer,” he replies idly, “well, a music producer in training really, but I’ve been pretty involved at the record label producing my mate’s album. It drops in a couple weeks and I’m hoping that with some positive reviews the execs will grant me some real creative freedom on his next one.”

“And,” he says slowly, eyes flitting back to Liam who is one twitch of his open mouth away from drooling on the table, “I also DJ at this pretty cool nightclub in Chelsea on the weekends. You lot should check it out sometime.”

At that, he takes a long swig of his pint, immediately making a face and quickly setting it back down on the tabletop. “Ugh, what is this stuff?”

Louis glances down at his own drink, and replies rather scathingly, “Sorry love, probably not up to standard with your typical 50-quid Chelsea brew, is it?”

“Louis!” Liam exclaims, clearly affronted. He leans into Zayn, cheeks still red, and faux-whispers, “I’m so sorry about him. He’s a bit of a diva.”

Louis’ glaring daggers at Liam-The-Traitor across the table, but Zayn merely shrugs. “I don’t mind,” he says, “Go back home and I’ve got people saying the same thing.”

“Ah, home,” Niall mutters, sleepily. In the course of the conversation, he’d downed yet another pint and had tucked himself comfortably into the space between Louis’ chest and left shoulder.

“Where’re you from then?” Liam asks, wide-eyed, like he’s expecting Zayn to say that he beamed himself down from heaven just yesterday. Louis scoffs. Zayn may be Fifty Shades of Fuck Me, but he’s clearly a trust-fund baby playing at making records with a couple thousand quid from Daddy’s bank account.

“Bradford,” Zayn says, and Louis may or may not choke on his drink. “Pakistani da and English mum, so if you’re thinking of saying something racist about my hometown, then yeah, it’ll probably offend me.”

“Well shit mate, I’d never,” Louis says, “I’m a Yorkshire lad meself, though bit south of you. Born and raised in good ol’ Donny.”

Zayn nods begrudgingly, taking another small sip of his pint. “You’re alright, mate,” he says slowly.

Louis blinks; though the assent sounded genuine, the other boy’s gaze remains as wary as ever. He watches then as Zayn turns and says something to Liam, the moment forgotten but the same brooding look still in place. Louis shrugs. Apparently Zayn’s just a really intense person, like, all the time.

“So Zayn,” Liam implores, staring at the dark-haired boy with what appear to be actual hearts in his eyes, “What was that whole thing with the phone about? Someone you know lose it?”

Zayn rolls his eyes and sighs deeply. “Remember my best mate with the album? Yeah, he’s got a bit of a reputation for being an insufferable dick. What’s worse, he happens to be an insufferable dick with money.”

“Is there any other kind?” Louis replies, grinning even as Liam smacks him on the arm and hisses his name once more.

“So he did toss it on the ground, then?” Liam asks, retracting his hand.

Zayn makes an affirmative noise. “That or he was too pissed to be bothered carrying it any longer.”

“Cheers to that,” Niall mumbles from his place against Louis’ chest.

Louis cards his fingers absentmindedly through the blonde’s soft hair, earning a pleased rumble from the little Irish lump. “So your mate with the album? He’s pretty successful then, yeah?” he questions, then adds, “Hard to make it these days on talent alone, so he must be a fitty.”

Louis,” Liam hisses yet again, “that’s really not appropriate.”

Zayn just chuckles. “It’s fine, Liam,” he assuages, casually shifting a bit to his right to rest a placating hand on Liam’s forearm, and wow, Louis really did not think it was possible for Liam to become any redder than he already was.

“So he is a fit bloke, then?” Louis asks, still curious.

“Yeah, you could say that,” Zayn says, shrugging complacently, “The gossip mags are always going on about how Harry’s like a young–” he cuts off mid-sentence, face contorted like he’s made some sort of mistake and oh my god. Now that he thinks about it, Louis’ definitely seen Zayn before… in Tesco… on last week’s cover of The Sun (not that he frequently reads The Sun or anything, but still). Zayn had been in the background, looking ever the brooding and mysterious bad boy, with one properly pissed popstar stumbling ahead of him.

“Harry Styles?” Louis asks, and if the name sort of comes out sounding like a breathy moan, well, who can fault him for that, really? “Your best mate is the Harry Styles.”

Zayn bites his lip, looking like he might try to lie his way out of it, but ends up slowly nodding instead.

“’s that right?” Niall mumbles, “Louis loves Harry Styles, says he’d like to lick his collarbones ‘nd suck his…”

Shut up, Niall,” Louis hisses, cheeks flaming. He looks up to see an insufferable smirk fighting its way onto Zayn’s face. “Niall is off his head, mate. Don’t believe a word he says.”

“Wouldn’t have pegged you for a fangirl,” Zayn says, still smirking.

“Oh Louis definitely has a thing for popstars,” Liam supplies helpfully. “Just this afternoon, Niall told me that Louis said he’d give Robbie Williams a blowjob...” he pauses, looking especially scandalized, “for free!

Zayn actually laughs aloud at that one which, of course, has Liam smiling proudly like he’s just won a gold medal in the fucking Comedy Olympics. “I think Harry’s still got Robbie’s number from some charity function thing,” Zayn says, grinning widely, “I could definitely hook you up, mate.”

Louis glares at the pair of them.

“Listen here, Zayn whatever your last name is,” he declares dramatically, reaching across the table to poke Zayn right in the ‘v’ of his pretentious little v-neck, “you’re corrupting my best mates and I won’t stand for it.”

“Mmm, I don’t mind, Lou,” Liam says, a bit dreamily, “I rather like our new friend.”

Zayn grins at Liam and Louis swears you can seem him preen. “See, I’ve not done a thing.”

“Don’t you have any other mates?” Louis asks, rolling his eyes, “Like, oh I don’t know? What about the poor drunken popstar that’s milling about town without a phone to call for help?”

Zayn shrugs. “Whatever happens, Harry probably deserves it. He was a proper dick to me this morning and he managed to skip a big interview at Radio One which the PR people are in crisis mode over trying to reschedule. ‘S probably best that he stay lost for a bit.”

Zayn’s apparently apathetic attitude toward best-mate-keep-alivedness should probably concern him, but granted Louis’ best mate (Niall) is certainly not a phone-tossing-interview-skipping-late-night-partying popstar either.

The four of them end up spending the rest of the night chatting amicably amongst themselves (with Eddie’s glares from behind the bar becoming exponentially more murderous with every adoring look Liam directs Zayn’s way). As the evening wears on, Louis finds it harder and harder to fault Liam for his affection, as Zayn turns out to be surprisingly intelligent and thoughtful and tells hilarious stories of he and Harry playing what was meant to be “New Age indie rock” and was really just butchered acoustic guitar chords and passionate grunting in tiny underground clubs filled to the brim with pretentious wannabe artsy-types. Liam, too, loosens up considerably after an uncharacteristic pint or two, talking about how much he just adores each and every one of his brilliant Year 7 pupils, as if any sensible human being really ought to be enamored with a classroom full of thirty bratty eleven year olds.

“Always wanted to be an English teacher before I got into the music business,” Zayn says at one point, earning yet another glowing smile from the already-beaming schoolteacher, “I actually started out in Classics and English before switching to music production.” After Liam’s sharp intake of breath and subsequent fawning, Zayn is glowing just as brightly (or as brightly as someone dressed in all black and leather can glow). Louis swears he hears a glass shatter from over near the bar but, when he turns to look, Eddie has already ducked out of site.

 Zayn’s aside leads to a discussion of his and Liam’s favorite Greek and Latin philosophers, which leads to a debate over their favorite more contemporary authors, which soon turns into a heated argument over whether The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment should be considered Dostoyevsky’s greatest work.

After debating for what feels like ten years to Louis (he writes poetry instead of thousand-page novels for a reason, thank you very much), Zayn‒ as a not-so-subtle way of involving him in the conversation‒ politely asks if he’s currently working. Louis’ barely opened his mouth before Liam cuts in saying “Oh, he owns just the loveliest bookstore in Camden, Zayn, you should see it! Fixed it up himself ‘nd everything! And he writes, like, this great poetry, but it’s really quite sad, you know? He’s a proper tortured soul ‘nd all that, ‘specially after that asshole Aid-”

“Are you quite finished, Li?” Louis snaps, tension springing up in his shoulders at the mere almost-mention of the bastard’s name. “I think that’s enough about me, don’t you?”

Liam just flashes him a sappy smile and pats him on the shoulder hard enough that he can’t help but flinch. “Don’t be so modest, Lou!” he booms, earning a few tired glances from the older pub patrons still hanging about.

“Yeah okay, big guy, I’ll work on that,” Louis says, rolling his eyes. He leans forward across the table and whispers to Zayn conspiratorially, “I swear he doesn’t usually drink this much. Li’s a bit of a lightweight, really.”

Zayn laughs good-naturedly, skillfully steadying Liam’s chair when he tips it backwards onto two legs laughing raucously at something Niall’s said. “Uh yeah, I can see that.”

“You’re quite pretty, you know,” Liam says, tugging at Zayn’s leather jacket and grinning dopily. “Bet you’d be even prettier with this off.”

Louis laughs brightly as Zayn shifts uncomfortably to twist his jacket out of Liam’s grip. “Oh, that one’s going in the blackmail pile for sure!” he says, miming writing down the event on the palm of his hand,
“Liam’ll be mortified when I remind him what a slaggy drunk he is.”

Something shifts in Zayn’s voice as he asks, “He does this often then, yeah?”

And, ah, there it is.

Louis takes a slow sip of his drink, considering, “Only with people he’d be too shy to say he fancied when he’s sober. He’s certainly never tried to remove my clothing.”

Zayn’s posture relaxes at that, his white-knuckled grip on the back of Liam’s chair noticeably looser. It’s then that Liam leans in close‒ too close, really‒ so that their shoulders press together, and Louis doesn’t miss the small smile that fights its way onto Zayn’s face. Disgusting, the both of them.

 Zayn opens his mouth to speak again, but is interrupted by a long, tired sigh.

“’M sleepy, Lou,” Niall says into Louis’ shoulder, “Can I stay at yours?”

Louis casts Zayn an apologetic look, but the dark-haired boy just shrugs and waves him off. “Sure, let’s get you home then, eh big guy?” he tells Niall fondly, the younger lad’s yawning form pressing closer to his chest.

He looks back up and sighs at Liam who’s not-so-subtly staring at Zayn like he hung the fucking moon in the sky. “Looks like we’re heading out, but I’ll leave you two to… erm…” he pauses, watching Liam light up at something Zayn whispers in his ear, “whatever it is that you’re doing. Ok then, yeah… night.”

He grabs a napkin, digs a pen out of his back pocket, and writes:

Please call me when you need me to come pick Liam up!! –Louis

He sets the note on the table for Zayn to see and ushers Niall out of the pub, glancing back every few seconds only to feel increasingly more nauseated at the captivated look in Liam’s eyes and Zayn’s hand brushing against his elbow.

“Think Li’s finally gon’ get fucked,” Niall says drowsily, as Louis shoulders open the door, guiding him out.

“Seems inevitable at this point,” Louis agrees, and grimaces thinking back to the number of neon pink cocktails Liam has downed in the last five hours. “Though I’m hoping Zayn’s enough of a gentleman not to take advantage of the fact that Liam’s blood-alcohol content is at least 85% strawberry rum.”

Niall manages to nod sagely, even as he stumbles across the threshold of the pub and onto the sidewalk.

“Maybe on their next date,” Louis continues, waving his hand to hail a taxi, “That or he’ll chicken out and we’ll be forced to hear him whine about Zayn’s dreamy caramel eyes for weeks after.”

“Mmm,” Niall says, muttering something unintelligible in reply that ends with, “D’you think Li tops?”

Louis just laughs softly, helping the near-comatose Irishman into their waiting black cab, “Sweet dreams, my little Leprechaun.”

Niall curls into his side the minute they get situated in the back of the cab, Louis making room for him under his shoulder. The blonde’s hair glows softly from the light of Louis’ smartphone as he pulls it out of his pocket, scrolling through his Twitter feed and posting an adorable picture of sleeping Niall on Facebook before he finally notices that he has a new message from a number he doesn’t recognize.

hey mate its zayn! i found ur # in liam’s phone to tell u that im splitting cab fare with him when we decide to head back cause his flats not far from mine (actually it is but dont tell him that… im trying to be a proper gentleman) anyway 2nite was fun lets do it again & next time i’ll bring the popstar!! but stay away from his collarbones theyre insured for a mil haha !!! cheers –zayn Xx

His phone chimes again just as he’s finished reading the first text and started his reply.

p.s. my last name is malik in case u don’t trust me around liam and decide to do a background check ;) heh XxxXxxxxxxx

He laughs and shakes his head (a winky face, Zayn, really?) before amending his original message to include Zayn’s last name.

i don’t doubt ur intentions are pure Zayn MALIK but nevertheless if u hurt my sweet innocent LiLi i’ll be forced to do unspeakably cruel things to ur manly bits and ur perfectly styled quiff and ur fantastic jawline and… anyway have fun kids, use protection etc. !! Xx

Zayn’s reply is hilariously indignant (im just dropping him off wanker!!) and he doesn’t feel the least bit threatened, that is, until he receives a text from Liam’s phone (u better watch it…) with an attached picture of Zayn’s own phone displaying an unsent message with a frankly awful picture of a young Louis in his checkered blue sixth year uniform. The text is addressed to a random number and Louis starts to ask just exactly who Zayn is sending it to when he notices the caption below the photo.

lol this lil hottie wants to lick ur collarbones :))) Xx

u wouldnt!! he types in response, adding and where did u get that pic??

liam’s cell is like fulllll of blackmail mate comes the reply a minute later.

Louis furrows his eyebrows and aggressively taps piss off malik receiving only a mocking :) in return. He sighs, slipping his phone back into his pocket and leaning down to rest his head on top of Niall’s own. The gentle lull of the cab as it snakes its way through early morning traffic has his eyelids drooping, lashes fluttering gently against his cheeks. A light rain begins to fall, drops a steady drumbeat against the black exterior like some rhythmic tribal lullaby. Soon, without warning, Louis drifts off completely, frozen in time in the backseat as the sounds of the city drone on.

& H &

The thing is Harry is still drunk, spectacularly so.

But this time he’s also lost, which is proving to be quite the problem.

After a quick anonymous fuck with some bloke from the bar, he’d left the stranger’s flat with the intent of finding a taxi. But it’s something like 4 am and he’s wasted and all the cars are flying by in a blur of colors and he hasn’t got his phone and… he is completely and utterly fucked.

And then, of course, it starts to pour.

“Bloody fantastic!” he shouts at the sky, throwing his hands up in a rage, though it’s directed more toward his own stupidity (for throwing away his phone and having yet another pathetic shag with a Nick look-alike) than at whichever mystical being has decided to fuck him over by summoning a fucking hurricane. Fat raindrops splatter his clothing and his hair as he runs-slash-stumbles aimlessly down the street. He catches a passing glimpse of his reflection in a moonlit display window‒ haggard and soaking wet, droopy curls framing his pale, gaunt cheekbones‒ and blinks back tears.

The rain is coming down harder now, lightning illuminating the sky in brilliant streaks. He shivers as the thunder rumbles and quickens his pace, throat beginning to burn and heart beating wildly in his chest, protesting alongside his straining muscles. He pauses for a moment and presses a hand to the place where his heart lies quaking beneath, finding himself momentarily amazed that the aching muscle still exists under the layers of cover-up, cracked ribs, and milky white scars. But then the thunder booms again and he is still scared and alone, despite the heart that he apparently still possesses. And so he runs, wet feet slapping the pavement, though he doesn’t have any idea where he’s going.

Harry runs, looking for a road that will lead him home.

& L &

Louis startles awake as the cab jerks to a halt outside the bookstore. He gently nudges Niall who groans for far too long before sitting up and stretching his arms above his head with a loud yawn. A brilliant flash of light followed by a deep rumble has him peering out the window and eyeing the wet pavement warily. Sometime during his too-short nap the sky had opened up and the rain is really coming down now, slow-moving ominous grey clouds to the west signaling a long storm ahead. Louis quickly tips the cabbie as Niall braves the torrent, darting across the pavement and unlocking the front door. They stumble into the bookstore soaking wet and giggling, leaving soggy footprints on the ancient knotted rug Louis’d placed in the front foyer.

“If you leave puddles on my hardwood, Horan, I swear,” Louis shrieks indignantly as Niall dances through the aisles toward the stairs leading up to his living quarters.

“Piss off, Delia Smith,” Niall calls back with a laugh, “You can bake me some biscuits later while you mop your floors.”

“Really, Niall?” Louis replies disapprovingly, shucking off his wettest outer layer and draping it over the back of a nearby chair, “Your sexism is devastatingly charming.”

There’s no reply– Niall apparently already out of earshot– so Louis allows himself an eye roll and a deep sigh before slipping off his soaked Vans and darting upstairs to find a towel to mop up the pools of rainwater formed from their harried entrance.

Strolling into his bedroom, Louis dutifully ignores the snoring blonde starfish in the middle of his bed, opens a slightly dented, badly painted chest of drawers, and snatches a faded blue towel from its underbelly.  

Jogging back downstairs, he walks to the front door and stoops down to wipe up the wet patches where Niall had dripped, sighing again deeply at the always-cheery London weather.

“Should’ve gone to Ibiza or Tahiti or summat,” he mumbles to himself, standing up towel in hand and raising the blinds on the front window to peer out at the muted greys and blues of his little stretch of Camden Lock, “’stead I’ve got a bookstore in the city of perpetual misery. Lovely.”

He shuts the blinds and turns back around to take in the state of his shop. A few 19th century novels lie misplaced on the front table display and he restacks them in a formation he hopes will be aesthetically pleasing to someone (there’s a reason he’s a writer, not an artist).  Surveying the stacks once more and deeming them acceptable, he flicks off the downstairs light and heads back upstairs where Niall is still snoring loudly. He rolls his eyes, tosses the wet towel in with the rest of his soiled laundry, and strips down quickly. Clad only in his boxers and a white tee, he flings himself into bed next to Niall‒ who predictably doesn’t even stir‒ and tucks the both of them in under his Nan’s knit quilt. Despite the Irishman’s rumbling chainsaw-like snore, he feels himself drifting off immediately, thoughts still swimming pleasantly from the alcohol’s fading buzz.

&&

Funny how, if maybe, he’d taken just a quick peek out his bedroom window…

… if instead of falling into bed, he’d stayed up a bit later, penned a few maudlin words in his moleskine, and gazed out onto the empty street…

… maybe, just maybe, he might’ve seen a tall, dark figure stumbling along the curb, long limbs illuminated by the soft glow of the corner streetlight, looking ever the radiant wanderer… lost and alone.

But no, the voice of Fate must’ve whispered, lulling him to sleep with her quiet assurance, keeping his eyes on the sheets and away from the pull of the curtains, the enticing sliver of light sneaking in through the window… No.

Not just yet.

& H &

Harry blinks awake in the early hours of the morning, the sound of a door slamming shut rousing him from a fitful sleep. His head is pounding and his neck aches from where he’s been pressed up against the brick wall behind him. His silk long sleeve button-up feels tight and sweaty and he peels it off, grimacing at the dampness of the t-shirt he’s wearing underneath it. His jeans were apparently, at one point, just as equally soaked and have now plastered themselves tightly around his thighs and ankles.

Wonderful, he thinks, trying to ignore the aching feeling that has spread from his neck to what feels like every joint in his body. He stands up, swaying on his feet a bit, and tries to take in his unfamiliar surroundings. The main street from which the alleyway branches off doesn’t appear to be very busy which means he’s either a) drunkenly teleported to the middle of nowhere , or b) it’s currently some ungodly hour in the morning during which people have no reason to be awake and moving about. One swift glance to the east where the sun is just peeking over the horizon and his second theory is confirmed.  He rubs his eyes and groans, peering down the pavement to where he can just make out a large, faded overhang with the words “Camden Lock” slopped on in mustard yellow paint.

“Camden, then,” he says aloud, mentally calculating the time it will take to get back to his flat in Kensington. He quickly realizes just how far he is from home; if his math is correct, about a thirty minute ride by car, longer by bus, and certainly outside of a comfortable walking distance.

He swears loudly, ducking back into the alleyway just as the rain starts up again. With no one awake at this hour, he supposes he’s got no better plan than to wait awhile longer, at least until the sun is fully up, and then ask some nearby shopkeeper if he can use their phone and perhaps dry off a bit.

Harry lets his body slide back down the wall, closes his eyes with a groan, and waits for sunrise.

& L &

Louis’ alarm goes off bright and much too early, the clock next to his bed reading 6:00 on the dot. He groans, the pounding in his head echoing with his every step toward the bathroom.

Louis’ slipping on a pair of trousers, mouthful of toothpaste, when his mobile vibrates loudly on the sink counter in front of him.

“H‘lo?” he answers, spitting into the sink with a pastel-tinted grimace.

“Lou?” a voice asks, anxiously.

“Liam! You alright, mate?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m… I’m fantastic, really,” Liam replies unconvincingly.

“Right, so that’s false,” Louis deadpans, pawing at his messy fringe in the mirror, “What’s wrong, then?”

There’s a long pause.

“Erm…” Liam starts, nervously drumming his fingers in the background, “this may sound a bit odd but… how exactly did I‒”

 “Zayn took you home,” Louis answers in advance, knowing the bashful schoolteacher well enough to anticipate the question. He waits, listening for Liam’s loud exhale of relief.

“I- he did?” Liam replies after a moment, sounding decidedly more contemplative than reassured.

There’s another beat of silence before he asks “Wait, did we…?” at the exact moment that Louis reassures exasperatedly, “You didn’t have sex with him, Li.”

Not that you didn’t want to, he adds, under his breath.

This time there is an audible exhale; though, of course, it’s immediately followed by a terse “and how exactly would you know that?”

Louis rolls his eyes. “I was under your bed listening, obviously, just in case I needed to pop out and defend your virtue.”

Louis,” Liam presses, his flat echoing with the sound of his agitated, pacing footsteps.

“Fine, fine,” Louis placates, the thumping immediately waning, “Zayn texted me around two saying that he was splitting a cab with you to ensure you got home safely‒ you were quite wasted, love‒ and he was adamant that he was going to be a gentleman about it. I did a GPS thingy on your phone around three and you were on your way home. If you’ve just woken up, you’ve not been out that long since he left you.”

“Oh god,” Liam says despairingly, “You know how I am when I’ve had one drink too many, Lou! I’m a proper slag, that’s what! Do you think he had to help me upstairs? Oh, I’m sure he did, if I was stumbling around like an idiot! He probably thinks I’m desperate and clingy and now he’ll never want to see me again and‒”

Louis yawns, rubbing his eyes and glancing at the clock which now reads 6:21.

“How are you not still unconscious?” he asks, tiredly.

“I can’t sleep when my nonexistent love life is on the line!” Liam cries, just verging on hysteria, “Plus, it’s Monday. I’ve got class at eight.”

“I thought you were on break?” Louis asks, a bit surprised, “Going out on a school night, Mr. Payne? That’s quite irresponsible of you.”

“October half-term hols don’t start ‘til next week,” Liam replies miserably, “And I went out with you lot because that one teacher asked me out again and I‒”

“Ms. Lewis, innit?” Louis interrupts.

“The very same,” Liam replies exasperatedly, “She invited me to dinner last night and I lied and told her I had plans with my mum.”

“Your mum’s back in Wolverhampton, if I’m not mistaken,” Louis teases.

“You aren’t,” the teacher affirms, sighing deeply, “I fully planned on spending the night at home with the last few essays I’ve left to mark, but Ms. Lewis texted around eight telling me to have fun and to say hello to ‘Mummy’ for her and I felt so guilty about not going out that I accepted your invitation instead.”

“Liam, love,” he replies, fighting laughter, “when you lie to someone and say that you’re busy, you’re not supposed to actually make yourself busy.”

“I know that,” Liam snaps, “but anyway I‒”

A sudden loud pounding downstairs draws Louis’ attention away from the conversation at hand. “Hold on just a mo’,” he cuts in, listening intently.

The pounding continues for a minute, followed by the familiar creak of the front door, and the sound of footsteps on the hardwood.

“Liam, I think someone’s broken into the shop,” Louis hisses into the receiver.

“Are you serious, Lou?” Liam cries, “Get out of there! Or hide! Or do something!”

“If you don’t hear from me in a few, call the police,” Louis says and hangs up the phone to frantically search his bedroom for some kind of weapon.

He ends up creeping down the stairs, hands shaking, armed with a wire coat hanger snatched from his closet. He reaches the landing and tiptoes between the bookshelves until he’s got a better look at the cash register near the back of the shop. He fights crying out as a tall figure in a ratty black t-shirt and torn-up jeans steps into view.

“Who’s there?” the figure calls, his voice deep and a bit raspy, “I promise I’m not a burglar or a bum or anything.”

“What do you want?” Louis hollers back. He tries his best to sound intimidating though his voice wavers noticeably. “I’m… I’m armed!”

“Holy shit,” the intruder replies, holding his hands up in surrender, “I’m leaving, I promise. I’m leaving immediately!”

He starts toward the door, but Louis‒ spurred by a sudden shock of charitably (if the man is homeless, he obviously needs some help, okay)‒ leaps out from his hiding place behind the bookshelf with the intent of blocking the man’s exit and offering him some assistance and maybe, like, some canned goods or something.

There’s an unmanly squeal followed by an exclamation of “Jesus Christ!” and the whole thing ends with the black-clad figure and himself in a pile of limbs on the floor.

Louis’ face is buried in a nest of dark hair and there’s a knee or an elbow or something painfully pressing into his crotch. He fights to get up as the person underneath him flails about screaming “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”

“Relax, would you?” Louis snaps, the ridiculousness of the situation combined with his raging, currently untreated hangover sending him over the edge.

“Yes, sir,” the intruder replies in a fearful whisper and stills himself immediately.

Louis stands up slowly, headache pounding behind his eyes, and surveys the cowering lump of a human being collapsed on his floor.

“Oh, get up please,” he orders irritably, holding out a hand to assist the clearly incompetent burglar, “If you leave now, I won’t call the police. That is, if Liam hasn’t already…”

He trails off as he feels the thief’s own massive hand encircle his own, a strange shock of (of what, exactly?) traveling lightning quick up his arm. He pulls the man to his feet and looks up, expecting a burly, bearded bum or a glassy-eyed stoner or something. Instead, he finds himself face to face with one, admittedly homeless-looking but still very recognizable, Harry Styles.

“What. I. You’re,” he splutters intelligently.

Harry cocks his head, greasy curls in disarray and his cheeks reddened from their accidental scuffle. “You alright, mate?”

Louis balls his fists and wills himself back into control. “Of course I’m not alright,” he retorts, “I did genuinely think I was being burglarized not a moment ago!”

The popstar has the gall to look properly scandalized at such a notion.

“Oh don’t give me that look!” Louis continues, “I’m on some sort of celebrity prank show, aren’t I? Shouldn’t Ashton Kutcher have popped up by now?”

Harry furrows his eyebrows in response.

“Ha ha, act all confused, very funny,” Louis replies, “Was the whole Liam and I ‘coincidentally’ meeting up with your mate last night just a test to determine if we were gullible-enough targets?”

There’s a long pause as Louis glares at the bushy-haired popstar, hands on his hips.

“What on earth are you talking about?” Harry says finally, giving him an odd look.

“I want to know why you’re here!” Louis demands, tossing his hands up in exasperation.

“Fine. Jesus,” the popstar placates, before launching into his explanation, “I got a bit pissed last night and lost my phone at a club, so I tried to find my own way home but, like I said, I was mildly intoxicated and all the shops were closed and, to top it all off, it was storming out. Next thing I know, I’m waking up in the alleyway outside yourshop, which I genuinely thought was abandoned because really have you seen your front door? Anyway, my watch read 6:30 which I thought was still a bit too early for anyone to be up, but I figured if I knocked I might be able to ask to use a phone or something. So I pounded a few times on your‒ let me emphasize this‒ decrepit excuse for a door and it literally swung right open.

At that point, I was sure the shop was abandoned so I took a peek inside simply out of curiosity. That’s when I heard you sneaking about and threatening to shoot me, so of course I was terrified out of my mind and practically running out the door when, out of nowhere, there you came tackling me! I then landed on your stupid rusty coat hanger‒ which I’m now probably going to get tetanus from or something, thank you very much‒ and that brings us to where we are now: myself being interrogated by quite possibly the looniest shopkeeper in all of England.”

Harry pauses for a moment, out of breath, despite the fact that he’d been speaking at a rate of about two words per minute. “Do you even have any costumers, like, ever?” he asks scathingly, “I mean, obviously not. The outside of your shop looks like it hasn’t been touched since the fall of the Roman Empire, and then, of course, there’s the fact that you own it and you’re absolutely mad!”

“Of course I have customers,” Louis spits, “Though I’m a bit unclear as to how you’ve still got fans going off of your frankly disgusting appearance and apparent kleptomania.”

“Klepto‒” Harry starts, scrunching up his nose in momentary confusion, “Oh, for god’s sake I already told you I’m not a criminal!”

“Great, wonderful, I don’t care,” Louis mutters in reply, pulling out his phone and sending an “everything’s fine” text to Liam before the entirety of MI6 shows up at his doorstep. He sighs loudly, flicking back to Zayn’s texts from last night, and typing out: Found your popstar… Unfortunately.

His phone pings three times not a moment later, alerting him of his new messages: one from Liam in all caps stating NOT FUNNY LOUIS!! which great, yeah, he’ll have to explain that later, and another two from Zayn, the first with a thrilled dammit, things were quiet with him gone :( and the second asking for Louis’ address. He quickly replies with the directions, half-expecting Harry’s security entourage to have teleported to his location the minute it reads “delivered”. What he’s certainly not expecting is:

driver’s wife is having her baby so we won’t get someone out there until like 10 sorry!! ur stuck w him til then :) haha good luck !! Xx

Louis curses under his breath, types YOU OWE ME!!!! in all caps, and pockets his phone. Sighing deeply, he looks back up at the popstar with a practiced saccharine smile the likes of which he normally wears when dealing with customers with rowdy children who can’t stop touching things. It does seem especially appropriate for the situation as Harry is currently perched on the edge of one of the display tables, his long thin legs swinging back and forth rhythmically, looking ever the petulant pouting toddler.

“I’ve alerted Zayn to your whereabouts and he’s having a car sent over in a few hours,” Louis says finally, trying to sound unimpressed with the idea of someone having their own chauffeur, “Don’t even think of trying to escape as I’m expecting a generous cash reward for your capture once your people arrive.”

Harry starts to complain (“A few hours? That’s ridicul‒”) but he bites his tongue; something in Louis’ discourse having arisen his suspicions.

“And how exactly do you know Zayn?” he questions, eyes narrowing.

“Met him last night,” Louis replies with a nonchalant shrug, “when he walked into the pub my mates and I frequent looking for… oh, what was it? Perhaps the phone that you chucked across the dance floor during your little clandestine midnight excursion?”

The younger lad’s cheeks flush red with guilt and Louis almost pities him until he remembers all the trouble that the irresponsible escapade had caused.

“And you missed a big interview,” Louis continues, “caused a bit of trouble for your people, and for Zayn, who’s apparently a good mate of yours though I can’t fathom why… Bit rude, innit?”

Harry’s glare returns full force at the admonishment. “You don’t understand what it’s like,” he grits between his teeth, “and you’ve no place to criticize.”

“Oh please,” Louis replies, eyes rolling up so far in his head he thinks they might not come back down, “save all your misunderstood ‘fame isn’t what I’d thought it’d be’ bullshit. You’re filthy rich and incredibly successful and you’re only what? Twenty? I highly doubt you even finished uni, did you?”

He pauses, watches as Harry begrudgingly shakes his head.

“Exactly. Some of us actually wasted away for three, four years and graduated without a proper job or a house or anything, alright?” He gestures around the bookstore, recalling all the work it took to fix it up.

“And not to mention, you’re perpetually surrounded by beautiful women‒ which isn’t really everyone’s cup of tea‒ but if the tabloids are anything to go by, it’s definitely yours, and‒”

“It’s not,” Harry interrupts, voice bitter and defensive, though his eyes go immediately wide as if he’s said something wrong.

“I‒ what?” Louis replies, pausing mid-sentence.

Harry’s eyes are the size of saucers.

“I… uh… it’s not… you know, my dream, it’s not to be surrounded by women,” he splutters intelligently, “I… uh… I like them one at a time?”

He cringes, looking at Louis pleadingly as if asking him to accept the fact that he’s clearly just lied about… about something.

“So you’re not into orgies, fine,” Louis shrugs, watching the tension in Harry’s soldiers dissipate at his placation, “but that doesn’t change the fact that you’ve been blessed with a virtual buffet of women from eight to eighty-five ready and willing to drop their panties at the first bars of one of your crooning ballads about the beauty of young love.”

Harry opens his mouth again, likely to protest the merits of crowd-pleasing pop music, but Louis holds up a hand. “Look,” he says softly, “I’m not trying to make you out to be some kind of villain brainwashing the public with your ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ and your charm and those damn dimples. All I’m saying is that you’ve been afforded quite a bit of privilege in your life thus far, and I’m sure a lot of people would find it refreshing if you just acted a bit more, oh I dunno, appreciative of it?”

“You think I don’t appreciate it?” Harry asks, the acidity in his tone dried up and gone. He looks down at his patched leather boots in what appears to be a sudden bout of self-consciousness.

Louis sighs, hopping up on the display table to perch next to the popstar. He slides a bit closer‒ his mind protesting that he’s overstepping his boundaries‒ but that doesn’t stop his hand from wandering over to pat Harry’s slightly damp, skinny jean clad thigh in what he hopes is a comforting gesture.

“I’m not saying you don’t,” he answers, trying his best not to be as harsh as before, “but the whole skipping the interview thing to go out and party instead does raise a few red flags.”

Harry sighs deeply and turns his head so that his eyes meet Louis’ own (and Louis’ breath absolutely does not catch in his throat as the space between them is cut in two; that would be ridiculous). Regardless of how he reacts, however, it quickly becomes apparent that any fake, pretentious façade the popstar may’ve been putting on has completely faded. This Harry, presumably the real Harry, just looks very young and very scared and, most of all, very, very sad.

“I didn’t skip the interview because I wanted to party,” he explains softly, “I skipped it because I knew they wouldn’t ask a single question about my music or my interests or even stupid, little things like, I don’t know, my favorite color or something.  All anyone ever asks me to do is confirm or deny rumors about who I’m supposedly sleeping with, and discuss whatever ridiculous weekly scandal The Sun reports I was involved in this time.”

“Ah yes,” Louis replies lightly, trying for humor, “I did hear quite recently that you’re having a baby?”

“It’s true,” Harry confirms, rolling his eyes, though Louis’ heart leaps irrationally at the small smile that tugs at his lips as he does so. “My forty-year old lover from Brixton and I are just thrilled! As is her husband.”

Louis can’t help the embarrassing giggle that bubbles out of him at Harry’s deadpan. His laugh is loud and ridiculous and squeaky and sometimes involves snorting (though thankfully not this time) and he absolutely hates it. In a futile attempt at muffling the sound, he covers his face with both hands and counts to ten. At five, he chances a peek between his fingers‒ fully expecting the popstar’s face to be contorted in some sort of judgmental expression‒ but instead, he finds Harry sporting a massive grin and looking immensely pleased to have been the cause of such an uncontrollable reaction.

“What’d you stop for? Your laugh is brilliant,” Harry says, plucking one of Louis’ hands from his face and placing it gently on the small expanse of wooden tabletop between them. He’s so painfully earnest that Louis’ heart aches with it.

(In his mind, there is a coffee shop and a blonde barista and the brush of their fingertips around a chai tea latte, the exchange of small, hopeful smiles. And it’s funny, he thinks, so funny… how every relationship begins with hesitation, but ends with certainty.)

He looks back up to see that Harry’s face has shifted from amusement to vague concern.

“Sorry, it’s just…” Louis starts, taking in one ragged, painful breath, “you sort of remind me of someone.”

“Someone you lost,” Harry replies, and it’s not a question; it’s a statement, like he understands.

“Yeah,” Louis affirms, softly, “but, you know s’probably best they stay that way. Lost, I mean.”

Harry looks at him, really looks at him‒ and it’s not a look that’s typically shared between virtual strangers‒ it’s not of pity or of disdain, it’s… empathy.

“You’d like to forget them,” Harry says, sounding just as heartbroken as Louis feels, “but you keep seeing them in everything and everyone, and… it’s strange how empty your life feels without someone next to you to share it with.”

There’s a long silence, the mingling sounds of their breathing and the tick-tock of the clock on the far wall the only interruption.

“It’s a good thing no one asks you about that relationship,” Louis remarks eventually, chuckling softly though his eyes glisten with moisture, “you’d have the entire audience sobbing on the floor in seconds.”

Harry laughs softly too. “Yeah, I suppose I should probably keep that one to myself.” He pauses, fiddling with his hands in his lap, “So, I’ve known you for about, what? Twenty minutes now? And I’ve already told you more than I’ve told anyone in a long time. It’s strange but…”

Harry trails off, face contorting into a look of confusion. Inexplicably, he starts to laugh, and his laugh is not the deep-throated chuckle that Louis expects, but a loud, uninhibited hyena-like cackle that spreads his mouth so wide it seems to take up his entire face.

“What on earth is wrong with you?” Louis asks, a chuckle escaping from between his own lips despite his attempts to ignore Harry’s insane, contagious laughter.

“I’m sorry,” Harry replies, still giggling, “I just realized that I don’t even know your name.”

In lieu of his moniker, Louis just bumps his shoulder against Harry’s playfully, and says, “This is actually the most ridiculous situation I’ve ever been a part of. It’ll be nice to include it in my autobiography, so thank you for that.”

“I met Lady Gaga once,” Harry says casually, with all the practiced nonchalance of the young, rich, and famous, “but you might top that... erm…”

He trails off again, eyebrows furrowed and nose crinkled. If Louis were allowing himself to set free his inner starstruck gay fanboy, he might even say that, in this moment, Harry Styles looks absolutely adorable.

“Hellooo?” Harry singsongs, waving one massive hand in front of Louis’ face, “Earth to– see, this is where I would say your name if I knew it.”

Blinking back into reality, Louis takes a moment to examine Harry’s hands up close: giant, smooth palms, long, clumsy fingers that would look divine spit-slicked and shiny with lube and– okay, that got away from him quickly– and loops and loops of bracelets and rings, some expensive-looking and silvery and others just frayed bits of braided twine or folded candy wrappers. His fingers itch to write them all down, to imagine the meaning behind the sloppy red and gold twists (a gift from a young fan), the plain black band (an old trinket purchased on a whim from a hole-in-the-wall antique store in Manchester), a moss green gem set in an intricate swirl of silver (from his mother on his eighteenth birthday)... Harry Styles is a poem waiting to happen, Louis thinks, eyes tracing peach flesh and the undercurrent of blue veins. He wants to write him all down, capture the image of green eyes and red lips and skinny wrists... dark ink spilled across the page. He–

“You know,” Harry says offhandedly (and Christ he’s still speaking, whoops, that’s embarrassing), “when I first called you the maddest shopkeeper in London, I was just joking, but now I’m not so sure.”

Louis, like the mature adult he is, sticks out his tongue.

“However, it feels impolite to continue calling you that, no matter how true it may be,” Harry continues, smiling expectantly, “I would love to know your name.”

His dimples are sort of impossible to resist.

Louis caves within seconds.

 “Louis,” he supplies, finally, with a wry smile, “Louis Tomlinson, and you are?”

“Pleased to meet you, Louis,” the popstar answers, and the sound of his name in Harry’s thick, molasses tone is absolutely not enticing at all, nope, not a bit.

“M’name’s Harry,” he continues, “Harry Styles, and you know it’s really nice to introduce myself, for a change.”

That’s when it strikes him. “I’ve got an idea,” Louis blurts, “Let me interview you!”

Seeing Harry’s confused and highly skeptical eyebrow raise, he clarifies, “No, no listen! This is a great idea, alright? Let me interview you. Like a real proper get to know you sort of deal! No invasive questions about your love life, no publicist standing behind the interviewer telling you what to say, just you and me, chatting it up like two strangers on a train, or summat.” Louis pauses, out of breath, “So? What d’you think?”

Harry hums contemplatively, though the smile he attempts to suppress gives him away.

“Alright,” he says, after his brief faux-moment of consideration, “but if you don’t ask me what my favorite color is, I’m leaving.”

Louis’ smile is blinding as he begins, “I’m here with Harry Styles, leader of the notorious London bookstore crime ring…”

The unmanly squeal he makes as Harry swats at his arm, and the popstar’s hysterical laughter in response can surely be heard from miles away or, at the very least, by the tenants of Kitty’s Sex Emporium next door; but Louis finds, oddly enough, that he really really doesn’t care.

& Z &

“There’s been a disturbance in the force,” Zayn says, taking a long, calculated sip of his double-shot espresso.

The pink-haired girl sitting across from him just smiles lightly, as if she’s used to such strange pronouncements. “Mmm, how so?” she replies, nursing her own‒ significantly sweeter‒ cup of coffee.

“I told you about last night, right Pez?” Zayn asks, and waits for her nod of confirmation, “Remember Louis?”

Perrie inclines her head and sets her coffee cup on the table between them. “Is that the one you want to sleep with or the one who wants to lick Harry’s collarbones?”

“The second one,” Zayn replies, glaring, “and I don’t want to sleep with Liam.”

Perrie chuckles, idly twirling a cotton-candy colored strand around her index finger. “Oh, my mistake,” she teases, “Liam is the one you want to propose to in Paris and adopt six kids with. How could I forget?”

“You know, sometimes I really regret being friends with you,” Zayn replies, still glaring.

Perrie grins and reaches across the table to pat his cheek with mock affection. “No you don’t, love,” she says with a saccharine smile, “I’m the nicest, hottest, bestest mate you’ve got.”

Seeing Zayn’s resultant eye-roll, she adds, “And certainly your most enjoyable shag to date.”

“And modest-est too,” Zayn mutters, ignoring her last comment completely.

He finishes his espresso in one long gulp, tossing the empty cardboard cup straight into the bin to his left with a bored flick of his wrist, “Anyway, as I was saying, Harry’s been at Louis’ since like six this morning and there hasn’t been a single homicide reported on the Camden Police Station’s twitter page. Not even any complaints for noise disturbance!”

He holds up his phone for emphasis, showing her a tweet about an arrest for cannabis possession posted three hours ago.

“Maybe they’ve just not found the body yet,” Perrie jokes, dark purple-painted lips quirking up in amusement.

Zayn, on the other hand, looks horrified.

“I’m just taking the piss, Zayn, my goodness!” she placates, watching his facial muscles relax at her reassurance, “What’s Harry doing there anyway?”

“Apparently, he drunkenly wandered into Camden last night and ended up knocking on Louis’ door this morning,” Zayn explains, “Can’t get a driver out there until ‘bout ten o’clock, and we certainly don’t want him papped on public transit looking hungover and half out his wits, so I told Louis to keep an eye on him. Hopefully, that way, he doesn’t escape again.”

“Bit of an odd coincidence though, innit?” Perrie comments, raising one blonde eyebrow, “Harry ending up there?”

“Yeah, proper sci-fi material,” Zayn agrees sarcastically, lips twitching into the briefest of smiles at the affronted look he receives in return, “but really I’m just glad he’s safe and not, like, passed out in the toilets at McDonald’s or snorting coke from some bloke’s bellybutton or something.”

“Can you even properly snort coke from a bellybutton?” Perrie wonders aloud, completely missing the point, “I reckon you’d get a bit of powder stuck in the creases?”

“Wouldn’t know,” Zayn replies idly, checking his watch, “Now let’s get you back in the studio. I want to work on those runs at the end of that track again.”

Perrie groans in protest, and slowly and unwillingly drags herself up from her seat. “Can’t you make Jade do them?” she coughs exaggeratedly, “My throat is sore.”

“We can’t put your name on your band’s record if you don’t actually sing on it,” Zayn chastises.

“Ugh, you’re a slave driver,” Perrie whines, “When’s Harry coming back? I like him more than you.”

“Probably around noon,” Zayn answers, “and no you don’t.”

“No I don’t,” Perrie agrees, “but I’ve never slept with him, have I? Or even seen his dick, for that matter, so how can I really be sure?”

“I knew you only liked me for my body,” Zayn scoffs, unlocking the door to the recording booth and fiddling with a few controls.

“It’s bigger than yours, innit?” Perrie asks, a bit invasively.

“Unfortunately, I can confirm that,” Zayn says with a sigh, unpleasant flashbacks from their days as flatmates flooding his brain, “Now, can we please stop discussing my best mate’s penis and get some actual work done?”

“Aye aye, cap’n,” Perrie replies, with a half-hearted attempt at a serious tone. She swings a hand up in mock salute, and marches into the recording booth still chuckling to herself.

“Yeah, you’re a proper comedian, aren’t you?” Zayn says, rolling his eyes.

As Perrie starts on some vocal warm-ups from within booth, Zayn plugs in a few mics, tests the sound levels, and sets up the backing track. Just as he’s finishing up, the door to the outer room swings open and a tall, dark-haired man dressed in all black enters, smiling brightly.

“Morning, you two!” David, the head producer, calls out, plopping himself down in the swivel chair next to the one Zayn is currently occupying. “Got everything set up, Zanzibar?”

Zayn rolls his eyes at the nickname but nods affirmatively. “Yeah, Pez is ready to lay down a few runs on track six.”

“Ah perfect,” David replies, fiddling with a few of the controls despite Zayn’s reassurances, “That’ll be it then, Zanzi. As Styland is still MIA and obviously won’t be coming in for a second session today, you’ve got the rest of the day off. Enjoy yourself, yeah?”

Zayn opens his mouth to deliver the news that Harry’s not actually missing any longer, but Perrie’s shrill laughter fills the room before he can speak.

“Wait a minute,” Perrie interrupts from the booth, still giggling, “Is Styland a play on Styles and Thailand?”

David smiles brightly, his focus drawn away as he spins his chair to face toward her. “Oui Pérríé,” he replies, switching to a poor attempt at a French accent, “You are so clevér.”

The pink-haired popstar inexplicably laughs even harder.

“D’you like that?” David replies, grinning, “Just came up with that one on the spot.”

“I don’t think that randomly employing a French accent should be considered particularly witty,” Zayn says, attempting to introduce himself back into the conversation.

The entire room falls silent; Perrie glaring and mouthing “rude!” and David simply waving a dismissive hand as if to say “Why are you still here?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m going,” Zayn mutters, collecting his things.

He’s just zipped up his backpack and started down the hallway when his phone pings with the arrival of a new text message. He whips it out of his pocket and sees that it’s surprisingly from Liam (who had drunkenly spelled his name L-U-M in Zayn’s contacts last night as he’d insisted on typing it in himself).

fancy gtting sum lunch tday?

His phone pings again before he can reply.

if ur not buzy i mean

And again.

shoot im srry that was awfl presmptius of me !

And again.

i meaan nt like a date or anythg…

i just fel like i owee u fr lst nigts cab farre??

nt tht thts the only reson i wld eat lunh w yuu!!

oh ym god pls ignore this !! !!!  this is rlly embrasing!!

Zayn tries to resist the fond smile that tugs at his lips, because really, how on earth is he this attracted to such an adorable, bumbling idiot? He’s Zayn Malik, for god’s sake. He wears leather jackets and keeps a cigarette tucked behind his ear at all times and listens to smooth R&B music (even though he produces for a popstar) and he owns a badass pit bull puppy. He’s cool, right?

I’m cool, he tells himself, looking down at his arm full of tattoos, yeah, I’m so fucking cool.

Never mind that it takes him the entire ride back to his flat to think of a suitably cool reply to Liam’s messages.

Never mind that it takes him even longer to type it in (his hands are not shaking, thank you very much).

sounds great actually! i’ll pick u up in an hr? xx

Never mind that he deletes and retypes the x’s at least thirty times before his cry of “fuck it!” echoes through his empty flat, and his thumb betrays him as it taps SEND.

Never mind all that, really.

He’s so fucking cool.

& L &

“It’s noon,” Louis remarks, yawning, as the credits roll onscreen.

Harry– curled up under a blanket on the opposite end of the couch– shrugs helpfully. “Okay?”

His curls are mussed and his lips are painted cherry red. He looks kind of really beautiful. Louis maybe, sort of wants to kiss him.

Louis doesn’t kiss him.

Instead he asks, “So, weren’t your people sending someone to pick you up around ten?”

Harry looks down suddenly, cheeks flushing.

“Did Zayn forget or something?” Louis implores, suddenly worried that he might’ve been keeping Harry against his will, “Because I can totally get you home, or wherever you need to go, you know that right? My mate Niall’s even got a car ‘nd everything, in fact, just let me call him right now and we can–”

Harry interrupts with a few mumbled words, his blush deepening.

“What was that?” Louis asks, concerned.

“I said, ‘Zayn didn’t forget’,” the popstar replies, voice still soft, “I maybe, sort of told them that I was taking the day off?”

Louis doesn’t do well at hiding his confusion. “What? When? Why?” he blurts, questions popping out of his mouth in rapid-fire succession.

“While you were setting up the movie,” Harry replies, wrapping the blanket more tightly around himself, “I might’ve snuck back downstairs and used your landline to phone my agent.”

The realization hits Louis like a freight train. “Harry, I–”

“I’m really sorry if I’ve overstayed my not-so-welcome, it’s just… I haven’t spent like a real day just hanging out with someone in so long and you were so nice to me and I sort of thought that maybe–”

“Harry,” Louis tries again.

“–that maybe we could even be friends, you know? Like all my friends aren’t even really my really real friends, they just pretend to like me ‘cause I’m famous, right? I mean, except for like Zayn and the band that I tour with and a few people at the record label, I don’t have any like normal friends, and this day has been so lovely, I’m sorry, I’ll call them back and tell them that–”

“Harry,” Louis says once more, scooting across the sofa to clamp a hand over Harry’s mouth.

Harry continues speaking for a second after he’s cut off and Louis tries his absolute best to ignore the sensation of those plush red lips moving against his palm. He removes his hand and takes in the popstar’s wide-eyed expression. Harry’s breathing heavily, cheeks flushed and lips parted in surprise, whether from his rambling speech or from their current proximity (and yes, okay, Louis acknowledges that the latter is highly unlikely, but can you really blame a man for being optimistic?).

Louis rocks back onto his knees, putting a nice, safe cushion-length distance between them, and says, “Of course you can stay, you idiot.”

“I– really?” Harry asks, almost timidly, peeking out from the wrappings of his reconstructed blanket cocoon.

“Yes, my little butterfly,” Louis assuages, surprised to hear his voice tinged with such unexpected fondness. He shakes his head to clear away those thoughts and reaches out to poke the Styles-sized burrito playfully.

“Heyyyyy,” Harry complains, dragging out the “ey” sound in his husky baritone.

Louis’ about to offer up a smart retort when his cell vibrates loudly in his pocket, and then once more as he’s pulling it out.

There’s a message from Zayn:

this prob sounds odd but what’s liam’s favorite food? please respond asap !!

And another from Liam:

emergency lou pls hepl ummm wat shud i wera if i were hypthecally goin on a NOT date w a v atractiv man to a probly v nice resterant?

“Oh dear god,” Louis says aloud, fighting the urge to vomit.

“What? What?” Harry asks excitedly, bouncing across the sofa and snatching Louis’ phone from his hands before he even has a chance to react.

He watches the younger lad’s face carefully as he reads the messages back to back.

“Are our friends hooking up?” Harry asks finally. He looks up from the screen wearing a shit-eating grin like it’s the greatest news in the world.

“It appears so,” Louis replies, trying his best to feign disinterest.

“Does this Liam bloke fancy Indian?” Harry inquires, eyes glinting mischievously as Louis nods. “Great! Tell Zayn to take Liam to Veeraswamy on Regent Street, and to mention my name for their best table.”

“What are you planning, Styles?” Louis implores, narrowing his eyes. He’s known the popstar, for what? Like six hours total? And yet, he can already tell that he’s up to something.

“We’re going to spy on them, of course,” Harry replies, rolling his eyes like it’s obvious.

“Harry, no, we can’t,” Louis protests, wringing his hands, “This is the first time Liam’s shown actual interest in anyone, like, anyone! I mean since she… I just, I don’t want to mess this up for him!”

“Well I don’t even know Liam at all,” Harry argues, “I’ve only got Zayn’s best interests in mind.”

He inclines his head slightly, grin spreading, like he’s waiting for Louis to get something. After a moment, Louis feels a smile appear on his own face as he realizes what Harry is trying to say.

“So, really,” Louis tries, “by spying on their date, we’re just looking out for them?”

“Exactly,” Harry replies, shrugging, “I mean, it’s our duty as best mates to observe and scrutinize all potential love interests.”

“Right,” Louis agrees, standing up and walking across the room to turn off the television. He turns back around and swallows at the image of one Harry Styles sprawled across his sofa, long limbs hanging languidly off the edges. He kind of sort of wants to ravish him.

Louis doesn’t ravish him.

Instead he says, “Well c’mon then, Styles! Haven’t got all day! At this rate, we’ll be late for our reservation!”

He winks lasciviously as Harry leaps to his feet.

“I must warn you though, love; I don’t put out on the first date,” he continues unabashedly, crossing his fingers that straight-as-a-board Harry won’t mind a little playful teasing, “Unless the food’s good, that is. Then I might reconsider.”

