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Part One: long before we both thought the same thing

Chapter One: 9 July 2010 - 26 July 2010

9 July 2010

Harry Styles is sitting on the roof of his house contemplating the stars.

It’s 11:11 p.m. on the dot, and the world is quiet.

His mum would have a fit if she knew he was out here. After that time he fell off the roof trying to rescue an injured baby bird, she’s been terrified to let him get any higher than a few feet off the ground without being tethered to something or without following closely, ready to catch him if he falls.

“Can’t have my baby being hurt,” she always said, bopping Harry on the nose when he rolled his eyes.

(Gemma usually pretended to vomit at that display of sappiness, but she always was the more independent of the two of them. She doesn’t need Anne’s overwhelming affection to be happy, she just is. Happiness radiates from Gemma; Harry absorbs it.)

Harry tips his head back against the side of his house, the gentle sparkle of a starry night raining down on him. He’s always loved the stars. Cliché as it possibly could be, he likes that the heavens make him feel small. Galaxies and celestial bodies fly around in the air above him—how could his problems seem big compared to that? How could his tiny anxieties amount to anything? How could it be this hard, in the grand scheme of things, to pick one audition song?

The wind ruffles the pages of his journal; on the worn sheets are lines of carefully amassed text scribbled over several months of contemplation, and then crossed out and highlighted over and doodled around in the weeks following. Two full columns of songs he loves to choose from. He has preliminary X Factor auditions in fourteen hours. He should have chosen his song weeks ago, instead of pretending everything was taken care of and cheerfully ignoring it. He can’t breathe with the weight of his decision heavy on his shoulders. He can’t breathe with anxiety pressing in on his lungs. He can’t breathe.

Stars, look up at the stars. Miles upon miles away. Twinkling innocently and proof that there are bigger things in the universe than what song he’ll sing to the X Factor producers in less than twenty-four hours, even though they’re the same producers who could potentially pass him on to Simon Cowell and a chance at fame. The stars will keep shining even if he chooses the wrong song and performs it terribly and doesn’t even get a chance to perform on camera. They’ll also keep on twinkling if he doesn’t pick a song at all, and instead just screams at the producers in terror when it's his turn until he’s escorted out.

Harry looks back down to his journal in his lap, a gift to himself with his first week’s wages at the bakery. It’s usually full of scribbled sort-of poetry and doodles, but now it’s open to the well-thumbed list of songs that is currently the bane of Harry’s existence. He uncaps his pen and crosses off a song by The Script and a couple of Elton hits that were put on the list more for sentimentality than anything else. He narrows his eyes and runs through a few choruses under his breath to ensure he still remembers all of the lyrics, striking through more and more song titles as he sings his way down the list. He scratches off a Rihanna song because he’s not sure he could do it justice and a Bryan Adams song because he can’t remember the words. After a few more minutes of progress, he’s down to only a couple of options.

His eyes flit back to three words toward the top of the potential song list, traced over with careful green highlighter ink. Isn’t She Lovely is an official Styles Family Staple, a favorite when he and Gemma dance around the kitchen and sing and joke to keep their mum company while she cooks dinner every night.

It’s more than that, though: Isn’t She Lovely makes him think of a pastel-tinted future: a baby girl in his arms and a (for the time being) nameless, faceless partner with their arm wrapped around Harry’s waist. A Marker on his skin, though he can’t even begin to guess at the pattern it will someday take. A soulmate in his life. A family being built.

It’s 11:11 p.m., and Harry Styles is sixteen years old. He wants fame, yes, he wants recognition for his talent. He wants to make people happy and to bring strangers closer together. He wants to make a change in the world, even if it's only in the worlds of a few people. But, more than anything else, he wants love. He wants a Bond that withstands the test of time, a soulmate who loves him even at his absolute worst—when his skin is all broken out and his hair is greasy and he's cranky from lack of sleep. He wants someone to pour his affection into, to rebound his love back to him tenfold. And he wants it now.

He makes a wish on all the stars in the sky that he'll soon find his soulmate and begin his happily ever after. He doesn’t care that he’s not legally old enough to vote or volunteer for war or to drink, he’s old enough to know he’s ready to fall in love.

Pinpricks of light shine in the inky darkness of the sky, and Harry Styles sings Stevie Wonder into the sleepy silence.

...

No one has ever really confirmed exactly what it is that causes soulmates to Bond.

It’s chemical, biologists have claimed for centuries. Chemicals in the brain alert someone to their best possible chance of having healthy offspring and continuing the species. It’s an evolutionary advantage.

But, came the psychologists and philosophers not too long after that, how does that explain non-heterosexual soulmates? How are infertile adults able to Bond? Or, in rare cases, couples that Bond before puberty? These instances are less common than heterosexual adult soulmates, but they do happen. None of these create the greatest potential for the procreation of healthy children, and, in fact, each of these would suggest something deeper than pure chemical reactions to the proximity of potential offspring bearers.

Thousands upon thousands of scholars and scientists throughout recorded history have thrown their ideas into the ring. Shared ancestry, blood type, similar diet, potential for reincarnation, scent—you name it, and its effects on soulmates have probably been tested, recorded, and published in androgynology journals. Entire religions and cultural institutions have risen and fallen based on contemporary ideas of what causes Bonding. Some of the latest theories involve geography: in a world of seven billion people, how is it possible that so many people find their soulmates if relative distance is not a factor? Others have began studying the potential for multiple soulmates for a single person, examining the validity of Bonded polyamorous couples.

What is known is this: when a person hears their soulmate speak their full name for the first time, an identifier called a Marker will appear immediately on their body. Markers typically appear as images beneath the top layers of skin, almost identical to tattoos. However, other types of Markers have been recorded: places on the body emitting light, or heat, or sound; hair or eye color changing permanently; even entire limbs or appendages changing color (one famous case included a couple whose hands both turned bright gold, earning them the couple nickname of Midas). Some teenagers that Bond early in their adolescence have been reported to go through immediate growth spurts or voice changes as well. These identifiers are typically considered to be symbolic of your soulmate, like a constant reminder of them inked onto your skin.

Markers do not fade, but can change over time or in specific instances; old folklore from multiple cultures claims that Bonded pairs are not blessed by God until they touch each other’s Markers and see the full effects, though that claim has never been substantiated. On a less romantic note, there have been thousands of recorded cases of Markers changing after a soulmate dies or is found being unfaithful, the most common effect being the Marker turning completely black.

Upon Bonding, couples hold a Bonding ceremony with friends and family, though Bonding ceremony customs and traditions vary from culture to culture. Bonding registration and documentation in most developed countries entitles the couple to medical and legal rights, share of household wealth, and tax benefits. Though legally contracted Bonds and childbirth are possible between two Unbonded people, it’s highly unusual and, in some societies, frowned upon. Since Bonding is triggered by a person’s full name being spoken, most people choose not to reveal their last names to friends or significant others until the relationship is deemed serious enough to consider the possibility of Bonding. Many religions prohibit sex outside of Bonds.

The music and film industries have created trillion-dollar genres based around soulmates. Schoolchildren dream of finding their perfect mates and planning their ideal Bonding ceremonies. The Bonding ceremony industry itself rakes in billions each year off overpriced desserts, dresses and tuxedos, flowers, and honeymoon packages.

To find one’s soulmate is to find one’s other half; or, at least, this is the message spread by priests and reverends, by parents of little girls and boys, by Hollywood, by the seamstress convincing people to buy her expensive, one-of-a-kind Bonding ceremony gown. Without a Bond, the world has decided, a person cannot be whole.

No one discusses the dark side of Bonding. How some soulmates never meet. How some soulmates do meet, but never Bond because one half of the Bonded pair dies or never speaks the other’s full name in their soulmate's presence. How some people only half-Bond, where one person’s Marker appears and the other person’s does not, leaving the Bonded person in a state of limbo and unrequited love, their soulmate meant to be with someone else. How countless Bonds have been found to have been faked for political or financial reasons. How being Bonded doesn’t stop men and women from cheating or running away or deciding that being Bonded is too much responsibility.

Bonding may be what the majority of people look forward to most in life. But for those who have seen Bonding’s damaging effects, it’s a nightmare waiting to happen.

...

10 July 2010

There is nothing more ridiculous than the posturing that goes on in a group of entertainers trying to get on TV.

Louis can handle it the first time the camera crew swings through and the people around him crowd him out to shove their ugly mugs into the lens. Even the second time, it’s fine. Whatever. The third time, however, he grits his teeth and elbows back when he’s shoved out of the way. He can make a fair amount of noise when he feels like it, sure, but he can’t compete with a crowd made up entirely of people taller and older and so much louder than him. Instead he moves back, reaching out to run his thumb over the black silhouette of a butterfly on his mother’s wrist.

It’s an age-old balm to Louis’ irritated nerves. Since he was small, just a baby really, he’d sit on his mum’s lap and stroke the shape on her inner wrist when he was bored or upset. As he’d gotten older and realized what that shape was, what it meant, he probably should have stopped. But he never did—maybe because he’s a little selfish, or maybe because he wants to make the butterfly Marker mean something good for his mum rather than bad. Mostly because it’s familiar, like someone cracking knuckles when they’re nervous or clearing their throat before speaking in front of a crowd.

There’s a girl being interviewed just a few feet away, perched on a stool in the middle of the waiting, judging crowd. Her motions are exaggerated, her eyes wide in theatrical excitement in a way that is reminiscent of the drama club Louis was in back when he was still in school. He’d heard her sing for a different camera crew earlier, and she’s not bad. She’s also utterly unremarkable, just like everyone else except for the blue wave that seems painted onto her shoulderblade, rippling every time she moves her arm. A corresponding yellow sun is bright against the tan skin of the man standing proudly next to her, both of them wearing sleeveless shirts to make sure their Markers are visible. This interview will probably be aired when the show starts; everyone loves a good soulmate support story. Louis watches the two of them until the line moves, just a little, and the interviewer catches Louis’ eye and waves him forward. She flashes Louis a brief smile and consults her clipboard as he settles into place on the stool, his mum behind him and Stan and Hannah holding their place in line.

“Hello, Louis. A few quick questions and we’ll be out of your hair.”

She rattles off a rapid series of inquiries: his age, his influences, what brought him here today, who he’d brought with him. He stumbles through a few answers, feeling utterly unprepared.

“Erm, I’m eighteen. I don’t really know my influences? Like, I guess whatever’s on the radio.” His voice shakes and he looks to the interviewer for support, though her terse nod is anything but reassuring. “That’s my friend Hannah and my other mate Stan over there, and this is my mum, Jay.”

The cameraman pans slightly to catch his mum in frame, and immediately zooms in on her butterfly wrist. She automatically links her arm through Louis’ and steps closer, smiling.

“Hello,” the interviewer says again. “Is your Bondmate here today? We could get a nice shot of the family before we head to our next contestant.” Louis feels his stomach drop, and his mum’s smile turns tight.

“No, he’s not around. Sorry.”

The interviewer’s eyes widen infinitesimally and after a stilted apology, Louis is told he can get back in line. Louis sighs, because now his mum will be all anxious and there’s no way his couple of sentences are interesting enough to end up on the air. He watches as they move to the next boy in line, tall and skinny with Justin Bieber hair and a self-confident handshake. His answers are long and well-articulated, just shaky enough that he seems confident but excited; his smiles are wide and sincere and make his eyes crinkle in delight. The camera loves him. The interviewer even laughs at one of his jokes.

The Bieber wannabe moves back to the line after a few more minutes, and Louis, for a lack of anything better to do, keeps watching as an older woman with thick white hair is interviewed, then a girl in her mid-twenties. He’s just looking away when a bright laugh catches his ear, the curve of a dimpled grin and a head of curly chocolate locks. The line shifts forward again and Louis loses sight of the interview station and the person being interviewed, and he shakes his head to clear the sound of a loud, throaty laugh.

Next to Louis, his mother is still muttering about invasive questions. “The nerve,” she says, rubbing absently at her wrist, and Louis thanks every star in the sky when Stan does his best friend duty and sweeps Jay away to find some water and walk off some steam.

There’s hours to go until he even gets to audition, and at this point Louis can’t wait until it’s over.

...

Harry is in awe. The X Factor backstage… it’s just so cool. There are people everywhere, bustling about with their earpieces and paperwork and slightly manic looks on their faces. Camera cords trail along the ground as nervous contestants tremble their way through more interviews. It’s sweaty and hot and a little grimy but it’s fantastic, the edgy energy of lots of loud, talented people trapped in a large room together with no outlet for their energy. It’s the greatest thing Harry’s ever been a part of.

He’s tapping his toes and watching as his name and contestant number get closer and closer to the top of the performance list, which is displayed on a couple of screens at the northernmost end of the room. He twiddles his thumbs, jokes with Gemma and his best friend Jonny, endures his mum’s fussing and playing with his hair. He makes conversation with everyone around as the crowd shifts and moves, striking up a hilarious joke contest with a loud blonde girl a few years older than him and drinking in buckets of advice from a fifty-year-old opera singer. He paces in tight circles and gives multiple interviews to different cameramen and waits and waits and waits some more.

But minutes turn to hours, waiting turns to worrying, and the adrenaline drowns the happy butterflies in his stomach and replaces them with upset bees.

“Bathroom!” he announces loudly when the buzzing in his veins starts to drown out the noise around him. He slides through the crowd and follows some signs to a back hallway bathroom. When he steps inside, the sweet bliss of silence is soothing to his poor ears. He leans back against the door, just trying to breathe as deeply as he can while he has a moment to himself.

It happens quickly: in the space of a few heavenly silent seconds, Harry somehow finds himself clinging to the sinks, legs akimbo against the tiled floor. The back of his head is bursting with pain, his vision exploding in yellow and black. The only thought bouncing in his head is the one that tells him choosing a door as a resting place was probably a mistake.

“Oops,” he giggles to himself dazedly, vision swimming.

“Hi?” someone asks, presumably the one that bashed his skull in with the back of the bathroom door. Apparently they piece the scene together, because they suddenly let out a panicked yelp. “Oh, shit! I’m so sorry, mate!”

“Uh… it’s. It’s fine.” Harry says. The bathroom lights are very, very bright. And also maybe stabbing him through his eyelids. But really, everything’s fine.

“It is not fine!” the panicked voice shrieks. Whoever it is that kind of assaulted him with a door is extremely loud. “You’re talking really slowly, I think I gave you brain damage!”

Harry frowns. “I always talk like this.”

There’s a moment of silence, then an embarrassed giggle.

“Oh my God.”

Harry blinks again to clear his vision, and finds that he’s nose-to-nose with a very tan, very blue-eyed stranger. It seems highly unfair that Harry's face is basically pressed up against the face of the most attractive boy he’s ever met, and that this fantastic turn of events could only occur while he's kneeling in pain on a bathroom floor and completely unable to enjoy the experience. He grins dopily, the boy grins back, and then their laughter is echoing off the bathroom walls.

“Honestly,” the boy says, offering a hand and helping Harry to his feet, “you shouldn’t just loiter in doorways. It’s going to cause you actual brain damage some day.”

“And then I’ll talk even slower,” Harry says, and feels his lips tug up when the boy laughs delightedly.

“Exactly.” He turns to a urinal but doesn’t move to use it, just staring into the white porcelain like he expects it to do a trick. Harry raises a single eyebrow when the boy looks his way, and all he gets is a shrug in response. “Told my mum I had to wee, but I think I actually just needed to get away from her.”

“Ah, right. Parental escapism is why I’m here as well,” Harry says, nodding. He leans against the nearest stall. “It’s just so-”

“Loud,” the boy finishes for him, and Harry laughs weakly.

“Yeah. And-”

“Scary.”

“Terrifying.”

“Definitely.”

It’s quiet, the both of them grinning down at the floor. Harry scuffs the toe of his boot along the tile grout.

“I heard you practicing, out in the main room,” the boy says suddenly, thumbing over his shoulder. “You’re really good, you’re for sure getting through to the next round.” Harry feels his face flush.

“Oh, thanks!” he says breathlessly, and then automatically coughs because wow, Styles, be cool. “I really hope so, it’s a great opportunity.”

“Yeah, you’re something special,” the boy says, nodding decisively. “You’re gonna go far, kid.”

Harry laughs again. The sound echoes back to him as a shrill cackle off the tiled walls, because Harry is about as cool as a whistling tea kettle. But, “The Offspring?”

“Dance, fucker, dance,” the boy agrees solemnly, and Harry doesn’t care that his laugh is too loud, because this may be the funniest person he’s ever met. It helps when he gets a sunny smile in return. “Let’s take a picture!”

“Here?” Harry asks, gesturing at the bland bathroom wall behind him.

“Sure, why not? Someday I’m gonna need proof I met the biggest star in the world in a backstage bathroom. And I can use it as blackmail when you’re rich so you can buy me things.”

Harry laughs again and they pose for increasingly silly pictures for the next few minutes, ending with one where the blue-eyed stranger is licking his dimple and Harry is rolling his eyes in exaggerated bliss.

There’s a knock at the door and a harried-looking man with a badge and a clipboard leans his head into the bathroom. “Harry Styles?” he asks, glasses slightly askew.

Harry jumps a little—he’s never heard his last name used so casually up until today, mostly because he’s told very few people what it actually is. This isn’t the real world, though, it’s show business, and every person affiliated with the show who’s spoken with him so far has used his last name. It’s usually a small thrill, hearing someone else say his full name for the first time. It doesn’t happen often, but it always sends as shiver zipping through his limbs when it happens to him, typically wiping his mind clean of whatever it was he was about to say, and what he just heard, and everything else, really. It’s not quite as exciting when the fourth assistant in a row uses it like it’s no big deal, though.

