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Escapade

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Wednesday, 8 April

Louis Tomlinson stood from a long table with the tips of his spread fingers on top of the smooth glass. Sunlight beamed around his body from the floor to ceiling windows behind him. He pinched the bottom seam of his tailored navy blue suit jacket and tugged once, surveying the row of older men staring up at him. Their expressions ranged from furious to terrified. They were a study in scrunched eyebrows, huffed breaths, and flushed cheeks.

“Anyone need a stretch?” Louis flattened his hand on his lower back and pushed his hips forward. “Long negotiations make my legs cramp.”

His query was met with steely silence, save for the quiet hiss of air being circulated into the conference room. The corners of Louis’ mouth quirked.

“Would anyone else care for more water, perhaps?” He ran his right fingers over the trinity knot of his black tie, his left hand flat on the silky material. “I’m feeling parched.”

“No,” Acker said, the word snapping out of his mouth before Louis finished speaking. “No, we don’t want any of your sodding water. Just as we don’t want anything to do with your scam of a deal.”

Another older gentleman called Jones bounced in the seat next to Acker, Jones' bushy white eyebrows twitching with anger. Louis’ calm eyes slid to Jones even before he bumbled out his reply.

“You’re stalling, Tomlinson. It’s a load of rubbish.” Jones’ words sounded like burps ribbetted out of his cracked lips, his pudgy arms crossed over his barrel chest. “Pure rubbish. Wasting all of our time.”

Louis turned away from the group while lifting his curled fingers near his face.

“As you wish.”

He walked ten paces forward to the sleek bar resting against the wall. A sweating glass pitcher sat on top of the bar, delicate slices of cucumber mingling with the perfectly square ice cubes. He gripped a tall, slender glass with a round rim and began to fill it. Cucumbers vibrated against the ice cubes in an effort to escape out the mouth of the pitcher.

The glass floated up to his lips. He took a slow sip, letting the cool water slide down his throat and pool in the centre of his chest. He stared out the window, watching cars speed by on the street below, his heart pounding in his ears. There was something hypnotizing about watching others go about their day without a care in the world as to what was happening above them. From forty floors up, central London resembled a Seurat painting, people and cars blending into colourful, moving dots.

If he stared long enough, he would see his own reflection in the polished glass. He could already see the people sitting at the table behind him, their eyes burning holes in the back of his head.

On one side of the table, he found his boss, and CEO of Covington Associates, Peter Covington II. Covington sat comfortably in his high-back leather chair, a small smile curling his lips and his dark blond hair quiffed into a stylish, but responsible, swoop.

Sitting in the seat beside Louis’ empty spot was their client, Maxwell Shilling. Schilling was a collector of small businesses that posed any sort of threat to his own construction firm Schilling Builders, the Walmart of corporate construction. He appeared to be even more comfortable as he lounged in his chair, his crossed legs propped on the corner of the table, a constant glass of scotch in his hand.

On the other side of the table sat a group of men who looked out of place in every way possible. The owners of Acker-Jones Construction were built for work sites; for spending long days in the sun, elbow deep in cement and dirt. They were more suited for inhaling sawdust, not for breathing filtered air and sipping cucumber water.

Louis’ side of the table wore custom tailored suits, fine silk ties, Italian leather shoes cobbled to fit the specific shape of their feet, and had standing appointments with barbers to ensure not even a single hair was ever out of place.

Acker-Jones wore suits made of cheap fabrics bought off the rack. Their trousers were a touch too short, their jacket sleeves an inch too long, their hair matted into permanent helmet shapes from hours spent on work sites. Their dress shoes were still squeaky, not yet not broken in, even though their wives probably purchased the shoes for them to attend a wedding years ago. Even Acker-Jones’ duo of lawyers seemed out of place and fidgety, Acker-Jones’ budget for legal advice a fraction of Schilling’s monthly food budget for one of his dogs.

Louis filled his glass until he reached an inch away from the rim.

“I know this has not been an easy process for you, Mr. Acker,” he said, his voice pitched low, his tone gentle. “Nor you, Mr. Jones.”

“You don’t know shit, Tomlinson,” Jones barked. “You’re nothing more than a vulture!” He coughed, punching himself in the centre of his chest. “A leech on society!”

“Gentlemen,” Covington chuckled, his leather chair creaking to recline further back. “Such language.”

Louis stifled a smile, taking another sip of water. He could practically smell the blood bubbling in their veins; could feel the stress sweat seeping into their itchy, over starched collars. His body replied in kind, his blood racing faster and a pleasant, burning heat settling beneath his skin and his heart returning to a normal, steady thud.

He turned towards the room, his right hand wrapped around his glass, his left casually tucked in his trouser pocket. Victory sizzled in his bones as he brought his eyes from left to right. Acker-Jones was so on edge, their bodies so tight, that a tiny tap of an archaeologist's hammer to their shoulders would cause the room to fill with dust.

“We’re here to help you,” Louis said, licking his bottom lip. “This entire time, I’ve tried my best to help you. To ensure you’re taken care of.”

“You’re a liar and a cheat,” Jones said, his face red as a tomato. “Why should we believe a damn word that comes out of your mouth? You work for," his eyes darted to Schilling, his voice dropping to rasp, "him.”

Jones coughed violently and Acker held his hand out towards his partner, their lawyers shuffling papers on the table. Louis took two steps forward.

“I know how you feel. Both of you.” Louis pointed the top of his glass at both men, swaying it side to side. “I understand more than you know.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Acker asked, his lips snarled.

Louis blinked at him, then tilted his head.

“May I tell you a story?” he asked softly.

Covington’s eyes crinkled at the edges, but he remained facing forward. His gaze was trained on Acker and Jones, who remained silent and stony. Schilling refilled his glass; scotch glugged in the silent room.

Louis offered Jones and Acker a small smile. He locked eyes with Acker, Louis' brows arching. A beat passed and Acker shrugged one non-committal shoulder, Jones glaring at him with his hand bunched in the centre of his wrinkled white button-down.

“When I was a little boy, my father and his brother went into business together,” Louis said as he walked closer to the table. “They opened a shop that sold,” his eyes glanced at Jones’ tie, forest green with small blue fish stitched into the material, “fishing supplies.” He looked back to Acker. “Bait, tackle boxes, poles, those little,” he squinted and snapped his fingers near his face, his bottom lip between his teeth, “floaty things. What are they called?”

“Bobbers,” Jones grunted.

“Bobbers!” Louis eyes brightened as he snapped and pointed towards Jones. “Yes! Thank you. How silly of me to forget. Bobbers, hooks,” he waved his hand in the air, “the whole bit. If you needed it to fish, they sold it.”

Acked shifted in his seat and asked, “What’s your point?”

“It was a very, very small shop," Louis said, staring out the glass wall of the conference room. His shoulders rose slightly upwards. "That was all my family could afford.” He sipped his water and swallowed quickly, furrowing his brows and shaking his head. “Nothing like the size or importance of your company, by a long shot. But,” Louis shrugged, smiling softly, “they loved it.” He flattened his hand on his chest. “I loved it and I knew I wanted to run it when I grew up.”

Louis studied a spot above Acker and Jones’ heads, a far-off warmth softening his features.

“I spent hours in the shop hiding under the counter. Spent my summers staring at my father’s shins as he rang people up and told them what pole was best. I listened to him give the pros and cons of which bait would catch which fish. He even let me,” he chuckled, “pretend the worms were my pets." He flattened his palm on the centre of his chest. "I was heart broken when I found out where my pets were going each day.” His blue eyes twinkled. “I wasn’t the brightest kid, I suppose.”

A flicker of amusement ran through Acker’s eyes, Jones’ serious expression wavering ever so slightly. Louis brought himself within touching distance of the table and took a long sip of water. Even with his face directed at the ceiling, he could feel every eye in the room on him.

“And then my father passed away,” he said, letting his voice linger. “Heart attack.”

The room went silent, Acker-Jones’ side of the table motionless. Louis nodded his head forward for three long beats.

“And my uncle," he continued, "who had expressed no desire to sell our family’s shop, was swooped up in a moment of tragedy by someone who convinced him to sell. To let another larger, more established business management company takeover, under the guise of allowing my uncle to maintain ownership and a portion of the earnings. I don’t think I have to tell you the entire end of the story. As you can see,” Louis held his hands out, “I’m not behind the register of a tackle shop. There is no tackle shop. The deal was bad for everyone besides the broker and my family was left with nothing. My father was dead, his business was gone, and we had nothing.”

Louis took the last sip of water out of his glass and placed the glass on the table. He flattened his hands on the smooth tabletop and leaned over.

“This,” Louis thumbed towards Schilling and clicked his back teeth, “is not that. This is not a bad deal for you and your company. On the contrary. This,” he spun a contract back towards them, “is a good deal, one that rewards you for your years and years of hard work.”

He watched Jones and Acker study the contract they had been hemming and hawing over for weeks.

“You’ll chop up our company,” Acker said, arms crossed over his chest. “Take away everything that makes it ours. Choose cheap quantity over good quality, something we never wanted to do.”

“Max has no desire to do that,” Louis said, shaking his head. Covington shook his head along with Louis, his fingers steepled in his lap. “There would likely be some changes in management, which is completely normal for this type of acquisition, but Schilling Builders desires a smooth transition. Who better to ease that transition than the Acker-Jones employees who know your company best?”

“But why do you even care about our company?” Jones asked, his fingers curled tightly into fists on top of the table. “Why us?”

The answer was that a house Acker-Jones built for a celebrity, full of custom carpentry and exquisite detail, was so well received in design magazines that Acker-Jones became the most sought after construction group in England. The irsmall company had begun to breach on Schilling’s bids for clients. Schilling did not enjoy competition, especially from a company with such a spotless reputation, ever-growing fanbase, and potentially enormous yearly profit. All they needed was to be placed in the right hands.

Louis slid into his leather chair and said, “Schilling Builders has been searching for a company to bring a personal touch, a family mentality, to their structures. Your work is exquisite. You have both poured yourselves into your work for countless years.” He spread his arms. “Why not let someone else do the heavy lifting?”

“Because it’s our legacy,” Acker said, gently pushing the contract back across the table. “Because we want our sons and daughters, our families, to have something to inherit. Because this company is us, and to put it in the hands of another would risk throwing away a lifetime of work.”

“I completely understand,” Louis said, nodding and crossing his leg. “You’re very right.” He closed the folder holding their contract and pulled it back across to his side of the table. He tapped his fingers three times on top of the file. “I apologize for wasting your time with my,” he blew air out of his nose, his long eyelashes shimmering, “silly fishing story.”

“No need to apologize,” Jones said. He cleared his throat. “It...It was a fine story.”

“Thank you, sir. That’s very kind of you to say. You only get one dad, you know?” Louis let out a small, breathy chuckle while shaking his head. “I wish someone would have told me that when I was a kid. Would have spent less time on the pitch and more time with him.”

The stiff files clicked against the glass as Louis stacked them.

Louis continued, “If he hadn’t passed away, I probably would have slept in the shop to be near him all the time. To learn from him. I completely understand where you’re coming from. I would have fought tooth and nail to keep the shop for myself, simply so he could retire comfortably and enjoy his time with his kids. With his grandkids. Even if we were just as poor as when he ran the shop.”

He dropped the folder pile in front of himself, prompting a soft whoosh to brush over the table.

“You only have one life; one chance to live the best life you can,” Louis said, smiling at Jones and then Acker. “I know I’d spend it with my loved ones, if given a choice.”

Louis glanced at his boss, who had not moved once during his story. Their eyes locked, the right side of Covington’s lips lifting higher. Louis’ eyes fluttered shut for a split second, his mouth pursing forward.

With his face still towards Covington, Louis started to say, “Gentlemen, I’ll walk you--”

“Wait.”

It was Jones who broke first, his hand flat on the closed folder in front of Louis. Schilling chuckled into his scotch, his muscled neck bobbing as he swallowed. The other side of Covington’s lips rose, both he and Louis turning their heads to smile calmly across the table.

Track: Duran Duran - Hungry Like The Wolf

Five minutes later, Louis restacked the folders, which now housed signed contracts. Acker-Jones and their lawyers were packing up their copies of the documents, Covington lining up champagne flutes in the centre of the conference table.

Acker-Jones declined their champagne, both men now green in the face as opposed to their angry reddened cheeks of earlier. Louis went in for the required final handshake, but Jones pulled him closer, squeezing both of his shoulders.

Jones smelled of sunlight and aftershave, the bridge of his nose permanently ruddy, his hands meaty like two well done steaks.

“Tomlinson,” he barked, though it sounded less angry than his earlier grunted words. More grandfatherly. “If you ever want to go fishing, you have my card. Give me a ring, son. You’re about the same age as my son, Gregory. We go fishing all the time.” His laugh lines deepened as he smiled, his hands patting Louis’ outer arms. “We’d love to have you on board.”

Louis forced a smile onto his face and nodded once. It felt as if his lips were slithering off his face, his cheeks fighting to keep the corners up.

“Thank you, sir, that’s very generous of you.”

Acker-Jones and their team left the conference room, the glass door clicking shut. Louis watched the group walk down the hallway and disappear near the lifts.

A champagne bottle popped.

“Would it be cliche for me to make a hook, line and sinker remark so soon?”

Schilling howled at Covington’s comment, Louis smiling faintly at his reflection in the glass wall.

“You are a genius, my boy,” Schilling said, slapping between Louis’ shoulder blades. “A fucking genius! Worth every penny. You’ve won yourself a client for life.”

He pulled Louis sideways into his muscled chest, walking them back to the table.

“Pete wasn’t kidding when he said you were the best, though I must remind you,” he laughed a hot scotch breath over Louis’ face, “keeping their employees or policies is not in my plan for their company, which,” he patted the centre of Louis’ chest, “is now my company.”

“I’m well aware.” Louis licked his lips, swallowing dryly. He wondered how long it would take for their current employees to receive news about the future of their jobs. “They’ll be rich, though. Very, very rich.”

“Not nearly as rich as me, once I give their company a bit of a remodel. Shit, they gave up a goldmine and they don’t even realize it.” He downed his scotch, slamming the glass on the table and blowing air through his clenched teeth. “I love it when that happens.”

Covington came up to them with two flutes of champagne. He held one out towards Louis, smirking.

“Fisherman father, hm? Must have missed that on your CV.”

Louis accepted his glass.

“I wouldn’t recognize my father if I ran into him on the street tomorrow.” He sipped once, his tongue tracing his tingling bottom lip. “Never been fishing, either. Watched a documentary on a flight last week about fly fishing.” He buffed his fingernails over his jacket. “Felt inspired.”

Schilling sprayed champagne out of his mouth, Covington smiling with his lips touching his glass.

“Fucking wunderkind!” Schilling cried, laughing. “You deserve an Oscar for that performance. I’d say you should go to acting school if I didn’t want to keep you in the board room all for myself.”

“He’s good. Very, very good,” Covington said slowly, his voice quiet. He squeezed Louis’s cheeks between his fingers, smiling proudly. “It’s that sweet face and those baby blues. No one can resist.” His eyes narrowed in thought, his fingers loosening on Louis’ cheeks. He gave his cheek a gentle slap. “No wonder I pay you so well.”

Louis clinked their glasses together.

“Cheers to that.”

The cheerful ping did not match the resigned expression that had settled over Louis’ face, the light behind his eyes dull and his lips set in a straight line.

Once details wrapped up with Schilling and Covington, Louis excused himself to return to work. He entered the lift alone, watching employees scurry around in high heels and pencil skirts and suits all hued from black to white, no colour besides the red accent flowers left on the receptionist’s glass desk.

The doors slid shut and Louis exhaled a long breath, letting his head drop forward. He adjusted the knot of his tie, stretching his head side to side. He pulled his mobile out, scanning through messages and texts.

He pressed the bottom button and held the phone up to his lips, speaking, “Phone mum within next three days,” into the phone.

His phone beeped, a calendar alert popping up on the screen for him to approve. He approved it as a new call came in. Louis’ lips tightened in a line, his thumb swaying over the screen before sending the call straight to voicemail.

His assistant, Liam, had called a number of times, even more text messages and emails waiting for him. It was normal behaviour for Liam, who panicked if he was unsure about whether Louis watered the fern in his office. The answer was always a resounding, ‘No.’ Louis never remembered to water the fern Liam insisted on purchasing to increase brain circulation or oxygen flow or some other thing related to brains and oxygen that Liam had lectured him about.

While his excessive calling would be annoying to some, Louis didn’t mind it. Liam served as the perfect, polite filter to keep unwanted calls and people away from Louis, while also managing his insane schedule and putting up with excessive client demands, all with a smile on his face.

Since Liam became his assistant, Louis had not missed any meetings, flights, or required work events, and often received compliments about his lovely assistant’s email etiquette. Liam had yet to master Louis’ preferred method of how he took his tea, but he was only human. His strength was in the office, not the kitchen.

Louis walked out of the lift on the main level, his shiny black shoes clicking against the even shinier marble floor. He dialed Liam and brought his phone to his ear.

“Hello, sir!”

“Hi. What’s up?”

“All went well with Acker-Jones?”

“I got them,” Louis said, pushing through a revolving door. “It’s done.”

“Well done, sir!”

Louis could hear genuine excitement ringing in Liam’s voice. When Louis did well, Liam’s salary usually followed.

“What do you need?” Louis stepped outside, chilly air slapping him in the face. He tightened his charcoal grey scarf. “Lay off the sirs. You’re starting to sound like Jarvis from Iron Man.”

“Are you nearly at Branson’s?”

Louis’ heart dropped to his stomach. His feet stopped, people flooding around him on the sidewalk.

“What?”

“Ray Branson? You have a lunch meeting with him today? I know I put it in your schedule.” Frantic typing carried through the phone. “Hold one moment, please. I’ll straighten this out.”

“Shit,” Louis said, drawing out the word, rubbing his wrinkled forehead with his fingers. “Yes, you did. I got the alert this morning and completely lost track of time. This is all my fault. The meeting took longer than I thought and…” He checked his watch, biting his bottom lip. He walked quickly to the end of the street. “I’ll have to get a cab. I’ll never make it in time if I take the train.”

“I could easily reschedule for you, sir.”

“No, no way.” Louis shook his head, eyes darting over the cabs flying by. “I’ve been trying for months to wrangle a lunch with him. He’s sitting on the biggest tech merger in this city’s history and I’ll be damned if I lose him to Cowell Corp.”

“Mr. Branson is quite busy.”

“I know.”

“Shall I tell him you’re running late?”

“No, no, he’s cranky and old. Traditional. He won’t like that.” Louis rubbed his palm in a circle over his nose, crushing the cartilage into his face. “Ugh, and the day was going so well.”

More keyboard clicks sounded through the phone.

“Based on current traffic reported approximately three minutes ago, I’d say you could make it to Quo Vadis in eight minutes if you catch a cab within the next thirty seconds, bringing you there with one and a half minutes to spare.”

“Yeah, working on the whole cab thing,” Louis said, lifting his arm, his khaki trench stretching open. His eyes lit up. A black car slowed and pulled over to the curb. “Got one. I’ll touch base when I’m at lunch.”

“Enjoy, sir. Try the lamb tongue. I’ve heard it’s lovely.”

Louis snorted and hung up, cradling his mobile against his chest. His phone started to vibrate, his thumb silencing the call without checking who was calling. He opened the door and slid across the seat, colliding in the centre with someone sliding in from the other side.

“Excuse me,” Louis said, hardening his voice and shoving himself against the person’s firm body. His phone started to ring shrilly in the closed space. “I believe I was here first.”

Both doors slammed shut, both men settling in their seats.

“Excuse me,” a deep voice replied, drawing out each word. “I believe I was inside first.” Louis could see only his back covered in expensive black material and his long hair as he leaned forward to say to the driver, “Old Compton and Wardour, please.”

“I’m not really in the mood for this,” Louis huffed and wiggled his arse into his seat, “but we’re both heading to Soho. We might as well share.” He shoved his way in front of the man, who dropped back to the seat, and made eye contact with the driver in his mirror. “Quo Vadis, please. It’s a restaurant on Dean Street. Dean and Bateman should be fine. I need to be dropped first.”

“Awfully bossy, aren’t we?”

Louis looked over his shoulder at the deep drawl, his eyes tracing over the stranger lounging against the seat.

Track: Depeche Mode - Personal Jesus

His long legs were crossed at the knee, his tone bored and his long thumb flicking over his iPhone screen. Large black sunglasses shielded his eyes, a cross earring hanging from his left ear, his black trench artfully wilted open over his muscled torso. He wore all black, from his half open, sheer button up to his leather trousers, his nipples visible beneath his draped shirt.

“I’m late for a very important meeting,” Louis said, his jawline flexing.

The man snorted.

“Like I care.”

Louis eyed the top of the man’s head, rings glimmering on each of his long fingers as he scrolled through his phone. His eyes dropped, then rose back to the man’s shielded face, high cheekbones visible amidst his wavy hair.

“Not sure what you’re late for, besides perhaps a Rolling Stones roleplay convention, but my actual meeting takes precedence.” Louis turned back to the driver to quickly say, “Please start driving and drop me first. I cannot be late.”

“Don’t be rude,” the deep voice drawled. His black pointed-toe boot swayed casually, the man bobbing his crossed leg. “It’s not his fault you have poor time management.”

Louis blinked at the man and sat back in his seat, his mouth agape. His long, chocolate waves were swept off his face by a black headscarf, the fringed end of his scarf long enough to brush his elbow in its position wilted over his arm.

The man lifted his face, staring at Louis for a long beat, his eyes shielded by black glasses.

“Yes?”

Louis rolled his eyes and sat back in his seat, crossing his leg and pulling out his phone. He saw three more missed calls from his mother, plus a voicemail from Zayn. He grit his teeth behind his closed lips and angled himself away from the stranger, lowering his phone’s volume. He clicked on the voicemail and pressed his phone to his ear.

“Mate--Lou--Louis,” Zayn’s voice, raspy and quiet, said through the phone, sounding out of breath. “I--Lou--Niall proposed! We’re getting married!”

Niall’s voice called, “We’re getting married!” through the phone, sunshine beaming out of the tiny speaker holes.

Louis watched the street rush by out the window, forcing his face to remain still in the reflection.

“Call me when you can, man,” Zayn said, sounding even more excited. “I can’t wait to tell you all about it. We’re gonna get married soon. Really soon. Within a month. Within weeks! A destination wedding. Niall had this whole thing planned, he’s gonna pay for everything, and it’s just--Ni--”

Zayn’s quick words were interrupted by sucking sounds, his quiet laughter mixed in with Niall’s ecstatic donkey laugh. Louis grit his teeth tighter, squeezing his fist against the outside of his thigh, waiting for Zayn to continue.

“It’s going to be amazing. Call me when you can. We can talk about everything. I’ll email you some details we’ve got figured out already. Can’t wait to see you in paradise, bro. Have missed you.”

“And now you’ll be my bro, too!” Niall sang out a loud, “Yay!”

Their loud, joyous laughter caused the speaker to overload with sound before the voicemail cut off.

Louis swallowed, his fist clenching tighter for one second before he released it. He turned away from the window and deleted the voicemail, thumbing a reminder to himself to call Zayn within the next twenty-four hours. An email from Zayn popped up on his screen before Louis could save the alert, his phone ringing yet again.

He sighed and accepted the call.

“Not a good time,” he murmured into the phone. “Can I call you--”

“Oh, Loubear! Have you heard the wonderful news!?”

Louis closed his eyes, pressing the pads of his fingers to his temple. He could hear the man beside him loudly cracking gum, his boot bobbing in Louis’ peripheral vision.

“Yes,” he said, keeping his voice low. “I’m in a car on the way to a meeting. I’ll call you later.”

His mother continued to babble onwards.

“Can you believe it!? We’re all over the moon. What a sweet boy that Niall is. Trish is beyond words! The whole family is! And the Bahamas, how lovely! We’ll have a proper family holiday and then the wedding. I’m sure it’ll be lovely, just lovely!”

“I really do have to go,” Louis said, tension twinging the back of his neck. He squeezed his thumb and fingers on the tight muscles. “I’ll phone you later, alright?”

“Oh, alright, alright.” She exhaled and muttered, “Christ, could you forget work for one bloody minute to be excited for your best friend getting married? The Malik’s are like family! Zayn is like your brother!”

Louis’ mouth went dry, his eyes staring straight ahead at the back of the driver’s seat. His voice sounded as robotic as it felt coming out of his throat.

“I’ve very happy for him. And Niall. I’ll phone you later.”

He ended the call before her reply and pocketed his mobile. He exhaled slowly, blowing air through his rounded lips, focusing on the dull buzz of the driver’s radio.

“Well? What’s the good news?”

Louis startled at the slow, held-out words, his body jumping sideways into his door and the air in his lungs gasped out of his mouth. The stranger smirked at him with little mirth, his leg still bobbing.

“Nothing.” Louis removed his hand from the centre of his chest and straightened his posture, adjusting his cufflinks. “None of your business.”

“Forgot I was here?”

“I’m sure it happens often.”

The stranger grinned wider, a dimple deepening on his cheek.

“Ooh. You’re a feisty one.”

He pushed his sunglasses up to rest on top of his messy hair, his feline green eyes practically ablaze as he smiled, holding Louis’ stare. He did an open scan of Louis’ body, from his neatly constructed quiff and close shave to his tight navy blue suit trousers and glimmering Rolex.

The man’s leg bobbed even slower, his tongue pressing against the inside of his cheek.

“And a pretty little slice of pie, as well.” His voice and growing smile matched the slow, lethargic pace of his body’s motions. He held his hand out. “I’m Jack. Jack McQueen.”

Louis snorted and glanced out the window. Everything about the man seemed too large and too unique. His boots. His legs. His fingers. His eyes. His grin. Even his white teeth were unfairly large and straight.

Louis checked his watch, tapping his thumb against the top of his thigh.

“Worrying about traffic will only make you more on edge. You’ll get there when you get there.”

“Yes, thank you for your zen advice,” Louis said, turning back to the man. “I’m ever so glad we got stuck together this afternoon. Do you give life lesson seminars?”

“You could say that.”

Louis’ brows arched, a chuckle escaping his lips.

“Are you serious?”

Jack smiled and procured a black business card from nowhere, balancing it between two long fingers. He leaned closer to Louis, his shirt flopping open to expose one nipple.

His body gave off gushing waves of heat, even with plenty of space between them. His scent was masculine and raw with a touch of metallic sweat, like a coin left too long in the sun. His smooth, hypnotic, slightly sweet cologne, which Louis identified as Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanille (he was a Tom Ford Tuscan Leather man, himself), lingered just enough on his skin to hide the fact that he was wearing last night’s clothing and could probably use a shower. The dusty patches on the knees of his dark skinnies and his wrinkled shirt clued Louis into why this man had stumbled into a cab at noon looking like the moon lost on his trip back into space.

Louis studied the card for Jack McQueen, Personal Consultant.

Jack’s low voice murmured, “I’m more of a one-on-one type of consultant,” near his ear, Louis’ brows furrowing.

Louis pulled himself away from the rolling heat and light brushes of air over his ear.

“Excuse me?”

Jack dropped his gaze to Louis’ mouth, his tongue tracing over the lower ridge of his teeth.

“You seem like a bright enough chap.” He smiled slightly, his teeth snagging his bottom lip. “I’m sure you’ll get it eventually. If you do, give me a call.” He met Louis’ gaze, his smile growing. “I’d be happy to help in any way.”

“Ohh,” Louis said on a laugh, nodding. “I get it.” Jack arched his brows, sliding his sunglasses back on, his smile lopsided. “You’re a rent boy.”

Jack’s face tilted towards the driver, who cleared his throat and accelerated the car.

“I prefer personal consultant,” he smoothed his hands over his skinnies, “but,” his gracefully lifted his shoulders towards his ears, “you say po-tay-toh, I say po-tah-toh.” He fluffed his shirt over his broad chest. “I’m not fussed.”

Louis cackled loudly.

“Wow. And I thought I was good at spinning shit.”

“What do you do?”

“Doesn’t matter, now, does it?”

Jack extended his arm along the back seat, his fingers inches from Louis’ shoulder.

“Simply making conversation.”

“It that what you’re paid for? To make conversation?”

Jack grinned, unbothered.

“At times, yes.”

Louis laughed, the sound breathy and light.

“I’m sure you’re quite the conversationalist.”

“I might have some room in my schedule next week, if you’re interested in having a chat.”

“Are you joking? I have no need, nor desire, for a rent--” Louis licked his lips, his face tilting to smile blandly. “My apologies. For a personal consultant.

“Seems like there’s a need, mate. You’re wound up tight, like a guitar string about to snap.”

“Is poetry included in your consultations?”

Jack laughed a loud, throaty honk, his fingers tapping the seat beside Louis’ neck.

“At times. I’m better at getting others to spout poetry for me, but I’ve been known to craft a stanza or two when the mood strikes me.”

“Ugh, who are you?” Louis sighed out, crossing his leg away from Jack. He scanned through his emails. “You’re like a cliched television character. Don’t tell me, you’re a hooker with a heart of gold?”

“Sort of. It looks gold, but is actually filled with chocolate.”

A genuine smile fought its way onto Louis’ face, his head turned towards the window. He could see Jack smiling to himself in the reflection, his head dropped down as he scanned through his phone.

“I’m an excellent escort, as well as poet, if all a client needs is company,” Jack said after a beat, sounding bored but his words pinging a higher, unheard frequency racing between them in the backseat. “Corporate events, birthday parties, weddings,” he gave that word extra slow attention, “and so on.”

Louis’ eyes froze on the email from Zayn, featuring a rough draft schedule for his surprise wedding trip in a few weeks time. He pocketed his phone and sat up straighter, poising his hand on the door handle.

