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Ain't We Proud

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Louis woke up panting from another nightmare. Bloody water surged around the bodies of himself and his fellow soldiers, the sound of machine guns and bombs deafened him, and his best friend suddenly dropped limp onto the sand. He glanced at his alarm clock and saw it was eight in the morning. He was impressed that he'd managed to sleep that late. He knew he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep, so he resigned himself to getting up and getting to work.

-

“Christ, is that Louis Tomlinson?” James bellowed out as soon as Louis entered into his club, Corden’s.

“In the flesh!” Louis laughed, “C’mon and give me a cuddle!”

James appeared from behind the bar where he’d been polishing glasses and pulled him into a tight but short hug before giving him a quick once-over. “How long you been back, lad? Looking good, all in one piece!”

“I just got back to Manchester a couple days ago, but I’d been staying with me mum about a month,” Louis explained. “I wasn’t opposed to being taken care of after three years away.”

“Of course not,” James replies sympathetically. Louis wasn’t sure if he was speaking from experience. He was too young to have fought in the first Great War, but he didn’t have the same look in his eyes that Louis had seen in every single soldier he’d encountered, including himself.

“Well, anyway, what does a lad have to do to get a shot of whiskey around here?” Louis asked with a good-natured smirk.

James scoffed but poured Louis a glass anyway. “On the house. But don’t think you’re getting more than one, the dinner crowd should be flowing in shortly.”

Louis knocked it back and glanced around. Not much had changed at Corden’s since he’d last been here, though it had been almost five years since he was a baby-faced seventeen year-old, playing for carefree crowds.

James followed his line of sight over to the slightly raised stage opposite the door. “Check out my house band. Great, right?”

“Sure, sure. You need me up there on keys, though, mate,” Louis replied, working his signature cocky charm. It wasn’t too much to ask for a recurring gig at a joint he used to play after three years at war, was it?

“Look, a mate of mine wants someone for a wedding. Piano, accordion, whatever. You interested?”

Louis sighed. “A gig’s a gig.”

“Perfect, I’ll pass your name along,” James said before turning around and racking glasses.

Louis stood, figuring their conversation had reached its end—and without a damn job. He turned towards the door, when he heard Corden’s voice behind him.

“Oh, Louis? Don’t worry. The cream always rises to the top, lad!” James encouraged.

Louis gave a short nod and quirk of lips before exiting. He lit up a cigarette as he walked away, muttering to himself. He tried to shake off the nerves and disappointment. This was the first club he’d visited since arriving in Manchester a couple days ago. He’d played at loads more clubs before the war and he was a hell of a performer. It would be onto another club, tomorrow.

For now, he’d finish his cigarette and buy a bottle of liquor at the corner store. Hopefully a few swigs would be enough to help him sleep through the night.

-

“Louis Tomlinson?” a nasal voice called out. “Louis Tomlinson?”

“Yes, ma’am, right here,” Louis answered the desk clerk, who handed him a stack of papers and explained where to signature.

“Back to me when you’re done, and then you’re free to go.”

“Thank you, ma’am, I’ll get right to it.” Louis looked around for empty chairs and slid into the first he saw.

“Hullo, mate,” the brunette in the chair next to him spoke.

“Hey. Alright?” Louis responded good naturedly.

“Bloody paperwork is driving me insane. Already gave four years of my life to the army, have to give another filling out my discharge papers?” the man answered in an Irish accent.

Louis chuckled at his caustic humor. “So what brings you to Manchester? Don’t sound like a native.”

“Obviously not, no. From a small town in Ireland. Couldn’t stand the way everybody back home treated me when I came back,” the man explained. Louis hadn’t expected such brutal honesty from a total stranger. “Besides, the war hardened me up and I don’t want my mam to have to see that side of me.”

Louis hummed. That sounded familiar. He had spent the past month at his childhood home wracked by nightmares and trying to avoid revealing the gruesome details to his mum or sisters.

“Anyway, I’m Niall Horan. You?” Niall put down his pen for a brief handshake before returning back to his paperwork.

“Louis Tomlinson. Nice to meet another soldier. Haven’t really talked to anyone since I got back.”

“Where were you?”

“Sword Beach, Normandy,” Louis replied. “You?”

“Shit, that’s tough. I can raise you one better, though,” Niall laughed before revealing, “Liberated Dachau.”

Louis’ pen dropped to his paper in surprise. “Holy fuck, I can’t even imagine.”

Niall moved right on, asking, “So you goin for cash or uni, then?”

“Cash.” Louis thought of the half-empty carton of eggs in his fridge, the overripe bananas on the counter, the bread approaching stale. “Need the money.”

“My advice? Find something soon. Been to four funerals recently. No one’s saying anything cause they made it back fine a long time ago,” Niall revealed.

“What do you mean?” Louis asked incredulously.

“Wanted a way to make it stop.” Niall paused momentarily, the first time he’d seemed to have an emotional reaction to anything they’d discussed so far. “Find something, mate.”

“You wouldn’t happen to know of any clubs in desperate need of a talented pianist?” Louis joked, trying not to let his desperation show through.

“You a musician, too, huh?” Niall chuckled, standing with his completed paperwork. “Come find me at the Rio Lounge if you ever need a bass.” Niall winked before turning around.

“Wait, you play at the fucking Rio Lounge?”

“Jesus Christ, no!” Niall chortled. “I drink there. See you around, mate.” Niall gave a faux salute before walking away towards the desk clerk.

Louis went back to his paperwork, filing that information away for a rainy day.

-

“Look, lad, we’re pretty much booked up. Besides, our guests come for the classics not,” the club manager paused, “original tunes.”

-

“Louis, my mate said you smashed it at the wedding! I can pass a few more your way?”

-

“Listen, I can take the slow nights,” Louis pleaded. It seemed like he had visited every club in a twenty mile-radius of Manchester with no luck.

“We just got a new headliner,” Ben Winston, the sleazy owner of Fulwell 73, seemed to stare right through Louis. “Baby-faced, barely eighteen.”

“I bet I was playing circles around him when I was eighteen,” Louis tried, trying to reinsert his usual level of confidence into his tone.

“Well, you’re not eighteen anymore, are you?” Winston replied, a hard look in his eye.

Louis gritted his teeth, trying not to let his mounting anger seep through. “Some of us had some service to square away.” He couldn’t help the sarcasm behind his words when he added, “Maybe you heard something about it? In the news?”

“Alright, lad, we’re all plenty thankful, but I haven’t got anything for you. Look elsewhere,” Winston said with a tone of finality and started to walk away.

“Look I can’t take this. The whole town is giving me the same spiel and it’s killing me,” Louis called out. He tried to cap his frustration; maybe Ben would be more sympathetic to passion. “I live to play, I live for music. If I can’t play, there’s no point in me having made it back home.”

“A bit fucking dramatic, don’t you think? Take your histrionics to the community theatre. Just down the block.” With that the owner walked away.

Louis stormed out the door and got out his pack of cigarettes. He smoked two before deciding to head over to a vet bar, one without music and dancing.

As he downed his first whiskey, he tried to drown out the rage filling him up.

“Bunch of self-righteous pricks,” he muttered. They all wanted to pretend that everything was fine. They won the war, so the worst was over right? They were all chasing the same illusion and achieving it with astonishing success. They wanted to go back to before the war, to happy days, but Louis couldn’t. No one in his shoes could. If any of those club owners had been where he’d been, seen what he’d seen, they wouldn’t have such a fucking problem helping him out. All he wanted was a place to play. Everyone else could go back to how it was, but there was no way for Louis to even try if he couldn’t play. All he wanted was a day without guilt crushing him as he thought of the life leaving his best friend’s eyes on the beaches of Normandy. He wanted a good night’s sleep without being woken up by her voice, telling him to go on, save himself, as bullets whizzed past. A minute without thinking about the promise he made to her, the promise he had yet to fulfill.

“Another, please?” Louis called for the bartender.

Louis was about to swig the alcohol down and ask for a third when the radio broke through the fog in his mind: “This is Andre Barouche for the British Songbook of Popular Music, brought to you by Kit-Kats. BBC Radio and Metro Goldwyn Mayer-British are searching for the next great swing back to write a brand new song in honor of our handsome men in uniform. Yes, it’s the British Songbook’s ‘Tribute to the Troops’! The winning band from each region will compete at the Palace Theater in London on November 28th, broadcast live nationwide! This final competition will determine which band and song will be immortalized in movie history, featured in a brand new, spectacular motion picture musical! Once again, this is Andre Barouche with the British Songbook of Popular Music.”

Louis threw down some cash to cover his drinks and a tip for the bartender and raced home. This competition was made for me! In fact, they might as well give me the prize right now, Louis thought as he approached his flat building. After making it inside, he searched for a paper and pen to write out the plan he’d been formulating in his head. Louis always knew he’d be the next Frank Sinatra—well better actually. Unlike that fake, Louis could play piano, read music, sing in tune… Not only was he a musical prodigy, playing weddings at seven and composing original music at twelve, but he had the advantage of experience. He knew exactly how to pay tribute to the troops because he had been there. The rest of his swing band would have that same advantage, too. They’d take their experience and write one hell of a powerful song.

He scrawled “VET SWING BAND” in large script across the top of the paper and then wrote down all the instruments he wanted.

“Keys, me obviously,” he muttered. “Then I’ll need some horns: trumpet, trombone, and sax will do just fine. Bass and drums to back us up.”

He wrote “Niall Horan” by bass. After that, he was stumped. He didn’t know any other vets, let alone other musicians who had served. Maybe Niall could help him out. If Niall knew someone, who in turn know someone, who in turn knew someone, Louis could slowly but surely piece together a band. With the next part of his plan laid out, he folded up his paper and headed to the Rio Lounge.

Cream always rises to the top, he recalled Corden saying. “Time to start fucking winning now.”

-

The Rio Lounge. It was one of the swankiest club in Manchester and Louis had always dreamed of playing there. In terms of performing, this place was exclusive. People didn’t come here to hear the same boring tunes they could play with their gramophones, they came here for the experience of real, live music—and that was Louis’ speciality.

His eyes swept over the room, looking for a brunet at the bar. Niall had insinuated that he came here often, and Louis knew for veterans that could mean every day. Finally, Louis spotted the man he was looking for and headed over.

“Niall!” he greeted jovially as he sat on the barstool next to the man in question.

“Louis!” he replied with mock enthusiasm.

“In the flesh.” Louis winked. “I have a proposition for you.”

Niall quirked his brow to show he was listening and continued drinking.

“There’s this contest, Tribute to the Troops or something, and I’m trying to get together a band of guys who served. Combine our talent with experience in the war and we’ll blow everyone else out of the water,” Louis explained.

Niall considered it for a few moments more, then shrugged. “Got nothing better to do. Besides, need money to pay for the tab I’m racking up here.”

Louis cheered internally. Now it was time for the next step of his plan. “So, you know any other guys? Handsome young vets like you and me?”

“Hmm. Yeah, I got two friends who’d probably be up for it. That takes care of trombone and trumpet.”

Louis pulled the paper and pen out of his back pocket and had Niall write their names next to their respective instruments.

“Their numbers, too, if you’ve got ‘em. Or addresses. I just need to check with them, see if they’re on board. Maybe they’ll know a sax player. Anyway, I’ll figure it out and we’ll have a fine swing band by next week,” Louis rambled.

“Not wasting any time are you?” Niall chuckled.

“‘Find something quick’, right?” Louis replied.

Niall tipped his refilled glass and Louis took it as his cue to leave.

-

Louis looked around at the gaggle of musicians in his flat. When he’d bought this place at seventeen, he’d converted the larger of the two bedrooms into a practice room. It was a little cramped with seven musicians and their instruments, but luckily, it fit everyone. Louis clapped his hands together and called the room to attention.

“So, I’m Louis Tomlinson, as you all know. I was at Sword Beach on D-Day. I’ve been playing piano and singing practically since nappies. You’re all here because I heard this ad on the radio for a swing band competition for the troops and enlisted Neil over here to help me round up some handsome and talented vets. Are you interested? If so, go ahead and introduce yourselves!”

“I’m Niall. Met Lou filling out discharge papers and here we are now. I play bass, liberated Dachau. I got these two wankers over here to join us, they can introduce themselves.” After he finished speaking, he pulled out a small silver flask and drank.

A muscled man with perfect posture began to introduce himself, “My name is Liam Payne. I was a commander in the British navy. I currently study law. I’ll be on first trombone.”