“That’s me,” he answers.

“You’re on next, your family is at the front of the line.”

Harry gulps, the calm serenity brought upon him by his bathroom trip fleeing right along with the breath in his lungs. “Great,” he says eventually, but the man is already long gone. He fixes his fringe in the mirror, and turns to face the other boy, who automatically sticks out his hand.

“It was nice to meet you. Good luck…”

“Harry Styles,” he says, shaking the the boy’s hand and feeling more mature than he ever has before. His full name sounds strange rolling out of his mouth, but he has the strangest feeling that the sunshiney boy next to him should hear it. “Thanks.”

“Louis Tomlinson,” the boy says in return, along with a grin. There's a loud noise outside the door, so Harry nearly misses it when Louis says, “And you’re very welcome, Harold Styles.”

Harry’s brain goes blank for just a moment, an echo of Louis’ pretty voice wrapping around his last name filling all the space in his brain; it’s not very exciting when random assistants say it, but Harry likes the way Styles sounds as it drops off of Louis’ tongue.

He does feel a tiny swoop of disappointment, though, when he realizes that Louis said his last name and nothing wildly dramatic happened like a Marker appearing on his skin. And he called him Harold, which was weird. But, before he can contemplate that line of thought any further, the assistant returns to pull him away from the nicest person Harry has ever met in a bathroom.

...

The door swings shut and Louis collapses against it, forgetting all the advice he’d just given Harry about lingering in doorways and potential brain damage, feeling as though his heart will completely beat through his chest and fall to the grimy floor. He hasn’t said anyone’s full name in years, not since he and Stan had whispered each others’ out loud a few years back and winced in anticipation of potentially Bonding. He doesn’t know who was more relieved at the lack of Markers appearing, him or Stan.

Not that he doesn’t love Stan, he does. It would just be a little like being Bonded to his brother, so he’s happy just to have him as a friend.

But apparently Louis just goes around telling random kids his full name in bathrooms now, decorum and self-restraint be damned. And he said the guy’s name in return! Sure, the guy was cute in a dimpled, baby-faced charmer kind of way, and sure, he has the voice of a gravel-throated angel and is probably going to win this entire competition, but still. It doesn’t matter that Louis had the fleeting thought of I don’t think I’d mind being Bonded to him because he’s not, he said Harry’s name and nothing happened and that’s it, he’s officially the rudest person ever and he didn’t even get a soulmate out of the ordeal.

Louis shakes away all lingering thoughts of wide smiles and curly hair and makes his way back to his little cheering section. His mother is standing on tiptoe, presumably searching for him above the crowd. When she catches sight of him, she waves frantically.

“Louis, love, you’re almost next!” she exclaims, and Louis glances up at the list of performers blinking on the screen nearest the stage. Sure enough, right under 165998 - Harry is 155204 - Louis. He feels his knees lock up in pure, unfiltered fear, and he coughs at the feeling of something trying to crawl its way up his throat.

“Right,” he croaks. The same assistant that had barged into the bathroom to collect Harry finds their group and pulls them forward, away from the crowds “backstage” and to the actual backstage, just behind the curtain. Louis does another quick interview next to his mum and his mates, and then everyone except him is hustled to another location to be recorded for reactions as they watch him perform.

Louis grips his microphone tight in his hand, but he may as well be holding a bar of soap with how sweaty his palms are. It’s just him and his thoughts and a screen beside him, showing the empty stage. A few dozen feet in front of him is the assistant and, he assumes, Harry, but the stage lights are too bright to see anything but his silhouette, his curly hair his only identifier. There must be some kind of signal, because the assistant pushes Harry forward and suddenly he’s there on the screen next to Louis, stumbling onto the stage.

Louis can’t help his grin as he watches the boy field questions from the judges.

“Erm. I… work in a bakery,” he says at one point, and Louis giggles into his palm at Harry’s slow syllables, as though each word is weighed for its true worth before he says it. Louis thinks it’s adorable.

The crowd laughs at the cute boy on stage, and Harry seems to settle a bit. His grin is the slightest bit brighter when Louis Walsh asks him who he sings for.

“What, like my inspirations?” Harry drawls, half his mouth quirked in a small grin. “Well, there’s my mum and my sister, they’re both here with me.”

The judges smile politely, and Louis can see Harry casting his mind around for something interesting to add.

“I also have a biggest fan, we just met backstage,” Harry says, and Louis feels his stomach flip. Oh, Christ, Harry’s going to tell everyone how embarrassing Louis was backstage and then he’ll have to immediately follow him out there. That’s, God, that’s mortifying. He’s eighteen, he’s not supposed to be swooning over sixteen-year-olds with dimples and baby fat. Especially sixteen-year-olds who are decidedly not his soulmate.

“A biggest fan, already?” Simon asks, smirking, and the crowd titters. Harry nods delightedly.

“Yes, he’s another contestant. We met in the loo.”

“And who is this biggest fan?”

Louis puts both hands over his face, blushing so hard he feels like even his palms are hot with embarrassment.

“His name is Louis Tomlinson.”

Louis’ left arm burns as though it’s been touched with a hot poker. It hurts, fuck, it hurts so bad he has to double over to catch his breath. The heat blooms outward from a thin line up the front of his forearm, and Louis pushes his fist against his mouth to keep from screaming. His microphone drops to the floor, entirely forgotten. He shoves his sleeve up to try and figure out what the hell is going on—

And stops dead when he sees the black edge of something on his forearm. Something that definitely wasn’t there when he got dressed this morning.

No, Christ, no.

Not here, not now.

Not him.

Louis needs his mum. Immediately. He tries to rush around the corner to the viewing area but a hand stops him. The assistant looks him over with kind eyes.

“Nervous?” he asks, and Louis shakes his head frantically but it doesn’t matter, the guy is much bigger than him and has no problem dragging Louis back up to his spot and his abandoned mic. “Don’t worry, it happens to everyone. It’s only a few minutes, and the whole thing’s done.” He smiles, but Louis can’t return it. He accepts the microphone again automatically, his arm moving independently of his brain.

“I-” he starts, but then clamps his teeth together. He can’t tell this random stranger what just happened, not before he’s even told his mum. And definitely not before he’s even sure what actually happened.

Maybe it’s a fluke. Maybe Louis got a- got a cramp, or got stung by a bug, or scratched himself, it could have been anything, really, and maybe he just imagined seeing something black on his arm. He slowly pushes his sleeve up again, hiding it from the view of the assistant and the backstage cameras. About six inches above his wrist he stops, because he hadn’t imagined it. There it is, the edge of some kind of image, big enough that he can’t see the entire design without pushing his sleeve up any higher.

Oh, God, he’s been Marked. It’s real. It actually happened.

And his soulmate, the goofiest, prettiest kid he’s ever met, isn’t Bonded back to him.

Harry is still on stage, and it can’t have been more than a few seconds since Louis’ entire world was turned upside down because his singing is just beginning to reverberate through the room. He’s good, his version of Isn’t She Lovely scratchy and youthful but clearly performed with loads of talent, and he’ll go through to the next round, no problem.

Louis suddenly feels like his wrists have been tied to two cars that both take off in opposite directions: he wants to both get through to the next round alongside Harry and to be sent home to never see Harry ever again.

Harry finishes his allotted minute of singing, and the judges are all smiles. Louis Walsh does his customary bit of disagreement over Harry’s experience. When the crowd boos, Harry adds a tiny little rebellious “boo” of his own and the entire room falls a little bit more in love with him. Louis included, against his very stubborn will.

He’s dying a little, like he's been given a thousand papercuts that are going to bleed him out but take decades to do it. It hurts, and even though he’ll live for now, it’s lethal all the same.

Louis Walsh says no, but Simon and the guest judge say yes. Harry Styles is through to the next round. He beams and waves and leaves the stage, and suddenly it’s Louis’ turn.

The walk across the stage takes approximately a thousand years, and Louis is winded with terror by the time he reaches the X marking the middle. He can’t hear anything over the pounding of his pulse reverberating against his eardrums. He pivots to face the judges, the darkened faces of the crowd, and cameras that are recording his every move for anything interesting to broadcast to the nation.

His arm still burns, so he he tugs at his sleeve.

(He's hiding his Marker. It’s been three minutes since he Bonded to a relative stranger who didn’t Bond back. He still isn’t okay.)

“Hello,” he says, and he prays a fervent thanks for drama classes that ingrained facial control into his life. His voice only shakes a little. “I’m Louis.”

The crowd puts two and two together and giggles break out, and the sound is so much louder out here that Louis immediately starts sweating.

“Ah, our famous superfan,” Simon says, and Louis tries to shrug. Nonchalance is far beyond his reach at this point, but he can aim for honest.

“He’s good, you can’t blame me.”

“No, we can’t,” the guest judge, Nicole, smiles. “Tell us about yourself, Louis.”

“Okay, well, I’m eighteen, from Doncaster.”

“And your family?”

“My mum is here backstage, and I have four little sisters.”

No one asks the follow-up question, and so the whereabouts of his dad remain undisclosed. But the crowd shifts restlessly, as though the mention of an Unbonded mother is making them uncomfortable. Instead of the hot flash of anger Louis would normally feel on his mum’s behalf, he just feels empty. That’s his life, now. He’s Unbonded too.

Well, half-Bonded, if he wants to get technical about it. He doesn’t.

Emptiness that he’d barely held back while he waited behind the curtain makes a break past his defences, seeping into his bones and weighing him down like stones in his pockets. He’s drowning and there’s not even any water in sight.

He can’t talk anymore, just nodding when the judges tell him to go ahead. He’s being recorded for national television, he’s in a room with three celebrities, thousands of audience members, and a whole horde of people backstage watching his every move for weaknesses. He can’t say anything, he can’t scream, he can’t cry.

So he sings.

His first line is shaky, and he fears that his aching ribs won’t let him get through this with any sort of dignity. But then the weight in his chest breaks through his ribs and leaks out through his voice. Louis sings Hey There Delilah and it’s no longer about hope for a future with a pretty girl, but instead about lost love, and wearying unhappiness, and crushing inevitability. Tears prick at his eyes as he sings it’s what you do to me and he hopes, just a little, that his own little heartbreaker is watching Louis drown onstage.

Somehow, miraculously, he makes it to the end of the song. He tries to smile, tries to listen for his fate, but he can’t really hear what anyone’s saying over the rushing of blood in his ears. He nods when the judges look like they’ve said something serious, and smiles when they smile. He hears only three words:

Yes. Yes. Yes.

He’s going to bootcamp.

...

Part of the backstage area is cordoned off specifically for those who have been voted through to the next round. There are several crews around to do even more interviews, and bottles of water and snacks. There’s also a large screen set up so they can watch the other contestants, and this is what Harry makes a beeline for as soon as he’s hugged his mum and sister and jumped up and down just a little to celebrate getting through.

Louis is there on screen already, standing center stage with his nice flippy hair and shiny blue eyes and… well. That’s about all there is in common with the charming, bouncy Louis he met in the bathroom and the Louis out on stage now.

Harry feels a twinge in his gut for his new friend. He looks utterly lost, eyes caught in the mid-distance and dazed, hands shaking so hard his microphone makes little noises each time it scrapes his shirt. Maybe he’s just nervous, but it looks so much worse than a bit of nerves.

The first thing Louis says, though, is that Harry is good. And yeah, Harry is pretty proud of his voice, but Louis says he can’t be blamed for being a fan and Harry feels a bit like he’s swallowed a star. Gemma elbows him hard and sends him an evil smile.

“Someone’s got a cruuuuush,” she sings, and Harry doesn’t pull his eyes away from the screen when he flips her off. She huffs, and their mother tuts, but he’s too busy to notice.

Louis starts singing, and Harry winces a little at the first missed note. But something happens after that, a switch is flipped, and suddenly the emotion in Louis’ voice is dialled up to eleven and each word is heartbreaking, gut wrenching. Harry’s always been a bit sensitive to the emotions of others, and tears gather in his eyelashes before he even realizes it. He’s not alone, though; nearly everyone paying attention backstage is in the same state, and cameras in the audience catch several people wiping wet streaks from their faces.

The song ends, and the judges seem stunned.

“Wow, Louis, that was…” Nicole starts, but the crowd stands and cheers over the end of her sentence. Harry beams, happy for his friend—he got a standing ovation at auditions, that’s amazing—but Louis seems unmoved. His eyes are resting somewhere just above the judges’ table and his smile is slightly vacant. He keeps tugging on his left sleeve.

“That was breathtaking. Your emotion was on point, I really felt it,” Nicole continues. “You should be very proud of your voice.”

Louis keeps on smiling, and nods.

Louis Walsh leans forward. “Louis, I wasn’t sold at first. You had a rocky start there, and I was about to make the same argument about you that I made about Harry that went before you, that you weren’t ready.” Boos flood the air around him, and he waves them away. “But, but, by the end of the song you changed my mind. You have some talent, and you’re clearly here to win.” Louis nods again, but stays silent.

Next is Simon. “Louis, I like you. You need a little vocal coaching and we need to do something about those nerves, but once you hit your stride you stayed with it. Work on getting comfortable, work on holding your notes, and you’ll go far.”

They vote, and unanimously send him through. Harry cheers, high fives his mum, and turns back to the screen to see Louis nod once more and say a tiny “thank you” into the mic.

Harry, feeling fizzy with excitement for himself and his new friend, jumps the rope and skips backstage. Louis is just reaching the end of the stage, and Harry watches him drop the mic with a low thud and immediately bury his face in the shoulder of a woman who Harry can only assume is his mum. Two other people stand nearby, looking confused.

Harry creeps forward, suddenly unsure of his welcome and feeling like he’s intruding.

“Louis?” he ventures, his voice small. Louis’ back stiffens.

“Hey, Harry,” he says, voice cheerful and yet somehow wrong. He lifts his face from his mum’s neck and his eyes are red and puffy.

“Congrats?” Harry hadn't meant to make it a question, but it seems appropriate now with Louis looking like he’d just been given the worst news of his life, not three yeses after a standing ovation from his first ever X Factor performance.

“Thanks, man. You too, congrats.”

“Thanks.”

It’s awkward. Harry shifts from foot to foot, feeling incredibly out of his depth. Louis is looking everywhere but at Harry. Whoever followed Louis out on stage has begun belting out Celine Dion and the sound of it floats between them in the air like choking dust.

Near, far, wherever you are

Louis finally breaks the silence. “Right, erm. We- we have to go.”

Harry snaps his eyes up, a little hurt.

“You aren’t staying? There’s an afterparty for everyone that got through today.”

Once more, you open the door

“I know, I just. Can’t.”

“But-”

“Sorry, Harry.”

And my heart will go on and on

Louis is still wrapped up in his mum’s arms and his eyes are still glassy and Harry’s insides still ache because this should be a happy moment, right? It’s a good thing. Louis and his group are making their way past him and he cannot take it, it’s not fair that his new friend is sad on such a good day, so he jogs forward and catches the back of Louis’ shirt.

“Louis, can I get your phone number?” Louis turns around slowly, his eyes wide and red. “Please? Since, you know, we’ll be at bootcamp. Together. I mean, not together. Because technically we’re competing against each other? But I still want to be friends.” Harry feels the flush of embarrassment, but keeps going. “And I can be your biggest fan too, since you’re mine. I mean. Sorry.”

Love can touch us one time
And last for a lifetime

“I… yeah. Um. Sure.”

“Really?” Harry squeaks, feeling a smile breaking across his face. Louis doesn’t smile back, but there’s a bit of an answering twitch at the corner of his mouth.

“Yeah, course. Here, lemme see your phone.”

Harry doesn’t know what happened in the twenty minutes between he and Louis taking selfies in the bathroom and him turning into this, this quiet boy whose hands tremble when they brush Harry’s and whose quiet sniffles can still be heard over the Titanic theme being belted onstage. Harry doesn’t know what it was, and Louis doesn’t say, but they’re exchanging numbers and Harry feels a little bubble of hope that bootcamp might be fun with someone he knows by his side.

He watches Louis walk away when they’re done, nearly propped up between his mum and the boy who’d introduced himself as Stan. As Harry watches them leave, he inexplicably feels a little like he’s watching a good percentage of his internal organs walking away from him.

And in the background, Celine’s signature song is being warbled into the rafters.

Near, far, wherever you are
I believe that the heart does go on

...

14 July 2010

The thing about being half-Bonded to someone, Louis discovers, is that the majority of your time is spent hating that other person for doing this to you. It’s not a front-of-the-mind thing, more like a rock in your shoe: it kills at first, but eventually the pain fades to the background. It hurts, that realization that you’re not the perfect match for your own perfect match. You hate them for making you re-examine everything you thought you knew about yourself. You hate them for dredging up every insecurity and hidden fear. You hate them; Louis hates Harry, but at the same time he really, actually doesn’t. Beyond the logic that implies that Harry did not force Louis to Bond with him, Louis just cannot find it in him to hate the friendliest, sweetest human on the planet.

Because, Louis has also discovered, that is who he is Bonded to. His soulmate is a boy who apologizes when it rains because rain seems to make people unhappy, although he personally believes it feels like the world is having a nice cool shower. Harry texts Louis pictures of a range of baby animals, from cats to dogs to elephants to rabbits, because he isn’t sure which is Louis’ favorite and he wants to cover all his bases. Harry Motherfucking-Ray-Of-Sunshine Styles adds a kiss to the end of every text and doesn’t seem to have let Louis’ lack of replies to any of his fifty-seven messages dampen his spirits or enthusiasm.

Another one buzzes an alert to Louis’ phone as he contemplates life and irony and his complete lack of good luck.

