“How many times you reckon I can use ‘cock’ in the same paragraph before it stops looking like a real word?” Louis asks as soon as Liam answers his phone, and rolls his eyes up to the ceiling when Liam splutters in his ear. Liam should be used to it by now, Louis thinks, discussing the frequency with which cocks are mentioned in a piece of writing is part of their job after all.
To his credit, Liam recovers quickly enough, clearing his throat and considering Louis’ question with all the seriousness it deserves.
“Well,” he says after a moment, “there are other options. You could try a synonym.”
“None of them sound as good as cock, though.” Louis has this predicament at least once a week, but he usually gets over it without needing to talk to his editor. In fact, he usually dodges his editor’s calls and ignores his emails until Liam is forced to come see him in person. These are clearly desperate times.
He’s been stuck on the same paragraph since last night, the same fucking scene (ha) he’s been working on for a week: the magical, earth-shattering lay that solves everyone’s problems and gives a nice, happy and satisfying close to his story.
His bloody impossible story. A story that apparently does not want to get written at all.
“You could focus on other body parts?” Liam offers.
“Cocks are quite essential where I’m at, Liam. The plot would not move along nicely without mentioning cocks at this point. Especially because there’s two of them. Both cocks need to be ‘spent’ and ‘flushed’ and ‘softening between their thighs’ for me to be able to sleep tonight.” Louis actually makes quotation marks with his fingers. He’s bordering on hysterical. He hasn’t even gone through the first round of rewrites yet and it’s possible he will snap before that time comes.
“I see what you mean about the overuse of...the word.” Liam’s laugh is awkward and Louis can just picture him, going pink and looking down at his lap as he speaks. The strange thing is that Liam is ruthless on paper. His notes on Louis’ drafts are filthy, endless scribbles in red pen going from:
People use contractions when they speak use them!!!
How can one (1) man come that much that many times in what I assume was less than two hours and NOT die? Doesn’t he run out of sperm? Is he a magical creature of some sort?? (story idea?? supernatural creature sex = bestiality?? check!)
There are many, many things Liam still doesn’t understand about erotic fiction and one of those things is that people do not care about basic biology when reading porn. Well, they don’t care about accurate basic biology. Louis has to admit that basic biology is a big part of most of his writing published as Austin Williams.
“Every other word just sounds so silly,” he whines into the phone.
“I mean,” Louis considers, “I suppose dick’s alright, but I’ve been using cock throughout. It’d look weird to start calling it that now. You’re either a cock person or a dick person.”
“Yes, Liam. Shit, I bet you call ‘em willies, don’t you?”
“I...guess I use dick. Or prick.”
“Prick wouldn’t sound right in this context,” Louis argues. Cock is the way to go, Louis knows it, he’s just overthinking everything because he’s tired of working on something that should have been finished weeks ago. “Why does there have to be two of them?”
“That’s what happens when you write gay erotica, I guess.” Ugh, Louis hates it when Liam calls it erotica. It makes Louis think of cheap paperbacks with titles like My Night with the Innkeeper or Penelope’s Affair. Technically, Louis’ (or rather, Austin’s) books fall in the same category, but he doesn’t need to be reminded. “You could always bring Lorenzo back.”
“God, no, I hate Lorenzo. Now that’s a prick.” Lorenzo is his go-to hunk when Austin Williams starts running dry and he needs to bring Catherine Darling out. Now, Catherine has actually written a book called Penelope’s Affair. It has four and a half stars on Goodreads. Most of Austin’s books hold a solid three, and Louis always puts so much more effort into those, has so much more hands on experience to draw out of. He just doesn’t get what the big deal is about Lorenzo. The bloke doesn’t even speak proper Italian, Louis has never bothered with it. He likes that it gives Lorenzo less credibility.
“You know they’ve been asking me for this draft for weeks,” Liam says, a sterner note creeping into his tone. “Just finish the scene and you can fix it later. Work on something else while I edit.”
“It’s not that easy,” Louis groans back. “I’m calling you, doesn’t that tell you just how not easy this is shaping up to be? And it’s not even a Hunter!”
Maybe that’s the problem. Louis never, ever has trouble writing Hunter. Hunter’s had all-male threesomes and foursomes and Louis never thought he was overusing the word ‘cock’ when writing those scenes. But Hunter is Austin’s signature character. He has his own series of books, and Louis puts a lot more work into his stories than he does to anything else. What he’s stuck on now is nothing, a short story meant to be part of an anthology that he doesn’t even care about.
So why he’s so torn over this stupid scene is beyond him.
“Maybe you should, you know,” Liam begins to say. He trails off, clearly assuming Louis is able to read his mind. He always does this, starts to speak and leaves sentences unfinished as if what he means should be obvious. Louis always forgets how unnerving it is until he’s in the middle of a conversation with him and he wishes he could reach through the phone and slap Liam a little.
“I should what?” Louis asks, exasperated when the seconds stretch too long.
“Should...find some inspiration.”
Louis blinks at his computer screen. The cursor on his word document blinks back at him.
“And how do you suppose I do that?”
“Well, you’d know! You’re the one always going on about finding inspiration and then turning in thirty pages of smut in a single weekend! Call your boyfriend or whatever and...inspire yourself.”
Louis throws his head back and laughs, not only because what Liam is saying is absolute nonsense, but because he sounds so horrified to be saying it that Louis can actually feel how uncomfortable he is.
