Actions

Work Header

Saving Symphony Hall

Chapter Text

 

Saturday night dinners were a grand tradition, ever since Louis had first arrived in the city and sent a tentative Facebook message to Niall Horan hoping it was the same Niall Horan he remembered from middle school. Niall had written back in all caps with an invitation to dinner that turned weekly as soon as Louis showed up with a bottle of Babs’ favorite wine and pictures of Niall at twelve, all puffed blond hair and chubby red cheeks.

Niall and Babs lived above the park, in a neighborhood just around the corner from a whole block of cafes, hair salons, and corner groceries that had things like crates of salami and a dizzying variety of craft beer. Louis’ neighborhood was full of slick glass banks and trash, but Niall and Babs’ neighborhood was full of old men who grumbled when they counted your change and bodega cats, and Louis loved them all. Tonight, Louis had picked up a massive bag of salted gummy worms and a promising six-pack with an octopus on the label.

“Beautiful Tommo,” Niall said, opening the door and shooing Louis inside their cozy flat, “Will you please tell Babs that she is dead wrong about the best Edgar Wright film, which is obviously Shaun of the Dead?”

“I’m breaking up with you,” Babs said over her shoulder, poking gingerly at a delicious smelling stir-fry on the stove with a wooden spoon. Louis came over to look, and Babs bent to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. Tonight looked like marinated beef in a blend of red peppers, onions, and some difficult-to-identify green veg, and Louis couldn’t wait. He’d been starving since friday night, which was uncharacteristic, but nice.

“Best one as judged by anyone with taste is clearly Hot Fuzz. Niall, get back here and give my Lou a proper long hug while my hands are pot holders.”

“I’m all right,” Louis protested. As usual, Niall and Babs ignored this. Niall swept his arms around Louis from behind and rested his chin on Louis’ shoulder.

“I hate to say it but it really is Hot Fuzz,” Louis said.

“Wanker,” Niall said cheerfully, too loudly in Louis’ ear. “We’re gonna have to watch both of them to sort this out.”

“The sauce is too salty,” Babs said, “So it’s perfect.”

Louis leaned hard against Niall and let it shoot through his system, ease and comfort and trust. He was all right, he was always all right, but. Saturdays made a barricade against the rest of the week with its cold offices and long nights. Niall and Babs were the only two people in the world allowed to manhandle Louis into physical affection, and they took great advantage of it.

They took the food into the living room and ate off warm plates on their laps, because Louis liked couches and Niall liked sprawling and Babs liked it when Louis and Niall were comfortable, and therefore more at her mercy.

“You’ve missed dinner the past few weeks,” Babs said after they’d worked over the stirfry, opening a second bottle of the octopus-beer since it hadn’t disappointed.

“I know,” Louis said, wrinkling his nose in her in apology, “It’s been a bitch, s’all, chasing that idiot deal and working late and just crashing out after. I haven’t been one for company.”

Babs made a disapproving noise, and Louis shrugged because he agreed with her, but on the other hand, he didn’t know what she wanted him to do about it. Everybody had to grow up eventually and work a stupid job they hated, right?

“Well, I think that tonight at least, we should snuggle and smoke pot, make sure you get actual human contact.”

“I'm really fine ,” Louis said, and Babs gave him a skeptical look. Louis cleared his throat and reached for a second bottle of his own.

“I actually, err, I hooked up with somebody.”

Louis tried and failed to look extremely casual, not that it would have mattered because Babs shrieked and Niall feigned a heart attack, clutching his chest and falling backwards onto the couch.

“We need details!” Babs yelled as Niall reached out for a high five. Louis gave the high five but shook his head at Babs.

“You really don't,” he said. “It's not a whole thing. It was just a one night stand. Very normal.”

“Oh my god,” Niall said, “It was completely bonkers, that means. Obviously, because how else would he have gotten through your multi-step discouragement protocol. He must really had some game. I'm assuming it's a he?”

“I have no such thing,” Louis said loudly and guiltily.

“When? When? And where did you meet?” Babs chorused.

Louis squinted down the barrel of his beer and took a long drink. He didn’t know why there was an octopus on the label, maybe it had something to do with the coastline. This whole city was obsessed with reminding you that you lived on the ocean.

“Friday,” Louis said, “Just like, wherever you meet one night stands. A bar.”

“A bar,” Babs cackled, “Like you go to bars. Was it work? You were at the symphony this weekend! Holy shit, did you hook up with somebody at the symphony?”

“That would be so degenerate,” Louis said, but a massive grin spread over his face. Babs made a show of fanning herself.

“At least tell us the name,” Niall said, “Because ‘Sex God Who Was Cute Enough to Turn Louis ‘I don't need people’ Tomlinson’s Head’ is too many words when I'm half drunk.”

“You guys are insane,” Louis said, “His name was Harry.”

Is Harry,” Babs corrected, “Harry. I love Harry. Harry had better be an angel of the first order. Are you gonna see Harry again?”

Louis rolled his eyes. “No, see, the two you have been in a relationship for so long that you probably don’t remember this, but that’s the one part of one night stand, we’re total strangers, I don’t even know him.”

“Uh huh,” said Niall, “But he asked, didn’t he? You’re way too adorable and smart and irritating for someone to just be like, ‘thanks for the dick, gotta go.’ Obviously he wants to see you again. Back me up on this, Babs.”

“He asked,” Babs said with utter certainty. “Harry wants to see you again. Did you get his number? At least his subscription seat number? You guys gonna meet up at that shitty Victorian bar with all the columns and get sloshed on gin and make out in the men’s room?”

Louis snorted as he opened the gummy worms, glad to have something to do.

“Only in your fantasies, although he did kind of leave me his number, written on his ticket of all things. He left it my coat pocket like some kind of creepy spy.”

“I love that,” Niall said through a mouthful of gummy, “Our Harry is resourceful. Knew you wouldn’t take it straight from him. You’re so gonna see him again.”

“I'm not gonna see him again, and it was just a crazy night, weird ticket note notwithstanding. You know how alphas can be with the chase,” Louis said, and he ignored the thrill of excitement he felt at the idea, Harry's raspy voice on the phone, proposing where they could meet, maybe a coffee shop somewhere, a warm mug in Harry’s hand, rings clinking on the ceramic. Louis shook his head.

“Wait,” Babs said, and Niall gaped.

“Hold the friggin’ phone, you actually hooked up with an alpha?” Niall suddenly sounded more shocked than teasing, and Louis shook his head.

“All right, we are not gonna discuss it anymore, that's that,” he said firmly, throwing a worm at Niall, who caught it in his mouth impressively. Niall was a man of many talents.

“Oh, no fair. Can we discuss it with a metaphor?” Babs asked.

Louis considered, hovering his beer in the air like a judge about to make a ruling, if the beer were a gavel and Niall and Babs’ overly-decorated living room were a courtroom.

“Fine, we can discuss it with a metaphor,” Louis said. Niall looked way too excited, so Louis pushed him over facedown into the couch and sat on him. “Babs only,” he said.

“It’s like this,” Babs said with determination, “Imagine that we’re all out getting dinner, no, like we’ve already had burritos at that disgusting place you guys like,”

“La Taqueria!” Louis and Niall exclaimed at the same time, and fist bumped, Niall’s fist awkwardly angling backwards since he was still facedown in the cushions.

“It’s not disgusting, it’s authentic,” Louis said.

“Whatever,” said Babs, “We’ve stuffed ourselves with burritos and we’re regretting our life choices and then you see the perfect restaurant and you totally don’t need dinner, but what you do need is dessert. Like maybe you’re super hypoglycemic, for the last two years you haven't even had sugar, and you really need dessert.”

“I said metaphor,” Louis warned, “And I’m not hypoglycemic, I’ve been totally fine without...sugar, let's say I take those….like, diabetic sugar pills, or something.”

Babs waved her arm dismissively. “Whatever you need to tell yourself. Anyway you get the damn dessert, and about time, too. We’re all happy for you, you deserve it.”

“This has nothing to do with solving your Harry problem,” Niall said helpfully. “She just likes to tell long boring stories about how much we eat.”

“Are you saying our life is boring?” Babs said. The back of Niall’s head nodded, his summer-long hair grazing Louis’ elbow.

“It’s just the way I like it,” Niall informed her, “We organize our entire weekend around food and walking to get food. It’s a good life.”

“I don’t have a Harry problem,” Louis said, “I solved my Harry problem. Handily. In a hallway.”

Niall tried to push himself up, cobra-yoga-pose-style,  so Louis flung his arms out on either side to grab the couch cushions and create more resistance. Babs added her weight to the pile, sitting on the back of Niall’s thighs and snuggling into the crook of Louis’ shoulder with her long legs sprawled comically off the couch. Louis beamed down at her. Babs was his favorite person, next to Niall, and he didn’t know what he would do without them.

“Did you know,” Louis said to Babs, ignoring Niall’s outraged huffing, “If I really did go into a sit-down restaurant and only got dessert, the restaurant would actually lose money on me? Most places have to get their customers to average at least twenty dollars’ worth before they make up the operational and wage costs, I read. They don’t do a great job of managing variable expense, probably.”

“Nobody cares about your efficiency expert bullshit,” Niall said into the couch.

“Harry cared,” Babs smirked, “Harry was all, oh, Louis, it’s so hot when you calculate the standard deviation of how tall I am,”

“Fuck off,” Louis said primly, “He wasn’t nearly tall enough to be a standard deviation taller than me. And I’m not an efficiency expert, this isn’t 1903, I’m not married to Lillian Gilbreth.”

“Thank god for Harry’s sake, although you probably would be if you could be,” Niall said.

“Can’t deny that, organizational psychology is a well-documented weakness of mine, but aside from Lillian I’m mostly gay,” Louis said, because it was his duty in the company of the heteronormative. Babs patted him on the arm.  

“Oh we're aware. You're all about the dark, dangerous, mysterious male alphas. Harry was like, oh, Louis,” Niall said, “ Let me draw the linear regression of your cute little ass,”

“Shut up,” Louis said, “That doesn’t even make sense. I like a male beta, personally.”

“Thanks love,” said Niall, “We like you too, every one of us.”

“Female alphas are mysterious and dangerous too,” Babs said with satisfaction and an absurd, nonthreatening grimace.

“None more so,” Niall said loyally.

“The point is that you find the perfect restaurant-” Babs started,

“A tall restaurant,” Niall said, muffled by couch.

“--and maybe you’re not exactly ready for dinner, for reasons that nobody here would ever judge you for, so you order a great dessert. And it’s like, the best dessert you’ve ever had in your life,”

“Chocolate,” Louis said, nodding, thinking of Harry’s hair, “Maybe like, chocolate with caramel, and a little espresso or something, and alcohol, and like, mint in there, somewhere,” Harry’s eyes had been green, Louis was almost certain, although it was hard to remember with the dark and all.

Babs made a face. “Ok, your funeral, chocolate and mint, gross. Yeah, but lots of alcohol, in order to psych yourself up enough to actually talk to the dessert,”

“Fuck off,” Louis said again, hitting Babs with a pillow but inadvertently freeing Niall as he did so. Niall surged up triumphantly, dumping both Louis and Babs onto the floor. Luckily, they’d mostly finished the beer. Babs rolled onto her back and stuck her feet in the air and twirled them, reflectively. Louis supposed that living with Niall, you stopped even noticing when you got thrown around in the living room. He situated himself rightside up again with his back against the couch and Niall started scritching him on the back of his head, to which Louis gave a happy sigh. He felt the beer fritzing in his limbs and Niall’s calm beta touch snaking its way into his insula, soothing. He’d been feeling paradoxically both more fulfilled and more wanting since the hookup, his usual self-soothing not getting as far that morning, and touch felt surprisingly helpful. He just hoped Babs wouldn't pick up on it or she'd get even more protective than usual, probably, and Louis honestly didn't want to deal.

But Babs was still on the Harry thing, thankfully, single-minded in the way that had gotten her international modeling contracts and this rare apartment and Niall.

“So you have the greatest dessert of your life but, does that mean that the restaurant somehow can’t serve you dinner, once you’re ready for dinner?” Babs pointed a finger at Louis, accusingly. “Does it really mean you can’t go back and order a nice salad, get yourself off to a healthy start? And then do dessert again? Can’t you?”

“Wait, I’m confused,” Niall said, “Is Tommo the restaurant, losing money on bad customer Harry?”

“Dating Harry is the restaurant, idiot,” Babs said, “And the dessert is sex. Harry is probably a great customer, by the way. Bet he tips like a motherfucker.”

“You’re wrong,” Louis said, grabbing himself a new handful of gummy worms and stuffing it in his mouth. He was careful not to move his head, so as not to disturb the scritching.

“Harry’s the dessert, and that’s all it is, getting dessert in a moment of weakness, it’ll never happen again, if I did it all the time I’d get a heart attack and die,” Louis garbled around the mouthful.

“Louis, jesus,” Niall said, sliding off the couch and joining them on the floor. Niall wrapped his arm around Louis and tugged him in for a cuddle, and like clockwork, Babs came over to fill in the other side. Inevitably, they ended up on the floor for these evenings, despite the fact that Niall and Babs had three entire couches in their living room in a dense cluster. Louis made a show of sighing in protest but melted against them in three seconds. Louis didn’t have a lot of bare skin but where he did, along his arms and the side of his neck, he felt Babs’ cuddle like a stable, steady, glow and Niall’s like a rippling, chatty murmur.

“Do you really think that you’ll die if you start dating again?” Niall asked, too seriously.

Louis was not prepared for that question, so he rubbed his salt-sticky fingers on Niall's jeans in lieu of responding. Babs and Niall exchanged The Look right over his head. Louis knew The Look from many previous occasions over the last two years.

“Stop that,” Louis said. “We’re all dying. Life is but a Sisyphean march through time.”

“I'm going to sit on you next,” Babs warned, but she only cuddled harder.

“For real, I mean this isn’t just about Harry, right? You are gonna start dating again someday, yeah?” Niall asked, crossing and uncrossing his ankles and tapping Louis’ foot with his own.

Louis shrugged.

“Niall,” Babs said, sounding warninglike. “Hey, we’re just giving you a hard time because we’re happy for you, you know that, right? It’s cool to see you get out there and connect with somebody.”

“Not to mention that we don’t have to wonder if this is the weekend we’ll need to take you to the doctor for stim overdose and touch depri,” Niall said, and Babs whacked him on the side of the head, because violence was their love language.

“Like we'd ever let Louis get depri,” Babs said darkly. Louis squeezed her hand reassuringly. Babs felt the pull to protect Louis, even from a happily-mated distance, a little bit more acutely than Niall did, and she was a protective person by nature anyway. Louis knew that as hard as the last few years had been for him, it had been hard for them to be there for it. He'd never forget that.

“I do know,” he said quickly. Niall and Babs informed Louis on a regular basis that they were his platonic life partners, but Louis still worried about burdening them, about everything his stupid omega body wanted just being too much. Still, Louis handled it. It was all fine.

“Well, hey,” Niall said, “Harry was really lucky. I mean you should totally call him, make his day, but like, if you don’t, he was still really lucky. And there's nothing wrong with going for what you need.”

“Aw,” Louis said, “Shut up. Let’s play games. We’re all very proud of me, dessert was great, now I feel the need to kick both of your asses in Halo, sequentially.”

Niall was already reaching for the controllers and flipping on the whirring projector that they used for a tv. Louis grabbed one of the much-abused pillows off the couch and shoved it under himself for a comfier seat.

“Someday, you’ll have to tell us what really happened with Thomas,” Niall said. He raised his hand at Louis’ glare.

“We hate him, we hate him,” Niall said, Babs nodding vigorously as he booted up the game. Louis couldn’t even remember where they’d left off, some terrifying jungle full of cat-like aliens the size of buses, but he’d just trail behind Niall’s avatar until he remembered the button combinations, as usual.

“I just mean, you’ve never told us the full story.”

“Yeah, I know. Someday,” Louis agreed. He sent a blast of alien bullets into the computerized palm trees, machine gun terror singing through dissolving pixels in a satisfying stream. At least he always remembered where the trigger was.

 

*



“Did you bring me food?” Babs said, making grabby hands, “Thank fuck, I’m starved.”

Three of this season’s new, gazelle-like models made shocked eyes at her, and Babs winked in their direction.

“Protip, ladies, get a rockstar boyfriend who will bring you fries when you text him from rehearsal,” she called.

“Don’t tease the animals,” Louis said.

Niall gestured towards the fast-food bag that Louis had brought. “Two orders of fries, we know what a marathon these things are. Louis and I are going to go watch every Edgar Wright movie without you on this fine school night because we are irresponsible adults.”

Louis nodded as he surveyed the chaos, because he loved Babs’ insane work world and he loved getting to see behind the scenes of what would eventually turn into the stunning Victoria’s Secret December show. It was easy to forget that Babs was a supermodel when she spent most of her non-work time in sweatpants and one of Niall’s old band t-shirts, but the Victoria’s Secret season had woken itself up with a groan and a vengeance. They were months away from the live show and Babs was already grinding hard in random designs and rehearsals, amping up her workouts and social media presence and having strange, tense phone conversations about her brand. Stylists ran in every direction, the shoot director was yelling about amber lighting switches for contrasting skin, and somebody young and fragile--probably an intern--was crying in a corner. Louis sighed happily and scarfed a couple of fries out of Babs’ bag.

And there, leaning against a temporary table with his arms folded and a perky smile on his face, was Harry.

Louis opened his eyes, which had closed of their own accord, like a flying object had come at his face. But it was only Harry, definitely Harry: unfair dimple in one cheek, fluffy hair piled artistically high over his head, a silky pink button-down with scarlet-flowered-print cuffs rolled up his forearms and a camera in one hand. He was just as gorgeous as Louis’ memory of him, maybe more. He looked sexy and comfortable and effortlessly high fashion, he looked like Louis’ worst nightmare.

“Cute new photographer,” Niall noted, “Is that the one you were telling me about?”

“Oh, that's Styles, definitely not ours,” Babs said, distracted by the fact that an entire wing had started to sag off of one shoulder. She frowned down at it and picked at the feather-glue-sparkle combination that wasn’t pulling its weight.

“A triumph for my career, going to the same pompous performing arts high as somebody who got famous.”

“What?” Louis croaked. Possibly he was finally having a psychotic break, although he never imagined it happening in the form of a delusion about handsome alphas on a Victoria's Secret set. Harry was wearing boots with heels .

“You know, Harry Styles? Brilliant artist, great photographer, sort of an all around rising star in the art world because he's good looking enough for the popular mags, too. He had that piece in Vienna, the fountain installation with the flying boats?”

“Oh shit, I did hear about that,” Louis said.

“Didn’t he auction a piece of his hair once?” Niall mused. Babs nodded.

“Yeah like, for your entire salary. I mean he's not like, Banksy level making it, but he gets a lot of buzz. He's here on set in a total hush, checking out the design work because corporate wants to weasel into his next installation, rumor is he’s a bit into fashion. Rather a coup to even get him to come visit rehearsal for ten minutes, since high art gallery types are obviously above--” Babs gestured in the general direction of her cleavage, “--all this. I’m pretty sure he’s just doing it to be nice to me, he always was the sweetest kid, even in high school. I'm surprised you don't know his shit, Louis, it's right up your alley.”

Louis, who had started backing away involuntarily, made a tiny choking noise in the back of his throat that was meant to be a disinterested, I’ll have to check that out.

Niall looked at Louis with narrowing suspicion, and then his eyes bugged out and he grabbed Louis with one hand and Babs with the other.

“Heyo,” Babs said, “These are just the practice wings and they’re still like, a thousand dollars each, you can grab me later.”

“Harry, Harry Styles,” Niall said meaningfully, jerking his chin urgently towards Louis, who was halfway to the door and angled behind Niall’s body, now, “Funny, Louis recently met a Harry.”

“There's no way,” Babs said.

“Pretty sure it was Harold,” Louis said quickly. Maybe the fries bag was big enough to cover his face. Babs was tall, maybe her giraffe legs could shield him. Maybe he could kick over a lamp and set Babs’ wings on fire and that would serve as a distraction while he bolted out the back door. Those things had to be flammable, all synthetic blends that they were.

“Was it,” said Niall, “So why are you pulling me towards the door?”

“Holy shit, it is Louis’ Harry,” Babs said.

“It was Hans, come to think of it,” Louis said, “Definitely a Hans. Sort of a blond bloke, Swedish.”

Louis looked longingly towards the door. Just a few more feet.

“STYLES,” Babs yelled, waving her cursedly long arm, “So excited you could make it. Got some cute boys for you to meet.”

Louis’ eyes jerked back across the room to see Harry turn left with a face of quizzical detachment that transformed into a kind of bright surprise as soon as he saw Babs, and Niall, and--oh god--Louis. Harry pushed himself off the table and weaved through the room, ducking rhinestones and stepping through tangles of lighting cords. He was like a magnet in a paperclip store, easy charm pulling everyone’s attention. Louis saw at least three fashion assistants do an involuntary double take, so apparently everybody in the fucking world knew who Harry was except for Louis.

“You are dead to me forever,” Louis hissed through his teeth.

“Hiiii,” Harry said, three feet in front of Louis and terribly, terribly real. “Babs, it’s been a long time.”

“Hasn’t it though,” Babs said with her bright, tv interview voice. “This is my partner, Niall, made him see your Reverie exhibit and he sat in your big cocoon-net thing for like, forty minutes.”

“It was a dream,” Niall said, nodding, “Big fan. We’ll have to get Louis out to see it. Harry, Louis.” Niall gave Louis a tiny little push in Harry’s direction. Niall was going to die in a blaze of gore later that night.  

Louis, who was an adult capable of doing adult things like see an alpha that he had a casual, crazy, sort of hormone-imbalanced hookup with in a bloody theatre and be casual and calm about it, nodded.

“Sounds like a thing,” he choked. Babs and Niall looked at each other like a pair of cats sharing a canary.

“Hope you’ll like it, Louis,” Harry said, small smile on his face, one hand in his pocket, the other balancing the camera carelessly on his shoulder. He was looking way too intently at Louis’ face, green eyes lit with purpose. Harry was probably trying to figure out whether this was the way that Babs and Niall usually acted, and trying to respect Louis’ privacy by not acting like they’d met before. That was unexpectedly polite. Wanker. At this inopportune moment, Louis’ body decided to remind him of exactly how Harry’s thighs had felt, pressing him into the wall at the symphony, Harry’s breath on his neck.

“So, enjoying rehearsal?” Louis asked, a little desperately. Harry blinked at him, and Louis avoided looking at his eyelashes, the way they threw shadows on his high cheekbones.

“It’s not my usual scene,” Harry said, “But I appreciate anything that people put a lot of work into, and the chance to see a backstage. I'm all about the backstage. I like seeing things in the drafting stage, all the work behind shows.”

“I get that,” Niall chirped. Heedless of potential wing-damage, he had his arm wrapped around Babs’ waist and was smiling broadly at the world. “Babs will be on her feet for hours tonight, won’t you, babe?”

“Well it’s a living, nothing like how hard Louis works,” Babs said. “Didn’t you close a million dollar deal last week?”

“Hah,” Louis said, “Failed to close, utter failure, thanks Babs.”

“We should all get lunch sometime, talk more about our terrible jobs,” Babs said. “Harry, can't believe you actually moved back to this city, you must be looking to meet people, right?”

“Always,” Harry said, “Certainly people who appreciate big cocoons. I've got a new prototype we should get Niall's opinion on. Yours too,” he said to Louis, flashing a smile that surely should be a controlled substance.

“Where are you?” Babs asked.

“Moved into a new place near the park,” Harry said.

“Sick,” Niall said, shaking his head, “Great area. Cool people for neighbors only. Bet you're close, you should come over for dinner. Louis comes over all the time to escape his downtown coffin, don’t you, Louis?”

“Never,” Louis said, “I am a vampire who can’t cross thresholds without an invitation.”

“What if you got an invitation?” Harry asked provocatively, head to the side, dazzlingly unself-conscious. Louis clutched at the bag of fries and Niall looked like he was barely controlling himself and Louis was going to kill him twice.

“But I’m glad that’s not my problem,” Harry said, with worrying sincerity. Harry wasn’t an insane person who believed that vampires were real, was he? Why didn't he have the decency to vanish into Louis’ imagination as an occasional guilty wank fantasy instead of being a real person saying strange things in front of Louis’ actual friends?

“Hardest part of my job lately has been finding a space to put the next installation. I’ve been so tired of museums, honestly. One of the reasons it was so nice to get a call from Babs.”

Harry beamed at Babs, who looked properly delighted. “Oh, poor babe, tired of all the museums. I’ll pull you into my sordid commercial environs anyday, Styles. Knew the galleries would get their claws in you our junior year when you started winning all those contests. We were kind of surprised hear you’d moved back, not exactly the art capital of the world, here.”

Harry shrugged, had the grace to at least look slightly embarrassed. “Honestly yeah, but I think it’s what I need. I needed a new place. I can feel it in the work...good to explore, again. I’ve gotta do my next piece somewhere different, something that’s not just the front yard of another tourist attraction.”  

Louis decided that the whole conversation was aggressively annoying. Harry Styles, Fancy Artist, was clearly on a level even worse than Harry Styles, Alpha.

“Guess we should let all you arty types get back to it, huh,” Louis said. “Western civ’s not gonna reinvent itself in the form of a spangled corset, and Niall and I have a lot of on-screen gore to watch.”

“Are you doing a monster movie night?” Harry asked, leaning a little forward. Louis leaned back but still caught a hint of Harry’s scent on the very tip of his tongue, fuck, and that was as good as he remembered too. Some shivery part of his brain wanted to reach out, pull Harry in, see if he remembered how Louis smelled too. His body was trying to kill him, it was. “I love monster movies.”

“Cool,” Louis said, and externally winced, on his actual face. God. Harry had a slightly concentrated expression, undoubtedly trying to endure the painfulness of having to see a one night stand in the harsh light of day and act nice about it. Louis took Niall’s arm and pulled him away from Babs, who let out a small squeak of outrage.

“I think a stylist is coming over here to murder Babs, so luckily, you guys will have your own gore to deal with.”

Louis had stalked down two hallways and was halfway to the car before he realized he’d taken the fries with him. Oh well, Babs deserved a penalty for this entire experience. Now she was in there in a room with Harry, with someone who had way too much knowledge of Louis from way too vulnerable an angle, and god, everything was too much. Alphas shouldn't be allowed to talk to each other. Maybe that was bigoted, but sacrifices had to be made.

“Hey, uh, you can stop running,” Niall said from behind, sounding worried.

“I’m not running,” Louis said. Niall made a rude noise.

“Did you see the way he looked at you? It was like he thought he was dreaming seeing you again. ‘I like monster movies,’ oh my god, Tommo, you could’ve thrown the guy a bone. Or a french fry.”

“What are you talking about?” Louis asked. Niall threw his hands up to the sky.

“He liked you! So much!”

“No, pretty sure he was being blackmailed by a former high school classmate into talking to someone he thought he’d never see again. That’s probably like, a recurring high school nightmare, actually, right up there with showing up for a test naked. I bet he’s going to make some beautiful art about the trauma, and it’ll win a Grammy, and then I’ll have see it on the front page of the bloody newspaper.”

Louis stopped, out of breath.

“That’s elaborate,” Niall observed, “Grammys are music. You’re a worse gay man than I am, and I’m living the heterosexual dream, married to a supermodel.”

“Which is fashion, which is art, so you have an unfair advantage. Niall, oh god, Harry is some famous fucking artist? I haven't so much as winked in an alpha’s direction for two years and I picked somebody famous .

Louis sat down abruptly right in the middle of the parking lot and buried his face in his palms. There was a curly fry that had snuck into their fry bag, so he un-buried his face to eat it and then re-buried. Niall sat down next to him.

“One freakout at a time,” Niall suggested. Louis nodded.

“Look, I'm sure he thought it was a cute coincidence that you turned up here. Like a movie, you know? Babs won't talk to him about it, I'm sure. She's way too protective of your headspace. She'll probably just interrogate Harry to figure out whether he's good enough to lay his hands on you. Not that anyone's judging.”

“I want zombies,” Louis said, plaintively, “And to not talk about this anymore.”

Niall slung an arm around Louis’ shoulders. Louis felt his heart rate calm, his breath slow down. Why was he spinning out? This was why Louis didn’t do this kind of thing, open himself up to freaking alphas, to touch and entanglement and everything it caused. It just wasn’t worth it. He leaned against Niall.

“Let’s get some zombies,” Niall said, his thumb brushing Louis’ jumper soothingly. “Zombies never let us down.  Unlike dumbass alphas, we know that zombies only want us for our brains.”

Chapter Text

There must have been something magic in the air that weekend, something drawing together all the chance encounters that could possibly rattle Louis' imagination, because Louis was working at his favorite coffeeshop when Zayn Malik walked in.

“Holy shit,” Louis said, spilling his tea.

Under the prosaic light of a fading afternoon instead of bright stagelights, Zayn Malik still managed to look like classical music’s favorite fallen angel. He was in a black t-shirt, black jeans, and a black jacket and made it look good, though he also looked softer and more comfortable than he did on stage. Louis mopped up his tea and considered the possibility that living a professional life in tuxedos depleted one’s color perception altogether. He eyed Zayn Malik over the table.

Zayn ordered up an espresso and did not promptly drown it in cream and sugar, which is what Louis would have done. He stood at the counter holding the tiny cup and saucer and eyeing around the coffeeshop with an air of great suspicion. Was he thinking about the orchestra’s next challenging Mozart? Deep in a mental visualization of Mahler?  

The barista called out an order close to Zayn’s ear and Zayn jolted, shifting his weight from side to side. He glared at the barista, but only once the barista had actually turned around, more chipper than anybody had a right to be this close to dinnertime, to take another order. Zayn had his free arm wrapped around his torso, hand tucked into an elbow crease. Louis glanced around and realized that every table was occupied, and that maybe, perhaps, this was his single best chance to actually meet the man in charge of the highlight of his week. Louis shoved himself up from the table, leaving his plaid messenger bag and laptop to hold his spot.

Louis drifted like a tiny glacier towards the pastry cabinet. Zayn was the Titanic, and collision was inevitable. He skirted the chipper barista’s gaze and picked up, and then put down, an inferior quality chocolate bar, a pack of gum, and a coffeeshop-specific gift card. Who even bought those things? Shouldn’t you just give cash?

“Hey,” Louis said, clearing his throat, putting down the gift card. “I, uh, I’m looking forward to the Paganini stuff, great choice.”

“Oh, thanks,” said Zayn Malik, director of the symphony, bringer of Louis’ most constant joy, sounding bemused. Louis beamed at him.  

“Need a place to sit?” Louis asked. He gestured towards his table, a perfectly empty chair across from his unusually heavy, stats-doing laptop. Niall called it a Personal Cockblocking Device, but, Louis wasn’t trying to hit on Zayn, who probably wasn’t gay, and was beta, and it wasn’t that Louis had a type but if he did they were usually a little more alpha, and anyway, he wasn’t trying to hit on Zayn. Louis took a calming breath.

“Sure,” Zayn said. Louis nodded and plunked himself back down. After a beat, Zayn did too, clutching the espresso in his long, graceful, conductor fingers.

Zayn smelled nice. Maybe a little nervous, or like somebody trying to not smell nervous. It didn't do anything toxic to Louis' sensitive system, so Louis found it more endearing than anything. Louis held himself back as long as he could, typing a script and accidentally leaving a typo that deleted about a gig of data. He rolled his eyes and backstepped the command, restoring the temporary empire of a mid-size biotech company. They’d be out of Louis’ firm by the next quarter anyway, or he was bad at his job, and he wasn’t.

“How’s it going?” Louis asked across the table.

“Like shit,” Zayn said. Louis blinked.

“Err, sorry. I’m not great with people. Or talking. Or, things. I’ve been told.”

Zayn frowned into the espresso. His Bradford accent was thicker in real life, a sloshy quality to his words that sounded like it would be out of place in a tuxedo and downright offensive at a symphony gala. Louis loved him immediately.

“People suck,” Louis said. “My day is kind of shit, too.”

Louis gestured towards his screen, which was displaying the most boring quarterly report that Louis had ever had the misfortune to be saddled with. He’d had to VPN to the firm just to download the thing. Zayn courteously let his eyes drift over the rows and columns of numbers, and barely repressed a shudder.

“Yeah,” Louis said. “So what’s your day’s damage?”

Zayn let one shoulder drift skyward while he downed the rest of his espresso, looking mysterious but Louis also detected what he was beginning to think was frazzle. Obviously a face as beautiful as Zayn Malik’s could only achieve a state of frazzle by looking a little more stone like than normal, the eyes a shade more gimlet, but Louis was good at nuance.

“I think I need food. Should probably get a pastry, but they can never get my name right, here.” Zayn said, turning to face the counter and its chipper barista with the air of someone steeling themselves to face a firing squad.

“Hey,” Louis ventured, taking a long breath, “Do you want some real food? Only my friends and I were going for sushi and we've got an extra seat in the reservation. It's surprisingly easier to get seated as a party of four than a party of three.”

Zayn looked surprised. Maybe even shy, if the great director could feel such mundane things. On impulse Louis flashed him his best smile, the real one with the crooked right side.

“Nobody will ask you about the season, I promise,” he said, “Niall only listens to Irish folk music.” Niall was going to be so pleased. Niall was always going on about how Louis needed to meet more people. Who was downright phobic with good-looking strangers now, Niall?

Zayn’s shoulders dropped and he didn't give Louis a smile exactly, but his face softened in that general direction. “I don't like fish,” he said, which made Louis wrinkle his nose and was a strike against Zayn’s moral fibre, but then again, he was an artiste .

“There are a lot of options, it's one of those dreadfully hip Asian fusion places,” Louis said. In fact the restaurant was one of Louis’ tried and true comfort spots, and many the long chill evening had he spent in its warm, soy sauce-drenched embrace when he'd first moved to this city and spent every weekend moping about the fog. Zayn seemed like someone who could use a comfort spot right now.

“What the hell,” Zayn said.

 

*

 

“You direct the symphony!” Babs exclaimed, “What a gig! You must really like classical music.”

Heaven help him, maybe Zayn Malik, child prodigy on only about six different classical instruments, liked classical music. Louis kicked Babs under the table, and she only winked at him.

“Bugger music,” Zayn said darkly, “Better for all of us had it never been invented.”

“Aw, Louis has found a friend just as melodramatic as he is,” Babs said brightly.

“How much sake have you had?” Louis asked incredulously, picking up the white pitcher and giving it a shake. It felt suspiciously light. “He doesn't mean that,” Louis reassured the table.

“I do,” Zayn muttered, stabbing into a square of agedashi tofu with a chopstick. “Nothing stupider than classical music. Gonna go back to modeling.”

“Were you a model?” Babs said, with the face of someone ready to talk shop, as Niall simultaneously exclaimed “See, other people hate their jobs too, Louis!”

“I do not hate my job!” Louis said, and beckoned for more sake because this table clearly needed it. Zayn had sat back in his chair and folded his arms, but Louis rather thought he looked relieved to have gotten some complaining off his chest.

“Just for like, a summer,” Zayn said, “I was going through a rebellious phase. Nothing like you, I loved your recent campaign for La Belle.”

“You can stay,” Babs announced, focusing her beautiful, alpha-intense gaze on Zayn before launching into a rapid conversation that covered, among other things, Zayn's Vogue subscription, their agreement over the hotness of Gigi Hadid, and Babs’ promise to get him into the Victoria's Secret show with Niall and Louis that winter.

Louis was enjoying the novel sensation of being a group: they’d snagged the best table in the sushi place, in the window on a slightly raised platform that felt like the place where they could watch everybody else and also have a better angle on waving down the one waiter who ran about the restaurant with new sake bottles. They were already three double-dragons deep into an altogether unreasonable number of rolls. Louis was still basking in his own self-pride at having brought Zayn to dinner. When was the last time he even talked to a stranger? His mind flashed back to Harry, the taste of a gin and tonic with the music washing around them, and he drank more sake to wash it away.

“Seriously though,” Louis said into a conversational lull, “Not feeling the orchestra, these days? We won’t tell anybody.”

Zayn scratched at his cheek, looked like he was considering how safe it was to disclose to this group of recent strangers, but the powers of the comfort sushi spot were not to be denied. Zayn leaned forward and said, “It’s just been a little tough lately.”

“How’s that?” Niall asked sympathetically.

“Funding pressure,” Zayn said, “And like, people crap. I mean, you make a career in classical music, you know it’s always gonna be stressful worrying that you’re bringing in enough money, but the thing I always loved about being a director was like, feeling like everybody was on the same side about it.”

“The orchestra doesn’t feel that way, this season?” Louis asked. It was cheating because Louis already knew that it didn’t, it was all the buzz among people who cared, but Zayn seemed like the kind of person who would be helped by thinking you already knew what he was about to say, so he could say it safely.

“Some people don’t feel like they’re fully part of my orchestra,” Zayn said icily. “It’s one thing to be asked to bring us into the twenty-first century and compete with the entire world’s talent and somehow bring in a younger audience, but it’s a whole other thing to be asked to do it against active opposition.”

Zayn threw the last of his sake back, pompadour falling over his forehead enticingly. Louis had no idea how Payne--and he was sure it was Payne--could maintain opposition against that.

“That GQ shoot you did didn’t help bring in a younger audience?” Louis asked.

“Oh my god,” Babs said, “Classical music is so much more interesting than I remember.”  

“It was an interview, but they did take a lot of pictures.” Zayn frowned, like it was a mystery, and Niall sniggered into his sake.

Zayn pinched a veggie roll between two fingers and examined it before popping the entire thing in his mouth, getting a little spicy mayo across the corner of his mouth as he did. He was getting less intimidating and more adorably drunk by the minute.

“The symphony is in worse shape than I should tell you,” Zayn said. “It’s kind of a shit show. We’ve been running a debt for the past, like, decade, and some kind of stupid business thing happened to make it worse. Like the people owning the debt changed?”

Niall and Babs both glanced at Louis, who raised an eyebrow, but shrugged one shoulder. That was probably the gist of it.

“Anyway, suddenly they want it all back yesterday. We’ve basically got this season to come back on it, and so I’ve apparently got to put together the best program known to man, when we normally haven't even been able to cover our costs. I thought we had a shot with the new...well, I thought we had a shot. But so much needs to happen. The hall actually needs repairs, too, if you can believe it. And we need a real showstopper this year, something to bring people in, something more than just the same old Bach and Chopin. And, I can't even get my concertma--my orchestra to agree on how to play the fucking Bach and Chopin we've all been playing since we were eight. So, we're doomed.”

Zayn clamped his mouth shut around the last word, clearly exhausted from the disclosure, and Louis refilled his sake from the fresh bottle he’d stealthily gotten from the server. Louis poured for himself too, because it wasn’t every night that you heard that your favorite place in the entire world might not, in fact, get to exist forever. Even the hot sake didn’t make his stomach feel warmer. The table sat in silence for a minute, contemplating the unfairness of a civilization that needed art but didn’t want to pay for it, like so many before it.

“Stay with me on this,” said Niall, “But I’m imagining something like Chippendales, except with trombones. It’s only going to work if everybody in the orchestra looks like you.”

“Not that they seem to know it,” drunk Zayn said, a confusing response that half-distracted Louis, but not really, because something was taking shape in his head.

Louis tapped at the linoleum tabletop, tuning everyone else out. It always happened this way, the little bits and pieces of the system falling into place, the lights lining up, the machinations of a perfect plan. Sometimes Louis felt like his brain was an autopilot half the time and he just had to hang on until it decided to get back to him with the data it had gathered while Louis himself had been doing things like ordering sushi and wondering whether Babs was ever going to tell him what Harry said after he left. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that he’d met Zayn Malik in a coffeeshop, maybe it was fate.

“I think I have an idea,” Louis said. Slowly, and reluctantly, but with a growing sense of the inevitable. “God damnit, I think I have a really good idea.”

“Oh christ, that's the problem-solving face,” Babs said. “Last time we saw that face, he sold a company.”

“Wait, what?” Zayn asked.

“Right place, right time,” Louis said. “Also, fuck my life,”

“What?” Zayn repeated. Niall patted his hand.

“I usually just roll with whatever Louis is about to do,” he said. “It’s better for us all.”

“That’s the attitude,” said Louis, “I’ll tell you tomorrow. Tonight, I need to do some research. Zayn, give me your number. I’m gonna save our symphony.”

 

*

 

“Here’s the thing,” Louis said, shoving the phone between his ear and his shoulder as he wrestled with his apartment key, a grocery bag, and a potted plant; “I don’t like you, I’m not gonna go out with you, and I’m concerned about whether or not I’m going to have to guard the entrance to my symphony box and my best friends.”

Harry laughed. It was a good laugh, even without the hall and classical music in the background, even over a flattened phone connection. Louis used the potted plant to wedge the door open and turned backwards to fit in his narrow hallway with the grocery bag and his backpack. It surpassed all understanding that he paid as much as he did for rent and still found it so difficult to get into his apartment.

“Well that’s a serious concern,” Harry said, or drawled, because of course Harry drawled in long, endless syllables, like anybody talking to him was gonna just hang around and wait on the next word, like he just took it for granted that you’d stay there, waiting. Louis was not someone who waited for people.

“You’ve gotta protect these boundaries, or any idiot in a suit can scam his way in.”

Louis could picture the way Harry’s mouth quirked around the words, and he almost laughed a betraying laugh, but he didn’t.

“I tried to text this important territory dispute to you, but apparently this number doesn't take texts. Am I speaking to the eighteenth century?”

“Ah, right, this is actually my landline, I only just moved here. A steal as long as I put in a few years of indentured labor. Nineteenth century, actually.”

“Yes, you seemed very Victorian the other night,” Louis said. “At this point I think even the Victorians have mobiles.”

“That’s really gonna help the British Empire, I wager,” Harry said.

Louis dropped the groceries and his backpack on the kitchen floor and shook his wrist out, transferring the phone to the other hand. He glanced at the ranks of house plants along his living room wall and made a quick call to put the new one on the high window ledge, for now.

“This isn't a booty call,” Louis said briskly.

“Since it’s ten o’clock in the morning, I figured,” Harry pointed out, “Plus Victorian gentlemen like myself prefer ankles.”

“You can stop being cute,” Louis said, “I’m not gonna go out with you.”

“We could stay in,” Harry said, “I’m a good cook. And I can’t help being cute.”

“Ugh,” Louis said, adjusting one of the plants so its biggest leaves faced the sun. This one was a little bit sensitive.

“I really mean it,” Louis said in a breath, because this was really it, the test. Louis couldn't manage this if they weren't on the same page. “I really meant what I said, I'm not dating. Or like, hooking up, really. You're--it--it was great, that night, hah, I think you know that. But I never imagined you'd be a real person, and like, know my friends. So in that context you should know that I'm different. I don't date.”

Louis swallowed, and absently put his finger in the soil of the pot to test its dryness, and waited. Maybe there would just be a click on the line, and that would be it, Harry another alpha just like most of the alphas that Louis encountered, vanishing in the face of his peculiarities. It was a pity, Louis supposed, since he didn’t have a better plan to help the symphony, but he wasn’t going to put himself in danger to do it. Nothing was worth that, not anymore.

There was just a half beat, and Harry said, “Ok, I get it, Louis. But if you don’t like me and you don’t wanna go out with me, why’d you call?”

Louis hesitated. This was it, the important bit. He fiddled with some plant leaves because it never did any harm to let the suspense build a bit while his brain got into gear. He shouldn’t really feel nervous, because this wasn’t even work , this was like, a project, and earlier today he’d severed that biotech company from the firm and made an executive actually cry, but unaccountably, he did feel a little nervous. It was just that Louis really knew this was a good plan. He didn’t know how he knew, but he did. Now he had to convince Harry.

“Something a little magic happened,” Louis said, voice clear and bright with  confidence. “I met Zayn Malik. Pretty, stick-wielding? I’m sure you remember.”

Louis made a face at the plants because god, that sounded a little bit like he was asking Harry if he remembered their hookup, which certainly Harry must, except, what if he didn’t? Maybe Harry had so many one-night stands that Louis had already faded into the tapestry of Harry’s life, a random unremarkable omega amidst high-brow debauchery. Anyway that wasn’t what Louis was asking. The plants, as usual, had nothing helpful to say.

“It turns out they want to do something different for the season, really different. There’s a lot of buzz around the symphony this year, and they’re looking to capitalize. And then you said you were looking at the spaces in the city, and I did a little research on your shows--I thought to myself, what if you did a collaboration with the symphony?”

There was static on the line. Who in their right mind got a landline, these days?

“Are you pitching me?” Harry asked, finally. There was warmth behind his question, but also confusion. Based on Louis’ scoping from eleven at night until two in the morning after sushi, Harry was the kind of person who had had enough success and fame to make decisions more about personal meaning than about career strategy. So all Louis had to do was make this sound like the most interesting project. God dammit, he was pitching.

“No,” Louis said firmly. “I know this is weird, given that we met in a decidedly unprofessional capacity, but I’m serious. And I took a look at your art, you know, and it just, resonated. You’re all about mixing materials, and getting people to see old things in new light, right? At least that’s how you’ve talked about it. And the symphony is like, it’s one of the oldest buildings in town, and it’s kind of like, taken for granted. They're in trouble, in, in debt. This could be their very last season, so they’re actually open to pushing all kinds of boundaries and doing experimental things. I looked it up, and I couldn’t find anybody like you doing something like this before, a real art installation in a symphony hall, in collaboration with a real, living orchestra.”

Louis took a breath, tried to sound a little less manic. He focused on an imperfection in the glass window, an old whorl that reflected light and green in a circle.

“Listen, Harry,” Louis said, trying to put a little velvet in his voice, slow it down. He didn’t have Harry’s gorgeous voice, but hey.

“It was sort of crazy to run into you, and I get an instinct about these things. I know I don't really know you, but I think you might like this. Just give it a shot. Come meet with us downtown, see how it feels. You'll get to see a backstage, if nothing else.”

“Ok,” Harry said, suddenly, more quickly than he’d said anything previously. Louis punched upwards in the air with the hand not holding his phone, and accidentally rammed the dangling living room lamp. God, but he hated this apartment.

“I’ll email you the info, unless you’ll actually have upgraded to the technology level of my nan and be able to text by next week,” Louis said.

“No promises,” Harry said, “Wouldn’t want to compete with your nan.”

Louis scoffed. “No one competes with a Tomlinson, especially those of us who are old enough to be crafty and armed with decades of experience.”

Harry laughed again, he was always doing that, the world must be a delight when you were Harry Styles. Louis batted at the stupid dangling lamp to get it out of his face and smirked at it.

Louis took down his email, and hung up the phone, and made a snarl at his reflection in the window. “You don’t like Harry Styles, who is a stuckup, privileged wanker of an alpha, even if he is funny,” he said firmly, around a stuck-out tongue.

Louis rested his forehead against the glass and let plant leaves brush against his nose. Plants couldn’t hug, but, he never had the kind of schedule that would accommodate a pet. Was this crazy? Probably, not like he needed another project on top of work, but christ, the symphony was important, was the thing. If he couldn’t devote his considerable manipulative energies to preserving the symphony, what good were they? Plus, he'd been meaning to get around to having more people in his life, after all. Between Zayn and this, Louis was racking them up and Babs was going to have to get off his back about meeting more people . And the nice thing about Harry was that he wouldn't hit on Louis because he'd already gotten all of that nonsense out of his system. And Louis wouldn’t get all omega weird about Harry, because Louis found Harry irrevocably annoying and also tremendously boring. It was a good plan. What could go wrong?

Chapter Text

Louis told Zayn to convene them in the closest thing the orchestra had to a War Room, which was less an Olivia-Pope-high-ceiling-big-window affair and more a disused classroom off the main orchestra practice hall, still dusty with ancient chalk. Louis filed a mental note: the symphony’s next project should be office spaces. Hadn’t his firm done some strategy work with one of those ritzy downtown design places? It was a fourth- or fifth-tier Thing To Do, along with re-potting the massive fern in the living room and finally getting somebody to detail the inside of his car. It was probably a lost cause. But filing was good.

Harry was there early, leaning on the wall outside the room and distracting a few members of the horns section. Harry looked like someone who’d forgotten how his spine worked, which was probably considered sexy and rocker by people who were easily distracted by such things. Louis marched briskly down the hallway, phase one in managing the rest of the transition from casual-hookup-to-productive-symphony-project.  

“All right then, Styles,” Louis said, nodding. He was all sharp edges this morning, vibrating from too much coffee and a strange building with strangers. But this time he’d had time to plan for seeing Harry. And Liam and Zayn, obviously. Unrelated, Louis was in on one of his favorite blazers--dark plaid, well-fitted--thrown over a t-shirt and paired black jeans. He’d locked his hair back from his forehead, styled away from distraction.

“All right, Tomlinson,” Harry echoed. He almost smiled at Louis, but looked a little hesitant, and Louis counted that as the morning’s first small victory.  

Zayn sat on the corner of the table, tilting his chair back with his feet on the table, because Zayn was an ass. Liam Payne sat primly on the other side of the table. Louis shook his hand and took the opportunity to soak up as many details as he could in a once-over, because Payne had a notably absent online profile compared with Zayn and Harry. Unlike Zayn, Payne was bigger than he looked onstage--gym muscles and broad shoulders more visible out of the tuxedo. He nodded at Louis, but looked politely baffled about the whole thing.  

“I’m not going to fuck around,” Louis said after introductions, because swearing got people’s attention and also sounded sincere, “This is a weird idea, but I think we have two problems that are perfect for each other.”

“Louis says you want to do a show,” Zayn said, looking at Harry with some challenge, “With our orchestra.”

“I want to see if I want to do a show,” Harry said. He sounded softer and gentler than Zayn, but Louis saw something in the back of his eyes, that deliberate intensity that said Harry Styles got what Harry Styles wanted.

“I’ve seen your shows,” Zayn said, “They’re not exactly classical, are they? Planning on doing another nude exhibit?”

Harry had once spent forty-eight hours in a bathtub in the middle of a museum, raising a hell of a lot of money for hurricane relief in the process. Not that that was the part the magazines had dwelled on.

“I don’t know what I’m planning, yet,” Harry said, looking visibly annoyed in what Louis mentally categorized as angry stuffed animal . Understanding Harry's expressions was a pragmatically good idea so that Louis could negotiate with him.

“But my shows sell out, every time, so I’m not here to convince you of the value of my art.”

“No need to measure each other’s artistic dicks,” Louis interjected, because christ. “Let’s just explore the possibility of a collaboration, right? The symphony needs money, Harry needs a space. Zayn’s got the artistic community of this city at his beck and call, Harry needs to find his footing here. Don’t give me those looks, you need each other. You’re welcome for the introduction.”

“We don't need sell scandal, we make music,” Zayn said haughtily, at the same time as Harry said, “I’ve never needed a collaboration.”

“No,” Louis said, “But you need different, don’t you?”

He caught Harry’s gaze and held it. Louis knew it was true, knew it because he’d heard it in the background of Harry’s voice in the interviews he’d spent all night watching. It was the key to most successful people, wasn't it? You worked harder than you ever thought you could to get something until one day, you woke up and realized you didn't know what came next. Louis had recognized it because it was the same voice that rattled around in his head at night.

“I’ll admit it,” Harry said, “I’m intrigued.”

“I’m not. This is nuts,” Zayn said, and now the challenge was a full-out snarl. That was a little unexpected, and Louis paid careful attention to his tone. Zayn was folded tightly over in his chair in a way that didn’t even look comfortable.

“The season is already set. The season was set ages ago! We’ve spent hours in rehearsals, and you’re asking me to upset everything, just swap out what we’ve already decided for an art piece that doesn’t even exist yet? We might need to refund an entire show.”

“Properly coordinated,” Louis said, bringing out the let-me-convince-you voice, “This could be a real event, something that more than makes up for the cost of the upheaval. Yeah, it’s novel. That’s good. You could get donors, drive an arts campaign off the back of this. It’s got all the elements of a good story.”  

Louis wasn’t really sure but he sounded sure, so sure he could even convince himself. He’d fixated on Zayn, because he had a growing hunch that Zayn wanted to be the center of your attention even though Zayn would never tell you that. Louis could feel Harry’s eyes skitter around the table, thoughtful and evaluating. Louis felt a flush creep up the side of his neck that didn’t have anything at all to do with his speech, but he kept locked on Zayn, solid and, he hoped, reassuring.

“Or, we could massively alienate the only people who actually keep us going,” Zayn snapped, “The very few people in this city who listen to classical music didn’t even like it when I changed my hair.”

“Well that’s not necessarily true,” Louis said, “I’ve been coming to the symphony for four years and I love your hair.”

“It’s good hair,” offered Harry, who was not in a position to talk, given that his was fluffing higher and higher in the back every time he ran his fingers through it. Louis wondered if this was Harry’s response to tense situations.

“The point is that we’re not doing it,” Zayn said. He put his feet down on the floor, and folded his hands. This seemed like a bad sign. Louis scrambled--what did Zayn need, to feel better? He’d counted too much on Zayn’s irreverence to translate into risk-taking, when clearly it did not. The silence hung over the table awkwardly, and Louis didn’t really know how to get them over it. He didn’t know shit about art, so the unfairly cute artist he’d dragged in here probably thought he was even more of an idiot, and the symphony was going to fold after this season, and Louis would just have to find something else to look forward to in life.

“No,” Liam said, unexpectedly, and Zayn twisted all the way around in his chair to stare at him.

“No, we’re going to listen to Louis, even though he seems a bit like a crazy person. No offense, Louis.”

Liam ducked his head mildly at Louis in apology. It was the first substantial thing he’d said all meeting, so quiet and unobtrusive Louis had even forgotten that the concertmaster was an alpha. He could see it now: Liam had none of the hot, immediate fire that Babs carried or the magnetism around Harry, and his voice was gentle and measured, but somehow he stilled the whole room. Maybe it was the cutting clarity in the way he looked up, met Zayn’s challenging stare, and didn’t blink.

“Look, I know who you are, and what you do,” Liam said to Louis. Harry and Zayn both swiveled their heads around with questions on their faces, because Harry and Zayn were trusting children who could apparently just accept that a stranger wanted to provide solutions and ideas and plans without ever wondering where exactly they came from. Artists, god.

“I googled you,” Liam said, running his fist absently under his jaw. “You work at that huge consulting firm downtown, and before that, you went from uni to a startup to leading an acquisition for your startup. There were news articles about it, and everything. Louis knows how to make money, and frankly, we just don’t. If Louis thinks there’s a shot, we should listen to him, set aside our...creative differences for this.”

The corner of Liam’s mouth twitched into a wry smile at the phrase, which made Louis wonder just how much the concertmaster heard when people talked about him and Zayn.

“Seriously?” Harry asked, looking at Louis with big eyes. Louis was mildly insulted, although he couldn't blame Harry. No one thought Louis was someone who'd be good at this crap, least of all himself, but, he'd had to become that person. There hadn't been much of a choice. He shrugged.

“Right,” Louis said, “I want to help the symphony, even if it means doing things I hate, like meeting new people and sitting in a room full of asthma-inducing orchestra debris.”

“Look,” Liam said, “I know maybe I have less of a vote. I know this season hasn’t been as easy as we’d hoped. I know the orchestra has worked so hard to make it this far. I know that none of this feels exactly fair. I know I only just got here, and that hasn’t been easy, either. But, I don’t want to lose what I found.”

He wasn’t looking at Zayn anymore, Louis noticed, but at the air around Zayn. The room felt still and expectant, like they were the four points of a square drawing out tension between them, like everything might snap, or everything might change.

“Even if I wanted to,” Zayn said softly, looking not at Liam, but at the air around Liam. Interesting. “Even if I wanted to, I don’t really know how to make this happen.”

“I never know how the next show will happen,” Harry said, leaning forward with his forearms on the table, his whole body curling towards the three of them like they were making a pact. Louis realized with a start that he was holding his breath. As lost as Zayn looked, Harry looked like he’d finally found his footing, like he thrived on the ambiguous, ambitious unknown. Louis grinned, fiercely, down at his own lap. That was what his brain had started to piece together even before he knew it, that if he could only bring them all together, they’d be exactly right for each other.

“What have we got to lose, right?” Harry said, “Who the fuck cares? Zayn, you know it’s not enough, a normal season. Even if this doesn’t work, wouldn’t you rather have tried something?”

“I would,” Liam said, “I would rather have tried.”

Zayn folded and unfolded his arms, carded one hand through his hair, and looked up at the ceiling.

“All right, Louis Tomlinson,” Zayn said to a flickering lightbulb ( sixth-tier To Do, get an electrical inspection in this building) , “Tell us how the fuck we do this.”

 

*

 

“You're going to do manual labor,” Niall said slowly, “Like with your actual hands? You know it’s not the same as modeling circuits on a computer, yeah?”

“Yes,” Louis said defensively. “It'll be fun. Like a hobby. I haven't had a hobby in a long time.”

“Oh yeah I've been meaning to try repairing a symphony hall with three total strangers,” Babs said, “I hear they have an intro class down at the rec center on Saturdays.”

“You could try reading mystery novels,” Niall suggested, “Or online dating. There are a lot of hobbies that don’t involve you killing yourself with a nail gun.”

“Wow, your faith is really helpful. This isn't that weird, you guys,” Louis said, kicking his legs out underneath the café table and hitting Niall’s in the process. He smiled innocently at the beta, who clicked his teeth in mock outrage.  

“No it's weird,” Babs said, Niall nodding vigorous agreement.

“But like, we support it, Lou, we're delighted. Go punch holes into things with Zayn and Liam and Harry. I wanted to invite him over for dinner without you flipping out, anyway.”

“This is about the symphony,” Louis protested, “I need to supervise and help Zayn sell whatever arty thing Harry comes up with, because none of them can speak business to save their lives and the symphony board will need to hear that language to let us try it.”

“Babs would like to punch a hole with Zayn,” Niall interjected.

“Oh, like you weren't all eyelashes and I wonder if he ever smiles after sushi the other night,” Babs said.

Louis waved an irritated hand.

“That’s like saying the sun is hot, we all think Zayn is beautiful. You want to see some tension though, you should watch him when Liam Payne walks in the room. I don't know what their deal is but I'm gonna find out. Along with learning new and magical things about plumbing,” he added hastily.

“Maybe you and Harry should put your heads together on this one,” Babs said, smirking over her coffee-in-name-only.

“How many times do I have to say it, Harry is annoying in real life. Ancient history, our hookup. You should come over to symphony hall this weekend, though,” Louis said, “I'll teach you about load bearing beams and whatnot. Maybe we'll shellac things. Use an Allen wrench.”

“Now you're just saying all the words that you saw at Home Depot the one time we took you there to get a new door handle for your bathroom,” Niall said.

“And that handle works great!” Louis said. “I use it every day!”

“You made Babs install it,” Niall said.

Louis stretched his arms over his head and yawned. They were taking advantage of good weather to sit outside on a cafe patio while Niall and Babs ordered gigantic whipped-cream-filled iced caffeine drinks and Louis pretended to finish a market opportunity doc for one of the firm's junior associates. He kept forgetting their name, and the name of the company they were assessing, and what market they were even talking about. What was a market? Not as real as the dappled, leafy sunbeams hitting the top of his head at just the right angle to keep him warm.

In contrast, Louis’ brain was on fire about the symphony project. They’d tentatively picked a couple of weekends to turn over to the experimental program, and Louis had gone home to read up on art fundraisers—there wasn’t a lot out there, but there were a few examples that had gotten his wheels turning. The art market was strange and bimodal: if you did something that people thought was really magic, you could make a killing. Harry had easily volunteered his ticket proceeds entirely to the orchestra, which had startled Louis, but apparently Harry Styles had to be the most generous person Louis had ever met, not just the most good looking.

Louis was feeling exceptionally proud of his machinations. The rest of the meeting had gone swimmingly, with Harry asking probing and insightful questions that drew Zayn out of his shell and got him to talk about how and why he’d structured the season the way he had, with Liam watching them with a furrowed brow and twitching hands, tapping out melodies on the tabletop until Louis had gotten up and fetched tea just to stop him, with Zayn mournfully divulging the extent of the repair work that the hall needed and the four of them--caught up in the momentum, insane with it, maybe--agreeing that they could actually try to get it done themselves. If they could raise money with the collab with Harry, and bring down the obscene insurance policy hanging over the hall with the much-needed repairs, well, Louis would keep having a place to spend his weekends.

Of course, this left Louis in the precarious position of needing to spend more time at the symphony hall, when he had an actual job. Louis blinked at his laptop screen and tried to remember the junior associate’s email address, if nothing else. That was really something, was what Harry had said at the end of the meeting, while Louis put his blazer back on, unmistakably chalk-streaked. You’re good at this.  

“What’re you grinning at?” Niall asked, “Are you ordering things you don’t understand off the Home Depot website?”

Louis stole Niall’s pumpkin mocha monstrosity and gave himself a sugary brain freeze. It didn’t quite soothe away the sting of the market opp report, but it helped.

 

*

 

Zayn and Harry and Liam and Louis met up at god-awful-o’clock on saturday morning because Louis had foolishly let Liam pick the time, and Liam had showed up with a bullet point list of the repairs that were most crucial. Zayn’s face got darker by the minute.

“It’s basic stuff, really,” Liam had said after reading a list that Louis stopped paying attention to halfway down, and his face looked a little pleading. “Like taking out the worst of the electrical wires in the backstage, and then paying someone to install new ones, and doing the repainting that the hall has needed for so long. Even easy things like pulling out all the nails from the surface beams off the one wall that needs to be replaced will save us hours and hours of contract work. It knocks like a good ten grand off the likely contractors’ package, for some reason.”

“That doesn’t sound right,” Zayn said.

“It probably is,” Louis said, automatically, through a yawn. “It’s a surprisingly tight labor market.”

He appreciated the fact that Liam had put all of this together, so that he didn’t have to. Liam was clearly the kid in the group project who had showed up with a gantt chart ready to go for a three-week-long Spanish project. Louis had made himself learn how to be that kind of person to handle his stupid adult life over the past few years, but it obviously came naturally to Liam.

“I googled,” Liam said, slowly and emphatically, looking at Harry or maybe the door.

“Your favorite thing,” Zayn hissed. Zayn was not the organizer on the group project. Zayn was probably the one who learned more dirty words in Spanish than actual vocabulary.

“The assessment on the building was done two years before I got here,” Liam said, “That’s where I got all these details from. You signed off on it!”

“I was an optimistic infant back then, thinking we’d be able to afford it if only we had a couple of good seasons,” Zayn said. “Delusional.”

“I love the idea of taking out wires,” Harry said, peacefully. “I had to weave a thousand wires together for a sculpture in Times Square one time, and it took weeks. I got really into wires.”

Nobody knew what to say to that, so they got to work. It turned out that Harry got a lot more serious and a lot more quiet when there was actual work to be done. It turned out that Harry went to work exploring the space, taking measurements, jotting down some kind of engineering notes in his book, and did it while wearing a perfectly normal t-shirt and jeans.

It turned out that Louis was absolute pants at doing things with his hands. And worse, Liam seemed incapable of even making eye contact with Zayn if he didn't have a violin between them. Maybe this project was going to be harder than they thought.

In an attempt to circumvent homicide, Louis split them off, steering Liam to work on the long list of electrical tasks while Harry wandered the hall looking for inspiration and Zayn took out his anger on brute tasks like like stripping the cheap surface wood that was flaking out of one of the hallways. Louis electrocuted himself twice before Liam relegated him to carrying tools around for the rest of them. Louis dropped something heavy from the pile in his arms off to the left, where it fell with a clunk, and he didn’t even bother looking to see what it was.

“Ah, let me,” said Liam, with a pained expression. Liam grabbed the handful of tools from Louis and stacked them into a single neat line on his right arm. Show-off.

“Maybe you could hand me the tools, from the table,” Liam suggested. From anyone else it would’ve been intolerable, but honestly, Liam said it so nicely that it was probably a sincere suggestion.

Louis took a break after half an hour of boring work with Liam, where Louis learned that Liam was quiet and concentrated and loathe to divulge any particularly good gossip that would help Louis solve the riddle of his animosity with Zayn. Louis took the chance to wander around the empty hall and satisfy some of the curiosities he’d harbored in the last few years. They’d come in through the back musicians’ entrance with Zayn’s key, and Louis had spent most of the morning in the back with Liam while Harry wandered about the spot and, Louis assumed, visualized giant sculptures everywhere. The back was like any other industrial building, but Louis was curious to see the actual symphony hall front without any people in it. 

Louis got lost down a hallway and kicked over a box of scores and put them back, guiltily, before he found his way to the front of the hall. Amazingly the stage was just there, curtain pulled neatly to the side, unprotected from his wandering, plebeian steps. Louis stepped out onto the stage and looked out into the seats. He had never seen it from this side, from the side of the orchestra. It was such a dark room, cavernous and strange, that it was hard to believe it was a warm, sunny fall day outside. With just a few harsh maintenance lights getting swallowed in the depths of the shadows, the hall looked dusty and ominous.

Louis wasn’t even sure how to feel, looking at it this way, from the other side and at the wrong time. The first time he’d come to the hall, he’d texted Thomas from the intermission and told him that he felt like he was living in a fairy tale. Everything had felt a little like a fairy tale, back then: a life Louis had never imagined living, in a new city with his best friend. You’re so weird, Thomas had texted back, Louis could remember it even now, the way all those little words had slipped through the cracks of his mind without his even noticing. Weird.

Possibly magic was all in the experience, in the way that the audience believed they were experiencing something special. Little did they know they were all sitting on seats that needed to be cleaned watching an orchestra that was fighting with itself. Louis watched dust motes billow in the air and wondered if this was what Harry meant, what it was like to see the backstage. Louis had reached out and met Zayn and Liam and learned that they were real people and that somehow the orchestra was a real thing with real problems and he could never take that knowledge back. It couldn’t make him feel any less love for it all. If anything, he felt more.

Louis realized, with a jolt, that his phone had been buzzing for the past two minutes.

Nialler: let’s do lunch

Nialler: babs is in VS hellscape and I’m alone on the weekend Tommo

Nialler: they call them angels but they’re really devils

Nialler: answer me i want a hotdog and my buddy

Nialler: i am alone and no one loves me

Nialler: im gonna go over water all your plants i know you hate that

Nialler: that’s it i’m coming to the hall

“Ah, fuck,” Louis said.

Niall was perched on Zayn’s desk in his working office in the back of the hall, swinging his legs terribly close to what had to be an incredibly expensive cello, and talking to Liam.

“Tommo!” Niall yelled as Louis walked in.

“I made a friend, you’re not the only one who can do it, this is Liam and he misses London. More than he’ll admit, but I can tell.”

Liam looked properly embarrassed, like missing London was a social faux pas, and he traded a bundle of frayed wires from one hand to the other.

“He was knocking on the back door and said he was a friend of yours,” Liam said, “Sorry, I was about to come get you, but somehow we ended up talking.”

“Ignore him, Liam. Niall is a confidence man. Bartenders tell their secrets to him, ” Louis said, simultaneously shooting Niall a glare. Liam did not have the advantage of being in the sushi comfort spot and Louis wasn't even sure how he was going to sneakily indoctrinate Liam into their secret new ultimate friend group without Zayn putting up a fuss and scaring Liam off. Liam was clearly delicate, and Niall sometimes liked to pick delicate things up and shake them, a trait that he shared with Babs. Why couldn’t they all just relax and let themselves be managed.

“It's great here, I feel grateful for the opportunity,” Liam said automatically and robotically, like he'd been ambushed by a symphony board member.

“We’re not gonna tell your boss, mate, but I do know a good curry spot that you should try, may not be London but it’s still good,” Niall said comfortably.

Obviously Liam ended up joining them for a hotdog lunch, because Niall could turn any situation into a chance to make friends, especially on a weekend when Babs was working. Liam tentatively asked if they should invite the others, but Harry was off in whatever artistic daze he needed and nobody knew what Zayn was up to. Liam looked relieved and disappointed at the same time.

Liam loosened up over lunch, and Louis enjoyed watching it. Niall got a hotdog roll with every topping possible and cracked up both Liam and the old man running the corner cart with his musings on all the things he thought hotdog toppings could expand into. Liam looked a little more at ease out in the sunshine, and his eyes turned into long happy slits when he laughed. By the time they’d thrown their wrappers in the trash and walked back, Niall had Liam’s number and earnest plans to take him around the top five curry spots that Niall swore were London-quality.

“Winter’s coming, Li,” Niall said earnestly, “We’ve gotta get you ready.”

Liam looked a little desperately grateful about it. Niall always made plans like that, easy and infectious like he already knew that you were good friends, and he was just waiting for you to figure it out. Louis had learnt a lot from Niall that way; Louis and Babs both relied on his open love for everybody in a mutual, unspoken understanding, Babs because she intimidated people, and Louis, well, because people intimidated Louis. Babs had once told Louis that Niall had turned her down the first, second, and third times that she’d asked him out, convinced it would be bad for her rare career to be seen with a no-name beta. Niall didn’t really know, Louis always thought, how rare he was too.

 

*

 

Abi called on the walk back from lunch and ruined everything. Louis waved Niall and Liam on, because this wasn’t going to be good news.

“I know it's the weekend,” she said perfunctorily, “But hey, guess who won the lottery, it’s you, Tomlinson, you’re flying to headquarters tomorrow.”

“Are you shitting me?” Louis groaned. “Why?”

“You probably need to do an in-person postmortem on the Burey deal, you remember that one?”

Louis groaned again, just in case Abi hadn’t quite heard the depths of his despair the first time. They weren’t friends, but they had the kind of bitter, black-hearted repartee you form with the other person trapped on your abandoned desert island. If a one-person raft came by Abi would steal it from Louis without a second thought, but she’d probably wave on the way out to sea.

Abi gave him the details, which were both terrible and boring and would involve some long prep work on documents tonight that he’d been hoping to finish slowly over the next week, in his office with a bottle of scotch, maybe. It wasn’t his fault that the deal had tanked and had everything to do with the political machinations of the mega-corp on top of the Burey company, but of course headquarters needed to waste their money and his time with a long weekend flight and a couple of soulless nights in stale hotel rooms. Louis hated flying and staying in hotel rooms alone as much as any other omega, which was to say, a lot. Technically, there was a quota on how much the company was supposed to make omega employees fly alone. Really, if you invoked it, you’d hear snippy micro-aggressions from the other associates that might make their way to the partners. Better to not risk it.

“Have fun,” Abi said, “Get drunk every night and order porn on the company card.”

“Cheers,” Louis said, hanging up on her.

He should go home. He felt it as soon as he walked back into the building, that it was going to be a bad rest of the day, that his mind was going in a million directions at once and the hotdog was turning in his stomach. The energy coiled like a spring in his stomach, ready to go at any moment. He snapped at three people on the way back from the phone call; someone walking their dog, the barista at the nearby cafe where he picked up a bad-idea-coffee, and Zayn who was loitering in the alleyway having a smoke, and actually turned around and walked away, not that Louis could blame him.

Louis had a bloody headache from stims and he needed to do about a million things and he didn't want to go get trapped on a plane with a million smells and sounds and it was his mum’s birthday on Monday and he hadn’t gotten a card and also the right-hand lens of his glasses was smeared in a way that he could not get off. He was breathing fog onto the lens and rubbing it with the bottom of his not-warm-enough shirt and trying to remember the lower abdomen breathing exercises the forums sweared by and glaring at everything when Harry came around the corner. Of course.

“There's yet more nails to pull, I guess somebody fifty years ago had a nail fetish,” Harry said, “But Liam told me you're to help with some of the paint stripping. I think he said something like ‘Louis shouldn't touch anything metal.’”

Harry grinned, tossing a hammer from one hand to the other with a pretty twist in the air that maybe he’d learnt in sculpture class, who knew what they learnt there? Harry had claimed that working on the hall repairs was going to help him get into the soul of the building while he decided how he was going to make art around it. His hair had come down around his ears and he looked messy and happy.

“Guess who's not my boss,” Louis said, reaching for the hammer, but Harry didn't hand it over.

“This morning you actually hammered your own hand,” Harry said carefully.

“Guess who is also not my boss,” Louis said mulishly, snatching the hammer away from Harry. Harry might be strong, but Louis was fast.

“Christ,” Harry swore, shaking his fingers. Maybe the hammer had nicked the edge of his hand where Louis pulled it, but Louis didn’t let himself apologize. Instead, he turned away and started marching towards the exact section of wall he’d been banished from before.

“Are you being a dick on purpose?” Harry asked, following. “What's going on?”

Louis turned around to glare and found Harry pushed closer into his space than he’d anticipated. His eyes flickered to Harry’s shoulders, the way they were squared off and challenging. It was undoubtedly unconscious, but there was something in Harry's tone that made Louis want to complain about being tired and worried and ask whether everything was going to work out. Nothing would have been more pathetic, and Louis was not pathetic.

“Better than being a dick on accident,” Louis said pointedly, instead. Harry reached for the hammer and Louis swung it out of his way, held it high in the air even though Harry was tall enough to get it if he really tried. Louis actually bared his teeth, like it was kindergarten, scrapping with status play before the teacher caught them.

Instead of grabbing for the hammer, Harry stepped forward. Louis stepped back, hitting a column in the process. The air between them was suddenly thick, like moving through it was harder. Louis felt all sharp points and tense lines, his muscles struggling against the unexpected weight, instincts rising. Harry was blocking every exit, Harry’s face was intent and purposeful the way that it looked in the clips Louis had watched of Harry painting, the focus that hid underneath all of the charm and weirdness and easy good looks. Harry looked steady and inexorable and everything that was supposed to annoy Louis, if Louis hadn’t wanted to lose himself in that intensity and just let it carry him wherever it wanted to go.

“Give it,” Harry said, sounding alpha. It went straight to Louis’ bones.

“Fucking make me,” Louis said, between his teeth. Make me.

Harry moved like lightning, counter to everything that Louis had come to expect from him, jamming an arm carefully but firmly under Louis’ chin and pinning him against the column with the other hand wrapped around Louis’ wrist, high over his head. He wasn’t pressing into Louis’ throat enough to hurt, but enough so that Louis felt it, couldn’t move, suddenly, with his ankles slipping out between Harry’s wider stance and Harry’s face--Harry’s teeth --right against the side of Louis’ face.