(10:34 a.m.) Harry: Good morning! x

Louis sighs, hates Harry for a few seconds, feels bad about it and takes it back, and rolls over. It’s past time for him to get up, anyway, and at this point he’s just putting off the inevitable.

He has three items on his to-do list for today, and as it’s been four days since he returned home from auditions he can’t really make any excuses to hide in his room any longer. His sisters seem to think he’s contracted some sort of contagious disease (Variations of “Lottie told me you have measles but that’s not a real thing, right Lou? Measles aren’t real, right?” have been shouted through his bedroom door multiple times) and Louis still hasn’t answered any of Stan’s calls or well-meant texts. He also hasn’t showered in three days and has only eaten whatever his mum leaves on his nightstand while he pretends to be asleep. He’s pretty sure it’s been a full day since he even bothered to get out of bed, which is an issue.

He still hasn’t looked at the Marker on his arm.

The thing is, Louis had spent the drive home from auditions and the first night back home in Doncaster being horribly, terribly upset at a large number of people and things: himself, Harry, X Factor itself for forcing them into a room together, Simon Cowell for creating the damn show, the French just because he felt like it, and, lastly, whatever deity decided it was a good idea to link people together through highly noticeable tattoo-like Markers that appear instantaneously (and painfully, though no one ever saw fit to warn others about that part) on their skin. That first very long night was spent analyzing every conceivable flaw Louis could find inside himself that wouldn’t allow his soul or conscience or chemicals or whatever to align with Harry’s and cause him to Bond to Louis in return. After that horrible self-reflection period he moved on to mourning, soaking his pillow through with tears until he had to flip it just to find a dry spot to cry some more.

Louis had used the next day to go over his options, and while it really wasn’t much of a decision, he wanted to take his time thoroughly examining each possibility. Essentially, he could either not return to X Factor and head to uni in a few weeks for the fall term (never really an option, as school is the worst and Louis really, really wants to be famous), he could call/text/smoke signal/send a carrier pigeon to Harry and let him know the situation and get his input (again, no. What hell would be worse than telling the happiest kid on the planet that he ruined your life by not being your soulmate?), or he could go to bootcamp, pretend nothing strange happened and the post-audition breakdown was all due to nerves, and that the Marker was actually a tattoo he’d had all along.

It absolutely sucks, but the choice is obvious.

With that done and dusted, he came up with his checklist, which brings us to today.

1. Actually look at the Marker on his arm, seeing as how it will never go away and he has to pretend he’s not only familiar with it, but that he’d went and had it tattooed onto him on purpose.
2. Tell his sisters he isn’t dying of some as-of-yet unidentified illness, and then also tell them he’s half-Bonded to someone they’ve never met and probably never will meet, at least as long as he gets a say.
3. Have a bit of a cry with his mum.
4. Gather up and pack all his long-sleeved shirts, because he’s going to pretend his Marker is a tattoo and practice that backstory until it seems natural, but getting away with not talking about it at all would be even better.

So yeah, busy day. He’ll also probably bathe at some point.

The first item on the list is the easiest and also the hardest. Louis doesn’t want to know what the physical representation of Harry Styles is where it’s appeared under the veneer of his skin. He doesn’t want a symbol of unrequited love so blatantly on his arm; he never wanted a soulmate to begin with. Never wanted to be Bonded. Never wanted anything except maybe to perform in front of people and have some fun with some mates. But that hope has been flung out the window and here he is, Bonded, Marked, and wearing three-day-old Depression Sweatpants.

Louis scoffs at his own thought process: drama runs deep in the Tomlinson veins, but even this is too much. He needs to man the fuck up and just do it. Louis sits up (dislodging days worth of crumbs and dirty socks and all manner of other unpleasant things) and strips off his sweater, allowing himself one deep breath to steel himself.

It’s a dagger.

The majority of Louis’s brain freezes immediately at the unfamiliar new addition to his body. It looks like a traditional sailor tattoo, all bold lines and subtle shading. It runs crookedly across his forearm, the point angled towards his inner wrist. It’s pretty badass, if he’s being kind to himself, and in this rare instance he actually is. It’s something he may have actually considered as a real tattoo one day when he was older and bolder and Abercrombie & Fitch did not take up the biggest percentage of space in his wardrobe.

The tiny part of Louis’ brain that is still functioning after the somehow still-shocking appearance of his Marker is screaming in terror. This isn’t some tiny silhouette or text Marker that he might be able to hide or cover with some sparse makeup now and then, this thing is fucking huge. He’ll never be able to wear anything short-sleeved again without constantly being reminded of this dagger on his skin. He’s fucked, completely and utterly fucked.

Okay, judging by the stampede of girls that barrel into his room, Louis’ screaming hadn’t just been internal.

It’s silent when his sisters all notice the Marker. Then, as things tend to do in households containing teenage girls, everything erupts all at once.

Phoebe and Daisy throw themselves onto the bed, taking turns prodding at Louis’ arm and screeching questions at him.

“Did you get a tattoo?”

“Mum’s gonna kill you!”

“Can I get a tattoo?”

“Why did you get a knife? It’s so scary!”

Fizzy has slumped against the doorframe, her hands covering her mouth as if holding in screams.

“Why didn’t you get it in color?”

Lottie is nowhere to be seen, but the clattering of footsteps on the stairs proves that she, like Louis, prefers to run rather than deal with avalanches of emotion. Meanwhile, Daisy and Phoebe are still screaming.

“Yeah, pink would have been so cool!”

“Or red!”

“Yeah, red!”

“Alright!” Louis shouts over the din. “Sibling meeting in ten minutes. I will meet you all downstairs on the sofa after I fetch Lottie.” None of his sisters move, though they are all at least quiet now, the twins pouting petulantly and Fizzy’s fist scrubbing dully against her eyes. “Go!” he cries, and they scatter like birds.

Louis puts his head in his hands and allows himself just one second to fall apart. A horrible, dark-humored portion of his brain spouts that it was quicker than he thought it’d be to cross two items off his checklist, though the rest of him hates himself for letting his sisters find out he’s Bonded in the worst way possible.

And then he sucks it up, throws on a sweater, and makes his way to the backyard where, as he knew she would be, Lottie is sitting up in the old tree in the backyard.

Louis hoists himself up next to her with the help of years of muscle memory, his foot easily finding the knot that serves as the first foothold. When he settles on the thickest branch next to Lottie, the silence swallows them for a little while. Louis feels his heart pounding in his ears and his throat and even his stomach. He didn’t think it’d be this hard, to tell people that the Tomlinson version of a nightmare has come true.

But Lottie had been there through the whole original mess that caused his distaste and fear of Bonding in the first place. Louis and Lottie were each other's lifelines, simultaneously the people drowning and attempting to pull each other to shore. Fizzy was there too, of course, but she and the twins were far too young to remember thrown plates and shrieked insults and choked sobs from their mother’s room at night. Fizzy and Daisy and Phoebe had slept completely through the terrible final night, the one Louis had spent with his arms wrapped around Lottie as she sobbed into his shoulder, both of them huddled behind his coats in his wardrobe and listening to the car drive away.

Louis and Lottie, and their mum as well, they don’t see Bonding as a blessing. They see Markers as manacles rather than symbols of love.

He swallows hard, any words of consolation he might have had for his sister dying terrible deaths in his throat. They sit in the quiet of a Yorkshire morning and breathe, because breathing is key to survival and surviving is what they do.

Slowly, cautiously, Lottie reaches for Louis’ left arm. She pushes his sleeve back and they both stare at the dagger.

“It’s not… what I expected,” Lottie says quietly, and Louis is still just trying to breathe, so it sounds a little like she’s shouting at him while he’s submerged underwater. But he nods, and clenches and unclenches his fist a few times.

“I know,” he says. “The whole thing is pretty unexpected.”

“Yeah.”

It’s quiet again, but it’s a better kind of quiet. Birds chatter overhead, a car drives through the neighborhood. The old lady from two doors down shouts to turn the damn telly off, Robert, and help me with these groceries. Louis breathes in, and Lottie breathes out.

She extends a blue nail-polished finger and traces the outline of the weapon that will forever be on her brother’s arm.

“It’s a little cool,” she admits grudgingly, and Louis chokes a laugh. “At least it doesn’t seem to be anything sappy.”

“Right. Better than their name inside a heart.”

“Or an infinity sign with their initials.”

“Or a quote, God, can you imagine?”

No lies, just love.

Love conquers all.

“What was that one we saw when we were shopping, do you remember? Like half a smiley face that lined up with the other person’s when they held hands.”

Louis snorts and Lottie giggles into her palm, and maybe everything will be okay.

 

 

Inside the house, Phoebe and Daisy and Fizzy are sitting quietly on the sofa, simultaneously silent for probably the first time ever. When Louis leads Lottie into the room, he holds up a hand before Daisy and Phoebe can launch into another interrogation avalanche. He breathes in, clasps his hands together, and:

“Girls, this isn’t a tattoo. It’s a Marker.”

It hurts, watching Fizzy’s expression collapse again. She’d suspected, of course, but Louis confirming what she’d feared is horrible, a punch to his already sensitive gut. The twins don’t know how to react, their little brows furrowed as they take in Fizzy’s tears, Lottie’s hand wrapped tightly around Louis’ wrist.

Daisy stands and approaches Louis like she would a feral cat. She touches his Marker again and looks at Phoebe, who reaches out to touch it as well.

“This doesn’t change anything,” Louis says, mostly to fill the silence. “It doesn’t have to, and I won’t let it.”

“So you aren’t Bonded?” Phoebe asks tremulously, channeling the despairing emotion in the room.

“Well,” he sighs. “Technically I am, yes. But I’m, um. The only one that did.”

Fizzy chokes. “You half-Bonded?” Louis nods, hating that he can’t just say he Bonded like a normal person, giving his sisters some kind of hope that Bonding doesn't always equal bad news. But he can't, and there’s no hope at all being half-Bonded. Tears swim in his eyes as well, but he clears his throat and pushes them back.

“Who is it?” Daisy asks fiercely. Phoebe nods sharply beside her. “We can tell them that wasn’t very nice of them.”

Louis huffs a laugh and gathers his two littlest sisters to his chest, thanking whoever is up there for their innocent ferocity, like baby tigers squeaking little roars. “I’m not telling.”

“But-”

“No, Phoebs. I’m not telling any of you, because I don’t want you hating anyone on my behalf. Especially since they didn’t ask for this to happen either.”

Lottie leans into Louis’ right side, and Fizzy moves to his left. He presses kisses to all their foreheads as Lottie whispers into his sleeve, “It isn’t fair.”

“No,” Louis agrees. “It isn’t. But we’ll be okay.”

He slips his phone out of his pocket, sighs, and opens Harry’s string of unanswered texts. If he’s doing this, he’s going to do it right.

(10:34 a.m.) Harry: Good morning! x
(10:58 a.m.) Louis: Good morning Harry . Ready for bootcamp ?

 

 

Later, Louis does some research so his fake-tattoo backstory seems legitimate.

Daggers, apparently, symbolize the harsh reality of life. They represent the strength needed to endure, and can be a reminder to stay strong or keep at it.

The irony of it all is enough to send him into hysterics.

...

20 July 2010

Harry thought he knew what to expect from bootcamp. A little singing, a little dancing, some nerve-wracking waiting, sure. But this? This was not expected.

Rain is thundering down on Wembley Stadium, and even though the roof has been closed as much as it can and the stage is protected, the downpour is causing issues in other areas. Currently, all the contestants in the Boys category are following a vocal coach like lost ducklings, their assigned practice room having flooded from a forgotten open window. All three of the other categories are already deep into practicing their group songs, and Harry is shaky and nervous at the thought of being unprepared in front of the judges.

It doesn’t help that he’s soaking wet, because while the stage and seats had been protected from the rain, the outside edges of the stadium floor hadn’t and that’s where they’d been corralled for a few minutes until their vocal coach had found them to lead them away.

Even before the rainstorm of Biblical proportions had begun it had been a not-great day. The clipboard-bearer that Harry had tried to check in with this morning hadn’t had the latest updated list and his name wasn’t under the correct category; so, for a solid ten minutes he was terrified that he wasn’t actually supposed to be here and that he’d dreamed up the whole making-it-through-to-the-second-round thing. After that had been sorted (with profuse apologies from all involved), he’d slipped and fell into a mud puddle and couldn’t go change because they’d taken his suitcase at check-in. He’d missed breakfast this morning because he accidentally slept through his first alarm and had been forced to wolf down some crackers for sustenance, which sat like lead weight on his churning stomach. And he’s pretty sure Louis from auditions has avoided him all day.

Which, well, in the grand scheme of things, the last one might not seem like the biggest deal. But it still stung, because Louis had texted him back a week ago; they’ve had multiple conversations and they’d even talked about bootcamp and here they are, at bootcamp, and Louis has not said one word to Harry.

Not that Harry let him get away with that easily. The entire crowd of contestants had been arranged on the stage for a welcome from Simon and Louis Walsh, so while everyone was catching up with people they’d met at auditions, he’d slid his way through the group so that he was always within polite speaking distance of Louis, trying (and failing) to catch his eye. He’d built up his courage and turned to start the conversation himself several times, only to find Louis deeply engrossed in speaking with other boys. (Which, yeah. Harry didn’t really like that, it made something strange and hot flush up the back of his neck. But he couldn’t interrupt, that would be rude.) He’d even bumped into Louis once, and that one was even an accident. Louis had taken one look at him, made an odd squeak, and then walked quickly away.

It had made for a not-quite-pleasant afternoon, that’s for sure. It didn’t help that Harry wasn’t going to have to concentrate hard to learn the Boy’s group song; he’s been singing Michael Jackson since he could walk, Man in the Mirror would be no stretch for him.

And now here he is, curls weighed down with water and feet slipping on the slick tile of the Wembley hallways. Harry blankly follows the boy in front of him, no idea where the group is heading until the people in front suddenly stop. They’re in a stairwell, one of their vocal coaches at the front of the group yelling something into his phone.

“Stay here!” is his last command before he storms off, leaving the collected forty-odd guys standing awkwardly in the silence.

Harry leans against a railing, looking over the rest of the group from his vantage point. Some of them have already sat down, claiming whole stairs for themselves. Others have started talking, but their words are impossible to make out over the roaring thunderstorm echoing off the brick walls.

“Well t’is is fecking awful,” says a voice next to Harry, and he turns to see a bottle-blonde boy grimacing as he wrings the water from his sweater sleeve. Harry chuckles quietly and nods.

“It is, yeah,” Harry agrees. “Not what I thought I’d be doing today.” The blonde nods, shaking out droplets from his hair like a dog. Next moment, he’s sticking out his hand.

“Niall, ‘m from Mullingar, Ireland.”

Harry shakes it. “Harry, Holmes Chapel, England.”

“Good to meet you, Harry,” Niall says.

“You as well.”

“Seriously, though, this is awful timing. I don’t know all the lyrics to the song, and I don’t wanna be staring at my paper when the vocal coaches are picking out the weak ones.”

“I’ll help,” Harry volunteers immediately. Niall flashes a grin and pulls out the heavily folded and very damp lyric sheet they’d all been handed before setting off on the journey to their new practice room.

“This one,” he says, pointing out a line in the second verse. He hums a little, stops, and frowns. “I’m just having a hard time hearing it, ya know? I usually pick songs out on guitar while I’m learning the words so I get the notes faster.”

“You play guitar?”

“Oh yeah, I’m way better at guitar than singing. But being good at both is even better, so that’s why ‘m here,” he answers cheerily. “Left me guitar with the luggage, though, didn’t think I’d need it.”

“There’s one,” Harry points down at another boy and the black case propped up next to him. “We could borrow it?”

“Good idea!” Niall says, immediately bounding down a few steps to talk to the guitar owner. He brings the guitar and the boy over to Harry just a few moments later. “Harry, this is Christian. And this is Christian’s guitar.”

“Nice to meet you,” Harry stands and shakes Christian’s hand, but he only gets a tight nod in return. Harry doesn’t know Christian at all, of course, but he looks nervous, lips tight and skin clammy. “Are you okay?” he whispers, leaning close.

“Hate thunderstorms,” Christian says, opening his mouth as little as possible. “Not great with small spaces, either.”

“Ah,” Harry says, looking around at where they’re a little trapped on a small, crowded stairwell that echoes with rumbling thunder every few minutes. He pats Christian on the back in sympathy.

Niall has plopped down on the step above them, strumming quietly. He reads the lyrics from the sheet as he plays, hitting the strings perfectly but going off tempo with the words. He huffs, starts over, and cuts himself off after he messes up the lyrics again.

“Here,” Harry says, settling next to Niall and pulling Christian down with him. “Play it again.”

Niall does, strumming easily. He gets to the top of the verse and Harry sings quietly.

I've been a victim of a selfish kind of love
It's time that I realize
That there are some with no home, not a nickel to loan
Could it be really me, pretending that they're not alone?

Niall nods along, joining Harry at the top of the next line.

A willow deeply scarred, somebody's broken heart
And a washed-out dream
They follow the pattern of the wind you see

Christian lends his voice, barely more than a whisper, as they finish.

'Cause they got no place to be
That's why I'm starting with me

Niall strums the last line and laughs brightly. “That was excellent, mates! It’s the nickel line that’s getting me, but I think I see it now.”

Harry turns and beams at Christian. “Your voice is amazing!”

Christian flushes pink and looks at his shoes. “Thanks,” he mutters.

There’s a small cough behind them. They turn to see a boy Harry’s pretty sure he remembers from auditions, with serious brown eyes under a furrowed brow. “Hey, lads, mind running through that again? I wanted a little more practice as well.”