“You think I’m shagging my way through work, don’t you?” he asks when he recovers, still giggling into the back of his hand. “Think I’m having that good a time?”
“Well.” Liam clears his throat. “Well, aren’t you? You always mention a he, I know I haven’t made that up.”
“And how do you know he’s someone I’m shagging? Or even a person for that matter.”
“He’s inspiring you to write about shagging, so I should hope he’s not your dog or something!” Liam nearly shouts and Louis laughs again, clutching his belly and nearly toppling his chair over.
“I’m not shagging him,” Louis finally says before Liam gets too huffy and starts demanding things of him again. “He’s a friend. We talk.”
“No.” Definitely not. “Is everything about sex with you?”
“You called me about using the word cock too much. In a sex scene. In a pornographic story you’re supposed to be writing.”
“I want that draft by Friday or we’re giving your spot to someone else,” Liam tells him, finally fed up. “Go talk with your muse or whatever.”
“Don’t be angry, I’m suffering here!”
“Goodbye, Austin,” Liam says and hangs up. He’s serious then, if he’s calling Louis Austin. Louis hates his pen name. Catherine Darling isn’t that much better, but he uses it so rarely it doesn’t really register. Also, Liam never calls him Catherine quite in that tone.
The only pen name that counts, the only one Louis has ever really wanted to be associated with, is the original one, L. W. Tomlinson. Tomlinson wrote one novel, poured heart and soul in it, and then he vanished from the face of the earth, never to be heard from again.
These days he almost feels made up, even more so than Austin and Catherine sometimes.
Louis drops his phone on his desk with a clatter and rubs his hands over his face. It’s painful just how much he doesn’t want to look at the open file on his computer anymore. His fingers itch to close the window and go to his Hunter folder, open one of the unfinished drafts there. Although he doubts he would be able to work, even on those. It’s been too long - a week is too long - and Liam is right, he needs inspiration.
With a sigh, Louis peeks at the screen through his fingers. The familiar words are still there. Somehow, his chat with Liam didn’t magically make them fix themselves, a quick glance is enough to make every error pop out.
Chris’ cock throbbed, trapped in his jeans. It pushed painfully against his zipper. He’d been hard since he got in the car, and it hadn’t let up for the entire drive. Jason’s hand on his thigh was not helping, traveling higher and higher for every mile they covered until he was cupping Chris’ cock through denim, grip so firm it nearly made Chris’ hands slide off the wheel.
“Eager,” Jason comments, almost casual in his manner, fingers squeezing Chris’ hard cock. “Don’t take your eyes off the road.”
“I am trying,” Chris mumbled. “Maybe if you weren’t touching my cock wh
Yes, he’s definitely abusing the word cock. Four times in less than a hundred words? It’s overkill, even for Austin Williams. There’s a tense change there in the middle, and there’s something odd about the length of the sentences, something fake about the dialogue. Dialogue has always been Louis’ weak point, be it as Austin or Catherine. Thankfully, people aren’t exactly reading these books for the characters’ witty lines. As far as Louis is concerned when it comes to dialogue, he only needs to be good at dirty talk and desperate begging, and he’s quite talented at both, if he says so himself.
He hits the backspace key using a little more force than necessary, his other hand still over his face. The entire scene is a bust. Try as he might Louis cannot make Jason and Chris have any sort of believable chemistry, not even with the bar set as low as it is. Again, he thinks about opening a Hunter file for warm-up. But if he starts on one of those he’ll never finish this one, and Liam might actually murder him.
You never know with those calm types.
In a moment, the entire scene disappears from the screen. Maybe he can skip the drive to Chris’ place and go straight to the fucking, no foreplay, no buildup. He doubts it will matter. He already has that part down, he already knows who’s doing what and what sort of heated confession will come off it. He even has the last line written down (he always writes the last line in advance, it makes him feel grounded, as if he knows exactly where he’s going). His problem right now is everything in between, all the juicy bits.
He’s craving a cuppa.
Actually, he’s craving more than a cuppa. He needs to get out of his flat, walk downstairs and into Anne’s, sit at his usual table, get his usual order, and see the usual people. Person. One little look and Louis knows he will be good to go.
Louis sighs, resting back against his chair. Anne’s is still closed until tomorrow; it doesn’t matter how badly Louis needs his fix. He’ll have to settle with brewing his own tea - no pretty smiles and cheeky winks for him. Only him and his laptop, until one of them runs out of battery.
He’s filling the kettle, considering if he should bother writing yet another prepping scene for Jason and Chris or just dive right into the action, when he hears his phone chime with birds chirping and Louis almost drops the kettle into the sink.
There’s only one person who has a personalized ringtone in Louis’ phone.
He puts the kettle back on the counter and wipes his wet hands on his joggers, walking back to the table. Louis’ belly swoops. He has a new message.
H (teacup emoji):
I missed you today. Evrythng ok? ur table looked lonely.
Louis frowns down at the screen. What is this boy talking about? Anne’s is closed, Louis has spent the last week sulking about it. He’s passed the dark windows every day on his way to the nearest Starbucks. He might even have peered through the blinds once or twice just in case they had changed their mind and didn’t need a vacation after all. He memorised every fancy loop on the little sign he had seen Harry write and tape to the glass door.
Closed ‘til Wednesday, we’re sorry for the inconvenience !! :)
Today is Wednesday, which means they are opening tomorrow, on Thursday. Louis has been counting the hours since the weekend.