He cringes as Harry sits up looking especially scandalized. Louis watches for a moment as Harry stands– probably to go running out the door– then turns away and pretends to busy himself looking for his other shoe. When he doesn’t hear frantic footsteps behind him, he sighs partly in relief and partly in expectation of the uncomfortable silence or, if he’s lucky, the few strained words that will pass between them.

What he doesn’t expect is Harry’s giant hand on his shoulder and a pair of warm lips near his ear, whispering, “It’s a good thing I happen to know that the food is excellent.”

Louis swallows, taking a moment too long to regain his composure, before whirling around and letting Harry’s hand fall from his shoulder.

“Oy! Hands off, popstar,” he replies, teasing and confident, trying his best not to sound as overwhelmed as he feels, “What would your forty-year old lover back in Brixton think?”

Thankfully, Harry’s naturally goofy side returns almost instantaneously, all sultriness lost as he laughs brightly at Louis’ frankly poor attempt at diverting his arousal.

As they make their way back down to the first floor, Louis takes a moment to check his phone again. Predictably, it contains one slightly panicked message from Zayn (thanks for the advice ha ha !!) and at least ten from Liam, all varying in their state of terror. He pieces together a time frame based on the exponentially increasing number of exclamation points in Liam’s texts (twenty-nine total in the last one signaling Zayn’s impending arrival), and calculates that he and Harry can leave within the next ten minutes or so and get to the restaurant just after Zayn and Liam do. However, he reasons, it’s impossible to properly account for any delay that may occur in Liam’s apartment between now and then (and ew ew ew why on earth did he think about that?); all he can do is hope that Zayn’s feeling like a gentleman today because, let’s be honest, Louis himself would be on his knees in seconds if Zayn looked at him the right way.

“What’re you thinking about?” Harry asks, having returned to his familiar perch on the front display table.

Louis shudders. “Oh nothing, just an awful mental image of our respective best mates in various compromising positions.”

Harry smirks. “And here I thought you were mulling over the finer points of Keats and Shelley,” he remarks, fingers dragging along the spine of an anthology of Britain’s greatest, “So cultured, you are.”

Louis’ heart skips a beat at the mention of his favorite Romanticists.

“You read poetry?” he ventures, hoping for all the world that Harry Styles is not actually turning out to be his soulmate.

Harry looks embarrassed. “Don’t laugh, alright? I use it for lyrical inspiration sometimes.”

“I own a bookstore, darling,” Louis replies, giving Harry a look, “like I would really be one to judge?”

The younger lad looks down, still bashful, “Sorry, I just feel a bit silly, you know? I’m supposed to be this rebellious teen heartthrob and I’m sitting in my flat alone reading Byron and writing sappy songs about unrequited love.”

Louis smiles softly. “You know, I’m strictly a pen and paper sort of guy myself– granted, I did dabble in a bit of musical theater in my time at uni– but they say ‘music, when soft voices die, vibrates in the memory’ and I think that’s what made me fall in love with it, in the way that lyricists and poets are much the same.”

Harry’s face brightens almost immediately, as he replies excitedly, “Odours, when sweet violets sicken, live within the sense they quicken.''

Louis wrinkles his nose. “Yes, well, I don’t believe that part of the poem necessarily applies to the conversation at hand; however,” he pauses, ducking his head to hide his grin, “I am impressed you know a bit of my boy Bysshe nonetheless.”

Harry smiles even wider, dimples prominent in his dusted-pink cheeks. “So, you’re a writer then?”

“I am,” Louis replies, nodding in assent, “Well, trying to be, anyhow.”

“Have you published anything?” Harry asks, eyes sparkling with what appears to be genuine interest.

Louis glances over to a nearby shelf where a thin hardback with an emerald green spine is tucked unobtrusively between Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and a volume of Edmund Spenser.

“Not…” he begins carefully, “not as myself, no.”

Harry just looks even more intrigued. “A pseudonym, then?” he asks, grinning, “How very mysterious of you.”

“Yes, well,” Louis says uncomfortably, looking away.

Harry puts on his best puppy dog pout as he requests, “Read me one?”

Louis crosses the room and goes behind the front desk to grab his wallet. “Would you look at the time? We better get a move on or we’ll be late!”

The popstar just widens his eyes and sticks his bottom lip out even further. “C’mon Lou, please?”

Louis feels trapped, eyes flitting from Harry to the front door and back again. “No, I–” he begins, with the intention of refusing Harry’s request, but the younger boy’s green eyes are so sad and pleading… and Louis is so weak and susceptible to his charm…

 “Alright, maybe just one,” he relents, “but you’re treating us both to lunch, then. Deal?”

“Deal,” Harry says quickly, “I was thinking Indian, if that’s alright? There’s this great little restaurant off Regent Street?”

Louis can’t help the giddy little giggle that escapes him; Harry, once again, looking positively delighted to have been the source of it. He rolls his eyes, pulling his faded moleskine out of his back pocket and flipping to one of the very first pages. Clearing his throat and fraught with sudden nerves, Louis begins to read, voice trembling:

“Maybe sorrow was the thing.
The, can’t quite put your finger on it,
tap the tongue to the roof of the mouth,
search for the flavor without a name,
secret ingredient, to all this me I have become.”

“Maybe sorrow was the rain to the seed
of happiness planted the moment I became aware,
that there isn’t much fair when it comes to life.”

“Maybe sorrow was the thing. The, if it doesn’t kill
it makes you stronger, never yet broken promise
inside myself that no matter how hard it gets I can
survive it, extra bit of rope when I thought mine had run out.”

“Maybe sorrow was the thing. Maybe it is all the bending
and pushing of these hearts to their breaking point that grants
flexibility to the grace we spend our lives’ building.
Maybe only those who have danced with melancholy
and ache can actually hear the music.”

His eyes flit up briefly, meeting Harry’s own, and he feels his breath catch in his throat at the intensity of the other boy’s gaze.

Maybe sorrow was the thing.”

He closes his moleskine with an air of finality, ignores the way that Harry breathes out his name, how it finds his ears like a hopeful prayer, like a promise he’ll never be able to keep.

Harry’s looking at him like he’s a waif, a paper thin, fragile little thing that he thinks he might break. He’s looking at him just like Aiden did, two weeks before he proclaimed that Louis was too hollow, too closed-off, too insecure… Two weeks before he packed up and out of Louis’ life like the near year and a half they’d spent together meant nothing at all. Louis hates that look, hates the way that it makes him feel like he’s lesser, like almost twenty-three years into the game of life and he’s already destined to lose.

He clears his throat, grabs his coat off the chair, and ignores the way Harry seems to instinctually reach for him. Instead, he breezes by, saying, “C’mon then, I’ll hail us a cab.”

Harry reaches out to grasp his shoulder once more, but seems to think better of it, retracting his hand and shoving it in the pocket of his distressed jeans.

Louis holds the door open all gentleman-like and motions Harry through with a forced laugh and a “ladies first”. Harry pauses in the doorway a moment, considering, and Louis holds his breath hoping that he won’t decide to ask any questions. The younger boy must sense his apprehension as he shakes his head once, twice, and runs a hand through his knotted mane, before continuing past. Louis shuts the door behind both of them and turns around to check the lock.

As he spins back toward the street, he’s greeted with the strangest of sights: an image of Harry in the real world, a wonderfully outlandish being that exists outside the walls of his shop, the confines of his mind. Thin rays of London sunlight slip between the cloud-cover to bathe the younger boy’s skin in a pale yellow glow, and glint arbitrarily off each messy curl. Harry’s entire body is illuminated, effusing light like some heavenly being; like the Lord himself popped down for a visit disguised as a gangly, goofy, downright ridiculous excuse for a popstar.

Louis doesn’t believe in God, but he thinks, maybe, he could believe in Harry.

(And maybe he already does).

It’s a terrifying thought, that.

Not even a full day spent with the man and he’s already disregarding a major world religion in favor of a virtual stranger whose shirtless beach vacation pap photos he may or may not have saved to a folder on his computer entitled “$pank Bank)…

Granted, after their little-mock interview, he does at least know Harry’s favorite color (blue) and his favorite movie (Love Actually) and the fact that he’s worth like a gazillion dollars but only owns two pairs of jeans (he hasn’t yet determined if that’s an understatement or not).

It’s a terrifying thought that this might actually be his life now.

 “Oh my god,” he whispers to himself as a cab rolls up and he and Harry climb in, “I’m going to lunch with Harry Styles.”

He sits silently, fidgeting, and only pays attention long enough to hear Harry give the cabbie the address before he’s back to staring out the window and gnawing on his bottom lip. Out of the corner of his eye, he notices that Harry keeps glancing at him from the opposite side of the cab with a hint of concern in his wide, green eyes. He steels himself, turning back toward the younger boy and breaching the space between them to pat Harry’s thigh in what he hopes is a placating gesture.

“I’m not a baby bird, love,” he says, frankly, “Quit worrying about me, yeah?”

 “I’m not,” Harry replies, running a hand through his hair and shaking it loose, “It’s just… your poem was… it’s… I guess, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I know where you’re coming from. I mean, shit, that sounds kind of presumptuous of me, but like… I relate to it, and I… I’ve had bad experiences and I was sad for a long, long time,  and it’s like my mind was just trapped in this really shitty place, and, and sometimes I go back to that place when something reminds me of hi- that person and I just…”

He pauses, taking a deep, ragged breath, and Louis feels his heart drop at the utterly broken look that destroys Harry’s normally jubilant façade.

When he finally speaks again, it’s soft, almost mumbled, like he’s ashamed of being a little bit flawed, of loving someone who doesn’t love you in the same way or… or not at all (and fuck if Louis doesn’t understand that more than anything).

“I just hate imagining anyone else feeling the way that I did, you know?” Harry says quietly, looking down at his hands, “I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone, ever, and I especially hate that…”

Harry pauses again; looks back up to meet Louis’ eyes with a tangible, raw sort of pain; jagged bits of glass on skin, and bloody, broken hearts. “I hate that I think you might’ve.”

The silence between them lasts for only a few short seconds before Louis is unbuckling his seatbelt and scooting across the backseat to wrap his fingers around Harry’s bicep. He buries his head into the popstar’s chest, whispers “you’re much too beautiful to be broken” and feels Harry’s arm tighten around him in response.

Harry is quiet for a long while but he doesn’t push him away. Louis sits there, tucked into him, just breathing; though, he imagines he can hear Harry’s mind working overtime, thoughts noisy and pained.

“Are you going to forget this day ever happened once it’s over?” he hears Harry ask, finally, feels the accompanying rumble of sound where his cheek is pressed against the younger boy’s collarbone.

“Because being friends with me is kind of, well, really, really difficult what with the paparazzi and the constant rumors and all that,” Harry continues before Louis can answer, his voice deep and husky and sad, “and I wouldn’t blame you if you just wanted to think of this as like a nice little heart-to-heart with a stranger, ‘I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine’ single-day sort of therapy session, if you will.”

Louis sits up, cocking his head and looking evenly at the boy seated next to him.

“Is that what you want?” he asks, watches Harry bite his lip and shake his head slowly but decisively in response.

“Then I won’t,” Louis replies definitively, and he can actually see the tension bleed from Harry’s shoulders, and subsequently from his mind as well.

“You did break into my shop, remember?” he continues, lips quirking into a smile, “I just can’t let you go free when I’m still thinking about pressing charges.”

Harry’s resultant shove sends him clear across the back of the cab, his head bumping loudly against the far ceiling.

“Oi, you two!” the cabbie calls from the driver’s seat, eyes narrowed in the rearview mirror.

He meets Harry’s eyes and the pair of them dissolve into loud, raucous laughter.

“I’ll kick you lot out if you keep fluffing about back there,” the cabbie threatens.

Harry’s pinching his lips to keep from cackling as Louis replies, “That’s a fairly feeble warning considering that we’ve arrived at our destination.”

The cabbie’s eyes flit back to the road and he slams on his breaks, pulling haphazardly up to the curb in front of the restaurant.

“And we’ve arrived, gents,” he announces with obviously forced pleasantry.

Before Louis can stop him, Harry’s unbuckling his seat belt, reaching out and handing the driver a stack of notes. Harry must sense his impending complaint as he turns to look at Louis with unwavering finality, saying, “Consider this part of the lunch that I owe you” and obviously daring him to protest.

Louis’ mouth snaps shut and he scrambles to open the cab door before his brain can sear the image of Harry’s beautifully set jawline and penetrating gaze into his mind forever. He takes a deep breath once he’s free from the too-crowded space, and reaches out with renewed confidence–and a demure smile– to help Harry from the car. Harry doesn’t reach for his hand, however, and he feels an irrational throb of hurt until he notices the large group of paparazzi photographing some celebrity leaving the sushi restaurant across the street.

“Cheryl!” someone yells, “Cheryl over here please!”

And oh Louis’ just remembered what part of town he’s in again.

“They’re a bit preoccupied with Ms. Cole at the mo’,” Louis says, leaning down to address Harry, “not that you’re any less fit or desirable, but I reckon if you move quickly, they won’t spot you.”

Harry nods once in confirmation and leaps from the back of the cab with astounding grace, hurries across the pavement with Louis in tow, and practically dives into the restaurant.

Louis’ heart is beating a mile a minute, his fringe is in a state of disarray, and he’s panting heavily, but somehow when the smiling blonde at the front desk asks ‘Mr. Styles’ for a number, Harry’s the picture of composure, all big smiles and easy confidence.

“Two, please,” he replies with a wink (an actual wink), “and make it a private table near the back, would you love?”

He says it all with a practiced sort of charm that has the poor girl blushing and tucking a long, blonde strand behind her ear. She’s smiling at Harry bashfully, though her steady gaze is practically predatory in nature; and Louis can’t help but think that with her looks and the strain of the buttons on her black dress shirt from her more-than-ample bosoms, she’s had her fair share of high-profile visitors. Not that Louis’ judging of course– sex is great in any quantity– he’s just not particularly fond of the way that her perfectly manicured fingers reach out to grasp the fabric at the small of Harry’s back as she guides them to their table.

“If you need anything else, Mr. Styles,” she begins once they’re seated, though Harry is quick to correct her with an easy smile and an overtly-casual “just Harry, darling, no need for formality” that may or may not have Louis’ blood inexplicably warming and his fists clenching tightly at his sides.

“If you need anything else, Harry,” she–Emily, according to her nametag– obliges, “please don’t hesitate to ask for me.”

Harry grins brightly, promising that “yes, he most certainly will” while Louis simmers in his seat all the while thinking that if he has any say in it, Harry most certainly won’t.

Emily then offers them– well, Harry, really, since she hasn’t spared Louis a single glance since they sat down–  a wine menu which Harry politely declines (though Louis could definitely use a drink right about now) and saunters off soon after, her hips swaying deftly in her matching tight, black slacks. 

“She was nice,” Harry says conversationally, after she’s disappeared around the bend.

Louis has to physically restrain himself from slamming his head against the table.

“Lovely, just lovely,” he agrees, his tone forced and only slightly scathing.

Harry blinks. “What’s wrong? You didn’t like her?”

“Oh, I liked her plenty,” Louis replies icily, “and she definitely liked you.”

“What does that–” Harry starts, but he’s cut off by the arrival of their thankfully very male server who, by Louis’ standards, is himself rather quite fit. Must be a requirement to work at a posh establishment, he thinks, somewhat bitterly, recalling his several failed attempts at securing a job upon his London arrival.

“Hello sirs,” the server– this once called Jaymi– says cheerily, “Have you dined with us before?”

“I haven’t,” Louis says to Jaymi’s shapely left bicep, still visible even through his uniform. He really, really hopes he’s not imagining the way the server’s eyebrows pique in interest.

 “My mate, here,” he continues, emphasizing the word ‘mate’ just in case, “is a bit of a regular, so I’m sure he can suggest something for the both of us.”

“Very good, sir,” Jaymi nods, and this time, Louis definitely doesn’t imagine the way the server’s eyes flicker from his face to his hands and back up.

Oh yes, maybe he’s still got it.

“Now Jaymi, call me Louis, would you?” he corrects demurely, trying to match Harry’s tone addressing the hostess, “Sir is a bit, I don’t know, mature, don’t you think?”

Jaymi looks quite pleased by the attention, indeed, and Louis’ game has never felt so strong.

“I can see how you might feel that way,” Jaymi replies, teasingly, “though if you’re worried about feeling old, then I’m afraid you probably are.”

His eyes twinkle as he speaks, and Louis is more than delighted to see that they’re a lovely, bright shade of blue.

“I certainly am not,” he replies, aghast, raising a hand to his chest in mock-offense, though his returning grin probably gives him away.

“Oh don’t worry, Louis,” Jaymi fires back, “you don’t look a day over thirty-five.”

Louis is still grinning, as he says, “I know for a fact that–”

“He’ll have the kerala prawn curry and I’d like the roast duck vindaloo, no onions please.”

Harry is shoving both their menus into Jaymi’s hands before Louis can even react to the interjection.

“This is the 3-course fixe prix, of course, with my usual starters,” Harry continues, briskly,
“Ask the kitchen, they’ll know.”

Jaymi, for his merit, doesn’t appear offended, just tilts his head and raises an eyebrow in quiet appraisal.

“Of course, sir,” he replies, folding the menus with obvious practice. Louis certainly doesn’t miss the way the server directs a small smile toward him as he addresses Harry with his original decorum. “We’ll have that right out for you.”

As Jaymi waltzes off, presumably toward the kitchen to place their orders, Louis turns his attention back toward the popstar staring intently at him from across the table.

He purses his lips, expressing his disapproval, and says shortly, “Well, that was a bit rude, don’t you think?”

Harry just shrugs, not breaking his gaze. “He was clearly flirting with you.”

“So?” Louis implores, unwavering, “I do believe they legalized polite conversation between any two interested individuals right after they abolished serfdom in, oh, the early 1600’s? But please, Harry, do correct me if I’m wrong.”

“Were you?” Harry asks, shortly.

“Was I what?”

“Interested.”

Louis narrows his eyes. “I don’t see why or how that concerns you.”

“Listen–” Harry begins, green eyes blazing, looking for all the world like he’s about to place a hex upon Louis’ family or something of the sort, though he cuts himself off abruptly. He leans back against the mahogany booth, frowning deeply before shaking his head. Seemingly having forgotten about whatever originally possessed him, Harry says instead, softly and resigned, “Forgive me, it doesn’t.”

He then proceeds to fold his hands neatly atop the table and gaze across the restaurant fixedly. Several minutes pass without a word from either of them, and Louis shifts in his seat, beginning to feel a bit restless.

“Emily’s probably busy seating other guests,” he says offhandedly, “though I’m sure there are plenty of other busty blonde servers around that you can ogle in her place.”

Harry looks at him oddly, chuckling a bit, and despite his peculiar reaction, Louis is glad to have restored the conversation in any capacity.

“You know I only do that to get better service, right?” Harry replies, casually, “Emily’s worked here for a while and we always have a bit of a routine going. She knows it does well to impress whoever I’m with.”

Louis perhaps fixates on the phrase ‘whoever I’m with’ a bit too long before he musters up a reply.

“So, basically, you’re using her to get your meal faster?”

Harry looks only mildly affronted. “Wasn’t that what you were doing with our server?”

“Er no,” Louis replies, fiddling with the napkin in his lap, “the intention with Jaymi was more of a ‘hey, if you’re interested, let’s meet back at my place later for a once-off because you’re fit and I’m available’ sort of deal.”

(He doesn’t mention the fact that it may or may not have spawned from his irrational jealousy over Harry being a fairly typical heterosexual male drooling over an attractive woman.)

Harry looks oddly pained by his explanation, but quickly changes the subject with a subtle incline of his head and a whispered, “Zayn and Liam are sitting three tables to the left of the large elephant statue in the corner.”

Louis, unfortunately, is seated in a way that he can’t turn around without being fairly obvious about his gawking, so he simply nods his assent and says, “You’ll have to narrate for me.”

“They’ve each got a hand on the table, fingers about a centimeter apart,” Harry starts, “and– ew, okay– they both keep glancing down at the space like they’re just waiting to caress each other.”

Louis pretends to gag. “Disgusting, go on.”

“Well they’re talking a lot,” Harry continues, furrowing his eyebrows as he scrutinizes the scene before him, “I don’t think either of them have touched their foo– oh, never mind, Zayn’s just fed Liam a bit of his, I think that’s some sort of chutney but I’m not positive, and now they’re–”

“Does Liam look happy?” Louis interrupts, biting his lip as Harry leans a bit further out of the booth, presumably to catch a glimpse of Liam’s face as well.

“He really does,” he says after a moment, looking pleased, “As does Zayn. Practically beaming, the both of them.”

“Oh, good,” Louis replies, relieved. He only pauses for a moment– deducing from Harry’s curious expression that the popstar is waiting for an explanation– and launches into a short summary of Liam’s unlucky love life.

 “Right, so Liam dated this girl for almost the entirety of uni and they broke up about a year back. Really messy thing too; screaming in our flat and throwing things, it was like being in a soap opera. Poor lad was devastated, kept saying she ‘was it’ for him and calling her day and night before she eventually got her number changed. He never even looked at another human being for a good, oh, year and a half I’d say.”

Harry hums sympathetically. “What changed?”

Louis smiles softly. “Your mate over there waltzed into our pub last night looking like an animated Greek sculpture escaped from the Louvre.”

Harry nods, clearly amused, “Zayn does tend to have that effect on people.”

“He certainly had an effect on me,” Louis agrees, “I probably would’ve gone for him myself had I not witnessed Liam next to me practically fighting the urge to whip his dick out in public.”

Harry grimaces, but says, “Well, I’m glad you didn’t.”

He must realize all that that statement implies as he quickly extrapolates, “I mean I’m glad you didn’t shag Zayn because then you wouldn’t have been at home to help me out this morning.”

“First off,” Louis ripostes, “me not being home would’ve made your burglarizing infinitely easier, so don’t try and fool me, and secondly, your best mate would’ve been sadly out of luck, just as you are, as I’ve previously stated that I don’t shag on the first date.”

Harry laughs again, though his eyes darken perceptibly, “But, as you’ve also previously stated, you amend that rule in the case of good food, and as I’ve previously stated and do so maintain, I happen to know that the food here is excellent.”

If there wasn’t currently a tabloid stand across the street carrying a copy of the Daily Mail with “Harry Styles admits to shagging 400 women in one year!” on its cover, Louis might just be inclined to believe that said Harry Styles is flirting with him.

“Easy there, popstar,” he says, reaching across the table to pinch Harry’s cheek playfully, “I’ve yet to try a bite; and to make matters worse for you, you’ve clearly been overly cocky in ordering a meal for me without my input. I could be allergic to keral– er, whatever it was. Simply put, logic says that this is a bet you’re destined to lose.”

Harry opens his mouth to reply but, as if on cue, Jaymi returns to the table carrying their two steaming and admittedly delicious-smelling orders. Another waitress arrives at the same time with their first course and sets a plate of what look to be crab cakes between them.

“Thank you, love,” Louis acknowledges, breathing in the enticing aromas of lime and ginger.

She nods once with a tight-lipped smile, saying nothing, and disappears just as quickly as she came.

Jaymi rolls his eyes and mutters something like “stuck-up newbies” before unloading the dishes balanced artfully atop his muscular forearms.

 “Kerala,” he says, setting the plate in front of Louis, “and duck tandoori for you, Mr. Styles.”

Harry’s smile is clearly forced as he mutters his thanks, so Louis feels it’s only fair that he take extra care in acknowledging their server’s excellent work.

“Will that be all, sirs?” Jaymi asks, moving to refill Louis’ still nearly-full glass of water.

“Ye–” Harry starts, but Louis is quick to interrupt him, grazing the server’s arm lightly and motioning for him to lean in.

Jaymi is quick to oblige, though he does so with a knowing look, angling his bum toward Harry with a playful wiggle. Louis sneaks a quick glance across the table, only to see that Harry is flushed red, coiled tightly like a spring, and apparently just seconds away from murdering the poor waiter with his butter knife.

“I’m sorry about my, er, companion,” Louis whispers into Jaymi’s jawline, “He’s straight as a board, I swear, but he tends to get a bit… irrationally jealous?”

Jaymi just smiles perceptively, trailing his fingers up Louis’ arm to rest lightly atop his shoulder.

 “It’s a pity, really,” he whispers in reply, “You’re so pretty, but so painfully unavailable.”

Louis opens his mouth to protest– and to explain that he’s literally known Harry for less than a day, so there’s really no question of availability– but Jaymi silences him with another pointed look.

“He’ll come around, darling, don’t worry,” he says, close enough that his lips brush against the outer shell of Louis’ ear, “Emily, the girl who seated you, came back to the kitchen just to tell me how utterly disappointed she was that Harry Styles had finally found a date he was actually interested in.”

Jaymi pulls away at that, leaving Louis gawking, mouth hanging open in surprise.

He watches as the waiter carefully schools his features, back to the picture of professionalism, before saying brightly, “I’m afraid, sir, that we don’t currently offer that on our menu. However, I will, of course, mention your suggestion to our head chef and see what we can do about having something available for you upon your next visit.”

If Louis kind of didn’t want to kiss his still probably straight non-date seated across the table, he would definitely kiss Jaymi instead.

“I can’t say that I’m not disappointed,” Louis replies cryptically, “but I feel infinitely more reassured that the, erm, situation will be resolved thanks to your personal input.”

“You have my word, sir,” Jaymi replies, nodding stiffly, though his ocean blue eyes reflect his understanding, “Please enjoy your meal as best you can.”

Louis has to bite his lip to keep from smiling as Jaymi spins on his heel and sashays off theatrically. Just before he turns the corner, however, he stops to look back and quickly mouths “go get ‘im” with an exaggerated wink and a bit of suggestive hip-thrusting. Louis manages to suppress what would’ve likely been an embarrassingly loud guffaw by snatching his fork off the table and quickly shoving a large, very very hot bite of kera-whatever into his mouth.

Harry raises an eyebrow as Louis flails, choking on the burning mouthful. He slides Louis’ glass of water toward him, fighting a smirk; and Louis grasps it eagerly, gulping down half the glass in one swallow.

“So…” Harry starts, still smirking, after he’s sure that Louis’ not going to require resuscitation, “What were you requesting?”

Louis inclines his head, “What do you mean?”

“That little conversation with your new waiter friend?” Harry supplies, holding his hands up to place air quotes around “Whatever’s ‘not on the menu’.”

“Oh. Oh!” Louis exclaims, mentally chastising himself for being such an idiot.  “Yes, I– well, you see, erm…” he stutters, finally just blurting out the first thing that comes to mind, “I was really in the mood for a nice pasta dish?”

“Pasta? That’s the best you’ve got?” he can almost hear his subconscious hiss back at him.

Harry blinks. “You do realize that this is a traditional Indian restaurant, right?”

“What? Indians can’t eat noodles?” Louis asks, feigning confusion, “How culturally insensitive of you, Harold.”

“I’m not sure that’s how that works,” Harry replies, wrinkling his nose. He pauses and looks down at his plate, using his spoon to swirl together a bite of rice and spicy brown curry.

“And my name’s not Harold,” he continues, after he’s swallowed, “It’s Harry. Just Harry.”

Louis rolls his eyes, “Whatever you say, Harold.”

He snatches one of the round yummy-smelling things off of the center plate and is delighted to find that it is, in fact, a crab cake. “Update on the lovebirds, please?”

Harry leans out of the booth and grimaces almost immediately. “Well, Zayn’s gone for the dessert plate, which is an extra twenty pounds, so he’s clearly pulling out all the stops on this one.”

Louis’ jaw slackens at the mention of the price. “Wait a minute,” he asks, the bite of crab cake suddenly feeling like a lead weight in his stomach, “Just exactly how much does this meal cost?”

Harry shrugs. “Around sixty-five per person, so… that’s what?” he pauses, mentally totaling their meals, “One-thirty for the both of us?”

If it’s possible, Louis’ mouth falls open even farther. “Harry, I–” he starts, pushing his plate away in shock, “I was just kidding when I said lunch was on you. I really, really can’t let you pay for all this.”

Harry laughs, shooting him a disbelieving look. “Um, popstar remember?” he says, gesturing to himself, “Really, Lou, it’s nothing.”

Louis glares back at him. “I can afford it, you know.”

The curly-haired lad tilts his head curiously. “Not just a pseudonym, then,” he replies, perceptively, “A successful one?”

Louis’ lips twitch upwards into a soft close-mouthed smile. “How do you know my funds don’t come from my thriving bookshop business or, perhaps, a wealthy great uncle who left me an inheritance in his will?”

“Because you read me your poetry,” Harry replies simply, green eyes intelligent and alight.

Louis’ eyes fall to his still-hot plate of prawn curry, his cheeks burning with the embarrassment of Harry’s sincere praise. He’s kind of, maybe, possibly in love with this boy.

“Hey, look at me,” Harry continues, one hand reaching across the table to tilt Louis’ chin back up to face him.  Their eyes meet again, and it’s like he’s suffocating, drowning in a palette of green-apple, alabaster, and cherry-red. “You’re talented, Louis, and it’d be a real travesty had the British public not recognized that.”

He regains his composure, taking a deep breath and quirking one eyebrow questioningly. “Not just the British public,” Louis replies, his natural haughtiness restored, “A few others countries, too.”

Harry’s places a hand to his forehead and pretends to swoon. “No one told me I was on a date with an international bestselling author! I’m so overwhelmed!”

“A date, huh?” Louis implores, polishing off his crab cake with a final dainty bite.

Harry looks panicked. “Uh, I… I mean… not a date date like, like Zayn and Liam, you know? Not that I wouldn’t, erm… I mean, I wouldn’t… I don’t have a problem with that… but our, our date is just a friends’ date, a date between two strangers, really, I mean I’d like to be friends with you… but not like that… like we’re–”

“Harry,” Louis interrupts gently, reaching across the table to still the popstar’s flailing hands.

He waits until the younger boy has been allayed completely before continuing, as reassuringly as possible, “It’s fine. I’m gay, you’re straight; it’s okay if you’re a little uncomfortable around me when I joke about like that. I get it.”

 “That’s really not the problem,” Harry blurts, then shakes his head, grimacing, “I mean, thanks, but your sexuality isn’t an issue for me. I’m friends with Zayn, aren’t I?”

Louis can’t help but notice Harry’s odd deflections, but in the end he just shrugs and files it away for later. Harry seems confident enough in his own sexuality and certainly unbothered by Louis’, so there’s really no reason to tiptoe gingerly around the subject nor is there any reason to discuss it further…

Suddenly, Harry’s ducking under the table, hissing “They’re getting up and heading this way!”

Which, yeah, thanks for the heads-up; Louis totally has time to hide now.

Before Louis can fully join Harry down below, he hears a pair of approaching footsteps and Liam’s voice inquiring, “Louis? Is that you?”

He curses under his breath and sits up, bonking his head on the edge of the table as he does so.

“Oh, hello, Liam, Zayn,” he replies, smiling brightly, “Fancy meeting you here, innit?”

He watches as Zayn’s eyes narrow perceptibly, but Liam’s face, thankfully, remains open and unguarded as he grins in return.

“Are you here with someone?” Liam asks, gesturing to the two bowls of food on the table.

Louis panics, yelping loudly as Harry’s… something… brushes against his leg. “Oh, no, I–” he replies, grimacing in pain as his knee had jerked up into the tabletop when he was startled, “I ordered that for Niall. It’s his favorite.”

“It’s half-eaten,” Zayn remarks, still eyeing him suspiciously.

Louis’ eyes are drawn to the dark-haired lad’s arm wrapped loosely around Liam’s waist, and his dominant wide-placed stance. Lovely little display of territorialism, he thinks arbitrarily, before returning to the conversation at hand.

“Yes, well, I couldn’t very well just accept that it’s Niall’s favorite without trying it myself, could I?” he retorts, feeling as every bit as childish as he probably sounds.

“S’pose not,” Zayn says slowly, looking displeased at having been momentarily outwitted.

“And, as it turns out, it was even better than I expected,” Louis finishes, showing all his teeth. He shrugs, tossing his hands up in humorous faux-shame. “Just couldn’t help myself from enjoying a few more bites. This stomach is so demanding.”

By the time he’s finished, Liam is looking at him a little oddly, and Zayn is clearly not buying any of it.

“Where’s Harry?” Zayn asks, finally.

Louis hesitates, about to lie again, when Harry pops up from beneath the table with a resounding, “Finally! Found my ring!”

He uses a hand to smooth back his tangle of curls, and then screws a clearly not misplaced ring back onto his middle finger.

“Oh hello, Zayn,” he says pleasantly. He gestures to Liam, asking, “And who’s this?”

Zayn just rolls his eyes. “You do realize that every time you’re the one who suggests the meal, I know it’s just a ploy to spy on me?”

“You do this often?” Liam and Louis ask Harry in unison, though for very different reasons.

 “Only with people Zayn has serious interest in,” Harry replies, which seems to satisfy the both of them.

“Are you two on a date then as well?” Zayn asks, and of course the bastard is smiling knowingly as he does so.

Louis, cheeks burning, looks to Harry for an answer, but the popstar looks just as stricken as he feels. The clear solution to the problem, Louis’ mind decides for him, is to shove a large mouthful of hot curry into his mouth for the second time in one sitting.

“No, we’re not, I–” Harry starts as Louis incapacitates himself with food, but he’s quickly interrupted by a familiar presence as their wonderful brunette savior, Jaymi, whirls by and plops himself in the booth next to Louis.

“Hey babe,” the waiter says casually, slinging an arm around him with a smile, “Just thought I’d swing by to check up on you while I’m on break.”

Harry’s mouth is hanging open and Louis is sure his would be too had he not been mid-bite upon Jaymi’s arrival.

“Hi,” Louis says slowly, after he swallows, “I… wasn’t expecting you back so soon?”

Jaymi winks and gives him a look, clearly asking him to play along. “Got off a bit early for being so well-behaved,” Jaymi says, leaning in to faux-whisper in Louis’ ear, “but I thought, maybe, I could be a bit naughty for you later.”

“Okay!” Harry exclaims, clapping his hands together and looking just as pained as he was during the server’s last appearance.

“Oh, dear!” Jaymi says, pretending to finally notice the group at large. He’s almost in Louis’ lap at this point, and Harry looks practically murderous. “I’d no idea you brought more of your mates for me to meet,” he says, acting surprised. He taps Louis on the nose playfully, saying, “I thought I told you one at a time, sweetheart.”

“Erm, Louis?” Liam asks, uncomfortably, “Who’s this?”

Jaymi hops up, smoothing out his apron, and holds out his hand. Liam shakes it apprehensively, as does Zayn, as Jaymi introduces himself.

“Jaymi Hensley,” he says, bright and friendly, “I’m Louis’ boyfriend.”

“Boyfriend?” Liam asks, looking at Louis accusingly, “He didn’t mention it.”

“Yes, well, we wanted to keep it on the hush-hush until we were sure it was serious,” Jaymi continues. He turns back to Louis, raising an expectant eyebrow, “Right, babe?”

“Serious?” Liam mumbles, still in shock.

“Oh yeah, ‘course,” Louis says, finally understanding the waiter’s convenient plan to avoid any more awkwardness with Harry and curb Zayn’s suspicion of espionage, “When Zayn asked me for a lunch suggestion, I immediately thought Indian. Guess that was my subconscious talking!”

Jaymi giggles right on cue, batting his arm playfully.

“Then Harry mentioned wanting lunch as well and wouldn’t you know it, he suggested Veeraswamy because of the special popstar privileges he has here or something,” Louis explains, looking between Liam and Zayn, “and of course I couldn’t pass up a chance to surprise my boyfriend! We thought we’d timed it so that we wouldn’t run into you two, but it ended up being just the opposite.”

Zayn looks contemplative, but Liam is nodding emphatically and repeating “Serious?” to himself every few seconds.

“Yes, Liam, serious,” Louis repeats, “Jaymi and I’ve been dating for two, no, almost three months now? Is that right?”

Jaymi nods, casting a perfectly-practiced fond gaze in his direction.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier, Li,” Louis continues, settling into his part, “but you know I haven’t really put myself out there since Aiden and, well, I was definitely hesitant about Jaymi and me at the start… I just didn’t want to get your hopes up until I was certain about him. Telling people would’ve made it too real, too soon, but now that I know, well…”

He casts his own fond gaze back at the waiter, smiling softly.

Zayn, looking down at his watch, says suddenly, “Don’t you have that curriculum meeting soon, Liam? We ought to head out.”

Liam startles and replies, “Oh, I nearly forgot! At half-past, yes.”

“I’ll arrange for a cab to take you to the school,” Zayn says, abruptly, his voice becoming very official and business-like, though his eyes retain a particular sort of softness that quickly earns him Louis’ approval. Louis feels a pleasant sort of warmth at the thought of Liam finally having found someone who seems to be good for him, and whom he seems to be good for in return.

“You’re not coming with?” Liam asks, doing an awful job at hiding his disappointment.

“Unfortunately not,” Zayn replies warmly, eyes turning hard as he turns to address Harry next, “H and I’ve got to get back to the studio for an afternoon session. He’s been… missed.”

“I requested the entire day off!” Harry protests, voice a bit whiny. His face is scrunched up adorably, like a pouting, petulant toddler. He and Zayn begin to argue, and Liam just stands there awkwardly, still looking a bit shell-shocked by the strange lunch proceedings.

Jaymi chooses this moment to press more closely against Louis’ side, sliding a piece of paper into his back pocket and leaning in to whisper, “If you ever need anything, love, give me a ring.”

Louis laughs and promises that he will which has Jaymi’s lips quirking up into what he thinks is a genuine smile.

“If your boy will let you, that is,” the brunette continues, as the others are still preoccupied, “Not many acting jobs available right now, but this is a role that I’d love to play.”

He leaps up from the booth, but not before pressing a sloppy kiss to Louis’ cheek, which has him squirming. “Thanks for stopping in, babe,” he says, waving goodbye with a flirtatious wiggle of his fingers, “I’ve got to get back to work, but I’ll see you tonight, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Louis agrees, faintly, still impressed by the server’s knack for improvisation. He was a drama major, after all, and though he hasn’t acted since uni, he can tell that whoever’s not hiring Jaymi Hensley is seriously missing out.

Harry and Zayn have quit arguing and it appears that Harry has won his case based on his smug look and Zayn’s nonstop eye-rolling. 

“I guess I will be coming with, then,” Zayn tells Liam, trying his best not to appear too eager about it; something tells Louis that Harry’s battle wasn’t hard fought.

That’s precisely when it dawns on him. “Liam James Payne,” he chastises, “did you skip school to go on a date?”

Liam’s cheeks turn bright red as he splutters, “I might’ve called in sick and gotten a substitute?”

Louis just shakes his head. “I cannot believe this,” he says, putting on an authoritative tone, “I’m very disappointed in you, young man. You’re grounded for the next month. No mobile, and no boys either.”

“Oh come off it, Louis,” Zayn says unexpectedly, though he’s finally smiling, “Haven’t you seen the films? As the secretly sensitive but rebellious drop-out, I’m destined to coax the smart, responsible, studious class president into sneaking out with me, and his father’s objections only serve to intensify our forbidden love. This is textbook script-writing, really.”

“Our forbidden love, huh?” Liam remarks, raising an eyebrow.

This time it’s Zayn’s turn to blush, or rather, look a bit uncomfortable for a passing second before schooling his features, because he’s probably too cool to feel embarrassed about anything.

“Alright, that’s enough, then,” Harry says finally, having been silent for much of their exchange, “Get out of here, lovebirds.”

Zayn covertly flips Harry the bird before sliding an arm back around Liam’s waist and guiding him away. Just before they turn the corner, Liam pulls back and gives Louis a stern look clearly meaning “we’ll talk later”. Five minutes in and this whole fake boyfriend thing might be more trouble than it’s worth, he thinks, smiling innocently as Liam turns back to join Zayn at the exit.

He leans back into the booth, meaning to address Harry in conversation again, but he’s instead met with a view of the curly-haired boy glaring at his duck curry, all tense shoulders and grit jaw. Louis’ mouth snaps shut and he picks at his own dish in order to avoid recognizing the tension that thickens the air between them. They spend the next few minutes eating in silence, only pausing when Emily swings back around with the check. Louis rolls his eyes, expecting to suffer through yet another bout of unbearable flirting, but Harry simply signs the bill, slides his card between the folds, and hands it back to the hostess without a word. Emily walks away slowly, eyebrows furrowed, as if she too was expecting a wink and a bit of friendly banter, or some form of polite acknowledgement at the very least.

Having finished his meal, Louis– unable to cope with the frigidity of Harry’s cold shoulder any longer– breaks the silence with a stuttered apology:

“Look Harry, I’m really sorry for–” he blurts.

“Louis, I apologize, this is silly, I–” Harry says, at the same time.

“Wait what?”

“What?”

“God, never mind, let’s just forget this whole thing happened,” Louis says exasperatedly, his verging upon too-loud response earning them several inquisitive looks from around the restaurant.

Harry, on the other hand, still looks unsure, all furrowed eyebrows and pouty lips.

 “Okay,” he replies, finally, “but I am sorry, you know, for being so…”

Irrationally jealous? Louis wants to supply, but bites his tongue and lets Harry finish.

“…invasive, I suppose?”

Louis smiles softly. “It’s fine, Harry. I’m just not used to people, erm, caring as it were.”

“Most people don’t,” Harry replies, idly twisting a loose curl back into place.

Louis nods in agreement, “and yet I always seem to care too much. Funny that.”

“Is this what hanging out with a poet is always like?” Harry muses, “Drama and existentialism?”

“Usually there’s a lot more crying involved,” Louis teases, scooping up the last of his–admittedly quite delicious–shrimp curry, just as Emily returns with their bill.

The bubbly blonde hands Harry his card and smiles brightly, uttering a well-rehearsed, “Thank you for dining with us today, Mr. Styles.” Glancing down at Louis’ near empty plate, she continues, “and I take it your companion enjoyed his meal as well?”

“I did, thank you,” Louis acknowledges politely, “and do please tell our server that his help was much appreciated.”

“Of course, sir,” Emily replies, flashing her teeth again blindingly, “I’ll ensure Jaymi receives your compliments. Have a lovely afternoon, the both of you.”

At that, the hostess walks away briskly, probably off to assist one of Veeraswamy’s other celebrity regulars.

Louis turns back to Harry, inquiring, “So you’ve got the rest of the day off. Is there any particular way you’d like to spend it?”

Harry frowns pensively for a moment. “Preferably not in public,” he says, finally, “or at least not anywhere very busy or likely to be frequented by teenage girls.”

“Fair enough,” Louis approves, understanding Harry’s weariness of the media and his fans after witnessing the tired yet fearful look in the popstar’s eyes as they were exiting the cab.

Just as he’s begun brainstorming suggestions, his mobile goes off, filling the restaurant with the dulcet tones of Harry’s first single. Louis reaches into his pockets panicking, cheeks stained bright red, and tries to ignore the way the real Harry’s laughter intermingles with his recorded self’s crooned chorus.

“Don’t let me, don’t let me, don’t me go, ‘cause I’m tired of feeling alone”

Harry’ still laughing even as he answers, hissing, “What do you want?”

“Hello to you too,” the caller replies, words colored with a familiar Irish lilt.

Louis’ voice immediately softens. “Oh ‘lo, Niall, I’m sorry. I was–”

“Is this a bad time?”

“No, no, it’s fine!” Louis rushes to assure him, casting a glare at the still-snickering popstar across the table.

“Right, okay then,” Niall says, a hint of confusion still present in his voice, “So I was wondering if you wanted to come out to the Half Moon in Putney ‘round seven to hear me ‘n Ed ‘n the band play a gig?”

“Your little ragtag folk band landed a gig at the Half Moon?” Louis asks, impressed, “Do you guys even rehearse before you show up to these things?”

Niall laughs, and explains, “Josh’s mate just got promoted. He’s in charge of booking acts for Monday nights.”

“Well that explains it,” Louis replies, laughing as well.

“So? Shall I have the bouncers write down ‘Tomlinson’ party of one?” Niall queries.

“First of all, there are no bouncers. You’re not playing the O2,” Louis retorts, biting back another giggle, “and second of all, I’m currently out to lunch with… with an old friend and I’d planned on spending the day with him while he’s in town.”

“Bring ‘im along then,” Niall says cheerily, “The more the merrier, I always say.”

“Right, let me ask him then.”

Louis puts his phone against his chest, muffling the sound, and addresses Harry, who– like the five year old he apparently is– has built a lovely sculpture of napkins and used cutlery on his side of the table. “Would you be interested in hearing my mate and a few of his friends play a gig out in Putney tonight?”

Harry looks up, frowning as several precariously balanced forks fall to the table with a loud, metallic clang. Louis raises an eyebrow but doesn’t comment, instead waiting for the popstar’s reply.

“Yeah, ‘course,” Harry says eventually, focus still intent on his fairly pathetic attempt at modern art. His curls are flopped over his forehead, eyebrows furrowed in concentration and tongue peeking out from between his lips. He’s unfairly adorable. Louis still wants to kiss him.

“Make that reservation for two please,” Louis requests, putting the phone back up to his ear.

“Sick!” Niall enthuses. His voice is softer over the line as he hollers to someone in the background, “Now we’ve got at least two people coming!”

“What about Liam?” Louis inquires, “Did you ask him too?”

“I did,” Niall says, huffing in response, “but the bloke said he already had plans. Since when does Liam Payne have plans that don’t involve you and me?”

“Since he and Mr. McDreamy eloped this morning,” Louis explains, “I’m afraid he’s replaced us.”

“Shame,” Niall replies somberly, though he’s back to his chipper self almost immediately with a hurried, “Oh, gotta go! The rest of the lads are here! Catch ya tonight, Lou!”

Louis doesn’t even have a chance to say goodbye before the peppy Irishman hangs up. Used to Niall’s antics, he just shakes his head fondly, slipping his phone back into his pocket.

“You didn’t tell me you had musician friends,” Harry says as he looks back up. Louis laughs, thinking it a joke, but one look at the popstar’s pout and it occurs to him that Harry is actually (inexplicably) affronted at this unintentionally omitted fact.

“I literally just met you this morning,” Louis points out, matter-of-factly, “Would you have preferred I started our first conversation out with ‘Oh, excuse me person breaking in to my shop? Hate to be a bother, but did you know I’ve got musician friends?’ because I dunno, that seems a bit forward, don’t you think?”

Louis winces immediately after his little spiel, anticipating that his biting sarcasm will once again offend; however, Harry just laughs good-naturedly. “You’re right, of course,” he allows easily, grinning, “I’m just too friendly of a thief, I’m afraid. You really ought to have stabbed me with your rusty coat hanger and ended it all then and there.”

Harry’s smile is a mile wide and his dimples are a mile deep and, yeah, Louis’ maybe, possibly, definitely enamored with this kid.

“Do you want to get out of here?” he blurts, refraining from banging his head on the table at how presumptuous it sounds. “Shit, I mean, we could go back to my flat for a few hours– god dammit that sounded even worse, didn’t it?”

Harry’s hyena-like guffaws have returned in full force and he can barely keep from laughing long enough to slip in a wisecrack and a lascivious wink. “So the food really was excellent, then?” he asks, snorting loudly.

Louis just glares, and attempts to rephrase with a careful, “What I meant was, since you’ve the entire day off and there’s five or six hours left yet before my musician friends’ gig tonight, we could just chill back at my place for a few hours?” He pauses, gauging Harry’s reaction before continuing, “I’ve got a few customers coming in to pick up some special orders, but other than that, you should remain unbothered.”

Harry nods once, smiling, “Sounds great. Shall we?”

The two of them slide out of the booth.  Louis waits as Harry slips his wallet into his back pocket– how it manages to fit in between the two layers of black skintight fabric pasted on Harry’s legs is beyond him– but somehow Harry makes it work, and they head toward the front door, arms knocking together companionably.

Emily is looking painfully bored as they walk by, slouching with her elbows propped on her hostess stand. She perks up immediately, however, when she notices Harry, which Louis totally doesn’t roll his eyes at… nope, not at all.

“Oh, Mr. Styles! Wait a minute!” she calls out, twisting around the stand and bouncing over to meet them. Louis can feel his annoyance increase exponentially. “I’ve already called you and your date a cab. It’s waiting out back.”

Harry’s eyes are comically wide as he blurts, “He’s not my– we’re not– this isn’t!”

Louis quickly covers his mouth to hide his resulting snicker. “What Harry means to say,” he begins, offering the hostess a demure smile, “is that we’re both very grateful for your consideration of our privacy.”

Emily’s eyes are twinkling as she replies with a curt “Of course, sir” and gestures toward a door labeled “STAIRWELL TO ALLEY – AUTHORIZED EMPLOYEES ONLY”.

Louis thanks her again what with Harry still silently shocked beside him, and guides the both of them to the door. Harry remains quiet the two flights down, but Louis chalks it up to him wanting to avoid drawing any more attention to their exit. Several employees carrying trays of food pass them on their way down, but none seem to pay the two out-of-place guests any mind.

Sure enough, when they reach ground level, there’s an Addison Lee idling on the curb. Louis’ taking a step toward the car when suddenly Harry whirls around, looking furious.

“What the hell was that?” he spits, cheeks flushed red with anger.

“What was what?” Louis asks, flabbergasted and genuinely confused.

“Don’t play dumb with me,” Harry hisses, beginning to pace back and forth across the narrow alleyway, “You know, that whole ‘he’s my date’ thing with Emily back there? Yeah? You can’t just do that, Louis! You can’t just play along like that! You know why? Because even if you’re joking, it’ll get quoted in some trashy tabloid and then misquoted and taken out of context again and again in print and online until–”

“Until what?” Louis interrupts, feeling his blood begin to boil beneath his skin. Though he’s currently anything but, he grits his teeth and forces his voice to come out level and calm. “Until what, Harry? Until the entire world is fooled into believing some false rumor about you dating a bloke? Like that’s the worst thing you can think of? That some twelve-year old fangirl in California might spend a whole twenty-four hours in a state of devastation because ‘Harry Styles is gay’? How awful!”

Louis finishes his rant with a short, huffed breath, spins abruptly on his heels, and walks down the alleyway toward the waiting car.

He hears Harry’s footsteps quicken behind him until the popstar’s massive hand is encircling his wrist and pulling him backward.

He’s unwillingly spun back around to face the younger boy who stares back at him with wide, hurt eyes and a deeply pained expression. “Louis, listen,” Harry starts, sounding desperate, “I didn’t mean–”

Louis just shakes his head in response and yanks open the cab door with a little more force than necessary.

“Just get in the fucking car.”

&&

For a solid five minutes, the ride is completely silent. They’re sitting as far away from each other as possible, Louis’ jaw clenched stubbornly and eyes focused pointedly out the window.

(Not surprisingly, they both crack at the exact same moment once again.)

“Harry, I’m sorry. I overrea–”

“Louis, that came out all wrong. What I really meant was–”

They both pause, looking bashful. Louis inclines his head, motioning with his hand for Harry to continue.

“I wasn’t upset about the dating rumors because I’m homophobic or anything,” Harry explains, running a hand through his curls, “Trust me, that’s not the issue. Being gay definitely isn’t a bad thing and I’d look like a hypocrite if I– I mean, anyway… like, uh, like I said before being friends with me is really difficult and I just didn’t want to compromise our brand new friendship by having you automatically thrown into the media shark tank.”

Louis blinks, immediately feeling awful that he hadn’t thought about Harry’s intentions being to protect him and not the popstar’s own reputation.

“I’m a dick,” he admits, meeting Harry’s eyes.

“Yeah,” Harry agrees easily, shrugging, “but so am I.”

Louis smiles softly. “We’re sure to be excellent mates, then. Pair of dicks like us?”

“Lovely moniker, that,” Harry replies, stifling a giggle, “We could be the Dicky Duo.”

Louis isn’t so successful in hiding his own amusement, a loud a guffaw escaping from between his lips. “I’m afraid,” he starts, between laughs, “I’m afraid that we’ve wandered into gay porn titles with that one.”

 “Phallus Friends,” Harry continues unabashedly, “or, or Penis Pals!”

“Stop it!” Louis cries, wiping away tears, “I can’t breathe!”

“Penis jokes,” Harry says, grinning widely, “My favorite.”

Louis’ taking deep, exaggerated breaths in a futile attempt to calm his heaving diaphragm.

“You’re an idiot, Harry Styles,” he wheezes, “an absolute idiot.”

The younger lad puts a hand up to his chest in mock offense and opens his mouth to offer up some sort of retort, but he’s cut off by the cab pulling to a halt in front of the bookstore.

Louis whips out his wallet and quickly thrusts some notes toward the cabbie, ignoring the glare that Harry throws his way.

“You just spent two-hundred pounds on our lunch,” Louis says, by way of explanation. It doesn’t change the shape of Harry’s lips, pulled down into a deep frown, but the popstar does sigh, appearing to relent.

Harry tugs open the cab door and they both scoot out and onto the pavement, a slight chill in the early-October wind making Louis shiver in his thin cardigan. Harry bounces from foot to foot, hands clasped behind his back, as Louis fits the key into the lock and pushes the door open. They tumble inside, giggling brightly.

“Bit nippy out, innit?” Louis comments, shucking off his Vans on the mat just inside the entrance.

He reaches out and tweaks Harry’s nipple with a mischievous smile, then takes off running before Harry can enact his revenge. He darts around the bookshelves with practiced ease, being much more familiar with the layout than Harry is.

“Lou,” Harry finally calls, out of breath but still laughing, “You win, you win! Come out now!”

Louis peaks out from behind a shelf and sees that Harry is looking the other way. He creeps up behind the curly-haired boy and leaps onto his back with a loud screech.