“Well, no worries on that front mate, you’re the only trombone,” Louis reassured.

Liam seemed to preen a little at that, though his face soured as Niall faux-whispered, “Pay him no mind. Liam’s a tough nut to crack, but you’ll like him much more once he finally pulls the stick out of his ass.”

The gorgeous, god-like man next to Liam gently patted his shoulder, then quickly smoothed his hand down his arm. Louis catalogued the motion, intrigued.

“Zayn Malik. I teach trumpet to kids. I was a prisoner of war,” the beautiful man offered succinctly.

His words sat heavy in the room until someone broke the silence. “I’m Sarah Jones, and this is Mitch Rowland. I drum, he saxes,” she chuckled at her own made-up verb.

The man next to her, Mitch, tightened his arm around her waist. “If you’re wondering about our accents, we are american,” Mitch explained. “Sarah suffered some head trauma while working on some planes and a brain injury followed. We decided not to go back to our small hometown. If anyone has a problem with her demeanor or her sex, let us know and we’ll leave now.”

Louis jumped in, “All she needs to do is drum, that’s the only thing that matters. My best friend while deployed was a nurse and she kicked ass just like the male soldiers. If anyone has a problem with a woman in the band, it’s them who should leave.”

The rest of the group nodded in affirmation and Mitch smiled, pressing a kiss to Sarah’s temple.

“Well now that introductions are out of the way, let’s see what we can do!” Louis exclaimed.

The group went about setting up their instruments while Louis opened the door and two small windows in order to let out some of the sound—he didn’t want to deafen his band on the first practice.

The group played through a couple basic tunes before moving onto classics that any swing musician would know. Though there were plenty of mistakes, they eventually found their groove. Louis passed out music for one of his originals and the band ate it up. It sounded better than he could’ve ever imagined. After semi-successfully running through “Ain’t We Proud” for the third time, Louis paused to wipe the sweat off his brow.

“Lads and lady, I’m proper excited now. We make a pretty fucking great team if I do say so myself! I’m familiar with the owner of Corden’s, so now that we’ve worked this out, I’ll ask him if he could manage to get us a slot for a short set. I wanna see how we do with a crowd! If it works out, we can keep going and raise enough to cover expenses for a real studio and travel and food for the first couple legs of the competition,” Louis announced.

Niall laughed and smirked. “You sure plan ahead, Lou, huh?”

Liam jumped to his defense, “I can respect that. Think I’d tear my hair out if we were going forward with no plan of action.”

Niall rolled his eyes, but Louis was glad for the support, even if it was from an uptight wanker like Liam.

“I’ll see if I can get us something, but it’ll probably be on a weeknight. Everyone good to meet back here on Monday after dinner to practice?”

He got a general affirmative from everyone and smiled.

As everyone was leaving, Liam stopped to talk to Louis. “I don’t mean to overstep, but I really think we could use another singer. Some harmonies would really enrich our sound,” he stated.

The mention of another singer brought memories flooding back.

“My little brother is a fantastic singer,” she’d told Louis after he’d revealed his passion for music. “Once we’re back, I’ll introduce you two. He’d make a great duet partner.”

“I’m a solo artist, thank you very much. If he’s anything like you he’ll be too much of a diva to work with anyway!” Louis had replied.

“Look at the pot calling the kettle black!”

Louis shook himself out of his memories and replied, “I know a guy.”

Liam nodded and left. Well, there was no going back now. Louis was going to have to keep his promise, if only because it got him another bandmate.

-

It was the following Wednesday night when Louis and his ragtag swing band set up to perform a thirty minute set at Corden’s. Louis would have liked to have had more than two days of practice, but beggars can’t be choosers.

As the rest of the band put the finishing touches on set up, Louis spoke into the mic, intent on warming up the small crowd. “Hello, everyone, I’m Louis and we are the Louis Tommo Band! I heard about a song competition in honor of the troops a few weeks ago and decided to put together a band of talented vets! This is our first performance together, but you definitely haven’t seen the last of us yet!”

Louis checked back to see that the band was ready and jumped to it. “Alright, here’s our first song: ‘Ain’t We Proud’!”

Louis counted off and the music started to form. He could feel it flowing through him. Playing for this crowd, though it was smaller and much less vocal than he would’ve liked, was rejuvenating. He couldn’t stop his smile as a few people took to the floor to dance along to their song, his song.

They got through the first portion of the lyrics and the instrumental break, and the crowd was eating it up.

Louis sang the last few lines with the most confidence he’d felt in a long time: “You know the boys are back, and ain't we roaring back, and ain't we back on track, and ain't we proud!”

Louis winked at Corden, who was watching from behind the bar with an impressed look on his face. They finished out the song with one final piano trill and some strong horns.

“Thank you!”

The small audience clapped and continued dancing as the band started up a fast-paced riff that required no singing from Louis. Without having to focus on any lyrics, Louis was able to catalogue their last performance, the good and the bad of the arrangement, the strengths and weaknesses of his bandmates, and his personal flaws. One thing stuck out the most: Despite how their instruments were creating a wonderful blended sound, the vocals left something to be desired. Liam was right. He needed a lower, richer voice to complement his higher tones. And there his memories went again.

“You’d never guess it from his curls or his cherub face, but he’s got quite a deep voice,” she had said.

Louis couldn’t avoid it anymore. It was time to face the past, face his promises, and face the boy whom he knew only through the stories of his dead best friend.

-

Louis smoothed down his shirt; he’d starched his collar and attempted to iron his slacks. He knew the night was not going to end well, but he could at least try to make a good impression. At least they’d remember the boy who’d ruined their lives as being well-dressed.

He geared himself up and then knocked loudly on the door.

“Hold on!” he heard a deep and raspy voice call out before the door opened to reveal the prettiest boy Louis had ever seen. So this was Gemma’s brother.

“Are you Louis?” the boy, Harry he guessed, asked excitedly. Louis hadn’t expected to be met with such enthusiasm. He supposed Harry and his family didn’t know Louis was responsible for Gemma’s death. Yet.

“Yes, that’s me. Louis Tomlinson, in the flesh. Good evening.” Could he ever shut up? He was only making this worse for himself, but he had always been one to fill the silence when he was nervous. He managed to close his mouth into a nervous smile and finally stop spouting pleasantries.

“Please come in! Mum and I have been cooking since you phoned this afternoon. I hope you like roast and mash. There’s also some carrots.” Harry ushered Louis in, moving himself out of the doorway.

“Wow, you didn’t have to go to all that trouble for me.” Louis blushed. He didn’t deserve this. What he’d done had broken their hearts, ripped their family apart, and he wasn’t sure he could build up the courage to even tell them.

Harry guided him to an ornately-set table. The delicious aroma of a home-cooked meal (done right, unlike Louis’ own sad attempts) wafted in from the kitchen and filled his lungs. He felt guilty even enjoying this. How could he sit here, basking in the smell of a pot roast made especially for him when the only reason he was there at all was because his actions (or lack thereof) had led to Gemma’s death?

Louis cleared his throat, searching for courage, “You shouldn’t have, really. I don’t deserve it.”

Suddenly, a woman who Louis could only assume was Gemma’s mother Anne burst into the room, carrying a plate of carved roast in her pot holder-covered hands.

“Nonsense, dear! Gemma wrote about you all the time, and she only had the most wonderful things to say. It’s an honor to host her best friend from the front.”

Louis gulped, but was saved from further comment as Harry appeared with a bowl of mashed potatoes in one hand and a bowl of carrots in the other.

“Besides, you have all the answers. We’re hoping you can provide some clarity,” he commented with a determined look in his eyes.

Louis felt all the blood rush out of his face. He was sure he was white as a sheet, pale as a ghost. He supposed to them, that’s what he was: A connection to their lost daughter and sister, a link between the living and the dead.

“Harry,” Anne said sternly, “let Louis enjoy his dinner before you force him to relive those memories.”

Harry blushed at the obvious scolding.

Louis blinked back to the present to find Anne scooping a healthy serving of everything onto his plate. He felt stuck. If he shoveled food into his mouth, he’d be saved from having to talk, but the sooner he finished his food, the sooner he’d be expected to reveal his deepest shame.

“No need to be shy, dear, tuck in!” Anne exclaimed.

Louis was obligated to show the highest manners, if nothing else, so he began methodically picking apart the meal on his plate. He practically moaned at the first bite of tender roast.

“This is phenomenal. Better than my mum’s, but she can never know I said that,” Louis admitted.

“The roast was actually all Harry! He’s become such an excellent cook in these past few years!” Anne beamed with pride at her son’s culinary accomplishments. Louis glances over to see Harry staring down at his plate, though there was a satisfied smile on his face.

“Well, Harry, it’s quite a delicious roast you’ve prepared,” Louis amended in a soft voice. He had promised Gemma, as she lay dying, that he’d check in on and protect Harry. It took him a long time to complete the first part, but now that he was here he would do everything he could to make Harry feel comforted and normal. Gemma had always talked about Harry and her role as his protector.

“He’s different,” Gemma had explained. “He loves nail varnish and tea parties and singing. But I know you wouldn’t treat him any differently for it. That’s why you have to check on him if I don’t make it out.”

“Gemma, nothing’s gonna happen to you!” Louis had replied. “You’re a nurse, it’s not like you’re on the battlefield.”

“Just promise me.” Her tone had left no room for argument.

“I promise.”

“Thank you, Louis,” Harry’s soft reply brought Louis back to the dinner table and out of his head. Damn it all to hell, now Louis was blushing. Why was he blushing? Louis stuffed his mouth full of food and hoped no one would notice.

“So, Harry, how old are you?” Louis started with a safe enough topic of conversation.

“I’m 19,” he replied simply.

“Are you studying at university?” Louis tried again. He knew Harry was waiting for him to finish his food so he could ask about Gemma; he just wanted to distract him and gain enough time to plan something to say. Plus, he found himself curious to learn about the boy after hearing so much from his sister.

“I’ve started with the law program at Manchester University, but I’m not sure if that’s what I’ll get my degree in,” he answered.

That surprised Louis. Gemma had never mentioned Harry having an interest in law. However, he couldn’t ask why Harry wasn’t pursuing music without bringing up Gemma, who was the one to reveal Harry’s passion for singing to Louis. He tried a safer route. “Law, huh? One of my bandmates is studying law there, maybe you know him.”

“You have a band?” Harry asked, curiosity coloring his words. Finally, he was distracted.

“Yes! I recently put together a band of vets to compete in a song competition for the troops. The winner gets to play their song in a brand new motion picture! Sound like something you’d be interested in?” Louis raised an eyebrow.

Anne finally joined the conversation. “Wow! That’s quite impressive, Louis. Gemma mentioned that you were a musician, but I didn’t realize you were so serious.”

“Thank you, Anne.” Louis turned to Harry once more. “Gemma also mentioned that Harry here has quite a talent for singing. And I could really use a second voice.”

“I’m not a vet, so I don’t even qualify for your band,” Harry replied.

“I’m sure no one else will object. Your sister served, plus you weren’t eligible because of your asthma,” Louis stated. “According to Gemma,” he amended when he realized it might be weird for a stranger you’ve only heard about in letters to talk about your chronic illness.

“I—” Harry started before cutting himself off and swallowing. “I can’t. I’m too busy with my studies.”

“Oh,” Louis said.

“I know,” Anne faux-whispered conspiratorially. “I keep telling him he shouldn’t waste his gift by becoming a lawyer.”

Harry huffed. It appeared he was about to jump in, so Louis tried to diffuse the situation. “Here’s an idea: You come to a practice and meet everyone. Best case scenario, you join and we’ve got a wonderful baritone to round out our sound. Or, worst case you find a study buddy.”

Harry struggled for words, “I— You, you haven’t even heard me sing. For all you know, I’m shit! Sorry, mum, rubbish,” he quickly corrected.

“I trust Gemma.” That seemed to sober everyone up.

After a few moments, Anne offered, “He sings at church every Sunday. Why don’t you join us this weekend and you can see for yourself?”

“That sounds lovely, Anne. I haven’t really been to church since I moved away from home, it’ll be nice.”

Anne smiled warmly. “I’ll go write the address down for you.” With that, she stood and exited the dining room.

Louis glanced over at Harry, to see him staring down at his plate. He tried to be as quiet as possible as he picked up his fork and resumed eating.