“I will if you want me to,” Harry said, and it wasn’t a threat except that it was, and Louis felt all of his muscles betraying him in the way he shivered against Harry and slumped into the wall, imperceptible if Harry hadn’t been holding him against it. They stared at each other for a long beat, and Louis could feel Harry's breathing and his own flutter against Harry's arm.

Then there was a crashing noise from the other room and the unmistakable sound of Zayn swearing. Harry jumped back like he'd been stung, pulling his arm away.

“I'm,” he said, looking upset and bewildered, “Sorry, that was, that was uncalled for. I don't know what, what I was thinking.”

“I was losing it a little,” Louis said, looking at his own feet thoughtfully, because they were slipping minutely on the floor. “My bad. I pushed your buttons. Didn't mean to.”

He did, though, that was the thing. He still felt it, even, the eerie breakdown in some part of his wall he hadn't felt for years. I just want someone else to tell me how to feel, just for once. It wasn’t his temper and it wasn’t the work and it wasn’t about the damn hammer. He needed sleep and to be more careful around these new alphas and to get back to what he used to be so good at, twelve hour days on the weekend without even thinking about it. What was wrong with him? When had he gotten so undisciplined?

“No, but I really overreacted, I'm really sorry,” Harry said quickly.

“It’s no big deal. Now you know that I’m both clumsy and have a bad temper. Did you know that I also hammered Liam's hand?” Louis said, in a normal tone of voice, very normal. Calm and joking, even.

“One time Babs had to come break me out of my own bathroom because I'd put a lock in the wrong way.”

Harry snorted. It wasn't a full laugh, but it would do; the tension broke and things felt a bit more normal. Louis shifted his weight carefully back over his feet, which were no longer slipping, and he put the hammer down on a work table and picked up the pile of accounting papers that Zayn had shoved in his direction that morning. Budgets rarely made sense but they didn't make him feel like he was a teenager again, or feel impossible things. Harry waited a beat before he picked the hammer back up.

Harry turned back to the work and started pulling nails with a terrifying efficiency. He didn't look back at Louis, not that anybody cared. Louis opened his phone and thumbed to his orders app and overnighted himself a carton of over-the-counter soothers. They wouldn't buffer the shitty drop he knew he had coming, but they'd make afterward a little less horrendous. Then he added a new pair of noise-cancelling headphones and a comic book. He deserved it.

Chapter Text

Louis flew to headquarters the next morning, so the noise-cancelling headphones were a godsend. And he stayed at headquarters, because meetings kept ending in the decision to have more meetings in order to figure out what the meetings should be about. Two days turned into five days, with a running chain of sardonic teasing from Abi over corp internal chat about Louis being the designated scapegoat for stupid deal failures.

Even you can’t do it all, i guess, she said.

Can’t i, Louis shot back.

He spent half of the current meeting turning around an analysis, and he sent it to Abi with a winky face, which was corp-internal-speak for flipping the bird. Then he found an electrical contractor for the hall and texted the details to Liam after getting Liam’s number from Niall. Apparently Liam and Niall were still texting about food, which was adorable. Liam had moved from London over a year ago, yet he’d only been to about two restaurants. Louis remembered those days. Niall already had a two-page list of London food analogs, so Liam wasn’t even going to know what hit him.

Make Z think it’s his idea, Louis texted, about the contractor. Zayn thought he was so prickly, but it only made him easier to read.

How am I doing that???? Liam wrote back with three sad faces, which seemed excessive.  

Tell him it was in the assessments he did years ago, Louis advised, tell him he did a great job without making it sound like you’re telling him great job, because that makes you sound a little A. But he cares what you think.

i’m not TRYING TO SOUND ANYTHING, Liam said, and Louis rolled his eyes, which was inadvisable in a meeting with three partners.

ok see try a little less than that, Louis wrote before snapping his attention back to the boring meeting to answer another boring question in the boring post-mortem.

Louis took a cab back to his hotel after seven each night and tried to drown his senses out with Star Trek Voyager, his second favorite after TNG, especially given Janeway’s omega status reveal in the second season. It was only mostly effective. He’d been to headquarters so many times, but it never got particularly better, all unfamiliar smells and no familiar friends to help in the evenings. Babs’ texts got increasingly angry until Niall cut her off from texting altogether, and on the fourth day, they sent Louis a gift basket full of chocolate-covered pineapples. Louis lived off that for the last day and finally convinced work to send him home friday morning.

The first thing he did was check in on the symphony.

“It’s just bollocks,” Zayn said over an espresso, because he’d answered Louis’ tentative text by coming over to the coffee cart in the lobby of Louis’ downtown office.

“Uh huh,” Louis said sympathetically, trying calibrate reality from Zayn's expression. He was sitting with his legs comfortably extended on the empty chair next to Louis, so Louis was guessing that things were actually going pretty well.

“We had rehearsal all week, I added an extra one, and I swear, Payne is actually secretly an agent from the London Symphony sent to destroy us from the inside. He doesn’t think I’m pacing correctly and he wants us to do more sectional work. Like I’m supposed to just let them go off and do their own interpretation and snap everything together at the end, like...like a LEGO set.”

“Hmm,” Louis said, diplomatically. It sounded like Liam was trying to take some of the work off Zayn, who was clearly a control-freak. Takes one to know one.

“But the board's going to approve the collaboration, I made sure to use the text you sent. Even though they know as well as anyone that we’re on the edge of disaster, and everything.”

“You gotta make people like that feel like they’re important. Can’t just point out they’ve broke the symphony, gotta let them say they’re innovating . We need to get some media on it when we announce,” Louis mused.

“Has Harry got any interviews, or oh, how about some big feature piece on his moving to this city that also manages to feature the orchestra? Old art meets new art, avant-garde experimental meets tradition, etcetera.”

“Yeah, I'll call Rolling Stone, they’re dying to get a hot scoop on some four-hundred-year-old symphonies,” Zayn said.

Louis broke his biscotti in half and gave the bit with chocolate to Zayn. Zayn loved pastries but didn't seem to be able to order them, just looked longingly at the display case. Zayn stirred his espresso with it and took a soggy, satisfied-looking bite.

“You don’t think about it, I'll follow up with Harry, see if we can plan something,” Louis said, before remembering that the last conversation he'd had with Harry had ended with Harry's arm against his neck. Louis swallowed, took a huge gulp of coffee. Hopefully Harry would let it go ( don’t let go, an awful part of his brain whispered, the grip of Harry’s hand on his wrist like a tissue memory, ugh)--Louis wasn't going to get blackmailed into provoking by his own irritation again. All good.

“Just don’t bring a reporter to your box,” Zayn said. “That would be distracting, we’re all used to seeing you alone up there with your feet on the railing.”

“I cannot even imagine the nightmare of sitting through a show with a reporter, I am strictly behind the scenes on this project,” Louis said, putting the second half of the biscotti on Zayn’s plate before really processing what Zayn had just said.

“Wait, what do you mean, used to me? From the box?” Louis asked.

“You’ve been coming to my symphony for four years, of course I knew who you were,” Zayn said.

“I may have my back to the audience most of the time but I’m not blind. Especially you? In the only otherwise empty box every single night? We all know you. Sally says you leave cups on the floor, but she thinks it’s cute. You’re...kind of like, the orchestra’s good luck charm, actually. So you better come to every show this season.”

Louis didn’t know what to say.

“Sally?” He asked finally.

“The usher, the one who’s always tending your hallway,” Zayn said, yawning into his fist and finishing up the biscotti. His face looked more relaxed around the eyes, and Louis felt a sense of pride in that.

“You know me from seeing me in my box, and you know all the ushers,” Louis said.

“I know everybody in my hall,” Zayn said, like of course. Like it was normal for the symphony director to pay attention to the individual faces of the loyal audience, and to know the name of the usher who took away Louis’ wrappers, let alone talk to her on a regular basis. Louis shook his head. The backstage was a special place.


*


The next morning was supposed to be devoted to the mind-numbing tedium of taking stock of some missing electrical parts, which had apparently been missing for about a decade. Louis had no idea how arts organizations pretended they functioned, so criminally understaffed. But instead of cataloguing parts, Louis had a minor heart attack when he discovered that decades of critical records were kept on paper in a filing cabinet in Zayn's office and nowhere else, and sat on the floor for two hours writing a rudimentary database for the symphony. Work was like an onion sometimes, a continually unfolding number of layers that all made you feel like crying.

“You're going to save so much money once we get this terrible insurance stuff corrected,” Louis groused, partially as motivation to himself. “Plus I'm calling in a redo of the property value, god.”

“You are the best kind of friend,” Zayn said, bent over a desk and taking notes on a score, “The kind of friend who will do your taxes. Louis, would you do my taxes?”

Louis threw a pencil at Zayn, who batted it onto the desk and then tucked it behind his ear along with the baton that was lurking there. Louis sat back on his hands for a moment, surprised by the quiet happiness of the word friend. Well then.

By the end of it, Louis was yawning into his fist and even Liam was looking peaked, coming in to report that the contractor thought the system was even worse than they knew, and that Harry was unclear on whether he’d need anything special with lights, or power. Obviously symphony hall hadn’t exactly been designed with his brand of installation in mind, and Louis knew he was trying to plan and figure it out, but he couldn’t help but feel snappy about it--they were all trying, and Harry was supposed to be this brilliant artist, and a lot was riding on him, and maybe it was crazy. Louis didn’t even really know him, he reminded himself for the tenth time this hour. The project felt daunting, and Louis wanted to crawl back into his bed. He hadn’t caught up on sleep from the travel yet. It always took him at least a week to come down from the travel. Dinner Niall and Babs’ tonight would be a welcome spot of comfort.

“Will we ever get this done?” Zayn wondered, vocalizing Louis’ thoughts uncannily. He might have been talking about the inventory, but Louis thought he meant more.

Louis, still on the floor of Zayn’s office, couldn’t summon the requisite confidence from where he was buried in manual data entry.  The light had gotten increasingly terrible because Zayn’s office was lit with ancient, flickery lamps covered in dust. They did not do a great job illuminating, but they did a great job being atmospheric and making you feel like you were in the presence of something special. A lot of things were like that, Louis thought, dysfunctional from one side and special from the other.

Liam slapped down his thighs, knocking the dust off. Zayn, who was leaning over his desk in a dramatically despairing pose, watched with some uninterpretable expression on his face.

“That’s it, I’m calling it, we’re going to Shaw’s,” Liam said.

“It’ll be good for us, I’ll get Harry,” he said over his shoulder in what Louis had learned today was Liam’s subtle, alpha I’m gonna take care of things voice. It was a hard voice to resist, mostly because it was paired with Liam’s please-don’t-disappoint-me-face.

“Great, cool,” Louis said, who definitely hadn’t spent the last few hours making sure he was wherever in the building that Harry wasn’t. He was going to figure out how to talk to Harry, he was, it was fine, he just hadn’t planned it out yet.

“You’re coming,” Zayn hissed, contorting to face Louis yet keep an eye on Liam’s retreating back, like he had to be at the ready in case Liam came charging back. To do what, Louis didn't know. Murder Zayn with politeness, maybe.

“I’ve got to get dinner in me,” Louis started, but Zayn clasped his hands in prayer and then made a despairing gesture towards the ancient lamps.

“...but I could do drinks? Where are we going?” Louis said.

“Shaw’s is the bar round the corner,” Zayn said, “Apparently we’re going there. You have to come, Louis, I can’t be alone with him, he drives me mad.”

“Clearly,” Louis said. pulling out his phone.

 

Tommo: we’re going to shaw’s, come down here

Tommo: and then we’ll do dinner but I need you both this is a post-travel emergency

Nialler: who’s shaw

BaBaBlackSheep: did you sleep in today?? Should you be going out???

Tommo: when have I slept in in four years

Tommo: it’s a bar you always want me to try those well here we are now you guys need to join

Nialler: what you&H?? No way are we crashing that

Tommo: do not play with me

Nialler: can’t get in the way of whatever is gonna come out of ur mouth with beer &H

Nialler: or like into ur mouth

Tommo: everyone is going please come help

Tommo: you check yourself rn niall

Tommo: Liam and Zayn just want to fight each other and that leaves me and Harry

Tommo: you guys have to come be charming

BaBaBlackSheep: Niall is fucking with you babe we’re already in a car

BaBaBlackSheep: get me gin&tonic

Nialler: something pink with umbrellas in pls

Nialler: say the gin is for me though

BaBaBlackSheep: don’t glower at Styles too hard


*


Louis stuffed his phone in his pocket as Harry came back to the table with a round.

“All right, Tomlinson?” Harry said, like they hadn’t both gone temporarily insane last week, like Harry hadn’t looked like he’d wanted to take Louis apart, and Louis hadn’t wanted to let him.  Louis had to tilt his head back to look at Harry.

“All right,” Louis said calmly. Take the beer and act normal, there’s a good lad.

Shaw’s was actually kind of great. Louis was surprised that he’d never noticed it before, two blocks from the symphony hall and on the way back to his own apartment. It had heavy tables and a yellow-lit bar and board games piled high in a dangerous pyramid. Liam had gotten them a table with two extra chairs and then stood up to give a little wave when Niall walked in.

“You know everybody,” Harry said, marveling. Niall spread his arms wide.

“That’s the goal!” he exclaimed, and went to the bar to make friends with the bartender, taking Liam with him. Babs rolled her eyes, somewhat mitigated by a fond smile, and sat down in the feet-wide space that Louis had left between himself and Harry on the bench seat.

“Nice to see ya, Zayn. How goes the inspiration, Styles?” she asked.

Harry and Babs sank into some kind of conversation about high school and planning art projects, with Babs laughing over her early aspirations to become an oil painter.

“You never told me that!” Louis exclaimed. Harry was laughing too, as usual, deep and warm and into his beer. He hadn’t really said a word to Louis since Babs had got there, which was bothering Louis a little bit more than he wanted it to. He didn’t really know how to talk to Harry yet, but he thought Harry could at least try. The beer was hitting Louis hard on his empty, tired stomach, burbling under the surface and making things slippery.

“Everything I made is back with the parents in the old country,” Babs snorted, “Thank god.”

“We need to get Will a date,” Niall said, coming back with a cocktail that Louis suspected hadn’t been seen in Shaw’s for the entirety of its existence. It was flaming pink and it had six cherries.

“Oh good, I thought you were leaving me for him with how long it took you to get my drink,” Babs said.

“Will?” Harry asked.

“The bartender,” Louis said. And to Liam, “See? Wasn’t kidding.”

Liam was still standing--hovering, really--at the only empty chair left at the table, the one next to Zayn, with a beer in one hand and a gin and tonic in the other. Zayn looked at him quizzically, and kicked the chair out an inch or two with his ankle. Liam sat gingerly.

“Will is a doll, and he’s dated up and down this entire bar and nobody’s stuck, and he makes very good drinks and he’s desperate to meet a cute omega,” Niall said. He popped two cherries in his mouth and gave the bartender--Will, apparently--a thumbs up on the drink. Will flapped a cheerful napkin in response. Babs stole a cherry and put it in her gin.

“Only one single omega at this table, but then again, you don’t date alphas, do you?” Harry asked, swiveling in the booth. It was perhaps the first time he’d said something directly to Louis since handing him the beer. He was grinning, but there was something like a test behind it.

“No,” Louis said flippantly, “I don’t fancy being subjected to fits of violent rage when some stranger opens the door for me.” It slipped out without a thought, like so many of the digs that Louis made around Niall and Babs on saturday nights. He hated status, he hated this question, he didn’t know why his stomach did the awful little twist that it did when Harry was looking at him.

Too far--Louis knew it was too far as soon as he heard Liam hiss in a breath. Shit.

“Jesus, Lou,” Niall said.

“That’s kind of an asshole thing to say,” Harry said, leaning back.

“Sorry, forgot artists have got the prerogative on being assholes,” Louis said. He didn’t really know why he was doubling down except that Harry’s face looked pointy and frowning and Louis was suddenly exhausted and didn’t want to talk about dating or status, anyway, ever again, with anyone.

“True enough,” Zayn said, placatingly, “I’ve always been able to conjure up enough asshole to go around, despite being beta.”

“Ok, I mean, I was joking,” Harry said, looking some uninterpretable mix of expressions. Babs was looking from Harry to Louis with a clear expression of exasperation, which Louis thought was unfair. Mostly unfair. A little unfair. Ok, maybe Louis shouldn’t assume new people had the context for his global alpha-anger.

“I’m just saying you don’t get to critique my choices,” Louis said, “When you don’t know anything about me.”

“You don’t know anything about me, either,” Harry said.

They sat tense and unhappy for a minute. Louis took in a long breath and tried to still his thoughts. Louis felt a little desperate, was the thing, like he’d gathered a bunch of threads in his hand intending to make something but now he’s wasn’t sure what it was, and he was liable to start dropping them. This was what happened when he tried to make friends, maybe.

Across the table, Harry glanced over at him, like he could sense the roiling tension in Louis’ thoughts. Louis shook the hair out of his forehead and closed his eyes briefly. He could do this, he could be better than this.

“Ok, fair point,” Louis said, “Yeah. Fair point. I’m sorry. I’m soused, and tired. I’m sorry, you guys. Dumb shit to say.”

Babs shot Louis a crooked smile, and he was grateful for it.  

The conversation moved on around them, with Liam jumping in to say he’d tried out the curry place and it was excellent, good enough that he’d created a yelp review to be sure and award them five stars, and then had apparently gotten sucked into yelping everything around the symphony hall, including Shaw’s.

“I can’t believe I never thought to give back to these small businesses,” Liam worried, shaking his head. There was no way that he was real person. Liam was a genteel robot sent from the future to spy on them, a more advanced civilization.

“You should review the orchestra,” Zayn chortled, startling Liam. He really was unbearably pretty, dark angles and feminine eyes in a masculine face.

“Four stars,” Liam said, and Louis thought he saw a teasing twist to his mouth, “But the new management’s working to improve.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, how hard do I have to work to impress you?” Zayn said, loudly.

“No, I meant, I’m new,” Liam said, astonished, shifting slightly in his seat.

“You’re a year in,” Niall started, but Zayn interrupted him.

“They like you,” Zayn said, definitely drunker than he’d been letting on for the last fifteen minutes. Louis was learning that Zayn was an absolute lightweight and apparently didn’t know this about himself. He was looking at Liam with that hot Zayn gaze, the one that didn’t look real.

“The whole lot, the orchestra. It was hard when Terry left, you know, they weren’t sure about somebody as young as you, but then you came and you were brilliant and we liked you.”

Liam looked at Zayn, and at Zayn’s glass, and then back at Zayn.

“They do? You’ve never said that before,” he said softly.

“Well, you never invited me out for drinks before,” Zayn said, as if that settled things, finishing his drink with a flourish.

Liam looked horrified. “You don’t invite your boss to join for drinks.”

“See, that's just it,” Zayn said with more animation than he shown the whole day, waving his hands. It looked like he was leading a crescendo. “You're so careful. You're precise, with the music, nobody's more precise. But you're too careful.”

“We should be a team,” Zayn said, “Concertmaster, director. Can’t do bloody anything without you, Payne. Yeah, the symphony loves you. Just need to get you on my team, at some point.”

Liam colored an exceptionally attractive pink. It nearly matched Niall’s drink. Louis watched with interest.

“I want to be,” Liam said, “I’m only ever trying to make us better.”

“Try less hard. I would like some pretzels,” Zayn said airily. He smiled at the table and at the world.


*


“That was better than a soap opera,” Niall said on the way back. Louis split a car with them, because he’d be damned if he was going back to his loft tonight after a wretched week of work travel. He’d crash on the couch under the giant guest comforter and soak in the smell of friendship and get a bit of balance.

“I know, I love them both,” Louis said, “Zayn’s my fave. He sincerely believes that he hates people and is a scary person. But have you seen a more emotional drunk?”

“He's only your fave because you haven’t been texting Liam enough,” Niall said. “What drama.”

“Speaking of drama, you,” said Babs, and boy did Louis hate this tone of voice in her, all exasperation and finality--

“You are going to get your head together, because we like Harry, regardless of what happened between the two of you, which honestly Louis, was not a big deal, and you should figure it out.”

Louis slumped further down into the car cushion. That was the problem though, wasn’t it? Everybody liked Harry. Maybe even Louis liked Harry. But the strategy of pissing Harry off enough to keep him at a safe distance was not working out.

“Liam and Zayn hate each other,” Louis pointed out. “So other people are allowed to dislike people.”

“That’s not what I saw,” Babs said, infuriating, like she always understood everything long before Niall and Louis would.  

“I’m sorry, I'm sorry for saying shit about alphas,” Louis said instead, a good strategy. Babs patted Louis on the head.

“You can be an ass when you’re tired, I already knew that, and honestly, Lou, when you are going to stop forgetting to eat?” she said.

“Gonna work on it, you know. I mean not the eating thing, I’ll just get takeout, but the alpha thing,” Louis said, because if you can’t be honest on a saturday night when you’ve had too many beers before dinner, when can you? “I really want to. I really try. I only mean to make a joke but it kind of gets away from me. I don’t love that about myself.”

“Oh babe, I know,” Babs said.

“It’s not an excuse but it’s an explanation,” Louis said, a thing that his mom used to say and damned if she wasn’t right. Well, he’d work on it. He'd make things good with Harry. He hoped Harry would be up for it.

“Everybody wants to feel safe,” Niall said, snuggling up against Louis and playing some cat game on his phone. Louis wasn’t quite sure how that was a valid segue, but he allowed it.

“But you know, interesting seeing Zayn and Li together,” Niall mused. 

“What’s their deal? Is it that Liam’s alpha?” Babs asked, dubiously, looking to Niall as the resident beta expert. Niall shrugged in her direction.

“They had some misunderstandings when Liam first moved here, and I think Liam’s too quiet to have ever corrected it,” Niall said.

“How do you know that?” Louis asked, “You’ve only been texting him about lunch recommendations, I thought!”

“You can learn a lot from a man by his takeout,” Niall said sagely.

“Zayn doesn’t seem like the kind of person to be caught up on status,” Niall continued, “Obviously dunno what kinda alpha Liam is. I mean obviously we betas are more easy-going, and a delight to all, but Zayn’s a toppy kind of beta if I ever saw one.”

“Besides,” Louis sniffed, “That’s a load of stereotypes, you know, status doesn’t mean shit about how people feel in their jobs.”

Niall and Babs exchanged a small glance, but nodded agreement, so Louis overlooked it.

*

 

The opportunity to figure out how things were with Harry came sooner than Louis thought it would. Friday night’s performance had been a stunner, the orchestra feeling more together than Louis had seen it for a good long while. There had been one particularly transcendent moment when Zayn had held a pause longer than anybody expected, long enough for the audience to feel the discomfort of it, and then the music had come rushing back led by Liam’s impeccable, lightning-fast fingering, and Louis swore that he almost saw Zayn smile at Liam.

It meant that on saturday morning Zayn and Liam both sent texts to the group chat begging for a later start, but Louis sent a series of sad faces and then a skull and crossbones, which he knew Liam, at least, would take seriously. Niall sent a hamburger emoji and then a sleeping emoji, and Louis didn’t even know who added Niall to the chat when it was supposed to be about orchestra repairs and logistics.  Do NOT miss the appointment with the contractor, he told Liam, and Zayn, and Niall, who sent back a fireworks emoji.

Louis settled himself in Zayn’s office. He went straight for the floor this time. He’d spent the past week worrying over the state of the symphony’s data and record keeping, even though he told himself repeatedly that he shouldn’t take it on, and he’d given up resisting the call. He organized the files into a few manageable stacks in arm’s length, rolled his jacket up for a seat, and settled with his laptop.

Louis ignored the buzz in his pocket that meant he was getting another email from work--from real work, Louis reminded himself. Whatever. It was probably just Abi pinging him about the stupid firm strategy meeting that he’d been rescheduling for the past two weeks. Abi had a friend who was going to meet him at the hall on wednesday to do a walkthrough and give Louis an insurance quote that he could use as ammunition against the actual insurance company on the building, around whom Louis had developed a healthy distrust.

Twenty minutes in, Louis noticed that Zayn had a nice looking speaker system around his desk. Louis grinned to himself, imagining Zayn bopping to Britney back here, before he revised the imagining because he was certain that Zayn was into weird, avant-garde jazz or something very strange, like death metal, when he wasn’t listening to classical. Louis connected his phone and put on the 1969 recording of von Karajan’s Beethoven 5 with the Berliner Philharmoniker, which he had downloaded on his phone for emergency listening whenever necessary. It was an explosive, blistering, face-melting version of the piece.

Louis was typing somewhat furiously, swaying in time to the percussion, when Harry’s voice penetrated the storm of music that was filling the office.

“Tomlinson,” said Harry’s voice. Louis looked over the top of five different conflicting contracts that he was trying to enter, and there was Harry’s perfectly handsome face, squinting down at him with a pleased expression.

“Harry!” Louis said, gesturing around himself towards the very large stacks of paper. “I’ve been thinking of a new career as a circus monkey. They do not ever have to use computers,”

“Would have to be a theatre monkey, though,” Harry said, and as he did, he took a graceful leap over the piles and landed on the inner circle that Louis had carved out for himself, settling into a cross-legged seat. Stupid alphas. Louis looked carefully away so he didn’t watch Harry’s ass as he bent and shimmied his way into place. Louis was a saint. Louis turned the music down on his phone, but only a little, because Harry’s voice carried despite its slow, sleepy quality. Louis didn’t seem to miss anything that voice said.

“I think that Zayn would quite enjoy having a theatre monkey running around, could do an entire new season devoted to Pirate themes.”

“Pirates of Penzance,” Louis suggested. “Il Pirata, and the Jolly Roger overture.”

“Or they could do that thing where they play the entire soundtrack to Pirates of the Caribbean while the movie plays on a backdrop,” Harry said. Louis pinched him, which resulted in Harry squawking and butting his shoulder against Louis’ thigh, compressing Louis into the corner of the fragile paper fort. Louis startled, for an instant, before he remembered the mantra that Niall had made him repeat twenty times just last weekend: I will try to not be so weird about people touching me.

Harry was just about the best exposure therapy that Louis could have found. As far as Louis could tell, Harry was casually physical with everybody, from the girl who brought coffee to the table to Niall and Babs to random members of the orchestra to Louis. Harry proved the point by flopping out, putting his feet on a stack of old contracts and his head in Louis’ lap.

“Philistine,” Louis said. It was better than gaping down at him in shock. Harry’s head was a strange combination of light and heavy where it leaned only slightly against the crook of Louis’ hips. 

“Snob,” Harry said. “Plus I’m a fucking artist , can’t be a philistine.”

This was good, the way that Harry was casually breaking the touch barrier between them, like there was nothing to worry about. Like their strange showdown the other day hadn't happened. Probably Harry hadn't at all read it the way Louis had, jumpy and overly sensitive. It probably meant that Harry had stopped seeing him as that one-night stand and just saw him as Louis, now. Whoever Louis was. Recipient of Harry’s platonic affection, like everyone else. Well it wasn’t a bad place to be.

“It would have to be full-out performance art, in order to keep up your brand,” Louis mused, putting his elbows on top of Harry’s face to type a line of numbers into the laptop.

“We’d have to actually act out Pirates of the Caribbean in the background. Obviously you would be Jack Sparrow.”

“You would have to be Orlando Bloom’s character,” Harry said, patting Louis’ knee.

“You could make those puppy dog eyes and spend two hours waving a sword around at everything that annoys you.”

“Excuse me, puppy dog?” Louis spluttered with outrage. Harry merely patted Louis’ knee again, and they sat in contented silence, the dust and Beethoven settling around them.

Zayn, Liam, and presumably many other people were off in the practice room. Louis was making good progress entering records. The music rose and fell in a soothing, familiar rhythm. Louis stifled a yawn, and then a second yawn.

“Is that your phone?” Harry said, his voice softened and quieted. Louis patted at his jeans’ pocket until he found the mute button, cutting off the buzzing against his leg.

“Always,” Louis said, eyes closed. Just for a second. The weight of Harry’s head in his lap helped him keep his balance.

“You work too much,” Harry said, like it was just a fact, without judgment in his tone. “Nice to see you ignore them for a bit.”

Louis felt his mouth pinch into a small frown, and smoothed it away before it said more than he wanted to. Harry was uncomfortably observational, and Louis didn’t know if Harry’s eyes were open. He choose not to look.

“I was my own boss for a long time, so. Sometimes I revert back to those bad habits of forgetting I have other people to talk to. The working all the time, that just comes naturally.”

“I know what you mean,” Harry said, which was unnecessary because Harry was someone who taught himself welding, and to work with lasers, and made a boat by hand, one time.

“Why did you get into art?” Louis asked. It seemed like the kind of question that he should have found an answer to while staying up irrationally late on a previous night to watch ten of Harry’s high-brow interviews, but they’d tended to talk more about symbolism and cultural dialogue than Harry’s actual life. Maybe it was a stupid question. Harry was probably going to think Louis was an absolute idiot, now. Louis should stick to explaining spreadsheets, which were definitely something that Harry didn’t understand. He probably had somebody to do them for him.

“I dunno, I mean, good question, I just love making shit,” Harry said. Louis ventured a side-eye glance, and Harry was looking up at him with a dreamy, half-smiling face, and Louis wanted to curl up and die, maybe.

“I always have. Since I was a little kid, I had this dream about not having a real job, but like, being able to make things and make some kind of career in the arts.”

Harry laughed, a different laugh this time, and Louis filed it away. It was a small, self-conscious laugh.

“Maybe I thought that artists didn’t really work, turns out it’s a lot of work, though,” Harry said.

“The problem with it lately is that I felt like I had a formula. It sold , and don't get me wrong I think it's dumb to pretend I'm not trying to make a living, but I'd started to think about shit like what magazine I'd get in and how much social media would like this piece and like, I was good at that game. But it felt... It wasn't me. I felt a little ashamed of myself.”

“Sometimes work just gets that way,” Louis observed, “It's nice getting past the pain of being a struggling hustler and being successful is amazing but, then things aren't, they aren't fresh anymore. Sometimes that's not you, it's just...I reckon it's just being tired.”

Harry seemed to consider that, and nodded.

“But this kind of thing, you know, it’s really cool. Getting to see how Zayn and Liam are trying to build this whole collection of people into this whole tradition here in the symphony, it’s really something.”

“Did you even go to college, then,” Louis asked, like he hadn’t looked up Harry’s wikipedia page multiple times.

“An institute in London, three year program,” Harry said, “Even that was too much sitting down. I wasn’t the best student in a traditional sense, I always did better with my hands.”

“I was like that for a bit,” Louis admitted, “Had a hell of a terrible GPA.”

“What happened?” Harry asked, “When did workaholic Louis emerge?”

Louis snorted. “When the real world found me, ‘spose. Not a workaholic.”

Harry poked Louis underneath his chin. Louis jumped.

“You’re entering files from...1994,” Harry said, picking one up and reading off it. “You can’t stand seeing something that needs fixing when you can fix it.”   

“Untrue, just learnt to do the shit nobody else wanted to,” Louis protested, blushing without knowing why. He started typing again, and the Beethoven had entered more of a lull. Felt a little bit like there was something to run from, although Louis didn’t know what that would be.

“Hey, that’s ok,” Harry said, “As long as you do the stuff that you want.”

Harry’s hair had fallen over Louis’ shin and tickled over the bare edge of his ankle. Louis glanced down at him and tried to breath lightly. Harry’s pheromones were not to be trifled with, even if they were only learning to be friends and Harry was touchy with everyone and Louis was doing god-damn data entry.

Louis’ phone buzzed again and he pulled it out, carefully, around Harry’s head so that it would stop vibrating and disturbing the peace.

“Oh it’s the group text,” Louis said, “Contractor’s come early and Zayn is flipping his shit, dunno why I expected different. I should go supervise this,”

“There's a group text?” Harry asked plaintively, “why am I not in it?”

“Harry,” Louis said, exasperated, “Your phone doesn't get texts otherwise I would've sent it to you, too.”

Harry made a disbelieving humming noise, and sprang up with alpha grace, off to do whatever a Harry did when he wasn't confusing Louis. Louis fished around the papers for the list of questions he’d drawn up for the contractor. He knew it was somewhere around here.

“Hey Lou,” Harry asked over his shoulder, “You do like me, don’t you.”

“Yeah,” Louis said, quickly, before he could over-analyze it. “Maybe a little.”

Harry smirked, showed an deep and captivating dimple, and slouched half-over in his weird Harry way. “I can work with that,” he said, and went on.

Chapter Text

Louis woke up by six in the morning every single day, even Sundays. Stims were a godsend, but even stims didn’t really fix sleep. Sleep was a complicated stew of variables that Louis had not yet solved (seventh-tier To-do: fix sleep).

He pulled on a soft, red college sweatshirt, poured a bowl of cereal, and took it out to the small balcony. It was a comfort, this balcony, one of the only things he actually liked about the apartment, one of the reasons he’d taken it at all. The balcony was sheltered from sights and sounds of the downtown city street by the curious triangle of old buildings still standing on Louis’ block. Louis had lined it with plants. One very successful Kentia palm was at least three feet taller than he was, and still growing. Louis eyed the palm as he munched cereal, pretty certain that it could take him in a fight if it had to. The pot alone was heavy enough to commit murder.

Louis slid the laptop that he definitely shouldn’t have left out here onto the outdoor wicker chair arm and opened the classical music forums he’d bookmarked. He hoped they'd be at least some kind of underground indicator for how the audience was reacting to the symphony’s surprise collaboration. Unsurprisingly, this was hard to get a read on: it wasn’t like fivethirtyeight was running weekly classical music poll analyses. Wow, would Louis subscribe if it did.  

They’d announced last week on Harry’s social media, and the collaboration had gotten picked up as a curiosity item by a few arty news outlets, where Harry was always guaranteed news. It had come along with a roll-out of the new season schedule. Zayn hadn’t said much, but it sounded like there were at least a few angry emails from patrons right off the bat. Louis had reminded him that was only to be expected. The regular patrons weren’t going to be enough to raise the money anyway; they needed new people.

But the buzz didn’t seem enough. After an initial furor over the season reschedule, the few new posts seemed mostly concerned with scrutinizing Liam’s brief tussle over tempo during the French chamber music program the previous weekend. Louis hadn’t thought it was that noticeable (maybe even improving on Poulenc, who tended to bore Louis), although he did think Liam’s bow at the end looked angry, snapping up at the end and angled pointedly away from Zayn. If the concertmaster doesn’t show a little more grace, we’ll have to send him right back to his precious London, an older female alpha and major donor had snarked in line at the bar.

Louis wandered into the kitchen to look for something to add to his cereal--fruit, maybe--but didn’t find anything, because the last time he’d been to the grocery was a month ago. He wandered back to stare at his laptop again. Amazingly, things had not magically improved themselves. Louis furrowed his brow at the forums and chewed with consideration. Louis had faith in Harry, faith in Zayn and Liam, faith in their whole symphony family, faith that the show was going to be extraordinary. But in a world that didn’t pay much attention to the arts, how were people even going to know what they were missing? The online chatter around Liam and Zayn was probably just because Zayn looked so good in pictures, or maybe because of the way Liam let every emotion wash over his face.

“People love gossip,” Louis grumbled to himself. And then he paused, spoon halfway to his mouth.

“Ah, shit,” Louis said to the palm, “Zayn is not going to like this.”

 

*

 

Louis brought the idea up carefully, with plenty of time for Zayn to get through a sulk before the Victoria’s Secret show. Zayn would be difficult but hopefully Liam would be a pushover, would enjoy the chance to get under Zayn's skin. Louis could see the way that Liam’s shoulders pulled up towards his ears when Zayn snapped in a particularly vicious way, however much the gentle alpha tried to hide it.

Zayn was in the practice room frowning over some scores when Louis walked in, Harry ambling in his wake. Harry wasn’t part of the conversation Louis was planning except that Harry claimed everything that ever happened for the symphony was now part of his artistic process. Following Louis around both the symphony hall and the practice building, for example, was process.

In fact, since the fateful data entry conversation, Louis and Harry had ended up together in the hall a lot. Louis knew where all the good lunch places were, whereas Harry had an awful susceptibility to overpriced downtown dining clubs that hassled you with doormen, so Louis felt obliged to save him. They'd gotten into a groove with work break conversations. Harry backed up his artistic quirkiness with a captivating thoughtfulness about the world, and asked Louis a lot of questions that he didn't actually know the answer to. Louis introduced Harry to some favorite nonfiction podcasts, Harry cracked Louis up with an unexpected, unabashedly raunchy sense of humor. Sometimes Louis spaced out on how offensively attractive Harry still was, but he was doing a better job of disguising it as being deep in thought about something important and mathematical. People got a worried look on their face and left you alone when they thought you were thinking about math, in Louis’ experience.

“Hey, Z,” Louis said, since he rather thought the symphony crew should move on to nicknames, and that he should come up with them. Zayn lazily chucked a baton towards them, and Louis ducked and Harry caught it. Where did he manage to hide those?

“How was the board meeting?” Louis asked, in the hopes that anything he raised was going to seem better after talking about the board.

“Bugger the board,” Zayn said, as expected, stabbing into the score with a pencil.

“That would take some effort,” Harry sighed, “Add it to the list if we want it done by January.”

Louis waved a hand behind his back, and to his credit, Harry hushed.

“They’re still not enthused?”

“No,” Zayn said, raising his eyebrows at Louis, and flapping a loose sheet of music at him, “Their hearts have not softened. Uncertain why, given that we’ve had to deal with so many outraged ticket cancellations. Nothing the board likes better than refunds. They should’ve been in a great mood.”

“Don’t try joking,” Louis said, shaking his head, “It doesn’t really suit you. Just be the Eeyore that we need you to be, Z.”

Zayn groped in his pocket, probably for another baton, but only came up with half of a snickers bar still in its wrapper. He bit off a mouthful and managed to do it at Louis.

“They’re not wrong,” he said. “Right? We’re not getting the attention we need. We haven’t sold enough tickets at the right rate. I don’t even need you to tell me that.”

Great opening. Louis seized it.

“That’s why I came to find you,” he said, careful not to put too much weight into his tone.

“I had a bit of a brainstorm the other day and I think I know what we should do, to drive up attention to the show. It’s about you and Liam, actually.”

“You need us to stop fighting,” Zayn said, “I know. I’ve been told. The bleeding horns section told me. It would be nice if Liam didn’t act like a dick every time we tried to do our jobs and play some music. You explain to me, how someone can be so quiet in real life, and so damn stubborn when they’re playing--”

“Um, so here’s the thing,” Louis said even more carefully, and behind him, he heard Harry moving around like he was getting into a better observational position. Typical Harry. Maybe his piece was going to be a gigantic sculpture of Zayn's eyebrows with figures of the orchestra drowning in them. Louis could dream.

“I did a bit of research this week, scraped every conversation I could find online about the symphony. And you know I’ve always had my ear to the ground in the audience.  People might criticize you and Liam, but here’s the thing, people like talking about you.”

Zayn looked at Louis coldly, at least as coldly as it was possible to look while chewing a too-large mouthful of snickers bar, but Louis knew by now that this was just Zayn’s thinking face.

“What are you on about?” he asked. Louis took a long breath.

“I think you and Liam should pretend to be dating. Or like, having a romance. Zayn, we should sell this. I know I’m right about this. We should absolutely capitalize on the rumors about Liam and you. We should make it part of the intrigue. There was already buzz in the media about you since your GQ shoot, it would be so easy to feed just a tiny bit more with you and Liam hanging out together, outside the symphony.”

“What the fuck,” Zayn said, faintly.  

“Harry’s presence got some attention but ultimately, it was mostly the art world,” Louis said, plowing ahead at full steam, “And the angle on the symphony being a treasured institution of the city also got some play, but it wasn’t enough. With you and Liam though, it would be a story. Hot-headed director is at war with his first chair, or is he, when they have to team up to save the hall together? People love a good romance, Z.”

“What...what would that even look like?” Zayn asked. Louis waved his hands about, which didn’t help, but he couldn’t stop himself.

“Just, keep treating each other like the garbage that you do when you play, I know you can’t help that, but like, come with us and Liam to Babs’ show--I’ve been meaning to say, she’s got us tickets. You too,” Louis said over his shoulder to Harry, after all, Harry was being thoughtfully quiet this whole time.

“She emailed! I’m excited,” Harry said.

“And I dunno, hold Liam’s hand or summat, sit a little too close; between Babs and Niall and Harry, somebody’s gonna get the two of you in photos and at least a few symphony forums will care. That’s probably all we need to get started.”

Louis could envision it perfectly: they’d make a great photo. Zayn showed up well in photos, you couldn’t even tell if he was peeved. Liam might look a little awkward, but it would be fine, everyone would be distracted by his shoulders.

“Are you seriously telling me that my social behavior is part of the strategy now? Is this really part of your expertise?” Zayn asked doubtfully, but he was looking at Louis in a way that told Louis he'd already won, with resignation.

“I'm the mastermind,” Louis said, “Every damn thing is my expertise.”

“You know what? Sure. Let’s do it. I don’t give a crap,” Zayn said, going back to his score. He riffled through the pages and made a few notes to himself before he glanced up again.

What?” he said.

“It can’t seriously be this easy,” Louis said.

“To save everything I care most about in this universe, I think I can hold somebody’s hand for five minutes. Just appreciate it, I won’t be this easy to convince about everything,” Zayn said, trying to throw his empty snickers wrapper, but it merely fluttered to a stop a foot and a half from his stand.

Louis gave a little whoop and wheeled to find Harry and give him a high five. Babs’ show was in early December, which gave him plenty of time to plant some absurd rumors in the forums and maybe drop a hint or two in the queue for the bar during intermission. This was going to be fun.

 

*

 

The late fall had come and with it, Zayn’s season selection of Schumann. After a few weeks of listening to Zayn and Liam's strange not-really-fighting, frenzied back-and-forth debates about the music, Louis could appreciate it more. He could see the way that Zayn was weaving romanticism in and choosing a lesser-known work but one that would still be accessible as the audience eased into the season. One night at Shaw's Zayn had waved his hands a lot, describing the many-headed hydra monster of planning a season, and Louis had only followed some of it, but it had been really nice to see him like that. Even Liam stayed quiet over his beer, eyes on Zayn's face.

“Schumann for November, of course, not October,” he’d said with Liam nodding, and Louis wasn’t sure if they were just pulling his leg but, it felt right.

Harry was going to be at the symphony tonight, he’d mentioned over lunch. Of course he couldn't text Harry like any reasonable person because Harry still didn't have a mobile, insane. Louis got there early and loitered at the bar before finally making his way to the box with a strange pain at not finding Harry anywhere. But Louis wasn't sure what he expected: Harry to come through the side hallway and into his box, maybe? As if Harry didn't have better things to do. As if Louis had given Harry any motivation to come. Maybe Harry hadn’t even come. He’d only been going to come to do more research, anyway. Maybe Harry had picked up everything that he’d needed from the symphony and was home painting a two-story self-portrait that would block half the stalls and give the board hernias, every one of them.

Louis sighed and leaned back, staring at the ceiling. His forearms hurt from pulling out nails. The symphony hall ceiling was glossy with gold paint that always put Louis in mind of a delicate jewelry box, warm and serene. But tonight he could only see the flaws. There was a patch of off-color paint near the smallest chandelier, and an exposed socket from where they’d probably removed a different light but hadn’t sealed the paint over. Was this what you got for being closer to the things you loved? Did things only stay beautiful when you didn’t let yourself see the details? Louis slumped deeper into his velvet chair and blurred his eyes so that the lights turned into a fuzzy glow against a dark background.

The music washed through the hall, so at least missing paint didn’t dampen acoustics. It thrummed in reverberating layers, low bass and the smooth strings and a surprising amount of timpani. A side effect of being a bit in depri, at least, was that sounds and tastes and colors were all brighter, richer, deeper. Louis had no idea how Zayn got them to this point, despite pretending to hate most if not all people and refusing to talk to strangers. But put him in front of an orchestra and he could mesh them together as easy as breathing. It was like Zayn could forget about himself, then, and then nobody could forget about him. Louis could pick out Liam's influence more clearly, too, where he couldn't have told you what it was before. It was in the way that the strings prioritized their staccato hits, the thoughtful dynamic echo with the winds. Liam was learning the orchestra, too, expanding beyond his own tight violin. Every now and again Louis caught a glimpse of what it would be once Liam really, truly let go, and he hoped he'd have the chance to hear that.

Louis kept his eyes closed for the entire thing, and pulled his coat over his knees. It was bliss for a movement. He stayed in the box during intermission and never even pulled the snack bag out of his coat pocket. Sally would be amazed.

Louis went to get a drink as the crowd filed out, but turned away from the bar queue when a gaggle of aggressive German tourists got in between him and the vodka. Water was probably wiser anyway. The water fountain was stocked with tiny useless paper cups that Louis used every time and imagined a long line of patrons before him, repeatedly filling little cones of wax paper, too refined to drink from a fountain.

“Hey,” said Harry, from behind him. Louis jerked, and dumped the water down his entire shirt.

“Oh my god, Harry,” Louis said, wiping down his front.

“Sorry,” Harry said, leaning deeply into his pockets. Harry was wearing another really great suit, a forest green with strange hints of yellow in it, and the color brought out his eyes.

“Where’ve you been watching the show from?” Louis asked, refilling his water cup.

Harry shrugged. He looked weary, Louis noticed suddenly, and he wasn’t wearing a tie. Instead, his shirt was unbuttoned at least three down, rather rakish for the symphony. Didn’t stop a couple of gorgeous blond women from glancing his way over their champagne glasses. Louis squared his shoulders.

“Zayn let me take one of the student booths and follow along with a score but,” Harry shrugged again, “My eyes were watering from the light and I don’t actually read music all that well.”

Harry all but pouted. Louis felt a small laugh burble up but thankfully avoided spilling his water again. Harry didn’t laugh, he just stared into the middle distance and sighed.

“All right,” Louis said, nudging Harry’s elbow to push him lightly towards the plaza, where the giant fountain lit a grand silhouette against the theatre arts complex. “This night needs pizza.”

 

*

 

Louis’ favorite after-symphony pizza spot was near the ballet school, hedged in by glittering tall office buildings and stubbornly holding onto its tiny patch of downtown real estate. There was room for just about seven people, and huge hot ovens kept the tiny box warm in all seasons. Louis got a sausage and pesto white cheese, and Harry got some kind of monstrosity that had at least four types of veg on it.

Harry was standing at the counter spending about ten minutes doctoring his slice of pizza with careful, slow shakes of the pepper shaker when three guys walked in. Louis smelled the drunk and predatory alpha off them before the door had even closed, and felt his back stiffen.

“Oi there,” said one, skinny guy in a hoodie, waving a beer towards Louis. Louis watched them out of the corner of his eye, and didn’t turn around. The guy laughed at something with his friends, and stalked towards the table.

“Hey babe,” the guy said to Louis, “How’s your touch levels? Cuz I think I got a hug with your name on it.”

“Fuck off,” Louis said, tearing a piece of his crust with his fingers.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you, sweetheart,” said the man, stepping forward. Louis tensed, balling up a fist, but there was no need.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Harry snarled, coming up behind the man. He radiated something that would’ve been blistering if it had been intended for Louis, a sour edge that skimmed through Louis’ nose but felt perversely comforting. The man jerked back like he’d been slapped.

“Sorry, bro,” he stammered, limp-boned and drunk, to Harry instead of Louis, of course. Louis wrinkled his nose in disgust.

“Get away from him,” Harry said. He said it through his teeth, in full voice, and the stranger flinched again.   

Louis looked at Harry’s face instead of the strange alpha’s. Harry looked mad, angry muppet for this one, maybe, a step higher than stuffed animals. But if you didn’t know Harry, you could be scared. Louis felt a rush of something dangerous and warm, all that and also, safety. The man behind the counter -- a nice-looking beta who’d given Louis the biggest piece off the pie -- leaned out over the counter.

“I’m going,” the man mumbled, all bark and no bite, typical. They stumbled into the street, probably off to say shitty things and feel bad in the morning. Harry sat down at the table with his over-peppered pizza slice and started pressing napkins into it to get the oil off. Why did he have to be everything he was and also healthy?

“Does that happen often?” Harry asked hesitatingly. Louis glanced up from his pizza and chewed reflectively.

“Now and again,” he said, swallowing the crust down and grabbing Harry’s soda for a drink, “It gives guys like that some kind of heart attack to see a gay, male omega, always seems. Plus they think being small means I’m shy and quiet, you know. Common mistake.”

Harry was silent. Louis craned his head to see whether there were more parmesan cheese shakers on the counter, but there weren’t. He sighed deeply. Cruel world.

“Hey,” Harry said, “I’m sorry. No wonder you don't like us. Alphas really are assholes, huh.”

Louis frowned across the table, and watched Harry peer into his soda as if it were going to tell him the future. Louis frowned deeper.

“No they’re not, Hazza, people are assholes.”

Harry didn’t look up.

“You think so?” Harry asked, voice quiet. He didn’t look much like the famous artist, cocky and confident. He didn’t even look like the intimidating alpha that he’d been just a minute before. He looked the age that Louis was always surprised to remember that he was--younger than Louis.

Louis took an enormous bite of pizza. One needed the sustaining comfort of mozzarella to tackle artistic anxiety and kyriarchy in the same night.

“I know so, you absolute wanker. Maybe culture kind of pretends most of us act a certain way, but that doesn’t mean we are that. S’all stereotypes and all, right? I mean what, would you tell Niall he’s cold because he’s beta? Niall whinges if Babs goes to Paris for more than two days. Having energy, you know, like alphas, doesn't make you aggressive, just like, how you use it. You know these stories don’t determine us. Maybe I’m fucking messed up about my own stuff sometimes, but even I know that.”

Harry looked up at that, green eyes lit. Louis tried not to drop his gaze. “Some of the nicest people I know are alphas,” Louis said, softly. “You'd be an idiot not to like them. Promise.”

Harry smiled, wide and delighted, and Louis felt it drop straight to the pit of his stomach, curl up and make a home there. A person could do a lot to keep Harry Styles smiling like that.

“Ok, spill it,” Louis ordered, because that was enough conversation close to topics he didn't want attention on, “What’s got you so artistically anguished tonight?”

Harry sighed. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he admitted, picking morosely at a long string of cheese coming off the slice.

“Attempting to eat pizza,” Louis said, “And you’re truly bad at it. Who gets vegetables as a midnight snack? Bet you would’ve had a salad if that had even been an option.”

Harry stuck out his tongue, in the corner of his mouth and far, and Louis swallowed hard, because the feeling in his stomach about doubled in size. It wasn’t his fault that Harry had such a nice mouth, he supposed.

“No, it’s the collaboration, it’s my piece,” Harry said, looking serious again.

“I kept thinking, listening to them play tonight, what am I even doing here? They’re beautiful, and Zayn has put years of work into building seasons like this. I have some ideas, but it’s so presumptive, isn’t it? Coming in and trying to change something that’s already so beautiful. I don’t know if whatever I come up with will be good enough.”

Louis had stuffed the rest of his slice in his face while Harry was talking, so his hands were free. He hovered them over the table for a second before--to hell with it--putting them down over Harry’s and squeezing. Harry always felt so nice. Harry looked up with an unreadable expression. Louis blinked against his own nerves and persevered.

“Hazza,” he said, “It’s not about being good enough. It’s about being here. We’re trying to do this because we care. I never feel ready for anything I try to do, but it doesn’t matter, because you’re the person who’s here to do it,”

“And that feeling? It tells you that you’re on the right track. You’ve had a lot of success doing one kind of show, right? Where you control everything? So you’re challenging yourself, trying to do something that fits into Zayn’s plan, or Liam’s plan, or whatever the plan that the symphony board has. I don’t know, I don’t think they actually make plans, really. They probably just sit around and criticize other people.”

Harry laughed, and he flexed his fingers under Louis’. Giant, absurd paws that had produced a staggering amount of award-winning art in a short time, which must've been a really confusing thing to experience, actually, so few people to tell you what to even do with that. Louis could remember that feeling, people stepping away and assuming you knew what you were doing because you accidentally made it all work, once. Louis was starting to believe that despite all that, Harry didn't even realize how gifted he was. Louis smiled at him, because he couldn’t help it.

“It’s not about being good enough,” Louis repeated. “It’s about trying. It always feels hard to do new things. Right now, it’s about getting another slice of pizza. And I am not going to sit here and watch you attempt to turn it into a salad, ok?”

They wolfed down second pizza slices and bought beers and got buzzed, and it was grand. Louis doubled over with laughter when Harry unwittingly ruffled his own hair with a pizza-greasy hand and left marinara streaks in it, and Harry whooped and dove on Louis in retaliation on the sidewalk, throwing him over his shoulder and staggering down the way, while Louis rained fury on Harry’s back with his fists. After, it seemed only natural to let Harry walk him all the way back to his loft, and to invite him in out of the cold winter night, and collapse together on the couch under the buzz of the beers, Harry’s arm wrapped idly around Louis’ shoulders, Louis’ legs thrown over Harry’s lap while the telly played some calm baking show. They'd already broken the touch barrier, right? What harm could it do? Louis felt the frizzing in his blood like a distant warning sign, and tamped it down firmly out of his mind. Harry needed comfort tonight, right? Louis could be generous like that.

“Maybe I should go,” Harry said, softly and sweetly, when the yawning got out of control for both of them.

“Yeah, you should,” Louis said, pulling Harry’s head down to snuggle it more firmly against his chest. Harry’s hair was so good at close inspection. It was long and every time he moved, his hair ruffled around and Harry’s very nice smell filled his nose, soothing and exciting at the same time. Louis was tired, and Harry was warm. It did something bone-deep to him, even though he knew it was all platonic. Louis felt like he could sink into the couch and stay there forever. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so content.

“Maybe I should,” Harry said, curling his fingers into Louis’ sweater. Louis was definitely making good progress on getting comfortable with touch, Babs should be proud. Louis wriggled his leg out from where it had gotten pinned beneath him and Harry fell improbably deeper into his lap. Physics, Louis supposed. He trailed his fingers over Harry’s face, and Harry puffed out his cheeks and then cracked himself up, because Harry was an infant.

“Maybe you should change out of this nonsense,” Louis said. Harry’s blazer was thrown over the back of the couch but his dress shirt was still starchy and stiff. Louis didn't like it, not when there was all that soft, caramel-tan skin like a mockery just beneath. Where did Harry get a tan like that in fall?  

“I like suits,” Harry said, grumpily, sleepily, like Louis was insulting his taste, which Louis hadn't been doing at all but he definitely wasn't going to correct Harry when he squinted his eyes like that.

“You'd better, for the amount that you have.”

“People send them to me,” Harry said, “Not my fault.” Harry’s eyelashes fluttered with his yawn.

“Oh do they,” Louis said, poking at Harry’s ear with his finger. “Well not all of us are media fashion darlings with hookups at Gucci, are we? I’ve only got the few slacks to last me an entire symphony season, and now these ones have pizza on them. They smell awful.”

Harry rolled to the side and pitched his face into Louis’ lap like an overgrown puppy. “They do not,” Harry said, face against Louis’ knees, pressing close and inhaling, loudly. Louis’ pulse fired up like a jackhammer. Harry was, actually, nothing like a puppy. Harry’s shoulder muscles made Louis’ mouth water, and the contours of his forearms, and his large hand too close to Louis’ thigh. Harry must hear it with his alpha acuity, and if not, Louis’ spiking scent gave him away for sure. He wasn't even sure if he was breathing, electric current running up his legs. He couldn’t move.

Harry pulled upright with a flushed face, looking guilty.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said with absurd sincerity, “I am not great at physical boundaries.”

“Christ,” Louis said, fumbling for the remote so that he wouldn’t pull Harry back into himself and tangle his hands up in his hair. Onscreen, contestants were bemoaning cakes turning into trainwrecks. Louis understood.

“Do you want to crash here? It’s early in the morning, now.”

Harry’s face went from guilty to flirtatious in a nanosecond, pulling back to side-eye Louis. He couldn't help it, he probably didn't even know it. Harry was a cake and a trainwreck.

“I've heard this is a comfortable couch,” Louis said hastily. “I can get you a special type of suit that we use for such occasions, known as a sleep suit, sometimes called pajamas.”

“Gucci or I sleep starkers,” Harry said. He couldn't help it, Louis reminded himself.

 

*

 

Louis made himself walk resolutely into his bedroom and close the door. Then he locked it, for good measure, then he put a stray houseplant in front of it.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Louis wasn't a baby omega, he had a fully adult, jaded, broken heart and business meetings and standing prescriptions for sleep aids and he shouldn't be hovering two inches from his own bedroom door because he'd forgotten what it all felt like. Because he’d forgotten what his own body could feel like.

“Do not let me go back out there,” Louis said to the plant, which did not so much as rustle its leaves in comprehension. Ungrateful.

Louis rubbed down his thighs where Harry's touch still lingered, feeling a little dizzy and strangely cold. His arms had goosebumps. He threw his clothes in the corner hamper and got into the warmest pajamas he could find, the ones that Niall had given him for Christmas, the first Christmas after everything with Thomas when Louis had stayed in this apartment, unwilling to face family and questions and the way his mum's face had twisted with worry whenever she saw him. They were good pajamas, full of stability and self-sufficiency. Louis crawled into bed and put his head underneath his pillow without a thought towards brushing his teeth. He tried not to think about Harry in the living room, the rise and fall of soft breath in his chest, the warm spaces of his body falling looser and more open. Eventually, Louis even fell asleep.

 

*

 

“You don’t have any groceries,” Harry said, in a hushed voice, with horror, like he’d opened the fridge and found a severed head.

“That’s not fair,” Louis said, “I have a lot of cereal.”

“Cereal isn’t groceries , Louis Tomlinson,” Harry said. “Do you even have milk? What do you do, eat dry granola out of a coffee mug with your hands? Get a coat. We’ve got to go to the store, my god.”

Louis hopped up on the kitchen table and kicked his feet at Harry. One caught Harry on the thigh, and Louis’ toes were freezing cold, so he hooked them under the edge of Harry's too-short Louis-sized sleep shorts to press into Harry’s firm quad muscle. Harry mock growled and batted the foot away, but then he caught it in his hand and curled warm fingers around it, so it couldn’t have been that bad.

“You could order a grocery delivery off Amazon Fresh,” Louis said smugly, “Oh wait, you don’t have a smartphone, do you.”

Harry pointed an accusing finger at him. “There is a grocery within four blocks of every direction from your apartment!”

“So low delivery charges,” Louis said, leaning back on his elbows on the table and smirking. It was beyond worth it to see the way that Harry’s eyebrows shot up on his forehead. Louis wanted to horrify Harry every day for the rest of eternity. He wanted to be aggressively unhealthy at him and keep him in sleep shorts.

Harry seemed to consider and then realize that Louis was teasing at him in a slow-motion.

“You, awful,” he said, shaking his head. His voice was still raspy with sleep and Louis hadn’t thought that Harry’s voice could get particularly more attractive in a given circumstance, but he’d been wrong. Harry was still holding Louis’ foot, which put him in a bit of a strange position, leaned back on the kitchen table in his pyjama pants and the one clean white t-shirt he’d thrown on that he fancied fit him well.

“I know. I also know a good brunch place,” Louis said, pulling himself abruptly free and hopping down from the table. He walked back to the living room and grabbed Harry’s clothes and came back to throw them in his face.

“Ugh,” Harry said, “Nothing worse than the morning-after suit.”

It was still early, because Louis obviously woke up early, and Harry woke up as soon as Louis left his bedroom, sleepy but for some reason still cheerful. They were both mushy from the late night and sat in companionable silence at a booth in the window of a brunch spot that didn’t yet have a line.  Louis ordered coffee, and a giant mocha for Harry, who had a sweet tooth that put even Niall to shame. Louis leaned on his elbows and yawned into the menu.

“You’re so far,” Harry complained. “I feel too warm in this cafe wearing a wrinkled suit and I need the iciness to cool me down.”

“Excuse me,” Louis said blankly. Harry looked at him beatifically. “You,” he said, “You’re icy. You’re probably an iceberg, actually, and your tininess is just the tip of what you really are.”

“Icy, tiny, ” Louis grumbled with disgust, shuffling out of his side of the booth and coming over to Harry’s, because he was a sucker, because he was reckless, because his skin sang when he slid into Harry’s side and Harry wrapped a long arm around Louis.

Friends, Louis reminded himself. He just wasn’t used to having alpha friends, to the way cuddles had increased in his life. He also knew perfectly damn well that it would never in a million years feel like this if Babs or Liam gave him a hug, or used one hand to drink their giant mocha and cut their pancake with a fork because their other arm was looped securely around his shoulders. Harry is like this with everyone, Louis thought with no conviction at all.

“I did twelve analyses over a ten-gig dataset last week because nobody in my firm could remember how to control for multiple comparisons,” Louis said. He felt more than heard Harry laugh, a shake in his ribcage. It was just so confusing, how Harry could deflect all the sharpest pieces of Louis and never let them take him off his balance.

“Oh my god, Lou, nobody is criticizing you. You can be the bloody scariest person in the world if you wanted to be, etcetera. Sorry, but you’re a tiny ferocious iceberg, also you shouldn’t mind, it’s hot. There’s just so much under the surface, with you.”

Louis didn’t have any idea what that meant so he stole Harry’s mocha and licked a significant chunk of whipped cream off it. Somewhere between pizza and brunch he felt like he’d set the upper hand down and forgotten about it.

He put space between himself and Harry again when his own food arrived, and Louis was reminded of the book he’d read about sugar and colonialism, and Harry mused about whether they should stop at a grocery store on the way back, and it felt not so different from a lunch break at the symphony. Louis got caught up describing the horrors of the symphony’s filing section until he realized that Harry had covered the brunch ticket and steered them straight to a grocery store on the way back. He protested, on principle, but they managed a speedy shopping trip that Louis knew he was going to be grateful for the next week. Harry gave him shit about eating vegetables and filled the basket with produce of which Louis didn’t even know half the names.

Louis set the bags down on the kitchen counter and realized, then, that it was probably the appropriate time for Harry to be off. A friend would probably leave, now.

“Well,” Louis started, and blanked on what to say next. Stupid, stupid. “Next time, I’ll try to have some fresh Gucci for you,” he tried again.

Harry smoothed down the front of his suit, which had earned him not a few looks at the brunch place.

“I’m sure you’ve got a lot of not-taking-enough-time-off-work to get back to,” Harry said wryly, and Louis half expected a final wind-down lecture about produce, but Harry turned towards the door, and Louis trailed down the awkwardly narrow hallway with him. It felt like there was something left undone or unsaid, but that couldn’t be right, because that wasn’t how friends would feel at this point.

Harry stopped at the door and looked back at Louis, not leaving.

“Lou,” Harry started, and stopped.

“What’s up,” Louis said, too quickly, before Harry had even finished his slow drawl, really.

“Would you ever…” he trailed off, putting his hands in his pockets.

“What?” Louis asked. He didn’t know exactly what they were both hanging onto, but whatever Harry asked, he felt like he would answer. For once.

“Nothing,” Harry said, looking sideways at Louis, mouth curving in a thoughtful way. “Nevermind.”

Later, when Louis got around to actually putting the groceries away, he discovered that Harry had snuck a very small pot of African violets in with the food. He stared at it for a minute, the corner of his mouth twitching up, and found a place on the southern window.

Chapter Text

Babs always said that behind the scenes, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show ran with more drama than a Kardashians episode. This year, Louis felt like he understood.  

The crazy thing was that Liam was the problem. Zayn was fine. Zayn had gotten in the car in a suit just on the edge of too-tight, shiny black, and he smiled at Louis as he crawled over Louis’ lap to settle next to Liam, throwing himself down with a self-satisfied oomph.

“Guess we should get comfortable,” Zayn said, sounding cheerful.

“Not too comfortable,” Liam said darkly.

“This doesn't have to be weird,” Zayn said.

It's possible that he was trying to sound reassuring, but Liam bristled and stared at the backboard separating them from the driver that Babs had insisted on sending. Louis stared out the window and watched downtown turn into cozy neighborhoods, and tried not to feel mournfully jealous that everybody else apparently lived in walking distance of Babs and Niall, and he was the only orphan downtown.

Louis had had to spend an entire hour talking Liam down from his outrage, and another hour convincing him that pretending to date Zayn wouldn’t really be that big of a deal and would probably, almost certainly, definitely help the symphony. Louis didn’t really know, but he wasn’t going to tell Liam that. There had been a lot of words like “disingenuous” and “integrity” and “for god’s sake, you don’t know my mum, she’s been on me to date somebody for the last five years, you’d think concertmaster would mean something, but no, ‘when am I going to get a grandbaby, Liam Payne,’ is what she’s going to leave on my phone, and then I’m going to give her your number so she can call you instead.”

Louis had packed away the tidbit about Liam’s abysmal lovelife, handled his freakout, and gotten him something different from the usual concertmaster’s tuxedo with Babs’ help, on loan from one of her many fashion closets hookups. Liam looked stunning, if Louis did say so himself, in a slim-fit navy blue suit and a silver tie. He wasn’t as as edgy as Zayn nor as fashion as Harry, but he looked comfortable, and elegant. Louis privately thought it fit him better.  

Louis had no idea how he personally looked, because he’d gone through about seven different options with Babs while Niall sat on their bedroom floor trying to remember how to polish his shoes, and Louis had eventually been sat down in the kitchen to nurse tea while Babs chose for him. He was wearing a tight fitted lighter blue suit with thin modern lapels and it was fine, probably, and Louis wasn't stressing about it. At all.

Harry came down from an old-fashioned apartment building that had vines running up the side. It looked posh, and roomy, but not as pretentious as Louis had thought it might. It was probably walking distance from Niall and Bab’s flat. Louis’ life was an unending tapestry of injustice. Harry looked fit to kill. He was in another floral-detailed suit, because flowers were a clear Harry preference, but this one was dark slate grey and the embroidery work on the suit was all golds and reds.

“Lou,” Harry said, likely because Louis was the first person on the side of the car that Harry opened, but then he also put his palms on either side of Louis’ lap to support his weight as he crawled into the other middle seat, next to Zayn. For a second, his face was just an inch from Louis’, breath on his cheek.

“Why doesn’t anybody roll over Liam,” Niall asked innocently from the front passenger seat. Harry sprawled out into Zayn’s lap trying to reach Liam with his arms in response, and Louis let out the breath he hadn’t meant to be holding.

 “Liam chose the left hand side, Liam is an isolationist,” Zayn said, looking down at Harry with an air of mild detachment. Somewhere along the way Harry had gotten every last one of them desensitized to his unique interpretation of personal space. Sneaky.

 “Do not ruin these suits or Babs will kill us,” Louis warned, leaning his forehead back into the window and watching the neighborhood turn back to the glittery buildings of the downtown. Niall punched up the volume on the radio, and the mood got loud and giddy. Liam still looked nervous, Louis noted, resolving to keep an eye on him, but Niall and Harry and Zayn sang along to the radio and beat out percussive rat-tat-tats on the upholstery. Harry looked full of glee, eyes like the chandeliers brightening as they got closer to the floor. Figures Harry would love a party.

Like most fancy shows, the experience wasn’t actually about the real-life audience, but the tv audience a week later. So while they had had to arrive well before the show started, the audience had to wait in a gala cocktail party in the lobby of the venue. Granted, there was crusted jumbo shrimp and champagne all over the place. Louis thought it would have been tolerable if Zayn and Liam weren’t trying to murder each other and everyone else from exposure.

 “Here we are,” Zayn said, rounding on Liam as he made to open the car door. “Want to try and look like you can tolerate my physical existence?”

 Liam looked uniquely tortured and mumbled something nobody could hear.

 “You don’t have to overdo it,” Louis said, trying to sound reassuring. It was directed at Liam, but mentally, he pointed it at Zayn.

 “Just like, be holding his hand and then drop it as you get out. They’ll probably photograph you more during the show since you’ll be with Niall, anyway, so this is like a dress rehearsal. They’ll make up drama to go with Zayn’s face, don’t worry.”

 “I’m going to mention it in an interview,” Harry said, sounding like he was looking forward to it, “Something about how interesting it is seeing the partnership unfold between the two of you.”

 Liam grabbed Zayn’s hand without even looking at him, and swung the door open. There were a few cursory photographs from the paps waiting for more interesting guests to arrive, but in the hubbub, they slipped inside pretty easily. They didn’t drop hands, though, getting all the way through the door and into the reception room before Liam looked down and pulled his hand away.

 “I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Liam said, looking around the room.

 “Sorry this is so awful for you,” Zayn said.  Liam looked at him finally, and with a downturned expression.

“Can you try not to make fun of me?” he asked, hissing the words between his teeth, surprisingly sharp for Liam. His eyebrows were crunched in a frown. Louis opened his mouth to try to say something reassuring, but closed it again, afraid to snap the thin line of tension stretching between the two of them. Niall had already gotten himself a free drink, philosophically calm.

“Fine,” Zayn snapped.

“Fine,” Liam snapped back. He marched off to the buffet line.

“This is fine,” Niall said solemnly to Harry, who cracked up so hard he put his face down on Niall’s shoulder. Harry seemed particularly touchy tonight. Niall looked extremely smug at Louis.

“Don’t fall for his tricks,” Louis said, “He’s really easy to crack up, that one.”

“I'm not making fun of him,” Zayn said, not looking at anyone and grabbing a drink off a passing waiter. He ran a hand through his hair, coiffing it higher, and yanked sharply at one lapel, although it looked to Louis like his suit was sitting perfectly.

“I don't think Liam can hear you from over here,” Niall said, “I wonder if it would help if you moved closer.”

Zayn stared at him, dead-eyed. “I understand sarcasm.”  

Niall raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah. But if you keep doing this thing where you try to communicate with him in snarky one-liners, you’re only going to make it worse.” 

“I’m not,” Zayn started, and stopped, looking caught out. He took an impressive swallow of cocktail. Louis could’ve saved Zayn the trouble; Niall was usually right about these things. Poor Zayn, drifting through life so talented and good-looking that people had entirely failed to give him accurate feedback about social interactions. Luckily he had Niall now. Luckily for all of them.

“The thing is, Liam doesn’t get sarcasm, and he’s already worried about letting you down,” Niall said, inspecting his cocktail like it was the most interesting thing in the room. Louis and Harry just watched Niall work. Zayn watched Liam’s back, stiff and uncomfortable as he went down the appetizer table clutching a tiny paper plate and not actually taking anything.   

“That’s not--he’s worried?” Zayn asked, sounding bewildered. Oblivious, apparently, to his presence on the world at large and on Liam in particular.

“But he’s so good at everything,” Zayn said. He was nearly through his drink. Louis revised his previous estimate: maybe Zayn knew exactly how much of a lightweight he was, and leaned on that.

“Z, so are you,” Niall said, warm as the sun. “Can’t let your worries get in the way of an actual conversation. Maybe Liam does the same thing.”

“Maybe he thinks we’re a downgrade from London,” Zayn said. They all looked at him until he continued, shuffling his shoulders uncomfortably, and gesturing with his glass.

“It’s just, maybe he regrets ever coming here. Maybe we’ve let him down, you know, everything that we promised would happen if he came.”

“Maybe we are hard on ourselves,” Niall said, and shook his head ruefully.

“It’s just my fate to be surrounded by you self-punishing types. Maybe now you have the perfect excuse to talk to Liam for real, now that you’re supposed to stand in dark corners whispering dramatically and getting photographed. Wander over and give it a try.”

“Amazing, Louis is right, you are magic,” Harry said, when Zayn threw back the last of his drink and marched towards the buffet table, towards Liam.

“Yeah, that whole conversation and Zayn didn’t even throw a single baton,” Louis said. Harry cracked up again, flailing back onto Niall’s shoulder. Maybe he’d been pregaming, but Louis doubted it. Harry was just like this. Niall patted Harry’s curls with one hand.

“Harry and I are cuddle buddies,” Niall said happily. “Call me magic, I’m easy for it.”

“Is that ok?” Harry asked Louis.

“Of course it’s ok,” Louis said, a little snappy, “Why wouldn’t it be? Why are you asking me?”

He swiped four jumbo shrimp off a platter whizzing by, and threw one at Niall to distract from his overreaction. Over at the appetizer table, Liam and Zayn appeared to be talking, and Louis couldn’t see Zayn’s face, but Liam’s face looked more settled.

“You’ll always be my best cuddle buddy,” Niall said, through shrimp, “And I’m not just saying that so you keep giving me food.”

“You should know that he’s extremely food motivated,” Louis said to Harry, conspiratorially, swiping a free champagne next. He made a mental note to limit himself to three, a resolution that he made every year at the VS show, but it felt particularly prudent this year.  

 

*

 

The wait before they were allowed into seats was long, and Louis didn’t love this part. He knew a lot of people in the room because the scramble of rich, artistic, or generally well-connected people was the same navel-gazing crowd no matter the occasion. He got enough of that at work, really. Niall had his annual catch-up with other partners of the models, and Louis stayed by his side until the conversation got too deep into golf tournaments.

Louis was making a second pass through the buffet line, wondering if anyone would notice if he stored a few breaded shrimps in his pockets, when he noticed Liam floundering. Liam looked flushed, like he was being interrogated by a sharp-looking, whippet-faced man in an unbuttoned jacket. Louis dodged a few giddy drinkers to make his way over. By the time he had, the other man had turned away with a rude look of disinterest on his face. Louis read it in a second.

“I don’t know what I did,” Liam said, weakly.

 “Nothing. Brokaw, he’s a CTO. His girlfriend’s one of the models. He’s mostly only interested in figuring out if he’s smarter than everyone else. Probably musicians just aren’t on his radar.”  Louis shrugged.

“I’m sorry, I think I’m terrible at this,” Liam said, red in the face. “I hope I’m not making the symphony look bad, Louis.” 

“Ok, no, Li, never,” Louis said.

 He looked at Liam, who seemed like he was trying to shrink away in his suit, an endeavor much obstructed by the fact that he was a few sizes larger than most of the people around him. Rich people were all rail-thin. Louis had always thought that was weird.