“Sure!” Harry says, and the boy scoots forward hesitantly to sit between him and Niall, who starts playing at the top of the song this time. By the chorus, a few other nearby boys have lended their voice to the fray as well and at the end, a shockingly beautiful boy with dark hair and sharp features hits a bell-clear high note and sends the entire stairwell into surprised silence.

“Start over!” someone calls, and a few other voices agree. Niall cracks a grin, standing and pulling Harry up next to him, and they launch into the song for the third time.

I'm gonna make a change
For once in my life

It’s shaky to start, Harry adjusting to hitting the low scrape of the first few notes more loudly than he’d been singing earlier. Christian and the other boys next to him join on the next line, and the chorus hits with all forty guys singing along. It’s rough from lack of actual practice, voices overlapping and echoing strangely off the walls, but it’s still pretty good. The song wraps up, everyone laughs and cheers, and someone shouts, “Again!”

They’re even better the second time, and by the third time some boys are improvising, launching into harmonies and pulling out high notes. Harry, Niall, Christian, and the serious-faced boy who sat by them weave their voices together, and Harry feels his grin split his face when even Christian starts smiling. Niall is rocking back and forth, dancing in what little space he has.

Harry bounces a little, closes his eyes and singing as loud as he can, that's why I want you to know, and when he opens his eyes he notices someone watching him. Louis is halfway down the next flight of stairs and half-hidden behind some tall guy with a fedora, but Harry can still see he’s singing just as loud as Harry is. Harry expects him to look away, to avoid contact like he has all morning, but Louis just smiles back, his eyes crinkling, and the sunshine in his grin seems bright enough to clear the clouds outside and send Harry’s heart into overdrive.

A few guys have pulled their phones out, recording the spectacle of forty soaked X Factor hopefuls jamming on a flight of stairs in Wembley Stadium. Harry just laughs, and sings, and laughs some more, tilting his face up like a flower searching for the sun.

Just as Niall is about to launch them into the fifth repeat, a throat clears and catches their attention. Simon Cowell himself, followed by Louis Walsh and their vocal coaches, stands in the doorway to the first level, one eyebrow raised.

“Very impressive,” he says, amused. “Let’s see what you can do when you aren’t in the worst acoustic corner of the stadium.”

A weak cheer goes up around them as the boys gather their things to follow Simon into the hallway. The serious-eyed boy falls in step with Harry and offers his hand.

“Liam,” he says, smiling a little.

Harry grins back. “Harry. This is Niall,” he pokes the blonde in the back, and Niall waves over his shoulder, “and Christian.” Christian just smiles, but he’s looking much better than he had been as they make their way to an empty lounge. The vocal coach leads them through the song as a whole group three times, then separates them out into groups of five or six. He points Christian, Harry, Niall, Liam, and one other boy into a corner of the lounge.

“You five can work on the song together, someone will be by to hear you in a few minutes.”

Christian and Liam immediately settle against the wall, while Niall and Harry turn to the new guy.

“Tobias,” he says, shaking hands all around. Niall introduces everyone else, and they launch back into the song without preamble, Niall leading on guitar.

It’s so much better without the echo of the staircase and thirty other guys trying to outdo them. Liam and Harry’s voices are similar enough that they blend well, and Niall’s rises higher to take a light melody that winds around them. It sounds amazing, and it’s fun, repeating the chorus a few times so they can point out little flaws for each other to fix.

Christian slides closer and closer to Harry as they continue, his thigh pressed against Harry’s. Every time Harry compliments him, he flushes and stammers. Niall won’t stop giggling and nudging Christian in the side, and while Harry isn’t in on the joke he smiles anyway, because he likes Niall and he likes Christian and he likes that they are getting along.

Harry almost forgets that Simon is there, watching them all and evaluating their every move. He just sings, smiling through it all and winking at Liam to make him laugh, and doesn’t remember anything is different until Tobias suddenly freezes, coughing unexpectedly.

“Again,” Simon’s voice says from behind Harry, and Niall strums a few chords to start them over. Liam, Tobias, Harry, and Niall launch into it once more, but Christian just mimes the words, his face sweating again. At the end Niall stumbles a little over the words, but Harry and Liam cover him and they finish strong. Harry turns to see Simon look each of them over, nod, and walk away. When he leaves, Christian breathes out unsteadily, but otherwise doesn’t mention anything. His leg is shaking where it’s touching Harry’s.

Eventually, the groups are split up and switched around, and Harry meets four new boys: a boy about his age named Tom, two guys in their mid-twenties named Jeff and Raul, and the boy who’d hit the amazing high note on the stairwell that caught everyone’s attention.

“Zayn,” he introduces himself shyly, fist bumping against Harry’s.

This group is harder to work with, as Jeff and Raul compete to be the loudest and Tom keeps going off-key at the loudest possible moments. Zayn works an octave above Harry, reaching for notes that astound Harry, missing a few but hitting most of them. Simon comes by again to listen, a vocal coach following him, but this time doesn’t say anything.

The groups switch again, and Harry is put with Liam again while meeting a few new boys, Jack and Will and Ralph. Then again, and Harry’s back with Christian and Tom and two others, Bill and Aiden. And then finally, finally, the vocal coach announces that this will be the last group switch before they rejoin as a full group.

Harry gets sent to a corner to start a new group, then Niall joins him with a cheery high five, then a ginger kind Harry hasn’t met yet, a man in his early twenties who looks outraged to be stuck with a bunch of teenagers, and, lastly, 

“Louis!” Harry says excitedly, bouncing on his toes before scooping Louis into an impromptu hug.

“Oh. Hi,” Louis says, and when Harry lets him go he looks bemused, but he’s still smiling at least. “I’m Louis,” he says to the rest of the group from the circle of Harry’s arms, waving a little.

“Nice to meet you, Louis,” Niall says, nodding once. “Let’s do this shit.”

It’s the best group yet, Harry thinks joyfully. The guy in his twenties (“Nicolo,” he’d grunted when Niall prompted him for his name) has a strong, bright voice, which melds well with Niall’s and the other boy Harry doesn’t know (“Mark,” he’d squeaked). Harry, to his utter delight, finds that his and Louis’ voices wrap around each other like they’re doing it on purpose, Harry’s raspier and Louis’ clearer, Harry low and Louis high.

They sing the song again, and again, and again, and each time Louis and Harry get a little louder, a little more confident, and soon they’re making up the main part of the vocals, Nicolo is taking the upper harmony above them and Niall and Mark tangling around their melody as well. Harry meets Louis’ eye and they smile, rounding out a final chorus perfectly.

“Well done,” comes a voice from behind them, and Harry realizes they’d been the last group singing, Simon and his coaches around him all watching and looking slightly impressed. Harry beams.

This might be the greatest day of his life.

...

At the first possible moment, Louis makes a dash to a nearby bathroom and away from Harry Styles, slamming the cubicle door and latching it roughly. He collapses against the wall, a tiny part of him thankful that Wembley bathrooms are a lot cleaner than public bathrooms tend to be.

The rest of him not focused on bathroom sanitation is nearly comatose with pure, blinding panic.

The plan, carefully thought through and meticulously checked for any holes with the help of his sisters and his mum (leaving Harry nameless and staying gender neutral throughout, just to make sure there were no forthcoming threats on Harry’s life from the Tomlinsons or Stan), was for Louis to play it cool. He would tell Harry that he hadn’t felt well during auditions, had come down with a stomach bug and been bedridden when he’d made it home. This explained his reaction after his audition, why he couldn’t stay for the afterparty, and why he hadn’t answered Harry’s texts for a few days. He brought only long-sleeved shirts so the dagger itself wouldn’t even be an issue. He was going to be friendly, sure, but professional. Hello, Harry, it’s good to see you too. Why yes, this is exciting. Conversation over.

But then he actually saw Harry, and that all went flying out the window. Along with any shred of sanity, credibility, and composure to which he tried to cling.

Because Louis had prepared for Harry’s charming side, his kindness and sweetly innocent commentary. He’d forgotten entirely that he was also the most beautiful thing Louis’d ever laid eyes on, all softened angles and wide green eyes and, God, Louis had taken one look at his massive hands and actually whimpered. (The boy next to him had heard and taken a careful step away from Louis, averting his eyes like Louis had dropped to his knees right there in the mud. In that guy’s defense, though, the possibility of that happening was very real.)

It’s not fair, honestly, Harry just throwing himself around while he’s all chocolate curls and dimpled smiles. Other people have to focus, and then there’s a Harry Styles just out there existing and being so damn happy he’s like delight personified.

So the plan was completely scrapped from the word go, tossed wherever he’d thrown any hope of making a graceful exit from this competition with any semblance of dignity. Rather than interacting with Harry early and getting it out of the way, he’d struck up a dozen forgettable conversations to ignore him and then escaped the immediate area as soon as he could. Louis came up with increasingly inventive hiding spots while they waited on the main stage for their welcome from the judges, crouching behind taller guys and infiltrating some of the nearby groups and even, once, stealing someone’s hat, sending desperate texts to Stan and Lottie through it all.

They were both sympathetic, but unyielding.

(9:32 a.m.) Stan: i don’t care how pretty they are lou. u have to go talk to them.
(9:32 a.m.) Stan: also TELL ME WHO IT IS

(9:53 a.m.) Lottie: grow some balls !!! you can’t avoid them forever !!!
(9:56 a.m.) Lottie: and quit telling me about their bum i don’t care !! it’s weird !!!

It was bad enough when they were in the same general area, Louis orienting himself around Harry like he’s the bloody North Star. But then, of course, it got worse.

A streak of lightning, a clap of thunder, a flooded practice room, and then forty boys found themselves soaking wet and trapped together in a tiny staircase with no supervision. Louis couldn’t stop shaking, his hair was dripping straight into his eyes, and his shoes were so soaked that each step caused a flood of murky water to pool around his ankles. And then Harry, perfect Harry with his still-springy curls and clinging shirt, had started singing with some blonde kid holding a guitar and some other guy who looked at him like he was John Lennon’s angel sent to save them all. His sweet voice had filled the air and drew almost everyone’s attention without him even realizing. Louis hadn’t been able to look away as he’d sang, dancing gleefully around the guitar player and another angry looking one with Bieber hair.

Harry had opened his eyes to see Louis watching and had lit up like a fucking solar flare, bright and just dangerous enough that Louis knew he should look away. But he couldn’t.

Louis couldn’t concentrate once they’d finally moved into their new room to practice, his voice small and overwhelmed amidst all the others. It wasn’t until the last group, when Harry had greeted Louis with a massive hug that he didn’t deserve and a smile that cut right through his ribcage, when his voice twined with Harry’s like sparks and tendrils of smoke, gravelly and bright in equal parts, that Louis even felt he had a chance to make it to the next day of bootcamp.

And Simon had seen it all. And Harry had been radiant. And Louis had to be far, far away, preferably as soon as physically possible.

So as soon as Simon’s back was turned, Louis had sprinted for the bathroom.

Louis digs his phone out of his pocket, ignoring the latest message from Lottie (talk to them yet ???) and going straight for his mum’s contact. He doesn’t care that it's the middle of the day, that she's at work. He needs someone that can actually help him through this ridiculous pain in his heart, a rib-cracking squeeze of his insides like a giant fist around his torso.

“Mum,” he gasps when she answers, tears already running down his face and collecting on his lap. “Mum, I can’t.”

“Oh, Lou,” she sighs, and the noises of the hospital in the background fill the quiet for a moment. “I told you it would be hard.”

“I didn’t know it would be this hard though,” he sniffs.

“I know, love. The first bit’s going to be the worst. But you were so sure you wanted to do this, and you can’t give up now, right?”

“Maybe I should just go home. I overestimated myself.”

“Lou, no. Listen, baby, you’re the strongest person I know. If it…” There’s the small sound of her breath hitching and Louis sobs too, a sharp-bitten off breath. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d not have made it through my rough time. You stepped up, and you survived. That’s what we do, right?”

“Right,” Louis whispers.

“So what you need to do now is whatever will help you survive. If that means ignoring him, you do that. If that means becoming his friend, be his friend.” Louis hums, but otherwise stays quiet. “Wanna hear my advice, babe?” she asks.

“Yeah.”

“Talk to him. Take a chance. It’ll only be worse if you don’t and you’re left always wondering what could have been.”

“But-”

“There’s a reason this happened, love. It may be fate, it may just be brain chemistry, I don’t know. But I do know that it happened and something like that pulls you in for a reason. Go figure out what it is.”

“Yeah, I will,” Louis says, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. “I will. I can.”

“Good. I love you, Lou.”

“Love you too, Mum. Call you later.”

Louis allows himself a minute to catch his breath, and rubs away the last few tears that escape. Breathe in, breathe out. He can do this. He can do this. He can do this.

He can’t be for Harry what he would kill to be: a proper soulmate, his other half in body and mind. (Louis may be adverse to the idea of Bonding in general, having watched the collapse of his mother’s relationship and forced to deal with the aftermath. But with Harry, it may not have been so terrible; too bad he'll never get the chance to find out.) There is someone out there who is destined to be all that for Harry Styles, and Louis hopes that whoever it is will realize the gift they’re getting.

Until then, until a Marker appears on Harry’s skin and he’s whisked away for his fairytale romance, Louis can be a friend to him. He can work his way through this ridiculous singing competition by Harry’s side for as long as they allow him to be there, and he can keep in touch when they inevitably go their separate ways. He can build up a well of memories for the day he has to let this kid go; Louis will never have a full soulmate that he Bonds to and who Bonds back, he may never have a real relationship beyond a few dates before the other person realizes that Louis has already been claimed, but he can have this, some stolen time with the soulmate he's not meant to keep.

He can do this.

He opens the stall door and nearly walks into a teary-eyed Harry standing right in front of him, arms already reaching out to pull him into their second embrace of the day.

“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, I’m so sorry. A crew member sent me to get you because we’re going for lunch. I didn’t mean to listen!” Harry babbles into Louis’ shoulder. “I just want you to know that you aren’t alone, and that I’m scared to perform again too. It’s terrifying, but it’s an amazing opportunity.” He pulls away and shoots Louis a tearful smile. “We can do this!”

There’s no way Louis can do this.

...

Harry stands on a spotlit stage, blinking and sweating. Twenty other boys from his category are in a line beside him, their every nervous twitch caught by the camera lenses, every uncomfortable throat clearing and shoe squeaking on the stage floor causing them all to jump. The Boys category had been split into two groups after the group performances: one group going forward and one going home. The other half has already been led back onto the stage, shaking and shivering, to hear their fate. Now it’s Harry’s group’s turn.

Harry wants to feel sure that he’s in the group going to the next round rather than being sent home, but there were good singers in the first group, including Tobias (who Harry’d heard had a breakdown on stage, but he hadn’t seen it for himself) and Christian and Mark.

The judges and coaches are watching them like cats watch fish in a bowl.

Harry’s eyes are drawn to Simon. The others don’t scare him, not really; he knows Louis Walsh has a little bit of pull, obviously, but he’s seen the way Simon is treated like backstage royalty wrapped in a tabloid cape. If he wants people in, they’re in. And if he wants them cut, they’ll be cut.

Harry jerks when Dermot steps forward, mic in hand even though he’s standing right next to the group and they can all hear him perfectly fine. He gives a short spiel commending how hard they’ve worked, how accommodating they’ve been with the weather difficulties.

Harry nods along with the rest of the boys, but his heart is pounding a little too loudly to take anything in. Niall is to his right, brushing his shoulder against Harry's as he rocks back and forth on his heels. Louis is on Harry's left, his arm burning against Harry's even through two layers of fabric. Harry reaches out and twines his fingers in each of their sleeves. Just the simple fact that Harry is even able to do that, to be next to Louis without him averting his eyes and turning away, tells him that today may be going better than he thought. 

Harry had always assumed heartbreak was a flowery description of sadness thought up by some melodramatic poet swooning across his chaise lounge, but then he’d followed Louis into that bathroom earlier, heard him sobbing on the phone to his mother and actually experienced it for himself. His blood had left his limbs to thunder towards his chest so suddenly that he’d swayed on his feet, nearly braining himself on a bathroom door for the second time in Louis’ presence. Heartbreak apparently doesn’t just mean sad; it’s gut-wrenching anguish, the taste of bile at knowing someone good is hurting and the twist of his stomach at the sound of their tears. Hearing Louis' quiet admission of "I overestimated myself" had tears pooling in Harry's eyes.  

Louis had been crying over his fear of performing, and Harry had cried over Louis.

But then Louis had stumbled out of that bathroom stall and seen Harry, blotchy-faced and tear-stained, apologies for eavesdropping dribbling from his lips, and he’d smiled. He’d wiped the wetness from Harry’s cheeks and grinned, his own eyes still red around the edges but his smile sparkly enough to outdo a diamond mine.

“You’re absolutely correct, Harold,” he’d murmured in answer to Harry’s horrified rambling. “We definitely can do this.”

And then, just like he hadn’t avoided Harry all afternoon before sneaking off to have a cry in a bathroom, Louis stuck to Harry like glue for the rest of the day. Where Harry went, Louis went, joking and giggling the whole time, and Harry was so ecstatic it felt like happiness was pouring from his pores, settling like glitter on his bones.

Then they were finally led back on stage for the group performance, finally allowed to sing like their lives depended on it. Harry and Louis had been in the third group to circulate to the stage during the Boys performances and Louis shone like starlight, his voice high and strong and soaring. So when it came to his turn, Harry had belted out they follow each other on the wind you know straight at Louis, bent nearly in half as he scraped for every last bit of vocal power.