“I’m fine, mate, but thank you for the generous offer.”

“Whatever you say.”

The car came to a halt in front of the white building of Quo Vadis. Louis opened the door and placed one foot on the ground. He reached into his pocket for his wallet, but Jack’s warm palm landed on his wrist, Louis looking at his own reflection in Jack’s sunglasses.

“No worries, mate,” Jack said, giving the t an extra pop on his hard palate. He pulled a wad of cash out of his jacket pocket, long, nimble fingers pulling a couple of bills off the top. “It’s on me.”

Louis held his gaze for a moment, cars whizzing outside the cab.

“Nice, long chat last night?”

Jack’s smooth smile faltered for a hair of a split second, the slight droop of his mouth unnoticible to most. He recovered before his eyes even finished blinking, his small smirk curling his lips in no time.

“Long? Yes.” His tongue darted out to wet the corner of his mouth. “Nice? Not particularly.”

Louis caught sight of Ray Branson hobbling into Quo Vadis, leaning heavily on a pale wooden cane.

“Old bugger is late, too,” Louis muttered to himself, chuckling and exiting the cab. He directed his attention back at Jack, who looked up at him from his iPhone. “Well.” Louis tucked his hands in his pockets. “Best of luck with your poetry.”

“Best of luck at your wedding.”

Louis’ nostrils flared and his lips pursed, as if a lemon was thrust down his throat to ooze stinging juice over his papercut covered heart.

“It’s not my wedding.”

“No, I didn’t think so,” Jack breezed, moving to pull the door shut. He winked over the top edge of his sunglasses. “Better hurry. Don’t want to be late for your important meeting.”

The door slammed shut, the car speeding away.

. . .

Liam stared at his desk, his fingers clasped over his chin and his brows furrowed. He reached towards a metal cup on the upper right corner of his desk and switched the position of a freshly sharpened pencil with a black pen.

He stepped back and tilted his head the other way, shifting his weight to his left leg. He added a blue pen to the writing implement mix, then switched them until the pencil stood in the front, the blue and black pen resting behind it.

He crossed his arms over his chest, his eyes narrow and serious. He nodded in rhythm with the song playing quietly through his computer speakers, a selection from his work safe Pandora station.

He reached out and rotated the metal cup one inch to the left. He pulled his hand back, then rotated the cup half an inch right, satisfaction smoothing his features.

He nodded once, firmer.

“There.”

He glanced around the vast, modern office. Other assistants hurried from desk to desk, papers flying off the copy machines and phones ringing off the hook. He looked over his shoulder at Louis’ open office door.

An assistant named Tracy ran by clasping a tray covered in steaming tea cups and scones in her small hands.

“Busy day,” she said to Liam with a harried smile.

Liam smiled at her, friendly yet professional, bulging his eyes and loosening the knot of his tie.

“You’re telling me!”

“See you at happy hour?”

“Sounds good,” he said, holding his thumb up.

He watched her go, craning his neck to be sure no other assistants were around. He fixed his black tie to its proper place, smoothing the material down his chest. He pinched the corners of his pale blue shirt collar, giving that a shift, as well.

His boss never left stacks of busy work whenever he knew Liam would be alone for an afternoon. As long as his schedule was organized (Liam would rather die a fiery death than bumble even a single event) and all tasks were completed on time (On time? Please. Most tasks were done with at least twenty-four hours to spare on their deadline), Liam was left to his own devices.

His boss never requested for him to call him, ‘Sir,’ or, ‘Mr. Tomlinson,’ as most of the other assistants were required to call their superior. Louis preferred to be called Louis. Liam was working on cutting out his, ‘Sir,’ habit.

The executive he assisted prior to Louis was a tyrant, a businessman who required Liam to be on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. If he could have added a day to the calendar, he would have, simply to make Liam work extra overtime. He ordered all employees to avoid eye contact with him and often whispered commands in Liam’s ear for Liam to voice aloud, resulting in Liam having to notify staff of all sorts of unsavoury business with his boss sitting silent, passive and smug at his side.

While he waited for his interview at Covington Associates, he watched applicants flee the designated interview room in tears. When he walked through the door and found only Louis sitting on the other side of the table, he was confused. This young man was the beast people were sobbing about to their friends in the lobby?

Liam would soon find that Louis was no beast. He was simply blunt. He had never been happier to correctly answer, “No, sir,” to the single question Louis asked in their interview: “Are you an idiot?”

Louis never set a required start and end time for Liam’s daily hours. He was more than generous with whatever time off Liam desired, let him come in late or leave early for personal appointments without question, and instituted a three o’clock end time for Summer Friday’s from the end of May through September, though Louis often stayed later once Liam had left.

Liam diligently monitored his hours to be sure he was putting in an average of at least eight point five hours each day, but it was nice to know that his boss would not mind him leaving early for a doctor’s appointment or taking a long lunch if a friend was in town.

The most outlandish task asked of him was the occasional mid-day dog walking when Louis was out of town on business and his normal dog walker was unavailable. Who could complain about getting paid to take hour long breaks to play with the cuddliest pug he had ever met?

Liam tapped his fingers against his chin, phones ringing quietly around him. He stared at the phone on his desk, the screen dark, the speaker silent.

He ran his palm over the top of his computer screen and stared at his palm. A small breath left his nostrils. He touched his pointer finger to the top of the screen and pushed harder, revealing a tiny speck of dirt on the centre of his finger.

“Ah!” He pointed at his computer screen. “You could use a dusting.”

He bent over, intent on retrieving a bottle of cleanser from beneath his desk. Legs in an expensive suit whooshed beside his body.

“Hi,” Louis said. Something covered in paper landed on top of Liam's desk. “Lunch.”

Liam went to stand up.

“Ow,” he blurted out, clutching the back of his head. “I mean, hello!”

He popped up straight, his hands clasped behind his back. He smiled brightly at the space where Louis once was.

“Sorry, sir,” Liam said, spinning and power walking into his office.

He found Louis to be sorting through envelopes behind his desk, his hip quirked to the left.

“Good meeting?” Liam’s eyes followed each envelope Louis tossed on top of his desk. “Shall I do that for you?” He stepped closer. “Allow me to do that for you, please. Don’t waste your time with silly envelopes.”

“It was fine,” Louis said, tossing the entire bunch of envelopes on his desk. He peered at Liam over the rim of his black aviators, his lips quirked. “Envelopes can be silly?”

Liam’s mouth gaped.

“I--I--”

Louis started to chuckle quietly, pushing his glasses up to rest in his hair.

“Relax.” He shrugged off his trench. “I’m kidding. Meeting was good, though. Very informative. I made him laugh a few times, so I think he liked me. He was also quite drunk,” Louis tapped his fingers on his desk, “so that might have something to do with the laughter.”

“I’ve read that if you can make someone laugh, you can make them do anything.”

“Thank you, Marilyn Monroe.”

“Would you like anything?” Liam hurried to his side and took his coat from him, floating around his desk to hang his coat on a rack near the door. “Tea? Kale smoothie?”

Louis sat heavily in his leather chair, blowing air through his lips. He tossed his sunglasses on his desk, rubbing his hands over his face.

“Tea would be lovely, thanks. It’s been a strange day.”

Liam grinned and nodded, “Yes, sir!” before practically running out of his office.

Louis took his phone out of his pocket and placed it on his desk, double clicking his computer’s space bar. He opened his email, cracking his fingers on his left hand with his thumb. He mentally crafted his thank you email to Branson during his ride back to the office and wanted to send it before the day got away from him.

His mobile vibrated, the phone sliding across his desk. He glanced at it, seeing Zayn’s name pop up on the lock screen. The small slide revealed a sliver of Jack McQueen’s business card stuck beneath the basic black case on Louis’ iPhone.

“Shall I put your leftovers in the break room refrigerator?”

Louis blinked up at the sound of Liam’s cheerful voice as a cup of tea was placed in front of him.

“That’s yours to eat.”

Liam gave him a look of pure joy and adoration, hearts beaming from his eyes.

“You brought me leftovers?” He flattened his hand over his heart. “Oh, thank you!”

“No, you silly envelope. It’s that nasty lamb’s tongue you mentioned. I had the chicken, but I managed to order you a tongue-to-go during one of Branson’s many toilet trips.”

Liam clutched his hands beneath his chin, his eyes watering.

“Thank you so, so much,” he whispered, excitement shaking his voice. “Sir. Louis. Thank you, Louis.”

Louis snorted and started to click his mouse around his computer screen.

“It’s a lamb’s tongue, Liam. I wouldn’t plan our honeymoon, yet.”

“Oh!” Liam blinked quickly and resumed standing at attention. “Speaking of honeymoons, well, weddings in general. I received the notification of Zayn and Niall’s pending nuptials and added the dates to your schedule, though I’m still waiting for the detailed itinerary. When would you like to travel to the resort? I can take care of your booking. It seems most guests are spending ten days total, Saturday to the following Monday.”

“Ten days!? Don’t these people have jobs?”

“I suppose guests would use holiday time, or only go for part of the week. From the email you received from the couple-to-be, they seem to want you there the entire time. Niall also queried as to if you’ll be bringing a date.”

Louis narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.

“Why on Earth do they need that much time with guests? Weddings are dreadful when it’s only half a day’s commitment.” Quieter, he whined, “Ten days?”

“The invite said they wanted guests to feel as relaxed, pampered and rejuvenated as possible before they participated in the joining of two free spirits into one.”

“Did it really say that?” Louis bobbed backwards in his chair, listening to the quiet squeak of the metal joint. His lips moved as if he had something sour in his mouth to repeat, “Two free spirits into one?”

“Yes.”

“You memorized the invite already?”

“It…” Liam cleared his throat. “Made me think of the Spice Girls.”

Louis burst out laughing.

“I’m so glad you’re my assistant.”

“He also sent me a personal save the date,” Liam said, pleased, clasping his fingers in front of his stomach, “which was very, very generous of him. I wasn’t sure what your thoughts are on me attending the wedding.”

Another text from Zayn came in and Louis stifled a groan, flipping his phone upside down. He cracked the knuckles on his right hand with his thumb.

“Of course you can go, if you’d like. You’ve probably spoken to Zayn more in the past year than I have. I’ll be there anyway, so it’s not like much will be happening here.”

Liam’s brows pinched together, his mouth pursed in a small circle.

“But, sir, usually when the executive is gone, the assistant must stay to hold down the ship.”

“Hold down the ship?” Louis repeated amusedly. “Is that in a handbook somewhere? Executive Assistants 101?”

“I would assume it appears in some publication somewhere.”

Louis fiddled with the arm of his sunglasses, swaying them in a circle on his desk.

“It’s up to you.” He held his palm out. “Whatever you’d like to do, I’m fine with it.”

“Excellent,” Liam said, a touch too quick. Louis raised his eyebrows, though a smile teased at his lips. Liam rubbed his hand over the back of his neck. “I’d, um, been meaning to plan a trip back home for a few days to see my family and Anna, and could probably work it out to do the first half of the week at home, then fly to the Bahamas for the long wedding weekend.” Bashfulness coloured Liam’s smile. “Since Niall’s paying for everything, this is sort of a fantasy holiday. Anna nearly died when I told her.”

Louis snorted and picked up Jack’s card.

“Yeah, right.” He thumbed the raised letters. “Some fantasy.”

. . .

Track: Janet Jackson - Nasty

In an airy one bedroom flat in Soho, water hot enough to scald skin beat down on the strong back of a man with his head dropped forward. His dark hair was matted to his face, smaller drops of water dripping off the ends to race down his chest. He watched the suds of his shampoo swirl down the drain, his odd shaped toes dipping into the foamy mix.

He took a deep breath then tilted his head back, letting the water pound over his face. He opened his mouth, water bouncing off the bottom ridge of his teeth, and swallowed a mouthful, blowing a burst of water against the white tile.

He grabbed his body wash and squeezed it on a white loofa, running it over every inch of his long body. He could always use a double scrub after work. He swapped his loofa for an exfoliating brush, working a creamier body wash over every inch of him. He lathered up his body hair with shampoo followed by conditioner, letting the pounding spray wash over him.

He stepped out of the shower, leaving the water on. He snagged a tube of hydrating face mask from his vanity. He slathered it on his face and neck, the smell of kiwi and grapes filling the air. He prodded a collection of darkened bites along his collar bones and smeared mask on that skin.

He stretched side to side in front of his mirror before spinning and bending over. His cheeks were spread, the pads of his fingers ghosting over the hairless, tight rose skin. He spun around, stroking his stomach. He opened a drawer in his vanity and took out a silver pair of scissors.

He went back into the shower and started to snip the hair below his navel. The scissors traveled over his groin, trimming the hair to a light dusting. He lifted his right arm, using the scissors to graze through the soft hair, and repeated the trim under his left arm. He rinsed the scissors and the floor of any leftover body hair. He dunked his face under the water, carefully taking his mask off, running his hands over his body.

He took a bottle of deep conditioner off the shelf and squirted it into his palm, slapping it on his long hair. He got out of the shower again and wrapped his hair in a towel, fluffing another towel over his closed toilet seat. He sat down with a pair of tweezers and a magnifying mirror, the tweezers going to work on his eyebrows.

Once he was done plucking, moisturising, and showering, he squeezed his clean, dripping hair with a towel. He heard an iPhone ringing in the bedroom with his head upside down between his legs. From the Radiate ringtone, he could tell it was his second phone, which received much more attention than his first phone.

He walked out of his en suite naked, save for his white towel looped around his hair. His phone was on his bedside table, buzzing away until he picked it up. He did not recognize the number on the screen. His lower belly tingled with anticipation, blue eyes and a sharp tongue flashing in his head.

He blew a breath out of his lips and placed the phone at his ear, swallowing once before deeply purring, “Hello?”

There was a short gap of no talking, choppy breaths carrying through the phone. Finally, the other person worked up enough courage to speak.

“Y-Yes, hello, I...” Nervous sweat was practically dripping through the phone. “I’m looking to speak with Jack? Jack McQueen?”

Nope. The bumbling voice was not Mr. Taxi, unless he had lost his wit and sarcasm in the last two hours.

“Hi there. This is Jack,” he said, soothing the purr to a more gentle, calm tone. He walked to his chest of drawers and started rifling around the top drawer. “What would you like for me to call you?”

“Paul. Shit, I mean,” Paul huffed, “should I--Do most people use a fake name? I’ve never--I’m--”

“Paul is just fine,” Jack chuckled, a low whine sounding through the phone. “It’s lovely to meet you, Paul. How may I help you?”

“I...I’m in need of a-a date. A companion. Overnight, if possible.”

“My apologies. I don’t do overnights with a first time client.”

“Alright, well...Half the night? Even just--” Paul cleared his throat. “A few hours, even. I’m...I’m in need.”

“Maybe we can work something out.” Jack kept his voice conversational, pulling out a pair of dark grey briefs. “May I ask who referred you?”

There was a pause.

“I’d rather not say.”

Jack’s deep voice hardened ever so slightly.

“I won’t proceed without a referral."

His client list was built almost exclusively upon referrals. His clients were all so wealthy, some in such positions of power, that a prostitution scandal was not on their agenda. He found that men behaved better in the bedroom when they were aware that he knew one of their friends. A network of high profile, incredibly private clients was the best insurance he could hope for.

“I...Guh...Erm…”

While Paul made a variety of stressed noises, Jack observed his pert arse in the mirror on the back of his bedroom door. He ran his fingers over the reddened slap marks that went a bit too high on his back and low on his thighs, that skin extra warm.

He enjoyed a good spanking as much as the next person, but sometimes clients became a touch too involved; a touch too power high when caught up in the moment. One slap too low on his thighs could be brushed off as a mistake, but when a second slap landed almost on his spine, even after a verbal warning, he was off the bed in an instant.

He had gripped his client by the cock, pulled him off the bed, and pinned him up against the wall. He set him straight with a severe tongue lashing about respect, boundaries, and the proper way to include power play and aftercare in sex. His warning was so severe that it resulted in the client cowering naked in the corner and begging for forgiveness.

Begging seemed to turn the man on even more and he received double his normal rate for the entire night. What could he say? His versatility was among his best features, though that particular client would never get to experience his versatility again.

He frowned at his reflection, dropping the pants back into his chest of drawers.

“Paul?” he asked, keeping his voice quiet. He pulled out a pair of baggy black sweats. “Are you still there, love?”

“Y-Yes. I...I’m here.”

Long legs lifted one by one to slide into the soft, thin material. The waistband sagged off his flat stomach, his abs flexing as he arched side to side.

“And your referral?”

“Marlow. William Marlow.”

“William Marlow. Wonderful,” Jack drawled, a smile teasing his deep pink lips. William was one of his easiest clients; a billionaire widower in his late sixties who preferred the sweet, smiley boyfriend routine with more cuddling and talking than actual sex. “And do you have much in common with Mr. Marlow?”

“No, I...I have a bit of a...A preference.”

“A fetish?”

“I--I don’t know if you’d call it that.”

“Paul,” he laughed breathily, “I hold no judgement. I’m simply checking to see if I’m the right guy for you. If not, I have some excellent, discreet friends in the fetish industry who would be happy to help you.”

“You are the right guy. I know it.”

“How’s that?”

“William...William said you have a beautiful smile. And...A cute laugh. And dimples.”

He smiled in his mirror at that comment, rubbing his hand over his pec and observing his straight, white teeth. He thumbed his sensitive right nipple and stifled a shiver, the small bit of skin puffy and standing away from his tanned chest.

“That’s awfully nice of him to say all that about little old me.”

“I...I like a man who can smile. And,” Paul’s voice dropped to a secretive whisper, “laugh.”

There it was.

Some humans were strange, unique creatures when it came to sexuality, never wanting to put a name to their kink for fear of judgement or mocking. Even while on a private phone call with the person hired to play along with whatever fetish he had, Paul could not verbalize exactly what he wanted.

“I understand, Paul,” he said slowly, drawing out his name with a smile in his voice. He threw a small chuckle in and heard the same sharp intake of breath through the phone, his smile growing. “Sounds like we could have some fun together.”

He balanced his phone between his ear and shoulder. He lifted both arms over his head, twisting his tattooed torso. He studied the flex of his muscles and bones beneath his tawny skin, soft brown hair barely dusting a few select parts.

“Do you have a preference for my body hair?” He brushed his fingers over the downy hair under his arm, tracing around a bird cage inked a few inches lower on his side. “I’m not waxed completely bare, but I’m pretty smooth, otherwise.”

“P-Please, leave it all. I’m sure it’s perfect. William said you’re perfect.”

“You’ll have to call me more often, Paulie, you’re making me blush.” A breathy, grunted laugh whimpered through the phone. Jack smiled and continued, “Will do about my body hair. What I will not do is bondage on our first meeting.” He lowered his arms and placed the call on speaker, pulling up his calendar. “You’ll have to make me laugh all on your own without restraints.”

“Perfect. Tonight? Please?”

“I’m afraid that my nights are booked solid the next two weeks.”

“Are you free now?”

He glanced at the red marks on his lower back, his arse smarting beneath the baggy sweats. He looked to his bed, white and rumpled and unmade. His laptop was open on the centre, an episode of Bob’s Burgers paused halfway through.

“I’m not, sorry.” He pulled his towel off his head, running his fingers through his wet hair.

“Do you do lunch meetings?”

“I’d love a lunch meeting.”

Paul’s excitement audibly grew.

“Tomorrow?”

“Unavailable. I can do…” Jack mentally scrolled through his week. “A Friday lunch? I’m free from noon until three. You have to host at a hotel, no less than four star, and I’ll need private access to the shower once we’ve finished. I don’t do house calls for first time clients.”

“Perfect!”

Jack picked up his towel and hung it over his doorknob.

“I’ll need your email and a working mobile number.”

“Of course, whatever you need.”

Jack walked to his bed, kneeling on the edge. He started to speak, rattling off details as he tucked himself under the covers.

“You’ll receive a contract, which includes a pricing breakdown, a form to consent to a background check, a non-disclosure agreement, and a liability waiver by the end of the day. I will need to have all forms signed, scanned and sent back to me before I make your reservation in my schedule.”

He pulled his laptop onto his thighs and opened his calendar, making half his screen Netflix with the other half an empty client intake form.

“You will need to provide a credit card number as a deposit to hold your time. Please be sure your card number is accurate, as I will check to run your deposit. Any false numbers will result in you losing your reservation and you will be blacklisted for any future services.”

“I would never do that to you,” Paul said, hushed. “Money is no issue. I can give you my number right now, if that works for you? Whatever you need.”

Jack tilted the phone away from his mouth to yawn and backed up his Bob’s Burgers episode a few minutes, dragging his finger over the trackpad.

“You’re fast becoming my new favourite, Paulie.”

Paul blustered a mix of laughter and words, resulting in huffed sounds.

“You may pay with credit card,” Jack continued, “but cash is also acceptable. All payment is due in full before our session begins. Any cancellation less than twenty-four hours in advance will result in forfeiting half of your deposit. All of this will be explained in the contract.”

“Wow, William was right! You’re a real pro! I wish my divorce lawyer had been as serious as you are. Or the kids in my office. You’re a sharp one!”

Jack nibbled his bottom lip, staring down at his white sheets. He shifted his hips, a sharp spark of pain shooting up from his arse. He brought his hand to his mouth, muffling any sound, and turned onto his stomach.

“Thanks,” he said softly. He let his head fall limp on his pillow, his hair dripping into the thin fabric. He forced a smile and fake giggled out, “You ready with that credit card number, love?”

. . .

Friday, 10 April

“Do you need anything else before I head home to get ready?”

“No, I’m fine, thanks,” Louis said, shrugging on his khaki trench. He offered Liam a quick smile. “Thanks for picking up my tux. That was a huge help.”

“Anytime,” Liam preened, rolling up on the balls of his feet. “I’ll see you later, then?”

Louis nodded.

“You will see me later.”

Liam left his office in a whirl of paper scented air. Louis walked to his office door and lifted his black garment bag from the hook on the back.

It wasn’t that he hated the occasional company gala, per say. Galas could be fun, with lots of food and alcohol and the chance to see other executives sloshed enough to do the Macarena.

After three wedding plan calls with Zayn and Niall within the last forty-eight hours, plus a Skype session dedicated to asking Louis about his love life where the connection mercifully kept dying, the last thing he wanted was to squeeze into a tux and stand around in uncomfortable shoes all night. Alone.

Louis did not have an issue attending events alone. He did it all the time. He preferred to be alone, rather than drag someone to an event that he’d have to introduce around and make nice with, only to have to repeat the process at the next event with the next person he took out.

For some reason, all the talk of two spirits joining made him more curious than usual as to why he never seemed to find anyone to hold his attention for more than a night. A night in with his dog, enough curry to feed an army, and something mindless on television sounded like heaven at that moment, not a luxurious gala with a pretty face on his arm.

Hours later, Louis walked into the ballroom Covington Associates had rented for the evening. It was as picturesque and luxurious and sterile as he expected it to be. His sofa and a spicy curry had never looked better than when he glanced over the menu of tiny, unpronounceable foods he’d dine on that night.

“Tomlinson! Get over here!”

Each time he tried to get to the bar, he was pulled aside by some executive or other. News of his Acker-Jones performance had spread and every employee he ran into wanted to congratulate him on his success.

“No date tonight?”

With every congratulations, came the confused question of his relationship status. His lack of a date, more specifically. How could he not want to drag a date to an event full of sharks, wolves, and monsters in tuxedos and gowns?

Even Liam could not rescue him from being sober and single. Liam’s lovely Italian girlfriend, Anna, had surprised him for the weekend, and both were lost in their own little bubble of love on the dancefloor. For a person who listened to more uptempo dance pop than anyone Louis knew, Liam seemed to love slow dancing.

Finally, Louis made it to the bar set up in the furthest corner of the room. He lifted himself up on the balls of his feet and craned his neck, peering at the beers they had on tap.

“What can I get you, sir?”

He looked at the bartender, who was a middle-aged female. She momentarily seemed to have the face of Liam. He blinked once, stretching his eyes.

“Pale ale, please.”

He downed his first beer almost as soon as she placed it on a coaster. She wordlessly started to prepare him a fresh glass, a sympathetic softness in her brown eyes.

Louis turned to rest his back on the bar, placing his elbows at his sides. Another bartender handed over a round of appletinis to a group of people standing to his right, prompting the group to teeter towards the dance floor.

With their shift, it revealed a tall, lean man in a spotless, perfectly tailored black tux, his long hair styled back from his forehead to stay off his face but to maintain his natural curl at the ends. His skin was tanned and glowing, his expression the picture of bored relaxation. The colouring of his features, vibrant green eyes and deep rose lips, were even more radiant in the soft lighting of the ball room, no longer hidden by black sunglasses or a cape of uncombed hair.

Louis found himself blinking again, his brows furrowed. As if he could feel eyes on him, the man turned his head as a gin and tonic was placed in front of him.

“You,” Jack said, his lips curving upwards.

“You,” Louis repeated. His mouth mirrored Jack’s, a wry smile appearing without his control. Jack moved closer to him, a foot between them but their bodies facing each other. “Would it be too cliche for me to ask if you come here often?”

Jack grinned, leaning his elbow against the bar.

“I had to stifle myself from asking the same question.”

“You look…” Louis squinted slightly, swirling his glass in a small circle in front of himself. “Cleaner.”

Jack stirred his drink with his red straw, ice cubes clinking in the glass.

“Yes, well, even filthy hustlers enjoy a wash every now and again. Shocking as that may seem.”

Louis licked beer foam off his top lip.

“I didn’t call you a filthy hustler.”

Jack’s eyes rolled towards him.

“You didn’t have to.” His gaze flickered from Louis’ shoes up to his face, clean shaven and smooth. “I never did get your name in the car.”

“No.” He offered Jack a smile. “You didn’t. You look…”

Jack angled his body towards Louis, crossing his ankles, the toe of his black shoe propped on the ground.

“I look?”

Louis sipped his beer, keeping his face forward.

“Different. You look more,” he swayed his hand up and down in Jack’s direction, “normal like this. I’d think you would shoot for this aesthetic all the time.”

“Not every client wants clean cut. Some want a bit more sleaze; makes it feel more authentic, I suppose.” Louis felt as if his tux had been incinerated to reveal he opted not to wear pants, Jack’s eyes roaming over his body. “We all play our own characters,” Jack drawled softly. “I’m no different.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I was invited.”

“By who?”

Jack nudged his chin forward, smiling at someone across the dance floor. He waggled his long fingers.

“Mr. Carson.”

“You--You’re dating Mr. Carson?” Louis looked across the floor in shock at the ancient executive, quickly masking it with a blank expression. “He’s one thousand years old.”

“We’re not dating. I’m his date. That’s all.”

“Why?”

“Some people seem to enjoy companionship, even the non-sexual kind, though that seems like a memo you never received. You should alert your assistant.”

“Don’t joke about that. Liam would leave the gala to search through every bin in the office.”

“Which one is Liam?”

Louis tilted the top of his beer glass towards a spot on the left side of the dance floor.

“The bloke surgically attached to the gorgeous brunette.”

“He's hot.”

“Could you please try to control yourself? You’re like a feral cat.”

“Personal assistant?”

“Executive assistant.”

“Ooh la la. I’m speaking with an executive.

“Wouldn’t want to broach on your personal consultant territory.”

“And where’s your date, then?” Jack flattened his hand and pressed his pointer finger to his brow, making a show of scanning the room as if he was a pirate on a ship. Too bad he left his earring home. “Where is she hiding out?”

“No date.”

“Pity.”

“I’m quite fine, thanks.”

“Are you, though?" Jack clicked his back teeth in a sympathetic wince. "Glued to the bar. Constipated face. Lonely eyes. I’ve seen it all before.”

“I do not have a constipated face. Or lonely eyes. Don’t be ridiculous. Besides,” he narrowed his eyes at Jack, “what are you even doing over here? Shouldn’t you be over there with Mr. Carson? Administering a vat of Viagra?”

Jack’s lips quirked but he did not laugh, his lashes blinking slowly.

“Like I said, not all companionship has to do with sex. He brings me to these things because he’s a nice man who likes to share the wealth. He likes it when I socialize and enjoy myself.” His gaze hardened. “You could learn something from someone like him.”

“How’s business been? Well, I hope?”

“Business is good.” Jack’s nose wrinkled. “A bit tiring but, otherwise, fine.”

“Tiring? Business must be booming, then.”

Jack’s green eyes moved with hypnotic slowness as he glanced around the room before landing on Louis’ face.

“I started early today. I had a client who, among other things, tickled me on and off for around three hours straight.” He smoothed his hand over his hair. “It was exhausting.”

“Wh-What?” Louis laughed, a genuine, belly shaking laugh. “Three hours of tickling? No sex?”

“No sex. Well,” Jack swayed his head side to side, “I wanked him off afterwards, but he was pretty worked up so it took about ten seconds. Painless.”

Louis’ hand cradled his ribs, his mouth in a pained grimace.

“Three hours of just tickling? What the hell did you do the entire time?”

“It was mostly chatting and laughing and touching, with bursts of tickling thrown in if he felt like it. Some little games. Lots of foot attention, too, which I’ll never turn down. Can’t complain about getting paid to get an hour long foot rub, even if my stomach aches a bit from laughing.” He rubbed his stomach. “At least I won't have to do abs tomorrow.”

Louis’ chin caved into his neck, a sound of disgust grunted out of his throat.

“How much do you charge per hour?”

Jack raised one eyebrow.

“Interested?”

“You wish. I’m just curious how much this poor sod threw away worshipping at your filthy hustler feet.”

Jack’s eyes crinkled as he sipped his drink, his scent floating to Louis. Instead of Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanilla, he smelled older, almost like the women’s perfume Chanel No. 5. His full lips popped off his straw, looking wet and slightly swollen.