Louis plucked Liam’s sleeve a couple of times until Liam realized that he was being directed, and followed Louis into the quiet corner that Louis had scoped out as soon as they’d gotten to the reception hall. It was shielded from most of the room by the length of appetizer tables, and there was a cluster of decorative palms that muffled some of the cocktail chatter. Louis was an expert at quickly finding the least noisy part of a room. Louis handed Liam one of the breaded shrimps from his napkin-pocket, took one himself, and gestured towards the room.

“Let me tell you how it works,” Louis said.

“You know a decision tree? Have you ever heard of a decision tree?”

Liam shook his head. Louis shrugged. “It’s just like, like a stats thing. Like you’re classifying things between two options, and you’re going down a long line of doing that. Like do I want food, or not food? If you want food, you move onto the next one, which is like, do I want shrimp, or a mini taco?”  

“There are mini tacos?” Liam asked, looking around. Louis handed him another shrimp.

 “Aw, no, I wish. Anyway, people like that, they aren’t having normal conversations, they’re just working you through their decision tree, trying to classify everybody. Like are you important? Rich? Really attractive?”

Louis waved a shrimp at the crowd. “I should’ve warned you. Some of these assholes get off on trying to be the biggest alpha in the room, you know.”

 “Hmm,” Liam said. They ate shrimp companionably.

 “Can be all alpha if I want to,” Liam said. “It’s just not my default, you know?”

“No doubt,” Louis said, eyeing Liam's muscles, the cool way that he surveyed the room around them. He wasn't Louis’ type; Louis knew himself well enough at least to know that if he weren't resolved to never date an alpha again, if he were a normal omega and had a type, it would be someone different from Liam, someone who could hold his own and shake Louis out of his own head and maybe, someone who didn't worry so much. Liam just made Louis feel like giving out life advice and reassurances. But Liam was a gem, would be all that and more for someone who was looking for an alpha that wouldn't try to control them, who was sensitive and thoughtful and careful. A rather rare thing, Louis thought.

“I just prefer doing actual work to the...this kind of stupid posturing. Ten hours of practice, fine. I’ve been to a lot of symphony galas,” Liam said, “Talked to donors plenty. But this feels weird.”

Louis nodded. “It feels like a test because it is a test. It's a shitty one. Don't let them make you feel bad. Just get free drinks, you know?”

“Zayn seems good at it,” Liam said, sounding a little pensive. Louis looked at him sideways. Maybe part of what was behind their weird discomfort was envy? Zayn was halfway across the floor chatting up a few older folks who looked like the symphony type and must have recognized him. It was part of the director’s job to know the city, Louis supposed, Zayn probably had enough fundraisers under his belt to have a certain comfort with the snooty. Plus, there was the side interest in fashion.

“Harry’s good at it, too,” Louis sighed, finding Harry across the room. Obviously scads of people knew Harry, had pounced on him at every opportunity as soon as they’d gone through the buffet. Right now, a drop-dead beautiful boy in a black and white suit was laughing with Harry, had just snagged him a new glass of champagne. Maybe it was a mutual friend of Harry and Babs’, maybe it was somebody Harry knew from art school.

“Nice people like you and me, we aren’t good at this, Liam. Don’t worry about it. Eat shrimp with me.”

Harry was good at it. Louis wasn't surprised. Harry had been floating around self-important people since he was a teenager. Harry just didn’t think about it, was so good at living in the moment that he forgot to worry about reputations and judgments. Harry had never had a normal job in his life, couldn’t be judged by the normal expectations, and there was something to be said for that. Harry took the proffered drink but had turned away from the beautiful boy with a wave, was talking to an older couple that had a journalistic look to them. Louis felt suddenly, sharply relieved. 

“Here you are,” Niall said, handing Louis a fresh drink around the palm. “Knew I only had to look behind the biggest plant in this place.”

Louis accepted the drink gratefully. “Liam likes it here,” he sniffed.

Niall's face was soft and pleasant as he looked between the two of them. “Of course he does, my two favorite crowd haters. Know why Louis knows so much about plants, Payno?”

Louis chortled, the cocktail a welcome hit of gin and lime behind his teeth.

“Hid by office plants so much when Thomas dragged me to mixers with all these assholes, I decided it would be more believable if I pretended to be interested in them.”

“And look at us now, renting Subarus to get exotic planters from the garden shop and carrying them up five stories for you.”

“There's an elevator,” Louis yelled, laughing, and Liam was laughing too, looking better. Niall handed him a drink, too, and Liam took it with a pleased nod of thanks.

“That’s the way to get through these things,” Louis said, jerking his chin at the drink.

“Mixers? Was that, for your startup, back in the day? Doesn't sound like you loved that,” Liam said, question in his voice. Louis and Niall traded a glance.

“I was young,” Louis said, shortly. “Young and...it was stressful. We’d started this company thing together and it was honestly more successful than either of us knew what to do with.”

“You and? Your partner?” Liam said. Louis winced, before he could stop himself.

“Thomas,” he said, the name strange on his tongue. Niall looked a little worried, and Louis glanced at him, trying to signal that it was ok. Louis was trying to get a little more normal about this all, wasn’t he? Here waiting to see Babs rock out in finery, surrounded by friends and free drinks and shrimp, Louis felt like he should be able to talk about the past.

“We’d started the thing in college, it was really more of a lark for a while, and then it got serious, then it started working. Neither of us knew how to handle it, and we were shoved into this whole high stakes world without any guidance. I'd done about one thing in my life that had ever worked, and it was that.”

That, and Thomas, who had seemed so certain about it, who had convinced Louis that he had to transform, to become what they needed in the room with the rich, intimidating investors who judged so much and said so little. It was exactly the kind of crowd at this party: endlessly judging you on your qualifications, your taste, your status, sometimes. And Louis had gone along with it for so much longer than he'd wanted to because there wasn't a line anymore between who he had to be at home and who he had to be at work. It was all Thomas and Thomas's vision, including who Louis should be. Success had become a race without a finish line.

“Must help you in your consulting work now though,” Liam observed, still looking at Louis like he knew there was more to this story, but was too polite to ask.

“I suppose,” Louis said, twisting his face at Liam in a half-buzzed, sardonic smile. “Took the edge off, surviving through all that. Now I get to make them feel scared, because I get to see their money, judge their work.”

Liam huffed a breath of laughter into his drink. “We’re lucky you’re on our side.”


*


The show was brilliant. They were all some level of drunk, and there was a light show and circus performers, and every different color and texture felt like it burst into Louis’ senses, like biting into a ripe mango, like diving into a perfectly warm pool. The friends and family section was far back enough from the front row terror that they were shielded from the photo flashing, and far enough that the stage seemed like a magical blur, but close enough for Niall to cheers Babs and all her friends. Louis loved it every year and he loved it again just as hard this year.

Actually, maybe this year it was better. This year, Harry was there to whoop at every gender alternative look, and Zayn was there to look at Louis in immediate, soul-understanding sympathy when a discordant rock duo hit the stage, and Liam was there to boldly put his hand on Zayn’s thigh partway through the show and then giggle when Zayn jumped. Whatever Zayn had said earlier, it seemed to have cracked the ice for Liam, who looked like he was enjoying himself under a fifth glass of something pink, with a crystal Victoria’s Secret favor hanging over one ear. Niall was next to Louis, as usual, jogging his elbow with excitement and pride whenever Babs walked the catwalk, but there was also Harry on the other side, leaning far into Louis’ space and keeping him warm.

Louis felt so at ease and surrounded by affection that it was almost like a drop. But it was a clear-headed, open-eyed, safe kind of feeling. Louis almost didn’t know what to do with it. They swayed together in a whole row for one of the musical acts, Harry crooning a mouth-watering harmony in Louis’ ear that made Louis make a mental note to get him to sing for real, sometime ( first tier to-do, that’s how good it was). Babs crushed the punk style section, floating and dancing down the runway in wings that Louis knew for a fact weighed forty pounds, and she made it look effortless.

Louis had pulled out his phone halfway through to tweet joyful praise at Babs, when Harry grabbed it away. Louis gaped at him.

“Petty theft,” Louis spluttered. Harry rolled his eyes, banging ineffectually at Louis’ lock screen. Like Louis wasn’t gonna have a password.

“Not gonna let you instagram for me, you’d put something absurd like a square shot of the floor with a single confetti on it.”

“Would be art, if I did that,” Harry shot back, “Could print it up and sell that gram for a buck, you could. Can be a backup plan for the symphony.”

“You are a pompous ass,” Louis said, putting his head on Harry’s shoulder, better to look at the screen. Harry wasn’t really pompous, he was just playful, willing to go along with Louis’ jokes more than most people. Louis didn’t hate it. Harry’s suit was a beautiful, expensive-feeling material and Harry was wearing cologne. Louis didn’t hate that, either.

“Unlock this,” Harry said, sticking the phone in Louis’ nose.

“Only because I am looking forward to profiteering off your art,” Louis said, licking Harry’s finger. He’d put it too close, he should’ve known better. Harry snapped his teeth and then swiped his wet finger up the side of Louis’ nose. Louis pulled back and unlocked the phone for real and handed it back.  

“I got a phone that can text,” Harry said proudly, “So I’m putting my digits in.”

“Your digits,” Louis said.

“It’s a flip phone. I get service in exactly two and a half spots in the city,” Harry said, finding his contact card in Louis’ phone and updating the number. “And before you ask, neither of them are in my apartment. But the half is on the rooftop terrace, and one’s in a café not far from it.”

“Define not far?” Louis asked.

“Like a mile, mile and a half, tops,” Harry said, wrinkling his forehead. He was the most ridiculous thing in the world and it wasn’t Louis’ fault that he wanted to push Harry back into the official Victoria’s Secret Fashion show catwalk and kiss him. It was the fault of the universe.

 Harry handed Louis’ phone back, and smirked at him. “Thanks for the compliment, babe.”

Louis looked down at the screen, still showing Harry’s contact card and the name that Louis had put in when he’d finally entered the number from the ticket Harry had left in his coat: Sexy Alpha from the Box, FML.

“Oh, god,” Louis said, and pointed at the stage. “Don’t miss the Mountain Romance theme, Hazza, it’s got some peasant bustiers that would probably match some of your suits.”

When Louis righted himself back in his seat, pulling back from twisting around to hover over Harry, Niall caught his eye with the most massively unimpressed expression that Louis had ever seen. Louis flashed a guilty grin back.


*

 

Of course there was an afterparty, piled back into the reception hall where the tables had been cleared and a dance floor set up. Niall had vanished to find Babs and join the actual glamor party, where the models and guests did high fashion things like drink shots off each other and stay up all night trading recommendations on cabins in the Alps for the offseason. But the afterparty for the normal guests was still lovely, with high mirrored balls and an excellent DJ. Babs had left Liam and Zayn and Louis with the car and driver for the evening, to call to go home anytime they liked.

“Dance with me,” Harry said, grabbing Louis’ hand and startling him out of a reverie. Louis stumbled a step before he regained his balance, Harry’s very big hand swallowing his. Louis felt small in contrast, but also vibrant, like a coil of energy had wrapped its way up his arm and shimmed into his skull.

“Ok,” Louis said. Niall wasn’t around to make faces and after all, he could flirt, couldn’t he? Tonight seemed like the night for it, if any. Louis could pull it back, whenever he wanted to; Harry flirted with everybody. The rules were still the rules, but surely he could dance.  

Louis had taken a few stims that morning in preparation for tonight, for the mad rush of people around them and just to make sure that he had a clear head and a relatively settled body. It didn't even matter. When Harry touched him, it was like all the previously well-behaved omega circuitry flipped a switch into urgent, clattering, loud in Louis’ head. Harry pulled Louis into a tiny circle of free space on the floor. People were pressed around them, happy and drunk and glamorous, and it forced them closer. Louis felt his heart pound traitorously fast.

Harry was effortlessly, terribly, gleefully bad. He shimmied to a beat that nobody else heard. Louis was nearly startled out of his inconvenient lust by the competing desire to laugh at Harry, who was clearly delighted with his own silliness and delighted with the way it was unsettling Louis. Harry tipped his head back, raised his arms to the sky, and did something so egregiously out of time, so liable to take somebody else’s head off, that Louis grabbed his suit jacket and pulled him in close.

“Start with your feet,” Louis said sternly, demonstrating by shifting his weight, forward and back, side to side. The music had shifted to a heavier beat, slick and sexy, one of Louis’ recent chart topping favorites. Unlike Harry, Louis was actually a good dancer. People usually didn't know that, but, people didn't usually ask.

Harry settled his hands on Louis’ shoulders, a calculating look on his face. Louis could pretend it was because it was such a strain for Harry to actually listen to a beat instead of flailing like a lunatic. Louis could pretend that he wasn’t scanning Harry’s face, memorizing every twitch.

“Now you can add your hips,” Louis announced, opening his attention wider and letting the smooth grind of the pop song start to crawl its way through his body. It meant that his brain also zeroed into the pressure of Harry's touch even through his suit jacket, heavy silver rings and strong fingers. Harry was swaying with more finesse now, his thighs a dangerous system that Louis pretended to ignore. Louis shifted his own weight with a stronger pull, taking a little pride in the smooth isolations of his hips.

“What now?” Harry asked, smoky and low despite the music and the chatter and the lights and the noise. Normally, Louis would feel stifled by the crowd around them, the social pressure of being in this kind of environment again. Normally, Louis wouldn’t go near a dance floor around so many strangers. But nothing around Harry felt normal. With Harry, Louis felt alive, floating with the music, like the whole crowd was just background atmosphere.

Louis let one of his hands slip from Harry’s jacket to his waist. He found the jut of hipbone there, underneath the stiff shirt and the fold of fabric on the top of Harry’s dress slacks. It went with the music and the movement to fit his fingers into the groove of Harry’s torso, push his fingers in lower than before.

“Now, whatever feels right to express yourself,” Louis said. He said it quietly, carefully, his hand still light. More the suggestion of intimacy than intimacy. It could just be a goofy moment between friends, Louis being bossy, teasing Harry about his dancing. If that’s what they wanted it to be.

Harry caught the muscle in Louis’ upper arm, coaxed him to step closer on the next beat. He dragged his other hand up Louis’ shoulder, fingertips resting on bare skin on the back of his neck. It was a terrible idea, probably. Terrible ideas felt amazing. Louis could feel the sweep of Harry’s leg, hitting into it with the edge of his own thigh, near and far at the same time. Harry’s gaze, with so much behind it, was locked on Louis’ face. Louis flushed under his attention.

They were pressed together now, nothing like friends. Louis breathed in Harry’s alpha scent and felt like his own pheromones were slipping out without any regard for permission. Harry wasn’t a great dancer but he was so undeniably good with his body, such a deadly combination of sex and silliness and underneath it all, a piercing confidence that made Louis feel shaky in comparison. Harry pulled him in, steady and provocative. Louis caught his breath around the way that he felt Harry’s pelvis, the press of his chest. He realized with a start that he was half-hard, and he bet Harry was, too. Harry’s face was close. Close enough for Louis to grab it and kiss him. He wanted to test his memory of what a good kisser Harry had been that one night in the box.

Something shuddered closer to the surface of Louis’ chest with every movement, the rhythm twining around them like they were falling into each other. Alcohol and music and alpha, alpha, alpha, beating in Louis’ brain like a train rushing to a foregone destination.

Harry’s hand was perfect on the back of his neck. The mirrored lights flashed sporadic light on their faces, and there was a thin line of sweat on Harry’s face that Louis wanted to lick off. He wanted, wanted, wanted --he felt dangerous and fine, like the whittled point of a blade. He wanted Harry here, and now, wanted to bring him to his knees with the same want that was ripping its way through his nerves, and he knew he could do it, if he only had the chance. He wanted to see Harry’s face, spread and open, so tuned to the joy of the world, he wanted to be the one to put the joy there.

“Lou,” Harry said, and even the sound of his voice made Louis shiver. He was hungry and feral and raw. Harry’s touch sent sparks snapping through his skin, the whispered longing of deprivation finding satisfaction at long last. Louis wanted it, more than he’d ever admitted. He’d wanted it, desperately, since their one-night stand in the box, but now, Harry’s sweetness and humor and bright, shining intelligence burned in his mind. Mine.

“Lou,” Harry said again, hard to hear through the music. His eyes were half-closed but still fixed on Louis’ face, and his whole body said that he wanted it too, grinding close and heavy, pulling Louis in. Harry smelled like cologne and alcohol and alpha arousal, and Louis wanted to go on his knees for it. He balled a fist into the small of Harry’s back, danced his thigh between Harry’s legs, and Harry groaned at the increased pressure. Louis felt a tiny, wicked grin on his face. You don’t even know, how I could make you feel.

“Biggest modeling show in the world, and your face is the one I can’t look away from,” Harry said, under the loud backbeat, into Louis’ ear. Louis shook at the praise, actually, physically shook, and Harry gave a surprised jolt before he wrapped Louis closer, pulling him bodily in and putting his face down in Louis’ hair. Louis moaned quietly into Harry’s suit jacket, terrifyingly needy. The layers of clothing were all wrong, stifling the rippling need for touch that he felt flooding every corner of his perception. Harry was solid, slowing down into the music, and the intricate dance of their chemistry spun Louis into security. Louis could feel Harry’s alpha awareness, sinking into Louis’ bloodstream and asking what he wanted, what he needed.

Louis’ phone buzzed in his pocket, alien and jarring. It was a good few seconds before Louis could even figure out what it was, and when he did it startled him out of the daze. He pulled away from Harry, because he never should’ve been that close, blinked against the thick smear on his senses, and pulled the phone out of his pocket before he could figure out what he wanted, and what to do. What now?

“Are you ok?” Harry asked.

“It’s the group text,” Louis said, staring at the screen stupidly. Harry was still close, so close Louis could feel the rise and fall of his breathing. So close Louis could smell his sweat, mixed with the unfamiliar clean suit smell and the lingering cologne in his hair. Christ, he could smell himself. But the air between them had grown hesitant and loose, and they’d stopped dancing.

“They--I guess--it sounds like it’s time to go.”

Zayn had texted three times, which was a lot for Zayn, and Louis bit the inside of his cheek and tried to keep down panic at the thought that Liam and Zayn were circling the dance floor, had maybe seen them. Whatever….whatever that had been with Harry, he was back in his sober mind, and their friends were waiting, and Louis really wasn’t prepared to figure it all out right now.

“Are you sure?” Harry asked. He looked worried, or maybe just confused, or maybe just coming down from their abrupt car crash into attraction.

“Yes,” Louis said, even though he wasn’t and he was pretty sure that Harry still saw it, or at the very least, smelled it. He gave Harry a rueful smile that he hoped communicated more than the words he had. “Uh, sorry, I just, ugh.”

“They’ve been getting on but, this night’s been a long time for Liam and Zayn to try actually talking to each other, we’d better get them home.”

“Yeah, all right, all good,” Harry said easily, and he stepped back into a friend-like-space, and Louis took a cleansing breath full of the unexciting smells of strangers, and he packaged whatever that was into a tiny box in the corner of his mind, to be examined in the dead of night in his own apartment, and not here, in front of Harry, who was so very dangerous.

 

*

 

Babs and Niall came all the way down to Louis’ flat for the traditional post-Victoria’s Secret celebratory tea and holiday planning session the next morning, being extraordinarily thoughtful people. Louis woke up as early as usual, but he didn’t like it. He’d spent the last few hours on the couch with a laptop and his heaviest pair of glasses, playing Chopin on low volume.

“Heard that you might have a hangover,” Babs said, marching in with three boxes of tea, as if Louis’ stash wasn’t going to be good enough. Louis grabbed a vanilla almond black mix off the top, and put water on to boil.

“Soft voices only,” he croaked, hand on his forehead. Niall cackled.

“Babs, you were amazing,” Louis said sincerely, coming up behind Babs and wrapping around her in a limp, hungover hug. Babs rocked from side to side until Louis groaned, making her stop, and he went back to monitor the water.

“I’ve caught Babs up on last night,” Niall said, picking out a peppermint herbal that didn’t even have caffeine. Niall didn’t ever really need caffeine, and he looked criminally chipper for somebody who’d been partying with Babs and her friends all night. Niall-magic, Harry might say. Oh god, Harry. Louis shut his eyes and leaned slightly over the steam from the boiling water. He wasn’t going to think about Harry right now.

“So Harry,” Niall said, fuck him. “What even was that last night, Tommo? Top shelf flirting, you two.”

“I was flirting with everybody,” Louis said.

“Definitely not the case. Trying to explain how stuff works to someone? Normal Tommo. Firing off terrible jokes and getting touchy with someone? Flirting Tommo. I know you!” Niall said.

Babs snorted, pulling mugs and spoons and creamer out for herself, because she took her tea more like a milkshake.

“Louis was firing off terrible jokes? I concur with your diagnosis, babe, that’s flirting. Did he fake-criticize Harry for everything?”

“So much, shameless. And Liam told me you get lunch with him every weekend. But here’s the definitive proof: he let Harry touch his phone. His phone! So, Tommo, when are you going to tell Harry that you’re stealth dating him?”

“I am not,” Louis hissed, wide awake now. His chest felt tight and his head pounded. This was no longer funny.

“Hey, it’s ok,” Babs leaned into his space and put a hand over his on the counter. The tightness eased, but only slightly; Louis felt hot and awful. Louis twitched away, and moved the water off the heat.

“That’s enough,” he said, with a sharp edge that he never used with Niall and Babs. It sliced through the slow morning like a knife, real and distressed, omega-fear radiating out from the base of Louis’ spine. Niall and Babs stilled at the shock of it, goofiness gone. Louis looked down at the countertop and clenched his fingers on the edge, willing the dark, tangled knot of fear back inside. It came back in pieces, sour, sticky, but it came back. Louis kept his tone steady and monotone.

“I’m not dating. I’m not dating anyone. I don’t date alphas. Harry’s a friend. Yeah, maybe I flirted. Harry flirts with everyone. That’s enough.”

The words came out clipped and heavy. Louis poured the water in the three tea cups, the small splashing loud in a silence kitchen. Babs measured out some creamer into her mug, and she looked at Niall over the bottle, serious and pointed.

Niall nudged Louis’ arm from the side. “Love, didn’t mean to push it, I hear you,” he said, face full of contriteness. Louis felt the prickly, angry feeling in his chest start to ease.

“I know. I just really, really don’t want to talk about it,” he said into the tea.

Niall and Babs both nodded. People didn’t broadcast emotions like that unless it was serious, especially people like Louis, who made it a point of pride to not broadcast at all. He drank deep into the tea and flexed his fingers around the mug. Whatever rush of longing and vulnerability he’d felt with Harry last night clearly had a backlash, if this was how close to the surface his omega instincts were. In a different universe, it would’ve been a good morning to have an alpha partner around for comfort. But this wasn’t that universe. Instead, Louis rolled the smooth almond flavor over his tongue and closed his eyes again. Everything was ok, everything was ok. As long as nobody pushed at this, everything would be ok.

“Let’s talk about the New Year’s beach trip,” Babs said gently, leaning over the kitchen table and putting her elbows on it. Unexpectedly, Louis’ phone buzzed, and so did Niall and Babs’--the group text.

“Is Liam at the symphony hall today, trying to handle his stress by overworking?” Babs asked. But in fact, it was Zayn:

Z: spike in tix

Z: from early this morning!! New buyers, first time

“What,” Louis breathed, bad feelings all forgotten. He opened the screenshot attachment that Zayn had sent: twenty tickets. It wasn’t a lot, but to sell all at once? It was a great sign.

“What’s that from, then? Not from the couple people we got Harry to advertise the show to last night?” Niall asked.

Louis shook his head slowly, thinking, and then hopped off the stool to retrieve his laptop.

“Early this morning I seeded the forums with a couple comments about Liam and Zayn at the show last night,” he said excitedly, “I wonder if photos dropped?”

And indeed they had, gorgeous, better than Louis had even hoped. The rumor-loving forums were already flooded with commentary. In the released footage from the Victoria’s Secret show and the pre-reel clips, there were several beautiful shots of Liam and Zayn, talking close, Liam’s face flushed. Louis looked at it admiringly. He could not have faked a more realistic-looking drama. In the hours following the clip releases, the symphony site had gotten more traffic than it usually got in a week. Louis traded high-fives with Niall and Babs, and then logged into the symphony site analytics he’d weaseled out of Zayn.

 

Nialler: ROCKSTAR SELLING, BOYS

Tommo: Wait, there’s more. Clips were up at seven, but there’s a big jump in views around eleven this morning. What dropped at eleven? Was it another photo?

Z: no the VS stuff is all earlier, no idea

Z: also why were you awake at seven Louis

WorrLi-d: oh shit I’m sorry

Z: what

Tommo: Li what did you do

Tommo: more tickets is good Li what is it tell us

WorrLi-d: I kind of made an instagram?

Z: W.H.A.T.

Nialler: it’s true can confirm also I am Li’s first instafriend y’all losers

BaBaBlackSheep: second, get on it guys

WorrLi-d: sorry?

Z: all apologies but no link to your handle

 

Niall and Babs were cracking up, and Louis opened instagram immediately. Not only did Liam indeed have a brand new instagram that heavily featured selfies with his dog, his books by a fireplace, and classy shots of his violin, his instagram had also gone viral because one of Vogue’s fashion editors shared it on twitter with #symphonyboyfriend. Louis browsed social media, marveling: Zayn and Liam and even the hint of a relationship between them had succeeded in doing exactly what they needed. People were talking about the symphony, people who’d never even considered it before.

“This is catching some real fire,” Babs noted, as Louis flipped through a disturbingly long thirst-thread that had dug up old features on Liam in London from some classical music mags. It was like watching detective work unfold in real time. Who was hiding these hotties in classical music? somebody commented. Liam seemed a trifle alarmed at how much attention it had garnered until Louis and Niall assured him, profusely, that he was doing great and he should just do whatever felt right.

“Unbelievable,” Louis said, making them all second mugs of tea and feeling considerably more cheerful. Nothing like some good news to turn a morning like this around.

“Babs, wait, what were you saying about the beach trip?”

“Niall and I were talking, and we thought, things were going so well with the symphony project, and we’ve all been enjoying the boys. What if,” Babs said, slowly and thoughtfully--“What if we invited Harry and Zayn and Liam. With us. To the beach?”

“You can say no,” Niall said quickly.

Louis settled back on his stool, taken aback by the idea, but not in a bad way. New Year’s beach weekend was their shared holiday tradition, Louis’ favorite break from real life during the season. Every January, the three of them rented the same perfect little cottage a few hours’ drive from the city, packed a car with board games and Niall’s guitars, and enjoyed a full long weekend of doing nothing and enjoying themselves in the better weather down south. The first time they’d done it, Louis had gotten the first good night’s sleep he’d had since leaving Thomas. They’d never invited anybody else, but, Louis had never wanted to invite anybody else before.

And truth be told, the thought of a month without seeing the boys just felt wrong. The symphony work was going to be on hold for the holidays, and Louis had been feeling melancholy about the gap. Of course, there was Harry. Louis had no idea what to do with Harry, but, not seeing Harry for a month felt worse than melancholy. What the hell, life was for the living.

“That could be fun,” Louis said. ”Yeah, let’s do it.”

His phone chirped again. Thankfully, he’d changed Harry's contact card last night, so he was spared Babs’ and Niall’s awful scrutiny.

 

Hazza: I just woke up

Hazza: what on earth did I miss

WorrLi-d: nothing

Z: Li is the new face of the millennial art scene so sorry Harry

Nialler: welcome to the group chat OF HELL

Nialler: Let’s talk new years plans! It’s gonna be a fun one.

Chapter Text

“So is it just me,” Niall said, working assiduously to mound sand into a tower for their castle, “Or is Liam the nicest person you’ve ever met?”

“Really nice,” Babs agreed, “Like, creepy levels of nice, almost.” Babs poked a hole in Niall’s tower with a stick of driftwood, and it crumbled away.

“Structurally unsound,” Louis sighed. “Like my heart.”

“I have a solution for both things and it is more sand,” Niall said. Louis nodded and took a plastic shovelful from the bucket they’d loaded with appropriately damp sand, and used it to mold miniscule ornaments for the front gate of the castle.

“You are putting us to shame,” Babs said as the entire section of wall she'd been building fell over. Louis had reinforced his part of the castle with a careful layer of pebbles, wet sand and twigs. “But Liam, yeah, I mean I’m pretty sure he brought enough sunblock for all of us.”

“And he brought an extra towel,” Louis said. Harry was using Liam’s extra towel to snooze on, drying out in the sun after running headlong into the ocean in all his clothes as soon as they got out of the car. He’d thrown his shirt over his head into the surf, the lunatic. Niall had obviously encouraged it, but Niall was at least prepared, having done the drive in swim trunks. Louis was personally offended by Harry’s near-nudity and oriented the castle expressly in the direction that would let him build it with his back to Harry. Even sleeping, he was a threat to Louis’ state of mind.

“I mean I love Zayn,” Niall said, “But I just do not get it. How is it possible that he’s so afraid of Liam? If you told me that Liam was a grandpa I would believe it, especially with that hat. Who hates grandpas?”

“I wasn’t terribly fond of mine when he said that female alphas had a hard time finding boyfriends. When I was twelve.” Babs said.

“Jesus, seriously?” Louis asked.

“Very old school about that shit in Hungary sometimes,” Babs said, shaking her head. “But he got better with time.”

“Might have had something to do with your world-dominating modeling career, your family loves that,” Niall said, sagely.

“My family loves you,” Babs smirked, “The most irresistible beta in the world. I dunno that they love that I walk down catwalks in my underwear. But I would accept Liam as another Grandpa any day.”

Louis had crashed over at Niall and Babs’ the night before they left, and they were continuing their previous night’s conversation about Zayn and Liam. Louis was ok with any conversation that kept the conversation off Harry. Over the holidays Liam’s instagram had continued to be a social media success, and Louis was doing his best to keep Liam from discovering just how popular the fake relationship with Zayn was. They’d sold twice as many tickets as usual, even to weird programs like the Wagner, and Harry had told the group chat that he’d spent really productive time in the studio, whatever that meant. Louis had really started to feel good about their chances, although he hadn’t said it out loud. It felt like he might jinx it if he did.

Liam, heedless of his fame, was walking up and down the rocky outcropping from the sandy part of the beach, searching, Louis imagined, for sea life that he could document in the small notebook he had whipped out from the pocket of his cargo shorts. Louis felt like he was learning so much more about Li on this trip already. Liam was an intimidatingly talented musician, was an alpha, was good-looking, was someone with full sleeve tattoos, and somehow despite all of that he managed to be a giant dork. The whole thing was making Louis’ day, honestly, and the three of them were increasingly puzzled by exactly what it was that got Zayn so bothered and awkward and sarcastic when Liam did something intolerable like sneeze, or exist.  

“Anybody who keeps Louis from electrocuting himself is a good addition to beach weekend,” Babs said, settling the matter.

“That’s a burden we all share,” Zayn said, coming up behind the castle and looking at it critically. Niall spread his arms dramatically.

“Keep those shuffling feet away from here!”

“Needs more towers. How else are we supposed to defend from the marauding hordes? What if they bring wall-scaling ladders?”

“Excellent point,” Louis said, clearing away plastic buckets so that Zayn could join them. He starting piling an untidy ball of sand into a rather disastrous simulacrum of ladder-repelling technology. It fell over almost immediately, making a hole in the wall.

“Well, guess the hordes made it in. Tough life for a mediaeval. You’re welcome, I’m going to try my luck with the ocean,” Zayn announced, pulling off his shirt. Collectively, the group fell respectfully silent. Zayn’s face by itself was captivating enough, but Zayn shirtless was a little much. He ran steadily down the sand all the way to the water’s edge, and then he just stood there, looking out at it.

“Some people have no commitment to sand sculpting, which was why this is a dying art. Tragic. We should get Harry to build an installation for it,” Niall said from where was laying on his stomach, watching Louis and not contributing at all. 

From the towel, Harry made a rude noise and threw sand at Niall that fell pitifully short.

“Investment from the kingdom in remedial sand castle classes,” Louis said, sitting back on his heels and manfully restraining himself from fiddling with the back of his raggedy beach t-shirt, conscious of Harry behind him. “Special credits to uni students who are willing to spend their winters on the beach. Might go back to school for it, myself.”

“Wish I could go back to school,” said Liam coming up with shells in one hand. Louis wondered whether he had walked back specifically after Zayn left, but maybe it was only coincidence. Zayn had pulled Liam in for a selfie in the car and then demanded, inexplicably, that he not post it.

“You missed Zayn stripping,” Niall said with a wicked glance at Liam.

“Huh,” Liam said. Liam was staring down the beach after Zayn, and the line of Liam’s neck visible under his hat had turned a bright red that was definitely not sunburn. Interesting.

“Love the beach,” Babs said, falling back on the blanket and abandoning the sand castle. Harry budged up obligingly from his towel, making room for Babs, and she booped him on the nose appreciably. Louis felt a poignant ping at all of them being here together. He’d worried about it feeling awkward, but it just felt awesome. Louis scooted to the other side of the sand piles, getting his legs enjoyably caked in sand, and started building a reinforced wall for Babs’ abandoned section. Somebody had to finish the goddamn castle.

 

*

 

The cottage they rented every year was quaint and low-ceilinged and surprisingly large on the inside. It was full of blue, ocean-themed prints and fragile beach paraphernalia stacked in every corner, like the bucket of sand dollars on the landing that Louis nearly kicked over every time he went downstairs. The upstairs hallway was wallpapered over on the inside with a seashells and roses print, which Louis was examining while he waited for the bathroom.

Harry came out with a towel around his waist. There was no good reason this should be worse than, say, Harry in shorts on the beach, where there was even less fabric by way of Harry’s thighs, nor should it be much worse than Harry in skintight jeans on the car ride, which had made up in precision what it lacked in skin-baring. But it was worse.

“Obviously you have to encroach on our limited second story bathroom space,” Louis said, wildly, for something to say. “I think the first story people are supposed to stay in the class where they belong.”

Harry had started laughing as soon as Louis even started talking, small and warm and anticipatory, like all the sparring, annoying shit that came out of Louis’ mouth was just a delightful joke that he was waiting for. Louis felt a fierce flush of strange happiness that crept up the back of his neck and into his sun-warmed cheeks.

“Are we expecting an invasion from the lower level? Are they bringing ladders?” Harry asked. Beach light filtered into the hallway from a stained glass window, hazy with spinning dust motes, and Louis felt a little bit like they were standing in a dream.

“With limited resources, far away from home? All I know is I intend to look after myself this weekend,” Louis said. “I’ve heard you can’t trust downstairs people. Shady. Bring sand everywhere they go, gets trapped in their mop of hair. Some of us are preparing the hot pitch to hurl over the crenellations.”

Harry shook out his hair, which was wet and curling together in long strands, and Louis jerked back in surprise when the water droplets hit his face, and Harry didn’t look remorseful.

“The worst, no doubt about that. But if it’s a war, we’re on the same side. This is my bathroom, too,” Harry said, not moving from the bathroom doorway and leaning into it with one hip. The white towel cut a contrast with his skin. Harry had carved, ridiculously perfect abs and a dusting of hair and a tight v-line that disappeared under the fold of the towel. Harry tilted his head towards Louis--still in his swim trunks, stiff sea salt in his hair--and looked him up and down. Louis folded his arms across his bare chest and licked his dry mouth, feeling flushed and overheated and strange after the day of sun and sleeping and sand.

“I thought you were in the downstairs castle,” he said.

Harry raised his eyebrows in the direction of the door next to the room where Louis had stashed his own bag earlier. “Babs grabbed the other downstairs bedroom after checking every single one of the mattresses for maximum length,” he said. That did sound like Babs.

“Oh,” Louis said.

Harry reached an arm across the hallway and pressed two fingertips into Louis’ skin, right underneath the edge of his prominent collarbone. Louis felt a tight circle of soreness where Harry touched, but it was also good, somehow, a scraping edge that Louis wanted to chase and pin down. White bloomed out from the red, and Harry pulled his arm back.

“You’re a little burnt,” Harry said. His eyes looked heavy.

“Too busy putting sunblock on Niall, he's demanding and Irish,” Louis croaked.

 “Always taking care of everybody else,” Harry said, with a small, sideways smile on his lush mouth. He was truly gorgeous. Louis noticed that often, but it was like a fresh surprise every time.

“Gotta do what I'm best at,” Louis said. Harry still didn’t move from the door, blocking Louis’ path and looking tall, even leaning. He looked so good like that, and Louis felt so off-footed.

“You don’t even know,” Louis said, inadvisably. Harry’s skin had a rosy flush, and it was probably just from the shower, but it was still seductive, creeping down his neck and chest.

“Something else for you to teach me about, then,” Harry said. He pushed off the doorframe and for a heady moment he was in Louis’ space, crowding him back, and Louis could smell his own sea-salt-sand skin and Harry’s bodywash and the damp streaks of clean water rolling down his shoulders, sharp with lemon soap and soft with Harry’s warm alpha undertones.

Louis fled into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. He threw on the wonky old faucet in the shower and hopped straight into cold water, abrupt and a little painful on his slightly burnt skin.

“Fuck me,” Louis said to the water, which maybe wasn’t the wisest metaphor for this moment.

Louis’ brain helpfully reminded him that that was the first conversation he’d had alone with Harry since their dance, which Louis had found himself remembering at inopportune times for the whole past month. After the VS show, Liam had cheerily joined Harry and Louis for lunch on both of the weekends they worked on the symphony hall. They’d joked and complained about the endless wood stripping work until everything felt normal, and then they’d gone off to vacations and families and last-minute present shopping. Louis rather wondered if Harry had just forgotten about their moment on the floor. He couldn’t. His body wouldn’t.

They’d both sent Christmas texts to the group chat, and they’d had a shared joking conversation in it during one of Niall’s monster movie nights until Louis got his phone confiscated by Niall for laughing too much. They were friends. He’d nearly convinced himself that Harry hadn’t been feeling what Louis had felt that night, not really. But then Harry did things like stand there in the hallway, looking at Louis like that.

Louis turned the water to the warm side. It took a while in this old cottage, but Louis liked that, liked how all the details of life were slow here. It was so different from the city. He sucked steam into his lungs and leaned his head under the spray with his eyes closed. He felt a stinging unease around Harry that wouldn’t release, wouldn’t give up. He wanted to be far and close at the same time. He felt stretched, pulled between contradictions, like there was something in his heart as fragile as the sand.

 

*

 

That night they went to the shops and picked up burgers and frozen sweet potato fries and also seaweed salad, because Niall insisted it was thematic. Louis and Zayn conspired to get every smoky alcohol thing they could find, plus some fruity crap for Niall, and Harry floated vaguely through the aisles but came back with a surprisingly sophisticated selection of mixers. Liam and Babs bonded over being the two actual cooks, and exiled everyone else to the living room to get progressively drunk. After a warm day, the wind off the ocean had picked up outside. The cottage was cozy and colorfully lit with lamps and sea glass decorations.

“I love coming back to this place,” Niall said, looking around, and walking over to a plant stuck on the side table and fiddling with its leaves. “What’s this one, Tommo?” 

“It’s a calatheas. Classic cottage choice. It needs less water, though, and stop touching it.” Louis said without looking over from the jenga game they'd found by the couch.

“How did you know that?” Zayn asked. He pulled an unlikely piece out with professional dexterity and plopped it on top with a flourish. Louis used his pinky to nudge a middle piece out from the bottom for his turn.

“Louis is obsessed with plants,” Niall said.

“Obsession is a strong word,” Louis said.

“Not for you,” Niall said, throwing himself down alarmingly close to the jenga tower, and both Zayn and Louis yelped.

“Louis gets obsessed with a lot of things.”

Louis frowned, testing a couple of loose pieces on the jenga tower before settling on an edge piece near the top. The game was getting trickier, and Zayn was good, but Louis was in it to win it.

“Oh, pick me, pick me, I bet I know some of those things,” Harry said from where he was sprawled sideways on a living room chair, flipping through one of the fashion magazines that Zayn had apparently brought. Zayn and Babs already had plans to go shopping through the post-holiday sales downtown. 

“Plants of course, podcasts about strange history, going to the same restaurants twenty times in one month, correcting people when they say the wrong things about data and math--”  Harry ticked off his fingers as he listed. Louis groaned up to the ceiling in mock outrage, but secretly felt a hot rush of happiness.

“I know what I like,” he said, pulling a piece out and causing the tower to wobble dangerously. They all held their breaths, but it didn’t fall, and Louis stuck his tongue out at Zayn.

“Do you? Do you really?” Harry asked, leaning over in the chair so that his head fell almost upside down, looking at Louis with an upside-down grin. Louis chose not to respond, but he arched a high, thin eyebrow at the jenga tower.

“The symphony!” Zayn exclaimed.

“The cornerstone of our existence,” Niall said with a laugh, but a kind laugh. It was too much for the tower, which toppled in a vengeful rain of wooden blocks.

Liam and Babs brought dinner into the living room and it was satisfying in the way that food could only be after a day outside. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement to not talk about anything serious. Harry told them a story about a disastrous project that fell over on top of a professor in his first sculpture class, and Zayn recounted a story about getting stranded on a Corfu beach during his study abroad semester. 

“Why would you even go by yourself, if you couldn’t read enough Greek for the ferry schedule?” Harry managed to ask through laughter.

“Why would you think you could run around an island, when you’ve never gone for a run in your life?” Liam shouted. Liam had gotten deep into Niall’s fruity cocktails, and his eyes were happy-Liam crunched circles. He clutched at his elbows with his hands, leaning into the living room table to laugh at Zayn.  

“Why does anybody do anything?” Zayn asked, looking directly at Liam for once, cheeks flushed, a lovely rose undertone to his dark skin. “For a boy, obviously.”

“Oooh, one of us!” Louis cooed, the table erupting in cheers, Harry banging his drink approvingly on the table. “Could the boy speak English?”

“I mean, I didn’t really need the cute Greek boys or girls to talk,” Zayn said. Liam looked back down into his drink, and Zayn looked tremendously pleased with himself. Louis shook his head.

“I know it’s only been like, eight hours, but motion to extend this trip through another week or two?” Harry said.

“Seconded,” Louis said. Harry looked at him with the tip of his tongue caught in his teeth, and Louis tried not to react.

 “HAH,” Babs said, pouring herself another straight shot of whiskey. “Like you’d ever take the time off work.” 

“Oh yeah?” Zayn asked.

“Louis isn't sure how he feels about work,” Babs said. “It's a long story.”

“I want so little out of life,” Louis sighed, “Only to be independently wealthy and have total control over my schedule and also to never have to cook for myself and for somebody to make a superhero movie starring an omega, sometime.”

“No fucking kidding,” Liam said, surprising Louis, “Like where is the standalone movie for Nightwing, or the new omega Spiderman?”

By the time dinner was over, Louis was more than half-drunk and demanding that Niall put music on the janky old speaker system in the living room. Liam obligingly lifted the entire table out of their way, clearing a passable dance space.

“Oh my god, Louis, I’ve missed this Louis,” said Babs, “The let’s-dance-on-the-tables Louis!”

Louis danced backwards, doing a pretty smooth moonwalk, and beckoning Babs to join him. She cat-walk-strutted around the couch, punching on the off-beat. Niall was bopping within his own limits by the speakers, and Zayn was laughing on the floor, back pressed up against a chair leg.

“What, like I’m no fun now that I’m old?” Louis said. Babs grabbed his hands and they swung about. From the doorway to the kitchen, Harry had come from clearing the dishes. Louis was conscious of keeping his eyes from flickering back to Harry, but he caught the happy tilt of Harry’s eyes, the goofy way that he made finger guns at Niall when trumpets flared in the song. Louis’ dance playlist was carefully curated, and even people with no rhythm at all could get into it.

“Not old, babe,” Babs said, “Not at all, just not always as relaxed, these days.”

She didn’t say since Thomas, but she didn’t really have to. Louis couldn’t even remember the last time he’d gone out of town with other people.

“Well, I'm dancing now!” Louis said, gay and bright and sun-satisfied. He spun Babs into a tight outside turn, and Babs went obligingly, despite having to duck under his arm.

“Spain, Vuitton show, remember? You did that thing with all the armor and the horses? Remember the tango?”

“Babs is the most beautiful person in the world, but she can’t dance, so Louis drilled it with her in our living room for three weeks straight,” Niall said to the others, “Thought I was going right mad. Heard flamenco guitar in my sleep, I did.”

Babs looked at Louis and they locked hands again, whirling around the room in an exaggerated tango. They were killing it until a rogue jenga piece materialized under them, Babs’ long legs became a liability, and all was chaos.

 

*

 

“I want to explore,” Louis announced halfway through the day, to a general heat-dazed silence. Even Zayn had succumbed to the gorgeous sandy beach and was flopped out under their massive umbrella. Babs had already rendered the local population of middle school boys breathless and was reading Jennifer Egan in big sunglasses with Niall curled up with his head in her lap, and Liam was sketching shells.

“There’s supposed to be a pretty cool cave at the end of this beach,” Harry said, pushing up from his towel and looking at Louis hopefully. His sunglasses were pushed up into his hair and his green eyes were half-squinting in the bright beach. “I read about it last night.”

“Are caves cool?” Louis asked, teasingly doubtful. “Or are they where people go to get eaten by sea serpents? Or have their toes chewed off by crabs?”

“That seems unlikely,” Harry said, throwing some sand Louis’ way. “I mean either the serpent will get you or the crab will but it can’t be both at the same time. Caves are cool! You said exploring! Nothing is more exploration-y than a cave. That’s where you bury treasure, you know.”  

“Ok,” Louis said, challenging, kicking sand back. Babs looked up to give a protesting glare. “Show me.”  

 “Bring Liam back any nice shells,” Zayn said with his eyes closed. Liam looked over at him with the face of a man who can’t tell if he’s being mocked or not.

To Harry’s credit, the cave was grand exploration material. It sat under the cliff face and had green vines growing around it and everything. The incoming tide was still shallow but ran all the way up to the entrance and spilled in. Louis pushed his toes into the sand and considered the coldness of ocean water.

“You can’t just look at a cave from the outside and call that exploring,” Harry said. Louis nodded, and plunged through the water. It went up to just under his knees and it was shockingly cold and heavy to push through. Louis tried running, which didn’t work, and then skipping, which worked a little better. 

“You’re splashing me on purpose,” Harry complained, and Louis laughed and then yelped as seaweed or kelp or possibly an ocean monster got in between his toes.

The cave had tide pools and drippy walls and quiet, cold air protected by rock from the outside sun, and it was like stepping into a different, alien world. Their steps squelched and dripped pleasantly in the water.

“This is good,” Louis said, looking around, “You did good, Hazza.”

His voice carried far in the cave, which ended in the rocky cliff face but still provided about a large living room size cavern to feel delighted in. Light from the entrance reflected off the tide pools and cast blues and golds on Harry’s face. Harry’s face was just particularly shifty in ambient light, Louis supposed, it went with the shifty quality of Harry’s face in general. Louis couldn’t look at it for too long.

 “I think there are alive things in here,” Louis said, getting to his knees despite the inches of ocean water and looking over a rocky ridge into the tide pool instead. It was crystal clear, and Louis ran his fingers over the surface, making ripples. The bottom of the tide pool was an intricate miniature city of rock formations and shells, and a few urchins retreated at the approach of Louis’ fingers. The air in the cave hung, still and heavy, every sound reverberating like it was precious.

“That is a burglesnapper,” Harry said with authority, kneeling down next to Louis and pointing to a round, maroon-colored entity with too many legs, “And that’s a leaf crab, very rare.”

“Hm,” Louis said, “Probably lonely life being a crab made entirely of kelp.”

“Yes,” Harry said soberly, “He goes to parties and the other crabs try to eat him. It’s tragic. When they make sushi out of leaf crabs they end up as the seaweed wrapper.”

Louis flicked Harry hard on the shoulder.

“This is beautiful, you child,” he said, sweeping at the pool in general, but also the beach, and possibly, life. Maybe Louis could buy a cottage here and work remotely from a laptop and and learn the names of all these strange salty plants.

“You’re beautiful,” Harry said.

Louis looked at him. They were kneeling closer than Louis had realized, Harry’s hair falling forward and his long arms bracing against the rock. Louis felt his heartbeat hammer in his ears.

He reached across the few inches and put his hand against Harry’s neck, ever so softly. Harry’s heartbeat was hammering too. Louis couldn’t quite read his face. Harry opened his mouth as if he were going to say something, to shatter the alien silence of the quiet cave, but then he closed it. Louis put his hand to Harry’s cheek, dragging his thumb in a short path, tracing Harry’s bone structure. He couldn’t say why he’d done it, only that Harry’s face was right there, looking like that.

Harry pulled away from Louis’ hand, but not much and slowly, and then it was more like he was pushing into it, really, caressing against Louis’ ocean-gritty fingers. Louis could feel Harry’s slight scruff, the strong bones of his face. Harry smelled like everything that the omega side of Louis’ brain ever dreamed about, like a groove worn into a record long-forgotten and only recently played again. Louis felt dizzy, exposed in the silence. Louis jerked his hand away and leaned back and then he lost his balance as the slippery sand slid under his knees and then Harry caught him and somehow, then, they were kissing.

It wasn’t his fault, that’s what Louis thought first. Harry carried intoxication with him everywhere anyway and Louis had been waylaid by expanses of skin and just the right amount of lean muscle and then there had been the shock of cold ocean water and the otherworldly cave. Anybody might have done it, blinked and found themselves wrapped around Harry like a piece of terrible, shameless kelp.  

They kissed desperate and crazy, too fast, but Louis caught flashes of Harry’s velvet-warm mouth and his thick alpha taste that undid everything in Louis’ mind besides the desire to get closer. Harry was still holding Louis at an angle, keeping him from falling, and Louis’ arms had broken out in goosebumps and his hairs were on end.

“Lou,” Harry said at last, with a question in his voice, taking a deep breath that Louis felt against under his hands and pressing his forehead in against Louis’. He had inches of height on Louis, and god damn, but Louis did enjoy that.

Louis tried to say gosh, I’m sorry, clumsy of me to fall into your arms and onto your face like that. Instead he said “Shut up,” spiky and sharp, and kissed Harry, again. He kissed hard and rough with with a bite around Harry's lower lip and chin that made Harry jerk, but in a good way.

Harry twisted away but it was to trail his nose down Louis’ neck. And because it was Harry he went slowly, giving Louis time to pull away if he wanted to. Scenting was intimate and ferocious and unraveling, and all of Louis’ chemistry pounded to the surface to demand it. Louis swallowed hard in the back of his throat, rolled his head to the side to give Harry access.  

Louis wanted it, so much, whatever it was that had been drawing him to Harry since the night in the box. His body pulled him in, closer, and he kissed up the side of Harry’s neck in turn. Harry stilled at that, held himself in space with a tension that Louis could feel in his arms. Experimentally, Louis opened his mouth against Harry’s throat, letting him feel a suggestive slip of teeth and tongue, warm and open. Harry actually jerked, gasping in air. Louis loved the notion that he was doing that. He felt a small groan flex itself in the back of his throat and stifled it tightly.

Harry’s eyes were dark and half-open and he looked flushed and he smelled alpha. The sand slipped and shifted under Louis’ knees but his skin was used to the water temperature now, and his hips were far away enough from Harry’s to want to be closer but close enough to feel like they were dancing on the edge of not being able to hide much from each other. Then Harry ran his hand down the back of Louis’ hair and smoothed his thumb over Louis’ ear and Louis really did groan.

 “Should we….talk about this?” Harry whispered, and before he’d finished speaking Louis had started kissing him again because the answer was no, let’s not, let’s focus on the slip of Harry’s tongue into Louis’ mouth and the rush of endorphins that came with it. Louis felt the omega rush, determined to not be ignored this time, and he knew Harry could feel it because Harry’s grip got tighter. He wanted all that and more. Talking was for losers and stupid people and the real world and Louis was just so, so tired, tired of not getting what he wanted, of ignoring the rising, choking need of it. He wanted Harry to take everything out of him, and it scared him, how willing he was to let it happen.

So instead, he took. Harry jumped as Louis found the waistband of his swim trunks and wound his fingers down Harry’s thigh, into the curve of it. All of Louis’ perception narrowed to the rise and fall of Harry’s breathing. He moved toward Louis rather than away, made an encouraging noise back in his throat, so Louis undid the velcro strip and pulled out the cords of Harry’s shorts. Louis felt a bit steadier, found his balance on the sand, and then he had Harry writhing against him as he finally got a grip on Harry’s achingly hard cock. Harry looked conflicted, probably still worried they should be talking, which made Louis bite back a smile and run his teeth over Harry’s jawline. Harry’s head arched back at that and Louis marveled at it. Some people could just be here, like this, just be in the moment like it was nothing. 

“Come here,” he whispered, and Harry tipped forward and put his face into Louis’ shoulder. Louis was overwhelmed with tenderness about it, about the way that Harry trusted the entire world. Harry was so much bigger and stronger than Louis, but he was letting himself be held and directed in Louis’ arms, giving himself over to it. It made Louis feel like he could do anything. Harry’s cock was hard and throbbing in Louis’ fist and it was so good, the way he smelled and felt.

The angle was awkward and it wasn’t his best work but they didn’t really care. Harry was making small and tortured noises through a closed mouth like he was afraid that somebody would hear them, even here in this cave far from the world. He thrust into Louis’ fist in fluid movements that burned through Louis, seeing Harry like this, all the passion and brightness of his personality sharpened into pleasure.

Louis put more pressure on Harry’s cock and Harry’s noises got even better. He had Harry’s waist circled with his other arm, pressing into Harry’s lower back and feeling his gorgeous muscles with every shudder. Harry’s hands were braced on Louis’ back and along the swell of his ass in the swim trunks, pressing in appreciatively. Harry touched him like he couldn’t believe that he was real. Louis understood the feeling.

“Leaf crab,” Louis whispered in Harry’s ear with a wry twist to his mouth. “You are going to be the death of me.”

 Harry ground out a breathy, turned-on puff of laughter against Louis’ shoulder. It was the sexiest thing in the entire world. “Not if you get me first,” he mumbled.

“That’s the idea,” Louis said, and he nudged Harry’s face back up with a rolling motion of his chin, found Harry’s mouth and kissed him deep and wet and filthy. While he did, he pulled his hand fast and hard. Harry came with a jerk, with an open-throated moan in Louis’ mouth.

Louis’ brain, for once, was hushed. There was nothing but the soft lap of water in the cave and the way that Harry panted, hung over in his arms like Louis had wrecked him. Louis had absolutely no idea what they were doing, but he couldn’t move. It was worth this, whatever came later.

Suddenly Harry was back upright, pushing him down into the water, Louis’ feet shooting out from under him. Louis yelped, but Harry was leaning over him with his eyes dancing.

“Be good,” Harry whispered, holding his hips firmly and protecting the back of his head with his palm, and Louis surprised even himself because his eyes rolled back in his head and he moaned, an honest-to-god moan now, loud and lost. Harry was loose and warm and Louis could smell Harry on his hands and it made him feel crazy, painfully hard.

Harry kissed Louis, on his knees in the water, pushing Louis’ head back deep into the water. The tide pulled back and came in, washing over them in a ridiculous splash, and Louis pushed Harry away, laughing and gasping for air. It was such a rush of cold and hot and he was so hard he could barely breath even without the water. He didn’t know if he wanted to come or drop or both, yeah, probably both. His mind was blurring into omega space, hazy and blue on the edges. It screamed for it, for the lost years without it. His legs had fallen open and soft around Harry’s outer thighs.

“Trust me,” Harry said against Louis’ mouth, holding him into the sand, getting in the way of his air. If he only knew. Louis wanted to, more than anything. Harry kissed Louis, long and slow, and just when Louis felt his lungs tighten in protest, he let go. It was paradoxically calming, trusting Harry to set the rhythm for something as fundamental as breathing.

Louis’ sensations were all meshed together with the tide and the grit and Harry’s soft skin and hard mouth, the surrealness pulling him under. Louis took in a shuddering breath as the tide pulled out and let go, just a little, pushing his hips up against Harry’s and grinding in with a small, choked sound. He wanted Harry’s hands, he wanted Harry to fuck him, he wanted so much. His eyes fluttered closed, the spiraling need of omega space pulling at them both. Harry sucked in a breath, body braced to hold them if he fell. That was good, Louis thought from a distance, because Louis was only a breath away from it.

“Tommo?” Niall’s voice came from outside, in the background of the rushing water. “You guys there? Tide’s getting up and we’re thinking it’s nearly dinner.”

Louis jolted, scrambling in water and small rocks to find purchase and bolt upright.

“Hey, it’s ok,” Harry said, pulling up and back, glancing from the cave entrance and back to Louis. “Are you ok?”

“Get, just, oh my god, get your clothes on,” Louis hissed, sounding sharper than his meant to. He sucked in air and slapped his own face.

“What on earth are you doing,” Harry whispered, fastening his shorts with a quick, steady hand.

“Shut up,” Louis said, blinking and slapping his cheek one more time for good measure. It stung, which was good, closed up the corners of Louis’ mind and stiffened the wobbly, blurry edges.

“Yeah, we’re coming,” Louis yelled to Niall, in a casual voice but with the worst possible choice of words. Harry made a silent face of holding back laughter that actually looked physically painful.

“Shut the fuck up,” Louis said.

Niall was looking at shells and acting normal when they came out, and Louis hoped that he was, too.

“Tide’s really getting up there,” Niall said, yawning. “What do you think we can convince Liam to make for us tonight? Did you know he was in a cooking competition in London once?”

“Wow,” Louis said.

“We’ve got a lot of seaweed salad left,” Harry noted.

Louis felt a panicked rush wondering whether he and Harry smelled like each other, but he mostly smelled salt water, and the ocean was messing with all of their noses anyway, and it could just as easily be the long car ride together, sunblock and cave exploring. He still ran deep into the waves on their walk back, stuck his hands and pulse points and neck under the water and brushed at the sand and rocks. If nothing else, it helped to feel sober. Yards behind, Harry was walking hip-deep through the water, too. Louis glanced back once, but he couldn't tell if Harry was looking at him or not.

Chapter Text

Louis went to the bedroom with emptiness sitting uncomfortable in the pit of his stomach. He couldn’t stop the loop of memory in his head, rushing back again and again like the tide, Harry in his arms. He felt anxious and unresolved.  

Louis tried to ignore it, and he definitely wasn’t ready to think about what would all mean once they were back in the real world. The cottage was not the real world. He was ok. He pulled on long pajama pants and a ragged white t-shirt, let the cold air of the cottage flow abrasive over his bare feet and arms. He brushed his teeth, did a quick shave, got into bed, stared at his book, turned out the light, and then stared at the wooden wall of the bedroom, listening furtively for any bump or knock or step on the other side.

Everyone had gone to bed early, tired and happy from the long day of sun and full from Liam and Babs’ cooking. Louis had hovered over Babs in the kitchen, watching Harry from the corner of his eyes and trying to look like he wasn’t. Harry had seemed happy and normal, if quieter than usual. Harry and Niall had played guitar, and Louis had had to get himself out of the cottage on a long walk with Zayn, running up and down the blue-night beach, throwing rocks in the water, trying to burn the energy away. It wasn’t successful.

“You are a fucking idiot,” Louis whispered to himself, fervently. Then he swung his legs off the side of the bed, padded stealthily over to the door that separated his room from Harry’s, and put his ear to it.

 He didn’t hear anything. The line under the door was dark. Harry was undoubtedly asleep, just like Louis should be. Louis huffed a small, disappointed sigh into the wood. The door swung open under his shoulder without warning, and he fell right into Harry.

“Hey there,” Harry said, sounding delighted. How often was this going to happen, honestly? Harry was all warm, bare skin, and he’d fallen back, but only a little, like Louis weighed nothing and he was expecting it, even though he couldn’t have been. Louis pulled himself out of Harry’s arms with something that would’ve been composed if he hadn’t still had a horrified expression on his face, eyebrows shot straight up to his hairline.

“Hazz,” he said, voice coming out embarrassingly thin. Harry was stepping through the doorway in boxers and not, Louis’ brain noted helpfully, wearing a shirt or anything else.

“My god,” Harry said, “That was torture. The worst. I’ve never waited so long for somebody to finish something as I had to wait for Niall to finish his pie. I couldn’t decide if I hated Niall more for having seconds or Babs more for making it.”

“Welcome to my life,” Louis said, gasping as Harry caught his hips and his heart snapped up to his throat. They were caught together in the dark, suspended between the two rooms, hushed and quiet and secret. Harry had his most devilish grin on, the one he’d had back in the box the first night they met, all cheek and gravel. He wants me, Louis felt with a bolt of relief that he hadn’t even known he’d been waiting for.

“Niall has been a real problem today,” Harry said. “Forced me to leave something as unfinished as that sand castle.”

“I absolutely finished that castle,” Louis squeaked, momentarily regaining his breath enough to be outraged, “There was a moat and there was a walkway,”

“God, you turn me on,” Harry said. Louis tried to press Harry back up against the bedroom wall, but Harry put his hand on Louis’ sternum and pushed. Louis stumbled backwards and Harry walked them both back into the bed, Louis’ calves hitting the frame with a startling thump.

“Just because your trickery worked once,” Harry whispered, fingers stroking up Louis’ ribs through the thin fabric of his t-shirt and making him shiver-- “Doesn’t mean you get to lead every dance.”

Louis asked his brain for a quip, but the query came back blank and shrugging. Harry was just so pretty and so ferocious at once, sharp eyes sweeping all over Louis’ body, dropping honey-sweet kisses into Louis’ hair. Louis hadn’t really caught his breath back. It was like they’d picked up right where they’d left it in the cave, his body plummeting right back down into the haze and the need. Louis felt a deep blush that was thankfully invisible in the dark room, his skin hot and tight.

“What do you want?” Harry whispered.

More than I can have, Louis thought. The thought was icy and unexpected, and he froze for a moment before he could pull himself back.

“Lou. Do you want this?” Harry asked, seriously. They were pressed together next to the bed, thigh to thigh, chest to chest. Louis had gotten his hands wrapped around Harry’s ass aggressively, and he was broadcasting lust so hard he was worried somebody would feel it downstairs, so the answer seemed a little obvious. But fine, he supposed they should talk about it. Harry was a better person than Louis was.

“Yes,” he said, seriously back. Because he did, christ.

Harry swept a palm under Louis’ t-shirt, pressed against his bare stomach and the soft hair there with his fingers splayed, and kissed him. Finally. Louis leaned into Harry, let him feel the back and forth of his weight on the balls of his feet, a little like a dance. It had only just been a few hours since Louis had last tasted Harry’s mouth but that was clearly too long. Harry tasted like chapstick and the tang of toothpaste, and underneath that, like wet, warm and open lust on the slide of his tongue. There was something determined about the way that Harry was touching Louis, like he’d come in with a plan. As if Harry ever needed a plan, as if anyone could resist him.

“You didn’t answer my first question, tell me,” Harry said. Louis revised his previous estimate. Harry was a terrible person. Now that he’d committed to this, Louis was unraveling fast. He felt desperate to lose himself in the feeling of it, like if Harry kept him hanging in space the dark corners of his chest would open up, all the hurt and fear that he carried in its careful box would come spilling out. Louis couldn’t bear the thought, couldn’t bear driving Harry away. He pulled it all in with superhuman effort. He could keep it separate. He had to.  

“Don’t know. Give me a word,” Louis mumbled, swallowing around the end of the sentence, but Harry heard it anyway. He tilted his head to the side in his calculating way, ran a fingernail over Louis’ face in the dark. Louis hissed in his breath, his face burning with shame and want combined. He was already dizzy from the rush of omega instincts, and he needed something, needed Harry to give him permission to feel this way.

“Really? You have all the answers all the time, except now?” Harry asked, but he didn’t sound surprised. Harry knew him, after all, had a better read on Louis than Louis wanted to admit. Louis was going to break apart into tiny, tiny little pieces.

“I can’t,” Louis said, almost wailed, but Harry was already holding him and pushing him back on the mattress and putting his palm over Louis’ mouth and Louis felt a great rush of joy and hope, maybe, maybe, Harry knew what he needed. He could feel it in the slight tremble through Harry’s wrist, could smell the need in his body as he crawled over Louis, bare skin radiating heat Louis could feel even through the fabric of his pajamas. Louis might be crazy with deprivation, but Louis was making Harry feel his own kind of crazy, too. Louis rolled his tongue out along Harry’s fingers, drenching them in his scent.

“Be quiet,” Harry said, exactly what Louis wanted, fingers digging harshly into Louis’ sharp cheeks, voice lowered into alpha. Louis got wet at the goddamn sound of it, limp with relief. He looked at Harry through his eyelashes because he hadn’t missed it, had he, the way that Harry liked it when Louis had looked at him with half-shut eyes over the table. Harry rolled onto Louis completely, weighing him down onto his back. This much access to so much of Harry’s bare skin was new and Louis was entranced, the planes of Harry’s body so grand in the dim, black-blue light from the moon outside. Louis spread his legs to settle his inner thighs around Harry’s hips and cradle them together without even thinking about it. Harry trailed his hand down,  fingernails dragging against his shave-raw skin, let it sit heavy around Louis’ neck. Louis was melting into the mattress already, so easy for Harry, so undone by the way that Harry had come after him, wouldn’t let him hide.

“You don't want to talk? Be quiet for me. You can have a word. Calatheas ,” Harry said, humor under his tone but he meant it, control loaded like a velvet weight in his voice. Louis risked rolling his eyes and Harry smiled at him, but it was also a teeth-bare, and it sunk straight into Louis’ amygdala.

“How about I tell you what you want, and you just tell me if I’m wrong,” Harry said. Louis nodded, tears in the corners of his eyes. It was just so much. He felt overwhelmed. He felt soft and weak and perfect. Harry was whispering in his ear now, close enough to kiss, or bite.

“You want me to touch you, so much you can’t even say it. You want me to do terrible, dirty things to you until you have to put your face in the pillow to keep everyone from hearing. You want me to tell you you’re beautiful, because you are, my beautiful omega.”

Louis startled at the word, and he tensed his shoulders to pull away from Harry’s hand instinctively. Harry moved before he even started, grabbed a handful of Louis’ hair, jerking his head up and making his jaw clack. He tightened his other hand on the join of Louis’ neck to his collar, not squeezing, but heavy and controlling. It was sharp and precise and a message: mine. Let me.

Louis pushed against it for a second, silent straining in the dark, and they both held their breaths. Louis knew, whether from instinct or friendship, that if he said anything at all Harry would let him go, would pull back instantly and carefully. Somehow, that was enough to make him not want to. There was a beat, and his body slumped back into the mattress, subtle and final. Louis shuddered and it almost pushed a moan out of him, but he stayed obediently silent. 

“That’s it, so good. So good for me,” Harry whispered, and his fingers had relaxed in Louis’ hair, pulled it more gently, like a reward. Louis was hard already, just from being here, like this, from the words rolling out of Harry’s mouth. Harry was hard too, thick and heavy over Louis and pinning him down over the messy covers of the bed. Louis felt too-aware of his pajamas, the barriers between his body and more touch, more, more, more.

“I love looking at you, thought about this so much,” Harry whispered. Harry’s eyes were half-closed in the dark, his long lashes a thick frame on them. His movements were slow and deliberate, sliding a hand down Louis’ side to catch on his pajamas, easing them down. Louis felt his own slick and he was sure Harry could smell it from the way his face got feral and hungry. Louis was helpless, trapped under Harry’s body weight and his alpha instincts with their hooks in his spine, stripping Louis’ anxiety away. Louis was sweating under his t-shirt and the scent of it must give him away.

Harry manhandled him onto his side, murmuring praise, and Louis felt himself flop ridiculously but Harry still caught his breath, tracing down Louis’ sharp hipbones and full thighs and finally getting him all the way out of his pants. Louis was no help at all, clutching at Harry’s hair and tangling their legs together, unable to stop himself, desperate to be close.

“Patience,” Harry said, teeth shining in the moonlight, and that was rich coming from someone who’d already gotten off today, it was, and Louis would certainly tell him so once words came back to him and Harry had given him permission to speak. For now, he just looked plaintive and bucked into Harry’s hands. Harry used his elbow to pin Louis back in the bed while he slid the other hand around to the cleft of Louis’ ass, which was a rather artful move. He was awfully hard and awfully wet, and Harry had crawled a ways down the bed to mouth at Louis’ stomach, kissing the soft skin there and dragging his hand inwards. Louis felt his eyes roll up to the ceiling, blurring out the world.

“Stay with me, don't drop,” Harry said firmly, his voice loud in the quiet room. He pinched Louis on the side of his stomach, jagged and demanding, and Louis made a high, pained noise. 

“Don’t drop, babe,” Harry said, and Louis came back from the edge because of course he did, because he would do anything for Harry already. Louis wrinkled his face up in protest because didn’t Harry know, didn’t he feel it? Louis felt afraid, felt the protest of it screeching behind his ears, in his pounding pulse.  

“I know what you need, one step at a time,” Harry said in alpha voice that brooked no argument, and the pulsing settled. Harry’s emotion reached out to wrap around them, broadcasting a life raft that Louis’ nervous system could grab and hold. Louis had never felt an alpha instinct like this, so clear, and he didn’t know if it was the ragged state of his own long years in depri or if it was just Harry being Harry, magnetic and special. It was still there, but it felt manageable, like Harry had turned down the constant pounding speakers in his brain. If Harry didn’t want him to drop, he didn’t have to drop.

“Babe, I want to,” Harry said, his mouth against Louis’ neck. He kissed the spot where Louis’ hair ended above his neck, rubbed his cheek into the side of it. It was strange but sweet, and Louis loved it.

“Gotta be easy on yourself when it's been so long, Lou, jesus,” Harry said, his voice thick and tender. Louis jolted his hips, out of control, almost thrashing against Harry. Where Harry was slow and sweet and molasses, Louis was edgy and manic, clutching at Harry’s bicep, a twitch in his sharp wrist.

Harry shook his head like he was thinking, brow furrowed, as he slid a long finger back into Louis almost like a distraction, pressing up into the slick and filling him. Louis fully broke, his throat fluttering around a half moan, and Harry wrapped his thighs around Louis’ leg and ground up, finding friction for both of them in a tangle of warm muscle and the fabric of Harry’s boxers. Harry worked his finger into Louis, pulled a rhythm out of both of them. He held Louis so tight he couldn't even move, and rocked them both into the bed. Louis could feel Harry shivering into him despite his steady strength and he loved it, fiercely. Louis wasn't normally like this, so lost and passive, nothing was normally like this, but it turned out to be exactly what he needed. His muscles clenched around Harry’s hand and Harry moaned at it, turned his finger and thrust sharp and deep.

Harry’s touch sank into him, every brush of skin like a drug. Louis felt a deep sense of relief, even if some secret part of his body still moaned for a drop. This was almost as good, tucked in together against the clean, homey-smelling fabric of the flannel sheets, away from the whole world. Louis’ nose was full of Harry and he couldn’t get enough, breathing deep and muffling himself against Harry’s chest. He came in no time at all, surprising them both, tight and strained against just one finger. Harry growled at the flood of warmth between them and rutted hard against Louis’ thigh, Louis falling open and grasping for him, and he came with a stifled low shout that Louis hoped to god nobody heard.

 

*

 

Louis didn’t even want to know what time it was, and he didn’t want to wake Harry up, but he really needed to sleep. Harry had cuddled Louis into oblivion, and it was incredible, but then Harry was the one who had fallen asleep. His head was on Louis’ chest and his hand was curled up underneath the t-shirt that Louis was inexplicably still wearing, and he was snoring just a little bit.

Louis looked down at Harry and tried not to acknowledge the electric flutter in his heart. His body was tugging him to go to sleep, purring contentedly at the curve of Harry’s thighs where Louis’ knee and shin had snuck in between his legs. Louis resisted. He might be utterly insane giving into Harry like this, drowning himself in a kind of perfect doomed to be ephemeral, but he wasn’t that insane.

“Hazz,” Louis whispered, shaking Harry. Harry sniffed against Louis, short vacation scruff on his cheek rubbing a tiny friction that nonetheless sent a residual thrill to Louis’ pelvis. Insane.

“Come on, I’m old, I need my sleep. Can’t laze about forever like some kind of artist.”

 Harry must have been more awake than Louis knew, because he raised his face and dug his chin into Louis’ torso, glaring pointedly under his eyebrows. Louis barely kept himself from barking with laughter. The last thing he needed was for Babs to come running in here to check on him, lord. She'd heard him wail in unconscious fear in the living room too many times before, and she was a light sleeper.

“So sleep,” Harry said, and he dug his leg deeper into the mattress in a way that pressed their inner thighs together, and did nothing for Louis’ resolve. Louis huffed in exasperation. He’d never had anything this beautiful in his bed in his whole entire life.

“Get on back to your room, you knob,” he said, hoping he hit the right tone of gentle teasing. “Imagine if we came out together in the morning. Babs would probably leave you here stranded. I need to be able to function at work.”

“Work is overrated, can’t even believe you’d mention it in the sacred beach cottage,” Harry said, but thankfully he was sitting up, even though he glanced down at Louis with his mouth pressed in a thin line. So Harry was a grouchy waker, Louis told himself, ignoring the thin little pain of loss that hit him in the stomach at losing Harry’s touch. Alpha. Fucking christ.

Harry went back to his room. Louis watched him go sadly, but it was necessary. Louis rolled over onto his back, pulling the sheets that were still Harry-warm up to his chin and staring at the ceiling. His body was as happy as it had ever been, and he was exhausted, and his mind could just wait. He’d pay his dues later, for once.

 

 

*

 

The drive back into the city was long and boring and familiar, as was leaving the cottage in a stumble at pre-dawn, hitting the road with a determined grind to get everyone home in time for work. Louis had snuck out of his bedroom before anyone with a little jump in his stomach, but he didn’t see Harry until ten minutes before they left, clearly just rolled out of bed in pajamas with a knit cap, while everyone was rushing to load bags in the car and Zayn was bitching about coffee. Harry wrinkled his nose at Louis in a warm, private smile, and Louis tucked it into his memory, safe and captured.

By the time they were an hour in Louis had successfully stifled half a dozen yawns in his fist, but Babs caught the last one.  

“Why don't you just close your eyes for a bit?” Babs said over the wheel. Babs was the most determined driver Louis knew. At this point Niall and Louis gave her default reign in any roadtrip, and she had shunted them down endless empty highways as long as there was a hot latte in the cup holder.

