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you came into my life

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Prologue

Louis is not a morning person.

Mornings don’t seem to like him much either. He’s not his best in the mornings; he’s usually grumpy and always slow to wake. He relies on the morning routine that he hates, but has down pat: After tearing himself out of his warm, cozy bed, he gets his first cup of coffee (he’s more than gotten his money’s worth out of that programmable coffeemaker), showers and gets dressed. There’s never any traffic this early, so – even though he’s almost always running late – he usually makes it to work by 7:00.

Which usually gets him to the coffeemaker in the kitchen by 7:02.

One annoyingly bright, late spring morning, Louis drags his tired body through each of his steps, desperate for a cup of the surprisingly decent coffee they brew at the fire station. When he finally reaches his destination, the sight before him stops him dead in his tracks. At least five of the guys on shift are huddled around their fire chief Geoff, who’s sitting at their long wooden table hunched over a laptop. The guys are all pointing to the screen and muttering as Geoff hunts and pecks on the small keyboard.

“Morning, gentlemen,” Louis rasps, heading for the coffeemaker. “What’s going on?”

“D’you ever watch that Queer Eye show, Lou?” Niall says distractedly, still looking at the laptop screen.

Louis freezes. He’s usually pretty good at controlling his reactions but he usually isn’t blindsided by his coworkers before he’s even had his coffee.

What the fuck? Louis can’t tell what they’re doing or hazard a guess at the right answer, so he plays dumb as he moves to grab a mug and get some fucking coffee into his system.

“What show?” he calls over his shoulder, turning to the nearest fridge for milk.

“Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” Stan chimes in. “It was on like ten years ago. Gay guys came in and made you over.”

Well that doesn’t fucking help Louis figure out what’s going on. He takes a gulp of his too hot coffee and furrows his brow.

“Nah, don’t remember,” he says, walking over to the table. “What’re y’all doing?”

“We’re helping Geoff email them, he’s nominating Liam for it,” Niall replies. “Karen saw an ad in the Atlanta paper, they’re doing the show again and filming around here.”

“Nominating Liam?” Louis huffs a nervous laugh. “He’s not gay?”

“‘For the straight guy,’ dude,” Stan laughs. “They make over straight guys.”

“Louis, help us pick a photo,” Geoff interrupts. “Which is worse, this one with the chain or the one with the purse Cheryl bought for him?”

“No, don’t go with the purse one,” Ben says loudly, shaking his head. “That purse is so gay.”

Louis looks around at the guys’ faces and sees that Oli is the only one to snicker; everyone else rolls their eyes.

There is not enough coffee in the world for this.

“Oh, thanks, Ben,” Niall says witheringly, “Didn’t know purses could have sexual orientation.”

“Well, if any purse can, it’s that one,” Ben replies snidely, turning away from the group and heading to the recliners with Oli trailing behind him.

Louis watches with wide eyes, saying nothing and filing the moment away to examine later.

“He’s a dick, but he has a point,” Shawn whispers to Niall. “Don’t use the purse one.”

“Yeah, just don’t tell him he’s right,” Stan agrees.

“Son?” Geoff looks up at Louis. “What do you think? We want them to pick him.”

“Why?” Louis asks, fidgeting with the handle of his mug. Why is this happening to me? is what he really wants to ask.

“Well, you have to admit, he could use a makeover,” Geoff replies. “No sense of style, that boy. And he never does anything for himself. That’s what Karen was thinking.”

“And you, Chief?” Louis asks. “What are you thinking?”

“He’s always been hard on himself,” Geoff says ruefully. “Even as a boy, you know that, Louis. But he’s been putting more pressure on himself since the promotion and this could help with the fundraising for rural training he’s so dead set on.”

Louis might regret this. No, he is definitely going to regret this.

He pulls up a chair anyway. “Okay, show me what you got,” he says, taking a sip of coffee.

He’s going to need it.

Geoff claps him on the shoulder. “Here, read what we have so far and then we’ll go through the photos again. D’you think they wanna see any from high school? With the curly hair?”

Chapter Text

Preproduction

Louis pulls his beat-up truck into a parking spot, turns off the ignition and rests his head on the steering wheel. He’s had a few weeks to prepare for this day, but he just needs a couple more minutes.

He couldn’t believe it when Geoff actually got a reply from a producer to his email nominating Liam for this goddamn TV show. Louis had literally held Liam’s hand as the guys all helped fill out the questionnaire he’d been sent, grinning and bearing it. Cursing the day sweet, loving Karen Payne had seen that newspaper ad.

He really couldn’t believe it when they wanted to do a Skype interview with Liam after getting the paperwork back. Louis had sat across Liam’s desk, meeting his warm, brown puppy dog eyes and nodding whenever he’d needed a bit of reassurance. He’d smiled in spite of himself listening to Liam talk about how he’d decided to become a fireman because he’d liked the idea of saving people. After all, it wasn’t Liam’s fault this was happening.

It wasn’t Liam’s fault that Louis is in the closet.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault really, but that’s never made it any easier. For awhile when Louis was younger, he’d thought maybe he would leave Covington. Go to college in a big city. Not Atlanta, not even Georgia, another state altogether – far away enough so that no one knew him there. So he could start fresh. He’d made it as far as the next town over for a couple of years of community college, unwilling to take money from his mom, who had six more children to raise after him.

Liam had unwittingly saved Louis when he suggested that Louis apply to the fire department along with him. It’s a good job, with full benefits, and he makes good money. He can support himself, and help pay the hospital bills that Dan is still getting regularly. It had taken a few months, but the funeral is all paid off. And he can still buy treats for his sisters now and then; the oldest, Lottie, helps him pick out decent makeup kits online.

It’s not the life he used to let himself picture sometimes when he was alone, but for the most part Louis is happy. His work is challenging and he can’t imagine anything more rewarding. He likes living close to his family, he likes having a second family at the station. He likes taking care of both of his families, being needed. He even likes living in his small town, where everyone knows him.

Even though they don’t really know him.

He lifts his head from the steering wheel. He’s getting dangerously close to a pity party, this vague sense that everything is about to change nagging at him, and his mom hadn’t raised him to sit around feeling sorry for himself. It is what it is, he reminds himself. Time to shake this mood off and face this preproduction day head on.

Whatever “preproduction” means, anyway.

Louis walks through the unusually full parking lot toward the fire station garage and wonders what exactly he’s in for. He’d read the email several times but he still wasn’t sure if the producers wanted to see him in his uniform or not. Fuck it, he’d figured, he was supposed to be off today. They could deal with his black jeans and red and white striped t-shirt. He was about to be dragged out of his comfort zone, so he might as well be physically comfortable.

As Louis approaches the entrance, he waves at Liam, who’d gone full uniform. He’d actually set up a sign-in table, too, complete with a clipboard and too many pens and everything. Louis decides not to give him shit for it, since Liam’s probably quaking with nerves on the inside, and prints his name next to his signature as directed. When he looks up, Liam is smiling at him gratefully.

“Hey, Lou,” he says softly, holding out a nametag. “You’ll be just inside on the right, there’s a group of guys in the back waiting to do short interviews.”

The nametag is testing Louis’ resolve, but he’s truly a good person so he offers Liam a close-lipped smile before saying, “Thanks, bro. Wish me luck, this might be my big break.”

Liam laughs, looking a little more at ease, and Louis congratulates himself on a job well done as he heads in, looking down to stick the nametag to his shirt. He bumps into something tall and solid just as he gets through the doorway.

“Whoa,” the something tall and solid says. “Watch out, there’s expensive equipment everywhere, okay?”

“Hey, you bumped into me, too, pal,” he claps back automatically before looking up to see that the something is a someone. A tall, solid, handsome someone with ridiculous hair styled to stick right up who’s not even trying to hide the once-over he’s currently giving Louis.

“Charming,” the someone smirks. “Love the Southern hospitality ’round here.”

Louis bristles, perhaps a bit more on edge than he’d even realized, and he puffs his chest out a little, opening his mouth to put this stranger in his place.

“Louis,” the someone interrupts, locating and reading his nametag, “I’m Nick, I’m a story producer. You’ll be seeing me again when we come back for production, so how about we stop while we’re somewhat ahead? You’re over there, in that small group, okay? Okay, bye.”

Nick looks at Louis with raised eyebrows, clearly waiting for him to move. When he doesn’t immediately, Nick flaps his hand at Louis, saying, “Bye, bye, bye, bye.”

Louis walks toward his group, shaking his head in disbelief. Did that dick actually just shoo him? “Preproduction” is off to a great fucking start.

Louis takes a breath and reminds himself that this is for Liam, walking over to the small group he’s supposed to join. He nods to the cluster of coworkers who are quietly waiting for their turn to be on camera. Louis cranes his neck to see which poor bastard is in the hot seat–

And, oh. Louis should have been expecting this. How was he not expecting this?

Well, in his defense, he never could have expected Harry Styles.

No one could have expected Harry Styles – a fitting, ridiculous name that Louis had thought was made up when he first heard it, but it was on Harry’s official hire-in paperwork and everything – who’s currently sitting in a chair in the corner, clad in his crisp blue uniform, and answering questions a cameraman is reading off a sheet.

Louis finds an empty chair toward the back next to Shawn. He turns his head as if he’s looking at the other groups of coworkers and production interns running around instead of watching Harry out of the corner of his eye. All of the guys seem curious about filming, so Louis doesn’t have to try to look like he’s not observing, but old habits die hard.

And this is Harry.

Louis has a hard time looking away from Harry. And he has practice, plenty of practice, looking away from the things he wants. But there’s something… more about Harry. Louis has laid awake a few nights since Harry moved to town, trying to put his finger on what exactly it is about him.

Louis barely knows Harry, they work different shifts, but Louis has seen him at softball games and barbecues. He does his best to stay on the opposite side whenever they’re in the same room, but they’ve had conversations here and there. He knows Harry misses his mom and sister, and that he wishes he could have a cat but his landlord doesn’t allow it. He’d let out a big, honking laugh when Louis had remarked he would just get a cat anyway, and then turned red and excused himself.

It had been adorable. And Louis had wanted more.

But he wasn’t about to let himself have more, so he hung back. He collected more bits of information from a distance. He knows Harry graduated from a four-year college before deciding to train as a fireman. He knows that Harry doesn’t watch much TV, but he’s seen every romantic comedy on Netflix. He knows that Harry always stops at the diner and gets a mango smoothie after his run on Sundays. God, Louis is a total creep.

A total creep watching stealthily as Harry looks completely comfortable talking to the cameraman, a crooked grin on his face. He’s doing that thing where he pushes his hand through his floppy hair, though, which Louis thinks is a nervous tick. Maybe Harry has practice hiding discomfort, too.

After a few minutes, Harry stands and shakes hands with the cameraman. From the gesturing that Harry’s doing, Louis thinks he’s complimenting the man’s hair. It’s long and black and shiny, so Louis gets it. He runs a hand through his own shaggy hair, wondering what kind of compliment Harry would hypothetically pay him. Maybe not his hair, maybe his eyes. When he drives into Atlanta by himself to go to a bar or club, guys usually compliment his eyes. When they’re trying not to look like they just want to get in his pants, that is, as if that’s not what Louis is there for, too.

That tall guy, Nick, strides over with a clipboard and a flourish. He must need Harry to sign something because he hands him the clipboard and starts pointing. Louis can’t hear what he’s saying, but Harry’s giggling, actually giggling, at whatever it is. Dimple out and everything. There’s no way that dick could be that funny.

Louis scowls as the two of them walk over to a table loaded with snacks and coffee. He likes snacks and coffee. Whatever, fine. On the incredibly off chance that he hasn’t been imagining the flashes of understanding that cross Harry’s face sometimes, apparently Harry’s into dicks.

Louis smiles at the pun in spite of his mood, wishing there was someone he could share it with. He steals another glance only to see Nick looking back at him. Sizing him up.

He resists the urge to flinch and turn away, but just barely. This cocky asshole. Sitting back, he sizes up Nick right back. Louis can’t quite tell if Nick’s important or just thinks he is, waving his clipboard around. He’s good looking, even with that hair. His patterned shirt is unbuttoned about halfway, showing off a thick patch of chest hair. Louis rolls his eyes. Is he supposed to be impressed?

Louis looks away, he really shouldn’t be involved in a pissing contest right now, and notices that Shawn is wringing his hands next to him. He leans over and bumps his shoulder, smiling when Shawn looks up.

“Hey, Lou,” Shawn says lowly, leaning toward him. “You nervous?”

“Nah,” Louis says reassuringly. “It’s just a few questions, right, man? Piece of cake.”

Shawn still looks a bit green as his name is called. He’s one of the better looking guys here; that’s just a fact. He’s tall, kind of gangly but in a good way, with thick dark hair. There’s kind of a gentle quality to him. Louis’ pretty sure that even if Shawn looks anxious or doesn’t talk much, they’re going to want him on camera.

No one has said anything to him yet, but Louis is pretty resigned to his fate. Whatever they’re going to want people on camera for, Liam has almost certainly requested that Louis be one of them. They’ve been best friends their whole lives, practically brothers, and Louis has never let Liam down when he needed him. He’s not about to start now.

Louis is pulled out of his reverie when he hears his name called. From the tone, he thinks it took a couple of tries to get his attention but the cameraman doesn’t actually look put out. Louis smiles sheepishly at him as he walks over and takes a seat.

“Hey, man,” the cameraman says, leaning forward to shake Louis’ hand. “I’m Steve.”

“Louis. Nice to meet you.”

“You, too,” Steve says sincerely. “Okay, hope you don’t mind but we’re a little shorthanded today so I’ll be the one asking you questions off the list.”

Louis runs a hand through his hair again, sure it’s not laying quite right. “Sure, sure, ’s fine.”

Steve moves to adjust something with his equipment and Louis can’t take the silence so he fidgets with his hands a bit before asking, “So, shorthanded? How come?”

“Well, for the other episodes,” Steve says, looking down at the camera lens he’s fiddling with, “we’re doing guys and, like, their dogs or families. Not as many people for the preproduction day to get through, you know?”

“Oh, yeah, yeah,” Louis nods, pulling at a hangnail. “Makes sense.”

Steve sits back finally and picks his list of questions back up, but he pauses to smile at Louis.

“So I before I get to these,” he says, waving the piece of paper around. “Your rep precedes you, man. Everyone keeps telling me you’re a bad influence on Liam, turned him into a real prankster. How about you tell me about that?”

“Well, Steve,” Louis grins, starting to relax. “How much time do you have?”

Half an hour later, Louis stands up and stretches his arms over his head. His t-shirt rides up, exposing a thin line of skin, and Niall lets out a wolf whistle from across the room. Louis looks over, laughing, but falls silent when he sees Harry next to Niall, staring at him. Their eyes lock for a moment but it breaks when Niall elbows Harry to get his attention.

“That was great, man,” Steve says, clapping Louis on the back. “Great stuff.”

Louis turns back and takes in Steve’s kind face, realizing how much he had needed his easygoing vibe. Grateful to feel a little more settled after having been off-kilter all morning, he pulls Steve into a practiced bro-style hug but Steve wraps both of his arms around Louis in return. And the thing is, it’s nice. Nice not to have to keep the easy affection he really prefers tamped down.  

“Thanks, man, yeah,” he says, stepping back. “You need me for anything else?”

“I’ve got a couple more people to go through,” Steve replies, consulting his list. “Hang around though, and maybe you and a couple guys can lead me around to get some B-roll?”

“Yeah, sounds good,” Louis nods. “I’m gonna get some coffee, come grab me when you’re done.”

Harry has disappeared by the time Louis makes it to the snack table, but Niall is hanging around, munching on a cookie. The platter is about half full, so Louis isn’t sure how long Niall has been there. He hip checks him out of the way and pours himself a cup of coffee.

“How’d yours go?” Niall asks, mouth full of half-chewed cookie.

“Ugh, Niall,” Louis cringes. “That’s the worst, don’t talk with your mouth full.”

Niall gives him a grotesque, open-mouthed smile and Louis shudders.

“Fine,” he says, giving up on the pet peeve for now. “It went fine. You?”

“Went great, I’m a shoo-in,” Niall boasts. “Camera loves me and soon so will all of America.”

“You think that many people will watch it?” Louis asks carefully before taking a sip of coffee.

“Are you kidding? This is gonna be huge, mark my words.”

And isn’t that just fucking great.

They stand in companionable silence for a while, Louis sipping his coffee and Niall devouring cookies. Despite being shorthanded, the production team seems to be getting through the interviews efficiently. Maybe they just know exactly what they’re looking for. It’s not long before Steve approaches them with a camera on his shoulder.

“Steve!” Niall exclaims. Of course Niall has already made friends with the one person Louis knows here. Except for Nick, that is, if he counts.

“Hey guys,” Steve says cheerfully. “Ready to show me around?”

“Yeah, yeah, come on,” Louis says, jerking his head toward the stairs. “Let’s start upstairs, there’s too many people around here.”

They walk Steve through the admin wing, waving hello to the people working in their offices. There’s too much going on for anyone to be asleep, so they show him around the bunks and take a quick detour in the large locker room. When they get to the common area, they find production staffers already in the outdated kitchen, measuring cabinets, taking notes and testing the oven and stovetop (neither of which work, but Louis’ not going to interrupt).

“Wow, so this is like a pretty big deal,” Louis remarks almost to himself, taking in the flurry of activity. He hasn’t really thought about this part yet; he’s been more worried about his own role.

“Yeah, yeah,” Steve says, lowering his camera. “The design stuff is a huge part of it, and they gotta make those kinds of decisions way ahead of time or else they’d never get it done when we film.”

“Well, I for one can’t wait,” Niall says, throwing an arm around Louis’ shoulder. “Who am I gonna get to cook for me, Lou?”

“Not me,” Louis laughs. “That’s for damn sure. Cereal is my specialty.”

“You don’t cook, Louis?”

Louis turns in the direction the question came from, surprised to see Harry in the doorway. How long has he been standing there?

“No, no,” Louis admits. “Can’t cook to save my life.”

“I do,” Harry says quickly. “I mean, I can. I can cook. I’ll cook for you. Everyone, I’ll cook for everyone. Once it’s all… you know, the kitchen is all done and everything.”

Niall pumps his fist in the air and then holds it, to Harry’s evident confusion.

“Freeze frame,” Louis explains. He’s known Niall for a few years now, ever since he moved from New York with his wife Hailee, so he can usually decipher Niall’s actions.

Steve laughs and Harry smiles shyly at Louis, mouthing “thanks.” Louis blushes a little and then blushes more because he can’t believe how embarrassing he is. He nods once at Harry, not meeting his eyes.

“Now, Harry,” Niall says seriously, “tell me more about this cooking, specifically the cooking that you will be doing for me.”

He leads Harry to sit at the table with him, leaving Louis and Steve alone.  

“Hey, thanks for everything, Louis,” Steve says, holding out his hand. “I’m really looking forward to coming back here.”

“No problem, of course,” Louis replies, shaking his hand. “So you’ll be here for filming?”

“Yeah, it’s me and, um,” Steve starts, counting names off on his fingers, “Ed’ll be here; Fiona, she’s not here today, but she’s great; Nick, obviously–”

Louis groans and Steve laughs.

“You met, Nick, then?” he says. “Don’t worry, once you get to know him, you get his sense of humor. And he’s a really great producer, I’ve worked with him before.”

“If you say so,” Louis shrugs, like none of this really matters. He glances over at Harry, knowing what a lie that is.

Steve claps him on the shoulder. “No worries, man. Hey, take care, okay? See you soon.”

“See you soon, yeah,” Louis says, smiling. He’s still not looking forward to this, but maybe it won’t be all bad.

Chapter Text

Day One

Louis was wrong; this is bad, this is all very, very bad.

It’s the first day of filming and he’s so nervous that he might throw up. What was he thinking? He can’t actually do this.

“Louis!” Liam calls into the bathroom, where Louis is currently hiding. He walks in once he spots Louis gripping the counter. “There you are, man, come on. They need you for the first setup.”

Liam smiles Louis’ favorite smile, the one where it looks like he just closes his eyes and opens his mouth wide. The knot in Louis’ stomach loosens at that, but just barely.

“Listen to me,” Liam laughs. “‘The first setup.’ Do I sound like I know what I’m talking about?”

“Yeah,” Louis says weakly. “Yeah, you do actually.”

“Well, come on, then,” Liam counters. “We gotta get you down to the gym, and then I’m supposed to be in the common room, drinking coffee and acting naturally.”

Louis isn’t about to distract Liam from his apparent excitement. He walks downstairs repeating the mantra “this is for Liam” to himself. He can do this.

He bumps into something tall and solid – and familiar.

“We’ve got to stop meeting this way,” Nick smirks at Louis, reaching out to steady him.

And honestly, Louis would probably rather have fallen down to the floor than be caught by Nick’s large hands.

“Can you just let me through?” Louis glares at him, twisting out of his grasp. “I’m supposed to be in the gym right now.”

“I know,” Nick says airily, taking a step back. “About that. I just wanted to let you know we’re going to mic you after this setup, you don’t really need one for this but you will later.”

“Uh-huh, okay,” Louis says impatiently. “Thank you for that important update, can I get through now?”

“Actually, there’s one more thing,” Nick says, hesitating. He gestures toward Louis with one of his hands. “We’re not going to, uh…”

“Spit it out, Nicholas,” Louis snaps. The only thing worse than getting to the “setup” is Nick holding him hostage in this hallway.

“We’re not going to pursue any angles with you,” Nick says finally, dropping his hand. “Story angles. You’re just going to be featured as Liam’s best friend.”

And that gets Louis’ attention.

“What, um… I don’t...” Louis stares at the ground, struggling to form a sentence. “I don’t know what other... angles there would be for me, but okay.”

“I think you know what I’m talking about,” Nick says, not unkindly, “and just… you don’t have to worry about it, it’s not the story we’re telling.”

Louis falters. He has about six hundred questions that he can’t let himself ask right now. He has to go be on camera. He has to do this. He lifts his eyes up to meet Nick’s.

“Just act naturally,” Nick says with a gleam in his eye, like it’s a dare. “You can do that, right? Lift some weights or whatever you jocks do and we’ll send the boys into the gym in, like, ten minutes.”

Louis glares at him again, unsure how someone he’s spent a grand total of five minutes with already knows exactly how to motivate him. He turns his back and forces himself to walk away at his normal pace, determined not to let it show that Nick got under his skin.

Louis stops outside the door and takes a breath, psyching himself up. He can do this. It’s no big deal. Just act naturally.

Walking into the gym, the first thing he sees is a redheaded cameraman with colorful tattoos in the corner, clearly trying to be unobtrusive but sticking out like a sore thumb. Louis’ gaze follows the direction he’s pointed his camera in and…

Oh, fuck.

Harry’s in the middle of the room, doing some kind of yoga pose. Louis won’t be endeared by this boy. He won’t. Standing on one leg, Harry’s leaning forward slightly, with his left leg lifted up behind him and holding his ankle with his left hand. His right arm is extended forward. The long, lean lines of his body are on full display and Louis’ mouth actually starts to water.

Louis has elevated the averted gaze practically to an art form by this point, but he can’t make himself tear his eyes away. He’s fully aware of his surroundings, the cameraman filming Harry, the low hum of the team outside preparing for the shoot to really begin, Niall and Shawn lifting weights on the other side of the room. Acting naturally.

But Louis is rooted in place, taking in the picture in front of him.

Harry’s eyes are closed, which Louis thinks might be unwise considering how clumsy he can be around the fire station, but it gives Louis free rein to admire him. A red bandana holds Harry’s curls away from his face. Louis’ eyes move down to his sharp jaw and the curve of his neck. He can make out every muscle straining in Harry’s arms and back thanks to the tight white tank top he’s wearing. The tight white, see-through tank top that doesn’t hide the dark ink of Harry’s tattoos. There’s something stitched on the side of it, near Harry’s rib, but Louis can’t make out the words from here and he can’t move closer.

But the worst part is the tapered gray joggers he’s wearing. They leave almost nothing to Louis’ overactive imagination, hugging Harry’s supple thighs. His pert little bum. God, Louis just wants to bite it. Louis can’t let himself think about Harry’s bulge, he is in public. On camera. Being recorded for all of America to see. For fuck’s sake. Even Harry’s slim calves are getting Louis going. Jesus, he has to snap out of it.

Just act naturally.

It’s not until Harry slowly starts to move out of the position, lowering his left leg to the floor and straightening, that Louis is able to move.

He steps quickly to the side, picking up the first weights his hands land on. Unfortunately they’re ten pounds heavier than what he usually lifts with and he stumbles forward a couple of steps.

“You pretending to work out, Lou?” Niall laughs from across the room where he’s spotting Shawn. “How’d you even find the gym? I’ve never seen you in here.”

Harry is still in the middle of the room, stretching his arms over his head, and he opens his eyes at that.

“I wouldn’t be able to do this job if I didn’t work out, Niall,” Louis sniffs, exchanging the weights he’d panic grabbed for the ones he usually uses. He gets into position and starts lifting, acting completely naturally if he does say so himself.

“You don’t want to stretch first, Louis?”

Louis looks up at Harry, who’s suddenly much closer than he was a minute ago. He can’t quite take in the full effect of Harry’s presence this close up, so he squints up at him. “What?”

“Studies show that stretching before a workout is just as important as stretching after, if not more important,” Harry explains, his face serious. “I can run through a couple of poses from my practice with you if you want?”

And it is a testament to just how gone Louis is for this boy that he doesn’t even mind that Harry just referred to yoga as a “practice.” Before he has a chance to answer, a petite woman with a headset on walks in, waving a clipboard.

Honestly, Louis has never seen so many clipboards in his life as he has in the last few weeks.

“Alright, gentlemen!” the woman announces. “We’re sending the guys in, take your places. And remember–”

“Let me guess,” Louis interrupts. “Just act naturally?”

The woman rolls her eyes as the other guys crack up, but nods before walking out.

“Don’t think we have time for those poses,” Harry says quietly. “Maybe another time.”

Louis gapes a little as Harry turns and walks over to the resistance bands without waiting for a reply. There’s no way Louis is reading into that, is there? Is that a thing guys just say to each other?

All four of them fall silent, trying to get into the motions as if they’re actually in the middle of a workout. There’s a commotion outside and Louis’ heart starts pounding as a tall, frankly gorgeous black man runs into the room followed by several other well-dressed men, a boom mic guy (he’s starting to sound like Liam with these technical terms) and Steve, holding a camera over his shoulder.

“Hey, hey,” the man kind of grunts, like he’s exerting the same effort they would be if they were actually working out.

The amount of people in the room is suddenly overwhelming. Louis takes a breath, trying calm down, and smiles brightly at the outsiders. He’s totally got this.

But then the man’s face lights up and Louis follows his gaze to Harry. His Harry. The man rushes right over to him, clapping Harry’s hand a few times and exclaiming, “You look like Superman!”

Louis hasn’t got this. His smile fades as he watches for Harry’s reaction.

Harry smiles widely, shrugging. He’s almost bashful, he doesn’t seem to know how to accept the compliment gracefully, and Louis wonders when exactly Harry came into his good looks. Maybe he hasn’t always been an Adonis, maybe there was an awkward phase.

Louis snaps back to attention at a sudden cacophony of “Liam? Are you Liam?” and finally Niall pipes up, directing the flock to the kitchen. Louis can hear them calling for Liam through the hallways as they rush out, leaving the gym quiet and empty of cameras.

Well, he got through his first setup. He’s sweating bullets, but he got through it.

Harry leans against the wall and exhales. Shawn sits and Niall pats his back gently before moving to put the weights they were using away. Louis turns to do the same as the headset woman marches back in.

“How’d we do, Fiona?” Niall calls to her. Louis wonders how it’s so easy for Niall; he instantly makes friends of everyone he comes into contact with.

“Great, boys,” she replies crisply. “Now, let’s get a move on. Head into the locker room and get changed into your uniforms, then give me an all clear and I’ll send Jade in to mic you.”

“On it, boss,” Niall says. “Come on, guys, you heard the lady.”

From the looks of it, Harry and Shawn feel as dazed as Louis does following Niall to the locker room. Louis is extremely good at minding his own business in locker rooms, but he hadn’t realized that Harry’s locker was right next to his since they’re not on the same shift and Louis times his workouts carefully.

Fucking alphabetical order.

He tries to make quick work of changing out of his t-shirt and sweat shorts, but Harry is right there, throwing him off his game. He can’t help but notice that Harry keeps his tank top on as he applies deodorant – lavender deodorant – to his completely smooth, bare armpits.

And maybe that’s what it is about Harry; he’s this curious mix of soft and strong that Louis has never seen before. Didn’t know existed. Didn’t know was allowed.

He didn’t know armpits could be this sexy either. As he tries to look away altogether, the stitching near Harry’s rib on the tank top catches his eye:

TREAT PEOPLE WITH KINDNESS.

What the fuck? Who even is this boy?

Louis busies himself changing, thoughts swirling in his head. There’s a lot of day still to get through, and several more days after this one. He needs to start thinking clearly.

Once they’re decent, Niall shouts to his new friend Fiona and she bustles in with a young woman lugging a heavy black bag. She’s beautiful, with caramel skin and hair, very petite. The kind of girl that Louis has always wished he could find more than objectively attractive.

“Guys, this is Jade,” Fiona says briskly. “Jade, this is the guys. Once you’re all set here, head to the kitchen and join the group, okay?”

She leaves as Jade reaches into her bag and approaches Shawn.

“Let’s start with you, gorgeous, alright?” she says with a wink, startling a laugh out of Shawn.

Louis smiles, appreciating how she put Shawn at ease, and sits to wait his turn.

“That was like…” Harry starts, as he sits next to Louis on the bench. “Like, more intense than I thought it would be?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Louis nods. And fuck it, he can’t help himself. “That one guy sure liked you.”

Harry laughs and blushes, but doesn’t say anything. Unsure of what reply he was hoping for, Louis stares ahead.

“You hate all of this, don’t you?” Harry asks after a moment. “Like, really hate it?”

Louis glances over to see Harry studying him thoughtfully. “Yeah, I just… it’s not really my thing, you know? All this...” He gestures vaguely. “All of this.”

“And you’re putting up with it anyway,” Harry remarks. “You could’ve, I don’t know, taken the week off or refused to sign the releases, but here you are.”

“Well, yeah,” Louis says, wanting to answer the unspoken question. “Liam is my best friend. I’d do anything for him. He’s always been there for me, no questions asked, my whole life practically. Fuck, he was a pallbearer at my mother’s funeral, you know? I hate this, but it’s for him. So, I’m doing it. No questions asked.”

Harry reaches out as if to comfort Louis but stops short of resting his hand on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” he says softly. “I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you–”

“No, no, you didn’t,” Louis sighs. He scrubs a hand over his face before continuing, “I’m just on edge, I really don’t like–”

“All this?” Harry supplies, waving his hand with a small smile.

“Yeah, Curly,” Louis says. “All this.”

Louis freezes suddenly, realizing his mistake. Before he has a chance to say anything, Harry moves his hand to cup Louis’ shoulder, a grin taking over his stupidly pretty face.

It’s taking all of Louis’ willpower not to lift a finger to poke the dimple that emerged along with the grin. Well, dimples, really, but Louis’ eyes always go straight to most prominent one on Harry’s left side. Oh, god, does he really have a favorite dimple of all things?

He tears his eyes away and meets Harry’s, which are actually sparkling. Louis maybe can’t breathe.

“Maybe it’ll get easier, Lou,” he says. “I think it’s nice that you’re doing this. For Liam. He’s a good guy.”

“Harry!” Niall shouts. “Stop lazing about, this nice young woman is trying to do her job and it’s your turn.”

“And you are, too,” Harry says lowly as he moves to get up and cross the room. “A good guy.”

Louis blinks. He was probably supposed to say something, but he has to concentrate on breathing now that Harry is across the room.

It doesn’t take Jade long to get Harry set up with a mic pack and run the cord up under his tank top. He stands, buttoning his uniform shirt.

“Come on, guys,” Niall says. “I’m dying to see what they’re all up to now, let’s get a move on.”

“Yeah, you guys go on ahead,” Louis says. “I’ll catch up.”

The three of them leave and Louis refuses to look up to see if Harry’s looking back at him. He’s usually so much better at being in control. It’s usually not this hard.

“Louis, right?” Jade says. “Won’t take more than a minute.”

“Take your time, I’m in no rush,” Louis says as he tries to hold still, not wanting to disrupt any of the wires that Jade is deftly arranging.

“Nervous?” she asks, smiling warmly. “No need to be, the guys are amazing, they’re so nice and genuine and funny.”

“It’s just a little overwhelming,” Louis shrugs as Jade clips part of the mic to his shirt.

“I get that,” she laughs easily. “I was watching on the monitor earlier, they kind of take over a room, don’t they? But they really care about the people we’re working with; they call them our ‘heroes.’ Karamo, he’s the culture guy, the one who called your friend Superman? He’s, like, determined to help you guys with that fundraising goal. And Bobby can’t wait to demo your kitchen, make it more functional. You’re in really good hands, I swear.”

She takes a step back. “There, see? All set, wasn’t more than a minute. Go on, you’ll be fine. You might even have fun.”

Louis smiles and thanks her before heading out of the room and down the hallway toward the noise. He got through the first part, he can get through the rest. He’ll just recommit to staying on the opposite side of the room as Harry. No more surreptitiously watching him.

He just needs to focus.

The scene that greets him in the common area is one of organized chaos. Stan and Liam are in the kitchen talking to a slender guy who’s wearing what looks like one of those rompers for men that Lottie has shown him pictures of. They’re surrounded by two cameramen, and there’s another one taking wide shots of the room while yet another one films a group of men talking at the long table.

Louis hesitates, unsure where he should try to jump in. He hears the word “tour” and looks questioningly at Liam, who nods back at him.

“Did I hear someone ask for a tour?” he calls to the group at large. “We can do that for y’all, who’s in?”

“Ooh!” A squeal comes from the corner. “Yes, honey, now who are you?”

A tall guy with long brown hair and a kind face rushes up to him. “A tour? You’re so sweet, look how cute you are, yes, sign me up, honey, I’m first in line, let’s go. Tour, everyone, come on!”

Louis smiles, charmed in spite of himself. “Right this way, gentlemen.”

He waves a hand for everyone to follow him, pausing to let Steve through the doorway first so he can film them walking down the hall, retracing the steps he’d taken with Louis and Niall weeks earlier.

Louis has a hard time parsing what anyone is saying, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other and not looking totally freaked out. He leads the group into the darkened bunk area, knowing but not caring that Ben is on shift and trying to sleep. No one tries to keep their voices down, and Louis smirks as the guys comment on their decor, shrugging innocently while Ben glares at him.

The one with the long hair, Jonathan it turns out, helps him move everyone on to the next room once Louis feels that Ben has been sufficiently inconvenienced.

Jonathan holds a cup of coffee in one hand and waves the other at everyone to hustle them out. “After you, after you, after you, see I’m out last, I’m out last. I’m meant to be a fireman, bye, I love you.”