“So,” Harry started. Louis guessed he wasn’t quiet enough. “You say you trusted Gemma. Quite a lot, I’m sure. I’d guess she felt the same way about you.”

Louis knew he needed to tread carefully. Of course Harry and Anne deserved the truth, but he couldn’t help himself from trying to preserve this relationship. Maybe it was because of the connection to his lost best friend or the possibility of Harry joining the band, but he knew delivery would be critical.

“Ehm,” Louis cleared his throat, “yes, we trusted each other a lot. We were very close.”

Harry raised his eyebrows in surprise.

Louis stumbled to clarify, “Not like, uh, that, just, you know, in that type of environment, it’s important to have close friends you can trust.”

Anne reentered the room and sat at her place, sliding a folded sheet of paper across the table to him. She didn’t speak. It seemed it was time to tell the story.

“We became friends pretty quickly. She reminded me of my sisters and mum, and I think she liked having a friend that wasn’t trying to seduce her. So, um, we trusted each other a lot. She was always so adamant that I had to promise to check in on you guys if she didn’t make it. I didn’t see the need for it, because she wasn’t in battle, but Gemma is very strong-willed, as I’m sure you both know. She always gets her way.” Louis looked up to see his small audience nodding in agreement.

“It was a couple days before the Normandy invasion that Gemma told me her plan. I knew she would make it happen either way, but I hoped maybe I could protect her if I was helping her out?” Louis breathed deeply. He had to close his eyes briefly; he didn’t want to see their reactions even peripherally. “She told me she wanted to be in on the action, that she was tired of being on the sidelines just because of her sex. I told her she was mad for wanting to go into battle, especially one like this, but… in the end I didn’t even try to stop her. She showed me the extra uniform she had taken from one of her dead patients and told me she was going to be on the beaches with me.”

Louis paused to wipe the tears off his face. He didn’t get to grieve this. He needed to finish his terrible story. He tried to go as fast as he could while still providing all the necessary information. “Gemma got hit not long after we reached land. I tried to drag her away from the line of fire, but there was only so much I could do with the machine guns shooting bullets right over our heads constantly. It was the most trapped I ever felt. Worse than the trenches, worse than anything.”

Pull it together, Tommo. “She… She didn’t, ehm, die alone. I held her hand the entire time. She wanted me to check in on you both, tell you that she loved you loads. I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner, I was just so ashamed. But that’s no excuse.”

The silence seemed to drag on. Finally, he looked up: Harry had his head in his hands and his shoulders were shaking with tears, while Anne rubbed his back.

“I’m so sorry,” Louis repeated, so quietly he wasn’t certain he was heard. “I should’ve taken the uniform or told somebody. I’m so sorry.”

Anne stretched her spare hand across the table, and Louis tentatively grabbed hold.

“It wasn’t your fault, Louis. You couldn’t have stopped her no matter what you tried. I’m just, I’m happy to know she went out on her own terms. She died exactly the way she lived,” Anne said as she wiped a few stray tears from her eyes.

Louis was so relieved he couldn’t stop more tears from flooding out of his eyes.

“Sorry for crying my eyes out, I know it isn’t my place. I just, if there’s anything else I can do for you, please let me know,” Louis insisted.

Anne smiled sadly. She spoke, “You’re hurting, too, Louis, and that’s okay. I think Harry might need some time, but please feel free to stop by anytime. And we’ll see you at church on Sunday.”

“Yes. Thank you. I’m sorry.” Once again, he failed to get a handle on his words.

“No more apologies, dear. And you’re welcome always,” Anne replied. She squeezed his hand and Harry’s bicep at the same time before letting go of both and standing to guide Louis to the door. She gave him a quick, tight hug and whispered her final thanks in his ear before closing the door behind him.

Louis left feeling lighter overall than he had in months. He hoped Harry could forgive him. He needed Harry in his life so he could watch over him like he promised. The only thing he could do now was wait for Sunday to roll around.

-

Louis had discovered that Zayn owned a motorcycle at their last practice. Lacking a vehicle himself (besides a bicycle that had rusted during his time overseas), he borrowed it to drive to the church Harry and Anne attended. He cursed the loud motor and himself for being too cheap to buy a new bike as he rolled in loudly to the parking lot. He shuffled into the chapel in his worn-out Sunday best and glanced around to find where Anne was sitting. He traveled to her pew near the front of the chapel and sat by her side, muttering polite greetings. He looked up towards the pulpit to see Harry staring at him. There was a look Louis couldn’t read in his eyes, but Harry gave him a small nod that seemed to indicate something good, be it forgiveness or understanding. Louis wasn’t sure, but he was grateful.

In general, Louis wasn’t very religious, but as Harry began to sing, he felt something flowing between them, like a spiritual connection. They only knew about each other through Gemma, but Louis was determined to get to know him personally. He prayed Harry would be willing to join the band so Louis could hear his rich voice often.

As the song finished, Louis couldn’t help himself from applauding. Blush rose to his cheeks and he stopped after a few seconds, realizing the rest of the congregation was looking at him in silence. He locked eyes with Harry, who was trying not to laugh, and it was worth the embarrassment.

-

Tonight, Harry would be introduced to the rest of the Louis Tommo Band. Louis smoothed down his shirt before knocking curtly on the door of the Styles family home. Usually, he wore a plain vest and a pair of baggy jeans to practice, but he felt like he should dress up to make a better impression on Harry.

Anne opened the door with a bright, eager smile. Louis day Harry standing behind her, looking much more unsure.

“It’ll be less than an hour, like I said on Sunday. Enough time to work through a half-hour set, and then I will personally escort you home,” Louis assured, winking at Anne.

Harry looked over at his mother with a loaded gaze.

She sighed fondly. “Harry, I’ll be fine. I’ve got the radio and books, I can work on a new recipe, I can even teach myself to crochet.”

“I feel bad leaving you on your own, though,” Harry answered.

“It’ll be a relief to escape your mothering for an hour, Harry,” she teased. “Go be young again. Just for the night.”

With that, she pushed Harry out the door, blew a kiss, and slammed it shut. Louis heard the lock click into place before Anne shouted her goodbyes through the door.

Harry laughed exasperatedly; Louis smiled.

“Shall we?” Louis motioned towards the road and the pair began to walk. Louis would’ve found the lack of conversation stifling if it weren’t for Harry humming an unknown tune, seemingly without realizing.

“That’s beautiful,” Louis interrupted softly. “Do you write your own music?”

Harry stopped humming abruptly and looked at his feet. “Oh, it’s nothing, just a bit when I’m bored, I suppose.”

“Well, it sounded aces to me, whatever it was. We’ve only been playing my tunes and lyrics, along with classics of course, so I’d love to hear anything you’ve got. If everything works out with the band, of course,” Louis said.

Harry nodded. “I’ll think about it.”

Louis smiled. “It’s nice that you’re so protective of your mum. I’m quite a mummy’s boy myself.”

“She deserves it. She’s spent her whole life protecting me. Besides, I’m all she has left.”

Louis swallowed. He still struggled with feelings of guilt about Gemma’s death, no matter what Anne said.

“We lost my step-dad, too. We thought he was old enough to avoid the draft, but I guess not. He’d fought well in the first Great War, so… Guess they kept an eye on him.”

“God, Harry that’s shit.” Louis couldn’t imagine going through that himself: Harry had lost half of his family. Louis wanted to wrap him up in blankets and send him off to his mum’s to be doted on by his four sisters. “I guess I’m lucky, in that way. My father fucked off right after I was born, the asshole. My step-dad did the same thing after giving my mom four more kids. I don’t know if they’re dead, if they even fought, but I don’t care. I guess that’s good, I have five other people to care about already.”

They walked the rest of the short way to Louis’ flat in companionable silence, lost in memories of ghosts and dreams of what-ifs.

Louis led the way through the building to his first-floor flat, opening the door to a barrage of sounds. He heard Liam, predictably, yelling about arrangements and rules and Niall contrarily egging him on. He heard Sarah’s laughter encouraging Niall to keep going.

“Hey!” Louis called sharply. Slowly, the conflict devolved and everyone stared over at the door. “Everyone, this is Harry,” Louis introduced. “He’s gonna be practicing singing with us tonight, like I told you.”

Quickly, everyone introduced themselves and got their instruments together.

“‘First Steps First,’ you know that one right?” he checked with Harry.

“Um, it’s been a minute, but yeah. I can do that one,” he answered.

“Alright, and a-one, two, three, four.”

The music began to build as Sarah set the beat, Zayn joined in on trumpet, and Liam layered his trombone underneath. Louis nodded an entrance cue to Harry, who started singing timidly.

As he made it further along in the song, Harry’s voice became more confident, and he stared at Louis with smiling eyes.

“Do step out on the floor with me. I'm new here too, you see. Might you be charmingly coerced? No need to be so shy, take reassurance, I know how to guide you through the worst steps, first steps first.”

Suddenly, the calm expression melted off of Harry’s face. “I—I don’t remember the bridge.”

“He doesn’t remember the bridge,” Liam repeated in a groan.

Louis prompts, “Why be all alone when—”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Harry rubs his hands over his face and then smooths them on his pants.

Louis feels the inexplicable urge to reassure him, to make him feel comfortable. He doesn’t know why, but he just needs Harry to join the band. “No, no it’s all my fault,” Louis starts. “The tempo’s wrong, huh?”

“I don’t, I don’t know,” Harry answers with doubt.

“Yeah, it is. The tempo’s shit. Kick it up, Niall.”

“Thank Christ,” he muttered before speeding up the bass.

“Why be all alone. You know this!” Louis comforts.

“Why be all alone when music calls?” Harry sings.

“Yes!” Louis encourages.

“I have nothing more or less to do,” Harry continues.

“He’s amazing, everyone!” Louis could see the confidence growing in Harry’s voice and on his face.

“But unless you want a party filled with flowers on the walls—”

Louis jumped in with harmony, turning the rest of the song into a duet: “Someone has to make the very first move.”

Louis and Harry locked eyes as they finished out the last chorus.

“Starting is daunting, true, trusting in something new, fearful your luck will be reversed! But I have a feeling I'd steady you if you tried. Soon you'll be dancing through rehearsed steps, first steps first, first steps first. First steps first!”

Louis clapped after the last line, and the rest of the band joined in.

“You’re terrific, Harry. We need you,” Louis demanded.

Harry pulled Louis into a quick, but tight hug. He pulled back with a flush on his cheeks. “Okay, I’m in”

-

It had been two weeks since Harry officially joined the band, and Louis finally felt like everything was coming together. They had another gig coming up—on a Friday this time—and Louis wasn’t going to stop until their set was perfect.

“Louis, you’ve made a mistake at bar 70. I need to be on the fifth and everyone else moves up,” Liam insisted.

“No, it’s fine,” Louis dismissed.

Liam sputtered, “Trombone on the third that high is just, it’s just breaking rule number one—”

“Then I guess I’m breaking the rule, Liam! Jesus, pull the stick out of your ass!” Louis interrupted. “Pain in my ass…”

Sarah hit her drums to emphasize Louis’ unintentional pun, repeating, “Haha, Payne in your ass.”

Mitch and Harry looked at each other and chuckled softly while Niall burst out in full-bodied laughter.

Louis couldn't help the smirk on his face. He loved teasing Liam, the uptight bastard, and a laughing Harry was quickly climbing up his list of favorite sights. He was proud to have made him laugh, even unintentionally.

They ran through the bars Liam was moaning about, working them a few times until Louis was satisfied.

“Harry, watch out on ‘proud and tall.’ You’re making it minor, it should be major,” Louis instructed.

“Got it, Lou,” Harry replied.

The pair sang the line as an isolated phrase first, and then sang the whole bar.

“Yes! Perfect!” Louis praised.

He turned to the brass, critiquing the execution of the ending.

“What’s next, choreography?” Liam asked with annoyance.

“Haha, hornography,” Sarah added.

“I hear Zayn gives lessons!” Niall joked.

“Piss off,” Zayn replied.

Louis didn’t know that he’d ever seen Sarah serious, aside from when she was drumming, but he was grateful for her constant jokes at times like these for diffusing the tension that grew during practice.

“Tommo, you’re lucky you’re so talented because dealing with you is a fucking Olympic sport,” Zayn commented.

Louis shrugged, replying, “It’ll be worth it once we win that contest. We’ll finally be on top, finally have everything we want.”

“Order,” Liam supplied.

“Money to burn,” Niall added.

“I won’t have to teach anymore,” Zayn said.

