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The Blood of Words

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It all starts the night 'The Stars Within'  is declared number one on the New York Times Best Seller list for the fourth week in a row. The entire office is buzzing with excitement, editors and their assistants moving from cubicle to cubicle, congratulating each other on a job well done in shrill voices punctuated with dreamy whispers about what it might mean for their tiny publishing house to have a book be so globally successful. The two people forming the entirety of their marketing department did a Tesco run earlier in the evening when the news first broke, bringing back three frozen strawberry cheesecakes as well a couple of five quid bottles of wine, and their spoils are now making their ways across their open-plan office space rather quickly.

With an average of fewer than six books published by their company every year, they have every right to be excited, Louis figures. Still, he’s only halfway through the manuscript he told himself he would finish today, so he turns another page and tries to tune the noises out.

Most days he understands and respects the lack of walls and obstruction on their floor, but in the midst of what is rapidly becoming a full-blown party, Louis allows himself one second to dream about a door to his office space. He sighs, adjusting his glasses absently for a second before focusing his gaze back on the page.

He can’t quite decide what to think of this one. The story isn’t anything revolutionary, some family drama set in the Scottish Highlands written by an English author who thinks the great big North is an adequate metaphor for the disconnect between his protagonists, and on any other day Louis might have already dismissed it, but the prose flows well enough to keep him engaged. 

It doesn’t quite belong in the 'no' pile yet.

He’s so lost in thoughts that he doesn’t hear the approaching clicking sound of his boss’ heels and he jumps in his seat when she drops a cheesecake slice on a Nando’s napkin leftover from her lunch on his desk.

“Bloody hell,” Louis whispers, one hand going to his chest to calm his racing heart while the other keeps his page in the manuscript. “Don’t scare me like that,” he adds warningly. “You know I hate being startled.”

Gemma laughs. “If you didn’t work so hard, you wouldn’t be startled,” she replies matter-of-factly, putting a bottle of wine right next to the napkin. “Can I tempt you with a glass?” she asks, drumming her fingers against the bottle, the red of her nail polish striking.  

“You’re probably the only CEO in London complaining about their employees working too hard, you know that?” Louis says teasingly, setting the manuscript aside with a pen between the pages to ensure he won’t lose his spot.

“I’m probably the only CEO in London with a such a stubborn employee who refuses to celebrate his victories and prefers to drown himself in work,” she says without skipping a beat. 

There are multiple reasons why Gemma Styles is the best boss Louis has had in his life and her quick wit and willingness to banter are but two of them.

“Well,” Louis says dryly, grabbing his mug and wiping any tea leftover with a tissue before handing it to Gemma so she can pour him some red wine, “lucky you, I suppose.”

She hums, pouring the liquid carefully before sitting down on Louis’ desk, one bum cheek on the corner of the furniture and one leg folded over the other. She’s delicately balanced with only one foot still on the floor to make sure she doesn’t fall over and on anyone else, the posture would be ridiculous, but she is a force to be reckoned with and even gravity knows it. It helps she renounced the pencil skirt today in favour of a flattering jumpsuit that ensures no awkward slip up when she starts mounting furniture. 

“I am lucky,” she confirms, giving Louis a small pleased smile. “None of this would have happened without you.”

Louis scoffs, hiding his face in the mug as he takes a big gulp, feeling his cheeks redden at the compliment. He’s proud of his work, of course, but not to the point of taking sole credit.

“I’d say it was a team effort,” he amends politely.

“A team effort?” Gemma snorts. “Louis, I love you, but 'The Stars Within' was your pet project. You found the manuscript. You believed in it when a lot of people didn’t. You worked relentlessly to make it the best book it could be. Please. Join the party and take the credit, alright? We’re on the NYT Best Seller List!” she finishes excitedly, shaking Louis’ shoulder.

Louis chuckles, warmth and happiness blooming in his chest. “We are,” he agrees, finally letting a smile appear in the corner of his mouth. “But so were we last week. And the week before. I think I’ve celebrated enough. I really have to finish this one.”

“Ugh,” Gemma groans. “Honestly, do you have to be so boring?”

“I’m afraid so,” Louis agrees with a solemn nod. “You know I’m married to my work.”

“Yes, unfortunately,” she says dramatically, widening her eyes. “We really need to do something about that by the way. I could -”

“No,” Louis interrupts before she can go any further. “I will not be set up. We’ve talked about this.”

“Yes and you are ridiculously stubborn every single time. But honestly, I know so many single gay men who would -”

“Right, because gay and single is my only partner requirement,” he replies jokingly. It’s not the first time they’ve had this conversation and it certainly won’t be the last.

Like most happily partnered people, Gemma suffers from the incurable disease of wanting to see every other human on the planet similarly loved up. It would be sweet if it weren’t so disgusting. And no matter what Louis’ therapist says about putting himself back out there and being ready, Louis doesn’t think so. Not now. Maybe not ever, but certainly not yet. 

Gemma hits him softly behind the head with a tutting noise, shaking her head disapprovingly at his cheekiness, and it takes everything in his power not to flinch and keep a smile on his face.

“You know that’s not what I meant!” she says, pouting exaggeratedly. “Although,” she adds, a wicked grin blossoming on her face, “if you’re willing to talk about the kind of man you’re looking for I’m all ears!”

Louis chuckles, rolling his eyes at her antics. “You know, I’m pretty sure this counts as harassment,” he declares, putting the mug back down on his desk. 

It’s an enamel yellow atrocity that his sister bought for 70p in a charity shop back home in Doncaster. To this day, Louis still doesn’t know what motivated her to buy it, but she gave it to him as a gift when he first got the gig at Styles Publishing, back when the company consisted only of Gemma, her best friend Chloe and a lot of hope. Louis can still remember the confusion and anxiety on his mother’s face when he announced he was moving all the way to London for an assistant editor job at a tiny startup, with no backup plan whatsoever. 

His sister, fortunately, had been more understanding. She’d known, without him having to say, that he needed this fresh start, needed the escape. So she’d given him the mug as a show of support, had grabbed the first thing she could find in the kitchen that was hers and symbolically handed it over. From the very first incarnation of Styles Publishing in the spare bedroom of Chloe’s parents’ London vacation house to their entire floor in Central London, the mug has served as a reminder of Louis’ roots.

“Please,” Gemma scoffs, “since when is caring about the happiness of my employees harassment?”

“I could go to HR,” Louis insists, pushing the joke further to avoid the uncomfortable tightening of his chest at her words.

Gemma hums thoughtfully. “To be honest, I think Chloe would agree with me. In the four years you’ve been working for me, I don’t think I’ve heard you mention going on a date once.” 