“You know I never sleep in the car,” Louis retorted, but quietly, because everyone else was already back asleep. There was a faint snore from Niall, fallen right to sleep in the middle of a personal space war with Zayn, who slept primly upright but with his head thrown back and his mouth open. Louis was riding shotgun. Babs insisted, sensing Louis’ pending carsickness long before Louis ever did. Stupid alpha superpowers, Louis thought resentfully. 

“Why not?” asked Harry, unexpectedly, who apparently wasn't asleep either.

“Louis thinks bad things will happen unless he's alert and ready to prevent them.” Babs said.

“You're funny,” Louis said, snapping Babs’ knee lightly. She gave him a sideways look that worried him, too knowing. Then again it was Babs. She was always knowing.

“Huh,” Harry said. Louis craned his head back to look at him, sideways angled on the edge of his headrest.

“Sleep is for the weak,” Louis said. Harry had his legs sprawled out in a middle seat, one long arm slung behind Liam’s head.

“Not for you, then,” Harry said. Louis swung his head back around, a prickling in his shoulderblades. His mind wanted to dissect every single thing Harry said or did, but it was a comparatively gentle buzz in the back of his brain. He still felt relaxed and gentle, and it was bliss.  

“What if I play music? Ok?” Harry asked. Louis thought that he meant from his phone and was about to hand him the aux cable but of course Harry probably didn’t even have music on his phone. He was pulling one of Niall’s guitars out from the back, gingerly lifting it over Liam’s oblivious, unconscious head.

Harry strummed an easy set of chords. He was surprisingly good at it, for all that he was playing casual and quiet, stuffed between sleeping boys after a long weekend. Louis looked out the window, watching the flat, scrubby dry dirt turn back into the colder green. The music curled around him like a soft, light blanket. Harry hummed and sang scraps of a song that Louis wanted very much to hear for real, sometime. Even his whisper-voice was raspy, smoky, had a friction that caught Louis up but a smoothness that promised that when Harry sang for real, it would be worth your full attention. Louis’ eyelids drifted down and against all odds and known history, he actually fell asleep.

 

*

 

That was stupid, Louis wrote in a text message, and then he deleted it, because Harry would read that as you are stupid and he wasn’t, he really wasn’t. Louis was stupid. Louis was the one who knew better. Louis tossed his phone down on the floor and looked up at his apartment ceiling.

“I’m sorry about the whole, me, thing, and also I should not have grabbed your dick like a teenager, I am also sorry about getting twisted about how fit you are, and how much I like getting lunch with you, also I can’t date you, for reasons I don't really want to go into,” Louis said to the hanging flower pot over the couch, and then groaned and thumped the back of the couch.

“He's going to hate me,” he told the plant sadly. “He's going to hate me, and then I'm going to curl up here and die, and nobody will water you. Also, why is he so hot?”

His phone buzzed. Louis nearly pulled his shoulder out whirling around to grab it.

 

Nialler: what is everybody doing and why is it working and not beaching  

WorrLi-d: :(

Z: Liam is in sectional obviously leading a really great practice session and not sending emojis

WorrLi-d: I’m resting my hand

WorrLi-d: :((

Z: wow rest what a concept

Z: wish I could rest my hand during a fucking hour and a half concerto but you know

Z: if I did

Z: the music would literally stop

WorrLi-d: funny the music stops when I rest my hands too bc I’m the one who literally plays it

Z: guess what I’m doing in my office with my cello rn

Z: literal music playing

Z: to survive the stress of this job

Nialler: so we’re just gonna talk about the orchestra cool

Nialler: cool cool cool definitely a topic of general interest

BaBaBlackSheep: I’m getting measured for a swimsuit and they’re yelling at me to put my phone down that's what I'm doing

WorrLi-d: niall u listened to the whole paganini I linekd don’t front

Nialler: that was some devil shite that was

Nialler: nobody on this planet can do the fingering that piece requires

Z: bollocks that they make you do summer shoots in the winter, Babs

WorrLi-d: :(((( :(((((

Nialler: besides u OBVI

Z: better work on your hand stamina

Z: but we’ve got a lot of time bf the pag and if u want we can break strings out of the full set next week so u get more concentration time

Z: you're pretty brilliant on Paganini and full disclosure I never nailed it myself and if you tell Sara bloody second chair that I'll take ur solo away

WorrLi-d: take it to my grave

WorrLi-d: thanks z

 

Louis watched the rapidfire between Zayn and Liam with a goofy smile, momentarily distracted from the ever-beating WHAT IS HARRY THINKING death match in his own brain. Zayn was infinitely more transparent than he realized, but the question was, did Liam realize? Louis didn’t think so. They were hopeless.

 

Tommo: come over and practice at mine if you need to escape, Li. Walking distance from the hall and I’m working at home.

Hazza: artists get to work wherever they want

Louis’ phone buzzed again, but it was a separate message thread.

Hey, was the text suddenly on his phone screen. Louis blinked at it, and saw the dots pop up that meant Harry was typing something else with his big, stupid hand. Big, stupid, beautiful, warm hands. So typical of Harry to not disable that feature, like Harry cared if you knew that he was writing you a message. Like Harry cared if you sat up in your stupid empty downtown loft with your heart racing and had to think about what he might be typing just a few miles away. Louis had the dots turned off.

Infinities passed and universes crumbled and Louis died a million deaths, and finally Harry sent a fish emoji.

Then, it’s a leaf crab.

Then, get home ok?

Harry had actually been in the car when Babs dropped Louis off early that morning at his apartment, so this was absurd, like Louis might have gotten lost between the first and the fifth floors of his own apartment in his early morning haze. Louis threw his phone into the couch cushions at his feet, where it wedged itself helpfully between the base cushion and the couch arm.

Harry didn’t even get service from his apartment, so he must be out on his roof in the cold, unless he went on an odyssey to the one café that was in a hot spot. Or, was Harry out because he was out, connecting with his other friends? Louis had a cold moment of considering how little he actually knew about Harry's daily life in the city. Maybe he was on a date, and out of his apartment because he was in somebody else’s apartment. On a monday morning? But who knew how artists lived, really? Not any of the interviewers Louis had watched interrogate Harry. They never asked any good questions, and Harry barely even answered the ones they did ask. Why didn’t anybody ask the vital, pressing questions about things like, what are your attitudes about relationships with people that may be friends that may be doing things that are outside the bound of friend-sort-of-things, and can you describe, with examples? Louis was losing what was left of his mind.

Still where y’all left me, working at home. Avoiding the office by pretending to be contagious, they’ll buy this for one day tops-- great. Work. Like a normal person. Louis tapped send.

Then, with a studiously careless look on his face despite being alone, how about you?

Hazza: I could tell you I’m not in bed, but I’d be lying.

Hazza: No I’m lying. I want to be in bed but I’m in a cafe. I’m a bad liar.

Louis laughed out loud. It was just so true.

Hazza: I’d love to see you. Soon, actually. What about you? I feel like we should talk.

Hazza: also I spent a half hour watching youtube bridge building videos this morning because of that podcast story you shared so thanks for that

So far so good, so far no transparently awkward line from Harry trying to gently tell Louis that they couldn’t really be friends anymore. Louis couldn’t really read tone over text but Harry seemed just like...Harry, not like someone who was regretting everything from the night before. Not like someone who was thinking wow, that Louis, what a weirdo, what a crazy, pathetic omega. 

Louis tapped his forehead, invoked the mindfulness practice that Babs had got him into a year ago. Self-deprecating thoughts, the books always said, are not a healthy outlet for anxiety. Louis’ meditation pillow was gathering dust bunnies under his bed. But it was good to try.

Anyway, talking. Harry was right. Louis bit his bottom lip. His phone buzzed from the group chat and he flicked over to it, Niall off on some tangent about a movie/game night that he’d apparently taken upon himself to organize, “for group morale.” He flicked back to Harry’s thread, where there were no more dots, and pictured Harry sitting in the cafe with a beanie over his wild hair, blowing on a cup of tea with his stupid-sexy mouth and waiting for Louis to respond.

Tommo: you’re right.

Tommo: but honestly, I should catch up on sleep and stuff before we do, and I’ve got a long work thing. This week? In a few days?

Louis bit his lip again. What a coward.

Hazza: yeah of course :) Gonna start building for the symphony this week, anyway.

Hazza: see you this weekend? Moz?

Tommo: wowwwww

Tommo: do not reduce my favorite composer in the history of all time into a nickname confusable with PIZZA

Tommo: philistine

Hazza: pizza afterwards, I hear you. Liked that place. Liked watching you fit an entire crust in your mouth.  

Tommo: fine.

Tommo: I’d love to see you too.

Louis was fucked. He spared a second to grin with the velvet memory of how literal that was, before falling back into the couch in despair. Sleeping with Harry had been heaven--sleeping with Harry had been amazing-- but Louis felt a rush of cold nausea when he even thought about getting into a relationship. He huffed a determined sigh into his hands, which turned into a yawn.

Neglected on the floor, his laptop blinked angrily as stacking notifications from the corporate chat let him know that some intern, somewhere, had turned over the wrong analysis and a partner was furious. Louis pulled it over to start typing with only half his brain on. He’d still work a twelve hour day today because he was Louis Tomlinson and what else was he going to do. But work was increasingly just the long grey blank that came between seeing the symphony crew.

Chapter Text

Louis wanted to see Harry. Louis was also a coward.

The week had gotten away from him. It started on a downhill path with the intern’s mistake on monday and had picked up enough momentum to be a full-blown landslide by midweek. Abi started moaning into larger cups of coffee, and partners said dire things about client relationships. Louis tried to look appropriately somber at meetings, but seriously, did it matter? Did any of it ever matter? Nobody ever answered that. Louis was in the office by seven-thirty every morning, and he worked late wednesday night, thursday night, and then friday night.

The unfortunate thing was that friday was the Mozart program, to which Louis had been dearly looking forward. Maybe it put him in the same category as the elderly ladies holding Zayn back artistically, but, Louis just loved Mozart. Mozart was there for you with the rich melodies and the accessible cadences when life got you down. Mozart didn’t turn up his nose at you, or ask you to slog through horrendous discord when you were tired, and Mozart made even technically unbelievable pieces feel as simple as relaxing on the beach. Oh, fuck the beach. Louis was tired of missing it. He was tired of missing Harry, but he couldn't bear the thought of seeing him, either. Not until Louis figured out how they were going to talk.

By the time it was obvious that Louis wasn’t going to make it to the show, staring at rows of data on his desktop monitor and ignoring an ominous swoop in his stomach, he hadn’t even answered his own questions. He knew that he wanted to see Harry, felt it pressing behind his eyes when he closed them, felt it in the tick of his feet under the desk chair, wanted to even just see Harry’s smile, twinkling at him from the other side of the lobby. Wanted to find something to make fun of and bask in Harry’s squinty-eyed, mop-haired bafflement.

They had to talk. Louis just hadn't figured out what to say. Really, Louis hadn't figured out how to handle it if Harry didn't want to be friends anymore. He didn't know if he could.

The office was dark. Most of the lights turned themselves off automatically unless Louis stood up and waved his arms or ran down the hallway, so he was left under a single pool of lighting over his desk. It felt rather like an unpleasant interrogation, a cold white circle and then all darkness outside of the desk. Louis had briefly switched on a recording of the Mozart piece but then turned it off because it was nothing like watching the shift under Zayn’s tuxedo as he signalled a dynamic build to the sections, nothing like the way Liam’s bow all but caught fire when Liam led some dazzling strings, all vanishing sparks in the symphony hall air. It was nothing like having real music surround him, the way all the instruments created a harmonic vibrato that filled his head so there was no more room for worry in it. The recording was wrong, like a strange, flat, wax sculpture when you wanted a real human body next to yours.

Sounds and sensations were all wrong. Louis yawned, felt a pop in his jaw, and winced at the pull of his stiff collared shirt, and twisted even further up in his chair. Everything was too vivid and too muted at the same time, in depri, and it dragged at him.

Louis wasn’t scared of talking, if he really admitted it. He was scared of the way he felt; he couldn’t stop thinking about Harry’s face in the moonlight, couldn’t stop feeling Harry’s hips pushing them into the bed, Harry’s hair where it had fallen over them. It had hit him hard, the post-physical crash of coming home to his solitary apartment, and he was afraid that Harry would feel that, too. He just needed a few more days of stims to feel stable, to make sure he’d be in control. He just needed time.

He needed to be convinced that time was all it would take.

The physical--it sucked, but Louis could handle it. But missing two days of joking with Harry? Missing the look in Harry’s eyes when Louis did something sharp and goofball and ridiculous and then looked over his shoulder to see if Harry had noticed, to find Harry looking back--that didn’t seem entirely physical. Hell.

Louis checked the distribution of another dataset’s residuals and as he did, sucked in his bottom lip and held it under the sharp edge of his teeth, and let it go. It was a bad habit, giving himself small pain pricks in ways that he’d learned no one would pay attention to, but he wanted so badly to dampen the crawling, buzzing feeling in his head. Omegas in the forums were always swearing by acupuncture, that a steady routine of endorphins helped. Louis had tried it three times and the first time he’d felt the results for a few days, but he seemed to desensitize after that. Self-biting worked ok, as did repeated pinching, but Louis had decided it was generally a bad idea to start scratching, when you could easily do more damage than you realized.

Louis had no desire to hurt himself, not really, not in the dark and twisty ways that seemed to take some particularly sensitive alphas and omegas to drugs and alcohol. But there was an itching, jittery energy that had to go somewhere, a complex and brooding need to push on the edge of sensation. He just wanted to feel calm. Without somebody to pull you back, direct the fire and the burn of it, it was hard to know what to do with it all. Bodies were stupid, Louis thought for what must be the six billionth time.

Down the hallway a light clicked on, and then another. Louis startled before he realized it must just be a janitor making a late night round. If he was here later than the night janitors, he should probably consider going home. Instead, Louis lobbed a couple of paper balls into his garbage and wrinkled his nose at the messy pile of unappealing granola bars he’d taken from the office kitchen, but hadn’t been able to eat. His stomach was bilious, probably from fatigue and depri and the twenty-four hours since the last stims. Louis spun a pen between two fingers. He’d gotten pretty good at pen-spinning, practiced it in meetings over the past week.

“Why are you here?” Harry asked, leaning against the doorframe with his hands in his pockets.

Louis scrambled to sit upright, socked feet slipping on the carpet. He’d thrown his shoes across the room halfway through the day. It was really, truly Harry leaning into Louis’ office -- hair pulled back from his face, wearing yet another sleek suit, no tie, unbuttoned more than ever, not a delusion borne of sleep and touch deprivation. At least, Louis was pretty sure.

Harry looked wary and hesitant, hovering in the doorframe like he couldn’t quite come in, but there was a resolute set to his jaw. The automatic lights turned on around him, flickering and reluctant.

“I don't--what, why are you here?” Louis asked.

“The guard let me in downstairs when I said I brought food,” Harry said with a full-body shrug that started at his waist and ended with a complicated crunch in his shoulders. He gave Louis a half-smile, and took a couple of steps into the office and then stood there, blinking in the new lights. The security guard had probably just looked at that face and hit the buzzer. Louis stared at him for an awkward pause before it occurred to him that Harry looked nervous.

“Well, uh, that’s terrifying, I’m going to have a word about security tomorrow, welcome to hell, come in,” Louis started, looking down at his desk and picking up papers and granola bars and then looking for a place to put them. There was none, and he put them back down in the same spot.

“So did you indeed bring food, trespasser, or are you a terrible disappointment?” Louis asked, brightly, making it clear that he was teasing. Harry wrinkled his face into something inscrutable.

“I’m practicing lying, Zayn tells me I’ll need it as an artist,” Harry said in an aloof tone, drifting a little bit closer and then stopping. He’d folded his arms and was worrying at the sleeve of the jacket with one hand. Obviously Harry was going to show up and torment Louis in a perfectly-cut, dark blue suit that showed off the line of his shoulders when he stood like that.

“Zayn’s not that much older than you, he’s no business being a bad influence. That’s my job,” Louis said.

“Did I fuck things up last weekend? Are we ok?” Harry asked, blunt and forceful, like he was making himself say it. He hadn’t moved from his spot on the floor and Louis had a sudden compulsion to jump up and go in for a hug. That would’ve been stupid, plus Louis was too far in depri to even let himself get within a foot of Harry, so he didn’t, just stood behind his desk, uselessly.

“No, I’m not, that’s not it,” Louis started, scraping around for the right thing to say.

“I was just kind of worried that you missed Mozart, you mentioned Mozart at least five different times last time we had lunch, I know you wanted to see that program,” Harry said. “And I wanted to see you,” he continued, chin up, gaze clear. “Lou, if I did something wrong at the beach, I’m really sorry. I never meant to. I came here because I had to know what you were thinking.”

Louis huffed a painful breath. It hadn’t even occurred to him, honestly, that Harry would be worrying for his own reasons. He felt blindsided by it, this goofball artist, so determined all the time, despite Louis’ obvious inability to be whatever it was that Harry wanted.

“I didn’t want to go home, tonight,” Louis said. “I didn’t want to--that’s why I’m still here. I do want to see you. Ugh, Hazz, like, too much.”

Louis swallowed, the words sticking in his throat, unprepared and tired and a little bit dizzy with it all.

Harry waited patiently, but he’d unfolded his arms and rocked back a little on his heels.

“We should talk, I'm sorry,” Louis said, “I just can't right now. I can't.” He knew that if he did, it would come out wrong, all of the wrong words and the wrong things, and it would be sharp and hurtful and stupid, and he wanted to do better than that. He wanted Harry to have better than that.

“Ok,” Harry said, low and gentle, but he sounded sad. Louis hated that. He felt, at once, the tendrils of need and longing that had covered him at the beach, rising out from his control, so tenuous with the depri. The primitive part of his brain felt like crawling into Harry's lap and rolling his head back and asking Harry to soothe him right there on the desk between the granola bars and the expense reports. He breathed it back in.

Harry, never able to stay still for long, had started wandering around Louis’ office and he was looking carefully at the little air plants that Louis had installed along the window. Air plants had been the right call for the office, where Louis knew they’d do all right even if nobody ever watered anything while he was off traveling. He wasn’t even sure if Abi knew they were there.

“Do you want to get some real food?” Harry asked, side-eyeing the granola bar pile of doom, thumbing over the edge of a small, rocky plant container.

“Uh, I don’t know,” Louis said, vaguely. Louis felt dizzy and it wasn’t stopping, threatened to overwhelm him, and he sat back down. Under the desk, Louis used the edge of his thumbnail to push a pad of muscle into the side of his forefinger and pinched himself, hard. In deprivation, even small pain was heightened, ricocheting through the muscle and up into his hip joint. Harry was re-orienting one of the plants that had gotten spun around, in his careful Harry way with slow little movements, and Louis dug deeper into his thigh.

“Lou, stop,” Harry said, sharply, suddenly.

Louis flinched back into his chair before he could stop himself. He didn’t know how Harry had even noticed, and he felt the most absurd set of feelings in the world altogether--almost, almost like he was mad at Harry for not catching it earlier, and like he wanted to put his head down on the desk and have Harry stroke it, and like there was something horribly like tears hovering behind his eyes. The one emotion that Louis felt prepared to identify entirely was fear.

“Lou,” Harry said, voice entirely different, and head tilted to the side, watching Louis. “Lou, what’s going on?”

Louis shifted under his gaze, uncomfortable and wanting at the same time. It was horrible. He was clutching at the edge of the desk, and let it go, trying to look normal, and took a steadying breath. He tried to think of something to say, but the words simply didn’t come under a blanket of twisting shame. Louis suddenly wanted nothing more than to get home, to get away, to lock the door. Louis shook his head and started to scoot away, to get out of the desk. He’d text Harry, once he got home. He couldn’t talk, not now.

Harry was across the room and leaning over the desk, catching Louis’ hand and pressing it into the grain of the table. It was firm and steady and it didn’t hurt, but Louis was still startled.

“Stop,” Harry said, “Stop. Lou, you’re in a bad place, aren’t you? Can you talk to me, babe?”

Louis opened his mouth to make fun of Harry for being over-solicitous and worrying and say obviously of course he was fine, words were fine, words were things that happened like normal for Louis, except that they weren’t, somehow, they weren’t rising to the surface like they usually did, and the painful throb in his thigh was distracting him, and he felt dizzy and had to think about that, for a minute, and he couldn’t talk, not with all of that going on.

“You're crashing out in depri,” Harry said with a disbelieving tone. As soon as he said it the truth settled between them, hard and irrevocable.

“Kind of,” Louis said, small voice, blinking against the light. Naming it helped, maybe, brought the words back. Or maybe it was Harry’s touch on his hand, still holding them in place. He’d do better with tea, or half a bottle of stims, or Harry leaving so that Louis didn’t puke on the desk in front of him.

“Are you on stims? Can I get you one?” Harry asked, steady.

“Prescription,” Louis said, with a sigh. Harry hadn’t yet pulled his hand back, and Louis wasn’t going to be the first to move. The dizziness was settling back underneath his skin where it belonged.

“It’ll get, sorry, this is temporary,” Louis managed, choking it out. Harry didn’t move his hand, but he also didn’t move in closer or try to touch Louis more, for which Louis was glad. He snatched a couple of breaths and reminded himself that everything was ok.

“Sorry,” Louis said, quickly, “I’m sorry, it was a long day and I forgot to take one this morning, stupid,”

“And then I show up here like a jackass, stressing you out,” Harry said, “So I’m the one who’s being stupid. Should’ve trusted you to have a good reason to not be ready to talk.”

“I do though,” Louis said. “Want to talk. Just didn't want to disappoint you.”

Harry leaned over the desk and Louis flinched back, only a tiny bit, but Harry still froze.

“Heyyy, you’re all good,” Harry said, long and allaying, “Not trying to be pushy. Just being stupid.”

“You’re not,” Louis said, feeling his mouth twitch. Harry was watching him thoughtfully, brows furrowed, but his body was relaxed.

“Just not, don’t want to get all weird,” Louis said, staring back at the grain of the desk. "I really did want to see you tonight, get pizza, you know." 

“You’re all good,” Harry repeated, head slightly tilted. The dizziness had retreated into a headache behind Louis’ eyeballs, ratcheting up behind his temples, but his brain was at least mostly back online. He should really get out of this office.

“Look, it’s friday night, I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. Do you want to still do pizza? Or I could just walk you home. But you know, I feel like we should both get out of these clothes and into pajamas and have food. I have a hunch that it might feel nice. No talking. Unless you want to.”

“If you think I’m going to walk home and change and then come back out into the cold for food, you are crazy,” Louis said flatly. He barely felt like he could walk to the elevators, right now.

Harry smiled. “More than one way to get a pizza.”

 

*

 

Harry owned a pizza stone, an actual, real pizza stone. Louis was sitting where Harry had pointed him, on a tall blue tool, considering the pizza stone and what kind of jokes he could craft about Harry’s ownership of it. Harry flurried about his apartment kitchen, setting out flour and a mortar and pestle and oil and mozzarella. There were various toppings that Harry had confidently put in the grocery basket while Louis had looked on, skeptically.

“Making pizza is not a big deal,” Harry had laughed, face bright like he was showing Louis a favorite piece of art instead of dragging them through a tiny bodega on the corner of his cozy neighborhood, agonizing over sausages.

“What is or isn’t a big deal, is not a judgment I trust you to make,” Louis had said, finding a massive bottle of white wine--no sulfites on stim withdrawal, ugh--and putting it stealthily into the corner of the basket. Harry must have felt it, but he pretended not to, and went on looking quizzically back and forth between two identical balls of mozzarella.

“Cooking is always a big deal,” Louis said, looking around the store and rubbing absently at the back of his neck. His muscles felt stiff, and he’d probably be sore tomorrow. In depri, Louis tended to hold himself close in without realizing it, tight and folded over his desk. Who even knew that people went to get groceries this late? Not Louis.

“You’re gonna like it,” Harry said, confidently.

Harry had kept a careful physical distance through the taxi ride to his neighborhood, but Louis still felt so much better, the hum of depri soothing down around Harry and out of his office. Louis had a tight headache and his shoulders ached and he was definitely going to start remembering to carry a spare stim around, but the ferocity of withdrawal had dimmed. He felt a fuzzy around the edges, but ok. He also felt vaguely alarmed that he was following Harry to Harry’s actual, real apartment, but it had just sounded so nice. And Harry seemed perfectly happy to hang out with Louis in this weird headspace, which Louis was not asking questions about because it was an unexpectedly lovely and fragile feeling. It had been such a long week, maybe Louis deserved a little nice.

Harry’s apartment, like Louis’, was on the top floor. But where Louis’ apartment was sleek and tight and modern, Harry’s apartment was an old-fashioned, spacious affair with high ceilings and a divided bathroom that seemed to have been put in sometime back when people were so excited about indoor plumbing that they separated the sink and shower from the toilet just to have more plumbing to admire. 

It was also gorgeous. Harry had put heavy framed paintings in the wide living room, solid and striking splashes of color on white walls. Curtains framed every room--cream in the living room, maroon in the kitchen, and they were heavy, pleasant textures. The books in the living room were arranged by color and height, and one of Harry’s sculptures was stood on an unobtrusive pedestal in the living room, mobius-like spirals of marble in a deceptively delicate-looking flower.

“Senior project,” Harry said, shrugging a little when Louis asked. The fond way that he glanced at it told Louis there was a longer story, and Louis made a mental note of it.

But as promised, there was little talking. The kitchen was a little bubble of bright, warm calm, and Harry had casually thrown a plush blanket in Louis’ direction, but without making a fuss about it, which Louis appreciated. Louis wrapped it over his knees and the headache in his temples went down another notch. All in all, Louis was getting increasingly suspicious that he wasn’t the first depri case Harry had dealt with.

“Poaching is really key,” Harry said quietly, almost to himself, dropping some mysterious vegetables into a carefully-controlled bath of olive oil and poking at them with a fork.

“You assume that normal people know what poaching is,” Louis observed crankily, and Harry stuck his tongue into the corner of his mouth and flipped one. Maybe it was an eggplant? Louis had no idea. It smelled good though, savory and salty. Harry had bits of sausage frying in another pan, and the store-bought dough was a yeasty fragrance where it sat on a wooden cutting board (premade, Harry had sniffed at the bodega, but we don’t have time to let dough rise, not this time). Louis felt hungry for the first time in about two days.

Louis sat in the blessed silence for some long, helpful minutes. Harry disappeared while the pizza cooked and reappeared in a t-shirt and a soft pair of heather-grey joggers that hung off his narrow hips. He looked straight out of a loungewear catalog and delicious, and Louis felt briefly wrinkled and mournful in his office clothes. But then Harry was pulling his hair up into an absurd bun, the attraction to which Louis felt in the pit of his stomach as a sense of tremendous injustice, and then they were both distracted by the pizza timer. Harry made satisfied noises over the very-slightly-charred crust-- traditional, apparently--and cut it up with scissors.

“All right, I’m ready to say something,” Louis said at last, when his mouth was full of pizza. Why did he always find himself disclosing over pizza? Something about having your mouth full of cheese.

“You didn’t do anything wrong at all last weekend.”

Harry looked up from his plate, dimples flashing.

“It seemed to me like we both liked it, but I can tell it’s more complicated than that,” he said, looking back down and putting olives on his pizza. Disgusting. But to his credit, Harry hadn’t put any olives on the rest of the pizza after seeing the way that Louis wrinkled his nose at the can.

Louis almost felt like the pizza was dissolving itself directly into his bloodstream as soon as he swallowed. He must have been starving.

“I can’t believe you made pizza, in front of my very eyes.” he said.

“I thought pizza came behind glass counters. Except of course you can make pizza, because you’re one of those freaks who like, makes things. Instead of sticking to the safe land of pixels on screens, like we normal people.”

“I am,” Harry said. “But on the other hand, pizza is just putting things on bread. Pizza is possibly the lowest bar that you could set for me in the kitchen, Lou.”

It was such a nice thing, the way that Harry talked, his syllables drawn out a little longer than other people’s. Like when he said Lou, something nobody else called Louis, and it hung in his mouth for a moment.

“Better?” Harry asked, crooked smile. Louis looked at the island where he’d already demolished two pizza slices and half a glass of wine. He held the glass out to Harry, demandingly.

“Better,” he admitted, grudgingly. Harry refilled it, refilled his own, and sat back on his stool.

“Awesome,” Harry said, clapping his hands. Louis narrowed his eyes.

“I’m suspicious of your level of enthusiasm.”

“I know I can’t cuddle you unless we talk about shit, and you have yet to tell me if you’re ok with that, so no for now,” Harry said, with staggering bluntness, and Louis flushed all the way down to his chest-- “But I had an idea for another thing that might help the depri, want to try it?”

Louis was categorically unable to say no to Harry, so he nodded.

“It requires pajamas,” Harry said, looking at Louis’ collared shirt with a dead-serious expression.

“Does it,” Louis said, flatly. “Is it yoga? I will barf pizza on your artistic white couch.”

Harry yell-laughed, so loud it echoed on the kitchen tile, and Louis swallowed his pleased grin in a gulp of wine.

“Nah, come on,” Harry said, hopping off the stool and wandering down the hallway. Louis put another splash of wine in his glass, for good measure, and followed.

 

*

 

Out of everything that Louis thought he might do at Harry’s flat, he’d never thought of finger-painting.

“No, no way. I’m going to be worse at this than cooking,” Louis said.

“The self-critic is strong with this one!” Harry exclaimed, laying a kitchen towel down on the floor and spilling messy brushes onto it out of an old coffee cup. They looked worn and cheap, so Louis felt a little reassured.

“The beauty of it is that there’s no such thing as being bad at paints,” Harry said, zenlike. “Literally whatever you want, Lou. You’re welcome to use some brushes, but I honestly think fingers are the way to go. I know you’re not a coward.”

You have no idea, Louis thought.

Harry was screwing the lids off paint tins of all sizes with a quick, practiced motion, spread out on a towel on his living room floor. Louis was sitting on a meditation pillow--nearly the same one as Niall had bought him a year ago, he noted, wondering whether Harry used it more than Louis did--and feeling cozy in flannel pajamas that came down over his feet, and slippers, even. It’s only fair, you loaned me clothes last time, Harry had said when Louis hesitated to take the bundle even while his fingers itched at the comforting way that Harry’s clothes smelled.

Louis gingerly picked up an orange, drawn in by the vivid brightness of it, and Harry set a little square of canvas down next to him. He’d pulled them out of a cabinet in the hallway where Louis caught a glimpse of all kinds of white canvas squares, like some people might store cleaning supplies.

Harry had set himself up with a ring of paint pots in shades of blue, and as Louis watched, he stuck his thumb into the deepest blue and traced a steady circle shape on his small canvas. Satisfied that Harry was engrossed, and not liable to look over and make fun of him, and still feeling ridiculous, Louis stuck his pointer finger in the orange and dabbed it into a few points on the canvas.

“Oh,” he said, unable to stop himself. Something about the act of it hit him between the eyes, the squish of plastic-silk paint between his skin and the dragging bumps and lines in the canvas. He tried green next, muted and calm next to the orange, in a long stripe across the canvas. No secret art critics had leapt out of a closet and Harry was still refining his circle, so Louis ventured into sticking the entire length of his finger into the green and then rolling it across the canvas. It made a different stroke, smudged and cloudy. It was extremely satisfying.

“Nice, yeah?” Harry said, not looking up from his own canvas. Louis nodded. It wasn’t the same as music on depri but it was its own kind of excellent; calm and thick and vivid. The slippers Harry had given him were fleece-lined and Louis had enough room to wriggle his toes in them, and he picked a different green to layer in with the first. The cold paint on his hands reminded him of playing in the mud after a rain back home, and it smelled lightly of chemicals, like an arts & crafts room at school.

“Ok, how do you know so much about depri?” Louis asked.

Harry paused, looking between two different shades of grey that Louis was pretty sure were identical, before settling on one. He started shading his sphere with patient little strokes using the tips of his left fingers, still precise.

“‘S’not special, I’ve got my own alpha shit to manage, so I’d be a bit of an asshole to not think about the other side,” Harry said, and Louis stared at his canvas and considered the strange jolt that sent through him, hearing an alpha say something like that. It wasn’t that he’d believed Thomas when Thomas had said things, things like how difficult life with Louis was. But, those things had had a way of sinking in, setting a stain.

“And I’m actually the odd one out at home. My mum and sister are both omega,” Harry said, nodding towards the photo display on the cabinet. Louis had noticed it when they came in, a homey touch surrounded by all the more elegant art. They looked like Harry, which was to say, they looked nice.

“That’s rare,” Louis said. Not as rare as he was, but uncommon. Harry nodded, made the kind of face people make when they know that things like rare and uncommon also translate to different and sometimes, got made fun of at school. It was always nice to see that face on other people.

“Gems liked painting if she ever felt low. I used to bring her oils back from school and we’d do it on holidays when she was missing friends, so I thought maybe you’d like it,” Harry said, swirling around the paints with his pinkie finger. Louis nodded, focusing in on his canvas, paint streaking up the cracks between his fingers like a little kid. He still thought it was just flailing splotches of color, but on the other hand if somebody came up behind him and tried to take it away, he would bite them. He started shading the corners with a kind of darker orange, like a vignette, mixing paint in the palm of his hand. The headache had vanished.

“Did you start with painting?” Louis asked. “Or just like, do you do all kinds of art at school and then pick one? How did you know what you were good at?”

Harry hummed thoughtfully. His simple blue sphere now had depth and clarity, like it was ready to jump off the page into the air. Louis couldn’t even tell how he made that happen. Harry chose a pastel, light shade and put a gloss of it in the background, switching to a brush.

“Tough question. I liked painting, but sculpting was the thing that really sucked me in. You know, I would just lose time, come out of the studio and be surprised that it was dark out. Helped with burning off the extra alpha energy, too.

I like the challenge of installations. Especially with all the mixing of materials, it forces me to learn stuff about the engineering, or the physics. Plus it’s physically difficult, putting it together. Keeps me fit, rather.”

“Yeah,” Louis snorted, understatement of the century, that. Harry looked impish.

“Oh, you think I’m fit?” he asked.

“Come on,” Louis said, but Harry kept waiting, so, “Yes, you’re the fittest person I know, let alone hooked up with,” Louis said boldly, and was rewarded with the way that Harry lowered his eyelashes and looked genuinely flattered.

“So, making a name for yourself with the installations?” Louis prompted.

“Bit of a risky choice, really, but I’ve never been one to avoid risk,” Harry said, smiling at his canvas. He’d switched back to a brush and was adding minute flicks of white that vanished into the blue, but Louis watched as a sharp sparkle came into focus. It was still just a sphere, but it was a sphere that Louis felt strangely emotional about. It was a really good sphere.

“I tried a bit of everything, because you have to, but there’s only so much time in the world. Sculpture is so hard to sell, and it’s so time-intensive, so every piece you make had better be a banger. The trickiest part is that it’s difficult to iterate with sculpture. You can make a lot of paintings and before that you can sketch and you can experiment over and over again--I try to do it with installations, you know, but there’s such a difference. It’s either here or it’s not, the finished piece. I’m never quite sure if I’m going to really accomplish what I meant to, and then I do and I feel happy. So happy, like nothing else. Until it’s time for the next project.”

Harry laughed a little. Louis watched the creases that formed in the corners of his eyes and the calm way that he looked into the paint. It was nice to watch somebody love something. It made sense that Harry would pick this kind of thing, would pick a large scope, would pick stepping off into the risk. Harry was the kind of person who threw his arms wide open when the world rushed at him.

Louis took a deep breath, steeled by paints and pizza and the unexpected feeling that everything was very steady in this living room. Because he could prove Harry right occasionally, about not being a coward.

“So, are you dating people? Are you out for that whole, the whole pair thing? The whole alpha-omega thing?” Louis asked, a little fiercely, not sure what answer he wanted.

“No agenda,” Harry said, looking taken aback, but also tilting his jaw up like he was ready to meet whatever Louis threw at him. “I’m not dating anyone right now, there’s been plenty else going on. I mean, obviously I tried to ask you out.” He twinkled at Louis, who had to smile back.  

“I am extremely into you,” Louis said, blowing air out of the corner of one mouth. “I mean like, yeah, at the cottage? All very real. I just, you’re here with that face, you know?”

Harry bit back his lips in a smothered smile, made a listening face. “If I had a nickel,” he said. Louis just bet that was true.

“The thing is, ok, the thing is that I know that I don’t want a relationship,” Louis said, soft as the pastel blue that Harry was still working into the backdrop of his sphere. He swallowed, tried to think of the right way to put it. Harry let him think, which in and of itself, was pretty remarkable.

“I was in one, and it was really serious,” Louis said slowly.

“He was alpha, and like, it went bad. I just, I realized that I couldn’t do that, all the emotions of it, falling in love with an alpha.”

Louis’ fingers were full of paint, so he couldn’t dig them into the pillow that he was sitting on. He crunched his knees up to his chest and that was helpful, put his chin on his knees and kept staring at his canvas.

“So we broke up, and I figured that out. And I’m still not--it’s just who I am.”

“Wow,” Harry said, and Louis held his breath.

“That sounds tough, what a brave thing to do,” Harry said.

Louis scoffed, burying his chin a little deeper and stroking a finger through the orange again.

“No, I mean it, that’s really brave,” Harry said, looking at Louis sincerely, catching his eye and holding it.

“I’ve seen Gemma go through enough breakups. It sucks for all of us, but I know it must have been really hard. Shitty to have to hurt somebody by being honest about who you are, but like, that’s a brave thing to do.”

“Thanks, I--I appreciate that,” Louis said, the lie settling into place around him. It wasn’t...it wasn’t exactly a lie, and it wasn’t exactly the truth, but he let Harry extrapolate the wrong story from his halting explanation. Like it was part of Louis’ identity to date this way, instead of part of his brokenness. Like he’d broken up with Thomas after realizing some identity thing, which was almost laughably far from the truth. This is safer. Keep the wall up. In his chest, the tight pain stirred, but it stayed contained.

“So, back to how fit I am and what this means for our extremely nice time together last weekend?” Harry said, shamelessly.

“You’re unbelievable,” Louis said, laughing and uncrunching his body. They just couldn’t seem to deny it, the flood of attraction that pooled out between them. But contrast to the beach, it felt light, unhurried. Harry looked soft and happy and almost like a college student with his hair up in pajamas. He ruffled a hand through his hair, which dislodged a piece of it that flopped forward and did things to Louis’ sense of composure.

“It is not my fault that you are irresistible,” Harry said, “You and your...hair, and sweaters, and wrists.”

“Wrists?” Louis said, momentarily distracted because they were right in front of him, doused in paint. They just looked like his wrists had always looked, bony.

“Wrists,” Harry said firmly, “Eyes. Collarbone. Ass. I could go on, but I’d really like to know if I’m allowed to.”

Louis opened his mouth, and closed it again, and looked at Harry, who was looking at him with a face loaded with humor but also, something tentative around his eyes, and maybe the same kind of, I don’t know, but I want it, that Louis felt.

“I don’t want to not be friends anymore,” Louis said. He knew that part.

“Good.” Harry said. “I really like being your friend, Lou. I’m not going to--I’m not going to let that happen.”

There was something more behind his eyes when he said it. But with Harry, there always was. Louis stuffed the longing to find out what it was down into the bottomless pit where he threw all unnecessary and inconvenient feelings.

“But,” Louis said dragging out the word, “I mean, we could be friends who…..did extremely friendly things. When they felt like it. If they felt like it.”

“We could?” Harry asked.

“I’d like that,” Louis said. Maybe it was a dangerous idea, part of his mind whispered--ok, it was definitely a dangerous idea--but it felt so, so good and he wanted it so, so much. Maybe he couldn’t have the real thing, but he could at least have a little bit of time with Harry. Couldn’t he? Surely he could give himself this, just a little. Just for now.

“I’d really like that,” Harry said.

“Ok, done talking,” Louis said, suddenly drained. He’d hit his limit on transparency about emotions at least five separate times over the past hour. He turned back to the paints and eyed a gold, but it wasn’t exactly what he wanted, and the not-quiteness itched at him. Funny how that always seemed to happen. He felt a little shiver ripple up his arms, the long week and the long night and all the ups and downs of trying to negotiate this craziness.

“Ok,” Harry said softly, smiling at him, all gentle, a slow spread of warmth that started in the middle of his face and moved outward.  

They sat peaceable and dabbed paints for another half hour. Harry got up and brought the bottle of wine out to the living room without a word, and then got the rest of the pizza and their plates and put all of his crusts onto Louis’ plate. Louis sat back and put his canvas on the floor and considered it, gnawing at a fingernail.

“Oh, that’s really nice,” Harry said, a glass of wine later, looking over at Louis’ canvas. Louis gave him a look of intense skepticism.

“No really, the color you made,” Harry said, gesturing at it, and then dipping the very edge of his thumb carefully into the pool of paint that Louis had spent ten minutes refining on a scrap of cardboard. He didn’t know why it had become suddenly so important to represent the exact kind of gold that he was seeing in his mind, but it was. He’d worked the most miniscule orange into the original gold and even a little bit of blue to bring the warmth down, acting on same kind of intuition, and then he’d finally gotten it right. Louis sat back a little on his heels and rubbed his nose on the back of his wrist. They’d been at this for a while, but he hadn’t really noticed. The depri, he realized with a shock, felt entirely gone.

“Do you actually like it?” Louis asked. Harry looked up at him from under his eyebrows, and then he reached out to draw a single line of gold down Louis’ neck, artist-precise, from under his ear to his collarbone. His finger slipped down through the paint, whisper-soft.

“I never lie about the things I like,” Harry said.

Well, we’re different that way, Louis thought.

Harry’d set his canvas down a few minutes earlier, proclaiming it done, and Louis had dabbed the perfect gold into the center of his orange blobs and proclaimed himself done, too. He leaned on an elbow over his knee and looked at the little canvas, blobby orange stars over a green world, vivid color coming out of the dark and muted.

“Do you want to keep it?” Harry said, “Or we could burn these, sometimes I find that cathartic too, if you want to like, exorcise the experience.”

Harry made a fireball-explosion kind of motion with his hands, and Louis gaped in outrage.

“No!” he exclaimed, “No, christ, keep away from me, I want to keep it!”

“A keeper!” Harry said, the tip of his tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth as he nodded, looking back at his own canvas. There was something so endearingly earnest about it. “I think mine’s a keeper, too.”

“One for the studio,” Louis said, chortling a little at the thought, but Harry seemed to take it as a serious suggestion.

“My full workshop’s in a warehouse, although I suppose I’ve put the guest bedroom to studio use in a way I’m sure my landlord would rather not know about. Well, you have to keep yours, obviously. Maybe I’ll bring mine to the symphony hall, put it in Zayn’s office so I can check in on it.”

“My office doesn’t deserve mine. I’m putting it in my kitchen. Burn them,” Louis repeated contemptuously, hissing a little, but he settled back on the cushion to finish his glass of wine and peer at Harry, heavy-lidded through the glass. Harry was sitting with his long limbs folded. Paint had gotten smeared down the front of his t-shirt. Louis traced the curve of his bicep out of the sleeve, the pull of his soft pants where they folded over his lean, narrow hips.

When he looked up, Harry was watching him, and Louis flushed. Maybe it was staring at the paints for so long, but Harry’s eyes seemed full of many shades of green, more than Louis had ever noticed.

“I didn’t nearly finish listing the things about you that are irresistible,” Harry said, like he was still talking about paints, or pizza ingredients.

“Let’s talk about you more,” Louis muttered, drawing his knees up to his chest and squinting over them like a barricade.

The side of Harry’s mouth kicked up in a smirk and he leaned forward, closing the short distance between them on the floor. He rubbed a knuckle very lightly against Louis’ cheek, where the heat had spread under the yellow-brown hairs of Louis’ scruff.

“But I like it when this happens,” Harry said. They were just going to find Louis’ body here, dead from Harry-exposure. What a way to go.  

Harry was so close, close enough that Louis could see the tangle of dim freckles in a corner of his face, close enough that he could catch Harry’s breath, wine-sweet. Louis tipped himself to the side, easy to do on the precarious pillow, and caught himself with one hand on Harry’s thigh, mindful of the open paints scattered around them. Harry’s mouth was parted, his lips soft and velvet, and he leaned forward into Louis, bracing their weight together in a hushed triangle. Louis moved closer still, put his other hand down warily between the paints that were trapping Harry in his cross-legged spot on the floor. He breathed in the heady, rich smell of Harry’s neck.

Louis let out a long, slow breath as he slid their mouths together, Harry’s lips featherlight and almost meticulous under his. His hand had found the crook in Harry’s upper thigh where his skin went from warm to burning, pulled smooth and tender even under the soft pajamas. It was like a first kiss all over again, exploratory and delicate, and Louis felt it all the way down to his toes. Harry lifted a hand to Louis’ hair, ruffled the side of it between his fingers, and kissed Louis deeper, pulling the breath right out of him. Louis felt Harry’s fingers like a brand where they lingered against his ear, where Harry pressed them into the side of his jaw.

When Harry pulled his lower lip into his mouth, lush and slow, Louis sighed into his mouth and felt Harry shift to pull Louis in. There was an ominous rattle on the floor and Louis broke away, startled.

“Ah, let’s not paint your floor,” he said, voice with an unconscious tremble in it. Harry looked a bit like he was coming up from underwater, but he glanced around at the paints.

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Harry said, another thing that Louis was definitely going to make him explain, but it would have to wait because Harry had stood up in a fluid motion and pulled Louis up with him, tilting on the pillow in his slippered feet.

Harry kissed him again, standing there among the paints, and Louis luxuriated in the warm length of his body and the thrill that his night had ended up here, of all places, doing this. His hand chased up Harry’s lower spine, felt the contours there underneath the fabric.

“It’s late, really late,” Harry said, pressing his forehead into Louis’, and breathing satisfyingly heavy. Louis took it as excellent feedback.

“True,” Louis agreed. The night felt like it had been endless. He didn’t want to leave the warm circle of Harry’s arms, though.

“And you’re already in pajamas,” Harry said. Louis knew what was coming, so he kissed Harry instead of responding, giving himself time to think with the added benefit of, well. Harry’s mouth was its own universe.

It was a night for all the surprises. Louis decided to be honest.

“I don’t go to sleep with people, it’s, it’s one of my rules,” he said, pulling Harry tightly in his arms just to emphasize that it didn’t have anything to do with attraction.

“What rules, Lou?” Harry asked, sounding a little put-out. Louis didn’t mean to, but it was automatic: he stiffened through his entire body, and Harry caught his breath.

“Ok, Lou, it's ok, it's ok. You get to set the rules.”

Louis forced his body to relax, which wasn’t all that hard when Harry was kissing the top of his head, smoothing down his back with broad palms. God but he smelled good. Louis didn’t want to go home. Louis didn’t want to do anything else but this right now.  

“Make out on your couch?” Louis asked, nuzzling into Harry’s chest. With any luck, he’d get Harry sleepy enough to send him to bed, and then Louis could crash here, on the couch, under a blanket that smelled like Harry.

“Thought you’d never ask,” Harry said, lifting Louis easily off the pillow, and over the paints. Louis felt a pleased, contented murmur in his chest. And if there was a thread of unease spun out under everything else, well--he could ignore it.

Chapter Text

“Zayn loves Liam,” Louis said. 

He announced it loudly, over the noise of Babs’ chopping. She was batonneting jicama for some kind of lime-drenched salad, and Niall was kicking it on the tall stool, surreptitiously stealing tortilla chips. Louis had been assigned the task of mashing avocado into guacamole, which Babs had said was the only thing he would be trusted with. From the look Babs was giving him now, Louis wasn’t doing it right.

“I’m using a fork and avoiding the tomatoes,” Louis complained, peering into the bowl.

“Not the guacamole, it looks fine, but what did you say?” Babs asked. Louis swiped a chip and sampled the guac. It was good, but he added more salt. Salt was good for low blood pressure, and he’d felt off all day in his apartment alone, chipping paint out from under his fingernails and wondering why the lamps in Harry’s apartment were so much better than his own when he’d tried to take a nap. Probably it was a low blood pressure thing. Lovely dreams were stacking up in Louis’ head, images from the beach and late nights with paints and makeouts. Louis couldn’t quite shake it.

“Zayn loves Liam. Liam loves Zayn, when he feels it’s possible to do so without being murdered,” Louis said firmly.

Niall shook his head, rifling through the chips. 

“Nah, Liam loves everybody, kinda like Harry, and that’s confusing for you because it’s so alien to how you approach the world,” Niall said. “I’m here to translate between all of you.”

In a moment of synchronicity, their phones all buzzed. It was Zayn and Liam in the group chat, carrying on an hour-long riff about pacing choices that everyone else had long given up on following.

 

WorrLi-d: I'm promising you your pacing will crush the impact of the winds coming in

Z: I'm promising u I'm the actual conductor

WorrLi-d: honestly give me a stick and we'll see

Z: u would nt DARE

 

Louis shook his head. Impossible. He could screenshot this right now and a thousand brand-new teenage symphony fans would lose their shit. But he was a good person. 

“They’ve got it bad. I watched them, at the cottage, and also this morning, when we had to walk three contractors through the hall four times, because they didn’t seem to understand human language,” Louis said. Repairs continued to be baffling. Louis had tried multiple YouTube binges to try to make sure they weren’t getting stiffed on the cost of taking down and then putting-back-up the chandeliers, but even the aggressively-competent handy-people of the internet had failed him.

 

WorrLi-d: I'll give you a demonstration in person tonight since you aren’t getting it

WorrLi-d: it’ll sound like me making really loud honking noises in your ear but it’ll actually be a perfect replica of what the winds will sound like

Z: yes not like we spent all day in rehearsals arguing about this

Z: now you have to be the thorn in my game night too

 

Babs swept her phone off the kitchen table with a huffy sigh.

 

BaBaBlackSheep: if YOU dare continue this domestic spat over here no guac for you

Z: ooh is Louis making food because honestly

Z: pass

Tommo: eff you I'm stressed enough about hosting game night and it’s just snacks

WorrLi-d: nothing domestic about it

Tommo: my apartment hasn't had this many people in it in two years

Tommo: since I had movers basically

Tommo: why it took four men to move a handful of plants I'll never know

BaBaBlackSheep: I’m supervising all will be fed

Nialler: it’s my no 1 priority

Tommo: maybe the floor will break and we'll fall through

WorrLi-d: if it means we don't have to go back to the hall that's ok

Hazza: structural integrity is my responsibility i’ll help louis (on my way btw--got signal near a new cafe!)

 

Louis jolted up from his phone to ensure the kitchen was clean enough. Harry had already been to his apartment, so there was no excuse for the nerves, but here he was. Despite the simmering urgency crawling up Louis’ thighs every time he saw Harry--and Harry felt it too, Louis knew--they hadn’t hooked up again yet. There hadn’t been any damn time, always Zayn or Liam or Niall around. Louis was trying hard not to count the minutes. It wasn’t like you could ask your friend-with-benefits out on a date, but he wasn’t quite sure what the right substitute was. Was there a word for taking somebody out and eating food with them and then going back home to an apartment and hooking up, but with it definitely not being a date? 

“Louis, ok?” Babs said, like she could read Louis’ mind. Louis sincerely hoped she couldn’t. “Think we should clear some of the plants in the living room to make a space on the floor?”

“Oh,” Louis said, craning his head to look through the living room door. He’d gotten a new set of ponytail palms that he’d absentmindedly put in the middle of the room and never found a spot for. He just walked around them, usually.

“I’m on it,” Niall said agreeably, jumping down from his stool and batting Louis lightly on the back as he passed. “You’ve been yawning since you got back.”

Louis didn’t deny it, and ate more chips. It had been an exhausting day at the hall. But it was greatly improved by Zayn’s report that he had an interview on the symphony in the local paper. He’d dragged Liam off to lunch so that they could “brainstorm a fake-relationship vacation photo strategy,” and Louis had watched with a smirk that he probably didn’t deserve, because Harry had dragged him to lunch too and they’d gotten thai and then Harry had kissed Louis up against the back door into the hall, illicit and thrilling and traced with green curry.

 

Z: don’t leave me alone in the hall

WorrLi-d: I thought you liked the dark

Z: only with company

 

“Good lord, is anybody else reading this? I’m sure about this,” Louis argued, stabbing the fork into a piece of avocado and sliding it onto a chip and carrying it out to Niall, who’d put the palms in an inside corner. They wouldn’t get enough light there, but Louis could move them when everyone left. Sharing food and gossip wouldn’t actually soothe the background guilt about keeping...the whole Harry...thing...from Niall and Babs, but, it couldn’t hurt.

“Liam pretends he doesn’t get Zayn’s weird sarcasm, but he still listens to it and then he watches Zayn every time he thinks that Zayn is distracted. And Zayn has a thing for Liam, or he would if he’d only talk to Liam seriously for long enough to find out. When Liam was hovering over the stove at the cottage, I saw Zayn look at his ass for like, fifteen whole seconds. I had to remind him it was his turn at jenga. They’re in love.

“They don’t even talk unless it’s pointing out something the other one has done wrong!” Niall objected. But he’d pulled his phone back out and was scrolling back through the group chat with reactive eyebrows.

“Right, see, that’s love,” Louis said. “I’ve thought a lot about this, Niall. I’m kind of an expert at watching other people date. Love is really weird.”

“Huh,” Niall said, and Louis nodded at him. He was speaking incontrovertible truths. The thing about knowing you couldn’t have love was that you lost your patience with people who were letting it just sit there, like it wasn’t rare and lucky and liable to vanish. Louis liked Liam and he liked Zayn and he liked them together.

“I mean, love is a strong word,” Babs called from the kitchen, but she didn’t say no. Louis strode back through and pointed the fork at her.

“You knew!” He yelped. “For how long?”

Babs made a little face at Louis and started chopping again.  

“I don’t know anything,” she said, “I just, you know, alpha to alpha. There are tells. Liam has them around Zayn.”

“Oh my god,” Niall said, following behind Louis and clutching his face, “What? No. You’re right! I’ve been so blind! This is amazing. They’re idiots.”

“You guys are fucking oblivious,” Babs said, long-suffering. “Which is particularly inexcusable for you, Ni. It’s been obvious.”  

“I’m not actually perfect, babe, much as I know you like to think so, been distracted by getting Liam to actually do something besides play violin and lift weights,” Niall said, throwing a chip that Babs grabbed for, but it bounced off her nose and onto the floor. Louis’ kitchen was accumulating a small mantle of chip crumbs. Future archaeologists would speculate on it. He died alone buried in plants, they would write in a peer-reviewed meta-analysis for the Journal of Louis Studies, but one time he actually had chips and dip in the place in an era we term the Social Renaissance.

“It’s how he burns his alpha crazy off,” Babs said, shrugging. Louis couldn’t imagine Liam being crazy, but, he did have a job that required endless hours of concentrated, committed, single-minded practice. That kind of focus did sound alpha. 

Louis mashed avo with one hand and scrolled Twitter with the other. Liam had a Twitter now, mostly devoted to complaining about Paganini. It had sparked vigorous debate from the surprisingly actively classical music fans on social media. He'd also gotten connected to some local music schools after complaining about missing his former students in London. Liam was settling in, more each day.

“To be fair, Liam explicitly told me that pretending to date Zayn was a terrible idea. Although in hindsight that makes sense if he actually has a huge crush on Zayn.” Louis mused, “Liam is so nice, he’s exactly what Zayn needs.”

Babs twitched over the salad. “Liam needs somebody to loosen him up, dunno if that’s Zayn. They're so different.”

“No it is,” Louis said with confidence. Babs didn’t know. Babs thought people should be straightforward, that trust was somebody who always said what was on their mind. Babs and Niall were annoyingly healthy that way. But Louis knew what it was to be a garbage fire of emotions that you didn’t like, or understand, or even notice, to feel like you didn’t want what you really wanted. Louis heard the way that the skitter of Liam’s violin was brought into crystal focus by Zayn’s attention. There was something special there, despite the two idiots’ valiant efforts to ignore it. That morning Louis had carelessly said that Megan Santoria might play the best current interpretation of Paganini, and Zayn had nearly taken his eye out with a baton, spitting about how Liam didn’t need to hear that right now.

Louis paused, considering, fork in the air.

“Do you think that having to pretend to be in a relationship will make them better at talking, or worse?”

This stroke of insight put a new cast on his memories of the Victoria’s Secret show and the way that Zayn had made a private, locked instagram account and then demanded that Liam follow him for relationship verisimilitude even though he only shared memes and then a blurry picture of a music score with FML superimposed on it in block text.

“Definitely better,” Niall said, grinning. “Sometimes two people need to be forced to be together for long enough that they can no longer stay in denial about how much they like each other.”

Babs groaned, stirring the salad so hard that leaves flew over the side.

“What will make this worse is meddling,” she warned, looking at Niall.

“Wouldn’t want to do that,” Niall muttered, “Not like anybody in this apartment meddles in other people’s relationships.”

“You can’t force people to figure things out,” Babs said primly, mixing the salad more than any salad needed to be mixed. Poor Babs, having to live with them all. Louis swiped a piece of jicama. It wasn’t bad.

Maybe Babs had a point. But on the other hand, Liam and Zayn had already known each other for months, and they needed help. Louis liked the idea of love, at least for other people. Louis saw how Zayn’s eyes got a little softer when Liam was sketching, and then how Zayn cut away to glare at his own hands instead, like Liam was going to jump up and insult him if he looked too long.

Babs had started complaining loudly about her upcoming Amsterdam travel for a shoot, and Louis let the conversation drift back towards the merits of stroopwafels, the tyranny of modeling, dinner, and whatever movie Niall had picked out. But in the back of his mind, he plotted.

*

 

When they came (together! Louis texted Niall and Babs, who were in the living room), Louis put Liam and Zayn next to each other on the other side of the table. Zayn complained about Liam’s getting in his way, and then Liam moved the guacamole onto his other side so that Zayn had to reach across his front and all but fall into his lap to get any. Which he did, trying to look pissed, and only looking pleased. It was the most absurd sequence Louis had ever seen. He loved it.

Louis shot Babs and Niall many meaningful looks under his eyebrows. Watching Liam and Zayn was a good distraction from worrying about whether anybody could tell that things were different with Harry.

Harry had walked in with jeans so tight that Louis had actually tripped a little bit on a stool, but he didn’t think anyone noticed. Harry slouched into Louis’ space where he was pouring drinks on the counter and getting gin and lemon up his nose. It helped distract from the way Harry smelled, a little ripple in the air next to him. Louis’ nose was getting practically alpha-level sensitive around Harry. 

“Hii,” Harry said. He was wearing a new ring on his left hand that Louis didn’t recognize, a cut silver rock with a band around it. He had dark purple nail polish today, which Louis did recognize, the same as the previous week.

“Hazza, what a surprise, why are you here,” Louis said blandly, double-pouring gin across tumblers and getting the counter and a bit of Harry’s ring in the process.

“I heard a rumor that you were making food, couldn’t miss it,” Harry said, not even flinching at the splash of gin on his hand and licking it off instead, making terrible eyes at Louis.

“More like making alcohol, be good or you won’t get any,” Louis warned under his breath, and Harry shimmied his shoulders, giving Louis no confidence at all.

They settled in Louis’ living room for a board game that took about forty minutes for Niall to explain. That was time and enough for Louis to get through a drink and apparently, get edgy. He was torn between monitoring drink levels, watching everyone’s microexpressions when they ate food, and subtly analyzing whether he should sit closer or further from Harry, who had settled next to Louis without a hint of worry. There was a line of something different in the way he smelled, maybe like some new cologne or laundry detergent.

“Put that down,” Babs said the second time Louis grabbed her drink to squint at the level of the ice in it.

“I’m trying to make sure it isn’t watering down, since we’re all being held up by Niall’s absurd rules,” he said, putting Babs’ drink down and picking up Harry’s instead. Harry hadn’t made a lot of progress. Maybe Louis should have gone for the top shelf gin. He literally hadn’t been able to reach it in the grocery store, but nobody had to know that.

“Stop. Fidgeting.” Babs said, pushing Harry’s drink out of Louis’ hand, and back to Harry.

“I appreciate Louis’ devotion to the craft, but also I’ll take my drink at any level of ice,” Harry said, twinkling at him.

“Cocktails are the only thing I’m good at,” Louis said.

“That’s not true, you made guacamole,” Liam said, always polite.

“Under supervision,” Babs added.

“It’s the game rules. And they’re simple,” Niall said, laying out the fourth-tier landscape piece, which apparently only came into play once they’d gone three other rounds and at least two players had assumed double identities. Louis had blanked out during that part entirely, because Harry had braced himself on the floor with his arms and let his knee rest against Louis’ knee and Louis had thought he was smirking at him from his peripheral vision and why had Louis ever thought he could do a top-secret friend with benefits again?

“You’re going to have to repeat the rules,” Zayn said, “Liam was too busy looking at his instagram. 

Liam, whose drink was more than half empty, looked up from his phone frantically.

“Was not!” He said. “Only a little.”

“Liam is too important to pay attention to family game nights anymore, how quickly fame changes a man,” Zayn said. He had Liam’s instagram pulled up on his own phone, Louis could tell even from across the table. Liam had posted a picture of himself playing violin that day and Louis would bet good money Zayn had taken it. It had sparked a whole new flurry of conversation about Liam's biceps on Twitter, which they all knew because Zayn had copied multiple tweets into the group chat.

“This is the first time we’ve ever done a game night,” Babs pointed out.

“Still a tradition,” Zayn said.

“I mean, as long as you get the part about redistributed thieving on the quarter turns, you should be fine,” Niall said.  

“Of course,” Harry said, “Is that the same as the stolen turn bonus?” 

“Completely different,” Niall sighed.

“I was thinking, maybe other people should get into fake relationships to boost sales, since ours is working so well,” Zayn said, twisting around to fix Harry with a slightly threatening look.

“Uuh, why me!” Harry yelped. He also glanced at Louis, but Louis refused to look back. Niall had started rolling one of about seven dice and moving pieces about the board.

“Other people need to go on dates, so we can double date at that wine-drinking and art painting thing that Liam wants to do,” Zayn said, “And you’ll have an unfair advantage over everyone, and I want us to win.” 

“I did want to do that!” Liam said, beaming over a pile of plastic game props at Zayn. “But I don’t think it’s a competition.” 

“Everything’s a competition, Li,” Zayn said, patting Liam’s shoulder. Liam twitched and Zayn pulled it back immediately. Louis sighed into the trail mix.

“I don’t, I don’t think I can,” Harry said, biting his lip.

“Dates are stupid,” Babs said, knocking a handful of plastic gold coins off the edge of the table, and not bothering to pick them up. “Game nights are where it’s at.”

“This is what marriage does to you,” Niall noted.

“Whatever, you should do it,” Louis said, too forcefully. He frowned at the board to hopefully communicate, do whatever you want, also be normal. And hopefully did not communicate, it’s a little disconcerting how upset I feel about this, but I’m going to sort that out later. He covered it by spooning Niall more chocolate trail mix.

“Thanks,” Niall said, “Still working on my first bowl, actually.”

“When have you refused chocolate?” Babs asked. They’d gotten the good kind of trail mix, with peanut butter chocolate and caramel pieces and a handful of pretzels thrown in as an afterthought. Babs played a reasonable but boring move, spending her action on mining for precious metals. These, confusingly given all the other plastic pieces, were represented by cardboard.

“Why not? Not dating anyone, yeah? There’s a gorgeous boy in Liam’s section, I could give you his number,” Zayn said, picking up Niall’s piece and moving it. Liam switched it for Zayn’s while Zayn took another long drink.

“Oh my god, Louis Tomlinson, put my glass down,” Babs said, slinging an arm around his shoulders and pulling him in for a friendly cuddle. “Everything is great, nobody needs anything.”

On the other side, Harry was looking down at Babs’ arm and looking just the tiniest bit unhappy, like he couldn’t help it. Louis shouldn’t find that cute. Babs was obviously nothing but platonic comfort, but, it wasn’t exactly a bad feeling to know that Harry was being reminded that Louis wasn’t desolate when it came to alpha touch. Louis felt as scrambled as the board.

“No, I can't fake date, it's against my nature,” Harry said, in his slow voice, clinking ice as he took another drink.

Can't you,” Louis said, regretting it immediately. Harry tugged at Louis’ foot where it was vulnerable under the coffee table, in the giant pink bear slippers Niall had given him for Christmas.

“So real date, whatever,” Zayn said, “He really is gorgeous.”

“Didn’t know you were scanning the orchestra and assessing our looks,” Liam mumbled into his trail mix. Zayn poked him.

“Don’t worry, you passed,” he said. “Need me to send you more tweets?”

“Don’t make fun of me for what they say,” Liam said, getting redder, “I’m not responsible!”

“Of course you’re not, love, we’re all subjected to your hotness despite your best efforts. It’s your turn, Tommo, keep your mind out of the gutter or the trolls will get you,” Niall said, moving the piece that Louis knew to be his. Niall handed him four crystal rainbows, which was probably a good thing, but on the other hand there were also thunderstorm pieces, which seemed bad.

“You could do it, fake date somebody if you had to, you know, for the symphony,” Louis said flippantly, insistently. It felt important, even though he could feel that Harry had stiffened a little. It felt like they were having multiple conversations at the same time, and that Louis wasn’t sure what they were. But the most important thing was that he wasn’t going to be weird about this. Harry needed to know that. Louis had no feelings at all about gorgeous boys in Liam’s section.

“Should I?” Harry asked, to Louis. There was a bite to it, unusual enough that everyone glanced at him. Liam played a triple-combo card that decimated Zayn's entire grain silo. Zayn sank lower into his arms and finished Liam's drink.

“Why not?” Louis asked, drawing the syllables out, looking at a hand of confusing cards with his head tilted. He didn't want to feel bothered, so he wouldn't feel bothered, easy as that. Babs pulled Louis even further into a cuddle, put her chin on top of his head to look at the board.

“Ok,” Harry said, “Maybe Zayn should give me the number, then.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said ten minutes ago,” Zayn said, unimpressed, gnawing on the edge of a card and glancing from it to the board. Zayn was taking the longest with his turns.

“Really?” Niall asked. He sounded skeptical.

“Guess there’s no reason not to, huh,” Harry said, still looking at Louis, and Louis wished he would stop, felt his breath shallow out in an unpleasant way.  

“Don’t be a dick,” Babs said, cutting through the chatter. Louis started, and looked at her, but she didn’t seem willing to expand, just arched an eyebrow at Harry, who looked abashed. All kinds of secret conversations happening tonight. Goddamn alpha to alpha.

“I wasn’t,” Harry started, and Babs leaned over Louis to fix Harry with the entire force of her stare. With her other arm, she’d squeezed Louis in, and he felt his breath steady of its own accord. 

“If you’re going to play the game,” she said, “Play the damn game.”

She was radiating something and it wasn't subtle, but it also wasn't meant for Louis, so all he felt was the usual Babs-glow of her touch, strong and bright. Harry locked eyes with her and for half a heartbeat, there was something tense and questioning between them.

But then Harry sat back, settled against the frame of the couch, and looked at his cards. Babs turned fluidly back to the board.

“Oh no, second age of trolls has begun, watch out,” Niall said, too loudly.

Niall had played a deft hand that none of them followed, hijacking Liam's land army and seeding it with trolls that he produced from yet another small bag of pieces. Louis wasn’t sure, but he thought they might have skipped Harry’s last two turns, maybe three.

“Well, that’s my cue, I always try to take a break at the second age. I designate Liam to play my turn, he is the only trustworthy one of you,” Louis said, scooting out from the table, snagging glasses for refills. He felt a little bit lost in the rules of the game, and a little bit lost in the biting lines of mild, friendly tension around the table between Harry and Babs.

Louis took a breather in the kitchen, mixing new drinks slowly. Harry could talk about dates if he wanted to. Harry could do whatever he wanted. Friends had to let friends talk about people who might turn into more than friends. Louis was still pretty new at the whole friends thing, but he was pretty sure that if he wanted to keep them, he wasn’t supposed to be a dick either.

“Lou,” Harry said, coming up behind Louis and startling him.

“Hi, get back out there,” Louis said, in a whisper, even though Niall was covering whatever sound they made by throwing what sounded like twenty-four dice at once. Louis couldn’t even remember the name of this game. He stared into the drinks, making sure they were level. 

“Ugh,” Harry said, and then he was kissing Louis, dirty and hard and silent.

It was like a bursting under Louis’ skin, the hot working of Harry’s mouth, his breath and sudden closeness. Louis definitely did not think they should be doing this but also he was grabbing onto the edge of Harry’s hip with one hand and clutching the gin bottle into his chest with the other and doing his level best to stick his tongue entirely down Harry’s throat. And Harry was pinning him back against the counter with his big hands. God. All the nerves and the fighting feeling in Louis’ body jangled up and broadcasted in a tight little circle around them, and he could feel Harry too, wanting and lustful and frustrated. They were a mess. They were the worst.  

They were in trouble.

“Where is my driiiink,” Babs called, not sounding like someone who was particularly alcohol-deprived.

“Lou dropped one down the sink, just cleaning it up,” Harry yelled, in Louis’ ear, still clutching him in and not letting him go. Louis hated and loved this in equal measure.

“Harry Styles,” Louis growled. He bared his teeth, and he knew that Harry liked it. 

“It’s a believable lie, you’ve been fidgety all night,” Harry whispered back, but he let Louis go. After fixing the drinks and his hair, Louis went back to the living room where they were all losing spectacularly to Liam, of all people.

 

*

 

“You know what?” Babs said as Niall was cleaning the board and protesting that a sixty-page rule booklet was the right start to family game night. She pointed at Liam and Harry, who snapped their heads towards her in sync, “Let’s fight this out, you and you and me, right now, alien style.”

Louis made eyebrows at Niall, who nodded back. The two of them always had a secret wager that Babs was going to duke out for Ultimate Alpha in any group with another alpha; she’d seemed a little A all game, keeping an arm on Louis and going after Harry on every attack roll. Niall was already throwing controllers to Liam, who looked ready to go, and Harry, who picked it up and held it upside down.

The alphas got increasingly shouty, mock-growling and throwing air punches, so Niall, Zayn and Louis retreated out on the balcony to stamp in the chilly air and unsuccessfully try to find stars through the downtown lights. Zayn lit a cigarette and they stood meditatively in a small circle. Through the window, they could see Liam getting more and more flushed as he dropped weapons haphazardly, and Babs ducking and weaving like she could empower her avatar with her own body movement. Harry was handicapped by his own tendency to double over laughing, and his desire to explore the video game fauna more than pay attention to oncoming hordes. Through the glass they were like a television show on mute, bright yellow light and gleaming faces.

“Can you believe this is our life? Never thought I’d get this,” Niall said suddenly, tapping Louis’ bottle with the bottom of his own. Louis understood. From the small town where he and Niall had been kids together, he never could've seen the path to here, either. They didn’t talk about it often, but he knew that Niall felt it too, the contrast every time they went back to see parents in a place where Niall had never imagined an alpha like Babs, and Louis had been the only out kid in their high school.

“Me neither,” Zayn said, accent a little stronger than usual, maybe primed by the thought. He sounded a little raw, maybe from the smoking, maybe not.

“Wasn't supposed to do music. Was supposed to be a lawyer or summat and marry my parents’ friends’ beta daughter, not run about in arts circles. Not date girls and boys and everybody, you know.”

Louis hummed affirmation at that. He’d come out in early high school not entirely by choice, which was sort of drowned out by dealing with the whole omega thing, too, but still. Zayn took a long pull of his cigarette and streamed smoke upwards.

“Probably still not supposed to,” Zayn laughed, “Also, supposed to have life a little more together than like, the literal building I work in falling down about our ears.”

Niall and Louis glanced at each other.

“At least I'll be there with you in the wreckage, doing an insurance report and making sure we complain about every typo,” Louis said. Zayn grinned at him over the cigarette.

“You can do what you want,” Niall said staunchly. They watched the smoke find its way into the downtown smog and January mist.

“Can I ask you something personal?” Zayn said slowly, looking at Niall with a faint edge of dread on his face. Niall looked like somebody had just handed him a puppy.

“What do you think,” he said with a grin. Zayn winced, shoulders creeping up to his ears. 

“I don't know how to word this and I don't want to be offensive,” he said.

“No, go on,” Niall said, easy and inviting.

“It's just that, you and Babs? Did you ever worry, like, that she wouldn't get what she wanted, you know?”

“You mean because, I'm beta?” Niall asked bluntly. Zayn winced again and looked apologetic. Louis pulled the air and realized that he smelled a little drunk and a little loose, and maybe something else slipping out like the faint, wispy smoke. Wistfulness.

“This is a longer conversation than I’m warm enough out here for,” Niall said, and Zayn drew in a quick breath that Louis recognized as a gear-up to dismissal and pretending that what you said didn’t matter--but Niall held up an emphatic hand.

“But I’ll say this, and we’ll have that longer conversation later,” Niall said, looking dreamily through the window at Babs, who was decimating a field of aliens with something that looked like a digital blowtorch, and cackling maniacally. She looked like an avenging angel in sweatpants.

“The best decision I ever made was listening when Babs told me what she wanted, and then believing her. No, I never worried about that. I never had to. You date all genders, yeah? If you’re with a girl, there’s not some part of you that’s like, unfulfilled, waiting for a boy. It’s all just people. They could be dating somebody else, but so could you, nothing to do with gender or status or whether they're the one person who likes the same coffee creamer as you do.” 

Louis, who had notably strong opinions about coffee creamers, chuckled. The three of them were pulled together into a close little circle. It felt like a good kind of secret, this conversation. Zayn was watching Niall with a face that Louis could imagine a lot younger. He could imagine the shockingly attractive kid with the foreign-sounding name who belonged to multiple cultures and played multiple instruments and couldn't constrain his desires down to a single category of experience and person, no matter how the world wanted to box him in.

“Maybe Babs could be with an omega in another life, but she could also be with another beta, or living an excellent life as a single rockstar. But she’s with me, in this life,” Niall said. Louis would like to one day look as happy about something as Niall looked about that, even just for a moment.

Zayn nodded.

“Thanks for answering,” he said, stubbing the cigarette out on the railing and then dropping the butt in the Kentia’s planter. Louis sent a silent apology to the palm and promised to get it out as soon as game night was over.