“I charge in ten minute increments.”

“Fancy yourself a lawyer?”

“I fancy myself a businessman,” Jack said, their eyes locking. “I like punctuality. Keeping my increments low makes sure I’m never anywhere I don’t want to be for longer that I need to be there. Money seems to be the only way to get people to stick to a schedule.”

“I respect that. What’s your rate?”

Jack grinned around his straw, biting on the plastic for one long beat. He rolled his eyes towards Louis, arching his eyebrows.

“That’s an industry secret for clients only.”

“Bullshit,” Louis chuckled. He made a locking motion at his lips. “C’mon, I’ll never tell another soul. I’m curious.” His eyes shimmered with boyish mischief. “I’ve never met anyone like you before.”

“You’re playing me,” Jack said, amused, the right side of his lips rising. “And you’re not even that subtle about it. I expected better from you.”

“Am not.”

“You can’t hustle a hustler, love.”

Louis sighed and leaned his hip against the bar, taking a big gulp.

“This gala is hell. You could at least entertain me. Unless,” he widened his eyes and patted his jacket pocket, “you require payment? It’s been a few minutes. Wouldn't want to upset your bookkeeping.”

“Ha. Ha.”

“Still laughing after your strenuous afternoon?”

Jack’s eyelashes fluttered.

“You’re so amusing. I can’t help myself.”

“My executive assistant informed me today that if you can get someone to laugh, you can get someone to do anything.”

“I thought you said your executive assistant was called Liam, not Marilyn Monroe?”

Louis paused in their banter, his tongue tracing over the back of his top teeth.

“C’mon, please? I’m really curious.” He held one flat palm towards Jack. “No game playing, I’m being truthful.”

Their eyes met, Jack nibbling the corner of his bottom lip while Louis sipped his beer, big blue eyes peering at him over the rim. Jack sighed out of his nose, his lip released from his teeth.

“One full hour of my time is six-hundred, which breaks down one-hundred per ten minutes. Most clients don’t bother with ten or twenty minutes; they go for at least an hour. My rate goes up for an overnight or multiple days, and anything over three hours receives an additional fee. All travel and accommodations are paid for, obviously, and--”

“Wait. Excuse me. Six-hundred? Six-zero-zero?” Louis blinked at him, the motion of his eyelids stuttering. “Six-hundred pounds?”

“Yes.”

“And people actually pay you that much money?”

“They do. Happily.”

“When people enter you, does God himself come down to whisper the meaning of life in their ear?”

“Dunno about that, but most of my clients seem to be religious. They’re usually calling out to God for most of our sessions.”

“I cannot believe it.” Louis shook his his head faster, insisting, “I cannot believe people would pay that much money just to have sex with you, no matter how good you think you are. That can’t be right.”

“Believe it, love. I’ve got bookings lined up for at least a year. Most weeks are fully booked unless I opt to take a break. I'm discreet, professional, and flexible. I've never had trouble filling my schedule.”

Louis chuckled, taking a sip of his beer.

“If I paid you six-hundred pounds, I’d do more than tickle you for the hour.”

“Is that so?” Jack’s eyes crinkled at the edges, his voice dropping lower. His gaze left paths of heat as he studied Louis’ profile. “And what would you do to me for the hour, hm?”

Louis smirked, his lips plumped forward, and turned his head, their eyes locked.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Jack looked towards the dance floor, shaking his head, a small smile on his face.

“You have no interest in becoming a client. Why do you care about my rates?”

“Just wondering how your operation works, is all. Seems…” He swirled his glass in front of himself. “Dangerous. And stressful. Not worth it, even with your outrageous hourly rate."

“I have rules.” Jack sipped his drink. “Lots of them, actually.”

“Like what?”

“All sorts of rules about safety and privacy. I vet my clients before adding them to my list. Safe sex is an absolute requirement. Everyone signs NDAs, which protects both me and my clients.”

“NDAs?” Louis giggled. “Do you fingerprint them, as well? Take a blood sample?”

“Not quite, but I do run background checks. I require them to be tested. I also work off referrals only, no strangers unless I invite them in.” Jack’s business card burned in its spot tucked inside Louis’ wallet. “I’ve found people behave better when they know I know one of their friends or colleagues.”

“And they’re alright with that?’’

Jack sipped his drink, his pink tongue delicately lathing over his lips.

“At first, me doing everything above board turned clients off.” His right shoulder rose. “Who wants a paper trail for their rent boy habit? The thought of an escort running background checks and using NDAs was unheard of. Eventually,” his shoulders relaxed, “I was able to build a client list that didn't care about money and had nothing to hide, which is when things got easier.”

“So, let me get this straight.” Louis squared himself to Jack, counting off on his fingers. “You charge these men up the arse, make them fill out paperwork, ugh, and refuse to give them anonymity, yet you still are fully booked?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“I require a lot of my clients, but they also receive a lot in return. It’s an even balance.”

“I’m sure.”

Jack’s eyes bore into his face, friendly and calm but with razorsharp concentration.

“For the sake of clarity, my hourly rate may seem high, but I’m a solo operation. I pay for all of my own security, my online memberships to run background checks, my scheduling software, fees for credit cards, tips for hotel desk staff that I'm friendly with and who keep an eye out for me when I'm working, plus an abundance of personal expenses I absorb to maintain my image.”

“Your image,” Louis repeated, a smile trembling to be released.

“I’m all about the full experience for my clients, which includes maintaining my image to the best of my abilities. Clothing, skin care, hair removal, gym membership.”

“I see, I see.” Louis took a drink of beer, Jack sipping through his straw. “You have a security guard?”

“No. I have this.”

Jack lifted his right wrist and pulled his white sleeve down, revealing a thin black leather bracelet with a simple black button in the centre, a red symbol painted on the inside of the button.

“You…” Louis’ eyes narrowed, his words slow. “Believe having diabetes will keep your clients from mistreating you?”

Jack sighed, his eyes rolling slightly.

“I don’t have diabetes. This is my security. If I press this for more than five seconds, the police are notified, along with a security company I pay to monitor my location. I wear it when I work. I also keep the company updated as to my schedule, and if I don’t check in at a designated time, they will alert the authorities. Costs me a pretty penny each month, but it makes me feel safer.”

“What if you fall asleep on it?”

“I have to really press it. It’s okay if it’s under a pillow or something.”

“What if you’re tied up?”

Louis’ mouth twitched closed, his brain sizzling inside his skull. That question came out faster than he anticipated. Jack seemed unbothered, continuing to casually chat.

“I never allow my clients to tie me up in such a way that I can’t get out and won’t even consider it unless we’ve had at least three appointments prior. I only agree to light bondage, which I provide the restraints. More for the look than for the actual restraints. If they want heavy, I refer them to a professional dom or sub.”

Louis wiped the back of his hand over his forehead, downing a long gulp of beer. It had gone warm in his glass, his hand sweating.

“But what if someone drugs you? Or attacks you?”

Jack shrugged, sipping his drink through its straw.

“Someone could drug or attack you at any time, whether you meet them on OKCupid, in a pub, or in the grocery store. I hope that people seeking companionship have good intentions. So far, I’ve been fine.”

“Have you ever used it? Your button, I mean.”

“Nope. I’m bigger than a lot of my clients, and usually much younger. The most I’ll have to do is give them a lecture about boundaries and then they behave like polite little schoolboys. Once I blacklist someone, there’s no going back. They don’t want to risk landing on that list, small as it is.”

Louis placed his empty glass on the bar top, another beer pressed into his hand before he could signal the female bartender with Liam’s face. He smiled at her and nodded, sipping his new beer.

“And your rules?”

“So many questions,” Jack purred, his eyes dancing with light. “Are you sure you work here and are not undercover for The Sun? Sorry, love, I don’t kiss and tell.”

“Maybe I’m a cop.”

Jack’s lashes fluttered, an amused chuckle falling from his lips.

“You’d look precious in a copper’s uniform, I’m sure, but everything I do is legal. I have a business license, just as if I was selling handmade pottery or knitting sweaters for a living.”

“Yes, because pottery, sweaters and sex all go in the same work bracket.”

Jack shrugged both shoulders, his eyes following a tray of spring rolls.

“Judge all you want, but I run a clean operation.”

“Alright. Next rule?”

“No photos.”

“No photos?”

“None. It’s one of my policies.”

Louis stared at him for a moment, thumbing the rim of his glass.

“How is that possible in this day and age?”

“It’s possible.”

“What if your client wants you in a photo?”

Jack shook his head, his pursed lips only drawing attention to the height of his cheekbones, the dim lighting casting shadows in the hollows of his cheeks.

“I don’t care,” Jack lilted, shrugging his right shoulder. “I don’t do photos. I don’t film anything. I want absolutely no record of me at work in any form of media.” He swirled his straw in his glass, perfect cubes of ice clinking against the sides. “It’s all made very clear before I enter into any sort of arrangement. If I found out a client filmed me without my consent, my lawyer would come into play. That’s another expense I absorb, Mister Numbers, though I’ve never had to use him.”

“You mean you don’t leave tart cards in phone booths? I bet you’d look fetching in red lace and lippy.”

“Oh, darling,” Jack said on a drawl, his tone matching Louis’ teasing question, his head turning to glance at Louis. “You don’t even know who you’re dealing with, do you?”

“And I’m not talking about naked photos,” Louis said, sipping his beer. He scoffed. “Get your head out of the gutter.”

Louis kept his head forward, but heard what could have been a muffled laugh from beside him. He was unsure about why he was engaging Jack in conversation, but a small puff of satisfaction warmed his chest at the thought of making his controlled, calculated demeanor break into a laugh.

“What if you had a client who wanted to take a picture with you at a function?” Louis slowly circled his pint glass in the air, the shape outlining the crowded dance floor. “Like this sort of function. What then?”

“My answer would be no, and they’d know it before we even entered the function. If they tried to engage me for a photo, I’d leave and they would pay a heavy penalty. It’s never been an issue.”

“I find that very hard to believe.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“When you do an overnight with a client, how do you know they don’t photograph you in your sleep?”

“So,” Jack drawled, his eyes widening, “you’re that type of creepy.” Playfulness illuminated Jack’s face as he smiled, washing away some of his bored indifference. “I figured you were more of a used underwear collector or clingy--”

“Excuse me, I’ve never done that in my life,” Louis said, fighting a laugh. “But I’d think it’s a valid concern in,” his voice slithered to say, “your line of work.”

“I rarely sleep on overnights.” Jack’ hand lifted his palm towards Louis, his long fingers nearly straight. “And before you assume, I’d say at least three-quarters of my overnights include little to no sex.”

Louis caught sight of Mr. Carson’s thinning white comb over and severe hunchback across the room, toilet paper stuck to the bottom of his black dress shoe.

“Pity.”

Another soft, near-laugh was exhaled beside him, muffled by a sip of gin and tonic. Louis fanned his fingers out towards the dance floor, speaking quietly to Jack.

“At corporate events like this, there are hired photographers all over the place, hired specifically to catch guests at awkward moments when they’re eating too much prawn cocktail or fake laughing at something to please their boss.”

“Speaking from experience?”

“Please. Everyone flocks to the prawns. They’re the star of appetizers. What I’m trying to say,” Louis sighed and turned his upper body towards Jack, “is that it’s almost impossible to escape an event like tonight without being at least in the background of a photo or two. It’s impossible. The poor wait staff even gets roped into photos.”

Jack’s neutral, handsome-without-trying expression was back, his eyes staring across the room as if there was an ocean between the walls of the ballroom. The ice in his glass shifted, his thumb rubbing the condensation building on the outside.

“I’m good at making myself invisible for self-preservation purposes,” he eventually said, his voice quiet. “Very good.”

Louis scoffed, watching Jack sip his gin and tonic through the tiny red straw meant to be a stirrer.

“I don’t believe it.”

Jack shrugged and widened his elbows on the bar all of an inch on either side of his body. The simple motion was somehow graceful when expressed by his long limbs, his broad chest arching upwards beneath his white tux shirt.

As if he could feel he was being watched, Jack’s green eyes slid smoothly to Louis’ face. They did a slow, discerning journey from his eyes down to his chin, then back up to meet his gaze. The right side of Jack’s lips rose ever so slowly, their eyes locked.

“Find a date to the wedding yet?”

Louis’ face remained perfectly still for a moment. The colourful lights that had been flickering over the dancefloor changed to subdued white, the size of the lights fattening to dreamy spotlights instead of danceclub lasers.

“No.”

The other side of Jack’s lips, so pink and soft looking, rose to meet its twin.

“Interesting.”

“I don’t need a date. I’ve gone to plenty of weddings and functions alone. The world continued to rotate.”

Jack smiled properly with all of his perfect, white teeth. His full lips spread to a thinner line to outline his smile, his dimples deepening and the tip of his tongue, even pinker than his lips, peeking out to lick the right corner of his mouth.

“Is that so?”

“Yes, it is.” When Jack said nothing, simply smirking and letting his long eyelashes bat up and down, Louis’ jawline set, his eyes narrowing. “What?”

“Nothing,” Jack said, almost on a giggle.

“Why is it a requirement to bring someone to a wedding?”

“S’not a requirement,” Jack said, shrugging his left shoulder. “It seems to make things more pleasant, is all.”

“I’m not going to start dating someone, then after one date ask them to go to a destination wedding with me for over a week. I’d look insane. I move fast in business, but not in relationships.”

“You do move fast in business,” Jack said, lifting his glass to his face. He sucked the end of the stirrer between his lips, a small drop of bubbly tonic water glistening on the centre of his lips. His eyes did another lazy sweep of Louis, this time dipping down to his shiny black pointed-toe shoes before landing on his face. “I read all about you.”

Louis snorted, his head recoiling on his neck.

“What?”

“I, of course, knew where my client worked. I looked into him long ago when our arrangement first started. But, out of sheer curiosity, I paid your company website another visit, just to brush up on people I might bump into tonight. I’m very thorough.” Jack barely nudged the top of his glass across the dance floor towards Mr. Carson. “Researching him and the company meant running into details about you. It was unavoidable.”

“Whatever.”

Jack lowered his voice, dropping it to a deep, raspy tone more suited to announce bands on the stage of a punk rock club.

“Commandeering his field of corporate mergers and acquisitions, Louis Tomlinson began his illustrious career at the top of his business class at the University of St. Andrews, later completing his graduate studies in business at Cambridge. Not yet thirty--”

“Alright, alright,” Louis said, waving his hand. He lifted his beer in Jack’s direction. “You can read. Congratulations.”

Louis took a drink as Jack sipped his cocktail, smirking around the straw.

“Quite a pedigree for someone from,” his green eyes narrowed, his chin tilting to the left, “somewhere north. Doncaster?”

Louis blinked at him, curious and a touch concerned.

“That is not in my bio.”

Jack shrugged.

“I’m good with accents. You meet a lot of different people in,” his voice dropped to a mimic of Louis’ earlier tone, “my line of work.”

“Hey, I hold no judgement. You do what you do and that’s it. There’s nothing wrong with working to make a living.”

“Then why the reluctance to pay me for my time? Surely it’s chump change for you.”

Louis’ gentle curiosity changed to shuttered eyes and tight, straight lips. The blue of his eyes even seemed to shift to stormy grey, the air in the room dropping a few degrees.

Slowly, he explained, “Because I would rather go alone to every event for the rest of my life than pay the ghost of Mick Jagger’s youth to pretend to tolerate me.”

“Is that so?”

“It is.”

“For the rest of your life?”

“The rest of my life,” Louis said, his expression not flickering once.

“A life is a long time to be alone.”

“And a life built on lies is no life at all.”

“Strong words coming from someone who plays a character almost as well as I do.”

Track: Muse - Dead Inside

“You don’t know shit about me.”

“I know you because you’re like me. Like dissolves like. I can tell.”

“You don’t know shit about me,” Louis repeated, enunciating each word. “And we’re not alike at all.”

“No?” Jack’s eyes ran over Louis’ neutral, emotionless face, his expression showing none of the fire flickering in his voice. His voice was quiet and gentle, drawling, “Do you not lie to people every day? Do you not pretend to be someone else to make a living?”

Louis blinked, his lashes lazily swaying.

“I don’t give my body away to put food on the table.”

“Oh, darling, you disappoint me,” Jack tutted, shaking his head, a small smile curling his lips. “Such judgement from someone who proclaimed, ‘No judgement,’ mere moments ago. And this,” Jack gestured from the floor to his face, his long fingers brushing over his expensive tux, “is not given away. Far from it.”

“No, I suppose it’s not. Not when you prey on senile old men--”

“Prey?” Jack laughed over him.

“--who are lonely and looking for so called companionship. If you’re such a saint for the elderly, volunteer at a nursing home.”

“I never said I was a saint. Nursing homes pay shit.” Louis chuckled at that, shaking his head and drinking his beer. “And do I sense that I’ve struck a nerve?” Jack stirred the remaining inch of liquid in his glass, ice cubes clinking. “Lonely young men eventually turn to lonely old men faster than you may think, both searching for companionship no matter what age.”

“Aren’t we wise,” Louis said, running his thumb around the rim of his glass. “The Buddha of hookers.”

Jack downed his drink and placed it on the bar, dusting his hands together.

“I’m being beckoned.”

He smiled softly across the dance floor, looking far younger than seconds earlier in their rapid-fire conversation. He pushed off the bar and stood to his full height, the expensive material of his tux clinging to the deep curve of his lower back. He glanced at Louis over his shoulder.

“Lovely conversation, as always.”

Louis snorted and tipped his head back, finishing his beer.

“Enjoy the rest of your evening with your date.”

Jack’s lips quirked.

“Enjoy watching other people slow dance in paradise while you sit alone in the corner,” he put on a faux-frown, though his eyes still were lit, “contemplating the meaning of life and your right hand.”

He sauntered towards Mr. Carson, pasting on a warm smile and throwing in a boyish head tilt.

“Jack.”

Jack’s long strides slowed, the thick carpet sliding under the smooth bottoms of his shoes. He stifled a victorious grin, instead exhaling a deep breath and glancing over his shoulder, already able to taste the pina coladas he’d be drinking on his paid holiday. He could use some sun and sand.

He turned his right foot to the side and stretched his long neck enough to see Louis but to keep his bum popped backwards.

“Yes?”

Louis came up next to him, his hands in his pockets. He did not lay a finger on Jack, but his body seemed to produce vibrations of energy, a forcefield of heated power spilling onto the sleeve of Jack’s jacket and slowly spreading across his body.

“What did you want to be?”

Jack blinked at him, his head tilting without his control. He kept his face towards Mr. Carson, who was waving him over in a way all too reminiscent of a grandfather rooting a child on at a football game.

“Pardon?” Jack asked.

“Before this.” Louis’ voice whispered over his neck, goosebumps visibly popping up on Jack’s smooth skin. “What did you want to be?”

Jack swallowed, the back of his throat thick. He pushed the thickness down to his belly, mentally picturing the journey through his veins and bones until it melted out of his feet.

“A photographer,” he said, maintaining the even tone of his voice.

Louis chuckled softly. There was little humor in the sound. Jack could feel cool eyes tracing the sharp curve of his jawline; the flabby bit of his earlobe; the small mark of stubble he missed to the right of his Adam’s apple. Louis’ voice whispered over his skin.

“A lover of photographs spends his life skulking around events he wasn’t invited to, scared of cameras like a little boy.”

Jack’s jawline tightened, his head turning ever so slightly with his forced smile still towards Mr. Carson.

“I have my date to attend to.”

“Of course, of course.” Louis’ hand ghosted over the back of Jack’s shoulders, though he still did not touch him. “I apologize for taking up your valuable, valuable time.”

Jack held up one finger towards Mr. Carson, pretending to laugh at Louis’ last statement.

“I wondered how you managed to climb the corporate ladder so fast,” Jack said through smiling lips. He turned his face towards Louis, looking him dead on with vicious, furious eyes, a calm smile still stretching his lips. “Now it makes sense. You’re the most cliche of wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Louis mimicked Jack’s fake laugh, slapping his thigh and bending slightly forward.

“Oh, you’re a funny one. A funny escort,” he said, giving Jack’s title extra emphasis. “Do your clients pay per laugh or per orifice?”

Jack said nothing, turning away from him and gliding across the dance floor.

Louis watched him walk up to Mr. Carson and bow, his goofy smile delighting the older gentleman to the point of clapping his bony hands together. Jack placed his hand on Mr. Carson’s hip, lifting their joined hands up as far as Mr. Carson could manage. He started to gently lead a waltz, Mr. Carson grinning from ear to ear as they spun around the dance floor.

Louis leaned back on the bar.

“Another, sir?”

“Yes, please.”

He heard the beer tap’s smooth, scooped sound as it poured beer into a fresh pint glass. He watched them dance, their bodies flitting between other couples swaying to to the string-heavy classical music. It was like watching a time machine whirling on a pole, every spin exposing him to either Jack’s fresh-faced youth or Mr. Carson’s near-crippled seniority.

“Here you are, sir.”

Louis nodded his thanks to the bartender and took his fresh pint. When he looked back to the dance floor, he was hit by Jack’s eyes boring into him, blazing, intense green even from meters away. Louis held his gaze, drinking a long draught of his beer. He licked his lips when he finished drinking, spreading his elbows across the bar, Jack’s eyes still glued to his face.

Jack smirked slightly and swayed Mr. Carson around. Mr. Carson’s eyes were shut, his face resting on Jack’s broad shoulder with a blissful smile.

. . .

Monday, 13 April

Liam popped his head into Louis’ office.

“Anything else before I leave, sir? Everything is prepped for the remainder of the day.”

“Hm?” Louis looked from his watch to Liam’s face, a pen poised in his right hand. “What’s today?”

“Today is my appointment at the dentist.” Liam pointed at his mouth as if to demonstrate that dentists deal with teeth. “I emailed you and put it in your schedule. Is that still alright?”

“Yes, yes. Enjoy your afternoon of getting your teeth poked at.” Louis shuddered and looked back down to his paperwork. “I hope you have a nice, long lunch planned for afterwards with lots of sweets.” Liam’s eyes crinkled, his grin infectious. Louis nodded at him, a small smile curling his lips. “Have a nice rest of the day.”

“You too, sir. Let me know if you need any help with your travel arrangements. Niall left me a message asking if you’d taken care of it yet. He said he’d reimburse you as soon as you do.”

“That’s not necessary for him to do that, but thank you for relaying the message.”

Liam went to leave, then swung his upper body back inside the office, gripping the door.

“Oh! I forgot to ask if you read over the updated schedule yet.”

“No,” Louis ran his hand through his quiff, “I’ve been swamped with this Bingsby nightmare all day.”

“When you get a chance, give it a look. Zayn and Niall really outdid themselves planning fun activities all week. Anna is so excited we’ll be there in time for ballroom dance lessons!”

Louis stared at him for a beat, his fingers holding a packet of paper open, his body frozen.

“Buh--” He licked his lips, his chin tilting left. “Ballroom dancing?”

“Thursday afternoon!” Liam’s mobile rang from his pocket, a bashful smile crinkling his eyes. “Sorry, I need to get going. I mean,” he straightened up, “may I--”

“Yes, yes,” Louis waved his hand forward, “please. Get going.”

Liam called a cheerful, “Bye, sir!” over his shoulder as he flew out of the quiet office.

Louis steeled his expression, his hand releasing the packet to grip his mouse. He opened his personal email and double clicked on the newest email from Zayn.

Hello loved ones!

Here is the schedule for our magical time together. Obviously each activity is optional, but we hope to see you as at many as you can attend! If you’d rather sit one out, be sure to bring lots of sun cream and your bathing suit! The beaches are beyond beautiful!! So excited to see you all!!

Namaste and love!

Zayn and Niall! xoxoxo

“Namaste and love,” Louis whispered to himself, double clicking the attached PDF. “Namaste, love, and exclamation points.”

The multi-page schedule opened. Even though Flamingo Cove, the resort they chose for the trip, was definitely on the more sophisticated, elite side of all-inclusive tropical resorts, Niall and Zayn managed to wrangle multiple large rooms and beach settings for their week of events. Money talks.

A wedding bell and seashell border lined the pages, beach photos interspersed between paragraphs. Each day was bolded, along with its given title and a small symbol to match the title and a multitude of excited punctuation:

Seashell Sunday! Toucan Tuesday!! Flamingo Friday!!! The Happiest Day of Our Lives Saturday!!!!

Louis’ eyes widened as he read. Each day was jam packed with group meals and activities. If you attended each activity, you would be with other guests from sun up to sun down.

He loosened his tie, blowing a slow breath out of his lips. He looked behind himself at the hustle and bustle of London, smokey grey covering the street scene. He tried to match his heartbeat to the steps of an old woman walking a miniature Yorkie, the dog pulling at the lead but the woman’s steps slow and deliberate.

“Alright, let’s see,” he whispered to himself, refocusing on the schedule. He scrolled back to the top of the schedule, nodding. “I can do this.”

Beach Volleyball Tournament!
BBQ Lunch on the Beach!
Bocci and Shuffleboard!
Bike Riding Adventure!

“Okay,” he said, continuing to read. “Totally fine.”

Zumbaaaa!
Pottery with Zayn!!

His nose twitched.

Island Scavenger Hunt!! Bring your partner and get ready to run!
Family Movie Breakfast Extravaganza! (Tissues suggested!!!)
Crafting and Jewelry Making with Niall!

His mouth tightened, his teeth sinking into his bottom lip.

“Hm.”

The First Annual Ziall Beach Olympics! The ZIALL-YMPICS! Bring your A-Game!
Beach Tote Painting and Beading!!
Sunset Yoga!

His throat went dry and he’d barely made it two days into the schedule.

Couple’s Horseback Riding on the Beach!
MIDNIGHT KARAOKE!!!

He stared at the screen, copy machines and printers whirling outside his door. A phone rang once, twice, three times before it was picked up, the person who answered the phone far enough from his office that he could not hear their voice, only low murmurs of combined voices.

He swallowed, reached forward, and picked up his office phone.

. . .

“You’re almost there, almost there! Give me five...Four...Three...Two…And one. Done! Relax.”

Jack fell onto his stomach, his torso drenched with sweat and squelching on his sweaty yoga mat.

“Breathe,” Tony Horton’s chipper voice said through his television. “Great job, everyone. Let’s breathe together. Bring our heart rate down. Time for the cooldown.”

“Okay, Tony, whatever you say,” he panted, rolling onto his back. His chest heaved up and down, his arms sprawled bonelessly over his head. He gasped out, “Fucking plyometrics,” and shut his eyes, sweat stinging in the corners of his eyes and gushing down from his hairline. “Fucking P90X.”

“Now we stretch!”

He rolled onto his side, his muscles screaming and his hands shaking. Though he wanted to melt into a puddle of sweat and flesh goo for the next day or so, he listened to Tony’s instructions to stretch.

Once the guided cool down was complete, he followed through with his plan to melt into a puddle of sweat, collapsing on his back on his yoga mat and listening to the DVD menu music play. His phone vibrated on his white coffee table, his eyes slowly opening to blink at the sound of his work ringtone.

“Ugh,” he groaned, peeling himself off his mat.

Any other time, he would let the call go to voicemail, but the next couple of weeks were turning out to be rather slow. One of his regulars booked him for a week long trip to Acapulco, but had to cancel due to a work emergency. Before Jack could inform his client that he would be responsible for half of his deposit, since Jack held the week long slot in his schedule, his client emailed him to apologize profusely and insist that Jack keep the whole deposit (half of the entire week’s fee).

He managed to schedule an overnight with a regular client, but it was unlikely that he would book another long gig, or even a few random one-nighters, for the next couple of weeks. Spring break meant a lot of his clients were out of town or on holiday. He didn’t need the money, and wouldn’t mind a few days off, but was unsure what he’d do with so much time to himself. Maybe he’d finally get around to replacing the backsplash in his kitchen.

He crawled over to the table and glanced at the phone screen. It was an unknown number, as usual. He accepted the call, his voice a touch out of breath to say, “Hello?”

“Am I interrupting you at work? I was unsure what your hours of operation are.” Jack’s eyes widened at the high-pitched, raspy voice, his mouth popping open and his brows scrunching inwards. Tutting carried through the phone. “Quite rude of you to take a call with a paying client there, especially given your strict fee schedule.”

Jack shut his mouth, exhaling hot air out of his nostrils.

“What do you want, Tomlinson?”

“To talk.”

Jack brought himself to his feet and walked to his tall living room windows. He crossed his arms over his sweaty chest, his mouth set in a line.

“I’ve given you enough of my time for free. No more freebies.”

“I have a proposition for you.”

“Like I haven’t heard that one before.”

“I just want to talk to you. Businessman to businessman.”

A slow grin spread over Jack’s face as he studied his reflection in the window. He flexed his right bicep, the fine hair under his arm darkened with sweat.

“You’re calling about that wedding, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“I see,” Jack said, glee sneaking into his voice. He checked out his left bicep, turning to study the curve of his lower back. He did an easy twerk of his plump arse. Tony Horton was a genius. “Finally giving in?”

“No. I want to negotiate.”

“I don’t negotiate. You’re aware of my strict fee schedule,” he said, giving his words extra clipped diction. “You’re a numbers man. Do the math and pony up, or don’t call me again.”

“I refuse to pay for your services.”

Jack snorted.

“Then why the call? You get off on talking to sex workers without actually having sex?”

“I’ll take care of your expenses for the trip,” Louis said, his voice calm. The all white decor of Jack’s flat faded away to a conference room, a visual flashing in his mind of Louis sitting with his fingers steepled at the end of a long mahogany table. “Food, hotel, flight, everything. Whatever you need to enjoy yourself. All you have to do is accompany me to group events and pretend to be my boyfriend.”