It had felt amazing, the best performance of Harry’s life, and he and Louis and Tom and Niall and Christian had all skipped giddily as they’d made their way off stage, convinced they’d made it through to the next day.

Then the waiting had begun, and the weird anxiety cocktail of adrenaline and fear poured energy into their veins so that soon they were bouncing off the walls rather than just vibrating in their seats. Louis and Niall had teamed up to dance in a circle around Nicolo whenever he moved until he got so angry he complained to the staff, and then they threw grapes at him from across the room and pretended they were falling from the ceiling. Harry, when questioned about the amount of fruit littering the ground around Nicolo, laughed so hard that he’d nearly lost his voice. After being told off, Harry and Louis had spent a good hour unwinding with their sides pressed together as they sat against a blank stretch of wall, chewing idly at sandwiches they’d scavenged from Mary in the Over-25s group and grinning at each other for no reason.

“Got a stomach bug right before our auditions,” Louis had said between bites, waving his arm vaguely and continuing a conversation Harry can’t recall starting. “I don’t even really remember singing, I just knew I got through. Woke up a few days later to some fuzzy memories of being on stage and just a very small number of texts from you.”

Harry blushed, remembering his dozens of unanswered messages about everything from salad to elephant pet names (because Dumbo is the obvious, right, just like you could really only ever name a pet lion either Simba or Nala, so what other name could you possibly give an elephant? Dumba, for a girl, perhaps, but otherwise options are very limited. The question still haunts Harry to this day). Louis had just ruffled his curls and declared it charming rather than creepy.

But now, well, with Dermot stepping back into the shadows and Simon’s eyes trained on them like a sniper spotting a target from a nearby hilltop, Harry tries to think back over every second of the whole day to check for weaknesses. There’s so much that could have tipped the scales, so much he may have done that could have hurt his chances.

The gleaming red light of the camera seems bright in the gloomy darkness behind the judges. Harry stares at the shine glaring off the makeup on Louis Walsh’s forehead because he can’t really focus on how enormous this is, how even if he gets through tonight he’s got to do it all again tomorrow.

The air is lodged in his chest, almost choking him. Beside him, Niall is rocking on his toes and Louis is frozen, his breath coming out in sharp bursts.

Simon picks up a mic. Harry’s heart stops.

“Boys…”

Oh God oh God oh God OH GOD

“...It’s good news.”

Niall jumps a foot in the air. Aiden hugs everyone near him, including Liam, who’s collapsed into tears. Tom beams, his hands behind his head and staring at the ceiling. Zayn just walks away, shaking his head like he doesn’t believe it.

Harry loses all control of his actions, that’s his only excuse. When he turns to face Louis in slack-jawed amazement and finds him already there in his space, beaming, he tackles Louis to the ground in a pile of uncoordinated limbs and fanatic excitement. Despite finding himself trapped under nearly six feet of lanky, still-damp-from-rain teenage boy, Louis looks beyond ecstatic. He frees a small hand and pats Harry’s face gently.

“We did it,” he whispers, smiling so hard his eyes are sky-colored crinkles.

“Yeah,” Harry says breathlessly, ignoring the outbreak of laughter from everyone nearby and the whirring of cameras capturing their every move because this is the best day, ever, of his entire life. Ever.

...

Time passes in strange drips and drags for Louis throughout the rest of the day after they've passed their first test, disjointed and surreal. Moments stand out in sharp relief against the fast-paced rush that seems to define their time at bootcamp

 

 

He watches Harry say goodbye to what seems like every single boy who was cut, hugging them and wiping their tears. He spends a full ten minutes with the guy who had sang with him and Niall on the stairwell, a quiet boy who Louis hadn’t paid any attention to anytime he wasn’t smiling at Harry or laughing at his jokes. Louis inches closer to them while feigning conversation with Zayn and Aiden, straining to catch anything.

“...think you’re going to go really far on this show,” the boy is saying softly, “and I hope you win it, of course. And you’re probably going to forget all about me when you’ve got your recording contract or whatever.”

Louis watches Harry frown and shake his head. “Course I won’t, Christian.”

Christian grins weakly and shakes his head as well. “I hope not. I just want to say, if you ever find yourself near Essex, look me up. Maybe, um,” he blushes fiercely. “Maybe we can spend some time together.”

Louis knows that, logically, he has no real claim on Harry at all and was actually sort of rude to him through his highly successful Avoid Harry At All Costs campaign.

It’s just.

Louis has always had a jealous streak a mile wide, and Christian is smiling hopefully and won’t stop touching Harry’s arm. Louis turns away, tries to stay engaged in his conversation with Zayn about what to expect tomorrow, but—

“That sounds very nice, thanks,” he hears Harry reply. Maybe Christian realizes the vagueness of Harry’s answer at the same time Louis does, because when Louis peeks back over his shoulder Christian’s brow is furrowed and he looks as though he used up all his courage asking Harry out the first time, and now is stuck wondering if his answer actually meant yes or no.

 

 

A few minutes later, after Harry hugs Christian one last time and he makes his way back to Louis’ side, Louis loses all self control and lets the question burst: “You know he was sort of asking you out, right?”

“Yeah, I know,” Harry shrugs. “He’s nice, but there wasn’t really anything between us. I think when I meet someone that’s going to be important in my life, I can tell.”

Louis, mollified and a little surprised that Harry’s innocent act worked as well on him as it did on Christian, leans against Harry’s shoulder and tries to hide his smile.

“Sort of like when I met you,” Harry continues, happily nudging Louis with his elbow.

Louis’ heart suddenly expands to take up all the space inside his ribcage. It’s a not entirely unpleasant sensation, so he just smiles the best he can and turns to talk to Aiden for a while, feeling like his insides have become coated in sugar.

 

 

During some free time that afternoon, Harry is dragged away to do a bit for the ITV cameras. He comes back flushed and looking upset.

“I had to, uh, go on a date? Like a fake date, with a girl who’d told the crew she thought I was cute. And then I was filmed talking to a couple of other girls, and at the end they all showed up at the same time like I was cheating?” He shrugs, frowning. “I think they’re trying to say I’m, like, a player or something. Which, clearly not, you know? I’ve never dated anyone. I mean, they ended it funny—that Wagner guy came up and pretended I’d been texting him too, and then he carried me off. But like, yeah. It was still weird.”

Louis wants to laugh (and to pour water on whatever chick is walking around talking about how cute Harry is—because yeah, he is, but they can just back off) but he also wants to pull Harry close, to wipe the genuinely troubled look off his face just at the insinuation that he might fake-cheat on a fake-date.

He cheers Harry up with another round of Let’s Throw Things Down Nicolo’s Shirt.

 

After a late dinner at the hotel, a sheet is passed around with the song options for the individual performances in two days. Louis stares at the familiar titles so long that everyone else at the table has signed up before he’s even caught his breath. He scribbles down a few choices next to his name, and then excuses himself to his room to throw up a couple dozen times.

With the whole getting-to-know-his-soulmate debacle, he’d forgotten all about things like solo songs and more elimination rounds and the possibility of watching Harry and Niall and Aiden and Zayn and all the rest of his new friends move on to the next round without him. He lays in the dark and tries not to think about the fact that he has to prove once more that he deserves to be here.

 

 

21 July 2010

The second day of bootcamp is a thousand times more difficult than the first.

Louis and the other boys had been able to get away with pranks and games throughout the first day with minimum interference, earning glares only from Nicolo, who is the most uptight person in their category and probably in the entire country. On the second day, though, dirty looks are thrown at his little group of friends the first time they burst into loud laughter, and they quickly learn that every time a batch of faces is sent home, the mood grows more and more somber.

From then on, the boys work just as hard as everyone else to impress the judges. Louis doesn’t speak to anyone more than the necessary niceties in passing, and it isn’t until the entire Boys category is halted in the middle of their choreography run-through that they can even chat.

“What’s goin’ on?” Niall asks, wiping his red face with a towel and pointing at the conference going on at the judges’ table. Louis shrugs, watching Simon sigh and stand up, but Aiden leans in conspiratorially.

“Heard somebody walked out, didn’t want to dance. I think whoever it is was embarrassed.”

Harry seems shocked. “They’re giving up because they’re embarrassed of dancing in front of people?”

“Not everyone has your moves, love,” Louis teases, miming Harry’s signature step-clap-step-clap that he uses every time the choreographer yells to freestyle. Niall collapses into giggles while Harry shoves Louis away with a huff and a poorly concealed smile. They catch up on gossip with Tom and Paije and Liam while they wait: some girl came in half-drunk and with something suspiciously white dried in her hair halfway through vocal practice yesterday, two guys were sent home already for smuggling in coke, one girl didn’t sleep in her room last night but won’t tell who she stayed with.

“Look, it’s Zayn!” Harry whispers a few minutes later, and, sure enough, Simon reappears with an abashed Zayn in tow. They all take their places for the dance one more time, and Louis almost trips when he finds himself watching Zayn instead of focusing on the actual song. Zayn isn’t even that bad of a dancer—sure, his freestyle is awkward, but everyone’s freestyle is awkward. Harry had laughed so hard at Louis’ jazz hands the first time through that he’d had to pretend he was choking to be able to take a break and gulp some water. Louis makes his way toward Zayn as the Boys are dismissed and the Girls category takes their place on the stage.

“Not too bad, Zaynie,” Louis says, ruffling his hair. Zayn grins half-heartedly and pushes Louis’ hand away.

“It’s just, it’s embarrassing, innit? Like I can’t do what those other guys can do, so—”

“Neither can I,” Louis shrugs. “If I tried to breakdance or flip or do the fucking Stanky Leg then I’d probably break every bone in my precious, toned, naturally gorgeous body.” He runs a hand down his hips, showing off the goods.

Zayn cackles. “I would pay good money to see you do any kind of dance with the word stanky in it.”

“Oh really?” Louis says, arching an eyebrow.

And that’s how Louis becomes the center of a one-man dance circle in the stage wings, taking suggestions from the audience and making up any that he doesn’t know, immediately declaring his version as the correct one and whatever YouTube has to say against that is “false, thank you very much.”

At one point Louis catches Harry’s eye in the midst of the crowd. The laughter on his face is so bright that Louis can’t breathe for a moment.

 

 

22 July 2010

Individual performances feel like they stretch somewhere between fifteen minutes and an entire eternity. There’s a girl that raps and a dancing duo with paint on their face and voices that can do things that Louis’ definitely can’t. He slips into a state where he isn’t even listening anymore, just running through the words to Just Haven’t Met You Yet over and over until he starts answering in lyrics.

(“Nervous, Louis?”

“I might have to wait, I’ll never give up. I guess it’s half timing.”

“Erm. Sure?”

“And the other half’s luck.”)

Harry disappears from his side at one point and reappears on stage, giving Louis something solid to focus on for a couple of minutes while he croons an Oasis hit. He catches a flash of blonde that might be Niall, a dark head and a high note that might be Zayn, hears Liam say something about why he has the X factor. He sees a flash of that blue shirt that Aiden is wearing. Bits and pieces that make up people that Louis has sang with and danced with and joked with for the last four days.

Far, far too soon, there’s a tap on Louis’ shoulder and a whispered, “You’re up soon, love,” from a headset-clad woman with frizzy brown hair. Louis accepts the pats on the back from the others, and trips his way to the waiting area.

Somebody named Rebecca goes before him. She kills it. He can’t breathe.

Then he’s out on stage and trying to do Bublé justice. He can’t remember any of it, just the overwhelming nerves before he opens his mouth and the silence that echoes before the polite applause when he’s done. Simon watches him with sharp eyes and whispers to Louis Walsh as he leaves the stage, and then Dermot is grabbing him by the shoulder and asking how he feels.

“I- I don’t,” is all Louis can get out, and then Dermot grimaces and points Louis toward a chair as he hyperventilates.

 

 

23 July 2010

It’s the final day of bootcamp, and the contestants are all out on stage for the last time as a full group.

“There’s been some changes,” Simon says, and Louis squeezes Zayn’s arm until his knuckles are white.

The Over-25s are now the Over-28s. The Boys category has now gotten even more competitive, and Louis mentally prepares for the phone call he’s going to have to make to tell his mum he’s coming home. He’ll have to register for the fall semester at the University of Manchester soon, as long as he isn’t past the deadline. Is it too late to get housing close to campus? He’ll probably need to find a roommate.

There’s definitely no way he’s going to the Judge’s house, that’s for sure.

The acts lurch their collective way off stage to wait again.

 

 

The Boys are the last category left backstage to hear their fate. As they’re called forward to line up, the atmosphere is quiet but thrumming, like the tense silence in the seconds between rolling thunder. At least it’s right to the point: it takes only a couple of minutes to space them evenly and start the roll call. Louis listens in growing desperation as names are slowly announced, boys disappearing offstage with fist pumps and exhilarated grins.

John. Nicolo. Paije. Aiden. Marlon. Karl. Matt. Tom.

He didn’t make it. They didn’t make it.

Harry finds Louis and buries his face in his shoulder as they’re walked back off the stage, hitching sobs muffled in Louis’ shirt. Zayn attaches himself to Louis’ other side.

Niall and Liam both get accosted by cameras and walk away mid-sentence, tears falling too hard to continue. Niall pulls his sweater over his face to hide his sobs, and leans his face into the middle of Zayn’s back. Harry yanks Liam into the forming cuddle pile as well.

Louis wants to fall down, to collapse under the weight of his grief, but he can’t—he has to stand up for these boys who are trusting him to hold them up.

“Don’t leave yet, guys!” the headset-wearer calls. “Got some last-minute instructions.”

Louis doesn’t care. His heart is crushed and mangled and left to rot on the dusty, scuffed floor of the Wembley stage, and it’s breaking from the weight of the boys sobbing into his shirt from all sides, and it’s whispering tiny truths like you weren’t good enough anyway and now you can quit him cold turkey.

Louis knows that was what he wanted once. He doesn’t want that anymore.

 

 

“I’ve got five names here, the judges want you back on stage,” the headset-wearer says (and Louis maybe should have learned her name, after all this emotional connection they’ve shared. Harry probably already knows the names of her kids and her cats and her Sunday badminton teammates). “Zayn, Liam, Harry, Niall, and Louis. Follow me.”

“Probably just want to get more footage of us crying,” Zayn mumbles, and Louis silently but strongly agrees. They can’t pass five more boys on to the Judge’s House, they’ve already increased it from six acts per category to eight to accommodate the two judges who couldn’t make it to bootcamp. They aren’t going anywhere; they’re just being squeezed for more primetime tears.

Louis follows Zayn out onto the stage and notices four girls coming up the other ramp to join them as well. They’re holding hands. Louis wants someone’s hand to hold if he’s going to be told once more that he doesn’t belong here, so he settles for gripping Niall’s jacket in his fist.

It’s Nicole that addresses them. “Hello,” she says softly into a microphone. Her voice fills up the massive stage, which had seemed so small when a hundred other acts were around them. Now Louis can feel the open space behind them and it seems wide as an ocean at his back.

“We’ve thought of each of you as individuals.” Well, yes, that’s how they auditioned. Louis contains his bitten-off scoff—they aren’t going to make this quick, they’re drawing it out painfully slowly. “But you’re too talented to let go.”

That’s, well. Louis is going to have to make sure his mum records this episode somehow, he wants that as a ringtone. Something he can take to his mates and any moron geography teachers back home. He might be going home, but he’s talented.

Simon’s voice is a wrecking ball through Louis’ carefully constructed wall of denial.

“We’ve decided to put you through.”

This time, it’s Louis that does the jumping. He flings himself into Harry’s arms and all he can think is I get to keep him for just a little longer.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two: 16 August 2010 - 29 August 2010

16 August 2010


“Harry,” Niall calls over the sound of the grease popping around the bacon. “Why’s it called a bungalow?”

“S’better than cottage, innit?” Zayn says, his head leaned back against the arm of the chair he’d claimed hours ago. “Less Snow White.”

“I like Snow White,” Harry adds mildly, biting his lip as he executes yet another perfect pancake flip.

“You mean you like doing housework and you want to live with seven rugged men,” Louis laughs, poking Harry in the stomach. Harry giggles and swats him with the spatula.

It’s strange, because the five of them don’t really know each other at all. They’ve been thrown together by the will of Simon Cowell, they haven’t seen each other since they were put together as a band at bootcamp over a month ago (texting everyday helped lessen the distance, but it wasn’t the same as talking in person and Harry has missed them); yet here they are, just two weeks away from their trek across the globe to wherever their Judge’s House is and a chance at a spot in the final twelve on the X Factor.

Liam says they’re lucky they all have unique enough voices that they were chosen. Niall says they’re lucky nobody chosen for the group is a complete cunt.

It should feel strange, knowing that they’re five random lads from across the U.K. and they have nothing really in common other than singing. They’ve only been at the bungalow less than a day, but—

Well, it’s rather like being lumped with four new best friends, if Harry’s being sappy about things. He and Niall already get along like fish and water. Zayn has redeemed himself tenfold from the dancing debacle at bootcamp with his intelligent jokes that leave you wondering if you even understand the complexity to which you’re being made fun of. Liam is serious and stoic until you break through his shell, and then when he settles he makes quiet little jokes that are funny enough to send Harry rolling on the floor. And then Louis.

Louis, who fills spaces in a room that nobody even realized were empty. Louis, who can take a dip in the pool at midnight and turn it into the greatest adventure of all time. Louis, who is louder than loud and larger than life and the glue already holding them all together.

Maybe it’s because he’s the oldest. Maybe it’s just because he’s Louis.

Either way, it’s four in the morning and Louis demanded late night breakfast, and so Harry is making pancakes and bacon and eggs and if he has time he’ll squeeze some fresh orange juice. Because Louis isn’t wrong, and he’d make a damn good Snow White.