Louis catches his eye as they walk out and shakes his head slightly.

“Oh, we don’t love him?” he asks earnestly, shaking his head and raising his eyebrows. “You’ve got to help me keep up, girl, okay?”

“Okay,” Louis laughs. At first, he’d thought Jonathan’s energy was going to be too much for him, but there’s something just really sincere about him. Louis has never met someone this joyous, not even Niall.

Louis has always admired people who so obviously feel comfortable in their own skin. He usually envies them, but Jonathan might be too nice to envy.

They follow the group into the large bathroom and Louis hears Karamo ask, “Is this where you all groom?”

He resists the urge to snort. Groom?

They stand around talking for a minute and then Jonathan starts to ramble, “Has there ever been, like, an unrequited gay love story in here? Like a Brokeback Mountain moment where, like, someone just fell in love and they didn’t mean to?”

Louis feels bile rise in his throat as Jonathan’s eyes sparkle, pleading for a yes. He manages to look around and see thoughtful looks on his coworkers’ faces before their heads shake no.

“Not here,” Liam says finally.

“No?” Jonathan asks matter of factly.

Louis doesn’t have the chance to ponder Liam’s wording before they’re all hustled downstairs to the garage. A few of the gay guys run to the trucks like little kids, wanting to know how everything works. Their excitement seems to be contagious, going by the faces of his friends and coworkers.

He lets Niall drag him over to the truck and helps him point out and explain some of the different equipment. He sees Liam being pulled into a setup in the cab, so he subtly moves to stay in Liam’s eyeline just in case he gets nervous. Louis listens with one ear as Liam tells Karamo about the fundraising he’s taken charge of for training in rural areas. He can’t help but shake his head. It’s just so Liam to take an opportunity that’s supposed to be purely selfish and use it to help others.

Liam seems to be on steady ground, talking about a topic he’s passionate about, so Louis walks back over to stand with Niall, who’s talking with Jonathan about his sideburns. As Niall tries to explain why they’re the wrong length – and they are, even Louis can tell – he looks around to make sure he’s a safe distance from Harry. Before he can locate him, Niall elbows him.

“Lou, tell him about my hair when I first moved here,” Niall laughs.

“Oh, right,” Louis says brightly, remembering. “Niall here was a bottle blond. Literally out of a bottle, didn’t even go to the salon in town for it.”

“I bet that was actually gorgeous on you,” Jonathan comments. “But this brunette, honey, this is perfect with your skin tone and look how it brings out those eyes. What do we even call this blue, is this cerulean? And this brunette, this isn’t out of a bottle, right, you let it grow out?”

“Yeah, took awhile,” Niall confirms. “And Hails made me go to the salon then, they dyed it a little darker so it wouldn’t look as bad when it started to grow out. Had my sun-kissed highlights then, right, Lou?”

“You need to show me pictures,” Jonathan says seriously. “And before we leave, I’m going to tell you which kind of shampoo you should be using, you need some moisture, honey, your hair is thirsty, but not you, you’re perfect in every single which way. You know that, right? Good.”

Louis runs a hand through his hair self consciously. He hasn’t been to the salon where his sister works for a trim in too long.

“How about you, boo-boo?” Jonathan asks, turning to Louis and waving a hand toward his face. “This lil bit of scruff you have going on is per -fect, by the way, love how you show off those cheekbones, honey, I could cut myself on them. As for this ’do, you look like you just might want a touch-up, maybe clean up these gorgeous ends, and you’ll be to die for.”

He lifts a hand to touch the ends of Louis’ hair. “Oh, you’re doing so good, girl, your hair’s already soft and sleek and healthy. Let me guess, someone already has you using sulfate-free shampoo? Girlfriend? Wife? Should have known, you’re all shine over there.”

“Nah, our Lou here is single,” Niall says, throwing his arm around Louis’ shoulder. “His sister Lottie works part-time at the salon, so she makes him come in there instead of one of them cheap places at a strip mall.”

“Love that,” Jonathan exclaims. “That’s so cute, family taking care of family, for self care which, of course, we all know isn’t selfish, right?”

He points seriously at each of the small cluster of guys who’ve gathered around him, waiting for a nod before he moves to the next.

“You too, Nicky,” Jonathan calls as Nick approaches, pulling his headset to rest on his neck.

“Me too,” Nick says drily, coming to a stop next to Louis.

“You too, what, grouchy?” Jonathan insists. He shakes his head, turning to Louis, “This one, so grumpy all the time, poor girl needs to relax, don’t you think? Always running around doing the most, and she’s so good, but she just needs to take a break sometimes, am I right?”

“I did a face mask with you last night at the hotel!” Nick says, throwing his hands up. “They were mine, I brought them from home!”

“Then why are you so grouchy, grouchy?” Jonathan asks, ruffling Nick’s hair. Louis cackles at its disarray, no longer styled straight up but in peaks sticking in every direction.

“Listen,” Nick sighs, “we’re getting Liam on tape doing his consults with Tan and then Bobby, so now’s a good time for you guys to go grab a bite. Craft services set up out back.”

“What did I say, grouchy, right?” Jonathan whispers to Louis as the group heads to get food.

“She needs to relax,” Louis agrees, grinning at the overjoyed expression that takes over Jonathan’s face. He thinks there might be a tear or two in his eyes even.

Craft services turns out to be the catering company that Lottie’s boyfriend Tommy works for, and he waves to Louis before turning back to the garlic bread he’s cutting. Louis grabs a plate and starts to scoop pasta onto it until Jonathan takes the spoon out of his hand and replaces it with tongs for the salad.

“Just a lil bit of greens,” Jonathan rushes to say, “then we’ll both have one of those absolutely gorg brownies, how does that sound, boo-boo?”

And it actually sounds a lot like something his mom would say. It doesn’t make Louis sad, though, like this kind of unexpected reminder can; it feels nice to remember. Nice to feel taken care of.

They settle at a picnic table with the male romper guy, Niall and Shawn. Male romper guy is looking at his phone, plate half full in front of him, when he startles and gasps at the screen.

“Jonny, look,” he coos, holding it out to Jonathan. “Look at this corgi Joey met today!”

“Oh my god, he’s so precious!” Jonathan exclaims, taking the phone and angling it so Louis can see. “Look at this lil pupper, what a gentlemen! Can you believe?”

Louis has always preferred bigger dogs but, he has to admit, this corgi is pretty cute. He looks up smiling. “Cute, uh, cute pupper. Um, I’m Louis, I don’t think we met before.”

“This is Antoni,” Niall says, mouth full of pasta. “He’s the food guy.”

“Hi,” Antoni says a little distractedly, taking his phone back from Jonathan and running a finger over the screen before looking up at Louis. “Sorry, I just really love corgis, I want to adopt one but we can’t really have one in our place right now.”

“We?” Shawn asks tentatively, looking down at this plate and twirling a few noodles.

“Oh my god,” Jonathan says, dropping his fork dramatically. “You have got to see pictures of Antoni’s boyfriend, he’s a literal dreamboat.”

Antoni’s cheeks turn pink but he passes his phone around again and Louis looks curiously. Aside from the romper, this guy doesn’t seem very… gay? He’s kind of quiet, not as much energy as Jonathan. But that’s him with his arm around another guy in the photo. They’re not kissing or anything, but they look happy. Like they’re… together. Louis shifts his attention back to his lunch, not sure what to think.

“What about you, Jonathan?” Shawn asks a little more confidently this time. “Do you have a… partner? Or a dog?”

“Oh, no, honey,” Jonathan answers immediately. “No, no, you’ve got yourself a single lady right here, but I have two cats at home and they are my babies. I miss them the most, you don’t even know.”

Louis looks around as the conversation at the table flows, seeing Liam grab a hasty bite where the food is being served and Nick bark orders at a few assistants. It’s not long before he and the guys finish up eating and clear their table before heading back inside the garage for whatever’s next.

Everyone mills around in the garage for awhile as the camera guys get some “establishing shots” out front. Louis hangs back as much as he can get away with, but Niall keeps dragging him into conversations. They’re talking about kitchen cabinet storage, of all things, with the design guy, Bobby, when they get interrupted.

“Guys, come on!” Stan yells from across the room. “We’re having a contest!”

Louis musses Liam’s hair when he reaches him, happy that he seems so comfortable in this unusual situation. He listens as Liam explains they’re going to have a race to see which of the Fab Five – so that’s how Louis is supposed to refer to them, okay – can get dressed in their firefighter gear fastest but with the fewest mistakes. It’s mayhem as soon as Liam starts his stopwatch and Louis is practically doubled over laughing as the Fab Five (four actually, as Jonathan declined to play) scramble in a mad rush to get suited up.

He’s leaning against the side of the truck, watching Liam check over each guy in his gear to determine the winner, when Harry sidles up next to him.

“I would have crushed that game,” he says casually. “They wouldn’t let me play though.”

“Harry,” Louis says, turning to him. “You work here, of course you would have crushed it. You already know how to suit up in two minutes.”

“I would have won for sure,” Harry pouts. “I like winning.”

Louis bites back a smile. Harry is ridiculous. It shouldn’t be this cute.

“Remind me not to invite you to game night,” Louis laughs, shaking his head. “You’re way too competitive.”

“Do you have a game night?” Harry asks eagerly. “Can I come? I’ll bake something, then you have to let me come. Come on, Lou.”

Louis grins. “I don’t, actually, but if I ever do organize a game night, you can’t come. I like winning, too.”

Harry squawks and Louis breaks into another laugh. “Okay, calm down, Curly. You can come to my hypothetical game night. If you hypothetically bake something.”

“I used to be a baker, you know,” Harry remarks. “Really.”

Louis did know.

“And I will bake something.” Harry leans in a little as he continues slowly, “Cookies. Or brownies. A cake. Maybe muffins. And as for winning?”

Louis looks at him expectantly.

“We can just be on the same team,” Harry finishes. “Dream team.”

He smiles and strolls away, leaving Louis flustered and wondering what happened to getting back in control. In sudden need of some air, Louis heads outside.

He finds Jonathan taking selfies with a few different guys, making Karamo get out of the background when he poses with Shawn, saying, “I want one with just the fireman.”

“You’re so shady,” Karamo shakes his head, walking away.

“I love you, so fun,” Jonathan simpers at Shawn, who smiles widely back at him.  

Louis spots a small table with some snacks and water bottles and makes a beeline for it. He takes a long gulp of water and then wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, surveying the scene before him. A group is forming around Liam, who’s demonstrating how to use a hose and a pit forms in Louis’ stomach. He can guess where this is about to go.

“Hey,” Karamo shouts. “Any of you willing to be in a wet t-shirt contest?”

Jonathan pulls Shawn over, waving to some of the other guys, saying, “Come on, come do cute things on camera.”

Nick appears next to him suddenly, startling Louis as he grabs a bottle of water. “Almost done for the day, Louis. You can relax soon.”

“I’m fine,” Louis snaps, determinedly not looking at Nick. The guys by the hose cheer, drawing his attention back.

Harry is walking in front of the group, smiling. He looks a little nervous but like he’s trying to appear confident.

Karamo takes the hose and starts to spray him, yelling, “Take off the shirt, Superman!”

“You sure about that, Louis?” Nick asks, walking away without waiting for answer.

Why do people keep doing that?

Louis runs both hands through his hair. No, as he watches Harry shake out his wet hair and discard his button-down shirt, walking around in a drenched white tank top, he is very much not sure about that.

Avoiding the wet t-shirt contest gets easier when Fiona and Steve pull him aside to answer a few questions about Liam on camera. He ends up telling them about some of the more interesting trends that Liam’s wife has pushed him into.

“Yeah, she means well,” Louis stresses, wishing he hadn’t promised his sisters he’d give up smoking, he could really use a cigarette after this day. “And Cheryl always looks really nice herself, but she’ll buy something really trendy for Liam, like that purse, and she’ll say, ‘no, babe, it’s a messenger bag!’ And like, it’s literally a purse, right?”

Steve tries to keep a straight face and hold the camera steady but Louis can tell he’s dying to laugh. Fiona looks somehow both amused and bored.

“And I love the guy,” Louis continues, “but Liam’s never really had, like, much sense of style? He went from his mom and sisters buying clothes for him to his wife buying clothes for him. And guys around here aren’t really into fashion, but most of us know what we like, you know?”

Louis shakes his head, remembering the light blue suit that Liam had worn to their prom.

“And he’s always so busy worrying about other people, it’s just not something on his radar. He just doesn’t think about himself first that way, so he never really developed, like, his own taste or whatever. Cheryl could lay out his clothes every day and he wouldn’t even care as long as that made her happy. Come to think of it, maybe she does?”

Steve breaks into a laugh at that and Fiona’s mouth twists a little as she calls it a wrap.

“And you, Louis,” she says, scanning her notes, “are all done for the day. You should have tomorrow’s schedule in your email, but just call the main desk if you have questions.”

Louis nods gratefully and sets off to turn in his mic pack to Jade before Fiona can change her mind. He’ll have time to change and check on Liam before he needs to leave for family dinner. Navigating the clusters of people, he keeps his head down, not in the mood to be caught in a conversation.

Once he gets to the locker room, he changes out of his uniform quickly, pulling on black skinny jeans and a green t-shirt. No, turquoise, he can hear Lottie correcting him in his head. And what did she say about the color fading? Ombré, that’s it. Pausing at the mirror to finger comb his hair – this actually is where he grooms after all – Louis wonders what the Fab Five think of his style. He hadn’t talked at all with the fashion one, but all five of them were really put together. Their outfits were all colorful and… intentional? That’s the word; there was clearly more to it than pairing a t-shirt or button-down with the right wash of jeans.

Louis thinks he has more style than Liam, he knows what he likes. He lets the girls push him a little sometimes, like that jacket with the polka dot lining he got last year, but no one picks his outfits for him. But he’ll never be the guy who draws attention just based on what he’s wearing, even if his ass does look amazing in these jeans.

Which it does.

Louis turns to head out just as Niall, Shawn and Harry spill through the doorway, still damp from the Fab Five’s exploits with the firehose. Harry stops when he sees Louis and smiles; somehow looking both innocent and sinful in his see-through wet tank top. He pulls at his bottom lip with two fingers and Louis can’t help but wonder how it would feel to replace those fingers with his teeth.

“You heading out, Lou?” Harry asks. Both Niall and Shawn at their lockers turn their heads to hear Louis’ answer.

“Yeah, yeah,” Louis confirms. “Just want to say bye to Liam, then I’ve got dinner with my family.”

“Oh,” Harry says, twisting the wet button-down he’s holding. And it might be wishful thinking, but Louis could swear that he sounds disappointed. “Okay, then. Have a good night.”

“Get some beauty sleep, Lou!” Niall says. “Got to look our best tomorrow.”

He turns to Shawn and pats his own face, saying, “I can’t wait to tell Hailee that Jonathan said I’m a ‘soft summer.’ She’s been telling me I’m an autumn this whole time.”

“Okay, but you do look like an autumn when you’re more tan,” Shawn argues as he pulls off his boots.

“I have cool undertones to my skin, Shawn,” Niall bristles. “You heard the man.”

Laughing as Shawn and Niall continue their bickering, Louis looks up to see Harry still smiling at him by the doorway. Louis is going to have to walk right by him.

He straightens his shoulders and walks to the doorway, not at all distracted by Harry’s wild, drying curls.

“Night, Lou,” Harry says, so quietly that only Louis can hear.

“Night, Curly,” he replies, ducking out of the door. He winces once he’s alone in the hallway. He can’t believe he slipped and gave Harry a nickname. That he’s used more than once today! He’s weak. Louis is a weak man.

He beats himself up for dismantling his own carefully constructed walls the whole way to Liam’s office, where he finds the man of the hour sitting at his desk doing paperwork.

“No, no, no, no,” he says, marching into the office.

“Oh, hey, Lou,” Liam greets him. He sits back and sets his pen down. “That was some day, huh?”

“Yeah, it was some day,” Louis replies, taking the stack of paper in front of Liam and holding it out of his reach. “So that means no paperwork tonight, go home to your wife and child. Take a break. Get some rest before we all have to do it all over again tomorrow.”

“Sure, Lou, yeah,” Liam nods. “Absolutely. I’ll pack up and go home, I promise.”

They both know he’s lying, but Louis figures maybe Liam will cut his late night a little short now that he’s checked in.

“You doing okay?” he asks quietly. “Kind of overwhelming, yeah?”

“Yeah, Lou, I’m fine,” Liam reassures him. “You worry too much. It was a lot, but I’m good. Everyone was so great, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Louis agrees. “I didn’t expect to but I liked the one guy, Jonathan, a lot.”

“It was a good group, too, wasn’t it? Good mix of guys today. I got to talk to Harry a little, he seems to be settling in.”

“Oh, yeah?” Louis says faux casually. He passes the papers he’d snatched back over to Liam, not making eye contact.

“Yeah,” Liam says. “I like him a lot, he’s a good guy. You should talk to him tomorrow.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Louis says vaguely. “Listen, don’t stay too long, okay? I’ve got to head out, dinner at Dan’s tonight.”

“Tell everyone I said hi!” Liam says. “Give my love to the girls. And Ernie.”

“Will do. See you tomorrow, man.”

It takes Louis a few extra minutes to make his escape as there are still a lot of people milling around. He waves and claps a few backs, finally making it to his truck. There’s too much noise in his head, and he knows family dinner isn’t exactly going to be a quiet affair, so he leaves the radio off for the short drive to his stepfather’s house.

The house looks good, although the yard is strewn with bikes and the flowers along the walkway have wilted. His second oldest sister, Fizzy, is sitting on the porch swing reading and doesn’t bother to look up as he approaches.

Louis ruffles her hair and lets himself inside. The TV is blaring in the living room, competing with music playing upstairs. He walks through the dining room to the kitchen and finds Dan walking in through the sliding door with a plate of hamburgers fresh off the grill.

“Louis!” Dan greets him warmly, setting the plate down and opening his arms for a hug.

Louis gives him a quick hug, stepping back to survey the dinner prep.

“You want me to set the table?” he asks, stealing a french fry from the pan on the stove.

“No, the twins are supposed to be doing it,” Dan replies as he busies himself at the island counter. “They’re upstairs, can you remind them? And if they say their nails are wet, too bad.”

Louis nods, laughing. He remembers Lottie and Fizzy pulling that trick. Walking through the living room this time, he runs into the younger set of twins. They shriek at the sight of him and he stops for hugs and kisses. Doris refuses to part with him, so they hold hands and climb the stairs to find the older girls.

“Dais, Phoebs,” he calls down the hallway. “Come on, it’s your turn to set the table.”

“Come on,” Doris repeats seriously. “It’s your turn.”

No twins appear, so he knocks on their door before cracking it open. “Everyone decent?”

Doris, being a mighty three years old, cares less about boundaries and pulls Louis through the door. Both twins are on the floor, painting their toenails. Amateurs. They’ll never get out of chores that way.

“Hi, Lou,” Daisy says without looking up. “We’re not done yet.”

“Yeah, can you just start the setting the table?” Phoebe asks. “Then we’ll help when we get downstairs.”

“Uh, no,” Louis replies, picking up Daisy’s phone and stopping her playlist. “Come on, girls, it’s your turn.”

“It’s your turn!” Doris chimes in, looking up to Louis for approval. He nods down at her, trying to not laugh because this is serious business to her, but it’s a close call.

He manages to hustle them downstairs and play wrestles with Ernie while the girls set the table. Fizzy wanders in and sits down at the table with her book while Dan brings in dishes of food. Lottie bangs in through the back door, yelling greetings.

It’s home.

They all sit down and start passing plates, everyone talking at once. There’s a lull after a few minutes, the younger kids quiet now that they’re eating, and Louis elbows Lottie.

“You didn’t tell me Tommy was going to be at the station today,” he says.

“I completely forgot,” she says, reaching over him for the ketchup instead of asking him to pass it like an adult. “We’ve been swamped at the salon. They just got word last week they got the job.”

“How’d it go today, Louis?” Fizzy pipes up. “What was it like?”

The table falls completely silent and Louis feels the weight of everyone’s eyes on him, expectant. He struggles to gather his thoughts.

“It was kind of overwhelming,” he admits, shrugging. “There were a lot of people there, more than I thought there’d be, and it’s just kind of weird to have cameras on you?”

“Trish from down the street was complaining about it,” Phoebe says. “She said it was gross, those people coming here. Like we’re all going to look bad or something? She said they were…”

She breaks off, looking down the table at Doris and Ernie listening attentively.

“Well, she used a mean word,” Phoebe finishes, squirming in her seat.

“That’s so stupid,” Lottie snaps. “Don’t listen to her.”

“I don’t see why anyone would have a problem with the show coming here,” Dan says mildly. “From what I hear, it’s going to be a good thing.”

He passes a dish to Lottie and then reminds her, “Stupid isn’t a nice word either.”

“But broccoli is stupid,” Ernie says, pushing it around on his plate with his fork. “I hate it.”

Everyone laughs, the tension broken.

“What about ignorant?” Fizzy asks. “Can we use that word? Because that’s what Trish from down the street is.”

“Louis, you were there,” Dan says, turning Ernie’s plate so that the broccoli is in front of him, “What do you think?”

“I think it’s a good thing, like you said,” Louis says quietly. “They’re here to help Liam, and he deserves it. And they’re all really nice. I wouldn’t call them any mean names.”

“There you go,” Dan says with a wave of his hand. “No need to report back to that girl, Phoebe, but let’s take your brother’s word over hers, okay?”

Phoebe nods, chagrined. Louis crosses his eyes at her to make her laugh.

“But what were they wearing, Lou?” Lottie demands. “They have a fashion expert, right?”

The dam breaks and everyone starts peppering him with questions. He tries his best to keep up and make funny stories out of the different setups and describe the people as best he can. He musses up Dan’s hair when retelling how Jonathan had teased Nick, and Lottie makes them pose for her Snapchat story.

It’s a nice dinner. It feels good to laugh with his family, especially after such a long, weird day.

Louis is exhausted when he gets home, falling right into bed. His pillow is soft and his sheets are nice and cool, but as soon as he turns the light off, he’s wide awake and staring at the ceiling. He replays every interaction with Harry that day over and over, trying to figure out if he’s reading into things.

He has no idea what to do if he’s not.

Chapter Text

Day Two

Louis breaks into a light jog through the parking lot even though it won’t save him from being late. It had completely slipped his mind until the last minute that he was supposed to wear casual clothes “appropriate for movement” today, whatever the fuck that means. After tearing through his closet and trying on just about everything he owns, he’d left his bedroom in a state of more disarray than usual. He groans thinking of the folding he should do later.

When he finally reaches the garage door, he pauses for a moment to collect himself, smoothing a hand over the dark blue Adidas jacket he’d paired with a plain white t-shirt and black jeans. It’s too late now to worry about whether he’s trying too hard with the jacket.

Once through the door, he automatically turns toward the stairs, on his way for a cup of coffee like a normal workday. The thuds of hammering traveling down the staircase from the kitchen remind him that area is probably off limits.

“Lou! Over here!”

Louis turns gratefully in the direction of Niall’s voice. He’s standing with a cluster of people next to a makeshift workstation, complete with a few TV screens, laptops and, of course, clipboards. With his eyes on the TV screens, Louis heads across the garage to join the group. It looks like they’re showing live feeds of the kitchen demo, and Liam and Tan in what looks to be an upscale clothing store surrounded by piles of cardigans.

Louis furrows his brow. He hadn’t realized that Liam wasn’t even going to be here.

A chorus of “Hi, Louis,” greets him and he shakes off his confusion, smiling until his eyes fall on a smug-looking Nick.

“Morning, Louis,” Nick says, smiling slyly as if he’s in on some inside joke that Louis isn’t. Louis wonders if that’s just his perpetual state of being or if Nick was just talking about him.

“Morning,” Louis grimaces. “Sorry I’m running late.”

“You’re fine,” Fiona answers for Nick. “We’re not ready to head out yet, still waiting on one of the vans to get here from Atlanta.”

“Head out?” Louis asks. The schedule email had been annoyingly light on details.

“They’re taking us on some kind of field trip,” Niall says, appearing at Louis’ side and handing him a paper cup with coffee. “Thank me later, cream’s over there.”

Louis mouths “thank you” and walks over to the snack and coffee table. He hadn’t had time for anything to eat before leaving this morning, so he pauses to consider the various pastries set out after fixing his coffee.

“Morning,” Harry says, appearing out of thin air to stand right next to him and causing him to jump about a foot. “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.”

Louis looks over to see that Harry appears to be as embarrassed as he is. Why is everything about Harry so cute? The light blush on his cheeks, the nervous hand ruffling his own hair, his… Hanson t-shirt?

“Nnrgh,” Louis says before clearing his throat and trying again. “No problem! No problem. Just, uh, trying to figure out what I have time to eat before our mystery activity.”

“Oh, you should try the blueberry muffin,” Harry says excitedly. “I had one, it was really good.”

“More of a chocolate chip man, myself, Curly,” Louis replies, trying not to wince when he realizes he used the nickname. Again.

Harry pouts as Louis reaches for a muffin. And oh, if Louis wasn’t in trouble before, he definitely is now. He can’t stop himself from grinning before taking an exaggeratedly large bite to Harry’s evident dismay.

“So good,” Louis says, grinning once he’s managed to chew and swallow.

“I’ll bake you blueberry muffins,” Harry says, looking adorably disgruntled. “My recipe. I use honey to sweeten the batter instead of refined sugar, and I mix in rolled oats. You’ll like them.”

Louis ponders what he can even say to that when he’s saved by the bell. Or rather, Nick clapping his hands together to get their attention.

“Okay, guys,” Nick calls to the group at large. “Let’s get ready to go.”

There’s a flurry of activity as the group prepares to leave; Shawn helps Jade carry her bags outside as Nick and Fiona stand together, arguing some point over their headsets. Harry smiles and kind of shrugs at him before picking up a small leather duffel and following Niall out front. Louis hurries to cover his coffee with a lid, wondering if he was supposed to bring a bag too. But with what? Again, that email did not include enough details.

Once outside, Louis sees Steve loading his equipment into a white van as another one pulls up. Louis wonders where they could even be going as he halts behind the guys in front of it.

Suddenly the door is thrown open by someone inside the van.

“Good morning, lovelies,” Jonathan exclaims, holding his arms out wide and wiggling his fingers. “What a beautiful day for some dancing!”

Louis raises his eyebrows. Dancing?

The three of them head in Jonathan’s direction and suddenly he gasps dramatically.

“Hanson?” he squeals, pointing at Harry. “Oh my god, you love Hanson, you’re perfect, how did you get even more perfect overnight?”

Louis looks over to see Harry grinning. He almost trips over his own feet watching Harry preen.

“Like MMMBop? That Hanson?” Niall asks as he climbs into the back seat of the van, behind Jonathan.

“Oh my god, honey, no, do not tell me you’re one of those,” Jonathan says, making a sour face. “You’re too good, don’t tell me you don’t appreciate Hanson.”

“No one appreciates Hanson,” Harry grumbles as he settles in next to Jonathan, buckling his seatbelt. “It’s like people don’t want to be happy.”

Louis climbs in and gets in the back with Niall, setting his coffee on the floor as he buckles and then picking it back up and sitting back. He takes a bite of the muffin he’d brought with him, wanting to ask more about the dancing but knowing the Hanson topic isn’t over and done with.

Fiona gets in the front-passenger seat and shouts back a quick, “Everyone ready?” before turning to talk to Ed, the redheaded cameraman, who’s in the driver’s seat. She starts fiddling with her phone, probably pulling up directions, as Ed starts the van up. Jonathan turns in his seat to face Harry as they pull out of the parking lot.

“Okay, I know, right? How did you get into them, sister? Girlfriend?”

“Actually, I got my older sister into them,” Harry says proudly. “But she got me this t-shirt.”

“But, like, they just had the one song, right?” Niall asks. Louis doesn’t think he’s trying to be a dick, it seems to him like Niall sincerely wants to know, but he can practically see Jonathan and Harry’s hackles rise.

“They never stopped making music, Niall,” Harry says witheringly. “They just decided to do it on their own terms. They’re constantly innovating and looking for new ways to entertain and connect with their fans.”

“I cried like a baby during Strong Enough to Break, didn’t you, honey?” Jonathan asks Harry, resting his arm on the seatback and leaning his face against his hand.

“Yes!” Harry exclaims, his face lighting up. He shrugs, continuing, “I mean, I cry during most movies, but that one definitely got me.”

Louis shakes his head when Niall turns to him, silently asking what the hell they’re talking about. He concentrates on his coffee and muffin as the scenery outside flashes by, listening with one ear as the pair of them school Niall in all things Hanson. Louis hadn’t known anything about the albums they’d self released or their charity work or touring. All he’d really known was the middle one was the cute one, but he doesn’t feel like sharing that particular detail.

As luck would have it, they arrive at their destination just as Louis finishes his coffee. He looks up to see that it’s–

“A dance studio?” Niall asks eagerly, no doubt relieved for a respite in his Hanson education.

“Get on your feet, boys,” Jonathan says, snapping his fingers. “Come on, let’s get up and make it happen.”

They climb out the van one by one, Louis just now noticing Jonathan’s all-black ensemble as they mill in the parking lot. He looks a bit like how Louis imagines ballerinas in his clingy cardigan and leggings. Or are they tights?

Louis rubs the back of his neck and tries not to stare, not wanting to be rude. He likes Jonathan, and wouldn’t want to offend him. But it’s just that he finds Jonathan kind of fascinating. He’s this tall, well built guy, in great shape, and even with his long hair he still looks pretty masculine. And yet he looks perfectly at ease in this sort of… feminine outfit. But there must be male ballet dancers, right? There have to be. They probably wear the same stuff, that outfit is definitely “appropriate for movement.”

“Lou!” Niall laughs. “Come on, man, you’re lagging.”

Louis snaps back to attention and hurries to catch up to Niall, who’s following the group now heading toward the dance studio.

“Should have brought you two coffees,” Niall jokes, throwing an arm around Louis’ shoulder. “You’re all quiet and slow this morning.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Louis laughs weakly. “Not my best in the morning, you know me.”

And it pains Louis a little to say because Niall doesn’t really know him. Or at least, not as well as he could. He’s thought about confiding in Niall a few times; he might take it well, all things considered. Niall’s not from Covington, he moved from New York City where he’s bound to have known all sorts of people, and Louis can’t picture kindhearted Niall hating anyone. Louis knows for a fact he votes as a Democrat, he even had an I’m With Her sticker on his car last year. And it’s not like they’ve been friends their whole lives, so if Niall didn’t take it well then maybe it wouldn’t feel like as much of a loss? But Louis always ends up talking himself out of it, because once it’s out there, there’s no getting it back.

He’d never be able to un-say, “Niall, I’m gay.”

“Come on, slowpoke,” Niall laughs, dropping his arm and lifting both hands to Louis’ shoulders, gently pushing him through the door that Shawn is holding open. “Time to see how you can move in those skinny jeans.”

They walk through a small reception area into a large open room, bright and airy. Steve, Ed and a couple of other guys are setting up equipment while Nick and Fiona confer with a man and woman in the center of the room. Jonathan twirls by, energy never flagging.

Louis wishes he could be that excited for a day of dance lessons, but he’s not much for the kind of dancing that he’s pretty sure they’ll be doing. There had been a few weeks of dance in high school gym every year: square dancing, the foxtrot, maybe even tango? All the other guys always made a big deal of how lame it was, but then secretly called dibs on the girls they thought were hot before pairing up.

The idea of holding a girl close, with one hand on her waist and the other in hers, didn’t do much for Louis even then, so he’d usually asked his friend Perrie to be his partner. Perrie was objectively gorgeous and that would earn him a few claps on the back, no one the wiser. The truth was that she was hilarious and always made not being able to dance with a boy a little more bearable.

“Cheer up, honey bun!” Jonathan calls out, making eye contact with Louis in the wall-to-wall mirror, where he’s vamping a little. “This is going to be so fun! We’re gonna serve up some Dancing With the Stars realness!”

“Yeah, come on, honey bun,” Niall says, elbowing him. “This’ll be hilarious, we’re all going to suck. Especially Liam.”

That draws a laugh from Louis as he looks around some more. Nick has a hand to his headset, listening intently to whoever’s on the other end. He says a few words and then presses a button on his hip pack.

“Alright, listen up,” Nick says loudly. “The other team is almost here, so firemen, Jonathan, head to the back room now. Jade, time for mics, if you please.”

Louis follows everyone to a small room in the back, nodding and smiling at the man and woman who he assumes are their instructors as he passes by. Their reassuring smiles don’t do much to soothe the nerves that are setting in. He’s been slipping a lot the past couple of days; if he doesn’t rein himself in, Nick won’t be the only one who picks up on the fact that he’s different.

And not just his friends and family. Anyone with a Netflix password is going to know his secret if he isn’t more careful.

“Right, so once you’re all done here, head out front,” Fiona instructs Jade, who’s unzipping one of her heavy bags. “And then, guys, just hang out here. We’ll send Tan back once they get here, and call for you when we have Karamo and Liam meet the dance instructors.”

She consults her trusty clipboard, flipping through the pages. Louis kind of likes her no-nonsense attitude, if he’s honest. His mom had instilled him a healthy respect for take-charge women.

“And then remember, guys,” Fiona says, looking up. “High energy when you come out. You’re all having fun, big smiles, et cetera, et cetera.”

“Yes, ma’am, honey,” Jonathan trills from his seat in the corner. “You know you don’t need to ask me for high energy. I’ll whip these boys into shape, don’t you worry about a thing.”

Fiona still looks a bit unimpressed as she walks out, but Louis thinks she’s satisfied. He waits for his turn with Jade, watching as she works.

Harry unzips his duffel and pulls out a short-sleeve, light yellow shirt. He moves to shake it out, stopping suddenly when Jonathan gasps.

“What is this?” Jonathan asks, hand to chest. “What are you doing, gorgeous?”

“Oh, when I replied to the schedule email, Nick said they might not be able to get clearance for a band shirt–”

Shawn snorts at that and Niall shoves at his shoulder, shooting him daggers with his eyes.

“–a band shirt,” Harry continues haughtily. “So I’m just gonna throw this over it.”

Jonathan pouts but nods and then offers to roll Harry’s sleeves. Louis knows he’s better off where he is, but he can’t help wishing he was in the corner with them, talking about boy bands and Harry’s taste in button-downs.

Louis listens to the different smattering of conversations as Jade gets through them one by one. Tan arrives and Louis surreptitiously studies his outfit as Jade checks over the mic and wire he already has on. He likes the short-sleeve gray button-down that Tan has done up to the collar, that’s how Louis prefers to wear them too, but it’s definitely tighter than he usually goes for. There aren’t enough chairs for everyone and Niall waves Tan over to share his, gesturing to his own gray slacks and tucked-in white t-shirt with a hopeful face.