“Life can go back to how it was. Or at least close to it,” Mitch, who was usually quiet, joined in.

“I know I’m a perfectionist and I know it can get on your nerves, but music is the one thing that makes me feel normal,” Louis explained.

“You’re right, Lou,” Harry agreed. “It’s a nice distraction from… everything.”

Niall piped up, “We’re the same in all the ways that count. We’re all fighting the same fight. We’re all surviving through music.”

Everyone nodded their agreement. Louis was so thankful for his band in that moment.

“Let’s take it from the top?”

-

“All set, Tommo?” Corden asked.

“Just about!” Louis replied. He turned around to survey the scene, seeing everyone in their rightful places. The only thing that was missing was a smile on Harry’s face.

Louis walked over to the wall Harry was leaning against and bumped shoulders with his singing partner. “Nervous? You shouldn’t be. You’ve aced this set a million times in practice.”

“Thanks, Lou,” Harry said with a smile. “I just don’t want to let everyone else down.”

“Hey, you won’t!” Louis reassured. “You are just as much a part of this band as everyone else. No one will give you any shit if you mess up, which I doubt you will.”

Harry still looked anxious, so Louis continued in a softer voice, “I’ve got your back, Hazza.”

Harry looked up at the new nickname and Louis held the eye contact. Something passed between them. Louis couldn’t look away. After what seemed like a lifetime, Harry blew out a breath and smiled. “Alright. I’m ready.”

Louis dragged Harry over to the stage and snapped the band to attention. He then motioned to Corden at the bar, indicating they were about to start.

“Hello, everyone! How are we feeling tonight?” Louis called out into his mic. “We are the Louis Tommo Band featuring Harry Styles and we have an incredible show ready for you tonight. Without further ado, this is ‘You Deserve It.’”

Louis heard the band start up behind him and tapped his foot in rhythm before joining in on keys and then vocals, singing the opening lines. As he reached the chorus, Harry harmonized: “‘Cause you deserve it! Go out and have a ball ‘cause you deserve it! Don't let the rhythm stall. ‘Cause when you got the call, you stood up proud and tall and you deserve it.”

The instrumental break started and Harry came alive on stage. Louis watched in awe from his spot behind the piano as Harry danced around the stage, eventually making his way over. He twirled around each band member on his way to Louis, jokingly ruffling Liam’s hair and pinching Niall’s bum. Louis held his breath and focused on the notes he knew by heart. He wondered what Harry would do when he got to Louis. He craved the casual touch with Harry. He was momentarily disappointed when he only got a wink, until he remembered he had to sing.

The rest of the song and the set went very well. They had great chemistry with the crowd and no one made any noticeable mistakes. However, Louis never stopped wondering why he longed for Harry to touch him.

-

Louis was startled from his sleep by loud knocking and the ringing of his doorbell. He glanced over at his alarm clock: ten am. He grumbled as he threw a robe over his pajamas, eventually calling out, “I’m coming, sorry!”

He shuffled to the door and opened it to reveal a very nicely dressed Harry.

“Hiiiiii, Lou. Is this a bad time?” he asked sweetly.

“Never a bad time for you, Hazza. Come in.” He moved aside, allowing his guest to slip by.

He led Harry to the kitchen. He started the coffee maker and looked through the fridge for anything to whip up. “Are you hungry? I’ll be honest, I just woke up, so…”

“Oh! I can whip something up, if you like?” Harry offered.

“No, no, you’re my guest. You shouldn’t have to do that,” Louis protested weakly. He was a shit cook on a good day and he was currently too damn tired.

Harry chuckled. “C’mon, Lou, I can see right through that. You know I’m a good cook and I like doing it. I came over here to talk to you, and I doubt you can focus if you’re tired and hungry. Go get dressed!”

Louis acquiesced easily, walking to his room where he took the quickest shower of his life and threw on the first clean clothes he saw. When he made it to the kitchen, about fifteen minutes after Harry’s arrival, he smelled butter and heard bacon sizzling.

“Shit, Haz, you got this all together that quickly?” Louis was amazed.

Harry blushed, replying, “It’s nothing. Just eggs, bacon, and toast.”

“Much better than anything I could put together. Thank you, Harry.”

Harry turned off the stove and Louis took that as a cue to get plates out of the cupboard.

“If you dish up, I’ll set the table,” Louis explained. He grabbed forks, knives, and glasses and searched until he found a couple cloth napkins.

“What do you want to drink?” Louis looked in the fridge and hoped Harry didn’t ask for anything elaborate.

“Whatever you’re having is fine,” Louis heard Harry say. He shook a carton of orange juice and was relieved to find it half full.

“Sit down, Hazza, you’ve done enough.” Louis patted his back and filled their glasses with orange juice. He sat down across from Harry, finding a beautifully-plated breakfast in front of him. His stomach grumbled and he couldn’t stop himself from digging in immediately. He glanced up to see Harry staring at him and startled.

“Do you need to pray first? Sorry, sorry.” He cursed under his breath and bowed his head, waiting for Harry to start speaking. Instead, he heard his loud laughter.

“I’m not really religious, Lou. I only started going after Gemma, um, passed. Found it comforting then. Now, I just sing at church because it’s my only chance to perform. Well, used to be,” he explained.

“Oh.” Louis blushed. Why did he always make a fool of himself in front of Harry? “Well why were you staring at me, then?”

Now Harry blushed. “No reason, sorry. Let’s eat.”

After they finished their breakfast, Louis insisted on clearing the plates and cleaning up. He encouraged Harry to move to the couch. As he scrubbed the pan which Harry used to cook the eggs, he heard the gramophone start and music flowed towards him. He smiled; it was one of his favorites. He walked into the sitting room after finishing up and saw Harry dancing around, lost in another world. Louis couldn’t help but watch, entranced by Harry’s easy movements. He still didn’t understand why Harry had seemed so reluctant to join the band. Music flowed through his veins, the same way it did for Louis.

The song ended and Louis clapped a little, startling Harry out of his reverie.

Neither of them commented on it, instead moving to sit on the couch together, where Harry broached a new subject. He produced a leather-bound notebook with writing all over the cover.

“Sooooooo these are my songs. I’ve got a lot of stuff here, I figure it might be good to perform some new material? Not that your songs aren’t great or anything—”

“I know what you mean. It’d be wonderful to hear some of your ideas. You have a different perspective about certain things, so that’ll really bring something to the table, you know? The people at home can relate more to your experiences,” Louis offered.

“Different perspective…” Harry muttered. “Yeah, um, I guess that’s what I wanted to talk about. Before I let you look through this, there’s something you should know.”

Louis waited patiently as Harry let out a shaky breath. He felt the urge to wrap him up, squeeze him tight, but settled for patting his back twice.

“I really love the band and everyone in it. But, um, it is the Louis Tommo Band, so it’s up to you whether I’m in it or not.” Louis had no idea what Harry was rambling about.

“There’s not much you could say that would convince me to kick you out of the band, Harry. You’re incredibly talented. You don’t just find a voice like yours on every corner.” Louis hoped he was saying the right things, but he was lost.

“Well, um. Gemma may have told you about this some, but I was a bit of a weird kid. Very sensitive, I loved animals and flowers and tea parties. Gemma was honestly more of a boy than me. She loved play-fighting and rolling around in the mud—I’m sure that doesn’t surprise you. Always wearing trousers, hanging out with my step-dad when he worked on the car. I think I’m lucky though. My parents had already dealt with Gemma being different, so it was less of a problem when I was much more interested in watching my mum put on her makeup and sneaking into her closet to try on her clothes.

“So, yeah, I’ve always been quite feminine. I didn’t think anything of it because my parents, bless them, we’re so supportive and caring. When I got to school, the other boys weren’t so understanding. I was constantly belittled. At least outside of school I had Gemma to protect me. But I really had to learn to hide a lot about myself. I still do. And that’s, that’s really hard. I guess I’m just hoping I can be open with you. The only one I can talk to about it now is my mum. I just need a friend, Louis.”

Louis swallowed. “Harry, I would never judge you for being yourself, for liking what you like. I told you I’ve got four sisters, so I’ve been to plenty of tea parties myself. But… What does this have to do with your songs?”

“I’m— Louis, I’m a homosexual,” Harry blurted out.

Louis was reeling. What did he say to that?

Harry apparently took his silence as a cue for explanation, so he rambled on, “I’ve never been interested in girls. I’ve always been drawn to boys, even though most of them treated me quite poorly. I just. I just thought you should know. It’ll explain a lot about the lyrics in here.” He shook his book around before setting it on the coffee table in front of Louis.

“I’m sorry, Harry, I just really don’t know what to say. I’ve never met a— I’ve never met anyone like you before,” Louis explained.

“Well,” Harry started with a soft smirk on his face, “you definitely have, you probably just don’t realize it. We may seem invisible, but there are lots of us. You probably met plenty of gay soldiers and lesbian nurses.”

Louis could barely keep up. “I just, this is just a lot to take in,” Louis commented gently. “But I promise I’m not gonna kick you out of the band. Who you like has nothing to do with your talents as a musician.”

Louis finally looked into Harry’s eyes, seeing tears gathered in the corners and a watery smile down below.

“That means a lot, Louis. I figured I could trust you, since Gemma did, but… You never know. It can be dangerous out there for people like me.” Harry closed his eyes. He then asked, “Would you mind not telling anyone, please?”

“Of course, Harry, whatever you like,” Louis promised.

Harry wiped his eyes. Louis couldn’t stand to see him cry, so he tentatively opened his arms. Harry slammed into his chest and squeezed tightly.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

“You’re welcome, Hazza. Told you, I’ve got your back.”

Harry withdrew from Louis’ arms and sniffed, wiping his eyes one final time.

“How about those songs, yeah?” Louis prompted.

“You can flip through, take as much time as you need. Um, I think I’ll leave you to it. Had enough personal revelations today without watching you pore through my lyrics,” Harry teased.

“You sure you don’t want a cuppa before you head out?” Louis checked.

“No, but thank you. I’ll see myself out, you get reading!”

Louis waited until the door clicked closed to pick up the songbook. He knew how personal lyrics were, he would never let anyone look through his journal. It really warmed his heart to realize Harry trusted him so deeply. He breathed out and opened the first page, skimming through the pages until he found a song that piqued his interest.

“Love Will Come and Find Me,” the title read. Notes scribbled under discussed slight changes to the title and lyrics that would take the perspective of a woman who’d lost her husband in the war. As Louis started reading, he understand Harry so much more deeply:

“And it's almost like time has stood still, like a lifetime iced under a frost, and I don't try to warm from the chill although I know how much I've lost. Trouble is the more you deny, the more you don't even try, the more the world passes by in a haze. Soon you find you don't even know how many years you let go, the chances wasted in so many ways.”

Louis was deeply touched. These lyrics were so raw, so powerful. He felt like he was climbing inside Harry’s mind.

“Letting go of what might have been and letting something else in, only then love will come and find me.”

And Louis understood so much better now, the ways Harry was different. Just by reading Harry’s thoughts on a page he understood that homosexuality wasn’t something Harry could change about himself and how stifling it was to try and hide it. He couldn’t wait to see Harry again, to tell him that he understood. As he continued reading Harry’s lyrics, he could feel himself finding the right words to say to reassure Harry that nothing between them had changed. Finally, he felt like he and Harry were on even footing.

-

Louis double-checked everything in his mind: they were performing an updated arrangement of “Ain’t We Proud” that included Harry and really highlighted each instrumentalist’s strengths, they had tuned before they left Louis’ flat and again once they arrived at the venue, and they had all worn their Sunday best.

“Liam!” Louis called. The man in question turned around to face him. “Are we forgetting anything? I’ve just ran through a list in my head, but I figure if anyone would have a mind for all the little details, it’s you.”

“You know, I actually think we’re set. I’ve managed to snag a program, so I know who we’re performing after. We’ll be able to sit in the audience and watch everyone else, scope out the competition,” Liam replied.

“Lou, we’re overprepared, if anything. It’s the qualifying round of the competition! Let’s be a little excited about that, hm?” Harry suggested.

“You’re right. We all know our parts, we’re looking sharp, and we’re early. I just really don’t wanna fuck up,” he whispered the last sentence to Harry.

Harry squeezed his bicep reassuringly. “We’ve got this, Lou.”