“You're welcome, let's talk more next family game night, when I bring the expansion pack for that game,” Niall said with a deep and expansive smugness, and Louis and Zayn groaned loudly, as one. 

“Hey,” Niall said as they started to go in, poking Louis’ elbow and nodding at the window again. “Can't imagine bloody Thomas having a night like this with us, huh?”

Louis looked back into the living room, where Harry had accidentally slayed exactly one alien, a feat so rare that the other two alphas had paused the game and Harry was performing an elaborate, self-mocking touchdown dance.

“That's for damn sure,” Louis said. Thomas had never made fun of himself in his entire life. He hadn't laughed easily, either, a fact that Niall seemed to remember.

“Let's get back to our weird, best alphas,” Niall said, reaching into the Kentia planter and grabbing the cigarette butt.  


*


“I'm sorry,” Harry said, after everyone else had left and he’d stayed, fiddling with his coat on the table and saying something about getting a book. Louis was going to have to teach him better excuses.

Louis was doing dishes, had turned into the sink and let the rush of the water echo over everything. He didn’t really know why Harry was staying, when maybe Harry was annoyed, when maybe Louis was annoyed at himself.  

“What for? Nothing to be sorry for. Unless it’s that shirt,” Louis said, even though he'd liked Harry's flowery shirt, right down to the rose gold buttons on the cuff.

“No, listen to me, I'm sorry,” Harry said, shoving his way unexpectedly in between Louis and the sink with a hip check and a flagrant disrespect for Louis’ current personal space barrier, which he thought he'd been communicating well enough in silence, all turned-away shoulders and lack of eye contact. Louis backed up immediately, dish towel over his shoulder and soapy water dripping on the floor.

“It's fine,” Louis said.

Harry sighed.

“You're pissed,” Harry said, “That's ok. I’m not….with the joking about dating earlier, I wasn’t trying to--”

“I'm not, everything's fine,” Louis said. The last thing he wanted was to seem needy or give off signals that he was going to be difficult about the casualness of what they were doing. He was the most casual. If anything, it was a relief thinking of Harry dating people, reminding Harry that he should be thinking of that if he wanted it, since Louis wasn't going to ever be that. Harry was looking at him with concerned eyes, but what Harry wanted, Louis couldn’t really figure out.

“If everything's fine, why do I feel shitty?” Harry asked.

Louis pulled the kitchen towel through his hands, and shrugged. They stood in awkward silence.

“What’s this song, is it like a tango?” Harry said, suddenly. Louis’ dance playlist was still going on the portable speaker, which he’d moved to the kitchen to make the dish-washing better. It had come free with his last phone, which he’d initially scoffed at, but now he carried it around with him everywhere. He had Bach in the shower, even.

“This is more a salsa,” Louis said, “Really, Latin fusion, if you're gonna dance.” The beat walked over a neo-electronic vibe with a bass-loaded acoustic guitar, reminded Louis of red-lit rooms a long time ago in the noisy, diverse neighborhood that had been the only place he and Thomas had been able to afford. It had been unpredictable and fragile, struggling to make rent and make friends and keep the heat on, but there had also been a lot of loud chatter over cheap takeout, and always music.

“Funny to hear you talk about music that’s not orchestra. You like this too?” Harry asked, a little wrinkle toward a smile in his face that nearly showed a dimple. Louis made himself shake out his hands, let the tension drain away. It was nice to be alone with Harry, would be nice to see the dimple for real. 

“I like a lot of stuff when it comes to dance, specifically,” he said, “Orchestra is more for, chilling in a velvet seat with your eyes closed, you know. Trying to ignore strangers who break in, disturbing your peace with their… Their shoulders, and all.” There it was, the dimple and the way Harry’s eyes changed when he grinned, making his whole face look younger.

“So when did you learn to dance?” Harry asked. He still hadn’t moved, was still in front of Louis, solid and close. He was tapping a ring absently to the beat along the aluminum rim of the sink.

“In college, and the early days of our company,” Louis said, “Cheaper than a bar, nobody forces you to drink, lots of platonic touch.”

And he'd needed it, back then, before he could afford the good stims and with Thomas, who'd gotten so withdrawn and cold whenever things had been hard.

Suddenly, Harry slipped his palms up Louis’ forearms, heedless of the soap and water that ran down between them, dripping on the floor and sending lines of moisture up his own arms. Louis immediately felt the background anxiety of hosting and memory start to recede, felt his mind come back into the moment. It was still so bloody good touching Harry, always.

“Show me how,” Harry said. Louis pushed his arms out, just slightly into Harry's.

“It starts with compression,” he said. “You want to hold a frame, but you also want to give. Push back a little more--good, that's about it. Feel that?”

Harry nodded. Louis shifted his weight from one foot to the other, listening to the slide of the synthesized percussion. Harry matched immediately, a natural follow.

“Partner dancing is a conversation,” Louis said. “If you're not holding a little tension against me, then you're just blank. I don't know what you're saying. But if it's too much, and you're too stiff, then I don't feel like you're listening to me.”

“Hmm, like the goldilocks thing,” Harry said. He was following Louis, back and forward, side and side. Louis had slipped into an easy salsa without even verbalizing the steps, and Harry was right there with him. Louis’ arms were still wet, but he pulled Harry in anyway, made a true frame on Harry's lower back and felt the slip of his skin through the shirt made damp under his fingers.

“Right,” Louis said, “It's like everything else in life. Balance.”

“I'm not always great at balance,” Harry said. “That's why I'm sorry. I think you're a lot more careful than I am. Sometimes I talk without thinking because I get carried away in a moment. Or get caught up on a really pretty face with sharp eyes.”

Louis shrugged, felt a little unsure. But the kitchen was comforting and dim and smelled like his favorite people, and leading in a dance meant choosing a direction and sticking to it.

“We're really different people,” Louis said. The song had switched, but the next one had a solid four beat. He pressed his palm into Harry’s back, and Harry leaned back into it, just the right kind of compression. Harry could be a good dancer, Louis thought, with a little practice. They were moving slowly and carefully in a tiny circle by the sink, not wanting to move closer but not wanting to move further, either. Balance.

Harry nodded. “At the very least, we've had really different experiences.”

“I like that you are all about the moment,” Louis said. “I think lately...I think I've missed a lot of moments. I think, I dunno. I think you shouldn’t miss out on moments just because I’m like this.”

Maybe that was enough for Harry to understand what he meant. However badly he wanted to just close his eyes, let Harry’s touch sink deep into his body, he wasn’t going to, tonight, he wasn’t going to lose the thread of it all. Harry skated his arms up and moved in, close enough that they were dancing hip to hip. Louis could feel the roll of Harry’s thigh, the smooth stretch of his muscle.

“Right now,” Harry said, “I think the moment’s here.”

“All right,” Louis said, pulling Harry's face down to his.

The chemistry of it roared to life before either of them even knew what was happening. Touching is so much better than talking, Louis decided, pinpricks of desire splashing out along all the points where they connected. He scrabbled for purchase on Harry’s slick t-shirt, made damp streaks in it with his arms. It whipped from gentle and considered to sexual in an instant, like someone had skipped a track mid-song.

“Fuck you and your fake dates,” Louis said, lightly, as Harry hoisted him against the table, pulled him off his feet entirely.

“If you like,” Harry drawled, half-kissing and half-biting into Louis’ neck.

“It wouldn't be a good strategy,” Louis reasoned, getting the heel of his palm into the front of Harry's ridiculous jeans. Harry was half-hard already, and that was better than an apology. Harry caught his breath at the press of it.

“A second symphony romance would be, like, distracting. Everybody assumes the wild artist is a slag,” Louis said, grinding where Harry was hard, watching the trail of flush creep up from his low collar. He pushed his cheek up against Harry’s, felt the strong length of jaw and the rub of his scruff. Sometimes it worked really well to reflect, take everything that he wished somebody would do to him, and do it to somebody else instead.  

“You've got a strategy for everything, huh? Controlling. What's your story for me?” Harry snapped, bracing on his fists against the table. Louis could tell that he wanted to push back on Louis, unfoot him instead, but he was caught in the tenuousness of their strange conversation.

“That's right. Your story is supposed to be falling in love with the symphony itself, brilliant young thing finds something to love in an old, forgotten, underestimated institution,” Louis said.

“Are you sure you're talking about the symphony?” Harry said, which hit way too close to home, so Louis ended it with a deep, clawing, mad kind of kiss, bit Harry’s lip for good measure. He let the frantic skitter in his stomach manifest under Harry's touch. It felt like an addiction, tonight, knowing that when he let him, Harry could sense the way that they affected each other. It felt good to not lie about something, Louis supposed.

“Are we having a weird fight? Not a fight, but like, not not a fight,” Louis said, making sure his tone was joking, but also getting a hold on Harry's elbow and squeezing it. “I don’t understand why we’re fighting.”

“Maybe that's why,” Harry said, but he seemed content to bury his frustration in Louis’ skin and honestly, Louis was going to let him. They slid back into the table, legs scraping the tile.

Louis wanted Harry to stay, wanted to drag him back into his bedroom, but he also didn’t. He didn't feel like being at the mercy of anything, not tonight. So he pushed back, getting his hands low on Harry’s waist and underneath his shirt and onto the smooth skin there, sensitive and vulnerable. When he got them off the table and pushed Harry back into the sink, getting even more water down the back of Harry’s shirt, he thought about Harry laughing in his living room, and he felt like he’d done something terrible, maybe, like Harry was a ridiculous, laughing vampire that he’d invited in and he couldn’t take it back.

“Of course if I were to fake date anybody,” Harry said, arching into Louis’ touch like a cat, “It would be Sally, our usher, so she could bring us snacks and we could just stay in the box all intermission and make out,”

“Shut it,” Louis exclaimed, charmed anyway. “Don't you dare cheat on our hall.”

“Never,” Harry murmured into Louis’ shoulder, and Louis felt a clench in his throat despite the joke of it all.

He had Harry’s jeans unbuttoned already, which was a feat considering how tight they were, and Harry seemed a little shaky, and so did Louis if he stopped to think about it.

“Lou, look at me,” Harry started. He sounded hoarse and it sent a flicker of lust through Louis’ stomach but he also sounded concerned. “Are you ok with all this?” 

“Hazz, we’re friends, right?” Louis asked instead of answering. It was ok. He was ok. They were ok. 

Harry hugged him. Just a proper, real hug. Louis curled into Harry, Harry’s open palm on his back, cradling him in. Louis wrapped around Harry's waist, abandoning the seduction for a vulnerable moment. He couldn’t help it.

“Yes, yes, yes,” Harry said. Louis held on for another minute, feeling the rise and fall of Harry’s chest, the edge of his hair, drifted into Louis’ face and smelling of shampoo. Then Louis walked them out of the kitchen and into the living room stepping backwards around the coffee table, and they collapsed onto the couch together, clumsy and coiled.

They kissed long and slow, untangling each other from clothes and scoping a closeness that felt secretive and tentative. They worked into each other with their hands, legs; Harry was taller than Louis, but lying down, Louis felt like he could get an upper hand, wrapping his arm around the back of Harry’s neck and throwing his leg up the side of Harry’s waist. Louis couldn’t stop looking at Harry, so much he had to close his eyes. He felt slick and wanting, like he wanted to ask Harry for more than fingers or mouth, but tonight seemed so complicated already. Fucking, stop it, Louis thought at his body, his brain, at the rivers of biochemistry between them. When Harry crawled down the couch to run his tongue down Louis’ cock, he also reached up to twist their fingers together and hold Louis’ hand. Louis held back, writhing into Harry’s warm mouth and losing all sense of time until he came, hard.

Louis caught his breath against Harry, who folded him close against the back of the couch. Then he pushed Harry onto his back, found his way down his skin and held Harry’s open thighs against his shoulders as he went down on the length of him, teasing with quick, light touches and lingering licks. Harry--disinhibited and gasping and hot--clutched Louis’ hair halfway through and Louis loved it, went deeper as a reward, shocking a long moan from the back of Harry’s throat. When he came, hips jerking, Louis closed his eyes again.

 

*

 

Back in their clothes and back in the kitchen--Louis had found the dish towel tangled up in his shirt, and Harry’s looked properly wrinkled and was still damp--Harry pulled him into another hug. Neither of them seemed to have the right words tonight.

Harry was resting his wrists on Louis’ shoulders, sleepy and solicitous. It was late, and they’d run out the playlist. Louis felt a ticking checklist running in the back of his head. Had to water the plants. Had to put the living room furniture back. Had to make sure Zayn hadn’t screwed up the final insurance appointment. Had to test the electricity in the hall again. Had to not take Harry’s arm, pull him into his bedroom, curl up into him and forget about the world. Not what friends did.

Louis pulled back. He knew himself well enough to admit he was feeling omega desire for reassurance. If they were actually together--well, a lot of things would be different, and none of them were worth thinking about. He grabbed the counter behind his back and calmed every single molecule that would betray the edge of omega, the drift and the churn that said Harry should stay . Rules were rules.

“We're both tired, you should head home,” Louis said, softly. Best to remind himself that he could cut things off, in small ways now, and big ways later. That it was what he was best at, really.

“Is that what you want?” Harry asked, sounding pensive. Louis knew the instincts must be tugging at him, at least unconsciously, but he wasn't in depri and they were caught up in the higher complexities of whatever it was they were doing, and the air had faded back to normal, homey, and calm. Or maybe, maybe Harry just wanted to stay over. Louis mentally wrapped a blanket around every feeling. He was a cold, calm, neutral spot of ice. It was ok. It was safe.

“Tonight, yeah, Hazz,” Louis said, knowing that Harry would listen without argument to that.

“Ok, sure,” Harry said. “Let me know if you change your mind. I like spending time with you, Louis.” He said it with a determined, small nod.

“Or, you know, if you decide to share more about what's already on your mind,” Harry said, pulling on his coat and giving Louis a pat on the head, which he batted away. Cheeky as ever.

 

*

 

It was late and dark and cold, but Louis had survived his first group hosting experience in years and he had a secret friend-with-benefits and a dark, satisfied satiation running through his body and all in all, he felt a bit proud of himself. Louis was moving the ponytail palms into a new spot when his phone buzzed in his back pocket. It was Zayn, but not in the group chat this time.

 

Z: I've got a question for Niall

Tommo: so you're texting….me

Z: I've got a question for you about a question for Niall

Tommo: naturally

Z: do you think it’s ok to ask him about

Z: like

Z: maybe get his opinion on what it means if somebody does something that you don’t understand

Z: or like maybe doesn’t really do something but like almost does something and you’re like wondering what it means

 

Louis stared into space for a second. This would be easier if he had Zayn in front of him, and could ply him with pastry.

 

Tommo: um

Tommo: is this another somebody-who-is-an-alpha question

Tommo: because you know three you could talk to

Tommo: one option open to you is to ask somebody-who-is-an-alpha

Z: but louis

Z: I can talk to you

 

Aw. Louis smiled down at his screen. Then he thumbed over to his chat thread with Harry. Harry would be home by now, where he didn’t get service, so he wouldn’t get the text until the morning and Louis didn’t have to worry about sending it so late.

 

Tommo: Zayn has a question about a question for Niall that he’s sending me that’s really about an alpha and I’m sending you so you can give Zayn alpha advice through my advice on his question for Niall that he’s asking through me, through Niall, about this other person. Hope you’re ready.

Hazza: this is like another one of Niall’s board games

Hazza: can’t he just try TALKING to Liam?

Tommo: omg! Why are you up

Tommo: how are you getting my text

Hazza: I’m on the roof

Hazza: looking at the stars for a bit :)

Tommo: how did you know it was liam

Hazza: it’s obviously Liam. They’re so into each other.

Tommo: omffffg! right?

 

Stars would be nice. Louis flipped back to Zayn’s thread.  

 

Tommo: I’m going to need more information about the something that didn’t happen

Z: nothing happened

Z: it was just a moment of like, it’s hard to describe. Like a long pause kind of, very close contact kind of moment

Z: nothing happened

Tommo: ok but like….did you want it to?

Z: maybe

 

Louis rubbed his forehead, and typed to Harry.

 

Tommo: yeah, Zayn is scared to tell Liam how he feels. I think he’s hung up on the A thing

Hazza: he shouldn’t be

Tommo: you know that and i know that but it’s hard

Hazza: …….

Hazza: what’s hard is that it’s not really about that and it’s not about that he’s Li’s boss either

Tommo: what do you mean

Hazza: think he’s using all that as an excuse

Hazza: look

Hazza: tell him...it’s not really like about alphas, but, we do tend to worry about being overbearing. Especially someone like Li.

Hazza: tell him he has to give Li the space, you know. If he’s always filling it up with just, joking, Liam’s never going to risk putting it out there

Tommo: i’ll tell him


Tommo: stop being a fucking pain in the ass is my advice

Z: ok that’ll be hard

Tommo: no look. ask Niall for better words than this, but.

Tommo: feel free to get our opinions on what things mean but like, only one person’s opinion is what you need

Tommo: you have to ask the person who almost did the-thing-you-wonder-about, what it means

Tommo: if you think maybe you want something you have to at least give it a shot.

Z: ugh  

Z: you’re the worst?

Z: thx

 

Louis sent him a thumbs-up emoji, which between the two of them, was the equivalent of a long and emotional hug. The window corner! That was where the ponytail palms belonged. They’d stay a little cooler from the winter drafts, and since Louis didn’t have to water them much in the winter, they could fill up that hard-to-reach-spot. He’d just dropped the first one into place when his phone buzzed again.

 

Hazza: going back down to the land of no signal

Hazza: hope you sleep tight Lou

Tommo: hope you enjoyed your stars

 

Tommo: hope you dream about dancing

*error: network unavailable msg not delivered*  

Chapter Text

Louis woke up to a headache, curled lovingly around his temples like a perverse puppy. But it felt like the kind that would gradually recede. Normal annoying, not the awful type he felt on depri, so that was a relief. It was sunday, and for once there was no extra special bonus crap work to do for the office. Louis wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and shuffled through his apartment long enough to make a good cup of coffee and stretch out on the couch with it. He discarded the ill-advised impulse to text Harry. 

“We are capable of figuring out what to do with ourselves,” Louis told the plants. “We like our own company.”

He tried to sip the coffee laying down, which didn’t work, so he grudgingly sat halfway up against the couch arm, and let his brain come back on. Harry’s face flashed into his mind, the way he’d looked in Louis’ apartment just last night. It still smelled like Harry, lingering in the couch cushions, tripping up Louis’ nose.

Louis swallowed, twitched. There was some phantom pull still lingering in his muscles. There was such a thing as turning your brain back on too fast. Thankfully, his phone buzzed.

 

Nialler: hey tommo you up

Tommo: kinda

Nialler: I’m heading over to pick you up, you eaten?

Tommo: what? Did we have plans?

Nialler: we do now!

 

Niall brought greasy breakfast sandwiches from the corner cafe near his apartment, bless him, and he waited thirty minutes for Louis to shower and pull on loose, old jeans, a ratty but ultra-soft t-shirt and a long black jumper that was kind of like a tunic. Louis added another t-shirt under the jumper for good measure to adequately bundle himself against the world. He felt cranky, and cranky always meant cold.

Louis patiently followed Niall as he browsed the bins at a video store that was finally, at long last, giving up the ghost and following its forebears into bankruptcy. Niall got a manic spark in him at the thought of a video sale. Most of the horrendous b-movie horror films that Niall adored never got updated to digital so Niall kept himself rich with outdated technology, a single last bastion of fandom for the worst monster movies ever made. Louis yawned over the cases and cases of identical crap, and nodded appropriately when Niall held something up and yelled enthusiastically about it.

“So Babs said I should check in on you,” Niall said, looking at Louis over the case of a vintage Mothman ripoff. Louis stared at him stupidly.

“She wouldn't say why. But I can guess, based on her overprotectiveness last night. You catch that, Tommo? Something happening with you and Harry?”

“Oh, fuck Harry,” Louis said, but without any rancor.

“That would be more your department than mine,” Niall said. He held up another Mothman ripoff and looked critically between the two. Louis couldn’t even tell the difference.

“Tommo, talk to me. I can tell you feel like crap. And I love how much we’ve been hanging out with the boys, but, are you running yourself ragged at the hall? What’s been up with you, lately?" 

Louis looked through the nearest bin. There was a faux Godzilla with a cover shot that looked like it was somebody's badly-photoshopped pet iguana, and five duplicate copies of a giant spider movie that Niall already owned, along with the director commentary. He’d spent so much time in Niall’s world that Louis had Niall’s movie collection memorized. That was saying something.

“I kind of...got droppy,” Louis said, tracing a spider leg reluctantly. “With Harry.”

Niall looked at him with a concerned face.

“I didn't mean to,” Louis said hastily.

“Woah, babe,” Niall said, “Nobody, but nobody on this planet, has the right to judge where and how you feel a drop. Right? I definitely am not. Your friends never should. Wait, but was he, did he leave you alone like that?” 

Niall looked suddenly, blisteringly--he looked angry, Louis hadn't even recognized it on his face--he looked about to jump up and plot homicide on Harry.

“No, oh my god, no, it was, he was really great,” Louis stumbled, hoping it didn't come across just how great Harry was, just how not friends Harry and Louis had been acting. “It was a while ago. I handled it. We handled it.”

“Ok, well, good,” Niall relaxed. “Are you ok?”

Louis considered. He was always ok. But it had been a lot, lately. It felt good to share at least the version of it that felt safe to share, even if it was guilt-inducing to lie to Niall, who never lied to anybody.

“Stims don’t feel as effective,” Louis finally said, rolling his shoulders uncomfortably, “I don’t know, there’ve been a lot of changes. New alphas around, and all. I thought I didn't really feel that stuff anymore but you know, maybe I do.”

Niall nodded, wrinkling his nose. Being a beta with an alpha partner meant that Niall was exceedingly well informed, even about the chemistry that he could opt in and out of as he pleased. Louis knew that, knew that Niall always had his back, but it still felt nerve-wracking to admit that he didn’t have everything under control with the omega stuff.

“And yeah, a lot of time working,” Louis said. The hall project had spilled into his daily life, eating up late night hours and early morning thoughts on his walk to work. It was just so important.

“I know you love the hall though, must be nice to have something to work on that you actually care about,” Niall said, gentle, thumbing through more old tapes. Louis nodded. He’d never quite put it that way in his own head.

“Is it tough being around Harry? He’s so touchy,” Niall asked, with too much insight. Louis reached across the bin to pull out yet another Mothman version and hand it to Niall, who looked right chuffed. This one had a cover that was nearly new.

“Yeah, probably,” Louis sighed. “Anyway, it’s fine. It’s good. I just need to make sure I get like, stupid sleep and shit.”

“The worst,” Niall said, “The worst homework I can imagine.”

Niall put the new Mothman in his basket and came around to Louis’ side of the bins and draped an arm around his shoulders and kept it there all through checkout. Louis let himself be steered out into the sunshine. He was certain that Niall was taking him to the ice cream shop around the corner, with Niall’s ineffable certainty that ice cream helped everything. He wasn't wrong.

Niall didn't say anything more until they had finished a couple of cones, Louis with his side pressed up into Niall, neither of them acknowledging it. Bless Niall.

“Hey, you work too hard, Tommo,” Niall said with chocolate running down his fingers, making a right mess on their frumpy weekend clothes and not caring a whit. “You don't have to have all the answers all the time, you know?”

Louis handed Niall the napkin he'd grabbed from the counter in expectation of exactly this mess. “Thanks,” he said, and meant it.

“Are you sure it's just, bio shit and sleep?” Niall asked. “Is it maybe about more, the fact that you feel this way around Harry?”

“It's not more,” Louis said, scraping the ball of his shoe on the asphalt and inspecting his cone with care. The waffle edge had a regular slot up the side, they probably punched it out with a serrated edge in some automated process. Fascinating.

“Tommo, you know, if it feels like more, you guys could talk,” Niall said. “I get the sense that Harry has some things of his own to say. He doesn't listen to anybody else the way he listens to you.”

“We really shouldn't.” Louis said. “I went two years without talking about this sort of thing. I’m actually quite good at it.”

“You're good at everything, and it makes you bad at things,” Niall said in a typical Niall koan.

 

*

 

Louis finished combing through two decades’ worth of badly-done organizational taxes, sent Zayn a cranky text about finding a new accountant, and decided that he deserved to visit Harry’s studio. He’d gotten a typically novel-length text that morning from Harry about it-- have to miss the hall today, finishing an old piece they’re putting up somewhere, I’ve been putting it off because I’m on a fullon classical music binge now and classical music is so long, here’s the address if you want to come get lunch, also just come, because I don’t have service there. Come over!

Louis had scrutinized the wood paneling of Zayn’s office for half a minute, trying to decide whether buying Harry an actual decent, modern, functioning phone was something that a friends-with-benefits-friend-person would do. He reluctantly decided not. But he really wanted to.

Things with Harry in the week since game night had been fantastic, so fantastic that Louis felt a little bit wary, like the universe was playing a long-con joke on him and would only reveal the punchline once he was good and off-guard. The physical alpha pull was still ferocious, and Louis felt like if he let himself open up to it, it would go deeper than he could imagine. But the depri was no longer hammering in the back of his head, so he didn’t have to. They played with the pull across long, joke-filled lunches and engrossing conversations about the books and podcasts Louis was making Harry consume, or Harry’s always-insightful thoughts about the city and its architecture and people. As if by unspoken agreement they’d taken things slow and teasing for the whole week; grabbing hands on the way out of the restaurant, covert kisses that left Louis itchingly unsatisfied, but still pleased. They were like two skaters, on a solitary pond of ice, cozy and cheerful despite hovering over cold, invisible depths.

Harry’s work studio was the front half of a warehouse, close to downtown in the arts district. Louis rarely walked as far as this neighborhood, and he noted a couple of great-looking Korean food spots. Harry had never had bimbimbap, a travesty that Louis intended to correct as soon as possible.

Louis lingered at the side door and gave it a couple of tentative raps that were in no way going to compete with the massively-industrial banging that he heard from within. He glanced at Harry’s text again to remind himself he was invited, took a deep breath, and went in.

The large front room had more light than Louis expected, with long glass panel windows that extended through two stories’ height, and gorgeous exposed brickwork on the walls. Lights were set up in the middle, illuminating Harry, who was crouched on a platform over an intricate sculpture piece. It was mostly made of white-colored metal, interlocking chains that seemed to float between rounded, heavy circles in various shades of ice-blue. It was also in pieces--Harry had a set of chains wrapped around one arm and was gauging a circle, pressing it into a smaller shape with some tool that looked straight out of a dystopia film.

Louis was not prepared. Harry was in a sleeveless, ragged work shirt streaked with chalky stains, and a pink bandana was doing its best to hold Harry’s long hair out of his face, but failing where a few long strands had gotten loose, pushed absently back against his cheek. Long lines of sweat traced out the contours of every muscle on Harry’s body, the thick line of thigh through loose, worn joggers, his long torso pressed into the sculpture. Louis swallowed so hard he almost heard himself.

“Do not die, lunch with me isn’t worth it,” Louis called, once there was a pause in the heavy grinding noise. Harry looked up, and dropped the metal circle with a tremendous clang.

“Lou!” He yelled, wobbling dangerously back on his heels.

“Fuck!” Louis yelled back, “What did I just say!”  

Harry unwound the chain from his arm. He hung it from an intact part of the sculpture, and pounded down the platform to reach Louis.

“No harm, no foul,” he said, grinning, bright-eyed and energetic and invincible, but clearly holding himself back, drenched with sweat and smelling like it. So Louis went in, and Harry made a delighted, chirping kind of noise, fluttering his hands down to cup Louis’ shoulderblades, stroke the soft part of his back in between the bones and his spine. Harry tasted like salt and work and metal and it was a delightfully new way for Harry to taste.

“What are you working on,” Louis asked, into Harry’s mouth. He felt a little giddy with this work version of Harry, but also, with the relief of feeling like whatever tension had been there at game night was all in his head.

“It’s a kinetic sculpture,” Harry said, “But the light doesn’t work for the space they’re putting it in. It’s supposed to look like the ice flow, and I gotta re-size a bunch of pieces or it won’t reflect correctly.”

He was thumbing over Louis’ jaw. Louis thought that Harry seemed to really like his jaw, liked the sharp angles. Louis thought sometimes that the rigid planes of his face and lowered brow made him look angry, or sullen, but Harry seemed fascinated by it all.

“How do you know?” Louis asked. Harry nodded back towards the platform, where Louis spied a laptop sitting riskily near the edge.

“Had to get the lights set up just the same, here,” Harry said, “Somebody smarter than me did the math. Somebody like you.”

“It’s not smarts, it’s just time. Computers do math. Sounds like a lot of work, though,” Louis said. Harry had made a little gasp when Louis reached around to grab his ass, and he was getting sweat and sculpture-residue all over his own worn brown jumper. It was great.

“It’s taken from a 3D depth scan of iceflow in the Antarctic, It’s all got to be topologically accurate, this is the only one there is,” Harry said. “I did it in partnership with a software analytics firm and climate scientists, off the radar altimeter they had. Plus it’s got to look pretty or whatever.”

“All right, all right, stop being impossibly sexy,” Louis demanded. He couldn’t go down on Harry again, here in the middle of a studio space that Louis was pretty sure Harry shared with a few other artists. He couldn’t.

Harry laughed, long and delighted.  

“I had a thought,” Louis said eventually, which was an impressive statement given the rounds that Harry’s body was doing on his brain.

“Why would you do such a thing,” Harry complained, distracting Louis with his hands. Louis had no idea what had seemed so tense at game night. Hooking up with Harry was the best idea he'd ever had.

“No, I really did,” Louis said, muffled up against Harry’s shoulder, and it was nice. “Also we’re supposed to be working,” Louis pointed out, because he was a wanker.

“I wanted to see your exhibition contract. The one that you send to museums for stuff like this ice monstrosity.”

“Why on earth,” Harry said, releasing Louis, which was regrettable, but then pulling an arm up in a tricep stretch that Louis appreciated deeply. Harry’s arms had the kind of lean muscle that you only got from sustained activity, Louis’ particular weakness. Louis was going to visit Harry at work again, definitely. Louis kicked against the side of a work table.

“Just let me,” he said. “I wanted to like, make sure you have a good one.”

“Aw!” Harry exclaimed, sharp and pretty and looking at Louis over his work gloves, folding down a velcro strap and attaching a leather covering to one finger, because the gloves themselves weren’t hardcore enough, apparently. Louis rather thought that “cover your body in special equipment so you won’t be killed by your job” should be a red flag, but it was probably a bonus feature for Harry.

“It’ll help me learn a little more about arts contracting anyway,” Louis said, “I’ve been re-working Zayn’s stuff but it’s like, pretty incomprehensible, and I need to see examples.”

If there was one unimpeachable truth about contracting paperwork, constant throughout the known universe, it was that it was garbage and that nobody ever read it thoroughly enough. And just, Louis wanted to do something for Harry, who didn’t deserve to be jerked around by crap contracting when he worked so hard. Who probably didn’t deserve to be jerked around by Louis, either, but maybe they made special protective gloves for that, too.

“Aw,” Harry repeated, looking pleased.

“Shut up,” Louis said, kicking the table again. It rolled a little on its wheels, and rocked back. “Give it over. If you had a smartphone you could be sending it to me right now, but tell me where your paperwork is.”

“Here, call my manager on your incredible technology,” Harry said, pulling a well-worn moleskine out of his back pocket in a hipster flourish that Louis would have to remember to tease him about. 

“Ugh, do I have to, that's not what phones are for anymore,” Louis complained. Harry nodded, pulled on a strange long leather flap around one forearm that was probably to protect him as he leaned into the metallic side of the piece he’d been hacking on.

“You have to,” he said, “She’ll know what you need, you two can have a nice conversation in business-ese. Marta, first number on the first page.”

Harry’s warehouse studio space had a balcony, up a frighteningly rickety iron staircase and through a heavy metal door. Louis banged it enjoyably, prompting a yelled warning from Harry, who was overprotective and alpha, and Louis flipped him off with a huge grin while walking backwards out into the weak winter sunshine. He leaned on the railing and got through a friendly, painless conversation with Marta Gomez on speakerphone while googling her on his phone--she had a good track record with artists, so Louis was reassured. She also said Oh, so you’re Louis, which was confusing, but she emailed him Harry’s paperwork without fuss.

Louis was about to go back in when his own name caught his eye, hand-written several pages into Harry’s notebook. He hesitated for a conscience-ridden second, but it was too much to resist--he flipped the page. Harry’s notebook was full of small scribbled lines to himself, some measurements, a few names of the pieces in Zayn's season, a couple of phone numbers, and a truly beautiful pen-ink sketch of a sparrow. And on the page that had caught Louis’ eye, it looked like some sort of grocery list. A handful of normal food things and toiletries, but then-- 

Louis, Harry had written, underlined, and beneath that--

No olives

Cheese

More carbs when tired

Black tea w/out sugar

Louis snapped the notebook shut. Harry paid attention to details, that had always been obvious, but it was strange to have that attention applied to the details of his own life. He had no idea what to do the fact that it made his chest feel suddenly and acutely fragile.

 

*

 

The symphony campaign was picking up legs. Louis lingered in the symphony hall lobby and saw a couple showing each other photos from the other day when Zayn and Liam met a few fans at a farmer’s market, especially one where Zayn had his head thrown back, looking defiant and longing all at once, while Liam grabbed his arm to gesture at spinach. Liam was trying to get Zayn to accept that salads were a legitimate food, if his artful leaf bowl shots on Instagram were anything to go by. That same evening Louis actually heard people in the audience laugh, like they were charmed, when Liam glared at Zayn over the entire crescendo in the Mahler. Harry had had an interview where he did a grand job bumping up the rumors of symphony romance, too. They’d sold more than half of the tickets for Harry’s show, had gotten a significant chunk towards the debt from it. Everyone had started to feel cautiously optimistic. Maybe, against all odds, this was working.

At Shaw’s late after the show, Liam got everybody’s drinks except for Zayn's.

“I think we’re still in a pretend fight,” he said, smugly. Zayn got a whiskey at the bar and then breathed his smoky afterbreath into Liam’s face to make him wrinkle his nose, which was sensitive even for an alpha.

“You’re having a pretend fight?” Louis asked.

“It was Zayn’s idea,” Liam said, but he looked like he thought it was funny. “There was a big to-do when I posted some sad song lyrics the other day, and we noticed that we got a lot more views off it.”

“Post Beethoven’s seventh,” Zayn said, “Then your kids will really get worried.”

“Oh god,” Louis said, “We don’t want them to freak out entirely.”

“What’s up with Beethoven’s seventh?” Niall asked.

“Second movement,” Louis said, “It’s incredibly sad in the beginning. But it’s also epic. Like a few minutes in, quite a banger. It’s so popular people play it by itself.”

“Gorgeous strings,” Zayn said, “You should hear Liam on it sometime, not in our season this year, though.” 

“Is it? I’ll have to add that to my list,” Harry said, “Always looking to get in touch with my artistic angst.”

Louis smiled at him from across the table, threw a peanut in his direction, which Harry caught.

“And what’s the pretend fight about?” Niall asked, eyebrows raised.

“Unclear, it’s all very passive aggressive,” Liam said. He smirked at Zayn when he said it, which Louis thought was rather pointed.

“We’ll have to make up our fight somehow,” Zayn said, “Brunch, saturday? You can Instagram a picture of your gross syrup-covered waffles that accidentally includes a slice of your stupid tattoos. And forearm.”

“That's where some of the tattoos are, it's true,” Liam said, “There’s a place round the corner from mine I’ve been thinking we should try. You can get your dumb bland egg white scramble, I checked the menu.”

“Wow,” Babs said, “Exactly how long are we supposed to put up with this transparent charade?”

Zayn looked injured. “Our fake relationship is very convincing,” he said, coiling his arm through Liam’s, snakelike. Liam smiled at him like snakes were his favorite animal, and patted the top of his hand. His hand lingered.

“That’s not the charade I’m talking about,” Babs said. Louis spilled his drink on her arm.

“Terribly clumsy,” he sighed.

“Harry’s interview looked good,” Babs said, “Did you read it, Louis?”

“Oh, yeah, I think I saw it,” Louis said.

Harry dropped his face into his hands. “It should be illegal to interview me while I’m still in draft for the symphony piece,” he said. “Draft is the most painful place to be. I have no good thoughts about anything.”

“Nonsense, I read the part where you talked about the symphony, it was impressive. You said everything that I'd told you about classical music! So don't criticize my thoughts,” Louis exclaimed.

In fact when Louis had seen Harry’s face looking out at him from the cover of a magazine and had to stop dead in the sidewalk. Two people cursed at him, but how could they not understand when there was Harry’s face, perpetual raised eyebrows and that absurd expression that should’ve been clownish but on Harry of course it was sexy, eyes calm and looking straight out and too much mouth and too high cheekbones and a flopped-over wave of hair and too much Harry, in general, just too much Harry. Louis had bought ten copies and questioned his sanity.

“It’s going to be amazing,” he said, and they all cheered to it.

 

*

 

Harry called Louis’ cell from his landline, startling Louis as he made his way up to his apartment on the stairs. Sometimes he got ambitious, and then he got winded, and remembered why he usually took the elevator.

“Oh no, what have I done now,” Louis said, puffing a little bit. He ran fifteen miles a week religiously, it wasn’t fair.  

“Nothing yet,” Harry said. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Louis said, stopping on the landing. The landing had a little window, from which he could see a downtown trash pile on the sidewalk outside. Oh, this picturesque place that he hemorrhaged money on.

“How’s life?”

“Oh, fine,” Harry said, sounded distracted. “I wanted to ask you something.”

“Something that you couldn’t ask me an hour ago? When we were literally across the table from each other?” Louis asked, frowning. “Seriously, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong at all, you,” Harry said, laughing.

“Lou, want to go on an overnight next weekend? I’m giving a talk at the arts institute, staying at a friend’s empty house. I thought, dunno, thought maybe it could be fun. I spent a year there in a residency program, and made a lot of good friends. You’d enjoy them. I’ll be doing a talk and then there’s a party thing. All your drinks would be free.”

Louis blinked. Oh. That wasn’t at all what he expected.

“Just, to come along?” he asked, cautiously. 

“It’s on the beach, know you love the beach, plus we could finish arguing about dadaism,” Harry said, voice getting more enthusiastic. It was always infectious when he did that.

“You can't argue someone into appreciating bicycle wheels on stools,” Louis grumbled.

“Are you sure this is, is that a good idea? Will people think it’s weird I’m there? Will it be weird if I came with you?” Louis said. That wasn’t very articulate, but Harry still seemed to get it. 

“It’ll be a lot of fun,” he said, and, “Nobody knows you there, you know?” 

“Art friends,” Louis mused, “And a party? Harry, is this you winning some other big award thing you haven’t told us about? Is this a big deal?” 

Harry huffed a little breath into the phone, which was absurdly cute. “It’s an anniversary thing for the institute, they invited me back as the guest speaker,” he said, sounding a little shy, but a lot pleased. Louis smiled to himself.

“But nah, the institute throws a good party for any excuse it can. Wanted to take you to one anyway, this is a convenient opportunity to do it and,” Harry said, sounding sly, “I give way better talks when I’ve got cuddles in my system. Did I mention I’ve got the key to my friend’s place, which is empty and also on the coast?”

Lord. Louis let himself into the apartment and took off his coat. He took a glass by the sink carefully poured a measure of water into one of his orchids, waited to see how far it sank into the soil, and poured a little more.

“Will they assume I’m like, I’m like your boyfriend, or something? I wouldn’t want--you know--” he said, incoherently. He wasn’t even totally sure what he didn’t want. Mostly, to reassure Harry that Louis was still well aware of what this was, was still trying to protect Harry from his own inadequacies? Harry made a scoffing noise into the phone, though, and Louis smiled.

“Nobody's gonna think anything, also, I don’t really care what people think,” Harry said. Louis knew his voice well enough to imagine the airy hand-waving, four rings glittering the air, chipped nail polish and all. Truer words.

“Ok, yeah,” Louis said, “I’d love to go. As long as there’s nobody thinking. Sheer hedonism only.”

“We’re going to party with a bunch of artists, I mean, two of the professors are in poly relationships. I think if you hadn't like, had a dozen friends with benefits by your first museum residency, people would get worried. Nobody will be bothered. Nobody will care.”

Louis pivoted from imagining judgement to imagining all of Harry's fancy artist friends somehow knowing that he'd only really had one serious relationship in his life.

“Sorry, I can't go because everyone is going to think I'm some kind of…some kind of boring corporate troll,” Louis said. To Harry, and also to the orchids, which he imagined were among his more sympathetic-looking plants.

“No they--a what?”

“I'm going to wear the wrong shoes!” Louis wailed. “They won't be organically sourced from a Finnish boutique, or like, maybe actually what's in fashion is not wearing shoes at all,”

“You look great literally all the time,” Harry said.

“You've seen me, you know I only have two modes: work suits and, like, jumpers. I basically wear blankets outside of work. You know where all my work clothes came from? When I joined the firm I looked at the labels in the office gym locker room to figure out what clothes to buy. I just bought everything they did.”

“That's…weird, but also adorable? You didn't know how to buy dress clothes?”

“I had a fucking startup out of college with my college boyfriend!” Louis shouted, “I didn't know how to do anything!”

“Why am I not over there to snog you for an hour, if you're going to say things like that,” Harry said.

“I don’t know,” Louis countered, “Why didn’t you come home with me?”

Louis sighed dramatically, turned away from the orchids, and threw himself onto the couch. He waited for Harry to step up, and was not disappointed.

“Because I’m a fucking idiot. Louuu,” Harry said, lowering his voice a few steps, which was playing bloody dirty-- “I don't wanna go alone. Come on, nobody knows you there. Escape with me.” 

“Only because you need somebody to keep you grounded when the entire room fawns on you,” Louis said, as if he wasn't going to be just as star-struck. He'd probably be the worst one.

 

*

 

Just when Louis had started to wonder whether he'd need to plot a more direct intervention for the gestaltic impossible obliviousness of Liam and Zayn, help came from an unexpected quarter.

Louis had met them in the symphony hall lobby at the end of the Paganini program--Liam had been a blur of twisted, passionate performance, and Louis didn't know if Zayn had even spared a glance for any other member of the orchestra. Louis had been on the edge of his seat for the whole thing, his entire soundscape filled with the strings. It was a triumph.

“Transcendent!” Louis whooped, hugging Liam through his stiff tuxedo. Liam looked luminescently happy, angling between Louis and Zayn like he couldn't stay still.  

“I know,” Zayn said, because Liam was too relieved and tired to really talk. “I know, right?”

“I'm going to say that our forcing you to cut down the drills and watch superhero movies this week was a key factor,” Louis said.

“It was a worthy performance,” said the older, white-haired alpha who'd come up behind Liam with none of them noticing. Louis looked at him questioning, but Zayn's back jolted straighter.

“Simon, glad you enjoyed,” Zayn said. Board member, then.

“Yes,” the man said, but his gaze, heavy on the air between Zayn and Liam, was anything but friendly. Louis pulled the air and got a blast that felt very nostalgic, the way so many pitch meetings had felt back in the day. Gloves-on confrontation, and the displeasure of someone whose world tended to grind to a halt until their displeasure was resolved.

“Malik,” he started, absurdly formal, the kind of cartoon chastising that always felt like nails on a chalkboard to Louis-- “Single good performances notwithstanding, I'm concerned about the direction you are providing. So concerned, I felt it right to speak with you.”

“And is there a reason you are voicing that concern here and now, and not in our previous meeting with the other members?” Zayn asked. Good for him. Louis was impressed.

“It's not going to work,” Simon said, smooth and bland and riddled with the expectation of his authority.

“This experiment, it's going to cost us in reputation. We've guided this symphony to near worldclass, and you're willing to risk that, for what? On some flight of fancy?”

“Malik. Cancel this absurd collaboration show, replace it with the original program. Undo the damage of it in the eyes of our most loyal patrons.”

Louis forced himself to breathe. Zayn was as still as a statue.

“You--the board -- you guided us into bankruptcy. The same old program isn't going to work this time,” Zayn said. Louis could feel the force of it like it sent a quiver through the chandeliers. Here was the hard-headed, hot-hearted musician who had made himself too good for elites of the arts world to dismiss.

Simon’s face got heavier. “I thought to spare you embarrassment,” he said, and he looked directly at Liam, sneering. “But clearly, embarrassment has not been your highest concern. I should have known you'd let us down as soon as you brought on an untested, unseasoned concertmaster. But I suppose I can understand why, now. Your direction is wrong, and you will fail this symphony.”

Liam sucked in a breath like he'd been punched. Zayn leaned in, his beautiful face looking something more feral than human.

“Liam Payne,” Zayn said, Liam's name in his mouth like a prayer and a curse and an invocation, “Knows music in a way that you never will. Liam Payne is the reason we invented orchestras. And me? My entire job, my direction, is to fight for this hall and this season and this experiment and whatever he needs , to keep Liam Payne and the people like him here. I'll build a fucking hall out of scraps if I have to.”

Louis knew, objectively, that Zayn couldn't broadcast like an alpha, yet when Simon took a step back, seemed to hunch defensively into his expensive suit, it was hard not to think there was a little crackling magic in the air around Zayn.

“Perhaps a conversation at a later time,” Simon tried, but Zayn interrupted him.

“Yes, please, do put a meeting on my calendar, with the rest of the board,” he said, frigid as the icicles that hung over the hall’s backdoor.

“And if you go behind my back on this, you will lose.”

Simon nodded, curt, but acknowledging. Against all of Louis’ expectations, there was something like dawning respect on his face. He turned to go.

“Simon,” Zayn said, not yet standing down, tall and proud and devastating in the middle of the lobby--”Don't ever talk about my boyfriend that way again.”

The air around Zayn went back to normal. Louis swore that the chandeliers actually dimmed a notch or two as he came back to them, looked normal and impassive and a little cranky. Liam and Louis gaped at him.

“What are you going to do,” Liam said, sounding worried and thin.

“I'll take care of it, don't worry about them,” Zayn said. He'd turned to look at Liam, curious and intent.

“That was a, quite a performance,” Liam said. He looked a little wild.

“Not a performance,” Zayn said. Liam closed the gap between them. Right there, in the middle of the lobby underneath the biggest chandelier, surrounded by a crowd, he kissed Zayn.

“Oh my gooooood,” Louis whispered, dancing from one foot to the other. Of all the nights for Harry to have to spend in the studio. Zayn had melted right into it, started to clutch Liam's jacket, when the catch of his elbow on Liam’s arm seemed to startle Liam back to reality.

“Aaah, nooo, I'm sorry,” Liam wailed, nearly leaping away. “I don't know what happened, it just seemed like a thing to do,”

Zayn hadn’t moved, his arms still hanging in the air where Liam had been just a second before.  

“It's the Paganini, I'm just really relieved to have that over with, lost my head entirely,” Liam said, looking at the carpet.

“Is something going on with you two? Something you should talk about?” Louis prompted, hardly able to keep a straight face.

“No,” Liam said, sounding awfully guilty.

“Yes,” Zayn said. Liam swiveled to look at him, eyes huge. Zayn took a huge breath.

“I like you,” Zayn said, steadily. His voice was soft and sincere and nervous, and like nothing Louis had ever heard out of his mouth before. Apparently like nothing Liam had ever heard, either, because his jaw dropped.

“I thought you didn't,” Liam said.

“You were literally just snogging,” Louis observed, in case they’d forgotten, but he was ignored. Now Zayn was the one who was frozen in place and Liam was pulling back Zayn in, close to his face but not touching, like he had to verify that he was real.

“It wasn't a performance,” Zayn repeated. “This thing has been entirely selfish. I know you worry I make fun of you but I'm not, I don't, I'm just being a masochist because I wanted to actually date you for real, and I have the whole time.”

“Really?” Liam breathed, even though his hands were already cradled around Zayn’s waist, awfully close for somebody who apparently didn’t yet know if this was going forward. His face was like the spotlight on Zayn at the beginning of a show. Zayn was looking at Liam like that, too; like he was the spotlight and it was difficult to stare directly at him, but Zayn was going to do it anyway.

“I like everything about you,” Zayn said, tracing up Liam’s cheek with his long conductor fingers, “Every last thing. And I never feel like that about people . Honestly kind of thought I'd settled into this bachelor beta thing, was gonna get cats. You ruin everything, Liam. I’ve been an idiot and I’m definitely an ass. You deserve better, but I won’t let you. You’ve got to like me back.”

“Not a problem,” Liam said, and then they were kissing like their lives depended on it.

“You idiots,” Louis said exuberantly, and backed away, and left them to it.   

 

*

Group chat, 6am

HappiLi: just thought you should know

HappiLi: uhh the symphony pr strategy is unchanged except that Zayn and me are just dating dating instead of fake dating so

HappiLi: :))

Nialler: CHRIST. FINALLY.

Z: you're welcome

BaBaBlackSheep: ilu and I luv this and everybody go back to bed

BaBaBlackSheep: or whatever you were doing kids

Tommo: woo no one is ever awake with me at this time, have romantic declarations more often!

Tommo: now we don't have to all sit there pretending Zayn isn't ogling Liam's arms every second he gets

HappiLi: omfg what

Z: I dare u to try to not ogle

Z: someone who is a professional at holding their arms in the air

Tommo: lollll

HappiLi: dittooooo :D

Nialler: fucking, respect the sacred group chat!!!

Z: I kno you're picking up what I'm laying down Louis

Tommo: are you telling me there's heavy lifting involved because I'd believe it I've seen the way those tuxedos fit

Nialler: three strikes and you're out seriously go back to admiring each other off the chat

BaBaBlackSheep: lol I'll relay all this faithfully to Harry when we grab coffee in the morning, he won't get service until then

Tommo: happy for you guys.

Nialler: yeah

BaBaBlackSheep: yeah also Niall said it but FINALLY

HappiLi: we don't know what you're implying

HappiLi: we're going back to bed

HappiLi: or something

HappiLi: :))

Chapter Text

They left the city at seven am, partly because of traffic and partly because Louis woke up at five and let himself into Harry’s apartment at six-thirty, banging all the doors on the way. Harry had given him the spare key at the hall the night before, which was Harry’s big mistake. Just in case, Harry said. In case of early morning insomnia and excitement, Louis decided.  

“Showtime!” Louis chirped, throwing himself onto the couch to wait, thermos of tea in hand. The couch smelled delightfully like Harry. He counted to twenty, and then Harry shuffled out from his bedroom with shower-damp hair over his face and a hostile glare that Louis knew wasn’t real.

“Good morning,” Louis said, grinning over the tea. 

“Is it,” Harry mumbled, only in a towel, dropping his head into Louis’ lap and slinging his legs across the rest of the couch. Louis had intended to make an energetic speech about the morning coastlines, but Harry was making a good argument of his own, pressing his face into Louis’ carefully-selected soft-blue shirt that Babs had once told said was the best cut for your build.

“You will not sway me,” Louis said with resolve, but he took the opportunity to fold slightly over Harry’s shoulders and back, breathing in clean skin and morning freshness. Harry slid down the couch and gnawed on Louis’ knee resentfully. Louis was ashamed of how even that, the slip and catch of Harry’s teeth ridiculous and playful over the fold of his jeans, still made him feel a little loopy.

“Sooner we leave, sooner we get to your fancy art things, sooner…” Louis paused for effect, “Sooner we get to your friend’s empty house.”

“Fine,” Harry sighed. Louis took the opportunity to run his fingers through his hair, steal a little bit more touch.  It was better than tea. Even just being here for ten minutes, he felt more alive.

Louis felt a thrumming energy in his bones, ready to leave the city. He’d packed an absurd five changes of clothes for their single day and night, and loaded his phone with three different playlists--classical, dance fusion, and a roadtrip mix he’d thought Harry might like, full of melodic singer-songwriters and pop covers. He’d spent two hours the previous night researching current art commentary, just in case Harry’s friends subjected him to an interrogation.

Harry did a full double-take when they got out. Louis pretended not to notice, but flipped his keys from his thermos-hand to his free hand. Very nonchalant. Harry looked at him with a sleepy, stupid-sexy squint.

“I had no idea this was what you meant when you said you had a car,” Harry said. He’d whinged on dramatically, but Louis had finally gotten him down the stairs with a beanie on his wild morning hair and a small tussle over carrying Harry’s overnight bag down the stairs, since Louis had grabbed it first but Harry had insisted on taking it back.

“Mhm, I took her out of the garage for you,” Louis said, “So let’s make it worth her while.”

He gave the roadster a critical once-over, but she was still spotless. City life didn’t afford much opportunity to indulge, but he tried to keep the care up. He’d bought the lovely red roadster in the dark days, just before the breakup when he and Thomas had started making their exit from the startup, unclear what else to do with all the money. She was small, had less raw power than the ostentatious power-traps that their investors had always seemed to favor. But she was also so much more fun, the kind of car he'd loved in movies as a kid, stylish and light and the cleanest handling that Louis had ever found. She had custom trim, luxe seats that gave Louis a lot of satisfaction, and only just enough room for Louis, so he never had to ferry Niall and Babs around. And now, he supposed, room for Harry. It had been the good kind of crazy purchase, well worth the occasional tickets he collected from zealous highway patrollers.

“Sexy cars notwithstanding, I am expecting some really great morning views, to make this worth it,” Harry grumbled, flinging himself into the passenger seat and accidentally knocking into the second thermos that Louis had left there.

“It’s a whole new experience to see you so crabby,” Louis mused, sliding into the driver’s seat. “I knew that nobody was so cheerful all the time, Harold, I’m pleased to find that you’re human. I’m going to start doing breakfast instead of lunch with you.”

Harry held up the second thermos, and made a rude gesture that was quickly deflated by the way it flopped immediately into an apology pat of Louis’ thigh. If Louis didn’t know better, he’d think that Harry was feeling the way he was--itching for touch and closeness, too excited to maintain unconcerned friend-space.

“Did you bring a backup for yourself? It’s eating into my leg room.”

“Yes, that's for you,” Louis said, rolling his eyes and steering them off Harry’s narrow street, pulling a satisfyingly tight turn to scoot in front of a slow morning garbage truck. “You’re going to be thanking me when we get there in time for you to practice your talk, and all.”

“You're too good to me,” Harry said, dropping the charade and swinging right back into cheerfulness, just like Louis knew he would. Harry couldn’t even stay pretend-crabby for long. He opened the thermos and took a deep sniff.

“Lou! You brought me tea! This doesn’t make up for forcing me awake right now, to be clear, but it helps.”

Louis smirked over at Harry briefly, and focused on getting onto the highway and out of the burgeoning city traffic. They were out in a matter of minutes, on the narrow highway spilling between the industrial buildings and train tracks, a long clean line to elsewhere. Louis loved this drive, loved chasing the sunrise as the highways split into the east/west, north/south axes that ran away from the city. It always got him, the first clear leap out of the urban tangle, wide orange-gold streaks of sunrise carving new light rivers  over the low hills around them. The car smelled like tea and Harry’s shampoo and clean leather.

“You like this,” Harry observed. They'd been hugging the left lane for a while but the highway had finally cleared, and Louis had hit the gas with an audible sigh of satisfaction.

“What? Which?” Louis asked. 

“Driving. This car. And getting out,” Harry said. He was drinking tea steadily, and also watching Louis steadily, and it made Louis feel seen. It didn't feel like sex as much as it felt like…just, interest.

“Hmm,” Louis said, glancing at him sideways, but there was a small smile on Harry’s face, sleepy and content.

It hadn’t even occurred to Louis to wonder if it would bother Harry that he’d commandeered driving. Babs usually liked to drive, although Louis thought that was because Niall liked to sleep. Thomas, on the other hand, had insisted on driving. Louis had bought the car without telling Thomas and near the end it had become a silent, passive-aggressive argument between them: Louis holding the keys tightly in his pocket, Thomas taking his own car separately, neither really talking about it other than sniping, throwaway comments. I don’t know why you’d get a thing like that, you took the bus all through college. That’s because you were always the one with a car! Don’t you just think it looks a little silly, an omega in a car like that?

It had been a bit of a lifesaver, now that he thought about it, those long slow drives with nothing but his own thoughts, in a car that only smelled like Louis.

Harry yawned, patient and unbothered by the way that Louis had slipped away into memories. Harry was swaying the thermos of tea to the slow acoustic beat and looking out the window. Harry didn’t seem to care who drove, and Louis liked that, liked the anomalous feeling that he was peaceably allowed to be in charge, able to take care of them. He ran his hands over the wheel in a small gesture of thanks as she purred down the road. She'd always been an escape, this car.

“Yeah, I do,” Louis said.

“Yeah,” Harry said, “Because that's the way you touch me.”

Louis guffawed, possibly the least sexy sound he could make, but Harry put his feet up on the dash with a triumphant flourish, sprawled out and relaxed in Louis’ passenger seat. Louis would have killed Niall for it, but he found he didn't even mind when it was Harry.

Forty minutes into the drive, Harry had woken up enough to tell Louis more about the arts institute.

“It was my first residency,” Harry said, “Back when I didn’t know shit, and I was just a stuckup kid who’d won too many school prizes. And then Iwa--Iwa Sato--she’s got a piece on permanent in the downtown arts museum, you should go see it--first day I was there, she was like, ‘Harry Styles, your marble work is juvenile.’”

“Oh my god,” Louis chortled. Harry nodded, with a fond look on his face.

“No, it was. Marble! Who did I think I was, trying to work with marble! Iwa had me come to her studio and watch her work, and I just, wow, I learnt so much.”

“Is that when you started to know you wanted to do installation sculptures?” Louis asked. Harry nodded, looking at Louis’ phone screen to note the song there, rocking his feet to the beat.

“Iwa made me...less self-centered,” Harry said with an air of rueful gratitude. “Got me outside of my own head, better than just wanting to make pieces I could control. Installations like I do, environmental ones, they’re more unpredictable, they have to be a dialogue with everything around them. If people don’t feel the story you’re telling in the space you’re working in, they don’t like it.”

“So you end up re-making half your pieces in a studio on the weekends, like the ice thing,” Louis said, reaching over without thinking about it to unlock the phone with his fingerprint and hand it back to Harry, so that Harry could flip through his playlist. Apparently he didn’t mind a lot when it came to Harry, lately.

“Well I never claimed to be efficient,” Harry said, switching the track to something with a familiar, grooving Latin beat. Louis glanced at him sideways again, and Harry put a sneaky, warm palm on his knee. Louis slammed the car up a few notches in speed just to jolt Harry back against the passenger headrest, because two could play that game. Harry fell back, laughing again.  

The drive flew by. Louis listened to Harry’s stories about his residency, the people at the institute, their yearly tradition of running into the ocean late at night with the incoming residents, stark naked in the dark and shrieking. They stopped once to get fresh tea at a beachtown cafe and sit at Louis’ favorite lookout, a bench that was set far away off a rest stop that nobody ever noticed it, where they could watch the waves crash into rocks below.

 

*

 

Harry's talk was in a big auditorium, bigger than Louis had anticipated--everything at the arts campus had been bigger, posher than he’d thought it would be, filled with people crafting with materials out on the lawn, or chattering like students anywhere, except these students had more artistically strange clothing and wilder hair and heavier jewelry than anyone at Louis’ old schools. It felt like a place full of possibility and hope and pretension and nervous, frittering anxiety. But good-looking anxiety, anxiety that occasionally forgot about itself long enough to be brilliant. Louis felt an empathic pain in his gut that startled him.

Louis had spent a little time looking at the wall of awards outside the auditorium, and wondering whether Harry had ever imagined coming back like this when he'd been one of those brash students. It had been a slow, peaceful afternoon while Harry was off meeting with faculty; Louis had found a coastside cafe perched precariously on the cliffside that served excellent scones. He turned around three analyses without even having to think about it, and took a handful of beach pictures before he remembered that he probably couldn't send them to Niall without prompting questions. He’d taken a long walk, dragging his toes through the sand, and not really thinking about anything. It had been a good day.

Harry was waiting up on stage as they got settled. He looked calm but Louis knew he was nervous from the way that he'd gotten changed in his friend's empty house, fumbling and repeating himself under his breath. You’re brilliant, Louis thought, watching Harry’s steady gaze, his waiting, slightly-hunched shoulders. Who couldn’t love you. Harry was scanning across the hall, and he caught Louis’ eye. Maybe--yeah, he did. Louis gave a tiny wave, and Harry winked at him. Louis sunk down into the creaky auditorium chair, but grinned.

Harry opened his talk with a story, and Louis was riveted immediately. He talked about his first big project after the residency on the arts campus. It was in Japan (influenced by Iwa’s work again, Louis guessed), and he didn’t speak the language, and ended up horribly miscommunicating some engineering specs to the local team--and yet the mishap had led to a re-design that proved critical to the eventual piece. Louis actually laughed with recognition, along with half the audience, at the the images that Harry flashed on the screen at the end of the story, one of his most well-known pieces. Louis knew from his shameful internet stalking that it made up the entire first half of Harry’s Google image results.

Harry spoke, with a wry smile up the side of his face, about how the best work could come after discomfort. He was funny and genuine and vulnerable, and Louis found himself utterly enchanted. The whole audience seemed to share it, rippling with applause and rueful laughter. The theme of Harry’s talk emerged gradually over stories of the work that happened behind his most successful pieces. Harry dwelled on the concept of negative space as a design choice, but also his attitude toward mistakes as part of a career, the way that beautiful things had happened when he’d given up on trying to control everything. Sometimes you need negative space, to see meaning emerge, he said.

By the end of it, Louis thought he could feel the realness in the air, almost in the same way it felt when Liam opened all his emotions in front of the hall by pouring it into the music. It was just so very different from how Louis had ever imagined Harry’s art world, so much of Harry’s raw thoughts, open and unashamed in front of the world. Louis was glad that he was alone in the audience and no one was paying attention to him, because he had a prickle behind his eyes. Embarrassing.

 

*

 

“You fucker,” a strange alpha said, a smile to rival Harry's on his face, “Can't believe you didn't tell me you'd be here!”

“Pretty sure my name’s on the program, unlike yours, thought that was advertisement enough,” Harry shot back. They’d only just walked into the party, at the tail-end of the large audience. Louis had waited by the auditorium door, uncertain whether he should go or stay, but Harry had come up the aisle and grabbed his hand like of course, they were going in together.

“Far as I knew you were too old to leave London anymore, since you turned me down for the holidays,” Harry said, the way you do with someone you've got years of ribbing history with. The stranger flipped him off.

“Forget you, Harry, you’re old business. Hello there, new business,” said the stranger, triangulating on Louis.

The alpha had a sharp sort of smile. Everything about him was the kind of cool that set Louis’ teeth on edge, black leather and black hair in a high quiff. Louis reached out for a handshake with an sideways smile anyway. He was on a road trip and at a strange party and running a secret campaign for a ridiculous orchestra, and he’d driven the guest speaker here. He wasn’t going to feel intimidated tonight.

“Louis. Since it’s not on the program,” Louis said. The stranger was as tall as Harry, maybe taller. He held Louis’ hand for a beat longer than he expected. 

“Charmed,” he drawled.

“This is Nick, and he's to be on good behavior,” Harry said, pushed off to the side and looking miffed about it, glancing between them.

“As if,” Nick tossed to Harry before leaning over Louis and giving him an obvious, lingering once-over. He smelled different from Harry, the same alpha hook running through but also woven with sand and dark wood and something angular, like sharp black coffee.

“Ooh, haven't you just got a corporate law closet-case thing going,” Nick said, and Louis’ eyes widened. “It's cute, babe, don't get many like you at the arts parties.”

“Nothing closet about it,” Louis shot, and Nick broke his leering alpha posturing with a genuine, surprised laugh.

“Right ho,” he said cheerily. “Can't blame a man for being curious about a mysterious boyfriend none of us have heard about.”

“Not boyfriend,” Louis corrected quickly. Harry shifted a shoulder.

“Well that's a place we've all been,” Nick said. Despite himself, Louis decided he liked him.

Harry and Nick caught up on Nick's escapades in London, a smattering of names Louis didn't know and a few he did, given Nick's wide-ranging social world that seemed to include some of the famous and infamous. The party flowed around them. Louis listened more than he talked, but it was good listening: the crowd was a mix of fulltime artists, students, and faculty from the institute. They were sharp and witty and tremendously good-looking, and Harry got looser and even more charming around them, his lazy, sexy drawl deepening as he described the previous year’s work in Europe. It was far better than internet stalking, meeting Harry’s friends. Nick made a lot of eye contact, and asked Louis a few too many questions about his life, which Louis enjoyed deflecting into questions about what Harry was like when he was younger until Harry pulled them away from the cluster of friends, claiming they needed to get a lot drunker for that conversation.  

“Nick's an ex?” Louis asked quietly as they went to get drinks. There had been that frisson in the air between them. It was interesting to see Harry have it with another alpha. He could imagine, back in the day, young Harry all wide-eyed joy and affection and latent sex appeal, probably always horizontal in somebody's lap.

“Emphasis on the ex, good friends now,” Harry said, handing Louis a gin and tonic and then stealing extra lime slices when the bartender wasn't looking.  

“I can tell,” Louis hummed.

Harry looked contemplatively around the room. “I've, uh, I've got quite a few exes here.”

“Of course you do,” Louis said, surprisingly endeared. Harry, a terrible heartbreaker in school and beyond, that wasn't a surprise at all. He found that he loved seeing further into Harry’s world, such a different history than his own. He felt a little pull in his gut at the thought, a whisper of their inevitable future that he shut out entirely.

“They're all friends though,” Harry said, “Never could stand to break a heart without fixing it.”

“You're cute,” Louis informed him. Harry licked his lime wedge in response, keeping eye contact. Louis felt his face heat up at the slow, pink slide of his tongue, and looked away pointedly.

Across the room, Louis’ attention was drawn to a cluster of students and faculty around a small, fine-boned woman in a bright sari. She was a bloom of gold and purple in a room of disaffected black, at least two feet shorter than everyone around her, yet she was clearly commanding a presence that Louis could feel without even hearing what she was saying.

“Oh, Iwa,” Nick said, coming up with a sigh from Harry’s right, four drinks impressively balanced in his hands, “Always the holy terror.”

“Just because you failed sculpture,” Harry said.

“Yes, you’re still Kipling’s Best Beloved in this place, never fear,” Nick said. “Sorry, Louis, he’s an absolute attention whore. Harry, love, do you want me to clear you a spot on the table so you can give a second keynote?”

“Lou likes it,” Harry said, smoothly drawing Louis’ arm through his own. Louis bit his lip to keep from laughing, and also to do something with the frizz of energy it sent through him. “Lou needs a little more attention, so I just try to attract it for the both of us.”

“Horrible,” Louis said, pinching Harry’s arm just enough to make him twitch.

“Can’t imagine that being a problem, he’s got that precious irritated omega scowl on lockdown,” Nick said with another flirtatious bent at Louis, who laughed, and Harry made a face like they’d shoved something foul under his nose.

“That’s mostly for Hazz,” Louis said.

“Ah, I’m sure he earns it on a regular basis. Harry, or,” Nick said, “Hazz, apparently, I must steal you away for shenanigans. Shenanigans that may or may not involve uncovering the time capsule that a certain good-looking first year buried here, to be dug up once we were ancient fossils.”

“Did the time capsule involve burying alcohol for your future dissolute self? Is it your first electro-mix on a cassette tape, or summat?” Harry asked.

“Maybe,” Nick said. “Maybe it mostly involves us sitting on the old student center balcony and complaining about adult life and how music was better, then.”

“Go on,” Louis said, nudging Harry with his foot. He felt expansive and welcomed and good. “Catch up with your friends, I’m grand.”

“Yeah?” Harry asked, and Louis could see him narrowing in, checking Louis’ face for sincerity, even when he was half-drunk and pulled in a million directions by the distraction of the party. That, more than anything, cemented the lovely feeling of safety in Louis’ stomach.

“Go on,” Louis repeated, rolling his arm dismissively and shooing Harry away. 

Louis got a plate of appetizers, took a seat at the largest of the tables, and let the atmosphere of the room wash over him. It was another big space, but it was made soft by hanging fabrics on the walls, intriguing tapestries and long, undulating runners that made a flexible, intricate construction across the whole ceiling. Louis had been surprised to learn from Harry that there was a significant crafts presence at the school. He’d never thought about his own depri-driven predilection for the sensory comfort of textiles as something that could have equal weight as Harry’s more aggressive, more alpha style at a place like this, but he was learning all kinds of things.

Louis was startled out of his reverie by a different textile--vivid purple shot through with gold, a new sensory rush of silk that clicked into his vision like a comforting ray of light. Louis smiled reflexively before he realized that Iwa Sato was sitting down across the table, in the middle of a conversation with a cluster of students who settled around Louis without even looking at him. Louis hunched down a little into his chair.

“It’s a good story, mistakes leading to success,” someone was saying, “But you know, Styles is always full of good stories. When does he make a mistake? It’s easy to talk about the struggle when you're on the cover of GQ.”

Louis frowned into the pile of carrots and hummus on his plate. Harry’s humor and success didn’t mean he wasn’t putting in long days in the studio, and refusing to tell any of them how the symphony project was developing. Harry felt the possibility of failure as acutely as anyone that Louis knew. He just didn't let it dampen his spirits.

“Nonsense,” Iwa said bluntly, as if verbalizing Louis’ thoughts. She was looking at the student with a tilted eyebrow, and he lowered his eyes apologetically. Iwa’s voice was low and smooth and authoritative, and Louis caught the scent off her arm as she stirred her tiny cup of rich coffee. It was complex and multilayered, but caught Louis in a streak of comforting familiarity. Iwa, Louis realized with a small, surprised but pleased jolt, was omega. 

“It’s never easy,” Iwa said, thoughtfully. “Not at any level. Not his, not yours, not mine. You know the installation that I recently completed for the Franklin?”

It was clearly nearly a rhetorical question, since all the students nodded. Louis googled Iwa Sato and Franklin exhibit, stealthily under the table on his phone. Interesting. Iwa had collaborated with low-income school in the area to design an interactive installation on multiethnic identity, taking in letters and stories from students all over the country. It seemed like a real success, drawing crowds and social media attention. Louis could see where Harry had picked up his flair for weaving together collaborative, cultural commentary into art.

“That piece was all anybody talked about last fall,” said a lanky beta with blue streaks in his hair and a nose ring.

Iwa sighed. “There was a lot of talk.”

She held up a finger, and Louis could see the teacher all over her face. “But the actual payment for that piece is no more than any other. The center wants to extend the exhibit, now, but at a minimal, courtesy cost. Even though this piece spoke to people who had never even been to a museum before. I heard from students who organized field trips, on school buses, to come see it. But none of that seems transferable to the business of my art. It was a mistake, I made the mistake, of not protecting my own effort. Now we are locked in a negotiation where no one can agree. I see the value of my piece, the way that it has impacted the world, but they refuse to, claim it’s no different than the six other exhibitions. Which I can promise you had no impact in expanding the audience, whatsoever.”   

Louis detected a wave of frustration behind the tranquil, calm expression of her face. He could empathize. The blue-haired beta was shaking his head.

“Um,” Louis cleared his throat, mouth feeling a little dry. Iwa looked at him, so the entire table looked at him, but Louis plunged forward.

“Have you, have you thought about doing a breakdown of the difference in ticket sales? They must keep track of who’s bought tickets. Maybe--maybe buried in the sales is proof that you increased brand-new patrons? You could use that as hard data to negotiate. Cut through the crap they're giving you.”

Iwa looked at him, silent and unmoving, and Louis hoped to god that he hadn't just made a fool of himself in front of Harry's very favorite mentor. Who did he think he was? What did he know about the arts, anyway?

“You are not one of our students,” she said, and Louis shook his head, feeling weirdly caught out. “What is your name?”

“Louis. Tomlinson,” he stuttered.

Iwa abruptly raised her hand and made a fingersnapping gesture at the boy sitting closest to Louis, who immediately jumped up to surrender his seat.

“Louis Tomlinson,” Iwa said, sweeping around the table in a rustle of silk to sit down next to Louis and lean in, catching him in the inexorable beam of unblinking brown eyes, “Tell me more.”

Chapter Text

When Harry found Louis an hour later, he was deep in an impromptu financial strategy session with seven artists who were clamoring to show him contracts and exhibit deals on their phones. Louis was having the time of his absolute life. His sleeves were rolled up, jacket discarded and hair wild, and he was giving an impassioned speech about impact evaluations for arts programs. The blue-haired beta was sprinting away to refill his drink.

“What is this party?” Harry asked, astonished.

“Gotta use their fucking weapons against them,” Louis yelled, to a general cheer. “Don't you ever let the suits act like you can't understand your own data. I'm giving you all my email and links to read on how to run some basic stats.”

A girl with a shock of pink hair in a pixie who'd need help figuring out her taxes bumped Harry with her elbow.

“Of course you'd be the one to bring the goddamn sexy CEO type, Styles. How are you always the lucky one?”

“Hands off, you lot,” Harry said, a grin so wide it threatened to drown out the chandeliers. “I found him first.”

Louis disentangled himself from the students, trading promises for contract reviews all around, and couldn’t even be annoyed at the multiple hair-ruffles and cheek kisses he got in return. Artists were just different creatures. Artists were delightful. Louis loved artists.

“Oh my god,” Harry said, sliding into Louis’ side, even though Louis was perfectly capable of walking, “I leave you for like, half a minute, I swear.”

Louis tried to poke him, but ended up giving Harry a weird pat on the side of his ribcage. “Best party,” he said, contentedly. Harry chuckled, low in his throat. “Not as good as leaving a party with you, though,” Louis ventured.

“Harry Styles, say goodbye to me,” said Iwa, stately and affectionate at the same time. She’d materialized at Harry’s elbow to give him a gentle hug and then hold him at arm's length, assessing. Harry tilted his head at her like a sunflower. Despite his height over the tiny omega, it was clear that Harry was waiting on her every word. 

“Your talk was lovely. More important, your work has been lovely,” Iwa said gravely.

Harry beamed. Iwa held up a hand to indicate she wasn't done yet. Louis realized he was nearly holding his breath.