As Louis observes Tan laugh and nod, complimenting Niall, he wonders again what kind of advice he would get from the Fab Five. He’s never spent this much time with gay people and he has no idea what they think of him. He’s only interested in one thing when he goes to clubs in Atlanta, and so are the guys he meets at them; they’re all there just to scratch an itch. He’s pretty sure from Nick’s appraising looks at both him and Harry that Nick likes guys, and he always just smirks at Louis. Is that a good thing? It feels like a bad thing. And Jonathan is so nice, he wouldn’t be rude about it, but maybe he thinks Louis is a mess.

The whole premise of this show is a joke anyway; it’s not like every gay guy knows how to dress and groom and cook and decorate and self-actualize or whatever Karamo’s specialty is.

Louis can hear people talking in the big studio. The chatter in their small room dies out as they wait to be called in. He stands and shifts closer to the door.

Time to put on his happy face.

“Fellas!” Karamo calls out. “Come on out!”

Louis walks out after Jonathan, who’s twirling again, and smiles at the way Liam’s face lights up. It’s a good reminder of why this is all worth it as Ed and Steve document their every move.

“I brought my brothers and yours!” Karamo says as they walk into the studio. He’s wearing a jacket kind of similar to Louis’ but in a camouflage print. Looks like maybe Louis did okay on his own, then.

Niall jumps onto Liam’s back in greeting as everyone hugs and slaps backs like they’ve been separated for longer than a day. After a minute or two, they cluster around Liam to pay attention as Karamo leads the scene.

“I’d like to introduce our instructors for the day,” Karamo says, gesturing to the man and woman to his right. “This gorgeous woman right here is Bebe, and this tall drink of water next to her is Bressie.”

As Bebe and Bressie smile and wave hello to their little group, Louis cracks a grin at the funny picture they make standing next to each other. Bebe truly is gorgeous, with her platinum blonde hair and the kind of retro style makeup Lottie likes to practice on Fizzy. Even in heels, she’s petite and Bressie towers over her – tall drink of water, that’s for damn sure, he has to be well over six feet tall. A little more hulking than Louis prefers, but he appreciates how Bressie hangs a step behind Bebe; from their body language, he can tell Bebe is the leader.

“You all ever waltz?” Karamo asks, grabbing Louis’ attention back. “Ballroom dance?”

There’s a buzz of excitement and Louis plasters a fake grin to his face. He can do this, this is fine. All fine.

“So what I’m thinking,” Karamo continues, “we teach you some steps today, then you can auction off dances with firemen at your fundraiser at the end of the week.”

Jesus, this never fucking ends.

“I’d bid on any of you in a heartbeat, you’re all gorgeous and perfect and mwah mwah mwah,” Jonathan interjects, kissing the tips of his fingers with a flourish. “You’re gonna make so much money for your training, yes, queens, let’s do this!”

Karamo snaps his fingers at that, taking a step back to join the group.

“We’re gonna be showing you the waltz today,” Bebe announces, her voice sultry but not for anyone’s benefit. “Let’s form a couple of lines, okay?”

“So excited,” Jonathan whispers as the guys arrange themselves into two lines.

To his almost certain dismay, Liam is front and center behind Bebe. Karamo stands to his left, so Louis sneaks in on his right and nudges him.

“Just like high school, huh?” he says quietly. “But no Sophia Smith to make you so nervous that you can’t even talk.”

“Hey, now!” Liam mock scolds, pointing at him. “She Who Must Not Be Named, remember?”

“Okay, boys,” Bebe calls over her shoulder as she turns to face the wall-to-ceiling mirror. “Watch me and try to follow along.”

She starts to move in what even Louis can recognize as a pretty simple box step and the guys shuffle along, trying to keep up as she repeats, “Forward, side, together, back.” They each knock into someone at least once and everyone breaks into giggles when Bebe matter-of-factly corrects Harry, “Not your other left foot, this left foot.” Bressie moves from the front where he was doing the steps beside Bebe to walk around and help, gently reminding them to watch Bebe and not their own feet.

“Good, you guys, really good,” Bebe says, quite charitably in Louis’ opinion. “Okay, Bress, why don’t we demonstrate before everyone pairs up?”

Louis’ ears perk up at that. It’s been pretty obvious that’s where this was headed, why hadn’t it occurred to him before she announced it? He could have been thinking of a game plan.

Fuck Louis’ life, honestly. No, fuck that scheduling email.

Struggling to pay attention as Bebe and Bressie effortlessly glide around the room in what Louis is sure is a perfect waltz, he considers his options.

Not Harry. Anyone but Harry.

“It might look intimidating,” Bebe says once she and Bressie have stopped spinning. “But we’ll start off slow, and you’ll get the hang of it.”

“Why don’t you guys pair up?” Bressie says. “And we’ll keep dancing along with you as Bebe counts you off, then walk around and correct your movements.”

“Oh, I like that!” Liam exclaims as Tan picks up one of Liam’s hands and drapes it around his shoulder, claiming him as partner. “Let’s call it movement instead of dancing so it’s not as scary.”

“Whatever works!” Bebe laughs. “You got this! Come on, guys, find a partner.”

Niall and Shawn clasp hands and Jonathan makes a beeline for Louis as Karamo points to Harry and shouts, “Superman, you’re all mine!”

Harry blushes, but looks pleased. As Jonathan arranges Louis’ hands how he wants them, he’s simultaneously relieved and seething with jealousy.

Harry doesn’t even look like Superman, what’s he even talking about? This is all stupid, so fucking stupid.

“Clasp hands right there, exactly,” Bebe instructs them. “You should feel secure, stable.”

“I feel like a dainty little girl,” Karamo laughs in Harry’s arms, “and I’m a 6’3” black man.”

The other guys crack up as they get into the proper position while Louis tries desperately to school his face into a happy, or even neutral, expression.

“Honey, I don’t think you need this much tension in your arms,” Jonathan says, his face concerned. “Come on, relax, it’s just a waltz and you and I are going to be fiercedom, I know it, let’s do this.”

Louis shakes his arms out, hoping he looks cool and casual but sure the murder in his heart shows on his face. They assume position again and Jonathan nods encouragingly at him before turning his attention to Bebe and Bressie.

“Alright, guys,” Bebe says patiently, looking feminine but not frail in Bressie’s strong arms. “Take a frame, ready? Here we go, one two three, one two three, one two three…”

There’s a lot of staring at feet instead of watching Bebe and Bressie or looking at partners’ faces. Louis hazards a glance around; no one has crashed into each other but it might be a close thing.

Liam and Tan look serious, concentrating on each movement. Always a perfectionist, that Liam, maybe that’s why Tan claimed him as partner. Niall and Shawn make a good team, they’re laughing and Niall in particular doesn’t look like he’s taking it too seriously, but they actually move pretty well together. Louis wonders how they decided who was going to lead.

Louis is determinedly not looking when he overhears Karamo says to Harry, “We’re like the blind leading the blind right now.” Focusing on his steps, Louis mouths, “one two three,” and then suddenly bumps right into Jonathan’s knees. He steps back and takes a second to breathe, not listening as Bressie explains to Jonathan what went wrong.

“Cause he’s leading? Oh my god!” Jonathan turns back to him, clasping hands again, which somehow does make Louis feel a bit more secure. “Honey, you’re leading, oh my god, I can’t believe I tried to take over like that, that was terrible.”

“No, no, it’s… confusing,” Louis says, more honestly than he really intended. Jonathan squeezes his shoulder before nodding at Louis to resume leading the steps.

“Good, good,” Bebe says to the group at large. “Okay, now start to rotate your box–”

Everyone giggles at that and Bebe rolls her eyes good-naturedly, continuing, “yeah, yeah, okay, rotate your box, without hitting anyone.”

Louis watches Bebe and Bressie for a moment before trying it. He and Jonathan are a little jerky in their movements, but pretty okay for beginners. Unfortunately, this change in position puts Harry and Karamo right in Louis’ line of sight.

Harry moves hesitantly and it looks like Karamo is picking up on his energy; his usual, practically booming confidence has faded into nerves from what Louis can tell. As Louis starts to move his feet more naturally, not having to consciously think through each step, his mind wanders to how Harry might dance with him.

Harry might need some soothing, a term of endearment here and there, encouragement when he’s doing well. A little teasing to get him out of his head. A hand to ruffle his hair or smooth over his lower back. Louis very secretly thinks that Harry is a pretty tactile person. He holds hugs a touch longer than most people around here, he’s constantly elbowing or nudging his knee against whoever sits next to him, practically purrs when someone musses his hair. It doesn’t seem like anyone else notices, which makes Louis equal parts sad and relieved.

“Honey, you are in your own little world right now, aren’t you?” Jonathan says, trying to catch his eye. “But you’re doing so good, we rotated our box like nobody’s business! I feel amazing, don’t you feel amazing?”

“Yeah, feels good,” Louis replies. “Gotta rotate that box.”

“Mm-hmm, got to,” Jonathan says seriously.

Bebe claps her hands and everyone turns for her instructions.

“Now, what would a waltz be,” Bebe says, “without an underarm turn?”

“No world I want to be in,” Jonathan deadpans as everyone giggles.

“Here, watch us, guys,” Bressie says. “Then let’s try it together.”

Bressie lifts his arm, holding Bebe’s hand with his other hand as she glides under it. The move was entirely too fast for Louis to keep track of, but he shrugs and lifts his arm.

Of the pairs, only Niall and Shawn get it right the first try.

“What?” Niall asks, grinning. “Like it’s hard?”

“I thought you were twirling!” Liam exclaims from across the room.

“No, you were twirling!” Tan cries, pointing at him.

Jonathan makes knowing eye contact with Louis and he’s sure they’re both thinking the same thing: The perfectionists definitely shouldn’t have been allowed to pair up.

Harry and Karamo manage a decent underarm turn and Karamo says, “That was good, you’re actually good!”

“I don’t know about that,” Harry replies, looking over at Louis. Maybe he just needs encouragement when he does well from the right partner.

Jonathan twirls out and across the studio before lifting his hand and prancing back to Louis. He dramatically takes off his clingy cardigan, letting it drop to the floor, and that seems to signal some kind of unofficial end to the waltzing; hands are dropped and everyone starts to mill around, chatting. Nick walks in from wherever he’s been monitoring the action and has a hushed conversation with Karamo before walking back out.

“All right, so I do love that you all have learned ballroom dancing,” Karamo says, “but I also have another idea, let’s change the music.”

Louis furrows his eyebrows; he hadn’t realized it before but there was no music playing. He doesn’t want to look stupid in front of Karamo, so he doesn’t ask. Liam probably knows whatever technical explanation there is for adding music later by now; he can ask him if he feels like it.

Karamo explains that he wants to see their best “sexy Magic Mike moves” and shows them his first to imitate. It starts with him walking forward quickly, then dropping to slide on his knees as he pulls his jacket to drape below his shoulders. Honestly, what has Louis ever done to deserve this? Except for be a good and loyal friend to Liam?

They take turns with varying levels of success. Niall ends up spinning a bit, so he leans into it and ends by posing with a hand on his ass. Shawn is beet red, but manages a decent slide. Louis takes a deep breath, gearing himself up when it’s his turn. He strides forward confidently, dropping to his knees in a somewhat graceful slide and pulling his jacket down around his shoulders the way Karamo did, which earns him snaps and cheers.

“You got this, man!” Karamo says with a big smile. “That was fantastic! Work that jacket.”

He claps Louis on the back, his smile not yet fading and Louis can tell from up close that it’s genuine.

“You’re looking fly as hell,” Karamo adds, glancing up and down. “Remind me, we got to take a selfie later.”

“Yeah, yeah, alright,” Louis agrees, trying to subtly inch away. He’s torn between jealousy and a sneaking suspicion that Karamo might actually be a pretty nice guy. With easily the best skin Louis has ever seen.

“Woo, Superman!” Karamo yells suddenly, and Louis looks up to catch the tail end as Harry kind of flops on the floor. It’s fucking adorable.

Liam is up last, having carefully observed the others. Unfortunately, he chose to wear khaki cargo shorts that morning – maybe Cheryl doesn’t lay out every outfit after all – and his knees skid the minute he drops to them. It’s horrifying to watch, everyone is grimacing, but somehow he manages to recover. He winds up holding his arms out like an Olympic gymnast finishing a routine, posing as everyone doubles over laughing like he knows it’s with him and not at him.

It only gets sillier from there as Karamo insists on seeing their best sexy crawl, and everyone loosens up, trying to outdo each other. Louis finally relaxes and gets out of his own head for a little while. The cheers get more boisterous, with Jonathan yelling “Sexy firemen, yas!” and Karamo trying to goad Harry into taking off his shirt again with a “It’s so hot in here, yeah!” Louis rolls his eyes, but this time Harry politely turns down the suggestion.

Thank god.

Nick waves his arms from behind the cameras in the corner to get Karamo’s attention, and makes a winding motion with his hand. Karamo moves to stand in front of the group, and Louis understands they must have something in mind to wrap up this scene.

“So, did you guys have fun doing the waltz today?” Karamo asks.

“Yes, absolutely,” Liam answers seriously, nodding. “It was fun to do with the guys.”

Everyone nods, looking around at each other and smiling before turning their attention back to Karamo.

“This is a great way for you all to raise a lot of money,” Karamo says confidently. “A great way for you to engage with your community, and who doesn’t want to fall into the arms of a beautiful fireman?”

Jonathan taps Louis’ shoulder and raises his eyebrows meaningfully at him. Confused, Louis mouths “what” at him.

“Come on, pick her up,” Jonathan says as he starts to jump into Louis’ arms. “Let’s get out of here.”

As the guys laugh and call out goodbyes and thanks to Bebe and Bressie, Louis adjusts his arms around Jonathan and walks out out of the studio carrying him. Jonathan seems impressed almost to the point of swooning, but Louis hopes he’s not actually surprised that he can carry him. He’s 5’9” on a good day and, despite Niall’s jokes, he works out regularly, even if he’s still kind of slim.

Nah, not slim. Scrappy.

Their group stops in the lobby, finding the behind-the-scenes staff who Louis’ familiar with and a few he isn’t. He hangs onto Jonathan, who seems perfectly content in his arms, while taking in the woman talking to Nick and Fiona. Unsure if he’s seen her before (there were a lot of people at the fire station yesterday), Louis catalogues her red platform heels, skinny jeans and polka dot crop top. Her blonde hair is similar to the hue that Lottie is sporting these days, not actually blonde, but rose gold as he’s been corrected on more than one occasion.

A hand pats over Louis’ heart and he turns his attention back to Jonathan, who’s smiling kindly at him.

“As much as I am living for this, honey,” he says, “you can set your gal down now, I think Miss Jade over there is collecting mic packs and I do not want to hold her up, honey, it’s time for lunch, and we need to eat.”

Suddenly Louis is ravenous, the chocolate chip muffin from that morning a distant memory. As he gently eases Jonathan down, he wonders what the plan is for lunch and how Jonathan is always a step ahead of him regarding their itinerary. Before he can second guess himself, he does a quick, playful bow for Jonathan, grateful for his dance partner.

Jonathan lifts the back of his hand to his forehead and cries, “Oh my word, honey, what a gentleman!”

Louis’ noticed that the majority of Jonathan’s dramatic pronouncements don’t draw much attention; he knows their episode is one of the last to be filmed so maybe everyone has gotten used to him. This time, though, Nick and his little group look over curiously and Nick smirks at him.

Always with a smirk. And it’s just Louis. What the fuck?

Jade interrupts them to collect her equipment before Louis can roll his eyes or, even worse, flick him off. Jonathan unwinds his own wire, handing it to her as he remarks, “Jadey, wasn’t our boy here so good out there? Did you see him leading little old moi around that dance floor?”

Louis blushes a little when Jade looks over. She’s grinning at him, and Louis barely knows her but he can see the “I told you so” sparkle in her eyes. He nods at her before she can start to give him shit, and Jonathan catches wind of the silent exchange.

“Oh my god, what,” he exclaims. “What is this, what are you two in cahoots about?”

“Nothing,” Jade laughs as she packs away their mics in her bag. “Louis just knows I was right that he would be having fun while we’re here. I should have put money on it.”

“Oh my god, you’re glowing,” Jonathan gushes, reaching out to touch Louis’ arm. “Baby girl, you are having fun, and guess what? So am I, this is the most fun we’ve had so far.”

Louis can’t help the grin that takes over his face. He is having fun, despite the gnawing feeling deep down that things he’s worked very hard to keep the same are changing all at once.

“Okay, guys,” Nick calls out, getting everyone’s attention. “Lunch is on us, and then some of you might get a free afternoon. Aimee here is heading back to get footage of the reno at the fire station and then Karamo, you and Liam are meeting with vendors for the fundraiser, right? I think it should be just the two of you, yeah?”

Karamo nods, slinging an arm around Liam’s shoulders across the room. Louis hopes he’s forgotten the selfie that he mentioned.

“Right, okay,” Nick says, nodding. “Well, let’s head out, I called ahead and they’re holding a table for us.”

Louis frowns. Why didn’t Nick mention where they were going for lunch? If it was craft services again, he wouldn’t have had to call ahead.

Louis follows everyone out of the dance studio, noting they now have three vans and the shiny black pickup that the Fab Five use for filming in the parking lot. It looks like everyone is naturally splitting into the same groups to leave as they arrived in. The last to climb back into their van, Louis expects to sit in the back with Niall again.

But the traitor has taken the seat next to Jonathan in the middle, so now Louis is stuck in the back for an undetermined length of time with Harry.

“Guys, you all set?” Fiona asks from the front. “I’ll never hear the end of it if we’re late and they don’t hold the table.”

“Where are we even going?” Louis finally asks, buckling his seatbelt. His hand almost brushes Harry’s when he rests it on the seat. Louis very carefully pulls his hand back; that was too close, this is all just too close.

“Mystic Grill,” Fiona replies. “Do you know it?”

“Wait, why does that sound familiar? What is that?” Jonathan asks, looking to Fiona and then Louis.

“Seriously? Mystic Grill?” Louis asks, before turning to Jonathan. “It’s in the square downtown, it’s kind of touristy because it’s based off a show that used to film around here. Decent food but it’s totally overpriced for what it is, so locals don’t usually go for lunch.”

“Yeah,” Niall chimes in. “Sometimes I go to the rooftop bar they open up during the summer; it’s pretty cool. But that’s about it.”

“What show?” Harry asks, looking adorably puzzled. Louis remembers he only moved here a few months ago.

“The Vampire Diaries,” Fiona answers flatly, obviously bored. “It’s one of Nick’s favorite shows.”

And that… actually makes sense when Louis thinks about it. Nick is no Jonathan, but Louis senses a flair for drama in there. He wonders what other primetime soaps Nick watches as he looks out the window, avoiding Harry’s eyes. He usually prefers something heavier when it comes to dramas, Breaking Bad maybe, but even Louis had his One Tree Hill phase.

It doesn’t take long to get to downtown Covington and find street parking. Louis points out the historic courthouse next door to the restaurant where the show used to film sometimes to an interested Jonathan and Harry, and a bored Fiona. The industry that’s built up in Atlanta, which he suspects is the reason Queer Eye picked this area to film in, has spread to the outer areas like Covington in the last ten years. It still has the small town feel that Louis grew up with, but he’s started to wonder – especially in the last few weeks – if the small town minds have started to open a little.

The last to arrive at the restaurant, they walk in to see Nick tapping his foot by the hostess’s stand. He looks up and sighs exasperatedly, “Fiona.”

“We got here as fast as we could,” she retorts. “Relax, they’re still going to seat us, right?”

Louis smiles as he observes them continue to bicker like siblings. It’s kind of nice.

“Your table is ready,” the hostess announces. She looks vaguely familiar and Louis thinks she might have overlapped with him at high school. Cheerleader, maybe. He gives up trying to remember her name, he can sneak a peek at her nametag later if he says hi.

Louis ends up at one end of the long table, next to Shawn, who seems entranced by Jade on his other side, and across from an empty chair next to Nick. As a waitress moves efficiently along the table taking drink orders, Nick is looking around the restaurant with barely restrained glee.

“So, The Vampire Diaries?” Louis asks, trying to be polite but also needing to be part of one of the hundred conversations going on around them. “You were a fan?”

“Yeah, loved it,” Nick says distractedly, turning to the menu.

“Our whole group of friends would watch at Nick’s place every week,” Aimee supplies from where she’s sitting on Nick’s other side. “Fucking loved it. They never ran out of story, just kept upping the stakes.”

“No pun intended?” Louis asks, winking at her.

“Oh! We’ve got a live one, Nicholas,” Aimee laughs. “Did you watch it? Or was that, like, totally passé being from around here?”

“I watched here and there with my sisters but I was never big into it,” Louis admits, taking a sip of water to have something to do with his hands. “I liked, um… what was her name? The blonde one. Caroline!”

Nick’s head swivels sharply in his direction, eyes narrowing. “Caroline is my favorite.”

Louis pauses. What is he supposed to do? Congratulate him?

“Caroline is everyone’s favorite,” Aimee says, elbowing Nick. “Okay, Louis, important question: Which of her love interests did you like best?”

“Um,” Louis considers the question as Nick and Aimee watch him like a hawk. Hawks. Whatever. “I mean, honestly I think she was too good for all of them, but I think that original guy came closest to being, like, an equal with her.”

“Klaus?” Nick scoffs, looking downright disgusted. “Please! That’s insane, anyone in their right mind shipped Caroline and Stefan.”

“Stefan?” Louis says, suddenly getting invested in the debate. “But he was so boring.”

Aimee’s eyebrows shoot up as she looks from Louis to Nick to Louis again, waiting.

“Listen,” Nick says after a moment, gritting his teeth. “We have to work together for a few more days, so I think it would be best if we agree to disagree and never mention this conversation again, okay?”

And now Louis actually feels offended. “Are you trying to me tell me that I watched The Vampire Diaries wrong somehow?”

He looks down at the table, trying to see if anyone is witnessing this injustice, and his eyes land on Harry, whose nose is scrunched as he looks back at Louis. The only word for the look on his face is fond. Louis finds that he can’t look away automatically as he’s trained himself to, and they just stare dumbly at each other for a moment.

“You know, Liam’s wife Cheryl works as a tour guide for Vampire Diaries filming locations,” Niall remarks from his seat across from Harry. “You should try to go on one, Nick.”

Nick’s eyes light up and he clutches his chest. “Are you fucking kidding me? Liam, how did I not know this?”

The excited conversation moves away from Louis then, and he starts to feel a bit lonely at the end of the table. Suddenly a hand lands on his shoulder and he startles, sloshing water over his hand from the glass he’s still holding. He looks up to see Karamo grinning at him.

“Hey man,” he greets Louis, crouching down next to him. “Here, let me get that selfie.”

Louis tries to banish the images of Karamo and Harry waltzing from his mind so he doesn’t look like a serial killer while Karamo opens his camera app and holds his phone out to snap a selfie. The silly, crossed-eyes selfie look he sometimes goes for seems wrong, so he musters a half smile and Karamo seems satisfied.

“I love that jacket on you, man,” he says as he sits across from Louis, next to Nick. “It really suits you, just the right casual tone and you really know your colors.”

“Thanks, um, yeah… thanks,” Louis manages. He gestures awkwardly between them, trying to make an effort. “Yeah, we’re kind of, well not matching, but, um… similar, yeah.”

“Yeah!” Karamo exclaims, reaching forward and holding his fist out for a bump. “I love bomber jackets, I wear them all the time. And even in this Georgia heat, I still get cold, man, so it’s good to have a layer.”

“Yeah,” Louis replies hesitantly, warming up to Karamo in spite of himself. “Yeah, same. I get cold really easily.”

“And he gets real cranky when he’s cold,” Niall calls from down the table. He cheerfully raises his glass when Louis gives him the finger.

The waitress returns to take food orders and everyone busies themselves with their menus. Louis chooses a burger at random, and takes another sip of water as the waitress moves along.

“Man, I have got to tell you,” Karamo says conversationally, and Louis looks around but it seems like he’s the only one Karamo is talking to. He forces himself to make eye contact as Karamo continues, “17-year-old Karamo who just wanted to go to prom with a boy was living for waltzing with Harry today. That was really something.”

Oh. Oh. Okay, Louis can stop trying to hate Karamo now. Because he fucking gets that.

“Yeah?” Louis says, because he has to say something but he can’t say the everything he’s starting to want to.

“Yeah,” Karamo laughs. “Wow, I feel like I just got out of a therapy session or something. Like that healed some part of me, you know?”

He holds up his phone. “I was actually just outside talking to my boyfriend about it.”

“Oh, yeah?” God, Karamo is going to think Louis is dumb. Or homophobic. Or both.

“Yeah, you want to see a picture?” Karamo slides open his phone without waiting for a reply and taps for a few seconds before holding it up again. “This here is my baby daddy.”

“Baby daddy?” Louis squeaks, his eyebrows raised. Jesus Christ, at some point Louis is going to have to manage to string more than two words together, this is ridiculous.

“Well, I call him that,” Karamo says as he taps on his phone again. “But look here, these are my sons, they both live with us, but I’ve only been with my boyfriend for about eight years.”  

Louis squints at the photo of two young men on the screen, confused. “Oh, I thought, um… you don’t look… you look too young to have teenagers.”

“Thank you, thank you,” Karamo says, preening for a moment before laughing at himself. “No, man, I was sixteen when my oldest was born.”

“Is he… so they’re yours?” Louis asks, dying to know but feeling intrusive.

“So I came out in high school, but I had a few girlfriends before then,” Karamo starts earnestly, not looking annoyed at all, “I had my last girlfriend when I was fifteen, and we were obviously having unprotected sex. Well, she moved away and we lost touch. And I didn’t know it at the time, but she was pregnant. And I mean, this is before social media is what it is now, there was no keeping those kind of tabs on each other then.”

Fascinated, Louis nods, no longer minding that it’s just him that Karamo talking is talking to.

“So we lose touch, I had other stuff going on, and honestly I kind of forget about her, you know how it goes. And then ten years later, I get paperwork in the mail for back child support and I’m thinking it’s some some kind of joke, right?” Karamo laughs, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Like, uh, fellas, you got the wrong guy. But then I see her name on the paperwork and I see his name, and I find out I have this nine-, almost ten-year-old son. And I go through the whole range of emotions, right, I’m shocked and confused and nervous but I’m also kind of excited, because, like, this isn’t something I saw for myself in my future, being gay, having my own kid. You know?”

“Yeah,” Louis says weakly. He knows.

“So I call my parents and they buy me a ticket to Houston, I’ve got to appear at the courthouse and do all this paperwork, and there’s a DNA test and everything. I wait around at my parents’ house for three weeks to get the results and they come in and boom. I’m a father.”

“Wow,” Louis breathes, starting to wish there was a chance this could happen to him, too. He’d made it that far with just one of the girls he’d tried dating, but she’d never left town and Louis knows exactly where she lives and works and how many kids she had and when. You don’t need Facebook to keep up with people in a small town like this.

“Yeah, so long, long story short,” Karamo says, leaning back as a runner arrives to set up a tray of dishes to pass out at their end of the table. “I stayed in Houston, and I wound up getting full custody of my son but also his younger brother.”

“Really?” Louis kind of wishes he were hearing the long version, but isn’t sure how to ask.

“Yeah, it was important for them to stay together, you know?” Karamo says easily, like anyone would have done the same thing.

“It is important, yeah,” Louis replies, thinking of his own half-siblings from two of his mom’s marriages. He knows how lucky they are to remain one cohesive family unit after his mom’s passing, knows what a good man she had found in Dan.

As their meals are set in front of him, Louis falls silent. He doesn’t pay attention to the chatter around him as he forces himself to eat. There’s too much swirling around in his head to feel hungry anymore, but he doesn’t want anyone to pick up on it. He doesn’t even notice Nick leave the table until he returns with a t-shirt from the gift shop that says Stop by for a “Bite.”

Once he’s done with his burger and fries (and his excuse to check out of the conversations), Louis looks around and starts listening. Jade is talking about plans for her next birthday party, with Shawn hanging on every word, and Karamo, Nick and Aimee giving suggestions.

“Yeah, I’ll hook you up,” Karamo is saying. “I know a guy who used to do makeup on Drag Race.”

“Oh my god, thank you!” Jade squeals. “God, working on that show is my dream job. I’d leave you guys in a heartbeat if I got an offer.”

Everyone laughs as they start to get up and gather their things. Looking around, Louis realizes that Nick must have taken care of the check while he was in his own head. Louis ends up next to Jade as they walk toward the exit.

“So, your birthday is coming up?” he asks politely.

“Don’t laugh,” she says, grinning, “but it’s the day after Christmas.”

“Jade!” he laughs, his spirits lifting a little. “It’s August! I thought you were talking about a party coming up a little sooner than Christmas.”

“I’m excited, okay?” she says, smacking his shoulder like they’ve known each other much longer than they have. “I had the idea a few weeks ago, and it will take a while to organize. There’s the cake, decorations, music. And I want to make a donation to Stonewall and have them help with gift bags for guests who make a donation. Besides, you don’t understand what it’s like to be a Christmas baby, you barely get to celebrate your birthday, so excuse me for going all out for my 25th.”

“Actually,” Louis starts as they walk outside, “my birthday is Christmas Eve, so I do know what it’s like. I’ve never started planning a party at the end of August, but maybe I should. You’re smarter than me.”

“Louis!” Jade gasps. “You should come to the kiki, you can be a guest of honor and we’ll do a mini cake for you! Christmas birthday kids have to stick together.”

“Kee-kee?” Louis asks, furrowing his brow. “What is that?”

“Oh, it’s slang that grew out of drag culture,” Jade explains patiently. “Like a party but pretty informal? Getting together to have a good time, and usually there’s gossip.”

Karamo catches up to them and laughs good-naturedly. “Yeah,” he adds, “like you’re hanging out, having fun, catching up with friends, and tea may or may not be spilled. Not malicious, just a good time.”

“‘Tea may or may not be spilled,’” Nick quotes, grinning as he walks arm-in-arm with Aimee next to them. “Then consider my whole life a kiki, darling.”

As Jade chatters on about the chances of Louis traveling to New York City for her kiki, Louis thinks about how each answer he gets during this experience only leads to more questions. There’s just so much he doesn’t know. So much he could know. There’s always a part of him that’s undeniably alone, no matter how much he loves his family, his friends, his coworkers. It’s always been too scary to risk that community, but look how he’s ended up. He can’t share everything with the people he loves. He’s cut himself off from a community he could share everything with. At the end of the day, he’s alone. He’s alone and he doesn’t want to be.

He looks up to cross the street and sees Harry smiling brightly at something Niall said. For some reason, Harry looks back at that exact moment and their eyes meet. Harry’s expression flickers from mirth to concern and Louis’ heart clenches. He’s not sure what Harry sees, no idea what his own face looks like, but all Louis sees is possibility.

Possibility scares him. It’s confusing to even consider after so many years of telling himself everything that he can’t have. What if he was wrong? He’s not sure he can live with himself if it turns out that he was just wasting his own time.   

He blindly follows the group back to the van, and stares out the window again during the short ride back to the fire station. Everyone lets him be, although he can feel Harry watching him. If he turns his head just the slightest bit, he’s sure he’ll be met with a “you okay, Lou?” So he doesn’t turn his head.

He’s not sure he is.

Once they’re parked in the fire station lot, everyone climbs out and stretches a little, as if they’ve been cooped up in the van for much longer than the ride from downtown. Louis smiles at how ridiculous they all are as he gives in and stretches his arms above his head.

“Oh my god,” Jonathan says as he twists his waist. “I know we danced our little hearts out this morning, but I am feeling downright heavy after that simply decadent lunch. Does anyone else need a workout?”

Louis nods, thinking a workout might be just what he needs actually. Get him out his head, get some endorphins going.

“How about some yoga?” Harry asks, running his hand through his hair. “I never showed you any poses, Louis.”

“Yoga, oh my god, honey, that sounds like literal heaven on earth,” Jonathan sighs, taking Louis’ elbow as he starts to walk toward the station. “Baby girl, you’ll do yoga with us, right?”

Oh, no, no, no, no. No. This is not what Louis had in mind.

“Sure,” he says, voice strangled. He lets himself be led into the station and toward the locker room. How does he get himself into these situations?

Louis changes quickly into his gray sweat shorts and faded black v-neck. Harry, Shawn and Niall all change at their lockers as Jonathan lounges on a bench listing his all-time favorite figure skaters. It turns out there’s a difference between professional and amateur skaters, and he’s just about to go off about the 1994 Winter Olympics when Antoni walks into the locker room clad in just a small pair of orange shorts with white piping.

“Antoni, oh my god,” Jonathan exclaims. “What are you doing right now, we’re going to do yoga, do yoga with us, please, please, please, please.”

Antoni wipes some sweat from his brow and nods. “That sounds great, actually. I went for a run, which was so stupid in this heat, and I could use a cool down.”

Everywhere Louis looks, all he can see is Antoni’s bare chest. It’s practically glistening with sweat. Finally, he physically turns away to close his locker and sees Harry to his right, glaring at Antoni. He looks like a particularly intense frog, and Louis can barely hold his laugh in. This boy is ridiculous.

“Y’all ready?” Niall calls out, and Louis can see Shawn and Harry wincing along with him. No matter how long Niall stays in Georgia, “y’all” is just never going to sound right coming out of his mouth.

Catching sight of their faces, Niall rolls his eyes. “Alright, you shower of cunts ready? Is that better?”

“Oh my word, honey,” Jonathan says as he gets up, dramatically wrapping his cardigan around him. “I am a lady, and you will speak me to as such. But yes, I am ready. Yoga!”

They troop down to the gym, grabbing bottles of water from one of the small snack tables set up by production on the way. Steve sees them and wanders over to join, chatting with Harry about the benefits of hot yoga.

Louis doesn’t want to know what that is.

Everyone naturally forms a group in the middle of the room with Harry in front. Louis manages to stay in the back with Shawn, but he’s not sure that position is going to help him through this.

“Hi,” Harry drawls, stretching the word into three or four syllables and giving them a little wave. “Right, so I’m not a certified instructor, I moved before I could finish the classes, so let’s take it slow and be very careful, okay? I don’t want anyone to get hurt. We’ll just do basic beginner poses, you won’t even need to modify these.”

“Sweetie, you are doing amazing,” Jonathan rushes to reassure him.

“Thanks,” Harry replies with a blush and a grin. Louis licks his lips, wondering why the fuck Harry had to wear that tank top again.

“Okay, so let’s start with mountain pose,” Harry says seriously. “So start by standing with your feet together, and then press down with your toes as you spread them.”

Louis looks to Harry to copy his position, pressing his toes to the floor. Is this all yoga really is? Standing?

“We’re literally just standing, H,” Niall says from the front. “I don’t think anyone’s going to get injured, you can push us a little more.”

“Leave her be!” Jonathan gasps, whipping his head toward Niall. “Don’t listen to him, honey, take us through mountain pose. You’re doing perfect, you are perfect.”

“It’s more than just standing, Niall,” Harry says earnestly. And if he’s embarrassed, Louis thinks he’s hiding it well. “Okay, next you want to engage your quadriceps to lift your kneecaps and lift up through your inner thighs.”