Louis types out a reply - ?? You don’t open until tomorrow - and sits back in his chair, eyes on his mobile. It takes less than a minute for it to chime again.
H (teacup emoji):
no? We were open all day tday, even saved u a scone in the morning..
But I ate it at lunch, sorry! !
Louis’ face falls. He can’t believe- fuck, he spent all day agonizing over his draft, he even forgoed his trip to Starbucks in order to focus, and Harry has been just downstairs, all lovely and smiley and probably tanned from his week in Brazil and Louis missed it.
It’s already past seven. Anne’s doors are locked and the lights are probably off. Louis hates Jason and Chris more than ever.
Before he can send a new message, something that makes him sound unbothered and casual and not like the pathetic lump he actually is, his phone chimes again.
had to come over to close and I have some carrot cake left
just put the kettle on too
Louis’ belly flutters, and he doesn’t even bother to send a reply before grabbing his laptop and his charger and bolting out of the flat.
Any other day, Louis would feel a bit disgusted about how eager he is. But he’s had a rotten week, an even worse afternoon, and Harry and his dimples are always the best cure for everything.
The lift seems to take forever and Louis taps the fingers of his free hand against his thigh impatiently, listening to the ancient gears groan and clank, the sound echoing down the shaft. Earlier in the day, he might have braved the stairs, but the old marble steps are worn with use and the lights of all the top floors are perpetually out. With sunlight streaming through the small windows along the staircase, Louis is confident he could have made the trip. At seven in the evening and running solely on tea and cereal, Louis is almost certain that attempting the seven storey descent will end with a broken neck.
Or worse, a broken laptop.
When the lift finally whines to a stop in front of him, Louis wastes no time wrestling the old iron doors open. In his pocket, his mobile buzzes, but he ignores it in order to close the doors again and try not to stumble into them when the metal box lurches into motion. He’s resigned himself to all the drawbacks of living in a building built a hundred years ago - like the deathtrap he calls a lift or the way the pipes groan and clank when the heat turns on, the draft that always slips through the old windows, or the fact that he’s got no built-in closets. He’s come to realise the pros far outweigh the cons, and the main pro has to be the location.
Louis doesn’t realise he’s forgotten to put on a coat until he’s stepping outside and the frigid wind slaps him in the face. He curses under his breath - Harry makes him stupid. It’s a problem he lives with everyday. Luckily, the walk from his door to Anne’s is less than ten steps. Unluckily, Anne’s is indeed already closed, and the thirty seconds it takes for Harry to unlock the door are enough to leave Louis half numb and trembling.
The cold is the last thing on his mind once Harry appears in front of him, outlined by the soft light coming from inside and already smiling. Louis smiles back and somehow manages to get his frozen feet to move and carry him inside, where it’s warm and smells heavenly, like coffee and burnt sugar.
“Jesus, Lou, it’s freezing out,” is the first thing Harry says, his slow, syrupy voice wrapping around Louis like a thick coat. “You didn’t have to race here.”
The door closes with a thump and the little bell above it clinks. Louis tries to shake off the remnants of his chill, bouncing in place and turning to look at Harry properly. Harry is closer than he expected, though, already stepping into his space and putting his big hands on Louis’ arms. He rubs up and down in quick, sure movements, much like a fussy mum would a child.
Louis tries not to melt into the touch too obviously and instead takes in the sight of Harry finally in front of him again.
He’s wearing an apron tied around his waist with a loop that goes around him and ends in a little bow over his belly. His chest is uncovered, and Louis can see sooty fingerprints staining the white fabric of his t-shirt. His hair is held back with a yellow headband and his face is startlingly dark. As are his arms, and his neck, and the dip between his collarbones.
Just like that, Louis’ fingers are itching to write.
He wonders if he should rewrite his entire draft and set it in a beach town somewhere, where Jason’s and Chris’ skin always feels soft and warm to the touch and Chris’ nose can go pink and freckle a little like Harry’s is.
“Well, look at you,” Louis says when Harry steps back and he realises he’s been staring. “Did you leave the beach at all?”
“Not really,” Harry grins, dimpling all over the place, and Louis could fucking swoon. Harry makes him feel like a character in one of Catherine’s stories - giddy, like there’s a giggle constantly stuck in his throat. He sets his laptop down on the nearest table and shakes his cold fingers out in front of him, trying to get some feeling back.
“Well, you have no business looking like that in the middle of January,” he teases.
Harry bites his lip and smiles down at his feet before walking around Louis and back towards the counter, where two steaming cups are waiting.
“Here,” he says, bringing one over to Louis, who gratefully wraps his hands around the hot surface and sighs in relief. “You do like carrot cake, right? I couldn’t remember if you ever tried it here before.”
“Of course,” Louis answers, nose already half inside the cup. He only remembers that he’s wearing his glasses when they fog up with the steam, leaving him momentarily blind. “Love any cake as long as you baked it.”
Harry huffs out a laugh as he retrieves his own cup and a piece of cake, already on a delicate-looking plate, placing them not on the table where Louis dropped his stuff, but his usual one, the one a little hidden in a cranny between the counter and the wall. There’s a small sign on top, reading Reserved in pink, loopy letters.
Louis’ chest feels tight.
“I didn’t bake this one, actually. Will you still try some?” Harry asks, pulling out a chair and sitting down heavily, and Louis wishes he were a better person and wouldn’t impose on Harry after what has clearly been a long day of work. As it is, he is terrible, and he brings his tea and laptop over and sits on the chair opposite with a smirk.