“I must admit, I had my concerns when we heard that you were returning. You are in such a vulnerable place in your work--no,” she said gently in response to Harry's face, “No, you've been very successful. But I mean the work, in who you will become . I worried that moving back to that city would signify repetition, being comfortable over growing. I feel reassured that it's not.” 

“I think so,” Harry said, “I never know until I finish, but this project, I think it's the work. I think it's real. I think… I've found some very new things, in old places.” 

“We will see,” Iwa said, not unkindly, and including Louis in her glance, which made him smile back at her. The whole thing felt a little outside his ken, laden with the context of values and judgements from Harry's professional world, but he had no doubt at all that Harry was going to prove his own choices.

“I was struck by one thing in particular in your talk, if you will forgive me for sounding like an auntie to you one more time--”

“Why do you think I even come to these things?” Harry asked, ducking his head, ever the charmer. Iwa narrowed her eyes in a way that suggested she had never fallen for it, and it cemented Louis’ already high opinion.

“I enjoyed your appreciation for negative space, for allowing things to grow on their own, for holding back. But it occurred to me, Harry Styles, that one had better not fail to act entirely. Or miss the chance to do something with a space that does not appear often.”

Harry flushed and his eyes flickered to Louis, who was watching with mild confusion, but Harry nodded at Iwa.

Iwa pursed her lips at Harry for a considering moment and then, apparently satisfied, and turned away in a clear dismissal. Harry wilted just a tiny bit. Louis floated back up to his side and intertwined their fingers, discretion be damned. It was the end of the night and everyone was drunk anyway.

“Once your teacher, always your teacher, eh?” Louis said as they got their coats.

“She's incredible,” Harry said, his face reverent, “I wouldn't be doing any of this without her.”

Louis nodded, finding Harry's scarf and throwing it over his head with a quick and accurate toss.

“Gotcha,” he said playfully, and to his surprise Harry stepped forward and caught him up in a crushing hug.

“I was told that you downloaded a spreadsheet from Iwa’s email and showed her how to make charts out of it to get a better exhibition contract,” Harry said. Louis closed his eyes, soaking in being surrounded by Harry after an evening of craving alpha touch, a little fatigue running not unpleasantly under the sensation.

“I wasn't trying to be a fucking nerd, I just, I really don't like people getting caught up by stupid business stuff because no one ever told them how it worked,” he said, quiet and a little embarrassed against Harry's shirt.

“Mhm,” Harry said, releasing Louis reluctantly. “Something like five people stopped me on the way to find you, demanding I bring you back. Nick said you'd be his date if I messed up. I think you're the new favorite. You're a dangerous one, you.”

“Guess you should get me out of here,” Louis said, shy and gratified and extremely, extremely happy.

“Thank you. For coming with me, for doing that for Iwa.” Harry said. Louis’ fate was sealed, he'd go to a million parties with a million strangers in a million unfamiliar places with Harry if they all ended this way.


*


Harry seemed thoughtful on the drive and Louis was happy to let him turn the evening over in his head. He held Harry's hand in his lap with one hand and enjoyed the long, slinking curves on the coastline, hugging them with the satisfying smoothness of his roadster and not hurrying. It was a clear, clean night. There were so few lights along the coast that the earth looked blacker than the ocean, where thick moonlight scattered off the waves.

So Louis was caught off guard when they got into the tiny, empty house and Harry was on him in a ripple of alpha energy that caught Louis up and called out a whirring bolt from his instincts to match it.

“Hazz, a little wired, are we,” Louis said, breathy. Harry had him by the elbows, nearly on tiptoe, flirtation rolling between them as he walked them down the hallway still in their coats, not turning on any lights. He walked them into the first bedroom where Harry had thrown his bags earlier that day, faces close, still not quite touching. Harry wrapped his arms around Louis’ waist, put him up easily on the low cabinet facing the bed. He had a thing for picking Louis up, but Louis could forgive him for the way it made his stomach swoop. 

“A little,” Harry said, looking wicked, “Hard to behave when you're hit by alpha around your smart, sexy, infuriating, not-boyfriend.”

“Wait, you're not,” Louis bit his lip for a millisecond, mind scrambling, a nasty shiver running up his spine. Maybe he’d misunderstood this. “Are you mad? Are you feeling angry?”

“I'm sorry, what?” Harry said, pulling back to give Louis an entirely bemused, half-drunk face.

“I--kind of thought, like, I don't know,” Louis took a deep breath. It was Harry he was talking to. Harry, who was holding him up with gentle hands pressing into his hips, waiting, like Harry always did, for him to get the thought out.

“I heard that feeling alpha would make you mad. Like, by default. That you couldn't help it.”

“No,” Harry said, definitively. “The fuck? I'm a little--” he waved his hand, hair messy, eyes glossy, frantic tilt to the way he rocked on his feet, Louis got that, could sense the rolling energy and want off him, but not anger.

“No,” Harry repeated, “No, it doesn't make you mad. Jittery, a little wild. Annoyingly flirtatious, is a thing I may have been told? But what you turn that into is up to you. Anybody who told you they needed to be angry was just an asshole looking for an excuse.”

Harry was still standing back, still clearly wanting touch and tenderness and more, and it was strange to be on the flip side of this equation. Louis wasn't reluctant to try it out. He pulled Harry back in, locked him in with his thighs, felt the shimmering burr of relief that came with every touch. Touch me.

“Yeah,” he said into Harry's neck, catching Harry's earlobe in a teasing kiss. “I guess he was.” 

“I'm starting to have really mixed feelings about this ex of yours,” Harry muttered.

“Haaaah,” Louis said, and then it dawned on him.

“Speaking of exes,” he said, tentatively, because it was such a strange, novel idea, being the focus of that. Harry groaned, half an alpha-growl that sent lust pooling deep in Louis’ pelvis, half embarrassment. 

“Oh my god you're jealous,” Louis said, delighted and amazed.

“Shut up,” Harry said. 

“You are!” Louis said, “and you're not mad! What a night!”

“I'm bothered by the way those two things seem intertwined for you,” Harry said, but he was clearly distracted, getting his hands deeper in the curve of Louis’ lower back and kissing up his neck. Louis shivered, sensitivity flooding through his skin already.

“Huh,” Louis said. He pushed his way off the cabinet and turned them, steering Harry lightly against the wall in his place. Harry went, with a questioning look.

“Sit,” Louis ordered, in between kissing Harry, long and slow and calibrated to drive him crazy, looking away at the bedroom. Harry loved attention and hated being ignored and Louis loved playing with it, pretending to be distracted and thinking even with Harry nudging into his space insistently. Harry huffed a breath into Louis’ face and used a hand to pull Louis’ jaw firmly into place, slotting his mouth onto Louis’ and kissing deep. Louis smiled around it.

“Stay.”

Harry's eyes darkened, but he stayed. Louis turned his back on Harry and took a few steps into the bedroom.

“So other people looking at me, that got you, huh,” he said casually, working at the knot in his tie.

“It did,” Harry said, and Louis smiled at the bedroom wall, undid the tie with an audible slide of the fabric from under his collar. He plucked at the buttons of his cuffs, one and then the other.

“How did it make you feel?” Louis asked, quiet in the half-lit bedroom, the only noise the rustle of his shirt as he meticulously pulled the hem out from his slacks, the creak from the low cabinet as Harry shifted on it.

“Like I wanted to grab you right there, in front of all of those people, do things to you that made you forget they were even there.” 

Louis felt his throat flex and his knees weaken at the image, the sincerity in Harry's voice. But he still kept his back turned, unbuttoned his shirt and let it fall off his shoulders, bare skin and curved back emerging inch by inch.

“But none of them get to see me like you do,” Louis said, thoughtfully.

“Although you know, Nick really did hit on me.”

Harry growled and Louis turned back to him, eyes dancing. Harry looked-- fuck --Harry's head was tipped back against the wall and his mouth was wet and panting and he almost looked wrecked, without their even touching. Louis stayed in place, difficult as it as, and undid his belt, pulled the long leather strap out with a smooth flick that he knew showed off his wrist.

“But I don't want him,” he whispered, “I want you.”

“Fuck,” Harry managed. Louis raked a hand back through his hair, let it get even looser and messier across his forehead, and started stepping out of his slacks.

“Louis,” Harry said drawing it out, rough and questioning. Louis didn't know if he'd ever felt as wanted as this. “Let me touch you,”

“Tell me why I should,” Louis said, still teasing, still caught up in the addiction of the way they could torture each other without really torturing at all. It was all so brand new.

Harry looked ravenous, face drawn into a focus. “Iwa is married to Megan Santoria,” he said, pronouncing every word like it was the dirtiest thing he could fit in his pretty, pretty mouth. “I'll introduce you.”

“You incorrigible--you awful--you could have told me!” Louis gasped. Harry sprang off the wall, was across the room faster than Louis could blink, knocking him off his feet in sheer, exuberant alpha strength and catapulting them onto the bed. 

“Drama queen,” Louis grinned through his teeth, biting them in the air at Harry. It was a cold-hot head rush, the press of Harry's body against his, all clothed where Louis was bare. Louis was holding him away with all the strength he could muster in his shoulders, but it was a joke that Harry could see through, and that was the best kind.

“I love-- love-- what a music nerd you are,” Harry stuttered, something passing over his face in a flash. Vulnerability, gathering itself in the lines of his face, and sinking away just as swiftly.

“I want you,” Louis whispered, in case that was it, and he let it out on his own face, all the thoughts he'd had during Harry's talk, watching the evolution of his art and thinking about the way Harry saw the world. And he let it out--broadcasting the feeling in the chemical language that he didn't even feel fluent in anymore. But Harry was good at interpretation. They kissed long and slow and hot, like the night was infinite.

“Want me to introduce you to your favorite violinist, I'm sure you mean,” Harry said, equilibrium back in full force. Louis was already wet and loose in his arms, the heavy pull of wanting to be good for Harry beating in his pulse. Of knowing that Harry already thought he was, and how mutual that was. Being in bed with someone who took their pleasure in your own was entirely different, and Louis intended to never forget that.

“The only introduction I'm interested in is to what's in your pants,” Louis said, knowing it would make Harry laugh, and getting very much in the way as Harry struggled to pull his own clothes off. Harry was more than this but he was also just really, fucking hot, and Louis had to look at every piece of him in sequence, lick up the sensitive skin of his ribs, bite down the curve of his thighs, hold down the swell of his shoulder muscle into the mattress.

They didn't make it all the way before Louis had Harry in his mouth, swallowing down the length of him with Harry still in socks and his pants tangled up around his ankles, wrenching harsh quick gasps from Harry's throat. Louis had rather forgotten how much he liked going down on a beautiful boy. He loved it, really; loved to learn the flurry of nonverbal motion and sound that stitched together into a set of instructions. He loved the way that Harry flinched but also moaned when he traced the ticklish skin behind his knees, loved the weight and heat of Harry's cock and the way he jerked compulsively when Louis found the right sequence of tongue and fingers and mouth.

He came off and Harry actually whimpered. The best.

“Hazza,” Louis said, mouth wet and voice raw, “would you fuck me?”

“Lou, christ,” Harry said, going up onto his arms to find Louis’ face and measure his expression.

“Don't you want to?” Louis said, emphasizing with a velvet slide of his fingers around Harry's saliva-drenched cock, a pull of his want in the air around them even though he knew none of that was necessary at this point, but he wanted Harry to feel at least as out of his mind as Harry made him feel. Fair’s fair.

“Is that what you want?” Harry asked, barely even able to form the sentence, but damned if he wasn't going to be sure. Wanted? Louis needed it, was going to lose it at the sound of Harry’s voice and the heat between them. Louis got off his knees and crawled up the bed, certain Harry could feel the warm, wet slick down his inner thigh and the tremble in his limbs.

“Yes, that's what I want,” Louis said. He almost felt like he was running a fever. He felt empty and wild, like he'd lost the melody of control he'd been following, and he wanted Harry to take it up. He dragged up Harry’s body, shameless.

Harry flipped Louis handily, longwise on the mattress and down on his front, spooning behind him. He kissed into the back of Louis’ neck, a slip of teeth that called up the omega even more, and Louis bit into the sheet to keep himself from saying something terrible.

“It’s what I want, too,” Harry said. His strong hand was pressing into Louis, catching on the warm slick between them, and Louis could feel the wanting in the thrust of Harry’s hips behind him. He slid an exploratory finger in, shallow and careful, and Louis exhaled every bit of air in his lungs. It was so good, and it also burned, the long absent stretch of his muscle.

“Oh, this might take a bit,” Harry said, into the back of Louis’ head. He sounded calm, maybe even detached, except that Louis knew that was just how Harry sounded when he was being thoughtful. He could feel the throb of Harry’s pulse and the catch of his abs in how closely they were entangled on the bed, and Harry smelled rich and warm and strong. His cock was hard and close, friction teasingly light behind him. Louis wanted to know every detail of what he was thinking and feeling, take every single expression of Harry and hold it close.

“Just fuck me,” Louis said, desperate between gritted teeth, no more inhibition left anywhere in his brain. It wasn't even the alpha anymore, it was the way Harry had let him tease him that morning and had seemed so proud in front of his friends, the images floating in front of Louis’ closed eyes, Harry's face on stage finding his. Harry was touching him deeper, and Louis felt the need of it clenching the pit of his stomach.

“No,” Harry breathed, almost sounding pained, rocking into Louis and just about killing him with the press of his cock on the sheets underneath them, “You get more time, when you're this tight.”

“I haaate you,” Louis moaned more than said into the pillow.

“Sure you do,” Harry drawled, slowing even more, adding another finger, doing something Louis couldn't distinguish but that he felt in a beating rhythm through his muscles. He shivered uncontrollably, but Harry had Louis wrapped with his other arm, holding his head as he arched back, unable to stop himself. Louis was rolling his hips back into Harry, moans stuttering out of his mouth.

“How long has it been?” Harry asked, mumbling, like he didn’t even know if he could ask.

Louis managed to snort half-heartedly. Honestly? “How long have we known each other?”

“Really?” Harry asked, astonished, but Louis could also feel a new edge in it, happy and protective.

“Of course you would be possessive,” Louis managed, breath shallow and ragged, and managed to inject some tease into it. Harry had the decency to sound a little abashed. God, he wanted Harry now. He couldn't fucking answer questions with Harry's long fingers twisting inside him, coaxing the slow, fierce build from somewhere up his spine.

“How could I not, with you,” Harry said, squeezing Louis in a little hug, but also putting more weight on him, the edgy wind of his hips betraying that Harry was struggling to take it slow, too.

“You can do whatever you want, but I hope it's me,” Harry said. Louis had the thought that Harry really didn’t need to worry, that nobody in the entire universe could hold a candle to the goddamn hotness of Harry for Louis, but honestly if Harry thought that Louis was the one who had a choice about the matter he wasn’t going to enlighten him. His thoughts ended when Harry pulled his fingers out and moved over Louis to hold himself carefully over him. Louis was so relieved he could cry.  

“Fuck me,” he repeated, into the sheets. Harry caught the edge of Louis’ ear, then his cheek, in a loose, open-mouthed kiss that said he was there.

“I am,” he whispered, “Beautiful. I am.”

Harry anchored him down on the bed, and when he pushed in, slow and careful in the most Harry way, Louis grabbed his hand where it was braced in the sheets and he didn’t care if it was cheesy, he just wanted them to be together for this. Harry curled his fingers in Louis’ and held his throat with his other hand, just lightly, just testing. Louis pushed into the pressure of it, let Harry know how much he wanted to let him, the overarching joy of alpha dominance shivering between them. Harry held him closer, mine, stay, and Louis gave him the most omega whine he'd ever heard in his life.

“God, fuck, you’re so hot,” Harry gasped, pulling back in a fluid motion that was more than Louis felt like he could take. He was painfully hard, pushed deep into the sheets and trying to rock back as much as he could against Harry’s weight, which wasn’t much, because Harry was trapping him down. Harry was just as amazing at this as Louis remembered, finding a rhythm that was sending tight ripples of feeling through Louis’ entire body. He was shaking, out of control, but Harry was right there with him, hips snapping and making the best noises. He was relentless and tender and overwhelming all at once. Louis wanted him to have everything.

“Hazz,” Louis gasped, clutching into Harry’s hand, driving back on him, unsure what he even wanted to say, “So good, so long,”

“I know, you’re so good, babe, you’re perfect,” Harry said. Louis felt the rising crest in his muscles, clenched down on Harry’s cock and dragged out a long, deep moan. They were slick with sweat and scent and lust, lost to everything but the devastating need between them.  

When he came, Louis felt like he was breaking apart at the seams, falling into the unsound openness of the moonlit ocean. Harry held him through it, thrust deep and long and came a moment later, muffling his moan in an open mouth on Louis’ neck, just barely holding his teeth back.


*

 

Louis set his alarm to vibrate at five am, and then put it under his pillow in the second bedroom to make sure it woke him up. 

When it went off, the night had turned into a cold, winter early morning, grey predawn light and a snap in the air from outside. Louis crept across the hallway to where he'd left Harry in the other room. Harry was fast asleep under a thick white comforter, but he was scooted far to the side of the mattress, leaving a Louis-sized hole. Louis pulled off his sweatshirt and snuggled in, next to Harry.

“Is it time to go already,” Harry asked, eyes shut and confused, but pulling Louis in immediately and wrapping the comforter over both of them.

“No, we've got hours yet,” Louis said, finding a space for his feet so he wasn't putting cold toes onto Harry and keeping him awake. Harry made a very contented noise. “Just thought I'd come back.”

“Thank god,” Harry mumbled. Louis could still hear the sleep in his voice, and he wondered if Harry would even remember this conversation.

“Didn’t want you to go. Want you to stay. For good,” Harry said, with emphasis, tugging at Louis again. Definitely asleep.

“Go back to bed, I’ll keep guard,” Louis said, patting his arm. 

“Not spending the night if it's morning,” Harry said, in a half-asleep, singsong voice of revelation. Louis felt his heart thudding in his chest, how very much he loved being here, with Harry. It felt so loud, he almost worried it would wake Harry up for real.

“A clever loophole in your own rules, Louis Tomlinson.”

“I'm crafty when it comes to getting what I want,” Louis whispered into Harry's arm. He watched the sunrise through the shutters, Harry's long and peaceful breaths pulling them into the morning.


*

 

Going back to the office was like stepping into an icebox, and Louis hated it. At some undefinable point in the past few months, life outside the office had become full-color reality. His actual, real job was merely the cold half-dream that he floated through on the weekdays.

“Louis Tomlinson, what the fuck,” Abi said when he walked in. Louis waved a hand at her, engrossed in putting the rest of a vanilla creamer into his styrofoam cup of shitty black tea from reception.

“Look at me,” she snapped, leaning out from behind her monitor. Louis did, his mind jumping back into the present, because Abi sounded genuinely worried, and Abi was someone who didn’t sound like that for no reason. Abi frowned at him.

“So I knew you’d been sneaking off to spend weekends with your favorite arts organization,” she said.

“It’s not really sneaking if it’s the weekend, is it,” Louis said snippily, tamping down on his desire to spit fire back about the value of the arts and also maybe what it means to have personal time which he knew would be lost on Abi, who once told Louis that she walked out on a first date after finding out that the girl worked fewer than fifty-five hours a week. How is somebody like that supposed to understand people like us, Louis, she’d said.

“Or does the firm want me to start sleeping in the office now?” 

“More than usual?” Abi said, “You might consider it.”

Louis put the tea down on his desk, folded his arms over his chest. It was hard to pay attention to much past the sticky feeling of absence in his chest that whispered Harry after the weekend, but the sense of urgency from Abi pinged against it, a distraction at least. Abi looked serious under her usual opaque sarcasm.

“Tell me,” he said.

“I knew you were volunteering, I guess I thought you were experimenting with having a hobby or some dumb shit,” she said.

“But I didn’t know that you were full out running a fucking campaign for the symphony. Otherwise I would’ve told you sooner.”

“What does it matter?” Louis said, scrambling through possibilities in his mind. The last thing he needed was to be hauled up in front of the partners for a hazing over taking off early on fridays to get to the symphony. But his hours were still impeachable. Maybe fewer than they’d been in the past two years, but he had to still be way outside the bounds of sane working conditions.

“It matters because the symphony hall? The place where you’ve apparently been learning to woodshop? The place you’ve been devoting your considerable business expertise toward? The place you’ve been giving all kinds of free consulting?”

“I get it, it's stupid,” Louis snapped, “Stop dicking around, tell me.”  

“The debt owners are our fucking clients, Louis.”

Louis fell back against his chair. Abi glared at him across the room, the Abi-glare of angry concern. Judging by Abi’s face, this really was bad.

“Christ,” he said, staring at his greyish-cream tea. It steamed a soft cloud on his glasses that covered the office, and then melted away too soon.

“The org that bought out the debt is owned by clients, and not only did they buy out the debt this last year, they did it because they want the real estate. The symphony’s been failing for the last few years and they want to develop the lot so, it was only a matter of time. I mean why the hell did you think somebody would buy out the debt of a bloody orchestra and enforce a lapsed deadline? They need the place to fail, so they can tear the building down. And now suddenly there’s all this buzz about Harry Styles, and revitalizing the arts, and I was like, where does this fuddy-duddy orchestra get an idea like that, whose bloody strategy does this seem like, and it’s you, my god, of course it’s you.”

“How fucked am I?” Louis asked, weakly, although he already knew. He hadn’t been thinking of the symphony project as work, it didn’t feel like it even lived in the same universe as all the bluster and corporate espionage and analytics hacking of his shitty job, but, when Abi said it, it did sound like work. Work that he was liable for if he’d unwittingly worked against a client. It would be his job. In the wrong hands, maybe more. Maybe his career.  

Abi blew out a long breath, hissed between her teeth. It was a face Louis had seen a lot before, deadly and focused, as Abi laid out a do-or-die strategy for a client who was hovering on the brink of disaster. He’d never imagined being the focus of it.

“You can live. You’re too valuable, the partners want to sweep this under the rug, make sure that nobody finds out. You’re an idiot for not realizing this, thank god you have me.”

Louis chuckled, dry and tight and unconvincing in his ears. But yeah.

“Obviously, you’ll have to axe your thing at the symphony,” Abi said, casually, like it really was obvious, even though it hit Louis like a sucker punch, harrowed through the lining of his chest, leaving him cold and empty on the chair.

“No more weekends there, and really, you shouldn’t have any contact anymore. Like, you better not touch that director and first chair or anyone else involved with a ten-foot pole. By the way, did you hear they’re secretly banging? Cute couple, saw it on instagram,”

“Huh,” Louis said, faintly. Abi tapped her chin with a manicured fingernail, and then bit the edge of it, and then made a face as she realized what she’d done. Biting her nails was Abi’s singular vice in a world of strict control, not counting, of course, the alcohol and the profanity.

“Really, you shouldn’t even go to the symphony until this blows over. Even better, undercut the project altogether, make sure that the hall goes under, then you’ll be safe for sure.”

“Safe,” Louis echoed.

Abi nodded, satisfied with the strategy, job well done. Louis had seen that before, too. She turned away, flicked her monitor back on, and started typing, turning her attention away from Louis.

Louis watched the steam rise off his cup, counted his breaths in time with the curls of it, holding them until it faded. In, and out. When Abi spoke again he jumped, because that was supposed to be the end of the conversation, Louis was supposed to be smart enough to pick up what she’d laid down, and that would be the end of it.  

“You didn’t hear this from me, but, you’re so close to making the vote for partner, Louis,” Abi said, still staring at her screen.

 “And I’ll kill you if you ever repeat this, but you deserve to make partner more than anybody here. You work the hardest out of any of us, and you’ve sacrificed more. Don’t let something as stupid as this distract you. Don’t lose your focus.”

Chapter Text

They had plans to meet at Harry's. Louis went, even though his mind was a blank wash of static and panic, even though he didn't know what to say or do.

Louis let Niall and Babs fill the room with chatter and he dodged Harry's questioning glances and worried little touches, on the side of his arm as they carried food out, down his back in the kitchen.

Louis conspired with Zayn to argue that everybody should get high, which wasn’t a hard sell. They spilled out to the living room, Liam and Zayn curled up together on the couch, everybody else smiling at them when they thought they weren’t looking. Louis didn't want to talk or think. He blinked and discovered that he had been very high for a while, and that Harry was too far away across the living room.

Louis slid forward on the hardwood floor, slippery and cold, balancing with one hand out, holding the bowl. Harry needed to get a rug down in this area. Louis supposed it was more artistic this way. Harry and Niall and Babs were distracted, having some long, involved, rambling conversation about whether astrology was a useful game of self-reflection (Harry), an inexcusable superstition (Babs) or probably real and not to be trifled with (Niall).  

Louis ignored them all and crawled into Harry’s lap, which was surprisingly easy given how not-easy navigating had been for the past twenty minutes.

“Uh,” Harry swallowed, just an inch in front of Louis’ face. It was adorable, and sexier than it should be, the jump of tendon in his neck and the curve of muscle in his jaw. “Hey there.”

Louis poked his finger into Harry’s dimple for a second.

“Hi,” he said, hitching his legs around Harry’s waist and locking his ankles on Harry’s lower back. Harry was lean enough to have prominent hipbones, and Louis felt the contours of them underneath his legs. It was nice.

“Is this a good idea?” Harry asked, softly, like he didn’t want to be saying it.

“Is your face a good idea?” Louis asked. “Just do a fucking shotgun, I'm trying not to be wasteful here.”

He inhaled, held the smoke for a beat, and curled his fingertips into the back of Harry's head, light and barely there, finding a way through Harry's long mop of hair. It felt silky and tangled in his hand. Harry was still, so still that Louis fit his hand closer in, carved a little reassuring track with his fingertips on Harry’s scalp. Harry was alpha strong and overly confident and bold, and Louis knew all of this and also he knew that Harry liked to be touched in unexpected ways, like he was precious and new, like if only Louis could be careful enough and slow enough, Harry might unravel. And Louis was the one who could do it.

Harry bent his face in, open mouth, lips just barely there. Louis breathed the smoke gently into Harry’s mouth, pins and needles and the bitter taste of weed on the back of his tongue, in his throat. He felt the heat of Harry’s thighs underneath him, almost too warm. Harry always ran hot. Louis wanted to sink into it, because Louis always ran so cold. He felt like he was holding them both, off the edge of a precipice, hovering in the air. Louis knew he should probably drop his hand, let go of the place where Harry's neck met the back of his head, but he didn’t. He was so tired of doing what he should. Harry hadn’t pulled back either, mouth just barely touching Louis’, a hint of pressure and wet and the taste that Louis craved. Everything burned.

In the corner of the couch, Liam coughed. Louis blinked, because he’d rather forgotten that Liam and the others were there, and he pulled his feet back to sit up on his knees, still hovering over Harry but putting a more respectable distance between his ass and Harry's lap. Harry’s arms had found their way to the outside of Louis’ thighs, bracing him, because Louis was swaying against the dizziness of the room. Harry breathed smoke out his nose like a dragon expressly to make Louis giggle, and Louis did.

“I am really high,” Louis informed everyone. Liam and Zayn were cuddling in the couch. They were proper adorable, Louis should remember to tell them.

“Adorable,” Louis noted, flapping his arm at Liam. He nearly hit Harry in the face. Space seemed a little distorted, the edges of his body unclear. Louis didn’t really want to be in this particular body, anyway. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to be himself.

“It's truth,” Zayn said even though his eyes were closed. He looked so at ease, folded into Liam with his knees up to his chest, compact and young. He deserved a symphony that would last forever. They all did--they all did, and Louis wanted nothing more than to protect them, and he was going to ruin all of it, he’d wrecked the entire, beautiful, dazzling thing, walked in like a demolition, just by being himself.

“Excuse me, Louis is what?” Niall said. Babs was saying something, Louis couldn’t hear. His ears were full of his own heartbeat, fast and variable. Not yet, he reminded himself, it hadn’t all exploded yet.

“Ah, maybe we should be going,” Liam said, pulling at Zayn’s arm.

“Are you alright?” Harry said softly, ignoring everyone but Louis. It put a thick buzz in Louis’ chest that wasn't entirely the chemicals, or the lack of sleep he was feeling, long hours of trying not to think about the threat hanging over him, hanging over all of them. He shut it back in the box, taped the top of it, threw the box into the most cobwebby-corner of his chest.

“For sure,” Louis said, “I’m always alright. Have you ever thought about how cold your floor is, though?”

Harry tilted his head to the side and dragged his foot along the wooden floor, and giggled just a little.

“I think about it a lot,” he said in a mock-whisper. “But if it's cold,”

Harry pulled Louis in, collapsing him into Harry’s lap. Well, if Harry really needed some warmth, Louis supposed that he would graciously allow this. He sighed into Harry, the temporary respite of alpha protection washing through him, quieting the panic in his brain. Harry was wrapping him up in it, even though Harry didn't know why Louis was lying to him, or about what. It was a cheap, ephemeral, gorgeous, necessary, biological trick. Louis didn’t deserve it, and he was going to take it anyway.

“Lou,” Harry said, voice low and syrupy over the nickname, muffled in the top of Louis’ head, “I wanted to talk to you about something,”

“Ugh,” Louis said.

“Later,” Harry added. Harry was high too, Louis realized, or remembered, sleepy and dopey and loose. Louis scrunched himself down a little in Harry’s lap. Babs and Niall were talking, maybe Harry was too--Louis felt him nodding.

“Later,” Louis agreed. He wasn’t sure if anyone was listening to him. There was another flicker of the nauseating fear, the hall, what are you going to do, you should tell them, but then it slipped away under the smoke and the thick, unassailable comfort of Harry’s touch, pressing into the joints of his body and vanishing his thoughts. Later. Liam and Zayn and Babs and Niall and Harry and Louis--locked in this safe room, nothing outside. He wanted it to last forever.

“Harry, Louis doesn’t get high that often, don’t--” Louis heard Babs say to Harry over his head. Fucking alphas. If Louis had a nickel for every time he thought that, he could quit his dumb job and stay on the beach forever. He flipped her off, but from where he was snuggled into Harry's chest, he wasn't even sure she could see it.

“Has Louis ever been high at all?” Zayn asked skeptically.

“He's sensitive, more than he admits,” Niall said with a not-sober giggle of his own.

“No stoned psychoanalysis in the living room, you know that only leads to problems,” Babs told him, and Niall nodded, putting his head on her shoulder. They were nice. Louis hoped they knew that they were nice. He told them.

“You're a ball of affection,” Niall said.

“I hate everything,” Louis said firmly, using his foot to stroke Harry's shin.

“Admit it!” Niall shouted, as Babs pulled him under her arm and playfully muffled his mouth.

“Takes one to know one,” she said.

“Being a blanket, blankets can't get their feelings hurt,” Louis said, but it was a reverse blanket because he was colder than Harry but Harry didn't seem to catch onto that so Louis was successfully putting one over him and stealing all his body heat and that was great, it was. Louis was a sneaky blanket.

“I mean it,” Babs said to Harry, their stupid alpha tolerance giving them the chance to have a confusing conversation over everyone else's heads. Liam caught Louis’ eye, and smiled gently, and Louis decided to relax because Liam could be depended on.

“I know, I'll be careful. I'll always be careful, with him,” Harry said to Babs, voice low, and Louis felt his fingers tighten a little. Louis patted Harry's hip. Everybody needed to take a page from Louis, and chill. Which was funny, because Louis was cold. Cold and chill. Harry glanced down to give him a small smile, which was treasured.

“I treasure that,” Louis said. Had he said everything else out loud, too? Mysteries.

“Hah,” Harry said weakly. He was holding himself very still against the white pillar in his ridiculous, old, beautiful apartment that had things like pillars and a lace scalloped ceiling edge and small chandelier lamps that Louis loved. Harry was watching Louis like you might watch an unpredictable cat that had chosen, for once, to sit in your lap. Louis fancied the image of himself as a cat, and rubbed his cheek against the fabric of Harry's shirt.

“He’s crashing out,” Harry said to Babs and Niall, who were standing for some obtuse reason that Louis did not support. Niall was nodding.

“I know,” Niall said, “Surprised it took this long, actually,”  

“Been edgy all night,” Liam said. Betrayal! Louis glared at him, and Liam shrugged, looking a little embarrassed. Louis supposed that Liam couldn’t help being alpha, even if he forgot about it most of the time. Harry nodded, and smoothed a hand down Louis’ upper arm, and he felt better.

“Yeah, I don’t know. I think maybe...sleep seems good. For all of us.”

“Are you talking about me behind my back?” Louis asked, grouchily, to show that he was still listening. He was right the fuck here .  

“To your face, love,” Harry said. He handed Louis the glass of water and Louis drank some, but it did not stop the room spinning.

“Honestly, just let them fuss around, it’s what we let them do out of the goodness of our hearts,” Zayn called conspiratorially to Louis, like some sort of blind sphinx, still curled on the couch with his eyes closed, opting out of any tiring decision-making. Louis couldn’t disagree with this strategy.

“You want to stay, Lou? Up to you,” Harry said.

“I don't want to go home,” Louis admitted to the room at large, not looking at any of them, because they did not deserve it. He could pretend that, but really, it was because he didn’t deserve it, any of this, and they didn’t even know. He was going to sort it out. He was going to fix it. He just didn’t know how.

“You don’t have to,” Harry said.

Louis hummed, looking around the living room. He liked Harry’s curtains and his old student sculpture and the fact that he knew there were paints in the hallway cabinet and the way that he knew light came in the windows early in the morning, free of any obstructing downtown skyscrapers.

“It's nice here. Would prefer to party with you all here forever. Except that I will need to stay very horizontal. Except that Harry's floor is so artsy and cold. Disgraceful, Harold. Learn to have a little warmth.”

Louis punched Harry weakly. Harry made a choking, half-laugh, half-despair sort of noise. On the couch, Zayn was snort-laughing into his hands while Liam pulled them up a ride on his phone, arm steadying Zayn without even looking. They were leaving together, which gave Louis a little shot of warmth in the middle of all the fuckery of his messed-up feelings. Zayn was all but falling off the couch but Liam didn't even budge against his weight, just kept him easily in place.

“You guys are welcome to stay, can roll out the couch for you,” Harry said, catching the water glass as Louis nearly knocked it over. His limbs seemed to have a mind of their own right now.

“Our spot’s four blocks away, we'll live,” Babs said, holding Niall up with an arm around his waist. Babs might have to carry Niall home, but Babs liked that kind of thing.

Everybody left while Louis was still investigating the new difficulty of drinking water, and really water as a whole concept.

“Come on, cuteness,” Harry said, pressing Louis forward through the hallway, because now somehow they were up and walking. Louis noted that this hallway was a lot wider than the one at home. Cruel world.

They stopped in the doorway of what was clearly Harry’s bedroom. Louis caught it somewhere in the back of his throat, the long, lived-in impression of vanilla and clean laundry and then darker warmth and sweat, all Harry.

“No,” Louis said, cotton-headed though he was, struggling up from his hazy brain. “Can't do the sleeping, you know.”

“Lou, come on,” Harry said, and he looked at Louis with hungry eyes and took a step forward. “You need to fucking sleep, I could feel it from all the way across the room--”

“Hold up, no,” Louis said, frowning, hand outstretched. He gave a long, big sigh. “See this is the thing, I do love a bit of the cuddle,”

“A bit?” Harry said, mouth quirking.

“A lot,” Louis eyerolled, “it's a personal failing, but,” and he tapped Harry’s forearm for emphasis, “You know the rules Hazz. I can’t sleep with you. With anyone. Not even when Niall and Babs were like, really worried. I take a little physical hit when I need it, you know, but if I ever do too much, I don't know.”

“What would happen?” Harry asked. His hands had come up to trap Louis’ on his chest, and he was leaning forward, long hair brushing Louis’ cheek. Louis let himself enjoy that. Harry would never have to know. Well, maybe Harry knew because Louis was taking too long to answer, and Harry was taking in long, deep breaths like he was willing himself to breath measured and steady.

“What would happen, Lou,” Harry whispered, mouth a little open. It was a cheap trick to smell someone and pretend like you weren't, Louis would know. This was hard for Harry, too, harder than it should be.

“It's a very particular threshold,” Louis said. “You let yourself have too much and you just like,” he shuddered, pulled one hand out and waved in the air, so antsy. “You might need it, you know. I have to keep my addiction at low doses. I’m a highly functional omega.”

Louis laughed a little, to himself, bitterly. Harry maybe didn’t get the joke, but that was ok, Harry wouldn’t.

“That seems like a really hard way to live,” Harry said, and Louis didn't like the look that he was getting on his face, a look like he'd just seen something new and unexpected. Harry didn't like to let new things go. Harry's whole life revolved around exploration. Harry was the opposite of Louis, that way. Louis felt his fingers twitch in Harry’s hands, itching to grab at him, pull him in, do things. Prove that he could be that way, too. If only life had given him the chance.

“Don't you want more? I would want more, you know. Out of life. With people.”

Louis scowled. Harry with other people was not his favorite thought, or maybe it was more Harry without Louis specifically, although logically he knew, it was always going to happen. For fuck’s sake, he’d been the one insisting on it. There was a plan. But logic was for sober Louis.

“Sure, you can want more, bet a lot of more wants you,” Louis said, darkly and incoherently. Harry leaned into the frame of the door and Louis was tugged in with him. Louis could pretend that it was Harry’s superior strength that was making him dance closer, but it really wasn’t.

“Not as much as you might think. What do you want?” Harry said. High as Louis was, he still had the brainspace to notice how often Harry asked him that. Maybe that was something he should be paying attention to, but he couldn’t entirely remember why. He yawned, muzzily.

“It doesn't matter if I want things. I just want to protect myself,” Louis said.

“I understand that, at least,” Harry said. “I want to protect you, too.”

Louis frowned. That felt bigger and more encompassing than he could piece together, but also, the walls were wobbly and the floor was starting to follow suit, so he lost the thread of it in a rush of vertigo.

“Build a stronger foundation when you get carpets, jesus,” Louis said, as Harry caught him into the door frame, pulled him off his feet, because Louis had started to fall in a gentle, slow crumple to the floor. No, it was that the floor had thrown Louis off his feet. A traitorous, wobbly, light-filled apartment, this was.

“For the building? What kind of a sculptor do you want me to be? You make such small requests,” Harry said fondly, into Louis’ hair. He’d caught Louis, of course. Together they smelled a little bit like weed, but a lot like Harry and Louis. Louis thought with the profundity of being stoned that it was nice, the way they smelled together. It was nice, Harry's bigness, making him feel surrounded.

He beat a little syncopation, drumming against Harry's chest with loose fingers, and Harry giggled. Louis spread his fingers wide on Harry’s chest, every corner of his palm pressed flat. Harry felt tired, Louis realized, tired and full of alpha longing, but he was shielding Louis from the pull of it while they talked, keeping his pheromones wrapped up in a tight ball in his chest. It would’ve worked except that Louis was sensitive enough to Harry’s signals to read it anyway. Harry was so kind.

“I just want things to be good for you. You don’t even know,” Louis said. “You should have good things.”

“Things are good, right now. When we're together, things are really good.” Harry said.

Louis yawned, hugely and compulsively, far over the edge of tired. That was bad because it brought in more of Harry’s scent, which brought back the craving for Harry, even worse than the way that Louis craved warm cookies and curry when he was high.

“Better than some date Zayn gets you, huh,” Louis said. He felt Harry tip his head back, his beautiful neck long, looking up at the ceiling.

“Jesus, Lou,” Harry said with a tone of deep, deep long-suffering, “Obviously. The best there ever was.”

An interesting thing about Harry was how he could change the whole world around Louis, in just a few words. Louis ran his fingers up the back of Harry's forearms, light and electric, long strokes hovering just over the skin. Louis had read, once, that there were nerve cells in your arms especially built for long, slow touches.

“Does this feel nice in your cells?” Louis asked. Harry's hold tightened around his waist, so much that Louis felt like he could safely fall asleep right here and Harry would probably just stay, secure all night.

“Sleep with me,” Harry said. “I won't tell anybody. It’s the most comfortable bed in the house. It's the only bed in the house. I just want you close, Lou.”

Louis licked his lips, something he did a lot when he was high, and he was vaguely aware of it now, pushing his tongue out and making weird faces. Harry was looking down at him with a face that Louis didn’t know but through the haze he could pretend that it was fondness, or something deeper than that, even. Crazy high omega thoughts. Maybe he did know that this was a bad idea, even though it was hard to believe, but he could feel the warmth and hope rolling off Harry like a soothing wave. Harry’s bed was right there, and after all, he’d already crossed so many lines with Harry, and nobody seemed to be hurt yet. Maybe Harry was always the magical exception, charmed life. Louis stifled a deep yawn into Harry’s shirt.

“Don’t you ever just get tired of the rules?” Harry asked, his mouth in Louis’ hair again. He seemed to have a habit of it. “What if you gave them up for tonight? Just took a little break?”

Louis considered. And then he raised his arms and wrapped them demandingly around Harry’s neck. “This is gonna be a problem for you, then,” he informed Harry. He was joking, but underneath it was the biting truth he wished he could share--and that was the nature of all of his jokes, if he were honest with himself, but he usually wasn't--

“I’m a lot of work.”

“Good thing I’ve got a great work ethic,” Harry said.

 

 

*

 

Louis didn’t know if he was awake or asleep, but wherever he was, it was bad. He wasn’t home, and he wasn’t alone. He’d startled out of sleep (so he was awake, then? Was he awake?) and into pitch darkness with his head spinning, because, because he wasn’t alone.

There was an alpha, and if there was an alpha, he wasn’t safe.

Louis blinked against the dark, the residual dizziness of being high, felt pins and needles under his finger and toenails. He’d woken up to panic attacks before, but not for a long time, not since--he saw blue light from an unfamiliar window, sucked air into his nose, and there it was, the alpha hook underneath everything, and the long-lost memories screeching in his brain. It meant that Louis was in trouble, meant he wasn’t getting out. It had to be Thomas, it was always Thomas, and if Thomas was here, then…

Then Louis was trapped.

Louis gathered up all the the strength he’d built, compulsively, over the past two years. He thrashed against the sheets, against the alpha, against the bed. He was getting out. He was going to fucking survive.

Lou,” somebody’s voice. It wasn’t Thomas’ voice, surely, Louis knew that. He was too panicked to stop his reflexive movement, still thrashed out in a heavy arc, kicking, connecting with a heavy body. It was panic and survival and the dark.

There was a long moment of undifferentiated chaos. And then the alpha's hand came down hard, grabbed in Louis’ hair and held his head back into the pillow, wrestled on top of his limbs. Louis yelped, or whimpered, maybe, and he felt a growl in response, an alpha no that sent Louis’ body into overdrive, shivering in the sheets.

“Come on,” Harry said, fuck, it was Harry, “Lou, it’s me, you’re ok, we’re ok,”

Louis heard it but then he lost it, wasn’t convinced anymore. Louis fought, pushing his hands blindly into the dark and slapping at the alpha’s shoulders, or his face, but the alpha grabbed them in his other hand and he leveraged his whole body on top of Louis, pushing him down. He shoved a knee over Louis’ thigh, hard and rough. Louis’ arms were twisted over his head and he felt it thrum through his system, the tempting promise of release and relief and giving in. Louis thrashed his head to the side and rejected it, snapping his teeth on nothing. The alpha had his knees to either side of Louis’ hips now, pinning him like a cage.

Louis,” Harry said, no it was definitely Harry, low and fierce and irresistible, more alpha than Louis had ever heard him, “Let go, I know you want to. Give it to me.”

His chest had cracked open entirely, careful containment vanished underneath the sick shock of waking up , with all the darkness of those years pulling him back under to drown. It was toxic waste streaming out. Louis was choking on it, gasping for air. Fear was seeping through his pores, filled the room with its thick, awful, crazed chaos. It's not him, Louis reasoned, it couldn't be, it was ok, but some part of his brain just couldn't listen. He flailed back in the bed, managed to crack his head brutally against the headboard.

“Lou,” Harry said, the one voice that Louis would always hear, that could cut through everything else-- “I've got to drop you, Lou, I want you to trust me, ok?”

Louis couldn't really see him, couldn't really see anything, but it was Harry. If there was one solid core of truth in any of this--it was that he did trust Harry. Louis jerked his head in something like a nod.

He bit Louis, swift and hard and deep, in the pad of muscle and scraping the dip of Louis’ shoulder. And then he held it, tight and overwhelming. It was lancing and deep and real. The pain raced through Louis. But it was like a focus, too, like a lighthouse on a stormy sea. Stop. Let me. Give in.

“So good, love, you impossible thing,” Harry said, and it really was Harry, Louis realized his face was pressed into Louis’, cheek to cheek, so close Louis could feel Harry’s eyelashes where he blinked. Louis’ heart was pounding, a thousand beats a minute, it was squeezing his chest, he couldn’t stand it. “You're everything, Lou, let go.”

Harry rolled a low alpha growl against Louis’ ear that would’ve gotten him kicked out of any polite society, the kind that slid across Louis’ mind and wiped it clean. He wanted Harry to knock everything down.

But he didn't. Nobody got in, that was the rule. Louis felt the walls, hard as obsidian, rising in his chest. Protecting him, like they had for so long, battling even against the instincts that told him that he needed this, that he had to let go. Their instincts were battering at them, an invisible war fighting out in the air, the push and pull of a wrenching magnetism, and Louis felt like he was going to rupture on the fault line.

Harry put a hand on his chest, fingers crooked and pressing down so hard that Louis couldn't breath for a second, then he could, but only slowly, the slow pressure of Harry's weight keeping him from hyperventilating. Harry breathed with him.

“You're so good, Lou, so brave. I know you're scared. But you’re safe, I’ve got you. You've had to hold it all in for so long, but you don't have to anymore. Need you to let me have it.”

It was a choice, that's what Harry was saying. He could choose.

In a world full of hard things, one thing was easy. He chose Harry.

The box in his chest, carried so carefully for so long, tipped and fell, and he was raw emotion, raging and crashing around them. But Harry was broadcasting, too, a wave of feelings that rushed in as soon as Louis realized, as soon as he let it. Harry’s emotions were complex, too much for Louis’ brain to parse in its state, but the massive, overwhelming comfort flooded his system. Comfort--not just comfort. More.

Harry licked down Louis’ cheek, down his neck, down the muscle where he’d bit, and Louis felt a surge of relief, that omega switch flip where everything turned loose and heavy and different. His muscles loosened from the tension they’d been holding, ached from it, and he couldn’t have moved even if he’d wanted to.  The shadows in the room shrank down, the wind in his ears stopped. It was just Louis, no monsters, no Thomas, just Louis tangled up in a sheet and held gently down against the mattress by a heavy arm. Harry was leaning up on his elbows, hovering over Louis.

“That's it,” Harry said, and his voice sounded ragged with relief, “You're not going anywhere, Lou. I'm not letting you go. My beautiful, brilliant boy, my fierce omega.”

The praise sank into his brain like a lifeline, that this was care, not attack.

Hold on, Louis would have said if he could've said anything. He could only do a garbled kind of gasp. The world was a shifty place, groundless and too much. Harry's heavy weight pressed him into the bed and he pushed up against it, testing the give. Harry didn't give. He squeezed Louis’ wrists so tight that it hurt, and he growled again at Louis’ throat with his teeth bared, and Louis felt his head roll back in submission.

Harry made a gratified, low murmur. Harry was either kissing or biting, open-mouth and teeth pressing, sharp, shallow bites over Louis’ shoulders and ears and arms, being thorough, sending snaps of pain through Louis’ omega biochemistry that cemented the drop. It felt like there would be bruises. Louis didn't care. He hoped there would be. Louis wondered from a distance if it followed similar mechanics to acupuncture, suddenly; he'd have to remember to tell Harry about that thought once he was capable of talking again. Harry would like that. Harry. Harry shouldn't let go. Louis whimpered, tiny and choked in the back of his throat, and Harry's face came back to his but he didn't bite, this time, he kissed Louis. Louis’ mouth hurt from clenching his jaw and he couldn’t really kiss back, slack-muscled and aching, but Harry still tongued deep into his mouth. It felt good, better than anything in the world, and Louis whimpered again with longing and satisfaction until Harry pulled back, just clutched Louis into himself and buried his face in Louis’ hair.

After everything, after the years, and the deprivation, and all of the ways that Louis had kept himself from this, it was shockingly fast. Louis dropped deep into space as easy as Harry's smile. He fell into it, lights behind his eyes, still shivering, but with every cell conscious of Harry. Harry's steady hold thrummed through his nervous system, tethering him to the path back.

 

*

 

When Louis came enough back online to think about it, Harry’s grip on his wrists had loosened until he wasn’t holding Louis down anymore at all, was just holding Louis, stroking through the soft, short hair on the back of his head and running his fingers along the shape of Louis’ collarbone, behind his ears, up underneath his shirt to cradle Louis along the side of his torso, and his back.

The room was quieter. Louis spent a second wondering what had changed, and then he realized it was because his own breathing was no longer ragged and harsh, catching in his throat. It had smoothed back into the background.

They lay for a long while, how long, Louis couldn't even tell.

Harry was grabbing at Louis’ face and doing something, wiping with his fingers. They were coming away liquid, it was wet, Harry was crying. No, wait. Huh, Louis was crying, at least he thought he was crying. Harry looked scared, so Louis reached out a hand and put it on Harry’s head, thin fingers in his hair. It’s ok, he tried and failed to say. Hazza, it’s ok. He noticed that his hand was shaking, a blurred pale white outline in the moonlight coming in from the window.  

“Louis,” Harry said, but he seemed to lose the thread after that, and just kept repeating Louis’ name. Louis, Louis.

“Sorry,” Louis said. He was sober now, and a lot of things were rushing back that would have to be sorted through later, but needing to say sorry was a pretty good bet. After all, here he was in Harry Styles’ bed. His legs were pinned still under Harry's, one foot pressed up against the curve of Harry's shin like he was trying to hold on in every possible way. He was a monster. A needy, crazy, out of control monster. He blinked, and more tears came out.

“I’m sorry, Hazza,” Louis said, and his voice sounded a little ragged, “Holy shit.”

“Yeah, I expected better. You barely landed a kick,” Harry said, a big lie, a small tease, his voice a throaty whisper like he'd been the one crying. He’d pulled back far enough to be on his side and give Louis space, Louis assumed, space that Louis didn’t really want.

“I’m fine,” Louis lied, “We can definitely go back to sleep. I’m all good.”

Louis was pulling away from him in the bed, making sure that Harry had room, as if it was somehow going to fix everything to act like they were just friends, now. God, he had no idea how to sleep with somebody, actually. He had fucking no idea--he had dropped, what must Harry think-- Harry was going to be exhausted, if Louis kept up this neediness. Louis could feel the fritzing anxiousness off him. Harry was catching his lower lip in his teeth, bit of a worried-muppet Harry face, but he nodded and rolled back onto his back.

Louis felt a wail come up from the core of his being as he tried to settle on the other side of the bed. He sank into the pillow, stared at the ceiling and tried to be comfortable. Harry was exactly one foot and an infinity away. Louis ached for him, but he was paralyzed--it had all been so much already, so far beyond the bounds of what Harry had agreed to, so much betraying the brokenness of Louis’ heart.

Absurdly, tears were leaking out the corners of his eyes. He tried to be silent but one tiny, hopefully unnoticeable sniff escaped in the dark.

Harry flipped over, pressed Louis into the bed with the weight of his tall body, wrapped himself back around Louis in an instant. Louis clutched up Harry’s back, reassurance flooding through them both.  Louis wanted to have sex with him immediately. Christ. Louis’ body was ridiculous. He forced himself to focus on the ceiling behind Harry’s head, and Harry’s long, slow breaths.

“I’ve got you,” Harry said, and Louis made a face and Harry made a face right back at him. “You’re so safe.”

Louis let out a breath that was a little more on the shuddering side than he wanted it to be. He closed his eyes and felt dampness in the corners, but all in all, it could’ve been worse.

“He used to make me sleep in the living room, sometimes,” Louis said, staring up into the dark. Harry was silent, but his silence was compassionate, and listening. Louis cleared his throat a little, tried again.

“He’d, uh, he’d wake me up in the middle of the night, when things were, were bad with us. He would just, be there awake getting mad. I started to feel it, you know, even when I was asleep.”

The words didn't do it justice, even though it was the first time Louis had tried to put it into words, that particular brand of Thomas’ torture. He could see it in his mind when he tried, the hot rush of being shaken awake with his own instinct spinning, Thomas snarling awful things in his ear. He’d tried for so long, trying to figure out what he'd done wrong. When the bottom had dropped out of the world.

“He’d make you sleep in the living room?” Harry repeated, his voice loading a horror into every word that showed that he understood more than Louis had said. Make? You?

“I didn’t, yeah. Kind of screwed up my sleep, for a bit. Well, ever since, I guess,” Louis said. Another understatement. He’d had off and on night terrors after ending things. The tumultuous cocktail of betrayal and loss that had done a special number on his system, had locked in something bone-deep about the way that he felt when things got dark.

It would all be different in the morning. You’re so safe.

Harry let out a breath, long and controlled. He squeezed Louis so tightly, but so gently, and Louis could feel everything that Harry didn’t know how to say, in that.

“Thank you for sharing,” Harry whispered, sounding as drained as Louis felt. “You know this, but, that never should have happened to you. No one should ever have treated you that way.”

“Just so you know, I still hate this, sleeping with people is dumb, who needs it,” Louis said sternly, because he couldn’t help himself, couldn’t stay in this place of disclosure for too long. He spoiled it with a sniff. Mercifully, Harry let him do it. They could both feel the relief pulsing between them, the way that Louis was still holding Harry like he would drown if he let go. Harry nodded.

“Me too,” Harry said staunchly, squeezing Louis again just to underscore the obvious lie. Louis cuddled in, pushing his face into Harry’s chest. God, but it was amazing. He gingerly poked one foot against Harry’s shin, creeping it in towards the warmth, before Harry preempted his tentative strategy by throwing his entire leg over Louis’ calf, hooking it in and tangling them together.

“I’ve got you,” Harry said, “I want you here, I’m not going to change my mind.”

“Normally I get hypervigilance insomnia, so this has been a treat for me, actually falling asleep, I mean, before freaking out,” Louis admitted.

“That motherfucker,” Harry muttered. Louis laughed, a shocked, shaky little laugh, and Harry rolled a finger along the edge of Louis’ ear, featherlight.

“I want to kill him,” Harry said. Louis tried to shrug his shoulders and come up with something witty in response, but he was busy breathing in every piece of Harry that he could. Things were hazy, which was a good way for things to be, this time. He was just far, far too tired to say the right thing anymore. Harry sighed again, like he was settling something in his own mind, and the strangest part of it was that Louis didn’t feel annoyance or distance or disgust, from Harry. He felt softness and strength together, resolve.

“I guess I could settle for undoing everything he’s done,” Harry said.

Louis struggled for a moment to come up with a response, but the words were all gone.

“We'll talk in the morning. Go to sleep, love,” Harry whispered, and Louis must not have been out of the drop, not really, because he immediately did.

Chapter Text

Louis woke up to his nose pressed up against Harry’s back, crushed against a shoulderblade. Louis had lost his shirt and was in nothing but boxers, but he was perfectly warm. Harry had stripped entirely sometime in the night--so like Harry, allergic to clothes. Louis’ arms were wound around Harry’s ribcage and underneath his neck, clutching him in the most desperate spoon of all time. Harry’s big hand was wrapped entirely around one of Louis’ wrists, tucking it into his chest. Louis could feel the rise and fall of Harry’s breathing, and he was breathing in time with it. The long plane of Harry’s back, pressed just slightly into Louis’ chest, delineated the world. 

Louis took a slow and methodical inventory. His shoulders had a curled, soft soreness from leaning into Harry for hours. His throat itched from screams he barely remembered. He swallowed carefully, a raw scrape that rolled once and then faded back into soft tissue. At the feeling, the enormity of the night’s experience echoed in his mind.

But it was like noticing a distant avalanche from a mountain summit, so removed in scale that it could be watched as dispassionately as reading a map. Louis carefully folded it away, for a time with more resources. He continued the inventory. Light was filtering in through the curtains, a grey-blue sheen that reduced the furniture and their bodies to soft outlines, edged in morning haze. His fingers were curled in loose fists, tucked against Harry’s skin. His legs were relaxed, one foot folded underneath Harry’s oblivious leg.

Best of all, Louis’ head was clear. He felt rested, tranquil, gloriously quiet.

Also--and this was the craziest thing, really--the clock on the bedside table said it was eleven o’clock in the morning. Louis hadn’t slept this far into the morning for years. Louis hadn’t even known it was possible to sleep this far into the morning.

“Hey,” Harry whispered. Louis caught his breath and started to move, pull out of his death-grip around Harry’s torso, but Harry’s hand tightened on Louis’ wrist, holding him in. Louis blinked against Harry’s back, rubbed his nose against it.

“How’d you sleep?” Harry asked, soft and groggy, just barely awake. They both knew it wasn’t just a normal question.

“I feel...great. I slept so much,” Louis admitted. “I’m...sorry? Is it weird that I feel great?”

Harry released Louis’ wrist and twisted around to give him a small, half-sleepy smile. His hair was tousled, fallen half over to one side, and his eyes were a little morning-puffy, and Louis had never seen anything more adorable in his whole entire life. Harry rearranged over onto his side so that they were face to face, and Harry rubbed the tip of his nose on Louis’, playfully.

“No, it’s great that you feel great,” he said in a raspy little murmur. Louis scrunched down into the toasty, silky sheets, smiled back, hair falling over his face. It was getting long; with all the weekend symphony work and chaos he’d been missing his usual haircuts. Harry reached out to push it off Louis’ forehead.

“I’m glad you do, because that’s a concerning thing to see first off,” Harry said with a wry slant to his mouth. Louis looked down, startled, at the litter of bruises along his shoulders and collarbone. 

“Hah, oh, you troublemaker,” Louis said wryly, making sure to not sound alarmed. He felt light and strange, like he’d absently set something heavy down in the chaos of the night, without realizing it. Louis looked back at Harry, who had scooted in so that their knees were touching, eyes big.

Harry was waiting, Louis realized, waiting for confirmation that he’d done the right thing. Last night, in the panic and the drop, Harry had let his alpha out in full force and overwhelmed all of Louis’ walls to engender a safe world for them. But now it felt like they’d traded. In the morning Louis was the one who got to define whether it was ok, and what would happen next. Louis had the sudden illusion that he held Harry’s heart in his hands, the beat of it against his palm still pressed into Harry’s back. It was obvious, now, so obvious he didn't know how he'd denied it for so long, just how much power he had with Harry.

“I’m not,” Louis swallowed hard, “I’m not sure what to say about everything that happened last night, yet, but thank you. Thank you doesn’t really cover it. I couldn’t have--didn’t know what to do without you. You were really amazing. It was amazing.”

Harry huffed a small sigh. Louis could all but taste the relief in it. He could definitely see it in the way that Harry looked at him from under his eyebrows, cheeky and a little bit like, can you believe that we did that.

“It was a lot,” Harry said honestly, “And also, it was really special. Thank you for trusting me, for sleeping here.”

Louis looked down, taking a second to hide the surprise at Harry's thanking him. Blurred morning light was spilling through the curtains, running over Harry’s skin like a second blanket.

“I wouldn’t have even though I’ve always wanted to,” Louis said honestly, “If I hadn’t been high. The way I panicked, that was the reason for the rule, you know? Not sleeping over? Didn’t know what would happen if I woke up like that, panicking. I guess I never thought somebody could help.”

Harry nodded.

“And it’s so late,” Louis marveled with the marvel of the perpetually insomniac, “All that fuss, and then I slept like a log. I feel great.”

Harry snorted, a sleepy, half-laughing snort. Louis looked up again and Harry was looking like he'd looked at the beach house, mischief and triumph.

“Oh no,” Louis groaned, “What?” 

Harry's grin widened.

“I knew you would sleep great with me. Vindication! You can’t use that excuse anymore!”  

“Christ,” Louis said, lightly pushing Harry away and rolling onto his back with an air of humorous grievance. The sheets tangled around his hips, keeping him close to Harry regardless. He didn’t hate it.

“Only you, Hazza, would look so fucking content about having to deal with somebody’s complete freakout in the middle of the night, while you were sleeping.”

Harry rolled over to match Louis, hovering into his space. He found Louis’ far ear and tugged it.

“Stop assuming my experience,” he said, “I love you being here. You had something that had to get worked out, and you let me be here for that. I like that. Anyone would be lucky to be the person you wanted to sleep with, to have the privilege of seeing your omega. In any way it came out.”

Louis looked at Harry from the side, squinting through half-closed eyes as if it would make the question easier and less vulnerable.

“Do you really think that?” Louis asked quietly.

Harry let go of Louis’ ear and made his fingers spider-crawl from the ear, over Louis’ face, to smooth down his eyebrows.

“I really think that,” Harry said, “I really, really think that. There are a lot of things I think about you, that I should start telling you more about.”

“One night in your apartment, and I get an infinity of lectures about vegetables,” Louis sighed, making an exaggerated mournful face. Harry pulled his nose in revenge.

“I know you’ve been through a lot,” Harry said, resolutely sincere against all of Louis’ joking. Harry plowed through the entire world and Louis’ obscurations on the strength of his own unfailing sincerity, and it was far too effective. He let go of Louis’ nose and rubbed a knuckle gently back and forth through Louis’ morning scruff. Louis leaned his face into the caress.

“You've worried enough in your life. You're officially granted a free pass to stop worrying about me. We don’t have to get into last night anymore right now, because you’re still exhausted and I’m still here to help take care of us. Right now, the agenda is to have a long, gorgeous day of doing nothing.”

“I can allow that,” Louis said, unable to help the smile that was tugging at his mouth. It was something else, Louis thought, to live in Harry’s world, where it seemed like emotions were a privilege and surviving them was a given. When Harry incautiously let his fingers drift over Louis’ mouth, he licked one.

“Savage,” Harry whispered, a private joke just for them. Louis had to kiss him for that, mild and sleepy and sweet, Harry’s eyes fluttering shut in the dim light. 

Harry palmed Louis’ shoulder and pressed charily into the bruises with his fingertips. It pained, but it was also a wash of feeling Louis had never felt before: associative images, Harry’s body against his in the dark, bone-deep comfort and flash-memory. You’re so safe, I’ve got you.

“What the fuck,” Louis whispered, so faint it was almost inaudible. It felt like they were still in a new, bubble universe, separate from reality, moving through a gravity made of instinct.

“Yeah, I feel it too, it’s a sense memory,” Harry said, sounding awed. “I’ve never done that with anyone.” Harry’s mouth twitched with a shyly pleased expression. Something about it went shivering straight to the core of Louis’ heart. Harry’s face was more open than Louis had ever seen it, like he was letting every thought and feeling flicker across it more than he ever had, with them.

Louis twisted his head to stare at the bruises down his shoulders. This was so far out of the territory he knew, far past the cursory, unsatisfying drops he’d had with Thomas and the begrudging touch and the twisted way that Thomas let his alpha energy build and explode. The omega--the omega and the alpha --the two things together felt so different with Harry that it was like stepping onto an alien planet. It was like learning all the physics you’d been taught were wrong. What you turn that into is up to you.

It was too much to unlearn all at once. But Louis felt it, in some part of his brain that had been aching for it, in every jitter of pain when Harry touched the bruises. It was the undoing of trauma, the rewiring of instinct. You’re so safe.

Louis looked at Harry from under his eyelashes, the most blatant want that he could muster. Right now that was all he needed, Harry, here, as close as possible. More talking could come later. Much later.

Harry closed the gap between their faces and kissed him again, this time swift and sure, and Louis hummed up into his mouth. Harry’s tongue was warm and clever and his fingernails were still curled against the bruises along Louis’ shoulders. The unexpected, heady combination of pain and pleasure pulled heat up from somewhere deep. It was still gentle, but inextricably woven through it was the knowledge that Harry could hold him down, overpower the panic, call out the rawest parts of him. It was like an excavation, a delicate archaeology of every dark piece of desire that Louis had ever hidden, even from himself. 

Louis slipped his tongue into Harry’s mouth at the same time as Harry dug into the one of the bruises with a probing finger, and Louis jolted, knocking his teeth into Harry’s. It was a rush of instinct, like falling with a rollercoaster on the first hill, like the exhilarating give of an omega drop without actually dropping at all. This was different, not like touch deprivation but like after the deprivation was fixed , the way it felt to finally give in to the euphoria that only came after living through fear. 

Louis shuddered lightly into Harry without being able to control it, a roll that brought his thigh closer into Harry’s groin. His body felt sleep-warm and strong and Louis wanted it, his breath speeding up in Harry's mouth and the tell-tale slick already spilling out on his skin. Louis felt Harry smile against his mouth, the ceramic-smooth slide of his teeth. Louis’ heart skipped a beat when Harry settled an arm around his ribcage, hand low on his back and smoothing over the curve of his ass. Suddenly Harry’s gentle presence also felt predatory and wild, the electricity of alpha instinct reaching out to surround him. The primal part of Louis’ brain was too-aware that he was in Harry’s bed, drenched in Harry’s scent, here after Harry had taken care of him, dragged him into a drop, and then brought him back up. I’ve got you.  

Harry looked so infinitely pleased with himself, poised to press him back into the bed and undo him, that Louis had to do it first. He used all of his wiry strength to push Harry back and twist Harry’s hips with his legs, ending up straddling Harry’s lap with only his flimsy boxers between them. Harry let out the most satisfying oomph, landing back against the pillow with his eyes bright and wild and startled and his hair flung out behind him. He was more beautiful than his art, and Louis was never going to let him out of this bed. They would just have to adjust to a life of food delivery and online shopping.

Harry had his hands up the inside of Louis’s thigh immediately, curling a warm palm slyly around the head of Louis’ cock for an instant before Louis slapped it away. He nipped around Harry’s jaw with sharp teeth, thrust his hips into Harry, hard, all pressure and friction. There was something unbearably joyful in his chest, all the play that he’d forgotten his omega side could feel. If Harry had him, he had Harry, too.

“Don’t underestimate me, Styles,” Louis growled, pulling Harry’s hair, getting it close to the roots and squeezing a fist in it. Harry made a startled noise but he got harder against Louis’ thigh, and Louis smirked into the pillows. His teeth had left a distinctive ring on Harry’s jaw that he knew would fade, as omega bites did, but would trail sparks of want and lush satisfaction for the whole day. He bit again, a mirror of the dark spot on his own collarbone.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Harry said with an answering growl, eyes a little glassy, wrapping his hands around Louis’ forearms, his fingers going all the way around. Hovering over Harry, Louis felt small and strong at once, like the tension of a piano wire, thin but steel. He rolled his hips deeper into Harry, found the ridge of his cock and pushed a moan from the back of Harry’s throat that Louis was going to remember for a long time, maybe forever.

There was something different about it this time, something desperately sweet in the way that they touched each other, all deep pressure and warm mouths and sliding skin. Harry lingered over every dip and curve in Louis’ body, dropping kisses and skating teasingly over ticklish spots as he pulled the last clothes off him. Louis’ breath stuttered in his chest, catching on both sensation and emotion as Harry held him in tight arms and whispered want into his ear, husky and slow.

Louis caged Harry’s head between his palms, stroked his wide brow with a thumb and tried to memorize his face. He felt lost in the way that Harry smelled like both of them after the night together, like fresh sweat and Louis’ own pine and paper scent mixed in with Harry's vanilla and electricity. He was faintly salty and Louis chased it in the corners of his mouth and the crooks of his elbows and down the creases of his hips, until Harry was sighing into the pillow, limbs spread, hand insistent in the fine, long fringe of Louis’ hair. Louis felt a flickering, winding tendril of flame down his spine.

“Love hearing you talk about your crazy, messy art,” Louis said. “Love that piece in the living room, want to see everything you’ve ever made.”

His voice was a little throaty, driven deeper by the way Harry arched unselfconsciously underneath him, so expressive. He had his fist around Harry’s hard cock, not particularly gentle, thumbing over the sensitive head with a careless thumb. Harry was trailing bold fingers through the warm wet slick on Louis’ inner thigh and then over Louis’ cock, and Louis was having to exert a significant amount of willpower to not lose it, beg Harry to fill the emptiness. He pushed into Harry's skin with his whole body instead, felt the thrust of him under his hips.

“You should let me take you up in one,” Harry said, teasing with a finger just skating Louis’ entrance, and Louis made an animal noise about it-- “Or all of them. There’s one in Germany I want to show you, basket under a balloon in the center, you can sit in it and see everybody, but no one can see you. You’d love it.”

“That does sound great,” Louis said. He twisted his hand and it reproduced a matching twist in Harry’s body.

“Think I was imagining you when I made it,” Harry whispered. He struggled half-upright again, pinned Louis in between his knees and chest, Louis’ legs wrapped around Harry’s waist. He went for the bruises again, playing dirty right when Louis was least prepared for it, and Louis could feel Harry’s dark satisfaction when Louis’ fingers trembled, betraying the weakness in his joints.

It was close and raw, the slip of his hard cock against Harry's stomach and the undeniable slick between them. Harry had a fist half-clutched around his own cock either out of desperate touch or to exert some measure of control over his body. Louis thrust into the crook of Harry’s hips and firm abs again, open mouth-kissed the side of his neck, no longer interested in control.

When Harry shifted, pulled Louis even closer in, skin to skin, the thrumming sensation of his alpha touch pushing deep want into Louis’ core, Louis let his head roll back toward the ceiling, feeling the way Harry’s palm rose to catch it immediately, the sinuous twist of his own body bringing them in line. He dug his fingers into Harry’s thighs and Harry gasped, the pulse of mild pain echoing between them. Louis didn’t know whether it was imaginary or real, the sense memory captured in the thick web of chemistry between them. Everything with Harry was so much stronger than he’d ever imagined, like this was what his body had been fighting for the whole time.

“Don’t,” Louis said, and Harry froze, hesitation flashing across his face, muscles not even twitching. Louis was caught, trapped, he was never going to recover from this, the way that Harry would override every single instinct and desire of his own to wait, for him. He put his face into Harry’s neck, tangled his fingers in the thick wave of Harry’s hair, and closed his eyes.

“Don’t stop, I meant,” he said.

Louis breathed in, long pulls of Harry’s scent, as Harry drove up and into him. It was intoxicating to trust this much, to feel like every detail of Harry’s movement was going to imprint on his own body forever: the way Harry’s hair pulled back in the corners of his forehead, the lines of sweat working between them, the drag of his own stubble against Harry’s cheek. Harry had his big hands spread into the soft swell of Louis’ ass, shameless and dirty and tender. Now Louis was arching over him without thinking about, riding him, driving himself deeper onto Harry’s cock. It felt like they were made for each other, magnetic, two planets circling on the same orbital plane forever.

“Hazz,” Louis ground out, rocking down. Harry was touching him everywhere, hands frantic and wild, over his shoulders and the valley of his collarbone and into the bruises that marked him, marked them, and Louis loved that. His cock was hard and throbbing, the ache of it through his whole body. Harry had it in one hand, tight and ruthless. Louis whimpered, and Harry pressed a kiss to the join of his neck and shoulder, featherlight.

“Lou,” Harry mirrored, smiling his too-wide smile, watching Louis ride him. Louis wanted to steal it, tattoo it on the back of his eyelids, see it forever. Louis didn’t have anything else to say, so mind-numbed with it all that he could only writhe in Harry’s touch, losing every last hesitation, flailing into Harry’s strong hold and the deep thrusts of his cock. He could see the fierce joy of it all on Harry’s face and he could only marvel at it--that this raw, this omega side of him could make somebody else so happy.

“Come for me,” Harry said, pulling Louis’ hair, pinching the spur of his hipbone, clutching into the meat of his thigh. Louis felt his toes curl into the bedsheets, shuddering open and warm and wet around Harry, all muscle spasms around him. He had no trouble following instructions, for once.

 

*

“Can I see?” Harry asked, gentle in his kitchen. They’d showered together in a dreamy haze, Harry soaping Louis up before Louis recovered his usual energy enough to get soap in Harry’s eyes and pretend it was an accident. Harry had held him up against the cold wall of the shower until Louis had to plea for mercy, giggling. Now Louis was wearing Harry’s oversize brown hoodie and soft white joggers with fleece on the inside, the most perfect outfit ever invented by god or man.

Louis tipped forward onto his toes, leaning into Harry. Harry pulled the hoodie away from Louis’ neck and shoulders and ran his fingertips over the bruising. The sense memory still hung between them like a golden thread, like the baton melding two sections of the orchestra along an invisible line. The physical imprint itself was already nearly healed, miraculous and happy. The throb when Harry touched it had faded to a dull, comforting pulse.

“Good job,” Harry said, sounding relieved. Louis flushed, pleased, which was completely ridiculous. He hadn’t done anything except get born with this strange body that worked in these strange ways. But Harry looked proud, was a little flushed, too, both of them navigating this unique intensity together. Harry found the deepest bruise, the one low down on Louis’ neck where he’d bit first, the cutting bite that had ricocheted Louis out of panic and back into safety. When he touched it Louis felt the twinge deep, to the bone.

It would heal on its own, but as with all things touch, there was a peculiar magic to having an alpha for this, too. Harry slowly leaned in, giving Louis time to withdraw if he wanted to. He didn’t. Harry licked up Louis’ neck carefully, gingerly, tenderly. The bruise flickered, and Louis felt warm closure wash through his muscles. It would be gone in the next hour, but Louis was never going to forget it. They hung together in space for a moment, quiet and processing.

“We’re having a veggie scramble, and you’re eating your whole plate,” Harry said, pulling back and giving Louis a stern look.

Louis grinned at him, disrespectfully, and wandered over to the little kitchen speaker to tap at Harry’s old CD player and see what the familiar piece was playing in the background. He realized with a thrill that Harry had put in Mozart’s 41, Louis’ favorite. If he hadn’t already long been in love with Harry, he would’ve fallen in love right then.

Fuck.

Harry was rattling about the kitchen, pulling out a skillet and a cutting board, before he glanced over to where Louis had frozen in place on the tile floor.

“Everything all right?” Harry asked. Louis blinked and took in a breath.

“Yeah, yeah,” he lied. “Yeah. All right.”

Harry gave him a sappy glance and pointed to a kitchen chair. “You sit down,” he said firmly, “I’ll put water on for tea, too. You can handle the tea.”