What the fuck does that mean? Louis will be damned if he asks for help, so he nods along, of course, engaging his quadriceps, no problem. No one looks like they’ve moved a muscle, but what does he know?

“Draw your abdominals in and up,” Harry continues, “as you lift your chest and press the tops of your shoulders down.”

Right, okay. Louis can do this, he’s got this.

“You should feel your shoulder blades coming toward each other, open your chest but keep your palms facing your body.”

Oh, fuck, he forgot about his hands. Right, facing his body, okay.

“Imagine a string drawing the crown of your head up to the ceiling and breathe deeply into the torso. We’ll hold for five to eight breaths.”

Louis sneaks a peek to Harry as he takes deep breaths, and sees that Harry is watching him with a goofy smile. He’s pretty sure Harry can see right through him and knows he only got maybe half of this pose right. He shrugs and smiles back before looking up to the ceiling along with everyone else.

“That was good!” Harry says enthusiastically after a minute. “We’ll keep moving onto the next pose, but I can help anyone practice that again later. If anyone wants.”

Louis’ cheeks burn, knowing that comment was for him. He keeps his eyes glued to the floor.

“Downward-facing dog,” Harry declares suddenly. Louis snaps his head back up.

What the fuck?

Harry looks innocently at him. Louis suddenly remembers Harry talking about game nights and how he likes to win. What kind of flirty yoga chicken are they playing? Louis is going to lose, he’s sure of it.

“I know we don’t have mats, sorry,” Harry says regretfully, “but this pose is so important, it stretches and strengthens the whole body, it’s worth it.”

They spread out a little more from each other and Louis settles on his knees on the floor, awaiting instruction. Antoni’s bare back and its rippling muscles are between him and Harry, so this is all totally fine. Nothing to worry about here. Louis’ got this under control.

“So you’re gonna want to start on your hands and knees,” Harry says as he moves into position. And for the first time, Louis is seriously worried about getting hard. This is not how he’d pictured Harry instructing him to get on his hands and knees. Oh, this was a mistake. A big one. Huge.

Louis gulps and moves onto his hands and knees, trying desperately to clear his mind.

“Okay, you want your knees directly below your hips,” Harry instructs, “and your hands should be slightly forward of your shoulder, like this. See? Spread your palms and turn your toes under.”

Louis tries to focus on Harry’s words and not his stupidly sexy deep voice. He’s speaking slowly enough for Louis to follow along, and so far he thinks he’s nailing this position. Shit. Louis should maybe choose his words more carefully.

“So then we exhale and lift our knees away from the floor,” Harry continues as he moves. “Keep your knees slightly bent at first and your heels lifted away from the floor.”

Louis notices he’s not the only one frantically trying to look back at their heels and chuckles.

“Lengthen your tailbone away from the back of your pelvis and press it lightly toward the pubis,” Harry says, as if that’s just a thing people say. “Against this resistance, lift the sitting bones toward the ceiling, and from your inner ankles draw the inner legs up into the groin.”

Louis is lost. Completely lost. He gives up and just arches his back a little, trying to mimic the others, who all seem to be getting it.

“Okay, exhale and push your top thighs back and stretch your heels into or down toward the floor,” Harry says, slightly muffled from being in position. “You want to straighten your knees but don’t lock them. Firm your outer thighs and roll the upper thighs inward slightly, like this.”

Louis looks up and has no idea what Harry meant by ‘like this.’ His arms are starting to burn and drops of sweat are forming on his forehead.

“Firm your outer arms and press the base of your index fingers into the floor,” Harry continues, “and firm your shoulder blades against your back, then widen them and draw them toward the tailbone. Keep your head between the upper arms, you don’t want to let it hang. We’ll hold this for a couple of minutes, and then I’ll tell you how to move into child’s pose.”

There’s no way that Louis is working all of the muscles he’s supposed to properly, but he’s not actually in pain and he thinks he’s doing a decent job of holding his body in a position somewhat close to everyone else’s. As long as Harry doesn’t get up to move around and correct them like Bebe and Bressie this morning, Louis should be fine.

Harry gets up and starts to study everyone’s pose. Of fucking course. Louis watches out of the corner of his eye as Harry adjusts Niall’s shoulders before patting him on the back and moving on. He gives Steve a thumbs up, but Louis’ not sure he saw it what with his long hair hanging in his face. Harry doesn’t even look at Antoni, skipping right to Jonathan and nodding in approval.

He moves back to Shawn next, apparently saving Louis for last. Fuck.

Shawn’s downward-facing dog is decent and earns a smile from Harry before he looks to Louis.

Louis is probably imagining Harry’s eyes darkening as he approaches. He clucks his teeth and says lowly, “Can I touch?”

Can I touch? What. The. Fuck.

Louis nods, unable to speak, and Harry moves behind him and puts his hands on Louis’ hips, lifting slightly. Oh, Jesus, oh, Jesus, oh, Jesus. Louis is so fucked. And not how he’d like to be.

“There you go, Lou, that’s it,” Harry says, patting his hip. “You’ve got it, you’re perfect.”

He nods, eyes closed. He can’t look. He can’t bear to see Harry’s face right now.

Louis is hard. Hard in his sweat shorts for this stupidly sexy, adorable man. Sporting a semi imagining Harry fucking him. Him fucking Harry. Fuck.

Harry moves back to the front of the room and resumes the pose. Louis tries but he can’t think of things that aren’t sexy to help calm down, his mind is all Harry Harry Harry.

“Okay, time to move into child’s pose,” Harry says, looking around. Louis avoids his eyes. “Bring your knees and feet together as you sit your butt back to your heels, and stretch your arms out forward. Then lower your forehead to the floor and let your entire body release.”

God, if Harry only knew the release that Louis is dying for right now. He eases into the pose and lowers his forehead, grateful he doesn’t have to look up. He breathes in and out, in and out, and his body (all of it, thank god) starts to relax.

Harry leads them through a simple plank that even Louis can do perfectly and then triangle pose, which Louis finds surprisingly easy to move into and hold as well. Harry looks over to him, his expression a mix of pleased and grumpy somehow. Louis loses his balance during tree pose and gives up, laughing. He spots Shawn as the rest of the guys attempt to hold it along with Harry.

Harry patiently takes them through Warrior 1 and Warrior 2 and Louis thinks he did both pretty well, although Harry made minor adjustments to his positioning during both. Every time he comes close, Louis tries to conjure up an image of his prom date, a perfectly nice but perfectly bland girl named Danielle, so his body doesn’t betray him again.

“Okay, guys,” Harry announces, “let’s do bridge pose next. Start by lying down on your back and then place your feet hip width apart.”

Okay, that’s easy enough. Bridge pose, no problemo.

“Now press firmly on to your feet and lift your butt up off the mat,” Harry continues. Okay, maybe problemo. “Then clasp your hands together and press the fists down to the floor underneath you as you open up your chest even more.”

Louis feels like an idiot but he follows Harry’s instructions carefully. If he gets it just right, Harry won’t have an excuse to touch and Louis can make it out of here somewhat unscathed.

“Now imagine dragging your heels on the mat toward your shoulders to engage your hamstrings,” Harry explains.

Imagine dragging? Or actually drag? God, yoga is so stupid.

“We’ll hold for 8-10 breaths, then lower our hips down,” Harry says. “And then let’s repeat two more times.”

Harry gets up and walks around to offer feedback and Louis can’t believe he’s basically thrusting his pelvis out and hoping Harry thinks he’s doing it right.

“Good, Lou,” Harry murmurs when he gets to him. “That’s really good.”

Louis forces out a “thank you,” and tries not to make eye contact, but he’s weak. Harry crouches down, pressing his hands lightly to Louis’ hips, indicating that he should lift a little higher.

“That’s so good,” Harry practically whispers. “See, the workouts you do are good for building for muscle, but yoga can really help with flexibility.”

And with that he takes his hands away and Louis almost falls down. No one has ever knocked him off his game quite like Harry.

Harry moves back to the front and assumes the pose, but Louis can’t take it anymore. It’s bad enough to thrust his own pelvis out, he can’t watch Harry do it. He’s in those same tapered joggers that do nothing to conceal his bulge, which is considerable even when soft, and Louis is a weak, weak man.

He moves back into child pose, not knowing or caring what anyone thinks of that as he rests his forehead to the ground, willing his erection to go away. Nothing’s working this time, he’s simply been in this godforsaken yoga session for too fucking long, with Harry teasing him on purpose, he’s sure of it.

“That was so good, you guys!” Harry says, clapping his hands. “What did you think?”

Louis sits back on his heels, clasping his hands over his crotch and nodding as the guys praise Harry’s instruction. He has to get out of here.

Now.

Lois grabs his water bottle and holds it awkwardly in front of him as he stands up. He turns toward the door.

“Louis?” Harry calls to him. Fuck. “What did you think?”

“That was, uh… different,” Louis chokes out, turning back to face him. He really has to go. “But good! Yeah, um, was good. Thanks, Curly.”

Harry beams at him.

“I gotta go, I’m just gonna, um,” Louis says, inching toward the door. “Just heading to the showers, worked up a sweat.”

He laughs nervously, feeling like a fucking idiot.

“You sure, Lou?” Niall asks. “Me and Shawn are going to do a lap and then some reps, get more of a workout in.”

“No, no,” Louis says shrilly. “That was enough of a workout for me! Gonna feel it tomorrow.”

Harry smirks. Fuck.

Jonathan and Antoni are stretching and Steve is using a jump rope he found in the corner, swishy hair flying. That leaves everyone accounted for as long as–

“Harry, come on,” Niall says. “Come do a lap outside with us. Burn off some more of your veggie burger.”

Harry looks at Louis one last time before walking over to Niall and Shawn. They head outside and Louis practically runs for the stairs. He takes them two at a time, his hard-on bobbing awkwardly between his legs. He grabs his towel, holding it in front of him after he tears his workout clothes off, and rushes into the shower.

He can’t remember the last time he’s been this worked up. Maybe never?

Louis hurriedly turns the shower on and braces one arm against the cool tile wall. As the warm water sluices over his back, he starts stroking his cock, thumbing over the head. This isn’t going to take very long, thank god, he’s about to burst. He leans his head against his arm, biting his hand to keep quiet as he gets himself off to images of Harry moving Louis’ body to the exact positions he wants, praising him when he gets it right. He shivers, remembering how Harry had looked in that same tank top but soaking wet yesterday, and he gasps into his skin, speeding his strokes.

Louis’ tired legs feel like jelly and he moves to lean his back against the cool tile, reaching to cup his balls with his other hand. Biting his lip now, Louis’ hand flies over his cock until he finally comes in thick ribbons all over himself. Sighing in relief, he turns to face the shower, washing away the evidence.

Exhausted, he tries to put what he’s just done out of his mind as he looks for shampoo and body wash to borrow. Harry left his things in the shower, but Louis can’t leave here smelling like Harry. He just can’t. Deciding Liam’s Irish Spring stuff will have to do after a scan of the shelves, he washes up quickly. Maybe he can escape back to his apartment without seeing anyone if he’s lucky.

It’s been a long day.

Liam catches him on his way out of the locker room, all abuzz over arrangements for the fundraiser. Louis listens to him chatter on in the hallway for a few minutes, but he can’t take in anything his friend is saying. He nods along and tries to “mm-hmm” at the appropriate times.

Liam catches on as he starts to wind down, and gives Louis his trademark puppy eyes.

“You haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you?” Liam asks, studying Louis’ face.

“I’m sorry, man, no,” Louis confesses. “I’m just exhausted, was trying to sneak out so I can go take a nap. But I want to hear about all of this later, okay?”

“Yeah, sure, Lou,” Liam replies, patting his shoulder. “Hey, a bunch of the guys want to do happy hour later, I can fill you in then.”

Louis cringes. He just needs some time alone to clear his head.

“Sure, sure,” he says, to get Liam off his back. “Text me the details, I’ll see you later.”

Liam pulls him in for a quick hug before finally, finally letting Louis leave. He gets through the fire station and the parking lot without being stopped again, and climbs into his truck. Alone at last. After the short drive home, he heads up the stairs to his apartment on the second floor, unlocks the door and falls onto his bed, still covered in clothes from that morning.

Bone-tired, Louis falls right to sleep.

The warmth of late afternoon sunshine falling across his face and his phone buzzing next to him wake Louis up a few hours later. He fumbles for it, finally managing to make his fingers work and swipe to answer after what feels like forever.

“Yeah?” he rasps, clearing his throat. “Hello?”

“Lou!” Liam’s cheery voices crackles over the line. “I’m at your door, let me in.”

Confused, Louis rubs his eye. “What? Why?”

“Louis, I’m at your door,” Liam repeats. “Get your lazy butt up and let me in.”

Louis wonders how long he’s been out there. Instead of responding, he presses the button to end the call and gets up to let Liam in, shaking his head at the fact that, even when inconvenienced, Liam censors himself to “lazy butt” instead of “lazy ass.” He opens the door, squinting at the bright sunlight.

“Louis, did you forget?” Liam asks as he walks in and turns around to face him. “Happy hour!”

Louis groans.

“Come on, you have to get ready,” Liam carries on. “Did you eat yet? What are you gonna change into?”

“Li, I really don’t–”

“Nope!” Liam cuts him off, shaking his head. “None of that, bro, you’re coming. You want to pick your outfit while I make you some ramen or the other way around?”

“I just don’t feel up for it,” Louis says in a small voice, pulling at a loose thread on his t-shirt and not making eye contact. He needs some time by himself before he has to face everything – and everyone – again.

“Listen, man,” Liam says seriously, putting a hand on each of Louis’ shoulders and looking him right the in the eye. “I know how hard it’s been for you the last year and a half. And I’ve tried to give you some space, let you be. But you can’t avoid people forever, can’t avoid life forever. I miss you, you know?”

And as Louis looks into the warm eyes of his oldest friend, he sees the concern there. He knows Liam is trying to help him. As much as Louis looks out for Liam, Liam’s always had his back the same way. And maybe Liam doesn’t understand exactly what he wants to avoid tonight, but… he might be right. Maybe he can’t just try to avoid it.

“Just for a little while, okay?” he gives in. “Couple of hours, max.”

And it’s worth it for the way Liam’s entire face lights up. Louis’ not sure what he’d do without Liam. He just hopes he never has to find out.

“I can pick my own clothes, okay?” he says seriously, pointing at Liam. “And forget the ramen, I have some salad kits in the fridge, I’ll just have one of those before we go.”

“Salad?” Liam asks. “Who are you and what have you done with Louis?”

“Shut up,” Louis laughs, shoving at Liam’s shoulder. “Fizzy made me go grocery shopping with her, she’s worried I’ll end up with scurvy or something.”

Liam’s face predictably melts a little at that. Before he has a chance to get sappy, Louis heads toward his bedroom. He’s a grown man, he’s perfectly capable of picking out his own clothes.

He stops in the doorway, already having forgotten the mess he’d made trying on clothes that morning. Liam stops behind him and peeks over his shoulder.

“Right,” he says, “you fold, I’ll put shirts on hangers. Then you get dressed and I get one veto.”

“Deal,” Louis decides. They work quickly and quietly in tandem, Louis keeping his eyes out for options for tonight. He does get cold easily, and if he ends up staying out later than he means to, he’ll want a layer.

Liam dusts off a simple jean jacket and Louis makes a snap decision, he can pair it with a light gray tank top. No second-guessing himself tonight.

“You want something to drink?” he asks Liam. “Beer, Coke? Go grab something, I’ll get dressed and be right out.”

“No beer for me,” Liam says as he heads to the hallway, “I’m designated driver tonight, got the minivan just in case.”

Of course he does.

Once he’s dressed and fussed with his hair a bit, Louis heads out to the open kitchen/living room area where Liam is sipping a glass of water on the couch. He’s set up a salad for Louis on the coffee table, and there’s an episode of Parks and Recreation paused on the TV screen.

And if Louis has to go out tonight, this is the perfect way to relax beforehand.

They arrive at the bar downtown a bit late for actual happy hour; Liam explains that everyone had wanted to grab a bite and freshen up beforehand. They commandeer a few tables on the side near the bar, and don’t have to wait long before Niall and Shawn arrive, laughing about something or other.

Louis narrows his eyes, taking in Niall’s blue and white striped t-shirt. He gestures toward him with raised eyebrows, waiting.

“You can’t be serious,” Niall says, leaning against the bar to wait for his beer.

“Stripes?” Louis says coolly. “Bit controversial there.”

Steve walks in just in time to hear Niall insist loudly enough for the whole bar to hear, “You don’t own stripes, okay, Regina George?”

Louis shrugs and sips his beer. Everyone knows stripes are his look, but he can take the high road this time.

They’re laughing about the dancing lesson missteps, beers in hand, when Nick walks in with Aimee and Fiona. Niall nudges Louis and nods at the red fanny pack that Nick has slung across his chest instead of his waist. Worn that way, it looks an awful lot like the “messenger bag” they give Liam so much shit for, and neither of them can help giggling.

“What?” Nick demands. “Do I have something on my face?”

“Nothing, nothing,” Niall laughs. “Come on, let me buy you a drink.”

Their group floats between tables and the bar, growing by twos and threes as the night goes on. Jonathan is the only one of the Fab Five to make an appearance, rushing to explain that Bobby is working 14-hour days and none of the others drink so they all headed back to their hotel in Atlanta for a night in.

“More for me, honey,” Jonathan declares, winking at the bartender. She laughs and adds another maraschino cherry to the top of his drink.

Stan is telling Jade and Jonathan about the couple of years that Louis never went anywhere without his cuffs rolled to show off his ankles when something catches Jonathan’s eye and he slams his glass down on the table.

“Oh. My. God.” Jonathan stares at the entrance to the bar, agape. Louis turns to see what’s caught his eye and suddenly his mouth goes dry.

Harry is approaching their table, his long legs clad in the skinniest black jeans that Louis has ever seen and a lace shirt.

A yellow lace shirt.

A yellow, see-through lace shirt.

A yellow, see-through, half-unbuttoned lace shirt.

Louis is going to kill Liam.

“Look at you,” Jonathan coos, standing and holding out a hand for Harry. He makes Harry twirl when he reaches them, and then clasps his hands together, at a loss for words for once. Louis sympathizes, mesmerized by the laurel tattoos that frame Harry’s hips peeking through his shirt. They might just be Louis’ favorite of all of Harry’s tattoos. That he’s seen, anyway.

“Hi,” Harry says with a little wave. “Am I late?”

“Yes, you are very late,” Jonathan says seriously. “Where have you been all my life, gorgeous, I have been waiting. I cannot believe you took this long to appear, I am offended.”

“Harry, you look great,” Jade exclaims. “I love your shirt!”

“You think I could pull that off, man?” Stan jokes. “What do you think, would the missus like it on me?”

“Okay, I know you’re kidding,” Jonathan says earnestly, turning to Stan, “but honestly, you are gorgeous, you can peek your head outside of the box every once in awhile and, like, be adventurous and explore new things and yes, some of those things might not work out, but you will never know how you feel in lace until you try.”

“I feel good in lace,” Harry says simply.

“As you should, honey,” Jonathan replies, snapping his fingers. “As. You. Should.”

“Let’s get a drink, Harry,” Jade says as she stands up. “I’m empty.”

Completely tongue-tied, Louis can only manage a smile to Harry before he turns to go to the bar with Jade. As Jonathan and Stan debate the merits of polo shirts, Louis wishes the ground would swallow him. Harry deserves someone who will tell him how gorgeous he looks, not just on a special occasion, but every fucking day. He’s never seen anyone as beautiful as Harry, inside and out. Louis should put an end to whatever game he’s playing, flirting and collecting bits of information, until he’s ready to actually do something.

Oh. Until he’s ready. Louis’ not sure when if changed to until.

Louis sighs, looking around. This is why he’d needed time alone, to clear his head some more. He waits until Jade and Harry head to the dance floor before getting up for another beer.

Nick and Steve are chatting at the bar and Louis sidles up next to them.

“Man, I am exhausted,” Steve is saying. “This schedule has been killer.”

“I know, I know,” Nick replies. “Almost there, just a few more days, then back to New York.”

“New York?” Louis pipes up. “For some reason, I thought you guys were from L.A.”

“No,” Nick sniffs. “Los Angeles makes me lonely, it’s a terrible place to live. Even to visit.”

“Yeah, my bed is waiting for me in Brooklyn,” Steve says. “And I’m going to be so happy to see it again.”

“This is your last episode filming, right?” Louis confirms. They nod.

“Yeah, you guys are number eight,” Steve says. “It’s been non-stop. This is a good way to end, you guys are fun, good energy.”

“Not as emotional as some of the other episodes,” Nick adds. “But in a good way, you know?”

“Oh, yeah?” Louis says. “How do you mean?”

“So with all of these guys,” Steve explains, “there’s a reason they need the show, there’s something that’s been holding them back in some way. It’s not just, like, straight dudes wear pleated khakis.”

“Although too many of them do,” Nick quips before taking a sip of a dark alcohol.

“Like one of our heroes, AJ,” Steve begins.

“Oh, god, AJ,” Nick wails. “Steve, why did you have to bring him up?”

“What’s the deal with AJ?” Louis asks, confused but trying to keep up.  

“God, okay,” Nick says, taking over the story. “So this time around, the show is just called Queer Eye, they left off the ‘for the Straight Guy.’ AJ is one of the guys we made over a few weeks ago. He’s gay, has a serious boyfriend, but he wasn’t out to everyone in his life and he wanted to be.”

Louis’ heart stops, literally stops, for a second. He wills himself to breathe, in and out.

“And you know how we’re ending your week with a party, the fundraiser?” Steve asks. “So AJ’s thing was a party with his friends and his boyfriend and his stepmom, he wanted to come out to her.”

“His, like, one regret in life,” Nick picks up smoothly, “was that he didn’t come out to his dad before his dad passed away.”

“Jesus,” Louis says. None of this is what he’d been expecting to hear. He scrubs a hand over his face. At least that’s not something he has to live with.

“Yeah, it was intense, man,” Steve shakes his head. “He’s a great guy, we had fun with him too, but my dad died a few years ago and Nick’s dad passed last year–”

“Oh,” Louis says, looking to Nick first, then Steve. “Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Thanks,” Nick says quietly. “So Steve is the only camera guy in the room with AJ and his stepmom, in front of this new wall of family photos with the dad, and everyone is emotional. And so we were all pretty hopeful but you never really know how that kind of conversation is going to go, and it’s not like I can say ‘right, just gonna skip this pivotal moment,’ so both of us just had to clear our heads and get through it.”

“Like the minute we called cut,” Steve continues, “Nick and I just fell in each other’s arms, sobbing. I mean, moments like that make what we do worth it, but it’s not just long hours, you know?” Steve shakes his head, gesturing toward Louis. “Of course you know, dude, what am I saying? Look at what you do for a living.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Louis says distractedly, feeling overloaded. He really thought this was just a makeover show.

“You want another beer?” Steve asks, pointing at Louis.

“No, thanks, man, I’m good,” Louis replies. He really doesn’t need to drink any more tonight.

Jonathan rushes up and falls dramatically to the bar. “Water! Water, please, I am parched and this DJ shows no mercy.”

The bartender pours Jonathan a glass of water and he drains it just as Jade calls him back to the dance floor. A familiar pop tune starts to play, and Louis frowns, trying to place it. Having four younger sisters has given him a wealth of pop music knowledge.

“Yes, girl,” Jonathan cries, setting the glass down. “This is my song.”

Louis watches him flee back to the dance floor to rejoin Jade and Harry and catches Harry’s eye just as Selena Gomez starts to belt, “When you’re ready, come and get it.”

And isn’t that just fucking perfect.

Harry practically smolders at Louis for a moment and then it gets even worse. He starts to dance. And he is awful. How is this insanely fucking hot guy in a fucking lace shirt doing the most embarrassing, dad at a barbecue dance moves? And how is it working for Louis? Like. Really working.

Fuck, Louis might get hard again.

“I’m gonna grab a smoke outside,” Nick says suddenly. “Louis? You in?”

“Yeah,” Louis decides. “Yeah, I’m in.”

He follows Nick, weaving their way through the crowd to reach the door. The dark night sky and cool air greet them along with blessed quiet. Louis hadn’t realized how loud it was inside the bar until the noise was gone.

Nick leans against the wall of the building, unzipping his fanny pack for cigarettes and a lighter. Louis takes the proffered cigarette and lets Nick light it for him, inhaling gratefully. God, that’s good.

“How long since your last smoke?” Nick asks.

“How’d you know?” Louis counters, leaning against the wall next to him.

“I’m good at reading people,” Nick replies airily. “That’s what makes me good at this job. And the job has made me even better at reading people, so. How long?”

“A few months, maybe four?” Louis wonders aloud. He remembers the girls sitting him down for a serious talk after dinner one night, but he can’t remember exactly when.

“And how long have you been in love with Harry?” Nick asks casually, like he’s not destroying Louis’ entire world.

Maybe he’s not.

Louis startles at the question, but remains quiet. He’s not sure how much he trusts Nick. He wants to, is the thing. And Nick’s face is open, disarming. He doesn’t seem like he has an ulterior motive. He’s not even smirking for once.

“Since he moved here?” Nick asks gently. He’s straightened up, facing Louis now. He’s not pushing, but it doesn’t seem like he wants to let the subject drop.

“I’m not…” Louis starts, shaking his head and flicking some ash. “It’s not like that, I’m not–”

“But you could be,” Nick interrupts.

“Yeah, fuck it, okay,” Louis says wildly, pushing his hair off his forehead and turning to face Nick. “I could be, but I can’t be, alright? So why don’t you just–”

“I’m not going to fuck off, Louis,” Nick says. “I’ve been watching you two dance around each other, you know he feels the same way. What exactly is stopping you?”

How can it feel like the walls are closing in on Louis when he’s fucking outside? He needs to move, he can’t stand still, so he pushes off the wall and starts walking.

Nick follows him.

“Look,” Louis says, staring straight ahead. “You don’t get to come here and judge me, alright?”

“Hey,” Nick says, pulling on Louis’ sleeve. “Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean–”

“No, of course, not,” Louis scoffs, throwing his cigarette butt down and stepping on it. “Not all of us live in New York, okay, it’s not that easy for everyone.”

“Oh, sure,” Nick says sarcastically. “It’s easy for everyone in New York, right? No homophobia there, no sirree. That only exists in the South, right? Fuck you, Louis.”

Louis lifts his eyes to Nick’s. He looks a little pissed off, but he makes no move to leave. He’s still not smirking.

“Sorry,” Louis mutters.

“Nah, ’s okay,” Nick says. He unzips that stupid red fanny pack again. “You want another?”

“Yeah.” Louis thinks he’s gonna need it.

They each light up another cigarette and Nick lets Louis lead as they walk through downtown.

“Listen,” Nick says eventually. “There’s nothing wrong with being in the closet, especially if that’s what makes you feel safe, emotionally or, god forbid, physically. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. You’re not, like, less than. You matter just as much as anyone, okay?”

Fuck.

Louis halts for a second as Nick’s words wash over him.

Fuck.

He looks over at Nick’s face, the concern there illuminated by street lamps. How did this relative stranger know the words that Louis didn’t even know he needed to hear?

He nods gruffly, unable to form words, and starts walking again.

“And I know that I don’t know what it’s like for you, living here, after visiting for a few days,” Nick continues, keeping pace with him. “And it’s not fair to tell you how to live your life. But honestly, I don’t get it. Why can’t you have Harry?”

Louis rolls his eyes, back to hating Nick for just a moment.

“You know it’s not that simple,” he sighs.

“So explain it to me,” Nick challenges.

“You’re right, you don’t know what it’s like, living here,” Louis starts, “growing up here. Being… gay, you just… you can’t. It’s not an option. No one here is gay.”

“Well, that can’t be true,” Nick replies. “Just, like, statistically speaking. You just don’t know who’s from here and is gay.”

“Point,” Louis concedes. “Probably because they all move away to a big city, where they can be gay.”

“So, just to be clear, you are? Gay?”

“Yeah, Nick,” Louis turns his head to look him full on in the eye. “I’m gay.”

“Wow, Louis,” Nick says quietly, looking at him with something approaching awe. “Thank you for telling me. Is that… was that the first time you told someone?”

“No, no,” Louis answers as he looks both ways before they cross a street. “No, my mom, she um… well, she was my best friend, you know? And I never kept anything from her. She knew.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, she never, like, pushed me,” Louis continues. “My biological father up and left the week I was born, and it was just me and her for years, and she knew what it was like to live here and be different, single mother who worked and all, so she didn’t want to push me to come out if I wasn’t ready. Like, it had to be me who wanted it, since it would be hard. She got that.”

“That’s amazing,” Nick comments, almost to himself. “Yeah, I could never hide it, so everyone always just knew, barely even had to come out. And I could always tell there was that part of my dad that wished I would just watch football with him, you know?”

“Yeah, my first stepdad was like that,” Louis says. “But around here, you have to like football, wasn’t any choice. I was even on the team in high school. It’s just what you did.”

They walk in companionable silence for a few minutes. Louis realizes that he subconsciously started them on a route back to his apartment, but he doesn’t mention it. He doesn’t think he’d be able to go back the bar tonight anyways.

“Listen, you can tell me to fuck off,” Nick says, “but what about now? You work with this great group of guys who fucking love you. I keep hearing you talk about your family, they sound supportive. What’s stopping you from coming out now?”

Louis doesn’t answer right away, the noise in his head too loud to think.

“You know, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” Nick remarks. “It’s not like you need to organize a one-man pride parade in downtown Covington. You could come out to a few people who you really trust, like Liam. Or Niall. See how it goes.”

“It’s not simple and it’s not easy,” Louis snaps. “Stop trying to make it sound like it is. I just don’t want to risk it, alright? What do you know, anyway, Liam could stop talking to me. I’m the godfather of his kid, what if he didn’t want me around him any more?”

“You don’t really think that’s going to happen, though, do you? Give Liam some credit, Louis.”

“But it could,” Louis insists. “And okay, let’s say it didn’t. But still, it would mean everything changing. He’d look at me differently, like I’m not the same guy he grew up with. I don’t think I could stand that.”

“All change is stressful,” Nick says sagely. “Even good change. I heard that in social psych in college, never forgot it. It’s true. And yeah, coming out would mean things would change. But I think it would be in a good way, I really do. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be talking to you about it.”

“Why are you talking to me about it?” Louis demands. “What do you care? You don’t even like me, you’re always smirking at me, like you’re laughing at me or something.”

“That’s just my sparkling wit, Louis,” Nick says with a flourish. “No, but seriously, I just like getting a rise out of people, teasing them, and you make it fun. You’re a challenge, I like that.”

“So you’re not laughing at me?” Louis clarifies.

“Nah, not at you,” Nick says easily. “And I’m talking to you because I do care and because I think you might not be talking to anyone else. And you need to.”

Louis sighs. He rolls his shoulders, trying to relieve some of the tension he hadn’t realized he’d been feeling until now.

“I just… it is what it is, okay?” Louis sighs.

“It doesn’t have to be,” Nick replies, his eyes dropping to where Louis’ words are tattooed on his chest.

Louis doesn’t say anything, just stuffs his hands in pockets and keeps walking. He’s just not sure anymore if he’s right or if Nick is.

“So let’s go through the list,” Nick says, “just to make sure I understand.” He starts counting on his fingers. “People just aren’t gay in Covington, your friends might not accept you, but even if they did it still means things would change. Is that everything?”

Louis hesitates.

“Because, I’m not saying those aren’t valid reasons, Louis,” Nick continues. “And you’re a grown man, you can live your life however you see fit, as long as it makes you happy. I just don’t think you’re happy is all.”

“I’m not, okay?” Louis bursts. “I’m not happy. I’m alone and I’m not happy and I’m scared, alright?”

“Scared of what?” Nick asks gently.

“Scared of everything.” Louis laughs mirthlessly. “Scared of… I’m…” He takes a deep breath, willing himself to be brave, just this once. “I’m scared of being with someone like Harry.”

Nick waits for him to continue, nodding, like Louis hasn’t said anything stupid.

“I’m scared of being with Harry,” Louis confesses. “Because, like… he’s it, you know? He’s the only person I’ve ever really been able to see myself with, you know? Like, I can see a life with him. And that scares the shit out of me because he could leave.”

“Why would he leave, Louis?” Nick inquires, puzzled. “I’ve seen him around you, I can tell how much he cares about you.”

“Because people leave, Nick,” Louis says, his voice breaking. “Look at my mom, she was amazing, the best person I ever knew, and two husbands left her. And then she finally found the right one, the right man, and she was finally happy. And a few years later, she died. Just like that, game over.”

“Louis,” Nick breathes. “Louis, I’m sorry.”

Louis shakes his head, trying to blink tears away but they start falling instead.

“Look, I’m the worst person to give advice about this,” Nick says. “Just ask Aimee, she could write a book on my commitment issues, but Louis… is that really how you want to go through life? Avoiding it? Not having any experiences just because they might end?”

Fuck.

He’s right. Louis can admit that, even if it’s just to himself for the moment.

He’d talked with his mom about everything, but he’d never been able to make himself tell her how scared he was. And maybe because he knows what she would have said.

“You know,” he muses aloud. “Any time me or one of my siblings was scared of something, my mom would say the same thing.”

“Oh, yeah? What was that?”

“She’d say that wasn’t a reason not to do something,” Louis says, feeling lighter than he has in ages. “She’d say, ‘that’s why you’ve got to do it.’ Sometimes with an f-bomb or two, depending on how old we were at the time.”

Nick laughs. “She sounds amazing, Louis. And smart.”

“Yeah, she was,” Louis says softly.

“I wish I could have met her,” Nick remarks. “It’s not fair that she isn’t here anymore. A lot of things aren’t fair, really. But I’m guessing you were someone who made her happy, too, Louis.”

Louis blows out a breath. God, he hopes Nick is right. He looks around, taking in their surroundings. “Oh, this is me, just over there.”

“Let me guess, you don’t want to turn around, do you?” Nick asks, unzipping his pack and pulling out his phone. “That’s alright, I can get a Lyft.”

“You’re better off just calling Liam for a ride,” Louis says. “Plus, it’ll make him happy to be useful with his minivan.”

Nick taps on his phone for a minute before looking up. “Aimee says Liam will be here in a few minutes. Want another smoke?”

“I do, but I shouldn’t,” Louis says regretfully. God, he misses being a smoker.

“Mind if I do?” Nick asks, eyebrows raised.

“Nah, go ahead,” Louis replies. “I’ll wait out here with you.”

“I didn’t overstep tonight, did I?” Nick asks as he lights up.

“You did,” Louis says ruefully. “But it’s okay. You were right, I needed someone to talk to.”

“See, Louis,” Nick says gesturing with the hand not holding his cigarette, “more than just a makeover show. We get to the root of the issue.”

“You know the premise for your show is shit, right?” Louis says suddenly. “Like all gay guys are experts on fashion and design.”