Soon, the doors opened and all the competing bands from Manchester and the surrounding areas were let into the venue. Louis’ band was one of the first in, so they easily found a corner for their equipment. They then sat down towards the middle of the theater, where they could hopefully whisper conversations without annoying others.

Louis needn’t have worried about that because everyone was too nervous to say anything. With each number, he could feel the tension rise. The performers were good. They had obviously worked hard to be here. But so had Louis. So had Harry. So had every other vet in the band. In fact, they hadn’t just worked hard practicing, they’d also busted their asses through years of hell in combat. That was their leg up: perseverance and sheer force of will.

Louis looked to his left and saw Harry fiddling with a program, now wrinkles beyond comprehension. He hesitated before placing his hand over Harry’s. He looked up, startled, at Louis. He then glanced at their touching hands and back up again. Louis tapped his hands softly before moving his arms back to his own lap. He was trying to keep everything normal between the pair, but he couldn’t fight the urge to comfort Harry, not when he was visibly distressed.

A man dressed in black walked on stage with a clipboard after the current band finished their song. About thirty bands had already performed, but there were a little over a hundred in total on the line-up, the Louis Tommo Band with slot forty-three. The man brusquely called for the next ten acts to follow him backstage where they could tune and warm up until they were called to perform.

Louis stood abruptly and smoothed his sweaty hands on his slacks. “That’s us, mates,” he addressed his group.

“Thank fuck, my ass is numb,” Niall complained. Louis was glad his comment and Sarah’s accompanying laugh were somewhat covered by the bustle of at least 50 musicians migrating backstage from their seats.

The time waiting backstage flew by, and soon the same man from before was ushering them onstage.

Louis adopted his stage persona, which really just exaggerated his natural confidence (and arrogance) when it came to making music. He kept the wide grin off his face; this was about professionalism and impressing a set of judges, not building a strong rapport with the crowd. Besides, the best way to capture the attention of an audience of musicians was a technically flawless, enrapturing performance.

Louis adjusted his own set-up before glancing around to see his bandmates also ready to go.

“Hello!” Louis called into his mic. “We are the Louis Tommo Band and today we’re going to be singing a tune called ‘Ain’t We Proud’.”

Without any further preamble, he counted off for Niall and Sarah. Soon, the band was in full swing. Louis couldn’t be prouder of their performance. He knew all the grumbles and insults he’d endured were worth it because every passage that he’d had them repeat, every line where any single person had made a mistake once was beautiful. Like always, Harry lit up the stage, seemingly unable to keep himself from dancing and interacting with the rest of the band. Louis supposed Harry was their other big advantage.

The song finished with a bang. Louis quickly shouted his thanks into his mic, and was then herded off the stage with everyone else.

“Smashed it!” Louis hissed. “Bring it in! C’mon, even you Liam.”

Everyone went around giving each other hugs, high on the adrenaline that only came from a great performance. Louis was pleased to note that Harry prolonged their hug more than any of the others. But he didn’t need to think about that right now.

“Back to the audience,” Liam informed.

“Hey! Before we get back in there, I just want you guys to know how proud I am of you. Don’t wanna jinx it, but I’m really confident about our chances of making it to finals. Regardless, drinks on Zayn after this is through.”

Zayn scoffed. “Really, Lou?”

“C’mon. You’ve got the funds from teaching trumpet to those private school kids. I know you can’t possibly be doing it for fun,” Louis teased.

“Drinks on us,” Liam correctes and guided everyone back to the seats.

Louis thought that was interesting phrasing. Of course, he may not have meant anything by it, just willing to help Zayn out with the financial burden Louis so graciously bestowed upon him. Ever since his talk with Harry a few weeks ago, however, Louis couldn’t help but wonder. Zayn seemed more chatty with Liam than anyone else, though he was slowly growing more comfortable around the group; Liam was only ever somewhat relaxed when around Zayn. Louis decided to consult an “expert” with his hypothesis.

After they sat, Louis started a whispered conversation with the boy next to him.

“Hey, Hazza?”

“Yes, Lou?”

“Remember how you told me, um,” Louis glanced around to see if anyone was listening. He decided it was better to be safe than sorry. “You know how you showed me your songs?”

“Yes?” Harry replied. Louis couldn’t blame him. He was going for respectful, not wanting to reveal his secret to anyone around them, and ended up way too vague.

“Do you think Zayn and Liam write songs like you?”

“Well, I’m not sure, but if you want some thoughts about voicing, I’m sure Liam has plenty of ideas,” Harry said jokingly.

“Oh, um, yeah! But really I’m just trying to say.” He huffed. “Um, well some of your lyrics are, um, unique? Nothing wrong with that of course!” Louis reassured. He didn’t want to lose any of the precious trust Harry had given him just because he couldn’t get his foot out of his mouth. “Do you think, you reckon maybe Liam and Zayn write songs like that too?”

Finally, recognition flashed behind Harry’s eyes. He smirked, leaning in close to clarify. “You’re asking me if I think Zayn and Liam are gay? And together?”

Louis shivered at the feeling of breath on his earlobe. “Um, yeah, that’s what I’m asking.” He was almost inaudible now. Damnit, Tommo, pull yourself together.

“Think that’s something you’d have to ask them yourself, Lou,” Harry suggested kindly. “But I will say, it’s interesting that they do always seem to arrive and leave places at the same time.”

With that, Harry faced the stage and began tapping his foot along to the music.

After ages of waiting, sitting through performances both great and terrible, it was finally time for the judges to make their decision. The same man who had been running around backstage appeared once again with an envelope.

“The judges have conferred and come to a decision about which of you will be competing in the finals for the British Songbook’s ‘Tribute to the Troops’ Song Competition. Today’s finalists will compete at the Palace Theater in London onNovember 28th for the chance to have their song featured in a brand new motion picture. Finalists, please stay after to discuss arrangements.”

The audience cheered briefly at this. They all knew what was at stake, but somehow it wasn’t any less exciting to hear it repeated. Louis could picture it: First class tickets on a fast train to London, a steak dinner and fancy wine to enjoy as they watched the countryside whizz past; a penthouse suite in a five-star hotel, a hotel where stars had performed and movies had been made; at the least a private room where Harry could dance like he did at his house. This time, Louis would join in.

The announcer continued, breaking Louis out of his imagination, “Because of the large amount of applicants, the judges have actually chosen two winners to move on to the final contest.”

An outbreak of murmurs, quickly stifled, broke out at this news, including Liam’s whisper of “Twice the chances.”

“The winners are: The Louis Tommo Band and—”

Louis didn’t hear anything after that. He was too distracted trying to hold his screams of laughter and pride inside. Without thinking, he tightly wrapped his hand up in Harry’s. Once he saw other bands beginning to gather their things and head out, he rocketed up from his seat and cheered.

“We did it! I knew we could do it, but we did!” he exclaimed.

“We did it, Lou!” Harry cried.

Soon, the entire band was a mess of tangled limbs, whoops of joy, and peals of laughter.

“The place is clearing out, let’s head backstage,” Liam advised after breaking a hug with Zayn (Louis filed that information away as more evidence).

“Thank you, Liam, for always keeping us on track,” Louis said sincerely. In order to avoid getting too sappy, he then slapped Liam’s bum and darted ahead, making his way backstage as quickly as he could without running.

Liam’s mutter of “wanker” was disguised by Sarah’s bright laughter.

-

Louis set his empty glass on the sticky bar table; he didn’t even have the heart to slam it.

“This is bullshit,” Mitch declared.

“You’re telling me,” Niall agreed.

“What kind of damn ‘Tribute to the Troops’ is that, huh?” Louis sighed.

“I mean, there can’t be that many finalists that it’s impossible to afford,” Harry offered glumly.

“Maybe it was naive of me, but I really expected more. I really did. Thought maybe after bunks, trenches, bombs, cargo ships, rations, and all the other miserable conditions I endured while busting my ass for years, I thought maybe they’d just say, ‘Great job. You’re finally done fighting and now we’ve reserved this for you!’” Louis complained.

“And the worst part is that they couldn’t even do the bare minimum!” Louis was only gaining steam now. “I know what we deserve and it’s first class. And yet, they have the audacity to tell us we’re on our own for the train fare and hotel rooms? I mean shit! We’ll squeeze into a couple hotel rooms and take the cheapest seats on the cheapest train. But to give us nothing? It’s fucking ridiculous. We’re starving fucking artists!”

Louis saw Harry lift his arm out of the corner of his eye before he felt gentle rubbing on his back.

“I’m really sorry, everyone,” Harry offered.

It was silent for a few moments before Niall piped up, “You know what? Fuck them. But we’re not giving up.”

“Niall’s right. We didn’t make it through what we survived only to give up now,” Liam agreed.

“The world needs to see you up there. Like they said, the finals will be broadcast on radio and maybe even television. You can’t miss an opportunity that huge to show everyone what you’ve done, how you’ve survived,” Harry added solemnly. His hand was now gripping Louis’ shoulder.

“But how? How can we cough up enough money?” Zayn asked.

“There’s seven of us. That means seven round-trip train tickets and at least four rooms at a hotel for at least one night,” Liam clarified.

“Between now and November, we’ve got around a month and a half. We’ll play any gig, any set, any time, at any venue,” Louis explained. “Harry’s started working with me on writing, so we’ll introduce new songs. We’ll go back to places we’ve already been and show them we’ve got something new every time we perform.”

“Even if no one else has our backs, we’ve got each other,” Harry offered.

“Louis’ right, I think we can do it,” Liam finally agreed. “We’ve already been picking up shows and gaining popularity. Plus, everyone will be excited that we’ve made it to finals. They’ll want to know they contributed to our success. That way if they win, they’ll feel like they won, too. That’s how we get them to donate.”

“Solid plan, Liam,” Mitch complimented. Liam nodded in thanks.

“So we’re in agreement then? We spend the next few months busting our asses, but it’s nothing we haven’t done before,” Louis said.

“You’re all so strong.” Harry squeezed Louis’ shoulder at this. “You’ve been through so much. This is nothing in comparison! Music is what you love.”

“Before we go into this, everyone has to understand that it’s going to be annoying. I’m going to be annoying. All of this needs to happen alongside normal practices for the contest. It’s gonna be a lot of time, a lot of effort. I’m asking a lot from you,” Louis clarified.

“Piss off, Louis!” Niall exclaimed. “You’re always a right cunt when it comes to practicing and performing, this’ll be no different. We want this. We’re willing to work for it.”

Louis looked around the table: Everyone was nodding in agreement, determined looks on their faces. For the first time since being told the stipulations of their status as finalists in the competition, Louis smiled.

“Let’s do this.”

Chapter Text

Two weeks had passed since the Louis Tommo Band won at spot in the final competition for the British Songbook’s ‘Tribute to the Troops’ and they were on a roll. Gigs had been rolling in with increased momentum and their popularity was only growing. They felt unstoppable.

“Nobody can tell us ‘no’ anymore,” Zayn commented one night, drunk on their fill of liquor from their wedding gig.

“What do you mean?” Harry asked.

“For me at least, everyone was telling me to wait, saying that I was old news once I got back home. Corden, that slippery fucker, told me ‘The cream always rises to the top!’ right after telling me he couldn’t find me any time for a set. Really thought he was one of my friends. Guess they only care about you when you’re on top,” Louis trailed off.

“Don’t like you so much when you come back from fighting for survival, yours and theirs, and you’re not quite the same happy-go-lucky guy they knew before,” Niall added.

“Or you sustained a serious head injury,” Mitch commented, wrapping his arms around Sarah from behind.

“But that’s what I’m saying. We make the rules now. Nobody tells us to slow down, to wait up, to try again some other time. We’re here and we’re not backing down,” Zayn clarified. Louis noted that drunk Zayn was much more chatty than sober Zayn. “‘You don’t have what it takes and you’ll never reach the top.’ That’s what I kept hearing. It’s why I finally started teaching,” Zayn expanded.

“You definitely have what it takes,” Liam said, affronted. Louis smiled at his protectiveness.

“We all do,” Zayn amended.

They all let that sit in the air, peace washing over them. Finally, they were getting somewhere. Finally they were being seen and heard. Soon, they’d be broadcasting their music, their message for millions to hear.

“Well, we killed it tonight, I think.” Louis had started the habit of going over each performance soon after it happened so the details would stay fresh in his mind. It was Harry who advised him that he should start and end with compliments. There was going to be a lot of critiquing until Louis felt prepared for finals, so he was happy for anything that could boost morale. “Sarah and Niall, you were both so steady tonight, it was perfect. I fucked up the keys on ‘Canon in D,’ but we only play that for weddings so I’m not too worried. We may have a couple more coming up though, so Liam, do you think you could help me mess with the arrangement?”