“I suppose I’ll have to.”
He tries the cake, which is amazing, and he drinks the tea, and then he opens his laptop and begins typing as Harry talks about his trip while sweeping the front of the shop, giggling at his own anecdotes and making Louis roll his eyes as his fingers fly over the keyboard. Listening to Harry’s voice, the pages on the word document he aptly saved as when they find my rotting body blame this piece of shit begin to fill.
This is Harry’s superpower. One look at his lips and Louis can write poetry out of a blowjob. Harry's tattooed forearms have inspired more fictional wall sex than Louis can count; the sight of his jeans stretching tight over his bum once born an entire short story dedicated solely to the wonders of rimming. He has no use for the story, it sits in his hard-drive collecting metaphorical electronic dust, but the point is that it exists, and it’s all thanks to Harry. Lovely coffee shop Harry with his weird laugh and twinkling eyes. His big hands and his dimples. Broad shoulders and long legs and now Louis is getting sidetracked. It doesn’t necessarily make writing harder, though.
As Harry talks, Louis writes. He writes filthy, disgusting smut that will be published in a book full of more filthy, disgusting smut written by other people who probably don’t draw inspiration out of clueless curly-haired boys who are too friendly for their own good.
Louis stopped feeling guilty about his method a long time ago. Or at least that what he tells himself.
“Oh!” Harry stops sweeping all of a sudden and Louis looks up to see him grinning over at him from the other side of the cafe. “I got some drawing done for the end of term project I told you about.” His cheeks go pink under his tan. “You could look at it later, if you want.”
“Of course, love,” Louis says, turning back to his screen and scanning over the last words he typed down.
Jason pistoned his hips against Chris’, the sound of skin slapping on wet skin nearly drowning out Chris’ ragged breathing, Jason’s quiet curses. He curled his hands on Chris’ hips and pulled them up when their knees started to slide on the bed, and the new angle drew a groan out of Chris. Jason could see the other man’s fingers digging into the sheets, twisting them in his fists, the back of his neck flushed a dark red, tendons standing out.
“You like it like this, huh?” Jason muttered down at him. His hands pressed Chris’ shoulders down against the mattress until he heard Chris’ breath stutter, hips grinding back. When Jason pushed forward, the other man let out a plaintive whine, spine curving under Jason’s hands like putty. “Face down and ass up like a dog in heat. Panting for it.”
“Did you get any writing done while I was away?” Harry asks, resting his chin on the tip of the broomstick and leaning forward. Louis can barely stand the sight.
“You know I do my best writing with you,” Louis tells him honestly, although he keeps his tone light enough to sound like he isn’t as depressingly serious as he is.
“Mmh, I wonder if you’ll ever show me. I’ve shown you mine.”
A zip of heat runs down Louis’ belly and he looks away from Harry’s dirty grin and his waging eyebrows before he can make a fool of himself.
“Don’t be cheeky, Styles. You know my work is top secret.” And there’s a big, big difference between Harry’s work and Louis’, but Louis keeps his mouth shut about that. The less Harry knows, the better.
He chances a quick look towards the front only to catch Harry pouting and turning back to his cleaning. His apron is tight around his narrow waist, and it makes his back look massive, hidden muscles shifting underneath his shirt. Louis’ fingers twitch and he begins typing again.
The truth is, Louis knows he’s going to hell, if there is such a thing, but it isn’t because he writes erotic fiction for a living. If anything it’s because his muse, the reason he’s inspired to write about people shagging in increasingly creative ways every day, is the sweetest, loveliest, most genuine (and completely oblivious) future children’s-book illustrator in the world.
It was never Louis’ goal to make money writing porn. Writing professionally at all didn’t even really cross his mind until he was finishing college and still had no clue where to go from there. He liked music, and briefly considered going down that path, but it felt more like a fantasy than a serious career. He had friends who were going to uni to study marketing, business, law, all sorts of useful things Louis had no real drive to pursue. Instead he stayed in Manchester and got a shoddy job in sales. In his free time, he despaired, reassured his mum that he was fine , and scribbled all over notebooks he nicked from the office. Tinkering around with song lyrics led to tinkering around with poems, and then to little stories, and then, finally, to a bigger story, his only really big story, which somehow turned into a published novel that Louis was (still is) incredibly proud of. The only one of his published works that he isn’t ashamed of, and the only one that amounted to nothing.
Nothing quite went in the expected direction after that.
The porn thing was supposed to be a one off, a favour for Liam, a good laugh and a couple of tipsy nights spent writing a little smutty something for an online publication that ended up getting way more attention than either him or Liam had anticipated.
He started writing weekly pieces and before he knew it, he was offered a small publishing deal by Liam’s employers, quit his day job, and dedicated himself solely to writing about knobs (and the occasional vagina). It isn’t a job he can brag about to his sisters or his mum, but it’s a steady paycheck as long as he churns out a constant stream of filth, and so far, Louis has always delivered.
Whether or not he enjoys it is not an issue, not as long as he can pay rent on time and still have enough left over to buy his siblings birthday presents and save up a little for a rainy day. He doesn’t need much, really, only a roof over his head, food on his table, and Harry within walking distance.
The Harry thing isn’t even about how gone Louis is for him, but mostly about work.