Nick rolls his eyes exaggeratedly and Louis has a feeling that this isn’t the first time Nick has had to have this conversation.

“No fucking shit, Louis,” he says defensively. “But here’s the thing: It’s more, like, socially acceptable for a gay guy to express an interest in grooming than a straight guy, right? So we find our experts and that expertise gets us in the door. Then straight people get to know us, get to see we’re more than just stereotypically good grooming, right? Gays are just people, just like them. We’re the same, just better.”

Louis laughs as Nick ends his speech with a wink.

“Alright, Nicholas, you win,” he says, holding his hands up.

Headlights flash over them as a minivan pulls into the apartment building parking lot they’re currently loitering in. Louis waves at Liam, beaming from behind the wheel. Nick starts to walk toward the car and Louis calls out, “Nick?”

Nick stops and turns. “Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

“You’re gonna be okay, Louis,” Nick says confidently. He tosses the butt of his cigarette on the ground. “Think about what we talked about, okay?”

“Yeah, okay,” Louis says, feeling in his pocket for his keys. “See you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

Day Three

Louis can count on one hand the number of mornings he’s needed his first cup of coffee so bad that he’s brought a mug into the shower.

This is one of those mornings.

It’s not even that early; last night had been designated happy hour night because most of the talent (Louis snorts. “Talent.”) and crew had a late call time this morning. And he’d managed to sleep last night. But still.

Louis pulls the shower curtain back and sets the cup of coffee on the ledge that’s just wide enough for it, right next to his shampoo, before gingerly stepping in and pulling the curtain closed behind him.

The water isn’t quite hot enough yet, but he steps into it anyway, dipping his head under the warm spray to get his hair wet. He pauses to let the water run over him for a few moments before pulling back to push his hair off his face and rub his eyes.

Then he reaches for the mug to sip his coffee.

The thing is that – even though he’d come home last night feeling lighter than he has in a long time, elated almost – the talk with Nick had wiped him out. If he’s honest, Louis prefers the type of bone-deep exhaustion that follows intense physical activity, like a busy day on the job, to this kind. It’s like he’s been working overtime processing all of his feelings.  

He’d only had a few beers last night, barely enough to feel it, but Louis still feels kind of hungover. Fragile. Vulnerable. Like he could really use a cuddle.  

He closes his eyes and steps back a little so the now hot water massages his shoulders and back, trying to focus on the water hitting and then sliding over his skin instead of how tired he is.

Louis wonders how things might be different for him if he’d met these people earlier. If he’d opened up to someone, anyone, earlier. Deep down, he knows he wasn’t ready before but the what if looms large over him. He thinks of the saying painted on one of the walls of the church that his mom used to take him to on Easter and Christmas: The truth shall set you free. And fuck if that wasn’t how it had felt, finally talking, finally confessing his fears, to Nick of all people. He shakes his head, marveling at how he actually does feel freer.

Finally awake enough to wash up, Louis drains the last of his coffee and sets the mug back on the ledge. He reaches for his body wash and loofah; his cheeks starting to flush as he remembers his last shower, at the fire station yesterday. God, he’s never been that worked up before, not even as a teenager. It’s crazy the effect that Harry has on him.

Once he’s done showering and drying off, Louis refills his coffee mug and heads to his bedroom to get ready. He’s supposed to be in uniform for whatever they’re filming today, but fuck it. He has a spare set there, he can get dressed in sweats for now. He just needs to feel cozy for a while and, since he doesn’t have anyone to actually cuddle him, his clothes will have to make do for now. His soft, dark gray sweatpants are practically calling his name.

Probably running even later today than usual due to the long shower, Louis pulls on his sweats and a worn gray t-shirt quickly. He tucks his pant legs into his socks and gets his running shoes on before deciding to add a soft beanie atop his mostly dry hair. It’ll look ridiculous in the Georgia summer heat, but who cares? Everyone knows he really does get cold easily (and yes, cranky when cold as Niall announced yesterday). One last gulp of coffee and he’s out the door.

Louis uses his aux cord to connect his phone once he’s settled inside his truck. Most mornings he’s still pretty bleary-eyed and doesn’t bother for this short of a drive, but today he’s in the mood to let some of the songs from his library wash over him like the hot shower had, warming him up. He doesn’t look as he hits play, setting the phone down and putting the gear into Reverse.

When the days are cold

And the cards all fold

And the saints we see

Are all made of gold

And the thing is, Louis isn’t really that superstitious. He’s walked under plenty of ladders and has never cared about what black cats are up to. But he kind of likes treating little things like which song comes up on shuffle as a sign. Like he’s getting a clue about how his day is going to go. And so he just has to laugh as Demons plays. How fucking fitting is that? At a stop sign, he picks up his phone and selects repeat, singing along as he drives to the fire station for whatever he’s in store for today.

The scene that greets him when he walks into the fire station garage is pretty much identical to the day before. Niall waves him over to the table set up with coffee and breakfast foods and explains, with his mouth full of danish, that they’re currently filming Liam attempting to help with the kitchen renovation. Nick is arguing with someone over his headset and Fiona looks bored, jotting notes down on her clipboard. Shawn is trying to talk to Jade over by the monitors streaming the scene upstairs (Oh, god, did Liam bring a toolbelt from home?), but Louis is willing to bet Jade can’t tell he’s flirting.

“Good morning!” Jonathan calls out as he approaches the table. He’s casually dressed in skinny jeans and a striped tank top, with his long hair in a half bun, but Louis thinks he probably looks more put together than Louis did on his mom’s wedding day.

“How are you this beautiful, sunshine-y morning?” He turns to Louis, clasping his hands in front of himself. “You look so cuddly, I just want to eat you up.”

“What about me?” Niall asks, mock offended. “Am I not cuddly?”

“Honey, oh my god,” Jonathan says in a rush, gesturing toward him. “Oh my god, you’re so handsome, it is ridiculous, you serve up Paul Newman realness with those baby blues exactly every single day, but you’re not the man I’m looking for this beautiful morning.”

“You’re looking for me?” Louis asks, raising his eyebrows in surprise, oddly flattered.

“Yes, baby girl, you,” Jonathan replies decisively. He lowers his voice as he says, “How do you feel about letting me trim up these ends for you before I have to prep the next segment? You just need a lil bit of shaping and you’ll be ten out of ten, perfect. Are you in? The only thing is, we just can’t tell her” – jerking his head in an oblivious Nick’s direction – “about it or she’ll yell about continuity, you should have seen her when I cut off an inch after we started filming, she was livid.”

“I’m in.” Louis grins. Nick had been there for him in a way he never could have expected or asked for, and he feels like they’re friends now, but he can’t resist the temptation to fuck with him, just this little bit. And Louis really does like Jonathan; he’s touched that he thought to offer.

“Oh my god, okay,” Jonathan says quietly. “Don’t act suspicious, alright, honey? I’m going to be in the locker room upstairs, wait five minutes and then come meet me.”

“Do you need me to create a diversion?” Niall asks seriously.

“I’ll do a ‘caw’ like a bird if we need you,” Jonathan replies before turning to head upstairs, and Louis can’t actually tell if he’s serious or not. Niall does a little salute to Jonathan’s back before turning to Louis and laughing.

“I’m going to miss these guys,” he says, shaking his head. “They’re hilarious.”

“Yeah,” Louis agrees. “Yeah, me too.”

And the thing is, he thinks he will.

After waiting the allotted five minutes, and devouring a muffin, Louis walks up to the locker room to meet Jonathan, who’s set out all of his supplies on the counter and brought in a chair and everything. As he takes off his beanie, Louis gives a low, impressed whistle and Jonathan preens.

“Oh, yes, honey, come on down,” he purrs. “Have a seat right here, we’ll get you sorted out.”

Louis sits down and lets Jonathan drape a couple of towels around his neck to catch the trimmings. Jonathan hums to himself as he spritzes water onto Louis’ hair and runs his fingers through it, considering. He clips some of the longer hair on top up and grabs a comb and scissors to get to work.

“So, how are you, boo-boo?” Jonathan asks. Louis looks up at him in the mirror but Jonathan keeps his eyes on Louis’ hair.

“Uh, I’m good, yeah, yeah,” Louis mumbles, dropping his eyes. It hits him again just how tired he is.

“No, but how are you really?” Jonathan asks again, using his fingers to tilt Louis’ head slightly to the position he needs.

Still looking down at his hands, Louis starts to pick at one of his nails. He has no idea what to say.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Jonathan continues, eyes on the piece of hair he’s holding up to trim. “I’m having a ball with all you gentlemen and you in particular. You’re so much fun when you let your guard down, but I can almost see when it goes back up, you know? What’s that about?”

Louis swallows. Where would he even start?

“You know, Lou-Lou,” Jonathan starts, when Louis fails to reply, “a lot of men think that letting people in or asking for help is a sign of weakness, but it’s not. It’s a sign of strength. From the way your friends talk about you, especially Liam, that little snack, it seems like you’re the one who takes care of people.”

He pauses to run his fingers through Louis’ hair again, checking to see if the pieces he cut are even.

“But who takes care of you?”

Louis’ eyes fill with tears. He can practically feel his walls falling down and decides not fight it, letting the tears spill over. Fuck, he’s so tired.

“I guess,” he starts hesitantly, choking for a breath. He’s grateful that Jonathan is continuing to work on his hair; not having to make eye contact somehow makes it easier to talk. “I mean… I let my sisters fuss over me, tell me to eat more vegetables, stuff like that, it makes them happy–”

“So that’s you taking care of them again, okay.”

Louis gulps. He hadn’t really thought it of that way before, but Jonathan might have a point.

“I don’t really… I guess I don’t really let anyone actually take care of me.”

“That sounds really hard,” Jonathan says simply, taking a clip out of Louis’ hair and lifting his scissors again. “I think we all need some taking care of sometime.”

It is hard.

“I just, um,” Louis struggles to find the right words. “I’ve always been the big brother, I’ve always been the reliable one. I do like taking care of people, but… um, yeah. Yeah, it’s hard.”

“You know, you can’t, like, selectively numb feelings,” Jonathan remarks. “It seems to me like maybe you haven’t been letting yourself be vulnerable, right?”

“Yeah,” Louis murmurs. “Yeah, you’re right.”

“And so if you try to numb the vulnerability, you also numb joy. Happiness. Connection. Like you can’t have connection and happiness without the vulnerability.”

Louis lets out a shaky breath, the tears subsiding.

“And honey, all I want,” Jonathan says, finally making eye contact in the mirror, “is for you to be as happy and fulfilled as you can be. That’s what I want for you. Along with this killer haircut, you’re going to be even more gorgeous than you already were.”

Louis laughs, blinking away the last couple of tears. He reaches up and wipes his eyes as Jonathan lays his hands on his shoulders.

“Do you want that, too?” Jonathan asks seriously. “Because you have to put in the work, it doesn’t always just happen. You gotta let people in, baby girl.”

Louis lifts his eyes to meet Jonathan’s in the mirror and awkwardly pats the hand Jonathan still has on his right shoulder.

“I do,” he says honestly. “I know, it’s time.”

“Yas, queen, that’s right!” Jonathan exclaims. He shimmies his shoulders a little bit, smiling. “You just always have to know that you’re worth it, okay? You matter, you’re important, you’re enough. Promise me you’ll work on knowing that?”

“I promise.” Louis gives Jonathan a small smile in the mirror. “You guys should get paid extra this week, you’re only supposed to be helping Liam.”

“Okay, I get it, deflecting, it’s a defense mechanism, alright, girl,” Jonathan says, going to back to Louis’ hair. “That can be enough serious talk for now, honey. But I’m not giving up on you, we’re going to swap numbers and you’re going to follow me on Instagram and Twitter, and I’m going to check in on you. Because you matter to me.”

Fuck. People don’t just say that to Louis.

Maybe he doesn’t let them.

“Thanks,” he whispers. “I’d… I’d, um, like that. A lot.”

“Oh, you’re not getting rid of me, no, sir,” Jonathan says as he walks to crouch down in front of Louis to cut the hair in front. “Now don’t move, we don’t this want to come out choppy.”

Louis sits quietly while Jonathan finishes trimming his hair. He doesn’t take in a word Jonathan says about which products he should be using, just nods and smiles as he holds up different bottles, and waits for Jonathan to finish off with the blow dryer.

“And voila!” Jonathan says as he gathers up the towels and shakes them out onto the floor. “Look at you, this is fierce, you look amazing, if I do say so myself.”

And he kind of does, actually. Louis admires the trim in the mirror, brushing back the pieces that fall over his forehead. It’s a subtle difference, but he really does look sharp.

“Thanks,” he says shyly, turning to Jonathan. “For everything.”

“Oh, no, gorgeous, you’re gonna make me cry, aren’t you?” Jonathan flaps his hands at Louis. “No, no, no, I already put on concealer!”

Louis laughs as Niall pokes his head in through the door.

“Hey, guys,” he says, stepping inside. “Nick is wondering where you are. Jonathan, he wants to film you and Antoni setting things up in the garage.”

“Ooh, I better go, girls,” Jonathan exclaims. “Or it’ll be off with my little old head.”

“I’ll sweep up,” Louis offers. “And your stuff should be fine here, no one’ll touch it.”

“Lou, you better get changed, too,” Niall says. “Gotta be ready for your closeup.”

“Alright, alright, you two get out of here,” Louis laughs. They saunter off, arm in arm, and Louis smiles fondly. God, he was dreading all of this and now he really is going to miss it.

He makes quick work of sweeping up and figuring out which office the chair needs to go back to before changing out of his comfy clothes into his uniform. One last look in the mirror and a hand through his hair, and he’s off downstairs to see what’s next.

He runs into Fiona as soon as he sets foot in the garage and she orders him to grab some lunch, so Louis heads out back. With Jonathan otherwise occupied, he’s free to fill his plate with pasta and no salad, tucking a piece of bread in his mouth as he waves to Tommy.

It seems like everyone else is finishing up eating, so Louis sits by himself at an empty table. He can use the time to recharge a little. The sun is shining, it’s not quite too hot out yet, and the quiet really is nice. He tries not to think about anything serious as he shovels ravioli in his mouth, giving himself a break to appreciate his sister’s excellent taste in boyfriends. When Tommy can make it to family dinner, he helps cook and it’s always better than anything they can manage on their own.

Louis carries his trash up to the garbage can when he finishes, managing to catch Tommy in a lull.

“Hey, man,” he greets him with a slap on the back. “Enjoying the gig?”

“Yeah!” Tommy says easily, grinning and wiping his brow. “You guys are easy in comparison to some of the sets we’ve been on. And it’s kinda nice to get out of the restaurant, you know?”

“That’s good, that’s good.” Louis’ pretty sure he should get inside soon, he thinks he can see Niall craning his neck inside looking for him. “Hey, d’you know if Lotts is free tonight? Is she working or anything?”

“Nah, think she should be home later,” Tommy replies. “You should text her, I know she’s dying to hear more about all of this and I have no good gossip. You should have seen her when I told her everyone was nice.”

Louis laughs, picturing his sister’s face as Tommy does air quotes with his fingers for the word “nice.” He pats Tommy’s back again.

“Thanks, man,” Louis nods. “I’ll do that. See you later!”

Once inside, Louis sees that one of the fire trucks has been pulled into the middle of the garage, separating it into two areas; it looks like one for filming and one for behind-the-scenes work. Louis peeks around the truck to see Steve filming Antoni and Jonathan bustling around several of the old recliners from upstairs. It looks like they must be down to finishing touches; they’ve already set out small tables with fans and there are plants arranged between the seats. Louis can see some drinks and a blender set up on a table to the side. Huh. Sitting down for drinks doesn’t seem like much of a scene, but what does he know?

Louis wanders back to the coffee table. He’d like another cup, but he can’t tell if it would take the edge off or just make him edgy. Water for now, he decides. As he steps back after leaning forward to grab a bottle, Louis bumps into someone and turns swiftly to steady them.

Him.

Because of course it’s Harry. Harry with his stupidly shiny curls and big green eyes and lush pink lips. And his clumsy baby deer legs. Louis grabs Harry’s elbow as he rights himself, smiling bashfully. His cheeks tinge pink and Louis can’t help grinning.

“Alright there, Curly?” Louis pulls his hand away, but can’t make himself take a step back.

Harry opens his mouth to answer, but no words come out as he looks at Louis, his eyes widening as he reaches a hand up to touch the ends of Louis’ hair, a longer piece from the front that just brushes Louis’ cheekbone. Louis freezes, barely breathing, willing Harry’s hand to graze his skin and looking deeply into the green of Harry’s eyes. He’s close enough to see the gold flecks.

“You look,” Harry murmurs, pausing for long moment, “...um, really good, Lou. You look good.”

He drops his hand and the spell is broken. Louis can breathe again, but his heart is jackrabbiting in his chest. No more coffee, that was definitely the right call.

“Thanks,” he replies finally, smoothing over his hair with his free hand. “Jonathan offered to trim my hair, so, um. Yeah. Thanks, thank you.”

“I really like it,” Harry insists, as though Louis had implied otherwise. “You still look like you, just like polished up a bit.”

Unsure if he should stammer his thanks again, Louis bites his lip. They stand there, staring dumbly at each other for a moment. Nick rushes by, calling out, “No, no, no, use the robes, not towels, for Christ’s sake, do I have do everything around here?” and Harry knits his eyebrows.

“So,” he says casually, looking from Nick back to Louis, “you and Nick didn’t come back to the bar last night.”

And the sentence just hangs in the air between them, like an accusation. Louis can practically see the effort Harry’s putting in to keep his face neutral, but the intense frog expression creeps its way back in. And suddenly Louis get it.

Harry is jealous.

He wants to laugh. It’s preposterous to think of, being jealous of Nick of all people. Nick who can see Louis’ feelings for Harry written all over his face and in everything he does.

“Yeah, after we went for a smoke, I just felt like going home,” Louis explains, biting back a smile. Knowing he’s not being clear enough, he continues, “Nick just walked with me, stretching those ridiculous legs of his, I guess, but Liam picked him up as soon as we got back to my apartment building.”

Harry is still glowering. It’s ridiculous. It’s so fucking cute. Louis is so fucked.

“Yeah, didn’t even invite him upstairs to wait, he probably thinks I’m an asshole.” Louis takes a sip from his water bottle, watching Harry. He processes the information and relaxes his features a bit, but he still doesn’t look happy per se. And as much as Louis is enjoying the idea of a possessive Harry, he wants to reassure him. See him smile again.

“I, um… the truth is, I actually kind of needed someone to talk to,” he says quietly. “A friend. And that turned out to be Nick.”

Harry raises his eyebrows in surprise before concern washes over his face.

“I know, I know,” Louis rushes to say before Harry can open his mouth. “I was surprised it turned out to be him, too, but, um… yeah. So, just… that’s all. I just didn’t feel like going back to the bar after.”

“Lou,” Harry breathes. “You know, you can always talk to me, I’d be happy to–”

“Thanks, Curly,” Louis interrupts. He can see Niall waving to them out of the corner of his eye. “But, um… not yet. I’ll probably take you up on that soon, but I’m not quite… I’m not ready. Yet.”

He looks into Harry’s eyes, willing him to understand.

“Of course,” Harry reassures him. “Yeah, I understand. I’ll, just, um… when you’re ready, come and get me?”

Louis cracks a smile at how close Harry just came to quoting that damn Selena Gomez song from last night.

“Thanks,” he murmurs, patting Harry’s arm.

And with that, he turns to see that Niall is still trying to get their attention.

“Alright, alright, Neil,” he calls. “We’re coming, calm down.”

He laughs as he hears Niall swearing at them under his breath, but Harry’s face remains serious.

“Come on,” Louis says. “We better get over there before Niall loses it. They should just give him his own clipboard at this rate.”

“Louis,” Harry says lowly, tugging on his sleeve to get his full attention. “I, um… I can give you some space, but just… is everything okay?”

“Thanks, Curly,” Louis replies. “Yeah. Yeah, it will be.”

And the thing is, Louis’ actually starting to believe that.

They make their way over to Niall, Louis at a leisurely pace to fuck with him for being so impatient and Harry striding quickly with his long legs, always conscientious. Liam and Shawn are already gathered with Niall, Liam having ditched his toolbelt, thank god.

“Hey, man,” Liam greets him, slinging an arm around his shoulder. “Alright?”

“Alright,” Louis nods, leaning into him a little. He really has been craving a cuddle.

“Okay, guys,” Nick says, rounding the corner of the firetruck separating them from Jonathan and Antoni and whatever they’ve prepared. “Just a few more minutes and we’ll send you in.”

Niall and Shawn shuffle to line up behind Louis and Liam, and Harry moves to stand behind them. Louis misses his close, confusing physical presence, but his head already feels a little clearer from the space and Liam’s hand rubbing his shoulder. Jade rushes up and quickly works her mic magic on him, everyone else apparently taken care of while Louis was busy either at lunch or staring into Harry’s eyes.

He’s tempted to tuck himself back under Liam’s arm, but he lines up behind him instead. Louis can walk into this on his own.

“Breaker breaker one nine,” Jonathan’s voice comes over the truck’s loudspeaker, “this is the queer spa in the firemen’s garage, come on down, we’re ready for ya.”

Queer spa?

Remembering that Fiona’s direction for high energy probably applies to every scene, Louis raises his eyebrows and oohs and ahs at the setup in front of them. Now that Jonathan has said the word spa, he understands why there are robes draped on the backs of the recliners and little tubs set out in front of them. The potted plants must be there for ambience, while the fans are vital for some kind of ventilation as the afternoon gets hotter. Louis is definitely not cold anymore in his uniform. There’s even a little cart like the kind Lottie and her coworkers use at the salon, but Louis can’t tell what all is on its shelves.

“Hey guys,” Antoni greets them with a wide smile. Louis blinks when he takes in the bandana wrapped around his head. It seems kind of… pinup girl? But he’s quickly learning that’s the kind of preconceived notion that doesn’t really mean anything.

“Ooh, this is Blanche welcoming you to the spa, honey,” Jonathan vamps over the speaker. “Hi. How are you guys? Feeling good, feeling excited?”

They all laugh and whoop a little, and Louis is a little torn between nerves and excitement, but he joins in as they each take a fancy drink from Antoni and settle into recliners. He and Liam are at one end, with Shawn and Niall in the middle and Harry down at the other end. Louis tries not to stare, the other guys are all taking in their surroundings, but he’s spotted something on Harry’s shirt collar that he somehow hadn’t noticed at all before and can’t quite make out. He’d been a little too captivated by his face apparently. In Louis’ defense, it is stupidly pretty.

“Everyone take a seat, welcome to the spa,” Jonathan says confidently as he walks toward the table that Louis had assumed was stocked with refreshments but now he’s not so sure. “So you guys, what we’re going to do today is we’re going make a little footbath, and we’re doing a gorgeous DIY face mask.” He grabs a pitcher and starts to fill Harry’s footbath with water before moving down the line. “Take off your sockies, ooh, I hope we got some winners, I really hope so.”

Niall cackles the second that Harry pulls his socks off, drawing everyone’s attention.

“Oh my god, Harry,” he wheezes. “I love you, man, but those are the ugliest feet I have ever seen.”

“Like hobbit feet!” Liam exclaims, pulling off his work boots.

Normally Louis would jump right in, he loves the good-natured teasing they always engage in, but it’s a little offensive honestly. Harry’s feet are fine. (Basically.) He has to tamp down the urge to reassure Harry, who doesn’t even look bothered, just setting aside his shoes and socks and grinning at the group.

“Put those dogs on in, take a dip,” Jonathan instructs as he finishes up pouring water into each foot bath. Louis listens as he rolls his pant legs up a little. “I feel like when you have a stressful job, you have to, like, create little pockets of joy in your life to, like, take care of yourself. Do you guys know–” he holds up a red fan (where did that come from?) and dramatically snaps it open to fan himself “–about the calming properties that essential oils can have in your life?”

“Um, yeah.” Jonathan gasps and everyone’s heads swivel to the usually quiet Shawn, who looks a little pained. “My mom, she, um, she’s into all that.”

Jonathan smiles and nods encouragingly at Shawn, who blushes a light pink, apparently done with all he had to say.

“Anyone else?” Jonathan asks, looking around for a moment. “No? Okay.”

He moves to pick something up from the spa supplies table, as Louis now thinks of it.

“We have lavender, peppermint, tea tree and eucalyptus,” Jonathan announces, holding up four vials. “Tea tree, like, it’s antimicrobial, antibacterial so it promotes healthy skin, which is gorgeous. Let’s do some tea tree, couple dobs will do ya,” he walks around, squeezing a couple of drops into each tub.

Louis scrambles a little to put his feet into the tub in front of him, sure that he was supposed to have done it already. The water is warm, not hot, and it feels… fine? He’s not sure how tea tree oil is supposed to feel. On his feet.

“Peppermint oil is energizing, here you go, so rub it in your palms,” Jonathan continues as he walks back down the line of recliners, squeezing drops from another vial into everyone’s hands, “then sit back into your chair, close your eyes and put the palms in your face and then just take a really deep breath in your nose. Hold it at the top and then exhale out your mouth ha. Gorgeous, then blink your eyes open, welcome back.”

Louis is still having trouble keeping up with Jonathan’s instructions, lifting his hands to his face and then lowering them a beat behind everyone else. The weird thing is he does feel kind of energized. Maybe Shawn’s mom and Jonathan are on to something.

Jonathan moves back over to the table as he continues, “Face masks can be like a little bit of an expensive moment, so you can actually make a lot of them on your own at home.”

There’s a flash of movement at the corner of Louis’ eye and he looks from Jonathan over to Harry, who’s taken the object from his collar and is now moving it to his hair. Is that… that’s a hair clip. Louis’ an idiot for not recognizing the familiar shape sooner, his home had been littered with them growing up. The girls have probably left a few at his apartment even.

Mesmerized, he watches as Harry swoops up the front of his hair and clips it in a practiced move. As with most things that Harry does, it’s both cute and hot. Louis smooths his hair off of his forehead, half of him wishing for a clip himself and half of him knowing he’s not like Harry, he cares too much about what the guys – and fuck, the viewers – would think.

Remembering that there will be viewers snaps Louis out of it and he turns his attention back to what Jonathan is saying.

“... egg white and peach face mask. And you’re going to blend that sucker into a gorgeous pudding consistency,” Jonathan says, pausing when Antoni pours a mixture from the blender he’s behind into a dish that Jonathan is holding. He moves behind the recliners and starts to paint it onto Harry’s face with a little brush. As he moves on to Shawn, he explains, “The enzymes in the peach clarify the skin and they also encourage your skin to detoxify, which I was thinking for you guys since you’re around smokey-wokeyness all the time that would kind of be nice.”

Smokey-wokeyness. Louis is definitely going to miss him. He hopes Jonathan was serious about keeping in touch.

Louis notices that Niall grabbed the robe from behind him to cover his uniform before Jonathan applied the mixture to his face. He thinks about doing the same when it’s his turn, but he’s lazier and far less neat than Niall is. He rests his head back and closes his eyes, appreciating the gentle brushstrokes but not the chilled goop now covering his face. Luckily it’s not over his eyelids so he can open his eyes. He’d feel a little too vulnerable keeping them closed.

“So all of you guys all have families,” Antoni says, a concerned look on his face. “That must be hard in your relationships after a long day like that.”

Even though he didn’t really say like what, they all immediately know what he means. It’s the question about the job they all get asked most frequently; how do you switch off when you clock out? Louis’ been doing this job for years now, and he still can’t quite put it into words.

“Sure, sure,” Niall says, nodding seriously. “You try to be as there as much you can after, like, a bad fire or a bad medic call or something like that and then you go home and you gotta just tell yourself you did everything you could, you tried everything you can, but it’s tough to not get personal.”

From the look on Antoni’s face, that breaks his heart a little. Louis appreciates the concern, but he’s always struggled when concern starts to feel like pity. His mom had been proud, and so is he. He sits back to listen, unsure he could make a worthwhile contribution to the conversation right now.

“You try to turn it off,” Shawn adds, “but it’s not always possible.”

“You’ve got to find constructive, productive ways to destress,” Niall says matter-of-factly. He gestures toward his face, “and it looks like you fellas have got some new suggestions for us.”

Everyone laughs at that, and the tension that had gathered in Louis’ shoulders dissolves. They chit-chat about nothing for a few minutes and then Antoni grabs a tray of rolled-up towels from the supply table and starts passing them out.

“Wipe the egg white nectarine peach off your faces,” he instructs, making his way to each of them.

Louis is grateful to wipe his face off. The goop had hardened a little and was starting to feel kind of constricting. His skin feels nice, though. Maybe he should show off his new spa skills to the girls, he can’t even imagine what a kick they would get out of this.

“As hot as it is out here,” Liam starts to giggle, “I’m about to have scrambled eggs on my face.”

They all laugh again and Louis decides to use his robe to dry off his feet. Liam gets up and refills his drink, which looks to be a bit of a challenge due to the large watermelon slice sticking out of the mason jar glass. Jonathan perches on the recliner that Liam left empty and looks around at them like he’s proud. Maybe he is, they did try something new with no complaining. Louis stands and stretches, noticing that a bunch of guys are sitting around behind them, watching the action instead of doing truck maintenance as he’s pretty sure the work schedule calls for.

Interesting.

“Harry, your skin looks amazing,” Jonathan remarks, chin in hand.

“He’s glowing,” Niall laughs, poking Harry’s shoulder.

Harry grins, looking embarrassed but pleased at the compliment. Louis wonders again exactly how old he was when he got hot.

“I mean, you’re truly glowing, those enzymes from that peach did wonders,” Jonathan says seriously. “And honestly, before that face mask, like, I couldn’t bear the sight of you but now you look amazing.”

Everyone cracks up at that, including Harry. Louis admires a lot of things about Jonathan by now, and he mentally adds sense of humor to the list. It’s interesting to Louis how Jonathan can go from a serious talk about being vulnerable and letting people take care of him to this kind of banter that the guys are used to. There isn’t really one box that Jonathan fits into in Louis’ mind, he keeps surprising him.

“That’s a wrap, guys,” Nick calls out. “That’s a great note to end on, good work. Now, let’s clean this up, I promised Geoff we’d have this cleared up by 5:00.”

They all pitch in, gathering up the spa stuff and moving the plants, fans and recliners. Louis can’t help but notice that Harry, whose hair is still clipped up (which looks ridiculous but also perfect on him), is keeping his distance. Not in a mean way, he smiles whenever Louis catches his eyes, but it’s definitely on purpose.

So he really meant it when he said he could give Louis space until he was ready to talk. Like, literally. He’s giving him space. Louis’ heart clenches at the realization. Harry took him at his word right away, and respected his needs. That’s… that’s a lot. That’s more than Louis expected. He’s not sure why; above all else, Harry seems like a genuinely decent person. But Louis’ never been in a relationship before, so he’s not really sure what he can ask for or expect.

Relationship.

Obviously, Louis knows he and Harry aren’t in a relationship. Obviously. But unless he’s reading the situation incredibly, devastatingly wrong, maybe they could be sometime down the road. And maybe Harry would be just as perfect at it as he is at everything else.

At that moment, Harry trips over a stray leaf that’s fallen from one of the potted plants.

Well, perfect at everything except for staying on his feet.

Louis smiles to himself as he makes his way over to Nick.

“Alright, Louis?” he asks, playful smirk firmly back in place.

“Alright, Nicholas,” he replies before lowering his voice a little. “Hey, thanks again–”

“Don’t mention it,” Nick interrupts, not unkindly, smirk relaxing into a smile. “But really, you alright today?”

“Yeah, yeah, all good,” Louis says, nodding. He smooths his hair over his forehead, hoping it’s free of hardened goop. “Listen–”

“Yeah, you’re all done, you can head out,” Nick says, looking down to tick something off on his paperwork. “And if we ever work together again, don’t even think about putting scissors to your hair before we’re done filming, got it?”

“Got it!” Laughing, Louis makes his escape before Nick can say anything else. He stops by Jade, who Shawn is still attempting to flirt with going by the blush on his face, and she winks at Louis as she gets his mic pack back and unwinds cords. Maybe she’s wise to Shawn after all.

Louis heads up the stairs two at a time, eager to get back into his comfy clothes, beanie and all. Heat and haircut be damned, Louis needs to feel cozy. He checks his phone at his locker after changing, making up his mind and texting Lottie before he can second-guess himself. She invites herself over for a glass of wine and instructs him to get leftovers from Tommy before leaving the fire station.

Louis is buzzing with nerves as he heads back downstairs in search of craft services, but there’s some excitement threaded in there, too. He’s been treading water for far too long. It’s about time he does something. Lets someone take care of him.

Niall intercepts Louis on his way out back and walks with him, going on and on about his soft skin and how jealous Hailee is going to be when she hears about their day. Everyone they pass smiles and waves, including Harry. Louis kind of wishes he’d pop up by Louis’ side, startling him with muffin recommendations again or something, but he appreciates that he doesn’t, trusting Louis to come find him when he’s ready.

Tommy packs up some chicken parmesan and angel hair for him, along with salad and a couple of brownies. Louis takes the brown paper bag gratefully, calling out goodbyes as he heads toward his truck. Plugging his phone in again, he wonders what song is going to randomly come up this time.

When your legs don't work like they used to before

Louis raises his eyebrows. Ed fucking Sheeran?

And I can’t sweep you off your feet

Louis had thought he’d deleted this track from his phone one day in a huff, upset that he wouldn’t able to have a love to look back on in his old age himself someday. Apparently not, he must just have violently pressed the skip button.

Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love

Will your eyes still smile from your cheeks

Louis gets a little lost in the lyrics, letting himself be serenaded by the English (Irish? English) singer. He drives home on autopilot, arriving before he can think consciously about each turn he has to make. He parks and shuts the truck off, sitting in the cab for a few moments, thinking. Not out loud, but about how much closer he might be to ready than he’d thought just a few days ago.

He jogs up the stairs to his apartment and, once inside, puts the food in the kitchen. He grabs plates, silverware and wine glasses, and sets them next to the paper bag on the counter, wondering if Lottie will immediately know something is up. But it’s not like the food is in actual containers, they need plates.

And they will definitely need wine glasses.

Louis busies himself tidying the apartment, but he gives up when he realizes he’s just been moving piles of stuff around. He sits and cycles through his social media apps as he waits, looking up and following Jonathan before biting the bullet and following all of the Fab Five, even Bobby who he’s barely gotten a chance to see.

Finally there’s a light tapping on the door and Lottie lets herself in without waiting. Louis gets up to greet her.

“Hey Lotts,” he says warmly, taking the wine bottle she’s carrying and giving her a side hug. “’S good to see you.”

“I just saw you the other day,” she protests. Her beautiful (and beautifully made up) face breaks into a smile. “Don’t act like I’ve been avoiding you or something.”

“Can’t a big brother miss his baby sister?” Louis teases, heading into the kitchen. Lottie slings her purse onto the couch and follows him, texting rapidly and not looking up.

“Sorry, just replying to Fiz,” she says distractedly. “They can’t find Doris’ plushie and she’s freaking out.”