Liam nodded and Louis saw fit to continue.

“Zayn, you sounded amazing on ‘First Steps First,’ but you weren’t blending quite right with the rest of the brass on some of the classics.”

“Me and Liam will work on our blend. In the meantime, is it super noticeable on songs with vocals? Cause ultimately, the instrumental ones aren’t in the running for finals,” Zayn wondered.

“Definitely not as noticeable, and if you practice with Liam, I’m sure it’ll work itself out.” Louis glanced over at Harry, who was smiling back at him.

“Anyone else have any notes? Overall, great job everyone. So proud of you all for not losing steam,” Louis complimented.

When no one made any suggestions, Liam said, “Well then, I’m knackered. Practice tomorrow at nine at Louis’, please don’t anyone be late!”

With that, he and Zayn walked away from the rest of the group. Where to, Louis wasn’t sure, but he was only growing more certain as time went on that there was something between them. Regardless, he had decided not to ask anything until they came to him like Harry had.

“Some of my buddies are meeting up tonight at the Rio. I’d better go meet them,” Niall announcer before walking off.

Mitch and Sarah left immediately after with a small wave, shuffling off in silence with linked arms.

“And then there were two,” Harry joked.

“Would you like to come back to mine for a cuppa?” Louis asked.

Harry smiled. “Mmm sure. It is getting late, though.”

“You can sleep over,” Louis offered easily. “I’ll take the couch—no protests! You’re my guest and you have a bad back! In return, you can cook us up a delicious breakfast in the morning.”

“Seems fair, I suppose,” Harry chuckled.

“Alright then.” Louis bumped his shoulder against Harry’s before taking off in a sprint.

“Hey! That’s not fair!” Harry whined. Louis heard his footsteps picking up speed anyway.

It wasn’t far to his flat, but Louis slowed a little to make sure his childish racing wouldn’t cause any problems with Harry’s asthma. He turned around to check Harry’s progress, but was met with Harry bumping into his shoulder, spinning him around.

“Why’d you stop?” Harry asked.

“Because I’m tired,” Louis groaned dramatically. “I demand you carry me the rest of the way.”

Harry giggled. “Okay your highness, hop on.”

Louis clapped before leaping into Harry’s back.

“Careful!” Harry warned through laughter. “You know how clumsy I am. Don’t want you getting hurt.”

“Don’t worry, Haz. I’ve got you,” Louis whispered, tightening his arms around Harry’s neck and trying to covertly sniff his hair. Harry didn’t use any distinctively-scented soaps, as far as Louis could tell, but he still found his smell comforting. He loved when Harry slept over and his bed smelt like the other boy for a couple nights. “Now!” Louis shouted abruptly, digging his heels into Harry’s sides as if he were a horse.

“Ouch!” Harry complained. He laughed and started walking, though, so Louis wasn’t too worried.

-

“What about something that, like, everyone can relate to? I know we mainly write for people who served, but if we tap into the feelings of the everyman, or whatever, we might book more gigs?” Harry suggested.

“Don’t sound so shy, Hazza, that’s super smart,” Louis replied, reaching out to squeeze Harry’s thigh. They were sitting together on the floor of Louis’ practice room and writing, something they did almost every day now. Harry had slept over the night before and they’d just finished breakfast, a joint endeavor for once now that Harry was teaching him a few basics. They’d pieced together some simple lyrics, but they still hadn’t written a concrete new song.

“What’s something everyone can relate to? But like, isn’t fucking depressing?” Louis muttered.

“The weather?”

Louis laughed.

Harry shoved his shoulder. “I’m serious! It could go something like: I got a theory it takes a place this dreary to… Give someone the right amount? Let’s show everyone we count?”

“Not a bad start!” Louis jumped in on Harry’s lyrics, trying to get the rhythm to match. “Gives a guy the right amount of drive to surmount…”

“It’s time to show the world we count!” Harry finished excitedly.

“You might really be on to something here!” Louis exclaimed, looking up at Harry after he’d written down the few lines they’d written. Harry held his gaze and the pair smiled hugely at each other. Soon, Louis felt his wide grin melting into something softer, the same movement reflected on the face of his songwriting partner. Like much of the time he spent with Harry lately, the moment began to feel very intimate. Louis cleared his throat quietly. “We might get more gigs than we need with this one!”

-

The Louis Tommo Band was playing their way through Manchester, making sure to come back to each club a week later with an updated setlist that managers couldn’t resist. They included a fair share of classics, but as they gained popularity with crowds, they were able to play more and more original tunes. It pleased Louis immeasurably to hear the same clubs who hadn’t given him the time of day when he first came back to town begging him to headline for them on the weekends.

They had finished their hour-long set at Corden’s and had joined the crowd to dance as the house band took the stage. He and Harry were joking around at the bar when they were approached by the owner himself.

“Louis, lad, great set tonight!” He complimented.

Louis tipped his glass and smirked. “Thank you, thank you.”

“You guys are leaving next week, right?” Corden asked.

“Yep! Got ourselves booked on a first-class train straight to London,” he said proudly. He was lying. They had made a lot of money, but they wanted to be safe and save for meals and a nicer hotel. He knew it was a smart financial decision and much more comfortable in the long run, but Louis just couldn’t bring himself to look pitiful in front of any of these club owners after begging for gigs to no avail months ago.

“Wow! That’s great. Listen, I had a band cancel on me and was wondering if maybe I could book you guys tomorrow night, too?” Look who was begging now.

Louis wanted to see him squirm a little bit. He looked over at Harry, who had confusion in his eyes at Louis not immediately snatching up the chance for extra cash to pad their pockets, but luckily wasn’t betraying anything with his face.

“I don’t know. Harry, didn’t your mother want to have the band over tomorrow? Some sort of celebratory dinner before we head off?”

Harry, ever Louis’ partner in crime, played along with a mischievous smile. “Yeah. She’s making her famous Sunday roast!”

“Look, you’d be saving my ass. I can toss in an extra hundred?” James suggested.

“I mean, Niall was really looking forward to a nice, home-cooked meal,” Louis replied.

“An extra two hundred? C’mon, help a mate out, Tommo!” James cried.

“Harry, suppose your mum could reschedule?” Louis asked, looking over. Harry shrugged noncommittally, allowing Louis to take this act wherever he chose. “Alright, we’ll do it.”

“Thank you!” James said, relieved, before walking away.

Louis and Harry broke into giggles as soon as he was out of earshot.

“An extra two hundred? That’s just mean, Lou!” Harry laughed.

“I’m just making up for all the gigs he denied me when I got back,” Louis answered.

Harry downed the rest of his drink (red wine, was there anything more Harry than that?), and tugged on Louis’ arm. “Let’s dance to celebrate our spoils!”

Louis chugged his whiskey and followed Harry eagerly to the floor.

-

They were celebrating at Louis’ flat, draining his beer collection. They finally had enough money for their train tickets and hotel rooms. They left tomorrow for the contest, and they were going to win.

The night was winding down. Niall had rifled through Louis’ collection of records and had been creating a soundtrack for their celebrations practically since they arrived. In the past couple hours, the songs had changed from upbeat club tunes to slower songs. Sarah and Mitch were conversing quietly as they danced in the corner, wrapped up in a world of their own.

“Before we head off on the trip, Zayn and I have something we’d like to announce,” Liam interrupted the calm atmosphere. Sarah and Mitch looked over, but didn’t stop dancing, and everyone else turned their attention to the pair sitting on the floor in front of the sofa.

“At this point, I think everyone knows or has guessed, but we just want it out in the open,” Zayn continued.

“We’re together. Partners, lovers, whatever you want to call it that’s what we are. We’d be husbands if we could, but…” Liam trailed off. Zayn reached over to hold his hand.

“We feel comfortable with you guys and just wanted to be honest,” Zayn explained.

“Is it a problem for anyone?” Liam asked defiantly.

Everyone shook their heads and the pair visibly relaxed against each other.

“Good,” Liam said much more softly.

“Tell us more!” Sarah encouraged. “I love love.” She punctuated her words by kissing her husband.

“Well, we actually knew each other before the war. We went to high school together, but were never really friends. And we had our fair share of girlfriends, anyway,” Liam started.

“Liam was Mr. Popular, captain of the football team. I was an arty kid, loved to paint. Our paths didn’t cross much,” Zayn added.

“Doesn’t mean I didn’t notice you.”

Zayn blushed at this and Liam leaned over to smack a loud kiss on his cheek.

Liam continued, “Anyway, I got back from the war and I was… different. You all know I’m a bit of a perfectionist, bit of a control freak.” Louis snorted at that understatement. “I loved my girlfriend, I did. Before I enlisted, I really saw myself marrying her and having kids. But, there was just something missing there. She couldn’t understand me anymore, and I just didn’t feel the same. And then I reconnected with Zayn.”

Louis felt something stir inside of his at this explanation. He had never actually dated, unlike Liam and Zayn, but he never really thought about why. Now Liam was saying everything he’d ever thought about girls. There was something missing there. Louis tried to sneak a look at Harry, only to find him already staring. They both blushed and looked away.

“And now we’re together. We actually have a flat together, but we’re saving up for a little house. Zayn wants to get a cat,” Liam finished.

“That’s beautiful,” Harry commented, his eyes looking shiny and wet.

Zayn and Liam smiled at him before looking back lovingly at each other.

“Since they’ve already broken the ice, I guess I’ll take the plunge. I’m, um, gay,” Harry revealed.

“Well look at that! We just need to find out about Tommo to see if this band is more gay than not!” Niall joked.

Louis stared down at his feet. He wasn’t ready for a conversation like this. He couldn’t figure out himself how he felt, he didn’t need anyone else watching him closely to try and determine it for him.

“Hey, this is about me, not Louis,” Harry complained with an exaggerated pout. Louis had never been more grateful for him, this boy who understood Louis better than Louis understood himself.

“Well, there’s nothing to worry about, Harry. We love you just the same,” Mitch reassured.

“I hate to break up this nice moment, but I’m gonna go grab some more celebratory drinks from the kitchen!” Louis announced.

He walked into the small kitchen, leaned his head against the cabinets, and tried to conceal a heavy sigh. He couldn’t decide how he was feeling. He was very relieved to know that there would be no backlash if he and Harry got together. If. Because he still wasn’t sure exactly how he felt about Harry. He’d never felt this strongly about anyone before. He knew he’d at least be accepted by his band no matter what he decided, but was he ready to face the world? Was he ready to give up the future family he had always imagined? Was a family something he even wanted if it meant he had to spend the rest of his life with a woman? And without Harry?

He jumped when he felt a hand softly touch his shoulder.

“Hey, just me,” Liam said softly. “You seemed like you could use someone to talk to.”

Louis weighed his options. He and Liam has never been that close, but Liam has said so many things with which Louis related when he was explaining his and Zayn’s story. What did he have to lose?

“It’s about Harry, which I’m sure comes as no surprise to you,” Louis started.

“Is it really about Harry, though? Or is it about you?” Liam asked.

Louis sighed and rubbed his hands. “I don’t even know!” he exclaimed, though he made sure not to raise his volume much over the whisper at which they were talking. “It’s like you were saying. I’ve never dated a girl because I’ve always felt there’s something missing. But, that thing that they don’t have? Harry has it. I see it in his eyes when we look at each other.”

“And that scares you,” Liam said simply.

“Of course it does! Homosexuality is illegal!”

“Is that really what you’re worried about? Legal ramifications? Because I’m studying to be a lawyer,” Liam replied.

“Holy shit, is that why?” Louis paused freaking out long enough to wonder.

Liam just nodded. “It’s part of the reason, yeah.”

“Well, anyway, I’m scared for a lot of reasons. I’ve never thought of myself as being, um, being gay. I guess I don’t really know what it says about me. Or what it means for my future,” Louis revealed.

“I know it’s scary. But you have to know that falling in love with a man doesn’t say anything about you. All it says is that you’ve fallen in love! And that’s a blessing. As for your future, I think you just have to consider what you really want out of your future. Do you want to live your life with someone you felt an instant connection with? Or do you want to search for a woman you might love so that you can have kids with her? There’s no right or wrong answer, really. Just know that you deserve to be happy. And so does the person you spend your life with,” Liam stated.