Harry lets out a resounding yelp but doesn’t drop him as he was expecting. Instead, in an impressive feat of strength, Harry manages to spin around and set Louis gently down on his feet in front of him. Louis’ hands are pressed against Harry’s chest and his chin is tilted up in surprise. The proximity of Harry’s face to his has his breath catching in his throat.

“Hi,” Harry says, and he’s grinning stupidly.

It takes a hell of a lot of effort for Louis to remove his hands, but he does… eventually. He executes a perfect pirouette away from the taller boy and leaps gracefully over to his desk.

Harry’s still sporting that stupid grin, cheeks flushed and lips painted an enticing cherry red (which is apparently their perpetual state).

“Did you know that you always look as if you’ve got lipstick on?” Louis blurts, and yeah, wow, if that didn’t sound creepy as fuck.

Harry doesn’t appear shocked by this comment, just touches his lips with his fingers absentmindedly (Louis has to blink a few times and pretend to busy himself looking for something in his desk drawer to avoid focusing on the way Harry’s long, long fingers trace his mouth slowly).

“I get that a lot actually,” Harry replies after a moment, “that and blowjob lips.”

And yeah, that’s…

Louis gulps, tries for a joke to divert the conversation away from that particular subject. “Ah yes, I love it when pervy old men at the club tell me how nice my lips would look ‘round their dick; truly an arousing experience.”

Harry ducks his head, whispers, “Penis pals” and they both lose it all over again.

The phone rings and Louis’ wiping his eyes once more, trying to quell the pain in his stomach from laughing too hard for too long.

“Tales Resold. This is Louis speaking,” he answers, attempting to ignore Harry, who’s leaning against a display table covering his mouth and quivering from the giggles he’s trying his best to hold in.

“Yes, of course, Mr. Jensen. Shh, Harry shut up! Oh no, not you, Mr. Jensen! I was talking to my– Sure, sure, stop by anytime this afternoon… Okay perfect. See you then!”

“I do operate a business, you know,” Louis says pointedly, after he’s hung up the phone, “Try and be a little more professional, would you?”

“’S not my fault!” Harry protests, “You’re the one who made me laugh.”

“Nonsense,” Louis replies, shaking his head, “You made yourself laugh with your dumb penis jokes.”

“They’re not dumb. You laughed too,” Harry counters, and yeah, he’s got him there.

Louis rolls his eyes, “I was only laughing at your stupid face.”

“Ooh, good one,” Harry teases, his shit-eating grin having returned in full force.

 “Shut up,” Louis grumbles, “You think you’re sooo clever.”

“Because I am.”

“Ha, joke!”

“But I am,” Harry pouts, attempting his best puppy-dog face.

Louis is totally not about to cave when the bell above the front door jingles suddenly, announcing a customer’s arrival.

 “Hello, I’m Louis Tomlinson,” he begins as usual, putting on a friendly, charming smile, “Welcome to Tales Resold, the finest antique bookstore in London. Are you looking for anything in particular?”

The customer removes their winter coat and hat, hanging them on the hooks by the front door.

“Oh, hello dear,” a familiar voice says, thin and reedy, “I was hoping you were in.”

Louis perks up immediately, his falsely cheerful façade replaced with genuine excitement. He skirts around the desk and walks quickly down the main aisle to offer an elbow to the frail but extravagantly dressed old woman standing on the welcome mat.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Beasley,” he greets, laughing brightly as she bats away his proffered arm muttering, “Not that old.”

“What can I do for you today?”

Ms. Beasley purses her lips and sighs deeply, “As you know, my eldest, Georgie, has expressed a certain interest in that album of Tsarist palaces that you showed me last month. Unfortunately, and god knows why, he’s in Africa for the next six months, so he’s sent me to pick it up instead, as if I haven’t errands to run of my own.”

Louis just grins, used to the aging heiress’ posh nature.

“Yes, of course,” he says, nodding, “Let me just grab it from the rare collections room and get it all packaged up for you. I’ll only be a mo’.”

“See to it that you don’t dawdle,” Ms. Beasley says flippantly, though her thin lips are quirked up into a small, fond smile.

“I wouldn’t dream of wasting your time, darling,” Louis says with a wink, watches her hand shoot up to cover her growing smile.

He ducks into the back room, unlocking a heavy inner door and breathing in the musty scent of faded manuscripts and India ink. He heads to the computer sitting on the counter and types in his criteria–ca. 1860-65, French, Huard– and memorizes the resulting archival number. He slips on a pair of white gloves, as to prevent the oil and bacteria from his skin from damaging the thin pages, and tugs open one of his custom-made airtight, temperature-controlled storage units. Carefully removing the lovely, dark-bound album from its casing, he pauses to admire the red-stained fore edge stamped with gold insignia and delicate filigree.

“You’ll be missed, love,” he whispers, before packaging the fragile volume up properly for travel.

Locking everything back up once he’s finished, Louis heads back toward the front of the shop and is surprised to hear what sounds like laughter. As he reemerges from behind the thick red velvet partition, he has to blink twice at the sight before him:

Harry is perched on one of the display tables and talking animatedly, waving his hands about and demonstrating some action that has frigid, humorless Ms. Beasley actually clutching at her sides.

Which, okay… Louis was very much under the impression that he was Ms. Beasley’s favorite, but he’s never actually made her laugh aloud.

“Oh, Louis dear! Back so soon?” Ms. Beasley says, finally noticing his presence in the room, “Where on earth did you find such a charming young man?”

Louis feels a spark of jealousy at the way the elderly lady’s face lights up as she pinches Harry’s cheek. “Honestly, love, he just wandered in this morning.”

“Well,” Ms. Beasley says, “he’s certainly a keeper.”

Louis is quick to correct her, “Oh, he’s not. We’re not.”

The old woman just rolls her eyes. “You don’t have to lie to me dear. I’m modern. I’ve got homosexual friends. Dabbled in it a bit myself once, back in my twenties.”

Harry is snickering loudly behind her as she puts her hands on her hips, dark blue frock shimmering.

“That’s lovely, Ms. Beasley,” Louis manages to choke out. He coughs into his hand, trying to prevent another crack in his voice, “Now, how would you like to pay for Souvenir de la Russie ?”

Ms. Beasley hums thoughtfully, digging through her Suffolk Pheasant Mulberry bag (which Louis only knows the name of because she’d spent the entirety of last month’s visit complaining about how her youngest son had sent her an awful, cheap purse for her birthday… a five-thousand pound awful ‘cheap’ purse).

“Just put it on the card, I suppose,” she replies finally, “I do believe we agreed on sixty-eight?”

“Sixty-seven five, actually,” Louis replies, moving over to the cash register to ring her up, “though I wouldn’t mind that extra half.”

“Cheeky,” Ms. Beasley, teases, in a better mood than he’s ever seen her (thanks to Harry, apparently).

“Right then,” Louis says, handing her the card and the tightly wrapped album, “your total was sixty-seven thousand five hundred pounds exactly. Thank you for stopping in, and do tell George I said hello.”

At the mention of her eldest son, the woman just harrumphs and puts the package and her card into a black shopping bag. Louis watches her toddle out the door, stopping to put on her fur coat and extravagant fur-lined hat. The little bell jingles again, signaling her exit, and Louis spins back around to address Harry once more.

“How on earth did you make friends with that finicky old woman so quickly?” he asks, “It literally took months before she even deigned to speak to me past her impatient hand gestures.”

Harry doesn’t seem to acknowledge his question, instead blurting, “You just made over a hundred thousand dollars… from a book.”

Louis rolls his eyes. “It wasn’t a book. It was a rare album of Tsarist photography and watercolor paintings.”

“And she… she just bought it… Just like that, didn’t even blink an eye… Seventy-thousand pounds for a book.”

“Well yes,” Louis replies, shrugging, “Ms. Beasley is the lone matriarch of one of the wealthiest families in Europe. She’s friends with the Queen, like ‘ooh let me just pop by the old family palace for some tea and crumpets’ sort of friends.”

Harry looks as if he might faint. “Unbelievable.”

Louis just chuckles.

“Harry, I’m one-hundred percent certain that you have way more money than I do,” he says, “Plus, you’ve also met the Queen, if you’ve not forgotten. I watched it all happen on telly last year.”

The popstar is still shaking his head, muttering to himself.

“You weren’t kidding when you said that your business does well enough to pay for lunch, were you?” he asks, finally.

“Er, no,” Louis replies, “Between what I make in the antique book trade and my publishing royalties… Well, I’m doing alright.”

“Why Camden then?” Harry inquires, “I mean, no offense, it’s just that…”

“None taken,” Louis says easily. His mum and his mates had all asked him the same thing once they’d established how successful he was. “Basically, in the beginning, I had nowhere else to go and I got this place cheap, fixed everything up, and it… it sort of became my new purpose in life when I didn’t really have one. Of course, I’m much too attached to it now to consider selling it and upgrading to somewhere larger and posher.”

Harry starts to reply but is interrupted by the jingling of the bell once more.

“Mr. Jensen, hello!” Louis calls, checking his watch, “Right on time as usual.”

Mr. Jensen is a small, bird-like man with a beak nose and wire-frame glasses. He’s perpetually jittery and, though many a shopkeeper might assume him a suspicious person, Louis isn’t at all surprised by his shifty eyes and flighty demeanor as he paces around the main floor.

“What do you need, Mr. Jensen?” Louis asks, finding that a direct approach always works best with the anxious man.

“T-the n-new Sodi,” Mr. Jensen mumbles.

“Ah yes,” Louis says, smiling furtively, “Always a popular choice. I wouldn’t keep it in stock, usually, seeing as my shop specializes in collectors’ items, but the Sodi collections have been so in-demand as of late, it’d be a waste not to carry a few copies.”

“I… I don’t suppose you have a signed original?” the man inquires, so quietly it’s almost inaudible.

Louis’ eyes flit to the green hardback still sitting untouched on the shelf, as he hums thoughtfully. “That, Mr. Jensen, would depend on how much you’re offering for one.”

“Three hundred,” Mr. Jensen whispers, pulling out his wallet with trembling fingers.

Louis’ eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. “I’m afraid that’s a bit overpriced. Perhaps we could settle for one-fifty?”

“O-oh, oh, oh yes, yes sure,” Mr. Jensen agrees, pulling the notes out of his wallet.

Louis walks over to the shelf, plucking the signed copy from between the Chaucer and the Spenser, and rings it up. “So, have you read By and By, I Try yet, Mr. Jensen?”

The man puts his wallet away having collected his change and makes a soft affirmative noise. “Y-yes, I h-have, m-many t-times. This… this one is for m-my s-son.”

“Oh, this will make a lovely gift,” Louis replies, smiling beatifically, “And what would you say your favorite poem from the collection is, if you have one?”

Mr. Jensen takes a labored breath. “I do l-like… erm… ‘Temporary Tattoos’? You know, the bit that g-goes ‘There is such irony in this; in scouring away memories like ink on skin’? Yes, I l-like that bit very m-much.”

“I like ‘Once’ myself,” Louis replies, quoting, “Feet bound to earth: we leaned heavy into dark.”

He hands Mr. Jensen the bag with his purchase tucked neatly inside.

“B-but what do you think Sodi meant when he said ‘I write my poems on the palm of my hand’? Do you think he really does that? B-because I,” the man looks down bashfully, “well sometimes I write, you know, but it’s in a j-journal… D-do you think I’m doing it wrong?”

Louis’ hand drifts to the weathered moleskine tucked into his own back pocket. “I can tell you with great confidence that even the prolific William Sodi doesn’t always write his poems on his hand. That would probably be impractical for his longer ones.”

Mr. Jensen laughs nervously (it’s really more of a small squeak of amusement than actual laughter, but hey, that’s a start).

“I think,” Louis continues, choosing his words carefully, “that there’s really no wrong way to write, as long as what you’ve written makes you feel something. Screw everyone else, really. But good writing? Good writing shouldn’t be picked apart line by line, literary device by literary device, it should be viewed as a whole. Like, what do all of these little bits mean when you put them together, you know? You can write a thousand pages about a woman’s beauty, for example, but never answer the question of whether or not you loved her, or if she loved you back. There’s no substance to it. But when I ask you, in simple haiku ‘What was the moment, when my eyes became the eyes, you’d want forever?’ suddenly there’s a spark, a connection, a bit of you responding to a similar bit of me. And I think that’s what writing’s meant to do– in a funny, paradoxical sort of way– to make you feel something that you don’t have words for, using words to get you there, to plant that little seed that grows to be a part of the human experience and somehow connects us all.”

Louis pauses to run a hand through his hair, sliding it up and across his feathery fringe. “I’m sorry that probably sounded silly. I’m just a bookkeeper; I read them, not write them.”

Mr. Jensen just shakes his head, lips quivering in the closet approximation to a smile he’s ever seen the man achieve.

“T-thank you, Mr. Tomlinson,” Mr. Jensen whispers sincerely, then turns and scurries out of the shop as quickly as he came.

“Bit of an odd duck, isn’t he?” Harry comments from the back of the shop.

Louis turns around to see the gangly popstar collapsed in the chair behind his desk, spinning back and forth idly. “He’s just a teensy bit anxious about… well, everything, really.”

“That advice you gave him about writing was really nice, though,” Harry continues.

“Yeah?” Louis asks.

He’s always felt a bit self-conscious talking about the writing process like he’s an expert or something. It’s not as if he’s prolific poet and bestseller William Sodi, or well, he is actually, but when he’s writing as William Sodi he doesn’t feel like Louis Tomlinson and… and it’s all a bit complicated, really.

(And it’s especially nothing that Harry need know just yet.)

“Yeah,” Harry affirms, and his smile is warm and sunny and genuine as always.

The younger lad kicks his feet out and does a complete revolution in the chair, then two, giggling like the child he apparently is.

“You’re twenty years old,” Louis remarks, though he can’t help the fond smile that tugs at the corners of his mouth.

“Twenty-one in February,” Harry says brightly, still spinning, “So what?”

Louis just shakes his head fondly.

“That’s it for all the special requests I’ve had today,” he says, switching subjects easily, “Could have a few more customers in before we head out, but I doubt it. Monday’s are my slowest.”

“I have an idea of how we could spend the time,” Harry says offhandedly, twirling around twice more before kicking out his feet to stop himself.

Louis tries really really hard not to interpret that statement past its face value, but his stupid lust-clouded subconscious is making it kind of impossible at this point.

“And what’s that?” he asks, straining his voice to keep it even.

Harry spins to face him and stops again, propping his dirty socked feet up on the desk (which ew gross, he’ll have to remember to wipe that off later).

“Read me another one of your poems,” he suggests.

“Harry,” Louis starts wearily, “I don’t think–”

“Please,” the popstar interrupts, “you’re really, really good, Lou. And also you just said that you don’t care what other people think of your writing ‘cause it’s all for you, right?”

Louis blanches, hating how hypocritical his words sound thrown back at him. “Well, that’s not exactly…”

“Just one?” Harry asks and, oh god, the puppy-dog eyes have returned.

“Resistance is futile,” Harry continues, switching to an absolutely dreadful Borg impression.

Louis quirks a smile, and then sighs in defeat. “Fine, just one.”

He walks behind the desk next to where the younger boy has commandeered his favorite chair and leans down to unlock the bottom drawer. Tugging it open, he rifles through pages and pages of typed manuscripts until he finally locates his favorite one, his first one and the one he thinks Harry might like the best. Sliding the chosen poem out of its manila envelope, he stands back up and crosses the room to pull one of the cushy, upholstered armchairs near the front closer to where Harry is sprawled.

“How come there are so many red marks on it?” Harry asks, curiously.

Louis smiles, regarding the white page covered in angry red slashes, harried comments, and question marks.

“My editor,” he explains, “He’s, well, very helpful but also very, very particular. This poem’s never been published and probably for a good reason. It never really fit in with my first collection, and by the second and the third, it was just too often overlooked due to the stronger, more cohesive poetry I began to churn out as I found my voice, so to speak.”

“I’m sure it’s still lovely,” Harry says earnestly.

And this is another one of those foolish moments where Louis wants to kiss him.

Shaking his head slightly, Louis coughs once, and then begins, “Erm… this is called ‘Snow and Dirty Rain’.”

[only snippets of this poem are presented, click through for the full version]

“Close your eyes. A lover is standing too close
to focus on. Leave me blurry and fall toward me 
with your entire body. Lie under the covers, pretending
to sleep, while I'm in the other room…”

“…we are the crossroads, my little outlaw,
and this is the map of my heart, the landscape
after cruelty which is, of course, a garden, which is
a tenderness, which is a room, a lover saying Hold me
tight, it's getting cold
…”

“…I'll give you my heart to make a place 
for it to happen, evidence of a love that transcends hunger.
Is that too much to expect? That I would name the stars
for you? That I would take you there? The splash
of my tongue melting you like a sugar cube? We've read
the back of the book, we know what's going to happen.
The fields burned, the land destroyed, the lovers left
broken in the brown dirt. And then's it's gone.
Makes you sad. All your friends are gone…”

“We were in the gold room where everyone 
finally gets what they want, so I said What do you
want, sweetheart? and you said Kiss me. Here I am
leaving you clues. I am singing now while Rome
burns. We are all just trying to be holy. My applejack,
my silent night, just mash your lips against me. 
We are all going forward. None of us are going back.”

He licks his lips, holds his breath, and waits for Harry’s laughter, his rude remarks. Louis can’t help but remember the way his old best mate had reacted: fag fag fag scrawled across his footie bag in black permanent marker, worthless poofter scratched into his brain with sharp nails; the bloody, unforgiving scars behind his vision and across his heart. What he doesn’t expect are Harry’s stupidly long arms suddenly wrapped around him, lifting him up out of the chair and onto his feet, and that husky baritone repeating “I don’t want you to be sad” over and over again in hushed, painful breaths.

“Harry, it’s– I’m fine,” he chokes out, untangling himself from the popstar’s too-tight, octopus-like grip.

“It’s just a poem,” Louis insists, now freed. He takes a deep, much-needed breath and smoothes out his rumpled sweater.

Harry looks wild-eyed and overwhelmed. “No, it’s not. You’re– god, you’re just… and you don’t see it, I can’t,” he trails off, tugging a bit manically on a fistful of curls, “You’re famous, right? Your pseudonym? People… people recognize your talent, yeah? Because if they don’t, I’d–”

Louis bites his lip. “They do, yeah, don’t worry. I’ve got quite a, er, following, I guess you could say?”

Harry looks only somewhat appeased. “But they don’t know it’s you. Brilliant, beautiful, incredible you,” Harry growls passionately, and where on earth did any of that come from?

“I’ve known you for one day,” he continues with fervor, leaping out of his chair, “One single goddamn day, Louis, and I’ve only heard two of your poems, yeah, but that was enough for me to recognize just how talented you are. When you were talking to Mr. Jones, or whatever his name was, when you were telling him what’s so rewarding about writing, about sharing yourself with your audience… That’s how I feel all the time up onstage, and I know you’ll give me shit about the lyrics the record label puppets out of me, but it’s still… it’s still an emotional experience having a crowd feed off of your words and your energy. I’ve been trying to articulate that feeling for years, Louis. I’ve embarrassed myself in countless interviews using misplaced words like ‘euphoria’ and, fuck I don’t know, ‘a good high’ and yet it only took you like four sentences and a fucking haiku to summarize all of it! I just– I don’t understand? Why are you so afraid of people realizing how talented you are? It’s the greatest thing in the entire world.”

Louis looks down angrily, Harry’s sincerity having dredged up old emotions and doubts about his writing that he’s kept suppressed and under wraps for years. He doesn’t… can’t understand how over the course of a single day this, this complete stranger has managed to pick him apart so thoroughly. He takes a deep breath, wills himself under control.

“People do realize my so-called ‘talent’,” he says, voice heavy with years of suppressed feelings of inadequacy. He feels his eyes begin to fill with unshed tears, and any attempt he was making at holding back feels useless as they threaten to spill over.

“Haven’t you read the New York Times?” he asks, laughing bitterly, “They praise William fucking Sodi all the time. ‘Oh, his pain is so raw, so real, so tangible.’ Well you know what, Harry? It’s all bullshit. I make it up. I’ve never experienced half the things that William Sodi has. I’ve only been in love once and it was shit– sugar-coated, plain vanilla, breakfast every morning at eight, ‘I’m too tired for sex tonight darling, pencil me in for next week?’ utterly complacent bullshit. I can’t write about that, Harry. An eight word summary of my love life entitled ‘we just weren’t quite right for each other’ doesn’t exactly fly off the shelves.

No one cares about Louis Tomlinson, the… the real me. No one gives a flying fuck if my supposed best friend outed me to the entire school in Year 9 after I showed him what he later termed ‘romantic flowery shit written by a girl who’s just dying for a good dick up her ass’ and ‘you can’t be serious, Lou, you’re a footballer… you think the lads will put up with this trash?’ No, no one is going to buy an autobiography about my secondary school years as a walking laughingstock, a fairy, an ugly little skinny thing with no semblance of self-esteem.”

“But you have the opportunity to be yourself,” Harry cries, “to show them all that you’re none of those things, that you’re so much more than what they thought of you, and you’re just wasting it!”

Louis opens his mouth to protest, but the younger boy silences him with a well-timed glare.

“I’ve learned not to give a shit about what people think of me,” Harry continues, “because I’ve been told over and over and over again since I was just sixteen years old that the only way to stay famous and to sell records is to manipulate the public’s perception of who I am. ‘You’re a great singer Harry, but no one will buy these sad songs about real life shit that happens. Your market is teenage girls and that’s it. Those are the only people you’ll ever appeal to. You can’t be a serious artist if you want to make money’ and on and on, the same damn thing with every record label and every PR team.”

Harry swallows, looking so wretched and miserable it makes Louis’ chest clench tightly with a sudden, unexpected flare of protectiveness. He wants to hurt the people who’ve hurt this man, this boy really, just twenty years old and expected to live up to everyone’s expectations…

“I’ve never even had the opportunity to fall in love properly,” Harry says, softer now, “The only person I’ve ever been in love with just used me to get into my inner circle and capitalize on the connections it got hi- them. They were a lot older too, much more experienced than I was, and I just… I just held on to the foolish, naïve belief that they wouldn’t have bothered with someone as young as I was if they didn’t, if they didn’t see something special in me, you know? And now, it’s like… I can’t even have friends that are girls because I’m apparently fucking all of them and their mothers and their mothers’ mothers and that’s just not who I am; I’m not this heartless womanizing twat that the media and, and my own PR team, make me out to be. It just… it just frustrates me, I guess, that you have all the freedom to be yourself and you’ve not chosen to exercise it.”

He looks up, green eyes wide and wet underneath the flop of brown fringe, “People buy your books because they’re good, Louis,” he continues brokenly, almost at a whisper, “People buy my albums because I’m an overly-sexualized ‘badboy’ with a pretty face.”

Louis hiccups, swallowing down a sob.

“God, don’t we make a lovely little pair?” he tries teasingly, though his heart isn’t in it.

Harry blubbers a bit, but still manages to get a laugh through his snot and tear covered face.

“Tissues are over there,” Louis says, gesturing to a corner table, “You’re a right mess, Harry Styles.”

The popstar just flips him the bird and blows his nose loudly. Still sniffling a bit, he says, “You should publish something under your name. Just to see what people think, you know? You could use a smaller publishing firm so it wouldn’t be linked to Sodi. Maybe have a limited circulation, obviously no major promotional gimmicks, and–”

“Harry,” Louis interrupts tiredly, “Maybe just leave it for now?”

There’s a brief flash of hurt in the younger lad’s eyes, but he nods reluctantly. “Yeah, okay.”

“Thank you,” Louis says gently, then reaches his arms out beckoning, “Now come ‘ere, you fool.”

Just as Harry’s moving to embrace him, the little bell above the door jingles once more. They both leap ten feet apart like they’ve been shocked as a familiar voice calls out, “Lou, you ‘round?”

Louis nervously smoothes out his sweater once more before replying, “Josh! Hi! Yeah, I’m just up front!”

The short, stocky brunette steps around the corner, still talking, “Sorry to pop in on you like this, but I was just on my way to the gig, you know the one tonight at the Half Moon? I assume Niall told you but he’s not super reliable, that one. Anyway, I figured since I’d be going right by your place that I’d stop to offer you a ride in my, get this, brand new car. God, she’s fit, Lou. Black all-leather interior and–”

Upon seeing the both of them, he stops dead in his tracks, jaw hanging open.

“Hi,” Harry says pleasantly, waving.

Josh’s mouth resembles a codfish and his eyes are practically popping out of his skull as he waves back weakly.

 “Louis, a word please?” he hisses, motioning him forward.

“Um, sorry to interrupt, Mr. Styles, sir,” he addresses Harry, who just shrugs good-naturedly.

Louis skips down the two steps to stand in front of his awestruck mate. Josh has his back turned toward Harry now in an apparent attempt to be more secretive.

“Something wrong, Josh?” he asks innocently.

“Yes, there’s something wrong, you wanker!” Josh exclaims in a poorly executed stage whisper, “D’you mind telling me why the Harry Styles, international pop sensation, is currently standing in your shop surrounded by old, dusty books? And don’t tell me it’s because he loves old, dusty books!”

He’s poking his finger at Louis’ chest, emphasizing each syllable.

“Because literally no one except you and the bloody pensioners love old, dusty books!”

“Actually, I do love a good read,” Harry interjects, looking entirely too amused by the whole situation.

Josh blanches, looking faint, but doesn’t turn around. “I’m just… I’m just going to pretend you’re not there!” he calls back, voice wobbly.

“Harry Styles is purely a figment of my imagination,” he mutters, “My wonderful mate Louis is alone in his bookshop as usual, brooding, and I have come to pick him up and take him to a gig that Harry Styles, figment of my imagination, is certainly not attending.”

“Is it working?” Harry calls, openly laughing this time.

“Be nice,” Louis mouths over Josh’s shoulder, though he’s doing a poor job of hiding his amusement.

Harry just winks and bites his lip to keep from giggling anymore at the poor lad’s expense.

“Josh, meet my mate, Harry Styles,” Louis says, starting the introductions since he’s certainly not going to get another word out of the still-quivering boy beside him.

“Harry, this is Josh Devine. He works at a bakery just down the street, but he’s also an ace drummer.”

“Nice to meet you, mate,” Harry greets, smiling brightly and holding out his hand.

Josh stares for a moment too long before offering up his own limply.

It’s probably the most awkward handshake that Louis has ever witnessed in his life, and he’s really struggling not to burst out with one of his loud cackles at what would definitely be an inappropriate time.

“You know,” Harry says casually, having uncomfortably freed his hand from Josh’s noodle-like fingers, “I used to work in a bakery back home in Cheshire.”

Louis watches as Josh perks up immediately at the mention of their shared employment; if there’s anything that boy loves more than a snare and a kick drum, it’s baked goods.

“What would you say is the ideal temperature for baking scones?” Josh asks, and gee what an interesting conversation starter, Louis thinks with an exaggerated eye roll.

“Depends,” Harry offers, “What flavor are we talking?”

“Blueberry,” Josh supplies, raising an eyebrow.

“Two-twenty,” Harry answers coolly not a second later, “perfectly browned on top with a light egg wash glaze, and nice and fluffy in the middle.”

This is apparently an acceptable response as Josh’s blatant fangirling has simmered down to more of a deep begrudging respect.

Louis takes his phone out of his pocket, noting the time, and announces, “I hate to interrupt such a tantalizing topic of conversation, but I do believe it’s time to head out.”

He glances over then, noticing that Harry is still in his plain black t-shirt and without a coat to combat the evening chill.

“Wait a minute, popstar,” he says, ruffling the younger boy’s hair, “You can’t go out in October like that.”

Harry laughs. “Like any of your clothes would fit me?”

Louis pauses, not having thought of where a coat big enough for Harry would actually come from. That is, until he remembers a certain charcoal grey pea-coat still stuffed underneath his bed.

“Actually, I think I have something that might fit you,” he says, “Be right back!”

He bounds upstairs to his room, leans over to check beneath the box frame, and– yep! There it is, still folded neatly in the box it came in. Shaking it out into full form, he holds it up to his body, judges it to be a perfect length for the tall, gangly popstar, and skips back down the stairs with it tucked under his arm.

“Here we are!” he says brightly, holding it out.

Harry takes the coat, examining it for a moment, before declaring, “Louis, this is Saint Laurent.”

“Well, yes,” Louis replies, “but it’s from several seasons ago. Fall of ’09, I believe.”

This is a sixteen-hundred dollar coat,” Harry says, still awestruck.

Louis rolls his eyes, “Talk to me again when you’re not wearing nine hundred dollars of Alexander McQueen’s finest leather on your feet.”

Harry’s mouth is hanging open, as Josh laughs and says, “Louis may not dress it, but he knows his designers. Back when he first really started raking it in, he dressed head to toe in Cucinelli and Lanvin.”

“And I looked like a proper pretentious twat doing it,” Louis comments, laughing at the memories of himself strutting through Camden like an expensively dressed exotic bird.

“Why’d you stop?” Harry asks, slipping on the coat.

Louis swallows, eyes flicking up and down the popstar’s body, which is now wrapped in a gorgeous expanse of charcoal grey wool. The coat fits him perfectly, just wide enough in the shoulders to encompass the vast expanse of his back, and long enough to cover his torso and hit snugly on his hipbones. Louis feels a twinge of remorse having originally purchased it as a birthday gift for Aiden years ago, back when they were… yeah. He shakes his head, clearing away the memory, and focuses back on Harry’s original question.

“After a while I realized, shockingly, that the folks coming in to my shop were interested in the books and not the bookkeeper,” Louis explains, “so instead of draping myself in Prada and diamonds, I started investing in the finest and rarest collections to attract more potential buyers.”

“Like that one you sold today,” Harry remarks.

“Yes, exactly,” he affirms, turning to address Josh, “Oh, hey! Finally sold the Russie album.”

Josh reaches out and claps him on the back. “Sick mate! Guess drinks are on you tonight, then?”

“As long as you provide the transportation,” he replies, grinning.

“That, I can do.”

&&

They arrive at the Half Moon at a quarter ‘til, Josh immediately running off to go warm up and rehearse a bit with Niall and Ed and their bassist, Sandy.

Louis and Harry find an available table near the back, the place already packed at the popular evening hour.

“Niall and Ed are incredible songwriters, mate, just you wait,” Louis says conversationally, as their drinks arrive.

Harry smiles, taking a long pull of his beer. “I’m genuinely excited to hear them play.”

“I am too,” Louis agrees, pausing to sip his own drink, “I don’t get to hear the full band very often; usually it’s just Niall loitering in my shop and serenading me. He’s sick with a guitar.”

“In year ten, I started this band with a few of my mates from school,” Harry says, eyes twinkling as if recalling some humorous memory, “Played a few gigs around town, even did the formal once.”

Louis blinks in surprise, always having regarded Harry as the solo act he is. “Were you any good?”

The younger boy grins, taking another drink and wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Nah, we were shit,” he replies, with a laugh, “Called ourselves ‘White Eskimo’ trying to sound proper indie ‘nd all that.”

“I was in a band too,” Louis says offhandedly, laughing at the look of surprise that appears on Harry’s face.

“You play?”

“Sing,” Louis corrects, cringing at some of his own bad memories, “Though I do play a bit of piano, as it were.”

“I’m going to have to hear you at some point,” Harry demands, and Louis just shakes his head, laughing.

“Wouldn’t want to put you through that, love,” he says, winking, “I said I sing, didn’t say well.”

“I can tell you’d be good,” Harry replies earnestly, continuing his explanation upon seeing the question in Louis’ eyes, “No, really. There’s just something about a person’s voice, and yours is–”

Harry cuts himself off, looking bashful.

“It’s?” Louis prompts, still curious.

“Nice,” Harry replies quickly, “It’s… it’s nice, that’s all.”

The curly-haired boy’s cheeks are red, and he won’t make eye contact, choosing instead to look around the pub with clearly feigned interest.

Odd.

“I almost auditioned for the X-Factor one year,” Louis comments, in an effort to change the subject, though he sticks within the music realm as it apparently interests both of them.

Harry’s head whips back around. “Really?” he blurts.

“Yeah, a couple years back,” Louis explains, chuckling nervously, “I was eighteen and a little too full of myself after having played the lead role in the school musical the previous year. I actually met Niall while I was waiting in line and he asked to sing me a few bars of his audition because he was so nervous, poor thing.”

“What kept you?” Harry asks.

“I heard Niall’s voice and I chickened out right then and there,” Louis replies, and this time Harry laughs as well, “I gave him my number, told him to text me when he got famous, and hopped right out of line.”

“I’m guessing he didn’t win?”

“Nah, got cut right before the judges’ houses.”

Harry hums sympathetically, tracing his finger around the rim of his glass.

“It’s nice that you kept in touch, though,” he says, finally, looking back up to meet Louis’ eyes.

Louis laughs again, and the younger boy frowns in confusion.

“We didn’t really,” Louis explains, glancing up onstage to where Niall and Ed have begun tuning their guitars, “Didn’t hear from the lad until two years later when I randomly got a text on the startup day of uni classes that said something like ‘Oi it’s Niall from the X Factor! Remember me? Don’t mean to be creepy but I’m pretty sure I just saw you as I pulled up!’ Turns out he was staying in my building.”

“So you stayed close even after you graduated?” Harry asks, and it’s kind of bizarre how genuinely interested in Louis’ life he is.

Harry leans back in his chair, the glow of the overhead lighting hitting him just right and reminding Louis of earlier in the day when the younger boy had stepped out of his shop and into the sunlight looking just as radiant as he does now.

Louis swallows.

Harry looks good– not that he doesn’t usually, because he does, he really really does– but there’s something about this particular moment… with the form-fitting lines of his black t-shirt tracing his arms and that endless torso, the collar dipping down to reveal a pair of inked birds in flight; his dark skinny jeans stretched over his thighs, long thin legs extending on beneath the table; muscular arms crossed over his chest, angular jawbone, red lips pursed in a pensive frown, eyes sparkling and reflecting the glow from the stage…

“Louis?” Harry asks, voice bringing his attention back to the conversation, and crap that’s the second time today that Louis’ zoned out thinking about the apparent Greek god that is Harry Styles.

“Oh, uh, yeah,” Louis replies, trying to recall Harry’s question, “I stayed at the same university for my master’s degree and Niall was obviously still doing his first so.”

Harry nods along as he speaks, keeping attentive eye contact. “And what were your majors?”

“English and drama,” Louis answers, “Those are mine, obviously. Niall dabbled a bit in sound engineering, but he switched to guitar performance once he figured out he wanted to make his own music instead of produce other people’s for them.”

Harry starts to ask another question when he’s cut off by the lights dimming fully and Niall’s voice filling the crowded pub. They both turn their attention to where the blonde Irishman is drawling onstage, strumming a few chords as he introduces the band.

“The ginger one on the left is Ed,” Louis explains, leaning over to whisper in Harry’s ear.

Harry nods distractedly, already enraptured with the commotion onstage, and shushes him with a quick wave of his hand.

“Evening Putney,” Niall’s saying, grinning widely, “I’m Niall and we’re–”

He pauses, looking back at the rest of the band, “Er, what are we tonight fellas?”

“Cactus Casino,” Ed mouths, and Niall lets out one of his infamous cackles.

Turning back to the mic, he continues, “Right, so I’m Niall, that’s Ed, Sandy on bass, and our drummer Josh behind me, and tonight we’re Cactus Casino!”

The audience cheers loudly, already under the spell of Niall’s brash Irish charm.

They abruptly launch into an original song featuring Niall and Ed’s heavenly harmonies, followed by a particular rousing cover of Sleeper Agent’s Get Burned which has Niall whipping out his electric, Josh sweating up a storm pounding his drum set, and the audience singing along to the “off and on” bit with incredible enthusiasm.

By the end of their set, Harry is grinning widely and leaning over to shout “They’re really good!” above the music.

Niall goes back up to the microphone, presumably to thank the audience for being so enthusiastic, when a harried-looking man in all black rushes up onstage and whispers in his ear.

“Well,” Niall says, laughing when the crowd cheers, “Alright you guys, calm down. So I’ve just been informed that the band after us is running a bit late, and it looks like we’ve got time for one more song!”

The crowd’s cheering intensifies at his announcement and Niall is practically beaming, he’s so pleased by their reaction. Louis feels himself grinning as well watching it all happen. He’s so, so proud of his best mate it’s kind of ridiculous.

“We weren’t sure if we were going to get to play this one,” Niall continues, switching back to his acoustic and adjusting the strap, “but we had a little encore prepared just in case.”

He nods at Josh, who drags his cajón out from behind his drum set, moves it to the front of the stage, and plops down on top, executing a few practice taps with his palms.

Ed takes over as Niall quickly retunes his guitar, saying, “This is a popular hit right now, so we’d love it if you all sang along. Oh, and no groaning please! Everybody loves a little top forty!”

Niall finishes up, strumming once, and nodding at Ed and Sandy, then Josh behind him.

As soon as the guitar intro begins, Louis is biting his sleeve to muffle his laughter. He chances a glance at Harry across from him and grins wildly at the popstar’s face which is equally as amused as it is mortified.

“The story of my life,” Niall croons, “I take her home!”

He pauses and points at the crowd of drunken pub-goers, all of whom shout the lyrics back at him just as fervently, if a little bit slurred.

“Love this one!” Louis shouts, smiling dopily at Harry who’s clearly fighting an inner battle with himself over joining in. “C’mon, Haz! Sing along! I know you know the words!”

Harry rolls his eyes, fighting a smile, but passionately belts out a few bars just to humor him.

Louis laughs jubilantly, feeling the corners of his eyes crinkle with mirth. “That’s the spirit!”

Up onstage, Niall puts a hand across his brow, eyes roaming the crowd. His face lights up when he spots Louis at his table near the back, and Louis waves back excitedly, flashing him a massive double thumbs up. Either Niall doesn’t notice Harry or he isn’t fazed by the popstar’s presence as he continues through the final chorus with a huge grin plastered on his reddened, sweat-drenched mug.

“The story of my life,” Ed finishes loudly, still effortlessly in tune amidst the crowd’s cheering.

Niall thanks the crowd on behalf of ‘Cactus Casino’ once more and he and the band pack up quickly, clearing out for the next gig (some big name electronic group) that has finally arrived.

Louis downs the rest of his pint as Harry stands up and stretches, t-shirt pulling up to reveal the bottom half of his butterfly tattoo and a sliver of his impressively toned stomach. Louis looks back down, suddenly wishing for another alcoholic beverage to erase that particular image from his brain.

“C’mon, I’ll introduce you,” Louis suggests, standing up as well and guiding Harry toward where the lads are camped out, packing up their instruments and equipment.

“Absolutely sick gig!” he calls out as they approach.

Niall’s head shoots up at the familiar voice and he’s grinning widely.

“Lou, mate! Glad you could make it,” he says loudly (well, louder than normal at least), clearly still high off of his performance adrenaline rush, “Now where’s this plus-one you were telling me abo–”

He cuts off abruptly, having noticed Harry standing a bit shyly to Louis’ left.

“Well fuck me up the arse, Harry Styles,” he blurts, though he doesn’t seem as nonplussed as Josh had been earlier, “Pleasure to meet ya mate.”

He holds out his hand and the two shake in greeting; Harry compliments the band’s set sincerely and effusively, earning a bright scarlet blush from the blonde Irishman.

Upon returning from the bar with celebratory drinks in hand, Ed and Sandy both look startled to see the popstar interacting with their lead singer, though they offer up their hands politely nonetheless.

Harry and Ed end up in some deep, tantalizing conversation about songwriting technique and performance space acoustics, and Louis quietly excuses himself to the loo and slips away.

He’s washing his hands and inspecting his flushed face in the mirror, when the door swings open and Niall walks in.

“Nice guy, Harry Styles,” Niall says offhandedly, moving to stand at the sink next to him and wash a smear of grease off his palm, “Wasn’t expecting that.”

“Yeah, he’s– nice,” Louis agrees cautiously.

Niall sighs, toweling his hands off and looking up at Louis seriously.

“I hate to have this conversation with you, mate,” he starts, biting his lip, “but just be careful, yeah? I don’t want this to be another Aiden thing.”

Louis starts to protest but Niall hushes him, saying, “You like to pretend you’re immune to all this, but I’ve seen ya, Lou. You fall so easily, and I’m not… I’m not saying that Harry’s a bad guy… it’s just–”

“I’m not in love with him or anything, Ni,” Louis interrupts, successfully this time, “I just met him this morning.”

“Maybe not yet, mate,” Niall agrees, “but I can tell ya right now that ye will be. You’ve got that look about ye. All starry-eyed and moony.”

“Niall, you can’t use two celestial descriptions in one sentence,” Louis criticizes evasively.

“Why not?” Niall protests, “Shakespeare did it. You are the moon and Harry is the sun and what not.”

Louis bites back a laugh, drying his hands, and decides to indulge him, “Touché, love, but I do recall an east being in there somewhere?”

“What does the east have to do with anything?” Niall asks, holding the door open for him as they return to the bar together.

“Never mind,” Louis says, grinning as Harry meets his eyes from across the pub.

“See,” Niall grumbles, “moony.”

Louis elbows Niall and hisses a loud “shh!” ignoring the Irishman’s even louder protests.

Arriving at the bar, he quickly hops up onto the barstool next to the one the popstar is currently occupying.

“Hello beautiful,” he greets cheekily, feeling a little braver with some alcohol coursing through his veins.

“Hello to you, too,” Harry replies, swiveling on his barstool to face him.

What looks like a half-empty vodka and coke is sitting in front of him, cherry stem hanging off the edge precariously. His lips are red enough to match and he’s smiling widely, dimples deep and endearing.

“Excellent Jonas Brothers reference, by the way,” he continues, giggling.

“Wasn’t a reference,” Louis replies with a loud snort, “but it’s lovely to know that you were a fan.”

Harry leans forward and starts to hum the first few bars of the old ballad, apparently unashamed.

“Someone’s reached their limit,” Louis remarks, sliding the drink away from the younger lad, though Harry continues to reach for it with toddler-like grabby hands.

“Ed and I are gonna write some songs together!” Harry says excitedly, words slurring just slightly, “Ed also bought me, like, a lot of shots.”

“That’s lovely, dear,” Louis replies, humoring him, “but how does your nice, warm, cozy flat sound?” 

“Mmm, don’t got a flat,” Harry mumbles, “’m homeless.”

“Oh shut up,” Louis says, rolling his eyes, “Where do you live?”

“Kensington,” the younger boy replies after a moment, and Louis really shouldn’t be as surprised as he is. Harry hiccups, but carries on, “’ve a little brick house and it’s… white. It’s white!”

“A white house in Kensington… informative,” Louis catalogues, sighing, “What about an address?”

Harry spews off a couple of numbers followed by a street name that Louis’ pretty sure is in that area, so he shrugs and decides to go with it. If they somehow end up somewhere sketchy at this time of night (say south of Tower Bridge, which has happened to him before), he’ll just text Zayn for Harry’s actual address and get them both home eventually.

He jumps down off of his stool, reaching out a hand to steady Harry as he stands up as well. The two of them make their way over to where Niall and Ed are currently entertaining a large group of drunken and very handsy women, probably with one of their many (highly-embellished) road trip stories. Louis clasps a hand on Niall’s back and says a loud goodbye, motioning at Harry who’s smiling brightly and wobbling a bit on his feet.

Niall nods once, acknowledging his departure, though his eyes still flicker with concern.

Louis sighs and spins Harry around, leading him out the door. They immediately run into a gaggle of scantily clad uni-aged girls who shriek when they notice a celebrity among them.

“Can we get a picture please? Pleaseeee?” the only one of them not in tears asks hopefully.

“Erm… just one with all of you, yeah?” Louis answers, since Harry is clearly in no state to do so for himself.

The girls shriek again and Louis winces. The first girl shoves her phone into his hand and pushes him aside as the five of them crowd around Harry, sticking their chests out and pouting their lips. Harry appears absolutely thrilled by all the attention and immediately assumes a sassy hands-on-the-hips, pursed-lip pose of his own. Louis fights a laugh as he snaps the photo, handing the phone back to its owner.

“Thanks so much!” they chorus, before stumbling back down the pavement in their too-high heels.

“Bye!” Harry shouts, and Louis rolls his eyes, pulling him into their waiting cab.

&&

Thankfully, when the cab stops, they are in front of a large white Victorian in Kensington which Louis can only hope is Harry’s actual home.

The “hey, my house!” Harry cries as Louis helps him out of the car confirms it not a second later.

“Yes, your house,” he replies, laughing.

He almost trips on the curb with Harry’s octopus arms wrapped so tightly around him. They approach the gated entryway slowly but surely, and Louis feels his heart drop as he notices the little digital passkey attached to the front.

“Harry,” he says a little breathlessly, “your gate has a code.”

“Yup!” Harry confirms happily.

Louis blows hot air from between his lips. “Harry, what is the code?”

Harry just laughs, reaching out and typing it in with heavy, clumsy fingers. Louis sighs in relief, pushing it open and shutting it behind them. He gets Harry through the front door and finally inside, his mouth immediately dropping open at the insanely posh interior.

“Holy shit, did you decorate all this?” he asks, shocked.

“No,” Harry mumbles, “came this way. Don’t spend a lot of time here ‘cause s’lonely.”

Louis blinks, taking in the clinically white, streamlined furnishings.

“It is a bit hospital meets IKEA,” he relents, being careful not to trod on a particularly plush rug that probably costs three times as much as the Russie collection he sold today.

“Bedroom’s upstairs,” the younger boy says, lips brushing against his neck.

Louis swallows at the implications of that statement, reminds himself that Harry is piss drunk and also very, very not gay, and moves to help the popstar climb the stairs.

Harry’s bedroom is as white as the rest of his home, the king-size bed freshly made and unslept in.

Louis releases his grip on the popstar and watches as Harry immediately flops down atop the comforter still fully clothed, McQueen boots and all. He smiles softly and moves to take off the younger boy’s shoes, laughing when Harry mutters his protests, burying deeper into his pile of pillows and swatting Louis’ hands away.

“Alright, popstar,” Louis complies, chuckling.

He ruffles Harry’s curls, earning another grumpy moan, and turns off the light as he leaves, plodding back down the stairs.

What a day, he thinks, running a hand through his ruffled fringe and tugging open the front door.

He’s certainly not expecting to be greeted by flashbulbs and at least thirty men camped just outside the gate yelling questions at him.

“Uh, no comment?” he offers as he pushes his way through them and tries to hail a taxi.

The paparazzi continue to swarm and he winces as the flashing cameras leave spots in his vision. Finally a cab pulls up and he throws himself in, letting out a loud sigh of relief as he shakily rattles off his address.

“Another one of Harry Styles’ late night conquests, eh?” the cabbie asks, glancing at him through the rearview mirror, “Can’t say I’m surprised he’s diversified his tastes a bit.”

“Excuse me?” Louis snaps, brain still swimming from the press’ sudden onslaught.

The cabbie shrugs. “That ‘ouse is legendary, mate. Me ‘n me buddies always circle ‘round it this time a’night. Usually pick up a twiggy blonde bird or summat but,” he pauses, licking his lips, “I can see the appeal a’you.”

“I’m going to ask you once very nicely to shut up and take me home,” Louis says, voice hard, “Second time, I pull the mace out of my pocket and duck out of this vehicle before it crashes into the nearest light pole with you incapacitated at the wheel.”

“Hey, relax mate,” the cabbie says quickly, “I’m just taking the piss out a’ya. Me ‘n the lads all know these visits are just for appearances.”

“What do you mean?” Louis asks, suddenly curious.

“You know, the usual Sun kinda stuff?” the cabbie explains, “Girl goes in, comes out five minutes later, magazines make it seem like a couple a’ hours, or they suddenly got some source claimin’ they saw a goodnight kiss when there wasn’t nuffin a’tall. You see a lot when you’re a cabbie, celebrities no exception.”

Louis just hums thoughtfully at this new information. So Harry really wasn’t joking when he said it was all PR. Bloody awful, manipulative PR, but apparently effective nonetheless. Louis closes his eyes and presses his forehead to the window glass, suddenly knackered.

He blinks awake as the cab jerks to a halt, shoves some notes at the chatty cabbie, and stumbles into the shop with a loud yawn. He locks the door behind him and climbs up the stairs to his bedroom, quickly shucking off his shoes and his trousers and swan-diving into bed with a groan.

He closes his eyes, drifting off to an image of Harry draped across his shoulders limply, those cherry red lips pressed against his pulse point, sucking and biting until he’s marked and owned.

Mine, mine, mine.

&&

Louis jerks awake to the sensation of his mobile vibrating repeatedly against his thigh. He digs it out of his pocket and mumbles a sleepy hello.

“Louis!” Liam’s voice shrieks through the line, much too loud for an early Tuesday morning, “Louis, you’ve got to see–”

“Yeah, yeah, hold on a minute, Li,” he mutters, draping his arm over the side of the bed and fishing around for his charger. He’s honestly surprised that his phone has stayed alive this long, though granted he didn’t use it very much last night. His fingers tangle around the chord and he plugs it in, watching the screen light up in thanks.

“Okay, go.”

“Louis, you’re all over the gossip rags this morning!” Liam yells, “And online too!”

“What are you on about?” he mumbles, rubbing his eyes and sitting up.

“You got papped outside of Harry’s house last night and the media have painted it out like you’re secret lovers or something!”

“Alright, first of all, that’s ridiculous,” Louis remarks tiredly, still unhappy about having been woken up so early in the morning, “Next.”

“Louis, you can’t ignore this!” Liam cries, “What about Jaymi?”

“Who’s Jaymi?” he asks, interrupting again as Liam starts on another hysterical reply, “You know what, never mind, I don’t care.”

He yawns loudly, tucking himself back under the covers. “Next time you decide to read me the headlines, could you maybe do it a bit later in the day?”

“Louis!” Liam practically screeches, “I’m pretty sure Jaymi, your boyfriend, will want to be assured that you’re not cheating on him with Harry Styles! Harry Styles, as in, high profile popstar Harry Styles, whose house is constantly surrounded by paparazzi; a fact that you stupidly chose to ignore!”

Oh. Oh. That Jaymi.

“Jaymi’s not my boyfriend, Li,” Louis replies blearily, “Made that up so it wouldn’t look like we were spying on you at lunch.”

“If it weren’t only four in the morning, I’d come over there and kick your… your arse,” Liam says shortly, in the closest approximation to a threat he can manage.

“Yeah, great,” Louis agrees to… to something, he can’t really remember… “Hey, listen. Don’t tell Zayn, alright? We weren’t spying. I mean we were, but don’t… don’t tell him?”

“The phone is on speaker, you git,” a familiar disembodied voice replies.

“Is that Zayn?” Louis asks, suddenly interested, “Four in the morning and Zayn’s with you… Something tells me you got laid, Liam Payne.”

There’s a prolonged silence.

“I’m hanging up. You’re both disgusting,” Louis grumbles, before tapping end and tossing his phone over the edge of the bed. It lands on the carpet with a satisfying thud, and he buries himself back into his little nest of blankets with a loud sigh.

&&

Not even an hour later (or at least what seems like it) and he’s awoken again by his phone’s loud vibrations.

“Liam, I swear to god,” he hisses into the receiver.

“Um, not Liam?” a familiar, husky voice says softly in reply.

Louis jerks up, suddenly wide awake. “Oh, Harry, hi!” he says, much more cheerily, “I’m sorry for that! It’s just Liam called me this morning at some ungodly hour shrieking about pap photos or something as equally inconsequential; I don’t really remember.”

“Yeah,” Harry replies, his voice sounding odd and a bit strained, “Listen, I know you’re probably busy today but–”

“Not busy at all actually,” Louis interrupts, “I’ve got a couple of employees coming in to do the weekly inventory, so I’m free all this morning.”

“Great,” Harry says weakly, and yeah… something’s definitely up. “Do you think you could swing by this address around ten? Shouldn’t take but an hour or so.”

Harry rattles off an address which he quickly pens down, and Louis can’t help but note that the strange, pleading tone to the popstar’s voice has intensified.

“Sure, yeah,” he replies, complacently, “I’ve got nothing on.”

“Okay, well, see you then,” Harry says, hanging up almost immediately.

Louis rubs his eyes, still a bit sleepy and definitely more confused than ever. He leans over to peer at the clock, noting the time (eight-thirty), and quickly leaps out of bed to start his morning routine.

As the steam from his waiting shower slowly fogs up the bathroom, Louis can’t help but wonder what all the fuss is about.

&&

By 9:55, Louis’ waiting in a spacious reception area, nervously glancing around and tugging on his sleeves.

The cab had rolled up to a large complex of corporate office buildings, the doorman checking his name off a list and buzzing down for an expressionless, no-nonsense assistant who guided him up to the twenty-third floor and promptly left him in a waiting room with absolutely no instruction.

Just as he’s considering sinking low enough as to peruse the new issue of Cosmo sitting on the glass coffee table, a door to his left swings open and a displeased looking woman in a jet black pantsuit and sky-high Louboutins motions him into her office.

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Tomlinson,” she says, sitting down behind her desk and gesturing for him to take a seat as well.

“My name is Margaret Lancaster and I’m the head of Harry Styles’ public relations team.”

She doesn’t smile, her lips squished in a thin, straight line. They’re painted an angry artificial red, Louis notices, like she’s trying to appear somehow more intimidating than she already is. She looks to be in her mid-thirties, though the poorly-concealed bags under her eyes age her even further. Her hair is jet black, the same color as her impeccably tailored suit, and cut into a severe angular bob that frames her pointed jawline with ferocity. Everything about her is clean-cut, serious, and put-together, and he’s sure if he looked hard enough, he would find not even a single eyebrow hair out of place.