Harry has made everything better since the moment Louis met him, three years back, hyped up on caffeine and ignoring calls from Liam about the draft for his first Austin Williams book. Louis had been starting and deleting outlines for weeks, could not think of a single idea that would stick, something with enough meat to make up an entire book, not just a couple of pages. Something that would make a good story even with all the explicit sex Louis had to include. They’d given him an expected word count, of both the smut and the total, because he was writing romance novels now (as Liam calls them when he isn’t using words like erotica ) and apparently the readers had certain expectations.
Three years ago, Louis unknowingly walked into Anne’s on opening day, thanking his luck he wouldn’t have to trek all the way to Starbucks in the rain after all. He sat at the table furthest from the door, his back to the wall so no one would be able to see his laptop screen. He hadn’t noticed the little cafe being built. Tucked away in a corner, it was small and charming and completely unremarkable from outside.
Harry was in front of him before Louis was finished uncurling his charger from around his arm. He didn’t remember doing that. His fingers had been a little shaky from the cold and all the coffee he’d been drinking since that morning, and it took him a moment to look up.
When he did, mouth open to ask for whatever would keep him up a few more hours, he froze.
“Welcome,” Harry said, smiling down at him, pristine little hat and matching apron adorning his body, hands behind his back. “My name’s Harry, I’ll be right over there to take your order when you’re ready.” He gestured to the counter, rocking back and forth on his heels. He looked like a kid playing shopkeeper. Except for the fact that he was very obviously very much not a kid. He was, however, very fit.
“O-oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realise I had to order before sitting down.” Louis began climbing out of his little nook, but Harry held his hands up. He had big hands. Louis decided right on the spot that his main character would have big hands, long fingers. Maybe green eyes, even though they weren't exactly commonplace. Harry had green eyes. They reflected the fairy lights set up along the edge of the counter.
“That’s alright, you don’t have to get up. We, um, we still haven’t decided how we’re going to run things, and I doubt anyone else’s coming in today. I can take your order here.”
Louis sat back down, looking around for the first time. The place was completely empty save for him and Harry and looked as neat and put together as Harry did. There were about ten tables in total, all different styles, and not a single chair matched another. The hardwood floors were gleaming, as if they had never been stepped on before, and everything else looked well kept but old, as if salvaged from fifty different thrift shops. It looked a little like a half-blind old lady had put it together and it wasn’t usually a style Louis appreciated, but Harry, with his pink cheeks and big doe eyes, looked right at home.
“Just opened?” Louis asked. It was the early afternoon, an odd time to open a coffee shop. “Or am I just the first one in today?”
“You’re my- our first customer all day. Ever. It’s opening day,” Harry said, doing cute little jazz hands at his sides, still smiling. “Except I’m the only one here because of the weather, so it’s not much of a celebration.”
“Excuse me, and what am I? I reckon we can make it a celebration just the two of us, never mind the babies scared of a little water.”
Just then, thunder cracked loud enough to rattle the windows, and Harry jumped and laughed, turning towards the sound.
“I’d call this more than a little water,” he said. Louis couldn’t look away from his profile. He had pretty eyelashes. His mouth was too pink for him not to be wearing some kind of lipgloss.
“Pish posh,” Louis sniffed, eliciting another laugh from Harry and feeling the cold leaving his body in a rush. He hoped he wasn’t blushing too obviously. “I’ll have a pot of tea and whatever’s good to eat.”
“Any tea preferences?” Harry turned his crinkly eyes towards him again. His main character was going to have a deep voice, Louis thought.
“Surprise me,” Louis said, even though he did have a preference, and Harry looked like the kind to bring him green tea or something silly like that.
Confirming Louis’ suspicions, five minutes later, Harry brought back a pot of herbal tea that left a flowery taste in Louis’ mouth and a piece of key lime pie that Louis devoured in four bites, resisting the temptation to lick his fork clean.
“This is brilliant,” he told Harry, who was busy wiping down the already spotless counter and monitoring the door. The storm had only gotten worse; Louis couldn’t see a single person walking outside through the windows. “Made it yourself?”
“Yeah, my mum’s supposed to be in charge of the cakes but it’s a long trip down from her house and with the weather….” He trailed off, a little furrow appearing between his eyebrows. His speech was slow, as if he considered each and every word before speaking it aloud. It gave Louis time to stare at him.
“Well, it was delicious, you should be proud,” Louis told him. Harry smiled down at the counter, a deep dimple digging into his cheek. “You mind if I do my work here? Or is it not festive enough?”
“No, of course! You can move to a bigger table if you want, and I can bring you more tea?”
“I quite like this spot, actually.” It was cozy and secluded and closest to Harry. “But if you have some Yorkshire lying about I’ll take a pot of that.”
Harry made him a fresh pot of tea, bringing over a little jar of milk without prompting and maybe Louis fell right then, but who really knows?
“It’s nice to have company,” Harry said as he moved back towards his place behind the counter. “I was starting to get lonely.”
“I won’t be much company, mate, sorry. I’ve got to finish this bloody draft if it kills me.”
“Are you a writer?”
Louis cringed slightly, cursing his big mouth, but nodded.
“Anything I might’ve heard of?” Harry asked, leaning forward on his forearms. Louis thought he could see the hint of a tattoo on his wrist beneath his lilac jumper.
“I doubt it, love.” Louis couldn’t bite back the pet name before it slipped out, but Harry didn’t seem to mind. “Nothing terribly popular.”
