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The Blood of Words

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Louis is just walking out of the tube when he feels his phone vibrate in his back pocket. He fumbles for a second, stopping in the stairs to grab it to the annoyance of multiple commuters, before smiling when he sees the caller ID.

“Hey mum,” he answers as he makes his way onto the streets.  

“Hi baby,” Jay’s voice responds and immediately Louis feels like home. It’s crazy for him to think about sometimes, the way no matter how settled he feels in London, how grown up he is, the sound of his mother’s voice always brings him back to his roots without her even trying. Reminds him of late night pyjama parties in the living room with his younger siblings, reminds him of folding laundry with Jay after school, reminds him of helping out with the kids in the morning – lining up lunch boxes on the counter of their cramped house up north.

“How have you been?” Louis asks, suddenly realising uncomfortably that they haven’t talked in quite a while. “Did I miss one of our phone dates?” he adds, frowning a little at the thought. It’s a bit sad they have to schedule their talks like this, but between two busy timetables – well six if Louis counts his siblings’ who impact Jay’s – it’s difficult to catch each other spontaneously.

That being said, he usually writes down the moments they agreed on in his agenda to make sure he won’t forget to call and he’s sure today’s date was completely blank, except for the tiny NG with H.S scrawled in the afternoon.

Jay laughs and Louis releases tension he didn’t even realise he was carrying. “No, no,” she says and he can see the way she’s probably shaking her head fondly from miles away. “Not at all. Don’t feel bad. We didn’t say we’d talk, it’s fine. It’s just I haven’t heard from you in some time so I figured I’d try catching you on a day off. Am I bothering you and your big social life?”

She asks it teasingly, but Louis can hear the reproach in her voice, the concern. She hates the thought of him isolating himself, no matter how many times he tells her it’s easier sometimes to be alone.

Louis takes a turn into a quieter street, shivering a little against the wind. It’s not cold enough to justify a proper coat yet, London’s winter chill still a few months away, but he’s starting to regret not bringing a scarf. He loves himself in this leather jacket, but it leaves his neck exposed and with the days already shortening, the darkening streets are colder than Louis can tolerate. He was comfortable at midday, but now he regrets every single of his life choices.  

“You know you’re not,” he replies, fighting to keep his voice level and reaching inside his pocket to grab his headphones. “Gimme a sec,” he adds, quickly putting them on and hiding both hands in his pockets. “Sorry, it’s freezing tonight so I had to put headphones in. But now you’re not bothering me at all. Just walking back home.”

Jay hums, a small noise of compassion. “What have you been up to today?” she asks, always inquisitive and there’s a hint of surprise colouring her voice. She wasn’t expecting that answer, so used to her son’s sedentary lifestyle.

“Went to the National Gallery actually,” Louis explains, raising his shoulders to hide his neck from the wind. “I’d never been, so…” he trails off, letting her make her own conclusion about his motivations.

As predicted, she gasps before letting out a small laugh. “Really?” she asks, sounding both amused and doubtful. “Zayn’s idea I assume,” she adds after a beat.

Louis shakes his head before replying, pleased to know she can’t see him rolling his eyes. “Harry’s, actually,” he finally says, forgetting the fact he hasn’t mentioned their budding friendship to her before. Or the fact that Harry exists at all. 

There's one long second of silence through the line, a moment that stretches too long to be comfortable, a beat where Louis immediately regrets being so candid. In that long moment, he knows she’s going to make a big deal out of this.

“Harry?” Jay asks, too nonchalant to be anything but dying with curiosity. This is where the investigation begins.

Louis gulps. “Yeah,” he says, cagey without meaning to be. “He’s uh… Harry Styles? Gemma’s little brother?”

“Oh,” Jay says. Then, after a second, she declares: “I didn’t know you two were friends.”

Louis laughs. Uncertain. Awkward. “Well, it’s quite a recent development? I met him at one of Gemma’s dinner parties. I’d heard about him of course, I've met Gemma's parents and everything... but that was the first time we actually met each other. And we got on really well, I guess. He’s funny and… well, like everyone else in his family, he’s really nice. He’s an athlete, but he studied art history so he loves that kind of stuff and he invited me to tag along. I’m not the biggest museum fan, but it was actually really interesting. I can’t believe I’d never been before. It really took me by surprise.”

“That’s good, baby. I’m glad you had fun.” Jay pauses. “It’s lovely you’ve made a new… friend.”

“Don’t,” Louis interrupts. “Don’t pause like that. He is just a friend.”

“I wasn’t trying to hint anything,” she argues even though they both know that she was.  

Louis sighs as he finally turns on his street, his tiny flat in sight. She means well, he reminds himself firmly before inhaling. Slowly. Deeply.  “If I started dating someone,” he says, carefully choosing his words, “I would tell you about it.”

Jay sighs. “Oh honey,” she replies, tone full of compassion. “Of course. I know you would. But… if you do find yourself dating someone and you don’t feel ready to talk about it, that would be okay too. It’s fine to have things you want to keep to yourself. Even if we are close.”

Louis stops in front of his building, looking at the door for a second before sitting down on the curb.

“I know that,” he whispers. “And I mean it when I say I’m not ready for that yet. I don’t think so at least, even though everyone thinks I am.”

“Well,” Jay starts carefully, “what matters is how you feel about it. And if you don’t feel ready then it’s no one’s business, isn’t it? Even if we tease and probe.”

“Yeah.”

“Is he gay though?” Jay asks jokingly, automatically bursting into laughter.

“Oh my god mum, stop it!” Louis snorts, shaking his head.