“And my fee?”

“Your fee is ten days in the Bahamas. We’re not having sex, so I don’t feel an hourly rate is needed.”

“Louis, love,” he laughed softly, “I don’t do charity. You follow my rules, or you’re not one of my clients. It’s as simple as that. Besides,” he stepped on his left foot with his neon yellow right trainer, “I’m not even available that week--”

“Yes, you are,” Louis drawled over him.

Jack sucked his tongue into his mouth, listening to Louis chuckle softly on the other end of the phone. His nipples prickled on his damp chest.

“How do you know that?”

“Why do you think Mr. Carson gave you a ring a couple of hours ago? Asking for your availability, which,” Louis deepened his voice and slowed his words to mimic Jack’s speech, “recently opened up a bit due to a change in plans, love.”

Jack’s mouth pursed even tighter, his blood boiling hotter than during the peak of his P90X workout.

“That doesn’t mean I’m free the entire week. I have someone booked for Friday to Saturday.”

“Reschedule them.”

“I don’t appreciate you using my clients against me or poking around my schedule,” Jack said, the words gritted through his teeth. “At all.”

“You yourself said I was a wolf. I’m simply playing my part. That’s what we do best, isn’t it? Play our parts. Besides,” Louis snorted quietly, “do you really think you’re the only person who does their research? If anything, I’m following your rules. My referral is Mr. Francis Carson. He had the loveliest things to say about his old friend Jack. Such a sweet, sweet boy.”

As Louis’ tongue caressed each softly spoken word, Jack’s boiling blood rushed to his cheeks, bursts of fresh sweat itchy on top of his already drenched skin.

“I’m not discussing my client any further.”

“Fine with me. Do you accept the deal or not? I’ve got work to do.”

“I’m not accepting anything over the phone, are you insane? And you call yourself a businessman.”

“Let me take you out for lunch tomorrow and we can talk details.”

“Don’t tell me what to do. Besides, I’m busy.”

“Dinner, then? Or is tomorrow afternoon Mr. Tickles and you’ll need a night to recover?”

“I’m busy,” Jack repeated, slower, fighting a smile.

“Wednesday lunch?”

Jack nudged the toe of his trainer against the bottom of his window seat, a mug of cold tea abandoned on top of the cream coloured cushion.

“Fine.”

“Don’t sound so excited.”

Jack’s head snapped up.

“This doesn’t mean I’m accepting the offer. Why should I cancel two nights with a paying client to do you a favour?”

“As a numbers man, let me remind you that the cost of ten days at this resort is worth a touch more than two nights with your client, despite your ridiculously inflated prices. Why are you playing hardball with me? I’m offering you a free holiday.”

“Nothing in life is free, and people who say things like that are usually liars. You could be a complete psychopath.”

“Look,” Louis said, letting the word marinate for a moment. “You are more than welcome to stay in rainy, grey, cold London. Twiddle your thumbs, go shopping for more pirate clothes, catch up on Big Brother. Whatever. I don’t care.”

Jack’s phone vibrated against his face. He placed Louis on speaker and checked the screen, scanning over a new text.

babe, my ex broke ankle skiing & i need to take the kids next wknd. will have to reschedule. so so sorry love :((, was so looking forward to it xxx can you run my cc on file for cancellation fee? not sure if time to drop $ busy wk. thx love xx calll u soon

“Or,” Louis continued, “you can come with me on an all expenses paid trip to paradise and relax. No hustling necessary. You can sleep on the beach, for all I care. We barely even have to talk to each other, as long as we’re convincing enough in public and limit our bickering to when we’re alone.”

Jack licked his lips, watching a pigeon take off from his window ledge. The rising path of the bird caused his face to tilt back, sunlight beaming over his eyes and illuminating them mint green. He tapped the toe of his trainer against the wall and took Louis off speaker, bringing his phone to balance between his ear and shoulder.

Louis cleared his throat, quietly asking, “Jack?”

“We can talk details at lunch on Wednesday.”

A small rush of air carried through the phone.

“Good. Very good,” Louis said. Jack walked into his kitchen and took out a slice of wheat bread from the bread box beside his white toaster. “Have you ever been to J+A Cafe?”

Jack walked back to the living room while pinching off small pieces of bread, cradling the bits in his palm.

“Yes.”

“Noon?”

“Works for me.”

“I’ll see you then.”

“Fine.”

“Th--”

Another brush of air, louder and more rushed, came through the phone. When no words followed, Jack sighed, tapping his middle finger against the edge of his iPhone.

“Are we done?” Jack asked. He was starting to be able to smell himself, sharp sweat drying sticky on his skin. He cracked a window and tossed the bread pieces onto his window ledge. He brushed his hands together. “I’ve got things to do.”

“I was going to say thank you.”

Jack’s brushes slowed, his eyes following the flight pattern of two pale white birds weaving between buildings. They landed outside his window sill, pecking at the bread bits.

“Thank you for taking the time to speak with me,” Louis said, his voice quieter, less drive than usual behind his tone. “And agreeing to meet with me. We...I haven’t been very polite to you in our interactions. I apologize for that. Thank you for giving me a chance.”

Jack bit his bottom lip, his small smile reflected in the window. He ran his fingers through his hair, squeezing his high bun.

“What can I say? I’m a sucker for a big arse and a free lunch.”

Louis’ laughter crackled through the phone, Jack smiling wider as he watched the white birds stumble around on his landing. His pointer finger traced their outlines through the thin pane of glass, steam fogging the space around his fingertip.

“I’ll see you Wednesday, Jack.”

There was that gentle tone again. Jack lifted his finger from the glass, the two white birds taking off into the foggy sky.

. . .

Wednesday 15, April

It was raining when Louis ran into J+A Cafe, his coat tucked over his head. He pulled the door open and bumped into the back of someone standing in the front of the bustling cafe.

“You know, there’s this thing called an umbrella,” Jack said, steadying Louis with an arm on each shoulder. They walked further inside together, Louis stepping forward and Jack walking backwards. “It was invented a long, long time ago, but is still very handy in this day and age.”

Louis dropped his leather briefcase to the ground and shrugged his wet coat off, Jack taking it from him and hanging it on the coat rack beside the door.

Jack pushed his black Ray Bans up onto his hair and said to the hostess, “Two for lunch, please,” politeness radiating out of his warm smile.

“I left my umbrella in my office,” Louis said, shaking water off his hands. “It’s only down the road from here so I thought I could leg it.” He wiped his palms on his trousers, bending to pick up his briefcase. “The weather had other plans.”

“Busy day?”

Louis smiled crookedly up at him, running his fingers through his wet hair.

“Erm, sort of. My assistant’s girlfriend bought him a basketball hoop to put on a bin as a gag gift. He was horrified and told me he thought it was an immature distraction--He’s quite professional, you see--until I said we should try it.” He gave up on his hair, resulting in a small section on the very top of his head sticking straight up. “Three hours later, I’ve gotten no work done, we wasted an entire pack of printer paper, and he’s revealed himself as the Michael Jordan of throwing rubbish.”

Jack’s dimples popped as he laughed, the rough, deep sound barked suddenly out of his wide smile, his eyes crinkled at the corners. Louis’ brows arched with his own small smile, Jack quickly schooling his features.

“I’ve got your table ready, guys,” the hostess said, smiling and holding her arm out with two menus in hand. “This way, please.”

They followed her down the aisle of white tables. They were seated next to a window, rain pounding against the glass in a soothing, dull drone.

“Too bad it’s raining,” Louis said, pulling his seat into the table. “I like their outdoor tables.”

Jack nodded, reading over the menu.

“Me too.”

“You’ve eaten here?”

“I have. Their bar is good, too.”

“Do you live in the area?”

“I don’t.”

Louis waited for the rest of Jack’s sentence, but it never came, Jack’s eyes scanning over the menu.

“Okay,” Louis said slowly, picking up his own menu.

His eyes were pulled away from the list of food and over the edge of the white cardstock. Jack seemed to have gone for a more relaxed gala look as opposed to his greasy, sheer shirt aesthetic, wearing a fitted black blazer, dark jeans that clung to his thighs, and a loose white button-down that appeared to have motorcycles on it, all somehow tied together by a pair of mustard brown Chelsea boots.

“Was a pleasant surprise when you suggested this place.”

Louis looked up from Jack’s full lips.

“Sorry?”

The small upwards tilt of the left side of Jack’s mouth, a clue that he’d been caught staring, made the back of Louis’ neck burn.

“I said it was nice that you picked this place. I like it here.” Jack took his sunglasses off his head and stuck one arm in the deep vee of his shirt, his right hand ruffling through the front of his long locks. “It’s comfortable.”

“Where do you usually have lunches like this?”

Jack’s mouth pursed, his head bobbing side to side, weighing a silent discussion in his head.

“Food is the last thing on a lot of my client’s minds, but I’ve found that men who want to bother with meals together want to show off a bit. The whole wine and dine thing. I never thought I’d get sick of foie gras and lobster and champagne, but sometimes you just want a sandwich for lunch, you know?”

Louis nodded.

“Understood. This morning some investor or another decided to cater a huge breakfast for the office. God knows why. I’m still pretty full.”

“Too much prawn cocktail?”

“For breakfast? No, thank you. Disgusting.”

“Rubbish-ball didn’t spark an appetite?”

“No,” Louis chuckled, placing his menu on the table. “All I’m going to get is tea, but you can order whatever you want. Food, drinks, whatever.”

The waitress appeared at their table and placed a carafe of water on top, along with two glasses.

“Have you two decided?” she chirped, looking from Jack to Louis. “Do you have any questions about our menu?”

Louis opened his mouth, but before he could ask about their tea selection, Jack said, “I’d like a glass of the Clarendelle, please.”

Unsure how a lunch meeting had turned to an event for red wine, Louis glanced at the wine list, his eyes landing on the expensive Bordeaux Rouge at the same time as Jack tutting his tongue and tapping his forehead.

Jack chuckled out, “Silly me. You only offer that one by the bottle.” His smiling face glanced at Louis for one bat of his long eyelashes. “We’ll take a bottle.” His brows arched delicately. “That works for you, right, babe?”

The waitress’ eyes lit up, her pen flying over her pad as she said, “Excellent choice of wine.”

Louis murmured, “Yes.” He tilted his head, Jack’s smile growing, his foot rhythmically banging against Louis’ shin under the table. “Excellent choice, babe.”

“Then,” Jack continued in a low, smooth drawl, “we’ll start with the crab on Irish soda bread, split the quiche of the day, and I’d like the steak sandwich, please.” He handed her his menu, flashing a winning grin. “Thanks so much, love.”

The waitress flushed under his attention, fumbling his menu and sputtering, “Yes, okay, great choices.”

Louis rolled his eyes so hard he nearly blinded himself, kicking at Jack’s irritating boot. Jack stifled a laugh with his fist pressed to his mouth, his elbow perched on the table.

“Oh,” she said, looking baffled at Louis. “Sorry, sir,” she straightened her posture and smiled, “what can I get for you?”

“Tea, please,” he said, handing her his menu. “Yorkshire, if you have it.”

“We do.” She scribbled on her pad. “No food for you?”

Louis pasted a sunny smile on his face, reaching across the table to place his hand over Jack’s free hand.

“Oh, don’t you worry about me. I’ll share with my,” his voice rose to coo, “sweet, little honey bunch.”

Jack’s grin faltered for a split second, his eyes horrified and his brows scrunched. He recovered and smiled wider than Louis, turning his hand over and lacing their fingers together.

“Aw, my silly fluffy-bum, don’t be shy.” He giggled, the sound so cutesy and coupled with such a boyish wiggle that Louis’ stomach turned. “I can hear your wee little tum-tum rumbling from all the way over here.” Jack gripped Louis’ hand tightly to keep their joined hands on the table, smiling sickly-sweetly at the waitress and reciting, “He’ll have the Irish stew and a big piece of the Chocolate Guinness cake for dessert.” He thumbed towards Louis and blew air through his lips. “Such a sweet tooth, this one.”

Louis crunched his hand in an iron grip, their fake smiles bordering on manic. She didn’t seem to notice, laughing lightly and pocketing her pad.

“Lovely. I’ll put your order in right away and be back with your drinks.”

She left them, checking on the table behind theirs. They maintained their position until she moved out of earshot. Their hands sprung apart, Jack cackling while Louis scowled.

“Fuck,” Louis said, rubbing his reddened hand. “You must be a shit escort if you’re hustling me for quiche. Is that what this is? I’m not paying you so you’re going to order six hundred pounds worth of food to spite me? We should have picked a more expensive restaurant to save time.”

Jack started pouring water into his glass.

“I’m excellent at my job. Not that you’ll ever know that, but,” he fluttered his fingers in the air, “into every life a little rain must fall. And maybe,” his lips twitched, as if he wanted to laugh again, “I usually avoid carbs and sugar, but am feeling ambitious today.”

Louis squinted at him, shaking his head and still cradling his hand.

“You’re insane.”

“You’re the one who called me.”

“I’m on a time crunch.”

Jack narrowed his eyes and gave a tiny nod, his lips pursed forward. He placed the carafe on the table without filling Louis’ glass.

“Just keep telling yourself that.”

“If you were hungry, all you had to say was that you were hungry. I’m not so much of a barbarian that I wouldn’t treat you to lunch.” Louis thought for a moment as he filled his water glass. His nose wrinkled. “I’m not even in the mood for stew.”

“You’re a disgrace. They make delicious stew here and,” Jack’s hand flexed towards the window, “it’s perfect stew weather.”

“I told you I’m not hungry.”

“Ugh.” Jack sat back in his chair, shaking his hair backwards. “You’re killing my hunger buzz.”

“Look, I get what you’re doing,” Louis said, crossing his arms over his chest. “You’re sore because I made that photography comment at the gala. And the orifice comment. That was also not right for me to say. And kind of gross.” He winced, gritting his teeth. “Kind of really gross.”

Jack looked to the side and sipped his water, his fingers prim as a prince.

“I’m not sore.”

“It was a low blow and I’m sorry,” Louis continued. “I shouldn’t have said it and you shouldn’t be spoken to like that. Not by me and not by anyone.”

Jack sipped again. His fingers curled around the glass, his eyes glued to a spot on the table. He licked his lips.

“Whatever.”

“I don’t know you. I don’t know your history. I didn’t mean to judge you, I was...I was just--”

“Being rude.”

“I suppose.”

“Rude. And a prick,” Jack said, giving each word a pop of diction.

Louis tilted his head side to side, bright green eyes pinning him in place.

“I was going to say drunk and cranky,” Louis said, Jack’s lips curving upwards, “but, yes. You’re right. I was rude and a prick. And I’m sorry.”

Jack placed his water glass on the table, tilting his chin up.

“A bit rare for a man like you to know how to say the words, ‘I’m sorry,’ and sound sincere.”

“I’m being sincere. I am sincere.”

“Fair enough.” Jack’s eyes landed on Louis’ face. “I...Shouldn’t have said what I said about you climbing the ladder. Or about the right hand thing. That was rude, as well.” His lips twitched downwards, his attention so focused on Louis that it felt like heat waves were being radiated into Louis’ skull. “I’m sorry.”

Louis nodded and crossed his right leg over his left, leaning his right shoulder against the window pane. Under the rainy light, his eyes looked grey, a white glow illuminating the right side of his face.

“Apology accepted.”

“Apology accepted,” Jack repeated.

“I wonder, though, how would you know what a man like me would say or do? You don’t know me at all. You have a cliched view of me based on my profession, the same way I have a cliched view of you. That’s not who I am, and I reckon that’s not who you are either.”

Jack’s face bloomed with a wide smile, his eyes sparkling.

“Oh, you’re good,” he said, purring the words. Louis smirked, not quite as wide a smile as Jack but with an equal amount of heat simmering behind his eyes. The toe of his boot brushed softer against Louis’ shin. “You could be blowing complete smoke up my arse right now, but I can’t find myself to care. It’s that good.”

“Aren’t you a bright one? You’ve nailed it. My secret fetish isn’t collecting used underwear.” Jack’s head fell back to start laughing a full, rasped, throaty belly laugh before Louis could even giggle out, “It’s blowing things up arses. Well done, Jack Sparrow, well done.”

Jack kept laughing, his hands on his shaking stomach and his eyes scrunched shut, his tongue sticking out slightly of his large, tooth-filled mouth.

“Oh my God, you’re a goofy laugher,” Louis said, laughing himself, unable to look away from Jack’s boyish face. “That’s amazing.”

Jack dabbed the top of his hand under his eyelid, his laughter calming.

“I’m not a goofy laugher,” he groused, though his rumpled smile indicated he knew exactly what Louis was talking about. “You’re being ridiculous.”

“But you are. It’s refreshing.”

“Refreshing? Why?”

“It wouldn’t be fair if you looked how you look all the time without a wrinkle in there somewhere.”

Jack’s arm lowered to rest on the table, his fingertips fluttering on the smooth surface from pinky to thumb.

“And how would that be?” He smiled easily, fingertips doing another round of flutters. “How do I look?”

“Oh, shut up.” Louis flicked his hand in the air. “You know you’re gorgeous. It’s a fact, not a compliment.”

Jack’s boot was back on Louis’ shin, prodding at his ankle.

“Aw, babe,” he grinned, his dimples on full blast, his hair cascading in soft ringlets around his high cheekbones, “you think I’m gorgeous?”

“I’m going to send you my dry cleaning bill,” Louis muttered, kicking his foot away. “Most people take their shoes off to play footsie. Is that not in the Hustler Handbook?”

They both chuckled for a moment, their smiles easy, their bodies a mirror of relaxation in their seats. The realization that they had not viciously bickered within the past few minutes, and had actually exchanged adult apologies, dawned on both at the same time, their smiles fading.

The waitress came back to their table. She placed Louis’ tea, a small pitcher of milk, and a selection of sweeteners in front of him. Another server dropped off two wine glasses. The waitress pulled a corkscrew out of her black apron pocket.

“You two seem to be enjoying yourselves,” she said, smiling at them and bringing the corkscrew to the top of the red wine bottle. “Who would like to do the honours?”

Louis nodded towards Jack just as Jack said, “Oh, before you open it, would it be possible for me to switch to tea, actually? I’m terribly sorry for the inconvenience.”

Louis’ brows furrowed.

“I thought you wanted wine?” He nodded again, firmer, and gently kicked Jack’s ankle under the table. “It’ll go great with your steak sandwich. I’ll help you with the bottle.”

“I could bring you a cup of tea in addition to the wine,” the waitress suggested, corkscrew poised.

“Um, alright, thanks,” Jack said, nodding and smiling across the table at Louis. His eyes lit up, his attention back at their waitress. “Oh! And for the stew I ordered for him, I meant to--”

“--Ask if that comes with the crusty bread?” Louis said as he reached across the table and rested his hand on Jack’s knuckles. Jack’s flexor muscle flickered on the top of his arm. “I love the bread it comes with.” He tilted his head at the window, smiling at her. “It’s perfect stew weather.”

The waitress chuckled as her arm worked the corkscrew.

“Yes, crusty bread is on the way. Fresh out of the oven.”

Louis looked to Jack, who stared at him as if an alien was seated across the table. The cork popped, deep red wine drizzled into the glass in front of Jack. Louis’ thumb ran over his knuckles.

“Go on, love.” He nodded gently. “Try it.”

Jack’s eyes narrowed, his hand tensing under Louis’ palm.

It felt as if red alarm bells were wailing and flashing in the quaint cafe, as if the other patrons were standing on their tables and spraying the room with fire extinguishers while screaming at the top of their lungs. He had the sudden sensation of trying to wake up from a dream where he was stumbling down a flight of stairs but couldn’t quite get himself to wake up and was stuck in a tumbling limbo, his legs trapped and kicking weakly against his too tight blankets.

“Sure,” he said, blinking once, all alarm bells quieting to the dull chatter surrounding them. He lifted the glass and sipped. He swallowed and nodded at the waitress, replacing his glass on the table. “It’s perfect, thanks.”

He watched her pour wine into both glasses. It could have been children’s grape juice, for all he knew; his mouth had gone numb. He eyed Louis as if he was a viper sitting upright, Louis chatting with the waitress about bread making being done in house.

“I’ll be back with your starters in just a moment,” she said, placing the wine bottle on their table.

“Thanks so much,” Louis said. Jack’s eyes followed her back as she wove through the tables, Louis shifting in his seat in his peripheral vision. “Well,” Louis tilted his glass across the table, “here’s to going back to work with purple teeth. Can’t say it’ll be my first time.”

Jack lifted his glass and took a sip with his eyes on Louis’ face. Some of the warm notes in the wine brought feeling back into his tongue, spicy red wine tingling on his palate. He took another small sip then placed his glass carefully on the table, slowly licking his lips.

“We should figure out our back story,” Jack said.

Louis thumbed wine off his bottom lip.

“I don’t think that’s necessary, do you?”

“I’ve done this before and I think it’s necessary. People love to ask questions, especially if they’re caught off guard by a new relationship. We should settle on a story for how we met. Even if it’s simple, we should be on the same page.”

“Anything we plan in advance will sound stilted when we say it in person. I’m better at improvising.”

Jack sighed and poured himself more wine.

“Improvising is fine when you’re alone, but when you’re with your boyfriend,” he touched the centre of his chest, “your boyfriend would appreciate a heads up as to what he should be telling complete strangers. Our story is that we met on Valentine’s Day in a cab.”

“Gross. Why Valentine’s Day?”

“It’s a holiday. You’re more likely to remember it in the moment. And,” Jack leaned back in his chair, swirling his glass in the air, “we did meet in a cab, so that’s actually true. The best lies stick close to the truth.”

Louis blinked at him, his head tilting.

“That rolled off the tongue rather easily.”

Jack sipped his wine, shrugging one lazy shoulder.

“But if we were a real couple, our anniversary would be Valentine’s Day,” Louis said, his face scrunched. “I’d hate it if that was our anniversary. I’d want our anniversary to be unattached to any holiday so we can celebrate it just us, not have to deal with every other couple on Earth trying to get restaurant reservations and flowers.”

Jack let out another sigh, though a smile threatened to spread across his face.

“Who knew you’d be so stubborn about a fake anniversary?”

“I’m only asking questions and expressing my opinion.”

Jack’s smile emerged, quickly hidden by a long drink of wine. He ran his right hand through his hair, Louis’ eyes following the motion.

Jack explained, “It’s easier to pick a holiday instead of a random day of a random month because we’ll both remember it under pressure. Would you prefer New Years? Christmas?”

“No. My birthday is the day before Christmas and that’s stressful enough for me to remember.”

Jack started to chuckle.

“Halloween, maybe?”

Louis nodded, his eyes brightening.

“Oh, yes. I’d prefer Halloween, please.”

Jack cradled his chin on his palm.

“Are you serious?”

“Yes. Can Halloween be our meeting date? I promise I’ll remember it.”

Jack’s lips opened and closed, his face tilting left.

“You’d rather have Halloween as our anniversary instead of Valentine’s Day? Is our wedding going to be a costume party that involves Jack-O-Lanterns and bobbing for apples? Is our song the Monster Mash?” He flattened his palm to the ceiling, bulging his eyes. “I have so many questions about our future. I’ll have to completely change the colour scheme for our floral arrangements to black and orange.”

“I have a love-hate relationship with scary movies. Plus, Valentine’s Day is the worst of the fake holidays.”

“If we say Halloween, that’s, like,” Jack’s eyes rolled back in his head, “six months we’ve been together.”

“So?”

“That’s a long time. Half a year. You’d really keep a relationship from your friends for that long?”

Louis’ mouth twitched, his thumb tapping the stem of his wine glass.

“Yes. I would.”

After a beat, Jack nodded.

“Alright. If you say so.”

“Here we are,” the waitress said, appearing beside their table. She gave them each a small white plate. “Crab on Irish soda bread,” that larger plate was placed on Jack’s side of the table, “and our quiche of the day: artichoke and goat cheese”

“Thanks so much,” Jack said. “Looks lovely.”

“Shall I freshen your drinks?” she asked, going for the wine bottle.

Jack chuckled softly and rested his hand over the top of his glass.

“I’m fine, thanks. Maybe once I get some food in me.”

“Same,” Louis said, pulling his glass to himself. “It’s a really good red.”

She nodded and left them alone with a promise to be back with more napkins. Louis cut into the quiche, his tongue poking out the corner of his mouth.

“You were right to order enough for both of us.” He put a small slice on his plate. “I’m hungrier than I thought. Do you want me to cut a piece for you? You can have the whole rest of it, if you’d like.”

“Let’s set the terms.”

“Oh.” Louis froze with his arms at odd angles, his fork and knife still piercing the quiche. “Okay.” He pulled his flatware back to his side of the table. “What do you usually do in this situation? Like, a long overnight trip sort of thing?”

“I’ve traveled with clients for a month straight. Two months straight. This will be nothing. It all usually depends on the client’s needs and wants.”

“Alright,” Louis said.

A beat passed.

Jack gestured towards him with one large hand.

“What are your needs and wants?”

“I...Don’t have any,” Louis said. “What should they be?”

“Impossible.”

“Why impossible?”

Jack shifted in his seat.

“If you can’t verbalize what you’re looking for, this isn’t going to work. I can’t read your mind.”

Louis’ right hand straightened to softly karate chop the table.

“I want someone who can go to the wedding week events with me.” He karate chopped again. “And the wedding, obviously.” His eyes did a small circle over Jack’s face. “You’re not an idiot. I trust you can behave yourself in public without me telling you to behave.”

“Such kind words. No wonder you’re single.”

Louis rolled his eyes, continuing, “The only rules I can think of is no drug use, as I’d rather not bail you out of a Bahamian jail, and don’t see any other clients while we’re there, as it might confuse the wedding guests if you’re seen with someone else.”

“Why?”

“Why don’t I want you to go to jail? I’d think that’s an easy answer.”

“No,” Jack chuckled. “Your rules make sense. I’m drug free and I’d never see a client while with another client.” He looked insulted for a moment, his fingers fanning on his chest. “I’m a professional; give me some credit. I meant,” he leaned across the table, a wave of soapy air gushing Louis’ direction, “why are you doing this? Why bring a fake boyfriend as a date? You don’t seem like the type to care what other people think.”

Louis cleared his throat and sat up in his chair, moving his right arse cheek back first, then his left arse cheek.

“I don’t care what other people think.” He picked up his fork. “I’m doing this because my family and friends don’t seem to understand that I’m doing perfectly fine without a serious boyfriend, no matter how many years I’ve tried to get them to understand.” He used the side of the fork to cut off the tip of his quiche slice. “It would be exhausting to explain that for ten straight days. And I’d rather not go to thousands of group events alone, for the sheer sake of my sanity.”

“Why me?”

“You’re used to being with big groups of people you don’t know, you’re discreet, you seem to be able to keep up with me, and I find you mildly amusing.” He lifted his bite of quiche. “I think I can manage with you as my boyfriend for the week.”

Jack held his gaze for a moment then looked down, cutting his crab starter, his cheeks flushing with warmth. He placed half on Louis’ small plate.

“What kind of events are we talking about?”

“Ah.” Louis reached down and unbuckled his brief case, pulling out a crisp packet of paper. He handed it to Jack. “Here’s the,” his eyes widened ever so slightly, “mighty itinerary.”

Jack glanced over the schedule as he chewed a mouthful of crab and soda bread, the corners of his mouth curving up. He turned two pages, green eyes moving from side to side.

“Ah ha,” he said out of the corner of his mouth. He swallowed. “No wonder you want a date. There are far too many karaoke events to stomach it alone. And what’s with the craft obsession?”

“I’ve already checked and there will be plenty of alcohol available at all times.”

“Speaking of alcohol,” Jack cut into the quiche, “my policy is that all meals, travel expenses, and trip related expenses are covered by the client.”

“Yes, of course. Everything will be paid for. And while we’re there, if you need anything, just let me know and I’m sure we can work it out.”

Jack’s lips quirked slightly upwards.

“In return for sex, you mean?”

Louis’ head recoiled on his neck.

“What? No. Not sex. I meant if you wanted to buy a magnet or something.” Jack started to giggle, his face brightening with the bubbly sound. “Oi, what do I know what your souvenir taste is? Lots of people like magnets.”

“I’m going to need this in writing, especially the sex part.” He brought a bite up to his open lips. “I don’t quite believe it.”

“No sex,” Louis said, shaking his head. He watched Jack stick his tongue out of his mouth before placing the bite on top, Louis’ brows furrowing. “This is a companion sort of thing. Like you said the other night with Mr. Carson. But, of course, if you’d feel more comfortable with it in writing, I’d be happy to draw up whatever document you’d like. You eat like a cat, you know.”

Jack nodded, forking quiche into his mouth.

“I’ll draw up the contract and email it to you tonight. I have my own forms. I’ll book my own travel. You can reimburse me.” He dabbed his mouth with his napkin. “And I do not eat like a cat. What are you on about?”

“Oh, I…” Louis spun his wine glass. “I figured we’d fly together. I’d rather not arrive separately, I think that would make people suspicious.”

“We can travel together, but I do my own bookings. It’s for my privacy.”

“Alright. If that’s what you prefer.”

“It is.”

“Fine. Anything else?”

“What do you want me to wear?”

“Jack,” Louis chuckled on an exhale, running his hand through his hair, “this is not a normal job. This is literally you coming to an island with me for a few days. As long as you have something nice enough for the beach wedding, which I’m guessing is pretty casual, you can pack whatever you want. Wear swim trunks all week. I don’t care.”

“I need to know if there’s a dress code or if I need to prep for anything special. Didn’t you research the resort? The restaurants at high end, all-inclusive resorts usually have dress codes.”