“Ok,” Louis said, remarkably like someone who wasn’t reeling from the shock of realizing that his entire world was falling to pieces. Fuck. Fuck.

Harry was working over the stove, rocking in a small movement from one foot to the other, the side step that Louis had taught him, humming nonsensically to the music. Harry’s energy filled the kitchen, a rosy-edged cloud of happiness. Louis couldn’t stop looking at him, the soft curl of his hair behind his ears, the long, relaxed shape of his back. Harry. You love Harry. What had he done.

It was like he’d fallen through their frozen pond and Harry couldn’t tell, yet, couldn’t hear him, he’d fallen through the ice, he was looking up at the warm world above, but it was fading away. It was perfect, Harry was perfect, and Louis was never supposed to do this, never supposed to lose his way in it, Louis was going to ruin it all.

“I said,” Harry laughed, adding sliced bell peppers into the pan, bright red and perfectly sliced, throwing a tablespoon of olive oil in, and gauging the onions. “Lou, my favorite absent-minded calculator, do you like mushrooms, or no? Seems like the kind of thing you wouldn’t like.”

“Mushrooms, fine,” Louis said, He’d sat down at some point in the chair Harry had pointed to. Harry made an affirmatory noise and started chopping the mushrooms.

Louis’ mind was a blank slate, a snowstorm, the fine surface of the ice before it cracks. Harry couldn’t sense it, couldn’t feel it, because there was nothing to feel. Louis was the absence of feeling.

He unstuck his tongue. He had to, for Harry’s sake, he had to. He couldn't do this, not to Harry. He had to save the hall, he had to save Harry, he had to leave them all.

“I have to go,” Louis said, starting up from the table.

“What?” Harry asked. He couldn’t feel it yet, couldn’t tell. His eyes were still brimming over with warmth, looking easily up to meet Louis’, sure of an answer.

“I have to go,” Louis repeated. Now Harry had stopped, frowning, knife in the air, food forgotten. A piece of mushroom had skittered off the cutting board and it was dangerously close to the stove, would probably get pushed underneath unnoticed. Louis should do something about it or it would rot there, forgotten.

“I just, I have to go,” Louis said, because he couldn’t do it now, he couldn’t look at Harry’s face, he couldn’t be here, he couldn’t couldn’t couldn’t. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t breathe.  

“Why? What? I wanted to talk to you, Lou, what’s happening?” Harry blurted, and there were a thousand things besides that he wanted to say, Louis knew, and he didn’t want to hear any of them. He couldn’t. Harry’s face was all confusion, innocent and still hopeful. His hands were covered in half-made breakfast. 

“You don't want to stay to eat?” Harry asked. 

“I’m, I’m just feeling a little overwhelmed, it was a lot to process. I think it will help to, you know, water my plants, get my own clothes,” Louis said. Harry’s face softened. Louis’ chest hurt to see it. He was so easy sometimes, so trusting.

“Ok, if that’s what you need, for sure,” Harry said, “Yeah of course, always nice to get back to your own things after a long night. Let’s get dinner tonight?” 

An afternoon was probably enough time to figure out how to find the words for the worst thing he’d ever do. Sure.

“Sure,” Louis said, and he almost laughed, thick and poisonous, but held it in. Harry nodded. He looked disappointed, but calm. He raked a hand through his hair, heedlessly leaving a tiny stray sliver of bell pepper halfway down it.

“I’ll be looking forward to it,” Harry said, voice more affectionate than anybody should sound about a simple dinner. When he stepped forward and kissed Louis he felt as unbreakable as his heavy sculptures, poured metal taking up all the space in the room. But Louis had seen the studio. Everything, even the strongest piece, could be taken apart when it came down to it.

“I have to go,” Louis repeated, like a broken record, like a machine, broken, broken, broken, go, and he fled.

 

*

 

Louis went where he always went when the world was closing in and he needed refuge. He went to symphony hall.

Zayn had given him a key in the first week of the project, when it became clear Louis would always arrive at least an hour before everyone else, even Liam. It was sunday, so the hall was empty and Louis let himself in the backdoor. Harry had kissed him up against that door, both of them breathless and laughing at the risk of getting caught. They’d gone back and forth through this door approximately a thousand times to get lunch. And Louis was a fucking idiot.

Louis walked blindly through the hall, letting his feet wander. It was soothing just to be there, to feel it around him, the cavernous building that had seen so many more lives than his. It was looking so much better. The electrical work was finally finished dint of some minor miracles and Liam’s persistence and all their agony over wood and wires and nails and records. One day the work had simply become invisible behind better lights and safer systems, like good work always did.

Surely he’d known. Surely he’d always known, hadn’t he, that this was the bright red thread of damage running through the whole reckless, stupid, impossible, irresistible decision. That he'd never been as distant as he pretended. That he was always going to do this, from the moment Harry had stolen a seat in his box. He was always going to fall for Harry, and Harry was always going to deserve so much more than that.

He was in a daze, just waiting through the jagged, ugly inevitability of it, counting down minutes. He stopped somewhere, eventually, and made himself sit down. Louis stretched his legs out in the dust. He’d ended up in the backstage, next to heavy cabling for the curtain and a vertical beam running up to the lights. Back here, everything was ingrained with a thousand evenings of music. It smelled like well-worn tuxedos and rosin and distant sweat, long rehearsals and glittering shows. He was still wearing Harry’s clothes, hadn’t yet gone home to change. Home meant facing up to what he had to do next.

Louis closed his eyes. It was vaguely interesting, in a clinical kind of way, that his body still felt mostly incredible and peaceful from the night with Harry. Stupid cells and chemicals and mushy, gullible brain, so certain that there was nothing more complicated in the world than the feeling of Harry’s body around him. The morning felt just around the corner and a thousand miles away at the same time. Louis felt tears welling in the corners of his eyes and tried to fight them down. Soon enough his body would be part of the trainwreck. No need to rush it.

Louis could see just the side of the stage from where he sat. Beyond it was the first row of empty audience seats, shadowy arches of velvet. His box was just out of reach, somewhere out there in the dark. He hadn't looked at his phone for hours; he'd put it in airplane mode and walked the entire stretch of downtown to get to the hall. His feet felt tired, now that he was thinking about it. Harry would be worried. Of course--Harry, whose only concern had been to make sure that Louis wasn’t worried, Harry would be so worried.

Louis reached in his pocket and flipped his phone back on before he could second-guess himself. It ran instantly. Louis jolted and pulled it out of his pocket, thin fingers shaking so much that he dropped it on the floor before he could see who it was. But it wasn’t Harry.

“What could you possibly want,” Louis snapped, “It’s sunday.”

“What the fuck does that matter?” Abi said briskly, and Louis could hear her typing, so she was probably in their office. “I’m doing you a favor.”

“This isn’t really a good time,” Louis said. His voice sounded loud and out of place in the empty hall.

Abi snorted. It wasn't like their time actually belonged to them, after all.

Louis rested the back of his head against the beam and closed his eyes again.

“Are they sending me off on another punishment trip?” He asked. And then, more quietly, “Am I fired?” It would be--it would almost be a solution, of a sort. Not to Harry, but at least to the disaster of how he was going to keep helping the symphony.

“No, idiot,” Abi said, “I told you, you’re too valuable. I’m calling with good news, and some gossip.”

“I could use good news,” Louis said.

“Get this,” Abi said, with a dry chuckle in her tone, the kind of tone they used when an associate had done something particularly underhanded, and Abi looked across their office to make a wide-eyed face at Louis that reminded him she could be, occasionally, a human being.

“They’re moving up the deadline on the debt. You know, the one we talked about? The one on the orchestra’s building, that thing downtown?”

“Symphony hall,” Louis corrected, his voice barely audible.

“Yeah, that thing. Apparently, this current season wasn’t even supposed to happen. Malik, the director? Last summer he negotiated an extension on the debt to let them at least play it out, like they were going to earn enough in a season, hah. But the publicity would’ve been so bad if they’d had to refund all the tickets, and there was just no chance of the orchestra earning that much, so they agreed not to collect until after the end of the season. But now , they’re so worried about this whole Styles collaboration and all the buzz it’s getting that they’re going to move fast and renege the extension. They're going to shut the entire orchestra down before the show can even play.”

Fuck,” Louis yelled, and it echoed off the smooth, scuffed floor and the wings. There was a long pause. “Fuck,” he repeated, low and bitter.

“Yeah,” Abi said, sounding hesitant, voice scratchy through the cellphone connection. “Uh, yeah. I was surprised, it’s….it’s a particularly nasty play, even for real estate developers.”

Louis let his head fall back on the beam again, harder this time, hard enough to hurt.

“I hate this,” he said. He couldn’t even sound angry, couldn’t reach down into the depths to pull out analysis, strategy Louis, business Louis, scheming, always-on-top Louis. He just sounded defeated.

Abi sounded quelled. Or at least, quelled for Abi.

“Hey,” she said, “I’m, uh, I didn’t realize you cared so much, you know?”

“Yeah, well,” Louis said, bitter and low, “I do.”

They were silent for another long pause.

“Well, I’m sorry,” Abi started, but Louis interrupted her.

“What the fuck is the good news, then?”

“This means that the partners aren’t worried about you anymore. As long as this whole hall thing gets resolved, they’re just gonna forget about your accidental involvement. You’ve always been a lucky asshole, I’ll tell you what.”

Louis opened his mouth, and closed it, couldn’t think of anything to say. Abi continued.

“Now here’s the really good news,” she said, “They’re gonna call a vote for the new partner slot next week. Obviously, it’s for you. Got it straight from one of their admins. You’re locked in for the partner vote, now.”

“Are you serious?” Louis asked, dizzy trying to even keep up. Partner had been the goal, ever since he’d managed to leave the startup, the last rung in his tenuous ladder to safety. It was why they all had made the sacrifices they’d made, but especially Louis, the promise they’d hung over him in exchange for the buyout of his shares. He’d finally be untouchable.

“Good thing you got that loft near the office when you did,” Abi said. She sounded happy for him. In the back of his mind, Louis felt a vague surprise. They’d always been in competition, the two of them, and Abi seemed to care more than he’d ever noticed. It was strangely nice, in the middle of the trainwreck in his brain, like noticing flowers in front of a wildfire.

“You won't be seeing sunshine on a Sunday for a long time when you make partner. Louis, you should enjoy this. You've earned it.”

“I guess I did,” Louis said.

He hung up, glanced down at the screen, and clutched it up to his face again, heart pounding. Missed texts had loaded during the call, and Harry had messaged hours ago.

 

Hey there

Been thinking about you today

Of course! Always thinking about you. But not like in a creepy way

Not like in a no-space kind of way

Just in a nice way

Like this morning was nice, kind of way :)

Anywayyy

Hope you're ok

I’m sure the plants were excited to see you

Thought I could bring dinner over to yours so they don’t have to miss you this time

Let me know when you wanna do dinner

Maybe six?

I'm free any time really

I should probably pretend to have something to do

I don't

Just let me know, ok?

Hope you’re ok

 

Louis licked his lips, breathed a low, thin stream of air out, and texted back.

Yeah sorry

Louis winced. The word almost felt like an insult. But nothing was going to feel like enough.

 

Lost track of time. My place works

if you get this?

 

It was already six-thirty, and dark outside. Harry probably wouldn’t even get these texts, he was probably back in his apartment without any service. Maybe Louis had another night to think, to try and--no, there was no way out of this. Not this time.

I’m in fact at your apartment, Harry texted back quickly, so quickly that the dots barely even flashed on the screen before the words were there. Turns out I have service here! Looking forward to talking.

Well, fuck.

 

*

 

Harry was leaning up against the wall outside of Louis’ apartment, grocery bags at his feet. His entire face lit up when Louis came around the corner, and Louis almost turned around and ran. Harry was the sweetest person in the world, and Louis was the person who was going to hurt him.

“Hey you,” Harry said, stepping forward to catch Louis in his arms and kiss him. Louis didn’t stop it. The kiss was just as breathtaking as every other kiss had been.

“Lou,” Harry said, arms around him, holding tight, god, Louis was lost, “Tell me what’s wrong.”

Louis had rehearsed in his head the entire walk back to his apartment, but now he couldn’t remember any of the words. Harry was so solid and real, so beautiful and so, so naive. Harry was looking at Louis like he’d invented the idea of color. Louis had never hated himself more, and that was saying something.

“It’s not,” he started, and stopped. Harry put his head to the side and smiled, like this was a good conversation. Like Louis was good. Like there was no other place he’d rather be.

“Maybe I should go first,” Harry said, his hands tracing a pattern on Louis’ back, looking down at him with that smile.

“I was going to wait to tell you this, maybe until the show, after we knew everything was going to be ok with the symphony, because I know how much it means to you. But honest to god, Louis, I can’t wait anymore. Especially not after last night.”

Louis risked a glance upward. Harry’s face was still all light and joy, even though there was a shadow of concern at Louis’ silence. He felt a sick lurch in his stomach. And underneath it all, the connection from the whole previous night was vibrating through him, a blind relief that Louis was back here, tucked into Harry’s body. He could still feel the pull in their instincts, an undercurrent of trust and excitement. How, god, how had he pretended he didn’t feel this, for so long?

“I wanted to tell you how much this has meant to me,” Harry said, slow and tender, and Louis could feel his rising, oblivious happiness in the way that he squeezed Louis closer.  

“We have to stop,” Louis said. He’d gone stiff, a sharp, cold blade in the warm circle of Harry’s vulnerable arms, too close to Harry’s open heart, and somehow Harry hadn’t even noticed yet.

“What?” Harry laughed, “Standing in hallways? You’re the one with the key. Maybe you should give me a key, and then I’d have let myself in and already have dinner on the stove. I’m sure your stove would be excited to get the attention,”

“No, stop,” Louis said. Harry stilled, his smile faltering. Louis’ voice sounded tight in the quiet hallway.

“We have to stop. This. This thing, with us, we have to stop.”

“Wait, what?” Harry asked, and he still didn’t drop his arms, didn’t let go, so Louis pushed away from him and stepped back. He was shaking again, but it didn’t matter.

“You can’t mean that,” Harry said, not like a question but like a statement. “You don’t mean that.”

“I do mean it,” Louis said, “I’m sorry. I don’t want to do it anymore. It was fun for a while, but, I don’t even think I can--I don’t think we should even see each other anymore. For a while, anyway.”

He twisted his hands together to stop them from shaking, fingers looping in a meaningless circle, joints straining tight. Harry looked shocked, like he couldn’t even parse what Louis was saying. Louis swallowed hard. The pain was here now, pressing up his throat, the speeding trainwreck of loss, the spreading cracks in the ice.

“No,” Harry said, shaking his head, “No, you don’t mean that. I know you, Lou, I know that this is more.”

He was looking into Louis’ face, brows furrowed, intense eyes, and Louis wanted nothing more than to step back into his hold and say yes, and say help me figure this out, but he didn’t, because Harry didn’t deserve that. The only thing that could triumph over how much Louis wanted it was that, a last truth to grip onto. Harry deserved everything.  

“I know you said you don't date,” Harry continued fiercely, “And I didn’t, I didn’t know, for a while, thought it made sense to just see what happened, but Lou, you’ve got to feel it too. Haven’t you changed your mind by now? I've wanted to say it for a while now, but especially today--I want to be with you, really be with you. Not a secret or a not-boyfriend. With you.”

The words poured out of him, each one was another break, Harry’s emotions rippling out beyond his control in a shimmering surge. Louis ached. It was all so close and yet so far, everything he wanted and nothing he could have.

“We can't,” Louis said. Harry looked crushed, his face falling, but then he looked up again, because Harry was a lot of things and one of those things was somebody who didn’t give up, unlike Louis.

“Tell me why , Harry said, and Louis had to look away from the intensity in his eyes. He crossed his arms over his chest, like he could hold it together that way. He opened his mouth, but it was so impossible. Harry wouldn't understand, not what it felt like to be trapped, not what it felt like to know that it could all be taken away without warning. Harry had a charmed life, and Louis didn't, that was it.

“I thought you trusted me,” Harry said, almost a whisper, and his face was bent with hurt.

“It's not about that,” Louis said quickly, but for once Harry was too upset to listen, shaking his head and running a hand through his hair like he always did when he got stressed. Louis wished Harry would fucking stop, all the details that he couldn’t stop paying attention to, the way he set his shoulders, the shifting balance back on his heel, taking up all the space in the narrow hallway with his vivid presence.

“I don't understand,” Harry said, “I don't understand how you still don't trust me. Louis I can see it, I can feel it. We're so good together, I don't know why--”

Louis shook his head.

“It was a mistake, I wish we'd never started hooking up,” Louis said, and not because he believed it, but because he knew Harry would believe that he thought that. Harry shook his head, a tear slipping down his cheek. Louis had never seen Harry look like this, his heart was brittle splinters in his chest, it was already broken, he hadn’t even known it could break more.

“I made a mistake,” Harry said softly, “I know that. I wish to god I could take it back. But it's not the mistake you think.”

Louis couldn't make himself stop listening, as much as he knew he should stop it, interrupt it. It was like a morbid desire to stay with the pain as far as he could, to see Harry's face, even like this.

“I shouldn't have let this go on so long without telling you how I feel about you, it wasn't right to either of us. But it was never because I didn't want this, didn't want, all of it. I know you’ve been through something, more than you’ve ever told me, I know it makes you doubt things. But you’ve been happy with me, haven’t you? I’ve never felt happier,”

Harry was spreading out his hands, like there was too much for him to fit into the words, and Louis knew it was a silent plea for him to step forward, to fold himself back into the two of them. It took every ounce of resolve that he had, to stand firm.

“I want all of it with you, Louis, god, I want you . The way you think about the world, the way you take risks to make things happen, the way you're brave. How can you be so brave in every way but this?”

“Because I was fine! Louis yelled.

Harry’s eyes snapped up, hurt and shock warping them like a distorting lens, so unfamiliar on his face. It put a sick kick in Louis’ stomach, but Louis was suddenly so far past being able to care about how Harry felt right now. He had to care about himself. No one else would.

“You have no idea what I’ve been through,” Louis ground out. Harry’s eyes widened.

“You want to know? I’ll fucking tell you. You want me to be brave? To try the whole alpha thing? I did it, Harry. I was brave. And now I'm exhausted. Let me tell you a story.”

Harry bit his lip, but he was silent, gaze fixed on Louis’ face, waiting. Louis was breathing hard now, adrenaline making his hands shake, and he grabbed the edge of the railing of the stairs behind him and gripped it, fingertips white on the iron.

“I’ve fallen in love before, Harry, I was engaged . We moved here together, Thomas and me, alpha and omega, the perfect couple. He was brilliant, one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, and he was the first person I dated in college, my first serious relationship at all. And he started building software, and it was good. So we started a tiny company together, because Thomas could code better than anyone and I was there too, at the right time, trying to learn how to sell it, trying to make it all work for us. Trying to keep up with him.”

And he hadn’t known anything, they hadn’t known anything, but it kept working anyway, beyond anybody’s expectations. Louis had been on top of the world, new city, new life, old love. Louis choked on the memories, the person he’d been so long ago it barely even looked like him anymore. He pretended he’d forgotten because it was a white-hot burning rage to remember it, a rage that had settled so deep inside it sat in the marrow of his bones.

“He was everything. He was my world, Thomas and me against the world. And then--then it worked. We hired other people, and we were like a real, tangible thing, and then--then we got it, got what we’d been sacrificing for. We made a lot of money. And everything changed.”

Harry moved like he was going to say something, but he wisely didn’t. Louis shrugged.

“You can google this part,” he said, tapping at the railing, feeling the cold iron edge biting his finger.

“There was press about it. We did fine. We managed to not fall apart, at least, for long enough to win the lottery. A company in the city wanted to buy us.”

Louis looked out the hallway window, at the cloud-grey sky, the metal-slick buildings that closed in the apartment building. It felt like a tomb sometimes, this place.

“And then he cheated on me.”

Louis wasn't yelling anymore. His voice had gone rigid and hard and vicious, and Harry was wincing away at it, like it was a physical force. Good.

“He’d been cheating on me for months. With someone he'd met at our company, someone I'd actually hired, that I worked next to every fucking day. He'd come home and jump in the shower before I could smell them on him but you know, I knew.”

Louis rubbed a hand quickly across his face, hard. The weird thing about being cheated on was how long afterward you felt the shame, like it had crawled into the veins around your heart, like it had become a symbiotic bodypart you couldn’t even live without.  

“It turns out that it’s pretty easy to tell when somebody hates you and they’re pretending not to. It got to the point where we couldn’t even talk, without yelling. He’d just go straight into alpha voice, call me stupid and needy and selfish for any reason at all, just for existing, and you know,” Louis nearly spat it-- “I suppose I was stupid, staying for so long.”

Harry had gasped, a shuddering, awful sound. Louis refused to look at him, because he couldn’t finish the thing if he looked at Harry. He’d told this story exactly twice: to his mum, and right now, to Harry. There was an infinity to it that he couldn’t even put into words, the way it felt to have the one person in the world who’d promised to protect you try to destroy you. And all the while, tell you it was your fault.

“The worst part--” Louis had to laugh, small and bitter. Had there been a worst part? “The worst part was that when I finally figured out how to leave, I found out he'd locked me into our company, into his life, in every way. I barely even existed outside of him, financially. I’d never paid attention to that stuff, I didn’t know. I wasn't even on our fucking lease.”

It rose up in his memory, the insanity of it all. Louis had felt like he was losing his grip on reality. Thomas had been cruel in a thousand invisible ways and then he had been vindictive, holding the paperwork over Louis’ head and demanding that he stay at the company they’d built, if not with him.

“You know why I’m so good at my job, a job that I hate? You know why I care so much about contracts, and negotiations, and all the shitty politics of it? I'm so good at this because I goddamn had to be. Because he was burning me alive and nobody even knew about it. The only way out was to become better than he was at the business. So I did. I gave up my shares to get out, negotiated a deal that was nearly a blackmail, with the help of the firm I work for now, because they wanted me and he wanted the deals they could get him. He took my whole life, but you know, I wasn't going to let him take my career, too.”

Louis was making a fist so tight his fingernails had dug into his palm. When he let it go, half-moon indents had set into his skin like tiny clawmarks. He was half-blind with tears, suddenly, and he dashed them away angrily with the back of his hand. He really was losing his touch.

“So that’s my story,” Louis said, “My epic romance, the time that I decided to be brave. Maybe I didn't have everything in my life that I thought I'd have. Maybe I was lonely, but I was fucking okay , Harry. I glued myself back together, and it took a long time, and frankly, there was a long while there where I didn't know if I'd ever be okay again. But I was, and then you came along and now I'm not okay anymore!”

He finally looked at Harry. Harry was stricken, looked like Louis had never seen Harry before, the light of his face entirely eclipsed. Louis was drained. There was nothing left even to be angry about. He was just so tired.

“Ok, so now you know,” Louis said, voice back to quiet and abruptly, surprisingly calm. Once you let the all demons out, there was little left to fear.

“I can’t be with you, I can’t do something real. And I’ve been an idiot, of course, because you’re so--you’re so much more than just, just fun, and now I can’t--I can’t be with you, and then--and then lose you. And we're in too deep now. I can’t keep doing this.”

“This?” Harry said, at last, almost gasping it out, like he was startled back to life by the words. “What is this, Louis? What are we? Why do you think you would lose me? Why is this about what we can’t do, and not about what we want?”

“Because, I just, I have to be ok,” Louis said, through tears, overwhelmed at the question. He was well and truly falling apart now, the numbness wasn’t lasting as long as it usually did, not with Harry across the hallway from him, the energy through the space between them like an irresistible force. Harry should be gone already, and Louis didn’t really understand why he wasn’t. Harry felt pleading and wanting and chaotic, too much. Louis dragged himself back, locked his feelings behind the wall. Just for now, just one last time, to protect Harry from what Harry couldn’t really understand.

“Lou,” Harry said, and it was still the best sound in the world, the way he still said it like Louis’ name was something precious-- “I’m so, so sorry. I’m so sorry for all the pain you’ve had to carry. But you aren’t right about us.”

Louis risked another glance, and Harry wasn’t looking at him with pity, or disgust, or distance. Harry was still looking at him with fire in his eyes.

“We’re so much more than this,” Harry said, “So much more than we’ve been pretending. Don’t tell me you can’t feel it. I’ve never wanted to spend time with anybody like I want it with you, like I belong with you. Anything, we could be doing anything. I just want you there. This was never just a hookup for me. I know you’re scared, I know--god, I can’t stand to think of it--what happened to you never should have happened. But it's not going to happen again. We're already something real, can't you tell?”

“Look,” Louis said, ignoring the tears spilling over because at this point, it was pointless. He kept wiping them away with as little fanfare as he could manage, but they kept coming. He felt numb, like the wetness on his own skin was a surprise, like there was some other person inhabiting this body, feeling these feelings.

“I know this hurts, but like, it’s not really real, you’ll see that. We have a good—like, the physical stuff, it’s really intense, but that’s all it is, your emotions are getting messed up about it.”

It was an awful falsehood, an effort to push Harry away using the mean edge of his carefulness about the alpha, and it worked. Harry flinched, deeply. Louis could see the hurt rolling over his face and he ached to take it back, ached to fix it.

But Harry still shook his head.

“You must know--you must feel it--it's not the fucking status. I'm sorry that the world has been so shitty to you. You deserve to take as long as you need to heal from that. But what you don't deserve is to let that shit define you! You're more than your status, and Lou,” Harry took a breath, the words falling out of him in a cascading, blistering contrast to his usual calm, like he couldn't stop himself, like they were both falling off this cliff together--“Lou, so am I.”

“I got caught up in it,” Louis said, staring into the wall. There was a certainty in his voice that surprised even him, the wall coming back to do its task, like it always had.

“But I can’t handle this. I can’t handle you. I can’t be what you’ll eventually need.”

“Lou,” Harry said, voice cracking, but Louis held up a hand and he stilled immediately.

“Just, don’t,” Louis said. He was on the other side of the ice, looking at Harry through it. And no matter what he did now, he could never get back through. “Stop talking.”

Louis took a deep breath, trying steel himself one last time.

“Harry,” Louis said, his voice still breaking treacherously, “Eventually you’re gonna need somebody who can give you the full thing, somebody who has a real heart. I just fucking don’t have it anymore. Hazza. I’m sorry. I can't care enough, not the way you deserve.”

He'd laid it out, drawn the curtain back. Harry had to leave now. Now he could see what Louis was, what he really was, underneath it all. Broken. Harry had to understand. Harry deserved so much more.

“That is bullshit,” Harry said.

“Maybe you don’t want me. It would break my heart, Louis, but that’s ok, you don’t have to. But don’t tell me you don’t care. You care so much, you can’t even control it. You pretend you don’t like people, and you brought all of us together. You think you hate love, but you saw Zayn and Liam moping about pretending to hate each other and you couldn’t stand it so much that you made them both your friends and you fixed them. You spend your weekends in a dusty building doing work you don’t understand to save the jobs of people you just met, because you care. You know all of Babs’ choreography, and you watch every stupid horror movie that Niall wants to watch even though I know you hate them, because I see you flinch any time anything happens. You’ve taken every single terrible thing that happened to you, and you’ve turned it into a way to love other people.”

“You can try to use jokes to disguise it, you can go crash out in your apartment like it’s a secret, you can lie to me all you want, Lou. But I see it in your eyes, every time. You care so much you feel like you're going to be eaten alive by it.”

“Louis,” Harry said, and he was stepping away from the wall now, drawing closer like he couldn’t stop himself, pleading with everything that he had, “Let somebody care about you.”

“I can’t,” Louis said.

He was stumbling back into the railing, away from Harry, and that made Harry stop, because Harry was always going to stop when Louis said to, in the end. Louis was choking on it, on this, the loss already rushing over him in a suffocating wave. He had to survive. No matter how much it hurt, he couldn’t let it happen again. That was the rule.

He moved, past Harry, through the hallway, to his door.

“I want you to go now,” Louis said. His voice was surprisingly steady.  

Harry took a shuddering breath, face wet with tears, but he didn’t look ashamed. Louis was the one who had to look away, staring down at the floor.

“You’re a terrible liar,” Harry said, and then he was gone.

Chapter Text

Silence wasn’t a bad thing, Louis thought. 

When everything had happened, back then, back when he’d walked out of the apartment he’d shared with Thomas without taking any of his clothes or his laptop or even a bag, Louis had walked for miles in silence. It had been dark already when he left, and he hadn’t even thought about where he was leaving for, just that it was now or never, just that he was either going to walk through that door and survive, or he wasn’t.

He hadn’t been able to bear the thought of getting into a cab and opening his mouth and waiting for words that just couldn’t, wouldn't come. The first friend he found in the dark was silence.

Sometimes you need negative space, to see meaning emerge.

Before….before everything happened, when he remembered college, high school, dancing on the tables Louis, the Louis who had refused to get a normal job and wanted to be his own boss and followed his boyfriend to a brand new city in search of a dream--nothing about that person had been quiet. Thomas had changed that. Louis had always been a bundle of energy. But as things got sicker with Thomas, it all perverted. In the last, brutal months, Louis had felt like his energy was twisted inward, like a collapsing star. It had changed him.

But then he left. And somewhere along the way from there to here, somewhere in the middle of losing everything that had defined him, negative space was where Louis found solid ground. No more noise, no more intensity. The loading of the moment before Zayn lowered his baton, the arc of Liam’s arm where he raised the bow to the violin. The way Babs turned around in the kitchen and Niall was already handing her an ingredient without ever using words. The quiet sidewalk in the morning before anyone else woke up, and Louis could just exist. The way an entire symphony hall could hold their breath at once.

Back then, on that terrible night, Louis walked and walked and walked. He walked through the world ending and through the destruction of everything he'd used to orient his life, and at some point, he thought that if he could only keep walking, it would be ok. He knew he was still alive, if he could walk.

Talking would come later. Words would come back. Eventually he would reach into his back pocket to find his phone and call Niall and Babs. The words would be wrong and strange but at some point they’d all realize he’d taken the funniest things with him in the mad rush to leave the apartment and leave Thomas: a watch that had been a gift from his mom and a sudoku puzzle book from the bedside table and the tiny dish that he’d used to hold his keys, but not a toothbrush or a jacket or a change of clothes.  And they’d look at each other and laugh, the first laugh, and everything would go on from there. Eventually there would be a couch to sleep on and finding a new apartment and Babs going over with a box and a grim expression to pick up all his clothes and a bonfire, even, when Louis discovered that most of his clothes smelled like them, and the only solution was fire. But for the first terrible hours, he only needed silence. That was where he found survival.

It wasn’t that bad, this time. Louis was better, this time, and Harry--well. Harry didn’t even belong in the same universe. If Louis was a collapsed star, Harry was a bright yellow sun. This time, Harry was the one who needed protection from Louis’ crushed gravity, the diamond-dead weight of his heart.

Nothing was ever going to be as bad as that old night when he'd walked out the door and away from his whole life. But there was still a familiar quality to the way that Louis went back to his apartment and shut the door and let himself sink into the silence.

 

*

 

When he finally turned his phone back on, Louis muted the group chat immediately. Harry hadn’t said a word in it. Harry was probably never going to say a word to Louis again.

 

From Zayn -

where the eff are you

we need to get coffee

what’s up Louis

are you just gonna stand us up now?

what the fuck, L

 

And gentler, from Liam -

hey louis you joining this weekend or no?

Busy?

Get back to me when you get this

If you feel like it

 

Delete, delete, delete. He couldn’t talk until he felt better, and he couldn’t feel better while he felt like he didn’t have any internal organs left, like he was a facsimile of a person, touch deprivation and heartbreak all dressed up in a suit that felt too big. At least there was work to do, there was always work to do.

He felt the worst about ignoring Niall and Babs. They texted individually, and then they texted together. And then there was a suspicious silence after Niall’s last texts went unanswered, until Niall started calling. Niall’s monster mash ringtone jarred Louis from the middle of an evening analysis and he flipped the ringtone off and threw his phone over the desk. It skittered into the potted palm, where he left it well into the night.

 

*

 

Louis got home at an ungodly hour and opened his fridge, but it wasn’t any different from the last five times: wilted cabbage, some jam, milk because Harry had taken his tea with milk-- christ, the way that it felt physical couldn’t be normal, could it, the way it crashed through his ribcage like the bones were glass and thinking about Harry was a cannonball. Where had he even gotten cabbage? At least he had tea. The chinese place down the corner delivered all night, but when it arrived, he only had appetite for a third of the chicken. It couldn’t be normal, to miss someone like this when you’d lived your whole life just fine without them.

It was like losing a limb. It was like losing the ability to hear, everything going mute at once. It was like having amnesia and then remembering it in pieces: Harry’s tall frame holding him safe at night, Harry’s bright thrown-back head and wide arms gesturing with their friends at the bar, Harry’s fearlessness sweeping Louis up and changing what felt possible.

Louis pulled the thoughts back in, crushed them like a bug, stuffed them in the box. Throw away the bloody key. He had a headache. He had a headache constantly. He ordered a new comforter online, half-way through a bottle of wine and comfort-ordering with only one lamp on. He might as well be warm while he was awake, staring at the ceiling.

It hurt, all the time.

 

*

 

“Ok, god,” Abi said, halfway through the week after the standup meeting with the partners, “I didn’t mean you had to commit manslaughter on all the other cases in the firm, too.”

“His numbers were bad,” Louis said. He’d just stalked out of the standup that had turned into a major blowup where they let go a client and fired the associate who’d been handling them, a good associate, but he'd turned in sloppy numbers that misrepresented the success of last quarter’s initiative. Louis had proven it, sitting cold and silent through the presentation and then killing it entirely with deadly efficiency. Probably somebody had cried. He’d left the meeting room without really looking.  

Abi narrowed her eyes, following down the hall back to their office. Louis was wrestling with his tie, which he’d never liked, and right now in particular felt like it was strangling him. He tore it off as he walked and threw it in a trashcan. Fuck that tie. Abi narrowed her eyes further.

“Did you honestly redo the entire analysis? On somebody else’s case?” 

“Whatever,” Louis said. It had only taken seven hours. He’d probably be working eleven, today.

“You’re scary. I feel like you could turn on any of us at any moment. I think they’re starting to trust you again,” Abi said, holding her hand up for a high-five. 

“Shut up,” Louis said, not giving it.

 

*

 

Louis got the details on symphony hall in the way that you got real information: in the gossip from Abi, who looked at him with concern while he dragged the sharp edge of a cardboard file folder in between his fingernail and the nailbed, from an associate in the next office who was close with one of the partners, and from the administrative assistants. Administrative assistants were, of course, the true Seshats of the business world in any city.

True to Abi’s report, the clients were moving up the deadline to collect on the debt. Technically (said a partner’s admin, with a big eyeroll), they’d had the ability to collect on it all year, but publicity would be better when the orchestra’s season was over. Now--frightened by the buzz around Harry’s show, frightened by the popularity of Liam’s smile, frightened by the idea that a tiny, scrappy, beautiful orchestra might actually have the wherewithal to rally and survive-- they were going to swoop in and demand the penalties as soon as they’d cleared the February filing deadlines. Because lord knows, of course, you have to think of your taxes while you destroy lives. Louis stabbed his ring fingertip on a small thumbtack while he listened to the associate laugh about it.

It was awful. It was so awful, and Louis didn’t know what to do about it; he’d fucked everything up and he also couldn’t even think, anymore, the pieces of his mind slanting fruitlessly between blank, grey coldness and guilty, hot, sick shame. If he hadn’t interfered, they would’ve remained as slow-moving and imponderable as any other corporation ever was. If he hadn’t interfered, maybe the symphony would have raised the money on their own (no, he knew they wouldn’t have, the show with Harry was the last shot they had, but they would’ve at least had the whole last season, Zayn and Liam and the music and all of them, and Louis could’ve still been in his box, once last time). If, if, if--if he hadn’t done this thing with Harry, maybe he could still think, maybe he could solve this.

He wondered what it meant to love things. He wondered what it meant that the threads of his life seemed to have wrapped so tightly and destructively around the same things, looped over and over again. He had to think of a plan. He couldn’t think at all. What was the point, if this was what it all led to?

He kept not answering calls. Even when Zayn called, which had never happened before.

It hurt. All the time, and he almost started getting used to it, and then it would stutter out in a flood again, I want, I want, I want, I wish I were good enough for any of it. And he'd sit down on the floor in the corner surrounded by comforting green plants, and he'd close his eyes and wait for it to pass.

 

*

 

Saturday came, which had used to be the best day, but was now the worst. Louis was pretty sure he’d get used to it. Someday, he’d probably not find himself on the couch, in the dark, holding onto the edge of his cold feet where they were tucked under him, watching the fading sun trace a haze up the walls of his apartment. He should turn on a lamp, probably. He should find something to do with the rest of his life, probably.

The orchestra played again and he'd stayed away again, watching the digital ticket reminder pop up on his phone, twice and three times and a final reminder ten minutes before curtain. It was still sitting on his notifications screen, waiting for him to bring himself to clear it. When he could bring himself to talk to Zayn again without feeling like a murderer confronting a crime scene, he should check whether the orchestra had a good digital strategy in place to manage ending all the subscriptions--it would suck to keep getting dead notifications for ghost tickets, automated reminders of your loss. There was going to be so much to do, to end things. Would Sally be able to find a job? What did all the staff do when places like this closed? What about the bartender who had made so many of Louis’ gin and tonics? Did anybody have a plan for them all?

Louis closed his eyes. They felt dry and hot, screwed tight into his head. He couldn’t even stop himself, he thought bitterly, spinning out on the details like he was going to be able to help the symphony anymore. Like he’d ever done anything but hurt them. He hated the way his own brain felt from the inside.

A fast rap on the door startled Louis so much that he slipped forward, caught himself just before pitching off the couch. Christ. He patted his pocket to reassure himself that the bottle of stims was in there. He’d set a timer on his phone, was scaling up the doses. He was going to be fine.  

“What are you doing?” Louis asked, looking through the peephole and not opening the door.

“Hi,” Niall said, chipper and loud even through the door. “It’s Saturday dinner time.”

It was definitely past dinner time, but Niall held something up that Louis could barely see through the peephole. It looked like the edge of a pot. Babs was behind him with her arms folded, and Louis didn’t need to have the door open to sense the energy off both of them. Unstoppable as an avalanche.

Louis sighed, rubbed at the corners of his eyes.

“Guys,” he started, and then had to clear his throat. His voice sounded raw and out of practice despite all the talking he'd been doing at work. 

“Guys, I love you, thanks for coming by, but honestly I just need to deal with some things.”

“Clearly,” Niall said, “And lucky for you we're too mature and Babs is too overprotective to actually be pissed at you for not answering our calls, instead we're here with the food I'm willing to bet my life that you totally need. Give up, Tommo, you're under siege by crockpot. And the crockpot always wins.”

“I need some space,” Louis said, opening the door a crack, because it felt like his voice wasn’t really coming through the door. And because when they saw his face, they’d probably leave.

“Bull. Shit.” Niall said, emphasizing by pushing an enormous pot into the crack under Louis’ hand and effectively opening the door. It was a whole damn crockpot, the massive one that Niall and Babs used on holidays, and it smelled delicious . Louis’ stomach grumbled, which was frankly a surprise. Louis met Niall’s gaze over the pot and Niall just looked at him, steady and there and not leaving.

“Ok,” Louis said, “Ok, yeah. I’m a mess. Sorry. I’m really glad you’re here. Come in.”

 

*

 

They had food first, without talking, because food was something you still deserved even when you thought you might have ruined your life and everything that you loved most. Babs reminded Louis that with a little shoulder nudge, but she mostly stayed out of his space, and Louis was touched by her thoughtfulness. His system wasn't crashing anymore, the slow and unsatisfying rampup of stims in his brain helping the fallout from losing alpha touch, but artificial stuff was never a miracle worker. He felt sensitive, his skin all prickles and fire. Really, he wanted to ride out the pain, feel it push through the roots of his teeth and the back of his eyeballs. It was better than the numb grey of crashing and giving up. It made the world feel real to have feelings, even if the feelings hurt.

Babs threw the couch pillows down on the floor and disappeared into the bedroom to pull out all the blankets. Niall hummed under his breath as he picked the warmest lamps to switch on, and pulled them into the center of the room, surrounding the new makeshift pillow fort. It was childish and silly and it also transformed Louis’ sterile apartment into something cozier and homier, and he really, really appreciated it. They sat on the floor like kids, like a sleepover, like everything could be reduced to the bright little circle of light in the middle of the room.

The crockpot was full of chicken and dumplings, piping-hot, covered in cracked pepper and parsley and just the right amount of garlic. They made massive, heaping bowls, and Louis ate slowly and then quickly, savory broth and thick dumpling and soft carrots.

“So what happened?” Niall asked, at last.

His tone was serious and determined and brooked no evasions. Louis swallowed, looked into his tea, and then back up at Niall. His legs were wrapped in a blanket and Babs was already ladling him a second bowl, and maybe, maybe the world wasn't ending just yet.

“What did Harry tell you? Is everybody mad?” Louis asked, picking at the blanket. Even saying the name was like a cold shiver through his heart, if he still had a heart, which he was pretty sure he didn’t.

He’d been terrified to ask, terrified to know, wondering what had happened in the group. Harry could have done anything, could have gone straight to Zayn and Liam and maybe they’d all been shocked, maybe they were all on Harry’s side, maybe they were all angry with him.

“Nobody's pitting Harry against you, Louis,” Babs said, and Louis startled because she actually sounded pissed--real genuinely pissed, not Babs-being-irritable-alpha-at-nothing pissed. Niall shot her a quelling look, for once. Louis was impressed.

“No,” Niall said, soft and nonjudgmental, “Harry said something happened, but he didn’t say what. Sent us all a text, said he’d take space, finishing the piece for the hall, you know? But Tommo, Babs and I can see there’s something up with you and Harry.”

“The entire city can see there’s something up with you and Harry,” Babs said, shaking her head, patting Louis’ arm, her gorgeous features wrinkled in a frown.

“Louis, we wanted to see you. You think we'd what, choose him over you? Make you keep seeing him? We don’t even know what’s going on. You tell us what you want.”

“I don't know,” Louis started, back of his throat warm. Suddenly, it was there. After all the days of numbness and ice, the hot tears were welling up in his eyes.

In one instant Louis was re-encountering the concept of emotions and in the next, Babs and Niall had pulled him into an all-encompassing hug and they'd fallen in a pile into the cushions. Louis was gasping on the air, he was sobbing out of nowhere, tears and snot and uncontrollable mess. It was a flood of overwhelming sadness. Harry.

“He’s gone,” Louis said, choking in tears, drowning in feeling, no box to be had. “I can’t stop missing him,” he said helplessly. Harry was beautiful and kind and funny and brave and he was gone. Louis was broadcasting emotions all around them, the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach and the tremulous, weak walls, so torn down, he hadn’t even realized. He’d used to be able to control it, hadn’t he?

“Guess what,” Niall said, face in Louis’ shoulder, voice unexpectedly shaking, “That’s called being a fucking human being.”

Suddenly Louis was crying but he was also laughing, unexpectedly, release and overwhelm unwinding the tension in his chest. It was two infinities at once, the way his body couldn’t even hold his sadness for missing Harry, and the relief of admitting it and making it real and sharing it with somebody. It all still hurt but also, but also. The world was a little warmer and a little brighter.

Louis squeezed them both, as tight as he could. Niall had wrapped Louis up entirely in his arms and Babs had her arms around both of them, broadcasting a rush of protective alpha that might have been half frustration and half reassurance but all love. It flooded into him, into and across all of them, and Louis let it, broadcasted back his pain and loneliness and misery. It wasn't sour or wrong. Somehow in that moment, it was ok.

And then it was better. Louis could pull in a shuddering breath that was more solid, and the sobs slowed. Babs handed him a napkin and he mopped his face, blew his nose, and sat back up, but neither of them let him out of the hug. One step at a time.  

“We're always, always gonna be here for you, Tommo, you fucking, complete, wanker,” Niall said.

“I'm sorry, I’m so sorry I've been cutting you out,” Louis said, and Babs shushed him.

“Just tell us how you feel once in a while,” Niall said, ruffling Louis’ hair.  

“Ok, yeah,” Louis said, “I think I should probably talk about it.”

“No time like the present,” Babs said, “And we can even use a metaphor if you need it.”

Louis sighed deeply. “I really screwed this one up, you guys,” he said, shaking his head.

Louis told them everything, slowly and painfully over second bowls of chicken and dumplings and hot tea and then, ice cream that Babs produced from a freezer bag. Not just about Harry but also about Thomas, the real story. It came pouring out of him once he started, a clumsy, fierce, tentative, halting story. And he couldn't stop once he'd started, about the many sleepless nights and the struggles with food and all the ways that he'd been hiding, for so long, the draw to Harry and the unspoken, secret hookup that had turned so, so much more than Louis had intended. He stopped to wipe away more tears, but the curious feeling of it was that he got steadier as he went along, more solid as he went along. Somewhere deep in the pit of his stomach, the energy that Louis had always relied on to carry him through had flickered into life, reignited by the telling.

Niall and Babs didn't tease or mock or scorn. They listened with serious faces and sympathetic noises and a hand on Louis’ knees, each respectively. Louis felt a little ashamed of ever fearing they'd react any differently.

“I suppose I just, I thought if it was all a secret, I wouldn't fuck it all up,” Louis concluded, at long last. “We can see how well that worked out.”

“Oh, babe,” Babs said.

“You don't have to apologise for not telling us,” Niall said, “You do things in your own time and nobody else's.”

Louis shrugged. Niall was always impossibly zen, but. Doing things in his own time had meant that Louis had stumbled into a miracle, had for a brief and shining moment been the person that Harry Styles had wanted, and then he’d lost it.  

“Louis,” Babs said, leaning forward, her eyes intent, “Do you really think you can’t date? Even somebody like Harry?”

Louis closed his eyes. Harry--Harry’s face, Harry’s smile, the brightness of him--Louis could pretend that it might fade, someday. But he doubted it. Harry had taken root in his heart in a way that nothing and no one else ever had. It hurt, all the time.

“It’s not supposed to be now,” Louis said, and even he could hear the panic discoloring his voice, and the familiar doubt. I wish I were good enough . But underneath it, there was something else. Something new. He’d told the story at long last, and it was starting to feel like it was moving outside of him, no longer trapped in his bones.

“He makes you so happy, and I think you make him happy,” Babs said, quiet but clear. Louis closed his eyes again.

“I thought, I thought I wasn’t ready,” he said, with a long, heavy sigh. “I never thought it was a forever thing. I just kept thinking, I can’t be with somebody, not after everything with Thomas. You guys saw what that did to me.”

Niall and Babs looked at each other. They looked unconvinced.

“I saw you figure out how to do a really hard job that nobody taught you,” Niall said.

“I saw you find an apartment, and go to the symphony, and buy way more plants than anyone should have,” Babs said.

“It's the perfect amount of plants,” Louis said automatically, but a tiny smile nudged at the corner of his mouth. Babs returned it.

“You're a crazy old plant lady and you know it,” she said.

“Maybe so,” Louis said, grudgingly.

“We saw you do a lot of things after everything with Thomas,” Niall said, “Most of all, survive and move on and have a life. You kicked ass, after everything with Thomas.”

Louis really did smile at that. “It doesn't mean I can be with someone, though,” he insisted. Especially not someone as special as Harry.

“Really? For the rest of your life?” Babs asked.

“It was never supposed to be forever,” Louis repeated. “It's just, it's supposed to happen when I'm better. When it's all fixed. When I deserve it.”

“You deserve it 'now,'” Babs said, mimicking his tone with air quotes, “And Harry deserves the chance to be believed, don’t you think?”

“I think Harry deserves somebody less fucked up,” Louis said. The words were loud, louder than he intended, heavy. His heart convulsed, a throb of pain that went deeper than anything before. He blinked, tears pooling in his eyes. So that was it, huh. He wiped at his face, overwhelmed by it all again, the loss and the confusion and telling this story again, the story he thought he’d never tell to anyone. 

“There it is,” Niall said, not unkindly, putting his head to the side and his hand on Louis’ shoulder. “I mean, did you ever think that maybe it's not about that? Not about you being perfect, just about you being you? What if Harry likes who you are, right now? Including the parts that are difficult. None of that makes you fucked up.”

“Or at least,” Niall added, “Not anymore fucked up than the rest of us.”

Louis could feel Niall’s calm beta energy, radiating strong and certain. It was grounding, so Louis anchored into it, let Niall’s trust and regard and affection curl around him. Long habit suggested that he pull back now that he was a little more in control, that he stuff all the feelings in...and honestly, fuck long habit. He ignored it. 

“I can see you beating yourself up from the stratosphere, and Harry can, too.” Niall said, soft and relentless, his words sinking into Louis’ mind, his conviction sinking in through their linked instincts. Stupid crazy beta superpowers, powerful in every direction. “Maybe, Tommo, maybe you can forgive yourself for having gotten hurt.”

Louis sucked in a breath. For all the endless times he'd thought about what had happened with Thomas he'd never thought about it that way, that some part of him had been holding onto the blame for it. Niall's certainty and more--his love and certainty filled the room around them, that Louis deserved more. Louis hugged his knees into his chest, and he was grateful that Niall and Babs were the kind of people who could push and then sit back and let him process. This was going to require more thinking, and probably, a lot more nights with warm food. But it felt big.

“Can you stay the night?” Louis asked, finally. He couldn't remember ever asking before. Babs had insisted before and Niall had rolled out the couch in their apartment for Louis countless times, but Louis had never asked. It was only now that he realized how easy it was.

“We'd absolutely love that,” Babs said easily, Niall nodding and squeezing Louis’ hand. “Let's stay up late and cuddle up and watch something good. Not one of Niall's hideous collection. Nature documentaries, maybe.”

“David Attenborough this shit,” Niall said sagely. “Everything will fall into place after that.”

“I should text Zayn and Liam,” Louis sighed, as they stood up to clear the dishes. “I’ve been an ass.”

Babs and Niall exchanged another look over Louis’ head. They really did that a lot. Louis folded his arms over his chest.

“What?” Louis said.

“They’re kind of already here,” Niall said. Babs cracked a grin, ducking her chin.

“Came right after the symphony finished tonight,” she added, “They’re waiting in a cafe down the street. We wanted to come over first, see how you were and how many people you wanted.”

“Was totally gonna call Liam up for muscle if we needed to carry you to our place,” Niall added. Louis sighed, leaning over on one foot and putting his head entirely on Bab’s arm. Maybe he was being impossibly demanding with all the touch tonight. Maybe he didn’t care. Maybe he was allowed.

“You guys,” he said. Babs ruffled his hair.  

“It’s called having friends,” she said, snidely, and Louis snapped his teeth in the air at her.

“There’s our Louis,” she said.   

“Family game night perseveres, nor sleet nor wind nor rain, nor having to actually come all the way downtown on a weekend,” Niall said grandly.

“All right, call the boys up,” Louis said.  He sighed. He was a terrible mess. He was pretty sure there was some snot still left on his chin somewhere. He needed a shower. One step in front of the other, that’s how you knew you were still alive. There was still love, even for his heart that seemed to flicker in and out of existence. There were still things to love.

“There’s more I have to tell you. There’s this shit with the hall.”

 

*

 

Louis took a long hot shower, while Niall and Babs let the boys in and explained the deal with the hall and the firm and the awfulness of the debt. Maybe Zayn knew already--Louis couldn’t think about. Babs had reassured him that nobody would be mad at him, and Louis believed her.

Louis turned the water up hot and let it pound at his skin. It felt a bit like a benediction, like a silly little baptism of his own making. Louis breathed in steam from the shower, let the water run through his hair and over his face and into his mouth.

He’d told the story, told the truth, and he was ok.

It’s not that you don’t trust Harry. You don’t trust yourself.

You miss Harry.

The shower made tears invisible, lost in the stream. He put his hands on the cold tile and let them go. He was alive. He had a life. He wanted to live his life, and not just wait for it.

You love Harry.

What does it mean to love things?

Maybe you can forgive yourself.

Louis felt it rising, like a fire finding tinder, cleansing and vital and warm. It was the hope and the passion and the belief that had told him he was worth more, even when all the other voices had denied it. That he was worth more than a box and walls and half the life he wanted.

Maybe you can forgive yourself.

 

*

 

“Ok,” Louis said, feeling resurrected from the shower and coming out wearing long, old pajama bottoms and a tshirt. Liam and Zayn were in the living room having just been brought up to speed on the crisis with the show, if their faces were any indication.  

“Ok, so it’s true, they want to stop the show, and they’re doing it soon . And I’m really sorry. I had no idea that my firm was involved. I should’ve, well, I had no idea they were going to push up the deadline, I--”  

“Shut the fuck up,” Liam said, crossing the room and pulling Louis into a deep, solid hug. Louis blinked in surprise as his face was squished into Liam’s after-concert wear, a fuzzy pullover sweater that smelled enough like Zayn that Louis was suspicious it was Zayn’s. Liam ruffled up the back of Louis’ hair and patted down his arms and didn’t let him move an inch back. Louis had never soaked in Liam's platonic alpha touch before but it was very Liam, precise and diligent and thoughtful, like walking through a well-appointed park, like coming out of trees onto a big, clean field of grass.

Louis had expected Zayn to be the one yelling at him, actually, but Zayn seemed content to let Liam do most of the work for both of them. Typical. Louis patted Liam's back in what he hoped was a reassuring manner.

“You’re a menace, you’re terrible, I can’t believe you,” Liam said, not letting go. Louis got his face free enough to make a shocked face at Zayn around Liam’s bulk. Zayn sent him back an arch expression that had no pity at all in it. 

“Bro, you're the one who didn't answer texts, you brought the infinite worry machine on yourself,” Zayn said. Louis flipped him off behind Liam’s back, still patting awkwardly with his fist.

“I'm really all right,” he reassured Liam, “I mean I dunno. Everything’s a mess, but I’m going to be. The show, though, if I'd known-”

“I said shut up,” Liam snapped. Louis laughed despite himself, hugging Liam back. In some lower brain region, the deprivation eased even more.

“It's completely insane that you sat around blaming yourself for the symphony's catastrophe of a situation, and that you thought we would, too,” Liam said.  

“Yeah, we don’t give a shit. I mean we give a shit, obviously, about the symphony. But right now we care about you, and also whatever has exploded with you and Harry,” Zayn said, helping himself to a bowl of ice cream, because clearly nobody was waiting for Liam to let go of Louis. This was just his life now.  

“Zayn Malik,” Liam said without turning or looking around, “We are giving Louis a break from thinking about Harry right now.”

“We want you to know that we’re here for you,” Liam continued, like a drill sergeant of affection. Louis was frankly too intimidated to do anything but make acquiescing noises.

“Ok,” Louis said into Liam’s or Zayn’s sweater, and then he repeated it into the room more audibly after finally pushing out of Liam’s hold. “Ok, I’m ok.”

Louis looked at the four of them, impossible friends, all the people in his life who simply wouldn’t give up. That was the thing, wasn’t it? Ultimately it was simple. Loving things meant that you tried.  

“Holy shit,” Babs said, laying down her ice cream bowl and coming in closer to take Louis’ shower-warm face in her hands and peer at it, scrutinizing. He wrinkled his nose at her. It was cuddle-Louis night forever, apparently.

“It’s the face!” Babs exclaimed, because she was always the first to figure things out.

“What face?” Liam asked. Babs pointed dramatically at Louis. Louis could feel a grin, a genuine grin, just the beginnings of it, but still. He looked, he was aware, faintly ridiculous and faintly manic, pale and pointed and wet hair standing up in every direction in old glasses and oversize pajamas, and he didn't give a shit. Everything was fucked, but, you tried.

“The problem-solving face,” Babs breathed.

“Got it in one, Barbara Palvin,” Louis said. Babs made a tiny bow at him. God, he loved her. He loved Niall, he loved Liam and Zayn. Maybe Louis was a terrible collapsed star, but they had their own gravity too, his friends, and it could keep him from folding in on himself.  There were so many things to love. 

“Will somebody please explain?” Liam asked, plaintively. 

“We’re saving the fucking symphony,” Louis said. “I don’t know how, but we are. Tonight, this place is the war room.”

“Oh good, I thought you would say that, because I invited somebody else over, good thing you took a shower,” Zayn said nonchalantly, and at the same time, the doorbell rang.

“My god,” Liam said in the tone of resignation known only to those whose boyfriends are an unfailing source of excitement in their lives. “What have you done now?”

Of all the people in the universe that Louis thought might be waiting his doorstep in red leather boots with an extra-large latte and an impatient frown, he did not guess Abi.

“Hi?” Louis said, weakly.

“Jesus christ, Tomlinson,” Abi said, her frown deepening. “You look like a fucking garbage can. I feel like I murdered somebody.”

“He looks fine,” Niall yelled from the living room, ever supportive.

“No he doesn’t,” Zayn added.

“Don’t listen,” Liam said. There was a noise which might have been the sound of Zayn digging his heel into Liam’s vulnerable stomach as they sprawled out in the cushion fort.

“Thanks,” Louis said sardonically, at all of them. Abi pushed past him to march into the living room.

“Wow, you’re even hotter than instagram,” Abi said to Liam, who ducked his head down with a shocked face. Abi towered over the cushion fort, arms akimbo. Louis felt slightly like he might be hallucinating after the intensity of everything. 

“I like her,” Babs said from the far corner of the cushions, because of course she did.

“Stop it,” Louis said, “Are you here to like, tell me to do more work? What do you want?”

Zayn cleared his throat. “Ah, um, I maybe called Abi from the cafe,” he said, and the room looked at him in shock, save for Abi, who nodded and raised her eyebrows at Louis like he was being an idiot and she wasn't going to wait around for him to catch up forever, you know.

“I had her number, and I thought she would help,” Zayn said, shrugging, and that’s right, he did, because Louis had given it to him eons ago when Abi was going to recommend a new insurance assessor for the hall, months ago, and Zayn was a sneaky, terrible, scheming demon. Liam was looking at him with a face that was equal parts horror and lust. Louis hoped that he’d keep it together, for all their sakes.

Abi shifted in her boots and looked warily at Louis.

“Look, every single person at the firm is a complete and unmitigated douchebag, except for you. You’ve always been the nicest person there. And that’s the only time you can expect to hear me say that,” Abi finished defiantly, like she expected him to call her out for being gauche enough to decide to care. 

“I'll never tell,” Louis said. Her nose twitched. 

“Plus,” she added, “It annoys me when people think they can outsmart us. I mean Tomlinson, it’s us. So let’s figure this shit out.”

Louis nodded, he laughed, he was bouncing on his feet. He was exhausted and crazy with missing Harry and terrified of losing the hall but he was also giddy. They were having a full-on strategy session and that he hadn’t even had to organize it, it had been organized around him, a rally to save him, to save symphony hall, and suddenly Louis had to turn his back to everybody and blink away even more fucking tears.

“Pillows on the floor,” Abi said, wonderingly, “What the hell am I getting myself into?”

“Right,” Louis said, wheeling back around, “Abi, you’re a genius.”

“I know,” Abi said, “But why?”

“You said it’s us,” Louis said. Abi’s eyes widened.

“We get the firm to drop that fucking real estate company,” Louis said, “Or no--no, we get them to slow down the action, delay them long enough so they can’t collect the debt before the show. 

“What?” Niall asked blankly.  

“Along with the consulting, our firm also provides the out of house counsel that supports the real estate company,” Louis explained rapidly, while four pairs of eyes looked at him with confusion. Louis secured himself a huge pillow and pulled his laptop out from where it had been pushed away on the side of the room. They would need records, all the debt records, all the fillings, all the financials. Luckily, he had access to everything.

“English?” Niall suggested. Louis and Abi huffed out a sigh in complete harmony.

“They can't file to collect on the debt if we get our firm to freak out about it, they need our approval to do it,” Abi explained.

“Two years and you still don't know what I do?” Louis sniped to Niall, who shrugged. “Math,” he said airily. “Business intelligence,” Louis said. Niall reached down to shove his shoulder, only a little.

“Yeah, but the firm will never block this kind of action. How do we do that?” Abi said. Liam shoved a pillow at her and she took it carefully between two manicured fingers and then sat down, cross-legged, narrowly avoiding stabbing Zayn in the leg with a high heel, and smirking at him.

“They will if a partner votes against it, they'll have to,” Louis said. A closing this big, with the legal liability in house, required a unanimous partner vote. Usually that was only a matter of formality, but this time--

“The vote,” Abi breathed, “You’ll have made partner.” 

Louis was smiling at her, but he was shaking his head. It was all coming together, his mind turned on again, the system falling into place, a solution so obvious he couldn't believe it had taken him this long.

“Yeah,” he said, “We’ll need a vote. But it won’t be me. I’m quitting, Abi. I’m fucking quitting the firm. You’re going to make partner.”

Shouts erupted from the room, and Abi clutched her chest and took a giant swig of latte to compose herself. Niall did a victory dance that went on for far longer than Louis thought was reasonable. 

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“I’ve never been more sure,” Louis said. “When I leave, they’ll pick you. It was always supposed to be you, Abi.” And it was never supposed to be Louis. His life now, and no more waiting for it.

“Ok,” Abi said, shaking her head. There was a look in her eye like she wanted to say more, but couldn't, so she snapped back to business. Louis smiled at her, suddenly fond. Turns out there could be two rafts away from their desert island. 

“So now what I need is a reason to delay, to raise the motion with the other partners. Something that gives us enough evidence to say the action needs a full review.”

“Easy,” Louis said, the maniacal glint back in his eye. “What, you think the fucking paperwork was done right?” Louis said. He and Abi shared a long look of understanding. Abi handed her latte to Liam without looking and he took it obediently.

“Let’s get to work. Let’s find where they fucked up,” she said.

“Oh, she’s scary like Louis now, I like her too,” Zayn said approvingly from his cushion.

“Not my type,” Abi sniffed over her enormous, stats-doing laptop, logging into the corporate network, but Louis could see from the tilt of her sharp mouth that she was pleased.

 

*

 

Looking through the paperwork was, of course, exhausting as paperwork always was. Niall put David Attenborough on in the background, which helped. They pored over the building documents, the tax files, and had more ice cream to the sound of birds and slugs and pleasantly-accented monologues on ecologies.

Louis took a break out on the balcony an hour in, blinking and yawning in the night air. They were all too excited and wired to stop until they found the right ammunition. Louis was feeling the kind of knuckle-grip resolve to finish this that he’d previously thought would only come as a byproduct of needing to work, not out of passion. What a brave new world it was.

“Hey,” said a voice behind him, deep and slow, and for a second Louis jumped--but of course it was Zayn, pulling a cigarette out of a pocket and shaking it at Louis. Louis had kicked the habit a while ago, but it felt right.

“Thanks,” he said, sharing Zayn’s light. Zayn tipped his head back and looked for the stars that couldn't be seen from Louis’ flat. They smoked in silence for a minute.

“I know people can be shit,” Zayn said conversationally, rolling the cigarette between his fingers. Louis raised an eyebrow.

“I’ve always guessed you had cause to know that better than a lot of people,” Zayn continued, “So I don’t have anything to say about that other than, it makes me really fucking angry to think about what must have happened to you. I know I don’t know the whole story, but, honestly, it’s the only thing that explains why you aren’t with Harry. I looked through your old instagram to make sure I knew what Thomas’ face looked like. So I could punch it if I ever saw it.”

Louis had no idea what to say to that, so he just gaped. Zayn shrugged and took another long drag. He was still looking for the non-existent stars, not at Louis, for which Louis was glad.

“He lives on the other side of the city,” Louis said finally, “I haven’t run into him in two years, so, you probably won’t ever.”

“That’s good, I guess,” Zayn said, shrugging one shoulder, “But just, so you know. All the alphas,” and Zayn waved a hand towards the kitchen where Babs and Liam were cooking up a second dinner for everyone, and Abi was sitting on the kitchen table pontificating. Louis could not have possibly imagined a weirder night for himself.

“Our loving bulldogs like to think they're the ones who protect us, but you know, Niall and I talked about this and we think I'd be most effective. Liam can’t even kill spiders without crying, and it’s stupid how much I love that. But I didn’t end up being the only kid at my school to be in both orchestra and chess club without learning how to throw a punch.”

Louis nodded. He looked back at Zayn, whose dark, unreadably beautiful features hid more than he even wanted them to.

“Abi told me that you kept the hall alive for this last season, before we even met,” Louis said, looking at him intently. “That you negotiated to extend the deadline. You never said, I had no idea that you’d already been working to push off the debt before I even got involved.”

Zayn laughed, short and bitter. “Didn’t work in the end, huh.”

Louis shook his head. “That was really badass, Zayn. Really badass.” So many times he’d told himself the story that he was the only one working out of his depth, fighting to keep the things that he loved, that nobody else cared. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Zayn looked at him over the cigarette, as much in a sideways glance as some people say in a whole conversation. “Takes one to know one,” he said.

They stood thoughtfully for a beat before Zayn cleared his throat again.

“On that note,” he said, “Look. We’re supposed to leave you alone about the Harry thing--”

Louis flinched, too much to hide it, the cutting sadness still landing like a blow when it caught him off guard. Zayn winced in sympathy.

“I don’t want to make you talk about it,” he said quickly.

“It’s just--just one thing. I know what it’s like to feel like people aren't worth it, all the shit it takes to do people. That's just, that's your choice. But listen, Louis, you never let it make you feel like you’re not worth it, ok?”

Louis swallowed hard, tilted his head and blinked at the streetlights. They were a little blurry tonight. Probably the smoke.

“Not sure if I know how, Z,” Louis said. Zayn stubbed his cigarette out on the balcony railing.

“Don’t tell Liam about this,” he said conspiratorially, “I’ve got him convinced that I’m quitting. He'll probably start me on some bloody program if he sees me smoking. He’s got programs for everything.” Louis felt a tiny burbling laugh in his chest. That was nice.

“You know how,” Zayn said, “And you’ve always got us.”

He reached out and brushed Louis’ arm with the back of his fingers before he turned to go back inside. His touch was strange and unique and meaningful, just like Zayn. Louis didn’t think he’d ever seen Zayn voluntarily break his bubble of personal space for anyone other than Liam. Everything was still terrible, but maybe slightly less terrible than before.

 

*

 

It was three-thirty in the morning and Niall and Babs and Zayn were taking catnaps in a pile in the living room when Liam looked over at Louis and Abi, who were running scripts on the symphony’s reported earnings to see whether they matched the sheets given to the real estate company and bickering, quietly and unrelentingly, about whose outlier analysis was better. Louis was the clear winner but Abi was never going to admit that.

“I think I found something,” Liam said.

“Holy shit Li, you really did,” Louis breathed, pushing in to stare inches from the screen and then blindly reaching back to pat Liam's elbow and then Abi’s arm, even though it earned him a glare. Louis shook his head. For once, the chaotically terrible records of the symphony actually served them. Liam, the newest member of the symphony, the biggest change Zayn had made to their financials when the previous concertmaster had left, had been entirely forgotten in the debt filing updates of the past year. His contract was nowhere to be seen among the firm's documents.

Liam all but fell off the kitchen stool and went straight to Zayn, going down on his knees and nudging him awake.

“You never sent my bloody contract to them, you need a business manager, we’re going to stop them with this, best mistake you ever made,” Liam whispered.

Zayn squinted and then pulled him down into the pillows. Liam went sprawling, knocking over a lamp and startling Niall and Babs awake, all of which Zayn ignored.

“You’re my lucky star,” Zayn said, eyes closed, tucking Liam into his side, and clearly going straight back to sleep. “Hiring you was the best non-mistake I ever made.”

 

*

 

They all slept on the living room floor except of course for Abi, who left after making Louis promise to invite her over occasionally, just not for a slumber party. Louis was still turning the whole wild night over in his head as he crashed down on the pillows between Niall and Zayn. It was surprisingly comfortable, and the first time he’d felt warm all week.

“Hey,” Niall whispered, eyes bright.

“Hey,” Louis whispered back.

“Pretty ok family game slash corporate espionage night,” Niall said. “I learned things. About how you're going to do our taxes this year.”

Louis stuck out his tongue, but nodded. Niall smiled at him.

There weren’t words for how much it all meant. At the same time, Harry's absence still ached under everything. But Louis dispelled the last reserves of self-censorship and let the tendrils of all his complex feelings manifest again, broadcasting out in the living room along with Niall’s peacefulness and Babs’ protectiveness and Liam’s care and Zayn’s sensitivity, all part of a whole. It felt something like hope.

“You know,” Niall whispered, “When Babs moved here, I didn’t come with her at first.”

“Really?” Louis asked. Niall grimaced.  

“It took me so long to leave home, and everything was so new,” he said, “Eventually I figured it out and she forgave me. It seems ridiculous now. But I was scared. I was scared of holding her back, you know?”

“It’s hard to imagine. You’re the bravest person I know,” Louis wondered. Niall smiled again.

“When we were kids,” Niall said, still hushed and thoughtful, “You were the bravest person I knew. You came out so young, so sure about who you were. You got in fights you couldn’t win, you never backed down. You left home, and I thought that meant I could too.”  

Louis pondered it. The threads of his life, wrapping around the same things.

“I think I want to go see him,” Louis whispered.

“Really?” Niall asked.

“Really,” Louis said. “For myself,” he added. 

Niall looked apprehensive, but also trusting. He nodded.

“Let’s sleep until, like, noon, and then get brunch,” Niall said.

“Now there’s a plan,” Louis agreed.

Chapter Text

Louis parked on the quiet, tree-lined street and, after a minute, got out.

Things had changed a lot in this neighborhood. Small shops selling sandwiches next to cigarettes and graffitied corner trash cans had been replaced by wide green benches and sleek, modern cafes; the post-college kids who didn’t know what they wanted had been replaced by adults who at least acted, more consistently, like they did. The creep of gentrification had probably slid right under the feet of the residents, who occasionally asked each other why they were paying twelve dollars for a sandwich.

But the street lamps were the same. They stood in rows of curved old iron that had outlasted the neighborhood before this one, and they’d outlast this one. Louis stood on the sidewalk looking at a lamp for a moment, the inward curl of iron and the flower near the hanging bulb, surprised to remember how familiar the details were. Once upon a time, he'd sat on dingy building steps to smoke and chat and drink and look at these lamps, when this had been the cheap neighborhood you moved into with a boyfriend and too many roommates and all your chaotic dreams.

It was like being on a movie set. Full of recognizable details, but no pulse underneath to tie your steps with the streets. No sense of belonging. This neighborhood had been the center of the world. Now, it was just another place.

Thomas was standing outside the cafe they’d chosen. Unlike the neighborhood, he looked the same. He’d always been a chameleon, tall and angular with just enough premature greying at the temples to help them get taken seriously at their earliest meetings, young enough to stay out all night afterward.

“Louis,” Thomas said, voice strangely weighted with warmth and maybe, a little trepidation. He was in a button-down shirt that Louis automatically catalogued as expensive. Louis was in one of his oldest sweaters, grey and white stripes and a hole in both cuffs. He hadn’t even thought about what he’d put on for this, which was momentarily and intensely gratifying.

“Hey,” Louis said.

“It’s been so long,” Thomas said, shaking his head and smiling a little. He made a move like he was going to put out his hand, and then took it back. Louis had instantly rocked back.

“Yeah,” Louis said. It came out flatter than he’d intended. Of course it had been a long time. But this was Thomas, ipso facto, the batting away of discomfort with quick words.

“Come in,” Thomas said, pulling open the door, like they weren’t both about to go in.

“All right,” Louis said, a little sarcastic, a snap running under the words. But all in all, it felt--it felt weirdly normal, weirdly ok.

He followed Thomas into the cafe, a large, couch-filled affair that boasted a pourover bar, something that Louis hadn’t even heard of four years ago. They got coffees that took about seven minutes to make, which was frankly longer than Louis wanted to be standing there. He was feet away from Thomas, and he could feel Thomas glancing at him, scanning up and down. He fixed his own gaze on the people around them.

When they sat down, Thomas ran a hand through his hair in a nervous gesture that reminded Louis of Harry, for a startling and not pleasant moment.

“I was...it was really surprising to get your email,” he said.

Louis folded his hands around the coffee mug, felt its warmth seep into his knuckle joints.

“Surprised myself sending it,” Louis said. But it also hadn’t. Some part of him had long thought that there was something more he had to say. “I had a couple of things we needed to talk about.”

Thomas nodded. Louis had papers folded under his arm, and he took them out to remind himself of all the things he’d gotten written down for help.

“I thought, you know, I thought eventually you’d reach out,” Thomas said.

That was news, given that not reaching out had been a rock of Louis’ universe up until a week ago, and he felt a stab of anger-shock.

“I know it’s not the same, getting updates on the company from the usual investor briefings, you know?” Thomas finished. Louis forced his shoulders back down, de-bristling a little.

Thomas smiled at Louis like he hadn’t noticed, even though Louis knew he was too observant for that. He seemed to keen to act like things were normal, like they were any two people who had simply, somehow, stopped keeping in touch. It would be disorienting except that Louis could read the jumping vein in Thomas’ temple and the way he looked across the table, briefly and too quickly. Thomas had always had a gift of looking in control but he wasn’t, not really.

“We’ve been doing so well,” Thomas said. “We’ve got the new venture arm. I knew you’d want to hear about it. The first quarterly is really outperforming, I’m sure you saw the numbers.”

There it was, that familiar knife’s edge, the competition against the entire world that Thomas had always carried with him. Louis felt amazed that he had ever thought that was normal, or what he wanted.

“I don’t want to hear about it,” Louis said, cutting through his words. Thomas stopped.

Louis cleared his throat, pushed the papers he’d brought across the table. Abi had drawn them up, so he knew they were perfect.

“There is exactly one thing I want from you,” Louis said. “You’re going to sign this paperwork, so I can buy out my last shares from the company on an earlier schedule. Today.”

“Really? Isn’t it still tied to your firm’s contract?” Thomas asked, but it didn’t actually sound that much like a question, face looking down at the papers with a strange sense of resignation.

“I want out of it all, completely,” Louis said, “I think you owe me that. It’s taken me too long to come here and get your signature.” 

It’s your fault, that it took this long. So many things are your fault. He didn’t say. He didn’t, honestly, want to have that conversation. He didn’t ask what had happened, after he’d left and their perfectly-constructed lie of a life had fallen apart.