“I’m going to check on Facebook,” she adds with a cackle and Louis feels his cheeks redden.

“You will do no such thing! And yes, alright? He’s gay and he asked me out, but we’ve decided we were only going to be friends because I’m not ready.”

“Oh,” Jay replies and Louis locks eyes with his neighbour’s cat as the silence stretches around them. “Do you think you could like him like that?”

“It doesn’t really matter,” Louis replies, a lump in his throat.

“It matters to me,” Jay says. “I always want to know how you’re feeling. Even if it’s going to make me sad.”

And isn’t that a punch in the gut? To know how much his stubbornness, his pain, his anxiety, is upsetting her.

“I started writing again,” he admits, realising only as he says it how much it weighed on him to have shared this with Harry – almost a stranger – and not with her. It’s like he can breathe a little easier now that it’s out of his mouth like a load has been taken off his shoulder.

“Louis!” Jay exclaims, sufficiently distracted. “That’s amazing! How long has this been going on?”

Louis bites his lower lip, rubbing the sole of his trainers against the pavement as he seriously considers lying and telling her it’s a new development.

“A few months at least,” he finally admits. “I’m not ready to share what it’s about it yet,” he adds quickly, knowing it’s going to be her next question, everyone’s next question. The million dollar question he can’t bear to think about it.

“Oh, don’t worry about that love! I’m so happy for you. You used to love it so much.”

“I did,” Louis agrees with a small laugh. Then, he corrects, “I do.”  

“Are you… thinking about publication?”

Louis laughs, a full body one this time, before shaking his head fondly. “What did I just say?”

“Alright! Alright!” Jay amends quickly. “I’m gonna…” she trails off, then starts mimicking a zipper sound.

“Please do,” Louis says, jokingly stern. He shivers, then looks up towards their windows. “Listen, I just got home and I haven’t had tea yet so maybe I could call you back after I’ve eaten?”

“Oh no, no. It’s fine. We’ll talk later. Go enjoy your evening.”

“Alright, if you’re sure. Give a kiss to the girls and Ernie from me, alright?”

“Will do,” Jay replies before saying goodbye and hanging up.

&&&

The next morning, Louis wakes up to an Instagram notification claiming a certain @ harrystyles has requested to follow him. He blinks, still half asleep before smirking at his phone. Without thinking about it, he screenshots the notification then texts the picture to Harry with a Stalker !!!! message attached to it. It’s only when he’s back in his bed armed with a giant mug of tea he has to wrap both of his hands around that he wonders if that could be misconstructed as flirting.

He scrunches his nose, then shakes his head, before placing the mug on his bedside table and grabbing his phone again. He opens up his conversation with Harry, rereading his message while biting his lower lip. It sounds friendly, right? Louis ponders to himself. He’s halfway out of bed, ready to ask Zayn’s opinion when he stops in his track.

“Don’t be stupid,” he mumbles to himself, kneeling on his bed again. The last thing he needs his flatmate’s brand of mockery so early on a Sunday morning.

He can hear Zayn puttering about in the flat, humming along to whatever classical music he’s chosen to listen to this morning. He was putting protective plastic all over their kitchen floor when Louis left with his tea, armed with arguments that even though it’s a smaller space than both Zayn’s bedroom and the living room, the light is better there in the morning and who was Louis to argue, really? He smiles to himself as he tries to recognise the tune, secretly pleased at the way Zayn’s art is slowly taking over their entire flat, spreading from room to room as he gets more and more commissions.

There’s no point bothering him when he’s clearly busy. Besides, Louis suspects he knows what Zayn would say already. Something about inappropriate flirting between friends and Louis being in denial and Louis needing to put himself out there and Louis being stupid for not knowing how to interact like a normal human being and Louis –

No , Louis tells himself sternly, putting a hand against his racing heart, applying a reassuring pressure on his chest.

Zayn wouldn’t say that. Certainly not with such contempt at least. And if Zayn wouldn’t say that then surely Louis shouldn’t waste time imagining him doing so.

He sighs loudly, looking back down at his phone. The screen is turned off now but the message he impulsively sent still burns in his brain, a taunting image he can’t help but regret. What a stupid thing to do. Why would he feel compelled to send such a thing? Louis closes his eyes, tapping his phone against his chin one, two, three times.

“Oh well,” he mutters. What is done is done and he can’t exactly spend the entire day worrying about Harry’s reaction, no matter how much his anxiety wants him to.

Instead, he opens his phone again, deciding to face the day’s notifications and messages now that he’s fully awake. First, he goes through his work emails. Gemma would have his head if she knew he’s working on a Sunday, but Louis has always found it easier to keep stress at bay when he buries himself deep enough into something that the outside world ceases to exist. Writing often does the trick, but nothing is as efficient as immersing himself into his work. It’s a one-way ticket to forgetting every dumb thing he’s ever done in his life and especially forgetting the way his dumb brain reacts to them.

Next, he has a quick scroll through his Facebook and twitter notifications, wrinkling his nose as he makes his way as quickly as possible. He mostly has accounts for work-related reasons - finds the sites unbearable on most days if he’s being honest - but no matter how much he wishes he could delete the entire thing, he has to keep a strong online presence, has to represent Styles Publishing and spread the word.

At least that’s what his boss says.

Truth be told, it’s not all so bad. Louis gets to spread the word about his manuscript wishlist on Twitter, not to mention he gets to give advice to querying authors which might be his favourite part of having an online presence. There’s a lot of background noise he finds difficult to navigate, but the feeling that he’s being helpful and can give advice to aspiring authors and to answer their questions… Well, that’s priceless, isn’t it?