A few minutes later, Harry sits on top of the pool table, eating his pancakes and trying not to drip syrup onto the green felt. He looks out over his group, his boys, and feels a ridiculous swell of happiness.

...

Niall, apparently, is the type of person who doesn’t sit around twiddling his thumbs and wondering if he’s someone’s soulmate.

At four-thirty in the morning, after an excellently prepared meal by Harry and a quick round of FIFA on Harry’s Playstation, Niall marches in holding a crumpled piece of paper.

“Harry Styles,” he reads loudly, and Harry squeaks in surprise and falls to the floor from his perch on Zayn’s lap. “Liam Payne, Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson.”

“What the hell?” Liam asks, jumping up and pulling the paper from Niall’s hands. “Where did you get our last names?”

“Heard yours and Harry’s at bootcamp, wrote ‘em down. Went in Zayn’s bag and Lou’s wallet for theirs,” Niall says, shrugging easily. “Hey, Louis, how long has that condom been in there?”

Louis gasps, affronted, and knocks Niall to the floor in one swift tackle. He settles on Niall’s chest and reaches for the nearest spillable thing, which is Zayn’s orange juice.

“Lou, I just squeezed that,” Harry pouts.

“It’s for a good cause, Harry,” Lou says back, distracted. Niall is flailing like an eel, attempting to avoid the dripping juice that Louis is aiming for his eyes. When he hits his target and Niall squeals, Louis sits back, satisfied. “No more snooping!” he scolds, smacking Niall’s hands.

“Well there’s no more secrets for me, now!” Niall complains, his hand over his eyes. “Clearly my soulmate isn’t here. Unless one of you’s gonna half-Bond with me, which’d just be awkward.”

Louis upends the nearly-full glass of juice over Niall’s head.

Later, when the lights are dimmed and Niall’s showered the pulp from his hair, Louis and Harry lie across from each other in the almost darkness right before dawn. They’re on different mattresses but close enough to touch, and Louis doesn’t stop his fingers from tracing the patterns of the shadows on Harry’s hands.

“This is going to be amazing,” Harry whispers, eyes already drooping closed.

“Yeah,” Louis answers, but Harry’s already out cold.

The room is quiet with four sleeping boys and their newly-minted bandmate who can’t fall asleep, staring at the ceiling as night fades on into morning. He’d told himself the entire train ride to Holmes Chapel that this was what he wanted, despite any hurt it was going to cause being around Harry all the time. He'd stared down the possibility of leaving Harry forever when they were rejected at bootcamp, and he won't willingly put himself through that again.

What he hadn’t realized, though, is that the pain of being around Harry isn’t the hardest part anymore. It’s background noise, like an arthritic wrist or a bad knee. Constant, unwavering, but manageable. Over time, sure, if Louis was facing ten years of lying across from the sleeping face of Harry Styles and not having him, it would probably kill him. He couldn’t do it. But here, in this sort-of vacation home with four rowdy boys and a world held at bay for just a little while, it’s easy to pretend.

Besides, they may be decent singers, but they’re going up against groups who have years of experience on them. If anything, they’ll be lucky to even be let in the door at the Judge’s House. Probability and common sense dictate that it’ll be a miracle if they're still together as a band in another two weeks, let alone years down the road. Louis will deal with the hurt when his allotted time with Harry is over.

No, the hardest part isn’t the ache of being around his soulmate and not having him. It’s looking around at these four boys and knowing that they’re going to click, they’re going to connect so well with each other because they’re less than a day in and they’re already like this, this sprawling monster of limbs and cuddles, Zayn's head on Liam’s knee and his leg across Louis’ chest, Niall’s face in Harry’s stomach, Harry’s arm over Liam’s ankles and this, Louis’ hand clasped in Harry’s. It’s hard when he remembers that he’s here with his half-Bonded soulmate who will never love him the way he wants, sure, and that their time together has an expiration date. It’s even harder to look around and see people who can be his best friends, and knowing that his time with them has an end date as well.

 

 

17 August 2010

Harry is the youngest of the group—which he hates being reminded of, so Louis makes sure to drop it into conversation as often as possible—and even though Louis remembers exactly what he himself was like at age sixteen, he has a hard time imagining Harry making awkwardly uninformed sex jokes and laughing at dick graffiti when he literally watched Harry be moved to tears by a pet adoption commercial on late night TV.

So it’s a little shocking to look up from his bowl of cereal the next morning to see Harry deepthroating a banana and looking incredibly smug about the dark red flush on Niall’s face. Zayn doesn’t seem to have noticed, his attention on his phone, but Liam is staring so hard at his toast he looks constipated.

“What’s wrong, Niall?” Harry asks, licking a stripe up the bottom of the fruit, which he has helpfully turned so that it angles downwards to be as anatomically correct as possible. “Bananas not your thing?”

He looks over at Louis and winks, and Louis nearly falls out of his chair in his haste to flee the room and throw himself into an icy shower, pinching his inner arm every time his mind strays back to Harry's plush pink lips wrapped around that stupid banana.

The majority of the time, Harry is just as innocent as his wide eyes make him seem. His lower lip wobbles when his mum calls to check on him and he smiles brightly at the simplest things, like seeing Niall and Zayn cuddling on the sofa while fast asleep or a trio of ducklings waddling across the yard. Sometimes he pulls Louis outside just to look at clouds, countless minutes spent giggling over the shapes of elephants in tutus and old men with hair sprouting out their ears. When he needs a moment to himself, he cuddles up with a pillow and a little leather journal in the corner of the room, tapping a pen on his lip in concentration. When Niall wants to eat ice cream and talk about his feelings, Harry drinks in every word, his face completely earnest. He cries during Titanic—and Louis knows this because Harry has already made them watch it as a group, for “team-building purposes”—and bakes when he gets bored.

But other times, Harry narrows his eyes and smirks like the devil himself, and when Louis tugs on his curls in passing he moans, “Oh, God, harder!”

For his own sanity (and the sake of his poor, overworked wrist), Louis should shut it down. He doesn’t.

 

 

18 August 2010

It’s not until the end of their third day together that Niall says, muffled through a mouthful of popcorn, “You touch Harry a lot.”

Louis, who currently has his hands buried in Harry’s curls, stops his head massage (which has Harry moving his head back to nudge Louis’ hand impatiently like a cat) and cocks an eyebrow at Niall. He tries to keep his face blank, while on the inside he’s tearing his mind apart to come up with an excuse for why he sleeps better at night with his head on Harry’s chest.

“He touches everyone a lot,” Zayn points out without looking up from his phone, which is true because Louis sleeps with his head on Harry’s chest but his legs tangled with Zayn’s and his arm thrown over Liam. Louis feels his stomach thaw a little.

“He doesn’t touch me a lot!” Niall protests.

“That’s ‘cause you smell,” Louis says delicately, running his hands through Harry’s hair once more. “Take a bath every once in a while, and I’ll give you a hug.”

Liam snorts. Harry softly pinches Louis’ leg in retribution, assuring their bandmate, “You don’t smell, Niall.”

That night, Louis makes a big show of choosing Niall’s shoulder for his pillow while they’re watching Terminator. He also stamps a massive reminder in his mind to maybe hang on Harry less and the other boys a little more. It’s not his fault he’s from a family that hugs rather than discussing tough issues, but he can try to squash any ideas popping into his bandmates’ minds about Louis touching Harry more than the rest of them.

...

In their first week together as a band, the roles become clear.

Louis is the big brother. He dispenses advice as easily as jokes, and knows the exact thing to say to set the room at ease. He’s entirely confident in himself and every word he speaks. He’s who the boys come to for cuddles— especially Zayn, who gravitates toward the others in quiet moments after he’s gotten off the phone with his mum and sisters and needs a hug. Louis and his always-open arms cause comfort to bloom between the five of them that Harry didn’t think possible, and it pushes all of them to touch each other like they’ve been together for their whole lives: ruffling hair and arms flung over shoulders and heads resting on chests when they’re settled in a pile on the floor.

(Harry smugly knows that no matter the situation and no matter how much time he spends looking after Zayn, Louis always makes time to pull Harry into his arms. When Niall jokingly complains about Louis’ designated Harry Cuddle Time, Louis shoos him away with a “he’s the youngest, Niall, I’m protecting him from the harsh realities of the world” or a “don’t you have a terrible hat to wear?”)

Niall, meanwhile, is the stress relief. He’s always up for a kick around in the yard or a game on the Playstation. Harry delights in the fact that Niall will laugh at any joke or halfway witty remark. But he is also always ready for the calm moments, strumming his guitar to fill the sleepy silences of warm afternoons and tossing existential questions into conversations between casual comments.

(“Pass the crisps, H. Hey, have you ever thought that maybe, if we’re destined to be connected to one other person for the rest of our lives, that fate is real and our choices don’t actually matter? Because I really want to buy this new guitar, but me mam says I don't need another and I think in the long run it can’t hurt.")

Zayn is the smartest of the five of them by far, countering Niall’s terrifyingly huge questions with ever deeper answers, sending them all into spins of arguments rivaling the chicken and the egg debate. Sometimes he retreats to one of the bedrooms with a book and his phone for moments of solitude when the rest are bouncing off the bungalow walls. Other times, though, he perks up when Louis gets that mischievous look in his eye and they run off into the sunset leaving destruction in their wake, cackling all the while.

(“Louis, there’s no more super glue, you’ll need something else to attach the toilet seat to the door. Louis? Are you listening, babes, it isn’t going to work! Louis!”)

Harry likes to think of himself as the metaphorical jack-of-all-trades, filling the niches of the group as they appear. He is the audience to all of Louis and Zayn’s pranks, Niall’s one-man concerts in the shade of the backyard tree, Liam’s observations and ideas for future songs and performances. Harry keeps them fed, keeps them happy, and keeps them from falling too far over the edge of hyperactive or comatose. He also likes to think of himself as the comic relief (especially after one bit with a whipped cream can he pretends to jack off into some bowls of ice cream which he’d thought was hilarious, and Niall had laughed so hard he’d cried and even Liam had smiled, though Louis looked like he had a stomachache through the whole thing and had ran to the bathroom right in the middle of Harry’s epic moan-filled finale). He tags along on Liam’s morning runs and Niall’s night swims and whispers prank ideas into Louis’ ear to hear him snicker gleefully. He falls asleep starfished in the middle of them all, reaching toward his boys and pulling them close as he can.

Liam… Well.

 

 

25 August 2010

On the Wednesday before they leave for the Judge’s House, Liam interrupts a spirited marshmallow and chocolate missile war with a timid, “Should we, I don’t know. Practice?”

Niall, Harry, and Zayn make halfway interested faces, but Louis snorts.

“We’ve only got a couple more days here,” Liam presses.

“Yeah. That’s a lifetime. We don’t even have to choose a song,” Louis points out.

Which is true; not an hour after they had all arrived at the bungalow, they’d gotten a call from Simon himself.

“We’re being pushed to add songs by the guest judges to the early rounds of the show,” he’d explained, his powerful (and still rather terror-inducing, even at long range) voice tinny through the speakerphone, “so you’re doing Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn. I’ll email you a song file to work from with backing vocals and music. Don’t let me down.”

And then he’d hung up before they could answer.

“Right now, I want to push this chocolate against Niall’s face until it melts,” Louis says, holding up the chocolate bar like it’s proof in his favor.

Harry knows Liam’s right, and he realizes that Liam’s determination stems from getting to this stage of the competition before and then being sent home. But Louis is grinning like he’s already won and lifting another handful of marshmallows, and Liam’s idea is completely forgotten.

 

 

That night, they drag a mound of blankets and pillows out to the trampoline so Harry can fall asleep under the star-studded navy sky. Liam still hasn’t volunteered anything since his suggestion to practice, and the air between the five of them has grown strange and stagnant. So Harry does what he feels like he needs to do: he fills the silence and talks about what he knows.

“There’s this old legend, right, that Zeus split people into two pieces as punishment, because people were trying to overthrow the gods and they were almost powerful enough to do it. And then Apollo felt bad and sewed up their wounds, but they always missed the part that was split from them. So the two sides were always meant to find each other to become complete again, and when they found them they were happy and they became known as soulmates.”

Niall laughs once. “You utter sap.”

“It’s legend!” Harry protests. “I didn’t make it up.”

“No, but you brought it up.”

Louis, Liam, and Zayn stay silent. The discomfort between them is foreign where it tickles the back of Harry’s throat, and he coughs uneasily.

“I just, um” Harry shrugs. “Gemma had an old book of soulmate myths and history and I used to make her read it to me. I love soulmate stories.”

“So you’re a romantic sap,” Zayn teases, tapping Harry's chest.

A moment falls like stifling snow between them, hushing the night around them like a blanket of powder. This time, Niall is the one to breach it.

"Sometimes," he says haltingly, and the others settle in for another of their strangely sincere late night chats, "I think that maybe there's not actually a soulmate for everyone. And that I'm one of those that'll never be Bonded."

Harry reaches out and tangles his fingers in Niall's sweater while Zayn answers.

"There's been a lot of studies and stuff saying that soulmates usually are born or live in the same areas, or have similar personalities and hobbies and things like that. That makes it more likely that you'll meet whoever it is."

"Are you guys not excited to meet them?" Harry asks, trying and failing to keep the wonder from his voice. "I'm so ready to be Bonded. It's all I want, really, that and to have a music career."

“Yeah, of course,” Zayn murmurs. “It’s what everyone wants, right?”

"I read this interview one time," Liam says, breaking his silence, "I think it was Shayne, or Leon, I don't remember but it was definitely an X Factor winner. He said that just in the couple of months everyone was in the X Factor house together, a whole bunch of the contestants Bonded. He said he'd heard from some of them that whoever Bonded with them would hear them singing on TV and be drawn to come to the live shows or to the meet and greets. And some of the contestants Bonded with each other as well."

Harry feels a shiver run across his shoulders. The show has already brought him amazing new friends and some incomparable opportunities, could it possibly bring his soulmate too? The idea is intoxicating, and he shivers again.

"Oi, quit kicking about," Niall laughs, slapping Harry's stomach to make him lay still.

"Can you imagine?" he asks breathlessly, and Niall and Zayn and Liam giggle at his poorly concealed awe.

They shift back into the nest of blankets and body heat, the quiet between them less heavy. Stevie Wonder is playing in Harry's head again, and his arms itch to curl around his missing other half that he’s never even met.

"What about you, Louis?" Liam asks carefully, and they all wait for Louis to accept the question as the olive branch it's meant to be.

Louis stays silent. Harry looks over to see his eyes squeezed shut like he’s trying really hard to fall asleep.

"Lou?" he whispers, gently prodding at Louis’s elbow. His eyes open slowly.

"Sorry, lads,” he says, voice strained. “Bit of a headache.” It's quiet again, and Harry watches as words roll around on Louis' tongue like he's weighing their worth. "I've... never really wanted to be Bonded."

Niall flips onto his stomach, making the trampoline bounce them all out of their comfy positions. Zayn hisses and throws a pillow, but Niall ignores him. “Why not?”

Louis twitches his shoulder like he’s trying not to shrug. “Not really a happy story, that one, and I don’t want to be sad right now.” He smiles thinly, and then shuffles closer to Harry to lay his head on Harry’s shoulder. “But, I bet Harry here has a couple thousand more soulmate myths he’d love to share with the group.”

It’s an obvious change of the subject, but… “Well, you know that test that you can have done to confirm your Bonded status?”

“That one they always use on Jerry Springer?” Zayn laughs. “That’s in your soulmate book?”

“Yeah. Well, I mean no, not the Jerry Springer part. But like. It’s more than just to check whether a Marker is fake or not, or whether someone’s lying about being Bonded. It’s also used if two people don’t Bond at the same time to make sure their Bonds are matched for each other, like in weird circumstances where more than one person says their full name at the same time or something.”

“So, you mean they hear people say their name, and a Marker just appears and they don’t know who it’s for?” Liam asks incredulously. “That’s scary, what if you Bonded and didn’t even realize?”

“You won’t, it burns like hell,” Louis says into Harry’s shirt, and then coughs loudly. “Um. S’what I’ve heard, anyway.”

Harry nods. “That’s what I’ve heard, too. Like being branded, or something.”

“Getting your Marker is painful? That sucks absolute arse.”

“Don’t be judgmental, Niall, some people like that sort of thing,” Harry giggles, his laughter at his own joke the only noise in the long-suffering silence that follows.

“I don’t know if you’re implying that people like pain or they like having their arse sucked,” Zayn says slowly, and Harry cackles.

Louis groans and shakes his head. “Why do I bother pretending you’re the innocent one that needs to be protected when you are the worst one out of all of us.”

(Harry’s favorite new thing is moaning Liam’s name when he’s anywhere near him, because Niall just laughs and Zayn ignores him and Louis moans louder to outdo him, but Liam turns crimson and runs from the room like it’s been lit on fire every single time. It’s wonderful.)

“If innocent is your thing, I can make it work,” Harry offers, fluttering his eyelashes, and Louis groans again and buries his face in Harry’s neck.

“Did your story have a point, Harry?” Liam asks.

“Oh, right. Well, back before that test was created there was no way to check Bonds, but there’s this old story from like Russia or something that says when two soulmates touch each other’s Markers at the same time, something happens.”

Silence.

“Something… happens,” Zayn says.

“Yeah.”

“That’s the big finale of the story?”

“Well, I mean. It’s different for everyone. Sometimes they feel different, like get hot or cold or whatever, and sometimes they change colors or glow and stuff. But something is supposed to happen.”

The others laugh, and Louis shakes his head sadly at the state of Harry’s apparently horrid storytelling skills.