Louis pretends to ponder it as he picks up a tiny piece of cheesecake from the napkin. He pops it into his mouth and takes the time to chew and swallow before answering. “S’cause I’m a professional,” he reveals, tapping the discarded manuscript on his desk lightly. “I don’t think work is the most appropriate place to discuss my love life.” 

“So you’ve been on plenty of dates then?” Gemma asks and she truly does know him too well.

“I’ve been on dates,” Louis scoffs, bits of cake that were stuck to the corner of his mouth flying off.

He’s been on three dates. Two of them with the same man.

“Oh yeah ? With who?” Gemma asks, pouring more wine into his mug, probably in an attempt to coax him into joining the party. Or to make him talk. Or both.

“That’s actually none of your business.” 

Gemma sighs and shakes her head. “You’re a wonderful human being Louis,” she replies too sincerely, “and when you’re ready to open your heart, I will set you up with the hottest men in London.”

“Yeah yeah, sure you will,” he says dismissively, reaching for the manuscript again.

“Oh, not the manuscript again!” Gemma moans when she sees him. “It’s a party, stop working.” 

“I need to finish reading this, or do you not want me to find your next best seller?”

Gemma snorts unattractively, giving the manuscript a slightly judgemental look. “You think that’s our next best seller then? That’s the father and son Highland trip, no?”

“Yes,” Louis replies, feeling a bit defensive after spending half the afternoon with the story. “And it could be. It’s not revolutionary so far, but it’s not without potential.”

“High praises.” 

“I’m only halfway through,” Louis adds. “The finale could be mind-blowing.”

“Fair enough,” Gemma says with a flick of her hand. She pauses. “I really can’t convince to join our celebration, can I?”

She doesn’t look too upset. After all, after four years she knows him well enough to know attention and care to his work are as integral to who he is as the blue of his eyes.

“Not unless you want me to bring this bad boy home and spend the entire weekend working.” 

Gemma’s face falls into a horrified grimace. “Don’t you dare,” she whispers threateningly and Louis can’t help but burst into laughter at the appalled look on her face. 

“Not this time,” he amends. “We are on the NYT Best Seller list for the fourth consecutive week, after all. I think even I deserve a break.”

Gemma’s grin is contagious and suddenly they’re both giggling like school children, overly proud of all that they have accomplished. 

“If you’re not joining us tonight, you’re definitely coming tomorrow, right?” Gemma asks as she gets up from his desk.

“What’s tomorrow?” Louis asks, frowning slightly. “Did I miss something?”

“Dinner Party at my flat? To celebrate?” Gemma says. “I sent a text?”

“Ah,” Louis says, glancing at his phone lying forgotten in the corner of his desk. “I guess I was too busy with the Smith family to notice.”

Gemma’s eyes widen. “The Smith family? Really? Could that be more generic?”

Louis shrugs half-heartedly. “I think it’s on purpose actually. The everyday family and their issues. Bit on the nose when it comes to symbolism but…”

“Gee, I understand why you couldn’t check your texts then, what with such gripping storytelling techniques.”

“Should I just stop reading this?” Louis asks with a laugh. “If you’re clearly not interested in publishing it?”

Gemma shakes her head, waving her hands in his face. “No, no, no. Of course not. I trust you. You’re my miracle worker. If you think it’s worth it, then it’s worth it.”

“Alright.”

“But you’re coming to the dinner party,” she declares just before starting to walk away. “I know you like to isolate yourself and live a quiet life, but it’s literally just a roast between friends and coworkers. I never force you to do anything like that, but this time please show up for me,” she adds, fluttering her eyelashes prettily at him.

Louis narrows his eyes in suspicion. “No men?”

“Well, some,” Gemma admits. “Niall will be there since he lives with me,” she adds, referencing her boyfriend. “You’ll be there as well and some others from the office.” 

“No gays then?” Louis double-checks, afraid he’s about to walk into a trap.

Gemma winces. “Can’t guarantee it.”

Louis sighs. “No singles?” he asks lastly, tone very serious. 

“Potentially, but no overlap of the three categories that’s for sure.”

“Fine,” Louis finally agrees, weakened by the sense of victory over their recent professional triumph. “I’ll go. But only because this is partly a work event and also because I’m proud of our work on 'The Stars Within' .” 

Gemma raises a triumphant fist over her head,  starting to make her way across the office to rejoin the party.

“Louis is IN for tomorrow!” she yells. “The gift is a go!” she adds, turning back to wink at him as their coworkers start cheering, raising their glasses towards him.

He blushes a bit, waving them off with a grin on his face before getting back to the manuscript and letting himself be transported by the words on the page again.

&&&

It’s almost past nine-thirty by the time Louis makes it back to his flat. He makes his way up the three flight of stairs easily, pushing the door open and smiling when he hears the faint sound of Tchaikovsky coming from Zayn’s bedroom. He takes off his dress shoes quickly, dropping them carelessly next to the pile of vans and converses in the entryway.

He must have been making more noise than he meant to because, by the time he’s entered the kitchen and started sniffing around his flatmate’s leftovers for something to eat, he hears a faint “hiya” through the flat.

“Hey!” Louis calls back, knowing Zayn is probably painting and that’s why he hasn’t been greeted properly yet. “Haven’t had my tea yet, can I eat your Chinese?” he asks, eyeing the noodles Zayn ordered a couple of days ago but never finished.  

He waits a few seconds, leaning against the opened fridge door before Zayn predictably walks into the kitchen. He’s wearing his usual painting uniform; frayed denim shorts that have seen better days, grey wool socks bunched around his ankles and nothing on top, flickers of paint scattered on his torso. Louis, who runs cold even on the best of summer days, isn’t quite sure how his flatmate manages to tolerate such an outfit in the midst of autumn.

“Close the door,” Zayn says, absently gesturing towards the fridge before making his way straight to the sink to rinse his paintbrush.

“Chinese?” Louis begs, fluttering his eyelashes and cradling the plate to his chest.

He starts walking to the microwave to heat it up seconds before Zayn waves him off, mumbling “yeah yeah” under his breath.

“Good evening then?” Louis asks to Zayn’s back while he waits.

“Not too bad,” Zayn replies in a tone that’s not quite positive, finally turning around and leaning against the sink. “Got off work early though so that was nice. Was quiet so Boss Man closed the shop at six thirty. Gave me more time to work on this commission from hell.”

“Still frustrated with it?” Louis asks, wrinkling his nose and making a sympathetic noise in the back of his throat when Zayn grimaces.

“S’just not what I usually do. I really want to honour the client’s vision but…” he trails off, shrugging.