Once he feels like he’s fulfilled his work obligations to his satisfaction - meaning he’s forgotten to feel bad about the awkward text - Louis finally opens Instagram.

The @ harrystyles follow request is seemingly flashing in neon colours. An undeniable presence. Louis licks his lower lip, thumb hovering over the confirm button. He frowns, suddenly uncertain, then he makes his way back to his account, starting to scroll down his own pictures to make sure there’s nothing totally embarrassing in his feed. He blushes as he deletes a couple of bad selfies and teenage throwbacks, going all the way down to his very first post from a few years ago twice before he deems it good enough to accept Harry’s follow request.

He gulps once it’s done. “Can’t go back now,” he whispers to himself, as he clicks on Harry’s account.

The first picture is new, a snapshot of a man helping Harry with his hand wraps as he laughs goofily at the camera, an undeniable reminder of why this entire thing is a bad idea. His hair is in a bun on top of his head, a thin red headband keeping the curls in place. He’s wearing Nike shorts, part of his muscular thighs on display, his pale skin attracting Louis’ gaze straight away.

It’s a really really bad idea.

Louis’ eyes make their way to the caption and he can’t help the small smile blossoming on his face.

Sunday morning at the Gym™.  No rest for the wicked.

Louis clicks on the image, hoping to discover who the poor soul in the photo forced to work on Sundays is. He smiles when the   @liampayne appears on the screen, confirming his suspicions that the man is Harry’s famous manager. They both look relaxed and pleased to be there and Louis suspects from the little Harry has said about his friend and business partner that Liam is probably the one who insisted they work on the weekend.

He frowns a little when he notices @nike is also tagged in the picture and he looks back up, a small chuckle escaping his lips when he reads the Paid partnership with Nike underneath Harry’s username.

Somehow he’d forgotten Harry is kind of a big deal in his field. A proper athlete with a successful career and brand sponsorships. It’s weird to think about if Louis is honest with himself as he struggles to reconcile to two sides of Harry he’s been presented with.

He keeps scrolling down his account, startling a little when he realises the next picture is one from the National Gallery, a photo of the sunflowers posted late the night before. Louis’ heart skips a beat seconds before he reads the caption, both dreading and expecting it.

Sunflowers. Vincent Van Gogh. 1888.

“Imperfect”.

There it is, on Harry’s account for everyone to see, a little piece of Louis’ soul with thousands of likes and comments already. Louis drops his phone onto his duvet, staring beyond the image, lost in thoughts.

A part of him feels like he should be angry, should feel betrayed. What he confessed was for Harry and Harry alone, yet he can’t help the way his heart beats a bit faster, flattered that Harry chose to express Louis’ emotion rather than his own. Because it’s the way the painting made him feel that everyone is responding to and there’s a power that comes with it that Louis can’t quite explain to himself.

Wiggling his toes on the duvet, Louis reaches for his mug, frowning a little as he takes a big cold sip of tea. He forces himself to drink a second one, hating to waste such a full cuppa, before putting it back on his nightstand and grabbing his phone again, fully intending to read through all the comments on Harry’s photo.

The first one makes him pause, heart squeezing painfully in his chest when he reads Harry’s response.  

@rob54: it’s funny, i never noticed *how* imperfect they are before because they’re so beautiful.

@harrystyles: Exactly.

Oh, and the way Louis’ stomach tighten, the way he feels a bit fluttery, is so dangerous. He should back away, listen to the frightened little voice in the back of his head that is screaming for him to run the other way.

Instead, he goes back up Harry’s profile and follows him, against all rationality and common sense.

He can deal with the kind of content Harry posts. Or at least he hopes so.

&&&

Louis’ phone buzzes with a text from Harry a few hours later, after he’s eaten lunch with Zayn and spent a while working on his novel. He pushes his notebook away at the noise, grabbing his phone and smiling against his will when he sees Harry replied to his screenshot with one of his own, Louis’ follow and like of the Sunflower picture both in one shot.

Ditto!

Then, his phone buzzes again.

What have you been up to? :)

Louis repositions himself in bed, sinking into his pillows as he composes an appropriate response.

Not much. Did some SM stuff for work; twitter Q&A and stuff… Had lunch with my flatmate. I was just writing now. Working on the good old novel.... You?

Louis presses send before he has the chance to feel self-conscious about talking about his writing so candidly, drumming his fingers against his thighs as the read message appears quickly followed by three dots indicating Harry is writing his response.

Gemma was right! You are a workaholic!

Louis snorts, fingers swift against his screen. You can talk, Mr Early Training on Sundays! I’m an IG stalker, remember? I see everything.

He waits for a beat, then two, heart thumping hard when his phone buzzes again.

Haha. You caught me. I just got back home. Was a good session though.

Yeah? Louis sends back, not really interested in the details of Harry’s job, but unwilling to let the conversation fizzle out.

This time, it takes a little longer for Harry to reply, the grey bubble the only indication that he’s not given up on chatting with Louis completely. Finally, Louis’ phone buzzes again.

I’m sure boxing is the last thing you want to hear about so I won’t bore you with the details. Harry sends. Suffice to say things are going well with my training regiment and I’m feeling confident for my series of matches coming up.

Sounds like something you’d hear in some bullshit inspirational sports movie. We are confident !!!!!!!!

Harry sends back a row of crying with laughter emojis and Louis can’t help the way warmth spreads through his body. He knows most people don’t send that when they’re actually laughing, but he’s hoping he managed to make Harry smile at least.