“I’m not a bad storyteller!” he cries, and the others scoff. “I’m not! Okay, there’s another one from, like, a Native American tribe, and…”

Harry attempts five more soulmate myths before he concedes that okay, maybe explaining what he ate for lunch the day he read a certain story does not add any valuable background to said story. He also admits that leaving out the part where the main characters were from different countries would have helped clear a few things up. Either way, he fake-pouts to hide his smile at the thought that he found four people that will put up with bad storytelling just because they like him. 

 

 

26 August 2010

The next day, after Zayn expresses his desire for a campfire and Harry expresses his desire for s'mores, and they’re sprawled around the fire nearly dead to the world from sugar crashes and sporadic sleep, Louis tells Niall to fetch his guitar.

“Liam’s right, boys,” he says, clapping once and startling them awake. “It's time to practice. We’ve got a competition to win.”

Three hours later, and they’ve ran through their song so many times that even Liam is starting to tire of it, so they’ve moved on to some of their other favorites just for some variety and to get a feel of how their voices blend. Liam, who’s had more singing lessons than the rest of them combined, helps them pick out harmonies and back vocals just in case they get to choose their own song later in the competition. They toy with Hey Jude for a while, but it feels a little sacrilegious to be covering the greatest band of all time while they’re still so young and shaky. They sing and sing some more and toss out song ideas like confetti. They remind each other that anything they perform has to be recognizable but not overplayed, easy enough to learn but not simple enough just to be a karaoke cover, something that will set them apart but not be outside their comfort zone.

Harry feels a tingle growing in his palms, like he’s on the edge of a cliff staring out into foggy oblivion. They’re on the cusp of something, and it feels real and it feels right.

The others must feel it too, because Louis’ eyes positively sparkle in the firelight as he asks, “What do we think, boys, one more time through?”

Filtered pop was never Harry’s preferred music style, but he may change his mind after hearing the way their voices swirl together in the chorus of his new favorite song.

...

 

28 August 2010

The boys pack haphazardly as their departure date draws nearer; Liam and Harry’s attempts at laundry are subverted by a water balloon fight, and meticulous packing inevitably descends into all of them just stuffing any visible clothing item into open suitcases without bothering to check who actually owns what. Louis is pretty sure he got to the bungalow with far fewer scarves (Harry) and ridiculous socks (Niall) and he’s now missing several jackets (again thanks to Harry, and it makes Louis jumpy because the dagger still hasn’t been revealed, due to strategic swimming only at the darkest part of night and wearing lots of sweaters despite the fact it’s August). They part ways from the bungalow only for a few hours, to meet with their families for the last time before they’re off to the next round at their Judge’s House.

Breakfast at a local cafe is a noisy affair, as Tomlinson events tend to be, and it’s the perfect thing to tide Louis through the (unlikely, but still present) threat of a lengthy separation from his favorite girls. When most of the plates are cleared and the time he’s meant to be at the airport has crept uncomfortably close, Louis stands and taps the side of his mug of tea with his scone to signal a toast, which doesn’t do much by the way of noise-making but is just ridiculous enough to have even Lottie giggling into her palm.

Louis smiles and reminds himself to keep it light, because tears are already lurking in his mum’s eyes and really, his own are not far off. So he adopts his most dramatic voice to declare that he will probably remember their time together fondly when he’s won the X Factor and is living in his mansion in LA. He says he might call but only if he feels like it and there isn’t anything interesting going on anywhere in the vicinity. He also says he’s decided to be the designated rapper of his new group, so they should take one last look at him before he trades his chinos and polo shirts for a shaved head and gold chains.

“By the way, does anyone know a good chain guy in London? I want to make sure all my ice is of the highest quality,” he sniffs, inspecting his nails. Fizzy groans and throws a balled up napkin at him, and he finally breaks down and joins them in giggling. As his mum and the older girls grab their purses and make to stand, he clears his throat to catch their attention one more time. “Honestly, though, I want to say I’ll miss you all, and I’ll call every night and every morning if I can manage it. I don’t really know how long I’ll be gone, but I’ll be thinking of you the whole time.”

He hadn’t kept it short enough, because the tears spill over before he can even think to stop them. Everyone else is in a similar state, at least, and he gives a watery laugh before finishing.

“I know there’s been some… stuff that’s come up lately, with the, um,” he gestures vaguely at his arm and the dagger always lurking under his sleeves. “I still haven’t talked with the person, so I need you all to not tell people anything until it’s all sorted. But—”

He breathes in and thinks of dimples and curls and a large hand flung out to trace patterns in the stars.

“I think it’s all going to be okay.”

They wave teary goodbyes as Louis grabs a cab to the airport to meet up with his boys, the rest of the X Factor Groups, and their production crew. He spots Zayn at the Heathrow security line, and once their bags are checked and they’ve stepped through the metal detectors, slipping on the slick tile in their socked feet, they spot a head of bleach blonde hair and make their way to the other three-fifths of their band, who are engaged in a spirited discussion of their possible destination and judge.

“France,” Harry is declaring as they walk up. “It’s gotta be. We’ll have Cheryl, and it’ll be France.”

“There’s no way!” Liam protests. “Cheryl won last year and the year before, they’ll give her a weak category like the Over-28s.”

“Dude,” Niall laughs. “They had to create two bands from thin air out of solo performers, I think this is the weak category. I wouldn’t mind having Cheryl,” he muses, scratching his head.

“I bet you wouldn’t,” Harry says, waggling his eyebrows absurdly.

“Cool it, Harold, we aren’t even on the plane yet,” Louis sighs, announcing their arrival, and Harry shrieks and scoops him into a hug like they didn’t literally wake up this morning tangled in a five-person puppy pile.

The other groups are milling around them, watching out of the corners of their eyes but pretending like they aren’t. Louis gets it; there were perfectly legitimate groups at bootcamp that didn’t make it, groups they had probably connected with over the hours of singing and dancing and waiting just like Louis had with Aiden and Tom and Paije and the four boys around him. The solo girls who were also put together in a group are getting the same treatment, so they’re standing on the outside edge of the larger crowd of contestants and crew.

Speaking of crew, a familiar woman with a headset and frizzy brown hair approaches them, rifling through the contents of an overloaded clipboard.

“Helena!” Harry cries, running to hug her, and Louis tries to contain the way his eyes want to roll in the most fond way possible. “How’s the dog?”

“Good, Harry,” she laughs, digging out a large manila envelope. “I’m assuming you lot are One Direction?”

Harry had come up with the name during a rehearsal break only the day before, staying suspiciously silent through a Ninja Turtles versus Power Rangers debate that had erupted and escalated rather suddenly.

“One Direction,” he’d said, blinking the spacy look from his eyes to see Louis attempting to smother Niall with a pillow and Liam putting Zayn in a sort-of headlock. They’d all looked up at the same time to see him frowning at the entire scene.

Well, except Niall, who hadn’t moved in a while and should have probably been checked on at that point.

“One Direction,” he’d said again, “our band name. Because, like, that’s the point of our two weeks here, right, and that’s the point of everything we do. We want to be better together, and to do that we all have to be moving in the same direction. One Direction.”

“I like it,” Louis had declared, and Liam and Zayn nodded in approval as well while Niall gave a weak thumbs up with his face still hidden under Louis’ pillow.

“Yes, we are One Direction,” Harry answers Helena proudly, taking the envelope. Other groups are already opening theirs and chattering loudly, so Harry unseals it and lets the bundle of tickets and itineraries fall into his palm. The other boys crowd around him to read—

“Spain!” Louis cries, jumping onto Zayn’s back in excitement. “Zayn, Spain!”

They probably won’t even make it past the Judge’s House round, may be returning home within the week and back to thinking about school and jobs and things that aren’t international music careers. But Louis can feel it, now; they’d sang together while packing this morning and had slipped into four-part harmonies as though it was the easiest thing in the world, and he knows they’ve all crossed the line from hoping they do okay to actively making sure they make it to the live shows.

Louis has never even left the U.K., and now he’s going to Spain.

...

Harry realizes that there is probably more to Marbella than beach-front properties and happiness, but he can’t really think of anything else that could be right now.

The convoy of contestants, assistants, camera crews, stylists, and who knows who else were shuttled directly from the airport to the most beautiful house that Harry’s ever seen. It’s massive—a three-story traditional Spanish villa-slash-mansion (if there could ever be such a thing), surrounded by a lush garden, a pristine pool, fountains every few feet, and a pathway to the sea through the backyard.

“Is this heaven?” he whispers to Liam, starry-eyed, and Liam wraps an arm around Harry’s shoulders in answer, beaming up at their home for the next three days.

Suitcase upon suitcase is wheeled into the house, followed by dozens of camera equipment bags and cases of makeup and hair products. Each of the groups is filmed walking down the gravel path to the house, chattering happily and staring up at the house in awe. Harry knows he isn’t much of an actor, but pretending to be ecstatic about his surroundings isn’t too difficult a stretch.

Following their acting debut, however, begins the side of things for which Harry isn’t quite as prepared: the staging.

After going through auditions and bootcamp he knows, at least in theory, that camera crews are catching every interaction and nervous twitch and eye roll at every minute of every day. He also knows the production crew is very good at their job, and watching six previous years of the show have taught him that certain pieces of footage or a wrongly worded interview question can change the way the entire nation looks at a contestant. He knows that during live shows, the audience are asked to hold signs they didn’t make and cheer for Dermot and the judges like they are five messiahs sent to save Britain through the power of pop music.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that an assistant stands on the steps of this beautiful villa (which is definitely not where their judge actually lives), and lectures them about what is expected of them in the next few minutes:

“Cheer for your mentor when he or she is revealed,” the assistant reads. “Laugh at any joke he or she makes. Someone should start a chant of the mentor’s name at some point. Someone has been designated to start a group hug, make sure to join in. If anything unsatisfactory happens, the reveal will be reshot.”

Harry doesn’t know what to think of all the manufactured spontaneity. The production crew at bootcamp hadn’t needed to create drama or tension or excitement; it was around every corner, and the cameras just needed be rolling to catch it all. Here, though, everyone is still cordial and tension seems to be internal rather than external, so for entertainment’s sake some spectacles must be scheduled and choreographed.

Harry isn’t comfortable with the “showbiz” side of the competition, but Louis is absolutely mesmerized. He watches the production crew with sharp eyes, taking in every movement and the lengthy setup behind every angle they shoot. He’s nearly vibrating with a potent combination of new information and nerves by the time they deem the groups positioned and coached decently enough to let them finally meet their mentor.

“It’s Simon!” Liam crows to the other four as the rest of the crowd cheers.

Simon looks out over the gathered groups like Mufasa surveying his kingdom and holds out his hands. He introduces their guest judge, Sinitta, and tells the groups that they’ll be singing for the two of them this evening and then he’ll reveal his final three groups for the live shows by tomorrow. They clap and cheer some more, Harry’s hands starting to sting a little from all the applauding and his toe aching where it was stomped by the heel of someone’s shoe, and then they’re abruptly shuffled to a new location for another shot.

“It’s to make it look like some time’s passed, like we’ve been here more than twenty minutes,” Louis whispers excitedly. He must be right, because Simon makes a big show about walking up and discovering all of them hanging out poolside in a fully clothed, tight-knit group, as though he felt like doling out some friendly advice and it was just his luck that all eight of his acts were together in the same place. Once he and Sinitta are gone once again, the same assistant tells them they need to be fully dressed and downstairs at five-thirty to start makeup and hair, but that they can do whatever they want until then.

Five whole hours of freedom stretching out in front of them. Harry wants to take Simon’s sort-of-fake-but-still-smart advice to heart, to spend the full five hours practicing their two minute song over and over until he can’t do anything but sing those words, but the achy pressure of competition is starting to weigh in his stomach and he needs a break. Just a tiny one, the shortest ever. Couple hours, tops. Judging by Zayn’s twitchy fingers and Niall’s bright eyes, he’s not the only one.

There’s a beach within spitting distance and Harry wants nothing more than to have some fun with his band as though they never left the bungalow, a few more promised hours of sunny happiness before the competition has to rear its massive, terrifying head once more.

...

They’re in cloudless, lovely Spain, their mansion (mansion!) backed up to the pristine beaches of Marbella, and Louis has no chance in hell of convincing his bandmates to do anything other than throw themselves headfirst into the sea during their break.

Ordinarily, at any other time in his life, Louis would have been the first in the water. Now, though, he changes into his swim trunks and thinks of nothing but the massive fucking dagger on his arm, and the lengths he’s gone to hide it. How was he to know, all those weeks ago when he decided to be brave and face Harry at bootcamp, that he would be hiding his left arm for so much longer than just a couple of days?

He’ll just have to play it off. He took four years of drama classes, he was Danny fucking Zuko, he can convince four unsuspecting boys (as well as a horde of his competitors and drama-hungry camera crews, but whatever) that there’s nothing strange about his “tattoo.” He’ll just say he’s had it so long he’s forgotten about it; sorry boys, completely slipped my mind.

As it turns out, it doesn’t come up.

The boys sprint out the back door, pushing past an irritated guy in a too-tight shirt who Louis is pretty sure is one-half of Diva Fever. Louis feels bad, but he’ll apologize later. Maybe. Probably not. Right now, he’s bringing up the rear as Harry races Niall down the cobbled footpath to the ocean, shrieking all the way. The tang of salt is crisp in the air and even though Louis feels dark and gloomy inside his chest, the lingering smell of suntan oil filters into Louis’ lungs like refined sunbeams, brightening his mood with each step. He rounds the final corner and suddenly it’s blue water as far as he can see, sand untouched and waves crashing and the other four boys the only people around for miles.

Harry whoops and pulls off the sweater he’d worn on the plane, throwing himself gracelessly face-first into the water. He comes up sputtering but beaming, wet curls plastered to his head. With an almighty crash, Niall flings himself in after Harry. Then follows Liam, who strips to reveal a ridiculous six pack (and Louis’ hands go automatically to yank on the bottom of his shirt, because some people can’t have six packs and it’s rude for others to flaunt their genetic superiority in front of their bandmates, Liam). Zayn is next, surfacing a few feet from Harry looking like the Little Mermaid’s long-lost Pakistani cousin.

Louis sighs, still fiddling with the bottom of his shirt. He stops and takes one deep breath, and then continues toward the lapping sound of the water on the sand and his yelling friends, pulling the fabric of his shirt up toward his chest as he runs.

And then he falls, screaming, a bright flare of agonizing pain shooting through his foot.

...

“We were swimming in the sea earlier, and Louis cut up his foot on a piece of broken glass,” Harry says blankly, trying to keep his eyes focused on the dark lens of the camera and trying not to think of Louis’ pale, drawn face as he’d been bundled away in the ambulance. He looks down at his lap. “It’s swollen really bad, and he had to go to hospital.”

He feels like he should add more, but he can’t come up with anything to add other than the constant loop running in his head: is he okay is he okay is he okay. Zayn nudges his side and picks up where he left off.

“We’re panicking a bit, we’re not sure when he’s going to get here or what’s going to happen with our performance.”

Liam sighs and shoots his patented sad puppy look into the camera. “For us that’s really bad, because we haven’t had much time as it is to practice. I mean, we just got put together. We really do need him.”

The cameraman gives them a thumbs up and moves on to film Belle Amie, who are singing and sunbathing by the pool.

Four and a half hours of freedom left in beautiful, sunny Spain, and Harry feels lost.

...

Minutes fly by as Louis waits, perched on one hospital chair with his foot propped up on another. It’s two o’clock, it’s two-thirty, it’s three o’clock, it’s four.

To calm his nerves, he sings, practicing under his breath and hoping his boys are doing the same, preparing for the worst if he can’t make it back in time.

A tiny, tiny piece of him is a little glad that he’s here, so that his voice can’t be responsible for sending the boys home. After spending extensive amounts of time around incredibly talented singers at bootcamp and then all that time at the bungalow listening to Liam and Harry trade riffs like knock-knock jokes, Louis’ confidence in his own voice has plummeted. He could sing this song backwards in his sleep, but one wrong note could throw the whole thing off. He wouldn’t be able to take it if he was the guy that sang that one wrong note.

The tiny piece that wants to let the boys sing without him is growing a little louder the longer he has to sit and wait. Surely they don’t really need him, right?

But the rest of him wants to be right there with his boys, putting his soul on the line right next to theirs in the hope they get through. Minutes tick by, and his internal tug-of-war rages on.

...

Harry sighs, slapping the CD player to stop their backing track without finishing the song for the third time in a row.

“It doesn’t sound right at all,” Liam rubs anxiously at his brow.

“It’s not thick enough,” Harry groans, putting his head in his hands. “Not without Louis.”

They keep singing, but it never gets any better. Louis and Harry are supposed to make up the bulk of the chorus, with Liam taking the lower harmony and Niall and Zayn doing the backing vocal. Without Louis, Harry’s voice isn’t strong enough to carry it on his own. Liam tentatively suggests rearranging, but they all disagree.

“There’s not enough time,” Zayn despairs, and Niall moves to throw his arm around his shoulder.

“Let’s just keep running through without him, and when he gets back he’ll fit right in. He knows his part,” Niall reassures them, so they just keep singing.

...

It’s almost 4:30 before a harried doctor can check that there’s no more glass in the cut and bandage Louis’ foot. He’s given a few days’ worth of painkillers and shooed out the door to make room for the next patient.

Louis’s heart is jumping in his throat, and he itches to get back to Harry and Zayn and Niall and Liam.

So it’s a little bit awful when it’s another half hour before an X Factor producer is sent to fetch him, and more and more time ticks by as traffic comes to a standstill on the way back to the house. Louis taps his fingers anxiously on his knees and watches his chance of making it back to his boys before they perform dwindle away.