“You dress well on your own. Why do I need to tell you what to wear?” Louis’ eyes crinkled, a smile quirking his lips. “Oh, I get it.”

“What?”

“You’re used to dressing for your clients. Like, what turns them on.”

“What turns you on?”

“Nice try,” Louis laughed, Jack grinning and snapping his fingers.

“Drat. I was so close to finding out about your obsession with men in thigh highs and heels.”

Louis laughed, his hand flying to his mouth to block soda bread from flying out. They munched for a moment, forks and knives scraping over their white plates.

“What did you mean by prep?”

Jack pressed his napkin to his lips before swallowing and saying, “I usually prep for a holiday.”

“Prep what?”

“My body.”

There was a pause, Jack sipping his wine, Louis blinking at him over a forkful of crab.

“Prep...Your body?”

“Yes. I’m very meticulous with planning, like,” Jack swirled his glass in front of him, “waxing, tanning, enemas, that sort of thing. Are there going to be any nude pool parties?”

“Uh,” Louis held out the word, “no. It’s safe to assume you will not have to attend any nude events. I think there will be more kids than adults at the wedding. Swim trunks should be fine. You can leave your,” he looked around and lowered his voice, “enemas at home.”

Jack shrugged his right shoulder, his lips pursed forward.

“Suit yourself. I’ll look over the schedule and pack accordingly.”

“Sounds good.”

“We should kiss and touch a few times.”

Louis scratched the front of his neck, his fingers whirling over the soft skin.

“Why? We’re not having sex and it’s all just for companionship.”

“Because we’re going to a wedding, where people kiss and dance and hold hands. We need to practice all that to make it believable that we’ve been together half a year.”

“That seems unnecessary.”

Jack’s eyes sparkled, his smile growing.

“Are you afraid to kiss me?”

“Absolutely not,” Louis said over him. “I just...Don’t think it’s necessary. I have a very tight schedule the next couple of weeks and I don’t have time to set up a pretend date with my pretend boyfriend to pretend to snog.”

A boot nudged Louis’ ankle.

“How many times do I have to tell you that I’ve done this before? It will make things a lot less awkward if we pop a few cherries, that way it looks normal if we kiss in front of other people. No matter how good you are at improv, the first time we kiss you’re going to get an adrenaline spike. That’s not abnormal; it’s science. It’s better to do it in private than look like a freak in front of other people who are already going to be paying close attention to us.”

“Fine, fine. You’re the expert. Where and when are we practicing?”

“I’m not showing you where I live, but I’d be happy to join you at yours sometime in the next few days. I can even bring my laptop and we can book my flight together.”

Louis took his phone out and unlocked it, scanning over the screen.

“Erm,” he scrolled, then tapped the screen once, “tomorrow night? I think I understand Liam’s schedule notes. It seems I’ve got a late day but should be home and ready for guests at around nine.”

“Perfect.”

“Lovely.” Louis typed a quick text. “I just sent you my address. I’ll leave your name with the doorman.”

“Great. I’ll email you the contract tonight and I’d appreciate it if you could return it, signed, in the next twenty-four hours.”

“Lovely.” Louis bent over and lifted his leather briefcase. He snapped it open and searched through a few stacks of paper before pulling out a packet, offering it to Jack. “I brought this for you, as well.”

“So much to read,” Jack sighed, taking it from him. He scanned over the neatly prepared document with photos, names, and short blurbs. “What is it?”

“I made this for Liam when he first started working for me to help him become acquainted with my family and friends.”

Jack peered over the paper at Louis.

“Is that a normal executive to assistant thing?”

“No, but my family has never seemed to understand that they aren’t supposed to rely on my professional assistant to get to me and feel it’s appropriate to call my office at all hours. It was only human to warn him of the cast of characters in my life.”

Jack frowned, flipping to the second page.

“Maybe they want to stay in touch with you. You only get one family, you know?”

Louis said nothing and sipped his wine. He watched Jack read for a moment, his full lips mouthing along for certain unidentifiable words.

“Either way,” Louis said, shifting in his seat, “I thought it would help you get up to speed with some of the people who will be at the resort with us. I don’t have everyone on there, like Zayn and Niall’s extended families, but the main people are all there.”

Jack’s eyes narrowed, his thumb brushing the corner of the packet.

“So…” He flipped the packet around to face Louis, pointing at a page of small, smiling faces. “Kids are going to be there?”

“Yeah. Zayn and Niall are into big families. My mum and sisters are going. My family and Zayn’s family are super tight, which expanded to Niall’s family, too, once he and Zayn got together. Niall’s Irish and has a billion aunts and uncles and cousins.”

“I,” Jack wet his lips, flattening the papers on the table, “don’t usually interact with kids on the job.”

“Oh. Do you have a problem with kids?”

“No, not a problem. Just…” His lips tightened, his eyes darting to the side for a moment. “It’s not usually who I mix with on work trips.”

“Is this going to be an issue?”

Jack shook his head quickly, his wide eyes sucking Louis in from across the table.

“No, not a problem. It’s fine. I’ll make it work.”

“As you saw from the itinerary, there are a lot of kid friendly activities. If you don’t want to do an activity, please feel free to tell me. I’d love nothing more than to skip Ziall-ympics to nap on the beach.”

“No way,” Jack laughed, shaking his head. “We’re gonna win the Ziall-ympics. No doubt.”

Louis snorted and flipped the packet back to the first page.

“This is my family, who you will likely interact the most with. If they’re being too much, you can, I dunno, make a bird call or something and I’ll get them off your back. This document has their name, nickname, ages, and some random details. You don’t have to memorize it, as I’ll have to introduce you to everyone anyway, but I thought it might be helpful.”

“Joelle Mackey. Goes by Jo. Mum. Fifty-one. Does not work. Enjoys wine, handmade candles and other generally overpriced rubbish,” Jack read aloud, nodding and studying the photo of an attractive, smiling brunette in her early fifties. “She’s pretty. Looks young.”

“Be sure to tell her that. You’ll be her new favourite.”

“Married to John Mackey,” Jack said as his eye landed on the red, laughing face of a jolly looking man with salt and pepper hair. “Age: Sixty-five. Venture capitalist. Enjoys money, cigars and American football. Huh.” Jack smiled up at Louis. “I could talk American football with him all day.”

“Yeah? He’s a Cowboys fan.”

“Ugh, the Cowboys,” Jack groaned, rolling his eyes. His legs spread under the table. “That’s like finding out someone’s a Yankees fan. Packers are where it’s at. A team with heart.”

“I don’t know what any of that means.”

Jack snorted, looking down at the paper.

“Is he your dad?”

“No.”

Louis said nothing further and Jack could take a hint. He simply nodded and touched a photo of a woman with blue eyes and long, straight brown hair. She looked very similar to Louis, especially around the eyes.

“Elena Matthews. Goes by Lane. Sister. Age: Twenty-eight. Works for a non-profit that helps victims of natural disasters.” Jack’s lips pursed forward as he nodded. “Enjoys wine, hmm,” he smirked and narrowed his eyes at Louis, “I’m noticing a pattern.” Louis smiled around the rim of his wine glass. “Wine, competitive sports and refinishing furniture by hand. Married to Dean and mother to Margaret.”

Jack moved on to a photo of a grinning, burly man with a backwards red baseball cap, dirty blond hair sticking out of his hat.

“Dean Matthews. Brother-in-law. Age: Thirty-one. Works in construction. Does great impressions. Likes cars, craft beer and the Fast and the Furious film series. Father of Margaret.”

Jack smiled to himself, thumbing a photo of a pudgy, bright eyed girl with wild, curly brown hair, her toothy grin infectious.

“Margaret Matthews. Goes by Maggie. Niece. Age: Four. Loves piggyback rides, flowers, colouring, and ponies.” He glanced at Louis. “She doesn’t look like a Margaret, but I could see her as a Maggie.”

“Margaret was some family name from the past. I think Lane did it to calm our mother when she got pregnant pre-marriage.”

Jack let the papers flutter to the table.

“Did your mum seriously think you and Lane were both waiting for marriage in this day and age?”

“I think my mum was horrified Lane didn’t tie down some poor bloke before she got pregnant. She has a weird way with marriage. Lucky for us all, Dean is great. I like him more than most of my actual family. Maggie is even better.”

“I can see Dean and Lane being our biggest competition for the Ziall-ympics. And Maggie is so, so cute.”

An uncontrollable smile spread over Louis’ face.

“Don’t let the cute face fool you. She is brilliant and will talk her way into, or out of, anything.”

“Huh, wonder where she got that from,” Jack drawled, slow and deep, his eyes boring into Louis’ face. The right side of his mouth rose. “Cute face and a fast tongue? Must be a Tomlinson genetic trait.”

Louis’ face heated.

“My youngest sister, Marcy, well, Marcelline,” he tapped a photo of a younger woman with chocolate brown waves, “is probably going to come in halfway through the week. She has a friend’s wedding the first weekend of the trip, if you can believe it. She’s a journalism student at NYU.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“She is.” Louis turned to the next page. “This is Zayn and Niall. Zayn’s my best friend getting married. Niall’s his boyfriend. Fiancee, sorry.”

Jack read over Zayn’s paragraph. He tapped the darker haired person in the photo of the smiling pair.

“Zayn Malik. Best friend from birth. Artist. Age: Twenty-nine. Hm.” He tapped the photo. “Pretty eyes.” He glanced up at Louis and found him to be staring at his fingernails. “Are you twenty-nine, as well?”

“I am. How old are you?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“Ah.”

“Enjoys meditation, striving for peace on Earth, creativity in all forms, and meditative retreats in volcanos.” Jack checked the next page, his brows furrowed. “He doesn’t have a job besides art?”

“No. He always said he needed complete freedom of mind to express the truest channel of his soul.” Jack’s eyes bulged with amusement as he read, a small smile lighting Louis’ face. “He does a lot of sculpture and pottery.”

“Oh, nice. I do pottery.”

“You do pottery?” Louis repeated, stating it rather than questioning him.

“I do. I take a class twice a week. It’s very relaxing.” Jack arched his eyebrows, letting his head fall to the side as he turned the page. “What, you thought I’d be so busy taking a dick every night that I don’t have time for hobbies?”

“I didn’t say that,” Louis said.

Jack smirked and went back to the list.

“A work-life balance is very important no matter the field, Mr. Tomlinson.”

“You really do have a knack for being a personal consultant. So many gems pop out of that pretty mouth of yours.”

Louis’ mouth snapped shut immediately. The right side of Jack’s lips lifted, his teeth blazing across the table without looking up at Louis.

“Pretty mouth, hm?” he murmured, deliberately licking the corner of his mouth and thumbing over the spot. He turned the page with his thumb, tongue flickering quicker to trace the inside of his bottom lip, choosing that moment to make eye contact. “Is that so?”

“Ugh, stop.” Louis waved his hand weakly. “You truly are an overgrown tomcat. You’re about two seconds away from licking your own arsehole.”

Jack leaned across the table with their eyes locked, dropping his voice.

“I can do that, you know.” His eyes widened. “Hustler gifts.”

Louis gaped at him, shock slackening his features. Jack waited three seconds before he burst out laughing, Louis exhaling and pushing his small plate to the end of the table.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” Jack giggled out, his eyes sparkling. “But I think you were into the idea.

“I was not.”

“Alright, whatever you say. So, let me get this straight.” He turned the packet towards Louis, pointing at Niall’s biography and accompanying photo, Niall smiling so wide the photo was nearly all teeth. “This guy.”

“Niall.”

“The groom. Well, the other groom.”

“Yeah. What about him?”

“His family is the owner of Horan Meats?”

“Yes.”

“And that’s why he’s filthy rich?”

“They make some special sausage that’s sold in every baseball stadium in America, most football stadiums in the world, and even in arenas for American football.”

“Yeah, I’ve definitely eaten a few at games. It’s, like, a spicy sausage and pepper sandwich. They’re huge. Not only in size, but, wow. He must be, like, mega-rich. They’ve been around forever.”

“He is. Mega-rich.”

“Question,” Jack said, placing the packet on the table. He steepled his fingers. “Does he tolerate sausage jokes?”

Louis’ serious expression cracked a smile.

“Tolerate? Encourages. Loves.” Louis pointed at the packet. “Didn’t you read his bio?”

“So, he’s totally fine with us joking about how the wedding of two gay men is being paid for by sausages? Like a legitimate sausage-fest?”

Louis’ shoulders shook as he laughed, Jack grinning at him.

“He’ll love it. He’s fun. You’ll like him. Do you golf?”

“I fuck old men for a living. Of course I golf.”

The deadpanned joke slipped out before Jack could control it, the hair on the back of his neck standing up. Louis’ answering laugh, a true giggle with no sign of pity or disgust, made his blood pump faster, the momentary panic smoothing to tingled pleasure. Sweat prickled under his arms, his face hot.

“Niall will like that,” Louis said, stacking their dishes at the end of the table. “I’m pretty shit at it, but since I usually don’t have a partner to make four, I can escape his golf outings.” He refilled Jack’s wine glass, offering him a dry smile. “I suppose I won’t be able to escape this time.”

Jack directed his attention back to the packet just as the waitress returned with their lunch.

“Everything good over here?” she asked, sliding a steak sandwich in front of Jack. Jack nodded, folding his papers and pushing them aside. “Need anything?” She picked up the carafe and refilled their waters. “I’ll bring you more water.”

“Thank you,” Louis said, bread poised at his steaming bowl of stew.

Jack lifted his sandwich to his mouth, his tongue rolling out before he bit into the sandwich. He heard muffled laughter from across the table. He squinted at Louis as he chewed, Louis smiling around his spoon. His throat bobbed to swallow.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Louis lifted a spoonful of stew and stuck his tongue all the way out before sticking his spoon in his mouth. Jack rolled his eyes, his cheeks puffing as he chewed.

“You’re ridiculous,” Jack said out of the corner of his mouth.

“Alright, kitten. Whatever you say.”

“I think I prefer honey bunch to kitten, fluffy-bum.”

“You are not calling me fluffy-bum in front of my family.”

Jack slowly extended his tongue out to bite his sandwich, his face innocent.

Louis directed his eyes at the ceiling and whispered, “Dear God, what am I getting myself into?”

“You’re not getting into anything or anyone, remember?” Jack bit into his sandwich, bread crunching in his teeth. “Contract and all.”

Louis let his head roll forward to stare at him, bored. Jack smiled with his lips shut, a dab of juice from his steak lingering on the corner of his mouth. His long lashes bobbed ever so slowly, his pink tongue darting out to grab the juice. Louis’ hand clenched around his spoon, Jack’s smiling widening.

. . .

Thursday 16, April

“Name?”

“Jack McQueen. I’m here to see Louis Tomlinson in 30A.”

The burly, bald security guard stared at him long and hard, Jack blinking at him and maintaining his stance. Their staring contest went on for nearly half a minute. The guard eventually lifted a telephone from his desk, punching three digits in.

“A Mr. Jack McQueen is here to see you, sir. Shall I send him up?”

Jack waited with his breath held for the five seconds of silence between the guard’s question and Louis’ reply. He knew Louis would let him up, but his heart still pounded with stuttered beats under the stern gaze of the guard. He smoothed his hand over the front of his thin button down, the shirt cream coloured with tiny black stars, the first four buttons left undone.

“Very well, sir,” the guard said, hanging up the phone. He stared at Jack, the lobby silent. “You’re not his usual type.”

Jack’s eyes narrowed.

“Excuse me?”

The guard said nothing, but pressed a button on his desk, the clear plastic half-doors swaying open.

“First lift. Top floor.”

Jack nodded and said, “Thank you,” adjusting the strap of his brown leather messenger bag.

He went to the bank of lifts and stepped into the first one, pressing the top button for the thirtieth floor. The doors shut and the lift started to rise quickly, Jack watching the numbers light and fade, light and fade, light and fade, until he reached the top. The doors pinged open.

He was not in a hallway with multiple doors, but what seemed to be a foyer, only one black metal door labeled 30A. He rang the doorbell.

“Sorry, one second,” Louis’ voice said from inside. Footsteps came closer until the door swung open. “Hi,” Louis stepped back on bare feet and held the door open, “c’mon in. Sorry.” He rubbed a red towel over his hair, his hair still damp. He had on black sweats that bunched at his narrow ankles and a long sleeved white henley. “My meeting ran late, then I was late to meet my trainer, then my taxi home was caught in traffic, and here we are now.”

Jack stepped inside, schooling his expression. He’d been in many luxury penthouses, hotels and mansions in his life. He’d ridden on expensive yachts with rooms larger than any house he could hope to ever own. He been flown on private jets to every corner of the world.

Louis’ penthouse was impressive, but not surprising. It looked much like most other flats owned by men with a similar income. It was an open plan with expensive electronics tastefully hidden amongst the modern, dark decor, floor to ceiling windows running the entire length of the space.

The fact that Louis didn’t have a platformed grand piano under a spotlight or a glass cabinet full of awards and photos with dignitaries made Jack’s nerves calm. The place was spotless, so clean he assumed Louis hired a daily cleaning person, but still felt lived in, the flatscreen quietly playing footie highlights in the background.

“You want a drink?” Louis asked, padding into the enormous kitchen. He opened the stainless steel refrigerator, still toweling his hair. Jack studied the rows of prepared meals in neat plastic containers, each labeled with the meal name and date of preparation. “Water?”

“No, thank you.”

Louis glanced over his shoulder for a second then looked back to the refrigerator, pulling out a bottle for himself. He walked back to Jack, his brows arched.

“What?”

Jack’s eyes jerked away from the pile of rubber bones next to the leather couch.

“Nothing.”

“You don’t like my place?”

“It’s fine.” Jack shrugged his right shoulder forward, thumbs looped in the pockets of his black skinnies. “It’s exactly what I thought it would look like.”

“And what does your flat look like, then, hm? The aftermath of a bender with Captain Jack Sparrow and Stevie Nicks?”

Jack smiled at that, rubbing his fingers over his left eyebrow.

“Not quite.”

“I’m imagining lots of scarves and tapestries,” Louis said, creating a scene in the air with his fluttering fingers. “A pottery wheel in the centre of the room. Constant candles and incense. Body oil galore. And a treasure chest overflowing with earrings.”

That pulled a throaty laugh from Jack, Louis smiling at the sound.

“Do you want me to take off my shoes?”

Louis blinked at him.

“Why?”

“Didn’t know if you were one of those clean freaks paranoid of bacteria carried in on the bottom of shoes.”

“I wasn’t, but now I’m rethinking my stance.”

Jack smiled at the floor and toed his boots off, carrying them to the front door. He noticed a long blue lead hanging off a hook beside the door at the same time as Louis laughing, “Jesus, George, relax!”

Jack turned in time to see a round khaki and black blur of fur flying at him on frantic, short legs, its tiny toenails clicking on the hardwood.

“Sorry!” Louis called, running after the blur. He tried to grab the dog, but George darted sideways. “Are you okay with dogs?”

Jack stared at the wiggling bundle of energy as it rammed repeatedly into his shins, his tongue panting out of his mouth and breathy oinking sounds huffed out of his flat nose.

“Yeah,” he said, his voice soft, his smile softer. He knelt down and held his hand out for George to sniff, his other hand scratching the tiny rolls of fat that covered George’s neck. “Hello, George.”

“He’s harmless, I promise. He’s a blob in dog form.”

Jack chuckled, using both hands to massage his fur.

“He’s really cute. A pug?”

“Mmhmm.”

George stood up on his back legs and grasped Jack’s leg with his front paws, humping his hips forward.

Jack laughed, “O-Oh.”

Louis’ jaw dropped.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” Louis blurted out, bending and lifting George. “What the fuck? He’s never done that before.” He gaped at his dog, who was still wiggling and leering at Jack. “What’s the matter with you, mate?” He looked back to Jack. “I’m so, so sorry. I gave him a bath tonight and sometimes he gets all hyped up afterwards.”

“It’s alright, happens to the best of us,” Jack said, still chuckling. He stepped up to Louis and held his arms out, George jumping away from his owner to burrow against Jack’s chest. Coy eyes landed on Louis’ face. “At least someone in this household has a healthy sex drive.”

“Ha. Ha.” He nodded his head to the side. “Wanna go to my bedroom?”

“Sure.”

Jack carried George in his arms, George going to town licking his neck. Jack smiled and bit his bottom lip, shifting his head side to side. Louis turned off the television in passing.

“Guest room,” Louis said, holding his arm out towards a closed door on the right. They walked a few more steps. He pointed to the left. “Second guest room.” They passed yet another closed door on the right. “Office.”

“Riveting.”

“C’mon in,” Louis smiled over his shoulder, both stepping into his bedroom. He tossed his water bottle on the king sized bed, a black duvet covering the wide surface. “Make yourself comfortable.”

His bedroom was decorated much like the rest of his flat, lots of dark, masculine colours incorporated in the modern design. Warm lights were built in around the room. The room was large enough for his bed, a built in custom chest of drawers, and a seating area of to the left side next to the floor to ceiling window, which included a sleek sofa and arm chair positioned around a small rectangular table.

Jack sat on the end of the bed and dropped his laptop bag on the floor. He pulled both legs onto the bed and crossed them, placing George in the space between his stomach and ankles.

“Why George?” Jack rubbed George’s soft belly, George’s tongue hanging out of his mouth and his eyes delirious. “That’s a rather serious name for a pug who smells like candycanes.”

Louis chuckled from inside the en suite.

“You caught him on a good night.” He tossed his wet towel into a stainless steel laundry hamper. “He usually smells like tacos.”

As he rubbed lotion on his face, he could hear Jack’s deep voice quietly crooning, “Hey there, Georgy boy. Uh...” Jack paused for a moment, his voice softer and more tentative to sing the rest of the melody on the neutral syllable, “Dah-dah-dah-dah-daah, dah-daah, duh-daaah.”

Louis caught sight of himself in the mirror, his fond smile freezing. He scowled and rubbed his cheeks harder. Even his strongest scowl was no match for the sound of nonsense words sung in a low baritone, George making what Louis thought of as his, ‘Happy pant.’

He returned to the bedroom and glanced at the duo lounging on his bed, a smile fighting to spread across his face. He walked closer, scratching the top of George’s head.

“When I took him home from the shelter, Here Comes The Sun was playing on the car radio. He was kind of whimpering, but it was to the words.” Louis smiled to himself. “It sounded like he was singing.” He watched Jack’s eyes soften as he stared at the pup, his hand gentle on George’s round belly. “When I would try to change the song, thinking he didn’t like it, he’d whimper louder, until he finally fell asleep right at the end of the song. George was always my favourite Beatle. It seemed meant to be. Henceforth,” he cupped George’s chubby cheeks, the pug panting a doggie smile at him, “George Harrison Tomlinson was born.”

“That’s so sweet,” Jack said, lifting George carefully. “The sweetest dog story ever.” He held the dog up, Simba style, and cooed, “Isn’t that sweet, Georgie?”

Louis put his hands on his hips.

“His name is George.”

Jack squinted from George to Louis and back to George, swaying his head side to side with each look.

“Nah.” He shook his head, cuddling George to his chest. He put a bit of growl in his voice to say, “I think he’s a Georgie.” Louis watched him bring the pup closer to his face and nuzzle into his fur, George’s tiny tongue attempting to lick his nose. “You’re not a Geeooorge.” He deepened his voice for the droned name and shook his head, looking from George to Louis. “You’re a Georgie boy!” Jack nodded with wide, excited eyes, his voice filled with even more hushed excitement. “Right, Georgie?”

George made a pleased little yelp, only prompting Jack to giggle and mimic the sound, starting a back-and-forth doggy conversation. Louis picked up his water bottle from the bed and unscrewed the cap, taking a long drink.

He sighed, “Traitor,” and rubbed his hand over his mouth.

Jack stretched on his side, his arm draped over George in a semi-spoon. George mouthed at the front of his shirt, mumbling puppy sounds into the thin fabric.

“Is his eye alright?” Jack asked, scratching behind his ears. “The left looks different than the right.”

Louis swallowed another mouthful of water. His trainer had been merciless that evening.

“He’s blind in his left eye. His vet said it could have been abuse by his breeder, or maybe another dog got too rough with him when he was a puppy, the poor guy.”

Jack frowned, cradling George against his chest.

“That’s terrible.”

“It is. Wanna book your flight?”

“I suppose.” Jack smoothed his hand over George’s fuzzy head. “C’mon, Georgie. Time to work.”

He sprawled on his stomach on the centre of Louis’ bed, his laptop in front of him. His long socked feet swayed in the air, George snoozing on his lower back in a coil of vibrating, warm blubber.

Booking his flight was easy. He managed to snag the seat next to Louis for both legs of the trip and was happy to learn they’d be flying first class; he would have accepted no less. Louis had enough cash in house to reimburse him on the spot, which was always a pleasure.

Once he was done making travel arrangements, he transitioned into surfing the internet while watching Louis move about his bedroom. Louis had an enormous walk in closet, light spilling out from the all white space. Rows of perfectly pressed suits and shined shoes formed a rainbow around the perimeter of the room. There was a collection of luggage in front of the closet, Louis hopping between rooms with clothes and accessories in hand.

“Official hustler business?”

Jack’s eyes snapped from the closet to Louis’ amused face. Louis jutted his chin towards his laptop. Jack minimized the open window.

“I told you. I’m very thorough.”

Louis asked, “I take it you received my signed agreement?” while placing a stack of white undershirts in one suitcase.

“I did.” Jack pulled up his email, clicking on the Sent folder. “I emailed you back to confirm.”

“Ah. My bad. I always forget to check my personal email. My phone goes off with all these beeps.” Louis opened the top of his chest of drawers with his right hand, his left hand flitting in the air. “I probably missed it.”

“You mean you didn’t want Liam to know about our arrangement?”

“Ha.” Louis closed the drawer with his elbow, holding two boxes of cufflinks. “I’m sure he’d love to be in the loop to update my schedule, but, no.” He glanced at Jack, tossing the boxes into one suitcase. “I’d prefer to keep it between us.”

Jack touched his big toes in the air, his legs a triangle.

“All was fine in the contract? I’m shocked you didn’t want to negotiate.”

“I negotiate enough at work.” Louis offered him a tired smile, sinking to his knees in front of his luggage. “The agreement was fair.”

“Good,” Jack said, a sizzle of pride zipping through his body. “I’m glad you think so.”

Louis unzipped an inner pocket, hand sliding around in search of something.

“I noticed you usually offer a multi-day discount to paying clients.” He pulled out a crumpled boarding pass, tossing it to the ground. “Very generous of you.”

Jack’s feet swayed as his fingers typed.

“Even I can acknowledge that charging someone my hourly rate for twenty-four hour days over an entire week is excessive. Billing twelve hours per day when people book seven or more days is a bit easier for people to handle, plus it gives me twelve hours to sleep or be by myself to recharge.”

“You write well, but your NDA could use some tightening up.” Louis stood up straight, his back to Jack. He rubbed his hand on the top of his fluffy hair. “Just a bit of professional advice.”

Jack’s thumb froze on his trackpad and looked towards Louis. His white henley hung loose off his sharp shoulder blades but clung to the small of his back.

“What?”

Louis tossed three leather belts into one suitcase.

“Your NDA,” he said from inside the closet. “It’s fine; a standard agreement. But if someone really wanted to find loopholes, they could. The loopholes are there if you look hard enough.”

Jack lifted his torso off the mattress.

“What loopholes?”

Louis walked out of the closet with a stack of colourful polo shirts in his arms. He dropped half the stack in one suitcase, the rest in the other suitcase.

“You allow your clients to speak to each other about you because you use a referral program, which is fine, but the language gets murky when it comes to just how much they should disclose. They could say something about you under the guise of a referral to someone who might not ever contact you, yet that stranger, not covered by the NDA, would know details about you. It leaves you vulnerable.”

“I...Will have my lawyer look into it,” Jack said, his words slow and confused. “Thank you for the advice.”

“You’re welcome. I can look over it, too, if you’d like. I’m no lawyer, but the bed you’re on right now was bought with loopholes.”

Jack propped his chin up on his left hand, his socked toes prodding at his calf.

“Are you packing for the wedding already?”

Louis came out of his closet and tossed a stack of white Oxford shirts into one suitcase, followed by a bunch of balled black socks.

“I’ve got to go to Manchester for work from Sunday to Tuesday evening. I’ll be back in the office Wednesday, but from Thursday to Friday we’re finishing merger negotiations with this tech giant that’s been a giant pain in my arse.” He went back inside his closet. “I’ll be pretty swamped all week to prep for the time I’ll be gone. If I don’t do it now, I’ll be so out of it by Friday night that I’ll pack nothing but q-tips,” he tossed a pair of black swim trunks into one suitcase, “and flip flops.”

“Oh.” Jack minimized the Wikipedia article for pugs. Louis tossed five identical pairs of black boxer briefs into the Oxford suitcase. “So, you’ll be busy all next week?”

“Yes. I won’t see you until the flight.” Louis brought out a pale grey suit, holding it up next to a royal blue tie. “Why?” His eyes shimmered at Jack. “You gonna miss me, honey bunch?”

“Of course. I simply don’t know what I’ll do without you.”

Louis snorted, switching the blue tie for a black tie. Jack’s brows furrowed.

“Is that for the business trip or the wedding?”

“The wedding,” Louis said, reaching into the closet and pulling out a deep green tie. “What do you think?” He weighed each tie in his hands. “Blue or black? Green, maybe? Green’s tropical, yeah?”

“Neither. None of it. Didn’t you read the schedule?”

A tiny wrinkle formed on Louis’ forehead.

“About what?”

Jack eased George off his back, rolling onto his side.

“They want everyone to wear white for the wedding.” He swung his legs to the edge of the bed. “All white.”

Louis’ arms fell to his sides, his ties wilting to the ground.