Sorry if my answer was too generic for you. Harry sends right after. I know you don’t like boxing so I’m trying not to be a dickhead. I can babble about it for hours if you want … ?

Maybe next time? Louis sends back politely, hoping Harry won’t take him up for it.

Harry sends him a thumb up.

Okay, but talking about work is boring when I have some super important questions to ask you. He adds straight away and Louis can’t help but be endeared at the way Harry is revealing himself to be a double texter.

Important questions? Louis asks, a spark of nervosity blossoming like a poisoned flower in his torso. He’s having fun. This is a fun conversation, he reminds himself. Fun. Lighthearted. There’s no need.

Life or death. Like…. The way you answer these questions is gonna affect our entire relationship! Harry sends. Then, a few seconds later, he sends  Friendship*, making Louis gulp.

Alright. Go for it.

You’re stuck on a desert island, you’re allowed one song, one movie and one book: what are they?

And Louis…. Louis can’t help it. He just bursts into laughter as soon as the text comes through, thoroughly amused by the mixture of ridicule and sincerity displayed.

Seriously?

Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!! Harry sends back. Choose wisely.

Only if you’re answering it too!! Louis sends back, furrowing his brows as he goes through his options.

Madam George - Van Morrison / Goodfellas / Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami

Louis snorts. Not fair!!!! You clearly had your answers all planned while I’m having a nervous breakdown over which book to pick!

Harry sends more laughing emojis with the smug sunglasses wearing one tacked on at the end, just to make it clear he’s happy to witness Louis’ dilemma. Louis’ downfall.

How is he supposed to pick only one book? That’s torture right there- a devilishly sneaky form of torture that initially appears innocent, but is in fact devised by Satan himself.

Oi! Louis texts, tongue poking out as he focuses on typing every word. Books are my whole entire life! It’d be easier to make me choose which limb I’d like to lose than which book I’d want to read for the rest of my life.

There’s a moment of stillness as Louis waits for a reply, gasping - tiny but offended - when it finally buzzes through.

Drama queen. the text simply says.

Louis huffs.

Drama queen? he sends back straight away. I’d like to see you try to decide which painting you’d bring to a desert island… It’s not as easy as it looks when it’s something you care about!

For a moment, Louis thinks he’s offended Harry. The text goes through, the little read sign appearing straight away but it takes a while before Harry starts replying. Long enough for Louis’ heart to start beating uncomfortably fast in his chest and for him to reread the innocent enough text he sent a few times over, wondering which part of it he should be apologising for.

Finally, Harry’s reply comes through: Oh my god! What kind of dickhead brings a painting to a desert island?!!, the response making Louis laugh so hard he almost chokes on his own spit.

He blushes once he’s regained control of himself, rubbing one of his cheeks with the palm of his hand, secretly glad that they’re not having this ridiculous conversation face to face. When he looks at his phone again, he’s got a mortifying text from Zayn that simply reads: who tf is blowing up your phone like that on a sunday morning?

Louis’ eyes widen as he lets himself slump down in his bed and raising his shoulders, part of him subconsciously trying to hide.

“Fuck,” he mumbles, mostly to himself before typing a quick Nobody. Mind your own business!!! to send to Zayn.

It’ll only keep him at bay for a short while. Soon enough, Louis knows he’s going to have to explain himself. Live and let live might be the motto of their shared home, but that’s not going to stand when it comes to Louis’ dating life, as he learned the hard way the last time he went to a catastrophic date and Zayn harassed him for information about it for weeks after.

Not that texting Harry has anything to do with his non-existent dating life, of course. But Louis knows Zayn enough to know he’ll interpret this the wrong way, read into things the way Louis doesn’t want him to. Still, his firm rebuttal should at least buy him some time.

By the time Louis has finished texting Zayn back, he’s gotten another message from Harry.

Anyway, nevermind all that. Obviously, this was the wrong question to ask since it sent you in such a turmoil. I’ve got a better one for you now. You’re on a desert island with a phone with only one contact on it. This is the person you’re going to be stuck talking to for the rest of your life. Who is the one contact you’d want?

Louis smirks, licking the corner of his mouth as he starts typing his response.

Desert island again? Really? Have you got a fetish?

Oi! Answer the question or else I’ll assume something horrible about you, like the fact that your contact is probably something work related…. Ew.

You do realise the only relevant work contact I could possibly bring is your sister. I mean… ew? Bit offensive mate. She wouldn’t like that. Not to mention, I’d just use whatever contact I have to ask for everyone else’s #.... Checkmate.

Hum, excuse you that is cheating. And my sister would agree it’s ew to only have a work contact. She has a life you know! And you still haven’t answered the question!!!

Alright, alright, Louis writes, rolling his eyes with fondness as he types. Gosh, you’re as annoying as Gemma.

Runs in the family :) Harry replies before Louis has the chance to expand.

If I’ve only got one contact… one person to talk to for the rest of my days while I’m completely cut off from the rest of the world… it would have to be my mum.

Louis sends it quickly, refusing to feel embarrassed. There’s no one else in the world he’d trust to keep him sane and grounded in a tough situation. Louis knows not everyone is as lucky as he is; she might be overbearing sometimes in the way she wants him to overcome the trauma of his past, but there’s no one else he’d want pestering him.

Me too , Harry sends endearingly a few seconds later, the buzzing of his phone startling Louis out of his thoughts. I mean, Gemma would be a close second, but I’m a mama’s boy through and through. No shame. I literally can’t go more than a week without calling her. Esp. when I’m abroad.

That’s sweet, Louis replies. Now, my turn to ask questions!!

Soon enough, without noticing, he’s wasted the entire day exchanging nonsense with Harry.