“It’s nice to meet you as well, Ms. Lancaster,” Louis says, after a moment, feeling the need to choose his words carefully.

“Margaret, please,” she corrects demurely, though her eyes retain their predatory gleam.

He nods but doesn’t reply, finding it more comfortable to just let the woman do all the talking.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why we’ve brought you in today,” she states bluntly, reaching into a side drawer and pulling out a stack of photos. She slides the pile toward him, one perfectly trimmed-and-filled eyebrow raised in question.

Louis flicks through the photos disinterestedly. They’re all blurry shots of him and Harry last night; a few capture the popstar leaning on him as he guided him into his home, but most of them are of Louis’ solo exit a few minutes later.

He sighs, sliding them back across the desk.

“Contact my lawyer if you want to work out some kind of deal,” he says, shortly, “I’m in no mood to discuss this.”

Margaret looks surprised, her bright red lips forming the tiniest of ‘o’ shapes before she quickly schools her features back in to place.

“Mr. Tomlinson, I’m not sure you understand?” she asks, eyebrows still furrowed slightly in confusion.

“Oh but I think I do,” Louis replies sharply, sighing again, “There’ve been gay rumors about your client and you’re here to offer me money not to be seen with him again, or maybe just to issue a nice, concise statement denying everything.”

Margaret sits back in her chair, arms crossed, appraising.

“I’m sure some silly story’s appeared in the Daily Mail or The Sun, probably both,” he continues, leaning back in his chair as well, but not breaking eye contact, “It’s all about us having lunch yesterday and then a late night out at a pub in Putney, me taking him home and not leaving until a few hours later, sources say we were flirty and handsy, practically smitten with each other.”

Louis watches the PR’s face as he speaks, notes the subtle twitch of her lip each time he gets something right.

“The sources are a, the washed-up cab driver who drove me home last night, probably said something about me having sex-hair, the heathen; and b, a buxom blonde hostess named Emily who seated us at that Indian restaurant off Regent Street. ‘They confirmed it was a date’ she was quoted saying. Now isn’t that romantic?”

“Romantic, certainly,” Margaret replies coolly, “but is it true?”

“Of course not,” Louis replies, rolling his eyes, “It was all taken completely out of context, as I’ve heard most articles about your client are. Though, I must say, you do seem to take immense pleasure in engineering them that way.”

The dark-haired woman hums thoughtfully for a moment, choosing not to confirm or dispute his assertion.

“And how do you have such experience with public relations, Mr. Tomlinson?” she asks, betraying her interest.

“I write under a pseudonym,” he says carefully, “I do my own PR, decide how I’d like to appear to my target audience, and my publishing agent handles everything else.”

“May I ask what that name is?”

“No, you may not,” he replies icily, though the woman doesn’t appear particular bothered by his impatient attitude.

 “Now, am I free to go,” he implores tiredly, “or do you yet require more of my time?”

Margaret sighs, examining her manicure for a moment before answering.

 “I’m afraid this is all standard protocol, Mr. Tomlinson,” she explains, sliding a few papers his way, “for friends of my client or otherwise. I just need to know, point blank, if you’re romantically interested in Mr. Styles, and if, at any point, you plan to pursue a romantic relationship with him.”

“No, and no,” Louis replies smoothly, then immediately wonders why it feels like such a heavy lie. He shakes his head to clear those thoughts away and turns his attention instead to the papers placed before him.

“This is a simple nondisclosure agreement,” Margaret explains, presumptuously handing him a pen, “You don’t speak to the press about my client, and he won’t speak to the press about you. All your privacy rights are listed and guaranteed there at the bottom.”

Louis looks down, noting Harry’s wide scrawl already printed next to the ‘x’ on the top line.

“I just met your client a day ago,” he remarks casually, signing and dating the agreement with a practiced flourish, “I hardly think that’s grounds for such precaution?”

Margaret blinks, lip twitching, and it’s immediately apparent to him that she knows she’s been caught.

“My client,” she explains carefully, “is quite… er… taken with you, Mr. Tomlinson. That is, this little meeting would’ve had to happen eventually, and my team and I agreed that it would be better dealt with sooner rather than later.”

“Right,” Louis agrees, confused by her cryptic reply but not willing to show it.

He slides the papers back her way and she examines them wordlessly for a moment.

“That’ll be all,” she says dismissively, tucking the signed agreement back into her desk’s file drawer, “I’ll have Flor escort you out.”

Louis can only assume that Flor refers to the expressionless blonde assistant who had led him in, though he wouldn’t be surprised if Ms. Margaret Lancaster had an entire army of pretty robot-like slaves doing her evil bidding.

“Great, thanks,” he replies quickly, standing up to leave.

Just as he’s reaching to push the office door open, Margaret’s voice rings out once more, clear and sharp. “It was lovely chatting with you, Mr. Sodi.”

Louis freezes with a hand on the door, turning back around slowly to see the dark-haired woman leaning forward languidly, elbows propped on the dark mahogany desktop. She’s smiling back at him as predatorily as ever; a gaunt, high-fashion hyena, all white sparkling teeth and hungry black eyes.

“I’m a big fan.”

If she’s expecting him to react, he’s happy to disappoint her.

“Names are such an interesting part of our identity. Wouldn’t you say, Ms. Lancaster?” he offers casually, hand still gripping the door handle tightly.

“Margaret, of Greek origin, meaning pearl, or ‘one of wisdom’. Your parents were a tad too optimistic, don’t you think? To have produced a soul as black as yours?”

He grins back at her saccharinely, “Pity.”

“Your flowery, poetic language doesn’t fool me, Louis,” she replies, harsh and informal, “I know more about you than you’d like, and that scares you, doesn’t it? That someone, or let’s say the entire world, could find out so very easily? With a simple phone call on my behalf?”

“I’d hate for you to appear a fool,” he replies scathingly, “Had to give you something to pretend to blackmail me with.”

“Oh please, this isn’t blackmail, dear,” Margaret giggles, “I’m not that childish. All I’m asking is that you don’t damage my client’s reputation any further, else I have to damage yours.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about me,” he answers swiftly, “From what I hear, you’ve already ruined Harry’s reputation enough for the both of us.”

And with that, he spins quickly on his heels and walks out the door.

&&

The rest of the week passes without further incident.

It also passes without further contact from Harry, but Louis is totally not dwelling on that at all.

If Harry doesn’t want to be his friend, it’s totally fine. In fact, it’s better than fine; it’ll probably complicate his life way less. No more paparazzi or watching Harry flirt with waitresses or clingy octopus arms, it’s fine. He’s fine. Plus, he already has three awesome best mates, anyhow. He doesn’t need another one, much less some high-maintenance celebrity who, over the course of one day, completely endeared himself to him and turned Louis into a sad, rejected loser who checks his phone every five seconds for a text that is apparently never arriving.

Nope. He doesn’t care about Harry at all (which is precisely why he’s currently sitting at his desk, biro in hand, penning a super vague, not-about-any-popstar-in-particular poem in his moleskine featuring lines like ‘It’s Christmas year ‘round with your red lips and green eyes’ and ‘Your limbs are miles long, a road untraveled, and yet somehow they fit around me). Normal friendship-y, totally-not-pining writing, you know?

He’s tapping the pen against his bottom lip thoughtfully, contemplating a non-creepy way to include ‘I close my eyes and see those two birds in flight, black inked wings cutting across the alabaster expanses of your pectoral plane...” when that little bell jingles brightly, announcing his next visitor.

“Ah, there’s the writer,” a familiar voice calls, and Louis glances up to see one brooding-as-ever Zayn Malik, looking appetizing as usual in tight jeans and black leather.

“Told you he’d be writing,” a second (even more familiar) voice affirms, “He does that when he’s moping.”

“Zayn, Liam,” Louis greets, quickly closing his moleskine and sliding it safely into his back pocket.

He stands up, skirting around the edge of the desk to meet them in the foray.

 “To what do I owe the pleasure?” he asks, exaggeratedly formal, and throwing in a nice curtsy for good measure.

“You’ve been MIA for almost week, Lou,” Liam castigates in his classic disappointed teacher voice.

“And we have a pretty good idea why,” Zayn continues, mimicking Liam’s furrowed brow.

Louis looks between them, notes the way Zayn’s arm has made its way down Liam’s lower back, his fingers splayed across the teacher’s hip.

“Isn’t this sweet?” he remarks, “Finishing each other’s sentences already? Proper couple you are.”

Zayn rolls his eyes and tugs Liam closer until they’re attached from neck to knee, practically morphed into one awful but incredibly attractive love monster or something. Louis channels his inner maturity and promptly pretends to gag up his breakfast all over the floor.

“Listen, Harry really likes you and he wants to hang out with you again, really,” Liam starts, ignoring Louis’ dramatic display of disgust.

“But he’s just been too stupidly worried about you hating him or being scared off or something after his PR team forced him to drag you into that meeting,” Zayn finishes.

“Wait, you know about that?” Louis asks, surprised.

“Well yeah,” Zayn replies, like it should’ve been obvious, “You should’ve seen poor Haz when he showed up at the studio that afternoon; looked like someone’d just killed his puppy or something.”

“God, I didn’t know he was so torn up about it,” Louis remarks, “It wasn’t that bad really. I just said a few choice words to that witch of woman, Margaret Lancaster, and she said a few back… I signed a nondisclosure agreement and slammed the door. Lovely morning overall, I’d say.”

Zayn’s gaping at him, eyes practically bugging out of his head. “They had you speak to Margaret Lancaster?”

“Yes, Margaret, like I said,” Louis confirms, a bit confused by the dark-haired boy’s reaction, “Head of Harry’s PR team? Nasty temperament, awful haircut, but very nice taste in suits?”

“Louis, please tell me you were joking about the choice words being exchanged,” Zayn pleads, looking like he might have an aneurysm at any moment

“No, I’m afraid not,” he replies easily, “She tried to blackmail me, I told her I wasn’t going to be bought or intimidated by her threats, and then I defined her name for her, very sweetly I might add.”

“You defined her name?” Zayn asks wearily, running his free hand through his artfully-sculpted quiff.

“Margaret, of Greek origin, meaning pearl, or ‘one of wisdom,” Louis explains, “Er… then I might’ve said that her parents must’ve been so disappointed to find out how black and evil her soul was after giving her such a lovely name.”

Zayn looks like he might faint. “Louis, Margaret Lancaster isn’t just the head of Harry’s PR team; she’s president of the entire management company.”

Louis shrugs, and Zayn continues, “Everyone at the record label refers to her as ‘The Dragon Lady’. She controls every artist that we work with and dozens of artists at other labels too. The company myth is that no one ever goes to visit ‘The Dragon Lady’ and comes back with their job intact.”

“Yes, well, I don’t recommend scheduling an appointment with her anytime soon,” Louis replies, “Totally lives up to the whole ‘Dragon Lady’ moniker, scary nails and teeth and everything. Kept smiling at me like she wanted to skin me alive and roast me over a fire for dinner.”

Liam winces and Zayn looks terrified out of his mind.

“They sent you to Margaret Lancaster,” Zayn mutters, shaking his head, “No wonder Harry thought you’d never want to speak to him again.”

Louis just rolls his eyes. “He has my number, apparently, since he called me Tuesday morning. He could’ve texted me, instead of worrying himself silly for five days straight.”

“Zayn’s having a little get together at his place tonight,” Liam says excitedly, changing the subject, “We came to invite you.”

“Harry will be there,” Zayn adds, wiggling his eyebrows enticingly, “I’m sure he’d love to see you.”

“Let me just give up my profession, then,” Louis replies, gesturing to the piles of not-yet-shelved books littering his desk and the floor around him, “That way I can fully dedicate my life to pleasing popstars.”

“C’mon Lou,” Liam says disapprovingly, “It’s a Saturday night, I know you’ve got nothing on, and Harry’s honestly been just as miserable as you have.”

“I’m not miserable!” Louis protests.

“Are you sure?” Liam asks doubtfully, raising a single judgmental eyebrow, “Let me see what you’ve written lately then.”

 “Okay, so maybe I’m a teensy bit miserable,” Louis says quickly, hand flying to his back pocket to protect his precious moleskine from Liam’s outstretched hands, “but that has nothing to do with Henry Smiles, or whatever his name is.”

“Oh come off it, Louis,” Zayn complains, “Are you coming tonight or not?”

Louis takes one look at Liam’s expectant, hopeful smile, and sighs loudly. “Fine, yeah. I’ll be there.”

Liam does a ridiculous little leap of excitement, and it’s kind of unfair really, Louis thinks, that a grown man can somehow look so adorable. Zayn apparently shares his sentiments as he’s gazing at the bouncing schoolteacher with a level of fondness that’s as equally as immeasurably sweet as it is nauseating.

“It’s Halloween, by the way, in case you forgot,” Liam continues excitedly, as Zayn ushers him quickly toward the door, “Costumes are required! Bring alcohol! See you then!”

“Wait, I definitely didn’t agree to–” Louis starts, but the jingle of the bell interrupts him, signaling the two lovebirds’ hasty departure.

He sighs again, glaring at the waiting stacks all around him. Just as he’s deciding what to do, his mobile vibrates loudly on his desk. He turns around and picks it up, tapping to open an awaiting message from Niall.

glad ur coming 2nite mate!!

He furrows his brow, typing back quickly:

was everyone in on this plan??

yeah, basically is Niall’s reply a moment later. His phone buzzes again, signaling a second message.

listen, i need to go costume shopping! come with?

Louis makes a face, but can’t deny that he’s also short on acceptably cool and/or humorous Halloween attire.

fine. are you driving?

nah, can’t 2day! poor mully’s ill nd in the shop.

aww poor mully :( btw i still cannot believe that you named your new car after your hometown.

proud of good ol’ mullingar mate! ireland’s in me blood :))

no one can tell that you’re irish Ni. try harder.

haha shut it lou. i’m walking over rn and we can catch a cab. see ya in five for the best costume shopping trip of ur life!!!

yeah… hooray.

Louis sends the last text and pockets his phone, running upstairs to grab his wallet before Niall arrives. He tries to ignore the little niggling sense of excitement in the recesses of his brain that keeps getting stronger and stronger as he thinks about seeing Harry again. He’s being silly and he knows it. Harry probably wants nothing more to do with him and Zayn and Liam are just lying in order to get him to be social for a night. Harry’s probably not even going to be there, he reasons, no need to get his hopes up over something so trivial.

And yet, he can’t ignore the buzz in his veins, his pulse thrumming quick and insistent at the ghost-like sensation of lips pressed to the hollow of his throat…

&&

Louis feels silly.

He feels incredibly silly, and also strangely… hot.

Niall is laughing hysterically, tears pricking his eyes, as he chokes out, “You’ve got to buy that, Tommo. I’m not letting you leave without it.”

“Niall, I’m dressed as a woman,” Louis deadpans.

“I know!” Niall shrieks, and his manic cackling intensifies, “but you’re a really, really fit woman, I swear.”

“No other man at this party will be dressed as a woman,” Louis argues, tugging at the frilly tutu and leotard ensemble that admittedly makes his bum look pretty damn fantastic, “I think I’m going to go with the sexy policeman getup with the blue booty shorts I tried on earlier.”

They also make his bum look good, just in less of a pink frilly feminine way.

“That’s–” Niall starts, wiping away a stray tear, “That’s probably a safer choice.”

“Get a picture for posterity though,” Louis requests, twirling around gracefully and cringing as the leotard begins to bunch up in all the wrong places.

Niall giggles again, snapping a few choice photos with his mobile and declaring Louis to be the finest looking ballerina in all of Britain.

After he’s returned from the fitting rooms tutu-free, Louis and Niall head to the checkout.

“I see you’ve gone with sexy pilot,” Louis remarks, nodding at the green jumpsuit and fake aviators thrown in Niall’s basket, “Strong choice.”

“Thank you,” Niall replies, seriously, “I’ve always wanted to fly.”

“You’ve always wanted to join the mile high club more like,” Louis teases, winking at the girl behind the cash register as she’s ringing them up.

“Yeah, that too,” Niall deadpans, rolling his eyes.

They pay and walk out of the store, Louis pulling out his phone to check the time.

“It’s quarter ‘til seven,” he states, tugging on his jacket as the sun has already begun to set, “What time does this thing even start?”

“I think Zayn said sometime ‘round nine,” Niall answers, zipping up his hoodie and shivering a bit at the sudden drop in temperature.

“Fancy a bite then?” Louis asks, nodding toward a Thai restaurant on the corner.

“As if I’d refuse,” Niall replies, grinning.

Minutes later, they’re seated in a holey red lacquer booth, plates of steaming curry set before them.

“So how’s your week been then?” Louis asks between bites of chicken and kaeng phet.

“Good,” Niall replies, mouth stuffed with noodles, “We booked a sweet gig with Ed’s cousin in Manchester, so we’ll be traveling out there in about two weeks. Oh, and Harry asked Josh to be his drummer on his UK stadium tour next summer. How sick is that?”

“What?” Louis asks, shocked, wiping spicy red sauce from the corner of his mouth.

“Apparently his drummer’s wife is pregnant and they’re expecting the baby in mid-June,” Niall explains, slurping his noodle soup and swallowing loudly, “Harry got Josh’s number from Liam, mentioned how impressed he was with Josh’s drumming at the pub gig, and offered him the job. Josh took it o’course, don’t worry; it pays like you wouldn’t believe.”

“That’s incredible,” Louis replies, still dumbfounded.

“Ain’t that the craic,” Niall agrees, finishing the last of his soup, “and it’s all thanks to you, mate! Wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t a’brought Harry with ya.”

Louis shakes his head.

“I’m sure it would’ve worked out somehow,” he assures, “Fate’s far from a fickle thing.”

“Speaking a’fate,” Niall says, wiggling his eyebrows, “how excited are ya to see your soulmate again tonight?”

“He’s not my soulmate, Ni,” Louis asserts, glaring at the giggling blonde, “We’re barely even friends.”

“I refuse to believe that,” Niall replies definitively, taking a long sip of his tea.

“Well, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed, then.”

Niall raises an eyebrow like a challenge, and then smiles softly like he knows something Louis doesn’t.

“I don’t think I will.”

&&

By the time they arrive at Zayn’s house in Mayfair, the party is already in full swing.

There are gaggles of half-naked girls around the backyard pool and equally as clothed men shooting pool in the basement. It takes them about fifteen minutes to actually locate Zayn, who is lounging languidly on the living room sofa, a fresh joint between his fingers.

Zayn blinks owlishly at the pair as they greet him, laughing loudly at something a pink-haired girl in a classically unoriginal cat costume leans over to whisper in his ear.

“Louis! Niall!” he says eventually. His voice is slow and syrupy sweet, though not lacking in enthusiasm.

“Sick party!” Niall cheers, reaching out to swipe a joint from a blonde, leopard-clad girl to Zayn’s left.

“Hey,” she protests, though her eyes settle fully on Niall a moment later and she seems to change her mind.

Niall smirks and plops down next to her, Zayn and Pink Kitty scooting closer together to make room for the Irishman and his new spotted lady friend. Louis just rolls his eyes and heads off in search of the kitchen for a much-needed drink.

He finally finds it about five minutes later after climbing two flights of stairs up and down before realizing that it’s located on the same level as the living room he’d started in. As he’s singing along to the catchy pop anthem currently blasting through the high-tech sound system and mixing himself a nice, strong, fruity drink, he feels a large unfamiliar hand grab his shoulder.

He whirls around quickly, expecting some sleazy drunk guy looking for a good time, but instead comes face to face with Liam Payne…

… in a Batman suit.

“Hey, Li,” Louis greets, finishing up blending his concoction and recapping the fruit juice and rum, “Having a good time?”

“Not particularly, no,” Liam replies testily from behind his mask, glaring across the room at Zayn still sprawled over the couch entertaining his group of four or five scantily clad women.

Louis hums sympathetically, and then shrugs. “Why don’t you do something about that?”

“Like what?” Liam asks, eyes wide and Bambi-like.

“Claim him, Li,” Louis encourages, rolling his eyes at the blushing schoolteacher’s apparent innocence, “Show them all who he belongs to, like, climb on his lap and make out with him or something.  Christ, I dunno.”

“You know what?” Liam says loudly, still eyeing the group of giggling girls encroaching closer and closer upon his property, “I think I will.”

He snatches Louis’ drink out of his hands, downs it in one go, and crosses the floor in three powerful strides, bat cape flapping. Louis’ mouth is hanging open and his eyes are nearly bugging out of his head as he watches Liam impolitely shove Leopard Girl out of the way and into Niall’s lap, climbing onto the couch and straddling a very surprised looking, but also very stoned Zayn Malik.

“Yes Payno!” Louis cheers as the schoolteacher rips off his mask and tilts the dark-haired boy’s head back to suck a bright red mark right under his jaw.

It’s starts to get a little R-rated after that and Louis has to look away, making himself a new drink and taking a long, long sip.

When he turns back, the couch is empty, both Liam and Zayn and the four other girls all missing. Louis’ fairly sure Liam’s not that kinky, though he can’t help but hope that these aren’t related occurrences. Niall’s getting frisky with Leopard Girl in the corner, his aviators somehow having switched owners and her furry ears tucked into his blonde quiff. The rest of the partygoers on this level are all grinding in the middle of the carpeted area or lounging about on the leftover furniture not occupied by fondling duos (or… trios? Louis notices, and downs the rest of his drink with a grimace).

He sighs, glancing once more around the room and spying a sliding glass door leading out to what looks like a large balcony. He pulls it open and steps out, immediately shivering at the cold October wind. There’s a zebra print blanket lying on one of the black lounge chairs and he grabs it, wrapping it around himself to combat the chill. He leans against the edge of the balcony and stares out at the city lights, remembering his very first night alone in London and how small and insignificant he had felt in that moment, just one life surrounded by millions of others, his own flat just one little light amongst the stars.

“Not into orgies, then?” a familiar, husky voice asks behind him.

He turns around and smiles softly at the image of Harry leaning nonchalantly against the doorframe.

“Hey shut the door wanker! It’s bloody cold!” someone yells from inside, and Harry laughs awkwardly, standing up straight and yanking it closed.

As he steps out into the light of the balcony, Louis gets his first good look at the popstar’s costume, and it’s… not a lot of fabric. He gulps, eyes traveling down Harry’s naked upper half to where his thighs are clad in skintight peach-colored spandex. He’s holding a foam finger, his hair done up in two miniature buns on either side of his head. He looks like an idiot, but a very, very hot idiot nonetheless.

Miley Cyrus?” Louis guesses.

“And we can’t stoooop,” Harry croons in response, and Louis has to muffle a giggle with his stupid zebra blanket. He watches as the popstar eyes his little cocoon appreciatively, teeth chattering and arms wrapped around his torso in a futile effort at warming himself up.

“C’mere you idiot,” Louis says, finally, lifting up one end of the blanket and motioning for Harry to join him on the chaise, “That dumbass inside is right. S’bloody cold out here.”

Harry grins and tucks himself into Louis’ side as they both sit down, shivering as a particularly chilly gust makes its way across their balcony seat.

Sexy cop,” Harry observes, taking in Louis’ police hat and dark blue polo, “Strong choice.”

“Thank you,” Louis replies, snuggling closer and wrapping the blanket more tightly around the both of them, “I was going to go as a ballerina. Tutu was nice, but the leotard was a bit… er… restricting.”

Harry raises an eyebrow. “Don’t even talk to me about restricting,” he remarks, slipping a hand out from under the blanket to motion toward his crotch, “Not a lot of breathing room in this little spandex number.”

Louis just giggles softly, mumbling “Your choice, mate” into Harry’s collarbone. He feels the younger boy still beneath him and he leans back quickly, resting his head against the chair cushion with a sigh.

They’re silent for a long time after that; the only sounds their rhythmic breathing and the traffic on the street below.

“You’re missing the party,” Louis says after a while, lowering his voice to a whisper though they’re the only two people foolish enough to still be outside. Even the groups gathered around the pool have since called it quits, favoring the warm, smoke-filled interior to the October chill.

“You are too,” Harry whispers back after a moment.

Louis shrugs against him. “Eh, not really my scene.”

“It’s an entire house full of drunken models and socialites,” Harry replies, “What’s not to like?”

“You tell me, popstar,” Louis says, fitting himself more tightly against the younger boy as the temperature continues to drop, “Shouldn’t you be in there charming the masses with your dimples and peach spandex?”

He can feel Harry’s laugh through his chest, rumbling. “Not my scene either,” Harry explains after a moment, “Too hard to remember who I openly hate versus who I’ve been pretending to like.”

“Ah, yes, the struggles of the rich and famous,” Louis remarks, smiling into Harry’s shoulder.

“You’re rich and famous too,” Harry counters, “Just secretly.”

“Doesn’t count then,” Louis argues, poking Harry in the stomach.

Harry giggles, slapping his hand away and tickling him under the armpit.

“I surrender! I surrender!” Louis calls breathlessly after a moment’s struggle.

He looks up just as Harry leans back victoriously wearing a smug grin, whispers “Sike!” and launches a full-out, double-handed assault on the popstar’s tummy until the younger boy is begging for mercy.

Louis relents, flopping back onto his back, breathing hard and staring up at the dark, cloudless sky.

“Is it stupid if I admit that I missed you?” Harry says after a moment, so quietly that Louis almost thinks he imagines it.

“Is it stupid if I admit that I missed you too?” he whispers back, breath coming out in little puffs of condensation.

“Five days and we’re lovesick,” Harry teases.

He’s smiling; Louis can tell, and he likes that he can.

“I’m going to write that into your poem,” Louis says, then bites his lip at the slip-up.

“My poem?” Harry asks excitedly, clasping his hands together with poorly concealed delight.

“I wrote about you, yeah,” Louis admits, “Separation anxiety and lonely writers don’t mix well.”

He anticipates the next question before Harry’s lips even part to ask it.

“Can I read it sometime?”

Louis shakes his head slightly, thinking back to the strange intimacy that the lines had captured, the way he’d managed to translate the constant spark flowing between them into vast expanses of ink, filling up page after page of his battered little moleskine. It was too easy, he reminds himself, writing about green eyes and red lips and stupid universes where they coexist, where it’s Christmas all the time. And it terrifies him, how simple it would be to give his heart to someone who’d never return the sentiment, how utterly effortlessly foolish it would be to search for something more in the younger boy’s wide green eyes. Harry will leave him soon, and he knows this; move on to the next pretty thing that catches his eye, someone with long blonde hair and big tits and a demure smile… someone not Louis.

But he’s still too hopelessly attached to the boy next to him to refuse him completely, so he says, instead, “Maybe someday, when it’s finished.”

Harry smiles again; he hates that he can tell.

“I’m sorry about Margaret” is what the popstar says next, and Louis sighs against him, recalling his unpleasant encounter with the Wicked Witch of Public Relations.

“Didn’t think you’d speak to me again, after all that,” Harry continues, his voice small and uncertain, “Like I said, being friends with me is difficult and–”

“Harry, shut up please,” Louis interrupts, rolling his eyes, “Is that woman very likely plotting to murder me in cold blood? Yes, absolutely. In fact, there’s probably a sniper perched on the next roof over.”

Harry hits him playfully, hissing, “Don’t talk like that, Lou!”

“But she didn’t scare me away, did she?” he finishes, meeting Harry’s eyes, “I’m right here, freezing my arse off next to you under a frankly tasteless zebra-print blanket.”

“I told Zayn it was kitschy,” Harry replies, giggling, “but at least it’s warm!”

“The only heat being generated under here is coming from you,” Louis ripostes, “You’re like an actual human furnace, Styles.”

“You’re welcome,” Harry says pleasantly, rubbing his curls against Louis’ cheek and purring loudly.

“Alright Man-Cat,” he snorts, “Let’s get back inside, shall we? I can’t feel my feet.”

He flips the blanket over and leaps up, holding his hand out to help Harry to his feet. Together, they yank the sliding glass door open and return to the living room where most of the couples have either passed out together, gone home, or moved to a vacant bedroom somewhere else in the massive home.

“Looks like it’s winding down,” Harry remarks, grimacing as his bare foot crunches down on a discarded plastic cup.

“Ew, beer foot,” he mutters darkly, frowning, and shaking his soiled foot with an exaggerated pout.

The little toddler-like display of disapproval has Louis giggling once more, steadying himself against the taller boy’s arm.

“Missed you a lot, a lot,” Louis whispers, still surprised at how quickly they’ve fallen back in sync with one another; it’s sort of like they never stopped.

&&

(As if Fate could really keep them apart for long; as if destiny could bear to bar them from finding each other again and again, in every lifetime, every universe, transcending time and space. Each story is different, and yet they remain so very much the same: they’re amoebas, dinosaurs, gladiators, princes, soldiers… a popstar and a poet, perhaps.

They’re the very first binary stars; orbits hopelessly, forever entwined.)

& L &

Louis’ still not sure how the days have passed him by so quickly but they do, somehow, flying by in a blur of crisp oranges and reds fading into muted greys and blues.

Harry stops by the bookshop as often as he can; though, between recording his new album and offering up his input on all sorts of tricky tour logistics, he’s pretty swamped. They end up texting back and forth more often than they see each other, but that’s okay. Harry loves emojis– because he’s a child– and is always ridiculously amused when Louis uses obscure combinations to spell out his own lyrics.

(Louis may or may not spend an entire day accidentally downloading every Harry Styles album– even the really obscure original EP’s and a particularly dreadful single by White Eskimo– and after several days of non-stop listening, finds himself jiggling in his seat as he writes, pen tapping to the beat of some cheesy bit about his ‘Little Things’. He should be embarrassed but he’s not; he’s kind of ridiculously happy, actually.)

Harry’s an absolute menace when he does find time to visit, rearranging stacks by color instead of author and genre because ‘they look prettier that way, Lou’ and sneaking about the ‘Rare Collections Room’ gawking at jeweled, Renaissance-era manuscripts and leaving awful, nose-shaped prints on the glass). He steals Louis’ swivel chair often enough that one day Louis caves and buys him his own, hot pink and gaudy as hell. Harry is predictably thrilled and spends hours rolling back and forth across the hardwood, directing customers to his favorite works as Louis smiles and looks on fondly from his place at his desk, little snippets of Harry’s incessant chatter finding their way into the margins of his second (second!) moleskine.

They get papped together fairly often, whenever they go out for drinks alone or to one of Harry’s mandatory social events that he always drags Louis along to. They survive the hours of posh small-talk and dull elderly presenters by poking fun at absolutely everyone and everything, as well as truly perfecting the art of napkin-and-cutlery sculpting. The media mostly ignores Louis– usually he’s labeled as ‘friend, 22’ or simply ‘Tomlinson’– and, much to his satisfaction, the benevolent ‘Dragon Lady’ Margaret Lancaster apparently doesn’t see the need to contact him again.

&&

He finishes his collection two months before his deadline.

(He also finishes that poem and pretends that it’s still all about his failed relationship with Aiden and not the strange new feelings that set his heart a flutter every time he looks into Harry’s expansive green eyes.)

His publisher is skeptical at first but, when the manuscript comes back from the editing office with only a few comments about organization and not much error anywhere else, she swallows her pride and calls to congratulate him on what is sure to be another critically-acclaimed top seller.

It’s officially published a month later, the first copies hitting stores on the second of December. The public and critics alike laud ‘William Sodi’ for his gorgeous, raw portrayal of love and heartbreak, as they usually do. Louis is pleased, of course, though he still doesn’t feel like himself; feels a bit of fraud, really.

Harry reads the entire collection in a single day, cries sixteen times (he sends a text for every tear), and is wonderfully and endearingly careful to praise ‘Louis Tomlinson’ whenever he mentions one of his favorites.

He lets Harry take him out for a celebration dinner that ends up being a huge surprise party with all of his friends and family. He’s nervous and jumpy until Harry explains that he didn’t tell them why they were celebrating, just that it was important to Louis and that they all should be there (how Harry managed to convince everyone it would be worth it, he doesn’t know, but he smiles and thanks him with a round of shots that leaves the popstar wet-lipped and giggly, and sporting the prettiest red cheeks he’s ever seen). Louis almost kisses him right then and there, in front of everyone, but he’s gotten pretty good at holding himself back what with how often Harry seems to make him feel this way… They’re best mates, he reminds himself, thinking back to that fateful day in Ms. Lancaster’s office.

(They’re contractually obligated to be.)

He introduces Harry to his mum that night.

Predictably, Harry charms the pants off her (though not literally, thank goodness) as he has done with all of Louis’ friends and family, and she lets him twirl her around the dance floor for a while, laughing like she’s suddenly in her twenties again.

She tells Louis later, on the phone, not to let Harry get away; and he pretends not to be sad that he can’t promise her he won’t.

Harry can immediately tell he’s upset when they Skype later in the week, and he forces a grumbly, unwilling Zayn to cover for him as he leaves right in the middle of a recording session in order to speed over to Louis’ flat and comfort him.

They spend that night seated cross-legged on the floor, watching reruns of Made in Chelsea and eating homemade fajitas off of paper plates (because Harry’s actually a pretty decent cook and neglected to mention it until Louis came over once and caught him dancing around his stark white kitchen in a frilly Green Bay Packers apron and little else). They’re surrounded by candles because Harry proclaims it to be ‘much more romantic’ that way– a statement that Louis does his best not to spend too much time dwelling on. Harry, predictably, sets the corner of his plate on fire at one point, and shrieks and flails around the room until Louis snatches the plate from his hand, laughing hysterically, and tosses the flaming disc into the bathroom sink.

(There’s a small orange-colored burn mark on the white porcelain now, but Louis doesn’t mind. In fact, he’s come to appreciate a little imperfection in his life; he puts up with Harry Styles after all.)

&&

Zayn and Liam are disgustingly in love, and Louis and Harry like to mock them for it as often as possible.

They play a little game at get-togethers, keeping careful score of stupid things like eye-contact duration, number of visible love-bites, boner level rated 1-10, 1o being rock-hard, come-in-my-pants with a graze of your hand, etc.

(During one particularly uncomfortable dinner at Liam’s place, Louis leans over and whispers a lame joke about ducks into Harry’s ear and the younger boy laughs so hard that he sends his glass sailing across the table and smack into Zayn’s crotch with incredible accuracy. The dark-haired boy’s cheeks are flushed the color of the red wine spilt down his front as Liam reaches over casually to wipe at his… er… nether regions, napkin in hand.

“Ten,” Louis squeaks, using his own napkin to dab at the tears rolling down his cheeks.

Harry’s face down with his head on the table, mumbling “sorry! sorry! so sorry!” between shrieks of laughter.

It’s probably the best meal Louis’ ever eaten and he doesn’t even taste his food.)

Zayn catches on after a while, smart thing, and starts to counter by pointing out all the ways that the two of them act like a couple without actually being one.

They wait for him to run out of reasons.

He doesn’t.

The game becomes less fun after that.

&&

Harry has to miss his birthday, off doing promo for the new album in Sweden of all places, but Louis doesn’t mind. They Skype for a few hours and Louis opens Harry’s present– a set of six moleskine journals, each one with a different picture of the two of them sewn inside the cover.

He definitely doesn’t cry that much.

&&

He spends Christmas and Boxing Day with his family in Doncaster, and is surprised when he arrives to see extra Christmas presents not from him stacked under the tree.

“Harry sent them a few days ago,” the twins explain in tandem, grinning hugely with a few missing teeth each.

“He’s so lovely, Boo,” his mum says, wiping her eyes. By this time, he’s explained to her that they’re just best mates and nothing more, and though she’s constantly egging him on to do something about that, she’s halfheartedly resigned to the fact that her son is going to end up a lonely old recluse with a flat full of cats. “You’ll find someone even lovelier, darling, I’m sure.”

He doesn’t have the heart to disagree, just lets her and Lottie, the oldest of the four, play with his hair and quiz him on all the attributes of his perfect man.

He only lies a teensy bit, never mind that he answers all the opposites (blonde, short, blue-eyed, instrumentalist instead of singer) until Lottie excitedly suggests that Niall could be ‘the one’ and he falls off the couch laughing ‘til he’s blue in the face.

It’s nice and all, being back with his family, but he misses Harry more than anything (and, in hindsight, that probably should’ve clued him in).

&&

He spends New Year’s Eve at a pub with Niall, Josh, and Ed.

Harry is in New York with some bottle-blonde American model named Erin, watching the ball drop in Times Square with her and all her model friends.

(Apparently the rumors surrounding Harry and Louis’ friendship had slowly shifted to being a little less about friendship, what with Harry not having been seen out with a girl since late September… And so the popstar was immediately and unexpectedly shipped across the Atlantic the night before, all at Ms. Margaret Lancaster’s careful discretion.)

Louis pretends not to be horrendously jealous by drinking his weight in hard liquor, that is, until the bartender cuts him off with a sympathetic shake of his head and a pitying gaze.

Louis doesn’t kiss anyone at midnight, save the cold rim of his mug.

Harry kisses Erin, and it’s plastered all over the front of every magazine the very next morning.

The American media is as thrilled as ever (headlines screaming ‘Unlucky-in-love VS Model Erin Farley finally meets her Perfect Prince!’) and the British rags read much the same, though they’re careful to inject ‘American’ into every appositive just to outrage the UK’s teenage female population even further.

Margaret Lancaster is so thrilled she keeps Harry in New York for an additional three weeks, sending him and Erin on romantic dates all across the city.

Harry sends him a billion texts a day about how much he hates it, and how Erin is loud and obnoxious but not in the good ‘Louis kind of way’.

Louis reads them all but can’t find it in himself to respond with anything but disinterested, one-word replies, and sometimes not at all.

&&

It’s January 21st, a Tuesday, and bitterly cold outside.

Louis knows it’s January 21st because it’s the date that Harry’s set to return.

He can’t keep himself from bouncing around the store, singing loudly and serving every customer with a genuinely cheerful smile. Most of his regulars regard him oddly until he explains that Harry’s finally coming home.

“That’s nice dear,” Ms. Beasley says as she pays, patting his cheek affectionately, “I’m sure your boyfriend will be very happy to see you.”

She’s turning around to snap at her son before he can correct her, with a bird-like squawk of “Henry James, don’t touch that! Those books are expensive.”

Henry is her middle child behind George (the world traveler and book collector) and Tom (a CEO of some company in Japan), but ahead of the three youngest (all boys as well). He’s thirty-seven years old, a banker, and lives in Chelsea with Ms. Beasley (whom he’s in charge of caring for), his gorgeous wife, three lovely children, and an impressive collection of designer suits. However, the batty old woman tends to forget that her own children are grown and financially independent, muttering, “You’ll not get a penny from me when I finally keel over if you continue behaving this way.”

Henry looks up at Louis and rolls his eyes, and Louis can only shrug helplessly in return.

He sighs loudly as the pair exits, shuts the door behind them, and flips over the sign to read ‘We’re Closed’.

Tidying up a bit around the shop, he finds himself getting more and more excited for Harry’s impending return. They’re supposed to go to a massive concert tomorrow night for one of Louis’ favorite bands, Harry having finagled a pair of tickets for the both of them located front row and center.

At nine o’clock, as he’s stocking books in the back store room, the little bell finally jingles and a pair of heavy footsteps clunk across the hardwood.

He sets the stack he’s currently holding haphazardly on the nearest tabletop and dashes out to the main foyer, coming face to face with a tired-looking but still smiling Harry Styles.

“Welcome back, popstar,” he greets softly.

Harry just laughs and launches himself into his arms, burrowing his face into the space between Louis’ shoulder and jaw.

“Missed you,” he says into Louis’ collarbone, “Missed you a lot, a lot.”

“Get off me, you great sap,” Louis grumbles in reply, but makes no move to push Harry off him.

He ignores the way he hasn’t felt right, like a whole person, in the three weeks that the younger boy has been away; and how now, suddenly, he’s full to overflowing.

They order takeaway, dragging pillows out of Louis’ bedroom to place on the floor of the shop. Harry asks Louis a zillion questions about what he’s been up to, how his writing’s going, what customers have stopped in, did they notice Harry missing, etc. as they gorge themselves on cartons of rice and noodles and vegetables in soy sauce.

&&

“Three weeks was a long time,” Harry whispers that night as they lie, snuggled up together, in Louis’ too-small-for-two bed.

Louis stiffens against him at the thought of the ocean-wide gaping hole that had separated them from this… whatever thing they have together. He shuts his eyes tightly and pretends his heart isn’t breaking at the feeling of Harry’s gangly orangutan arms wrapped around him, pretends he’ll be happy going back to sleeping alone the next time Margaret ships Harry off to another continent, or this coming summer for three full months as his lovely little popstar gallivants across Europe in a shiny new tour bus. His schedule will be so much better without Harry around, of course; no more distractions in the shop, no more making excuses to himself to close up early so he can swing by the record label to take Harry out to dinner… No more late nights sat up watching movies together and the indomitable need to reach for his moleskine when he startles awake at two a.m. and just has to capture the way the moonlight caresses the curvature of Harry’s spine… Yes, he’d much rather sleep alone in his own proper bed in his own proper lonely flat than squashed up next to this awful, lumpy excuse for a best mate. Harry snores and his skin is like a furnace and he hogs all the blankets and… and Louis is so, so stupidly in love with him he’s aching with it.

“Shh,” he whispers back eventually, threading his fingers through the popstar’s curls. He’s cut them short and quiffed them since he saw him last, and Louis’ not sure how he feels about Harry’s most famous feature being all styled-up like so. It’s not like he owns Harry’s hair or anything, it’s just… he sort of hates how easily everyone else in the boy’s life can change and mold him as they please.

 “We’ll be alright, won’t we, Hazza?” he asks, looking up at the ceiling.

His chest tightens in anticipation, but a deep, rumbling snore is all he gets in response.

He sighs, running his free hand through his fluffed-up fringe.

“Yeah, ‘course,” he says aloud, answering his own question, “you’ll continue romancing all your lovely blonde birds, tour your way through the UK and the States the year after that, and charm the pants off the masses like you always do, and I’ll…”

He trails off; knowing that lying to himself won’t make the reality of the situation hurt any less in the end. But he’s a proper tortured soul, isn’t he? Just like Liam had told Zayn all those months ago. He’s survived this heartbreak before and he can do it again (never mind that, as crude as it sounds, the pain of losing Harry is like a thousand Aidens all at once).

“And I’ll be just fine without you.”

&&

Harry’s been dating Erin for a solid month by the time his birthday rolls around.

Management suggests he fly out to join her in the States for a posh 21st in a proper American club, but Harry refuses, arguing instead for a large, private party in one of his favorite Chelsea hot-spots.

Louis’ at the bar doing shots with Niall and Ed, giggling at their stupid jokes and trying his best to ignore the way that Erin is halfway into Harry’s lap on one of the couches in the VIP corner.

Louis’ not really sure how to feel about the lithesome bleached-hair model, as this is the first time he’s actually sharing the vicinity with her. Harry only ever mentions her briefly in passing or whenever they’ve got plans together, and even then he’s usually quite vague and non-descriptive.

“Oh, flying out to New York for two days to see Erin’s runway show.”

“Erin’s in town to accompany me to the premiere of that new Hugh Grant movie.”

“Can’t go out tonight, dinner with Erin.”

And so on, and so forth.

He’s never felt anything past vague antagonism toward the girl (she is dating his best mate who he’s just realized he’s in love with after all), except for maybe on Harry’s second night back when he apparently “forgot” about the ticket he bought being for Louis and took Erin to The Fray concert instead.

Louis didn’t speak to him for three days after that, and even then he was more furious with Harry than with the clueless blonde who’d texted him an x’s and o’s filled apology from Harry’s phone as soon as she’d found out the reason behind the popstar’s moping.

Zayn and Liam had been forced to intervene on behalf of their respective parties in order to preserve the damaged group dynamic, resorting to locking the two of them alone in a room together until they’d both shouted their particular grievances at each other enough to finally reconcile.

“You look miserable, mate,” Niall comments perceptively, giving him a weighty look despite already being three pints and who knows how many shots into his night, bloody Irishman.

“Don’t think you’ve said a word to Harry since you got here,” Ed observes, looking over to where Louis’ gaze remains fixed on the popstar and his leading lady, “It is his birthday, you know.”

“Yeah thanks, I’m aware,” Louis replies icily, “He seems to be enjoying it well enough without me.”

“All me ‘n Ed are trying to say is… it’s just not like you two, bein’ apart like this,” Niall states simply, taking another long pull of his pint.

“Yeah,” Ed agrees, “S’proper weird when you aren’t hanging off each other like, I dunno, koalas or summat.”

Niall laughs brightly, “Oi, good one, Sheerio! I love a good koala joke.”

They high-five, and Louis groans, muttering, “I’m not drunk enough for this.”

He continues moping at the bar while Niall and Ed head off to find Josh amongst the crowd, Harry having asked the band to play a short set for his birthday.

Harry gets up a few minutes later– Erin clinging to his side and smiling brightly in a slinky silver body-con dress– and slurs something loud and intelligible into the microphone. The crowd of partygoers cheers deafeningly, and the lights turn to shine down on the main stage where the band has set up.

Niall shouts something equally as loud, following his announcement with a screaming guitar riff, and suddenly everyone and their mum is flooding the dance floor, bouncing around and fist-pumping to some upbeat hit by The CAB.

Louis sighs and motions to the bartender for another pint.

He’s sipping what should probably (but won’t) be his last beer when a silver blur enters his periphery.

“Hi,” a very American voice greets, shouting to be heard over the loud music.

He looks up and comes face to face with the girlfriend herself, looking admittedly radiant in silver, her bright blue eyes glimmering and long blonde hair cascading down her back in loose curls.

“Do you think we could chat outside for a bit?” Erin asks, and she sounds so hopeful and sincere that Louis just sighs and nods, holding up a finger for her to wait as he quickly downs the rest of his pint. She takes that moment to order a terrifying-looking electric blue shot, tipping it back like a pro and grimacing at the bitter taste. Louis nods again once he’s ready and hops off his barstool to follow her through the crowd and out a side door.

“Hi,” the model says again once they’re outside and alone. She’s dressed only in her strapless dress and heels and Louis moves quickly to offer her his jacket. (He may not be totally thrilled with the prospect of her existence, but let no one claim Louis Tomlinson is anything but a gentleman.)

“Thanks,” Erin replies, grinning, and she’s got a gap in her teeth that makes her look a lot younger than eighteen, and shit, that only serves to remind him of just how young she really is.

“Fucking cold out here, Jesus Christ,” she swears, shivering as the wind blows hard down the alleyway they’re standing in.

Louis raises one eyebrow, appraising, because just yesterday E!News had run a special on the couple (Herin, disgusting) with nothing but niceties to say about the young model’s sweet All-American girl reputation…

Erin flips him a middle finger.

“Hey, quit it with all your silent judgmental shit, alright?” she says, laughing, “I know you hate my guts.”

Louis opens his mouth to protest weakly, but she holds up her hand and cuts him off.

“Don’t argue with me, babe,” Erin starts, still smiling, and Louis has definitely missed something here.

“Alright, let’s move past all this posturing,” she continues, bouncing a bit in a vain effort at generating body heat, “First of all, how long have you been in love with Harry; and secondly, and most importantly, why haven’t you done jack shit about it?”

Louis’ jaw is hanging down to the floor as he gapes at the grinning teenage model staring back at him expectantly.

“B-but, you’re… you’re Harry’s girlfriend,” he splutters intelligently.

Erin just laughs again, blonde hair flipping over her shaking shoulders. She holds up a finger, signaling him to wait, as she reaches into her cleavage and pulls out a pack of cigarettes.

“Got a light?” she asks him.

Louis just stares at her blankly, and she rolls her eyes, ducking inside and returning a moment later holding a plastic lighter pinched between her jeweled, flawlessly manicured fingertips.

She places the cigarette between her teeth, holds a flame to the tip, and blows out a perfect smoke ring with a relieved sigh.

“Sweetie, I’m not Harry’s girlfriend,” she says after a moment, tossing the butt on the ground and stamping it out with one perfectly aimed stiletto point, “I’m his beard.”

Louis feels like he might pass out as his brain struggles to process this sudden influx of information.

“You’re his beard?” he asks, a little hysterically.

The model nods.

“And Harry’s–”

“Gay as the Fourth of July?” Erin supplies.

Louis just nods, dazedly.

 “Yup,” she confirms, popping the ‘p’ with a smack of her pink-stained lips.

“Well, maybe,” she continues thoughtfully, “Actually, I’m not totally one-hundred percent on that. All I know is that he sure as hell wasn’t interested in me.”

Louis’ pretty sure this is what a heart attack feels like. “Why are you telling me this now?”

Erin sighs, reaches back into her dress to pull out another cigarette.

“Because I’m tired of coming between the two of you,” she explains, cigarette between her teeth, “You’re both so god damn miserable whenever you’re apart, it actually makes me want to vomit. Plus, it’s not like I’m benefiting much from this deal anyway. I’m a Victoria’s Secret Angel, for fuck’s sake, I don’t need the publicity.”

Louis just continues gaping at her stupidly.

“Go get your man and what not,” Erin urges in a bored voice, rolling her eyes yet again and tossing her last cig into the dumpster behind her.

“Wait, where are you going?” Louis calls, as she starts down the alleyway toward the street.

“Home!” she yells back, “Shit, it feels good to say that.”

Louis runs down the alleyway to catch up with her, grabbing the model’s thin but muscular arm just as a cab pulls up to the curb.

“Wait,” he says, breathing hard, “what about this whole deal?”

“Oh,” she replies flippantly, tugging open the cab door, “I’m going to phone my agent tonight and have her call up that demon of woman, Merriam Lobster or whatever the fuck her name is, and deny the contract renewal that’s supposed to happen tomorrow.”

Louis nods, trying to keep up, as the blonde tornado of girl hops into the cab and shuts the door. Just as he’s turning around to start walking back toward the club, he hears her voice calling out to him one last time. He whirls back toward the street and laughs at the image of the teenager popped out of the sunroof, both arms thrown joyously into the air.

“Tell my boyfriend happy month-a-versary!” she shouts gleefully and disappears back down into the car with a loud whoop.

Louis chuckles, waving as the taxi merges into traffic and disappears around the corner.

He swipes a hand through his fringe, sinking down to sit on the curb and try to process all that has just transpired in the five minutes since he first ventured outside with his best mate’s apparent not-girlfriend.

“Tommo, there you are!” a familiar voice calls not a moment later, and he looks up to see Niall peering down at him with a wild grin.

“What the fuck are you doing out here without a coat on?” Niall asks, looking at his bare arms disapprovingly, “You’ll freeze to death in this weather, startin’ to snow and everything.”

Louis glances up at the sky which has indeed clouded over and begun to produce little white flakes of precipitation. It’s then that he realizes.

“That little bitch stole my jacket,” he shouts at Niall, pointing back to the now-empty street corner.

“Whoa, slow down there,” Niall cautions, holding out his hands to steady him, “You’re even more pissed than I thought, mate.”

“No, I’m not, I’m not,” Louis protests, struggling against him, “Erin was just here and she smoked a couple cigarettes out of her boobs and then got in a cab and yelled out the sunroof! And she took my jacket!”

“Yes, sure, I believe you,” Niall interrupts, guiding him back toward the club, “Now, hurry up, or we’ll miss Zayn’s set.”

“Zayn’s performing?” Louis asks, surprised.

“Yeah, ‘course,” Niall says, like it’s obvious, “and Liam too.”

Louis’ eyes nearly pop right out of his skull. “You’re shitting me.”

Niall just cackles, nodding at the bouncer and dragging him back inside. They push their way through the crowd until they’re nearly at the front of the stage, and if Louis wasn’t feeling overwhelmed by the night already, he’s certainly not prepared for the vision before him.

It’s completely pitch black in the club now, the only light coming from two spotlights shining down to illuminate a pair of black barstools sitting onstage. Occupying one of those barstools is Zayn Malik, wearing the tightest black jeans Louis’ ever seen (aside from the ones Harry occasionally whips out) and a loose black tank-top with a neckline so low that it dips down well past the dark-haired boy’s collarbones, his nipples visible on either side of the thinly stretched fabric. Louis swallows at the sight, as he’s sure the rest of the crowd has already done, and turns his attention to the second stool where his best mate or, at least, a man resembling his best mate is adjusting the microphone stand in front of him.

In layman’s terms, Liam looks fucking hot. He’s dressed in a tight black t-shirt, biceps bulging, and a pair of looser black jeans that, despite a studded leather belt, are riding dangerously low on his hips. A green and black snapback is twisted backwards on his head, making his jawline appear even more angular and masculine. Louis’ used to seeing the teacher in the school-regulation blue polo, khakis, and maybe a blazer on colder days, but this Liam has apparently moved far past his belief that wearing a tie with stripes instead of a solid color signifies a ‘wild fashion choice’.

Before Louis can ask Niall what the hell is going on, Zayn is silencing the crowd with a wave of his hand, and speaking into the mic in front of him, low and sensual.

“I’m Zayn and this is Liam,” he says slowly, introducing their act, “and this is a remix of Drake’s ‘Trust Issues’.”

The crowd is completely silent as the music starts up, a few bars of a slow electronic melody and then another quiet rest. Louis feels his heart beat once loudly in his ears before the bass drops and then Zayn’s opening his mouth and producing an angelic falsetto that has the club’s female population going absolutely mental. Louis’ entire body is covered in goosebumps and his mouth is hanging open as Liam takes over a moment later, hopping off his stool and bending down, tracing the mic stand all the way back up with his pelvis… much to the excitement of every woman in the room (and probably most of the men too). Zayn sidles up next to him as they harmonize, and the two boys begin to grind up against each other, hips rolling sensually to the beat.

Niall is cheering loudly beside him, but Louis absolutely refuses to believe that he’s watching two of his best mates reenact a particularly x-rated gay porno onstage in front of two hundred people.