“You never know, I read quite a lot.”
Louis couldn’t picture Harry reading anything as trashy as Louis’ work, and as for his Tomlinson novel, well, Louis doubted more than a couple hundred people had read that. What were the chances of Harry being one of them?
Instead of answering, he sent Harry a wink he hoped came out playful rather than sleazy and turned towards his laptop.
Two hours later, he’d managed to write a character description, checking himself every time he went a little too far with the similarities, but he had gotten nowhere in regards to plot.
“Looks like it’s stopping,” Harry said softly and Louis quit his staring contest with his computer to look out the window. It was still raining, but not quite as furiously as it had been before.
“Think your helpers will make it?”
“I already told them not to bother. I mean, they were supposed to be here at six this morning, and I think I can manage you on my own.”
Louis squirmed in his chair, rolling his eyes to try not to show how much the words affected him. Harry had moved to a table himself, along with a cup of tea and a sketchbook he propped up against his knee.
“You draw?” Louis asked, nodding towards it.
“I try. I’m going to school for it.”
“Really? That’s cool, are you any good?”
Harry shrugged, looking a little shy, and Louis decided not to force him to show him any drawings yet. It wouldn’t be fair anyway, with him not planning on ever showing Harry his writing.
Harry went back to his work and Louis reluctantly went back to stare at his. What would be a good setting for a book? It needed to be exciting, it needed to hold people’s interest beyond the sex bits. He’d written a little bit of everything for his weekly stories, but nothing that had particularly interested him.
“What kind of books do you read?” he found himself asking, and Harry stopped drawing and pursed his lips in thought, tapping his pencil against his chin. It was adorable. How was Louis supposed to concentrate like this?
“I like crime novels?” Harry offered. There was a wry twist to his mouth, as if he was expecting Louis to mock him. “Like gruesome murders and jaded cops who are too old for this shit and such.”
Louis smiled. Crime novels. That was exciting. That was good.
“What about spy books?” he asked.
“That’s what you’re writing?” Harry perked up and Louis shrugged, mind already whirring.
“Thinking about it.”
“I haven’t read many spy books but I’d read yours.” Harry’s smile was both cheeky and hopeful, and Louis huffed out a laugh and shook his head.
“Nice try, Curly.” Harry had taken his cap off earlier and his hair had puffed up in a mess of brown curls atop his head, a little matted after being imprisoned for so long. Louis was still getting over it. “My work’s very private, you see. If I show you-”
“You’d have to kill me?”
“Well, no,” Louis said, a little startled. “But I’d be forced to leave, never to show my face around these parts again. And I quite like it here.”
“Oh, um, thank you,” Harry said, voice quiet. “Alright, better not, then. I can’t have my best customer never showing me his lovely face again.”
Louis felt his cheeks go warm, saw Harry’s darkening across the room, full lower lip caught between his teeth, and that’s when the little bell on the door chimed for the first time all day and a group of wet teenagers stumbled in.
Harry nearly spilled his tea in his haste to get up and hurry behind the counter.
Louis went back to work, a little unsettled. Harry was gorgeous, and Louis had walked into his store looking like he hadn’t showered in three days (he hadn’t), with coffee stains on his cuffs, and his glasses were missing an arm because the little screw kept falling out and he couldn’t be arsed to put in his contacts. Louis was sure Harry wasn’t actually flirting with him - it was probably part of his whole friendly barista persona. He would probably flirt with every customer that walked through the door.
Right on cue, Louis heard the group of teenagers laugh at something Harry said, and he peeked to the side to see them all leaning against the counter, acting way too familiar. Louis was sure he had heard Harry introduce himself to them before, so these weren’t his friends. They were only a group of people just as charmed by Harry as Louis was, and he had no right to be annoyed.
Instead, he focused on outlining his story, something that suddenly felt possible, his head brimming with ideas. He typed in crime/secret agent/spy??? at the top and then somehow managed to come up with a handful of secondary characters, a proper team, an antagonist, a mission, and the climax of the entire thing. He even wrote down a last line, and felt suddenly so relieved he slumped in his seat, smiling at the twenty or so pages he had filled.
When he looked up, the shop was empty again, it was considerably darker outside, and Harry was sitting at the table across the room again, eyes on his sketchbook.
Frowning, Louis checked his screen and did a double take at the time.
“Fuck, I’m so sorry, I completely lost track of time,” he said, and Harry smiled at him, barely looking away from whatever he was busy drawing.
“Yeah, I know how that is,” he said. “But you got some work done, didn’t you?”
“I did,” Louis sighed. He slid his fingers beneath his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. “I’ve been trying to get this done for weeks, I think this place is magic.”
Harry's smile grew.
“Does that mean you’ll be back?”
Louis licked his lips. God, he felt wretched, the exhaustion of the last few weeks suddenly catching up to him, and looking at Harry, with his glossy curls and pretty face, made him even more aware of just how disgusting he probably looked himself.
“I think I will.”
Harry refused to let Louis help him close up, wouldn’t even let him wipe down his table. When Louis was standing by the door - waiting for Harry to unlock it because apparently the shop had closed an hour before - Harry brought over a flowery umbrella from behind the counter.
“I’m only like ten minutes away, you can take it,” he said, arm out. Louis laughed, mostly to hide how touched he was.
“I live just upstairs, so I think you need it more than me, babe.”
Harry’s cheeks flushed.