&&&

Genma marches to his desk with determination the next day, grabbing the Tesco sandwich he was about to open and throwing it the bin underneath his desk in one swift movement.

“Gemma!” Louis gasps, angry, offended.

“You’re having lunch with me today,” she declares, reaching for the red jumper on the back of his chair and throwing it on his lap.

“It’s so wasteful,” Louis moans, eyes fixed on the bin. He paid for that, how dare she.

Gemma sighs, rolling her eyes before bending down and reaching inside the bin, taking out the still packaged sandwich before throwing it over her shoulder casually.

“Free food guys,” she yells out, every head in the office turning towards them. Timidly, one of the interns they hired for the semester makes his way to where the sandwich fell. He and Louis make eye contact before Louis shakes his head and gestures at the intern to take it.

There’s no way he’s getting out of this lunch with Genma. Knowing her determination, she’ll be forcefully dragging him out of the office if he doesn’t comply soon.

As predicted, once the intern has vanished with Louis’ food, Gemma grabs his arm and drags him out of his chair, looking a bit surprised when he follows her easily.

“Well,”  Louis says, reaching down for his jumper before it hits the floor, “I guess we’re going out for lunch?” His eyes automatically drop to where her fingers are wrapped around his arm, still holding him.

Her grip isn’t very tight. She’s not even hurting him. He can barely feel it. And yet. Discomfort grows as seconds ticks by and she still doesn’t let go of him. Like pinpricks on his skin, Louis is hyperaware of the placement of her hand, each finger a knife mentally stabbing him. The desire to flinch, to push her away, is so strong, crawling underneath his skin uncomfortably.

He gulps, a small subtle thing, forcing the feeling away. He awkwardly twists his face into what he hopes is a vaguely smiling expression. He knows the smile won’t reach his eyes, but Gemma is so busy planning their outings and being bossy that she won’t notice.

She doesn’t look ashamed. And why should she? She has no idea how he feels about being manhandled. It’s not her fault. Still, the itch of discomfort only grows as she grins – wide and triumphant – before giving him a nod in response.

Then, finally, after what feels like a flash of eternity, she lets go of his arm. Louis can breathe again.

“Meet you at the front door in two minutes,” she shouts at him over her shoulder, walking past to get to her office. Gone in a flash. Almost like she wasn’t even there.

Louis uses this moment of solitude to calm down his racing heart. Inhaling. Exhaling. Inhaling again. Exhaling much deeper this time. Then, he puts on the jumper clumsily before walking towards the exit, rubbing his chest soothingly with one hand.

The French bistro she settles for is only a couple of blocks away from their office and definitely too posh for a casual lunch between colleagues. As he fiddles with the menu, his eyes roaming over the unfamiliar French writing, Louis can’t help but feel a tad nervous, scenarios of different catastrophic levels flickering through his brain. He settles on the thought he might be getting fired before quickly dismissing it. He’s too good at his job for that.

“So,” Gemma starts ominously after she’s closed down her menu and placed it in front of her, flat on the table, clearly waiting for the waitress to make her reappearance.

Louis’ eyes stay focused on the entree page for a few seconds longer before he glances up, face half hidden by the red menu. Gemma’s eyebrows are raised in a silent question and he can’t help but raise one of his in defiant response. Whatever this formal informal lunch is about, Louis isn’t going to let himself be intimidated. He’s done a fantastic job these past few months, he reminds himself sternly. He certainly doesn’t deserve a scolding with a side of expensive lunch paid for by the company. Whatever this is about, it can’t be his performance. His anxiety, however, isn’t as easy to convince. Instead of calmly agreeing with his rational arguments – which, it should – it wants him to start babbling on and on, to defend himself, to apologise for whatever it is that he might have done wrong.

Well trained after years of dealing with this, Louis ignores the urge, pushing it deep down within himself, refusing to let it bubble up to the surface.

Gemma, bless her unaware soul, stays silent for what feels like forever before continuing her sentence.

“... apparently, you managed to endure my brother’s presence when he’s in an art museum or a gallery,” is what comes out of her mouth when she finally continues speaking. She actually looks serious is the thing, extremely so, her eyes wide as she is staring him down. “That’s not an easy thing to accomplish, you know. Many have tried and failed before you.”

Part nerves, part incredulity, Louis laughs, unable to stop himself. Of all the things he imagined she was going to say… Something about Harry Freaking Styles was the last thing on his mind. A part of him feels like he probably should have known, or it should have occurred to him at least, especially after spending almost the entire afternoon getting to know Harry better the day before. Strangely enough, the more he gets to know Harry, the more he forgets his connection to Gemma and their workplace. It’s not that they’re completely different people, quite the opposite. They’re similar in ways Louis didn’t expect. They look alike of course with the same shaped face, the same eyes and the same disconcerting beauty that makes people feel a bit intimidated at first glance. Beyond the physical though, they’ve got the same wicked sense of humour and the same extraordinary kindness that shows they were raised in the same household. Getting to know Harry better only confirms what Louis already suspected: there isn’t a member of the Styles family he hasn’t enjoyed meeting so far.

No, it’s more that, as he gets to know Harry, the bubble of timidly emerging friendship they’ve started to create doesn’t extend to the world around them. The world that they both know and share. It’s like it’s theirs only, something that hasn’t quite breached beyond what’s brewing between them. Not quite a secret they share, yet almost a confidence. It’s bit of a shock to be reminded the world outside the bubble still keeps turning. For a second there, Louis genuinely forgot Gemma and Harry know each other.