“Maybe you’re just too much of a perfectionist,” Louis teases as the microwave dings loudly.

Zayn snorts. “Pot meet kettle,” he replies dryly. “Don’t most people with office jobs come home for six?”

“I’m in a creative field,” Louis says with dramatic flair, moaning loudly when he takes a first bite of the noodles. “These are good,” he adds, mouth full.

“Yeah well, me too. And this guy is paying me a lot for that portrait. I don’t want to give him something he doesn’t like!”

“But you don’t want to give him something you don’t like either,” Louis points out before slurping loudly on his - Zayn’s - noodles. They’ve had a variation of this conversation every night this week, but Louis doesn’t mind. For all of his taciturn vibe, Zayn really does like talking things through to make sense of them.

He nods in response before sighing.

“At least you’ve still got time,” Louis offers comfortingly. “Didn’t he say he’s okay with you extending the timeline as well?”

“Yeah, but that’s not ideal. I mean… The goal is for him to recommend me to people.”

“Still, if you deliver a good product I don’t see how a little longer to wait would truly bother him.”

“I suppose so,” Zayn agrees. “Congrats by the way,” he adds with a small smile. “Saw the list online.”

Louis doesn’t stop himself when a satisfied grin blossoms on his face. “Fourth week in a row,” he declares, wiggling his eyebrows.

“Hell yeah!” Zayn agrees, offering him his fist to bump. His mum would probably say he’s too old for this, that he’s a professional now, but he lets his knuckles brush against Zayn’s anyway. “Are you taking time off work to celebrate? God knows you deserve it.”

Louis rolls his eyes. “Oh my god, is it some sort of conspiracy theory today? Gemma was on my case ‘cause I don’t party or date enough. She’s mad I’m working too much apparently and now you with the holiday talk,” he adds with a laugh, shaking his head.

“Smart woman,” Zayn agrees even though they’ve only briefly met.

“Well that’s true, but still. I’m quite happy working you know. If I had a job I hated like you, things might be different but…”  

“I don’t hate my job,” Zayn protests even though he complains about it every day. “Sure, the record store isn’t amazing, but I like music enough and it gives me enough time off to paint.”

“It’s customer service and you have social anxiety, but sure bro, you don’t hate your job,” Louis deadpans.

Zayn scoffs. “Well if people weren’t so unbearable…” he mumbles with an eye roll. “Honestly, this lady went off today because we don’t have a loo for customers.”

Louis snorts unattractively. “Gotta love when they do that,” he teases, eager to hear more. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a good story about someone being a twat. Louis almost misses his days at the Rovers Stadium for the anecdotes they procured him.

Almost.

Zayn sighs, displaying the kind of exhaustion only working with the public can cause. “Right? It’s like… I don’t know how to explain to you I’m emotionally detached from your bladder issues and calling me a,” his voice takes on a higher pitch as he imitates the woman’s obnoxious American accent, “ fucking douche is not gonna make a toilet appear for you.”

“Wow,” Louis says with a laugh, almost choking on the bite of noodles he was about to eat.

Zayn nods solemnly. “It was good we closed early today,” he says with an overly polite smile on his face.

Louis snorts. “I bet.”

“Still, just because you like your job more than I like mine doesn’t mean you don’t deserve some time off. Or even just time to celebrate like Gemma wants you to.”

“I’m going to a party tomorrow,” Louis offers casually to get Zayn off his back. It worked with Gemma after all so it's worth a try.

“No you’re not,” Zayn snorts, kicking Louis lightly in the ankle, making him shriek away from his scratchy socks.

“Yes I am,” Louis insists, dropping the last two bites of his noodles into the trash and leaving his plate on the counter before folding his arms across his chest.

“Highly out of character, but good for you actually,” Zayn says. “You gonna wash that?” he adds after a beat.

Louis sighs and makes a big deal of grabbing the plate before going to the sink to rinse it.

“With soap,” Zayn says like Louis is some sort of domestic heathen who doesn’t know how to do the most basic things, like his own room isn’t an absolute disaster that resembles more a Jackson Pollock than an actual living space.

“I know,” Louis scoffs as he continues the task. “Okay, so it’s not quite a 'Party' party,” he admits after a beat, ignoring Zayn’s predictable laugh. “It’s a dinner party at Gemma’s. She’s getting a couple of friends and coworkers together to celebrate ' The Stars Within' ’s success. Or something..”

“So it’s not a party at all and it’s a work event.”

“I like to think it’s a bit of both,” Louis argues. “Gemma isn’t overly formal as a CEO anyway. I’m pretty sure she’s invited people from outside the company. It’s really just an informal 'yay we did it!!!'  kinda thing.”

“That’s cool,” Zayn finally says when Louis has finished washing and drying his plate. “Hope you have fun mate. You definitely deserve a night out.”

“Yeah,” Louis agrees even though he doubts it’ll be anything remarkable.

&&&

Louis wouldn’t call himself a hermit per se, but it’s events like these that make him proud to lead the kind of life he does, a life where he almost never forces himself to attend soirees he has no interest in. Those kinds of evenings can be so dull is the thing. Still, his colleagues are mostly good conversationalists and Gemma’s friends can only be described as fun, but it's only halfway through the evening and Louis is already mentally making excuses to leave straight after dessert. Maybe he can fake a flatmate-related emergency? Or simply exaggerate his fatigue? 

Everyone is huddled close together around the table, elbows knocking as guests eat the delicious food Gemma prepared for them, and it’s getting uncomfortably hot for a mid-October evening. Louis is half listening to a conversation that’s happening a few chairs away, nodding when he feels is appropriate, when something interesting finally happens.

“Hey everyone,” a raspy voice calls from the door.

The entire table turns towards the noise, conversation dying down as everyone takes in the man who just arrived.

“Sorry I’m late. I brought wine though,” he says, showing what seems to be an expensive bottle, even though Louis can’t read the label all the way across the open living room and dining room space.

“Harry!” Gemma exclaims happily at the sight of her brother, getting up from her chair and joining him at the entrance. She doesn’t even give him the time to take off his denim jacket or put the bottle down before wrapping her arms around him in a tight embrace. “You made it!”

Louis eyes them up and down from his seat at the corner of the table. He’s got his back to the entrance which makes sneaking a look a bit difficult, but he can’t help feeling curious. After four years with Styles Publishing, Louis has yet to catch a peek of the younger Styles sibling. Oh, he’s heard plenty about him that’s for sure, but despite considering his sister to be one of his closest friends and despite having met their parents on more than one occasion, Harry has always remained a bit of a mystery.

Said mystery is now pressing a kiss into his sister's cheek, whispering something in her ear before letting go of the hug.