He pushes his way back through the crowd, stumbling a bit as all the alcohol he’s consumed begins to fully take its effect. Just as he’s nearing the bar, he feels a hand grip his shoulder and a body pressed flush against his backside.

“Hey,” a recognizable voice breathes into his ear, and he can’t help the way his entire body seems to shudder at the sudden contact.

“I’m really fucking drunk,” Harry says, and then he’s spinning Louis around and guiding him back toward the dance floor, “and I haven’t seen you all night.”

“You were with Erin,” Louis explains, a little breathlessly, heart pounding at the feeling of the taller boy’s hands gripping tightly on his hips, “Didn’t… want to… bother you.”

“She broke up with me,” Harry says casually, not sounding even a little bit upset about this recent development, “Over text too, how heartless.”

“She told me, you know,” Louis replies, craning his neck up to meet the popstar’s eyes, “about what she really was to you.”

Harry raises an eyebrow, but chooses not to comment. Instead, he leans back down, lips against the outer shell of Louis’ ear, and asks softly, voice deep and words slightly slurred, “Dance with me?”

Louis can’t help the way he shifts his hips back against Harry obligingly.

“We’re mates, right?” he asks, pressing back and rolling his body against the younger boy, slight and teasing.

“Yeah,” Harry breathes out.

“Okay,” Louis replies, and it doesn’t matter in this moment that Harry’s not in love with him; it doesn’t matter that he kept a fake girlfriend for a month without telling Louis a damn thing; and it especially doesn’t matter that every touch they exchange from this point on will mean a thousand times more to Louis than it ever will to the boy behind him.

The crowd is screaming louder as the scene onstage has started to intensify.

“We don’t have to keep runnin’ in these circles no more,” Zayn sings.

“No mooore,” Liam echoes, hands fisting into the dark-haired boy’s tank top.

They follow with a series of incredibly sensual vocal runs, echoing each other with dark, hungry looks.

Trust issues.

Trust issues.

The music fades as the audience roars in approval, and Liam and Zayn hop off the stage and slink away, probably off to some secluded corner to blow each other’s brains out.

So Louis’ drunk and he doesn’t give a shit and Harry doesn’t have a model girlfriend anymore to prevent him from grinding back against the popstar fully now, shouting “Fuck it” as Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” blasts through the club, the pounding bass as intoxicating as the alcohol flowing through his veins.

Why can't I keep my fingers off you, baby?
I want you

They’re all over each other for three more songs, before he becomes too impatient to withstand the sexual tension any longer. He grabs Harry’s hand and tugs him toward the bathroom, slamming open a stall door and locking it behind them. Harry’s looking down at him, pupils dilated and dark with arousal, and Louis’ so damn tired of suppressing his feelings that he’s on his toes in an instant and tilting his chin up to press his lips to Harry’s own. The popstar startles momentarily, lips unmoving, and Louis worries for a moment that Harry’s not drunk enough to want this as much as he does right now. But then Harry’s moaning hungrily and surging back to meet him halfway, clumsily licking his way into Louis’ mouth with renewed vigor.

Drunk in love
We be all night, love, love

“God fucking shit dammit,” Louis swears, as Harry’s hand snakes between them, brushing against his hardening length.

“Wanted this for… for sooo long, Lou,” Harry slurs, “Couldn’t tell you, didn’t think you…”

“Shh,” Louis says, silencing him, because he’s really really not concerned with the specifics right now, especially with Harry’s hand still pressed between them.

“I was‒” Louis says breathlessly, voice catching in his throat as Harry drops to his knees in front of him (and this is new, this is… fuck), “‒very much under the impression that you–” he braces himself against the wall, biting his lip to hold back what would surely have been an embarrassingly loud moan at the feeling of Harry’s stupidly massive hands palming his cock through his jeans.

“What’s that?” Harry says, voice slightly rougher than usual, but still frustratingly composed. Louis’ zipper now undone, the popstar leans forward to mouth hungrily at Louis’ cock through his underwear, leaving a large wet circle across the front of his briefs. Louis momentarily loses all proper brain function at the thought of only that thin bit of fabric separating Harry’s sinful mouth from where it ought to be. He’s still in a stupor when Harry leans back onto his heels, using his thumbs to rub teasing circles just under the waistband.

“Lou?” he says innocently, smirking up at him through dark lashes (the smug bastard). “You were saying something?”

Louis takes a deep breath; Harry’s teasing ministrations returning in full force the moment he begins to speak. “I was saying– fucking hell, Harry– I was very much under the impression that you– goddammit, stop that and let me talk, but wait, don’t actually‒ I just, I thought you liked women?”

Harry shrugs, pulling Louis’ briefs down to his knees, his already embarrassingly hard cock springing free and tapping against the younger lad’s cheek. Louis grimaces at the sight of the swollen head– angry purple-red and oozing precome–because, seriously, since when has the thought of a simple blowjob transported him back to his virginal teenage years?

“I do,” Harry says, eyeing the erection in front of him appreciatively, and it takes Louis a moment too long to realize he’s agreeing with his previous assumption, “I just happen to like this a lot more.”

And with that, Louis’ prick is engulfed in a glorious wet heat that has his knees buckling and stars clouding his vision. His head spins at the sensation of those soft pillowy lips migrating up and down his length in a deliciously irregular rhythm (and of course, Harry Styles master of dance, would give frustratingly fantastic blowjobs set to a drumbeat played by a two-year old with a pot and a wooden spoon). Granted, Louis’ still at least ninety-nine percent sure he’s dreaming as his hands snake their way into the popstar’s thick curls, which aren’t quiffed this evening but loose and tangled. He gives them an experimental tug, earning an appreciative hum from deep in the younger boy’s throat, and finds himself almost coming right then and there at the feeling of the sudden, pleased vibrations.

“Harder,” Harry mumbles, pulling off for a moment to look up pleadingly, his voice deep and hoarse.

It’s entirely possible that Louis has never been more willing to oblige a request in his life as he threads his fingers through the shorter curls closest to Harry’s scalp and pulls.

Harry moans again and doubles his enthusiasm, his hollowed cheeks painted a pretty red.

“We’re in a dirty loo in a dirty club and we’re both piss drunk and our friends are outside,” Louis pants, “This is very, very wrong.”

Harry raises an eyebrow, sits up a bit to fondle Louis’ balls with his free hand, and slurs “I’m ninety-nine percent sure your argument is weaker than your stamina is” without taking his lips off the head. Louis glares down at him, ready to argue that point as well, but then the younger boy does something magical with his tongue that has Louis coming down his throat in seconds and shit if that isn’t embarrassing… He feels his cheeks flame red more from shame than from the force of his orgasm, though the latter was unfairly mind-blowing.

“You cheated,” he says, pouting as he pulls his pants up and fastens them with clumsy, shaking hands.

He pretends it’s all the alcohol he’s consumed that affecting his coordination, and not the fact that his painfully attractive, apparently not-so-straight best mate just sucked him off.

“Did not,” Harry replies, voice hoarse and eyelashes dewy.

“You’ve obviously been practicing,” Louis argues, leaning forward on his tiptoes to press his lips against the popstar’s jawline. “It’s all the bananas you eat,” he mouths against the skin, grinning triumphantly as Harry shudders against him, “diminishes your gag reflex.”

“Shut up,” Harry replies, a bit breathlessly, “Just admit that my blowjobs are the best.”

“Never,” Louis refuses, as he rocks back onto the balls of his feet to nip at Harry’s collarbone.

“C’mon say it, Lou,” the younger boy whines, squirming against him, “I’m the dick-sucking king.”

“I couldn’t possibly give away my title,” Louis replies, reaching down to palm at Harry’s erection pressed attentively between them, “maybe you can be the queen, hmm?”

Harry opens his mouth to protest, but he’s interrupted by the door to the toilets squeaking open and a familiar voice echoing through the stalls.

 “Listen, I love that you’ve finally stopped ignoring your mutual attraction for one another, really, but the rest of us are leaving in five,” Zayn says, clearly aware of the reason for their dual disappearance, “If you’ve got‒ erm‒ any business to finish attending to, you’ll have to get your own ride home. Okay, yeah, um be safe and, and enjoy then… and uh… Happy birthday, Haz.”

“We’ll catch a cab, thanks!” Harry calls out in reply, voice cracking from his roughed-up throat.

Louis looks at the boy in front of him, panting softly with reddened cheeks and dilated pupils, and makes a very mean decision.

“Actually, I believe we’re finished here,” he says, briefly squeezing the popstar’s hard on through his jeans and ignoring the gaping look of disbelief he receives in return.

“Payback sweetheart,” he whispers with a wink and swings open the stall door to see Zayn standing by the sinks, clearly uncomfortable.

“You sure I’m not interrupting anything?” the dark-haired boy asks, taking in Louis’ rumpled clothing and Harry squirming impatiently behind him.

“Nope,” Louis replies definitively, throwing another wink in Harry’s direction, “Just crowning myself King is all.”

Harry, though he looks about five seconds away from coming in his pants, is giggling uncontrollably and slapping Louis on the back, which of course sends Louis into hysterics as well because, c’mon, after three beers and ten of Niall’s ‘patented’ jello shots everything is hilarious.

“You guys are really fucking drunk,” Zayn comments, rolling his eyes.

“S’my birthday!” Harry replies, and he and Louis both cheer loudly.

The dark-haired boy wrinkles his nose as Louis grabs Harry’s hand and helps lead the stumbling, silly excuse for a popstar out of the bathroom.  They manage to find their way back to the VIP corner (where the rest of the group has collected) with only several minor incidents of probably-bruised knees on misplaced chairs and knocking drinks out of people’s hands. When they arrive, the rest of the group– Niall, Pink Hair from the Halloween party, er, Perrie, Louis corrects, and Josh and Liam– are already collecting their things, packing up bags and slipping on winter coats to fight the freezing February weather.

“Jesus fuck,” Niall exclaims, the first to lay eyes on the pair, “you lot literally look and smell like you’ve just emerged from ten years of pickling yourself in tequila and semen.”

His tone is equal parts disgusted and impressed, and Louis doesn’t know which one he finds more disturbing.

“Hate that word,” Liam comments, exchanging his snapback for the woolen beanie that Zayn offers him.

 “Semen,” he repeats, grimacing, “Just awful.”

“I- I drank ten years of semen, I think,” Harry says proudly, and Zayn is covering his face with his hands and groaning.

Perrie’s got one hot pink manicured-hand over her mouth as she fights a giggle, and Liam just looks embarrassed (like he didn’t just spend a solid fifteen minutes having clothed sex with Zayn onstage in front of a crowd of two hundred).

“I hope you wake up in the morning with hangovers so massive that you agree to murder each other simultaneously to escape the pain,” Zayn mutters darkly, running a hand through his polished quiff.

“That’s lovely, Z,” Harry says, clasping him on the back and guiding him toward the exit, “Shall we?”

“Yes, shall we?” Louis echoes, hooking his elbow with Zayn’s, opposite the side Harry’s already latched onto.

“I don’t particularly want to go anywhere with you two,” Zayn grouses, but allows himself to be guided through the doors without putting up a fight.

Josh, being the designated driver for the night, offers to drop off Niall and Perrie. Zayn hails a cab for him and Liam, and a second one for Louis and Harry, giving the cabbie the address to Harry’s house.

The last thing Louis remembers is being collapsed on top of the younger boy in the backseat, singing along loudly and obnoxiously to that new Ke$ha song.

“Best birthday ever!” Harry yells at one point, rolling down the window to announce his joy to the late night London crowd.

Even through his drunken haze, Louis can’t help but agree– thoughts flickering back to Harry’s lips wrapped around him as he cried out in release– that it was a night very, very well spent, indeed.

&&

Louis wakes up the next morning with a groan, head pounding and stomach churning. He flounders a bit when he realizes that the bed he’s in is not his own.

Everything’s white, from the sheets to the comforter to the pillow behind him.

Harry’s house, then.

It all comes flooding back to him in an instant: laughing blonde models, flashes of silver and cigarette smoke; Zayn and Liam harmonizing, bodies intertwined; and finally, Harry on his knees, hollowed cheeks, red lips, green eyes…

“Harry?” he calls, sitting up quickly and almost passing out at the immediate vertigo, “Hazza, where are you?”

The bedroom door swings open not a minute later and in walks the popstar himself, wearing his frilly Packers apron over a plain t-shirt and boxers and carrying two steaming plates of bacon, fried egg, and toast.

“Morning!” he greets, grinning widely, and Louis can only wave weakly in reply.

Harry climbs into bed next to him and hands him a plate and a fork which he accepts gratefully, inhaling the delicious smell of butter and grease.

“I was going to make tea as well,” Harry remarks regretfully, and then gestures to the expanse of white comforter surrounding them, “but that seemed a bit risky, considering.”

Louis nods, and shoves a large forkful of fried egg into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully.

“How… how was your party, then?” he ventures after a moment, still not sure if they’re avoiding a discussion of last night’s proceedings or if Harry just doesn’t feel like they need one.

The younger boy laughs brightly, running a hand through his matted curls.

“God, I wish I could remember it,” he says, blushing slightly, “though it seems to have been a good time based on the texts I’ve been receiving all morning.”

Louis looks at him blankly. “You don’t recall anything, like, at all?” he asks, skeptically.

“Well, I remember arriving at the club obviously,” Harry extrapolates between bites of bacon, “The rest of it’s all dream-like and blurry, though, and I’m not really sure what’s real and what wasn’t.”

“I get a lot of blackouts,” he admits, looking a bit ashamed, “Mixing my drinks usually doesn’t end well for me.”

“What do you remember, then?” Louis asks shortly, hoping for all the world that Harry’s not pulling one of those ‘did it, regret it, pretend it never happened’ sort of things.

“I do recall getting a bit, er… handsy with you on the dance floor?” Harry replies carefully, cheeks immediately turning bright red, “I’m really really sorry about that, by the way. I get way too touchy-feely with people whenever vodka’s involved.”

Louis sighs and bites his lip, knowing Harry well enough to recognize his embarrassment over that memory as being completely genuine. There’s no way that the popstar could be lying to him at this point, what with Harry being the absolutely shit liar that he is.

“I did get a bit frisky with someone, though,” Harry says proudly, pulling down his t-shirt to reveal a large purple love-bite in the hollow between his neck and collarbone. He’s smiling widely, all teeth and dimples, and Louis can do nothing but stare at his mark on the popstar’s chest and feel his heart break all over again.

“Wasn’t Erin, though,” Harry continues, frowning, “She broke up with me and left early, apparently. I just reread the text this morning.”

“I saw her leave last night, yeah,” Louis affirms, chest tightening at the half-truth.

He’s heard somewhere that sometimes people can be triggered by the mention of an event and suddenly remember it with astounding clarity. The word ‘loo’ hangs on the tip of his tongue like an Unforgivable Curse, but he swallows it down.

(Like he always does with Harry, like he’s done for months now; swallow it down, don’t say the words, don’t touch, don’t feel.)

But Harry is red lips and green eyes and Christmas all the time; and now that Louis has had a taste of all that he’s been missing, he’s suddenly become more selfish than ever before.

“Harry, I think I need to go,” he says, pushing his plate away, appetite gone, “I can’t… I can’t be here with you right now.”

Harry just stares back at him, confused and a little hurt.

“Louis, what are you talking about?”

“You don’t remember and I can’t forget,” he replies, scrubbing at his eyes and the tears threatening to form there, “I can’t forget, Harry. Don’t you get it? I can’t just be around you all the time and, and pretend like I’m not–”

He cuts himself off, climbing out of the bed and looking wildly around the room.

“Like you’re not what?” Harry asks quietly, sounding so, so painfully young and Louis can’t look at him. He just can’t.

“God fucking dammit, where are my shoes?” Louis shouts suddenly, verging on hysteria.

“By the front door,” Harry replies, in a voice so small it’s almost inaudible, “but Lou, I don’t understand. Where are you going?”

“Away from you,” Louis replies icily.

It’s so fucking cruel, and he knows it, but he can’t… he can’t leave any tiny shred of the bond intact between them or he won’t be able to leave, won’t be able to walk out this door right now, to tear himself away from the godforsaken boy in front of him, sitting amongst white down and pillows like an angel, so innocent and beautiful… He’d stay by Harry’s side forever, a stupid fucking masochist, wanting and wanting for all of eternity, dying and being reborn just to want again.

It’s like Harry is fire, brilliant and bright, and Louis is cold, he’s so fucking cold, and they exist together and they exist apart but they can never exist as one.

Because that’s the way things are in this world, Louis knows this: one thing orbits another, like the planets orbit the sun, and only time and weakness can sever the bond between them.

And so he tries, with his words– his only real weapon– to damage it the best he can.

Away from you.

So Harry is a star and Louis lives on a planet alone, staring at the brilliant glow in the distance day after day, ‘round and ‘round. The attraction keeps him and his planet bound to their orbit, close enough to watch Harry shine yet too far to cross the airless vacuum of space between them.

And so the existence of gravity is nothing more than a curse; Louis can no sooner escape Harry than become a part of him. And there are other planets nearer to his own, eagerly moving closer and closer in hopes that he will join them instead, but he doesn’t want a planet, so easily conquered, so easily destroyed. He wants a star, he wants Harry, and he knows that as long as that far-off light remains in view, that’s all he’ll ever want.

And so he is trapped, in the same way that the moon is trapped, for it does not want the earth that lies beneath it and above it and in all places, and still it cannot have the sun.

That’s the way things are in this world, Louis knows this: everything separated into two categories- what he has and what he will never have- and they do not mix, they do not change.

It doesn’t take a lot of guesswork to determine which category Harry Styles falls into because Louis knew, from the very moment he met him, that Harry was something that he would never call his own. And it’s funny because Louis was so clever in that regard, but so foolish in the fact that he chose to stay, and to come back, to accept Harry into his life again and again knowing he would someday break his heart.

And he thinks back to Niall’s warning all those months ago:

I can tell you right now that you will be. I can tell you right now.

Starry-eyed and moony, you fall so easily.

Louis can’t help it; he starts to cry.

“Louis, please,” Harry says, and his voice is breaking, “I don’t understand! Did something happen at my party? Was it because I danced with you? Because I told you, I’m so so sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”

Louis just lets out a laugh, bitter and aggrieved.

“I never meant to ruin our friendship, whatever I did. Talk to me,” Harry begs, and he’s got tears rolling down his cheeks now too, “God, Lou. You’re… you’re my best mate. I’ve known Zayn for five years and that, that doesn’t even compare to what we have. Are you listening to me, Louis? You’re my best mate and I love you so much, I don’t want to–”

“Shut up!” Louis screams, Harry’s ‘I love you’ ricocheting around his brain, replaying over and over and over again.

Then softer, “Just shut up, alright? None of this is your fault. Don’t… don’t blame yourself for things you can’t control. I just can’t be friends with you right now, Harry. I just can’t, okay? Not when I–”

Louis stops, not willing to let himself say any more than he needs to.

He forces himself to take a step, and then another, ignoring the way that Harry keeps whimpering his name, soft and pleading.

Louis. Louis. Louis.

He walks out of the room, down the stairs, out the door… Holds up a hand and hails a cab.

“Louis,” Harry says, and he can feel the younger boy right behind him, standing brokenly on the sidewalk.

“Harry,” he replies so coldly that he barely recognizes his own voice, “Go back inside.”

&&

And it’s not like the movies.

There is no happy ending, no swelling cinematic score.

There are no declarations of love, no passionate endless kiss.

It’s not even fucking raining.

Instead, there’s the sound of footsteps on the pavement and a door slamming shut.

There’s Louis getting in the cab and biting his bottom lip to keep from sobbing harder.

There’s a question: “Where to?”

And a reply: “Airport, but I need to grab a few things from my flat first.”

And that’s that.

That’s the end.

That’s life–Louis’ life, at least– falling in love and fucking it up, over and over and over again.

William Sodi will be thrilled, he thinks, as the cab pulls away from the white house in Kensington for the very last time, all this new material to write about.

They pull up in front of the shop ten minutes later, the ride quick and smooth with no traffic so early in the morning.

He’s in and out in five, stuffing a duffel bag with some clothes and toiletries and grabbing his passport from the lock-box underneath the register.

He shuts the door and climbs back in the cab, feeling numb and hopeless and broken.

But, at least he’s alone.

&&

For Louis it’s finality, but for Fate it’s just a minor bump in the road.

Chapter Text

Put an ocean and a river
Between everything, yourself, and home

You must be somewhere in London
You must be loving your life in the rain

& L &

Louis is sitting in his hotel room watching some French movie with the subtitles on when the phone rings beside his bed.

“Louis William Tomlinson, where the fuck are you?” Niall is yelling, and Louis winces, holding the receiver farther away from his ear.

Cassis, near Marseille,” he replies, “I, uh, decided to take a little impromptu vacation.”

“Are you fucking shitting me right now, Lou?” the Irishman screams, “You can’t just abandon everyone and everything to fuck off to the south of France without a word, you fucking cunt!”

“Listen, Niall, I–”

“I don’t fucking care what your reasoning behind all this was,” Niall interrupts, voice growing in volume and intensity, “I just want to know why you’re in a foreign country with your mobile turned off, checked into some fancy hotel under William fucking Sodi like I don’t know that that’s your pseudonym when you’ve got first editions of all your collections hidden under your fucking bed. WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?”

“If you’d just let me explain, I can–”

“No, you don’t get a chance to explain, you fucking inconsiderate twat,” Niall continues, “Do you know what kind of shit I’ve had to pull to figure out where you were? Tracking cell phone cards, checking bank statements, filing a god damn missing persons’report!!! Your mum is worried sick about you, Liam hasn’t been to classes in a week, and Zayn risked his fucking job for you at the record label impersonating Simon Cowell, the fucking president of the record label, to get us more information. You cannot even begin to comprehend the shit storm you’ve caused back home BY BEING A FUCKING IDIOT!”

There’s a long pause, Niall’s heavy breathing the only sound.

“I’ll turn my mobile back on,” Louis says eventually, “but I’m coming back on my own terms.”

He slams the phone back down on the receiver with a loud ‘fuck’ and runs both of his hands through his hair. He leans over the edge of the bed, fishing around beneath it before locating his discarded mobile. The hotel room, though a large luxurious suite, suddenly has him feeling trapped and claustrophobic, so he powers on his phone, shoves it in his pocket, and heads out the door.

&&

A short walk later and he’s seated on the pebbly sand of ‘la plage de la grande mer’, gazing out at a slice of the wide blue Mediterranean Sea.

He’d originally booked a flight to Paris but, feeling lost and overwhelmed upon his arrival, purchased a train ticket and headed south to the Côte d'Azur. From there he made his way west, away from the lovely but touristy Cannes and the more populated French Riviera, having heard from a passing American tourist that the ‘calanques’ near Marseille were a must-see.

It’s February, low-season, so the beach is empty except for him and a few fishermen anchoring their boats farther down along the harbor. The sea is choppy and rough, the seasonal winds blowing in from the south, and the horizon is a blurry line of muted greys and blues.

He calls his mum, ignoring the international rates that he’ll be paying for later.

She answers on the second ring with a panicked, “Louis William, where are you?”

“Hi mum,” he replies, sheepishly, “I’m in France?”

There’s a long pause before she launches into a fifteen-minute lecture about how irresponsible he’s been and, like Niall, doesn’t give him a chance to get a word in edgewise.

“Come home, Lou,” she pleads, after she’s finally finished yelling at him, “Home home, to Doncaster.You don’t have to leave the country to avoid whatever happened in London, love, and the girls would love to see you.”

“Yeah, maybe,” he replies, running a hand through his hair.

An inland breeze blows past, filling his mouth with the taste of salt and sea. It doesn’t feel like home. He wishes instead for cherries and green apples, and maybe another chance at Christmas, but he can’t have any of those things either.

“And Louis?”

“Yes, mum?”

“Next time you decide to vacation in France with all that money you have, do at least have the decency to take your mother with you.”

He laughs, though it comes out more bitter and strained than he’d intended it to.

“Love you, boo,” she says, hanging up.

And so he’s left on a French beach, alone, with a lot of decisions to make.

&&

He takes a train back to London in the end (it’s only a two hour journey once he gets back to Paris, and cheaper than another flight).

He spends the train ride seated next to an elderly Parisian woman who speaks very little English but prattles on about ‘ma fifille, ma fifille’ to him for the entirety of the journey, showing him pictures of a little girl who he assumes is her grandchild.

“Oh, ma petite bichette,” she coos.

He nods along politely and occasionally offers up a soft “oh, oui” whenever she says something with particular fervor.

“L’amour est difficile, mon cher. Ne sois pas triste," she remarks at one point, patting his cheek affectionately, “Lutte!”

Louis’ French is pretty rusty (having not taken it since secondary) but he thinks he gets the gist of what she’s just observed about him.

Lutte!

Lutte!

Fight!

&&

He intends on taking the cab from the airport back to his shop, but he inexplicably ends up on Harry’s doorstep instead.

His bitter, hangover-induced words sound horrible to him as he replays them over and over in his mind. Thirteen days alone on the French Riviera have only served to make him want his best mate back, in any capacity. However, he’s not expecting much as he climbs up the three cement stairs and stands before the familiar door. The masochistic part of him kind of hopes Harry punches him square in the jaw; it might make Louis deservedly feel even more like the dick he is.

It takes him a solid fifteen minutes to work up the nerve to ring the bell.

Once he does, he nearly passes out from anxiety until Harry opens the door, takes one look at him, and promptly slams it shut in his face.

He doesn’t stop knocking until Harry opens the door again with a loud sigh and motions him inside.

“Do the others know you’re back?” is the first thing he asks him.

“They… they know I’m in London again, yeah,” Louis replies, shifting his weight from foot to foot.

“Good.”

There’s a long pause.

“What the fuck do you want, Lou?” the younger boy asks tiredly, as they continue to stand awkwardly in the entryway together.

“I’m an idiot,” he blurts, by means of an apology.

Harry raises an eyebrow as if to say ‘Go on?’

Louis sighs, running a hand through his fringe, “You gave me a blowjob at your party, but you didn’t remember doing it, and I… freaked out a little.”

“You fled to France for two weeks,” Harry deadpans.

“I may have overreacted,” Louis amends quickly.

There’s a prolonged silence, both of them looking anywhere but at each other. Louis trains his gaze on a white bowl full of fake white pears and pretends to appreciate their artistic integrity.

“I know what happened at my party,” Harry says, finally, “Zayn told me right after you disappeared.”

“Oh,” Louis responds, mostly because he doesn’t know what else to say.

He continues to look at the pears.

“Yeah,” Harry affirms, arms crossed and lips curled into a disapproving frown.

“What are… your, uh, feelings… about that?” Louis ventures carefully.

Such shapely pears, incredible.

“What?” Harry asks shortly, “You fucking off to the south of France like an idiot without telling anyone or me blowing you in the bathroom while we were both too drunk and horny to know what the fuck we were doing?”

Louis remembers being pretty fucking self-aware, thanks, but he bites his tongue.

“Well, uh, that answers that, I guess,” he replies awkwardly.

“Louis, we’re friends, or we were, at least,” Harry says, voice tired and sad, “I don’t understand why you couldn’t have just talked to me about it?”

“Why didn’t you tell me Erin wasn’t really your girlfriend?” Louis asks instead.

“Because Margaret told me not to tell anyone,” Harry replies instantly, “You know I’m a shit liar, and she said that if all my friends knew that our relationship was just a PR stunt, I wouldn’t be able to keep up appearances.”

“It’s like method acting, Harry, just go with it,” he continues, adopting the publicist’s snarky, posh tone, “And also, I literally spent three weeks in New York complaining about how awful she was in the hopes that you would realize how unimportant that ‘relationship’ was to me.”

Which, okay yeah, that sort of makes sense…

“But Erin told me she was your beard,” Louis argues.

“She obviously didn’t know what the fuck she was talking about,” Harry replies shortly.

“Harry, are yougay?” he asks, still looking at those damn fake pears.

The popstar is silent for a long time.

“I just like people,” he replies eventually, shrugging, “I don’t really look at someone’s gender. If I like them, I like them. I don’t feel the need to analyze my sexuality any further than that.”

He pauses, looking torn.

“But Margaret keeps telling me that if I were to… ‘act on my feelings’ that it would be bad for business, for record sales and the like, I mean.”

Harry sighs, “So it’s girls only for now, though I haven’t been interested in a girl since–”

He cuts himself off, face stricken.

Since? Louis wants to ask, wants to know if… if he’s… but he doesn’t.

“You could’ve told me,” he says quietly, instead.

“Would it have changed things between us?” Harry asks straightaway, his voice even and unwavering.

Louis stares at the pears and traces the shape of the bowl with his eyes, not sure exactly what the younger lad is trying to imply with such a weighty statement.

He finally just avoids replying at all by asking another question of his own:

“Does you knowing about what happened at the party change things between us?”

“Do you want it to?” Harry replies immediately, expression unreadable.

Louis swallows.

He’s a coward.

“You’re my best mate, Harry,” he says eventually, still so careful with his words.

If he pretends hard enough, he can almost hear Harry sigh.

“If that’s what you want me to be, then that’s what I’ll be,” the popstar affirms.

Louis starts to smile, but the curly-haired lad shakes his head warningly.

“You’re not forgiven just yet,” Harry continues, “You flew to fucking France to avoid talking to me about a stupid drunken blowjob between friends. I need some time to mull that over.”

Louis tries his best not to flinch at the casual tone in which Harry discusses the ‘stupid drunken blowjob’. He’s not sure he succeeds, but Harry doesn’t comment any further.

“I already gave you two weeks,” he jokes weakly, shrugging his shoulders with feigned nonchalance.

Harry just rolls his eyes. “You don’t think I wasn’t worried about you?”

“You were worried about me?” Louis blurts.

He’s an idiot.

“You’re an idiot,” Harry replies, in a tone of voice that suggests that he doesn’t believe that Louis is currently in possession of a functioning nervous system.

“I just… I thought you’d be pissed at me and passionately wishing for my death,” Louis explains, laughing uncomfortably, “I thought about drowning myself in the Mediterranean a couple of times just to make it easier on you.”

Harry doesn’t laugh, just blinks twice and says, “I care about you a lot, Louis. So maybe the next time you have an issue with me, you can try something less dramatic like, oh I dunno, talking to me about it, as opposed to traumatizing hundreds of tourists by leaping off the Arc de Triomphe.”

“I was in Paris for a day,” Louis replies, grinning, “I should’ve seized the opportunity.”

“Well, you can always fly back,” Harry deadpans, “In fact, why not right now? I’m sure all the French couples in the City of Love for Valentine’s Day would be thrilled to witness the death of a Brit at the hands of one of their famous landmarks.”

“D’you reckon I could cause a bit of a stir if I shouted something like ‘Hollande made me do it!’ right before I jumped?”

“I’m sure the French government would appreciate that, yeah,” Harry replies evenly; his face is still expressionless but his eyes betray his amusement, twinkling a bit as he speaks.

“Valentine’s Day, huh?” Louis asks, raising an eyebrow, “Any plans?”

Harry sighs loudly and ushers him toward the door.

“Get out of my house, you nuisance,” he orders, “I’ve got ‘Love Actually’ and a bowl of popcorn to finish… alone.”

Louis starts to protest but then remembers Harry’s plea for space and time apart, and reluctantly shuffles out the door. Harry opens his mouth, probably to grumble a short ‘goodbye’, but Louis cuts him off, blurting, “Do you regret it?”

Harry runs a hand through his matted curls, and looks away, “Do you?”

Louis’ heart flutters at the opportunity to admit all that he’s been dying to from the beginning.

But, once again, he’s an idiot and a coward.

He takes the easy way out.

“I just don’t want it to ruin our friendship.”

Harry doesn’t look at him, just shakes his head slightly and moves to close the door.

“It’s already forgotten,” the popstar replies shortly, shutting the door in his face for the second time today.

He’s an idiot, an idiot who kind of really wants to impale himself on one of the spikes on the wrought-iron fencing surrounding Harry’s home. He considers it as he walks down the steps and toward the street, eyeing the metal speculatively.

“Hey Lou?” Harry’s voice asks behind him suddenly, and he pauses mid-step just before the gate.

Louis sighs and turns around, expecting the worse.

Harry’s standing there, a bit limply, like he hasn’t the energy for whatever he’s trying to communicate.

“I never regret anything when it comes to you,” the popstar says softly, green eyes wide and painfully earnest.

His face changes quickly before Louis can reply, steels itself back to its original expression, guarded and angry and hurt.

“I just… wanted you to know that, I guess,” Harry mutters, then turns around and stomps back inside.

Louis just stands there for a while, wraps his arms around himself to guard against the cold, and waits. Finally, when Harry doesn’t make a second reappearance, he takes the last four steps out the gate and onto the pavement, hailing a cab.

When he gets in, he’s immediately greeted by a familiar face.

“Hiya laddy,” the cabbie says.

It’s the one from that night after the gig all those months ago when he’d delivered a drunken Harry home, got papped, and met the illustrious Margaret Lancaster the very next day.

“Hi,” Louis replies reluctantly.

“Good to see you back,” the cabbie continues, as they pull away from the curb.

“What d’you mean?” Louis asks, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.

“All ‘m sayin’ is that I like ya a lot better than that little blondie,” he explains, after asking for Louis’ address, “Damn thing was always tryin’ ta smoke in my cab.”

“Thanks,” Louis says shortly, turning to glare out the window.

The cab driver just nods and looks in the rearview as he switches lanes.

The rest of the ride goes on in silence.

&&

It’s March 1st.

Louis knows it’s March 1st because his frankly annoying twat of a subconscious has been reminding him of every day that’s passed since he’s last seen Harry. Sixteen days, his brain chimes happily, singing out the time like a fucking cuckoo clock.

(And yes, he’s apparently reached a level of lovesickness in which he hurls insults at his own mind.)

Fuck you, his mind tells him and brings up a nice mental image of a middle finger.

“Fuck you,” he tells himself right back.

“No thank you, dear,” a familiar, nasally voice replies, startling him from the place at his desk where he’s just spent the last few hours– more like weeks, his mind reminds him– wallowing in his self-induced misery.

Ms. Beasley is standing in front of him wearing a purple Valentino frock and something furry that might be a fox or maybe a mongoose wrapped around her neck, and looking altogether too amused by the fact that she’s just caught him cursing at himself.

“This old coot,” she continues, gesturing to her… erm… pelvic region, “got a bit worn out after husband number five. Not that you’re not a lovely-looking young gentleman, dear. If I were twenty years younger, I’d consider it, I assure you.”

Louis raises an eyebrow and decides not to point out that ‘twenty years younger’ would still put the woman well into her sixties.

Instead, he bites his tongue, and says politely, “Please excuse my foul language, Ms. Beasley. I’m quite embarrassed that you had to hear me speak in such a manner.”

“Oh, come off it, dear,” the lady replies with a good-humored shrug, “My third husband was in the Royal Navy, you know. There’s not a swear word in existence that I’ve not heard at least once or twice.”

She pauses a moment, looking pensive, “I do feel awfully for the children, though. Grumpy old chap ran the family ‘regime’ as he called it like we were in the bloody Sound of Music.”

“Maybe you should’ve gone to the local nunnery and picked him up a nice nanny, then,” Louis jokes.

Ms. Beasley laughs.

Laughs!

And, though it’s a short and not particularly enthralled expression of her amusement, Louis can’t help but think success!! with a bright grin plastered on his face.

“I divorced that militant badger after two months,” Ms. Beasley explains with a flippant flick of her wrist, “I can’t imagine a nanny would’ve helped much, seeing as Charles already had a thing for one of the maids.”

Louis can’t help the peal of laughter that escapes him at the woman’s frank and uncensored nature.

“And what can I do for you today, Ms. Beasley?” he asks, still chuckling.

He moves from his place at his desk to stand in front of her, bowing exaggeratedly.

“I’ve come to inquire for Georgie, again,” she explains, sighing deeply at the apparent hassle, “He’s still in Africa, you know, riding elephants and learning tribal languages or something.”

Louis ignores her fairly reductionist view of the African continent, and instead focuses on recalling some of George’s more outlandish requests.

“I hope he’s not after the Velveteen Rabbit again,” Louis answers with a sigh, “I keep telling him that the U.S. first editions are woefully evasive.”

“No, nothing like that,” the woman replies dismissively, “He wants the Royale, I’m afraid.”

“Not my Flemings,” Louis gasps, placing a hand over his heart in shock, “An inscribed first edition of the impetus to the 007 franchise isn’t just some trophy to be toted around by worldly travelers.”

“That’s what I told him,” Ms. Beasley reaffirms with a dramatic roll of her eyes, “No use for rare books while you’re mucking about in the Sahara.”

“Where is he now, anyway?” Louis asks, genuinely interested.

“Egypt,” she replies shortly and disinterested, “He’s helped discover a tomb of some unknown pharaoh or something. I sent that boy to Oxford and he repays me by spending his days digging; should’ve just invested in a nice sandbox for all that’s worth.”

“Well,” Louis continues, cracking a smile, “you’ll have to tell him that the inscribed Casino Royale is simply not for sale.”

“He’ll be devastated, I’m sure,” the woman drawls with a subtle roll of her eyes.

“Now, Louis, since I’m here,” Ms. Beasley carries on, “Do tell me where on earth you’ve been hiding that charming, fluffy-haired little creature I met the last time I popped in.”

Louis frowns, his reaction apparently enough to arise the elderly heiress’ suspicions.

“Darling, what did you do?” Ms. Beasley asks, adopting a distinctly accusatory tone.

“Harry and I... aren’t exactly,” Louis starts, feeling his face flush with guilt, “We’re not really on speaking terms right now?”

Ms. Beasley sighs, sitting down in one of the plush armchairs and arranging her stocking-clad legs neatly in front of her.

“Ah yes,” she says sagely, “the trials and tribulations of young love.”

Louis blinks. “Ms. Beasley, as I’ve told you before, we aren’t a couple.”

“But you love him, don’t you?” she asks, and her expression suggests that it’s a question she already knows the answer to.

He hesitates once, before confirming her assumption, “Yes, I… I think I do.”

Ms. Beasley doesn’t say anything for a long while, just digs around in her purse before producing a crinkled black and white photo.

She motions for him to take it and he does, examining the little locket-sized portrait which portrays a young, dark-haired girl gazing into the camera with a guarded expression. She’s dressed in a white frilly number with delicate chiffon draped about her shoulders and her hair, thick and curly, is piled on top of her head in a fashionable knot. Though her lips are set in a serious line, her eyes are sparkling and playful, and it’s immediately apparent to Louis that this young woman was nowhere near the solemn, proper looking lady that this photograph conveys.

He looks up at Ms. Beasley, a question in his eyes, and she nods once, carefully.

“Her name was Annette Ward,” she explains, “but to me she was always just Nettie.”

“Now, I’ve not loved a woman since,” Ms. Beasley continues, “Nettie was always the exception, to everything in my life, really. We’d been friends since childhood, having met in primary school, and we practically grew up attached at the hip. She was part of the upper crust as I was, but she never cared for rules or societal expectations. She hated men, absolutely despised them, and blamed them for the existence of the homebody role she was– that we all were– expected to assume. Nettie was a gorgeous girl, breathtaking really, but she couldn’t stand the idea that people treated her better just because of her looks.”

Ms. Beasley pauses, looking lost in another time.

“I was infatuated from the very beginning,” she says eventually, “I used to hold her in my arms for hours as she cried about one of her many male suitors asking her parents for her hand in marriage never having spoken to her. I used to tell her that she was worth so much more than what she looked like, that she was brilliant and bubbly and so, so passionate, and she’d just shake her head and reply in the same sad, broken voice each time, ‘Oh, Aggie, you’re too good to me. You’re always too good to me.’ And I thought, at the time, that she was just bashful, too modest to appreciate the compliments that I lavished upon her. I didn’t know… didn’t realize just how… how much they really meant to her, in the end.

My parents hated her, of course, and thought she was a terrible influence on me. They forbade me to see her, though predictably I never listened. I realized I was in love with her the day she came calling, unannounced. That wasn’t the thing to do, back in the day, and I had a bitter argument with my mother who didn’t want to let her in. Finally, she relented, and Nettie skipped into my room with the brightest, most beautiful smile I’d ever seen gracing her face. All I could think, in that moment, was ‘my god, I love this girl’.

But it wasn’t to be; Nettie could barely contain her excitement as she relayed to me her ‘unbelievable news’. She was engaged, she told me, to a wonderful man who had all these radical ideas about what a woman could do. She said that he was a newspaper editor, and he wanted her to work at his firm– not as a secretary, sitting about and answering phone calls, but as a real journalist. It had been her dream to write, ever since we were little, and I knew that with those words this man had undoubtedly won her heart.

I pretended to be happy for her, of course, as she showed me her ring and went on and on about a Mr. William B. Buchanan whom she’d just met not two weeks before but was convinced was ‘the one’. I was so confused; this girl before me wasn’t my Nettie. She was lovesick and foolish and too young to be throwing her life away like all the other girls from rich families we knew, the very same girls she’d spewed vitriol about not a month before. I remember watching her twirl about in her favorite blue dress, saying ‘Oh Aggie, doesn’t he sound wonderful? I absolutely can’t wait for you to meet him’.

“And I realized, then and there, that she wasn’t mine,” Ms. Beasley says softly, and Louis can picture her back then, sitting on her bed and watching the woman she loved impulsively giving her heart away to a man she barely knew.

“I realized that she’d never be mine,” she continues, and he watches as her heart seems to break all over again at the painful memories, “and that I didn’t own her, that I had no control over her heart, only the shattered remnants of my own; and even those, I had allowed for years with foolish, naïve optimism to pursue an unattainable fantasy.”

“Did you ever tell her?” Louis implores quietly, chest tightening as he watches the elderly woman’s face fall in response.

“No,” Ms. Beasley replies, “In my mind, it was a waste to, to reveal feelings that wouldn’t have been accepted then and certainly still aren’t even close to being customary now. Mind you, that’s just the political justification; the real reason I never… never told her that I loved her was because I was a coward and because I was too afraid of destroying our friendship over something as selfish as my own uncontrollable feelings. I had no hope that a creature as captivatingly lovely as Nettie was could ever feel the same way about a homely little thing like me.

And so I stayed quiet, never protested, even when she asked me if I thought she was making a mistake. I was the only one who could keep her from going through with this, she told me; I was the only one whose judgment she trusted more fully than her own. But, of course, I had no reason to object to the engagement, besides the fact that I greedily believed myself to be a better match for her than this Mr. Buchanan could ever be. So I told her, instead, that if she was happy then I was happy, and that at least wasn’t a lie.

Nettie married Mr. Buchanan two months later. I was her maid of honor and I cried hopelessly when she said her vows. Later, during the reception, everyone commented on how touching it was that I, her very closest friend, was so emotionally overcome by the love clearly shared between her and her new husband. I didn’t speak to her for years after that. I still loved her, yes, and I very much wished to remain her friend; however, William was controlling from the very start, and he thought that I, still an unmarried woman, would negatively influence Nettie’s relationship with him. I should’ve known then that he was… but I–”

She cuts off abruptly, taking a deep shuddering breath.

“I let our friendship deteriorate because I thought that if I simply tore myself away from the object of my affections, I could forget all about the painful, unrequited feelings that plagued me day and night. Suddenly, nineteen years had passed and I had gone on with my life, been married once and divorced and married again, living at home with four children. I had become everything Nettie had once professed against, and I hated myself for it. Most of Nettie’s days, as I heard in passing, were spent on lavish holidays with William travelling across Europe and the Americas. I was happy for her, though I resented her just the same.

Then one day, out of the blue, I got a call from her and she was sobbing loudly, said she was at a train station somewhere in New York City, that William had hit her, that he’d been beating her viciously since they’d married but this time was worst of all.”

Ms. Beasley is openly crying now, shaking a bit as a few tears make their way down her gaunt, wrinkled cheekbones.

“I was furious, of course, but I was hopeless to help her. We were both in our late thirties by this time, and I was still in London, married again with my fifth on the way. I told her to stay on the line, dialed back through to the operator and got them to connect me to the NYPD. It was too late. William hadn’t just hit her, he’d stabbed her ‘accidentally’ or so he claimed with a shard off a broken porcelain plate she’d hurled his way during a particularly violent argument in their Manhattan apartment.”

Louis waits expectantly for some sort of resolution, but Ms. Beasley delivers the final blow with a hollow look in her eyes.

“My poor, poor Nettie died of a punctured lung before they could get her to the hospital. She was thirty-eight years old and had spent nearly half her life married to that monster. I couldn’t believe it, at first, when her parents came by my home holding a small pile of her belongings– a dress she’d borrowed from me to wear at her engagement party, a pearl necklace I’d given her for her sixteenth birthday, and a little journal which they said they hadn’t read but upon skimming through had contained my name more often than others. I hid them all in the recesses of my closet and didn’t look at them for months. All I could focus on were Nettie’s last words to me, repeated over and over again as I’d stood in my kitchen on the phone, listening to her die, ‘I love you, Aggie. I’ve always loved you, and I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.’ I never found out what she was apologizing for but, once I finally brought myself to read what was contained in her journal, I think I’ve a pretty good idea.”

Ms. Beasley pauses, then, reaching into her Mulberry satchel to pull out a pack of tissues. She dabs her eyes and smiles at him softly, regarding him with an expression infinitely wiser and more experienced than his own.

“I’m eighty-nine years old, Louis Tomlinson,” she remarks, “and I’ve only had one single regret in all these years I’ve spent on this earth. If you love someone, dear, tell them.”

&&

After Ms. Beasley leaves (with a few of Louis’ favorite novels given to her ‘on the house’), Louis spends nearly an hour desperately digging through all of his pants pockets.

Finally, after a particular stroke of genius, he finds it: a napkin containing a series of numbers still folded perfectly and pressed to the inside of his dryer.

He dials the mobile number with bated breath, sighing loudly when it goes to voicemail.

“Hi, it’s Louis… Louis Tomlinson?” he babbles, cringing at how awkward he sounds, “I, um, hope you remember me? Listen, I was hoping I could talk to you about a few things about… about Harry actually? Erm, here’s my address, and feel free to stop by anytime today, if you, if you want to that is. I’m not trying to pressure you into helping me or anything, but I’d really appreciate your help anyhow so… yeah, that’d be–”

There’s a long beep, cutting him off.

He hangs up with a grimace, not expecting much after that particularly horrific voice message.

&&

The little bell jingles at precisely eight o’clock, and Louis can’t get to the door fast enough.

“I didn’t think you’d come,” he says, a bit breathlessly.

“Couldn’t leave my gorgeous boyfriend hanging, could I?” the visitor replies, hanging his coat up by the door.

Louis laughs, crossing the room to give Jaymi a friendly hug in greeting.

As they part, the waiter takes a step back and appraises him, nodding once firmly.

“Yep, just as I suspected,” Jaymi states solemnly, “Genuine certified lovesickness.”

Louis rolls his eyes, laughing good-naturedly.

“C’mon then, boyfriend,” he says, motioning to the set of stuffed armchairs where Ms. Beasley had been perched not a few hours before.

Jaymi hums thoughtfully, casting his gaze toward the hot pink office chair shoved in the corner.

“Dunno, mate,” he replies, walking toward Harry’s chair, “I quite like this one. Very flashy.”

“No!” Louis shouts panicked, grabbing Jaymi’s arm.

The brunette turns around and raises an eyebrow, a spark of realization flashing in his eyes.

“Louis,” he says gently, placing a hand on his shoulder, “It’s a chair.”

“It’s his chair,” Louis mumbles in reply, immediately regretting his words as Jaymi’s eyes gaze back at him tinged with sadness and understanding.

“How long has it been?” Jaymi asks softly.

“Little over two weeks.”

“And you’ve not seen him or said a word since?”

“No,” Louis says, falling into the nearest chair with a loud sigh, “He told me he needed some time to think it over and I’m giving it to him.”

Jaymi raises an eyebrow again, prompting, and Louis proceeds to tell him the entire story from the very beginning from when the popstar had stumbled into his shop looking haggard but… but strangely beautiful, all the way up to their final meeting and Harry’s strange parting words:

I never regret anything when it comes to you.

“How’ve you been since?” Jaymi asks, once he’s finished.

“Good, good, yeah,” Louis replies quickly, “Just waiting patiently for some sign from him.”

Jaymi gives him that damn all-knowing look, and Louis immediately cracks under the weight of the scrutiny.

“I’ve been miserable,” he amends, running a hand through his tangled, mussed-up fringe.

(He’s heartbroken, alright? Cut him some slack. No one wants to put out the effort to do their hair in the morning when they can barely get themselves out of bed.)

“I doubt Harry’s any better off than you are right now,” Jaymi remarks, “Dancing around each other as you are.”

Louis blinks. “What d’you mean?”

Jaymi gives him another look.

“You’re an idiot,” he says, simply.

Louis sighs, letting out a choked laugh.

“Yeah, I’ve… I’ve been getting that a lot lately.”

“Have you?” Jaymi asks, voice thick with sarcasm, “I can’t imagine why.”

“Shut up,” Louis replies, grinning, “I called you because I needed your advice not this blatant mockery.”

Jaymi regards him with a soft smile.

“Alright, alright, I’m sorry, enough taking the piss,” he says, plopping himself down in the armchair next to Louis with a resounding sigh of relief, “What’s the problem here?”

Louis takes a deep breath.

“I think I’m in love with Harry.”

He’s expecting some sort of reaction from the man next to him, but the waiter just blinks.

“Okay then,” he continues, “Guess you got that bit already.”

Jaymi snorts and Louis smacks him on the arm playfully, hissing “stop it!”

Jaymi shrieks, clutching his arm dramatically, to which just Louis rolls his eyes and carries on with his explanation, “The problem is I haven’t told him, and I’m afraid to because, well I… I’m not a hundred percent certain that he feels even remotely the same way that I do. And, well, you mentioned once that he seemed interested in me, so do you think he might be? Like… really?”

Jaymi doesn’t say anything for a moment, considering.

“So you called me here to ask if I think that Harry’s in love with you?” he asks, finally.

Louis nods ever so slightly, biting his lip.

“And here I thought this was just an early evening booty call.”

“Depending on your answer, it could be,” Louis replies, winking.

Jaymi chuckles, and jokes, “Alright, cool it, Casanova.”

His face turns serious, however, not a moment later as he says, “Listen, Louis, I can’t speak for another person’s feelings, but I can assure you that you’re clearly an intelligent, attractive young man with a hell of a lot to offer. And, personally, I think that even perfect popstar Harry Styles would be completely, absolutely bonkers not to be in love with you too.”

Louis smiles softly at the waiter’s compliments, though he still can’t squelch the nagging, anxious part of his brain still focused solely on the uncertainty of it all.

“But what if all this time I’ve just been in love with the idea of being in love?” Louis asks, picking at the ends of his shirtsleeves, “No one else has been this close to me… not since my last boyfriend, at least, and that ended so awfully that I’d really not like to repeat it.”

“Does this thing with Harry feel like whatever you had before?” Jaymi questions him.

Louis pauses, hating to compare Aiden and Harry but finding himself doing so nonetheless. His hand drifts to his back pocket, fingers brushing against the leather moleskine tucked inside, and he realizes then and there, that whatever he’s been feeling for Harry is a thousand, million, billion times that of what he thought was love before.

He never wrote a single poem about Aiden Grimshaw, but somehow, in just six months, Harry Styles has already got three journals full.

“No,” he replies, “It’s incomparably, undeniably so much more than that.”

Jaymi reaches out to touch his hand, the gesture simple but comforting.

“Well then, love,” the server says, voice gentle and soft, “I don’t think this is something that you should just give up on so easily. Find Harry and tell him all that you’ve told me and everything else that you’ve wanted to say. That’s the only way you’ll know for sure.”

“And what if he doesn’t feel the same?” Louis asks, feeling his heart tighten perceptibly at the very thought of rejection.

“Then he doesn’t,” Jaymi answers shortly, “but that’s a chance you have to take, mate. You can’t just go on wondering ‘what if’ for the rest of your life. If it’s meant to be, it will be, and all that.”

Jaymi’s words seem to echo the story Ms. Beasley had told him earlier; her only regret in nearly ninety years of living being that she hadn’t shared her feelings with the woman she loved.

“You’ve got to fight for this, if you really want it,” Jaymi continues, “Love is hard– trust me, I know– but it’s also wonderful and magical and… and a bunch of nice adjectives that are currently escaping me. So go find Harry and tell him how you feel. Rejection is the worst that can happen, yeah, but there’s also the possibility that he’s just as in love with you as you are with him.”

Louis nods, suddenly hearing the voice of the French woman on the train.

L’amour est difficile.

Lutte!

Lutte!

“I’m going to tell him,” Louis says, finally, standing up with a heart full of renewed optimism.

Jaymi doesn’t say anything, just smiles, and reaches out to envelop him in another much-needed hug.

“I’ve always got my fake boyfriend as backup, right?” Louis jokes as they pull apart, “If this doesn’t work out?”

“Er, dunno how my fiancé would feel about that,” Jaymi replies, holding up his hand to show off a gorgeous silver band, “I’d have to ask him if he didn’t mind a bit of sharing.”

“Hey, congratulations,” Louis says, fondly, “I’m really happy for you. You deserve it.”

“Yeah, well,” Jaymi responds, blushing deeply, “I’ll be expecting an invite to you and the popstar’s wedding just the same.”

Louis feels his heart quicken at the thought, and he shakes his head quickly to rid his mind of images of Harry in a finely tailored designer suit, walking toward him down the aisle.

“Best of luck to you,” he says, finally, as he walks Jaymi out.