“Meaning you, I’m assuming?” Louis teases, knowing how impatient Gemma can get. He’s had to deal with it first hand often enough when deadlines aren’t respected, or when things aren’t moving at the pace she’d like them to. He can hardly imagine her spending hours roaming the halls of some museum, silently trailing behind as her little brother hums and ahs pensively.

She makes a show of squaring her shoulders. “Honestly, do we need to sit in front of some cubist painting for thirty minutes?” she exclaims with more exasperation than Louis has ever heard in his life.

There’s a story hidden there, something specific and horrific – according to Gemma, he assumes – but Louis doesn’t really want to know simply because he doesn’t agree. His time with Harry at the gallery was wonderful and there’s a part of him that doesn’t like the idea of it being mocked this way.

Still, Louis forces a smile, then shrugs. “I don’t know,” he replies quietly. “I thought he was fine? I don’t know why it should be labelled as something to endure, to be honest. He just gets a bit quiet, that’s all.” There is a beat of silence, then Louis adds “Pensive.”

It’s hard for him to see it as a negative trait when he himself spends so many hours in one day thinking and being quiet – overthinking some would argue. It would be a bit hypocritical of him to judge Harry for that. Besides, they spent most of their day either laughing and playing a game, or quietly sharing their opinions. Neither of which was as unbearable as Gemma is trying to make it out to be.

Gemma clearly disagrees. Her mouth hangs open in shock for a second before she shakes her head. “Exactly!” she exclaims with a laugh, eyes sparkling with passion. There’s a fondness there, of course, that reminds Louis that no matter how much she complains, she’ll always say yes when Harry asks her to come along. “Honestly, you’re trying to have a conversation with him? Be a bit sophisticated? Discuss the art? Mister is in the zone ,” she says the word while wriggling her fingers to illustrate her point, “and wants some quiet to ponder the meaning of the art. He just… straight up doesn’t reply! Did you notice?” She asks the question rhetorically, immediately moving on to another point before Louis even has the chance to open his mouth to disagree. “But then! Then! If you’re the one who is getting into it and wants a bit of quiet time? Oh, now Mister Styles wants to discuss! And he’s out there pestering you with a billion questions! And he gets ridiculously introspective and deep as well. It’s like… I just want to look at paintings not reevaluate my whole life? But no, he needs to know how the paintings make you feeeeeeel. ” Gemma rolls her eyes exaggerated before flicking her hair off her shoulder. “Honestly, absolute nightmare he is.”

Louis laughs at her theatrical rant. Even though he can’t agree with her assessment, he’s rambled on and on about his own siblings enough to know there’s no point disagreeing or arguing with her about this. She just wants to complain a bit to someone who knows Harry too and Louis is happy to sacrifice himself to the task. He simply shrugs his response, not to admit how much his experience with Harry didn’t match what she just described. At all.

Gemma, however, is too smart for her own good. She deflates a little and Louis tries to hide behind his menu when she mutters “Oh god,” to herself before addressing him again. “You enjoyed it, didn’t you? You’re one of the freaks who like the quiet and the introspection! I should have known….” She shakes her head. “Cut from the same cloth you are,” she whispers, mostly to herself and it makes something twist uncomfortably in Louis’ lower belly.

“I think you guys are just… out of synch when you visit museums together,” Louis offers politely, declining to comment on her last statement. He’s not sure what he’d say even if he wanted to reply if he’s honest with himself, so he just pretends he hasn’t heard her, saving the both of them a deeper conversation he’s probably not ready to have. Besides, she was talking to herself anyway.

Gemma hums. “Maybe,” she concedes. “Either way, you’re braver than I am for agreeing to go with him. Though I suppose you had no idea what you were getting into when you first said yes.”

She’s about to speak again when their waitress comes back to the table.

The brown-haired girl has wide blue eyes, her ponytail swishing through the hair as she bounces through the bistro happily. Her name badge reads Adèle.

“Are you guys ready to order?” she asks with a big smile and a charmingly thick accent.

They’re really going for an authentic feel, Louis figures as he smiles politely at the young woman. It doesn’t occur to him to be worried until Gemma says they are indeed ready and orders a soupe a l’oignon, the french adorably wrong in her accent. Louis can see the way the waitress is endeared, but his heart skips a beat when both women turn to look at him. He flushes, looking down at his own menu, heart in his throat as the letters mix and dances in front of his eyes. He has absolutely no idea what most of these dishes are, the short English descriptions not offering much for him to go on. Finally, he closes the menu with what he hopes is confidence.

“I’ll have the same please,” he says, handing her the menu. The gesture is accompanied by what he hopes is a warm certain smile.

Gemma smirks, handing back hers, her eyes never leaving his. “We’ll both have a glass of house red as well please,” she adds before the waitress nods and leaves them to it. “You have no idea what you just ordered, do you?” she asks with an amused twinkle in her eyes once they’re alone.

Louis shrugs. “Someone distracted me as I was reading the menu. It would have been impolite to keep her waiting.”

“Well, lucky for you I have impeccable taste.”

“Is it really wise to drink wine on our break though?” Louis asks, ever concerned about their workplace and people’s opinion of him. He can’t exactly come back from lunch with their CEO drunk, what would it look like? “We do still have an afternoon of work ahead of us.”

Gemma laughs. “I know you’re a lightweight, but I hardly think a glass of wine is going to stop you from doing your job correctly. Please unclench, we’re having a fun time mocking my brother here.”

Louis rolls his eyes. “Fine,” he agrees. “As long as you’re paying for it. And if Harry asks, I never participated in the mockery.”