“So for everyone who hasn’t met him yet, this is my little brother Harry,” Gemma says with fondness, pushing him further into the flat, past the sofa and into the dining room area. “He’s sorry he’s late but he had a training session this afternoon that ran too long. As usual." She adds the last part a bit sternly, reaching for the jacket he's just taken off and throwing it onto the armchair in the corner of her living room. She whispers a small "yes" to herself when the jacket lands perfectly on the furniture, making everyone at the table laugh. "See," she tells Harry, "you're not the only athletically gifted person in this family." 

Harry smiles at her, rolling his eyes before turning his body towards the filled table. He waves at everyone with a bit of a dorky smile and Louis can't help but feel endeared at the sight of his sweater paws. "Hey," he says. "Sorry again. Really wasn't planning on leaving the gym so late, but my manager and I lost track of time." 

"Yeah, yeah," Gemma says sarcastically. "Easy to blame Liam when he's not here to defend himself. Still, I’ll forgive you this time since you’re actually in the country to celebrate my professional success for once,” she adds teasingly before turning a calculating look towards the table.

Since Louis has the only empty chair to his right, he knows what she’s going to say seconds before it happens.

“There,” she exclaims, pointing at the tiny sliver of space next to Louis before sprinting towards the kitchen, coming back only a few seconds later with a wine glass. “Well, go on then,” she whispers, pushing him towards the seat. She puts the glass on the table, ignoring Louis completely before adding“I’ll get you a plate" and vanishing again.

“Hey,” Harry says as he squeezes into the seat. His waist is tiny enough to fit, but his shoulders are quite broad, so he looks a bit uncomfortable when he finally makes it. “Sorry,” he mumbles apologetically to Louis when their arms brush as he reaches for the wine glass Gemma just put on the table for him. He smiles sheepishly, one dimple popping unexpectedly. “I’m Harry,” he adds like Gemma hasn’t already introduced him to everyone a few seconds ago. He smells fresh, Louis can’t help but notice, not at all like someone who just spent an afternoon training.

Harry Styles, Louis thinks avidly. 25 years old, lives in London but travels a lot for work. He’s some sort of athlete, which makes sense considering his shape, Louis notes appreciatively, though he can never quite remember what he actually does. He’s sure Gemma has mentioned it more than once, but Louis, who has little interest in sports beyond football, usually tunes her out. He does remember her telling him that once when they were kids, Harry told their mother that Gemma was a drug dealer to get back at her. It’s clearly a favourite story of hers, if only for the way she tells it, barely able to stop herself from laughing before she’s finished. She’s never quite mean when she talks about him, but Louis, who has a small army of younger siblings himself, is quite familiar with the particular brand of pride and annoyance that comes with being the eldest. She always gets very soft, losing her edge when she mentions something she’s proud of, like the fact that Harry has some sort of social science degree and isn’t just a meathead. History? Art History? Louis can’t remember.  

“Hey,” he replies politely with a nod, unsure why he’s so taken aback. “I’m Louis.”

Harry’s eyes widen in recognition. He smiles even bigger now. Impossibly, a second dimple appears. Oh, Louis thinks and it takes him by surprise, the sudden flare of arousal and attraction.

He hasn’t been attracted to someone so effortlessly in a long time.

“So you’re the illustrious Louis then?” Harry says teasingly, but with no malice as he pours himself some red wine.

“Illustrious?” Louis asks, still a bit shaken. His eyes drift to the shape of Harry’s hand around his glass.

“Oh yes,” Harry confirms before taking a sip. “You have quite the reputation in my family,” he adds, eyes twinkling.

They’re green, Louis’ brain supplies uselessly, matching almost exactly the colour of his jumper. “Careful,” he replies, letting his voice drop to a well-practised teasing tone, “you’re going to give me performance anxiety.”

Harry snorts into his glass. “Am I?”

“Illustrious,” Louis repeats slowly, lowering his voice to make himself sound dramatic. “That’s a lot of pressure.”

Harry shrugs and Louis gets distracted for a second by the way his curls brush against his shoulders. “If it makes you feel better, you’re doing great so far.”

“Well I haven’t said anything yet, so I don’t think it counts.”

“Fair enough,” Harry agrees, smiling at his sister when she approaches their side of the table to give him a plate. “Thanks, Gems,” he says, squeezing her arm softly.

“Are you two making friends?” she asks, a hint too eager. “Louis needs more friends,” she adds to her brother in a whisper.

“That’s offensive,” Louis deadpans. “I’m offended. I have plenty of friends,” he says for Harry's benefit and he's not sure why he feels such a strong need to defend himself.  He sighs deeply at Gemma, shaking his head slightly before winking at Harry. “That being said,” he adds, “you don’t have anything to worry about. Your two favourite boys are getting on well. You can go back to your seat and stop micromanaging us.”

“Niall would be one of my favourite boys way before you,” Gemma replies automatically with a judgemental gaze.

“It’s okay,” Louis teases, putting a hand on Gemma’s arm. “He’s on the other side of the room, he can’t hear you. You don’t have to lie to protect his feelings.” He’s about to keep going, to tease her some more when he jumps a little in his seat at a squeaky noise coming from his closer dining companion.

Louis turns, delighted to see Harry laughing now silently, both of his hands hiding his mouth.

“You’re an idiot,” Gemma says, rolling her eyes and pushing Louis’ hand away. “And you,” she adds, pointing to her brother. She shakes her head. “I should have known you’d encourage him.”

“I’m not doing anything,” Harry protests with a scoff, stopping himself laughing long enough to reply.

“Yeah, yeah… Eat the food before it gets cold,” she says authoritatively, ruffling her brother’s hair before leaving them alone.

There’s a beat of awkward silence after she leaves. Harry isn’t laughing anymore and Louis isn’t quite sure what to say. After a long pause, Harry finally listens to his sister’s instructions and starts eating with enthusiasm, tongue first as he takes big bites.

“Hungry then?” Louis asks with a small chuckle.

Harry swallows, cheeks heating a bit in what Louis assumes is embarrassment. “Sorry,” he says sheepishly. “I’m famished. I usually eat straight after training, but I was already late enough as it is, so I only had enough time to finish my morning smoothie.”

Louis winces. “Not ideal, I’ll give it to you. And I’m not judging. I’m astonished at how quickly you’re inhaling that chicken roast, but I’m not judging.”

Harry snorts. “Yes, I can see from your eyebrows how much not judging you’re doing right now,” he teases, pointing his fork in Louis’ direction.