“And you too, of course,” the waiter replies, shrugging on his coat, “Let me know how it goes, though, yeah? You have got my number after all.”

“Will do,” Louis affirms, shutting the door behind the brunette as he slips out, waving a quick goodbye.

Tomorrow morning before he opens shop, he reasons, he’ll head over to Harry’s and hope for the best.

& H &

Harry blinks awake to the sound of someone knocking on the front door.

No, not knocking, banging.

“What on earth is that?” a voice rumbles next to him.

Harry startles, falling right off the side of the bed in a pile of tangled limbs.

“Why are you still here?” he snaps, groaning a bit at the soreness (of both his recent fall and of last night’s activities).

“So hospitable, darling,” the man replies sleepily, voice still gravelly from just waking.

“Louis, I was drunk,” Harry says, picking himself up off the floor, “This doesn’t mean anything.”

There’s a prolonged silence.

 “So Louis’ the ex, then?”

Harry freezes.

Shit.

Fuck.

Damn it all.

“I’m so sorry, Ian, I–”

“Harry, it’s fine, I don’t care,” Ian interrupts, reassuring him with a sincere, painless look in his eyes, “I knew what this was when I agreed to it.”

The incessant knocking has been replaced by some lovely repetitive ringing of the doorbell.

“Shouldn’t you?” Ian asks, and Harry sighs.

“Probably just the maid come ‘round early or summat.”

 “I’ll let her in then, shall I?” Ian asks, pulling on his briefs and his trousers overtop.

“Or tell her to come back later, and we can continue from where we left off last night?” Harry suggests weakly.

Ian just smiles softly, regarding him with bright, knowing eyes.

“You and I both know that’s not what you really want,” he states simply, before bounding down the stairs.

Harry sighs, getting up off the floor and flopping back onto his bed with another long groan.

Seventeen days, his mind reminds him.

He tries to blink away the memories, tries to ignore the way Louis’ voice replays over and over again in his dreams and in his waking; like he’s living some inescapable ‘Groundhog’s Day’ screenplay.

You’re my best mate.

I just don’t want it to ruin our friendship.

Do you regret it?

Do you regret it?

Do you–

“Six months and I’m still a lonely coward,” he says aloud, the bright sun filtering through his curtains only serving to mock his bitter mood.

Five days and we’re lovesick.

I’m going to write that into your poem.

“Shut up!” he yells, burying back under the pillows.

“Fine, I will!” Ian yells back as he comes up the stairs, laughing.

“Moody little things, aren’t you?” the smiling brunette continues, shaking his head, “Bloody popstars.”

Harry sits up, leaning against the headboard.

“Who was it, then?”

“Hmm?”

“At the door,” Harry clarifies.

Ian’s eyes light up.

“Oh, oh yes!” he replies, “Shorter bloke, hair the same color as mine but hanging down in his face a bit, you know, sort of bang-y? Didn’t give a name though. Odd.”

Harry takes one short, shuddering breath.

“What did… what did he say?”

“Well, he was a bit out of breath and mumbling– very nervous little fellow, hard to make out what he was saying, really– but he asked me who I was and then he asked where you were, and after that– and this is the really odd bit– he said, and I quote, ‘Tell Harry that this was for him’ and then he handed me a book. I left it on the kitchen table by the way, just sort of set it down behind me, but when I turned back around, he was gone.”

Harry feels sort of numb, like he’s floating around in space without a suit, bodily fluids boiling from the low pressure and lungs suffocating without oxygen.

(He should really stop watching National Geographic while drunk. Bad, bad idea.)

“Ian, I’ve made a mistake,” he says, slowly.

“Lovely thing to hear the morning after,” the other man jokes, but his face falls as he notices the stricken, pained look on Harry’s own.

“That was Louis at the door, wasn’t it?”

Harry just nods.

“Shit.”

Harry nods again.

“And you’re still in love with him.”

Another nod.

“And he’s just seen me with my top off opening your door at five in the morning?”

And another.

“And now he thinks that–”

“Likely assumption, wouldn’t you say?”

Shit.”

“Yeah,” Harry affirms, running his hands through his hair, “Shit.”

&&

Ian finally leaves after a series of futile reassurances that everything between he and Louis will work out in the end.

Harry ventures downstairs a few hours later, the book still sitting on the kitchen table where Ian had mentioned he’d left it.

He walks slowly, carefully, across the tile and picks it up with his heart pounding in chest.

The Complete Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley

He lets out a shaky laugh, and sinks down to the floor, head leant against the bottom cupboards.

There’s a bookmark left in and he flips to the page with clumsy shaking fingers, biting his lip when he recognizes the chosen poem straight away.

MUSIC, when soft voices die,      
Vibrates in the memory;
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,          
Live within the sense they quicken.           

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,                   
Are heap'd for the belovèd's bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,              
Love itself shall slumber on.

‘Love’ is circled in bright red ink, and Harry nearly can’t believe his eyes when he notices the word ‘you’ in Louis’ handwriting penned carefully underneath.

He sets the book next to him and puts his head in hands.

Love you.

Love you.

Love…

& L &

Louis doesn’t bother to get a cab (it’s not that cold out and he has no destination in mind anyhow).

So he walks.

And he calls Jaymi.

“S’five in the morning, wanker,” a sleepy voice answers.

“Jaymi, it’s Louis.”

“Louis!” Jaymi replies, immediately perking up, “Tell me everything!”

“There’s nothing to tell,” Louis replies, biting back tears.

“Oh, Lou… I… I’m so sorry. I was so sure that he–”

Louis hiccups, wiping at his eyes futilely. “It’s ok, I… I was too.”

Jaymi’s quiet for a long while.

“What happened?” he asks eventually, voice gentle but probing.

“I knocked on the door,” Louis explains, “and some tall, shirtless chap answered, said his name was Ian and that Harry was still upstairs in bed waking up.”

Jaymi sucks in a loud, audible breath. “Are you absolutely sure that–”

“He had love-bites all over his chest,” Louis replies, and he can’t hold back the tears that start to fall at the memory of it.

“People kept warning me about his reputation,” he continues, voice barely a whisper, “I didn’t believe them. I thought I knew him better than that. I thought I meant more to him than just–”

“Louis, you did. I know you did,” Jaymi urges, “He let you in more than anyone, from what you told me yesterday; you had to have to have meant something to him.”

“What I saw this morning,” Louis says, between quiet sobs, “That’s what I mean to him, that’s my bloody definition: disposable. I can’t believe I was so stupid.”

“You weren’t stupid, love,” Jaymi protests, “You couldn’t have known.”

“For just one moment, one foolish moment, I’d hoped that love could be just like the movies, just like you said. But it wasn’t; it isn’t. No one wants to see a film about a weepy poet and a famous, too-good-for-him popstar. This isn’t like bloody Notting Hill where Harry wanders into my bookshop and we fall in love and the stupid asshole of a boyfriend that I meet when I come to his door is all just a big misunderstanding.”

“Louis, please,” Jaymi begs, “Calm down. It’ll be alright. Just don’t do anything rash, promise me? Go home, break something if you have to, but stay there.”

“I can’t promise you anything right now,” Louis whispers, hanging up the phone and trying his best to dry his eyes.

Fifteen more minutes of walking and he finds himself at the northwest corner of Kensington Gardens, the Diana Memorial Playground complete with all its wooden play sculptures awaiting him like a beacon.

Louis dutifully ignores the fact that the actual Notting Hill lies just down the road, mocking him.

He walks past the large wooden pirate ships which seem awfully spooky this early in the morning without any children out to play on them. Finally, he spots what he’s looking for: a set of three teepees arranged in a circle with a large totem-pole like structure posted in the middle. He laughs aloud as he climbs into one, sitting cross-legged and recalling the night he and Niall had drunkenly wandered into the park after a particularly wild (and expensive) outing in Knightsbridge.

He’s not sure how long he sits there, curled into a little ball crying his eyes out, but eventually he steels himself enough to dig his phone out of his pocket and make a call. Louis dials the familiar number, shivering a bit as even in March the temperature hasn’t climbed high enough to make being outside a very comfortable experience.

“H’lo?” Niall answers drowsily.

“Hey Ni,” Louis says softly, “D’you think… d’you think you could come pick me up?”

“Yeah, sure,” Niall replies, voice growing louder as he awakes fully, “Where are you?”

“I’m in a teepee in Kensington Gardens.”

“A what?”

“A teepee,” Louis repeats, “in the northwest corner of Kensington Gardens, right across from bloody Notting Hill.”

“Great movie” is the first thing Niall says in response, and Louis can’t help but groan.

“Alright relax, I’m on my way,” Niall continues, “Keep your phone on and I’ll ping your location, send you a text once I get there.”

“Thank you,” Louis replies, but the Irishman has already hung up.

He sighs, tucking himself more snuggly into the corner of his little teepee to wait for Niall to arrive.

& H &

“You’re shitting me,” Zayn’s saying, and Harry can only wince at his patronizing tone of voice.

“I didn’t know what to do, Z,” Harry replies, “I panicked.”

“You’re an idiot,” Zayn replies, and Harry can hear his eye roll through the line.

“He told me he just wanted to be friends,” Harry argues, throwing his pillow at his bedroom wall in frustration, “How was I supposed to know he was, for whatever reason, lying about that?”

“What do you mean how were you supposed to know?” Zayn asks immediately, “Anyone with fucking eyes could see you two were head over heels for each other. I’m surprised the press didn’t pick up on it earlier than they did; the heart eyes were like billboards. Plus, why do you think the rest of us never wanted to hang out with you and Louis at the same time? It was frankly disgusting being around the both of you at once.”

“Ok, first off, don’t talk to me about disgusting, Mr. Zayn Payne,” Harry retorts, not caring how childish he sounds, “and secondly, Louis didn’t even know I was into men until I drunkenly sucked his dick at my birthday party and couldn’t remember it the morning after!”

“And whose fault is that?” Zayn replies icily.

“You’re supposed to be helping me,” Harry shouts, “not making me feel worse! As if I don’t already feel bad enough, Zayn, really.”

“How on earth am I supposed to help?” Zayn counters, raising his voice as well, “Your plan to sleep with a billion other guys in order to, and I quote ‘get over Louis’ was obviously idiotic from the start! I’m not particularly shocked that it backfired, if I’m being honest with you!”

“C’mon Z, please,” Harry says, softly and pleading, “Tell me how to fix this.”

“I can’t,” Zayn replies shortly, ignoring Harry’s resulting protests.

“Harry, I can’t! I really can’t, alright!” Zayn continues, “You literally just called me this morning in tears, blubbering about how much you love Louis and how you and him have cocked up your little blossoming romance by being complete and utter idiots, the both of you. How is any of this my responsibility? Please, do explain that to me.”

“You told me you knew!” Harry argues, “You literally just said that you knew that I loved him, and that it was ‘so obvious’ that he loved me too. Why didn’t you say anything from the beginning?”

“Harry, listen to me. Listen to what I’m saying,” Zayn replies, sounding exasperated, “All of this, everything that’s gone on in the last six months, is between you and Louis. That’s it. No one else; not me, not Liam or Niall or the fucking ginger whose couch you slept on for three days while you smoked pot and wrote songs about existentialism, okay? Just you and Louis.”

“And H,” he continues, voice softening, “you know it wouldn’t have worked out anyhow, even if you’d both been aware of each other’s feelings from the start.”

Harry swallows, thinking back to that stupid nondisclosure agreement, his name signed on the dotted line under Margaret Lancaster’s greedy watchful eye.

“I… I know,” he says eventually, “I’m being ridiculous, Zayn, I’m sorry. I just… I miss him, you know? He was one of my best mates before all this mess happened. But, you’re right. Nothing could’ve ever been allowed to go on between us, what with me being gone all the time on tour and for interviews and what not, not to mention the idiotic press… and, and the fact that we’d have to hide our relationship. It’d be self-centered of me to expect all that from Louis, to put that pressure on him willingly for my own selfish reasons…”

Zayn doesn’t reply for quite a long time, and Harry waits, hoping that the dark-haired boy is mulling it all over in order to offer up some sort of solution, an easy fix.

“Maybe,” Zayn says finally, after the break, “maybe it’s for the best then, yeah?”

So much for a solution.

“Yeah,” Harry echoes, though his heart isn’t in it.

“Besides, you won’t have to think about Louis at all now. In a couple of days, you’ll be leaving for Holmes Chapel to see Anne and Robin and Gem. A week there, and then you’ve got promo for the tour starting in Madrid, then Barcelona and Paris… That’s all of April, and of course, the tour itself will last from the beginning of May to the end of July. You’ll not have time to see much of anyone with all that travelling.”

“It’ll be… good,” Zayn finishes and Harry can tell that he’s working hard to muster up some enthusiasm in his normally flat voice, “You love performing. This tour is huge! All the major European venues and ending with two sold-out shows at the O2 here in London, how sick is that? And then all of America after the New Year? You’re a bloody superstar, mate; chin up!”

“Chin up,” Harry replies, and his voice sounds hollow even to his own ears.

“Hey Z?”

“Yeah H?”

“Do you think I could head home early? Like today?”

“Harry, I’m not your mum. She’d be the one to ask, I think,” Zayn replies teasingly, and Harry feels himself crack a small smile, “but I’ll talk to David about keeping you out of the studio today. You’re definitely not fit to record any more of ‘Happily’ at the moment, that’s for sure.”

Harry laughs weakly, lying back against the remaining pillows left on his bed with a quiet sigh.

“Thanks Z.”

“Yeah,” Zayn replies, before hanging up, “Hang in there popstar.”

& L &

“I’ll kill ‘im, I swear,” Niall’s saying in between loud curses, pacing back and forth across his flat with a terrifying sort of intensity, “I don’t give a bleeding fuck how much that pretty face is worth. I’ll knock him dead.”

Niall turns to him, eyes blazing.

“You’re rich, aren’t ye?” he asks rhetorically, “You could bail me out in a blink, get the charges dropped ‘nd everything. I’m actually going to kill ‘im.”

“Niall,” Louis replies, mildly, “I’m ninety-nine percent certain that my happiness and your vengeance aren’t worth risking a first-degree murder charge.”

“I don’t give a fuck, Lou, I really don’t,” the Irishman replies, still pacing, “I’ll kill ‘im, I swear I will.”

Niall’s phone buzzes before Louis can reply and he whips it out of his pocket to glare at the screen menacingly.

“It’s from Zayn,” he explains after a moment, “The fucking coward left for Cheshire not an hour ago.”

Louis doesn’t comment, just looks down to where his feet are swinging aimlessly off the edge of Niall’s bed.

“Holmes Chapel, is it?” Niall mutters, talking more to himself now than anything, “Three hour drive? Easy. Could be out there by dinner time.”

“Niall, please don’t kill Harry,” Louis says, interrupting his friend’s probably very violent thoughts.

Niall stops talking and turns to look at him dumbfounded.

“It’s as much my fault as it is his,” Louis states, still looking as his feet, “I’ve explained it to you multiple times already. We were both drunk on Harry’s birthday, it led to a stupid one-off in the loos, and I freaked the next morning and basically ruined our friendship. It was silly of me to expect Harry’s forgiveness, and even sillier to think he could forgive me and still retain the feelings he had for me if, and I say if, any feelings even existed at all.”

He sighs, picking at a bit of fuzz on Niall’s comforter.

“I got my hopes, thinking that Harry loved me back, and he didn’t. End of story. It happens.”

“Fine,” Niall replies shortly, stopping his pacing to come and plop down next to Louis on the end of the bed, “I promise not to actively seek Harry out in order to murder him.”

“Thank you,” Louis replies, leaning his head onto Niall’s shoulder with a loud sigh.

“Not finished,” Niall warns, carrying on, “I said I won’t actively seek him out; however, if I ever, ever come within chasing distance of that lousy heartbreaking piece of shit again, I swear to god I’m taking him down and giving him a nice square punch in the jaw.”

“Fair enough,” Louis acquiesces, touched by his friend’s humorous but undeniably indefatigable loyalty, “I can’t say I’d try and stop you.”

“Have you talked to Liam yet?” Niall asks, wrapping an arm around him in a much-appreciated gesture of comfort (Niall does give the best hugs).

“No, I haven’t. Why?” Louis questions.

“I’m just trying to imagine the scene at La Casa del Payne right now,” Niall explains, tucking Louis more closely into the space against his chest and shoulder, “Those two are probably having a proper row trying to sort out which one of you they’re going to be cross with.”

“Probably both of us,” Louis mumbles into the blonde’s neck, “They’re that annoying type of couple that never bickers, only discusses an issue calmly before approaching a compromise.”

“Disgusting,” Niall spits, “I hate romance.”

Louis raises an eyebrow. “Speaking of romance, all this time and you never told me if you snagged that fit bird ‘with the legs’ on the floor below. You know the one whom you planned on wining and dining with your incredible culinary prowess?”

“Oh, well,” Niall starts, and his face has gone the color of a tomato.

“Niall James Horan,” Louis cries, “have you been dating her all this time without sharing with me a word of it?”

The blonde boy looks away, still scarlet.

“Well, I… yes?”

“I can’t believe this,” Louis replies, scandalized, “Tell me everything then. God knows I’ve got nothing on for the rest of… my life, really.”

“I don’t think–” Niall starts to argue, but Louis silences him with his patented glare.

“You heard me, Niall James,” he says in his most threatening voice, “I want years’ worth of detail; a date-by-date, word-by-word playback of your entire relationship thus far. This story should last a lifetime at least.”

Niall sighs begrudgingly. “Alright, but I swear there’s a proper reason why I didn’t tell you.”

Louis gives him a look that can only be interpreted as ‘great, I don’t care, continue’.

“Her name is Eleanor Calder,” Niall says slowly.

“That’s funny!” Louis interrupts, “That’s my–”

“Your publicist’s name,” Niall finishes, “I know.”

Louis stares at the Irishman blankly.

“Are you telling me that–”

“I’m dating your publicist? Yes.”

“You’re dating my publicist?”

“I’m dating your publicist.”

“But what about Josh?” Louis protests, still in shock.

Niall laughs. “Josh is dating Perrie, Lou, c’mon. Don’t joke.”

Louis blinks.

“Wait, you really didn’t know?” Niall asks, expressing some shock of his own.

“Well, I’ve not really hung out with the group much in the last few months or so,” Louis explains, guiltily.

Niall rolls his eyes. “Spent all that time with your new best mate, I know.”

“Niall, I’m sorry,” Louis replies quickly, “I never meant to replace you.”

The Irishman just rolls his eyes once more. “Relax, will you. I wasn’t exactly alone.”

“Obviously,” Louis teases, guilt assuaged, “You were shagging my publicist! Come to think of it, that’s probably why it took so long for me to get my manuscript back from the publishing office. No one there to handle the in-between as they were apparently too busy playing hanky-panky with my best mate!”

Niall grimaces. “See, this is exactly why I didn’t tell you.”

“I can’t believe this,” Louis moans, falling back on the bed with a dramatic flail, “All my friends are in love except for me. I’m going to grow old and lonely with my seventeen cats and never leave my flat again.”

“Louis, you don’t have any cats,” Niall points out, laughing at his overtly theatrical lark.

“Semantics, Niall, please,” he replies, pouting, “I could have seventeen cats if I wanted to. In fact, let’s go buy one or two right now, get my collection started.”

“You could also have a nice boyfriend, if you wanted to,” Niall counters, shooting down the cat idea with a leveled gaze, “Why don’t you call that waiter from the Indian place that Liam told me about? What happened to him?”

“Jaymi’s engaged,” Louis groans, stuffing his head under the nearest pillow, “Just leave me here to asphyxiate and die, whether from a lack of oxygen or pure loneliness. Pick your poison!”

Niall just cackles again and lies back next to him, switching on the telly and clicking through the channels probably looking for a good football match.

“Look Lou,” he says eventually, pointing at the television screen on which Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant are currently having a nice little chat in a travel bookshop.

I think the man who wrote it has actually been to Turkey, which helps…” Hugh Grant, er, William is saying, nattering on about his stupid travel books to a clearly disinterested Anna Scott, “Um, there’s also a very amusing incident with a kebab… um, one of many amusing incidents.”

Louis barely suppresses a scream, and seriously considers throwing himself out of the fifth story window just to escape it all.

“Christ, I haven’t seen this movie in ages,” Niall says dreamily, “and you were by Notting Hill just this morning. What a coincidence!”

Yeah, what a coincidence, innit?

“It’s all fanciful bullshit, Ni, c’mon,” Louis complains, gesturing at the screen where Hugh Grant’s character is set to collide with the actress on the street corner, “No woman in her right mind, especially not a famous actress like Anna Scott, would give a man a second glance after he’s spilled orange juice all over her probably very expensive white crop top!”

“God, don’t be such a downer,” Niall says, keeping the remote just out of Louis’ grasp to prevent him from changing the channel, “This movie is a classic.”

"I'm also just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her,” he quotes effortlessly, “That scene gives me chills every time.”

“Nonsense,” Louis replies, “It just doesn’t happen. Celebrities never fall for ordinary people. Trust me; I’m practically an expert on this one.”

“You’re just like William,” Niall replies, sighing dreamily once more, “All cynical and lonely and heartbroken until Harry wandered into your bookshop and your entire life changed for the better. The similarities are all there.”

“Sure, you’re right, yeah,” Louis agrees, voice thick with sarcasm, “except for the– oh I’d say fairly important to the plot line bit– with the happy ending and the passionate declarations of love and what not. But hey, that’s all I’m missing. Just like the movie, Niall, thank you!”

“If it's not like the movies,” Niall croons, doing his best to butcher Katy Perry’s emotional hit, “That's how it should be, yeah.”

“Bugger off,” Louis mutters, crawling back underneath his pile of pillows to await his death.

“Ooh, the interview bit!” Niall cheers, returning his attention to the movie and ignoring Louis’ dramatics completely.

He breathes a soft “I love this part” just as Hugh Grant is woefully introducing himself as being from Horse and Hound magazine.

“None of this would actually happen,” Louis mutters, being a purposeful pest at this point.

He’s less inclined to be a pest after Niall hisses a particularly Irish ‘dry your arse!’ and proceeds to beat him mercilessly with the flicker until he swears he’ll not interrupt again.

Apparently, even manly Irishmen take their rom-coms very seriously.

& H &

It’s always odd, nowadays, coming back home.

Home home, that is, meaning his mum and stepdad’s modest little house in a village of six thousand.

Harry loves London, loves the hustle and bustle of the city and the true anonymity of it all, but sometimes it is nice to get away from his fame for a bit, especially now after…

“Harry, darling!” his mum cries as soon as he’s got one foot in the door.

She’s all over him in an instant, lavishing him with hugs and kisses and how are you love’s; and the familiarity has him melting into her arms as he always does. He is nothing but a shameless mummy’s boy, after all.

Robin’s in the kitchen helping with dinner as his mum leads him in, loudly announcing his arrival. His stepdad reaches out and envelopes him in a quick but firm hug, whispering a gruff ‘welcome back, save me from your mother’ into his ear.

Harry laughs, slapping him on the back, and asking a few polite questions about how they’ve all been getting on. His mum climbs upstairs with his bags, uttering a quick ‘you’re our guest, love, I insist’ before he can protest, and he rolls his eyes fondly at her people-pleasing nature.

“Well, look who it is,” a familiar voice says, the creak of the front door announcing a second visitor’s arrival.

“Hey Gem,” Harry greets as his older sister rounds the corner into the kitchen.

“Hiya donut,” she replies affectionately, ruffling his hair, “How’s the boyfriend?”

“Oh, yes!” his mum calls as she makes her way back downstairs, “What’ve you and my darling Louis been up to since we saw you last?”

“Your darling Louis?” Harry remarks, pretending to be sick, “Please mum, try and be a bit more blatant about your favoritism.”

“Sorry, love,” she apologizes, winking, “It’s just that Louis usually texts once a week or so, and it’s been too long, really. I’ve been worried about him.”

Harry blinks. “You text?”

“Louis texts me too,” Gemma adds, proudly, “The derpy pictures he sends of you are golden. I’ve got blackmail for years.”

“I honestly cannot believe this,” Harry groans, looking around the room at his apparently traitorous family, “Does Louis message you too, Robin?”

“Er no,” his stepdad replies awkwardly, “but he did send me a very nice card for my birthday a few months back.”

Harry might actually pass out, or die, or both.

Die from passing out, if that’s medically possible.

“So, enough mindless chatter,” his mum says, barely containing her excitement, “Tell us about your lovely little London adventures with ‘my favorite’, as you say.”

“There are no tales for me to tell, unfortunately,” Harry replies, and his mum’s face falls instantly.

“What did you do?” Gemma asks, narrowing her eyes, voice suddenly suspicious and accusatory.

“Nothing,” Harry replies, quickly, “I just haven’t seen Louis in a while, that’s all. We’ve both been so busy and–”

He’s cut off by his mum’s mobile ringing shrilly from within her purse on the kitchen table. She digs it out and checks the caller, announcing ‘Oh, it’s Zayn! My second favorite!’

“No, don’t answer–” Harry shouts, just as she taps the screen and holds it up to her ear.

“Hello, Zayn, darling,” she says brightly.

“–that,” he finishes lamely, resisting the urge to fling himself out of the nearest window.

Gemma’s still glaring at him from across the kitchen, and he rushes away to the sitting room to hide (in anticipation of the tongue-lashing he’s about to receive).

About fifteen minutes later, he hears his mum calling for him.

It sort of sounds like church bells tolling, he thinks glumly, and hopes his will is up to date.

“Harry!” she yells again, and he can tell just by the subtle change in the tone of her voice that he’s really in for it.

“Yes, mum?” he replies, slinking into the kitchen guiltily.

The tension in the room is palpable as both women glare at him with the full, combined force of their disapproval.

His mum opens her mouth to begin, but Gemma beats her to it with a loud “What on earth were you thinking?”

Harry blinks, and then launches into his own tirade.

“I’m a twenty-one year old financially independent adult. I own my own home, multiple homes actually, and I pay taxes and I work and what not,” Harry shouts, “I think I’m allowed to make my own decisions regarding my love life!”

He looks to his mother for support, away from his sister’s steely eyes.

“Well yes, dear, normally I would agree with that,” his mum replies carefully, “However, I do think that, as your mother, I’ve the right to point out when certain decisions you’ve made happen to be … erm… appallingly foolish, as it were.”

“What our mother is trying to say,” Gemma continues, folding her arms across her chest, “is that you’re an idiot.”

“Mum!” Harry protests, but the woman just shrugs helplessly.

“I’m afraid your sister’s spot on, darling,” she remarks hesitantly, “That was a fairly accurate– though slightly cruder– summation of what I meant to convey.”

“Feel free to explain yourself,” Gemma says, “though it won’t do you much good, as Zayn’s already given us a very detailed breakdown of your apparent plummeting spiral into lunacy.”

“Easy Gem,” his mother warns, though there’s little heat behind it.

He sighs, running a hand through his tangled curls (back in a quiff these last few weeks at Margaret’s insistence).

“I’m in love with Louis,” he begins carefully, and Gemma and his mum just nod like this isn’t shockingly new information.

“Yeah, donut, we’re aware,” Gemma replies shortly.

“And he’s in love with me, too, apparently,” Harry continues, “but I didn’t know that until very recently and it sort of came two weeks after he told me he just wanted to be friends which was kind of, like, devastating to hear? So I might’ve…”

He pauses, lowering his voice, and mumbling, “sleptwithsomeotherpeopletotryandforgetabouthim?”

Gemma has both hands in the air, yelling, “Oh my god, mum! I cannot believe you gave birth to this!”

“Hey, it’s not my fault!” his mum argues, “Blame the dumb gene on your father. It certainly didn’t come from me!”

“I’m right here, you know?” Harry interrupts, pouting.

“Oh, we know,” the two women answer simultaneously.

They both laugh briefly, glares returning in full force once they make eye contact with him again.

“So, what’s your plan?” Gemma asks, raising an eyebrow.

“What plan?”

“Your plan to get Louis back, darling,” his mum explains slowly.

“I can’t,” he replies, sighing.

“What do you mean you can’t?” his sister spits.

“I mean I can’t,” he says again, emphasizing his actual inability, “Not right now, at least. In six days, I’m leaving here and being flown straight out to Paris to start promo for the tour. That’s all of April and then the tour starts the month after from May to July. Even if I left here early to ‘get Louis back’ which I can see in both your eyes you’re about to suggest, I’d have only a few days with him before I’m gone for four months. I really don’t think that’s fair to either of us, to hope for reconciliation and then spend more than a hundred days apart.”

Gemma sighs, looking torn.

“What about after the tour?” she asks, “Could you contact him then?”

“Theoretically, yeah,” Harry answers, “I have a break from July through January where I’ll be in London recording my next album and prepping for my tour of the States the following year.”

“So do it then,” his mum urges, “Right when you get back.”

“Mum, that’s four months from now,” he argues, the reality of it starting to really set in, “Who’s to say that Louis will still feel the same way about me after all that? Who’s to say he even still loves me now, after I’ve fucked up so royally?”

“Language,” his mother hisses, but she says it more sadly than anything.

“If it’s meant to be, it will be,” Gemma says gently, “You know, fate and all that. Maybe, at the very least, you could learn to be friends again?”

“Have you tried texting him?” his mum asks, after a moment.

He feels his heart sink to the pit of his stomach.

“Zayn said he’s had his number changed or disconnected or something,” he replies, after a moment, “Pretty clear sign of how he feels about me, don’t you think?”

“Oh sweetie,” she replies, hugging him tightly, “I still think you’re an idiot, but a poor, soppy, sad one who deserves some cuddles nonetheless.”

“Mum!” Gemma argues, “You’re getting soft.”

His mum pulls away, regarding him with pitying eyes.

“Now, enough of this heartbroken nonsense,” she instructs after a moment, moving to grab some plates from the cupboard, “Robin’s made a nice pasta dish and we’re all going to sit and eat it like a normal family. Gemma has to make the drive back to Manchester tonight so we can’t dawdle.”

“Can I pretend I’m not related to that one?” Gemma mutters, motioning in his direction.

“You’ve already spent twenty-four years of your life doing so, darling,” his mother replies, plating the pasta, “I’ve no power to stop you now.”

Harry’s resulting “Heyyy” in protest is ignored by everyone except for Robin, who leans over and whispers, ever so helpfully, “You know, I quite liked Louis. Listen to your mum.”

Harry groans and whips out his phone to send Zayn an accusatory text.

I thought u said u weren’t getting involved? ??

Zayn replies not a minute later.

Oops… :)

“No phones at the table!” his mum scolds before he can reply.

And yeah, Harry thinks, rolling his eyes…

Sure is great to be home.

& L &

Louis and Niall spend the rest of the day in Niall’s flat watching ridiculous rom-coms (because apparently there’s a marathon on, how wonderful!) and eating take-out right from the box.

Around six, there’s the sound of someone jiggling on the door handle, startling both of them out of their full-stomached stupor. Niall shoots up, looking suspiciously nervous.

Just then, the door unlocks with a click and none other than Eleanor Calder walks in, dressed in high-waisted black trousers, red heels, and a white blouse with her hair in a complicated–but fly-away free as always– bun sort of thing on the top of her head.

“Evening babe,” she’s saying, back turned as she takes off her jacket and shoes near the door, “Work was all meetings today. I’d kill for a nice massage.”

She whirls around opening her mouth to continue addressing Niall, but freezes immediately, cheeks flushing with guilt.

“Louis,” she blurts as she sees him, eyes widening comically, “I can explain. I–”

“Niall already told me,” he replies bluntly.

“Oh, um, good,” Eleanor says after a moment, still looking sheepish.

“Well, yes, um, right,” she continues, voice suddenly all business, “Since you’re already here… I was going to call you later but… I guess I can tell you now that the request went through for your next collection. You’ll be expected to give a press conference– obviously– upon its official public release but, by this time in June, Louis Tomlinson will be a published author.”

Niall is gaping next to him, eyes wide. “You’re losing the pseudonym?”

“Yes,” he and Eleanor both say at the same time.

“Wow, big step mate, congrats!” Niall replies, slapping him on the back.

“Yeah,” he replies, blushing.

He looks up, meeting the publicist’s eyes, and she’s smiling back at him affectionately.

“Thanks El,” he says softly.

She plops down on the bed next to him, releasing her hair from her top-knot so that it falls down her back in pretty waves. He can, maybe… objectively… see why Niall might go for her. El’s kind of bloody gorgeous, in her own womanly way.

“I’m proud of you, darling,” she replies, putting an arm around him.

“Me too, Lou,” Niall agrees, grabbing around him from the other side.

Louis shudders.

“I’ve always wanted to be the gay filling in a heterosexual love sandwich,” he comments drily.

“Oh, shut it,” Eleanor remarks, leaning across him to press a wet kiss to Niall’s cheek.

Niall’s blushing and Louis just feels ill.

“I’m going to go,” he says quickly, as Niall’s eyes darken perceptibly at the hungry look Eleanor is giving him, “Thanks for having me, Ni, and for picking me up this morning.”

“Where were you this morning?” El asks suddenly, pulling away from Niall’s grabby hands with concern.

“In a teepee in Kensington Gardens, don’t worry about it,” Louis explains, ignoring her puzzled look and heading for the door.

He grips the doorknob, then pauses, turning around to address Eleanor once more.

“Since when do you live in London, by the way?” he questions.

Eleanor flushes once more.

“Since I left Paris on a whim six months ago, bought an apartment here, and,” she pauses, looking over at Niall with hearts in her eyes, “found a reason to stay.”

“Aww, babe,” Niall coos, leaning in and–

Louis’ honestly never fled a room faster.

“I’m sorry that I asked!” he calls as he exits, “You both disgust me!”

& Z &

“How is any of this Louis’ fault?” Liam is saying, and Zayn rolls his eyes.

“I never said it wasn’t Harry’s fault, alright?” he argues, “I said, if you were listening–which you weren’t– that they’re both idiots and therefore both responsible for this mess. I feel like that’s fair, don’t you?”

Liam glares back at him or, well, the closest approximation to a glare that his boyfriend can manage which is… not exactly that threatening.

“Li, c’mon, let’s not argue,” he requests, “There’s nothing we nor either of them can do now, what with Harry about to leave for all his tour stuff.”

Liam looks away, biting his lip.

“And you,” he says, softly.

Zayn blinks.

“Li, is this what all this hostility is about?” he asks, laughing.

The schoolteacher whirls around, brown eyes dark and unnerving.

“I don’t appreciate that you’re laughing about this,” he says icily, “Some of us are going to miss you.”

“Who? Perrie?” Zayn teases.

“Shut up,” Liam mumbles, plopping down next to him on the leather sofa.

“Liam, I’m not going,” Zayn says, eventually, unable to hide his grin.

Liam sits up and stares back at him, mouth hanging open.

“Say that again?”

Zayn laughs harder.

“Liam, I’m not going.”

He watches as the other boy’s eyes flicker in confusion.

“I don’t understand?”

“I don’t work for Harry, babe,” Zayn explains, “I work for the record label.”

“But all that stuff you do for him? Like scheduling and what not?” Liam protests.

“I take care of a lot of shit for Harry, yeah, but that’s because he’s an idiot and I’m his best mate who cares about him too much, not because I’m, like, employed by him or anything.”

“So… not leaving?” Liam asks with wide, hopeful eyes.

“Not leaving,” Zayn confirms, pressing a chaste, close-mouthed kiss to the schoolteacher’s lips.

“Not leaving,” Liam mumbles happily against him.

Zayn attempts to snuggle into him, but the schoolteacher leans away and promptly smacks him on the arm, hard.

“Hey!” Zayn protests, scooting to the other end of the couch to avoid another beating.

“I can’t believe you let me believe that for so long!” Liam yells, “You’re awful.”

“I wanted it to be a surprise!” Zayn argues, still rubbing his ‘injured’ shoulder in mock offense.

“I hate you,” Liam mutters, refusing to make eye contact.

“No, you don’t,” Zayn says matter-of-factly, scooting closer, “You loooove me.”

“Nope, not true,” Liam replies sternly, though Zayn can see the smile he’s trying to suppress, “I lied. I don’t love you at all. Not even a little bit.”

“Good thing you’re a horrible liar, then,” Zayn remarks, wrapping his arms around the other boy.

Liam relents almost immediately, leaning back to press his lips just under Zayn’s jawline.

“I’m glad you’re staying,” he says softly, “Really.”

“Me too,” Zayn affirms, tilting his head back to give Liam better access to his neck.

“Mm,” Liam replies, pulling away abruptly, “but I’m still worried about Harry and Louis.”

Zayn groans, pushing himself back up to a sitting position.

Apparently heartbroken best mates are the world’s worst cockblock, he thinks with a roll of his eyes. Fantastic.

“Like I said, Li,” he explains, rolling up the sleeves of his red henley with a sigh, “there’s nothing we can do at this point. Harry will be back in July, and maybe then he and Lou can meet up and work something out.”

“You’re right, of course,” Liam replies, stretching his legs out in front of him, “but couldn’t we do something then? To help speed up that meeting? God knows they won’t agree to it on their own.”

Zayn ponders that thought, as Liam does make a good point. Harry and Louis are both such idiots in love that it’d be silly to expect them to fix it all by themselves.

“July,” Zayn affirms, standing up to go and grab a drink from the kitchen.

Liam smiles softly.

“July.”

& L &

Let's start at the end
Becoming strangers once again
Or maybe that's all we ever were

April

Louis stops watching gossip telly.

He breathes.

He heals.

He goes to Jaymi’s wedding and cries, a lot.

(He also drinks a lot, but that’s to be expected, really.)

Niall keeps him entertained, taking him out to dinner at least once a week and making sure that Louis ascends to stalker-groupie status by attending every single one of Cactus Casino’s gigs all over the bloody country.

He puts the hot pink office chair in the back room; he can’t bring himself to throw it away but, at the same time, he can’t continue to ponder its emptiness and all that it implies.

Liam texts him ‘r u ok?’ at least once a day until Louis threatens to change his number (again).

Louis does a lot of things in April: reads books, sells books, paints the door (dark green), buys groceries and a pair of Alexander McQueen boots that he never wears but likes to leave on the welcome mat anyhow, stacks books, ignores Ms. Beasley’s pitying gaze when she comes to visit, scrapes the paint off the door, buys more groceries, returns the boots, watches Notting Hill fifteen times over the course of four days, repaints the door (blue), takes long walks in the rain dressed in all black because he’s mourning, almost gets hit by like six cars because he’s dressed in all black because he’s mourning, has dinner with Jaymi and his new husband Olly, cries a lot after that, thinks about investing stock in Kleenex, watches Notting Hill for a sixteenth time…

Yes, Louis does a lot of things in April.

He manages to fill thirty entire days with trivial, meaningless activity.

(But he doesn’t write.)

& H &

'Cause I'm irrelevant
You'll be fine without me
And it's evident, it shows

May

“Your tour officially kicks off in Paris, tomorrow, Harry,” the interviewer is saying.

She’s leggy, blonde, and very French, and he’s supposed to be flirting with her– the PR team had prompted him just before– but he can’t help but regard both the woman and her predictable questions with an air of vague disinterest.

“Are you excited?” she asks, leaning a bit closer.

Her perfume is strong and smells like apples.

Harry sighs, missing spicy sandalwood and cinnamon, but he blinks the memory away with a more practiced ease than in his last interview in Madrid.

The woman there had been shorter and curvier, with tanned golden skin and a brown pixie cut obviously engineered just to torture him. Harry may or may not have spent most of the interview gaping at her and salivating– more at her likeness to a certain poet-slash-bookkeeper than at the woman herself– but salivating nonetheless. Management, predictably, had been thrilled with his performance that time.

“Yes, of course,” he replies, finally answering her question with a weak attempt at a smile, “I love performing, and it’s definitely exciting to give my fans in other parts of the world an opportunity to share the music with me.”

The translator seated next to him babbles his answer to the viewers in rapid-fire French, and Harry shifts uncomfortably, already wishing that this interview was over.

“What do you miss the most while you’re away?” the interviewer asks.

Her lips are very red, he notices, not like Louis’ which are a nice salmon color, soft and orangey-pink and–

“My family,” Harry lies easily, cutting off his own thoughts before they can impede his answers.

The audience aww’s loudly and exaggeratedly, and Harry just barely suppresses an impatient eye roll before continuing.

“I don’t have a lot of opportunities to see them while on tour,” he explains, “but I do try to have them flown out for at least one show, and I Skype with my mum and stepdad back in Holmes Chapel and my sister in Manchester as often as I can.”

“Isn’t he sweet?” the interviewer coos, and the audience cheers in agreement.

Harry sucks in a breath and wills himself to be patient.

“So, Harry,” she continues, tilting forward to expose her ample cleavage to him, “what about the French girls? What do you think of us?”

The audience cheers again.

“Well, I think all girls are lovely,” Harry replies, dutifully ignoring the eye-level breast display, “and I really try to promote the message that how a woman feels about herself shouldn’t be determined by how a man feels about her.”

The interviewer is staring back at him blankly.

“So… erm… if you think you’re hot, then I do to,” he continues, cringing internally as the interviewer laughs along with the girls in the audience.

“Well you must think I’m very hot, then,” the interviewer teases, winking at him.

Harry groans.

“Maybe,” he replies blandly after a moment and watches as the woman frowns in confusion.

The rest of the interview goes on much the same way, with Harry doing his best not to indulge the interviewer’s blatantly flirtatious nature.

He’s not surprised, as such, when he gets a call not a moment after he’s left the set.

“What is wrong with you?” Margaret hisses loudly, and he can actually picture the displeased purse of her lips, her long nails clacking against the mahogany desktop angrily…

“I’m serious, Harry!”

He grimaces, holding the phone away from his ear.

“What happened to our agreement?” she continues, reprimanding him, “You were supposed to flirt with Colette, not spend the entire time on the other end of the sofa ignoring her advances like some goddamn asexual.”

Harry frowns. “That’s highly offensive and politically incorr–”

“Do you think I care?” Margaret continues icily, “What do I have to do to get you to work with me here? You were so complacent, so easy to direct, before that stupid poet came along. You signed an agreement, Harry, or have you forgotten? You’re not allowed to be in love with him; I’ve told you this a million times before. It’s bad business to be gay, and all you’re doing is making my job harder and harder.”

“I’m not gay,” Harry protests, “I’m pan–”

“I don’t care if you’re sexually attracted to fucking dolphins,” Margaret shouts, cutting him off once again, “The public thinks you’re a womanizer, that you change sexual partners like you change your underwear. That’s our goal, that’s our marketing plan. That’s what sells, Harry! Do you understand me? That’s what sells. Not you, not your music, but the idea that we’ve spent literal years planting into every teenage girl’s head. The idea, may I remind you, that you’re singlehandedly dismantling and destroying with each subsequent interview in which you act bored and disinterested and don’t employ the charm that I know you possess.”

She pauses, taking a deep impatient breath, before she spits out her final blow, “Or has your poor broken heart diseased your personality as well?”

Harry feels his blood begin to boil at Margaret’s ignorant and demanding words.

“Listen, I think I should have a say in all of this,” he argues, “You don’t own me.”

Margaret just laughs, and Harry swallows at the pure contempt he hears within it.

“Here’s the fun part, popstar,” she replies and her voice exudes a controlled but venomous rage, “I do own you. I’ve got a nice little contract sitting right here in my office that says that I have full control over how you appear to the public, and your record company has a similar little contract in their office that says that they have full control over what the public hears you sing. So you can go ahead and argue and pout and be as uncooperative as you wish, but it doesn’t change the fact that you, and everything you do, are simply the property of someone else, myself included.”

“I won’t be treated like this,” Harry ripostes, looking up to see the crowd of teenage girls surrounding his hotel in the distance.

“I’m sorry,” Margaret replies shortly, “but I’m afraid that’s not in your contract.”

Before he can reply, he hears the short beeps signally that she’s disconnected the call. He tosses his phone across the back of the car with a growl of frustration, ignoring the cracking sound it makes as it ricochets off the glass of the back window.

The tears start to stream down his face without warning, and he laughs bitterly, wiping at them with the back of his hand. He can hear the screams of the fans outside as they approach the hotel and forces himself to adopt a watery smile in preparation for the assault.

“Are you ready to exit, Mr. Styles, or would you prefer a moment longer to yourself?” the driver asks knowingly through the partition.

“A moment please, thank you,” Harry replies softly, choking back another loud, frustrated sob.

“Of course, sir,” the driver replies, and steers the car straight past the hotel to make another long loop.

Harry snatches his– thankfully intact– phone from off the floor and dials Zayn, immediately launching into a bitter tirade the moment the other boy answers.

“I hate her, I hate her so much,” he yells, tears clouding his vision.

“H, please don’t cry,” Zayn replies soothingly, once he’s finished, “Dragon Lady is wrong, you know; you’re the artist. You’re her source of income, not the other way around. She’s just threatened because she knows that your contract with her expires at the end of this tour. Then you’re free to find someone else to manage you, someone who will let you be who you want to be, or at least treat you like an actually human being and not a boob-gazing bag of money.”

“But what if she’s right, Z?” he protests, hiccupping loudly, “What if coming out ruins everything?”

“It’s up to you decide what’s more important to you,” Zayn states plainly, “Your fame or your happiness?”

Louis, Harry thinks bitterly, Louis’ what’s important to me.

The realization nearly shatters his resolve once more, but he bites back the words.

“Thank you,” he says, softly, before hanging up the phone, “Tell Liam I said hello.”

“I’m sure he’ll be happy to hear from you,” Zayn replies, voice softening in the same way it always does whenever he talks about the quote, unquote ‘love of his life’.

“Take care, H.”

Harry sighs, tapping the red end button and burrowing himself deeper into the corner of the car’s leather-covered interior.

“Once more around?” the driver asks, and Harry nods before remembering that the man can’t actually see him.

“Once more.”

& L &

You consume my thoughts
I'm not sure that I'm in yours at all
Your mind is too far gone to see

June

“Can you explain the meaning behind your pseudonym, Mr. Tomlinson?” a reporter shouts, trying her best to be heard above the din of the press room.

There’s a murmur of agreement as the cameras continue to flash.

“Yes, of course,” Louis replies, speaking into one of the twenty microphones in front of him, roped together like a bouquet of flowers

“William is my middle name,” he explains, “so that bit was easy, and Sodi happens to be a Hebrew surname for ‘my secret’. I mean, I’m not Jewish or anything, I just liked the way it sounded, and the meaning of course was appropriate as well.”

The reporter nods once, thanking him.

“Um, yes?” he requests, pointing to a dark-haired woman in the back row of seats.

“Mr. Tomlinson,” she starts, with the same excited urgency.

“Louis, please,” he corrects gently.

“Louis,” she amends, “I’m with the New York Times.”

He smiles and nods for her to continue, still not used to the attention the press has given him since his collection was published just a week before.

“William Sodi’s collections have received both extensive critical and public praise, and have been featured many times at the top of our poetry bestseller’s list,” she lauds, and Louis can feel himself start to flush, “How have you dealt with the onset of fame from such an early age?”

“Well, I’m incredibly vain, first off,” Louis jokes and the room fills with laughter, “No, I’m kidding, of course. I mean, any author loves to hear great things about themselves and what they’re doing, but I’ve been publishing my work since I was seventeen years old and at that point I certainly wasn’t receiving ‘extensive critical and public praise’ as you phrased it.”

He chuckles a bit awkwardly, recalling his lame attempts at having his poetry published in his uni’s newspaper.

“Fame is really weird,” he continues, and the reporters all laugh again.

“I’m serious!” he says, earning a few more chuckles from the crowd, “It’s really, really weird. You know, you live your life hoping that you’ll be recognized by someone, anyone, for what you love to do, whether it’s your job, your hobby, whatever. It’s human nature to crave that recognition; that acknowledgement, no matter how subtle it is, that we’re doing a good job.”

He looks out into the crowd, spotting Niall leaning against the back wall. The Irishman grins and gives him a thumbs up, and Louis flashes him a warm smile in return.

“But suddenly, when there are millions of people interested in what you do, hurling compliments at you and buying your books and such, it… it almost feels artificial, in a way. You start to doubt yourself, start to think that everyone’s just out here pretending to like you because all their friends and family like you, and what if all their friends and family are just pretending as well because the magazines and newspapers told them to like you? And what if the whole world is just lying to you and you’re not really famous at all? It’s hard to appreciate your own work when you’re not sure what’s real and what isn’t. If it’s just ‘in style’ to read William Sodi or watch a certain television program or wear a certain brand of trainers, et cetera.”

“I’m kind of not answering your question anymore, I’m sorry,” he says, addressing the Times reporter.

She shrugs and replies, “My next one would’ve been why you chose to write under a pseudonym, so that’s perfectly alright.”

Louis nods, picking at a loose button on the cuff of his starched white dress shirt.

“Um, yes,” he continues, “You see, I started to focus on all the criticism instead of the praise, because there was a lot of praise and it all felt, like I said, a bit fake to me. The criticism, on the other hand, was very real, and it felt genuine and tangible and, and more accessible than the praise ever was. I’m much better at hating myself and my work than I am at receiving compliments for it. I liked being William Sodi, in the beginning, because I felt detached from it all, like ‘oh they don’t like my writing, they like William Sodi’s writing’ and it was easier, then, to avoid succumbing to the pressure I was under. Louis Tomlinson would never be the one disappointing them; it was always Sodi’s fault, in the end.”

“What changed?” someone asks, and there’s another murmur of agreement.

Louis swallows. “Well, I started to hate William Sodi after a while. I began to focus solely on the fact that no one knew how much of liar I was. And soon, the resentment I had toward my alter-ego per say, transferred to myself. I felt like a fraud, like the things that I was writing about weren’t real experiences but just products of my stupid imagination.”

He looks down, biting his lip.

“But then, I–” he starts, voice cracking a bit, “I had someone very close to me read the collection I published just before this, Keep Me Closer–the last one under my pseudonym– and this person… well, they reminded me that I was good enough, that I was William Sodi and that all the praise that he was getting was praise that I, myself, deserved. And I realized, then, that I was tired of hiding, of letting my fragile self-esteem get in the way of my success. So, about a week later, I called up my publicist and told her that I wanted the next collection that I released to be my own. And she agreed instantly, contacted the publishing house and that was it, really. Louis Tomlinson was born.”

There’s a loud rumble as the press processes this, and he sees Eleanor in the back next to Niall mouth ‘one more question’ with a tap of the watch on her wrist.

“Um, I think we have time for just one more?” he states, and can’t help but feel shocked by the number of hands that go up.

His eyes flick through the crowd before settling on a tall blonde man with a friendly smile.

“Yes, how about you?”

“Hi, I’m from People Magazine,” the man replies in a distinctly American accent.

Louis cringes immediately. People had been the first to start reporting on he and Harry’s rumored romance, likely causing all of this mess in the first place.

“We were wondering,” the reporter asks, teeth arranged in a blindingly white smile, “if your very high-profile friendship with fellow famed Brit, Harry Styles, served as any sort of inspiration for your most recent poems?”

Louis can see Eleanor frantically waving her hands and mouthing ‘no comment! no comment!’ but he ignores her, taking a short jagged breath.

“Harry was, is, one of my closest friends,” Louis says, choosing his words carefully, “and I’d be lying if I said that a lot of my writing wasn’t inspired by what… transpired between us.”

The room erupts into loud shouts and even more frantic camera flashes.

“Many of your poems are about lost love. Are those the ones he inspired?” someone asks.

“Is the dedication about him as well?” calls another.

Louis can see Eleanor glaring at him, arms crossed over her chest. He just smiles back at her, and dismisses the press politely in the way that they’d previously agreed upon.

“I’m afraid that’s all the time we have. Thank you for coming, and for your interest in my writing, of course. Red and Green is available for purchase in all major bookstores and on Amazon.com.”

He smiles again beatifically, holding up a copy of his book for a few more pictures, and then steps out from behind the podium.

“Thank you again!” he says brightly, waving as he exits the room and blatantly ignoring the frantic shouts for comments on his ‘failed romance’.

“I can’t believe you,” Eleanor hisses, whirling around to glower at him as soon as they’re alone again.

“What did I do?” Louis asks innocently.

Eleanor just laughs bitterly, saying, “I’ve got to go and bribe the press, now. I don’t have time for this.”

She stomps out of the room just as Niall enters.

“Hey babe,” he greets cheerily but an angry grumble is all he gets in response.

Niall blinks for a moment, considering, but seems to deem chasing after his practically homicidal girlfriend not worth it and just shrugs good-naturedly instead.

“What a turn out!” he says to Louis excitedly, once the door has slammed shut.

“I know,” Louis replies, flushing red once more, “I just can’t believe all the publicity this collection has generated.”

“Same incredible writing,” Niall enthuses, “Just a different name.”

“Oh, stop it, you sap,” he mutters, pulling Niall in for a long hug.

“I’m so proud of my baby,” Niall says, pretending to wipe his eyes as they break apart.

Louis just laughs and bats him playfully on the arm.

“I’m proud of me too,” he agrees, but feels the thought of his success tug his lips into a frown, “I just wish I could’ve thanked the person who convinced me of this in the first place.”

Niall gives him a stern look.

“Hey now,” he warns, “What did we agree upon?”

Louis sighs, quoting back, “If you’re really trying to get over him, you need to stop pitting his worth against your own.”

Niall nods, wrapping his arms around Louis a second time.

You did this, Lou,” he reminds gently, “Not Harry, not Eleanor, not fucking William Sodi. You.

He releases Louis from the hug, but his hands reminded gripped on either shoulder.

“Hey, look at me,” Niall says, and Louis lifts his eyes up to meet the Irishman’s own, “I love you, and I’m proud of you. So pump up your self-esteem, get that frown off your face, and let’s go celebrate!”