“Are we joining a cult? Posing for a Gap ad? What’s with the all white trend?”

“Babe, it’s not like you’re going to get your period. Just throw on some white and you’ll be fine. It’s for one day. You’ll survive.”

“I don’t know if I even have white trousers. I’m not an ice cream man. Who owns white trousers?”

Jack got to his feet. He bent his long legs up and down to tiptoe around Louis’ barrier of open suitcases. He went into the organized closet and pushed hangers aside with quick, short motions, metal sliding on metal.

“Here we are! You have white trousers, you liar.” He pulled a pair of white jeans off their hanger and ran his hand over the fabric. The material was soft and thin, holding none of the normal stiffness of denim. “Pair these with a comfortable white shirt and you’ll be set.”

Louis fingered a belt loop.

“I haven’t worn those in years. I don’t know if they’ll even fit.”

“Try them on.” Jack smiled, his dimple popping, batting his lashes. “Please?”

Louis sighed and took the jeans, walking out of the closet.

Jack started to poke around. There were build in shelves with stacks of more casual clothes, t-shirts and sweats, and another built in chest of drawers, which held more underwear than he had ever seen in one person’s home. There was a vanity built into the furthest closet wall, complete with lights around the mirror. Cologne bottles, a pair of cufflinks, and two watches rested on top of the white vanity table.

He lifted each cologne bottle, taking quiet sniffs of the tops. He sprayed Tom Ford’s Tuscan Leather on his wrists and dabbed cologne below his jawline. He pulled his shirt away from his torso and spritzed his lower belly.

He replaced the bottle on the vanity and strolled towards the front of the closet. He picked up a pair of long black and white board shorts.

“Are these your only swim trunks?” Jack called, turning them over in his hands. He whispered, “Yikes.”

Louis zipped up.

“Yeah. Why?”

Jack’s nose scrunched, his hand searching further back on the shelf.

“What a waste of that bum.”

Louis’ quiet laughter came back into the closet. Jack looked away from his t-shirt collection and gasped, a wide smile on his face.

“Speaking of that bum,” he practically crowed, reaching out. He spun Louis in place, lifting his henly from his lower back. “Hello there!”

“You’re nuts,” Louis said, laughter huffing through his words.

The white material clung to his round arse and thick thighs, a peek of black Ralph Lauren boxer briefs sticking out of the waistband, his bare feet at the ends of the tapered jeans.

“They look great!”

Louis smiled and dropped his face to the floor, letting out another soft laugh. He turned to face Jack.

“I guess these will work.”

Metal hangers slid over the closet rod.

“This will look perfect,” Jack said, offering a short sleeved white button down. “It’ll probably be hot on the beach, plus this shirt will show off the guns.”

“The guns,” Louis said, holding the shirt up to his chest. “Alright, then.” He smiled brightly. “That’s settled.”

“What else are you bringing?”

“I dunno. Like…” Louis flicked his hand at the dressier side of his closet. “Clothes?”

“No way, you can’t bring this stuff.” Jack ran his hand across Louis’ wall of ties. “Too corporate. It’s a beachside resort. You probably don’t even have to bring a tie. Maybe one.”

“I need to bring at least two ties.”

“Why? Planning on tying anyone to a bed?”

Louis’ face flamed bright red, his hands faltering with a pair of khaki trousers. He swallowed and folded the trousers over his arm, padding away from Jack’s snickers.

“Can you grab me some t-shirts, please?” Louis asked, George’s collar clinking in the bedroom. Jeans unzipped and Jack could have swore he heard Louis whisper, “Hello, my Georgie.”

When Jack walked out of the closet, Louis was back in his sweats.

“What’s your relationship with Zayn and Niall like? Do you hang out with them a lot?”

Louis took the stack of t-shirts from him, dividing them into his suitcases.

“Don’t know if I’d say we hang out a lot, but at least a few times a year. Holidays and such. Or if they come to London for a visit. They live in Ireland. I’ve known Zayn my whole life. Our families go way back. He and Niall got together about two years ago. They met at a yoga detox thing in Bali.”

Jack sat on the bed, leaning back on his elbows and crossing his right leg over his left.

“They were detoxing from yoga? Isn’t the point of yoga to detox?”

Louis shrugged, George scurrying around his bare ankles.

“Who knows. They’re both on that whole, erm,” he waved his hand in the air, “zen wavelength.”

“And you’re not?”

Louis snorted.

“Shocking, I’m sure, but no. I’m not.” George climbed into a suitcase, his wiggling tail stuck in the air. “That’s the main reason we didn’t work out. We’re better as friends.”

Jack’s head tilted to the right, his blinks slowing.

“What?”

“Zayn and I dated when we were much younger.”

“Um,” Jack held out the word, sitting up straight, “that was not in the materials I was provided with. Of all the details you included, you leave out that you dated the groom? No wonder you’re so skittish about the whole thing.”

“It’s not a big deal and I’m not skittish.” Louis took a patterned tee out of one suitcase and dropped it in the other. George followed the shirt’s path and jumped into the suitcase. “It was a million years ago.”

“Please elaborate.”

“There’s nothing really to elaborate on. We were best friends for years before anything happened. We were,” he swallowed, “each other’s first boyfriend. Neither of us wanted to end the friendship, just the relationship aspect.”

Jack bent his torso over the edge of the bed and whispered, “Georgie.” George climbed out of the suitcase and ran towards him, Jack scooping him onto the bed and resuming their spoon. “Why did the relationship end?”

Louis placed a black blazer in a suit bag, his motions smooth and easy.

“I proposed. He said no, thank you. He didn’t believe in marriage, though he still loved me like a brother.” He zipped the bag. “Then we had a beer, watched the football, and that was that.”

Jack pressed his chin into George’s pudge.

“You would have married him?”

Louis exhaled slowly, his hands on his hips.

“I thought so at the time. Twenty year old foolishness.” He shot Jack a wry smile. “I guess when he said he wasn’t the marrying type, he meant he wasn’t the marrying type if I was to be his husband.” He turned away to tend to a leather carry-on bag, mumbling, “He always said I was too serious for him. Makes sense.”

“Hey.”

“What?”

“C’mere.”

Louis glanced over his shoulder.

“Why?”

“It’s getting late. We should practice.”

Louis’ eyes dropped to the floor, his throat bobbing. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it, his feet taking two steps forward. Jack got to his knees on the bed, gently placing Georgie on a pile of pillows.

"Pretend we're in front of your mum,” Jack said, smoothing his hands over the tops of his thighs. “How would you kiss me then?"

"I wouldn't kiss you at all in front of my mum. Or anyone."

"You would if you were lovedrunk with your gorgeous boyfriend of half a year," Jack sang in his low, purring voice. He his arms out. “C’mon. Just a little.” His lips quirked. “It’ll be painless, I swear. Maybe even pleasurable.”

Louis stepped up to him, gripped his hips, and pecked his right cheek.

“There you go.”

Jack grinned and tilted his head, his lips landing on Louis’ jawline. He whispered, “What a gentleman.”

Louis scoffed and gently squeezed his hips, stepping back.

“This is ridiculous,” Louis said. “I feel like we’re twelve. We might as well play Spin The Bottle.”

Jack tugged the cord of his sweats, pulling him closer.

“We can if that will loosen you up. Or,” Jack sat back on his heels, his eyes moving over Louis’ face, “you could get on the bed with me.” He pet the mattress with his right hand. “It’s a very good bed.”

“Is that the voice you use while working?”

“Depends on the client.” A tiny pout manifested on Jack’s face, though playful amusement still softened his stare. Louis placed his right hand on Jack’s jawline and his left hand on his outer bicep. “You should be thanking your lucky stars right now instead of belly-aching. Most men pay thousands to--"

Louis tilted his head and firmly pressed his lips to Jack’s mouth, their eyes locked and unblinking. Louis pulled back with a smacking sound between them. He squeezed his bicep and pecked him once more. His lips were gone before Jack realized what was happening.

“There. Done. We’ve kissed. Happy?”

They stared at each other for a beat, Louis’ left eye twitching and his cheeks tinted pink, Jack’s mouth a perfect circle with saliva shimmering on his top lip.

“Alright,” Jack said slowly, licking his lips, a thoughtful wrinkle appearing on his forehead. “Well, that was great if we are actually twelve and in a summer camp production of Guys and Dolls, but that ain’t gonna cut it if we’re convincing people we’re involved.”

Louis’ nostrils flared, his mouth tightening.

“If I had a boyfriend, I wouldn’t kiss him in front of other people and he’d respect that, or else he wouldn’t be my boyfriend.”

Jack folded his hands on top of his thighs, blinking bored at Louis.

“I’m not talking about full blown tongue in front of friends and family. That’s not my cup of tea, either. I’m simply saying that real couples, even ones who avoid PDA, slip up once in awhile and get caught kissing or being flirty. People eat that shit up, especially at weddings where everyone is drunk and hopped up on love.”

Jack held his palms out, quietly continuing, “If you’re not comfortable and don’t want to do this, that’s fine. Absolutely fine. I don’t ever want to make you uncomfortable. We can go through the trip without touching, if that’s what you want. It’s no bronzer off my abs.” He lowered his hands back to his thighs, buffing his fingernails against his jeans. “I’m simply offering you a bit of professional advice, much like you did with my NDA, to make this easier for you.”

Louis stared at him, pushing his tongue against his cheek, his hands on his hips and his left leg quirked.

“I believe you. You’re right.” He nodded, biting his bottom lip, relief softening Jack’s smile. “You’re right. I’m being difficult. I’m…” He brought his left hand to his hair, running his fingers through the damp strands. His shirt rode him on his stomach, revealing a sliver of naturally tan skin. “It’s been a long time since I--”

Jack gently curled his hand around Louis’ left hip and Louis jerked away, pushing his hand down.

“Don’t.” He met Jack’s shocked stare. “I...I’ve got sensitive hips.”

“Noted,” Jack said with a small nod, his eyes serious. He kept his hands flat to pull Louis closer by his lower back, Louis’ knees bumping the mattress. “Do you want to tell me more of your sensitive spots not to touch?” His right hand lifted the bottom of Louis’ henley, their lips brushing for him to add, “I’d love to learn.”

When Louis said nothing, Jack arched his eyebrows.

“No? Not talking? Alright, then." He slid his fingers up the dip of Louis’ spine, whispering, “C’mere.”

Track: INXS - Need You Tonight

He kissed beside Louis’ lips, a firm press of his lips to the right of Louis’ mouth, exhaling before softly pecking him square on the lips, almost too soft to be felt.

"Can I kiss you?"

Louis' throat bobbed to swallow.

"I suppose," he sighed, almost too soft to be heard. "If you must."

Jack smiled and brought his lips close enough for Louis to feel his warm breaths, to smell the mint gum he had tucked under his tongue. Louis’ eyes slowly slid from Jack’s eyes to his wet mouth, his body swaying forward.

Jack pulled back an inch, Louis’ mouth meeting air. Louis’ eyes narrowed as the right corner of Jack’s mouth lifted, his face swaying close enough for Louis to lean forward again. Jack tightened his grip in the bottom of Louis’ shirt, his other hand flat on the very top of his arse.

Louis gripped Jack’s hips and pulled him into his body, the pull hard enough for Jack’s lips to connect with his own, but not so hard as to force him off the bed.

“Alright,” Jack murmured, massaging his lower back and kissing him once more, a hint firmer. “I think we’re progressing to around age fifteen. Nearly there.”

He felt Louis’ lips plump under his own, quick stutters of air exhaled out of Louis’ nostrils. He watched Louis’ eyes lull half shut, his gaze glued to the motion of Jack bringing their lips together again, innocent and easy.

“You taste so good, lovely.” Jack licked his own lips, leaning in for a kiss. “Sweet like candy.”

Louis’ mouth froze with Jack kissing him, his neck stiffening. He pulled back, his hand flat on Jack’s chest.

“Don’t use that voice on me.”

Jack’s playful smile sent bolts of prickly heat through Louis’ body.

“You don’t like it?” Jack asked, his voice taking on a breathy, boyish innocence. He batted his eyelashes and leaned in, brushing a kiss to Louis’ pulse point. “Shame.” He opened his teeth on the spot, Louis’ throat bobbing. “Most people love my voice.”

Louis held his face in both hands and guided him up.

“I don’t like to be teased and I’m not most people.”

Jack’s tongue flickered over Louis’ bottom lip with their eyes locked, his open-mouthed smirk breaking into a giggle.

“No, you’re not.” Jack used his teeth to pinch the fullest bit of Louis’ bottom lip, his fingernails digging into his lower back. “Now,” he whispered, his voice its usual husky depth. “Less talking.” He sucked a kiss to his mouth, Louis’ head tilting to follow the motion of their lips. “More practicing.”

Jack lowered himself to sit on the bed and spread his long legs, pressing his inner thighs to Louis’ hips. He laid back and used his legs to pull Louis down, but Louis planted his hands into the bed, planking above Jack’s body.

“What are you doing?”

“It’ll be more fun horizontal.”

“Is that on your business card?”

“Of course. Along with a money back satisfaction guarantee.”

Louis sputtered a laugh and Jack grinned, his legs hugging tighter. Jack caught him around the shoulders as he fell onto him, long socked feet winding around the backs of Louis’ knees. Louis attempted to right himself and get some of his weight off of Jack’s middle, but Jack wound his long arms around Louis’ back, one hand lacing in the back of his hair.

“Jack--”

Invisible, inexplicable heat, like the shock of an electrical fire or the remnants of a lightning storm in humidity, jolted between Louis’ ears, his mouth pried open by Jack’s wet, confident tongue.

Their lips broke apart for a split second, Jack’s mouth sucking a searing kiss to his lips before he could inhale fully. Another tiny lightning storm blitzed his brain, the storm building each time Jack sucked or bit at his lips, his strong legs hugging Louis tighter and tighter.

Louis’ eyes trembled to remain open, his teeth clashing with Jack’s and his nose sucking in air, until his eyes fell shut, his muscles giving out on top of Jack’s body. Waves of heat transferred through Jack’s gauzy shirt, their shifting causing Louis’ shirt to ride up on his stomach. Jack hitched his shirt up his lower back, his hot palm burning with each press to Louis’ skin.

Louis pulled back to breathe, “Just what do you think you’re doing?” Their lips tangled together, Louis cupping his cheek, Jack’s hand ghosting over his arse. “I’d never do this in front of anyone.”

They were inches away from another kiss when Jack flipped Louis onto his back, straddling him as if in a choreographed movie scene. Louis blinked up at him, his mouth agape.

“And yet you’re doing it, which is a good thing. You need to get comfortable with me. Physically. And you said you don’t like to be teased.” Jack’s smiling lips had begun to puff and darken. He smoothed his hands up Louis’ stomach to curl around the fronts of his shoulders. “I won’t tease you. Unless,” Jack’s eyes flashed with heat, his face lowering to suck wetly on Louis’ bottom lip, “you want me to. I want to please you.”

“That stupid voice of yours,” Louis said, sounding suspiciously like growling. He rolled Jack onto his back, Jack cackling in his face. “Fuck,” he seared their lips together, Jack arching under him, “you’re so frustrating.”

When he tried to pull back, tried to break their marathon kisses, his body would not move, save for an involuntary grind against Jack’s firm weight. His brain sent signals to his limbs to shift, to get away before he learned what Jack’s sweet saliva tasted like, before he felt the exact heat of the inside of his mouth, before he found out how often Jack had to breathe hot air out of his nose when their lips were connected.

Those signals were lost amongst the light storm flashing behind his closed eyes, his brain’s messages lost amidst the quiet, soft, almost pleading moans Jack made against his mouth as they kissed. The sure motions of his lips and hands made Louis feel like they were the only people on a shrinking planet. Every sound he wrenched from Jack’s body was a lifeline, a gallon of oxygen injected into his lungs or the buzz of electricity in his veins.

“I get it now,” Louis whispered between kisses, a hot tongue teasing his own. “I get it.”

“Get what?”

“Why men pay you thousands to play pretend.”

A pleased smile curved Jack’s lips, his toes curling in his socks.

“Oh yeah?” He angled his face down, attaching his mouth to Louis’ neck. He bit and sucked with quick nips of his teeth, Louis’ hips stuttering against his groin. Jack smiled wider and suckled on the spot, whispering, “Tell me.”

Jack cradled the back of his head and guided Louis’ neck to stretch sideways, sinking his teeth into his body wash scented skin.

“Tell me, Louis. Please?” His tongue lathed underneath Louis’ ear, Louis’ left leg kicking out. Jack’s fingers dug into Louis right arse cheek as he purred, “Louis,” and slotted their lips together, another gentle moan vibrating into Louis’ mouth as they kissed slow and wet.

“You’re lush,” Louis said, the words tumbling into Jack’s panting mouth. “So fucking lush. Worth every penny, I’m sure.”

Jack sighed high in his voice and hugged Louis closer with his thighs, their heads tilting in opposite directions to kiss, saliva building on the bottom ridge of Jack’s chin. Louis swiped his tongue over his bottom lip, sucking and nibbling until Jack trembled under him. Jack squeezed his arse and ground upwards.

Jack’s voice murmured, “Put your hands on me,” in the thick layer of soft noises that had built around them, filling the room with tiny sound waves.

Louis’ eyes followed the motion of Jack’s long fingers as he popped each button. His shirt fluttered open, the light material framing his tanned, muscled torso. Jack’s heavy, half-lidded eyes traced over his face before he kissed Louis softly.

“Touch me. See how your hands fit on me.” Jack took Louis’ right hand in both of his hands. He flattened Louis’ palm on his hip, Louis’ face motionless. “See where it feels right to touch me. Feel the heat of my skin. Get used to it.”

Jack guided Louis’ hand over his rippled abs. He had the barest layer of fat stretched over his carefully crafted muscles and long frame, giving him the magic combination of built and muscular with lean and curvy, deep hip dents leading beneath his tight black jeans. He looked like he chopped wood every day and built log cabins, his lean body devoid of the overstuffed gym bulk so many men strove for.

Louis’ thumbnail scratched beside his navel and Jack’s abs clenched under his hand.

“I’ve got sensitive spots, too, but I don’t mind,” Jack said, his smile crooked. “I’m pretty sensitive everywhere, but,” Jack shrugged his shoulders back, his shirt melting down his biceps to land on the bed in an elegant heap, “you can touch me wherever you want.”

When Louis saw slivers of Jack’s skin in the taxi, unwashed and marred with grime from an overnight, he imagined that Jack was made up of the same skin cells and particles that every other human was made of. He assumed that Jack showered a passable amount, that his skin got oily and sweaty as needed, that he had rough patches pop up without reason or a hair or two that sprouted out of a mole only noticeable when the shower light was just so.

His skin did not look or feel real under Louis’ touch. It felt like the literary description of rose petals and the underside of leather, like every fantasy figure wrapped into one thrumming creature. He felt like a human, like a man, but his smooth skin was so evenly warm, so tender and soft, that it felt like Louis was touching fine fabric, not flesh sweating and stretched over shifting muscles and bones.

“What are you made of?”

True confusion wrinkled Jack’s brow as he smiled up at Louis, still holding the top of his hand.

“What?”

Louis licked his lips, his mouth itching for more of Jack’s taste, his heart pounding rapidly inside his chest. He grit his teeth behind his lips, eyes scanning over Jack’s body.

Jack’s torso was hairless, save for a downy line of brown hair just visible above his boxer briefs and the hint of soft hair beneath his arms. His nipples were darker than his lips, and even more puffy, standing out from his chiseled pecs.

Louis counted four tattoos on his endless upper body. The first was a bird outline on the front of his right shoulder. The bird was flying off of him, it’s beak pointing towards Jack’s arm.

“A swallow?” Louis asked, brushing his fingers over the bird. Some of his marbles returned to the inside of his head. “Really? In your field?”

Jack’s lips quirked.

“It’s a nightingale, smart arse.”

Louis held onto his bicep and lifted his arm away from his side, Jack’s eyes widening slightly. The motion brought the barest tinge crisp deodorant to Louis’ nostrils, Jack’s hips shifting under him.

Louis used light fingertips to trace his second tattoo, a delicate wire birdcage inked on his very upper ribs, nearly under his arm. He glanced at Jack and saw him to be tight-faced, his closed mouth twitching as he watched Louis’ fingers. Louis deliberately ran his fingers over the spot again and Jack breathed out a shaky laugh, lowering his arm.

“Alright, Mr. Tickles. Relax. It’s just a tattoo.”

Louis tapped the nightingale.

“Does she go in here?”

“It’s a he.”

“Is it?”

“Contrary to popular belief, male nightingales sing the loudest, not the female, and are usually the ones humans hear singing. Males use the song at night to find a mate, or to warn other birds of danger.”

Louis nodded along with his explanation.

“That actually works with your profession.” He touched the filled in heart tattooed on Jack’s outer shoulder, dragging his fingers to the simple, script R beside the heart. “Gentleman of the night and all that.”

Jack gripped his chin, gently but firmly, and directed his face up. He held his stare, his lips a straight line.

“The cage is empty and the nightingale is free. I’m no one’s caged bird.” His lashes fluttered before looking back to Louis. “That’s far too cliche and I’m far too happy, and well paid, to compare myself to a caged animal.”

“Fair enough. Who or what is R?”

Warm hands held Louis’ face to start kissing again. The itchy feeling on Louis’ tongue disappeared, a short gasp puffing into Jack’s mouth. Jack eased Louis sideways, crawling on top of him. His neck passed Louis’ face in the shift, his forearms framing Louis’ head. He leaned down but Louis placed a hand on the centre of his chest.

“Are you,” Louis sniffed his neck then pulled back, “wearing my cologne?”

Jack’s smile was slow, forming lopsided before it straightened to a full grin.

“Yeah,” he chuckled out.

“Why?”

“I like it. Smells good on you.”

“I thought you wear the Vanilla one?”

Their eyes locked, Jack’s long lashes blinking once. There was a small break in talking before Jack replied.

“Not regularly, though that’s my favourite. I don’t own any cologne. I like to try different types out.”

Louis squinted, his chin tilting sideways.

“Like, on the job?”

Jack’s grin broke into another laugh, this one softer.

“Yeah.”

Louis prodded his birdcage.

“Cologne thief.”

Jack laughed louder and curled his arms around himself.

“I think we’ve had enough practice for tonight,” he giggled out, rolling Louis off his body. “Wouldn’t want to overwhelm your wee brain.”

“Oi!”

Jack pinned Louis’ wrists to the bed and smacked a loud, pecked kiss to his lips, nipping his bottom lip and kissing it quickly.

“We can tackle Hand Holding 101 and Spooning For Lovers at a later class.”

“You’re such a menace,” Louis grumbled, a small smile slipping out.

Jack smirked and got up to his knees on the bed, cupping his crotch. He lifted his left leg, gripping himself and pushing his cupped hand to the side. Louis’ smile faded, his eyes glued to the thick, long line pressing against the upper thigh of his jeans.

“You even got me a little hot,” Jack smiled, starting to chew his mint gum with an open mouth, “which is always a rare, rare bonus.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Louis frowned. “That’s inappropriate.”

“Getting a semi is inappropriate?” Jack’s eyes flickered towards George, who was fast asleep in a mountain of pillows. “No wonder your dog is acting out sexual frustration. It must run rampant in here. Your poor cock and balls.”

Louis sat up and moved to stand, Jack gently shoving him onto his back.

“My cock is,” he huffed, Jack grinning and gently shoving him back again, “just fine,” he got up to his knees, “thank you.”

Jack’s eyes slid to Louis’ middle, his right brow arching.

“You got that right.”

Louis looked down and flushed.

“Shit,” he muttered, pressing his hand to his cock. He winced and jutted his hips backwards, Jack snickering. “Shut up. We shouldn’t--This shouldn’t happen.”

“You’re the hottest client I’ve ever had, and probably will ever have.”

“I’m not your client in that way.”

Jack ruffled Louis’ hair as he got off the bed.

“I wouldn’t stress about it, babe.”

Louis watched Jack shrug his shirt on, his fingers even faster when buttoning it up.

“I’m not your babe.”

Jack glanced at him, mischief lighting his eyes.

“You should be happy you can still get hard at your age, fluffy-bum.”

The fury of ten thousand suns blazed at Jack from the bed. Jack laughed loudly, his tongue sticking out of his mouth, and bent to grab his laptop bag, breaking into a run to get out of the bedroom with Louis hot on his heels.

. . .

Wednesday 22, April

Louis balled up a sheet of paper and threw it towards his rubbish bin. He sighed and ran his hands through his hair. So much for his carefully crafted quiff that morning. His office phone rang. He snatched it up before the first ring ended.

“Yes?” he asked, cradling it on his shoulder.

“You have a visitor, sir." Louis peered out the open door. He could hear Liam through the phone and in real life, Liam close enough for Louis to tell he got his hair cut yesterday. “A Mr. Jack McQueen?”

Louis’ mouth went dry, the phone slipping off his shoulder. He threw it on the receiver and stood up, walking into Liam’s office with his hands in his pockets. His eyes darted around.

“Is he here?”

“No, he’s still downstairs at security. Shall I tell him you’re not available?”

“No, no, it’s fine. He…” Louis rolled up on the balls of his feet. “He can come up whenever he wants if he needs to see me.”

Liam’s eyes widened slightly, his voice dropping to a hushed, secretive tone.

“Are you sure? You haven’t granted anyone that security clearance.”

Louis nodded, pasting a smile on.

“It’s fine. He’s my boyfriend.” He felt like was speaking a foreign language that had yet to be invented. “We’ve been together for six months. We met on Halloween and are very much in love. With each other.”

Liam gaped at him, his lips popping open and closed.

“Oh. I...I’m sorry I didn’t know.” Liam clutched his hand over his chest. “I wouldn’t have scheduled so many evening and weekend meetings. You always said it was fine, but I am truly, truly sorry, sir. A better assistant would have known--”

“It was fine. Is fine. You can send him up, thanks,” Louis said, clearing his throat and pressing his fist to his lips. “Why don’t you take a coffee break? Charge it to me.” He pointed two fingers at Liam. “Lunch! Why don’t you get lunch? Whatever you want. On me.” He slung an arm around Liam’s shoulder and patted the centre of his chest. “You’re the best assistant. A star of an assistant. Please do not stress about it.” He patted his chest again. “All is well.”

“Will do. Yes. Thanks. Yes.” Liam nodded as he bumbled simple words. “Okay. Yes.”

Louis turned away to the sound of Liam placing a call to security. He went back into his office and tried to clear his desk of paperwork while straightening his tie and organizing a pile of rainbow paperclips. He heard a desk chair squeak.

“Hello! I’m Liam, Louis’ assistant,” Liam said from outside his office, professional and friendly. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you!”

Louis’ body froze, a bundle of papers clutched to his chest. That was fast.

“Hey, mate,” two hands slapped together, “I’m Jack. Lovely to meet you, as well. Lou’s said the nicest things.”

Louis frowned down at his desk. Gone was Jack’s smoky hustler voice, instead replaced with a deep, honey sweet rasp.

“You look familiar,” Liam’s voice said, sounding polite but unsure. “Have we met before?”

Louis’ frown turned to panic. He spun around, tiptoeing towards the open door. The gala. Liam must have spotted Jack at the gala, a gala which he did not attend as Louis’ date.

“I don’t believe so,” Jack said. “Did you study at Leeds?”

“No, Warwick.”

“Oh, excellent. Beautiful campus.” Boots strode across the hardwood. “Hey! Is this the legendary hoop? I hear you’re the Michael Jordan of the office.”

“Well done,” Louis whispered under his breath, smirking.

“Yeah! I mean,” Liam cleared his throat, “yes, sir.”

Louis’ walked into Liam’s office in time to hear Jack’s easy chuckle.

“I’m not a sir, mate.” His eyes twinkled at Louis as he patted between Liam’s shoulder blades. “Lou’s the sir around here.”

The skin under Louis’ collar heated, Liam smiling amusedly.

“Liam was just getting lunch,” Louis said, glancing at Liam. “Right?”

“Oh! Yes. Right.” Liam nodded and picked up his jacket, walking sideways like a crab to get around Jack. “I’ll leave you two alone. Would you like for me to bring something back? I’m going to run to the deli for a sandwich, but should be back shortly.”

“No, thanks,” Louis said before Jack could speak. He and Jack met eyes, Louis pointing two fingers towards him. “This one will order the whole menu. Eats like a horse.” Jack’s smile widened until his cheek dimpled, his eyes crinkling. “Far too much food for one lad to carry.”

“I’m only dropping by, as well,” Jack said, smiling at Liam. “Might not be here when you get back. So glad we were able to meet, finally.”

“Me, too! I’ll have to add you to Louis’ schedule. Do you have a colour preference? I believe orange and purple are available, but I could create a custom colour.”

“Purple, please,” Jack said, looping his thumbs in his the pockets of his skinnies. “Love purple.”

Liam put his right arm in his black jacket.

“Excellent choice.” He checked his watch. “Are you on lunch, too?”

Jack’s smile never faltered to smoothly say, “Sort of. I’m an independent contractor, so I make my own schedule.”

Liam smiled at him, popping his collar.

“What do you do?”

Jack looked towards Louis, who continued to smile but bulged his eyes ever so slightly. That was one part of their backstory they hadn’t talked about.

“Silly, Lou. You didn’t tell Liam what I do?” Jack tapped his fingers next to Liam’s address book on his desk. “I’m shocked you didn’t have him put my business card into your rolodex.”

“He’s a photographer,” Louis said through a gritted smile. He looked to Liam, blinking once. “He has an amazing artistic eye.”

“Aw, babe,” Jack drawled, their eyes locked. “You’re sweet.”

A slow smile spread over Louis’ face, Jack’s lashes batting.