“No judgement,” Louis insists, “simply care and concern for my CEO’s little brother. That’s all. Wouldn’t want you to choke because between you and me, I don’t know the Heimlich manoeuvre and by the time someone who does extract themselves from this very tightly packed table, you’ll most likely be dead. And then…. whatever sport it is you do for a living will have lost its greatest representative.”

“I see why you’re in the writing and publishing industry,” Harry simply says after Louis’ rant.

“Oh do you?” Louis asks, raising his eyebrows, curious about Harry’s opinion against his better judgement.

“You’ve got quite a vivid imagination.”

Louis smiles. “What’s life without it?” he asks softly, not expecting an answer.

Harry hums before taking another massive bite off his meal, giving Louis a small side-glance.

“Boxing,” he finally says with a smirk, like that has anything to do with what they were discussing.

“I beg your pardon,” Louis, reaching for his wine glass and pushing his plate a little bit forward, just enough for him to have space to put one elbow on the table, his chin leaning on his palm. He can mentally hear his grandma scolding him for the terrible etiquette, but yet, he soldiers on.

“The sport I do,” Harry elaborates though Louis supposes he should have realised. “I’m a boxer. I’d have thought Gemma would have mentioned it.”

“She probably did,” Louis admits before taking a sip. “But if it’s not Football, I have very little interest in sports. Especially not mindlessly violent ones.” He adds that last part in a quick whisper, mostly to himself, punctuated with an impolite eye roll he couldn’t keep in even if he tried.

He doesn’t want to get into an argument with a stranger, especially not one he likes as much as he does Harry so far, but he can’t pretend to like the gratuitous spectacle of violence. Not even for a man with eyes as pretty as Harry Styles.

“Boxing isn’t mindlessly violent,” Harry replies and to Louis’ surprise, he doesn’t sound annoyed.

Louis laughs. “Okay,” he replies with a nod, old habits dying hard as he tries to make peace for a conflict that isn’t even happening.

“A lot of people think that,” Harry continues easily, “but I can’t see it that way.”

“I guess it would be weird if you did.”

“Yeah,” Harry agrees. “Don’t think I could let my entire livelihood depend on something I have no respect for. I think it’s a beautiful sport,” he admits. “To me, it’s about the discipline required. And about being in shape and being in total control of your body.”

Louis smiles politely as he listens. “I just have a hard time forgetting the fact that the entire goal of the sport is to knock someone out,” he replies with a small shrug. “I don’t mean to be rude about what you do, I just don’t get it. It’s worse than American Football,” he adds with disdain,  “and they like to throw each other around quite violently.”

“No,” Harry interrupts passionately, eyes lighting up as he starts elaborating on something he clearly loves dearly. “See that’s a complete misconception. The goal isn’t to get a K.O.”

“It’s not?” Louis asks, frowning a little before he takes another sip of wine.

Harry shakes his head. “Nope,” he replies, exaggerating the p sound in a way that shouldn’t be cute. “It’s a surprisingly strategic sport. The aim is to gain as many points as possible.”

“By hitting your opponent a lot.”

“In strategic areas, yes.”

“You’re still hitting him,” Louis says, throat closing up uncomfortably.

“And he’s hitting me.”

“I guess I just don’t understand how anyone could feel joy hitting people, or being hit, or watching people do those things.”

Harry’s gaze shifts subtly at the harshness of Louis’ tone. He’s about to apologise for being rude when Harry gives him a very pointed look.

“Then I guess I’ll stop trying to change your mind,” he says respectfully, taking Louis by surprise.

“Thank you.”

“And I don’t particularly feel joy hitting people,” Harry adds after a beat. He wrinkles his nose, looking up and making a slight humming sound. “Actually,” he finally says, “I don’t think I’ve ever hit someone outside the ring."

“Really? No drunken uni brawl?” Louis asks, finding this hard to believe. It’s not that Harry exudes a particularly violent energy, but Louis can’t help but wonder how it would be possible for someone to have such an aggressive hobby and not let it bleed through everything else.

Harry laughs, then licks his lower lip. He gives Louis a quick once over, before leaning forward in what Louis is quite certain is an accidentally seductive way. “Nah, see,” he starts saying, voice low and distracting, “the problem with dickheads who drunkenly hit people is that they’ve got no healthy outlet for their aggression. I do.”

Louis can’t help the bitter chuckle that escapes his mouth at Harry’s comment. “Yeah,” he agrees without elaborating, not really in the mood to explain how he’s intimately familiar with that particular brand of dickheads.

“What about you?” Harry asks vaguely when the silence has stretched far beyond the comfortable point.

Louis blinks at him owlishly, racking his brain as to what Harry could possibly be asking him. There’s a tiny part of his brain - the usually incredibly unhelpful one - that wonders if it’s written all over his face. If his reaction to Harry’s comment might have been too obvious, his silence too revelatory.

“What about me?” he finally asks, slowly and carefully, before bringing his wine glass to his lips again. He doesn’t let himself dwell on the automatic satisfaction he feels at the fact that his hand isn’t shaking.

Harry shrugs. “I don’t know,” he replies. “Editing? Publishing? All we’ve done is talk about me and the fact you hate my job, I’m trying to bring the conversation into less awkward territory.”

“Oh,” Louis mouths silently, relief spreading through his body, fast and effective. He smiles. “I don’t know that there’s anything I have to say about my work at Styles Publishing that your sister hasn’t already told you twice over to be honest. I know I certainly annoy my siblings to death with work anecdotes. And they do the same.”

“I like Gemma’s stories!” Harry protests and their closeness is something Louis always found incredibly endearing, even before he got to meet Harry.

It’s one of the reasons him and Gemma got along so fast and easily he suspects, both of them elder siblings who would take a bullet for their family, unapologetically fond of their siblings in a world where cynicism and disliking your kin is the trend. Especially when they were in their early twenties; Louis with his gaggle of teenage sisters he refused to disown or be embarrassed about and Gemma with her younger brother who was taking centre stage with his blossoming career, easily upstaging her in every way. Yet the fondness in her tone never faltered, the pride in her eyes only increased.

And from taking one look at Harry, Louis can tell it’s mutual.

“I’m sure you do. I don’t deny that. I’m just saying… I know how it is to hear the same kind of anecdote over and over again. Gets a bit tiring.”

Harry scoffs, an amused spark twinkling in his eyes. “You mustn't know Gemma as well as you think. She’d never be caught repeating herself,” he whispers, glancing at the opposite side of the table where she’s entertaining people with what seems to be a story about one of their most difficult writer.

Louis can’t help bursting into laughter, muffling the sound with his hand when half the people listening to Gemma turn around to see what the commotion is about.

“He’s fine,” Harry says with a dismissive wave of his hand before putting it carefully on Louis’ shoulder.