“So you’ll really be back, then. You’ve no excuse.”
“I wasn’t planning on making excuses,” Louis said, and then wondered if Harry had offered his umbrella just so Louis would bring it back. The idea made him have to bite back a smile.
When Harry had the door open and Louis was preparing for his short run, a thought popped into his head.
“I haven’t paid you!”
“Oh, that’s alright, it was on the house.”
“No way, you’ve barely had people over, let me at least pay for the cake.”
But Harry shook his head, curls swaying.
“You were my first ever customer, I think that’s reason enough to get a treat.”
“I insist,” Harry said and Louis dropped it, still feeling guilty. “Make it up to me by getting another cake soon.”
“Alright, I will.”
Louis stepped outside, hiding under the awning, and was about to walk away when he felt a tug on his sleeve.
He looked over his shoulder at Harry.
“You never said your name.” He had to raise his voice over the sound of the rain falling around them.
Harry’s smile was the biggest yet, and he let go of Louis’ jumper to wave goodbye. Louis was lucky he didn’t slip on a puddle and fall on his face before he made it into his building.
Later, when Liam berated him about sending him a proper draft, Louis wasn’t bothered. He’d finally found inspiration, and it came in the form of a lanky art student who made delicious treats for a living and had the prettiest smile Louis had ever seen.
He’s been writing about people having sex and falling in love - and in lust - for years, but Louis still hasn’t been able to put into words the way Harry has made him feel since the day they met.
The Jason and Chris story gets turned in on Thursday night with a few hours to spare. It ends up coming out a lot kinkier than Louis anticipated, but Liam doesn’t complain or ask him to change anything, although Louis knows he will probably make his usual comments about Louis’ awkward dialogue and unrealistic refractory times later.
To celebrate, Louis takes a small break from writing and spends his weekend bugging Harry at work, up before the sun when it’s Harry’s turn to open the shop and helping clean up when he works the later shift. It’s been years since Harry’s had to man the shop by himself, and even though it’s nice to see him well rested and chirpy, Louis misses all the time they used to spend alone. These days, there’s always at least one other person helping out during the day, especially during breakfast and tea rush hours, and a pastry baker back with the ovens early in the morning. Harry’s mother (the shop’s namesake) stops by every other day to bake cream cakes and muffins, and Harry is only ever by himself right after midday or late in the evening.
On a normal day, Louis is writing at his table for the duration of Harry’s shift, sometimes longer if he’s on a roll. With no work obligations, Louis can sit behind the counter instead. Sometimes Harry will let him be in charge of the till, and sometimes he just sits there to look pretty and chat with the other regulars.
Saturday is spent mostly with Harry, though, because it’s freezing out and Harry calls Niall and tells him not to come in. Only a few insane people brave their way out of their houses, Louis among them. None of the customers who show up are familiar, most of them just passersby looking for shelter for a little while.
It’s always warm inside the shop and the lights have a soft, cozy orange tint to them. Every time he watches someone put on their coat and leave, Louis wonders how they can choose to be anywhere but here.
When they’re alone, Louis puts on music from Harry’s oldies playlist and Harry brings out his sketchbook. He has a small jar of coloured pencils on a shelf below the counter, and Louis is in charge of passing them over one by one at Harry’s request. Over the years, he’s gotten quite good at telling each shade of blue, green and orange from each other. Harry’s a good teacher.
“So, is this part of that project of yours, then?” Louis asks, handing Harry vermilion and taking chartreuse back.
“Uh-huh,” Harry mumbles, eyes not leaving the paper.
“You never showed me what you worked on when you were away.”
“I don’t think I’ll be using those after all,” Harry says, carefully putting details on a lemon tree Louis has been watching slowly come to life since that morning. “I always like what I draw here better.”
“Here in England?”
Harry laughs. “Here at the shop.”
“I always said this place was magic, didn’t I?” Louis agrees and looks around them, at the striped wallpaper and Harry’s artwork lovingly framed and put on display by his mother.
When he looks back at Harry, he’s already looking at Louis.
“I think it might be you, actually,” Harry says softly. His gaze is somewhat intense when he stares, and Louis always feels pinned into place by it. He thinks it would be a little creepy, if Louis weren’t so gone over everything about Harry.
Louis laughs with a roll of his eyes, taking the chance to look away. Harry is always saying things that make Louis’ belly go warm and his heart speed up. Harry’s like that with everyone, Louis just has a hard time remembering that he’s not exactly special. Not when he’s heard the boy sweet talk the espresso machine when it acts up.
“I’m serious, Lou,” Harry insists, a slight whine creeping in his tone.
“If I’m magic then why did a fifty-page draft nearly cost me my sanity?”
“You can’t rush art,” Harry says with a sniff and a smile.
“What I do’s not art, Haz.” This is a familiar back and forth, and Louis is only half invested in it, more interested in watching the way Harry plays with the pencil in his hand, poking his lips with it as he thinks about what to say next.
“I’m sure that’s not true,” he seems to settle with. “Show me and let me be the judge.”
Louis shakes his head, sitting back on the stool behind the till and poking the pencils in the jar on his lap. Coral, amber, teal. Louis can name most of them.
“You could work on something that makes you happy,” Harry goes on after a moment. “You could write something else.”
“I’m not good at anything else,” Louis admits quietly and it’s the first time he’s said it out loud. It stings a little.