“Tell them to check the treehouse,” Louis suggests, pouring the wine. He’s normally not a big red wine drinker, but he knows it’ll go well with their leftover Italian. “It’s harder for her to climb down holding it than climb up, so she leaves it there and then forgets.”

“Fuck, you’re right,” Lottie mutters, her fingers flying over her phone. “Bet you anything that’s what happened.”

She sets her phone down and takes in the spread on the counter.

“Special occasion, Lou?” she asks, starting to plate their meals.

“You said to get leftovers from Tommy,” Louis insists. “This is what leftovers from Tommy looks like. We’ll eat on the couch if that makes you feel better.”

Lottie looks askance over at Louis’ small dining table wedged in the corner of the kitchen, absolutely covered in junk: mail, a few books, even a pair of shoes. So that’s where those ended up.

“Yeah, okay, come on, I’m starving,” she says, taking her plate and glass into the living room area. She leaves her phone in the kitchen and Louis is about to remind her to grab it when he realizes that maybe she’s done it on purpose so as to give him her full attention. Maybe she does try to take care of him more than he realizes.

He settles on the couch next to her and they talk about a job on a film set that Lottie’s boss Lou is trying to help her get before she makes him fill her in more about filming. She squawks when he tells her about the haircut (not the conversation, just the trim) and squeals about how good it looks and how she can’t believe she didn’t notice.

Once they’re done eating, Lottie gets up to grab the wine bottle and tops off both of their glasses. She sits back with hers and looks at Louis expectantly.

“What?” Louis asks, laughing nervously.

“What did you want to talk about, Lou?” she asks. “You can’t fool me, I’ve known you my whole life. Something’s up. Talk to me.”

Louis shifts back to mirror her position on the couch and takes a sip of wine, thinking about where to start.

“Lou, whatever it is,” Lottie says gently, “it’s gonna be okay. I promise.”

“So, you know about the show,” Louis starts, immediately feeling stupid. Of course she knows about the show, they were literally just talking about it. “Um, well… having them here, and being around these guys, it’s, uh… I’ve been thinking a lot lately, and–”

“And what?” Lottie asks, her clear voice soft, as she scratches lightly at the back of Louis’ head the way their mom used to.

“And I think it might be time for me to tell you something,” Louis replies, all in a rush. His hands are shaking, so he balances his wine glass against his thigh. There’s a rush of blood to his head and he swallows hard. He takes a few deep breaths, in and out, trying to focus on the feel of Lottie’s fingers on his scalp.

“Okay, Lou. Whenever you’re ready, I’ve got all night if you need. I’m in no hurry to be anywhere.”

Louis exhales shakily, trying to convince himself he deserves her kindness. He recalls Jonathan’s words: You matter, you’re important, you’re enough.

He can do this. He’s ready.

He looks to his sister and meets her eyes, seeing the love and concern in them.

“I’m gay,” he says simply, resisting the urge to get up and pace around the room, forcing himself to be still.

Lottie gently takes his wine glass from him and leans forward to set both of theirs on the table before wrapping her arms around him. She murmurs, “Oh, Lou,” as she tucks his head under her chin and starts to rock him just a little.

He’s not sure how long he lets her hold him, eyes closed, basking in the cuddle he’s needed so badly all day. For longer than that, probably.

He can’t stand not knowing, so eventually he whispers, “Did you know?”

Lottie keeps one arm around him and rests her head against his. She hesitates and it makes Louis nervous; he’s not sure what he wants to hear, but based on the hug she just gave him, he thinks she’s probably just trying to choose the kindest words.

“I thought maybe,” she says finally. “You know what an old salt Mom was, right? She was the absolute best person to gossip with, would tell you exactly what she thought of people.”

Louis laughs suddenly, warmed by the unexpected memory, before wondering how that connects to his coming out.

Fuck. Coming out. He’s really doing this.

“And when you started dating,” Lottie says, laughing a little, “you had, like, the worst taste in girls, Lou. The worst. Remember Eleanor?”

Louis winces. How could he forget?

“And Mom would never talk shit about any of the girls you went out with,” Lottie continues, rubbing her hand soothingly over his shoulder. “And I would be so confused, and all she would say is ‘leave him alone, he’ll figure it out in his own time.’ And after a few years, you kind of stopped trying and she said the same thing. So I just thought… maybe. You know?”

“She said that?” Louis asks softly, tears forming in his eyes.

“Yeah, Lou,” Lottie says, bumping her head against his. “She was pretty smart. It seems like you are figuring it out in your own time, huh?”

“I just…” Tears start to stream down Louis’ face. “I just didn’t feel ready before, didn’t want to face it. This town–”

“This town is changing,” Lottie interrupts. “Maybe not fast enough, but it is.”

“What are people going to think?” Louis chokes out.

“Fuck what people think,” Lottie scoffs. “No one who matters is going to think of you any differently, Lou. Dan won’t, the girls won’t. Liam won’t, I’m sure of it. His mom will probably bake you a pie.”

Louis laughs, wiping the tears from his face. Lottie starts counting off on her hands, “Niall and Hailee aren’t going to treat you any different, or Stan, or Lou. Shawn. Definitely not Tommy, he fucking loves you. No one who matters would.”

She turns to look at him, and wipes the last of the tears away with her thumb.

“And anyone who’s rude to you will have to answer to me,” she says fiercely. “I’ve been working out. Those kickboxing classes at the gym are amazing.”

Louis feels a pang in his heart. “You remind me so much of her, Lottie,” he says quietly.

They sit silently for a few moments, not needing words to know they’re feeling the same things.

“I love you, Lou,” Lottie says. “You’ve always been there for me, I’ve always been able to go to you with problems and for advice. I’m glad that you came to me, that you trusted me with this. I swear it doesn’t change how much I love you. You’ll always be my favorite brother. Favorite big brother, anyway.”

Louis is struck by an embarrassing thought amidst an overwhelming surge of love for his sister.

“Do you think anyone else knows?”

“I don’t know,” she says honestly. “I’ve never talked about it with anybody, even Tommy or Fizzy.”

“Really?” Louis asks. His mom wasn’t the only one known for gossip in their family.

“Really,” Lottie insists, giving him a light smack on the back of his head. “There’s some things you don’t gossip about, Lou.”

Louis nods as Lottie leans forward for their wine glasses, handing him his and taking a sip from hers.

“What do you think, do you think anyone knows?” she asks.

“Yeah,” Louis admits. “This guy, Nick, one of the producers, he can read people, like, really well. I actually, um,” he pauses, feeling guilty, “I kind of talked to him last night about it.”

“That’s great, Lou!” Lottie says, no trace of hurt or anger on her face. “I’m really proud of you.”

“Thanks,” Louis mumbles, his cheeks heating up as he remembers who else might suspect.

“What?” Lottie demands. “What is that face for? You’re blushing.”

Louis attempts to cover his face but she wrestles his hand away. Those gym sessions really are paying off.

“Louis William Tomlinson,” Lottie says, “do you have a crush on a boy? Who is he? What’s his name? Tell me everything.”

Louis gives up pretending he’s not dying to talk about him.

“His name is Harry.”

Chapter Text

Day Four

The morning of their last day of filming is a particularly hot one. The sun beats down on Louis as he walks into the fire station garage, warming the fabric of his crisp blue uniform covering his shoulders. He thinks about how he doesn’t feel quite the same weight resting there as he ambles through the propped-open door, not particularly bothered by the heat. It’s the cold that always bothered him anyway, as he loudly sings along when the family watches Frozen biweekly. (Still.) Louis has cycled through just about every emotion known to man over the past few days, sometimes several at the same time, and he’s still worn out but what he’s feeling most this morning is relief.

That more than anything – his talks with Nick and Jonathan, Harry returning his lingering glances – convinces him that he’s done the right thing, is doing the right thing. Lottie stayed for a couple of hours the night before, dragging every last detail about Harry out of him and topping off their red wine more than once. Louis feels giddy thinking about it, how close he’d felt to his sister. It wasn’t until he stopped editing himself in front of her that he realized how much he’d been doing it and how exhausting it had been.

He can only imagine how he’ll feel when he doesn’t have to edit himself in front of anyone.

The by-now familiar scene of his friends milling around the tables laden with coffee, snacks and TV screens greets him and Louis pauses to smile. Somehow the past few days have both felt like a lifetime and gone by in a flash. It’s not going to be the same, coming to work without the crew bustling around, Nick commanding attention and–

“Good morning, Lou-Lou!” Jonathan trills as he waves Louis over. He’s drinking coffee with Niall and Shawn over to the side of the room. Louis weaves through the throng, making his way to where they’re sitting in folding chairs. It seems like not much is going on, everyone seems to just be passing the time chatting and munching on the breakfast spread.

Nick and Harry are standing directly in his path, laughing over who knows what, but Harry moves to walk away just as Louis reaches them, accidentally blocking his way. Louis smiles shyly at him, looking up through his eyelashes and sure his cheeks are pink. Harry shrugs, looking deeply into Louis’ eyes and smiling back, and then he moves to his left at the same moment that Louis moves to his right.

Louis lets out a high-pitched laugh as they both move to the same side again. It should be awkward but Louis just feels giddy again as Harry cocks a grin at him before placing his hands on Louis’ hips and gently guiding him to one side as he moves to the other.

Louis can’t breathe as Harry gives his hips a light squeeze before dropping his hands and strolling away. He stands motionless for a moment before Nick’s cackles invade his consciousness. He looks up, glowering, and Nick pats his back, whispering, “You’re alright,” before moving away as well.

He is alright. He is fine. That was just the most sexually charged moment of his life, is all.

Well, aside from the yoga.

“Lou -is,” Jonathan whines from his seat. “Hurry up, baby girl, it’s our last day and I wanna hang out with you.”

“Yeah, come on, baby girl,” Niall chimes in. “Got you a coffee and everything.”

Shawn grins from his seat next to Niall, looking like he’s on the verge of joining in, but settling for a quick wave at Louis.

Louis pulls up a chair and gratefully accepts the coffee from Niall, made with just the right amount of milk judging by the shade of brown. As he nods at Niall, taking a sip (yes, just right), Louis wonders just how observant Niall really is.

“Honey, how was your night?” Jonathan asks. “I fell asleep halfway through an episode of Bake Off, your girl was tired. This heat, my word. It wears a girl out.”

“It was good, yeah,” Louis replies, unsure of how much to say in front of Niall and Shawn, who are listening attentively. “My sister, Lottie, she came over for dinner and we, uh, talked for a long time. Catching up.”

Jonathan raises his eyebrows almost to his hairline and mouths the words “take care” and “you,” pointing emphatically at Louis before moving his hand to smooth over the bandana in his hair as Niall and Shawn pivot to look at him. Louis grins, nodding back at him, and Jonathan practically melts.

“I’m pretty tired,” Louis continues. “Don’t know about you guys, but this has all been wiping me out.”

“Yeah,” Shawn says earnestly, nodding. “Yeah, it’s been a lot.”

“You tired, Shawny?” Niall asks, rubbing Shawn’s shoulder. “Must be, you never complain.”

Louis looks back to Jonathan, who’s studying Louis’ face.

“You know what, angel face,” he says suddenly, standing up, “I have an idea, why don’t we all do some self care while we wait for Karamo and Liam to get back?”

“They’re not here?” Louis cranes his neck, looking around the garage. “Where are they?”

“Who knows,” Niall laughs as they all follow suit, standing up. “Some kind of pep talk or coaching or something. Fiona’ll track us down when they need us, though. What’ve you got in mind, Jonathan?”

“Follow me,” Jonathan declares, turning authoritatively and walking to the coffee table. Louis watches as he grabs a few teabags and empty cups before waving for them to follow him as he walks out back.

“Tom-Tom!” Jonathan calls out when they walk out the back garage door, waving with his free hand. Tommy turns from where he’s unloading a cooler and his whole face breaks into a grin when his eyes land on Louis.

Louis smiles hesitantly back. He and Lottie had talked about it, and he knew that she was going to tell Tommy about him. He just can’t tell whether she has or not yet.

“Hey, guys!” Tommy says cheerfully. He wipes off his hands and walks over, wrapping Louis in a hug and kissing his cheek. He steps back and ruffles Louis’ hair, saying quietly, “Lottie told me you guys had a good talk last night, man.”

He’s still smiling and Louis lets himself believe that it’s because he knows what Louis and Lottie had talked about. And that… that’s a lot.

That feels fucking great.

“Yeah, yeah,” Louis says, unable to keep the grin off of his face. “Yeah, was good. I was really glad she could come over. We demolished that chicken parm, thanks.”

“Of course, man,” Tommy replies good-naturedly, “would’ve just gone to waste, otherwise. We banked on firemen having bigger appetites.”

“These big, strong, strapping young men, of course you did, Tommers,” Jonathan says. “Now, Tommy, gorgeous, can you do us a tremendous favor, por favor?”

“Sure, what is it?” Tommy ask, agreeable as ever.

“Can you fill these cups with ice and then with water,” Jonathan starts, setting the plastic cups he’s holding on the table, “and then, please, could we get this one with just ice? And a few of your finest paper napkins, if you please?”

“No problem,” Tommy says as he moves to comply.

“Ugh, you are too good,” Jonathan remarks wistfully. “I just want to pack all of you Southern gentlemen up in my bag and bring you home with me.”

“Too bad we won’t fit, huh?” Tommy says as he finishes filling the cups. Niall and Shawn step forward to take them, nodding thanks at Tommy.

“Thanks, Tommy,” Louis says quietly. He looks up, hoping Tommy understands what he means.

“No need to thank me, Lou,” Tommy says, looking him in the eye, “but you’re welcome.”

Jonathan is about to melt again, clearly picking up that there’s subtext, so Louis smiles and hurries to say, “Alright, boss, what next? What did we need ice water for? Just because of the heat?”

“Oh, no, ma’am,” Jonathan says, snapping his finger. “Follow me, right along this way!”

They follow Jonathan through the garage and up the stairs as he leads them toward the locker room. He gestures for Niall and Shawn to set down their cups on the counter, and then they join Louis in sitting on the bench.

“Okay, boys,” Jonathan says, clapping his hands together, “you got the full treatment yesterday, but we’re gonna do a lil mini spa day now. Now, boo-boo, you’re tired and fully no offense, you know I would die for you, but your eyes are a touch puffy. It happens.”

“Don’t be embarrassed, Lou, it happens,” Niall nods, pulling a serious face for a moment before collapsing into giggles with Shawn.

“It does, no more sass out of you now,” Jonathan scolds. He takes a deep breath and turns back to Louis. “Now, one thing you can do is cold teabags on your eyelids for a few minutes. What I’m gonna do is take these black teabags and put them in ice water for a few minutes, until the water is like a nice medium-brown tint, and then we’re gonna place them on your eyes, all it takes is five minutes.”  

Jonathan turns his back and busies himself at the counter. Louis looks over at Niall and can tell he’s bursting with some kind of teabagging joke, so he shoves at Niall’s shoulder and shakes his head at him.

“What about the cup with just ice?” Shawn asks, apparently more mature than his best friend.

“That is an excellent question,” Jonathan says, turning to explain. “So we’re gonna have these two” – gesturing toward Louis and Niall – “do some teabagging, yeah, I know exactly what you boys are thinking over there, and you, Shawners, and I are gonna do this trick that Karamo absolutely swears by.”

Louis gives in and cracks up with Niall, laughing until tears stream down his face. It feels good to cry for a happy, silly reason, unlike the emotional crying he’s done the last couple of days.

“Okay, sit still,” Jonathan instructs as he walks over with the soaked teabags in hand. Louis tilts his head back and closes his eyes, and Jonathan places the chilled pouches just so over his eyelids.

“I’ll let you know when you can take them off, okay, boys?” Louis hears Jonathan say from a distance. He automatically nods, causing one of the bags to slip so he quickly rights it.

“Like I said, you only need about five minutes for the caffeine in the tea to kick in, it’s great for reducing puffiness,” Jonathan’s voice continues. “Now you and me, Shawnsy, we are each going to take an ice cube and just roll it all over our faces, every last bit of skin, until it’s completely melted. This is good for exfoliation, it’ll do wonders for your skin, even though, let’s face it, you are gorgeous right now, I swear to god, honey, you have this old Hollywood star look about you, who are you, Montgomery Clift or something? Who gave you permission?”

Louis feels Niall poke his side and flinches. They mess with each other for the rest of their five minutes, seeing who can catch the other off guard. Louis manages to keep both teabags over his eyes, so he considers himself the winner when he hears Jonathan admonish Niall after one of his falls to the floor.

“What has gotten into you boys, huh?” Jonathan asks. “Last-day-of-school jitters or something, I swear.”

“I can’t believe it’s the last day already,” Louis says. “We’re really going to miss you around here.”

And from Jonathan’s smile, hands clutching at his face, Louis can tell he knows Louis means that he’ll miss him.

“Do not make me cry right now, you guys,” Jonathan says, waving his hands in front of his eyes. “We just exfoliated.”

They’re laughing when someone bangs on the door before opening it a crack.

“Everyone decent?” Fiona calls in. “We need you downstairs, we’re ten minutes out and Jade needs to finish mic’ing everyone.”

While Louis throws away their trash and Jonathan composes himself, Niall and Shawn jockey for space in front of the mirror to admire their skin. To be fair, their skin does look really good.

“Um, you too, honey bunny,” Jonathan says to Louis, gently guiding him to stand in front of the mirror. “Look, your eyes are a tad less puffy now and they feel better, too, right?”

“Yeah, actually,” Louis says, blinking, surprised to realize that Jonathan is right. He meets Jonathan’s knowing eyes in the mirror and shrugs. “This stuff is easier than I thought it would be. How did you, like, learn all of it?”

Jonathan slings his arm around Louis’ shoulder as they follow Niall and Shawn out of the locker room. “Easy, baby girl. The thing is, nobody gave me permission, so I had to give myself permission. There’s like, whole worlds out there waiting for you, you just gotta give yourself permission to go find them. Right?”

“Yeah,” Louis nods, swallowing hard. “Yeah, I’m working on it.”

“Good!” Jonathan squeals, hugging Louis closer to his side. “I’m honestly, like, so proud of you right now. You had a good night last night? With your sister?”

“Yeah,” Louis murmurs. “It was really good, it was. Thank you.”

“For what, sugarbean?” Jonathan asks, clasping his free hand to his heart.

“Everything,” Louis says simply. “Everything.”

“Sto -op,” Jonathan exclaims. “I told you I cannot cry right now!”

Louis laughs as they reach the work station where Jade is going through her mic routine. This is the last morning that Louis will stand still for her expert hands clipping and threading wires, he realizes. How did he get so attached to all of these people so quickly?

“Guys, come on, let’s go,” Nick calls out as he strides over, headset on and clipboard firmly in hand. “We’re five minutes out, and we need you by the front garage door, acting–”

“Naturally?” Louis supplies, adopting an innocent expression.

“Naturally,” Nick confirms, either not knowing or caring anymore that Louis is mocking him. He turns and strides back to wherever he came from, clipping orders over his headset.

“I told you she needs to relax, didn’t I?” Jonathan says aside to him, as Jade finishes with his mic.

“Not in the cards,” Fiona tosses out as she passes by them, wearily following Nick in his path of giving direction. Jade giggles as she takes care of Louis’ mic quickly and efficiently. He gives her a hug when she’s done, and she nods in understanding as he and Jonathan set out to join the scene at the front of the garage.

All of the Fab Five aside from Karamo are there, chatting with Niall and Shawn and Geoff, who Louis hasn’t seen since before filming started. He walks up and claps Geoff’s back, smiling at the cluster of guys around them and listening as Tan continues a story.

“So he asked which ones of us are sleeping together,” Tan says, calmly scandalized. Everyone shakes their heads, grimacing, as he goes on, “I mean, he used different words, but I won’t repeat them. And so I said to him, that is so rude. Gay people can just be friends.”

“Who are you talking about?” Louis asks, his stomach dropping. He has a pretty good idea, but wants confirmation.

“Ben,” Niall says. To an outsider, Niall probably looks calm, like his usual easygoing self, but maybe because Louis knows him pretty well by now, he can tell Niall is ruffled.

“That’s what I thought,” Louis replies. “Listen, he–”

“He doesn’t speak for any of us,” Niall interrupts.

Geoff nods. “That’s for damn sure.”

Louis swivels his head to Geoff, taking in his serious expression. He hasn’t heard Geoff swear since… ever, maybe?

“Right, son?” Geoff says, turning to look Louis in the eyes.

“Right, sir,” Louis replies faintly.

“I’ll talk to him,” Geoff says to Tan. “I know y’all are leaving today, but that’s not right. I’ve let things that like slide for far too long now, and I don’t want it to continue. Not in my fire station.”

Louis is speechless. Geoff is a good man, he has always treated Louis with kindness, and Louis has always thought of him as a kind of a father figure, since he and Liam were kids. But there are lots of good men in this town who let people like Ben talk that way. Or talk that way themselves. He stands next to Geoff a little dazed, thinking that maybe someday he’ll be able to tell him how much these words mean to him.

A horn honks in the driveway and Louis is yanked out of his own head. He looks around, taking in the cameras filming as Karamo parks the black pickup truck and he and Liam emerge to a smattering of applause and cheers.

“Hey, boys,” Karamo shouts as they walk over.

“You’ve arrived!” Antoni replies as everyone starts to exchange hugs in greeting. Amidst the chatter, Louis can make out all of the fab four who’d been waiting exclaim loudly over how good Liam looks. When he looks over, Liam looks the same to Louis, black polo and khakis, but he thinks Liam might be carrying himself a little differently. Walking a bit taller? Louis guesses he does look good.

“Superman’s here!” Karamo bellows cheerfully, pointing to the back of the crowd. Louis turns to look, wondering how he missed spotting Harry when they came downstairs. Maybe Harry avoided Louis a little? Still giving him the space he needs, waiting for Louis to approach him.

Louis watches fondly as Harry smiles bashfully, meeting Karamo halfway and slapping hands with him before Karamo pulls him into a hug. Never one to miss an opportunity to poke fun, Niall rushes up to Liam and ropes him into a similar but overcomplicated handshake.

Jonathan tracks the movements with his eyes, nodding as he says, “Yeah, you gotta do it, yeah, yeah,” as all the guys laugh. Niall and Liam finish the impromptu routine to more laughs and some clapping, and Jonathan exclaims, “I love straight people!”

Louis notices movement out of the corner of his eye and looks to see Nick gesturing emphatically about something.

“All right, Liam,” Tan says loudly, getting everyone’s attention. Liam’s expression immediately becomes serious and sincere as he nods to Tan, indicating he’s listening. “Bobby’s been working real hard on this place, are you ready to see it?”

There’s a chorus of “Ready?”s from the rest of the Fab Five and Louis’ pretty sure no one is faking the high energy for the sake of the scene when they nod and whoop. They all line up behind up Geoff as Bobby calls out, “Come on, boys!” over his shoulder, waving them to follow him up the stairs.

Louis troops up the stairs behind Niall, noticing that Harry hung back toward the end of the line. They come to a stop in the hallway and Bobby turns to face them, standing in front of the dark blue curtains that have blocked off the common area for the past few days.

“Ready?” Bobby teases, before moving to part the curtains with his hands. The rod falls down but he goes with it, catching it handily and waving it around like a bullfighter. It’s too bad that Bobby’s specialty kept him so busy, Louis thinks, he’s barely spoken with him.

They spill through the doorway into the common room and Louis doesn’t even recognize the space as the same one he’s been coming to work to for the past five years. Everyone is gasping and covering their mouths, and Louis is sure he hears a soft expletive or two. He barely notices Steve and Ed maneuvering around with their cameras on their shoulders catching their reactions; he’s too overwhelmed to react very much at all.

There’s been so much going on in Louis’ head, and he’s been so tired, he keeps forgetting the reality of the work that these people have done for them. Bobby is talking to the crowd of guys still taking in the changes along with Louis, but he barely registers the words.

The kitchen has been completely redone, with functional changes like the new stainless steel appliances and with a completely different look and feel, like the dark subway tiles Bobby has chosen as backsplash (terminology that Louis knows from Dan changing the channel to HGTV any time the kids relinquish the remote).

Louis turns his attention to the dining area, where the table they all made together gleams below new lighting. New flat-screen TVs line the wall, lit up with their station shield logo. Before he can take in the changes to the living room area, Liam pokes him and nods toward the kitchen where Bobby is still talking about the redesign, saying something about how it’s not just an office, it should feel like a home.

Louis starts to feel a little choked up; it’s only been a few days and this guy he barely knows just gets it.

“Also, Bobby,” Tan pipes up, “it looks super masculine, I love that you’ve kept the masculinity.”

“I was toying with pink,” Bobby quips, “but I thought it would clash with the fire truck.”

The guys laugh and Geoff leans forward to say something, but Louis hears a small sigh behind him and turns his head to see Harry looking adorably disgruntled. They make eye contact and Harry whispers, “I like pink.”

Louis’ lips curve into a smile as he takes in Harry’s knitted eyebrows and pursed lips.

“Me, too, Curly,” he whispers back, and Harry’s face slowly softens until he’s smiling brightly back at Louis. And Louis knows they’re in the middle of a group of people, can tell there’s a lot going on at the corner of his eyes, but all Louis can see is Harry and the smile he put on his face.

“Now, fellas,” Geoff announces loudly, dragging Louis’ attention back toward the dining area, where most of the guys have moved to stand while Louis was drinking Harry in. “This has to be the nicest kitchen dayroom in a fire station in the state of Georgia.”

All of the Fab Five “Woo!” at that, clapping and looking inordinately pleased.

“You deserve this,” Karamo says earnestly, “you are saving lives.”

“I mean, yes, Superman,” Tan chimes in, gesturing toward Harry, “it may have just been a cat today, but who knows what it’s gonna be tomorrow? Who knows?”

Everyone bursts into laughter, including an embarrassed but pleased-looking Harry. As Niall pats Harry’s shoulder, pulling him slightly further away from Louis, he ponders that mixture of emotions on Harry’s face; it’s one he sees there regularly. Harry likes to be teased, to be the focus of attention.

Louis wonders if that extends to more… private situations. Because that could be… well, that could be interesting.

Liam nudges Louis, nodding his head toward the living area where everyone is taking in the new decor. There’s a brand-new, brown sectional sofa that actually looks just as comfortable as their old recliners, if not more so. Karamo is pulling Harry to sit with him, insisting, “It’s also just a great place to cuddle with your loved ones.”

Everyone cracks up as Harry tries to put a little space between him and Karamo, only for Karamo to pull him in with his arms. “You know, just relax, just sit back here, Superman, you’re making 17-year-old Karamo very happy right now.”

And despite the knee-jerk jealousy that arises in his chest, Louis smiles at that, remembering their talk at the Mystic Grill the other day. On the outside, Karamo looks like someone who’s always had it all figured out, and knowing that it wasn’t always easy for him makes Louis feel a little better, more normal or something.  

“Okay, guys,” Nick declares, striding into the middle of the room. “We got really good stuff, good job. Liam, Antoni, you guys stay here, we’re going to do the cooking lesson next. Everyone else, that’s lunch.”

Louis feels a hand ruffle his hair and turns, shrinking out of reach. Niall laughs and slings his arm around Louis, pulling him toward the door.

“Come on, Lou,” he says, “I’m starving, let’s see what your almost-definite future brother-in-law has in store for us today.”

“Better enjoy it while we can,” Louis replies. “Back to cooking for ourselves soon.”

“Bite your tongue, man,” Niall snaps jokingly. “Let’s not think of that until we have to. Besides, Harry promised to cook for me in the new kitchen.”

They bicker playfully the whole way through the fire station out back, where they join the rest of the guys and the crew who are lining up for lunch.

When it’s their turn, Louis is kind of disappointed to see an assortment of sub sandwiches and chips spread out for them. What’s the point of having one of the better restaurants in town as craft services if they’re not going to cook a hot meal?

“I see that face, Lou,” Tommy says, pointing at him from behind the table. “Don’t look at me like that, we have to clear out early since we’re not catering the fundraiser so no hot lunch today.”

“Tommy, you’re killing me,” Louis whines. “You guys make the best Italian food in miles, how can you deprive us of your gifts?”

“Don’t be selfish, Lou,” Niall says he grabs enough food for three people. “You probably get way more free food from Tommy here than you deserve, and you can thank Lottie for that.”

“Sorry, Tommy, you know I’m only joking,” Louis says, grabbing a sandwich and a bag of chips. “But you owe me a pasta dish at next family dinner.”

“Deal,” Tommy laughs, shaking his head. Louis thinks for at least the thousandth time how glad he is that his sister was lucky enough to find someone like Tommy.

He looks up to scope out the picnic tables and his eyes meet Harry’s.

He’s not ready to talk to Harry, certainly not with this many people around, and he’s sure he won’t be able to settle for just a taste if he sits at the same table, so he smiles and nods but then heads for the next table over, taking a seat across from Tan.

He gets settled on the bench and unwraps his food, hesitating before digging in.

“Hey,” he says cautiously, before really making his mind up. “Hey, Tan, I am really sorry about what Ben said. I just wanted you to know that.”

“Aww,” Jade says as she sits down next to Tan. “That’s sweet, Louis. That’s really nice.”

“It was just so rude,” Tan remarks, shaking his head. “Our whole mission statement, I suppose, is that the original Queer Eye was fighting for tolerance, but our fight this time is for acceptance. And so that comment was just disappointing, really.”

Aimee, who Louis remembers from lunch the other day but who hasn’t supervised any of his scenes, plops down next to him and starts a conversation with Jade about some mutual friend of theirs in New York. Louis turns back to his food, feeling only a little excluded since Tan doesn’t join in.

“Thanks, Louis,” Tan says quietly. Louis looks up to find warm, kind eyes studying him.

“Yeah,” he replies. “Yeah, of course. Ben’s an asshole, you shouldn’t have to deal with him.”

“And you shouldn’t either,” Tan says casually. Louis gets the feeling that Tan is letting him decide which direction to take the conversation from there. He takes another bite, thinking about it.

“Is it that… am I, um, really obvious?” he asks quietly, almost whispering. Jade and Aimee keep chattering next to him, clearly not listening, but Louis still feels a little surge of adrenaline, like he’s done something extremely bold. He fights the urge to look around and see if he got away with it; he knows no one’s paying attention.

“I think maybe if you know what to look for,” Tan answers honestly. “You’re very… careful, in a way that feels very familiar. That’s all, I promise.”

“Okay,” Louis says. Careful, that’s alright, isn’t it? If he had to describe his closet, that’s probably the most fitting word. He smiles to himself, scrubbing a hand over his face.

“What?” Tan demands. “What’s funny?”

“Oh, I just,” Louis bites his lip. “I just thought careful was a fitting word for being in the closet, and it’s dumb but, like, even in this time of stress, I made a pun.”

“Oh!” Tan exclaims. “Lucille Bluth! I love her. I want to be her.”

Louis laughs and Aimee and Jade join in a long discussion about Arrested Development, their favorite episodes and characters, the references they still make regularly even after all the years it was off the air before Netflix picked it up for that awful fourth season.

“It had its moments!” Aimee insists to loud boos. “Hello, darkness, my old friend, anyone?”

Louis begrudgingly agrees as Fiona walks up to their table to grab Tan for filming.

“Louis, we’ll need you in maybe twenty minutes?” Fiona says, looking over to Tan to confirm. “Head back upstairs, soon, okay? We’ve got a fashion show to do.”

“Fashion show!” Jade and Aimee exclaim in unison. They both bang their hands on the table, chanting, “Fashion show! Fashion show at lunch!”

“Alright, alright,” Fiona grumbles as she pulls Tan away, but Louis could swear he saw a smile there.

“Ladies, it’s been a pleasure,” Louis declares as he stands and gathers his trash. “But I’m going to go wait inside on that comfy new couch for this fashion show.”

“Bye, Louis!” they chorus before giggling and turning back to each other.

Louis smiles and shakes his head as he tosses his garbage and heads inside. He weaves his way past the crew and makes it to the common area in no time only to find he wasn’t the only one with the bright idea to wait in their comfy new (air-conditioned) digs. Almost all of the guys are lounging around in the new TV area.

He still can’t really believe this is all theirs to keep. He sits down in the corner of the sectional sofa, next to Shawn, who’s resting his head back on the cushion, eyes closed. Fizzy had explained to Louis once that she was an introvert, which basically meant that even though she likes being around people, it drains her energy and she needs alone time to recharge. If Louis had to guess, Shawn is probably the same way, so he leaves him be.

Jonathan is sitting on his other side, deep in conversation with Harry about his curly hair. Louis rests his head back as well, half listening to their debate on the merits of different shampoo brands, silk pillowcases and how often Harry should be washing his hair. Louis closes his eyes for a few moments, but he’s not sleepy enough for a catnap.

When he opens his eyes, he sees Harry pulling his phone out of his pocket to show Jonathan something.

“Oh. My. God!” Jonathan exclaims as he grabs Harry’s phone for a closer look. “Honey, you look divine! Look at you!”

Louis sneaks a peek over Jonathan’s shoulder and almost chokes on his own spit.

There’s a photo of Harry on the screen, from about the chest up. He’s clad in a simple white t-shirt, with one of the sleeves hitched up a little, showing off his tattoos. His lips are an especially rosy pink, and Louis automatically wonders if he had been biting them. A pair of sunglasses are atop his head, acting as a headband for the long, luscious curls that fall past his shoulders, mostly swept to one side.  

Louis might actually pass out. Harry with long hair is hot as fuck. Obscene. Sinful, really. Louis wants to snatch the phone out of Jonathan’s hands, doesn’t want anyone else to look. Touch.

“Yeah, so it, ah, took about two years to grow out,” Harry rambles, pinching his lower lip between his thumb and forefinger. Jesus, he’s so hot. There’s nothing he could do to get hotter. “And then when it was long enough,” Harry continues, “because, you know, you need at least eight inches, then I cut it and donated it.”

Well, fuck. He managed it. He got hotter.

Louis is lowkey swooning next to Jonathan, who’s highkey swooning and hopefully distracting everyone from Louis’ flushed face. Harry really isn’t fair, and from the smile he throws to Louis before turning his attention back to Jonathan, he knows it.

Luckily Fiona walks in at just that moment, stopping Louis from having a full-scale meltdown.

“Let’s see,” she says, scanning the room, “who are we missing?”

“I’m right here, Fi!” Niall shouts as he jogs in. “And Geoff’s right behind me.”

“Right, okay,” she nods. “Phones away, guys, I’ll send Tan in here in a couple of minutes to intro the fashion show segment.”

“Fiona!” Nick calls from the hallway. “Fiona, what’s the hold up? We need to get this done, we’re falling behind.”

She sighs heavily and rolls her eyes before walking over to reassure him. Louis watches them bicker for a minute before Nick wraps an arm around her shoulders and they walk out together.

“They are so cute, right,” Jonathan whispers. “Deep down, they love each other, like, so much. Framily for sure.”

