TWELVE DAYS BEFORE
Louis Tomlinson is on the rooftop of the LondonHouse Chicago when he gets the email. He’s halfway to tipsy with an attractive guy smiling at him from across the bar and the city lights dancing around in the background. He means to swipe on a text from his sister but his finger slips to the email notification from FrontGate Airlines instead and opens the message.
He reads it twice, blinking hard to make sure he’s reading it correctly. Most of the words mush together but a few stay clear: unsuccessful, bankruptcy, delayed refund. It reads up and down like he’s screwed.
“The fuck?” is what he actually manages out loud, catching the attention of Niall Horan who always seems to be closest when Louis is having a problem.
“What?” Niall asks, slipping the black straw in his whiskey coke between his lips.
“My airline went bankrupt,” Louis says, flashing the screen in Niall’s direction.
Niall lets the straw fall from his mouth. “I told you not to book on an airline no one has ever heard of.”
Louis groans and clicks the lock button on his phone, forgetting to check the text from Lottie altogether. “The tickets were cheap,” he mutters.
“So what are you going to do?” Niall asks unhelpfully.
“I don’t know,” Louis moans, draining the rest of his drink and putting it on the ledge behind him. “Quit school?”
Niall’s laughter is a bark and Louis rolls his eyes. “Yeah, right, Tommo. You just made it through four years at the University for Spoiled Children and now you’re starting fucking law school. Don’t back out now.”
“Southern California,” Louis corrects needlessly. “University of Southern California.” Niall definitely knows where he goes to school; he just chooses to be insufferable.
“Buy a ticket on a functioning airline,” their friend Sam chimes in from across the semi-circle they’ve formed.
“Yeah, I guess,” Louis says with a shrug while trying not to roll his eyes.
The whole point was to not blow money on a flight back to school in LA and now that’s exactly what he’ll be doing anyway. It’s not like his summer internship is paying in cotton candy but there are preferable ways to spend his money than on a plane ticket.
“I’m going to get another drink,” he tells Niall. “And then I’m going to get really drunk to forget this has happened at all and you can be in charge of reminding me in the morning.” He winks at Niall’s protesting squawk as he twirls his way through the crowd to the bar.
It’s only when he comes back to his friends that he smells trouble. Niall’s eyes go wide as he pulls Louis close into his side, excitement fluttering on his lips.
“Oh god,” Louis says. He can smell the misplaced enthusiasm dripping from Niall – knowing him for nearly ten years has done that much.
“You haven’t even heard my idea yet,” Niall says with a quick eye roll. “Just listen.”
“Are you starting an airline that flies your best friend back to campus for free?” Louis grins and then lets it slide off his lips. “Anything else, I’m not interested.”
“Shut up, and hear me out,” Niall says with a sigh. “I have this friend – ”
Louis interrupts before Niall can go any further, “Do I know him?”
“No. I met him at my internship.”
Louis makes a buzzing sound with his mouth, shaking his head. “I’m going to stop you there, Ni. Love you but anyone you met at a museum internship is not for me.”
Niall flicks Louis in the forehead. “This guy from my museum internship goes to USC too,” he says somewhat forcefully. “He was just telling me about how he’s driving back this year because he wants to have his car on campus. He’s making a whole road trip out of it, taking the old Route 66 and everything. Two weeks, three time zones, eight states, something like that. It sounds really cool actually.”
Louis blinks “Congratulations to your friend.” He flinches when Niall flicks him again, on the wrist this time.
“What I’m saying is you should go with him,” Niall says like it’s the best idea he’s ever thought of.
“A road trip,” Louis says slowly, “With a stranger you know from a museum internship.”
“Would you stop bashing my internship?” Niall says with another flick to Louis’s wrist. “History is important to me.”
Louis tries not to laugh when he nods and says, “Yes, I know.”
Niall was the president of their high school history club where Louis was the only other member - and that was partly guilt and partly by force. Niall wants to work for the Smithsonian someday and can prattle off historical facts as easy as Louis can recite types of torts and corresponding case studies.
“Anyway, Harry’s not a stranger,” Niall huffs back to the original point. “We’ve spent almost three months together. I think I would have a pretty good read on the guy.” He takes another sip from his nearly empty drink and Louis follows suit, trying not to wince over the heavy ratio of vodka in his press. “Or you can buy an exorbitantly priced ticket to sit inside a metal cylinder for five hours instead. It’s up to you.”
Louis spits out his straw mid swallow. “You think a road trip is free, Niall? That would still cost me a ton of money plus, not to mention, possibly my life if your museum friend is actually a closeted mass murderer.”