“And what about my family? What if they hate me?” Louis asked even more quietly.

Liam paused. “That’s the hardest part of all. Realizing your family might not accept you because of who you love. But, you’ve got another family right here, Louis. And they’ve already shown you that your sexuality doesn’t matter to them.”

“Thanks, Liam. I think I just have a lot to think about,” Louis replied.

“I know it’s a lot. I probably didn’t tell you anything brand new, but know that you can call me anytime you wanna talk about this. I just want you to be happy, Louis. And how that happens is for you to decide.”

Liam gave his shoulder a squeeze, smiled, and left the room. Louis grabbed a six-pack out of the fridge and brought it back to the living room.

-

Soon, everyone had headed home until, like usual, it was just Harry and Louis left. Harry put on a record and slow music filled the room like syrup.

“Dance with me, Lou,” Harry whispered.

Louis couldn’t say no. He rose from the couch and walked over to Harry, using one hand to hold his waist and the other to hold his hand. Harry placed his other hand on Louis’ shoulder and the pair started a slow shuffle. Eventually, Harry scooted their bodies closer so he could whisper in Louis’ ear.

“I loved hearing Zayn and Liam’s story. My whole life, I’ve never known if I’m going to find love. They really give me hope.”

Louis was too overwhelmed to respond. He was too busy focusing on not stepping on Harry’s feet and not letting his hands get clammy (though he didn’t know how to control that) to think of a good response.

“Zayn and Liam seemed not to realize they were interested in men until they met each other, you know met the right person. It was different for me, I always knew. So it feels like I’ve been waiting for forever.”

“Harry,” Louis started, but he didn’t know what to say. “I—”

“I’ve waited this long, Lou. I can wait however long it takes,” Harry said.

And finally, Louis felt peace. He felt hope. Harry would wait for him. Harry wasn’t going anywhere. Louis hadn’t even realized that was one of the things he was worrying about until Harry quelled his fears.

“Just so you know, I’m working on it,” Louis assured.

“Like I said: However long it takes,” Harry replied.

Louis squeezed his waist in gratitude. As they continued to dance without speaking, Louis realized the music had stopped. He could tell neither of them wanted to let go just yet, so they continued to shuffle along to the sound of static.

Harry changed the topic after a minute or two. “I wrote a poem for you guys. About everything you went through, everything that I didn’t see.”

“Can I read it?” Louis asked.

“Mhm. I’ll show it to you later. But for now, I can sing you a bit? I figure we’ll never be able to perform it because it’s quite brutal, so I added a section about love. It’s nice not to change the pronouns for once,” Harry explained.

“Well, let’s hear it,” Louis encouraged.

Harry breathed in shakily before singing soulfully into Louis’ ear:

“All the sleepless nights praying you’d return safely to my arms with all the honor you would earn.

Letters every day sent to reassure; knowing all the dangers were the duties of the tour.

Now our wait has ended, our years of yearning, and I’m at my doorway, my love returning.

Welcome home, my dear. Welcome home, my sweet. Welcome home, my hero. Welcome home, my heart. Welcome home, welcome home, welcome home.”

-

Louis was woken up by raucous laughter. There was a crick in his neck from sleeping upright and he felt uncomfortable in his clothes, but he couldn’t be annoyed once he realized what the racket was about: They were in London.

Sarah was squealing in delight. “I’ve never even been to New York or Los Angeles before, and here I am in London!”

“I’m just a small-town Irish boy, but I’m going to conquer this city!” Niall exclaimed, banging his hands on his chest like King Kong.

Louis laughed at everyone’s antics; their excitement was contagious. “I’ve always dreamed of playing here,” he added. “Feels like I’m crossing something huge off my bucket list.”

Everyone continued riffing off each other, continuing to name the sights they were most excited to see while they gathered their luggage and exited the train.

“Let’s take the tube!” Harry exclaimed. Louis was endeared by his enthusiasm over public transport.

“Feel like we’d get lost,” Niall replied.

“Not with Liam we won’t!” Louis said. Liam beamed with pride.

After an adventure through the London Underground, they finally made it to their hotel around six o’clock in the evening. It was a huge building with equally impressive interior design. Plush carpet lined the walkway, the tile near the concierge desk was so shiny it was practically reflective, and a huge chandelier hung over the lobby. They checked in and paid for their two night stay (as tomorrow was the contest, and they figured they should stay an extra day in London, regardless of if they won) and rode the lift (a lift!) up to the third floor where there rooms were located. Sarah and Mitch, Zayn and Liam, and Harry and Louis were each pairing off to share a room while Niall claimed one for himself. Louis realized how annoying it must be for Zayn and Liam to not be able to be open about their relationship in times like these. While Sarah and Mitch had the luxury of sharing a room with a king-sized bed, Zayn and Liam would either have to squish together in one of the twin-sized beds or creatively move the furniture around in their room (having to move it all back before the maids came in or they checked out).

Before everyone walked into their respective rooms, Louis called them together. “Do whatever you want today, but please remember that tomorrow is a big day and we all need our beauty rest,” Louis advised. He quickly distributed the remaining money evenly among all seven of them so everyone could pay for meals and souvenirs. “Remember this has to last you today, tomorrow, and the next day. That being said, go explore! See you all tomorrow!”

With that, he followed Harry into their room and flopped onto the closest bed.

“Didn’t get enough sleep on the train?” Harry teased.

Louis turned onto his side and stared at Harry, who was sitting on the other bed. He was instantly struck by Harry’s beauty.

“Is something wrong, Lou?” Harry asked more seriously.

“No,” Louis answered quietly. “Just wanted to look at your pretty face.”

Harry blushed. After a few moments, he lay down on his side, mirroring Louis’ position. Louis was glad; he felt like he’d have a much easier time with this conversation without being distracted by Harry’s touch.

“I like looking at your face, too,” Harry finally responded.

“I just keep thinking about how easy this would be if the world were different. I wish we were in a movie or a ballet and I could just sweep you off your feet,” Louis said.

“But this is life.” Harry smiled sadly.

“It’s not a book or a play, there’s no script. There’s no precedent for this, is what I’m trying to say, I guess. They don’t make movies about people like us. There’s no examples I can look up to, no advice I can take,” Louis explained frustratedly.

“It’s true. But you’re so brave, Louis. I know you can figure it out. Besides, we get to make our own path. We don’t have any examples to follow, but that also means we have no standard to live up to. We don’t have to compare ourselves to anything or anyone. And isn’t that beautiful?” Harry responded.

Louis pondered that.

“It’s not going to be easy. But that’s life! And in the end, love makes it all worth it. At least that’s what I think,” Harry finished with a bashful smile.

Louis felt his emotions overwhelm him. He had been through war, he had faced death everyday, and he never backed down. So what if they wouldn’t be accepted or understood? They would have each other. Louis finally felt ready to let go of his fear and let love take its place. He reached his hand out into the space in between their beds as an invitation. Harry smiled and grabbed his hand.

“I want to try,” Louis stated. “We’ll have to take it slow, but… I can’t deny that there’s something between us. I’ve never felt this way about anyone.”

The smile on Harry’s face grew and grew as Louis continued talking.

“Do you think…” Louis trailed off. He cleared his throat. “Um, do you think I could kiss you?”

Harry nodded, slipped his hand out of Louis’, and walked over to kneel in front of Louis’ bed. Louis slid off, mirroring Harry’s kneeling position on the floor.

“Um, I’ve actually never done this before,” Harry revealed, embarrassment coloring his cheeks.

“Well, I’ve never kissed anyone that mattered,” Louis replied.

They smiled nervously at each other. Louis hesitantly placed one hand on Harry’s waist, pulling him in closer, and the other on his neck, rubbing his thumb up and down reassuringly. Harry lifted his hands, cupping Louis’ face in his hands. It felt like they were moving in slow motion, until finally their lips met. It was awkward and clumsy, until suddenly it was perfect. He felt butterflies in his stomach and warmth on his skin, just like in every cheesy romance novel his little sisters raved about. The kiss was short and sweet, never moving beyond chaste, closed-mouth pecks, but Louis still felt as though he couldn’t breathe.

“I could do that forever,” Harry said as Louis attempted to catch his breath.

“Yeah. Me too.”

They continued kissing innocently, never stopping to think about dinner or sightseeing, just basking in the warmth of their proximity. They were finally broken apart by Harry yawning. He looked mortified, but Louis just laughed.

“Sleeping Beauty’s ready for bed, then?” Louis teased.

Harry leaned in and pecked his lips quickly. “Only if you share with me,” he answered softly.

Louis wiggled his eyebrows. Harry shoved at him.

“Not like that! We said we would take it slow. I just want you to hold me,” he explained softly.

And so they climbed into bed, snuggling under the covers with Harry as a very content little spoon. It was a tight fit in the tiny bed, but that just meant they could squish as close together as possible.

“Good night, Lou,” Harry whispered.

“Good night, Hazza.”

-

There were three acts left, including the one currently playing, before they were due onstage and Zayn and Liam were nowhere to be seen.

“I’m sure music makes Liam horny or whatever, but Jesus Christ this is not the time!” Niall exclaimed quietly as stagehands rushed around backstage, getting things together.

Despite how stressed he felt, Louis couldn’t help laughing out loud at that, everyone else joining in.

“If they’re really having sex right now, I will be so fucking angry,” Louis commented, but his harsh words were softened by his uncontrollable laughter.

Suddenly, the band that had just played rushed backstage with their instruments, making the large area seem much smaller. The next band moved from standby onto the stage at the cue of one of the competition workers. Two bands before their turn, less than ten minutes at most. Where the hell were they?

Suddenly, the pair burst into the backstage area, panting and flushed. They beckoned everyone over to a more secluded corner.

“Guess you were right, Niall,” Sarah teased.

Liam didn’t even react to her comment before jumping into a long-winded explanation, “So, when we got here they gave us contracts pertaining to our performance and the possibility of winning. We signed it because we didn’t have a choice if we wanted to go backstage and perform. Also because you guys never listen to me,” he grumbled.

“Babe, stay on topic, please,” Zayn cut in.

“Right. So, I snagged an extra copy and started looking through it more thoroughly. There was some complicated jargon that I wasn’t sure about, but it didn’t seem good. So Zayn and I headed back to the hotel where some of my law books are.”

“Of course you brought your fucking textbooks,” Niall huffed with a laugh.

“Niall! Let me finish!” Liam sounded more stressed than Louis had ever heard—and that was saying something—so he decided to stay quiet. He figured the silence of the rest of the band meant they felt the same way. Liam continued, “Essentially, this is all a fucking scam.”

The band was visibly shocked, but stayed silent, awaiting further details.

“By signing that contract, the band who wins has given the rights to their song to the people in charge of the competition. They can use it however they want! Sure, it’ll be in a motion picture, but it won’t necessarily be the winning band singing it, and even if it is, they won’t have an actual cameo in the movie. They’re stealing the winners’ song and giving them no credit!” Liam finished with a huff. Despite the tension coloring his voice, he had managed to keep his voice close to a whisper, not betraying anything to the wandering stagehands.

“Well then we’ve really got no choice, huh?” Louis asked the band.

“What do you mean?” Zayn questioned.

“According to Liam, there really is no winning this. But in five minutes, every family in the United Kingdom is going to hear us perform. Let’s show the people who made it back that we see them. That’s the whole point of this band, right? That’s why we started this competition in the first place, right? ‘Welcome Home.’” Louis announced.

“That’s a suicide mission,” Niall said.

“Blow it up,” was Sarah’s reply.

“Yeah, blow it up,” Mitch agreed.

“Lou, are you sure?” Harry asked nervously. “I mean, we could be blacklisted, or worse!”

“We’ve all been through worse,” Louis answered. “That naïve Hollywood dream is gone, so we’re taking a risk. We’re making a statement that we’re holding onto what counts. If I’m fighting for what’s true, I’ll gladly march back into battle.” Louis looked around at his bandmates, his brothers and sister in arms. “What happened to all of us is true.” He turned to Harry, taking his hands in his own. “What I feel for you, Harry, is true. I know it’s taken me a long time to admit it to myself and to you, but it’s real. No matter how hard it is for us, no matter if we have to hide from the world, I need to be with you.”

There were too many people around for Harry to kiss him like he was dying to, so he settled for throwing himself into Louis’ arms for a quick, tight hug. After this they’d have all the time in the world.

With his arm around the waist of the boy he loved, Louis looked around at everyone’s faces for confirmation when he said, “‘Welcome Home.’”