“Framily?” Louis asks, confused.

“Framily!” Jonathan nods. “Friends, family. Framily. Like you all gorgeous gents here.”

Niall plops down on Shawn’s other side, and he jolts, sitting up and opening his eyes.

“Framily, Lou!” Niall says, patting Shawn’s back gently. “Haven’t you ever heard that one?”

“We just say, like, brothers,” Shawn says, rubbing his eyes and sitting back again.

Jonathan gasps and clutches his heart, saying, “That is the sweetest thing, I love you bunches and bunches.”

“Hey!” Nick hisses from the doorway, snapping his fingers. “Get ready!”

They all sit up a little straighter on the sofa, everyone quiet and phones hastily put away. Tan walks in and stands in front of them, waiting for Steve and Ed to position their cameras before speaking.

“Alright, fellas,” he announces finally. “Who wants to see the new Liam? Ready to see him in his first outfit?”

They all cheer and Tan parts the curtains that someone had hung back up for Liam to walk through. Louis whistles because Liam looks sharp. Jonathan must have trimmed his hair, it has a bit of shape, a nice wave, to it. He’s dressed in a black suit with blue accents on the lapels, and he’s wearing a black button-down shirt, no tie. As he twirls and poses, Louis notices that his shoes are complementary, black with blue on the front.

He nudges Jonathan and murmurs, “So you’re just cutting anyone’s hair now, is that it?”

Jonathan squawks and nudges him back and Louis laughs. He tunes back in just in time to hear Tan describe Liam’s suit as “versatile” and he hears a soft snort from Harry. Louis just barely manages not to laugh, making eye contact with Harry and shaking his head. Harry shrugs innocently back at him, mouthing, “What?”

They keep the cameras up as Liam leaves to change into another outfit, so he can’t very well lean over and say, “You know what,” to Harry. Maybe later.

Liam comes back after a few minutes in black dress pants with a stripe down the legs and a white button-down shirt that kind of looks like it would go with a tuxedo. Liam smolders exaggeratedly at the crowd, and if Louis didn’t know what a goofball Liam really is, he’d think he was pretty sexy up there.

“Now, this is a good look for a date night,” Tan explains, gesturing up and down. “It’s a step down from the formality of a suit, but dressed up enough to take your wife out for dinner and dancing.”

Liam nods along seriously, smolder forgotten now as he listens like there might be a quiz later.

“And it’s a classic look,” Tan continues, “so not too out of the box, but then these tuxedo stripes on the pant legs should satisfy your wife’s more bold taste.”

Everyone nods along with Liam at that. Louis wonders if Tan confiscated any of Liam’s clothes. Or purses.

Jonathan elbows Louis as soon as Liam leaves to change into his next outfit, leaning in to say lowly, “Tanny is, like, one of my favorite people of all time, that ever drew breath on the face of the world, don’t you love him? That ‘more bold taste’ commentary, oh my god, honey, he handles every situation with the dignity and grace of, like, Kate Middleton, right?”

“Right,” Louis agrees, twisting his mouth in an attempt not to burst out laughing and draw attention. He sees Harry glancing over curiously out of the corner of his eye, but Jonathan is still talking a mile a minute, whispering now that they’re going to be there for awhile; the whole fashion show probably won’t make the cut for the episode, but the editors are going to want choices, so they try to show off one type of each look that Tan has selected.

Nick gestures to them from the doorway so Louis sits up a bit straighter as Jonathan falls silent and they watch Liam walk back in with his next look on.

Louis oohs and ahs along with the guys and the Fab Five as Liam models a dark blue and white color-blocked button-down with light blue trousers (“crisp and clean,” according to Tan), a polo with very light blue-green diagonal stripes and khakis that look almost cropped with sneakers (“boys, if you see him pair this with Crocs, you need to call me for an intervention”), and a long-sleeve blue, dark pink and white striped polo with dark jeans (“everyday, but polished”).

It’s just when Louis is thinking how similar these last few outfits are that Tan sends Liam out in black wide-legged trousers paired with a t-shirt underneath a black leather jacket. As Tan explains that this is Liam’s “walk on the wild side” outfit, Louis nods along, secretly thinking Cheryl must have paid him off for this one.

Liam and Tan take a seat on the sofa after the final look, a camel coat over a navy t-shirt and jeans which Liam felt comfortable vamping in (“You know he’s a professional model when he points at the crowd!”), and Nick rushes in to explain that this will serve as their final scene with the Fab Five before the goodbyes – already? Louis thinks – so they should talk about the experience and what was positive for them.

They sit awkwardly for a moment, the Fab Five clearly waiting for one of them to start, and the realization that their time with them coming to a close sinking in for everyone.

“Um,” Shawn coughs a little, then continues, “It’s definitely cool to see each one of you have different things that you bring to the table.” He gestures around the group with one hand. “We’re like that, you know, we each have our own strengths and all.”

Jonathan nods encouragingly at him, hand over his heart.

“And it was a good experience,” Shawn continues, blushing only a little. “And to be able to do it with these guys, I don’t think that, you know, it could have got any better.”

“You know, because we’re pretty close,” Niall adds, sitting forward to look around at everyone, “we’ve known each other a long time. And usually it’s on the softball field or something like that but, hey, ballroom dancing? Check!”

Everyone laughs heartily at that.

Louis debates internally as the guys fall silent for a minute. Before he gets a chance to speak, Harry pipes up.

“We’ve had a great time,” Harry agrees, nodding. “And we’ve all enjoyed getting to know you guys so much.”

“Superman!” Karamo exclaims, pointing to Harry. “You know I’ve enjoyed getting to know you too.”

Karamo winks at Harry, causing everyone to crack up and whoop for a minute. As the noise dies down, Louis decides to go for it.

“You all, um,” Louis starts, clearing his throat before continuing. “I just hope you all know how much we appreciate what you’ve done for us. Bobby, this room…”

Bobby nods at Louis when he trails off, seeming to understand the words that Louis can’t find.

“This has been an absolute blast,” Liam says excitedly, as if he can tell Louis needs the focus off of him. “I can’t wait ’til my wife gets here, to be able to take her out on the dance floor, have a little bit of confidence in myself. And with the nice clothes, the fresh haircut, all those things, to be able to take her hand and have a dance with her…”

“What do you think she’s going to say?” Tan asks warmly in his soft but clipped accent.

“Oh, I think she’ll have a big smile on her face,” Liam says, giggling a little. “At least that’s the hope.”

“So you’re gonna be raising $3,000 tonight?” Karamo asks seriously, looking around at them. “That’s the goal?”

“That’s right,” Liam nods and Jonathan cheers, “Yeah, you are!”

The energy in the room shifts a little, and Louis can tell it’s just about time to start saying goodbyes.

“Well, hey, one last thing before you guys head out,” Geoff says, leaning forward. “Look, our job is very serious, we love our job, but it is. And you all have gone out of your way to come and try to connect with us and understand that and make it easier for us, and we just don’t want you all to forget us because we certainly won’t forget you. Every time we walk in here, we’re never gonna be able to forget you all.”

Each of the Fab Five say, “Aw,” practically in unison as everyone starts standing up and hugging. Louis isn’t sure if this is it or if he’ll have to time to say a real goodbye off-camera, so he clutches Jonathan tightly. He’s already said thank you to him, but he’s not sure that’s enough.

Jonathan steps back after a moment and holds Louis’ biceps, looking him in the eye. “Listen, boo-boo, you are special and amazing and perfect, and I am so happy we got to come here and meet you. Promise me you’re going to keep trying, okay? Open up, let people in, let them take care of you, yes?”

“Yes,” Louis says quietly, nodding. “Promise.”

“Okay, baby girl, I followed you back online and I already made Nicky look up your phone number so I have you all up in my contacts. I’m gonna stay in touch, okay? You let me know if you need anything.”

Louis tears up, nodding again, and Jonathan smooths a hand over Louis’ hair.

“Framily,” Jonathan says pointing at Louis. “Okay?”

“Okay.”

Jonathan pulls him in for another quick hug before whipping out his phone for a selfie. Louis smiles brightly but there are tears in his eyes as Jonathan frames the photo just so before taking one. He texts it to Louis’ number before saying, “Bye, Lou Lou,” and turning to hug someone else.

After that, it’s a whirlwind of hugs with the rest of the guys. Karamo slaps his back after a big bear hug and then it’s onto a quick bro hug with Bobby. Then it’s quiet, lingering hugs with Tan and then Antoni. Each of them say how great it was to be there and how much they enjoyed it, and Louis just nods and smiles back, at a loss for words.

“Okay, bye!”

“Bye, guys! Good luck tonight!”

“Bye! Bye, I love you!”

And then the Fab Five run out of the room and they’re left there alone. With the crew filming them, but still. The sudden quiet is almost deafening.

Nick walks in after a few minutes, finding them sitting, quietly overwhelmed.

“Alright, guys?” he asks gently. “We’ve got to keep moving. Liam, Geoff, we’re going to grab quick interviews with you. The rest of you, it’s time to go home and change into your suits, then come right back for the fundraiser.”

“We don’t need to help with setup?” Niall asks, brow furrowed.

“Nah, we have interns for that,” Nick says with a grin. “’S just easier on our end.”

“Sure, sure,” Niall says agreeably.

Everyone starts to stand up and slowly make their way downstairs. Louis follows Harry, Niall and Shawn to gather around Jade and turn their mics in. She takes care of them one by one, giving each of them a big hug as she finishes.

“You guys have been so amazing, honestly,” Jade says to Louis as he stands stock-still for her. “I was right, you had fun, didn’t you?”

“You know you were right,” Louis laughs. He gets his hug and sways with Jade for a moment before releasing her. “Am I going to see you again? Do we need mics tonight?”

“Nah, they’re gonna rely on boom mics for the party,” Jade says. “But I think I’ll hang around, I want to see it. The hot dogs that you guys are gonna be making looked amazing, I want one. Or three. And maybe Nick’ll let me bid on a dance or something.”

She winks at Louis and he laughs again as he waves and heads out to the parking lot.

It doesn’t take long for Louis to go home, shower and get dressed, the entire time going over in his head what he wants to do next.

He drives back to the fire station, windows down and light breeze running over his skin and through his hair. By now, Louis has a feeling the talk he’s about to have will probably go okay, but he rehearses the words anyway.

The crew is busy with setup when Louis gets there, making sure to pull into a spot toward the back of the lot to leave room for the guests coming. He quickly winds his way inside and looks around for Niall, but spots Shawn first. No surprise there, really, considering his height.

“Shawn,” Louis calls, as he approaches. “Hey, man, have you seen Niall?”

“Yeah, he’s upstairs,” Shawn replies, smoothing down his dark suit jacket. “He was checking out all the stuff Bobby hung on the walls in the living room. He likes that kind of stuff, you know?”

“Thanks,” Louis says distractedly, patting his arm. Did he know that Niall likes that kind of stuff?

Louis finds Niall in front of a shelf with artwork and awards on it, lips moving as he reads a dedication.

“Neil,” Louis says, his voice shaking just slightly. “Can I grab you for a minute? Wanted to talk to you and Liam.”

“Sure, Lou,” Niall says easily. “I think Liam’s in his office, let’s head that way.”

Louis follows Niall down the hallway, nerves starting to eat away at him. Not enough to make him change his mind, but he might be starting to sweat just a little underneath his basic black suit.

Niall knocks on Liam’s open door and walks right in, taking a seat.

“Liam!” he says. “Lou here wants to talk, you got a minute?”

Liam looks up from behind his desk where it looks like he’s doing actual paperwork. Fuck’s sake.

“Yeah, sure,” he says, a look of concern settling on his face. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Louis says hurriedly as he closes the door behind him. He sits in the chair next to Niall and exhales. “Yeah, everything is okay. Or, I think it will be, anyway.”

“What’s going on?” Liam asks. He’s pushed the papers on his desk to the side and set down his pen, giving Louis his full attention. Louis looks to his left and sees that Niall is waiting patiently.

This is it. Here goes nothing.

“I, um, wanted to talk to you guys,” Louis mumbles, clearing his throat and sitting up a little straighter. “I wanted to talk to you because, um, I’ve got something to tell you. And I hope you don’t hate me, and I hope you’re not upset that I didn’t come to you earlier or anything, I just–”

“Lou, I could never hate you,” Liam interrupts, looking taken aback at the thought. “Whatever it is, you can tell us.”

He looks toward Niall, who nods back at Louis.

Louis takes a shuddery breath. He can do this. He wants to do this.

“I’m gay.”

Louis sits, looking from Niall to Liam, his heart threatening to beat out of his chest. Niall looks mildly surprised, raising his eyebrows a bit. Liam looks a little more shocked, his concerned expression from a moment before frozen almost grotesquely on his face.

“I, um…” Louis’ voice wavers as he fights to continue his rehearsed words. “I hope this doesn’t change the way you look at me, you know, I’m the same guy you’ve been friends with, and I want us all to keep working together, you can still depend on me–”

“Of course we can, Lou,” Niall interrupts, reaching over to pat Louis’ arm. “Don’t even think about that, of course.”

Niall’s words seem to jolt Liam into action. He gets up and walks around his desk, leaning down to wrap his arms around Louis.

“Lou,” Liam breathes. He keeps his tight hold on Louis, and Louis closes his eyes and leans into him, moving his arms to circle around Liam’s waist. “Lou, why didn’t you… you never said… you could have…”

Liam lets go, straightening up and perching on the edge of his desk. He crosses and uncrosses his arms and furrows his brows.

“Of course I don’t hate you, Louis,” Liam says. He moves to run a hand through his freshly shaped hair, and shrugs. “Of course not. I’m so sorry if I ever made you think I would.”

Tears fill Louis’ eyes for what feels like the hundredth time this week as Niall rubs his back, hitching his chair a little closer.

“Lou, I’m so proud of you,” Niall says. “I know it’s not an easy thing, you’re really brave.”

Louis scoffs at that, but Niall cuts him off. “Shut up, Lou, you are.”

“Niall!” Liam hisses. “You can’t tell him to shut up when he’s in the middle of coming out to us.”

Louis and Niall look at each other, bursting into laughter at that, and eventually Liam smiles, rubbing the back of his neck.

“I don’t feel very brave,” Louis admits after a few moments. “I feel like I’ve spent so much time being scared, it’s such a waste–”

“No, no,” Niall argues. “It takes fucking time, okay? It can’t be easy, especially in such a small town.”

Liam’s landline rings and he looks pained so Louis nods at him to answer. He picks up and exchanges a few hushed words with whoever is on the other end.

He stands up and grabs his suit jacket from the back of his chair, turning to face Louis as he shrugs it on.

“I’m so, so sorry, Lou,” he says. “But they need me downstairs already. Can we talk more later?”

“Of course, yeah,” Louis nods. “Go on ahead.”

“I don’t want you to think this changes us,” Liam insists, crouching down to look Louis in the eyes. “I mean, some things might change, I guess, but you’re still my brother, alright, Lou?”

Tears spill over and Louis nods his head hard up and down.

“Listen,” Liam murmurs, taking one of Louis’ hands in his. “You remember what we had engraved on my grandfather’s tombstone? ‘Greater love hath no man than this, to lay down his life for his friend.’ That’s you and me, okay? I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Louis chokes out, tears falling freely. Niall grabs a box of tissues from Liam’s desk and hands him one.

“Okay, I’ve got to get down there,” Liam says regretfully. “You’ll be okay? We’ll talk more later? Maybe you can come for dinner tomorrow or something.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Louis sniffles. “Thanks, Li.”

Liam shakes his head at that, and finally stands to leave. There’s a pause as Louis blows his nose, and he’s sure that Liam and Niall are having a silent conversation over his head, but he doesn’t really care.

The door opens and then closes, and it’s just Niall and Louis in Liam’s office alone. He looks up to see Niall watching him with kind eyes.

Louis isn’t sure why he keeps needing to know, but he succumbs to it anyway and asks, “Did you know? You don’t seem, like, shocked.”

“No, I didn’t know,” Niall says, shaking his head. “Well, I guess it’s more like I wasn’t sure? When we first moved here, I thought maybe you were, like, demi or asexual or something.”

Louis wrinkles his forehead in confusion and Niall laughs.

“There’s all kinds of things you can be besides gay or straight, Lou,” he says kindly. “A whole spectrum of possibilities. I thought maybe you didn’t feel attracted to people until you got to know them really well, or maybe you just didn’t feel sexual attraction or something. But it wasn’t really any of my business unless you brought it up, so I didn’t try to, like, figure you out.”

He pauses, grinning. “Although you really are awful at hiding how you feel about young Harold.”

Louis opens his eyes wide in panic. “Really? It’s that bad? Does everyone know?”

“The thing about most people, Lou,” Niall says gently, “is they only see what they want to see. You could wave a rainbow flag in front of someone’s face and they wouldn’t realize you’re gay unless they were open to seeing it, you know? So, no, I don’t think that many people picked up on it, aside from yours truly.”

Louis’ body relaxes at that simple truth. He knows Niall has a point.

“I want to start coming out,” Louis tell him, “to, like, people I care about, like you and Liam. I told Lottie last night, and she thinks I should tell the rest of the family. But I just can’t stand the thought that, like, everyone knew and was talking or laughing behind my back, you know? It’s hard enough already being the only one.”

Niall cackles at that. “You think you’re the only person in this town who’s anything other than straight? What did I just say about most people and seeing what they want to see, Lou?”

“Fuck off, Neil,” he bristles. “You think I didn’t want there to be someone else?”

“No, no, I’m sorry,” Niall says contritely. “I just think you had to spend so much energy on not being out that maybe you didn’t notice other people doing the same thing. Like, didn’t you ever think it was strange that Zayn just up and quit and left town?”

Louis puzzles at the memory of his old friend and coworker who’d quit and used his remaining vacation time as notice a few months ago. Harry had replaced Zayn, actually.

“What do you mean?” he asks finally, feeling like Niall has given some kind of riddle to solve.

“I don’t actually know anything,” Niall explains, “but he and Liam were so close and then one day Zayn just up and leaves, cuts off all contact, and Liam never talks about him? Seems weird, doesn’t it?”

Louis thinks back, but his memories of that time are a little blurry. It was around when his mom’s birthday would have been, when things were a little harder on all of them. No matter how much he concentrates, he just doesn’t remember the situation as clearly as Niall apparently does. Although now that Niall mentions it, it does seem weird that Zayn’s name hasn’t come up in months.

“What are you saying, you think Liam…”

“I think Liam is the type of guy who once he makes a commitment isn’t going to break it. So even if he and Zayn had some kind of feelings for each other, he wouldn’t ever leave Cheryl, right? And like I said, I don’t know anything, I just… I don’t know, I got a feeling. At least from Zayn.”

Louis’ mind is a little blown. He’s not sure where he expected this conversation to go, but it certainly wasn’t here. He shakes his head a little to clear it.

“I just think you’re a little less alone than you realize,” Niall says, handing him another tissue. “And not just because of awesome people like me who love and accept you no matter what. And now that you want to be open with people, maybe you’ll find others close by who aren’t as narrow as they appeared before.”

There’s a sudden knock at the door and they both jump. Fiona opens the door and doesn’t even bother peeking in, just calls out, “Come on, guys, ready for everyone downstairs. High energy, okay?”

“Okay, boss!” Niall shouts back, laughing.

Louis stands and throws away his tissues, wiping the last few tears away with the back of his hand.

“Hey,” Niall says, “why don’t you go splash some water on your face? I’ll head down now, tell ’em you’re on your way?”

“Thanks,” Louis replies. “For, like, everything. I’m really glad you guys moved here, you know that?”

“Course you are, Lou,” Niall says confidently, moving to embrace Louis. They hug for a moment before parting ways, Niall heading to the party and Louis to the locker room.

Louis washes his face with one of the products Jonathan left in baskets for them on the counter, then figures what the hell and rustles around in one until he finds some lotion, too. It says body moisturizer on the front, but your face is part of your body, right? He feels like a new man as he pats his soft skin and turns to head to the fundraiser out front. He can hear the crowd from upstairs, that’s a good sign for a good party and their fundraising goal.

When Louis walks outside, he sees a lot of families with kids running from one activity to another. There are a few games of cornhole set up and it looks like Geoff is giving out pointers. There’s a line for the bouncy house across the drive from an actual dunk tank. Louis’ not sure why, but he thought that Karamo had been kidding about getting one.

Louis strolls through the crowd, greeting people he knows. Most of his coworkers, many of whom he hasn’t really seen in days because of filming, are either socializing or collecting money at booths. Louis realizes that no one assigned him a job and decides not to mention it to anyone. He’s not surprised that they didn’t ask him to help at the grill with the fancy hot dogs, the less cooking he’s responsible for, the better. Everything seems under control anyway; Liam looks in his element, running things smoothly.

As he gets closer to the dunk tank, Louis sees Andy, a guy they went to high school with who Liam’s closer to than he is, wind up a pitch and aim for the target. Whoever they convinced to volunteer drops into the water with a big splash to a rousing cheer. Louis offers Andy a high five and turns to see Ben emerging from the water, running his hands over his hair.

Louis’ tempted to get in line for a turn, but that’s a little more of his energy than Ben really deserves. He waves, smiling brightly at Ben, before turning on his heel to walk away.

Nick is standing off to the side, surveying the scene ahead of them. Louis sidles up next to him and bumps Nick’s shoulder with his own in greeting.

“Oh, hello there,” Nick drawls. “Nice of you to show up.”

“Yeah, sorry I’m late,” Louis says airily. “I was just taking this asshole friend of mine’s advice and confiding in a couple of close friends.”

“Is that so?” Nick is fighting it, but Louis can see the grin forming on his face.

“That’s so,” Louis confirms. “I should probably thank him, seeing as how it went pretty well.”

“I think a gift basket is a pretty standard thank you nowadays,” Nick says casually. “I don’t know, flowers or chocolates or something.”

“Don’t want to give him the wrong idea, you see,” Louis replies. “Kind of saving myself for someone else. And he already has a Mystic Grill t-shirt, so…”

“Shut the fuck up,” Nick laughs. “I fucking love that show and I don’t care who knows it.”

Louis laughs, looking around the crowd. His eyes land on Harry at about the same time Nick’s does; he can tell by the way they both fall silent. Forgetting Nick for a moment, Louis watches as Harry winds his way toward Shawn behind a table at the back of a makeshift dance floor. He looks incredible in a black suit and black shirt, at least the top three buttons left undone. He could be a model; Louis could snap a photo right now and make a perfume or watch ad that wouldn’t look out of place in a glossy magazine.

“You know, Louis,” Nick says, cutting into Louis’ thoughts, “if you don’t bid on him, I will.”

“No, you fucking won’t,” Louis retorts, still watching Harry as he confers with Shawn before walking over to get Liam’s attention. Louis turns to see a bemused Nick watching him. “But thanks. For, you know. Everything.”

“You’re welcome, Louis,” Nick says simply. “I’m rooting for you.”

Louis grins at Nick and then starts to walk toward the dance floor. He’s intercepted by his entire family, everyone talking at the same time. Doris and Ernie are desperate to go to the bouncy house and the older twins want to try their hands at cornhole. Fizzy and Lottie are insisting on food first, and Dan just looks tired.

“Guys, guys,” Louis says, trying to get everyone’s attention. “I think they’re having people bid on dancing with us soon, who’s going to bid on me? Doris? You want to waltz later?”

“Yes!” Doris shrieks, taking off in the direction of the dance floor. Everyone runs after her except for Lottie, who wraps an arm around Louis’ waist.

“How’re you doing, big brother?” she asks, squeezing his side.

“Really good, Lotts,” he replies, putting his arm around her shoulder and kissing the top of her hair. “Come on, let’s talk later. We have money to raise.”

They walk over to the rest of the family, who are at the front of the crowd waiting for bidding to start. He hugs everyone before parting ways, heading to stand with Shawn behind the table set up with a microphone and cash box.

“Hey, Louis,” Shawn greets him. “We’re starting soon, Harry went to grab Liam.”

“Good, good,” Louis replies, patting Shawn’s shoulder. “So, dancing. You ready?”

“Not really,” Shawn laughs. “But it’s for a good cause and all.”

Liam walks over with Harry and Geoff in tow, rubbing his hands together.

“Right!” he exclaims. “You guys ready? Wait, where’s Niall?”

“Here!” Niall shouts as he jogs across the dance floor. “Sorry, was just taking a turn at the dunk tank.”

Geoff laughs at that and Louis catches Niall’s eye, only to get a wink in return. He’s starting to believe it’s no accident that Ben was assigned dunk tank duty. Louis lifts his fist toward Niall, who bumps it with his own before wrapping an arm around Louis and ruffling his hair.

“Three for three,” Niall says casually. “You know I was on the baseball team at my high school, right?”

“You don’t say,” Louis replies, matching Niall’s tone.

“Pitcher,” Niall nods. “Went All-State two years in a row.”

“No, I didn’t know that,” Louis remarks, unable to keep the smirk off his face. “Funny, that.”

“Okay, boys,” Geoff says. “Why don’t you all stand back over there and then I’ll do a little introduction before we get started?”

Louis follows Niall, Shawn and Harry, who are all following Liam to stand just out of the crowd’s sight inside the open door of the garage. They stand around idly for a few minutes, Shawn and Niall whispering and Liam looking like he’s reciting something in his head, maybe dance steps. Harry smiles shyly at Louis and he beams back. He has a good feeling about tonight.

“Thanks, everybody for comin’ out tonight,” Geoff’s voice booms over a microphone from a few feet away. Louis turns to listen as he continues, “We’re trying to raise money for our East Metro Firefighters Conference, so some of our firefighters have gone through a makeover all week long. In particular, our Division Chief of Training, Liam Payne.”

At that, Liam grins and starts to walk out, standing straight with his shoulders back. They all cheer and Louis whistles while clapping for his best friend. The suit looks good on him. So does his newfound confidence.

“Here he is, wow,” Geoff says over the crowd’s applause. Louis peeks his head to see Cheryl standing at the front of the crowd looking stunned, covering her mouth with both hands. Little Bear is standing at her feet, looking at Liam confusedly, like he doesn’t quite recognize him. Louis laughs as Liam crouches down to wave at his son, standing back a few feet to let Bear come to him. The little boy toddles over a few steps, about all he can manage at this age, and Liam swoops him up, grinning, before walking over to Cheryl to kiss her on the cheek.

Louis knows that what happened for Karamo with his sons isn’t going to happen for him, but there are other ways to build a family. He glances over at Harry, who’s watching the scene with a soft expression, and wonders if he’s having similar thoughts.

“Okay, fellas, come on out,” Geoff says, holding a hand out toward the doorway. They strut out as Geoff introduces them and explains that they’re collecting money for dances. Louis does kind of a Charlie’s Angels pose with Shawn and Harry while Niall shows off the sexy Magic Mike moves they practiced at the dance studio before moving to take the microphone from Geoff.

“Now who’s going to start the bidding?” Niall asks. “Miss Cheryl, come on, you know you want to dance with your husband, let him show off his moves.”

Liam and Cheryl move to the dance floor and Liam very intently leads her around for a few minutes, mouthing “one two three, one two three,” before attempting the underarm turn. To Louis’ surprise, it’s Cheryl who stumbles only for Liam to move into a kind of dip, catching her before she falls. They both laugh as she hurries him off the dance floor.

“Who’s next?” Niall asks, scanning the crowd for volunteers. Louis looks over to see Shawn’s mom raise her hand and walk toward the dance floor. Shawn blushes furiously but Niall pushes him forward and he leads his mom in a decent box step.

Louis crouches down to wave at Doris and let her know she can come up next, but she’s staring at something just past him and her eyes won’t budge. As soon as Shawn and his mom move to the side, Doris marches onto the dance floor to a collective “Aw,” from the crowd. Louis smiles, holding out a hand to her, but she doesn’t even look at him as she passes him by. Louis swivels on his heels to see her walk right up to Harry and hold a hand up to him.

Harry looks at Louis helplessly and Louis nods back at him, mouthing, “Go on.” Harry takes Doris’ hand and walks her to the middle of the dance floor, then has her step on his feet so he can move her around while they hold hands. It is, quite possibly, the cutest and best thing Louis has ever seen in his life. His face hurts a little from smiling so hard as Harry twirls Louis’ youngest sister around while she gazes at his face adoringly.

Niall walks over and elbows Louis. “Must run in the family, huh?”

“Yeah, must,” Louis murmurs, too endeared to banter back. He looks over to the crowd and sees Lottie filming the dance on her phone.

The dance comes to an end and Harry bows graciously to Doris, who hops right back up on his feet. Everyone laughs and Karen Payne walks over to Louis while Harry attempts to whisper negotiations with Doris.

“He is such a sweetheart,” Karen says in a hushed voice to Louis and Niall before gesturing to Liam to meet her on the dance floor.

It becomes a bit of a free-for-all then, with multiple couples on the dance floor at a given time, although with Niall and Geoff keeping track of who owes how many donations. The cash box quickly fills up as Louis dances with each of his sisters except for Doris, who spends any time not on Harry’s feet glowering at whoever is dancing with him from just off the dance floor. Everyone’s wives and moms join in, and Louis even dances with a couple of girls who he went to school with.

Eventually he works up an appetite, so Louis slips off the dance floor and makes his way to the grill for a hot dog. Stan fixes one for him covered in crushed potato chips, and Louis has to admit it’s worth the $5. He stands off to the side as he eats, watching Stan’s technique. It seems pretty easy to Louis, but he’s still not going to volunteer to help. He finishes up and walks back toward the dance floor, crossing paths with Harry, who somehow managed to separate from Louis’ sister. They grin but don’t stop to talk, and Louis is dying to glance back at him so he gives in only to find Harry glancing back as well.

Louis feels a thrill go through him, he literally shivers as he continues walking while looking over his shoulder. Until he bumps right into something–

“Not again,” Nick groans. “When will you learn to watch where you’re going?”

“Sorry, sorry, was just–”

“Yeah, yeah, I saw what you were just,” Nick interrupts, his attempt to look annoyed belied by the growing grin on his face. “Now, excuse me, I’m very busy and important.”

And with that, Nick strides away, probably in search of a clipboard or Fiona. Louis takes his phone out of his pocket, does a quick search on Instagram, and follows him. He makes a mental note to look through Nick’s follows later, he’s sure he’ll be able to find Jade and Steve and the rest of the crew through there. He probably won’t make it to New York, so he at least needs to see photos of Jade’s birthday kiki.

Louis hangs toward the back of the group of people around the dance floor. He watches his friends, family and neighbors enjoy themselves and, for once, doesn’t feel alone in the crowd even though he’s standing by himself.

Harry walks back over and stands on the opposite side of the dance floor, watching and smiling as Niall and his wife Hailee attempt a tango. When they’re done, Geoff gets on the microphone and announces a last call. As Lottie’s boss Lou and Shawn start a hesitant waltz, Geoff and Liam talk quietly by the cash box, probably tallying up donations for an announcement, and Louis decides that it’s time.

He edges around the back of the crowd, slowly making his way toward Harry, reaching him just as Shawn guides Lou through a flawless underarm turn. He must have practiced at home. Harry’s watching as Shawn winds down the dance, not having noticed Louis approach.

“Hi,” Louis chirps, stopping to stand next to Harry with his hands in his pockets.

Harry jumps and then looks over sheepishly. “Hi.”

“So, listen,” Louis says, pitching his voice low so that Harry has to lean in to hear. “I, um, I actually wanted to bid on a dance with you?”

Louis looks up from underneath his lashes to see Harry blush as a grin overtakes his face. It’s so fucking cute, Louis needs a moment before he can continue.

“But, um,” he says, heart thudding, “is it okay if it’s not here? Maybe we could go somewhere and talk and–”

“Yes!” Harry cuts him off, blushing harder when he realizes how loudly he exclaimed. Louis smiles and Harry leans in and whispers, “Yes.”

“Great,” Louis murmurs, lost in the green of Harry’s eyes for a second. “Great, um, did you want to stay for–”

“No,” Harry says quietly but emphatically. “No, I’m sure we made the fundraising goal and, besides, it’s all Liam’ll talk about for weeks, I don’t need to stick around for speeches.”

“Great,” Louis repeats. He searches other words but none come for a minute as he just smiles, goofily he’s sure, at Harry. But he doesn’t feel dumb because that’s exactly how Harry is looking back at him. “Um,” Louis coughs a little, “I, uh… have my truck out back? We could–”

“Let’s go,” Harry says decisively, turning to walk around the dance floor.

Grinning, Louis follows close behind. He reaches his hands out to gently guide Harry around some stray wires, resting his hands in the dip of Harry’s waist just above his apparently stubborn love handles. God, Louis is so tempted to just leave a hand there as they weave through the crowd, but he knows he’s not there yet. And, while things are admittedly looking good, maybe he and Harry should talk first before something like that.

They walk through the garage toward the parking lot, tacitly agreeing not to say any goodbyes, and manage to make it all the way to Louis’ truck in the back of the lot without getting stopped once.

“It’s open,” Louis says as he heads toward the driver side, shrugging off his suit jacket. He throws it on the seat and climbs in, closing the door behind him and rolling the window down. Harry rolls his window down halfway and looks up at Louis expectantly.

Louis looks down at his lap and starts rolling his sleeves up a little. “Um, d’you mind if we… I was thinking my place?”

“Sure,” Harry murmurs, sitting back in his seat. “That sounds great, Lou.”

The nickname calms the nerves that had appeared unbidden once the truck doors were closed and Louis was truly alone with Harry for the first time. He relaxes a little, starting the ignition and buckling up. He doesn’t bother with music, it would just be an excuse to put off what he wants to say.

Harry waits until Louis has pulled out of the parking lot to speak, clearing his throat before asking, “So, um, you mentioned talking. What did… was there something you wanted to talk about?”

Louis’ heart is still beating wildly, probably more because of the beautiful man sitting next to him than the prospect of coming out for the fourth time in three days. This is the kind of nervous he could get used to.

“So, earlier,” he starts, as he turns onto the next road, planning on taking the long way, “Niall made this joke.”

Harry hums and nods, patient as ever. Louis could be reading into things but he really thinks Harry is giving him time to gather his thoughts and talk at his own pace. Wonderful man.

“It was when you were dancing with Doris,” Louis continues, smiling broadly. “Which was, like, the cutest thing I’ve seen in my life, probably, by the way. That was really sweet of you, Harry. Really.”

He glances over to see Harry’s face flushed a light pink. It’s never not going to be cute to him.

“So Niall says to me, ‘must run in the family,’ because of the way Doris was looking at you…”

Louis takes a deep breath, looking over again to Harry who looks like he’s holding his.

“Seeing as how I look at you the same way, I guess. No, I know. I’ve tried to, like, keep it under control, but my feelings for you are written all over my face.”

“Your feelings for me?” Harry says in a low voice, sounding a little unsure. “You have feelings for me?”

“I do,” Louis assures him. “I like you so much, Harry. I’ve liked you since pretty much the minute I met you, and I haven’t really known what to do about it.”

Harry exhales, running a hand through his hair. “How come?”