“You’re unbelievable,” Niall says and Louis can see he’s trying not to laugh. “It’s your choice and honestly, they probably cost the same. You’re getting ready to start law school. There’s no more time for fucking around. Your real life is literally getting ready to start.”
Louis hesitates at the call out. Once he walked across the stage in May and flew home to Chicago for one last summer, he knew his life would be changing with the start of law school. It had always been a periphery start in the future and now it’s lingering a month away. Reality sweeping in quickly and there really is no slowing it down. Maybe he does need another adventure before the summer is out.
“You’re considering it,” Niall says with a sly smile. “I see the wheels turning.”
Louis flips him off. “You don’t even know if the guy wants someone going with him,” he says. “You can’t just offer up people’s cars without asking.”
Without breaking eye contact, Niall takes his phone from his pocket and holds it up. “I’ll go call him right now, swear it.”
Louis considers again. It’s not like he’s in a hurry to get back to school yet and there’s a chance it could be entertaining, plowing through the middle of America. He smiles at the thought.
“I see that smile,” Niall points like a kid catching Santa Claus in the front hall. “I’m calling Harry.”
Louis has finished his drink and helped his friend Luke chat up a girl with wavy blonde hair by the time Niall comes back to the group. He has a tight smile and his tone of voice doesn’t exactly match his words when he says, “He’s really excited.”
Louis sighs and shakes his head. He does need the ride but he’s not exactly sure what he’s gotten himself into. “What’s he like?” He asks, “Is he fun, at least?”
Niall puts his phone back into his jeans and picks up his drink again. “He has a really good heart.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Louis says, eyes going wide. “That’s what people say about terrible people.”
“He’s become one of my closest friends, Tommo. You better watch your mouth.”
Louis narrows his eyes, “I thought I was one of your closest friends?”
Niall rolls his eyes. “I have a lot of friends, Louis. Harry has a good heart in the best way possible, how’s that? He’s incredibly smart and kind but he’s also quiet. He has a bit of a hard shell, I guess you could say.”
“Oh, Christ,” Louis says dramatically, catching the attention of a couple strangers near them. He flicks his hand to make them look away as if to say, carry on. “I can’t believe you roped be into a road trip with a bratty nerd who has a good heart.”
Niall doesn’t look impressed by Louis’s theatrics. “You better be nice to him or I’ll have your balls.”
Louis fakes offense, “I’m always nice, Nialler.” Niall actually snorts this time. Louis sighs. “What does he look like? Does he look like a bratty nerd?”
“Stop with the bratty nerd shit,” Niall says, getting his phone back out of his too tight jeans. “I’ll show you his Instagram, if that will make you shut up.”
Louis rubs his hands together, leaning in. “No promises.”
Niall pulls up Harry’s profile easily and Louis notes the user ‘harrystyles’ for any of his future stalking needs.
“I actually don’t think he really posts that many photos of himself,” Niall says as the images load into their designated squares. “He’s kind of artsy like that.”
Louis stares at the side of Niall’s head blankly before glancing down at the phone. “Artsy is an understatement,” Louis says plucking the phone from Niall’s hand and scrolling. Harry’s feed is pictures of buildings and landscapes, crisp coffee shops and the toes of his shoes on mosaic floors. There is not a picture of his face to be found.
“He’s an Art History major,” Niall says when Louis hands the phone back.
“Probably doesn’t believe in selfies or memes,” Louis says which is a stark contrast from his own Instagram which has a healthy dose of both.
Niall scrolls a bit further and then stops. “Except this,” he says, holding the phone up.
Louis’s eyes go a bit wide when he focuses on the screen. “That’s him?”
“His hair is shorter now,” Niall notes, pulling the phone back. Louis grabs his wrist to stop him - he’s not done looking.
The photo is black and white and cropped just below a giant butterfly tattoo on the guy’s stomach. There are birds inked on his chest and all sorts of things along his arm but Louis is mostly drawn to the line of his neck and jaw, the fucking leather collar splitting the distance between the two. His hair is long, falling on top his shoulders by the looks of it and his eyes are closed, face cast up.
“He likes photography too,” Niall says when Louis lets go of his wrist, taking his phone back. He says it casually as though Louis has not just looked at the photo of a bratty nerd who also happens to be pretentious but also looks like a BDSM prince of darkness.
“That’s good,” Louis says, clearing his throat. That picture is going to be burned on his eyelids, he already knows it. “He’s still a bratty nerd, for the record.”
Niall smiles at him, too knowingly for Louis’s liking. “Noted,” he says with a smirk.