Louis relents, grinning softly.

“Will there be alcohol involved in this celebration?”

Niall just gives him a look as if to say ‘do you even know me at all?’, and Louis laughs brightly, feeling really, genuinely happy for the first time in a while.

“That’s the spirit! Weyhey!” Niall shouts.

“Weyhey!” Louis shouts back, grinning and allowing himself to be led out of the smaller conference room and toward the hotel bar.

He plans on toasting to his success (many, many times), getting piss drunk, and not remembering it all in the morning.

Excellent times, for Louis Tomlinson these days, truly excellent times.

& H &

And in your excellence
I forgot I used to have my own
You won't even notice that I'm…
Gone

July

“Thank you, Brussels!” Harry shouts into the mic, grinning from ear to ear as the crowd roars back at him.

He blinks as the spotlight crosses over his face, blinding him for an instant.

“You’ve been amazing! Goodnight!”

He takes a step back onto the pressurized platform behind him and feels it sink down at his weight, slowly dropping him back under the stage.

The screams continue long after he’s disappeared and found his footing on the lower level, removing his in-ear and high-fiving the members of the crew as he passes by.

“Hey, popstar!” Josh greets, drumsticks still in hand, “Sick show!”

“Thanks mate! You too!” Harry shouts back, adrenaline high coloring his mood, “That drum solo at the end was insane!”

Josh just laughs, smiling back at him brightly.

“O2 next week, mate,” he reminds, as if Harry could’ve forgotten, “London!”

“London,” Harry repeats, savoring the taste of the word on his tongue.

Home.

& Z &

“Do you have the tickets?” Liam asks.

“I do.”

“And did you call the others?”

“I did.”

“So are we ready to put this plan into action?”

Zayn smiles knowingly.

“I believe we are.”

& L &

It’s Saturday and Louis wakes up luxuriously around noon.

He walks to the American-style diner located just down the road and orders a massive late breakfast, ignoring the fact that the place is full of one-hundred percent more squealing teenage girls than it usually is.

Suddenly, his phone rings loudly, the chorus to Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” filling the diner with shrill guitar licks. None of the girls even pause in their conversations, and Louis spares a moment of silence for the doomed future generations.

“Hot for Teacher” means Liam is calling, obviously (as Louis’ phone rings off the hook nowadays with all sorts of offers, commissions, and requests for interviews, he’s found it necessary to give all his friends and important contacts their own personalized ringtones).

He answers with a sigh, swallowing down a large bit of his cheese and mushroom omelet, “Hello?”

“Louis, hi!” Liam says, loudly, “I’m so, so glad I got a hold of you.”

“Why?” Louis asks suspiciously, glaring at his orange juice.

“Zayn’s disgustingly ill, throwing up everywhere,” Liam explains, “but we were meant to go to a concert tonight for our ten-month anniversary.”

“That’s too bad, Li,” Louis sympathizes, “I have heard there’s a nasty stomach bug going around. Are you just spending the night in together with Zayn then?”

“The stubborn prick won’t let me,” Liam replies, sighing loudly, “Says the tickets were too expensive to let go to waste.”

Louis lets out a loud sigh of his own, seeing exactly where this is going.

“I’ll go to the concert with you,” he says brightly, trying to hide his reluctance.

“You will?” Liam replies shrilly, in apparent surprise at Louis’ suddenly charitable nature, “I mean, um, great! That’d be amazing, Lou. Zayn will be thrilled.”

“No problem, Li,” Louis says, “but are you sure Zayn will be alright on his own?”

“No, I’m not,” the schoolteacher replies shortly, and Louis can tell the couple has already argued over this at least once before Liam’s call, “but if he dies choking on his own vomit, it’s his fault not mine.”

“Hey!” Louis hears Zayn protest loudly in the background.

“Don’t hey me, mister!” Liam yells back, “It’s your death wish!”

Louis hears a clunk as Liam sets down his phone and starts to bicker with Zayn full force.

He sighs and takes a long sip of his tea.

“Sorry about that, Lou,” Liam says after a minute or so, “Can you believe him?”

Louis makes a noncommittal noise, not wanting to be in the middle of the argument.

“Anyway,” Liam continues, “the concert starts at eight, so I’ll pick you up around seven or so?”

“Sure,” Louis acquiesces, “Sounds good.”

Liam ends the conversation with an overtly cheerful goodbye, which is… odd. But then again it’s Liam, so Louis just shrugs away his suspicions with a roll of his eyes.

He pockets his phone, going back to eating his eggs in silence and glaring at the loud, giggly teenagers around him like the bitter old man he’s apparently become.

He briefly wonders what concert Liam is dragging him to, but decides against a quick google search as he’s likely to be disappointed with a listing for some orchestral thing at the Barbican or a ballet or an opera…

Zayn and Liam are much too cultured for his simpler tastes.

And so he settles with being surprised.

And he finishes his eggs.

& Z &

“He bought it,” Liam says giddily, hanging up the phone.

“He bought it?” six voices ask in unison.

“He absolutely bought it,” Liam affirms, “and he didn’t even ask where the concert was.”

“He’s going to be so incredibly pissed at you, Li,” Niall replies from his place on the couch.

Zayn laughs from where the two of them are sharing an armchair, hugging Liam closer to his chest.

“This might really work,” Gemma calls from the kitchen, where she’s currently grilling up the Styles family’s famous fajita recipe.

“If we actually pull this off…” Eleanor says, plopping down next to Niall and shaking her head in disbelief.

“We’re counting on Louis not murdering Liam before they get in the venue, though,” Josh points out, voice filtering through the speakers of Zayn’s computer, “That seems a bit risky to me.”

 “We could drug and blindfold him,” Perrie proposes, seated to Niall’s left.

Six pairs of judgmental eyes are turned on her at once, and she shrugs.

“It was just a suggestion.”

“I feel like we’re all members of some underground organized crime ring,” Zayn comments.

“I don’t think there’s anything illegal about this plan,” Liam teases, poking his chest playfully.

“Nothing nefarious going on here at all,” Gemma agrees, carrying in a large bowl of grilled chicken, onions, and bell peppers. She darts back into the kitchen and returns not a moment later with a plate of tortillas and even more bowls containing all the toppings.

“Alright Camp Harry,” Niall announces a few minutes later, through a large mouthful of guacamole and cheese, “Status report.”

“He’s been an uncooperative asshole all day,” Josh replies, his frowning face filling up the Skype window, “Yesterday, he spent the entire flight telling me how excited he was to be going back home, but as soon as we got here he turned into a bitter old hag. I’m pretty sure they cut rehearsals short today because the black storm cloud brewing over his head was threatening to short circuit the electrical system.”

“It’s true,” Gemma concurs, curling into the plush armchair in the corner with a plate of her own, “Mum and I went to visit him at the venue this morning and the first thing he did was look at me and mouth ‘don’t say a word about him’. Him meaning Louis, obviously. He didn’t even hug my mum hello, just grunted some lame rehearsed line about how excited he was to be performing at the O2 again and what not.”

 “Nice,” Niall enthuses, “Sufficiently miserable. And Camp Louis?”

“I had lunch with Louis yesterday,” Perrie supplies between bites of tortilla, “He was putting on one of those awful fake demeanors like someone at a funeral, you know what I mean?”

She’s met with six blank stares.

“Like there’s a dead person in the other room but he’s got a smile on and keeps saying generic little things like ‘Oh, nice weather we’re having’ and ‘I’ve been keeping myself pretty busy, considering’. Then, he asked me if I’d ever seen the movie ‘Notting Hill’.”

The entirety of Camp Louis groans in unison.

“I know right?” Perrie says, grimacing at the memory, “I said I hadn’t which was a huge mistake, mind you, as he then proceeded to narrate the entire movie for me line by line. All I could do was smile and nod along for literally an hour. It was terrible, like having a pity lunch with a lonely old person.”

The group nods sympathetically and Perrie takes another large bite off her plate, looking stricken.

“Three days ago, Louis woke me up with a phone call at like three in the morning,” Liam reports, “He was at a club and totally smashed, and I had to wake Zayn up too so we could drive out there and give him a ride home.”

Everyone’s eyes turn to Zayn who just lets out an agonizing sigh at the effort of it all.

“Anyway,” Liam continues, “he must’ve had vodka, like a lot of vodka, because that always turns him into a whiny, mopey drunk instead of a fun one.”

“He spent the entire ride home crying on my shoulder,” Zayn adds, and Liam nods along solemnly, “Kept saying ‘I miss him, I miss him, he was my best mate’ and the like.”

“Still heartbroken, great!” Niall comments, setting his empty plate on the table with a loud belch.

“Niall, really?” Eleanor hisses, and he responds with a shrug and a wet smack on her cheek.

“So, we’ve got two lonely dejected parties,” Niall summarizes, ignoring the glare his girlfriend sends his way, “and one, two, five… seven! Seven co-conspirators bent on changing that. Ladies and gents, the odds are in our favor!”

“I don’t think that’s how that works,” Josh says, laughing, “but it is optimistic nonetheless.”

“Right, so, let’s go over the plan one more time,” Liam says excitedly, ignoring the rest of the group’s loud groaning.

“But we’ve been planning this for almost a month now,” Perrie whines, “We all know the plan backwards and forwards. If Josh died, I could literally execute his role without a problem.”

“Hey!” Josh protests, glaring at his girlfriend with mock-offense. She just laughs, waltzing up to the laptop to purse her lips near the camera.

“Oh, c’mon guys,” Gemma urges, “Liam’s right. We all want this to work perfectly, don’t we?”

Everyone nods begrudgingly and Gemma smiles, satisfied.

“Alright Liam,” she says, “Lay it on us.”

& H &

Harry’s kind of in a horrible mood.

The ride from the airport to the hotel this morning had been particularly awful with every familiar sight they passed triggering yet another painful memory.

They’d gotten stuck in traffic near Camden and he’d barely resisted flinging himself out of the vehicle and sprinting in the direction of a certain bookstore inhabited by a certain bookkeeper-slash-poet who he’s kind of, definitely still in love with.

He’s been anxious all day, wondering if Louis will be somewhere in tonight’s sold-out crowd and then dismissing the thought each time it arises with a hissed ‘why would he be?’

He’s ninety-nine percent certain that one of the sound guys overheard him talking to himself earlier, and cringes in anticipation of the article that’s sure to come out tomorrow about his rumored drug addiction.

He sighs loudly, glancing at his haggard-looking reflection in the dressing room mirror.

Lying down on the small sofa pressed against the far wall, he reaches down to dig the already worn copy of Louis’ latest poetry collection out of his duffel bag.

He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw Red and Green on the shelf of some random newsstand in an airport convenience stop in France. He was shocked even further when he saw ‘Louis Tomlinson’ printed at the bottom. He purchased it in a moment of weakness, feeling awful and pathetic and regretful about the whole thing until he finally convinced himself to crack the book open and read the dedication printed neatly in the center of the first page:

To my favorite Miley Cyrus impersonator (ha!):

‘Five days and we’re lovesick’
You’ll never know just how right you were.

Xx

Lou

He’d broken down in tears at that, locking himself in the tour bus for a day and a half to read the entire book cover to cover, and twice over again.

He’s barely made it to page ten this time, however, when there’s a loud knock at the door and the stage manager calling through it.

 “Mr. Styles. It’s show time.”

He closes the book reluctantly and sets it on a side table, checks his hair in the mirror as a reflex (though Lou Teasdale, his stylist, did it up not an hour before), and lets out one nervous breath.

“Mr. Styles?”

“Coming!” he shouts.

What if he’s out there?

Another quick peek at his reflection, a loud sigh, and he’s out the door.

Why would he be?

& L &

“Hi,” Liam greets cheerily as Louis slides into the back of the cab.

Louis breathes a sigh of relief as he sees that Liam is dressed in casual attire similar to what he’s chosen for himself. The schoolteacher had given him no instruction as to the level of formality of the concert and Louis had spent hours debating between a hundred different possible outfits: from ripped jeans and a band shirt to last Halloween’s sexy cop costume. He’s immensely happy to notice that Liam is clad in simple dark jeans and a plaid flannel and not a full-piece tuxedo or something (which he had also considered at one point before casting it into the ‘least likely’ pile along with Sexy Cop and his green spandex morph suit).

“Hello,” Louis replies carefully, noting the way that Liam’s foot is tapping anxiously against the floor of the cab.

“How are you?” Liam asks, and the slight hint of uncertainty in his voice is enough to convince Louis that something is definitely up.

“I’m good, yeah,” Louis says, slowly, “Where are we off to then?”

“It’s a surprise, of course,” Liam enthuses, “If I told you, that’d ruin it!”

“I hate surprises,” he grumbles in response.

Liam just smiles tightly. “Well, here’s hoping you won’t hate this one.”

& Z &

LP: we’re on our way. are you guys there yet?

ZM: yeah, pez and i are already inside

LP: what about josh and niall? have u heard from them?

NH: i’m parked right outside the venue, northwest side like we agreed

GS:  last i heard josh was getting warmed up backstage! my mum is in her seat already and i’m set to join her soon

LP: i think louis’ a bit suspicious, but he hasn’t picked up on the route yet

ZM: just get him here and inside, that’s the hard part

NH: corralling him and harry after the show won’t exactly be a walk in the park either

GS: just be prepared to drive fast enough that they can’t throw themselves out lol

ZM: who knows? they might be desperate enough to try that anyway aha ! ;)

LP: ZAYN!

ZM: relax Li, i’m just kidding! nothing could possibly go wrong

NH: yeah, sure Z, this plan is practically foolproof

GS: hey, let’s hope so!

NH: good luck everyone, remember to keep each other updated

LP: eta 10 min or less, see u soon!!

& L &

The cab comes to a halt and the look he casts Liam’s way is definitely murderous.

“What the fuck is this?” he asks, gazing out the window as hoards of scantily clad teenage girls pour into the massive O2 arena.

“Please, Lou, just trust me here,” Liam begs, eyes wide and nervous.

Louis sighs loudly, opening the cab door and climbing out. He ignores the way Liam continues to twitch beside him, prattling on about nothing and everything as they approach the entrance. Liam holds out their tickets to have them scanned and they’re making their way to their seats not a minute later.

Louis had mumbled something about getting food or maybe some concert merch or whatever, but Liam had immediately blurted ‘No!’ with a panicked expression and tugged him hurriedly into the venue space before he could argue any further.

Zayn wasn’t lying about the seats being expensive, Louis has to admit, as Liam loudly announces that they are ‘seats H and I’ in the third row.

“And here we are!” Liam says, breathing out a “wow, we’re close” with little stars in his eyes.

“Close for what?” Louis asks, and he can see Liam’s resolve begin to crumble.

“Um, excuse me,” a voice says from behind him, and an accompanying hand taps his shoulder lightly.

Louis turns around to see a young girl of about sixteen or seventeen standing before him in the fourth row, smiling nervously.

“I don’t mean to bother you but… are you Louis Tomlinson?”

He smiles at her, nodding. “Yeah, love, nice to meet you.”

“Um, wow, nice to meet you,” she replies, “Are you here to see Harry? I mean, that was a dumb question, of course you’re here to see Harry. I just… are the rumors true? Wait, don’t answer that, I’m being obnoxious, sorry!”

Louis smile becomes suddenly strained as he realizes what he’s been tricked into.

“It’s alright, you’re not bothering me at all,” he reassures the embarrassed-looking fan before him, “and yes, I am here to see Harry.”

He tacks on a hissed, under-his-breath ‘apparently’ for the benefit of the traitorous company next to him. He watches in his peripheral as Liam shrugs and mouths ‘sorry’ without looking particularly apologetic about any of it.

“Oh, oh great!” the fan says brightly, “I’m a huge fan of both of you two, so this is, like, incredible!”

Louis smiles tightly. “Do you have a favorite poem, then?”

“Snow and Dirty Rain,” she replies immediately, and Louis cringes, “Your most recent collection is just gorgeous, really. I can’t believe you didn’t publish that poem earlier.”

“It didn’t quite fit with anything I’d written before,” Louis explains, patience waning, “but, just between us, it’s one of my favorites too.”

“Wow,” the girl breathes, “This is surreal, like, just standing here talking to you I mean.”

Louis blinks.

“What’s your name, love?” Liam interrupts, saving Louis from saying something standoffish that he’d probably feel guilty about later.

“Jenna,” she answers slowly, a little puzzled by the sudden interjection.

“Well Jenna, how would you feel if I could get Harry to give a shoutout to you during the concert?”

The fan’s, Jenna’s, eyes grow wide and her jaw drops down to the floor.

“Seriously?”

Liam grins, “Seriously.”

“Um, yes!” she replies, voice going up at least half an octave, “That’d be really, really cool.”

“Well, then consider it done,” Liam replies, winking.

“Wow,” Jenna breathes again, whipping her phone out and making a call that involves a lot of shrieking.

Louis sighs as Liam turns back around and sits down in ‘seat I’ with a bright grin plastered on his face.

“I actually hate you,” Louis says shortly, just as the lights dim and a million banshee-like screams fill the air.

“I know,” Liam replies but he’s still smiling, eyes focused on his phone as he taps out a text (to Harry, probably).

“I don’t know what you’re planning but I’m one-hundred percent sure that I’m not going to like it,” Louis says disdainfully, frowning.

Liam just smiles again furtively, laughing at whatever message he’s received in response.

“Who knows? You might.”

& H &

The opening act is a band from Australia who Harry discovered one day while idly browsing through random covers on YouTube.

They’re loud and charismatic and loads of fun to be on tour with, and their music is just the sort of catchy poppy stuff that gets the crowd even more pumped up before he comes on for the main set.

Heartbreak Girl’ ends and Callum’s shouting his thanks to the audience as the band exits the stage.

“Hey, good luck, mate!” Ashton says, slapping his back as he hurries by.

“Last show of the tour!” Michael remarks, hugging him quickly, “Smash it!”

Harry takes a deep breath as the crew moves him into place.

What if he’s out there? his mind suggests, one last time.

He shakes his head and steels himself as the platform begins to rise.

Why would he be?

(I wish he were.)

& L &

Louis realizes, as the screams intensify, that he’s never actually seen Harry perform, not live at least, and his heart starts to flutter in chest.

He shakes his head, trying to clear away the thought, and looks on as a single spotlight illuminates a hole in the stage where Harry will, presumably, arise like some sort of popstar Jesus and spread his gospel to the thousands of waiting worshippers currently crowded into this arena.

“Are you excited? I’m excited,” Liam shouts to be heard over the din.

“I can’t believe I fell for this.”

Liam laughs loudly. “I can’t either mate, but you’re stuck here now!”

Louis opens his mouth to retort, but suddenly the shrieking grows exponentially and Harry is appearing from beneath the stage with a bright, dimply grin pasted on his stupid face.

He looks good, really good, dressed in a simple black t-shirt and his tightest pair of black jeans.

The music starts up, loud synthesized keyboard sounds and guitar riffs, as Harry speaks into his mic and addresses the crowd.

“Hello London!” he booms, laughing at the audience’s frenzied reaction, “Wow, it’s amazing to be back here tonight, I’ve got to say.”

He pauses, looking pensive for a moment.

“Lots of things I missed about London… a few people, too.”

Louis swallows, looking down at his shoes.

“I was thinking,” Harry continues, walking across the stage to address the other half of the stadium, “that we might start things off with something a little upbeat.”

“What do you think, love?” he asks, bending down to put his microphone near the lips of some blonde fan in the front row.

“Fuck me, Harry!” she shrieks and Louis feels a familiar, irrational flare of jealousy even as Harry raises an eyebrow and jokes, “Sorry love, don’t think I’ve got that on the set list for tonight.”

“I was thinking,” he continues, standing back up and motioning to the band behind him, “that I’d do a little ‘Best Song Ever’. How about that?”

The girl to Louis’ left shrieks her approval, but he just groans at the suggestion.

‘Best Song Ever’ is one of Harry’s overtly poppy, made-for-radio singles that has had Louis changing the station in a panic since the summer started. That apparently doesn’t stop the popstar from performing it live, however, as the band launches into the intro with a flourish

“Maybe it’s the way she walked,” Harry sings, voice low and gravelly, following up the line with a theatrical “OW!”

By the time he reaches the chorus, Liam has his hands in the air, singing along loudly.

“Liam,” Louis hisses, embarrassed, but the schoolteacher isn’t paying him any attention.

“Said her name was Georgia Rose!” Harry’s singing, strutting around the stage and bending down occasionally to swipe across the fans’ hands reaching out from the front row.

“God, what a tune!” Liam yells to him, “This is sick!”

Louis just glares back.

“You look like a five year old.”

“Sorry!” Liam shouts back, “Can’t hear you over the incredible time I’m having!”

“I said you’re a child,” Louis yells, glowering.

“And you’re a buzzkill,” Liam retorts, screaming just as loudly as the teenagers around them when Harry pauses to sing to a girl in the section to their immediate left.

Louis rolls his eyes, biting back his next comment and plastering a fake smile on his face.

He might as well pretend to enjoy himself for an hour or two.

It’s only that long until he gets to leave, after all.

& H &

Harry’s enjoying himself, despite his nagging conscience about what’s still in store.

His voice feels strong, no sore throat or itchy dryness, the home crowd is amazing and super responsive, and he got texts from Zayn and Liam, Perrie, and even Niall earlier so he knows that at least most of his friends have come out to see him live.

Plus, his mum and sister are somewhere in the audience as well.

It’s not a bad last show, overall, really.

But, he thinks as he pops out of sight for a quick wardrobe change, he’s the only one who knows that it’s about to get a hell of a lot messier.

& L &

Harry disappears and returns a few minutes later wearing a similar pair of ripped jeans paired with what appears to be another black t-shirt, though this one does have lettering of some kind. It takes Louis a moment to notice that Josh is wearing the same exact t-shirt that Harry has on, and that both have the words ‘Cactus Casino’ emblazoned on their fronts in hot pink ink.

He laughs genuinely, envisioning how pleased Niall will be to hear about this.

“Shoutout to Jenna, by the way,” Harry says cheerily, as he adjusts his in-ear.

Louis hears a shriek come from several different directions and, yeah, apparently Jenna is a fairly popular name.

“Thank you,” he hears behind him, followed by Liam’s cheerful “You’re welcome!” in response.

Well, at least someone’s happy.

“So, I know that the next song on the list is ‘Half A Heart’,” Harry continues, smiling at the crowd’s resultant cheers, “but I wanted to do something a little different tonight, since this is the last concert of the tour and conveniently located in my favorite city in the entire world.”

The screams are deafening as a stagehand scurries out and hands Harry an acoustic guitar.

“This is a little something new that I whipped out a few weeks ago,” he says, sitting down on the stool that has appeared onstage behind him.

He strums a chord, fiddling with a few knobs on the instrument, before continuing, “I wrote this song for someone very close to me, and I hope that they– you know what, fuck it– he doesn’t mind that I’m borrowing some of his words for just one night.”

“There’s a really great poem by Shelley called ‘Music, when soft voices die’ and the last few lines go something like ‘And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone/Love itself shall slumber on’ and that might mean something to some of you in the audience tonight, and maybe none of you, I dunno. I’m being a bit cryptic, I know, but anyway I… I hope he gets to hear this.”

Louis feels like he might pass out as Harry starts plucking away a soft, melodic introduction.

“Did you plan this?” he asks, turning toward Liam with a lump in his throat.

Liam just looks back at him, mouth agape, apparently as equally confused as he is.

“Well, we planned something,” Liam explains, gawking up at Harry onstage, “but it certainly wasn’t anything this elaborate.”

“They can try to separate us and tear all we have apart,” the popstar croons, “but we are the crossroads, my little outlaw, and this is the map of my heart.”

“Is this really happening?” Louis whispers, suddenly overcome with emotion.

“I think so, yeah,” Liam replies, though he sounds just as disbelieving, “Harry is actually singing you a love song right now.”

“Harry’s singing me a love song,” Louis mutters, transfixed, “Liam, I… I think Harry’s in love with me.”

“Of course he is,” Liam says a moment later, eyes glued to where the popstar is standing up and making his way down the long catwalk as the girls on either side swoon all around him. He’s still quoting bits of ‘Snow and Dirty Rain’ interspersed with what are apparently his own lyrics, the song written to thread them all together.

It takes Louis a moment too long to realize that Liam’s still speaking to him and, when he finally tunes back in just in time to hear the last of the teacher’s words, he’s left with only a confusing, out-of-context fragment of the conversation:

 “Always has been.”

& H &

The rest of the concert passes uneventfully (though Harry can’t help but remain paranoid and hyperaware of the crowd’s reaction to the rest of the songs after his little surprise performance).

He ends the set list with ‘Happily’– one of his personal favorites that he had a hand in writing, upbeat and sentimental and a massive crowd-pleaser– then returns a few minutes later for an encore of his very first single ‘What Makes You Beautiful’.

“Massive thank you London!” he shouts, taking a bow along with the rest of the band, “It’s great to be home!”

He’s backstage in the blink of an eye, still a little dazed by the incredible performance he’d been able to put on.

“Don’t forget the end of tour party tomorrow evening!” a crew member is shouting as he walks by, “If you can stick around London for another day, it’s sure to be a good time!”

“Hey, great job kid,” someone else says from behind, patting him on the back.

Harry whirls around to say a few words in reply, but bumps right into Josh instead.

“We’re done!” Josh cheers, “I mean, I’m sad, but London! Home!”

Harry laughs, slinging an arm around his drummer and pulling him in close to ruffle his hair.

“I know how you feel, mate,” he agrees, slapping Josh’s back playfully.

“So,” the drummer starts, “any plans after this?”

Harry sighs, running a hand through the awful quiff they’ve got him wearing again.

“Well, the big celebration’s apparently not ‘til tomorrow night,” he explains, “so I might just head home actually… like home home, my actual house…” He laughs. “Wow, it feels good to say that!”

“Yeah it does!” Josh cheers again, smiling brightly, “Hey, listen. Niall’s waiting just outside the venue to take me out for a drink. You’re welcome to come with us, if you like?”

Harry bites his lip, considering.

Just as he’s about to decline the offer, he makes the fatal mistake of looking into the drummer’s wide, hopeful eyes.

“Yeah, I guess,” he relents, shrugging his shoulders, “It’s not like I’ve got anything else on.”

Josh’s grin grows even larger as he excitedly instructs Harry to meet him at one of the back stage doors in about fifteen minutes.

Harry sighs, heading toward one of the sound technicians to turn in all his mic stuff.

That done, he enters his dressing room to change into something a little less soaked with perspiration. He’s packing up his things as quickly as he can, not wanting to keep Josh waiting, when his hand brushes against the worn cover of his copy of Louis’ book.

He thinks back to the song he’d performed not an hour before, hoping that someway, somehow– through Twitter or Tumblr or a bloody carrier pigeon or something– it finds its way to its target audience.

Maybe he was out there, his mind suggests fancifully.

Harry shakes his head, clearing the thought away and roughly shoving the book in with the rest of his things. He stops a passing crew member, handing her his bags and asking, “Can you ensure that these find their way to my house?”

She nods quickly, muttering an obliging “yes, of course” and Harry grins, patting her on the back with a hurried “great, thanks!”

He darts away, locating the door that Josh had mentioned a few minutes later and smiling as he notices the man himself waiting next to it, holding bags of his own.

“Ready popstar?” the drummer asks, matching his grin.

“As I’ll ever be,” Harry teases, following Josh out to wear Niall’s car is idling on the curb.

& Z &

JD: phase one complete

NH: excellent. where r the rest of u lot?

ZM: perrie and i are heading out to the park rn. nasty traffic tho

NH: josh did u know that harry was gonna sing that song?

JD: no! i don’t think anyone did judging by the chaos it caused backstage.

GS: i’m taking my mum home now! good luck to u all :)

GS: oh and she still can’t believe H sang to lou haha. she’s all weepy back here!!

ZM: well, that sure sped our plan along! has louis realized that harry loves him now?

LP: i thnk so yah! ive got lou w me & hes all stary eyd in disbelef

NH: harry’s getting restless in here. hurry up li!

LP: on our way!!

& L &

“Well, that was fun wasn’t it?” Liam asks as they walk out of the venue.

“Yeah, sure,” Louis replies distractedly.

His thoughts are all muddled and soupy, and he thinks this is quite possibly what is referred to as an out-of-body experience. He feels airy and light, like he could simply float away if he wanted to (if it led him to Harry, then of course he would).

The only thing his mind can focus on is the slide of callused fingers on steel strings and Harry’s voice singing his words back to him, husky and pained:

My dragonfly, my black-eyed fire, the knives in the kitchen are singing for blood…

It's a fairy tale, the story underneath the story, sliding down the polished halls, lightning here and gone…

I made this place for you. A place for to love me…

Here I am leaving you clues. I am singing now while Rome burns…

He doesn’t notice that Liam has led him in the opposite direction of the taxi rank until they’re suddenly standing in front of a secure gated area.

“Liam, what on ear–” he starts to protest, but Liam shushes him and types out another message on his phone. Moments later the gate swings open and an anxious-looking Josh Devine is waiting on the other side.

“Josh?” Louis asks, “What are you–”

“No time to talk, Lou!” Josh says quickly.

The drummer grabs his left arm while Liam grabs his right, and suddenly Louis is being manhandled toward a familiar-looking car parked on the street corner.

“Let go of me!” Louis shouts, struggling against them.

“No can do, mate!” Josh replies, opening the door of the car and shoving Louis into the backseat.

“Have a nice trip!” Liam calls, slamming the door shut.

The car speeds away from the curb quickly, taking Louis with it.

& H &

Harry’s sitting in the backseat of Niall’s car and tapping his foot impatiently.

Josh had gotten in with him originally, but panicked when he’d realized that he’d forgotten his wallet in the room where the band had unpacked their instruments.

“I’ll be right back!” he’d called, running back inside, “Won’t be a minute!”

That was at least ten minutes ago.

“Where is he?” Harry grumbles, stretching out in the backseat with a loud yawn.

“Dunno,” Niall replies, meeting his eyes in the rearview mirror, “He was meant to be quick.”

Suddenly, the door is yanked open and a body comes crashing inside, right into Harry’s lap.

“What the fuck?” a familiar voice curses, and Harry is quickly pushing the body off of him and scurrying to the far side of the car in a panic.

“Louis?” he ventures, hoping for all the world that Josh has just suddenly decided to adopt a Yorkshire accent.

“Harry?” the voice replies, questioning, and there goes that theory.

Harry watches as Louis sits up, straightening his rumpled clothing, and blinking to make out the passengers of the vehicle in which he’s just been unceremoniously tossed.

“Oh my god,” Louis groans when he meets his eyes, “That’s what Liam meant by a plan. I can’t believe this...”

“What do you mean plan?” Harry asks tentatively, “Zayn texted me earlier and nothing seemed suspicious.”

Louis blinks. “Zayn’s at home sick so he wouldn’t know, would he?”

“Um no,” Harry argues, “Zayn was at the show tonight?”

Louis doesn’t say anything for a long while.

“Shit bloody fucking bugger bollocks fucking–”

“Whoa, easy there!” Harry says, reaching out a hand to settle the suddenly madly swearing boy beside him, “What’s all this about?”

“Liam and Zayn and Josh and god knows who else,” Louis starts, breathing heavily, “They tricked us into being here together.”

“Took you long enough,” Niall calls from the driver’s seat, chuckling.

Harry and Louis both turn away from each other to glare at the amused Irishman.

“Niall, where are you taking us?” he and Louis ask in unison.

Niall just laughs nervously.

“Um, please keep all hands and feet and bodies in general inside the vehicle at all times, thanks.”

“What does that even mean?” Louis asks exasperatedly.

“Just don’t fling yourselves out of the car, alright?” Niall explains, er, shouts, voicing going up an octave.

He glances back at the two of them in the rearview mirror with wide, anxious eyes.

“Niall,” Louis says threateningly.

“Yes, Lou?” Niall replies innocently, though his voice is still rife with fretfulness.

Harry looks back and forth between the two of them, still not exactly sure of all that’s going on.

“Can someone please just explain to me what’s happening?” he asks finally, the tension in the car quickly escalating to an uncomfortable level.

He’s met with a heavy silence.

“Alright then,” he says icily, leaning back in anticipation of what is likely to be a long, unpleasant journey ahead.

& Z &

NH: the prisoners are in transit

LP: prisoners niall? rly?

NH: fine. h & l are in my car rn and were on our way :/

& L &

About half an hour later– half an hour that Louis’ spends staring pointedly out the window and ignoring the anxious popstar sat beside him– the car comes screeching to a halt.

“We’re here!” Niall announces abruptly, “Get out!”

“What?” he and Harry say at the same time.

“You heard me!” Niall says, “Bye!”

He turns to look at Harry who simply shrugs, and the two of them climb out of the car.

As soon as the door has been shut, Niall and Mully speed off into the distance.

“Hello, confused-looking lovebirds!” a voice says cheerily, and Louis spins around to see Perrie perched on a concrete pillar at the entrance to a very familiar park.

Zayn is next to her looking intimidating, but he remains silent.

“I feel like we’re in a bad mafia movie,” Harry remarks.

“Not quite!” Perrie replies, still grinning.

Her hair is a light lavender color as of late and it contrasts brightly against the dark night sky. She’s dressed in a white flowing dress that makes her look young and fairy-like.

“I’ve got a guess,” Louis comments, “Is it a poorly executed, modern adaptation of A Midsummer’s Night Dream?”

“Nooo,” Perrie answers, shaking her head and swinging her legs back and forth daintily.

“Pity,” Louis mutters under his breath, just loud enough for Harry to hear, “I would’ve loved to see one of them kiss an ass.”

Harry snorts loudly, and then whispers, “I’m pretty sure Zayn does that all the time.”

Suddenly they’re both laughing, practically guffawing with abandon, and Louis’ heart flutters at the feeling of having Harry so close to him once more.

“Excuse me,” Perrie interrupts loudly, and they both look up at her whilst still trying and failing to suppress their snickering, “I’m supposed to give you some instructions.”

Louis nods, motioning for her to continue.

“Right, so, we’ve brought you both here so that you will, hopefully, discuss your differences. It’s been like four months and you’re both miserable and you’re making the rest of us miserable with all your miserableness, so stop it.”

She pauses, looking at Zayn next to her.

“Just fix the mess you’ve made,” Zayn says, rolling his eyes, “It’s getting ridiculous.”

“Exactly,” Perrie affirms, “Now, please just talk to each other or make out or something, unless you want to spend ten years trying to figure your shit out like in When Harry Met Sally.”

“Louis would make a nice Meg Ryan,” Zayn jokes, though his face remains as impassive as ever.

“Are you going to stay here and listen in?” Louis asks, still skeptical of this whole mess they’ve apparently been referring to as a ‘plan’.

“Oh no, we’re going,” Perrie replies, hopping down from her perch, “We just had to make sure that you were actually going to talk it out and not kill each other first.”

“I have no immediate plans to murder Mr. Styles here,” Louis assures her, winking at Harry.

The popstar laughs softly. “And unfortunately my serial killer habit is that I only commit homicides on Wednesdays.”

 “Hey, looks like your plan might work out after all,” Louis remarks.

“Yeah, great,” Zayn says flatly, and then he and Perrie are walking down the sidewalk in the opposite direction.

When they’ve finally turned the corner and moved out of sight, Louis turns to Harry, sighs, and asks, “Teepees or pirate ship?”

Predictably, he receives an odd look in return.

“Beyond those gates is the playground in Kensington Gardens,” he explains, “So, teepees or pirate ship?”

“Louis,” Harry hisses, pointing to a nearby sign post, “it says right here, very clearly I might add, that the Gardens close at dusk and that unaccompanied adults aren’t allowed in the children’s area at all.”

Louis pouts. “Aww is Harry Styles afraid of a little trespassing charge?”

“Yes, he is, actually,” Harry replies, looking stricken, “and Louis Tomlinson should be too.”

“Too bad he isn’t,” Louis teases, taking a step back and clearing the short fence in one graceful flying leap.

“Louis, come back here!” Harry whisper-yells, voice panicked, “You’re going to get in trouble!”

“Harry, join me!” Louis calls back, imitating the popstar’s uneasy tone, “You’re going to get in trouble as a witness or a participant, either way!”

There’s a long pause.

“Fine, okay, fine!” Harry acquiesces.

Louis looks on as the younger boy takes a few steps back, leaps, and… falls miserably short, toes catching on the top of the wrought iron spokes and causing him to end up flat on his face in the grass on the other side.

“Holy shit,” he says, though he can’t help the laughter that bubbles out of him, “Holy shit, Harry. Are you alive?”

The lump that is Harry Styles just moans from its place on the ground.

Louis hurries over and helps the popstar back up to his feet.

“Maybe,” he says, still chuckling, “maybe this bench right over here will suffice. I’m not sure I trust your coordination enough to get you all the way to the playground.”

“Shut up,” Harry mumbles, though underneath his fallen mop of curls there’s a faint smile.

“Here we are,” Louis announces, making a show of helping Harry sit down on the bench beside him.

It’s illuminated by a nearby streetlamp which Louis points out, saying, “Look, it’s all lit up and everything. You can’t possibly injure yourself on this one.”

Harry shrugs him off, laughing, “Stop it. I’m not an elderly person.”

“You might as well be,” Louis teases, “What with that weak jump you executed just moments ago.”

Harry just shoulders him playfully and sticks out his tongue.

There’s a prolonged silence as Louis’ laughter fades away.

“So,” Louis says, not sure where to begin.

“So,” Harry supplies, just as helpfully.

Louis swipes a hand through his fringe, suddenly aware of the building awkwardness between them.

“I… erm… I saw your show tonight?” he says, lamely.

“Yeah?” Harry asks, perking up a bit beside him.

“Yeah, you, uh… you wrote me a song.”

“Ed helped,” Harry counters, shrugging, “You wrote me a poem.”

“Actually, I wrote you a book,” Louis corrects, and watches the way Harry’s eyes light up in recognition.

Ah, so he has read it then.

“You wrote me a book,” Harry repeats, smiling dazedly.

“You wrote me a song.”

“Book beats song, for sure.”

“But you have more fans than I do.”

“How do you even measure that?”

“You don’t. I just know.”

“Then your argument is based on an apparently subjective statistic,” Harry argues, “I win.”

“What, no!” Louis disputes, “You literally just risked your career because you lo–”

He cuts himself off, looking down at his shoes.

“Because I what?” Harry asks softly.

Louis sighs, hyperaware of the popstar’s large hand sliding ever closer to his own on the bench space between them.

“You wrote me a love song,” he says simply.

“You wrote me a book of love poems,” Harry replies, shrugging once more, “We’ve been over this once already, I think.”

Louis bites his lip, deciding that he can’t possibly fuck this up any more than he has already.

“Harry, I’m in love with you,” he blurts, then holds his breath waiting for a reply.

Harry blinks once, twice, cheeks turning pinky orange under the lamplight.

“I know,” he says after a moment, and the air whooshes out of Louis’ lungs, “It was bookmarked in that collection of Shelley’s works you gave me.”

“I meant to tell you that morning, you know,” Louis starts, unable to meet the popstar’s eyes.

“Louis, listen, you have to know that I’m so so incredibly sorry for what happened,” Harry says immediately, “I was an idiot. I am an idiot, still, very much so.”

Louis turns back toward him, raising an eyebrow in surprise.

“Remember that day that you came back from bloody France?” Harry asks, and Louis nods; that awful morning is still very much preserved in his memory.

 “I still can’t believe you literally left the country to avoid speaking to me, by the way,” Harry adds, and Louis mumbles a ‘shut up’ in response, nudging against the younger boy’s shoulder with a fond sort of malice.

“You said that I was your best mate and that that was all you wanted me to be,” Harry continues, running a hand through his curls anxiously, “I was so completely smitten with you at that point that I would’ve literally gotten down on my knees, er, again to try and convince you otherwise. However, I was also still incredibly cross with you from that morning after my birthday party, so I didn’t argue, didn’t fight for what I knew, deep down, I really wanted.

I told myself that I would be whatever you needed me to be, in any capacity, so that I could have a part in your life no matter how small or insignificant it was to you. That’s how much you meant, how you much mean to me, Louis. I was so terribly enamored with you that I would’ve laid down in front of the bookshop and served as your welcome mat, if you’d asked me. So I settled for being your friend, because that’s what you told me you wanted.”

Louis watches dumbly as Harry licks his lips and picks at a ripped patch on his jeans.

“It still hurt though,” the popstar continues after a moment, “not being loved by you, I mean. It was terrible and I was selfish, and I told myself that I was content with being your friend when my heart just couldn’t bear the idea of anything less than having you as my own. So I didn’t contact you, and I started sleeping around, trying to... to convince myself that I was just in love with the idea of being in love, that I could fall for anyone at any time and be just as happy with them as I was with you. But I… I just wasn’t.

Ian, the guy you ran into that morning that you brought the book over, he was it for me. I planned on kicking him out and heading straight over to yours to try and mend our friendship the best I could, but the doorbell rang and he ran down to answer it instead and I guess you saw him and ran away and I… there was nothing I could do. You changed your number and Niall was sending me threatening texts telling me to stay away from you and Zayn wouldn’t do a thing to help me, so I… I ran away too. I went back to Holmes Chapel that afternoon and listened to my mum and sister wax poetic about you, asking how you were and what sort of adventures we’d been having together… And it was awful– trying to escape you, I mean, only to realize that you hadn’t just infiltrated my life in London but my life back home too. You were everywhere, Louis, and I was terrified.

After I told Mum and Gem what had happened, they spent an hour shouting at me and telling me what an idiot I was for ever thinking that I could just forget about you, like I could somehow get the love I had for you fucked out of system. I sort of just gave up after that because I knew that there was no way you could ever forgive me for what I’d done and–”

“Harry,” Louis says gently, interrupting the popstar’s (admittedly overdue) explanation for his behavior, “I forgive you, alright? You’re a massive idiot, yeah, but I forgive you nonetheless, because– and this may come as a surprise to you– I’m also a massive idiot…”

He takes a breath, gazing out into the darkened copse of trees just past the radius of the lamplight, “…who happens to be massively in love with you.”

“Idiots in love,” Harry replies softly, sliding across the bench until their thighs are pressed close, “That’ll be my next single, I think.”

Louis chuckles, reaching out to cross the remaining distance between them and laces his fingers with Harry’s own. His heart flutters erratically when the younger boy doesn’t pull his hand away.

“I spent three months on tour reading your stupid book over and over again like a fucking masochist,” Harry says tenderly, and his voice sounds so horribly broken that Louis’ own heart is aching with it, “I’ve read it so many times I can recite the dedication and the first ten poems by heart. I pictured your face staring back at me in every crowd, from Paris to Barcelona to the bloody O2 this evening; everywhere I went, no matter how far, all I thought about was you, and what I would do if you were there with me.”

“Trust me, love, I wasn’t any better off,” Louis replies, squeezing the younger lad’s hand in comfort, “It took me nearly all of April to put your stupid pink spinning chair in storage. I just stared at it for days on end, picturing you in it like some sort of lovesick mirage. Also, I watched Notting Hill sixteen times in like a week.You don’t even want to know how May through July went for me.”

Harry gapes at him. “Sixteen times?”

“Sixteen times over the course of four days,” Louis affirms, “and that was just April.”

Harry snorts. “Louis, I… why?”

“It’s a quality film, c’mon!” he argues, ignoring the way that Harry’s head has fallen onto his shoulder to muffle his laughter, “Excellent storyline, strong performance by a young Hugh Grant…”

“You watched it because it reminded you of us,” Harry manages to coo through his giggles, sitting up to regard Louis with a fond look in his eyes, “Aww Lou, that’s so romantic.”

“Shut up,” he protests, acting affronted, “That’s not why I–”

“I’m your Anna Scott,” Harry interrupts teasingly, “and you’re my William.”

“Listen Styles, you’re a–”

“We met in your bookshop and fell madly in love, spending a few miserable months apart before Fate inevitably intervened, and our nutty bunch of friends helped to reunite us just in time.”

Louis maybe, accidentally shoves Harry off the bench.

“Oops,” he calls down at him, laughing loudly and proudly, until Harry’s hand in suddenly wrapped around his wrist and tugging him down as well.

He falls on top of the popstar with a thud, and they both let out a simultaneous groan. When he gets a hold of his senses, he’s met with Harry’s face not six inches from his own, gazing back up at him owlishly and wearing a dimply sheepish grin. Even in the twilight the popstar’s eyes are a familiar, sparkling green, and his lips are red, cherry red just like Louis remembers.

(It’s Christmas in the middle of July.)

“Hi,” Harry says softly, biting his lip.

“Hi,” Louis replies, breath catching at the way their chests are pressed together, bodies aligned perfectly (though, of course, Harry’s gangly legs extend a few inches past his own).

They’re silent for a moment, just breathing.

“Missed you a lot,” Harry whispers eventually, trailing his fingers down Louis’ forearm.

Louis shudders at both the younger boy’s touch and his words; the phrase, familiar and comforting, only serves to remind him over and over again of all the time that they’ve wasted being apart from each other.  

“A lot, a lot?” he teases after a moment, heart pounding in his chest.

The way Harry’s eyes light up tells him all he needs to know.

“C’mon, then popstar,” he says, sitting up and offering Harry his hand, “Up we go.”

The younger boy takes it and Louis helps him up, careful to guide the both of them back to the bench they’d been sharing before the whole “oops, hi” incident had occurred. He can’t help but stare once they’re seated again, admiring the way that the dim light from the streetlamp glints off the popstar’s curls and illuminates his cheekbones, casting a crooked Harry-shaped shadow across the bench and the pathway behind them.

He could spend the rest of his life, he thinks idly, beholding image after image of Harry bathed in light; from that first morning standing on the street effusing rays of golden sunshine to the long sinews of his neck traced by the spotlights of a seedy pub to right now, in the darkness, soft and beautiful under the lamp’s artificial glow and the natural light of the full moon.

“You know, this sort of reminds me of something,” Louis remarks, craning his neck to look around at the lavish garden and then down at the concrete bench they’ve been sharing.

Harry blinks. “Yeah, what?”

“Have you ever seen Notting Hill?”

“Shut up,” Harry mumbles fondly, and then he’s kissing him.

& H &

Louis tastes like he smells, Harry is happy to notice, the subtlest hints of sandalwood and cinnamon invading his senses.

He’s also happy to relinquish all control, letting the older boy’s tongue invade his mouth, small hands against his cheeks guiding their lips together…

“Louis,” he says breathlessly, after a moment, “Louis, stop.”

“Mmm,” is the reply a moment later, “Don’t wanna.”

And yeah, okay, Harry really doesn’t want him to stop either, but then again he also doesn’t want to get arrested for trespassing and public indecency when they’re caught making out in the middle of a bloody playground.

“I really want you to fuck me,” Harry blurts and that, at least, manages to capture the other boy’s attention.

“Yeah?” Louis asks from his place beside him, pupils blown wide with arousal.

Harry gives him a look, the same look he’s given him a thousand times before.

“You’re an idiot,” he says, simply, and then they’re kissing again.

Kissing Louis is like… a lot of big words all at once, strung together in some beautifully artistic way that only the boy seated across from him could possibly achieve. It’s all that he’s ever needed, everything that he’s been living life waiting to find. It’s… euphoric, Harry decides.

Euphoric.

He moves his mouth against Louis’ own in the shape of those letters and feels Louis respond in kind.

Eu - phor - ic

“Can’t believe,” Louis mumbles almost incoherently, after they’ve made for what seems like hours. He leans back against the bench with a loud sigh, continuing, “Can’t believe we wasted ten fucking months being idiots when we could have been doing that.”

“Ten months is a long time,” Harry agrees, nodding solemnly, “but we’ve got the rest of our lives now haven’t we?”

Louis blinks, his face breaking into an earsplitting grin. “I’m not entirely sure I want to spend the rest of my life with a sap as awful as you,” he teases.

“Hey,” Harry protest, doing his best angry frown, “I’m not a sap.”

Louis bursts out laughing like that’s the funniest thing he’s heard all day. “I’m sorry,” he says after a moment, pretending to wipe away tears, “but you are definitely a sap. In fact, you’re probably the sappiest sap to ever sap, ever.”

Harry frowns harder. “That’s rich coming from the man who’s seen Notting Hill at least sixteen times.”

“It’s a quality film!” Louis argues again, belting out a line from the soundtrack, “The meaning of my life is she!

Harry freezes in the middle of a laugh, looking up at the boy before him with what he’s certain is poorly concealed awe.

“I’ve never heard you sing before.”

Louis grimaces, looking stricken, “Well don’t base your impression off of that.”

He smiles softly in return. “Sing for me?”

“This has entered rom-com territory so quickly, I can’t believe it,” Louis says instead.

Harry just harrumphs, crossing his arms and pretending to be offended.

“Oh dear, is this our first fight then?” Louis teases.

Harry hums thoughtfully, pretending to consider, before replying with a low, “Only if that means make-up sex afterward.”

He looks on smugly as Louis’ breath appears to hitch in his throat.

“Harry, listen, I don’t want to create problems for you,” Louis says slowly, after regaining his composure.

Which… what?

“What do you mean?” he asks, eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

Louis sighs and lets out a string of worried complaints, “The agreement and Margaret Lancaster and your fans and your career and–”

Harry rolls his eyes and silences the boy next to him with another forceful kiss.

“Harry, I’m serious,” Louis replies dazedly once they break apart, “I don’t want you giving everything up just for me.”

But I would, I would, Harry thinks, though he bites his tongue.

“My contract with Margaret expired yesterday,” he explains instead, smiling softly, “I don’t plan on signing a new one, at least not with her anyway.”

The older boy stares back at him with wide eyes, mouth agape. “But your fans,” he protests.

“My fans can choose if they’d like to support me or not,” Harry replies easily, “I’d rather be Harry Styles: washed up popstar with an incredibly gorgeous boyfriend, than Harry Styles: sleeps with four hundred women and is a massive dickpickle but we love him anyhow because he’s sooo fit.”

“Boyfriend,” Louis says softly, blinking up at him.

“Um, if that’s okay?” he asks, panicked, “I mean, I don’t want to pressure you into anything but I’m kind of ridiculously in love with you so I thought maybe the next logical step would be if we could… erm, date? But like, obviously, don’t feel like you have t–”

“Harry,” Louis interrupts, pressing a slim finger to his lips, “Yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes,” Louis affirms, “Now let’s get out of here, boyfriend. I was promised sex, if I recall that earlier comment correctly?”

Harry laughs, helping the older boy to his feet.

“I knew you only loved me for my body,” he pouts.

“It’s true,” Louis agrees teasingly as they hop over the gate and walk to the street corner to hail a cab, “I’ve spent nearly a year putting up with your awful jokes and horrendous personality in general, just to get in your pants.”

“Joke’s on you, babes,” he counters quickly with a smug grin, “That’s my motive too. I figured if I tolerated you for just long enough, I could hit it and quit it, as they say.”

Louis swats him on the arm in retaliation but his smile remains as fond as ever, even as they climb into the awaiting cab and he rattles off his address.

“So we agree that we’ll have a quick shag and then go back to ignoring one another again?” Louis propositions, winking humorously.

“Yes, I wholeheartedly approve of this arrangement,” Harry replies in an impressive deadpan, “Who knows? Maybe I’ll even flee to France afterward. Change it up a bit, be a little original… It’ll be fun.”

Louis gasps next to him. “That was a low blow, Styles.”

Harry feels his mouth spread into a wide grin. “Missed you,” he says again. Because he did, miss him, that is; the very fibers of his being had felt hopelessly tangled and frayed without the interwoven threading of the needle-sharp boy beside him.

Wow. Now who’s the poet?

“I didn’t miss you at all,” Louis replies immediately with a petulant pout, “You’re mean.”

“You’re lying. You looove me,” Harry counters with a giggle, poking the older boy in the side.

“Nope, not true.”

“True.”

“False.”

“True.”

“False.”

“Kiss me.”

“Yeah, okay.”

& L &

By the time they arrive back at Louis’ flat, his neck is marred with bright red splotches and he’s sporting an embarrassing hard-on approximately the size of Jupiter.

(He’d tipped the cabbie an extra ten pound note as the poor chap was kind enough not to comment on Harry’s downright filthy moaning.)

Louis’ kind of never been more ready to have sex with someone in his life; which is probably why the minute that they make it inside the shop he’s spinning Harry around and pressing him against a bookshelf with a familiar hunger pulsating through his veins. It’s different with Harry somehow, though, deeper and more insistent. In fact, he could probably come from just the breathy little ‘please’s’ the younger boy keeps gasping into his exposed skin.

“Upstairs,” he urges, detaching himself from Harry’s lips reluctantly to guide the both of them toward the stairs leading up to his bedroom.

They’re halfway to the top when Harry stops suddenly, whirling around to twist out of his grasp.

“Are you sure we can’t just do it on your desk?” he teases breathlessly, “Your bed is so far away.”

Louis gasps, affronted, “Harold, please, ever heard of health codes? You act as if I don’t have customers.”

“We’ve discussed this, Lewis,” Harry ripostes, that stupid smug grin plastered across his face, “I’m still not entirely sure that you do.”

Louis doesn’t reply, just pushes the younger boy against the wall and sucks a deep purpley love-bite into his collarbone. Harry squirms against him, long arms finding their way around his neck and pulling him closer.

“Please,” Harry whines again, and that barely audible word is enough to send Louis spiraling into a new, uncharted hemisphere of desire.