“Evidently my brother has you wrapped around his finger already,” Gemma comments. “Not that I expected anything else. He has this… way of winning everyone over. It’s irritating.”

Louis blushes, feeling caught. “I’m not won over,” he protests. “I just… I don’t think it’s quite in good form to start a friendship with someone by bitching about them behind their back.”

Gemma laughs. “I was not bitching about Harry, my god! You’re so dramatic… Honestly, just a bit of complaining about the younger, annoyingly more charming Styles sibling. It’s healthy for me and my self-esteem. There’s too many people on his Instagram and Twitter comments kissing his arse and half in love with him. I have to bring him down once in while otherwise his head won’t fit in his ridiculous boxing helmet thing and then where would we be?”

Louis smirks. “You know you’re the superior Styles,” he teases. They haven’t explicitly addressed this, but he knows Harry agrees. “Don’t even try.”

Gemma smiles genuinely, no longer a self-satisfied smirk, but rather a ray of happiness. “Why thank you!” she says, coquettish as she poses, head raised and one of her shoulders pushed forward. “This is why you’re my favourite editor, you know?” she says after a second.

“Because I constantly boost your ego?”

“Yes. Well, also because you’re the most efficient of the bunch and you always find gems that you improve with your keen eyes and unparalleled storytelling skills.”

Louis feels himself redden. It’s not the first time she’s spoken like this about him, but he’s always uncomfortable whenever she goes on and on. It’s not like he thinks she’s wrong. He knows the value of his work, knows he’s an accomplished professional who deserves praise for his talent and dedication. Yet, there’s always the nerves underneath the pride, the unwillingness to be displayed in front of others as a success. Most days, Louis doesn’t feel like a success. Most days, he feels like a mess more than anything else.

It’s not as bad when she isn’t doing it in front of other people though, so he smiles with heated cheeks and bows his head slightly in appreciation.

“Cheers,” he replies, raising his glass of water towards her since he hasn’t received his wine yet.

Gemma smiles and copies the gesture. She takes a long sip, then puts the glass back onto the table.

“Can I tell you something?” she asks, suddenly looking quite serious.

It’s an unexpected change of mood, considering the lightheartedness of their lunch so far so Louis automatically straightens up in his chair at the change in her facial features.

“Of course,” he replies, trying not to let his uncertainty show.

“I’m really glad you and Harry have decided to be friends.” Somehow, it doesn’t quite sound like a happy thing or a compliment. “I’m gonna be honest here, and please don’t take this the wrong way,” she warns and Louis can already feel a prickle of irritation at the way she’s phrased this, “but I was super worried when he said he wanted to ask you out.”

Louis looks down on the table, rubbing his left index against the wood, every muscle in his face completely utterly still. Unnaturally still perhaps, but he can’t let show how much he hates this already, how much what he assumes is distrust on her part truly hurts.

He hums in response, doing his best to sound disinterested in the whole thing.

“It’s just… Harry doesn’t have the best track record. He’s my little brother and I hate seeing him always get entangled with the wrong men.”

The word wrong echoes in Louis’ head, bile rising in his throat.

“He’s a big softie. I know he doesn’t necessarily look it when you don’t know him well, especially considering his job, but he’s sensitive. And he’s away a lot. He needs someone who is going to be able to be okay with that. Someone who isn’t going to give up on him the second things get hard like all the other fuckboys before. And you…”

She trails off and Louis counts to three before raising his head to face her, their eyes meeting silently.

“You’re one of my favourite person in the world, you know that. You’re not just an employee, but a friend. But the truth is, you’ve never been interested in stuff like that. Romantic stuff. And Harry is a romantic. I know you got on well, which… I knew you would,” she says with a shrug, like she’s been thinking about this for years. Louis briefly wonders why she didn’t work harder for them to meet before when she drops a bomb that stops Louis’ heart in his chest for one incredibly long second. “You are his type after all.” She says it matter-of-factly and Louis can’t help but wonder if all those times she’s vaguely hinted at wanting to set him up, she was thinking about her brother. About Harry, beautiful and warm Harry who couldn’t be more wrong for Louis if he tried, though through no fault of his own. He wonders if maybe she’d been testing him all those time, carefully watching the way he approached the thought of romantic relationships. If maybe he failed the test by acting cold and disinterested. “You guys have a similar sense of humour and everything,” she adds and Louis has to remind himself he’s not looking for a romantic relationship – he’s not ready for one – before he starts defending himself against her accusations.

She’s right. She’s right to think they would be ill-suited. She’s right to think it would end badly for her brother. She’s right to be relieved that they’ve decided to be just friends. She’s right to want better for someone so important to her. She’s right to think Louis isn’t good enough for Harry. Louis knows that she’s right about all of those things – he’s been telling himself the same thing since the first time Harry sat down next to him at that dinner party and some butterflies he didn’t know he could still feel started fluttering in his belly against his will. He knows, and yet…

The instinct to defend himself still rises out of nowhere.

She’s still talking though, so Louis swallows back his misplaced offence and listens to the rest of her speech.

“But despite the fact that I always knew your personalities would mesh well, I also knew you’ve never been interested in deep romantic stuff.”

Louis breathes in. Louis breathes out. He closes his eyes for a second, less than, committing himself to reject this anger that’s brewing inside of him, fighting its way out. Gemma doesn’t know. She can’t possibly understand. She doesn’t know what she’s saying. And it’s partly his fault. She doesn’t know his wounds, doesn’t know his scars, mostly because he’s never been comfortable enough to share. And maybe he never will be. She can’t have compassion for something she doesn’t know about, Louis reminds himself – tense, firm, angry. She can’t understand his fear of… She can’t understand if she doesn’t know how and why. There’s no point in feeling angry about being judged over a secret he might never share with her. Yet, the burning shame of his fury sizzles as she keeps going, walking all over him without even realising it.