“Actually, Liam, would you do me a favour?” Louis said, his eyes still on Jack’s face.

“Of course! Whatever you need, sir.”

“Would you pick us up a couple of teas on your way back from lunch?”

“Sure!”

“I take it the same way as Louis,” Jack offered, smiling at Liam. “Thanks so much.”

Louis reached into his wallet and handed Liam some cash.

“Enjoy your lunch.”

Liam accepted the cash and said goodbye seven different times, inching his way out away from his desk. He power walked with determined energy towards the bank of lifts.

“C’mon in,” Louis said, holding his arm out. Jack walked in front of him, Louis pulling the door nearly shut. “Funny you said you take your tea like me. Liam is a saint but must have some sort of block in his brain about tea. Every time he gets me tea, it’s a different type prepared a different way.”

“Maybe he’s trying to keep you on your toes,” Jack said, his hands in his pockets as he strolled around Louis’ desk. He reached the wall of windows. “Office is nice. Looks exactly how I’d imagine it.” He squinted out the window. “Oh, wow. Liam is literally running to lunch. Look. You can see him from up here.”

“He’s a fitness guy.”

“And a very punctual employee.”

“Only the best at Covington Associates.”

“The guards here are certainly a lot more pleasant than the doorman at your building.”

Louis leaned his bum against his desk, watching Jack wander his office.

“What makes you say that?”

Jack touched the bottom right corner of a modern art painting and tilted it down an inch.

“Your doorman is a bit of a dick, is what I meant.”

“What?” Louis laughed in confusion, his eyes crinkling half closed. “Who? Clarence? Marty?”

“The bald one.”

“Nathan. What about him?”

“He was generally unpleasant. Gave me the old stinkeye. Made a comment about how I’m not your usual type.” Louis’ eyes widened, his mouth popping open. Jack sat down on the leather sofa against Louis’ office wall and crossed his long legs, his boot bobbing in the air. He smirked. “Did you neglect to tell me I’m not your first professional? You shouldn’t keep secrets from your boyfriend. Honesty is key in any relationship.”

Louis sighed and threw a balled up piece of paper at Jack.

“You’re my first professional, but that doesn’t mean I’ve never brought men back with me. I’m not a monk.”

Jack batted another tossed ball of paper from the air.

“What’s your type?”

“I don’t have one.”

“Someone like that stud of an assistant?”

“No. He’s straight, tomcat. Sorry to burst that bubble.”

“Tomcat? What happened to kitten?”

“New at eleven: Kittens grow up into cats.”

Jack chuckled and stood up, stretching his arms over his head.

“Oh, how I missed your attempts at humour. Manchester treat you well?”

“Manchester was Manchester.” Louis’ eyes followed Jack’s path as he came closer until Jack stood in front of him, long limbs and tall hair close enough to touch. “I was going to call you later, actually. I’m glad you came by.”

Jack’s stretch froze.

“Oh, yeah?" He arched his hips side to side, the bottom of his shirt riding up. "Even being swamped with the big tech merger tomorrow?”

Louis studied him, running the tip of his tongue over the back of his top teeth. He narrowed his eyes, not in an unfriendly way, but in a look of discernment.

“You have a good memory. You’re very perceptive.”

“Thank you,” Jack said with a smile, relaxing his arms at his sides. “So? Why are you happy to see me?” He framed his face with his right hand. “Other than the obvious, of course.”

Louis chuckled softly, placing his hands on his desk beside his arse.

“I was thinking about our flight. It’s so early on Saturday morning, maybe you should sleep at mine on Friday? Guest room, of course. I’m getting us a car to the airport the next morning and I assume you don’t want to tell me where you live to pick you up?”

“Correct.”

“If you stay at mine, you can sleep later, since you won’t have to come over at three in the morning. Unless you have plans or,” he smirked, tapping his thumbs on his desk, “a client that night or something.”

“That’s...A good idea. A really good idea.” Jack nodded as he spoke, dragging his fingers through his hair. “I, uh,” he smiled, “do have work that night, but it’s an early dinner thing. I could be over by around eight-ish? Does that work for you?”

“Sure. That’s fine.”

“Excellent.”

“So? What’s the real reason you dropped by? Trying to hustle a lunch? I don’t have time for a marathon sandwich session, but I think I’ve got some crisps kicking around somewhere.”

“Nope.” Jack popped the p, his hands on his hips. “I’ve already eaten, but thank you for the generous offer. I came by because I started to pack last night and realized I don’t really have any family friendly swim attire.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that I don’t think Lane will appreciate Maggie asking questions about why Uncle Louis’ boyfriend is wearing a sheer thong on the water slide.”

“I see. Nude pool parties and all.” He pulled his wallet out, thumbing the leather open. “Do you want money for clothes?”

Jack held his palm out.

“No, no money needed, thanks. I came by to see if you needed me to pick anything up for you while I was at the shops. I know you have a busy week.”

Louis pocketed his wallet.

“I think I have enough swim trunks.”

Jack sighed, but was smiling.

“You have two pairs. One pair is basic black, which is passable. The other pair is so ugly and unflattering that I think I’d rather see you in a sheer thong.”

“I think you’d want to see me in a sheer thong anyway, regardless of what I already had in my closet.”

“You might be right,” Jack said, his smile growing. Louis rolled his eyes and looked up at the ceiling, a smile licking at his lips. Jack raised his eyebrows. “You sure you don’t want anything? Two bathing suits won’t be fun when we’re going to be in and out of water every day. You’ll have to keep rinsing and hang drying them.”

“I suppose if you see swim trunks that meet your,” Louis waved his hand in the air, “seal of approval,” he pointed one finger at Jack, “and offer full coverage, I could use another couple. You’re right; we’ll be in and out of water the whole trip.”

Jack’s face lit up, his long fingers wiggling together.

“Oh, goody. I was hoping you’d say that.”

Louis laughed, his stomach shaking beneath his grey suit jacket.

“You sure you don’t want money? I can at least pay you back for mine.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ve had a lovely day so far and am feeling generous.”

“Yeah? What’d you do?”

“Gym. Excellent green smoothie. Hour long shower. Amazing facial. Lovely salad with seared tuna. I love a good piece of fish.”

Louis nodded along with his list, his lips pursed forward.

“I’d have thought the shower would come after the facial, but that all sounds pleasant enough.”

“What? Why…” Jack’s mouth dropped open, a shocked laugh barked from the back of his throat. “Not that kind of facial, you horny minx. I got a facial at a spa. For skin care purposes.”

“Ah,” Louis said, holding out the sound, Jack smiling wider, his dimple popping. “My mistake.” He tugged on the bottom of Jack’s blue flannel shirt. “Looking less like Captain Jack today. Well.” He jutted his chin up at the red and blue patterned scarf wrapped around his hair. “A bit less.”

“I’m off. Felt like being casual.”

“I see.” Louis smoothly moved his face to Jack’s neck, taking a slow sniff. Jack’s body froze in place, the tip of Louis’ nose brushing the buttery skin. “No cologne either. You smell of lavender.”

“Spa.”

Louis pulled his face back and found Jack’s eyes, Jack’s gaze boring into him. The right side of Louis’ mouth rose.

“Lovely.”

Without breaking eye contact, Jack said, “We should kiss again.”

“What?” Louis laughed, his brows furrowing. “Why?”

“We need the practice and Liam will be back soon. We should be kissing when he gets back.”

Louis’ lips pursed for three silent seconds until a confused laugh crackled out.

“You’re still not making sense, love.”

Jack stepped closer, his body heat moving into Louis’ space. He ran his fingertips over the tops of Louis’ hands, tracing his middle knuckles.

“Liam is going to the wedding, yes?”

“Yes, but I don’t see how that’s important.”

“If he comes back and catches us kissing, he’ll remember it. Even if it’s just light kissing. It might come in handy if questions pop up during the trip about how valid we are.”

“Who would question that?”

Jack smiled at him, innocent and close-mouthed, and leaned down, brushing his lips beneath Louis’ jawline. Louis stiffened, his hands shooting out to hold Jack’s hips.

“Nosy family members.” He kissed his pulse point. “Confused friends.” His lips moved lower, mouthing beside his Adam’s apple. “That sort of thing.”

“What…” Louis’ voice cracked, his throat clearing roughly. “What are you doing?”

Jack smiled, letting his nose drag to Louis’ ear.

“You wear your cologne so well.” He sniffed, his right arm looping around Louis’ lower back. “Smells so good on you.”

“Trying to get a contact high?”

“Trying to figure you out. What’s your deal?” Jack murmured, hot air teasing the inwards arch of Louis’ neck. “One minute you’re doing this to me, the next minute you’re shocked someone would want to do it to you.” He nosed along the soft skin, Louis’ Adam’s apple bobbing beneath his lips. “What makes you tick? You can tell me. I’m very good at keeping secrets.”

“Why do you care?”

Jack’s mouth pursed to place small, light, barely-there kisses along the side of Louis’ neck, Louis’ hands falling from his hips to grip the edge of his desk. He swallowed again, his pulse flickering faster beneath his jaw.

“Pleasure is my business and I’m usually quite good at identifying what people want.”

“People want their necks mauled during business hours? They want to be interrupted at work?”

Jack chuckled and lifted his face, his eyes heavy and full of mirth.

“Sometimes. Most clients would pay hundreds for me to do what I’m doing right now out of the goodness of my heart.” He looked at Louis’ lips and leaned closer, Louis’ closed mouth twitching and his head turning away. “Aw,” Jack drawled deeply, holding out the word. He pecked his cheek, running his fingers through Louis’ well coiffed hair. “You’re shy, is that it?”

“I’m not shy.”

Jack started to kiss along the other side of his neck.

“No?”

“I think you’re used to having clients who want you. I don’t want you, which ruins your little game.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes.”

“Just like how you didn’t need a date for the wedding?”

“That--”

Louis’ even, steady voice broke with a breathy crack, his eyelashes blinking rapidly. He could feel Jack’s lips stretch into a smile. Jack could smell blood in the water, his mouth suckling beneath Louis’ right ear with deep, tender swirls of his tongue, humming low in his throat as he sucked.

Track: The Rolling Stones - Start Me Up

Louis clenched his toes in his leather shoes, directing his eyes at the ceiling.

“Jack, I,” he stretched his head to the side, Jack’s lips following him, “I’m at work.”

Jack hummed even lower, kissing up to Louis’ chin.

“Do you like being pursued? Is that it? That must be it. You’re always in control at work. You have a stressful job. So, in your private life, you want someone else to tell you what to do. S’why you were so hesitant at your place when we were practicing and it took you a bit to warm up. You--”

Louis cackled, the sound startling Jack mid-kiss. Jack lifted his face, pouting.

“What’s so funny?”

Louis’ cackles softened to giggles, his eyes glistening. He leveled his stare on Jack, his hands back on Jack’s hips. He narrowed his eyes, his fingers toying in the billowing bottom of Jack’s button down.

“You’re not as good at your job as you think you are.”

Jack’s eyes lit.

“How would you know?”

Louis spun them and fit himself between Jack’s thick thighs, pressing Jack’s arse against the edge of his desk. Jack made a soft, high sound of surprise, papers shifting beneath his bum. Louis’ hands curled around Jack’s hips.

“If you think telling me what to do and using your hustler voice on me is going to push my buttons, you are angling for the wrong buttons, darling.”

Jack smirked, the right side of his mouth higher.

“Tell me which buttons to push, if you even know where they are.”

“Ah, but aren’t you in the pleasure business? I wouldn’t want to disrespect your art.”

“Fuck, you’re such a wanker sometimes,” Jack said, his deep voice tight. A genuine smile crinkled Louis’ eyes, Jack’s brows furrowing further. “What, you want me to call you a wanker? Is that your kink? You want to be humiliated and talked down to?”

Louis grinned.

“Not quite.”

Footsteps could be heard outside Louis’ office, Jack’s eyes glancing at the small space between the ajar door and the doorframe.

“It’s now or never, love. Either we kiss or we…” Jack trailed off and looked down, Louis’ lips brushing over his mouth. Warm fingertips slid up the bottom of his shirt, drawing small circles over the fronts of his hips “Or...We…” Louis brushed their lips together so softly, so gently, that Jack’s body tilted forward, finding nothing but air and the blaze of Louis’ teeth. “We…”

Louis squeezed his hips and tilted his head an inch to the right, slotting their lips together. Jack’s hips flexed beneath his thumbs, his hands flattening on the small of Louis’ back.

“Can I kiss you?” Louis asked.

Jack breathed, “You already have.”

Louis smiled, slowly licking his lips, green eyes glued to the motion of his tongue.

“You’re right. I suppose I have.”

“You like to be in control all the time. You like to tease,” Jack whispered, following the tilt of Louis’ head to kiss him a touch firmer. “That’s it?”

“You’ll never know, now, will you?”

Jack’s eyes were half-lidded, his smile lopsided.

“No, I suppose not.”

“Feel the weight of my body,” Louis drawled, mimicking Jack’s deep voice. He slid his hands around to the backs of Jack’s hips, pressing their groins flush. “Feel how my hands feel on your skin.”

“Using my own words against me.” Jack gave his arse a playful spank, Louis’ lips curving up amusedly. “Bad wolf.”

Louis’ teeth closed on Jack’s full bottom lip, sucking gently once before Jack pulled him closer, their mouths searing together. Louis exhaled through his nostrils and thrust his tongue against Jack’s, unable to stand the light tease of his tongue along the seam of his lips.

“You happy now?” he rasped, kissing Jack with more firmness.

Both of Jack’s hands cupped Louis’ arse, squeezing and grinding against him.

“You certainly are.”

Louis smiled into a kiss, softening the motions of their lips.

“I think that’s you, darling.”

Jack hummed a smile with their lips still connected and swiveled his hips, Louis’ breath stuttering into his mouth, his fingers clutching in the back of Jack’s hair.

“Mmm,” Jack tilted his head and approached from another angle, their lips brushing, “pull my hair again.”

For whatever reason, Louis’ hand followed Jack’s murmured order and tightened to pull. Jack whimpered ever so softly and Louis pressed harder against him, their lips opening together, tongues sliding between them.

“I have your tea, sir--rrrroh! Oh!” Liam rapidly moonwalked out of the office, carry-out tray of tea in hand. “Oh,” his voice could be heard whispering, out of breath. “Oh my.”

Louis rolled his eyes at Jack’s smug smile and broke away from him, licking his lips.

“Sorry, Liam.” He stepped up to the door and gestured for Liam to come inside. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”

Liam poked his head back into the office, his eyes tightly shut.

“I didn’t mean to intrude, sir. Sirs. Erm. I. Well. I apologize.”

“It’s okay,” Louis chuckled, taking the tray from him. “It’s fine. Honest. We shouldn’t be,” he glanced over his shoulder at Jack, “fraternizing at work, anyway.”

“Yeah, sorry, mate,” Jack said, stepping up next to Louis. “Didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“It’s no problem! None at all.”

Louis handed Jack a paper cup, taking his own out of the carry-out tray. They sipped at the same time. Jack tilted his head just so, smirking with his lips on the edge of the cup.

“How is it?” Liam asked, his hands clasped tightly in front of his chest. He looked from Louis to Jack. “Did I make it to your liking?”

“It’s delicious,” Jack said, his eyes crinkled at Louis. He licked his lips. “Thank you.”

“Yeah, thanks for picking them up,” Louis said, Jack snuffling as he sipped again. “They’re,” Louis slapped his lips together, “great.”

Liam snapped his fingers and pointed at Jack.

“I know where I’ve seen you!”

Louis sputtered into his tea, liquid stinging inside his nostrils. He coughed, Jack patting between his shoulder blades.

“Y’alright, love?”

“Fine,” Louis said, his voice strained. Liam rushed towards him with outstretched hands and Louis held one palm out. Liam had applied CPR to people before at various office events. Louis knew his safety patrol stance when he saw it. “I’m fine. Just fine.”

Jack kept his touch gentle to continue rubbing between Louis’ shoulder blades. He smiled at Liam.

“I think we go to the same gym,” he said. He could feel Louis glaring sideways at him. “Is that where we’ve seen each other?”

“Oh, erm, no.” Liam scratched the back of his head. “I don’t believe so?”

“Ah, sorry, mate. You look just like one of the trainers at my gym. You must work out, what,” his eyes glanced over Liam’s body, his smile friendly, “five or six times a week to look like you do?”

As Louis sipped his tea and stifled a smile, Liam’s face flushed, his hand fumbling while touching his own chest.

“Well, I…” He smiled, letting out a light giggle. “I do try to be healthy. I usually go at least four times a week, five if my schedule allows.”

“I’ve been doing a lot more bodyweight training lately,” Jack said, rubbing the front of his left shoulder with his right hand, rolling his shoulder forward. “Press ups are killing me. I think I’m doing them wrong.”

Liam’s eyes lit up.

“I could show you how I do them, if you’d like?”

“Could you?”

“Sure! I mean,” Liam stopped unbuttoning a shirt cuff and stood up straighter, looking to Louis, “if that’s alright, sir. I can get back to work immediately, if you’d like.”

“Please.” Louis swirled his cup in a circle. “By all means.”

Liam ran out of the office, saying, "One moment!"

Jack and Louis glanced at each other, Louis muffling a laugh by sipping his tea. Jack brought his lips to Louis’ ear.

“Who puts milk in blueberry tea?” he whispered.

“We do, apparently,” Louis whispered back. He softly scoffed, “Blueberry tea. As if we’d have such poor taste.”

Jack smiled, his bottom lip pinched between his teeth. Liam returned, sans jacket, and dropped to the floor like a soldier. Jack reached into his pocket, pulling his iPhone out.

“Now, when I do press-ups,” Liam said, doing quick press-ups with the same enthusiasm as he possessed as Louis’ assistant, “I usually alternate taking one limb out of the equation.” He lifted his right hand, his body never missing a beat. “I’ve found it helps confuse my muscles.”

“You’re like an Avenger,” Jack said, his and Louis’ eyes going up and down with Liam’s press-ups. “You’re a total badass.”

Liam chuckled breathily, now lifting his left foot while doing press-ups. Jack held up his phone and tapped the screen, prompting the Marimba ringtone to start.

“Ah, shoot, I’ve got to take this,” Jack said, leaning in and pecking Louis’ lips, sliding his tea cup into Louis’ free hand. “Work call.” He kissed Louis one more time, Louis’ mouth motionless and his eyes following Jack as he stepped back. Jack floated around Liam with light feet. “Sorry to have to run.” He bent over and grinned at Liam’s sweating face, giving him a thumbs up. “Was amazing to meet you. Excellent form.”

“You, too,” Liam panted out, starting to stand. “And, uh, thanks!”

Jack patted his shoulder, holding him to the ground for the split second it took for get to the door.

“Can’t wait to see you at the wedding, mate.” He stepped backwards and threw a flirty smile at Louis. “I’ll talk to you later, babe.”

Louis watched the entire scene play out in silence. He was aware of Jack’s ability to read situations and manipulate as needed, but even he was impressed with how Jack was able to dispense of Liam to get himself out of a potentially uncomfortable revelation about being Mr. Carson’s gala date. Jack didn’t exaggerate about having an uncanny ability to make himself disappear.

Something heavy sank in Louis’ stomach, a flicker of that heavy feeling making his lips frown.

“Oh,” Liam panted, looking sideways as he held a plank position, “he’s gone. That was quick.” He smiled up at Louis, his face flushed. “He’s nice!”

Louis stepped around Liam’s body.

“I’ll walk him to the lifts. He forgot his tea.”

Louis walked briskly through the office, searching for a tall figure looming above the secretaries busy at their desks. He checked over his shoulder and, when there was no sight of Liam, tossed both of their teas into a bin. He caught up with Jack just as he reached the main reception desk.

“Jack,” he whispered, coming up beside him.

Jack’s eyes were wide, startled, when they landed on Louis’ face.

“What are you doing?”

“Walking you out.” He flattened his hand on Jack’s lower back. “Babe.”

Jack smiled softly, leaning into his touch.

“Good to see you finally getting it.”

Louis chuckled, their shoes shuffling against the shiny black marble.

“Getting what?”

Jack turned towards Louis and lifted his hands. He tugged on the knot of Louis’ tie, smoothing his hands over his stiff shirt collar.

“In business, you’ve been successful because you think ahead.” The lift pinged open, people hurrying out around them. “Not one step ahead, or even two steps ahead, but multiple, long-term steps ahead.”

“Yes? And?”

Jack entered the lift and pressed the ground floor button, his lips curved in an amused smirk.

“Do you not think that I do the same in my business?”

“What are you talking about?”

“You were so reluctant to kiss me in front of Liam. To kiss me at all.” Jack adjusted his colourful headscarf. “All it took was me putting the ball in your court, letting you think that you were in control, for you to give in to me. Which you did. Within seconds. And I’m telling you, this will come in handy on the island. Same with you getting more comfortable with me.”

The doors started to close, Louis’ arm shooting out to halt them in place.

“I don’t think you’re that bright, love. A few babes and fake kisses does not a mastermind make.”

Jack chuckled, a light, bubbled sound.

“You don’t?” He fixed his eyes on Louis’ face, brushing his fingers over his bottom lip. “My goal was to get you to kiss me. You kissed me. I got you to want to kiss me. Sounds like I met my goal, doesn’t it? Even if I had to take a few twists and turns to get there.” He pressed the door close button and Louis’ arm stopped it again. “You still don’t think I’m bright? You’re the one who has not yet grasped who you’re dealing with. Call me a hustler, call me a whore, call me a rent boy. I may be all of those things, but I’d imagine a businessman like you would recognize I’m a businessman at heart, and a very good one.”

Louis blocked the doors from closing.

“If I’m the wolf, who are you, then? The snake? The spider? Weaving webs with neck kisses and bad jokes?”

Jack grinned, his dimple popping. He ran his right hand through his hair, shiny waves hair tumbling over his shoulders. He pressed the door close button.

“Does that make you my prey? I quite like that image.”

“Well? What are you? For a man who babbles constantly you rarely say anything of use.”

“I’m a whole other animal.” The door started to close, Louis standing with his arms at his side. Jack winked, pursing his lips in an air kiss. “See you Friday, love.”

The doors pinged shut, Louis staring at the brushed metal.

. . .

Friday 24, April

“You’ve outdone yourself yet again.”

Jack smiled, scraping his fork over a plate.

“I was hoping you’d like those chicken tacos.” He glanced over his shoulder, Mr. Carson hobbling into the kitchen with an empty plate in hand. “The recipe seemed too good to be true, but it’s totally heart healthy. We’ll have to add it to our usual repertoire.”

“You should become a personal chef,” Mr. Carson continued, his voice creaky but still bright. He handed Jack his plate. “Your healthy food tastes nothing like the rubbish my chef makes me. Sawdust.” He slapped his wrinkled lips together. “He makes me sawdust, I swear it.”

Jack chuckled softly and took his plate.

“Why don’t you get ready for bed? I’ll be in shortly.”

Mr. Carson weakly squeezed Jack’s shoulder, patting his back.

“You’re too good to me, sweet boy.”

Jack smiled down at the sink of suds, running warm water over their dinner dishes. He opened the dishwasher and started to load it, even though Mr. Carson would chuckle and tell him to leave the mess for his housekeeper.

Once the kitchen was cleaned up, Jack went to the enormous master bedroom en suite, the room covered in light marble and gold fixtures. He opened the medicine cabinet, pulling out three bottles. He dumped a collection of pills into a small white cup. He opened one bottle and frowned. He walked into the bedroom, Mr. Carson already under the covers in deep red silk pajamas, his eyes closed.

“Did you want me to split these?” Jack asked, wiggling the bottle. “Dr. Hilary said to take half a dose at night from now on, remember?”

“Did she?” Mr. Carson said, sounding exhausted. He took his glasses off, age-spot covered hands rubbing his eyes. “My brain is a bit fried, I apologize, love.”

“That’s alright,” Jack said, gentle and quiet. “We only saw her yesterday. It’s still new. I’ll bring your meds in a moment, just relax.”

When Jack went back into the bedroom, decorated in lavish scarlet and gold, Mr. Carson was snoring, his head dropped back. Jack went to the left side of the bed and placed his hand on Mr. Carson’s shoulder, squeezing once.

“Meds then beds, just like always,” he whispered, Mr. Carson smiling sleepily at him. He struggled to sit up, Jack sliding his arm beneath his lower back. He eased him into an upright position and offered him a glass of water. He dropped a collection of pills into Mr. Carson’s other hand. “Here we are.”

Mr. Carson threw the pills into his mouth, gulping them down. He sipped his water, Jack tucking the blankets in around his chest.

“Are you going away with Louis Tomlinson next week?”

Jack’s hands paused, his eyes blinking twice. He smiled tightly at the Mr. Carson, smoothing his hand over the duvet. He took the empty water glass and placed it on his bedside table.

“I’ll,” he held out the word, slowly continuing, “be out of town next week.”

“He’s a very nice boy, like you are. Smart. Very smart, just as you are. And lonely.” Mr. Carson wrapped his thin, bony fingers around Jack’s forearm, Jack looking at him. “He could use someone like you.”

Jack’s brows shot up, soft laughter falling from his lips.

“Me? He could use someone like me? I don’t know if I believe that. He seems just fine on his own.”

“He could use someone kind. Someone big-hearted and patient. Someone to make him laugh.” Mr. Carson’s eyes started to flicker shut, his hand weakly squeezing Jack’s wrist. “You’ll be very happy together, I’m sure.”

His nasal, clucked snores took over the conversation. Jack smiled faintly at his slackened face, his pale skin so thin it resembled tissue paper, veins and ventricles standing out from the wrinkled white surface. He eased Mr. Carson’s hand off his arm, shut the lamp on his bedside table, and stood up, bending to kiss his forehead.

He left Mr. Carson’s penthouse, dragging his luggage behind himself. He had been on enough holidays to know how to pack concisely, needing only one rectangular suitcase and a black leather overnight bag as his carry-on.

Louis lived a mere two minute walk from Mr. Carson’s luxury building. Jack stood in front of the skyhigh structure and grit his teeth, huffing a slow breath out of his nostrils. The main doorman, someone who looked older than Mr. Carson, opened the door for him, offering him a small smile and nod.

"Good evening, sir."

He nodded at him, murmuring, "Thank you," and continued into the modern lobby. He approached the security desk, his posture tighter. His steely gaze softened.

“Good evening, sir,” a sparkly-eyed ginger said to him, smiling wide behind tiny round glasses. “How may I help you?”

“Oh, um," Jack ran his hand over the back of his neck, "I’m here to see Louis Tomlinson? In 30A?”

“You must be Jack,” the man said, smiling wider. He nodded and held his hand out. “Come on in, then. He told me to expect you. Shall I help you with your bags?”

“Thank you, but no.” He tightened his grip on his rolling bag’s handle. “That’s alright.”

“Alright, sir. Please don’t hesitate to ask if you do need anything during your time here.” He gave Jack another friendly smile. “Welcome.”

“Thanks so much.”

Jack walked past his desk then paused, taking a step backwards. He turned to face the guard.

“Excuse me, sir?”

The ginger guard popped up from his chair, standing at attention in front of Jack.

“Yes, Mr. McQueen?”

“Erm. Jack. Please, call me Jack.”

"Okay, Jack. What can I do for you?"

Jack shuffled his boots, his hand squeezing the handle of his bag.

“What happened to the other night guard? Nathan, I think?”

“Oh,” the man said, his smile fading fast. “Top secret, of course, but,” his voice dropped, his hand flat next to his mouth, “rumor has it he was fired. He made inappropriate comments to guests and divulged private information about residents. Terrible, just shameful.” Jack’s eyes widened, his chin tilting to the left. “To be honest,” the guard checked around the empty lobby, “everyone seems relieved he's gone, myself included. He was a right dick.” He adjusted his uniform, gruffly clearing his throat. "Pardon the language, sir.”

“That’s quite alright.” A small tingle started to form in his lower belly. “Thank you for telling me.”

“Happy to help! I’m Marty, by the way." He held out his meaty hand. "Whatever you need during your time here, please let me know.”

“Thank you," Jack said, shaking his hand. He smiled, a strange sort of shyness colouring his cheeks. "Have a great night."

"You, too!" Marty winked and patted the top of his hand. "Best not keep Lou waiting or he'll send George out as a search party."

Jack laughed and stepped away, dragging his bag to the lifts. He got inside and hit the button for the thirtieth floor. He leaned back on the smooth wall, running his fingertips over his lips. He started to smile, his stomach warmly fluttering.

The doors pinged open before his smile bloomed fully. He pulled his luggage out of the lift, Louis' front door swinging open.

"Hey," Louis said, walking barefoot into the foyer. He took the handle of Jack's large bag from him, taking the leather overnight bag off Jack's shoulder to loop the strap across his chest. He smiled, friendly but with sleepiness softening his eyes. "Good dinner?"

"Yeah, was fine, but you--You don't have to do that." He gripped the strap of his overnight bag in an attempt to take it back, Louis' forward steps dragging them into the flat together. "I could have done that."

Louis pushed the door shut.

"It's no problem. Uh oh," Louis chuckled, tiny fingernails clicking on the hardwood. Jack grinned and looked towards the sound. "Here comes trouble with a capital G."

Jack's grin spread even wider with a joyous, "It’s my Georgie!"

He dropped to his knees in time for George to barrel into him. He lifted George into his arms and cuddled their faces together, mumbling dog nonsense sounds, Louis laughing softly from above.

"He certainly has taken a shine to you."

Jack stood up, holding George to his chest. He smiled, that shy, bashful feeling fluttering in his stomach again.

"He's sweet."

"Want to know a secret?"

Jack's brows rose, his face leaning closer.

"Sure," he said, matching Louis' hushed tone.