It’s not a sudden movement. Harry’s hand is warm and light against Louis’ body and somehow he can feel him seep through his shirt like he’s touching him properly. When pressed, Louis would admit it’s not an unwanted gesture.

He still jerks away automatically, body reacting before his mind can even process what just happened.

“Sorry,” Harry says, taking his hand away and putting a few more inches between their bodies despite the tight fit around the table. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to -”

“You’re right,” Louis interrupts, turning slightly away from Harry and facing the table again. “Gemma would rather die than be caught repeating herself. She’s above all of us in that way.”

He waits for a second, then two, then three, silently hoping Harry will drop it.

“Right,” Harry replies slowly and Louis can see him awkwardly putting both of his hands between his legs underneath the table in the corner of his eyes. “So… what made you want to become an editor?”

“I just loved stories…” Louis admits. “Loved them more than anything else.”

He’d always told them is the thing. To his mother, when he started having the words for all the worlds that lived inside of him. To his younger siblings, when they were old enough to listen. When they were old enough to beg their mother for just 'five more minutes before bedtime so Lou can finish the scene please mummy!' Even before they were old enough, Louis would always cradle them as babies, whisper tales and adventures in their ears, delighting in the sleepy noises they would make in response. He would tell them to his friends at school, would act out entire elaborate plays about grave dangers and last minute victories. But more importantly, he always told stories to himself. When the lights went out and things got tough, Louis would tell himself stories. After all, he more than anyone knows the incredible power words can hold.

“Why not become a writer then?” Harry asks and Louis’ mind flashes to the little black notebooks hidden underneath his mattress, to the novel that’s nowhere near perfect enough or finished enough to show someone yet, to the secret he’s holding close to his heart until he feels brave enough to share it.

Louis grimaces exaggeratedly. “Too much work,” he admits and it’s not a lie, not quite. “Ever tried writing a novel?” he demands.

“No,” Harry says, passing a hand through his hair, moving hypnotically without even trying.

“Well, it’s rubbish,” Louis reveals, emphasising the last word as much as he can. After all, he’d know. “Honestly, such hard work and so little reward. Even on a good day. And if you’re lucky and persistent enough, you might end up with a first draft that’s automatically going to be horrible and then you need to rewrite it about a dozen time to make it good.”

“So I take it you tried and gave up?” Harry says with a laugh and something about the word choice rubs Louis the wrong way.

“Let’s say I realised editing is my favourite part anyway and that I can do that without the painful first bit,” he replies. “After my Bachelor's Degree, I took a bit of time off, went back home to help my mum out with my younger siblings. I was considering some Masters Degrees and looking at jobs, thinking about where I was going when your sister’s job offer popped up. Seemed like fate. I desperately needed to get out of Yorkshire and start my own life…”

“And Styles Publishing was there,” Harry finishes for him.

It’s the short version of the story, the one most people get when they start asking questions. Apart from his mother and his therapist, no one knows the details. No one gets to read the small print in the corners of every single moment of Louis’ life since he was eighteen years old. Even Zayn, who he would easily call his best friend, doesn’t know everything. Louis suspects he’s guessed a lot, but it’s an unspoken agreement that they don’t mention it. Ever.

“And Styles Publishing was there,” Louis confirms.

“Seems a bit risky, no? To move to an entirely different city for a tiny startup. I mean… I remember how rough it was at the beginning. They almost went under a few times.”

“Not riskier than dropping out of uni for a career in sport,” Louis says easily in response. “I mean, what if you get injured permanently and you can’t fight anymore? What about when you’re too old to fight?”

“I can coach. And I own a training gym with my manager in Soho. Good investment. Also, I did finish my degree, so that’s always an unexplored option. I mean, it’s Art History so that’s basically a degree in unemployment, but you know… Options.”

“I wasn’t -”

“You were just defending yourself and trying to prove we’ve all made risky choices for our careers.”

“Yeah,” Louis says with a laugh. He grimaces. “Sorry… I get defensive. It turned out all fine, bit of a success story even if the New York Times is to be trusted, but my mum still talks of it like I did the wildest thing imaginable. It’s like I’m still five and can’t make my own decisions. In her defence, she still has five years old babies running around the house so I think it’s harder for her to forget we’re not all that age anymore, but still. You struck a sensitive chord.”

“Your youngest siblings are five?” Harry asks, eyes lighting up at the thought of kids and if that isn’t a punch to the gut.

“Yep. Younger twins. They are… in my own extremely biased opinion… the most adorable creatures on earth,” Louis declares seriously, feeling a small twist of triumph in his belly when Harry starts laughing, dimples on display.

“Well,” Harry says, index in the air, “I think I should be the judge of that. Impartial and all.”

Louis frowns, pouting a bit teasingly. “Is this you angling for baby pictures?” he asks, palms pressed together, fingers drumming against each other.

“Hell yeah,” Harry replies. There’s a second of silence before his eyes widen. “But not in like… a creepy way,” he adds, lowering his voice on the last two words, making Louis snort.

“Oh my god, why would your brain even go there?” Louis asks, between bursts of laughter. “I don’t think I wanna show you the pics anymore.”

“Well, you don’t know me!” Harry protests. “I’m just confirming I’m not a creep. Gemma can vouch for me. I’m good with babies. I’ve got like…. six godchildren.”

“Wait, really?” Louis asks, back in control of himself. “How old are you?” he demands, even though he knows. It’s one of those useless little nuggets of information about Gemma’s life he’s absorbed like a sponge from working with her for so long.

“Yes, really,” Harry insists, a faint blush decorating his cheeks. “I know I’m only twenty-five, but I’m very mature and responsible, which all of my already parents friends love and respect.”

“I’m not making fun, I think that’s incredible,” Louis says sincerely, somehow feeling like he’s just discovered something deep about Harry he hadn’t expected. “How about a trade?” he offers. “I show you pictures of the twins if you show me pictures of your godchildren?”

“Oh god,” Niall says as he walks nearby, piling up plates on one extended arm. “Don’t offer that, you’ll never get him to shut up. You’d think the kids were his with how proud he is. It’s all 'Ruby crawled the other day'  and 'Jackson’s going to primary in three years how crazy!' and 'Arlo pooped in the potty should we call the Dailymail?' 

Louis smirks, taking a glance at Harry’s face. He doesn’t look too embarrassed, smiling widely as he shrugs.

“What can I say? They’re the best kids ever.”

“Ugh,” Niall says loudly, popping his head between both of them. “Barf. Honestly,” he teases, before grabbing both of their now empty plates and pressing a loud kiss on Harry’s temple.