They’re up the stairs and onto his bed in the blink of eye with Louis working quickly to strip Harry of his shirt and inexcusably tight jeans. Ever since that night on Halloween, he’s been literally salivating at the thought of Harry’s broad chest and long, thin torso, the pale skin hugging the gorgeous muscle toned beneath it. Now, with the popstar laid out fully on the bed before him, clad only in navy blue briefs and his lips parted wantonly, Louis feels he’s quite possibly died and gone to heaven… or, more likely, some twisted version of hell where he can only stare at the glorious image before him but never touch.

“You can touch me, you know,” Harry says softly as if reading Louis’ mind.

He spreads his legs invitingly and Louis crawls gingerly between them, leaning down to press little kisses from the shell of Harry’s ear all the way down to where a thin dusting of hair disappears beneath the elastic lining of his underwear. Harry is practically writhing beneath him already as he takes his time ensuring that his lips, tongue, and fingertips pay their homage to every last inch of the boy’s beautiful form. He traces each tattoo carefully with painstaking detail until Harry’s skin is transformed into a literal map of his desire. It’s a wide expanse of glistening boats and birds and stars all floating on an alabaster sea; mouth-sized splotches in varying shades of red, pink and purple intermingle with the starch black and white lines, like schools of tropical fish or coral reefs.

“So many women would kill to be in my place right now,” Louis thinks aloud, before leaning back down to take Harry’s nipple between his teeth, sucking lightly.

Harry sucks in a breath and giggles at the same time, though it comes out sounding more like a strangled gasp. “Wow, Lou, talk about a boner killer.”

Louis quirks an eyebrow in response, maneuvering his way down the bed to tug the younger boy’s briefs to his knees in one surprisingly graceful swoop. “Hey, it’s not every day I get to bang a popstar.”

Harry lets out another bizarre moan/laugh, his mind clearly torn between their conversation and Louis’ teasing ministrations.

“I thought you gave Robbie Williams a blowjob once?” he asks breathily, lifting up each leg to assist in the underwear removal.

“Niall told you about that?” Louis asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Liam actually, but I─”

“Shh, too much talking,” he interrupts, eyes widening appreciatively at the sheer size of the popstar’s cock lying semi-erect against his stomach. It’s thinner than his own, comparatively, but a solid inch or two longer and traced by thick reddish veins. Yeah, so, he’ll definitely be riding that at some point.

“Shit Styles,” Louis breathes, wrapping a hand around the shaft and feeling the warm weight against his palm.

“I could try to, if you’re in to that,” Harry teases, chest rumbling with the timbre of his baritone chuckle.

“Oh my god, shut up,” Louis replies quickly, stroking the younger boy’s cock in an effort to distract him.

“Yes, Daddy,” Harry says in a small, quiet voice, and Louis’ suddenly laughing so hard that he can’t even begin to focus on the dick in front of him.

“Best sexer ever or what?” Harry continues, grinning proudly, “I know all the kinks.”

Louis just shakes his head, mumbles “sexer… really?” and leans back down to take about half of Harry’s cock into his mouth in one fell swoop.

Harry goes rigid beneath him, swearing loudly; and Louis’ proud to note, as he pulls off and licks around the head just lightly tasting, that Harry’s hands are fisting the sheets so tightly that the crinkled lines have radiated down the length of the bed.

“Why are you still clothed?” Harry protests, reaching up to tug at his t-shirt.

Louis shrugs, honestly not having noticed his current state of non-nakedness. He shucks off his t-shirt and jeans quickly, returning to his place between Harry’s legs after a moment to marvel at the way his throbbing cock seems to glisten coated in his saliva. He leans down and takes more into his mouth this time, making it about two inches from the base and using his free hand to cover the remaining bit.

“Mmm, much better,” Harry mumbles, calloused hands running down Louis’ bare back. He shudders and claws at the muscle there as Louis widens his jaw to swallow him down nearly all the way.

The younger boy is quiet in bed, Louis notices almost immediately, all soft whimpers and breathy moans and those little “please’s” that send shockwaves straight to his dick and turn his brain into a lusty mush. Harry’s also unfairly beautiful like this, so wholly exposed and vulnerable sprawled across the white linen. Louis could probably blow Harry for decades, for lifetimes even; he’d love to test that theory.

There’s little sound in the room at all, which somehow makes it even more obscene as the wet slide of his mouth and Harry’s little sighs of approval are amplified tenfold. He wants Harry like this always, wants to make him come apart in his bed every night… wants to be the only one who gets to see him like this.

“Don’t want anyone else to have you,” Louis says simply, as he leaves Harry’s dick momentarily to lave across his balls with a searching tongue.

“Yours,” Harry replies instantly, head tilted back and bottom lip caught between his teeth, “Always yours.”

Louis remembers a dream: cherry red lips and mine mine mine.

“Mine,” he affirms, and then Harry’s tugging at his hair, pulling him off.

“Don’t wanna come like this. Want to come with you in me.”

Within a millisecond of Harry’s request, Louis’s reaching into his side drawer for lube and a condom.

“Is this what you want?” he asks, finally allowing himself a few quick tugs on his own painfully hard cock, “For me to make you mine?”

“Yours, yours, yours,” Harry is breathing, squirming impatiently beneath him.

“Gonna make you feel so good, babe,” Louis continues, uncapping the bottle.

“Please,” Harry breathes again, nodding, and that’s enough for Louis to quickly coat his fingers until they’re dripping and slowly circle one fingertip teasingly around the younger boy’s entrance.

“Fucking tease,” Harry gasps, and Louis grins impishly.

He breaches Harry’s tight hole with a gentle push, reveling at the feeling of the warm pressure surrounding his middle finger. Harry is tense, however, and Louis can only get about a knuckle deep before he feels Harry’s walls squeeze tightly around him.

“Relax, babe,” he coaxes, as fondly as he possibly can, pressing tender kisses to the inside of Harry’s thighs.

After a moment, he feels Harry go completely limp, letting out one long, shuddering breath; and it’s the most incredible feeling, really, to be in control… to have Harry responding like this, so perfectly pliable beneath him.

“You’re so, so good for me,” Louis whispers in praise, opening the younger boy up slowly, one finger at a time, until Harry is rutting back down against his hand with a quiet insistence.

Harry reaches out to touch himself, but something inside of Louis possesses him to grab the younger boy’s wrist and still his advance.

“Not yet,” he instructs, and is surprised when Harry obliges immediately, hand falling back down to his side and tangling his fingers in the sheets once more.

Louis works harder then, to pleasure the popstar, pumping three fingers in and out with a merciless, forceful rhythm. He twists his hand around a bit, searching, and feels his heart race in satisfaction at the loud keen Harry lets out as his fingers brush against that special little spot inside of him.

“Lou, I need…” Harry manages to choke out, and Louis looks up to see that his eyes are glistening with unshed tears.

“What is it, love?” he asks gently, though he knows full well what Harry is pleading for.

Harry looks pained for a moment, face scrunched up in concentration as Louis slowly removes his fingers. “You,” he says slowly, words syrupy and slurred, “Need you… inside… want to feel…”

“Shh,” Louis whispers, trying to remain calm and collected though he too feels as if he’s drowning in the overwhelming intensity of the intimacy between them.

He rolls the condom on with shaking hands, coating himself liberally in preparation.

“How… how do you want me?” Harry asks, voice wobbly and so, so soft.

He no longer looks twenty-one, oozing confidence and immeasurable star-power, but young and open and so unbelievably willing to please that Louis feels crushed by the weight of it. Harry had the choice of anyone, anyone in the entire world, and he’s chosen to return the affections of an emotionally unstable bitch of a bookkeeper in Camden who writes depressing poetry and jets off to the south of France to avoid discussing his feelings like the actual adult that he is.

It’s a miracle, Louis thinks, picturing Harry on the street in front of the shop awash in sunlight like an angel, his own personal savior.

(Louis doesn’t believe in God, but he does believe in Harry; has believed in him ever since the day he met him and realized that Fate had presented him with an extraordinary opportunity.

His faith is based on every fiber of the boy in front of him; each of the trillions of cells making up Harry’s body are a prayer, a line of scripture, a holy covenant that he promises to keep… All these comparisons are probably sacrilegious, he realizes, but then again… he’d go to hell and back for Harry Styles. Hell, he’d even stay there, his soul tortured and burned for eternity, if it meant a happy life for the boy he loves.)

“Just like this,” Louis says eventually, lining up with Harry’s entrance, “Want to see you.”

Harry nods, bending his knees and pulling his legs up toward his chest as Louis pushes in slowly, centimeter by centimeter, until he’s finally buried to the hilt.

“Okay?”

Harry blinks, shifting a bit before nodding, “Move.”

Louis obliges with long, slow strokes that have Harry whimpering and clawing at his back with blunt fingernails. Harry is tight, perfect heat and Louis’ head is spinning with it.

“Harder,” Harry chokes out after a minute, “Want to feel it.”

Which, yeah, okay… he can totally do that.

Louis pulls out, flipping Harry over and onto his knees, and presses back in with a choked gasp.

“God, Lou,” Harry moans, head falling down to where his forehead is resting on the comforter piled at the end of the bed.

The rest of his noises are muffled by the fabric but not any less potent, sending shockwaves straight to the sexy-times headquarters of Louis’ lust-addled brain. Harry’s pushing his ass back up to meet each well-placed thrust, filling the room with the erotic slap of skin on skin. He keeps making these delicious little humming sounds, a chorus of “mmm’s” and “ahh’s” that alternate rhythmically with Louis’ strokes like the dirtiest song he’s ever heard in his life.

When Louis finally comes a few minutes later, he swears he can see actual stars explode behind his eyes. He pushes into Harry again fully before he softens, and reaches around to tug a few times on Harry’s half-hard cock until the younger boy is coming as well with a few utterances of fuck and what sounds a lot like Louis’ name.

Louis waddles off to the bathroom to dispose of the condom and returns to find Harry still spread eagle across the sheets.

“Get up, I have to wash those,” he says, wrinkling his nose, “Gross.”

Harry stands up slowly and reluctantly, wincing a bit as he crosses the room and encircles Louis in a tight hug.

“Harry, really? Are you five years old?” Louis teases, voice muffled by the younger boy’s bare chest and massive gorilla arms, “Who hugs after sex?”

“I’m just congratulating you on a job well done,” Harry replies with a grin, and has the audacity to slap Louis on the bum and cheer “Go team!” as he makes his way to the bathroom.

“I can’t believe I’m in love a child,” Louis calls after him, shaking his head fondly.

“I always knew you were a pedophile,” Harry calls back over the sound of the shower running, and if Louis maybe, possibly joins the idiot for a bit of steamy fondling despite his impressive dumbass-ery… well, no one has to know.

& Z &

“Have you heard from either of them yet?” Liam is asking from his place in front of the stove.

He’s stirring a pot of something that smells like Zayn’s mum’s house and humming an Usher song under his breath, hips swaying back and forth rhythmically. Ever since he met Zayn’s family a few months back, he’s been obsessed with perfecting every Malik family recipe he can get his hands on.

“Not a word,” Zayn replies, crossing the room to wrap his arms around his boyfriend from behind.

Liam stirs his concoction a few more times before turning down the burner and putting a lid on the pot. He turns around to face Zayn, a pensive frown marring his normally cheerful features.

“It’s been two days,” Liam qualms, “I’ve tried calling both of them, but they’ve got their phones turned off or disconnected or something.”

“I know,” Zayn replies, pressing his lips to the worry lines on Liam’s forehead, “but we did all we could to get them to at least talk to each other again. What those two idiots do from now on is their business, unfortunately.”

Liam sighs, wiping his hands on the black apron that he’s currently sporting. “You’re right, I just… They do love each other, you know?”  he says quietly, brown eyes all wide and forlorn, “I want them both to be happy, and I think that they’d be the happiest together.”

Zayn smiles softly. “It’ll all work out in the end, babe. Not everyone can be as lucky as we are.”

He reaches out to pull Liam closer, but the other man just shoves him away, rolling his eyes fondly.

“Hey!” Zayn protests loudly, grumbling as Liam spends a solid five seconds pretending to dutifully ignore him.

Liam does turn back around to check on the meal eventually, but not before pressing a quick peck to Zayn’s lips, mumbling “sap” as he does so.

It’s cheesy and domestic and Zayn’s a certified badboy who may or may not have recently invested in a second designer leather jacket because he just really likes leather jackets, okay? And totally not because last week Liam had offhandedly mentioned how immediately turned on he had been upon seeing Zayn in his favorite jacket the night they’d met at the pub….

So yeah, Zayn loves Liam, loves every bit of him, and for some inexplicable reason Liam apparently loves him too. Codependency is sort of terrifyingly awesome.

Zayn’s also not stupid. He’s seen the way Harry and Louis act when they’re together, bound by some invisible gravitational force… or that red string of fate thing he read about online once. Louis makes Harry happy, and from what Liam and Niall have told him, it goes both ways. So, in the end, he’s really not surprised when his and Liam’s phone jingle nearly simultaneously as they’re sat around the dinner table.

“Text from a random number?” he asks, raising an eyebrow, “020 5453…”

“That’s Louis’ new number,” Liam explains, “I’ve got it saved in my contacts.”

He nods once affirmatively, swiping at his screen before looking up at Zayn across the table.

“Well, you do the honors,” Liam requests.

Zayn sighs, crossing his fingers under the table, and slides open the message with baited breath.

Can’t believe your stupid plan actually worked… Haven’t shagged this much since my first year of uni!! :)))

Xx L (and H)

Zayn laughs, smiling jubilantly, and instructs Liam to read the message as well. He watches the other man’s face light up as he does, looking ever so chuffed to have been a key player in things turning out so brilliantly.

“Oh, mine’s got a picture attached,” Liam says after a moment, tapping his screen again.

Zayn blanches. “Liam, I wouldn’t–”

Liam drops his phone then, face scarlet.

“Oh my god,” Liam mutters, left eye twitching a bit, “Oh my god.”

“I told you,” Zayn supplies, not even daring to imagine what graphic content the poor man has just been exposed to.

“I need a chemical rinse or, or a wipe of my memories like in that movie with Jim Carrey and the orange-haired girl, or was it blue?” Liam looks stricken. “Zayn, I can’t remember!”

“There, there,” Zayn says, standing up and walking to the other side of the table to wrap his arms around his trembling, victimized boyfriend, “I’m sorry the bad men hurt you.”

“I wasn’t even aware that that was anatomically possible,” Liam remarks, shivering.

“With Harry and Louis, anything is possible,” Zayn replies, shrugging.

“We’ve made a grave mistake bringing them back together.”

Zayn just chuckles, standing up and returning to his seat.

“Eat your dinner, love,” he says, picking up his fork, “We’ll plan our revenge later.”

& L &

Louis and Harry spend the next forty-eight hours christening every inch of Louis’ flat (though he still refuses to allow Harry’s unhygienic but admittedly tempting front desk fantasy to come to fruition).

It’s Sunday night and they’re sitting on the floor eating some pasta thing that Harry’s whipped up with whatever sparse ingredients had been left untouched in Louis’ little kitchen over the last few months. It’s kind of unfairly delicious nonetheless.

“You make everything delicious,” Louis says at one point, moaning around a bite of cheesy starchy goodness, “You make my life delicious.”

Harry laughs brilliantly like it’s the best compliment he’s ever received. Who knows? Maybe it is. Harry’s clearly not picky since he’s chosen Louis as his lover, boyfriend, whatever. Luckily they’re not some lesser members of the animal kingdom– lions or summat– as Louis’ complete and utter uselessness as a mate probably would’ve gotten them both killed by now.

He’s imagining a giraffe-sized Niall kicking a lion version of himself right in the solar plexus (if lions even have solar plexuses… plexi… ?) when Harry leans over and kisses him softly, mumbling a quiet “love you” against his lips.

Fuck giraffes, he thinks belligerently. He could totally fight a whole pack of them with the power of Harry’s love coursing through his veins.

“Ready?” Louis asks once they’ve consumed an entire pot of pasta between them.

“Yeah,” Harry replies, looking down at his phone nervously.

“Three… two… one…” Louis counts down, and the room fills with the sound of chirps and dings as their phones receive each and every message and tweet and notification that they’ve missed over the past two days.

“Fifty-seven from my mum and Lottie, forty-three from Liam, exactly one-hundred from Niall, about thirty from Josh and Perrie, and… oh! We have a winner! Ninety-six texts and twenty-four missed calls from my publicist!”

Harry flicks through his phone a moment longer before announcing his own totals.

“One hundred and six total calls and texts from the lovely Margaret Lancaster, fifty from Zayn, and only a few from Gemma and my mum though they’re all sufficiently threatening. Uh, wow… language Gem, Jesus… Oh, and enough mentions on Twitter to shut down the website.”

“One should be enough to cover all of them, right?” Louis asks, already planning a draft of the message in his mind.

“Send it to Zayn and Liam,” Harry replies, “They’re probably together but, you know, just in case.”

Louis nods, typing out the text (and maybe, possibly adding an additional little bonus for Liam’s… er… benefit).

“Done,” he mouths, noticing that Harry has already begun making a few calls of his own.

He waits patiently as the popstar spends approximately five minutes explaining to Margaret that he won’t be requiring her services any longer and that he doesn’t give a fuck about whatever losses they’re projecting for this quarter. Louis’s kind of insanely proud of him, as it were.

They both call their families next, and Louis laughs so hard he cries as Harry’s mum and Gem spend nearly forty minutes berating the poor boy.

“You’re lucky he took you back, you dumb donut!” Gemma chastises.

“I know that, thank you,” Harry replies, “I’m still very much in shock myself.”

Gemma mutters something that sounds suspiciously like dumbass.

“Tell Louis he has my permission to hit you as many times as he’d like,” Anne continues, and Louis can actually picture her impish smile as she does so.

“Mum!” Harry cries aghast.

“It’s not as if you don’t deserve it, darling,” she replies, and then spends another twenty minutes giving him her full forty plus years of relationship advice.

By the time Anne’s finished, Louis’s already managed to call his own mum and deliver the news which she’d predictably been ecstatic about. Lottie was a bit miffed that it took them this long to get their act together, but professed her wholehearted support just the same. She then quickly moved on to asking how Niall was doing and if he was single yet, which... no. Just no. Louis promptly hangs up once she starts waxing poetic about how fit “Ni” has gotten recently; he’s certainly not having a conversation about his best mate’s biceps and chest hair with his little– emphasis on the little– sister.

Harry hangs up a few minutes later and Louis pounces immediately, giving him a nice, slow consolation blowjob for all the badgering he’d received.

(He also slaps Harry on the bum once for good measure, saying “courtesy of your mum” before the younger boy has a chance to protest.)

They fall asleep in Louis’ bed for the second night in a row, blissfully unaware of the storm they’ve created brewing online and in print and just outside the window camped on the street below.

&&

Louis startles awake around midnight after a particularly terrifying nightmare in which Harry ended up bruised and battered, bleeding out on the sidewalk. Heart pounding in his chest, Louis pulls out his phone and sends a message to Henry Beasley containing a set of simple instructions:

Please tell your mum that ‘Louis found his Nettie’. She’ll know what it means.

Surprisingly, he gets a reply not a few minutes later.

Don’t know what you did, mate, but the old bat paused her Eastenders rerun and started crying. She’s dancing around the living room singing some show tune, as we speak.

He falls asleep after reading it, a small smile gracing his lips.

He doesn’t dream.

& H &

Louis wakes him up the next morning, wide-eyed and breathless.

“What’s wrong?” Harry asks immediately, sitting up and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

“It’s Monday morning,” Louis replies quickly, “so of course I went downstairs to open up the shop.” He pauses, pointing to the window with a nervous expression.

“Right, and?”

“Well, there’s a bit of a, erm, situation outside.”

Harry climbs out from under the covers and walks over to where Louis has yanked the blinds open to reveal the street below. He frowns at the scene before him, in which there are currently around twenty or thirty paparazzi milling about on the pavement, cameras slung over their shoulders in wait.

“How do you propose we deal with this?” Louis asks, motioning to the photographers with a frown.

“Well it’s not as if we can deny any of it,” Harry replies after a moment, “I sort of already dedicated a love song to you in front of like seventy-thousand people.”

Louis rolls his eyes, “Such a subtle one, you are.”

“Hey, I had to get your attention somehow,” Harry ripostes, smiling softly, “Have you talked to Eleanor yet? Maybe she can figure out a smooth way for us to handle this seeing as I am now temporarily without a management team.”

“I’ll give her a call,” Louis affirms, wrapping an arm around his waist, “but first, I think we both need a nice long shower. No offense babe, but you smell like last night’s activities.”

“It’s my natural sexual musk,” he jokes, rubbing his hands all over Louis’ chest.

“You’re disgusting,” Louis replies, wrinkling his nose, “Absolutely filthy.”

“That’s not what you said last night,” Harry counters, wiggling his eyebrows.

Louis scoffs, stalking off toward the bathroom. Harry swan dives back into bed once he hears the water start running, burrowing his way back under the covers with a contented sigh.

“Get in here, popstar!” Louis calls not a moment later, “God knows you need a wash.”

Harry sticks his tongue out before realizing that Louis can’t actually see him.

“Excuse you!” he yells back, not moving from his place beneath the comforter, “I’m very clean!”

He can almost envision Louis’ subsequent eye roll.

“Listen, Styles,” Louis’ voice replies, suddenly clearer.

Harry sits up only to be met with an image of the older boy standing in the open bathroom doorway, completely naked and dripping wet. He suddenly finds himself significantly more motivated to get a shower. Incredible, that.

“You literally look like a hairball someone dropped in a grease trap,” Louis is saying, though Harry barely registers the insult as his eyes trace the rivulets of water making their way down Louis’ softly-sculpted chest and abdomen, “If I were to lick your skin, it would probably taste vaguely of fish ‘n chips.”

Harry crosses the room in seconds, peeling off his boxers at some point during the journey and attaching himself to his boyfriend (boyfriend!!) in his typical octopus-like manner.

“Mmph!” Louis mutters with the force of the impact. He recovers quickly, however, extracting Harry from his waist with practiced ease. “Get off me, you bloody koala.”

“Octopus,” Harry corrects, shaking his head.

Louis snorts. “Octopus, why?” he teases, “Because you smell as if you came from the ocean?”

Harry pouts at first, that is, until he comes up with the perfect comeback.

“No,” he replies, grinning widely, “because I’m a sucker for you.”

Louis just groans. “Get in the shower, you terrible excuse for a human being.”

Harry’s still cackling, immensely proud of his own joke, when he’s graced with one more truly excellent pun.

“Wait,” he remarks, staring at the shower stall thoughtfully.

“What’s wrong?” Louis asks, “It’ll fit the both of us, you know that.”

“I know,” Harry replies, biting his lip to suppress his laughter, “I just… are you sure it’s not, you know… octopied?”

 “I’m never sleeping with you again,” Louis deadpans, dragging him under the spray.

Harry nearly slips and concusses himself on the shower rack, he’s laughing so hard.

Louis just ignores him, looking up at the ceiling and muttering, “What did I do to deserve this?”

“Hey Lou?” Harry asks a few minutes later as the older boy is massaging shampoo into his curls.

“If it’s about octopuses, I don’t want to hear it,” Louis replies immediately.

Harry just grins. “How many tickles does a naughty octopus deserve?”

“Harry, don–”

“Ten!”

Louis frowns, eyebrows furrowed, “Ten? What do you mean t–” He cuts himself off, groaning loudly as Harry’s raucous laughter echoes off the tiles.

“Get out of my house.”

& L &

Eleanor arrives around noon, sitting daintily between them at the set of three barstools in front of the kitchen counter.

She’s done up in a black two-piece skirt and blazer ensemble with a white blouse underneath, and carrying her favorite Mulberry Elkington briefcase.

In other words, she looks like she means business… expensive business.

“I just came from a meeting with the publishing agency,” she says, rolling her eyes before Louis can comment on her extravagant state of dress, “I’d never get dressed up for the likes of you.”

“Ouch!” Louis exclaims, feigning insult.

Eleanor ignores him, digging through her briefcase to pull out a tall stack of papers.

“Well, the good news is you’ve got plenty of options for presenting your relationship to the public,” she continues, skimming through the papers with a sigh, “In my hands I hold requests for interviews with everything from Ellen to Good Morning America. Literally pick a talk show and I’m sure I can arrange it for you.”

Harry coughs uncomfortably, exchanging a look with him across the countertop.

“Listen El,” Louis broaches carefully, “We were sort of hoping to keep this a little more… low profile? If at all possible?”

Eleanor laughs once shortly. “I’m afraid that ship has sailed, gentleman. HELLO! released a special issue this morning proclaiming you the UK’s next power couple. There’s an E!News exclusive premiering tonight that speculates you both’ve been dating in secret for over a year now which, although we know to be inaccurate, has enough compromising photo evidence to convince the public of its veracity,” she pauses, shuffling her papers and raising an eyebrow, “Out is offering three million dollars for a photoshoot and a cover story. Shall I continue?”

Louis looks over at Harry whose face has taken on a similar pallor to his own.

“Okay, we get it, El… Jesus,” he says after a moment, “So what do you propose we do?”

She smiles over at him, thin-lipped, “I’m thinking we start with a press conference tomorrow morning. You both answer a few basic questions about your relationship, look cute and cuddly and in love, which shouldn’t be a stretch considering… and that will hopefully be enough to end most of the fanciful tabloid speculation. Follow that up with a few select interviews while public interest is still high. I’m thinking Ellen and Barbara at this point, but of course you’ll both have a–”

“I’m sorry,” Harry interrupts, “Barbara…?”

“Walters, of course,” Eleanor supplies breezily, before moving on to describe the rest of her plan.

Louis feels a bit faint.

“Why do people even care?” Harry asks, after they’ve both spent a few moments digesting the publicist’s suggestions, “It’s just a relationship. Happens all the time.”

Eleanor sighs, regarding Harry with one of her patented ‘I think you’re an idiot but I unfortunately have to deal with you’ looks. Louis knows. He’s received it an innumerable amount of times over the years.

“You’re both big name, important personalities in your respective circles,” she explains patiently, “People don’t care if Louis’ gay; he’s a poet, he’s been open about it in the past, and he writes sweet, sensitive things that already play into the reductionist stereotype present in their minds. But you, Harry, you’re different. We’re witnessing a paradigm shift in how people look at you. The public has always seen you as a womanizer, a young male celebrity with too much money who drinks and parties and sleeps around. But now, suddenly, you’re none of those things. It’s a shock to people and they want an explanation. Either you provide them with one you approve of, or the media outlets supply their own misguided version of the ‘truth’. It’s up to you how you want to appear to people now. That’s where I come in.”

Harry swallows, looking uncomfortable, and fiddling with his hands in his lap.

“I guess we’ll go with whatever you suggest, then,” he replies eventually.

Eleanor nods once, pleased with the proceedings.

“I hate to dash out like this,” she starts, quickly packing up her things, “but I’ve got about a million things to schedule and not enough time to do it. I’ll text you the details for tomorrow’s press conference.”

She pauses in the doorway, considering, “Oh, and don’t even think about leaving the flat until morning, unless you’re keen on braving the shitstorm of photographers outside and facing my personal wrath all in one. I’m capable of making your lives either very easy or literal hell on earth, you decide.”

Harry’s white as a sheet and quivering next to him like a frightened five year-old, and Louis can’t say he feels very much better.

“Please tell me she’s joking,” he says, leaning over to whisper in Louis’ ear.

“I’m afraid not, love,” Louis replies softly, “She’s got a file somewhere of every embarrassing incident that’s happened to me in my life thus far, not to mention unrestricted access to my bank account.”

“Oh my god,” Harry mouths as the terrifying force of a woman turns around to face them once more having slipped her heels back on.

“Bye now!” she says cheerily, waggling her fingers.

And with that, Eleanor’s down the steps and out the door.

&&

The press junket is held at some posh hotel in the heart of the city, a whole ballroom rented out to accommodate the hordes of reporters present for ‘the inside scoop’ on the ‘couple of the decade’.

Eleanor had sent a stylist over that morning, so he and Harry are dressed to the nines, hair done up and noses sufficiently powdered.

“Make them love you,” she’d instructed, before throwing them into the shark tank with a brilliant smile.

He holds Harry’s hand on top of the long table they’re seated at, less for show and more for comfort and moral support as he’s– needless to say– completely terrified. Yes, Louis’ given plenty of press conferences and talks at this point, now that William Sodi is no longer publishing, but this is unlike any pressure he’s ever faced before.

“Angel Weet, from HELLO! Magazine,” the first reporter announces, stepping up to the mic they’ve placed near the front of the room.

“How long have you two been together, officially?” she asks, and yeah, okay, he can answer this one.

“Three days,” he and Harry reply at the same time.

The reporter, Angel, raises an eyebrow. “Excuse me if I’m wrong, gentleman, but we have sources that claim that you’ve been dating in secret for over a year now?”

“Er, no,” Harry answer immediately, “I only met Louis last October so I don’t think that quite adds up.”

There are a few chuckles amongst the crowd at this, the original questioner flushing brightly.

“I’ve pretty much loved Harry since I met him,” Louis supplies, feeling a bit bolder, “but we honestly didn’t get our act together until just a few days ago.”

He chances a quick peek at Harry’s expression and grins when he sees that the younger boy is blushing, lips pulled into a bashful closed-mouth smile.

“What changed?” someone asks.

“Well, we hadn’t talked to teach other for about four months at that point, and our friends planned this whole elaborate scheme to get us to speak again,” Harry explains.

“It was basically kidnapping,” Louis jokes, “Shoved us both in a car and dropped us off at a random rendezvous point.”

“But it worked,” Harry says, squeezing his hand beneath the table.

Louis looks over at him fondly, “Yeah, lucky that.”

There’s a smattering of bright flashbulbs before another interviewer is taking her place at the mic.

“Ivana Donny, Daily Mail,” she says, introducing herself in a thick Irish drawl, “Can you tell us more about the song you wrote and dedicated to Louis at the O2 concert, Harry? As I’m sure you know, a video shot by a fan of the performance immediately went viral upon its posting.”

Harry smiles easily, untangling their fingers to rest his hand casually on Louis’ thigh.

“I was a bit desperate at that point,” he explains, looking sheepish, “One of my mates had helped me write that particular song about a month beforehand and I knew that that concert was my last chance to do something big and public enough that it would get Louis’ attention.”

“Always been a bit of a dramatist, this one,” Louis interjects, reaching up to pinch Harry’s cheek.

Harry waves him off, giggling, “Anyway, I was really counting on the fans to spread it online in the hopes that Louis would see it. What I didn’t know at the time was that, thanks to that plan we mentioned, Louis already happened to be at the same gig.”

“So he watched you perform the song live?” Ivana asks, and both he and Harry nod. “What was it like, Louis, being in the crowd and listening to that?”

“It was sort of like watching a really cheesy scene from some chick-flick,” Louis starts, grinning as the crowd of reporters chuckles at his description, “You’re sitting in the theater like ‘Oh, c’mon now, this’d never happen in real life’ and yet your heart is still pounding in your chest as the guy goes tearing through the airport to stop the plane or stands outside the house in a thunderstorm or summat.

But that’s exactly how I felt, detached from it all, you know? Like oh, who’s this lucky lady this popstar is up here singing about? Wouldn’t it be nice if he were singing to me? And then I realized that I was the leading lady in the film!”

More laughter.

“I’m serious!” Louis continues, “I was sat there gaping up at ‘im like ‘this is it’. This is my big scene. This is the moment where I jump onstage and proclaim my undying love and what not.”

“Why didn’t you?” Harry asks, pinching his leg, “It would’ve been proper hilarious to watch security tackle you and haul you away.”

Louis sticks his tongue out at him before turning back to address the press. “Let it be known that I, Louis Tomlinson, would never risk imprisonment for this cossetted heathen.”

The reporters laugh again good-naturedly, and Louis feels his nerves begin to dissipate. He watches as Harry opens his mouth to retort but is cut off when Eleanor motions another reporter up to the mic to ask the next set of questions.

“Harry, you’ve been portrayed as a ‘player’ so to speak pretty much since your career first took off several years ago,” a tall woman in a smart blazer starts, reading off her phone, “Is there any truth to this earlier string of rumored relationships?”

Louis watches with concern as a dark flicker of irritation passes over the popstar’s face. The woman (Vanessa, her press pass reads) gazes up at him innocently.

“No, I can’t say there is,” Harry says eventually, voice steady but still tinged with much of his original displeasure, “My management team at the time felt that the ‘player’ image, as you said, was one that would sell better than an accurate portrayal of who I really am.”

“And who are you, really, then?” Vanessa asks, barreling right on into dangerous territory.

“Can I just interject here?” Louis remarks, cutting in before Harry can do anything drastic, “I can, of course, vouch for Harry when he says that he’s not a womanizer; however, I’d also like to point out that he does deserve at least some privacy when it comes to his personal life. It’s honestly disappointing to me that we have to have a press conference about our relationship in the first place as it’s the only way to halt most of the public’s speculation. You can go on and on about how it’s our fault that we’ve chosen a more high-profile career path but you all personally– not just the syndicates you represent– share the blame for perpetuating public interest in our private lives.”

A hush falls over the crowd and the next journalist who steps up seems a bit wearier to get on Louis’ bad side.

“Susan from E!,” she says hesitantly, “Harry, there’s been a massive movement from many of your fans who have taken to Twitter and Facebook and the like to proclaim their support for you and Louis. In addition, a number of high-profile LGBT personalities have also lauded you for your ‘bravery’, themselves knowing full well the negative effects that coming out in any capacity can have on a career and on personal relationships. However, there’s been a considerable amount of backlash as well, especially from more conservative groups over in the States. How have you been dealing with the public reaction?”

Harry frowns deeply, considering, and Louis slides a hand over under the table to lace their fingers back together.

“Of course I was aware of the threat that revealing my desire to be in a relationship with another male posed to my career,” Harry replies, voice confident and unwavering, “It’s… unfortunate that that threat even still exists in today’s day and age, but the negative effects, as you said, are very real. The managers of my U.S. tour, which kicks off next summer, have already reported some losses which is a bit disappointing, yes, but nothing unexpected. Louis expressed some similar doubts about confirming our relationship publicly, but as I explained to him previously, I’ll settle for poor album sales and a pity spot on some celebrity reality show if it means not having to pretend that my gorgeous boyfriend over here is just my platonic dude bro-pal.”

There’s a lot of nodding amongst the crowd which Louis takes to be a good sign.

“We spent nearly a year trying to convince ourselves that we weren’t in love with each other,” he jokes, and Harry groans comically beside him, “Trust me when I say that neither us nor our friends and family would ever willingly go through that again.”

Another smattering of laughter follows, and Louis scans the room, finally meeting Eleanor’s eyes near the back doors. She’s nodding slightly, though her facial expression remains impressively impassive. He nods complacently as she raises one finger to signal the final question.

The last reporter is particularly striking with long, softly curled hair and defined features. Her perfect eyebrows and contoured cheekbones remind him of one Margaret Lancaster, and he swallows as she introduces herself as “Kelly, from Out” expecting another uncomfortable, ‘hard-hitting’ inquiry.

“Our readers voted on this question, so I apologize if it seems a bit forward,” she prefaces with a sigh, “but they’re dying to know… who tops?”

Harry chokes on a mouthful of water, plastic bottle hanging limply in one hand as his cheeks flush beet red. Louis can see Eleanor standing on her tiptoes in the back making a giant X-shape with both her arms above her head, but this question is honestly just too good to resist.

“You mean like in Mario Kart?” Louis jokes, grinning as Eleanor’s arms fall to her sides in defeat, “You know, I think we share that really. Sometimes I’ll get behind and–”

“Okay!” Eleanor shouts, hurrying to the mic.

Harry, for his merits, manages to supply a muffled “Sharing is caring” in between of one of his wide-mouthed hyena cackles.

“Yes, thank you, Harold,” Louis approves, doing his very best to thwart his publicist’s attempts at damage control, “So to answer your question, Kelly, it’s really just a matter of–”

He’s unfortunately cut off by Eleanor forcibly dragging the both of them offstage with a harried, “Thank you all for your time!”

She corrals both of them in a smaller side conference room, hissing a vehement, “Stay. Put.”

When the door to the room opens again about fifteen minutes later, Louis may or may not take his sweet time pulling away from his place between Harry’s thighs. Really, what did she expect them to do when she left them alone together?

“Okay, so we need to go ahead and plan your next set of interviews…” Eleanor’s explaining with her back still turned.

Harry’s looking down at him with wide, panicked eyes, but Louis just smiles impishly and licks another long stripe up the inside of the younger boy’s thigh. Harry’s legs are trembling and he’s got his bottom lip caught between his teeth, probably in a useless attempt at muffling another load moan.

“Louis?” Eleanor asks, spinning around to address him, “How does that soun–”

She cuts off abruptly as her eyes fully take in the sight before her.

Louis takes his lips off of Harry’s cock just long enough to greet her with a cheery “Back so soon?”

Eleanor appears to briefly contemplate double homicide before calmly crossing the room and walking out.

“You’ve got five minutes,” she says icily through the door, “and then I expect both of you out here ready to leave, preferably with your pants on.”

“Easy,” Louis replies with a wink, swallowing Harry back down to halt the popstar’s resultant laughter.

If he maybe takes, say, nine minutes instead of five, well… he’s always been a bit of a perfectionist.

&&

It’s September when public interest finally fades enough to where they can start resuming fairly normal daily routines.

Gaggles of fangirls (and plenty of fanboys now too) still stop by the shop daily, inquiring as to Harry’s current whereabouts or asking for pictures with Louis himself, though there are fewer and fewer now as he’d long since implemented the two-book purchase per visit rule. It feels a bit like charging admission to a sideshow, but it keeps the casual drop-byers out of his hair and at least promotes the reading of historical literature to the most persistent youth.

Right now, though, he’s collapsed in Harry’s fluffy king-size bed (arguably the best bed ever though he may be a bit biased) as the younger boy is downstairs in the kitchen whipping up a ‘surprise dinner, Lou, no peeking!’ which he keeps futilely trying to identify by smell alone.

The last two months have been a literal whirlwind of interviews and red carpet events, and Louis is kind of insanely thankful for the newly-garnered opportunity to have all of Harry to himself.

There was Ellen in mid-August (a solo interview with Harry since Louis was already hosting a series of writing workshops in Cardiff), the VMA’s which they both attended (Louis having initiated a now-famous kiss on live television after Harry won his fourth award that night), and– his personal favorite– an interview with the Barbara Walters who, at one point, had asked them if they wanted to someday get married and have children.

He remembers his immediate earnest reply (“hundred percent”) and the subsequent sunshiny smile that had blossomed onto his boyfriend’s face.

Even as young as you are?

Yeah.

By the time Harry calls him downstairs, Louis has worked himself up into a lovey-dovey mess, fawning over his boyfriend enough that Harry is almost persuaded into lifting the ‘no sex in the kitchen since the incident with the cake batter’ ban.

Blowjobs totally aren’t sex sex, right?

&&

Their next few months go something like this:

October – Louis moves into Harry’s all-white house in Kensington.

Of course, it's all a bit inconvenient as he has to go back over to the shop every morning during the week; but, then again, spending every night (and weekend!) in Harry’s bed is kind of ridiculously worth the hassle.

November – They attend the AMA’s together.

Harry wins in only two out of the three categories he’s nominated for. Louis proclaims him ‘robbed!’ and insists that they have a lot of sex to make up for it.

They definitely make up for it.

December – They spend Christmas and Boxing Day at Anne and Robin’s.

Louis convinces Harry to wear a buttplug throughout the entirety of Christmas dinner. The results are especially hilarious when he neglects to mention the remote-controlled vibrating feature.

January – Harry wins two Grammys.

Sex follows (notably: Louis blows him in the limousine on their way to the after-party).

February – Harry wins two Brits.

Sex follows (notably: Harry returns the favor).

March – Cactus Casino, having inexplicably risen to indie cult status, is booked to play at Bonnaroo and Coachella.

Niall and Harry accidentally start a literal fandom war after Niall jokingly mentions @Harry_Styles in a tweet about pop music being ‘so overrated’ to which Harry replies with his own teasing tweet referring to Niall as a ‘pretentious Indie princess’.  The imaginary feud between the two continues for over a week with fans hurling insults back and forth on every social media site known to man, that is, until Louis tweets a picture of the ‘enemies’ seated next to each other on his couch wearing matching OVERRATED and INDIE PRINCESS t-shirts.

April – Louis wins the Poetic Republic Poetry prize for “Snow and Dirty Rain” and Harry’s fourth album tops the charts for six straight weeks despite critics claiming his new ‘folksy singer/songwriter sound’, though a refreshing twist, would never appeal to his current fanbase.

They argue over whose accomplishment is more significant until Louis cheats wins by rimming Harry until he cries.

May – Louis wins the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize for an unpublished poem he submits to the competition (it’s about Harry, of course).

The ten-thousand euros he receives aren’t nearly as rewarding as what Harry presents him with that night, but he accepts the check and the invitation to read at the upcoming literary festival with a smile and hearty thanks nonetheless.

& H &

June

By the time Harry’s U.S. tour rolls around, he and Louis have settled into a sort of dreamy domestic bliss (which is probably why the night before he’s set to leave literally feels like hell on earth).

They’re lying in bed, Louis pressed into him, lips against his neck mumbling “don’t go” and “please” over and over again like a prayer. Harry desperately wants to say yes, wants to be in this same position tomorrow night instead of somewhere in Connecticut prepping for the first show... but he has a job and responsibilities and fans to please, fans who have paid a lot of money to see him perform.

Staying just isn't an option.

When he finally comes after what feels like hours of Louis moving slowly in and out, in and out, it’s less of a release and more of an unspoken goodbye.

&&

He flies Louis out to three shows over the course of the summer, all in cities that he loves:

1) Louis’ been to Los Angeles before, so they mostly just make out on the beach and do touristy things like visit Disneyland and Universal Studios. Harry gets them both thrown out of The Getty Center after he takes one too many dumb pictures with a priceless Van Gogh and nearly knocks the painting off the wall.

2) They try for a security-free night out in NYC but end up getting chased by a mob of fans all the way down Fifth Avenue which, although good cardio, isn’t exactly the romantic Big Apple rendezvous he’d originally imagined. They stick to his hotel room after that, ordering room service and watching trashy television with the shrill screams and chants of “Harry! Harry!” serving as a backing track from fifty floors below.

3) He doesn’t see Louis again until late August when the entire group– Niall, Liam, Zayn, Perrie and Josh– all meet up in Texas for a seven day get-together in which they drink a lot of whiskey, learn to line dance, and generally act as stereotypically Southern as possible. Louis absolutely refuses to believe that Dallas is in Harry’s top three favorite U.S. cities and spends the entire week (an extended stop for a big album signing event Harry’s people have planned) addressing the group as “ya’ll” and making thinly-veiled sexual references along the lines of “ride ‘em cowboy!” Louis unfortunately has to leave the day of the signing... which means that Harry shows up at the mall looking and feeling completely fucked out of his mind.

When they aren’t together (which is most of the summer, really), they spend hours Skyping or texting each other stupid jokes and pictures. Harry considers sending a personal thank you to Apple after he catalogues the number of times he’s used the various love-expressing emojis in the course of three months (his last text to Louis may or may not have been a picture of his dick with a caption of twelve heart-eyed smiley faces).

So yeah, distance sucks, but they’re making it work as best they can.

 

& L &

June through September: Louis misses Harry, and then he misses Harry some more.

(He also, unashamedly, watches Notting Hill sixteen more times.)

& H &

Harry’s kind of a horrible liar.

However, thanks to the wonderful invention called text-messaging, he can type out a particularly difficult lie without his stupid expressive face giving it all away.

So when he breaks the ‘bad news’ to his boyfriend that he has to stick around in the States for another week after the end of the tour and will unfortunately miss the release party for Louis’ newest poetry collection, he only feels really really awful about it instead of like really really really awful…

Also Louis believes him.

& L &

So Louis’ maybe, possibly a bit cross with his boyfriend.

Actually, he’s downright pissed, though he’s doing his best to be as fun-loving and cheerful as possible considering he’s a guest at Zayn and Liam’s now bi-monthly ‘Friendship Dinner’.

He stares at the empty chair next to him for approximately five minutes before shoving his plate aside, putting his head down, and moaning “I miss Harry” into the tablecloth.

“Cheer up, mate,” Niall says from across the table, shoving a massive bite of chicken into his mouth.

“It’s only another week, love,” Perrie continues, smiling at him encouragingly.

“Three days now, actually,” Zayn points out.

“And only two days until your big release!” Liam supplies.

Louis doesn't even have the heart to point out the sexual connotation behind 'big release'.

“See,” Josh enthuses, smiling brightly, “No need to be dramatic!”

He looks down at the steak knife in his hand and briefly considers channeling his inner William Shakespeare by doing something very dramatic, indeed.

& H &

One of the best things about having fans is their dedication, Harry thinks as he’s stepping off his plane at Heathrow (one day early!).

He sends out the following tweet: “Please get #heylouisfancysomeindianloveniall trending and mention him in all your tweets! Don’t tell him it’s me though ;)) It’s a surprise!!”

About fifteen minutes later, once he’s in the car and heading home, he reopens the app and grins beatifically when he sees that the hashtag is trending worldwide. He quickly deletes his original tweet so that it (hopefully) can’t be traced back to him and makes one last covert stop before heading off to Regent Street, heart pounding in his chest.

& L &

At around six that evening, just as Louis’s tucking himself into bed for a nice Made in Chelsea marathon, his phone starts blowing up with notifications.

He rolls his eyes as soon as he reads the first mention.

#heylouisfancysomeindianloveniall

Really? Can’t Niall just text him like a normal human being?

He sends out a tweet of his own (#yesniallmeetyouthere) and hails a cab to Regent Street.

&&

Louis walks into the restaurant and is surprised to see Emily, the blonde waitress from he and Harry’s first"date", smiling back at him from the hostess stand.

“Uh, hello,” he greets awkwardly, “I thought you were working at the bistro off Monmouth now?”

It’s one of Louis’ favorite places to stop for lunch, being only about ten minutes from the shop, and he’d spoken cordially with the hostess when she’d seated him just last week.

“Special occasion,” Emily explains, still smiling, “Allow me to show you to your table, sir?”

“Er, okay?” Louis replies apprehensively, suddenly quite confused by the evening’s proceedings.

“Enjoy your meal,” Emily says brightly, pointing to a booth in the corner.

“You absolute bastard,” Louis cries when he notices one familiar beaming popstar seated facing him.

The hostess laughs, high-fiving Harry with a massive grin before darting away.

“I cannot believe you tricked me,” Louis hisses lowly, not wanting to disturb the other guests around them.

“Hello to you, too,” Harry replies, still chuckling as Louis scoots into the booth with a glower.

“I swear to god, Styles, if you don’t have some sort of explanation for this,” Louis threatens, picking up the nearest sharp object which happens to be a nice pointy salad fork, “I will honestly disembowel you.”

Harry blinks.

“Well,” he replies slowly after a moment, “I did have a nice speech planned but I suppose, in the case of preserving my life, this’ll just have to do.”

With that, he’s sliding out of the booth and onto one knee, pulling a black velvet box out of his pocket.

Louis’ sort of in shock, his cheeks having gone bright red.

Harry’s not… he’s not… this isn’t actually happening right now.

“Louis Tomlinson, light of my life, fire of my lions,” Harry starts, “Will you–”

“Wait a minute,” Louis interrupts, voice shooting up an octave, “I just threatened to remove your internal organs with a piece of silverware and now you’re proposing?”

Harry just chuckles lowly. “Well, I did plan the whole proposal thing before that happened, but… yes?”

“Oh my god, I’m in love with an idiot,” Louis blurts, covering his mouth with his hands.

“I would say ‘as am I’ but I think that might be counterproductive in convincing you to marry me,” Harry replies with a laugh, still on bended knee.

“Oh, just say yes already!” someone cries, and a few other random restaurant-goers join in.

“I literally hate you,” Louis says, looking back down at Harry with a frown that ends up being more of an annoyingly fond gaze.

Harry just grins, flipping open the box to reveal a platinum diamond-encrusted band that probably costs more than his stupid all-white house and closet full of YSL boots combined. “Still hate me?”

“Yes,” Louis replies quickly, “to that, and to marrying you, you great sap.”

“Really?” Harry asks, amidst the cheers of the guests all around them.

“Really,” Louis affirms, letting the younger boy slide the ring onto his finger.

“It’s only been a little over a year,” Harry remarks, as he slides back into the booth, “Are you sure about this?”

“Hold on,” Louis replies, laughing giddily, “You were trying to convince me to marry you not a minute ago. Now you’re trying to convince me to change my mind?”

“Shut up, I’m nervous,” Harry mumbles in reply, “This is, like, a big step, you know? And it hasn’t been that long since we’ve been together and now I can’t stop thinking about all those horror stories of people marrying young and then divorcing early, sort of like my parents, and I–”

“Technically we’ve been in love for like two years now,” Louis points out, interrupting the poor boy’s anxious spiel, “Plus I had that whole ten month pre-relationship trial period to get rid of you, if I’d so desired.”

“We spent four of those months apart,” Harry argues.

“Just call it our first fight,” Louis teases, reaching across the table to pinch the popstar’s cheek, “which I admittedly handled very poorly, yes, but I haven’t fled to France on you again since then, have I?”

“And look on the bright side,” he continues, “Zayn and Liam will be furious that we’ve beat them to it!”

He expects Harry to laugh along with him, but the younger boy just looks incredibly uncomfortable, fidgeting in his seat.

"Harry..." Louis starts, regarding him suspiciously.

“Um, remember when Zayn and Liam took that month-long vacation to Fiji last summer?” Harry says slowly, suddenly refusing to meet Louis’ eyes.

“Yes?” Louis replies, raising an eyebrow, “What does that have to do with our engagement?”

“Well,” Harry continues, “they sort of, uh… accidentally eloped?”

“WHAT?” Louis shrieks, earning their table more than a few intrigued glances from their fellow diners, “Why didn’t you tell me? No, wait. Why didn’t they tell me?”

“They made me promise not to!” Harry replies quickly, “They were super embarrassed because they were both drunk when it happened and they didn’t realize that the random island priest they met on the beach was actually certified to perform  marriage ceremonies. The only reason I found out was because I grabbed Zayn’s mail for him when I went ‘round to visit one day thinking I’d be nice, you know? And as I was flicking through the pile I noticed that there was– what I thought was a random post– from the Registrar office in Labasa requesting a money order payment for a marriage license.”

“I’ve changed my mind,” Louis deadpans, holding up his salad fork menacingly, “Take me to Zayn and Liam’s so I can disembowel the both of them instead.”

“Easy, easy,” Harry says, coaxing the fork out of his hands, “Think of all the nice wedding planning you’ll get to do!”

The blatant subject change shouldn’t work as well as it does, but suddenly Louis’ mind is flooded with thoughts of floral arrangements and designer suits and possible color schemes.

“I want a Christmas wedding,” he says excitedly.

Harry raises an eyebrow, “That’s really quite short notice, babe.”

“Not this Christmas,” Louis replies, rolling his eyes, “Next year, obviously.”

“Hmm, that would be nice,” Harry assuages, leaning forward to press a chaste kiss to his lips, “I am a bit partial to red and green, you know.”

“Sap,” Louis teases, mouthing the word against the younger boy’s open mouth.

“We could even honeymoon in France,” Harry continues, leaning back, “I know the loveliest little seaside town just off the Riviera.”

“Ow!” he cries when Louis punches him in the shoulder.

“You deserved it,” Louis replies, shrugging, “Your mum did give me an unlimited pass.”

Harry’s expression softens perceptibly, even as he rolls his eyes.

“Missed you,” he says after a moment, grabbing Louis’ left hand and rubbing his thumb over the silver band.

“A lot a lot?” Louis asks, smiling back at him.

“A lot a lot a lot,” Harry replies ardently.

“You’re an idiot.”

Harry pouts. “Quit calling me names or I’ll…”

“Or you’ll what?”

“I’ll marry you.”

Louis gasps, pretending to be utterly shocked by the pronouncement. “You wouldn’t!”

Harry narrows his eyes, fighting a smile, “I can and I will!”

“Empty threat, you’re bluffing.”

“That ring on your finger says otherwise.”

“Maybe I’m just planning to marry you and take all your money,” Louis suggests.

“Maybe I’m planning the same,” Harry counters.

“Impossible I’m worth less than you are.”

Harry doesn’t say anything for a moment; a moment which Louis can only assume he spends thinking up a suitable comeback.

What he's certainly not expecting is what Harry says next: “But you’re worth everything to me.”

“Sap!” he gasps again, but then he’s kissing him.

He maybe needs to work on his punishment technique.

“I win!” Harry announces gleefully when they finally break apart.

Louis glances over at the matching ring Harry’s sporting on his own finger, and says softly, “Actually, I think we both do.”

“Well look who’s the sap now,” Harry remarks, but his eyes are sparkling with affection.

Louis’ nothing if not a sore loser, which is probably why he lovingly tells his fiancé to “shut up and eat your fucking curry.”

&&

Later that night, Louis finds himself lying in bed, pleasantly sore after having ridden Harry for much longer than his thighs should’ve been able to withstand. His soon to be husband is fast asleep beside him, snoring loudly with his long ape arms dangling off the edge of the bed. It’s surreal, being engaged, and he realizes with a frown that he’ll have to make quite a few calls tomorrow.

Just as he’s making a mental note to send Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts some nice fruit baskets or something, Harry shifts in his sleep, rolling over and pulling Louis closer to him with a contented sigh. Louis realizes, then, in the arms of his fiancé, that maybe happy endings aren’t so disgustingly optimistic after all.

&&

Fate smiles down at the scene, heart aflutter.

A poet and a popstar…

Arguably her best work yet.