"When Zayn first came over to meet George, this little beast," he rubbed George's belly, "pissed in his boots. Not just on, but inside both of his boots."

Jack guffawed, gasping at the puppy.

"Naughty Georgie!"

Louis scratched the top of George's head, smiling dryly.

"He’s a cuddle-monster, but he doesn't always warm up to new people right away. At least, not as fast as he warmed to you."

Jack dropped a soft kiss to George's head, murmuring, "I'm honoured, mate." George wiggled and licked Jack's nose, Jack giggling, "Aw, such a little lover."

Louis stepped back, tucking his hands in the pockets of his grey sweats.

"So, you're all packed and ready? The car is picking us up at half three sharp."

"I am," Jack said, nodding and placing George on the ground. He smoothed his mauve floral button down and smiled at Louis, his eyes shimmering. "I can't wait for you to see your new swim trunks."

Louis rolled his eyes and turned away, his smile hidden. He walked into the kitchen and grabbed a black kettle.

"I shudder to think of the patterns you chose."

Jack laughed and perched on top of his kitchen island, crossing his ankles and gently tapping his black sock covered heels into the cabinet below. Louis glanced at the front door, finding Jack’s brown suede ankle boots beside his blue Adidas trainers.

"You'll love them,” Jack insisted, smiling wide. “I'm sure of it."

Louis stuck the kettle under the faucet.

"Tea?"

"Yes, please." Jack lifted the unbuttoned vee of his shirt to his nose, letting the material fall back on his chest. "Though I'd love a quick shower first, if that's alright?"

"Sure, yeah, of course." Louis turned off the sink and plopped the kettle on on the stovetop. He turned on the heat. "I'll show you to your guest room."

Louis took hold of Jack's luggage handle, Jack shouldering his bag. They, including George, walked to the first guest room.

The room was decorated in warm purples and greys, the floor the same dark hardwood that ran through the flat. The large bed was outfitted with all white linens, a flat screen mounted to the wall in front of the bed.

"Lovely," Jack said, eyes peering around the room. He dropped his bag. "I love the colours."

"Thanks." Louis lifted his hand and pointed at an open door. "There's a full en suite, plus fresh towels and shower things if you need them."

Jack started unbuttoning his shirt.

"Great, thanks." He walked to the en suite and turned on the lights, revealing a long white soaking tub beside a glass walled shower. "Oh, wow. Nice tub."

Louis crossed his arms over his chest, leaning his bum against the doorway.

"Feel free to have a soak. The last person who stayed in here was Maggie and she avoided having a bath like the plague. The only way I could get her to bathe was filling the jacuzzi tub in my en suite with mostly bubbles so we could have a," he made air quotes, "'Princess Pool Party,' in our swimsuits.” Jack's laughter echoed around the bathroom, Louis jutting his chin towards the en suite. “I don't know if this tub's ever been used."

Jack's shirt melted off his long torso, dangling from the fingers on his left hand, light bursting around his smooth skin. Louis diverted his eyes.

"Nah, I'm too lazy for a bath." Jack smiled over his shoulder and tossed his shirt on the bed. "A shower will be lovely."

George climbed on a decorative padded bench at the end of the bed and launched himself onto the mattress, burrowing into Jack's colourful shirt.

"George, no," Louis said, hardening his voice, pushing himself off the wall. He pointed from George to the floor. "Down. No bed."

"I don't mind," Jack said, appearing shirtless in front of Louis, his jean unbuttoned. He sat on the end of the bed, the motion causing his abs to ripple and his pecs to swell slightly. George toddled over to him, his small paws sinking deeply into the rich linens. "Unless it's a household rule?"

"He'll never leave you alone if you let him up, just a warning."

"That's alright. I don't mind."

Louis shrugged.

"As you wish."

Jack squeezed the back of George's neck, smiling down at the pup.

"He'll forget me after tonight. I can manage one doggie cuddle night."

"What do you mean?"

Jack looked up at him, his smile calm.

“Well, because I won’t be back here after the trip.”

“Ah. Right.” Louis looked to George, the dog’s chin propped on Jack’s thigh and his tail whirling. “Right. Of course.”

Jack looked down and scratched behind George’s ears, a small, light laugh exhaled from his lips. His bicep flickered while he scratched, every muscle in his torso lazily stretching as he stood up from the bed. He picked up George and walked to Louis.

“Be good for Daddy,” Jack whispered, placing George in Louis’ arms. He smirked and slowly batted his lashes, their toes touching. “Right, Daddy?”

“That’s not my thing.”

Jack clicked his back teeth and snapped his fingers in the air, Louis laughing.

“Are you…” Louis held George against his shoulder like a burping infant and sniffed the air in front of Jack’s bare chest. “Wearing women’s perfume?”

"Chanel No. 5."

Louis stepped back, his eyes scrunched.

"A male client asks you to wear it? Wait, is that…” He blinked twice, the memory of too much pale ale bitter on the back of his tongue. “You wore it at the gala. Is that..." His lips popped open. "Is that Mr. Carson's thing? Women’s perfume?"

Jack turned away from him, picking his shirt up from the bed.

"I normally wouldn’t divulge any information about a client, but you know him and he knows you know about our arrangement.” He held his shirt out, fingers pinching the shoulders. “His wife used to wear it. She passed a few years ago."

"I remember. I sent a fruit basket.”

Jack glanced over his shoulder.

“How generous of you.”

“He has you wear his dead wife’s perfume while you do, erm,” he shifted George to his other shoulder, “whatever you do with him?"

Jack’s smirk softened, fingers carefully folding his shirt against his chest.

"He said it reminds him of her. He likes it. Likes to smell it around the house."

“Does he call you her name?”

“No,” Jack chuckled, laying his folded shirt on the bed bench. He faced Louis, his hands on his bare hips, his jeans low enough to reveal a hint of brown hair. “It’s not like that. I think it’s a comfort thing. She was a really lovely woman.”

“You knew her?” Louis asked, shocked.

“I did. I met her before I met him. She actually set me up with him when she knew she was dying.”

Louis’ face slid back on his neck, his eyes squinting.

“What?”

Jack unzipped his jeans, bending and lowering them in one easy motion. He stood up to his full height, Louis staring at the ceiling.

“She knew she’d be leaving him, so she wanted to make sure someone would be there for him. Someone who she liked. Their kids are not very involved; they’ve got families of their own.”

“So, she picked a prostitute? A gay prostitute?”

Jack smiled, kicking his jeans aside.

“She liked me and so did he. It worked out for everyone.” He placed his hands on the waistband of his black briefs, his hip dents flexing. “I think the kettle’s on.”

“Huh?”

Jack quirked his hip.

“Kettle.” He started to roll the waistband down, swaying his right hip up, then his left. “Unless,” he smirked and pushed the material below his arse, “you want to see the goods?”

“Kettle, right,” Louis said, tearing his eyes away from Jack’s thighs. He blinked rapidly, the kettle howling in the kitchen. “Yes. Right.”

Louis turned away to the sound of Jack’s giggles.

“Hey,” Louis said, pulling a sock off his head.

Jack grinned and threw the other sock at him, Louis swatting at it and glaring over his shoulder.

“Only one more thing to throw,” Jack said, the thick base of his cock revealed. “You sure you don't want a peek?”

Louis fixed him with a bored stare, his eyes on Jack’s face.

“Please refrain from flashing anyone on holiday.”

“Even you?”

Louis stepped into the hallway and sucked in a gulp of fresh air.

“Especially me,” he said, Jack giggling in the guest room.

When Jack returned to the kitchen after his shower, Louis was peering into a white ceramic tea pot, two bags of Yorkshire tea floating inside.

“Good shower?”

Jack said, “Yup,” and sat at the island, swaying his bare feet underneath the leather padded stool. “Excellent pressure.”

Louis looked up and stared at him. He placed the lid on his tea pot.

“Are you naked right now?”

“Nope,” Jack said, smiling and propping his chin on his palm. “I promise I’ve got pants on. I sleep naked, though. Just a warning.”

“Congratulations. We have separate beds in our hotel. I could care less how you sleep.”

“You mean you don’t want to wake up to my sausage up against your arse every morning? A full English wakeup call?”

“Oh my God,” Louis laughed, holding his hand to his upper stomach. “Already with the sausage jokes? We’re not even there yet.”

“I’ve been practicing.”

Louis laughed again, the sound bubbling uncontrollably out of him, and placed a mug in front of Jack. A bowl with tiny sugar cubes and a small glass pitcher of milk rested on the island. Louis picked up the pitcher.

“I don’t know how you take it. This is whole, but I’ve got semi in the fridge, if you prefer.”

Jack watched Louis pour a splash of milk into his empty white mug before placing the pitcher in front of him.

“Whole is fine. Thanks.”

Louis stirred his tea.

“This is decaf, which almost eliminates the purpose of tea, but I figured being wired would not be good for either of us.”

Jack nodded.

“Good thinking. We have an early morning.”

They sipped in silence, the telly playing football highlights in the background. George bounded into the kitchen and went to his water bowl, tiny tongue licking ripples into the smooth surface. Louis smiled around his mug, his hands cradling the warm porcelain. He watched George’s little bum and tail wiggle with excitement, his flat nose snorting as he drank.

“I should take him out one more time before bed,” Louis said, licking tea off the corner of his mouth. He looked to Jack and Jack immediately dropped his eyes to his mug. Louis frowned. “What?”

“Nothing.”

“You’re smiling. What?”

Jack sipped his tea, huffing laughs out his nostrils.

“Nothing. Just...Your eyes crinkle sometimes when you smile.” He spun his mug once on the island. “It’s cute.”

“Oh,” Louis said, the sound pure and high.

Jack broke their stare to look down, a throaty laugh pulled from him.

“Wow, Georgie, you’re a leg guy? Me too, mate, me too.”

Louis ran around the counter and saw George humping Jack’s ankle. He let out a horrified cry and bent over, bundling the pup into his arms.

“Fucking hell,” he said, laughter sneaking into his voice, Jack’s abs scrunching as he laughed heartily. “What’s the matter with him? He’s obsessed with you.”

“Most men are. Some women, too.”

Louis rolled his eyes, still snorting laughs.

“I’ll take him out. Maybe the walk will calm him down.”

Jack swayed his feet below his stool.

“Is that what you do to calm yourself down?”

Louis tilted his chin.

“Ha ha,” he deadpanned, walking to the door. He slipped his bare feet into a pair of black Toms and took George’s lead off the wall, pulling a plastic bag out of a container hanging on the hook. That seemed to signal something to George, who started to yelp and wiggle in Louis’ arms. “I’ll be right back.”

“Okay.”

Louis brought his eyes to Jack’s face as he clipped the lead to George’s collar.

“You can practice your sausage jokes.”

“Okay,” Jack said, laughing the word. He watched Louis lower George to the floor and pat his sweats, his keys jingling in his pocket. “Hey, Lou?”

Louis turned towards him, George jetting out the open door, the lead straight and tight.

“Yeah?”

Jack stood from the kitchen stool, revealing that he was not naked, but wearing a small pair of dark grey briefs that hit below his hips. Louis’ throat bobbed, wondering if anyone could see in his wall of windows at that very moment. There he was, short and covered in sweats, while Jack strode towards him like some sort of modern god, long limbs and lean muscles all moving as one to move his tall form closer and closer.

“Did you get that guard fired?” Jack asked, stepping closer, his bare feet padding near silent on the hardwood, his hands relaxed at his sides. “Nathan?”

Louis’ tongue flickered over his bottom lip, their eyes never breaking contact.

“I did.”

Jack’s brows pinched slightly inwards.

“Why?”

“Because he was rude to you,” Louis said simply, as if it were the most obvious answer in the world. “Unacceptable.”

“Me? You mean your fake boyfriend slash escort?” Jack huffed a laugh, widening his eyes and itching the back of his neck. “Quite a fuss for someone like me.”

“Don’t speak of yourself that way,” Louis said, his voice softer and his brows furrowed. Jack froze in place, the frequency of the room ringing in his ears. “Your job does not measure your worth. Being an escort is not who you are. You’re a human, and a seemingly decent one, at that. You deserve to be treated with respect and kindness.”

Jack’s eyes dropped to the floor, his long toes curling against the hardwood. He could hear George tugging at the lead, frantic breaths panting into the silent air.

“Besides,” Louis shifted his hips, his voice regaining its normal tone, “in addition to being rude to you, he divulged something private about me to a stranger. I pay far too much to live in this overpriced glass box to deal with that. I won’t stand for that sort of unprofessionalism. People should be allowed privacy in their own home, no matter how their doorman feels about their chosen activities or bedmates.”

Jack nodded once, his fingertips brushing the outside of his thighs.

“I agree.”

Louis blinked, his arm tugged straight by George’s lead.

“Good.”

“But…” Jack ran his fingers through his damp hair, the ends wet against his shoulders. “But what if he had a family?” Louis’ head tilted at his question, Jack stepping closer and dropping his arm. “He was unprofessional, yeah, but what if he has a family to support? And now he’s unemployed?”

Louis’ face softened with a small smile.

“Aw, kitten. Your heart must be on the same level as your sausage.”

A small pout wrinkled Jack’s forehead.

“Was that a riddle?”

“Research, love.”

The pout dissolved, his eyes round.

“What do you mean?”

“He’s divorced. No children. He cheats regularly on his girlfriend of two months. He posts horrific sexist, homophobic and racist messages on online forums for guns, sometimes while logged into the computer at the security desk.” Louis curled his lips as if he sipped sour milk. “The elderly truly don’t understand how to lock down their online presence.”

Jack inhaled through his nose, his thumbs tucking against his palms. He watched Louis pull a treat from his pocket, a tiny brown biscuit in the shape of a chicken leg, and bend over to hand it to George.

“Did you interrogate him in the the bonsai garden downstairs or something?” Jack asked, his hands crossing in front of his groin. He placed his clasped fingers against his cock, feeling pressure building against his briefs. “Is that how you found all this out?”

Louis stood up straight, brushing his hand over his sweats.

“I’d never sully the bonsai garden with such filth. He told me all of this himself. Happily. All it took was a simple conversation and a few well placed comments for him to start blabbering.”

“Sometimes that’s all it takes,” Jack said, his voice quiet. “A sense of security and an open ear.”

Louis nodded slowly, their eyes still locked.

“You were right.”

“About?”

“We’re very similar, you and I.”

Jack smiled, the motion of his lips slow, the right side of his lips higher than the left. He ran his fingers through the back of his hair, bending his right knee in to touch his left knee. He felt goosebumps prickle over his entire body.

“Oh,” he said, his voice shivering with unsung, uncontrollable giggles.

“Oh?”

“Thank you.” They locked eyes, a wave falling over Jack’s eyes. Softer, he said, “I meant to say thank you but an oh came out, so,” he swallowed, “thank you.”

“For?”

“For saying that. For doing that. And…” He bit his bottom lip as he smiled wider, his hand flat on his abs. He rubbed up to his chest. “For thinking the way you do. About...About how humans should be treated.”

They stared at each other, Jack’s chest heaving visibly beneath his flat palm. Louis’ eyes traced the flushed skin beneath his long, spread fingers, the hollow of his throat damp with sweat and his other hand clenched in a fist in front of his groin.

“You’re welcome,” Louis said, tone as simple as his normal delivery, his eyes snapping back to Jack’s face. “You’re very welcome.”

“I wish there were more people like you in the world.”

Louis’ lips twitched, but he didn’t smile.

“We’ll see how you feel in ten days.”

“I don’t think ten days of seeing you half naked and oiled up is going to change my opinion for the worse.”

A true, shocked smile emerged on Louis’ face, Jack’s cheeks burning bright red and his hand pressing tighter to his groin. Louis let his gaze float down Jack’s body and back up within half a second, his eyes blazing but still gentle.

“Is that so?” Louis asked, his voice half there.

“Right. I, um.” Jack chuckled breathily and started to walk backwards, the fronts of his thighs flexing as he lifted himself on the balls of his bare feet. He thumbed over his shoulder, his nightingale stretching. “I’m gonna go get ready for bed.”

Louis nodded, his nod the only movement of his body.

“Alright.”

“Have a nice--Ouch,” Jack said at the same volume as his speaking voice, his lower back bumping into the island and his body rolling sideways. “Have a fun walk with Georgie.”

Louis’ arm jutted out due to George pulling on the lead, a small smirk curling his lips.

“We will.”

Jack let out another breathless sound and turned away, glancing over his shoulder to find Louis still staring at him, his expression unreadable. Jack smiled and padded away, the guest room door nicking shut behind him.

Louis walked into the lift, George leading the way. He bent over and picked George up, the dog lavishing his neck with licks. Louis hugged him to his chest.

“Mate, I know he’s scorching hot, but you’ve got to tone it down,” he whispered in George’s ear. “Consent is key in our house. You can’t just go around humping everyone you find attractive.”

He looked at George’s scrunched little pug face, the dog snorting as if to ask, ‘Why not?’

Louis sighed, “Good question,” and looked up at the floor numbers, George resuming his licks.

Inside the penthouse, Jack wandered from room to room. He was not usually a snooper, but he couldn’t sit still, even after washing and moisturizing his face, brushing his teeth, and laying on his cloud of a bed.

He checked out the other guest room, which was decorated almost exactly like his own, save for the colour scheme being based around turquoise and sandy taupe. He had seen Louis’ bedroom before; that room didn’t require a stop on his tour.

He returned to the open plan living room and kitchen. He opened the fridge and saw there was a smaller stack of labeled meals, plus three different types of milk, two eggs in one carton and four eggs in another carton, and a half eaten block of sharp cheddar hastily wrapped in foil.

“Nice balanced diet,” he said, closing the fridge. He opened the pantry and smirked, his lips twitching to smile wider. He pushed a mountain of crisp packets aside, finding multiple jars of peanut butter and Nutella. “Very balanced.”

Louis’ living room was fairly boring, save for the amazing view of the city. The white apple of a Macbook Air glowed on the glass coffee table, the television remote wedged between the cushions of his buttery black leather sofa.

Jack took the remote out and switched the channel until he found Marvel’s Agent of SHIELD. He tossed the remote on the sofa. He noticed that the sofa was dented in on the right side near the arm. The dent was diagonal, as if Louis liked to sit sideways with his feet on the middle of the coffee table. There was a smaller dent on the left side of the couch large enough to accommodate George’s pudgy body.

He looked away from the sofa dents and went back into the kitchen. He took their empty cups and went to the sink, washing them. He rinsed the teapot and was placing it in a stainless steel drying rack when the door opened, frantic fingernails scrabbling on the hardwood.

“Glad to see the walk calmed you down,” Louis chuckled from his knees, unclipping George’s lead. George took off to the kitchen. Louis stood up, but swayed on his feet, his stomach lurching upwards and intruding on the space meant for his lungs. “Is everything…”

Jack smiled at Louis from the kitchen, drying his hands on a towel, George running in circles around his feet. Their mugs were lined up next to each other in the drying rack, Jack’s hip quirked.

“Is everything what?” Jack asked. George slid on his stomach and bumped into his ankle, Jack chuckling and bending over. He took him in his arms, cradling him against his chest and scratching behind his ears. “Welcome back.”

“Is...Is everything with your room alright?” Louis placed his hand on the wall, toeing his Toms off. He swallowed, a dry patch on the lowest part of his throat. “Are you ready for bed? I mean,” he scrunched his eyes, “is everything alright? Do you need anything?”

“No, I’m good, thanks.”

Louis dropped his keys on a narrow black table beside his door.

“Alright, then.”

Jack lowered George to the floor but the puppy whined and sat on top of his foot, panting up at him.

“Go to Papa,” Jack said quietly, swaying his hands towards Louis. He stepped backwards and George followed, plopping on his feet again. “It’s bedtime.”

Louis went into the living room and picked up the remote.

“Shit, I forgot to watch that tonight,” he whispered to himself, turning SHIELD off. He went into the kitchen and saw Jack to be hopping from foot to foot, George attempting to keep up but mostly sliding on his belly from spot to spot. “I’m going to head to bed, but you can stay up and watch telly or whatever.”

“Nah. I need to sleep, too.” He huffed a breath and made his longest jump yet, George scampering after him. He giggled with his face towards the panting dog. “I’m tired.”

Louis smirked amusedly, watching Jack’s long legs jump side to side, his muscled torso following each graceful sway.

“Yeah, looks like it.”

Jack grinned at him, his hair falling in his eyes. He pushed his hair off his forehead and scrunched his face in a serious expression, his chin collapsing into his neck. He waved one stiff finger at George.

“Alright, Georgie. Time for bed. Get serious.”

George stared up at him, motionless. A tiny, high-pitched sound came from beneath the dog’s bum.

“Oh my God,” Louis groaned, moving towards George, Jack hysterical laughing with his abs jiggling. “You’ve rendered him completely stupid.” That sent Jack into heartier laughs, his arm shooting out to grip the island, Louis chuckling and lifting George. “I swear, he was a very bright, normal dog before you met him.”

Jack’s laughter calmed, his eyes sparkling with tears. He pet George’s head.

“He’s still a very bright, normal dog, farts and raging libido and all.”

Louis smiled at that, thumbing over George’s ribs.

“Hey,” Jack said, his fingers brushing Louis’ as they pet the dog. “Where is he going when we’re gone?” His eyes sagged. “Does he stay here alone the whole time?”

“Nah. He goes to this doggie spa place.”

“Lucky Georgie.”

“He loves it there. If I was only going to be gone a day or two, I’d have David, his dog walker, come over to care for him. But since we’re going for over a week, he gets to stay at the spa. He even has friends that’ll be there from this dog park we go to.” Jack pursed his lips and nodded along, Louis adding, “We’re all on a mailing list for dog hangouts.”

“Is his email: georgieboy@mostadorablepuppyofalltime.com?”

“Dot org, actually.”

Jack snuffled a laugh.

Louis asked, “If you sleep with him in your room, do you mind keeping the door open a crack? He’s usually fine through the night, and he just went out, but on the off chance he needs to go out again, I’d rather him be able to get out of the room and find me.”

“Yeah, of course. Sure.” Jack nodded. “I can take him out, too, if you want.”

“That’s alright. He usually sleeps like a rock, but I’ll leave my door ajar, just incase.”

“Alright.”

Jack broke their stare to smile down at the pup cradled in his arms. George had his tongue hanging out the corner of his mouth as he stared besotted from his owner to his new best friend, his stubby legs bobbing with each rub to his belly. Jack’s voice was softer, more gentle, to ask, “Does that sound good, Georgie boy? A sleepover with me?”

“His name is George,” Louis said, smiling only a tiny, tiny bit.

Jack pulled George into his arms, cradling him against his chest. George started to lick the bottom of his neck.

“I think he’s a Georgie.”

Louis sighed and touched a panel on the kitchen wall that dimmed the lights of the entire main space.

“I know a lost battle when I see one,” he said, Jack smiling into George’s fur. They started to walk towards the bedrooms. “Alright. Well…” Louis swallowed, the dry patch from earlier rendered extinct by the excessive amount of saliva that had formed in his mouth. “Goodnight.”

Jack opened his mouth to say goodnight, but froze, Louis’ lips softly pressing to his cheekbone.

“Oh,” he said, the sound popping. “Um.”

“Sorry. Shit, I’m--” Louis stepped back and held his hands out in front of him. “That--That was so weird. That was weird, right?” He shook his head, a grimace on his face. “I shouldn’t have done that.” He rubbed his hand over his nose, muttering, “I’m as bad as Georgie.”

“No, it’s--It was fine,” Jack said with wide eyes, stepping closer. “It wasn’t weird. It was good. It--We’re probably going to do that in front of people, like, that kind of kiss. It’s good practice.”

Before Louis could reply, Jack swooped down and kissed his right cheek, kissing closer to his temple with gentle pressure. Louis’ hair smelled like sporty, basic shampoo a uni student would buy because it was the cheapest in the store, but his skin felt like velvet, as if he bathed in luxury skincare products a uni student could never dream of purchasing. Jack kissed his left cheekbone, Louis kissing his jawline once, his slight stubble rough on Jack’s skin.

“Right,” Louis said, sounding strained. “It’s…” His half lidded eyes landed on Jack’s lips. “It’s good...”

Jack bent down as Louis lifted himself on the balls of his feet, their lips softly meeting in the middle. A fizzle of bright light nipped at the base of Louis’ neck, tendrils of heat teasing up to the top of his brain.

Their lips pressed together, closed but firm. They caught eyes and Jack started to laugh silently, Louis smiling and ducking his face down. Jack chased after him, offering his puffy lips in front of Louis’ mouth.

“Practice,” Jack finished for him, their bodies bobbing closer and their lips brushing again. “Like...We…”

Louis’ hand moulded around Jack’s hip, his other hand lifting to Jack’s hair. Jack wilted down again, their lips softly sucking together, Georgie squirming squished between their chests. Jack’s back bumped into the wall, Louis’ toes nudging his own, their lips taking turns kissing each other’s cheeks.

“Practice,” Louis murmured, his voice barely audible.

Jack held the dog with one arm, but looped his other arm around Louis’ lower back, Louis kissing the corner of his lips. Jack’s head tilted to bring their lips together, Louis exhaling a hot breath out of his nostrils.

With their lips tenderly pressed together, Jack let out a soft whimper and let his foot link around Louis’ ankle, Louis’ palm sliding down the tawny, damp skin of his lower back. When Louis reached his arse, his hand curling around the plump mound of his right arse cheek, Jack made a louder, whimpered sound, air running through the moan, and arched his hips forward.

Then Louis’ warmth was gone.

“Alright, then. Goodnight,” Louis said, conversational in tempo but frantic in pitch. He flattened his back on the wall on the opposite side of the hallway, Jack blinking wide eyed at him. “See you in the morning, bright and early.”

Louis kept his eyes on Jack’s doe-eyed, round lipped face, though his peripheral vision could not ignore the tightened grey fabric stretched over Jack’s bulge.

He swirled his hand in the air and babbled, “Good practice. I mean, good night. Yeah. Thanks.” Louis nodded and started to slide along the wall, his side steps wide. “All well? Good. Yes. Goodnight.”

“Night,” Jack said, licking his shining lips. The highest points of his cheekbones were pink, a flush visible on the centre of his chest and the skin just above his waistband. “Yeah, we’ll, um,” he swallowed and shifted George in his arms, “see you tomorrow.”

Louis nodded and pushed off the wall, walking quick and fast to his bedroom. He didn’t turn around to watch Jack go into his guest room, able to feel eyes on his back as he closed the door. He went to his bed, stood on the end, spread his arms, and belly flopped into his pillows, letting out a weak scream. He curled into the tightest ball he could manage, clutching a pillow to his chest.

He contemplated smothering himself, but decided against it, instead going into his en suite and taking care of his bedtime prep. He rid himself of his clothes and crawled into bed. He took a deep breath and stared up at the ceiling, exhaling a smooth line through his lips.

“Alright. Sleep.”

He shut his eyes and wiggled lower under the heavy covers. His nose twitched, his feet sliding against the cool sheets. There was a quiet sound from the hallway and Louis’ eyes opened. It could be the building settling, or the ventilation blowing air through his flat, or Jack turning over in bed. He would never know.

From then on, every small sound he thought he heard caused his eyes to pop open, his body tossing and turning in bed. He opened the drawer of his right bedside table and pulled out an emergency flask, the flask small and silver. He brought it to his lips and chugged, liquor stinging the back of his throat.

He placed his flask in the drawer and laid back. He ran his tongue over his teeth stared at the ceiling, running his tongue over his teeth again.

“Vodka’s sterile,” he reasoned aloud, slapping his lips together. “Don’t need to clean teeth again.”

He sighed and turned onto his stomach, falling into a weak sleep.

After mere moments, the sound of music pinged his ears. He opened his eyes, despite the grogginess that finally started to pull at him, and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He padded out of his bedroom and down the hall, the music becoming clearer the closer he got to Jack’s room.

Louis stood outside the door for a moment and listened to the sound of a flute and a brash voice singing, the volume low but audible from outside the cracked door. He knocked gently. There was no answer. He pushed the door open enough to peek inside as strings started to tremble, a sweeter voice singing into the room.

Jack was curled on his right side in the centre of the bed with the white duvet at around shoulder height, his hair a wavy halo on the white pillows beneath his head. The remote control had fallen to the floor beside the bed. George was a tight ball against his chest, wheezing snuffled dog snores into the front of Jack’s long neck, his left leg twitching in his sleep.

The television was on and playing Cinderella, the last DVD Louis put in the flatscreen when Maggie had slept over. Light and colours flickered over Jack’s motionless body and sleep-slackened face as the music swelled to female voices singing in perfect harmony, something warm surging in Louis’ belly as their voices grew.

Louis stepped into the room to turn off the television but stopped with his hand on the button. The bubble part was always his favourite.

He looked at Jack for one more long beat, taking in the shadows cast over his high cheekbones, his lashes involuntarily shivering. His full lips were puffed forward, a sleepy flush darkening his skin like a fever. Louis thought back to the first time he saw Jack, then the second, then the third, trying to catalogue all of his expressions and looks, just as he’d catalogue facts about a client to help keep his blood pressure low, to give him an edge when negotiating.

As the song came to its abrupt end due to the mean cat making a mess of Cinderella’s floor, Louis smiled to himself, watching Jack’s bare back swell and sink. Jack might have a goofy laughing face, but he looked like a Disney princess when he slept, fair and lovely and gentle.

A combination of jealousy (Louis was a mouth breather who drooled) and endearment flooded his body. Jack shrugged his shoulder up to his ear and moved one of his feet under the covers. The small motion fully pushed endearment past jealousy in the race for how he felt at that moment, his small smile returning.

Louis turned off the television and backed out of the dark room, the simple melody of the nightingale’s song, and Jack’s soft, even breaths, floating in his ears.