“You love me and you love hearing about it,” Harry shouts to his retreating form. He giggles when Niall manages to flip him off just before entering the kitchen.

“So,” Louis says when Niall has finally left them alone, “have we got a deal?”

Harry grins widely before reaching for his phone.

&&&

Suddenly, without Louis knowing where the time has gone, it’s half past one in the morning and every other guest has seemingly disappeared. He and Harry are still huddled in one corner of Gemma’s living room, talking about awkward stories from their university days. Gemma and Niall are nowhere to be seen, but Louis can hear soft music coming from the kitchen as well as the clanging of dishes. Harry, it seems, has a never-ending supply of embarrassing anecdotes and somewhere between the second or third bottle of wine they’ve emptied, Louis turned into a helplessly giggly version of himself.

“He did not!” Louis gasps between bursts of laughter, hands on his tummy and folded in half.

“He did!” Harry insists.

“Stop, I’m gonna piss myself!” Louis admits, giving Harry a half-hearted tap on the shoulder.

Harry snorts into his wine glass. “Oops?” he offers, dimpling endearingly.

“I can’t believe how much of a dork you are. Your sister is so cool. Did she steal all the cool? Was there no cool left for you? How does this work? Are you even related?” Louis wonders aloud.

There’s a snort coming from the dining room and when Louis looks up, Gemma’s leaning against the wall with a smirk on her face.

“I was about to throw you intoxicated idiots out of my flat, but now that I’ve heard that I might have to reconsider Tomlinson,” she says teasingly. “Although I guess part of me thinks I should beat you up for teasing my little brother. But I think the part who takes pride in being the better Styles wins, as selfish as that makes me.”

“It’s not like he said anything that’s untrue,” Harry says helpfully from Louis’ right and he looks a little too pretty for this to be fair, what with the way his cheeks are flushed and his lips are bitten red. He looks snuggly as well, wrapped up in what looks like the cosiest jumper ever. “I am tragically uncool.”

“Dork supreme,” Louis whispers, elbowing Harry in the ribs and setting them off into a cascade of giggles again.

“Alright,” Gemma says loudly, “I’m calling you guys some cabs.”

“No, no, no,” Louis protests, getting up from the sofa. It takes him a few seconds to get there, but once he’s standing he gives her a goofy grin. “I’m way fine. I can definitely get the tube home.”

“Right,” Gemma snickers. “How about you walk to the front door without stumbling and I’ll let you take the tube babe.”

“Fine,” Louis replies with a shrug, which sends him slightly off balance and he crumbles back into the sofa, colliding accidentally with Harry’s body on his way down. “Oh,” he says to himself. “Oops,” he whispers, imitating Harry’s earlier deadpan tone. Harry snorts and Louis isn’t quite sure how it happens but suddenly he’s got his arm around Harry’s shoulders. “I can do it,” he says after a beat. “Just give me a second.”

“It’s okay, we can share an uber,” Harry says. “Right Lou?”

He ponders it for a second. “Yes,” he finally declares after a beat, tightening his grip on Harry's shoulder. “Let’s do that.”

Harry starts squirming, reaching into the back pocket of his jeans for his phone without kicking Louis out of the way. Once he’s finally grabbed the pink case, it takes him a few seconds to unlock it, the iphone seemingly rejecting his print. He wrinkles his nose unhappily before wiping the phone against Louis’ shirt, then doing the same with his finger. This time, the phone unlocks on the first try.

“Hell yeah,” Harry singsongs triumphantly as he navigates the apps easily, ordering them a car in a few clicks.

By the time the car arrives, Louis has started nodding off against Harry’s shoulder.

“Boys,” Gemma whispers, shaking Harry’s shoulder slightly. “Car’s here.”

Louis gasps, body tensing automatically when he starts feeling his pillow move.

“S’okay,” Harry whispers sleepily, voice calming and comforting as he starts rubbing one eye with his fist. “S’just Gems.”

Louis gulps. “Right,” he says, giving Gemma a small smile. “I think we’ve abused your hospitality a bit too long,” he adds, getting up slower than before to give himself a chance. He grabs the jacket Gemma is handing to him, doing his best to put it on despite his alcohol-induced clumsiness. Once he's succeeded, he starts patting the back of his jeans loudly, making sure he’s still got his wallet, keys and phone before leaving.

“Nonsense,” Gemma whispers, leaning in to press a kiss on Louis’ cheek. “You’re always welcome Lou, you know that.”

“I know,” Louis replies, wrapping her in a hug.

“Don’t forget your gift,” Gemma says as they separate, reaching for the gift bag he had to open in front of everyone earlier during the evening, an obviously humiliating process that Louis subjected himself to only because he loves his boss so much. Thankfully, the gift turned out to be great so he didn’t have to fake enthusiasm as he opened it.

“Thanks again,” he says, grabbing the bag containing the vintage watch she bought for him. It’s too much, but Gemma shut him down so quickly and sharply when he tried protesting earlier in the evening that he doesn’t dare to try again. “Seriously,” he adds, lowering his voice, “I love it.”

Gemma shrugs, her entire posture screaming smugness. “Well, I have great taste and I know you well so…” She’s interrupted by a car honking.

It makes Harry chuckle as he buttons up his denim jacket. “I think Jacob is getting frustrated,” he singsongs pointing at the front door behind him with his thumb.

“Don’t leave without saying bye to me you jerk,” Niall calls from the kitchen before appearing in the room, jogging his way to Harry and jumping on him to embrace him fiercely.

Louis’ eyes widen and he’s about to take a tentative step forward to help Harry out, but to his surprise, he just groans a bit, barely stumbling backwards as he grabs Niall’s thighs and supports his weight easily. For the amount of alcohol they’ve consumed during the evening, it’s quite an impressive physical prowess.

Once again, Louis is annoyingly reminded how attractive Harry is.

“Don’t lock yourself in that stupid gym okay,” Niall says in Harry’s ears. “Or I’m gonna start thinking you love Liam more than me and that is not okay. I’m your childhood best friend, he better remember that.”

“Okay,” Harry replies with a laugh, nuzzling adorably in Niall’s neck.

“I didn’t know Niall was your brother’s best friend,” Louis whispers to Gemma as he watches them say their goodbye like they’re both leaving for war in different regiments rather Harry going back home after a dinner party.

Gemma scoffs. “There’s a lot about me you don’t know Tomlinson.”

Jacob honks again, this time twice in a row, and Louis winces as he goes to the door, opening it to wave at the angry driver.

“Okay,” Harry says, taking his hands away from Niall. “I’m going now.” He snorts when Niall stays attached to him for a second too long before letting himself slide off Harry’s body and falling to the floor with a loud thud.