Everyone nodded solemnly.

Niall piped up, “Glad you got your shit together, Lou. Now we can all stop watching the both of you pine.”

Everyone laughed, including Harry and Louis, at the truth of the statement. There was relief there, too. They were all going to be okay.

They didn’t have time for much else before they were being called over to stand-by, and then they were onstage. Each of them felt so powerful, waves of determined energy rolling off the stage. Louis hoped the judges felt intimidated. He looked into the faces of the men who were trying to swindle musicians out of their creativity and joy under the guise of supporting the troops. He found it sickening. He was so glad that Harry would be the only one singing; he felt like rage was filling him from his stomach through his throat. He looked around at his band members to see the same hard look in everyone’s eyes. They were ready. Louis signalled Niall and Sarah and the music began. Louis set his hands on the keys and was finally able to breathe once he heard Harry’s voice.

“Sarah made it home, most of her at least. Had three operations, but the pain has not decreased.

Mitch learned to survive, means you never trust. Once you’ve seen the worst in man then how do you adjust?

Niall cracks a joke, claims to be alright, drinks a fifth of vodka in his kitchen every night.

And I stand here trying, though sad and weary, with my private burden of grief to carry.”

Louis watched as a stillness took over Harry’s body, as if the power of the words he had sung and the words yet to come were filling him with strength.

“Welcome home our boys, welcome home our sons, welcome home to husbands, welcome home to love! Welcome home, welcome home, welcome home!

Liam’s never free, schedules out his day, filling every minute just to keep the ghosts away. He could never get back the life he had; studying in hopes he can eradicate the bad.

Zayn made it back to town four months ago; lives to tell of things no one could bear to know. Keeps his guard up now a lot goes undiscussed; focuses on fighting what he finds unjust.”

Harry sang through the chorus with just as much power as the first time. He was holding onto the strength he felt, hoping he’d be steady enough for the verse about Louis. When it came, the band quieted down, bringing a contrasting, eerie calm to the piece.

“Louis does his best, trying to pretend what he doesn’t talk about won’t matter in the end. Louis made it home but thinks it wasn’t fair how he made it out but left his buddy there. Louis doesn’t sleep because the nightmares come. Louis wants an answer! Louis looks for absolution, and I'd give up anything if I could give him some!

And I stand here helpless, my arms extended, knowing full well, darling, your war’s not ended.
Welcome home!”

The band played through the last chorus. As Louis looked around, he saw a variety of emotions staring back at them from the audience: The judges looked both shocked and livid; many women in the crowd looked horrified, some with tears streaming down their faces; there were men attempting to be stoic, but their was grim understanding in their gazes, even relief at finally having their horrors revealed to the public. This was what Louis had been waiting for. This was the reaction he was striving for when he started this band. It was worth it to throw away this competition and what he had thought was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because he knew that there were veterans out there listening to their brutally honest song and finally feeling seen and heard.

The band played the last chorus with the combined strength of seven people who had seen the different faces of war, seven people who had loved and lost, seven people who had longed for acceptance. They played perfectly.

“Welcome home!”

Chapter Text

Louis woke up with Harry’s head on his chest, his hair spread around him like a Renaissance painting. Louis smiled, combing his fingers through it softly. Usually, they preferred to spoon, but that was near impossible in twin size hotel beds like this one (they still hadn’t figured out a convincing excuse for sharing a king size to tell the staff). He ultimately didn’t mind, though. When they slept like this, all their limbs overlapping, Louis felt like they were molding into one being.

He moved on to scratch his back with feather-like pressure. Harry’s snuffles soon gave way to a soft moan as he woke up.

“Feels nice,” he slurred.

“Good,” Louis murmured back, continuing his gentle ministrations.

“What time is it?” he asked unclearly. Luckily, Louis had been mastering understanding Harry’s language of mumbling.

“It’s nine,” Louis answered.

“What the fuck? Why are you awake?” Harry looked up at him, scrunching his nose.

“Guess I just missed you,” Louis answered simply.

Harry’s nose scrunched further as he tried to hide a smile. “Sap.”

“You love it,” Louis argued back.

“Yeah… Love it. Love you.” With that, he shuffled up Louis body to pull him into a gentle kiss.

They kissed lazily until they were interrupted by Louis’ grumbling stomach.

Harry laughed loudly. “Should we order room service? Have breakfast in bed?”

“Mmmm yes please.”

Harry reached over to grab the menu off the nightstand. “Lou, you’re gonna have to let me up so I can look at the menu.”

“But I love having you as my blanket,” Louis whined.

“We have all day to lie around and do nothing! We don’t have to be at the club until five tonight for soundcheck,” Harry offered.

Louis sighed, pretending to be annoyed. “Alright. But only because I’m hungry. After breakfast, you’re not leaving this bed until it’s time to get ready to go.”

Harry blushed. “Yes, sir,” he simpered with a mock military salute.

Louis playfully bit his shoulder, right over where he’d left a mark the previous night. Harry yelped, then laughed, swatting at Louis.

“Pick something to eat.” Harry shoved the menu at Louis and walked over to his suitcase to find some pajamas.

“I know what I want: Full English!” Louis exclaimed.

“Louis,” Harry said, “I don’t think they serve a full English breakfast in New York City.”

Louis huffed. “Well that’s bullshit! Guess I’ll get pancakes. Omelette and toast for you?”

When Harry nodded, Louis picked up the hotel phone and asked for a veggie omelette with wheat toast, the sweetest pancakes on the menu, and two glasses of orange juice.

“It’ll be up in a bit,” Louis explained as Harry slipped back in the bed, handing him some clothes. They stayed sitting up, but they tangled their legs and hands under the covers.

Harry whispered, “Can you believe we’re performing in New York City today?”

“And tomorrow, and the next day,” Louis added.

“A whole weekend playing at the same clubs Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra have,” Harry gushed.

“Ugh, don’t mention Sinatra,” Louis groaned. Harry smiled at his predictability. “Anyway, yes I can believe it. We’ve worked so hard for the last five years to get here. We’ve played sold-out shows all over Europe!”

“I know! It’s just, it’s New York,” Harry explained. “We didn’t even win that competition, yet here we are: successfully breaking into the American market years later.”

“It is incredible,” Louis agreed. “And to think, this is only the beginning. For the rest of the summer we’ll be riding around the United States and playing for crowds that begged for us from across the globe.”

Harry smiled and raised Louis’ hands to press kisses to them. “All because of these talented hands,” he praised. He leaned over to peck him on the mouth. “And this beautiful voice.”

“You give me too much credit. We never could’ve done it without you,” Louis argued.

They were saved from a war of compliments (something that actually occurred quite frequently in their home), by knocking on the door.

Louis looked up excitedly. “Time to eat!”

-

“Excuse me, Mr. Tommo?” The group stops at the small voice behind them. They turn around to see a girl, no more than fourteen, looking up at them with starry eyes.

“Hi, love! What can I do for you?” Louis asked with a smile.

“I’m really sorry to bother you all, but I was wondering if I could get your autograph? My father served.” The young girl finally looked up from her feet as she completed her request. She was holding out a small napkin hopefully.

“Of course!” If there was one thing Louis couldn’t resist, it was children. Plus, this girl reminded looked to be about the same age as his twin sisters right now. Irresistible. “Show this to someone at the door tonight. They’ll take you and your family backstage to meet us.”

“Yes, sir!” she exclaimed before thanking them profusely and running off.

The group exchanged looks and smiled. They were all thinking the same thing: They really had achieved their biggest goal. When Louis started the Louis Tommo Band, he had hopes of winning a song contest that would rocket him to stardom. But behind that superficial dream, he longed to make the plights of veterans visible. He wanted men and women like him, like Sarah, like Liam, like Harry to realize that they were not alone. He wanted to be the person to counter the constant claims that soon life would be “just like it was before.” Interactions like this one made it clear that the band was serving its purpose, and almost nothing felt better than that.

As the band continued walking towards the restaurant they’d chosen for dinner near their performance venue, Harry bumped his shoulder against Louis’.

“It’s amazing to see you with kids,” Harry commented. He was smiling, but there was something sad behind his eyes. The pair had had this conversation before.

It had always been Harry’s dream to raise children. He loved kids of all ages, babies especially, and was so playful with them. It was incredibly bittersweet for Louis to watch him interact with his mum’s newer set of twins, knowing they could never have children of their own.

Louis squeezed his lover’s shoulder. “I know, love,” he replied quietly.

-

The band played their way through New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, and more on the first half of their American tour. Each show was better than the last: the audiences got louder, the chemistry within the band was somehow still improving, and each performance was an opportunity to meet new people and hear their stories.

Almost more exciting than playing in New York city was their next gig in New Orleans, the home of jazz. Louis said as much to Harry as they were wrapped up in each other in a private compartment on an overnight train between Georgia and Louisiana.

“It’s the birthplace of Louis fucking Armstrong!” Louis exclaimed, careful to keep his voice at a whisper. They didn’t need to make enough noise to warrant a complaint or a check-in from any of the train staff. Two naked men snuggled in one tiny bunk was much too suspicious.

“I know babe,” Harry replied fondly. He traced the tattoos on Louis’ arms, which were wrapped around his waist. He lingered on the rope. “This one’s my favorite.”

Louis smiled, rubbing his nose against the back of Harry’s neck. They’d gotten their first set of complementary tattoos as a way to wear their love openly on their skin. The rope and anchor set, their most recent pair, had been the most obvious yet. They had placed them so that the tattoos would line up if they held hands, not that the public would ever see that. They hoped, though, that there might be people looking for it. They hoped people like them saw their interactions, saw the love in their eyes, and were able to take the tattoos as evidence of their relationship. It wasn’t the open declarations of love they desired, but it was enough right then to feel as though they were providing comfort for other queer people who might have their eyes on them.

“I was actually thinking about a couple more,” Harry said softly.

“Mhm? What were you thinking, baby?” Louis asked. He could feel Harry blush at the pet name. They were always quite affectionate with each other in private, but Louis couldn’t stop himself from being extra sappy when he was sleepy.

“Well, I was thinking I could get a heart and you could get an arrow. Everyone knows they belong together, don’t think many people get one without the other. They could sort of mirror the same placement, like the rope and anchor.”

“Might that be too obvious, though?” Louis wondered.

“At this point, I’m not sure I really care. People are willfully blind to people like us. They won’t notice anything out of the usual unless they’re looking for it, which they won’t be,” Harry argues firmly. “But it will be obvious to people like us.”

“‘Kay. Heart and arrow it is,” Louis acquiesced.

“Hey, I’m not finished!” Harry said with a laugh. “Don’t go to sleep on me, I have one more set I really want us to get.”

“I’m all ears, love.”

“Well, I want to get a rose and you get a dagger. Cause like, I’m all soft, and you’re so strong, always protecting me.” The longer Harry talked, the quieter his words got until he was mumbling almost unintelligibly. Luckily, Louis was well-versed in the language of embarrassed Harry.

“I love it,” Louis reassured.

Harry looked up, facing him in the dark compartment.

“Really?”

“Yes. It’s a beautiful idea. And if it’ll make you happy, there’s no down side here,” Louis answered.

Harry stretched his neck up to kiss him, the pair getting lost in it briefly. Harry eventually broke the kiss, saying, “I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you.”

Louis gave him one last quick peck. “I love you so much, darling.”

With that, Harry laid back down on Louis’ chest so they could go to sleep.

Louis would do anything to protect Harry. He had promised as much to Gemma many years ago, but that vow had taken on even more meaning as time passed. He knew protecting Harry meant keeping their relationship a secret. He hated it more than anything, but it was so much more important that Harry be able to live as authentically as possible than that the pair be honest about their relationship. Although Louis would definitely describe himself as flamboyant, he knew Harry was the much more visibly other, visibly feminine of the two of them. If hiding their relationship meant it was safer for Harry to start wearing more colorful clothing onstage or start growing his hair past his ears, Louis was more than willing to keep their love a secret. Besides, it wasn’t their time yet, anyway. The world wasn’t ready for their love. He hoped more than anything that one day it would be. Through music, he and his band had revealed the harsh realities of the lives of veterans. They had created visibility for a downtrodden group, providing comfort to some of the people who needed it most. Louis hoped that one day, through the power of music, someone would pave the way for people like them. Until then, he had his wonderful band, incredible audiences around the world, and his beautiful boy. And that was enough.