Louis hates how nervous he sounds, so he reaches over and takes Harry’s hand in his, rubbing his thumb over the soft skin.

“When I realized that, um,” Louis pauses, wanting to explain it properly. “When I realized that I was different, that I was, that I am gay, I just never thought that it would, like… work out for me? I don’t know what it was like for you…”

He trails off, realizing he’s been making an assumption about Harry; he’s positive that Harry likes him too but, as Niall said, there are a lot of things you can be aside from gay and straight. He falters, unsure of how or what to ask, and Harry smiles reassuringly at him.

“For me, it was never like…” Harry starts, turning his body in his seat to face Louis, his honeyed whiskey voice rumbling. Louis loves it, always wanted a deep voice like Harry’s instead of his own light rasp. “I just never felt a need to define it, you know? My sexuality. Growing up, my mom and sister never made me feel like I had to be anything other than myself. Like if I wanted to wear a flower crown, the three of us would make them together, that kind of thing. If a boy was cute, I could say so. And I was lucky, ’cause I never saw the point of being, like, one person at home and another person away from home, and the worst that ever happened was a rude comment here or there. For the most part, I’ve always felt, like, safe. You know?”

“I know what you mean,” Louis says regretfully, “but no, I didn’t really feel safe when I was younger and figuring things out. Until, um, pretty recently, actually. I hated feeling different, around here different automatically means bad. Or that’s how it always seemed. Growing up, you just… you hear things, you know? You get all these little messages all day, every day, buried underneath these little ‘bless your heart’s, and they all add up and you just… know. Or at least, I thought I did. I just never thought I could be gay and live here and have people, like, accept me and trust me and want to be around me.”

Harry lays his other hand on top of Louis,’ clasping it between his own.

“And then you… you took me by surprise,” Louis says ruefully. “I’d never met someone that I liked so much, and right away. And everything I found out about you, every time I saw you, it just got worse. Like I was done for, you know? This is it. But this can’t be it, there’s no it for me, right?”

“But you… you don’t believe that anymore? You changed your mind?”

“I’m starting to,” Louis replies honestly. “I mean, it’s been a lot of years trying to, like, live a certain way, do everything just so and not, like, rock the boat. But it’s crazy how filming the show, and meeting those guys and the crew, too, just how it opened my eyes to a lot of things.”

Louis looks over to Harry, whose eyes are shining suspiciously brightly. He squeezes Harry’s hand below his before gently taking it back so he can turn the steering wheel more easily.

“We’re almost there.”

“Do you, um,” Harry starts. “Do you still want that dance?”

“You bet your ass I do,” Louis says, startling a laugh out of Harry. “Hopefully the first of many? I, um… I still have stuff to figure out, I know that, Curly, but honestly I’d really love to take you out. I want to date you, like so hard.”

“Lou,” Harry breathes. “Yes, yes of course. I, um… I wasn’t sure this was ever gonna happen, really, but I have the worst crush on you, you have no idea.”

“’S mutual, babe,” Louis says easily despite feeling like he might actually pass out. He still can’t quite believe this is really happening.

Harry sits quietly for the rest of the short ride, toying with his bottom lip, perpetually on the brink of a grin. Louis notices that his eyes flit over to Louis every few seconds, like maybe he can’t really believe it either.

They’ve fallen into a companionable silence while Louis pulls into the parking lot of his apartment building and shuts off the ignition. Louis gets out and walks around the truck to Harry’s side, this time feeling comfortable enough to leave his guiding hand on Harry’s waist as they walk up the steps and down the hall to Louis’ door. Louis fumbles with his keys, his suit jacket thrown over one arm, as Harry leans against the wall and watches him, smirking.

That cocky smile. One might think it would look out of place on sweet Harry’s adorable face, but one would be very, very wrong. It’s hot, so hot that Louis’ knees tremble slightly.

Louis finally manages to open the door and leads Harry inside, throwing his jacket on the back of the couch.

“This is, ah, it,” Louis announces, waving an arm around the open living room and kitchen.

“’S nice, Lou,” Harry replies, looking around. “Homey. My place is still kind of impersonal. Not really lived in yet.”

Louis looks around, taking in his hand-me-down furniture and framed photos on the wall. He’d picked up a little before he left, mainly so that Harry wouldn’t know he’s the type of person to lose a pair of shoes on his dining table.

“Yeah, it’s not much,” he says, shrugging, “but it’s home.”

“Can I move the coffee table?” Harry asks suddenly, shrugging off his black jacket. He folds it neatly over the back of the couch and turns to look at Louis expectantly.

“Uh, sure?” Louis replies, looking up from where he’s leaning against the wall next to the door, taking off his dress shoes.

“You owe me a dance,” Harry declares, looking Louis straight in the eye. “Come on, let’s make room.”

“Oh, oh, right, okay,” Louis stammers. The reality of the situation crashes rather than settles in on him; in a few minutes, he’s going to have Harry in his arms, be in Harry’s arms. It’s almost too much to think about with the object of his affections smoldering impatiently at him from a few feet away.

“Actually, I got it,” Harry says, sizing up the table. He lifts it easily and moves it flush against the wall before pulling his phone out of his pocket and unlocking it. He frowns at the screen as he swipes through the unknown task, his grumpy face equal parts cute and sexy.

Louis walks around the couch and stops in front of Harry, facing him. “What’re you doing there, Curly?”

“Just picking a song,” Harry mutters, brow furrowed. “Aha!” He looks up with a smile. “Got one.”

He presses play and then sets his phone on the edge of the displaced coffee table. The strands of an old Beatles song start playing softly.

“Do you want to lead, or should I?” Harry asks, taking a step toward Louis.

“Can you?” Louis asks. He’s not shaking, but his knees still feel a little weak. “I’ve never… um, I’ve never slow danced with a guy, not like this. Aside from the lesson the other day.”

“Yeah, sure, Lou,” Harry murmurs, reaching for Louis’ hands and gently placing them around his neck before settling his own hands around Louis’ waist. They move hesitantly at first in the simple box step, both looking at their feet at first but managing not to bump into each other.

You’re asking me will my love grow

As the bridge kicks in, they both start to feel a little more confident and Harry moves to rotate their box, gently leading Louis to move with him and making eye contact as they both giggle remembering the other day.

Harry pulls Louis incrementally closer, leaning in to nuzzle behind Louis’ ear before singing softly into Louis’ skin, “Something in the way he moves...”  

Louis shudders, suddenly overwhelmed with the heady feeling of Harry surrounding him, his attention solely focused on Louis.

“Attracts me like no other lover,” Harry continues singing lowly, turning his head slightly to kiss Louis’ earlobe.

“Harry,” Louis whimpers, tightening his grip on Harry’s shoulders.

Harry kisses Louis’ earlobe again and then slowly presses soft, lingering kisses across his cheek. He pulls back before reaching Louis’ mouth, lifting Louis’ chin with a finger and waiting for him to open his eyes.

“Is this okay?” he whispers when Louis gazes at him with half-lidded eyes.

“Yes,” Louis sighs, aching to be kissed properly. “Please.”

And with that Harry just barely brushes his soft lips against Louis,’ moving his hand to lightly stroke his fingers over Louis’ cheek. Louis can’t stand the almost of it all and sways forward, sealing their lips together.

Louis registers the song switch to something he vaguely knows, the familiar chords building as he recognizes the falsetto “sweet,” only to intensify as drumbeats are layered in. His heart starts to beat faster, matching the pace of the song, as he kisses Harry again, parting his lips. Harry eagerly slips his tongue in Louis’ mouth and the kiss turns heated, searing. Louis can feel it all the way to his toes; he’s never been kissed so thoroughly in his life. Harry is everywhere, his hands on the back of Louis’ head, tilting it just so. His lush lips open and pressed against Louis,’ his tongue licking into Louis’ mouth. It’s just on the line of too much and not enough. Louis clings to Harry’s shoulders, trying to give back as good as he’s getting.

Louis gasps into Harry’s mouth when Harry’s hands start to roam Louis’ body, smoothing over his back, down his sides, past his waist to grip firmly at his ass. His hands stay there, squeezing just shy of roughly and Louis pulls back, breathing heavily. Harry immediately shifts to mouth at Louis’ neck, moving one hand to loosen Louis’ necktie and undo the top button on his shirt. Louis has been sporting a semi since Harry’s lips first brushed his ear, and he’s dying for some friction, but he holds back, not wanting to rush Harry, who seems to have a plan.

A moment, a love, a dream, a laugh, a kiss, a cry

He presses his face in Harry’s hair as Harry runs his tongue over the side of his neck, breathing in Harry’s faint lavender scent. It grounds Louis somehow, keeps him on the right side of overwhelmed as Harry nips at his jaw before moving both hands to tug Louis’ tie away and undo more buttons. Harry’s nimble fingers smooth over his overheated skin, pushing his collar aside to press sucking kisses all over his throat. He lightly runs a finger just under Louis’ collarbones, tracing his It Is What It Is tattoo.

Louis tugs at Harry’s curls, pulling him back up to kiss again, swallowing the low moan that Harry lets out at Louis’ fingers in his hair. He lets Louis lead the kiss this time, lax and pliant in Louis’ arms as Louis chases the slightly sweet taste of Harry’s breath, immediately addicted to it. He runs a hand down Harry’s flank, secretly delighting in how Harry shivers at that, before moving his hand to cup the front of Harry’s dress pants to find that he’s rock hard.

Harry whimpers into Louis’ mouth, squeezing his hips, and Louis moves his hands to Harry’s belt buckle as the song fades out. Louis presses a soft, chaste kiss to Harry’s puffy lips–

Let’s go, girls.

They both startle at Shania Twain’s sassy invitation and the heavy guitar riffs, knocking their teeth together and almost stumbling to the floor. Bursting into laughter, they cling to each other as they manage to right themselves.

“As much as I love Shania,” Louis laughs, running his fingers through Harry’s curls, “maybe we could put her on pause and move this to the bedroom?”

Harry blushes at that like they weren’t well on their way to tearing each other’s clothes off right there in the living room. He pulls away from Louis and grabs his phone, silencing his playlist before setting it back down. He shuffles a little, not stepping back as close to Louis as Louis would like.

“Harry?” he asks. “Are you… is this, um, all okay?”

“Yeah,” Harry says quickly. He stays a few inches away from Louis, fidgeting with his hands. “I just, um… we should probably talk about, like, experience? And, um, preferences?”

Louis closes the distance between them, smacking a kiss to Harry’s lips and earning a laugh from him.

“We should,” he says, ducking in for another kiss. “We will.” Another kiss, ending with a tug on Harry’s lips with his teeth. “But honestly, I’m not going to last very long tonight, these past few days have been like extended foreplay.”

“Yeah?” Harry asks coyly, batting his lashes innocently at Louis.

“You little minx,” Louis teases playfully, poking Harry’s dimple with his finger when Harry grins, clearly proud of himself. “Like you weren’t teasing me for that entire yoga lesson. Yeah.”

“Um,” Harry bites his lip, “bedroom?”

“Bedroom,” Louis declares, taking Harry’s hand and pulling him down the hallway.

He comes to a stop at the end of his messily made bed and turns to face Harry, who looks deeply into his eyes. Louis feels exposed, naked even though his shirt isn’t even all the way undone yet. It’s like Harry can see past every bit of wall and armor Louis has built up over the years, can actually see Louis, right to his core. This is what he’s always been afraid of, this vulnerability, but now that he’s here with Harry, he’s not scared at all.

Louis knows that life doesn’t always go as planned, he’s lived through it all going wrong, but he trusts Harry. All it takes is one look at him, the care and concern for Louis pouring out of him, what could be love one day shining from his face, to know that Harry would never intentionally hurt Louis. He toys with the curls at the base of Harry’s neck, marveling at how eager he is to jump into the unknown with him.

He pulls Harry in for another kiss. God, Louis could kiss Harry for the rest of his life and never tire of it. They melt into each other, letting the kiss slowly grow heated until they’re pawing at each other’s shirts, making sloppy work of untucking them and fumbling with buttons. Louis drops his hands, finally, finally undoing Harry’s belt buckle, and he’s just about to pop open the button on Harry’s pants when he stops him.

Louis looks up, confused. Is he moving too fast?

“What is it, baby?” he asks softly, searching Harry’s face for a clue.

“Lou,” Harry breathes. “I, um… it’s not, I’m not like, embarrassed, but I just, don’t, ah… I don’t know what you’re going to think…”

Harry trails off and Louis waits patiently, moving one hand to Harry’s hip and the other to gently stroke Harry’s cheek. Raising his eyebrows, he gives Harry a small smile.

“Maybe if you sat down,” Harry suggests finally. “I can show you?”

“Of course, yeah,” Louis nods, stepping back to sit at the foot of his bed, feet planted knee-width apart. He watches as Harry undoes the button on his pants and slides the zipper down, biting his lip before looking up at Louis. Louis smiles and nods encouragingly at him. Harry seems to remember he’s still wearing boots, and bends to carefully take them off, along with his socks, and line them up at the edge of the bed.

He straightens up and slides his pants down, letting them pool at his ankles before gingerly stepping out of the fabric and kicking it aside as Louis takes in the sight before him.

The soft orange sunlight peeking through the blinds falls over the pale skin of Harry’s lean, lithe body, warming it. Louis wants to spend hours memorizing every inch of Harry’s body, but he can’t tear his eyes away from the delicate pink lace panties that Harry’s cock is straining to escape from, the tip poking out, right by a small bow. Louis can see everything through the lacy pattern and, through the haze of wonder and lust, registers that Harry’s completely smooth; he must wax all over.

Fuck.

Once he’s over the initial surprise, Louis lets his eyes roam over Harry’s body, admiring the contrast of the intricate pale lace against Harry’s toned physique and stark black tattoos. He finally manages to drag his eyes up to Harry’s, reaching out a hand without even thinking, but stopping just shy of Harry’s hip.

“So pretty, Harry,” Louis says quietly. “Can I touch?”

“Yeah,” Harry whispers. “Yeah, please.”

Louis takes his time, running a finger along the soft trim to one side, avoiding Harry’s hard cock and the wetness that springs up at the tip. Not yet. He guides Harry by the hips into a slow twirl for him so he can see Harry’s bum, small but pert, covered in the flimsy material, licking his lips as he lifts the back of Harry’s open dress shirt to appreciate the way the lace hugs Harry’s cheeks.

Harry finishes turning and stops to face Louis, moving his hands down to cover Louis’ where they rest on his hips.

“You like them?” he asks, sounding unsure despite what Louis thinks of as his very obvious interest in the panties.

“I love them,” he answers honestly. “I told you, I like pink, too.”

Without waiting for Harry’s response, Louis leans in and nuzzles the side of Harry’s cock through the lace, reveling in how it twitches before slipping his hand down to free it from the panties. He swipes up the precome using his thumb and licks it clean as he looks up at Harry standing over him, swaying slightly and whining at the sight.

“The things I want to do with you, Louis,” he chokes out, desperate. “You have no idea, I’ve thought about it so much.”

“Come here,” Louis says, scooting back on the bed and lying on his side. “Tell me, we’ll make a list. But first I need to get my hands on your cock.”

Harry inhales sharply before scrambling to join Louis on the bed, landing half on top of Louis’ chest and kissing him lushly. He shoves at Louis’ dress shirt and ordinarily Louis would laugh, maybe tease a bit, but he finds himself yanking the shirt off before moving to his pants. Harry lies back, watching him with dark eyes, clumsily shrugging off his own shirt.

Finally Louis has divested himself of all his clothes and he can turn his full attention back to Harry, looking like sin lying back on the bed clad in just a pair of pink panties, his fully erect cock sticking straight out and bobbing as Harry heaves breaths. Harry keeps his eyes on Louis and he moves his hands to tug the lace down, but Louis stops him.

“Leave them on,” he whispers in Harry’s ear, moving his hand down to stroke Harry, slowly at first, thumbing over the tip. He glances down to watch. “Tell me about the things you want to do, baby.”

“Everything,” Harry whimpers, overwhelmed. He bucks his hips lightly, turning his face into the pillow. “Everything, want to fuck you, want you to fuck me, want to eat you out for days, your ass, Lou, you don’t know what it does to me, all I think about.”

That goes straight to Louis’ neglected cock, and he gently takes one of Harry’s stupidly large hands, guiding him to take both of them in hand and jerk them off together. Harry eagerly complies, smearing the precome they’re both blurting around the tips. Fuck, that’s good.

Louis leans in and runs his tongue over the shell of Harry’s ear, causing him to shudder and falter momentarily in his ministrations. He whispers, “You know what I’d like, baby?”

Harry’s hand is working expertly over their cocks, and Louis gets caught up in it for a second, burying his face in Harry’s hair until he hears a cute little huff.

“I want you to wear these for me,” he continues lowly reaching down to toy with the edge of the lace, “and get yourself all ready for my cock while you’re wearing them, sit backwards on my lap and show me how you slick up your fingers and use them to open yourself up.”

Harry starts panting, moving a hand to gently tug Louis’ balls.

“Fuck,” Louis breathes, biting at Harry’s earlobe. “Would you like that baby? You have those long, pretty fingers, but if you needed help finding your spot, then I could take over ’til you’re shaking and gasping and begging me to fuck you.”

Harry’s moaning outright, just at Louis’ words, having moved both of his hands to focus on Louis.

“Would you,” he gasps, opening his eyes to look at Louis hazily, “would you fuck me then?”

“Don’t you want to ride me, baby?” Louis coos, getting close, so very close, from the way Harry is working him over. “I want you to turn around and face me, tug your panties to the side, and show me how well you can take all of me. Bet you’re so good at riding, you would bounce on my cock all night, wouldn’t you?”

Harry’s hand is flying over Louis’ cock and he moves his other hand from Louis’ balls back to his ass, squeezing one of his cheeks before lightly rubbing his rim with a fingertip and that is fucking it, Louis is done for. He comes harder than he ever has, maybe in his whole life, coating Harry’s hand in thick white spurts.

He lies back, breathing heavily for a moment before peeking an eye open to see Harry lifting a finger to his mouth to taste Louis’ come. His spent cock twitches and he groans. Harry smiles wickedly down at him.

“Will you,” Louis starts, having trouble breathing, “will you come on me?”

Harry raises his eyebrows and Louis rushes to continue before he can say anything, “I’ve just, I always thought it seemed hot but I’ve never been with someone I could ask before. Not like my face, not tonight, but maybe my chest?”

“Fuck yeah,” Harry breathes, already moving to straddle Louis. He hesitates, pinching his lip between his thumb and forefinger. “Can I come on your tattoo? I’ve wanted to ever since the first time I saw you without a shirt on.”

Louis barks a surprised laugh.

“Yeah, baby,” Louis assures him. “God, yeah, you’re so fucking hot, Harry.”

Harry throws his head back, wasting no time in getting back to tugging on his hard cock, using Louis’ come as lube for a slick glide, giving Louis quite possibly the best view he’s ever had. He admires the long line of Harry’s throat before trailing his gaze down over Harry’s heaving chest, all four nipples he hasn’t even gotten a chance to play with yet. Louis rubs his thumbs over the laurel tattoos framing Harry’s hips, moving his gaze down to the muscles jumping in Harry’s abdomen, before Harry stiffens, arching his back and painting Louis’ chest with his come.

They breathe together for a few moments, Harry’s eyes on Louis’ chest. He swipes two fingers through his come and holds them to Louis’ lips, looking at him questioningly. How did Louis manage to find him, he wonders, as he parts his lips and takes the tips of Harry’s fingers into his mouth. Harry watches intently as Louis swirls his tongue around Harry’s fingers, tasting the slightly sweet tang.

Harry pulls his fingers away and leans down to kiss him. Louis reaches both hands up to hold the back of Harry’s head in place, not wanting to let him go yet. They kiss lazily, close mouthed and so fucking good. Eventually he releases Harry, who flops down onto his back next to Louis.

“That was, like, next level,” Harry declares, waving his arm. “Like, wow. Right?”

He glances over at Louis.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Louis laughs. “That was the best sex I’ve ever had. I’ve never, um, never been with someone I cared about before, so, yeah.”

Harry turns on his side, propping up on his elbow to look down at Louis.

“I care about you so much, Lou,” Harry says, his eyes sparkling. “So much.”

“Me too, Curly,” Louis replies, lifting up to kiss Harry’s cheek. “I meant everything I said earlier, I want to, like, date you. Treat you proper, like a gentlemen. I don’t know how all this works, like relationship stuff, but if you’ll have me–”

“I already had you,” Harry says ridiculously, waggling his eyebrows. They both cackle and Louis teases his fingers along Harry’s ribs to make him laugh harder.

The way Harry caves in on himself, batting off Louis’ hands like a kitten and scrunching his eyes closed as he giggles, is so fucking cute, Louis can’t stand it.

“You,” he says, slowing his tickles to a caress and pressing a kiss to Harry’s smile, “have no business being this cute.”

Harry flushes all the way down to his chest and purses his lips for another kiss, which Louis happily gives him. He lifts his head to look into Harry’s eyes, memorizing the gold flecks, and Harry holds his gaze.

“Breakfast,” Harry says suddenly.

“What?” Louis asks, confused by the seeming non sequitur.

“Breakfast tomorrow,” Harry says, smoothing Louis’ hair away from his forehead. “That can be our first date.”

“That sounds perfect, baby,” Louis replies, leaning down for a soft kiss. Harry pulls Louis closer, holding him for awhile, until the reality of how messy they are starts to become uncomfortable.

“Can we be lazy tonight?” Louis asks hopefully. “I can get a washcloth, shower tomorrow? That’s if you, um, you wanted to stay, right?”

“Yeah, Lou,” Harry says, smiling fondly. “I want to stay, and we can be lazy. But I’ll get up with you, I want to brush my teeth. Do you have a spare toothbrush? Or phone charger? I wasn’t, like, prepared for this at all.”

“Yeah, come on, Curly,” Louis laughs, tugging Harry to get up. “We’ll get you sorted out.”

They clean up first and then Louis gets boxers for them both before rustling up everything that Harry needs. Louis sets up his programmable coffeemaker for the next morning, smiling as he adds enough coffee beans and water for two instead of one, and locks up. Harry’s lingering in the bathroom, brushing his teeth, and they finish getting ready for bed together. Louis is tempted to try and start something but he’s yawning too much by now, the days catching up with him. Harry keeps smiling and booping at his nose, exclaiming over his cute little yawns, which Louis would protest if Harry weren’t so cute doing it.

Finally, they slide into bed. Harry grabs his phone and taps at it for a minute before setting it back on the nightstand.

“What was that about, Curly?” Louis asks after Harry turns off the light.

“Oh, I do this thing,” Harry says sheepishly. Louis wonders if he’s blushing as he shifts closer to Harry, pulling him back into his arms. “I send myself an email every night with, like, a little to do list for the next day.”

“Oh yeah?” Louis asks, nuzzling the back of Harry’s neck. “Why’s that?”

“Don’t like to feel like I wasted a day,” Harry explains, “I like structure to it, even if it’s a day off, so even if it’s just like ‘drink coffee in the morning,’ I send something every night.”

“So what’s the plan for tomorrow?” Louis whispers, kissing Harry’s small, stupidly cute ear.

“First date with Lou,” Harry says. Louis can practically hear him grinning. “Shower, breakfast, ask Lou if it’s too soon to ask him to be my boyf–”

Louis shifts to lean on his elbow, attacking Harry with big, smooching kisses all over his face as he shrieks with giggles, trying to fend him off. Louis relents after a couple of minutes, settling back behind Harry and pulling him in close.

“That sounds like a good plan, Curly,” Louis snuffles against Harry’s skin. “I have to warn you, I’m not much of a morning person, but I think I’m gonna like mornings with you.”

Chapter Text

Epilogue

Harry is a morning person.

Mornings have always been his favorite part of the day. He’s at his best in the mornings; he’s usually cheerful and always alert as soon as he wakes up. He likes a bit of structure in the morning to start his day right: After hopping out of bed and pulling the covers back up so it looks nice, he goes through a short yoga routine, showers and dresses, and gets a cup of coffee. He’s generally a prompt person, and he likes how his unhurried routine gets him to work with a clear mind and time to spare.

But this morning, a beautiful, brisk late winter morning, Harry is all out of sorts. He hadn’t been able to focus on the yoga practice he’d attempted; despite all his fiddling with the shower handle, he couldn’t get the water just the right temperature; and now he can’t find the jeans he swears he wore over to Louis’ apartment the night before. Sighing, he grabs a pair of gray joggers and throws them on along with a tank top. Whatever, maybe he’ll try to run through his practice one more time while he waits for Lou to get home from work.

On his way out to the living room where the coffee table is still pushed flush with the wall to make room for his yoga mat, Harry glimpses their – his – new rescue cat, Penguin, dart behind the couch. He sighs and drops heavily onto the couch, willing himself not to peek over the cushions. For days Louis has been telling him to let the cat come to him, not to chase him, but it’s so hard. He just wants to plead with him, “Let me love you!”

Harry smiles warmly thinking about the morning of his birthday a week ago. Louis had gotten up before him and Harry had burrowed into the cozy bed, thinking perhaps Louis was getting them breakfast (hopefully just cereal, knowing his boyfriend). Instead, all six of Louis’ siblings had trooped in with the most gorgeous black and white shorthaired cat, who looked scared out of his mind. They’d sung Happy Birthday to him as the cat fought to escape Harry’s arms and Ernie had cheerfully announced they had named him Penguin due to his markings.

Louis had shrugged sheepishly from behind them, mouthing “I’m sorry,” and “I love you,” but it was the best birthday wakeup Harry had ever had. They even had a little birthday crown and cake for him for breakfast. And Harry still can’t believe Louis had remembered him mentioning not being allowed a cat at his apartment months and months ago, and decided to adopt one for him to live at his place. He’d even chosen an older cat, instead of a kitten, who had probably been waiting around for a new owner.

Harry rests his head on the back of the couch, wondering how long until Louis gets home. He’d stupidly left his phone in the bedroom in a grump, so he can’t even check what time it is. Louis had promised to rush straight home after work so they could watch the episode alone together before they attend the viewing party at the fire station later. It feels like it’s taking him forever to get back. God, Harry is so nervous. He doesn’t even know why, filming ended over four months ago and look what he got out of it.

Okay, that’s a lie, Harry admits to himself. Deep down he knows that he’s nervous about how much of his crush on Louis the cameras had picked up on. They’ve talked and laughed about pining for each other for those first few months, but Harry’s worried he might actually look creepy. Niall always jokes that Harry has “resting murderer face” when he’s jealous. And just… Harry doesn’t mind being the one who loves more, that’s kind of his lot in life, but he doesn’t want to freak Louis out. Not when things are going so, so well.

The soft sound of the cat padding over to the door brings Harry out of his reverie and he looks over to see the door swing open. Louis crouches down to pet the cat’s head, between his ears, before looking up.

“Hi, Curly,” he greets Harry, smiling. Harry loves how his eyes crinkle when he smiles like that.

“Hi, Lou,” Harry replies softly, running a hand through his hair and awkwardly stopping halfway through the motion, remembering Louis pointing out that’s his tell.

“Babe, are you really that nervous?” Louis asks as he straightens up and walks inside, shutting the door behind him. Penguin curls around one of his legs, looking askance at Harry. That fucker.

“No,” Harry lies, looking down at his hands in his lap, picking at a cuticle.

“Okay,” Louis says, pretending to believe him. “I’m gonna change real quick, then let’s watch out here? Can you grab a coffee for me?”

He blows a few kisses at Harry as he walks backward down the hallway, trailed by Harry’s traitorous cat. Harry huffs a laugh and gets up, rolling his yoga mat up before lifting the coffee table and placing it back between the couch and TV before heading to the kitchen. He pours a cup of coffee for Louis, adding a practiced amount of milk, and pours one for himself, too, while he’s at it.

He’s just settled back on the couch, mugs on the table and remote in hand, when Louis walks back out, alone now.

“C’mere, Lou, give me a cuddle,” Harry says, beaming at how beautiful Louis is, clad in just his cozy sweats. “How was work?”

“Slow. Boring,” Louis replies, dropping down next to Harry and putting his arm around him. He presses a soft kiss to Harry’s curls. “Okay, I know you’re dying to watch it, just start the episode. Liam said it’s the last one, number eight.”

“Did you see any of it?” Harry exclaims, twisting to face Louis. “Lou, you promised!”

“I didn’t, babe, I swear!” Louis hold his hands up in surrender. “You know Liam and logistics, he told everyone!”

“Okay,” Harry grumbles, a part of him still unconvinced. He navigates to Netflix, selects the Queer Eye icon, and chooses the eighth episode. He sits back, pulling Louis’ arm back around his shoulders.

Harry tries to relax as the opening credits play and Louis bops around a little to the music, trying to make him laugh. He’s just nervous. It feels like he has a lot riding on this.

It’s so weird to see the Fab Five discussing Liam as they drive to the fire station; Harry hadn’t known they got a little dossier on him but it makes sense. They both crack up as Jonathan cheers, “Save lives, save lives, saving lives, doing the most!”

“That’s just how I’ll describe the job from now on when anyone asks,” Louis jokes, picking up his phone to text that to the man himself. Harry is connected to most of the people from the show through social media, he admires Nick’s dedication to Instagram Stories in particular, but he hadn’t gotten anyone’s number to stay in touch the way Louis had. Once Louis had told him more about the talks he’d had with Jonathan, Harry’s resting murderer face about it had been put to the rest.

“Oh god,” Louis groans. “Did you wear this outfit on purpose?”

“What?” Harry says confusedly. He looks down to see that he’s basically wearing the same outfit now to lounge in that he’d worn to “work out” in while filming. “Oh! No, why?”

Louis scrubs a hand over his face, and Harry suspects he’s trying to hide a blush.

“You know how hot you look in these joggers, okay?” Louis says finally, as the figures on screen run through the hallways calling for Liam. “And don’t get me started on the tank top, you’re obscene in it, baby. Took my breath away seeing it for the first time.”

“Babe,” Harry breathes as Louis drops his hand around Harry’s waist to finger the stitching near Harry’s rib. He’s having a hard time tearing his eyes away from Louis, who’s determinedly looking at the TV screen.

“Let’s just keep watching, okay?” Louis says, the corners of his mouth twitching into a grin.

Harry focuses in time to watch Jonathan ask about unrequited gay love stories while everyone had been standing around in the locker room.

“I thought that was you and me,” Louis whispers, nuzzling his ear. “I was so sure I would never get be with you.”

The whispered words cut through Harry. He knows this, they’ve talked about it before, but he just… he has a hard time believing that Louis could love him as much as he loves Louis. It’s unfathomable.

“I love you so much, Lou,” he whispers back. “You have no idea.”

“I promise you, Curly,” Louis answers confidently, “I do.”

Harry nestles back in Louis’ embrace. He turns his head to rub his nose on Louis’ cheek.

“Okay,” Harry says, scrunching his nose a little to hide his smile.

“Okay?” Louis says. “Okay what?”

“Okay, I believe you,” Harry clarifies. “Even though it seems impossible and too good to be true, I believe you. You love me as much as I love you.”

“I really, really do,” Louis says, pressing a kiss to the top of Harry’s head.

“Okay,” Harry repeats, grinning madly as he tries to follow the action on screen.

“Oh, this is when you were teasing me about game night!” Louis exclaims, pointing to the corner of the screen where they’re in the frame leaning against the fire truck. “We should have one soon, that could be fun actually.”

“Dream team!” Harry laughs, remembering. He’d been so determined to make the most of his opportunity to be around Louis after having a crush on him for so long.

They cuddle on the couch and watch the rest of the episode, exclaiming and groaning in equal parts. The episode seems so short after all they’d done filming, it could easily have been another 20 or 30 minutes longer in Harry’s opinion.

Louis reaches for the remote and hits pause once the episode is over.

“Well?” he asks. “What do you think, you want to watch it again?”

“I do,” Harry admits. “But maybe not right away. Now that I’m not distracted, tell me again how work was.”

“It really was just slow,” Louis says, picking at a loose thread on his sweatpants. “I think everyone watched the episode after midnight, but I took the chance to sleep.”

“Yeah?” Harry asks, waiting. Louis usually gossips more after a shift, although he’d object to that word.

“Yeah, yeah,” Louis mumbles before clearing his throat. “So, um, I talked to Niall.”

Harry doesn’t bother prodding him along, he just waits patiently with raised eyebrows.

“And he mentioned there’s a house a few down from his that’s for rent,” Louis says casually, as Harry’s heart starts to race. “It’s available at the start of May, and um, I know that’s when your lease is up…”

Harry wills himself to stay quiet, wanting to let Louis get there at his own pace, but every impulse he has is screaming at him to jump up and down and yell “Yes!” over and over.

“And, you know, I’ve been month to month for the last couple of months,” Louis continues. Harry narrows his eyes, he did not know that. How long has Louis been thinking about this conversation?

“So, um, it’s a good neighborhood, it’s not far from work,” Louis continues, still trying to sound breezy. “And it’s close to Dan’s, too, and, um, you know, Niall and Hailee would be right there…”

“Yeah?” Harry says softly, taking Louis’ fidgeting hand in his and stroking his thumb over it.

“Yeah,” Louis nods, looking at Harry finally. “I know it’s soon, Curly, and I don’t want to rush you, but I feel like I’m ready, and I just really want to–”

“For fuck’s sake, just ask me then!” Harry explodes, unable to contain himself anymore.

“Will you move in with me?” Louis asks all in a rush, taking a deep breath after it’s all out.

“Yes,” Harry answers. “Of course I want to move in with you and, no, it’s not too soon, it’s perfect. You’re perfect.”

Louis smiles broadly at him, eyes crinkled almost shut, and Harry gets lost in his face for a moment. He cannot believe his luck.

The moment is broken by a sudden weight dropping onto Harry’s lap.

“Oof,” he groans, not realizing at first that the sudden weight was Penguin jumping onto his lap to sit proudly, like he’s on a throne. Harry freezes before whispering, panicked, “Lou! What do I do?”

Louis laughs, shaking his head.

“I told you he would come to you!” he says. “Pet him on the head, between the ears, that’s his favorite.”

“I read that it’s overstimulating for cats, though,” Harry protests, staying still so as not to disturb whatever this is. As if he understands Harry perfectly, Penguin shoots him a withering glance and hops down, stalking away. Harry looks at Louis helplessly.

“Aw, baby,” Louis laughs. “I’m sorry. It’s a work in progress, right?”

“Right,” Harry mutters, begrudgingly leaning into the kisses that Louis is pressing on his cheek.

“How about I pet and overstimulate you the way you like,” Louis purrs into his ear, “then I’ll call the owner of that house to arrange a tour?”

And honestly, Harry’s not sure which half of that offer is more arousing.

“Yes,” he practically shouts. “Yes to both. I love you, I love you so fucking much.”

“I love you too,” Louis says seriously, lifting a hand to stroke Harry’s cheek. “I promise.”

Harry smiles at his soon-to-be live-in boyfriend. God, he can’t wait to build a life with him.

“I know.”