“I don’t believe that,” Harry argues hotly, getting all indignant on Louis’ behalf. It makes Louis smile. “Did someone say that to you?”
“No, Haz, it’s just- it is what it is, yeah? I don’t hate what I do.” It just makes him feel a little empty. It’s not what Louis wants to be writing, but he doesn’t know how to start doing anything else. Every time he goes to click on the LWT folder on his computer he tenses up and his stomach turns uncomfortably. He always ends up writing Hunter instead.
“You don’t love it, though,” Harry says, and now he sounds sad. “Is it writing you don’t enjoy? Or what you’re writing?”
“I love writing, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
“And can’t you write something you love?”
Louis hesitates only for a moment before saying, “I did, once.”
“And it didn’t work out.” Louis places the pencil jar on the counter. Harry seems distracted from his drawing and Louis is fidgeting so much that he’s afraid he’ll drop it. “It’s not enough to do what you love.”
“It can be,” Harry says with a frown. “You think I plan on making it big with children’s books? I’ll be lucky if I get even one published, and that’ll probably be independently. I won’t stop just because it doesn’t make money. I’ll work doing anything as long as I can keep doing this at the same time.” He gestures at his sketchbook.
“You have your shop and you love it, Harry,” Louis sighs. “And you’re brilliant, you’ll get published, I know you will.”
Louis is ready to pull a couple of frayed strings to move things along for Harry, not that he’s planning on telling him that.
“It’s my mum’s shop, and I won’t work here forever. I’m graduating soon.”
The G word. Louis doesn’t want to even think about a time Harry won’t be just downstairs anymore.
“What would you like to write?” Harry asks, finally putting his sketchbook aside. “If you didn’t have to worry about money and you could do whatever you wanted.”
“I- I don’t know.” He hasn’t thought about it in a long time.
Harry looks at him as if he’s not buying it. Louis’ shoulders slump.
“Adventure books are fun. And like, fantasy. Not like Frodo and the orcs and all that but, um, magic? I guess. And romance.” His face burns. “The kind that doesn’t happen right away, and you want to tear your hair out because it’s so drawn out but worth it, when it finally happens. Stories about ordinary people doing amazing things, even - even if they’re small things.” Kind of like giving a sleep-deprived stranger a place to feel at home, and the will to keep pushing through even if it still feels a little hopeless. That, Louis doesn’t say.
There’s a moment of quiet when he finishes talking, the only sound between them the weird cuckoo clock that hangs over the front door. When Louis dares a look at Harry, he finds him smiling down at his hands.
“Sounds like my favourite kind of book,” he says, voice soft.
Louis clears his throat, the moment suddenly feeling too heavy. “Children’s books are cool, too,” he says. “I wrote one for my little sisters once. Did all the drawings as well.”
Harry’s head snaps up, a gleam in his eye, one side of his mouth twitching.
“You never told me that.”
Louis shrugs, “I was fifteen, they were terrible. I quite liked how the story turned out, though.”
“Show me,” Harry says. “It’s not work, so you can at least show me, I really want to read something of yours.”
“I promise you don’t, but,” Louis wavers. This is Harry. He can show a silly kid’s story he wrote over a decade ago to Harry. “I can look for it later and send it to you.”
Harry seems pleased with himself, and he asks Louis for the ochre pencil, which Louis only guesses wrong once. For a few minutes, it looks like they’ve moved on from the subject of Louis’ disillusion with his professional life, but then Louis sees the pencil stop in Harry’s hand.
“Lou?” He looks at Louis from beneath his eyelashes. God, that very same tentative expression has inspired so much imaginary sex that Louis can barely stand to look at it.
“You’re not working on anything right now, right?”
“Not until Monday, I guess,” Louis says. He manages his own hours, but he still likes to keep an organized schedule. After agonizing over his last story for weeks, he’s almost looking forward to working on a Hunter for a while.
“Could you do something for me?”
“Of course,” Louis agrees quickly. Harry doesn’t need to ask.
“Could you try to write something for yourself? I mean, something you’re not getting paid to write. Even if you hate it and you have to force yourself and you hate me for making you.”
“Please? I hate to see you down about this. Just try. Please.”
“I’m not down-”
“Louis,” Harry says, mock stern, mouth pursed into a frown and eyes narrowed.
“Harry,” Louis mimics Harry’s tone, but he can't quite keep from sounding more endeared than he means. “Didn’t we just establish that you can’t rush art?”
“I’m not asking for a masterpiece,” Harry argues gently. “It doesn’t even have to be long, only something that you enjoy.”
Louis drums his fingers on the table, eyes not leaving Harry’s, which have widened in a silent plea. He feels himself deflate.
“Alright,” he sighs and smiles at Harry’s silly fist pump and quiet little yes . “But I’m not promising anything good.”
“I’m not even gonna respond to that, I’m too happy,” Harry says, going back to his drawing with a grin. “This is a dream come true for me, you know. Think of it as an early birthday present.”
There’s a pang in Louis’ chest, of either affection or trepidation. Showing Harry his work has always seemed so unthinkable an idea it’s hard to wrap his head around the fact that he has to come up with something in a day. He hasn’t written anything that hasn’t ended in explicit sex in three years and he wonders if he still can. At this point, the Pavlovian response to opening a word document on his laptop is for his mind to go straight to the gutter. Whatever he’s bringing over to show Harry will feature no cocks, unless he’s writing about a farm, which Louis knows nothing about. So.