“And that’s okay, you know? You don’t have to be interested in romance or anything like that… but knowing Harry, when he mentioned his interest… I don’t know. I got scared? He’s had enough disappointing one night stands or fizzling relationship and I didn’t want you to be another one on the list of men who have disappointed him.”

“When have I ever had a one night stand?” Louis demands, voice cold. He’s never had a one night stand in his entire life and the implication that he would truly rub him the wrong way.

He knows there’s nothing shameful about it, knows that of all the things she’s said, it’s the silliest to take offence in, but he can’t help himself. Maybe it’s the easiest thing to vocalise right now. Maybe it’s the one thing his anger can cling onto. Maybe he doesn’t like the idea that she’s been secretly thinking this about him all this time – that he’s uncaring and just fucks his life away every weekend when no one is looking – when it’s not true . Maybe he’s just angry that he can’t have what he wants. Maybe he’s just a mess and it hurts to think other people have noticed, have judged him for it.

Gemma has the decency to blush a little, her eyes rounding as her mouth closes. She shrugs, about to speak when the waitress finally comes back with their glasses of wine.

She announces happily that their food should be ready shortly before bouncing away from the table with a bubbly smile on her face, completely unaware of the tension between them.

“I’m sorry if the implication offends you,” Gemma replies carefully before taking a small sip of wine. “Not that it should,” she adds pointedly after a second. “There’s nothing wrong with no strings attached sex. I just know that’s not what my brother is interested in.”

“Well, neither am I,” Louis says. “Your brother’s virtue is completely safe from me and my non-romantic dark soul,” he adds sarcastically.

“Louis,” Gemma replies, her face falling in shock. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“I’m not offended,” Louis replies, downing a much bigger gulp of wine than he should. He’s lying. They both know he is. He wants to be Harry’s friend though. He’s the one who asked for it, the one who rejected Harry’s romantic interest in the first place. He’s not sure why he’s feeling so worked up about meeting Gemma’s disapproval.

“You are.”

“Okay, I am. I know there’s nothing wrong with having a lot of sex, but you’ve literally been teasing me about being a loner for years so sorry if it’s a bit unexpected for me to find out that actually, you’ve been secretly thinking I’m too much of a slut for your brother all along. I’ve got whiplash, to be honest.”

“Woah, I never said any of that, nor would I ever say it,” Gemma interrupts, raising one palm towards Louis to interrupt his tirade. “All I was saying is that I know you and Harry wouldn’t have been on the same page romantically so I’m glad you’ve decided friendship was the way to go. I actually think you guys are going to be amazing friends. I was trying to pay you a compliment. I think you were wise to reject him. I’m glad you did. It’s gonna pay off a lot more this way. If I had known you were gonna aim for friends, I would have introduced him to you a lot earlier,” she admits and it does hurt a bit, to know that she kept Harry away from him because she knew them so well that she thought they’d fail.

Her assessment of their romantic potential was probably correct. It's nothing for Louis to get worked up about, and still. The pang of hurt at the thought still resonates through him, an echo of all the reasons why he forces himself to be alone that haunt him at night when he can’t sleep. Louis gulps, swallowing back down his frustration, the hurt, and offering Gemma as sincere a smile as he can muster.

“You’re right. Sorry. I overreacted. It’s just…” he hesitates for a second, the thought of opening up a little on the tip of his tongue. “I have my reasons as to why I’m not dating,” he finally admits after a beat. “People might not understand or agree, but they’re mine. Harry seems like a great guy.” Louis sighs. “I got offended because it seemed like you thought I would have purposefully toyed with him. And I wouldn’t do that. Ever. I’m upfront when people ask me out. I don’t do it. At all.”

Louis can see that she has questions. It’s the same questions he’s been asked before about whether he simply doesn’t feel romantic or sexual attraction (he does), about whether he might be hung up on an ex (definitely not), or if he’s stuck in the past of a relationship that’s ended badly and he can’t overcome (it’s closer to the truth but not quite), about whether he’s simply scared of intimacy and letting anyone in (no comment)… His scars aren’t something he likes to share unless forced by his mother or his therapist, so he turns his face to determined steel, the kind of expression that stops even the most curious and insistent of people.

Gemma can probably see that there’s no point in trying to get anything out of him, her face blanks as curiosity vanishes from her eyes. She nods. “I can understand why you’d interpret it that way,” she agrees. “I’m sorry too. It’s really not what I was trying to imply. At all. You’re one of the kindest people I know. You’d never hurt someone. Especially not on purpose.”

It’s always nice to have someone’s affection and high esteem of him confirmed, even though the treacherous voices at the back of his head always tell him it’s not true, that she couldn’t possibly mean it, that’s she’s probably just saying whatever to reassure him without being sincere.

“Well,” Louis replies casually, masterfully hiding the hurt he still feels, “as long as you know I’m not a player.”

Gemma has the audacity to laugh, twisting the knife a little. “No one would think you're a player Louis. In what world??” She shakes her head, raising her wineglass to her mouth and taking a delicate sip.

It doesn’t change anything, Louis figures. He was never going to let anything happen between them anyway. But now, without him really noticing, the small voice at the back of his head who thinks it knows better and that he’s too damaged to be loved feels vindicated. It treacherously shifts, metamorphoses, into the voice of a reasonable friend, someone he loves and whose opinion he respects.