He didn't even care to know. And that was a remarkable kind of freedom.

Thomas nodded. He was signing before Louis even finished. Louis was holding his breath, suddenly, unable to believe that it was that easy. Two years of feeling like this last piece was still in the background hanging over him, and that was all it took.

“It’s hard to believe,” Thomas said, hesitating, looking like he was searching for words. “That this is how it all ends? Remember when we started writing it all?”

“Winter break, junior year,” Louis said, quietly. They’d stayed to take an interterm course, spent three weeks writing the very first prototype in a fever-dream that was going to continue for the next years of their lives. “That’s not me anymore.”

Thomas nodded.

“So you must have made partner. If you’re really getting out, you must have something exciting going on. I’d love to know what that is.”

Thomas smiled, wide and fake and meant to be charming. It would have been more believable if he’d just let himself look sad. Once upon a time that competitive bluster had felt like something to measure himself against, on and on and endless. Work was a crusade, their relationship just another piece of the battle strategy. Louis had thought for so long that this was what alphas were like, when you really knew them.

“I left the firm,” Louis said, dismissively. “Just last week.”

Thomas looked startled. “That’s, wow, I’m surprised. Got poached to a new firm?”

“No,” Louis said, “Hah, yeah, fuck no. But I’m happy when I wake up in the morning now, you know.”

“Not the way I usually make my decisions,” Thomas said, still probing. Louis took another long sip of coffee and let the puzzle hang and grow between them, refusing to explain or justify.

Louis thought of how Harry wanted to understand things, how he found a way into everyone’ backstage, because he wanted to know how it worked. He thought about the difference between people who wanted to know how it worked so they could make something, and people who wanted to know how it worked so they could tear something apart. He thought about going to the beach every year with Niall and Babs and the feeling he’d felt there, that the whole rest of the world didn’t matter anymore. Freedom was subtle, but it changed everything.

He could hear his own heartbeat in his ears. It was steady and grounding and strong, his body taking care of him, giving him a touchstone.

Louis set his half-full overpriced coffee down, without any guilt about not finishing it. 

“Well, that’s it,” Louis said, picking the papers back up.

“Louis, hey, when I got your email...” Thomas started, and hesitated.

Louis looked back at him, anticipation snapping across his shoulders. Maybe this was it at last, the apology he’d been expecting for more than two years. It wouldn’t be enough, of course, but he was still surprised it had taken this long.

“I thought maybe you wanted to reconnect,” Thomas said, “We never even talked after--well, good at leaving things without warning, aren’t you?” he finished with a short, self-conscious laugh, raking his hand through his hair again.

“Are you serious?” Louis said, flatly. Thomas had the grace to look embarrassed, at least, but he had a tight doubling-down look on his face that Louis recognized.

“It’s been two years,” he said, and it sounded like a plea. “I thought...when you reached out, maybe, you left in such a rush. You were just gone, just like that. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and I hoped that you meant to come here and admit, well. I mean we both made mistakes, right? We were still such kids, Louis.”  

It was a shock and it wasn’t. It was a last piece of insight clicking into place, but he’d had the outline of it before in the negative space of everything Thomas wasn’t. He was always going to try to warp Louis’ reality into his own, favored version. He wanted to feel better. And Louis was done with it.

“The thing is,” Louis said--“The thing is that I didn’t know anything, that I was...I made mistakes. Normal mistakes, the kind of mistakes that everybody gets to make, figuring it out. But what you did was terrible. What you did to me was unforgivable.”

Louis had been confused and lost and imperfect but he’d never been cruel. You care so much, you feel like you’re going to be eaten alive by it.

Not anymore. Never again. The fire was a low and steady light. Rage was a companion, keeping him safe, the instincts of his body wrapped close to his heart. He could be here because he knew that Thomas had nothing to do with who he was now.

Thomas would always have to live with what he’d done, but Louis--Louis wouldn’t.

“Louis,” Thomas said, slumping back in his chair, “You’re right. You’re completely right.” His voice was low and full of shame.

That was a completely different shock. The mask had slipped off Thomas’ face, twisted and pained.

“When I got your email,” Thomas said, low and still looking at his hands, “I wanted to tell you that. That I knew I did terrible things, and I was so ashamed, too ashamed to face it back then. So I tried to find a way to twist it into being your fault. I’m sorry. I’m just so sorry.”

Louis let out the breath he’d been holding, long and slow. Louis could see both realities in the contours of his face: the college student who had once upon a time been his best friend, and the man he’d turned into. Once upon a time they had spent their mornings and evenings and nights together, stayed up and talked for hours over empty beer bottles and ashtrays and computer monitors. When they’d moved to the city, packed all their college shit in a truck, Thomas had driven and Louis had gotten them lost and they’d spent the night in the desert the back of the truck on an old foam mattress, looking at the stars.

The thing about monsters was that they were really just people, in the end.

“You know why I liked the data stuff, statistics, all the math?” Louis asked. “You know how I got so good at it?”

“You were always the smart one,” Thomas said. Louis almost laughed , almost cried, their diverging realities too much to hold at once.

“It's because I had to know what was real.”

Louis sighed, folded the papers back up, and tucked them under his arm. “I’m not going to make you feel better about it. That’s not what I came here for.”

“Is there anything...?” Thomas said, and trailed off, because there was really no way to end that sentence. No way to go back in time and make it have not happened. 

Louis looked across the table and he felt--nothing. No pull, no magnetic gravity, no sense of his own walls folding. Thomas could’ve been the most powerful alpha in the world and it wouldn’t have tripped anything at all in Louis’ brain. He was just some stranger now, with a face that was familiar, and a life that wasn’t.

And yet, once upon a time, he’d been a friend, before everything twisted. Louis wasn’t going to forgive it, but it was still part of their story.

“You could use all of your connections to make sure the city puts a land trust around the property downtown, around the performing arts complex,” Louis said.  

“I’ll do what I can,” Thomas said, and Louis knew that he would make it happen.

“Still looking out for your symphony?” Thomas asked, but with just a hint of a smile in the corner of his mouth. Louis could still see the resemblance to Harry, and he still didn’t like it.

“I know what I love,” Louis said.

“I’m really sorry,” Thomas said again as Louis stood to go, so quiet, he almost didn’t hear it. “I’ve been sorry ever since. I can’t even tell you how much.”

Louis nodded. He didn’t feel the need to accept the apology. But hearing it could still mean something. And he felt, with a deep peacefulness, that this was where they were going to leave it.

“I know you are,” Louis said, “And I never want to see you again.”

“Are you sure?” Thomas asked. “You know, you’re still my oldest friend, Louis.”

He held out a hand, a helpless expression on his face, like maybe Louis would take it one last time. Louis looked at him.

“You're not mine,” he said. Sometimes the real ending wasn’t an explosion. Sometimes the real ending was this: sad and quiet and withered.

“I’m sure,” Louis said, and he walked away, out into the sunlight. He had the sudden, silly sensation that if he’d turned around and looked he would’ve seen a box, sitting on the cafe table, that he would never need again.

 

*

 

“You ok?” Niall asked from the passenger seat when Louis got back in the car.

Louis looked out the windshield at the trees, and then back at Niall, who was looking over a comic book with an expression that he was trying to keep neutral.

“I really am,” Louis said. He shook his head, still so surprised at his own certainty. He felt a little residual shake in his hands now, too, but it was pure relief. No more monsters in this city.

“Niall,” he said, “It’s over. That’s never gonna happen to me again.”

“No, it’s not,” Niall said, emphatically, shaking his head too. Louis reached awkwardly over the gearshaft to pull Niall into a hug, arm around his neck. Niall beamed against his ear.

“Proud of you,” he said.

“I know. Thank you for coming with me, and for not telling anybody,” Louis said. He pulled back and put his seatbelt on. Through the windshield, he could see the neighborhood that had haunted his dreams for so long. Just another place now, and not home.

“Of course,” Niall said. “Top secret bro mission with your oldest friend. Honored to be your backup. Taking it to my grave.”

“You already told Babs, didn’t you,” Louis said. Niall nodded.   

“Texted her as soon as you went into the cafe,” he said, “But Tommo! That’s just my life! I can’t keep secrets anymore! One minute you’re like, who’s this mega-babe who keeps buying me drinks, the next minute you’re spilling out every one of your darkest secrets as soon as she walks in the door back from the gym. And your friends’ secrets. You should know that by now!”

Louis was laughing as he pulled the car out, because of course he knew it, he knew them. “How’d she take it?” he asked. Niall shrugged. 

“Oh, fine, she knows you’re a stone-cold badass. The only reason that bastard isn’t actually dead now is because he’s not worth killing.”

“Well, now that that’s settled,” Louis said. He felt light.

“Marriage,” Niall sighed, tapping out what was undoubtedly a long reassurance text to Babs. “Someday you’ll understand.”

“You know what, I bet someday I will,” Louis said.

 

*

 

“Come on,” Louis whispered to himself, stamping his feet on the chill plaza steps, “Just do it.”

It was ridiculous. He was ridiculous. Everything was ridiculous. The march air was balmy and by all external measures it should’ve been a pleasant night to stand outside of the symphony hall for about forty minutes, but Louis felt hot and cold at the same time, and terrified. 

He’d been going to this building for four and a half years, and it had never felt like this.

Louis picked carefully down the sleeve of his immaculate suit, like if he could find every invisible speck of lint, he’d be ready. He’d let Babs pick it for him in a kind of apology for going to see Thomas without taking her so she could glower in the background and possibly, punch him in the face. Aren’t your hands so valuable they're insured? He’d pointed out. Would have been worth it, she’d said, and you’re wearing this one.  

The suit was nice. Even in his keyed-up state, Louis could admit that. It was slate-grey and slim fitted and a sharper and tighter than he’d normally wear, but Babs had glared at him over samples until he’d simply rolled over on all her choices. He’d spent an embarrassing amount of time fixing his hair, and Babs had tucked in a blue pocket square, biting her lip. No matter what happens, you'll look good. A good life motto. He'd have gone in his usual old jumper but there was something about taking care with this, some secret resolution that he was worth even things as transient as the right clothes for a momentous occasion. Or disaster.

Still details were a transparent distraction from the actual thing. Babs and Niall were already inside. Louis stared at the symphony doors, tall and glass and swinging easily around elderly symphony patrons who seemed to have no issue going in. Lucky bastards. They were blithely unaware of their inordinate fortune, heading into the room that had Harry in it, getting to breath the same air as Harry, looking at things that Harry had made, possibly even going to brush past Harry in the hall and not realize it. Insanity.

He’d almost called, every minute of every hour. He'd almost shown up on Harry's doorstep in the middle of the night. He'd almost asked Liam and Zayn to keep Harry after their last dress rehearsal, maybe tie him to the first chair so that Louis would have a chance to rapid fire get the words out in the likely-feeling event that Harry tried to bolt. But it had felt right to wait until tonight and give himself this, stack the odds, all the magic of the hall around them.

Louis had started to doubt whether Harry had really been so crystal-sharp clear the awful last time Louis had seen him. What if he'd changed his mind? What if Louis had fucked it up beyond repair? He'd been turning every detail of their relationship over in his mind and it felt as uncapturable as the Mobius sculpture in Harry's living room. From one angle that look in Harry's eyes had always said he'd wanted more. From another, it said Louis had always let him down.

Louis took some short, quick breaths in a chanting rhythm, like when he tried to warm up on a cold run.

Time to do it. One last show. Life. Is for. Living. If he was going to get his heart broken again, goddammit, he was going to go out with a bang.

A smiling usher handed Louis a program at the door. Nearly everyone was in now, and Louis was at the very edge of the crowd. If he delayed any longer, they might not let him in--Zayn had warned a strict start for whatever they had planned. Louis took a few breaths to steel himself, and he walked in, and there it was.

It was symphony hall, his beloved hall, but it was brand new at the same time. The orchestra was all there, in their black and white splendor, but they were spilled out onto a thrust stage that jutted far into the space where orchestra seating had been. The rows and aisles of chairs had been removed to allow for movement, and the audience was flowing around the orchestra, quiet and respectful and in awe.

From the back, Louis could hear the piece beginning. He recognized it immediately: Beethoven’s seventh, the original program the orchestra had scheduled for tonight, before the collaboration. Liam was leading a spiralling melody that cut straight over the complex percussion and the broad, low horns. Zayn was flushed and alive and beautiful. Nobody can argue with your hair, now, Louis thought.

But as he got closer, he realized it was more complicated. Of course, everything is, with you. There were directional speakers, set back into the walls and hidden from view. Doubtless flowing on the newer, better electrical wirings that they’d worked so hard on. With the directional speakers, the hall was sonically carved into different arenas and there was the live music, yes, but as you moved backwards and then again towards the orchestra itself, there was a rich layering of recorded audio on top of it.

It was practice, Louis realized. It was Liam’s whispering criticisms of himself as he ran through the fingering, faded out in a harmony with the live performance. It was Zayn, ranting over dinner about why this piece had to come at this time in the program. It was other voices he didn’t recognize from other members of the orchestra, weaving in and out. You could stand close in to the thrust stage and be swallowed up in only the live sound or you could wander, weave in and out of the past and present and hear them together. Always loved a backstage, didn't you.

Louis saw people he recognized, the older symphony crowd who had been his faithful audience companions for the past few years. Some of them were seated in the small alcoves of velvet seating but some of them were wandering back and forth, savoring getting to see the professional performance but also hear everything that had gone beneath it, usually invisible. Zayn must have helped him engineer the audio into something this harmonious with the live piece. Some people were dancing. And there was an entire crowd he’d never seen before--young and different and looking equally captivated. It felt like the whole city was here, getting to see what they'd taken for granted.

Using the original program was cheeky and respectful all at once, Louis thought. So very Harry to take everything apart but then put it back together again, new and old together. Not about being perfect, just about being you.

And then, too, there were textiles. They flickered into Louis’ vision in a rush of gold and white, a satin gleam of multiple wide fabrics streaming right down from his beloved chandeliers. Louis wasn't the only omega in the hall looking up with a dawning rush of joy.  From the long fabric runners, light was projected on the surface playing some kind of projected video. That, too, was the orchestra, clips of it that Harry must have gathered in his long, meandering wanders about the buildings, in all of the hours he spent quietly watching. The musicians at practice, in sectionals. Iwa must have helped with this, or at least it was her influence, a massive and perpetually-unraveling waterfall of color.  

Louis gazed up at it for a solid few minutes before it really hit him, and then he had to wait another few minutes to consider other possibilities in case he was losing it, but there it was -- it was his work on display, too.

It pounded, into Louis’ heart ferociously. There were pieces of Louis scattered on every runner. The contracts he’d spent a dusty afternoon digitizing on the floor of Zayn’s office, trying not to feel affected by the first touch of Harry’s head in his lap, they flashed on fabric in a gorgeous longitudinal track over time, showing the musicians who’d come and gone, who’d been part of the life of the hall. The assessments he’d corrected for Liam, laid out in elegant graphs, intersecting with the musical notations of his favorite pieces.

Louis could hardly breathe, he was so stunned. This was the show, the show was about the hall itself, about its past and present and future.

He had to find Harry. He had to find Harry right now. He was on fire, he was energy and heat and the explosion of intent. He’d been scanning the crowd but hadn’t seen Harry anywhere. Was it possible...could he possibly not be here? Could he not want to see Louis?

Louis shook his head and thought. Harry and his installations, his integration in space, his desire to be a part of everything without controlling it. He thought about the one place he would go, given all of this. What was the one place that you could see everyone, but not be seen? Think I was imagining you when I made it.

Louis ran up the familiar steps to his box. He made it without falling, somehow, even though his steps were a blur and the hallway was half dark. But Louis knew it better than he knew any other place in the city.

Harry was standing in the box, but he was facing out, watching the show, so Louis could only see him from the back.

Harry was dressed surprisingly subdued, and that too made Louis’ heart clench. It wasn't a bad suit, matte black and slim, it just didn't even look like the Harry he knew. Like he was too drained and shut down for his usual effervescence, the flowers and colors and drama. He'd put it all into the show, Louis thought. He put it all into us.

Louis’ heart was pounding (he had a heart, he did, no longer flicker-vanishing, it was difficult and scary to keep his awareness tuned in but he did, because he was worth that, because nothing would make it vanish anymore, not even loss. Not even this loss).

“Lou,” Harry said, then seemed to catch himself. “Louis.” He'd turned around, his face a mask of surprise.

“I didn’t mean to steal your box,” Harry said, shuffling his feet. Louis wanted to catch his nervous hands, fluttering around in the air. “Thought you’d be down with Niall and Babs and everyone, didn’t think anybody would come up here.”

“Hazza,” Louis said, with some force.

Harry wasn’t running away. But he looked so sad that it made something shrivel up in Louis. He didn’t say anything, put his hands deep into his pockets, shoulders tense. His eyes looked guarded, and that was painfully different. It was all spread out on Harry’s face, because Harry was an awful liar.

“I think the symphony’s gonna be fine,” Harry said, stiffly, giving a half-hearted wave towards the floor. “I don’t know if you’ve seen the tickets numbers--well, no, obviously you must have seen. You probably knew before anybody else. We did it.”

Louis was trembling, felt like he was barely even standing on his own feet, more like he was floating on the light and the music. So he could use that, take it, turn it into energy.

“Hazza,” Louis said again, cutting Harry off. Harry ran a hand through his hair, jittery.

“I can’t really,” he started, and looking away, turning his face back towards the orchestra, for a second. Around them the piece rose and fell, a percussive tide of music. “I don’t really feel up for talking, Lou. Not yet.”

Louis realized with an icy jarring feeling that Harry didn't know why he was there. That Harry didn't know, as if Louis could've come up here looking for anything else than as much as Harry decided to grace him with. That Harry had poured himself out in the hall with no motive other than honesty--not to win Louis like a prize but only to reflect what they'd been. To show the truth, of the hall and the orchestra and them.

“That’s understandable,” Louis said, soft and aching. Pleading. “But maybe just let me talk. I didn’t come for the show, Harry, I came for you. I had to talk to you, to tell you--just, just let me try, please?”

Harry had stilled, the energy stilled, all the whirling vortex of emotion come down to a single point, here and now, between them.

“Ok,” he said, so quietly. The music filled the hall, but Louis would always hear that voice.

“I’m sorry,” Louis said, as good a beginning as any. He stepped forward. Harry looked like he didn’t react, except that Louis caught a tremulous flex in his hand, like a motion nearly begun and then corrected. He was so beautiful, here in Louis’ favorite place in the world.

“I wasn’t ready for you, before. It took me by surprise and there were some things I had to do, to let go of. I’m so sorry that I cut you out, while I did those things. But honestly, I think you have to forgive me for it. Because nobody could ever be ready for you, Harry.”

Louis choked a little around the name, and he was tearing up again, goddammit, but you know what? It didn’t matter.

“I wasn’t ready for how you were going to make me feel--like--like everything was worth it again. Before, it was like the whole entire world was outside while I was here frozen in this box, stuck in the past. But then I met you, Hazza, and you made me want to walk out into it. I wasn’t ready for your--your goofball jokes, your art, the way you connect with people, your smile, what it feels like to--to touch you, the things that you see. The fucking way you eat pizza, and watch people, and laugh at my stupid jabs. And there was all of that, and then you just wanted to--just wanted to share space, with me, even when I was so confused. You’re so kind. You might be the kindest person I’ve ever known. You’re definitely my favorite.”

Onstage, Liam’s violin was leading a gorgeous cascade. Louis felt it in his chest, in the vibrations in the floor. The raw honesty burned, but it was a cleansing burn.

“You just -- you were here, suddenly, in my life, like you had always been there,” he said, “And I was such an idiot, Harry, you were here with my friends and we were together and it was so good. And it was like suddenly nothing even worked for me without you there. You make my whole world beautiful. You’re like the music. I’m sorry it took me so, so long to figure out that I can’t -- I can’t imagine it all without you. I want it all, with you.”

“I want to be with you. Maybe it’s too late, I don’t know. You were right about so many things. I wanted to be with you from the moment that you came here to this box, and then every moment that I met you after, every single first time with you. And it was all my own stupid doubt that made me think that I was going to break it, and I was so scared, Harry, because I didn’t think I could go through something like that again.”

Louis paused for breath. He felt light, now, not even knowing the outcome. Harry was there, face full of emotion, eyes wide, but he hadn’t said anything. So Louis let the rest of it come out, with a rush. He was so done with holding things back.

“I don’t care if it breaks. Actually, the thing is--I realized, not only is it worth it to try, but I’ll be ok. Either way, we're gonna be ok, Hazza. And that’s an incredible gift, that you gave me, to realize that. So I can take risks again, you know? I can actually live again. I hope that’s with you. I under--” more tears, dammit, Louis blinked them away-- “I understand if you don’t want it anymore. But god, I want you.”

“AND,” Louis said, practically yelling at this point, fuck everything, “I couldn't tell you all this immediately, when I realized it, because you still don't have a fucking smartphone, which is insane, and you really need one so I can text you anytime I want, not just when you’re on your roof or at a cafe, so I got you one,” he held out the small box he'd been carrying, and he was shaking but it was ok, he was going to be ok, no matter what happened, he was going to be ok--and Harry was staring at it, at the ticket that Louis had taken from tonight’s show and put on top, and on it he’d written his own phone number. And underneath, just in case.

“Lou,” Harry said, breathless and Louis could see the tears in his eyes too now only they were different, a crackling joy running over his face because Harry could never, ever keep a secret, not really, “Of course, of course I want you. Since the moment I saw you here, I've never stopped. I'll never stop.”

They fell into each other. It was the first magnetic click of that night in the box, it was the warm all-unfolded vulnerability of every time after that, it was a mess, Louis’ suit jacket wrinkling in Harry's desperate hands and nothing, nothing mattered except kissing Harry so deep and long and true that they had to gasp apart for air.

“Thank god,” Harry said, and Louis pushed his own feelings through the palms of his hands, found the alpha hook and ran his instincts out through it. Yours. He could feel Harry's arms shaking where they held him, all the intensity of the feelings he'd had to hold back. Louis squeezed him. There was going to be a lot of catching up to do.

“Hey, ask me out again, I'm considering saying yes this time,” Louis said. Harry laughed immediately, because it was Harry, and he'd tangled his hands into Louis’ hair, possessively, and Louis was ok with that.

Somehow they'd gotten pressed up against the column and Louis was pushing his bare hands up and underneath Harry's jumper to catch on his intoxicating skin and Harry was pulling Louis up onto his toes and kissing him, again and again and again and forever.

“I missed you so much,” Louis said. Harry nodded.

“Couldn't sleep without you,” Harry said, and Louis could feel the truth of it settle under his ribcage. Harry had his hands around Louis’ hips, his foot slung around Louis’ ankle as they leaned into the column.

“Ironic,” Louis said. Harry laughed again, christ, that laugh. Louis had an infinity in front of him of making up to Harry by making him laugh. Also kissing, he remembered, kissing Harry again.

“What….” Louis started, and tried again, some time later, when more talking was more possible. “What were you going to do if I hadn’t come? Or hadn’t, hadn’t wanted this? Us?”

Harry looked away from Louis to gaze contemplatively over the railing at the hall and his installation, seemingly mildly surprised to remember there was in fact a huge crowd of people down there and an entire show still going on, a show with Harry's heart laid out on the walls and dissected. Louis wondered if anyone, in the entire history of the world, had ever been as brave as Harry.

“That probably would’ve sucked,” Harry said. He looked back at Louis, all dimples and that broad, radiant smile. It was out in full force, Louis realized with a deep and abiding sense of triumph. “But it would’ve been worth it anyway. It’s not about being good enough, it’s about trying, right?”   

“I’ve never wanted anything as much as I want this, with you,” Louis said in a rush. His heart was ablaze. Let someone care about you. He felt the promise intertwine with his bones, fill up the spaces in his chest, free and open and no walls. Life was about more than just surviving. Finally.

“I love you,” Harry said, all the joy of the world in his face, and Louis had been the one to put it there. Louis stared at him. And then he whacked him on the arm. Harry looked shocked.

“No, how dare,” Louis gasped, “How dare you jump right in there and say it first! I love you! I love you so much! You utter wanker, I was going to say it!”

“Oh ho but did you?” Harry cackled, pulled on the fringe of Louis’ hair. “No, I said it first. For all the rest of time, I'll have been the one who said it first.”

Louis hit him again, but he was also pulling Harry in to layer extravagant kisses on his face, and then they were laughing together almost wild with it all.

“I love you,” Louis said into Harry's ear, “Love love love you.”

Harry half-closed his eyes. There were tears in the corners, caught in his eyelashes. Louis marveled at it. There was an entire universe of music in being close to Harry. Somewhere out there past the railing, the orchestra was still carrying them.

“I really did understand,” Harry said, eyes still closed. “At first, it hurt so much, felt like it hadn't meant anything to you…”

Louis felt a stab of pain, but held himself back. Instead, he just pressed closer into Harry. He'd make up for it, every day. Harry nodded, like he got it.

“I know,” he said, and his voice was so mild that Louis was gonna cry again. He took a steadying breath and tried to believe he deserved someone so understanding.

“What you did was amazing, not just for me, but for the hall, all of us.” Harry said. “I'm so sorry for saying you weren't brave. You are infinitely brave. Even being with me in the first place, I should've seen how much it took to do that. I'm sorry for being naive about what you'd been through.”

Louis was definitely crying again. It was ok. Harry soothed down the curve of the back of his neck, the line of his shoulders. He wiped the tears off Louis’ cheeks with his warm hands.

“I really missed these cheekbones,” Harry said.

“I'm sorry for not telling you more,” Louis said. “I'm not used to thinking someone would want to know.”

“No more apologies,” Harry said, and Louis thrilled at the alpha in his voice again, clear and determined and ready to fix everything.

“I've been going crazy without you. Let's go back to mine,” Harry said. His fingers were still on Louis’ face and they sent a static charge through his skin with every delicate movement. Louis’ body hummed in anticipation and longing. Touch me.

“Obviously,” Louis agreed, “But I feel like for right now there's something that the artist in residence is supposed to be doing. Feted by the masses, being given the key to the city by Iwa in a special artist ceremony, or something.”

“All pointless,” Harry pouted. “Why do I have to do more? Do you have any idea how hard it was to put all this together while I couldn't stop thinking about you? I nearly just wrote Louis on everything and called it a day.”

Louis laughed in a near-shout and then clapped a hand over his mouth. He was pretty sure his orchestra connections would protect him from getting kicked out, but Sally would certainly look on him with judgmental eyes for many more shows if she had to come hush them. And Louis intended to have many more shows.

Harry was just staring down at Louis still, his face beaming, his entire body tilted around them. He swooped down again, and kissed Louis breathless.

“Please do that more,” Louis said.

“I'll never stop,” Harry said. Louis sighed, luxuriously and dramatically.

 

*

 

They had the rest of the show in the box, just the music and Louis and Harry. As it was meant to be.

They ended up on their backs on the floor, cuddled up behind the chairs where they'd first met and the other two ever-empty chairs of Louis’ box. Harry whispered, under the cover of the music, about the auditory bowl of sound he'd engineered and his insomniac nights in the hall over the past week, making it perfect. Louis beamed at the ceiling and mentally resolved to keep Harry in bed for at least the next week. They both needed it.

Louis could see the long fabric runners and the way the chandeliers lit and twinkled underneath the projection. Every single detail was so thoughtful. Louis gave a happy sigh.

“Sensory overload?” Harry asked, squinting at Louis.

“Only in a good way,” Louis said. He snuggled his head closer into Harry's now extremely wrinkled suit.

 

*

 

Even the best shows ended. Louis listened the applause and the chanting from the floor of the box, both of them smiling. It was something else, to have done this together and now have this shared pride in it.

“Come on, fancy,” Louis said, plucking at Harry's cuffs. He couldn't wait to see Harry in another absurd floral number, next show.

“What about no?” Harry said, snaking his hands back up inside Louis’ shirt from whence he'd just removed them. Babs was going to kill him when she saw the state of this suit. Oh well.

“Can't stay in the box forever, I should know,” Louis said, stroking the side of Harry's waist one last time to hold him over until it was time to go.

“Can stay for a bit,” Harry said, teeth flashing under the chandeliers. His hands had moved dangerously lower. “How long would it take to go down on you in that suit?”

“Shut up,” Louis gasped, blood flowing to inconvenient places. He slapped Harry away and plucked out his blue pocket square, tucked it in Harry's blazer pocket.

“That's better,” he said. Harry twinkled at him. The color made him look much more like himself.

“Don’t worry,” Louis said, “We’ve got a lot of time. All the time in the world.”

“All the time in the world,” Harry echoed, looking blissful. Louis had to laugh at it, at the sheer joyful absurdity that this was his life, at the way that his heart jumped. He was looking forward to so much more of that--but somehow, here and now, they both felt calm and settled, tied together with a fearless certainty.

He let Harry go to work, dazzling the patrons and the board members and the people who were never going to think about the orchestra the same way again, getting all the acclaim he deserved and convincing them to see the value of the orchestra by lending them his marvellous, unique eyes. He let Harry go to work, saving the symphony, and went to find his friends.

 

*

 

“Guess who had the best show of all time,” was what Louis went for, darting into the group and pulling both Babs’ and Liam’s arms around his shoulders, as they were closest. They all startled, because Louis was broadcasting the headiest pulse of sheer joy he'd ever felt.

“Holy shit, did it happen?” Niall asked. Louis looked around at their hopeful faces, and he raised two fists in the air to pump them in a victory motion.

“YES!” Niall shrieked, startling a staid cluster of orchestra goers in the bar queue. “Oh, fuck off,” Niall said rudely to the queue, “He’s saved your evenings, we deserve a little room.”

“I know,” Louis said, giggling, and wiping a couple of laughter-tears from the corners of his eyes. He was ridiculous. Niall was ridiculous. Everything was ridiculous. Babs and Liam were squeezing him so tight that he got the hiccups. Zayn was sagging against Liam, looking mightily relieved. What a crew.

“He still wants to date me,” Louis marveled. Maybe he should take out a newspaper ad. More people needed to see this news.

“Of course he does,” Liam said patiently. Liam was a gem.

“I'd be more concerned that he's going to try to get you to elope now,” Zayn sniffed. “The way he looked at you that very first night we went out to a bar, I knew it.”

“You got wasted at that bar,” Liam said fondly.

“So many times,” Zayn nodded, “Now I can talk to you sober! Louis and I both deserve medals.”

“Truth, talking is the worst, reward us,” Louis exclaimed. They traded a fist-bump. 

“Harry can talk enough for both of you, christ. I thought I was going to go absolutely mad if I had to listen to Harry mope on about this one more time,” Babs said. Louis made a mental note to get more of that from her later.

Niall was still rambling in Louis’ ear on the other side.

“Did you notice that Harry got the math right in the projections? I made sure of that. I told him it would be very important or you would throw a hissy fit about confidence intervals right here on the floor.”

“You’re a genius,” Louis said. “You get me, Niall.”

Louis wouldn’t have, of course. Harry could have messed up confidence intervals and forgotten about error bars and never seen a graph and Louis’ love was in no way dependent on Harry’s ability to be right about data distributions but, you know, it didn’t hurt.

“You guys are amazing, and I’m happy you finally figured that out about each other,” Louis told Zayn, mostly, because Liam didn’t really need the teasing. Zayn patted him on the head and Louis felt blessed.

“You're the best,” Niall said, to all of them. The reception for the show was flowing around them, drinks and disco balls and the most tomfoolery this stately hall had ever seen, probably. Trust Harry's shows to end with a party.

“It's dance on the tables time,” Louis said, grabbing Niall's hand.

Chapter Text

Louis was sitting cross-legged on a table, having exhausted its dance affordances, when Harry wrapped his arms around Louis from behind and the whole rest of the world didn’t really matter anymore.

“Hey,” Harry said. Louis tangibly, visibly melted back into Harry, let his head fall back and his arms come up to rest on Harry’s. Louis was so, so done waiting, denying, pretending that every damn molecule in his body wasn’t vibrating into Harry’s orbit.

“Hiii,” Louis said, in a passable imitation of Harry’s drawl.

“That took twenty thousand million years,” Harry said with his nose right up against the major pulse point in Louis’ neck. The omega in him felt settled and unsettled, relieved and desperate.

“Empires rose, empires fell,” Louis agreed. Harry’s body heat was close, but not close enough, through Louis’ suit jacket. He still felt heat everywhere, electricity raising all the hairs on the back of his neck.

“I’m glad the symphony is still here, across the ages, really affirms our hard work together,” Harry said. He was pulling the air in, audible across his teeth, scenting Louis right there despite the fact that they were in the corner of the lobby with an entire reception winding down around them. It was dreadfully scandalous public behavior. It was making Louis’ mouth dry.

“It was thirty, forty minutes, tops,” Liam observed from the other side of the table, where he was sitting straight-backed on the edge with Zayn’s head in his lap. 

“Torture,” Harry said with a rough little whine in his voice. Louis tried to twist around in his arms but Harry tensed, keeping him still, holding him in space. Louis blinked, his eyelids feeling heavy.

“You’re torturing us. Get the fuck out of here,” Zayn said. Louis was laughing because Harry had pulled them feet away from the table before Zayn finished the sentence.

 

*


“Oh,” Louis said, as they pushed into Harry’s living room and the lights flickered on.

There were canvases everywhere. Big and small but mostly small, like the ones they’d painted after making pizza, littered carelessly through the room. Louis could see it: Harry frenetically painting one after another and then dropping it in its place, wherever it fell. They leaned on the baseboards and sat on the arms of the chairs, abstract shapes and colors, rich deep jewel tones of blue streaked with sharp, jagged lines of gold. He didn’t know how he knew but he knew, could read the testimony of Harry’s sadness and confusion.  

“Oh, my love,” Louis said, pushing his palms into Harry’s lower ribcage, melding them into the rise and fall of his breathing.

“Didn’t have time to clean up,” Harry said, a self-deprecating bent in his eyebrows. The thing was that Harry became lightness and joy and flirtation so quickly, was magnetic and alpha and confident, and you could forget that he was also quiet, that he watched other people and took their feelings into himself. That he spent a lot more time alone than you thought.

Louis shook his head. “You are so important to me,” he said. He'd find new ways to say it, over and over. 

“I missed you,” Harry whispered, and Louis heard ripples pooling out behind that, spilling like endless layers of paint, but he had time and time and time again to unpack it.

“No need anymore,” Louis said, kissing him again, and again just to be sure.

“Always gonna listen to you, now,” Louis said. Harry pressed a kiss to his cheek, to his temple.

“I find it hard to imagine that,” Harry said, cheeky. Louis swiftly pinched a tiny bit of skin between his thumb and forefinger and Harry yelped, but he also looked charmed because he was unfailingly a little masochistic, eyes bright with the ways they could tease each other.

“I mean I’ll hear you,” Louis said, fiercely, promisingly. “Even if I assert my own excellent opinion anyway,” he added. Harry’s smile got bigger, which hadn’t even seemed possible.

“I know you will,” Harry said, “Even when I was sad I hoped--I think I knew you would hear me eventually, anyway. I just had to do something with my time until you caught up.”

“I’m sure every last one of them belongs in a museum,” Louis said, sneaking his fingers into the gap between Harry’s slacks and his hips, feeling drunk on the silk-slide of his skin, the tiny hairs, the curved muscle over bone. They were messy and rumpled now, shirts pulled out and jackets half-off their shoulders, but too entangled and reluctant to let go.

“The world is gonna be deprived of your angst-art from now on,” Louis said, resolutely.

“Happy art only. Gonna have to find another source of inspiration. Go muse shopping with Zayn.”  

“Way ahead of you, as usual,” Harry said.

Louis was responding with the largest eyeroll he could muster, really throwing his whole neck and shoulders into it, when Harry wrapped his arms around Louis’ waist and picked him all the way up, clearly fed up with their pace. He walked Louis back through to the bedroom with his feet hanging in the air. 

It was like falling into one of Harry’s pieces, Louis thought, as they left a trail of shoes and jackets and shirts behind them. It was like becoming a work of art yourself, under Harry’s hands, under his purposeful touch, under the fire in his fingertips.


*


“Move in with me,” Harry whispered at some point, late into the night or early into the morning. Whichever it was, there were still stars out, fading on the lightening edge of the sky. Louis was watching them go, under a blanket and half on Harry’s lap in the wide chair on Harry’s balcony.

“Ugh,” Harry said, “I know, it’s too soon. We’ve been up all night and frankly, I didn’t sleep much the night before, so I’m crazy disinhibited. I might be a little high on the way you smell.”

“I have that effect,” Louis said, shaking his head for emphasis, because Harry’s nose was buried in his hair again, and Harry didn’t even snort or make a mocking noise, he just hummed against the back of Louis’ skull. Harry had that effect on him too, but Louis had pretty adequately demonstrated that earlier when he’d shoved his fingers in Harry’s mouth to get more of Harry's scent on himself, like some kind of caveman. Louis squeezed Harry’s hand, which he’d wrapped with his own and pulled tight across his stomach.

“But also, maybe just think about it, it would be so great, think about how you won’t have to get groceries anymore--”

“Yes,” Louis said, still looking at the stars. He could see the stars here, as clearly as from Niall and Babs’ flat, which was walking distance. “Yes.”

Harry gasped. Louis had noticed that particular gasp a few times before--when the orchestra hit a particularly poignant note, when Harry took a closer look at a piece of art he liked, and several times over the previous hours. 

“Wow, are you just going to agree with me on everything now? This is going to be amazing,” Harry said.

Louis punched, backwards and ineffectually, on the side of Harry’s thigh. Harry laughed and shifted Louis easily into his lap, grabbing a handful of his ass in the process and acting innocent about it. Louis tugged Harry's ear, yanking his head to the side, and then Harry put an end to it by biting into the back of Louis’ neck and making him suddenly groan, embarrassingly loud. 

“It's not that early, I've been stealth dating you for months,” Louis said, once he’d recovered. Sort of recovered; interest had sparked again, lazy and slow and hot, deep in the pit of his stomach. Harry's face was like a sparkler, the way it had lit up.

“I cannot believe you admitted it,” he said.

Louis sighed. “I didn't figure it out, Niall told me.”

“Such is life,” Harry said, nodding.


*

 

Louis intended to talk more. He had the best intentions. These intentions were derailed when Harry came out of the shower and Louis unconsciously gripped the sheet to hold himself back before he realized that he was no longer trapped by his long dance of denial. The thing was that Harry’s skin just looked so good next to a white towel, and this had to be explored. As did all of Louis’ ticklish spots, which were a multitude.

Louis had known for his entire life that being omega meant this drive for touch, meant that all the cells in his nervous system were lined up to it, tuning themselves to synaptic harmonies from the people he loved. He'd known it but he hadn't felt it, at least not without judgment. He hadn't thought enough about how they could all fit together, the people on the other end of this complicated network, how much they wanted, too.

“Your phone was blowing up while you were showering,” Louis said, after he’d pulled Harry back into bed and collapsed them in a pile. The white landline next to Harry’s bed on the side table had a copper cradle, a copper-plated dial, and it was heights of pretension that Louis had not truly appreciated until now. 

“Maybe it was the nineteenth century calling.”

“Don’t hate,” Harry said, attempting to tickle Louis. Louis shot back so fast that Harry lost his balance in the bed. He made claw hands at Louis and Louis threw a pillow at him.   

“I got it at the first thrift store I went to in this city. The calls are probably my manager. I got the impression I was going to get some calls today, based on how much people liked the show. Don’t they know I’m busy doing important things?”

“Yeah, doing important things,” Louis said, smirking at Harry, who promptly took the white landline out of its cradle and wound the cord around Louis, looping his shoulders and waist and head.

“Stop,” Louis giggled, “Jesus christ, you’re a menace! Why does anyone let you near technology!”

“Because I make art with it,” Harry said, arranging the cords in the mess of Louis’ hair like a flower wreath. Louis tried to get his hand with his mouth, but missed, and Harry shoved him back into the pillows. Then he rolled off the bed to grab the DSLR on his bureau.

“Shouldn’t you call her back?” Louis asked.

“No,” Harry said casual and dismissive, “She’ll send me proposals, and I’ll want to get your opinion on them, anyway.”

Louis bit his lip, watched Harry frown at the seated lens like it had personally offended him, and switch to a wide aperture. He thought maybe that Harry could feel the emotion he’d broadcasted. It was a hard one to put into words, the surprise of being valued and the determination that he had to stop being so surprised by that. 

“Hold still,” Harry said, flipping through settings and glancing up with the sudden, sharp observation that told Louis he was in artist mode, gauging the light. Sometimes Louis loved Harry most for the times that they were Louis and Harry together and then sometimes he loved Harry most for the times that had nothing to do with him at all: the way he stepped effortlessly into this other self that could take everything he imagined and make it real.  

Louis looked surreptitiously down to make sure the sheets were in a respectable pool around his waist.

“Hold still,” Harry said, lining up a shot and taking a picture. Louis wrinkled his nose at Harry and tried his best to make an awful face. He really needed a shower, he was sure.

“Perfection,” Harry said, stately, like he was on a set.

“Babs said you take pictures too,” Louis said. “I feel honored.”

“Oh, Babs said?” Harry asked, eyebrow quirked. Louis looked into the window with a joking grimace, and heard a few more shutter clicks.

“I may have seen a few, in the magazines,” he said airily. “When I was doing research for the show, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Harry said. The light really was beautiful, diffused through the curtains and flooding over them, now. Louis loved the light in this room. Louis bent his elbows in a weird way, twisted his head so he was looking at Harry sideways. 

“I’m postmodern art,” he said.

Harry set the camera down and crawled over the bed, capturing Louis back in his arms, heedless of the cords. “You really are,” he whispered, kissing over Louis’ face. He smelled so good, fresh soap and peacefulness.

“I love you,” Louis said, “Also there’s a loud dialtone in my ear.” 

“I can get rid of this phone since you’re going to teach me postmodern texting,” Harry said, unwinding it from around Louis. Harry had possibly answered Louis’ very first phone call on that phone. Louis remembered pressing his face into the window, listening to every nuance in Harry's voice, so nervous proposing the symphony collaboration and all the while pretending he wasn’t wildly attracted to Harry.

“You can’t get rid of it,” Louis gasped, grabbing the handset from Harry and clutching it to his chest. “Gotta keep this phone forever. When they stop putting landlines in apartments, which is probably going to be next year, integrate it into a sculpture and give it to me.”

“Ok, drama queen,” Harry teased, prying the handset gently away, uncurling Louis’ fingers one by one. He bit his lips to keep himself from smiling, big and sappy and goofy, at Louis.


*

 

Of course it was Harry who reminded Louis that there was something left he’d meant to say, hours later when they’d scrounged an excellent brunch from the contents of Harry’s fridge and nominally made their way into full wakefulness by moving from the bedroom to the couch. Louis was still determinedly horizontal, his eyes half-closed while Harry ran his hand up and down the contours of his side like an explorer. He’d stolen another pair of Harry’s sweatpants and he was going to keep these, too.

“I’ve never been with someone who’s been out of real omega space for so long,” Harry said thoughtfully, out of nowhere. “It was proper years, huh? I got that sense.”  

“I’m sorry,” Louis said quickly.

Harry’s hand, which had been running a long and hypnotizing stroke along Louis’ ribcage down to his thigh, stopped for a moment and then started again.

“Why?” Harry asked. His voice sounded careful. Harry was such an unpredictable mix of utterly reckless and deeply careful. It was going to take Louis a long time to figure out what flipped which switch in him.

Louis looked at the ceiling. Harry’s flat had such nice ceilings, high and architectural with smooth rounded curves instead of sharp corners, small chandeliers. Your chandeliers, too, if you want. He noticed the skittering in his own brain before it roared into full force, the temptation to dismiss, to make some off-hand joke that would divert Harry away from his flash of fear. He could roll over and kiss Harry again, or claim he was tired and take advantage of Harry’s overprotective instincts.

He did none of those things. He let Harry’s hand soothe down the skittering and tried again.

“That night, you know, when I dropped with you? That was the first time in so long. And honestly, maybe the first good time, ever? I always relied on stims, even with him. I didn't really even know what would happen.”

Louis stopped for a beat, marshalling his thoughts.  

“Being so--letting myself be--be more omega, with you, is incredible. It’s like, like being under a spell. But it's also just, I don't even know what's in there. It's a lot of stuff to work through. I'm not used to being with somebody and when I was with an alpha it was so fucked. I don’t want, ugh, I don’t want to be that kind of partner for you, you know, always a sub, always so omega.”

Harry made an inquiring, humming noise, an encouragement. Most people, and certainly most alphas, would have probably jumped in at this point to give an opinion, or make a pronouncement. Harry didn’t; Harry just waited. Louis felt himself unfold under the attention and the space. Louis put his arms up over his head and flexed his palms at the ceiling. It was a vulnerable gesture, one that left his stomach and torso unprotected, but it felt helpful, somehow.

“I don’t love being out of control,” Louis admitted, “Like, in my life. Love being the person who can figure out the answers. But then part of me does want to be out of control, really does. Sex with you is amazing and wonderful and perfect and also, I don’t want to always be slipping into space, with you? Like what if I opened the floodgates and I’m like, broken, now? This is all I can do anymore? There’s so much more to it than that, so much more I want to be able to give you. And I don’t want to be demanding and needy and like, self-centered.”  

Louis took a breath. The sunbeams in the living room had turned from soft morning to full daylight, and it fell in a long cascade over Louis’ arms and bare stomach, warming him.

“I just, everything is simple when we're together but then it all feels awfully overwhelming when I think about it. I have kind of been realizing I don’t even know how to relate to my own body, you know, not just force it around. Like I'm still only just learning to not think the worst about myself all the time. I don’t mean to just shove that all on you. I understand if you don’t want that.”

Louis huffed out the rest of the air in his lungs and gave himself a mental pat on the back. Talking, first tier To-Do, apparently going to stay up there on the list forever. That was exhausting, but he wanted to do it for Harry. Harry was brilliant and marvelously hot and had better instincts than Louis had ever had, and he was also young and had the entire world at his feet, not just Louis, and Louis would rather that Harry start thinking about this now, than later. Louis stared at the ceiling so he wouldn’t look at Harry.

“All right,” Harry said, rolling down onto his forearms on the couch, pinning Louis to the cushions, and staring under his eyebrows. Louis didn’t look back until Harry tugged at his chin enough to make him turn back and make eye contact.

“Concerned muppet face,” Louis categorized, smoothing the hair back off Harry’s forehead.

“What?” Harry asked, nonplussed, but Louis just waved a hand. “You’ll find out soon enough. Anyway everything is fine, I’m fine.”

“Stop trying to pretend you aren’t having feelings,” Harry said. He leaned down to Louis’ face and kissed him, a serious, close-mouthed kiss that pressed firmly and said something like, don’t try to put one over on me. Louis smiled against it ruefully. He liked stern Harry as much as any other Harry. He liked that Harry was one of the few people who consistently called Louis out on his bullshit. He was doomed.

Harry shook his head, undoing all of Louis’ hard work to get the hair out of his eyes, but Harry looked like he was gearing up to be extremely meaningful so Louis didn’t protest. Louis held Harry’s bicep with one hand and his shoulder with the other and waited, politely and nervously. 

“All right,” Harry said, putting his fingers close together at Louis’ chest and tapping his sternum for emphasis, “So. Thank you for telling me what you are thinking, you're going to be so glad you did. Now first, out of all the things in the world that we might still have to figure out together, whether we’re sexually compatible is not something I’m worried about. And if I haven’t proved that by now, don’t worry, I will enjoy proving that to you, a lot.”

Harry paused to smirk at Louis, who blushed, even though it was frankly absurd to still feel so disarmed by the person you’ve spent the last hours and night with, mutually naked and doing mutually naked things, but such was the unrealness of Harry and the way that he undid Louis, easily and at every turn.

“Second, honestly, even if that were your preference forever, I’m pretty sure that would be ok, like that’s a whole other conversation but I’m pretty flexible here. Actually, I think you are too, and your perception of needy is in no way connected to reality. You’re full of a million different things, Lou. You keep me on my toes, and that includes in bed.”

“And third, finally, very importantly, most importantly, being in a partnership does not mean we’re going to worry about being perfect, or being everything that the other person needs. I know that you’re Louis Tomlinson, so it’s impossible for you to not worry about being perfect, but you are. You already are. Now, and in the future when all the shit that happened to you is a distant memory, replaced by a million hours of memories of us like this in this apartment, and the shower, and the kitchen, and the symphony hall, and all over town, honestly. I’ve got a lot of plans.”

“Now, for right now. Let me try to make something clear,” Harry said, going up higher on his elbows to bring his face right over Louis’. Louis looked at him, clear and steady, despite the butterflies in his stomach. Harry didn’t close the space between their faces, but he didn’t have to--Louis felt his breath speed up anyway.

“You,” Harry said slowly and emphatically, “You are a resilient heart. That’s what I love, that’s who you are. And I wouldn’t take back any of the things you’ve been through, because it made you more caring and more awake and more you. And the parts that are still healing?”

“This is something we’re in together,” Harry said, shifting his hips over on top of Louis, letting his weight bear down, pressing him into the couch. “Whether it’s figuring out how to sleep together, or shop together, or work, or sex. You’ve already changed so much, in the time I’ve known you. You won’t be slipping on the edge of space for the rest of your life. You get to be both things--”

“In control most of the time,” Louis said, “Somebody’s gotta have a plan, and all,”

Harry nodded. He was also rolling his thigh, gradually, grinding into Louis’ pelvis and coaxing out hardness. An inveterate multitasker.  

“In control. Share those plans with us, but yeah,” Harry said, punctuating it with a light kiss on Louis’ forehead, “And out of control, too. When you want it.”

Louis’ breath was shallowing under Harry’s weight. He could feel his eyes widen and his face change, soft and unconsciously pleading. Harry kissed him, tongue and lips so warm, and a breathy, quiet moan slipped out of his lungs. There were goosebumps down his arms. 

“Not just that, but the way you feel, I feel it too, don’t you sense that?” Harry said. “I think you do.”

“I feel everything, all the time, too much,” Louis said. No, he whispered, into Harry’s wide open face and the quiet of the apartment around them and the first time he’d ever felt truly, fully, completely safe, in a very long time.

“So do I,” Harry said. “I've always felt that way too. It's not something wrong with you, it's something amazing about you. I put it into art, and into living, and I want to put it into you. I want to find out everything that you feel, and pull it out of you, and feel it with you. That’s what it means to me, the alpha omega stuff. We’re more than that, yeah, but also, it’s a good part of who we are. If you want that.”

“I want it so much,” Louis said desperately, like a plea. Harry’s eyes were blown and darkening.

Harry thumbed over Louis’ bottom lip, fingers winding along the curve of his lower jaw and into the pressure point underneath his ear. Harry's touch was devastating and wicked, even after all this time. Especially after all the time. Louis felt intoxicatingly fragile, felt the nerve-muscle thrum under Harry’s hand.

“Do you trust me?” Harry whispered. Harry’s other hand had snaked up to his chest, was brushing over one of his nipples.

“Yes,” Louis whispered, his mouth slipping open at the close of the word. Harry’s thumb slid in against his tongue and jaw. It felt possessive, a deceptively light touch wrapping around his delicate face bones. Harry pressed deeper into the pressure point and it produced dizziness in Louis’ head, his pulse pounding. Louis’ thighs fell open, a quiet invitation.

“You’re so fucking beautiful this way, Lou,” Harry said, “Under me.”

Louis felt his mouth twist a little. It wasn’t a surprise, anymore, to hear Harry say things like that, but it was still so emotional. He closed his eyes from it.

“Look at me,” Harry said, the undercurrent of alpha voice pulling Louis like a riptide. Louis locked onto his face, unable to look away. Harry’s eyes were full of awe, and Louis felt the tenderness burning in his chest.

“Do you want to be in control right now?” Harry asked.

Louis swallowed. The feeling of the swallow around Harry’s finger made Harry draw a quick breath, and he pulled it out, like it was too intense, and skated a caress through Louis’ scruff, absent his razor in Harry’s apartment. Louis felt the still-hungry lick of touch deprivation run through his veins, want and trust and fall. It felt like Harry’s gravity was the one that was all around them now, Louis’ own bright yellow sun forever.

“I don’t,” Louis said, “I want you to be." 

“Your wish is my command,” Harry said, with a sly curling smile, kissing Louis. It was a slow, almost lazy kiss. Louis heard the humor and the joke in what he said but also the promise, and it helped to ease the humming of his mind, made his thoughts turn hazy and slow. Funny how easy he was for Harry, now. 

Harry pulled Louis up with easy strength, cradling the back of his head.

“You remember that word?” Harry said.

“Calatheas. There are two in my kitchen,” Louis said. He was going to teach Harry about the plants. He was going to get Harry to build planters for him, all over this place.

“And if words aren’t easy,” Harry said, murmuring in Louis’ ear, “Then you tap me, twice, ok?”

“Ok,” Louis said. He felt nervous. It was the best kind of nervous.

“Good,” Harry said. He gathered Louis up and pitching him, ironically, off the couch with a roughness that made all the air exhale out of Louis’ lungs. But Harry was also there, rolling with him, bracing a cage around them with his legs.

“Oh my god,” Louis said, “My life flashed before my eyes. It was gonna be the time we tripped at the beach and nearly drowned all over again.” 

Harry grinned, teeth and joy and bravado. Louis could feel his heart thump. They were on the floor together now, pressing into the carpet. Harry pushed Louis down onto his back, so fast that his head spun.

“You know what I missed,” he said, conversationally, holding Louis easily down with one arm. Louis tried to pull out of his grasp and Harry got both of his wrists in one big hand and squeezed. Louis kept fighting, out of principle, like he wasn’t feeling the backstabbing instincts shiver at the base of his spine, the warm soft feeling of creeping space. Hold me. Drop me. Catch me.  

“Whaaat,” Louis said. It came out breathy. Harry was kissing up along the side of his neck, to the bottom of his ear.

“This,” Harry said, pinching Louis’ ass, and hard. Louis yelped, and squirmed, and Harry held him firmly down. His wrists hurt, Harry's fingernails digging into the side, and Louis maybe twisted harder into them, relishing it.

“I just don't want to think so much,” Louis admitted. His voice had gone hoarse, had gone ragged. Harry was palming the curve of his ass, pressing the fabric in, intimate and dirty.

“I know,” Harry said. “I can distract you.”

“Let me go,” Louis said, because he had to, because fighting it made him feel like he had permission for it.

“No,” Harry growled, and Louis was almost ashamed of how wet he was, so fast. Harry took a deep inhale and his face changed, went a little wild.

But he'd underestimated Louis. That was always a bad idea. Louis raised his foot behind them and slammed the heel into Harry's calf, startling him enough to lose his grip.

Louis had crawled a foot and a half away when Harry's hand came down hard on his hair, so hard he got tears in his eyes, and Harry was biting into the back of his neck. Louis shuddered into it, felt the frisson of chemistry between them and the hot tight saturation of Harry's teeth in his nerves. It was magic, and Louis was lost. He'd never really stood a chance.

“Let go,” Harry said, his voice like gravel, like plunging into a deep warm ocean. Louis wanted it, and his body wanted it, and he knew Harry could feel it. Harry was half-hard already, hypnotizing alpha energy swirling into the corners of the room. 

“I don't know if I can,” Louis whimpered. 

I know you can. Be that beautiful wild thing I know you are,” Harry said. “I love it when you are.”

Some things were easy and hard at the same time. Some things were a secret that you felt like you'd been carrying your whole life, that had marked you as different and removed you as solitary. But then, you found out that everyone else carried their own secrets. Then, you found a person who wanted to share them.

Louis let every fear go, dropped into waking omega space, velvet and warm. That had never happened before, this level of trust, going into space and bliss and staying conscious all at the same time. He wondered if it would last or if his eyes were going to flutter shut, fall into sleep. He felt certain that Harry would hold him either way.

“There, Lou,” Harry said, tender and sweet. “Are you going to let me take care of you?”

Louis blinked away tears in the corners of his eyes. He felt dizzy, but awake, longed for Harry to push every last ounce of resistance out of his body. 

“Take care of me,” he said. Harry's face was the face of someone coming home, someone who never lied about what they loved.

“Harry,” Louis moaned, hot and flushed and hazy. He was hard, against the carpet, and wet, against Harry's body, and frantic, the chemistry of his body asking for more.

“Are you going to be good for me?” Harry said, low in his throat. Louis jerked his head in a hesitating nod, but that wasn’t good enough. Harry pressed Louis down into the floor with a hand coming around to cover his mouth, his nose. It hurt where his fingers dug in, stung, but it hurt so good. Louis could feel the strain in his muscles, could feel the alpha hook that Harry was barely holding back. He didn’t want Harry to hold it back and he let him know it, let the omega longing flood out everywhere that they connected. Harry squeezed, careful and firm, proof that he was in control.  

“Are you?” he prompted. Louis nodded, quick and desperate.

“Are you going to let me tell you how beautiful you are?” Harry whispered. He bit, hard and deep, on the back hill of Louis’ shoulder rolling into his bones. Sharp, lighthouse beams of guiding blissful pain and light tangled up with warm, thick want. Louis sobbed out a moan that was something between please and yes.  

“Please,” Louis stuttered out, finally, too far gone to be articulate, or embarrassed. There were sparks up his spine, the release of tensions he hadn’t even known about. He’d never felt their absence, before. 

“I’m never gonna let you live off cereal again,” Harry muttered into Louis’ hair. Louis was himself enough to still roll his eyes up at the ceiling despite the fact that he was out of control of his own limbs and what they would do. Harry caught it and laughed. Louis loved, loved, loved making him laugh.  

Harry took Louis by the arm and the ribcage and the hip bone, pulled him onto his back and cradled him on the floor again. This time, he didn't need to hold Louis’ wrists or weight him down. Louis felt his head roll back submissively, and Harry kissed him on the nose. If Louis didn’t get off soon he was going to die, probably, and he wouldn’t even care, so blissed-out in space. 

“What should we do? What's putting that look on your face?” Harry asked, squeezing Louis’ hair, thumbing into the bitemark forming on his neck. It sent another ripple of endorphins upward.

“I want to, go down on you,” Louis stuttered, going red, not that the words were particularly risque given everything they’d already done but that he knew he was broadcasting this unlocked, unmediated thing, wanting to feel entirely overtaken, wanting Harry to fuck his mouth and make him feel close, and giving, and submissive.

“So good,” Harry said, the praise that Louis’ brain was grateful for.

Louis expected Harry to hover over him but instead Harry sat on the edge of the couch, back straight. He pulled Louis up onto his knees, into the warmth of Harry’s body and the heady smell of his sweat and skin and want. Louis nearly fell over, so trembling and out of control, but Harry braced him between his thighs. Louis was frantic with want, pressing his nose and mouth and face into the connection of Harry’s hip and leg and to the base of his cock, hard and intoxicating. Louis was nothing at all but want, anymore. His own cock throbbed, needy.

Harry had a hand wrapped in the back of Louis’ hair, pulled tight, so tight it hurt, and Louis couldn’t understand why Harry wasn’t just letting him slip forward and pull Harry’s cock into his mouth. Harry jerked his head back when he tried again.

“Are you going to believe me?” Harry whispered, loaded with alpha. He tipped Louis’ chin up, forcing him to meet his gaze. Louis was suspended between consciousness and space. He didn’t need to wonder, or doubt, or be anyone else other than himself.

“Yes,” he said. Harry smiled. Harry smiled at everything and everyone in the world, all the time, but this-- this smile was only for Louis.

“My beautiful, perfect boy,” Harry said, “You’re worth the whole universe.” And Louis believed him. 

Louis moaned when Harry finally let his head move forward, but he still kept a tight grip in Louis’ hair, guiding him down on his cock, slow and careful and sure. Louis felt sloppy and slack, blinking away tears of intensity and want. All that he wanted in the world was the feeling of Harry, stretching his mouth and overwhelming his senses, pulling him close. He pulled Harry’s cock down, throat fluttering. 

Harry held his head carefully, guiding him, careful with the jolts of his own pelvis. Harry covered his nose and Louis felt the tightening in his lungs and he fell deeper. His eyes were wide and full of tears and just when it started to burn, Harry let him breathe--soothed down the back of his head and pulled Louis back from between his legs.

“I can’t,” Harry gasped, “Want to be inside you, Lou,”

Louis had six new favorite words in the world and they were conveniently there, all in a row. Harry slid down onto the floor, pulled Louis into his lap and against his chest and held him. Louis’ limbs were loose and soft, like there was space between his joints, like he was floating in outer space. Harry was kissing him, tongue deep in Louis’ mouth. Louis shuddered in his hold.

“Breathe, baby,” Harry said, hand pulling up the inside of Louis' thigh, silk and slick. Louis moaned more than breathed, jaw locked, and Harry frowned at him, mixing concern with torture as he slid his finger inside. Louis was already open and loose, from the night and from the drop, but he still moaned again, raggedly.

“I said breathe,” Harry said, and it sounded so normal and annoyed that Louis laughed, blinking wet eyelashes in the dim, hazy light of space. Harry pulled him closer, possessive grip on the ridge of his hipbone. He nosed into Louis’ hair, rubbed his cheek on Louis’ cheek. His cheek was soft and shaven and Louis’ was scruff and it left little friction marks on Harry’s face, like a scratchy kiss. Louis had gotten his legs wrapped around Harry, touching with every part of his body.

“So patient for me,” Harry said in his gravel voice that turned Louis on as deeply as the fingers, caressing his entrance and opening him more. “Such pretty noises.”

Harry was pretty, unbearably pretty, Louis would remember to tell him that.

Harry worked him with his hands, tongued into his mouth, and Louis made obscene and lovely movements in his arms, hips jerking. The alpha bite-bruise on his neck pulsed with his heartbeat, and Louis knew Harry felt it too, because he smiled every time it happened.

“Tell me how you feel,” Harry said, when he’d laid Louis out on the floor. He was the shimmer of the lights on the fabric, the rush of a crescendo. 

“Happy,” Louis said. “I feel happy.” Maybe there were tears in his eyes again. Harry was kissing the corners of his face, moving into him, probing at the surface. Every piece of them fit.  

“Me too,” Harry said. He barely got the words out, his fine control slipping at long last as he sank into Louis, sudden and sharp and deep. 

“You know, you’re wonderful,” Louis said, voice thick with space, getting his hands on Harry’s hips, driving him home.

“We’re wonderful,” Harry said.

 

*

 

Coming up from space was slow and unhurried, a leisurely syrup-smooth process that left Louis kittenish and yawning and tractable enough to be convinced that they could spend the entire rest of the day in bed. Neither of them had gotten enough sleep over the past few weeks. He showered, and they had sandwiches in bed for a late second lunch and music in Harry’s speakers and Harry’s curls in Louis’ face as they napped.  

“Hey,” Louis said, sometime, maybe it was early evening, who even knew?

“Hey, I quit my job.” In the rush of everything else, he’d completely forgotten to tell Harry.

Harry’s jaw dropped. Louis looked over the sheets at him, proudly, holding onto this moment. Every moment was a grand moment, today. Or today and yesterday; it was fully the next day now, but he’d lost track of time.

“Yep,” he said smugly, “Quit. I quit my job. A few weeks ago, actually. It was amazing.”

“I quit my job,” Louis repeated for emphasis. He might get a needlepoint of it, frame it up in the bedroom. In their bedroom.

Harry let himself fall back onto the mattress with a womp. He opened his mouth like he was trying to even find words.

“Thank god,” he said at last, entirely heartfelt. Louis threw his head back and laughed, loud and startled.

“I was going to die, watching you go off to that office with a sad look on your face, I hated that place,” Harry said.

“You could have told me you thought it was so bad!” Louis exclaimed. Harry looked at him sideways and Louis hit him with a pillow. 

“I was working up to it!” Harry admitted, arms up to defend himself, and then snatching the pillow away and putting it behind his own head. 

“There were a lot of things I should've told you, a lot earlier.”

“Wouldn't change it, not when it got us here,” Louis said, echoing Harry's speech from earlier. He could already tell that it was going to be part of who they were together, maybe even--the first new rule. Maybe the only rule, now.

Louis busied himself with surveying the lines of Harry's body. There were so many details to memorize, now that he had the leisure to let the awe expose itself on his face. The fuzz of hair on his chest, the places where his tan darkened on the most exposed surface of his forearms, the cut of muscle that wound up his back.

“What are you going to do?” Harry said eventually, sitting back up to give Louis yet another kiss. Louis’ mouth was chapped and they were both exhausted, but he’d take it. Harry still tasted warm and soft, that trace of vanilla and salt that Louis would recognize anywhere. And Harry also tasted like Louis, now, which Louis was beginning to get obsessed with as a sensory experience.  

“Not that you have to know,” Harry added hastily. “An artist should know better, of all people.”

“Ah, that’s the best part,” Louis said, falling back down onto the mattress, and taking Harry with him. He smirked up at the ceiling. “I had an idea. A really good idea. Let me tell you about it.”

Chapter Text

It was Saturday dinner and there was chicken masala on the stove. Zayn and Liam had brought some fresh bread from the bakery near symphony hall, which was noisy with renovations, and everyone was at Niall and Babs’. Harry and Louis were late for reasons impossible to explain in polite company.

“Disgusting,” Babs said happily when Louis walked in holding not so much Harry's hand as Harry's entire arm, but screw the world, Louis had so, so much to catch up on, so much life to live now.

“Niall and I would like full credit for infecting you with the disease of happy relationships and long term partnerships. Your fee will be continuing weekly dinners for the rest of time.”

“We accept the consequences of our actions,” Harry said somberly, while Louis scoffed. He held up a pack of the octopus beer as apology, or good luck token, because he was always going to buy this beer from now on. After all, he was going to live a lot closer to it, soon.

“It is crazy what getting sleep and like, touch and stuff, will do,” Louis said to Babs.

“He slept until eight o’clock today,” Harry said, “And then I got him to stay in bed for at least another hour.”

“How?” Liam asked innocently, because Liam, and Zayn slapped him on the chest with the back of his hand.

“Don’t answer that,” Zayn said, and Harry just flashed his lightning-bright grin.

“And an amazing new job, funny how that helps, too,” Babs said, but she said it proudly and contentedly, looking at Louis like Louis had used to think people might look at him, back when he was young and still dreaming of making it big. He gave Babs her particular smile, the one that made his nose wrinkle, the one that tried to say that as long as she was proud, he’d always know he’d made it. He thought it carried through.

“Cheers to the first and best business director the symphony has ever had,” Zayn said, giving Louis a nod.

“Louis saved them so much money, hiring him was inevitable, the board couldn't say yes fast enough,” Harry said proudly, to Liam, who nodded politely even though he'd already been there for the group chat about it, plus actually worked with Louis now.

“I am right here and I can hear you,” Louis said, poking Harry in the ribs with a sharp finger. Harry put his big hand on Louis’ face and pushed him back, pretending to ignore him.

“Let your boyfriend be proud,” he said airily. Louis turned red, but beamed.

“Make it stop,” Babs drawled from the stove.

“Louis gets to make his own schedule, so we get lunch every day,” Harry told Liam happily. Liam hummed at him in appreciation, like some kind of weird alpha high-five.

“Gross. I work with a bunch of undisciplined creatives,” Louis told Niall. Zayn drummed gently on the top of Louis’ head with a baton that he’d produced from a pocket where it lived, in case he had to do any emergency conducting. Zayn was growing increasingly comfortable with personal space, but he still primarily participated in the cuddly group via objects. That was ok, they all spoke fluent Zayn, now.

“Hey, watch this,” Louis said. “Zayn, should I do any work tomorrow?”

“Are you fucked up? It's the weekend,” Zayn said, horrified. Louis sighed happily.

“And they’re all like this,” he said to Niall, who grinned at him. “They barely even work on fridays.”

“Fridays, very important music day, it was necessary for you to sit in on our new Mozart program and give us your expert audience opinion,” Liam said.

Louis divested himself of Harry’s arm for a moment to wander across the kitchen and lean into Liam in an appreciative hug. Liam made a happy-surprised sort of burble and ruffled Louis’ hair. Beyond the obvious with Harry, Louis was also on a roll with investigating all kinds of platonic affection. Turned out, life out of depri meant that touch was just as amazing, but far less painful.

Niall gave a happy sigh. 

“I’m just chuffed that Bab’s and my master plan of getting us all together as one amazing friend group slash triple date has finally paid off,” Niall said.

“Your plan?” Louis yelped. “I’m the one who created the entire collaboration! I found Harry and Zayn and Liam and brought them in out of the cold and made them all talk to each other! I've been the mastermind this whole time!”

“As if,” Harry said, “I had my eye on you the second I saw you, and I’m the one who went to school with Babs. I’m the one who went into Louis’ box of solitary doom that nobody else dared enter. It was my plan to lock this one down, and for all of us to become friends, and I put it into action all the way back at Babs’ rehearsal.”

Zayn, of all people, snorted into his beer. “Don’t forget you two disgusting lovebirds met in my symphony hall,” he said archly. “I knew who Louis was and I went out for sushi with him and those two troublemakers and schemed to trick them into becoming my friends ever since.”

Liam raised a placating hand at the group, and patted Zayn’s shoulder. “I’m sure it was a group effort,” he said.

Louis eyed Liam narrowly over the food, and Liam twinkled innocently back at him. Liam, who had always been there with the right word or calming influence to get Harry and Zayn to collaborate. Liam, who had been the first one to say yes to the beach, and made immediate friends with Niall, and built up Louis’ trust in the global alpha population with his constant gentle presence. Liam, who might have been their mastermind all along.

“There's one last piece to this mystery,” Zayn said, looking around the group. They all looked back, puzzled. Zayn frowned.

“Niall, what on earth do you do for a living? No one's ever said.”

“Isn't it obvious?” Louis said. “Considering his function for us.” Babs patted the back of Niall's neck in an intimately fond gesture.

Niall laughed, easy and pleased. “I'm a clinical psychologist,” he said. “A therapist! I listen to people's problems. Comes in bloody handy, doesn't it.”

 

*

 

It was after dinner that Louis found out why Harry had been a little twitchy tonight, glancing at the others when he thought Louis wasn’t looking, a face like the face he’d made when he found Louis’ shameful stalker stack of Harry-interview-magazines in his bedroom closet earlier that week. Tremendously smug and a little loving.

“Can we do it?” Harry said, before they were even finished clearing dishes. Louis looked at him, but Harry was looking at Zayn.

“Ah, christ,” Louis said, “Am I in trouble? Did you find something wrong at the hall? Is Zayn’s contract secretly fucked, and you need me to fix it?”

“Calm down,” Harry said, carding through Louis’ hair. Louis ducked out from under his hand and folded his arms. “You love it,” he said, accusingly.

“Yeah,” Harry drawled back.  

“We, ah,” Zayn said, looking remote and mysterious. Liam came to his aid.

“We hunted down the Sperlings,” he said with a happy smile. Louis looked around the group to see who was going to explain this, but even Harry just looked down at him with that knowing twinkle but no answer.

“Lovely couple, we had a good chat about my art actually,” Harry piped in.

“Good taste but, am I supposed to know who we're talking about?” Louis asked.

“They live in the Bahamas,” Liam continued, “But back when they lived here, they were long-term patrons of a certain symphony.”

“Good taste,” echoed Zayn at the same time as Louis said, “Oh my god.”

“Where are they?” Liam asked Harry over Louis’ head. Louis rolled his eyes with resignation because this was his life now, five honest to god people to love and every one of them taller than he was, but he couldn't help the warm shiver when Harry pulled him close and slipped his arms around him.

“I thought maybe Louis would find us out by now,” he said, “But…” And he slipped a hand into Louis’ jacket pocket and pulled out tickets. Three of them, box tickets.

Zayn let loose a small but sincere smile, and Liam looked so proud of himself that Louis was surprised he hadn't exploded. Harry was all but vibrating with excitement, watching Louis’ face. Louis couldn't even find words.

“Full set, along with your fourth, which you'll never have to renew again because, we're making sure it's always yours. They're yours for, well, basically forever,” Zayn said.

“Which is how long I'm planning on being with the symphony,” Liam said softly.

He said symphony, but everybody knew he meant Zayn, who casually let his hand drift down to take Liam’s. “We wanted to say thank you, Louis. You brought us together. You changed our lives.”

“The whole box, the whole set,” Louis said, embarrassed to find tears in his eyes, but Harry gave him a squeeze and if Louis knew Harry, he bet he wasn't the only one blinking right now. “We're never gonna leave you guys alone, now. Gonna make Niall catch every show.”

“I hear they allow alcohol, I’ll live,” Niall said with a long-suffering air that was spoiled by the wide grin on his face.

 

*

 

Louis was in the kitchen, ostensibly getting himself another drink but in reality, having a little bit of emotion over everything, when Harry came in to find him. Harry looked at his face and pulled him into a hug. Louis rested his head where it fit perfectly on his chest, well-cuddled under Harry’s steady arms.

“All good?” Harry asked, smiling. He could feel that Louis was all right, their link stronger than ever, and only getting better. Louis still nodded.

“So good,” he said, “You’re going to get to wear so many suits.”

“You’re going to get to wear so many of my sweaters,” Harry said, and Louis couldn’t deny it, those were facts. They were already in the process of moving in together, and Louis had concurrently moved about a third of Harry’s wardrobe into his half of the closet with neither explanation nor excuse.

“They’ll be good shows,” Louis said, “Zayn hasn’t yet promised to play my favorite pieces at least five times next season, but I’ve got time to work on him.”

“Hey,” Harry said, “It's all right, isn’t? I know the symphony box was, well, it was really important to you. This thing you did for yourself. You don’t, uh, you don’t actually have to use the other tickets for us all, you know? Are you going to miss having the whole box to yourself?”

Louis looked into the living room, where Zayn and Liam were cuddled on the couch, Liam throwing his head back and laughing at something that Niall had said, Babs with her feet in Niall's lap and a wry smile for Zayn. He looked up at Harry, his Harry, the most open hearted person he'd ever known, the sweetest alpha in the world, the one person he would trust above all others to let him be himself. To love him for it. He could see it with clarity, as clearly as he’d ever seen anything in his life, and it filled his heart to bursting, and he knew . This was forever. His family. His home.

“Not at all,” Louis said. “Not even a little bit. I have everything I ever wanted.”