Gemma sighs loudly, bending down to give him a hand. “Bed for you and home for you two, alright,” she says sternly.

“Bye Gems, bye Niall,” Harry says as he follows Louis out the door. “Thanks, the food was delicious!”

Once they’ve managed to squeeze themselves in the back seat of Jacob's car, apologising profusely as they do so, they both stare at each other incredulously when he asks them where they’re headed.

“Yours first,” Harry says, smiling widely, “this one’s on me.”

“No, no -” Louis starts protesting, tapping his fingers against Harry’s shoulder.

“Yes, yes,” Harry interrupts. “Consider it my gift to congratulate you on a job well done,” he adds, handing his phone to him so he can enter his address in the Uber app. “Loved the book by the way,” he says when Louis is finally done and Jacob starts the car.

Louis rolls his eyes, embarrassment spreading through his belly. “I didn’t write the thing. I feel like people forget I didn’t write the thing.”

“You still worked hard. You deserve some credit. Collaborative process and other... bullshit.”

“Does your manager gets some credit when you win a fight?”

“Sure,” Harry agrees easily, making himself more comfortable as he rests his head against the back seat and closes his eyes. “I wouldn’t be where I am without his support. Or his training regiment.”

“Collaborative process,” Louis repeats softly.

“Yep,” Harry agrees, the muscles of his face relaxing. It only takes a few more seconds for him to start snoring.

Louis gulps uncomfortably, staring at the way Harry exists so peacefully in sleep. He’s not sure what this feeling is in his gut, but it twists and stings. It’s attraction and interest, that’s for sure, but mixed in with something he can’t quite explain. There’s a closeness, an ease, a fondness Louis loathes to mistrust, yet he can’t help himself. It’s like second nature by this point, the little voice at the back of his head telling him that this is dangerous .

Five years on and he’s intimately familiar with the destructive powers of his intrusive thoughts, so he closes his eyes and exhales, trying to remind himself all the reasons he doesn’t actually find intimacy threatening.

“Don’t be stupid,” he whispers to himself almost angrily, the buzzing of his anxiety faint, yet omnipresent. “You’re not even intimate with him.”

“What?” Jacob calls from the front, just as he pulls over in front of Louis’ flat, making Harry stir.

“Nothing,” Louis says, eyes fixed on Harry as he starts waking up.

“Are we at your flat?” Harry asks sleepily, rubbing at his eyes as he takes in Louis’ neighbourhood. It’s not very posh, certainly not as posh as Gemma’s, but he refuses to feel embarrassed for this.

“Yeah,” Louis replies in a whisper, resisting the urge to do something absolutely ridiculous like tuck back one of Harry’s long curl behind his ear.  

He hasn’t genuinely felt this way in so long.

“Hey, it was nice to finally meet you,” Harry says, sleep-soft and dimpled, unaware that he’s on the verge of sending Louis spiralling.

“Same,” Louis agrees before getting out of the car as quickly as possible.

He’s not running away.

“Cheers mate,” he says towards Jacob, risking a last glance towards Harry.

“See ya’” Harry says with a half-hearted wave.

'Not if I can help it', Louis’ anxiety whispers treacherously in the back of his mind.

&&&

“How was it?” Zayn asks when Louis walks into their flat a few seconds later, sprawled on their sofa and smoking a joint lazily. There are canvases everywhere on their living room floor, Zayn’s art occupying the entire space.

“It was…” Louis trails off, trying to find a good way to describe it. “Gemma got me a watch,” he finally settles for, carefully making his way between the paintings to reach the sofa and hand Zayn the bag.

“Woahhh,” Zayn whistles when he reaches inside the bag and opens the box nestled inside while Louis lets himself drop on the couch. “She must really like you. I wish my boss gave me nice gifts like this.”

“Didn’t that commission girl give you that nice notebook a few months back?” Louis asks, battling against his jacket. He wiggles a little, grunting with effort as he twists and turns against the sofa.

“I think she was trying to sleep with me more than anything else,” Zayn replies. “And she wasn’t my boss, she was a client,” he adds, grabbing Louis’ jacket when he throws it. “Careful please, not all of these are dry.”

“Sorry,” Louis says sheepishly, more mindful as he takes off his shoes. He puts his feet up on Zayn’s lap, making grabby hands towards the joint.

“Anything else interesting happen?” Zayn asks as he passes it along.

Louis shrugs. “Not really. Met her brother,” he says, hoping the statement doesn’t sound as loaded as Louis feels it is.

“Whose brother?”

Louis frowns. “Gemma’s? My boss? She has a younger brother. I hadn’t met him before.”

“Uh. You never mentioned him,” Zayn says casually.

“Never met him before," Louis repeats even though he knows what Zayn is saying. "He was nice, though.”

“Nice?” It's not that Zayn's tone is particularly revelatory, quite the opposite. There's a lack of distinctive emotions in that one single word, the lack of emotions Zayn uses only when he's trying to get Louis to talk; when he's hoping if he hums and repeats whatever Louis just said long enough, he'll get to the part that truly matters. Hoping that he'll get to the truth buried so deep Louis doesn't always know how to excavate it. Even when he wants to. 

Louis gulps. “Yeah," he says vaguely. "He was… I don’t know,” he shrugs, nervous under the scrutiny. “He was interesting.”

“That’s funny,” Zayn chuckles, not a hint of mockery in his voice.

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” he replies. “You don’t usually find men interesting is all.”

&&&

CHAPTER ONE

I wonder what the breaking point is, Oliver thinks absently as he cleans up the ruins of a fight he never wants, but can’t help but continuously, accidentally, start.

It’s not too bad tonight, he supposes. There’s no broken glass, no inexplicable bruises. Just torn pages and a few discarded books. A turned over desk. Equations upon equations he could never dream to understand everywhere on their floor. Oliver wishes Evan would at least number his notes and exercises. Or even buy a notebook like every other university student on the face of the planet instead of dedicating himself to a tortured genius aesthetic. That would make everything so much easier when the frustration gets the better of him. As is, Oliver just does his best, grabbing pages after pages of the important data Evan needs for tomorrow’s seminar, putting them in neat little piles on the desk he’s put back in place. One of the legs is wobbly, a constant reminder of the abuse the desk has suffered since they moved into their tiny one-bedroom flat two years ago.

Evan is a tortured genius, Oliver reminds himself. Above and beyond the frustrating world surrounding him. Being with him requires a lot of patience. And a bit of suffering. Most days, Oliver thinks it’s worth it.

Still, he can’t help but wonder what the breaking point is, ears still ringing from the shouting.