...

“One Direction?” a familiar voice calls, and Harry looks up to see Helena motioning them over to a production crew-claimed corner of the backyard. Harry feels heavy as he pulls himself to his feet and they make their way over to her. She’s flipping through her clipboard, her constant accessory, and looks up only briefly to send them a sympathetic smile. “Louis is supposed to be on his way back, but we haven’t heard anything in a while. You’re meant to be up second to perform, but we’re moving things around and you can be last, if need be.”

“Thanks,” Liam nods. He wraps an arm around Harry’s waist when Harry drops his head back, pleading internally to whoever’s listening to send Louis back to him faster.

“They need you on the front steps to film you lot waiting on Louis,” Helena finishes. “Good luck, boys.”

 

 

The crunch of gravel announces Louis’ arrival, and Harry isn’t thinking of cameras or performances or anything, really, when he launches himself at him, pushing his face into Louis’ neck and breathing in salt and sweat and Harry’s coconut shampoo that Louis had stolen at the bungalow. Zayn and Niall aren’t far behind, Liam bringing up the rear with his arms spread wide around them all.

“Nice to see ya,” Louis says, muffled by Zayn’s shirt. “Shall we rehearse, then?”

Harry insists they carry Louis to keep pressure off his foot, and they stumble like a drunk eight-legged monster to a secluded bench under shady trees. They all face each other in a wobbly sort of circle, hesitance written in their expressions; Harry feels a tugging unwillingness to sing in front of Louis and show them how bad they are without him around to direct and take the lead like he had at the bungalow. However, Louis is having none of that.

“Let’s hear it, then,” he says brightly, clapping and rubbing his palms together. “We’ve got one chance to blow Simon away, better make it good.”

They sing without music this time, Liam stronger on the first verse than he has been all day, Harry’s voice steady through his solo and then—

Like hearing a song performed by a full orchestra when before you’d only heard the violins, Torn is broken open: Louis’ voice is a platform to push Harry’s louder, Zayn and Niall carrying their backup melody brilliantly. Liam is solid as ever, rounding out the sound. It’s amazing, it’s better than it had ever sounded at the bungalow and Louis’ eyes are shining.

“That was absolutely fantastic, boys,” he gushes. “Crushed it.”

Harry agrees, and for the first time since he’d found Louis collapsed on the ground with a shard of glass through his foot, he feels a flicker of hope.

 

 

Diva Fever performs for Simon before them, and, though it’s incredibly rude, Harry can’t help but hope they can do better than that. It’s mostly off-key and their dancing is strangely camp and they’re likeable guys, sure, but… really? The Groups category really is in trouble if this is what it has to offer as far along as the Judge’s House stage.

When Harry whispers that to Louis, he snorts into his palm and shoots Harry a crinkly-eyed smile. Diva Fever wrap up their song and Louis turns away, bringing the boys in for a huddle.

“We can beat that,” he promises. “We sound fantastic, we’re better looking, and our shirts fit better.”

The others laugh shakily, and Louis grins around at them all, meeting each of their eyes as though forcing his confidence through to them. They turn back to see Diva Fever bow and exit, sending One Direction evaluating looks as they pass. Niall leads the way as they file out onto the patio, the small space surrounded by three different cameras and all sorts of lights and microphones and, of course, Simon and Sinitta watching them closely.

Harry, remembering Louis’ injury and annoyed at himself for walking away without offering his shoulder to lean on, looks back over his shoulder to check on his friend. Louis hasn’t moved yet, and is instead staring down at his microphone with an inscrutable expression on his face. Louis pulls at his lip as though in deep thought and then, almost too fast for Harry to see, switches his mic off.

That… what?

Why would he—

Feeling stunned, Harry watches Louis join them and doesn’t even realize that Simon has spoken until Louis answers with a self-deprecating grin, “Yeah, it was a piece of glass? Like a broken bottle.”

“Painful?”

“Very, very painful.”

“But you’re alright now?”

“Yeah,” Louis says. And then he smiles, as though he hadn’t just rendered himself useless with the flick of a tiny switch.

Simon nods for them to begin. The music floods through the speakers, and Liam steps up to take his part.

It’s good, Harry knows, especially after hearing some of the competition as they’d waited on Louis to return. They’re on key and aren’t dancing like idiots. But it’s lacking, still, and Harry can see that Liam picks up on it as they head into the chorus. Louis is singing, but it’s almost guaranteed that Simon can’t hear him over the instruments and the other four amplified voices. So Liam abandons the bottom harmony that rounded everything out to help with the backing vocals, blending his voice with Niall’s and Zayn’s to give the song some semblance of dimension.

Harry finishes out the chorus and slides into his second solo, and the words seem alarmingly fitting:

There’s nothing left, I used to cry
My inspiration has run dry

Harry watches as Louis smiles and sings, but no one can hear.

 

 

 

The judges don’t give feedback at this stage, but Simon hadn’t seemed outright disgusted so, at least there’s that. They’re shuffled around the corner and back into the house before anyone speaks.

“It didn’t… sound right,” Liam says slowly, gaze flickering up from his feet.

“Yeah,” Zayn agrees. “Like, it sounded stronger when we just went acapella.”

“I noticed that too,” Niall adds. Harry just shrugs, and watches Louis for a reaction from the corner of his eye.

All Louis says is, “What’s done is done. Let’s grab some dinner.”

There’s pizza left for them in the kitchen, the rest of the acts scattered as the sun sets on Marbella. They shake the stress from their limbs over dinner, joking and tossing pizza toppings, and then Liam, Niall, and Zayn join the group forming outside to play some football as Harry helps Louis settle into a sofa. Harry fluffs a pillow and gently rests Louis’ foot on it, then sits back to survey him critically.

“What, Harold?” Louis finally asks, picking at a fingernail and not meeting Harry’s eye. “You want to say something, spit it out.”

“Lou.”

What.”

Harry stays silent until Louis tentatively looks up, throwing his hands skyward once he does. “For Chrissake, Harry, put the pout away. Yes, I turned off my mic. We did fine, and it’s over now, so.”

“We needed you,” Harry says quietly, looking down at his clenched hands. “We struggle without you. We need you.”

Harry leaves him on that sofa and heads out to the pool to clear his head, hoping to breathe a little easier away from the heady influence of Louis.

 

 

29 August 2010

The next day is strange. Decisions won’t be announced until late afternoon, so they’ve got an entire tension-filled morning to get through without snapping and screaming for answers. Harry wakes and rolls over to see Liam is already gone even though it’s still early, probably out for a run or down in the villa’s gym. Zayn is asleep in his single bed, and Niall is snoring loudly from the other top bunk. Harry sits up and stretches, knees popping as he maneuvers his way down the ladder of his bunk. He changes quickly, throwing on a new pair of shorts and ruffling his hair into something less like hurricane damage. A small voice breaks the tranquility.

“I’m sorry, Hazza,” he hears, and he turns to see Louis still in the bottom bunk under Harry’s, curled up and small under his blankets. He’s got his glasses on and looks younger than Harry’s ever seen him. “I didn’t want to ruin everything. I’m sorry.”

Harry wavers. He hates confrontation and usually chooses to let it fade away naturally but this feels important, like stale air that needs a window flung open to clear it, and after a moment he slides under the covers next to Louis. The share a pillow and breathe together, in out in.

“It’s not just me, though,” Harry whispers. “We share the same parts of the song, yeah, and I need your help, but it’s all of us. Together. We’re here as a group because we’re better together.”

Louis’ breath hitches and he buries his face in Harry’s chest, forehead against collarbones. Harry doesn’t continue with the things he wants to say, that Louis is the glue and the spark and the reason they click, that they need him like a crew needs a captain. That they’re five scared boys but Louis is the least scared, and that makes the other four brave too. He doesn’t say all this, knows Louis would laugh it off or think Harry was making fun, so he just tugs on Louis’ sweater to pull him closer.

When Liam comes back bearing breakfast and teas for all of them from downstairs, Louis and Harry are almost back to normal, casually arguing over the merits of being born with or acquiring superpowers (“Spiderman is the ultimate success story,” Louis declares) versus having enough money to make yourself into a superhero (“Batman is literally just a regular dude. If he gets shot, he doesn’t have invincibility to back him up,” Harry counters). Niall watches sleepily from his bunk, throwing scenarios into the ring when things get a little too agreeable. Zayn is still asleep, his pillow pulled over his head.

Now that things are back to their natural state, the morning doesn’t seem like it stretches on so endlessly. They stomp downstairs after showers and breakfasts in beds and claim a spot in front of one of the massive TVs for a few quick rounds of FIFA, then they hand the controllers off to the guys from The Reason to spend a little time outside. Louis keeps score from a poolside chair, his bandaged foot propped up on a glass table, as the other four team up for a vicious game of chicken—Harry and Niall against Liam and Zayn.

“That was a close one, but I’m going to have to give the tie to... Curly and Blondie!”

“Get in!” Harry cheers, high-fiving Niall.

“That’s four in a row, Louis! We get it, Harry is your favorite!” Liam cries, but Louis just smirks and throws crisps at Liam that get stuck in his wet hair.

Eventually, though, it’s back to business. They’re pulled aside to do some moody waiting-on-results shots, then it’s back to the house to wait. Lunch is subdued, each group claiming a corner of a room as they pretend not to check out the competition. Like lines have been drawn in the metaphorical sand, no one crosses to speak to other groups, sticking with their own even as the tension reaches a breaking point.

The first two groups are called to meet Simon, FYD and The Reason. They won’t be coming back once they get their answer; there’s a bonfire party on the beach once this is all over, a goodbye for the ones going home and a congratulations for the ones moving forward. The top three groups will be officially announced there.

The boys keep up a running commentary as the room slowly empties, half to fill the strained silence and half to calm their nerves.

“FYD over The Reason, they can actually sing,” Liam whispers. Harry agrees—FYD are like a less sexy male burlesque troupe, but The Reason just stood and sang without compensating for their average vocals.

“I don’t know, at least The Reason guys are somewhat attractive, in that I-live-at-the-gym sort of way,” Louis argues thoughtfully. “You can teach someone to sing, you can’t teach them to look better.”

Harry frowns and flicks Louis’ nose. “Don’t be rude.” Niall cackles and flicks Louis on the nose as well, and Louis pounces on him as the two duos—Twem and Diva Fever—are called forward.

“I haven’t seen Twem perform, but Diva Fever were pretty bad,” Liam murmurs, steadily ignoring Niall and Louis scuffling next to him.

“Twem was at my audition, they barely got through,” says Zayn.

“Duos never really do well, do they?” Niall says, his voice muffled by Louis’ armpit. “Maybe they’re both going home.”

The girl groups are called forward next, Husstle and Belle Amie leaving the room much quieter in their wake.

“Husstle can dance really well and sort of sing, and Belle Amie can sing really well and sort of dance,” Louis says.

“Yeah, that could go either way,” Liam shrugs, pulling at his fringe. It’s only them and the last guy group, Princes and Rogues, and Harry hopes just for their pride’s sake that they aren’t sent home because of them. Bowties, newsboy caps, and shorts with knee-high socks might work for schoolboys, but not men in their late twenties.

It seems to take a lifetime for their groups to be called, Princes and Rogues going in front of Simon before them. One Direction are left in the house’s foyer, not able to hear anything or see the other group. They bounce on their toes and reassure each other that it’s cool, it’s all good, we’ll be fine and mess with their hair even as the stylists hiss at them to stop. Helena comes to fetch them a few minutes later.

“You’re up,” she says, and Harry can feel his knees shake as they’re led around the house and back to the patio. He automatically wraps his arm around Niall’s waist for comfort as they come to a stop and Simon surveys them.

“Do you understand why I did this?” he asks, and though it’s mostly rhetorical the boys all murmur in agreement. “I think, once we got through to the bootcamp stage, there were weaknesses. Which is why we made the decision about all of you individually.”

Harry attempts to breathe deep. These pauses are all for TV, it’s all about creating drama. They want good, stressed-out reactions for the cameras. It’s fine.

“To a point, you came in at a disadvantage, because you didn’t have the time the other groups had.”

It doesn’t mean a no. It can’t be a no. It’s fine.

“On the more positive note, when it worked, it worked. My head is saying it’s a risk, my heart is saying you deserve a shot, and that’s why it’s been difficult.”

If Simon Cowell has ever used his heart to make a business decision, Harry will eat his shoe. But he has to cling to that shred of hope, that little part of him screaming I don’t want to go back to trying anything on my own and I need them to breathe and it’s only been two weeks.

“I’ve made a decision.” Louis is reaching over Niall to squeeze Harry’s shoulder, and it’s the only anchor keeping him from drifting. “Guys… I’ve gone with my heart. You’re through.” 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Three: 30 September 2010 - 10 October 2010

 

30 September 2010

There’s something about the X Factor stage that feels magical.

It’s not the actual stage itself, because when all the fluorescent lights are on and the stage is bare of props and colorful dancers, it’s really just a scuffed floor in a dim room. There’s still something there, though, like the echo of contestants past or something equally symbolic. A cocktail of passion and determination and fear and newfound fame. Louis sits at the edge of the stage and smiles, peering up into the rafters and just taking it all in.

He thought they’d never make it here. They had stood in front of Simon as he’d given his spiel, heavy with dramatic pauses meant to force them to their most desperate and dramatic expressions, and Louis had steeled himself once more to the thought of giving up this band, his boys, for good.

The boys who are currently intruding on Louis’ rare reflective mood and are chasing each other across the stage, shrieking and giggling. They’ve been told to wait in here while their sample outfits are prepared by the stylists, so the wardrobe department will have their sizes for competition outfits and they can have nice clothes to wear around the X Factor house when the cameras come to film behind-the-scenes extras.

Speaking of, they get to live in the X Factor house.

It’s all more than a little surreal. The groups had been moved in just this morning: One Direction were given a room to themselves, right across from two still unoccupied single rooms. Since the Groups typically are harder to schedule around, they’ve been brought back early to settle in until they meet all the other finalists at the welcome party later tonight.

“One Direction?” a PA calls from a side door, “they’re ready for you!”

Louis follows Liam down a back hallway and into a large room that looks as though someone’s rather glittery wardrobe has exploded. A woman with a brown bob haircut and wild purple eyeshadow introduces herself as Grace, the fashion director.

“We’ve got some different styles for you boys to try out, so I’ll start with this one,” she grabs Liam’s arm. “Make yourselves at home, but be sure you see our hairstylist Linda at some point before you're done.”

The afternoon passes quickly, the stylists cheerful and the atmosphere fun. Louis and Harry swoon when Liam comes out in his first outfit—“Look at that chest! And those arms, hold me, Harold, I feel dizzy!”—and Liam hides his red face in his hands until Zayn throws a can of hairspray at Louis to get him to shut up.

They laugh at Niall’s piercingly blonde head as he gets his dye job touched up ("Never shoulda dyed it in t' first place," he complains good-naturedly, "Now I'll have to dye it forever or no one will recognize me!") and groan at Harry’s naughty schoolboy jokes as he tries on posh blazer after posh blazer (even though his raunchy cover of Hit Me Baby One More Time is actually really good, throaty and low, and Louis has to pull his eyes away from the pen Harry keeps biting exaggeratedly and the finger twirling one of his curls). Even Louis gets a taste of his own medicine when he sits for his haircut and Zayn convinces Linda to let him have a go before Louis can protest, then cuts off a large chunk from a wig the same color as Louis’ hair and lets it fall where Louis can see, gasping and apologizing.  Louis flies to his feet, clutching the back of his head desperately and swearing that if Zayn ruined his hair he’d sue and then murder him. The other four collapse in laughter, Zayn tossing the wig at Louis’ face when he figures it out.

Louis is just getting pulled off the sofa, the last one to try on his few outfits, when Grace asks Harry to run and fetch her a coffee from the tiny kitchenette down the hall. He agrees cheerfully and bounces out of the room as Louis steps into a curtained-off corner, pulling the first outfit off its hanger: a white polo shirt and red jeans, nice enough quality but nothing he wouldn’t wear on a typical day back in Donny.

He steps out and submits himself to the approval of Grace and Liam and Zayn and Niall, who are all finished with their haircuts and highlights and are tangled on the sofa. Louis gives an exaggerated twirl and his best catwalk face to a chorus of the boys’ laughter, and when he gets back to Grace she nods approvingly and bends to roll his trouser legs to uncover his ankles. He turns to the mirror to check out the way his bum fills out the trousers (very well, he might add), and he’s startled when Zayn’s voice cuts clearly through the room.

“Louis, it that a tattoo?”

Shit. Shit. Shit shit shit shit.

Louis automatically turns back to hide behind the curtain and pretend he never heard the question, but Zayn is across the room and up in his space before a full second has passed.

Louis tries to shrug nonchalantly, wincing as Zayn’s fingers prod at the dagger. He prays wildly that tattoos and Markers don’t feel any different under other people's’ fingertips, because Zayn loves tattoos and might actually be able to tell a fake one from a real one.

“Um. Yeah?” he answers meekly.

Grace tuts and cocks her head. “Does Simon know about this?”

“No?”

“That might change how we style you, he may want to hide it-”

“What the hell, babes, this is sick!” Zayn interrupts, twisting Louis’ arm to see every angle. Niall and Liam jump up to see the dagger as well, Niall rubbing at the edge like he thinks it might smudge off.

“It’s real!” he cries in surprise.

“What’s real?” Harry calls from the doorway, and Louis’ blood freezes.

“Louis has a tattoo,” Liam says, sounding slightly like a child tattling on his sibling.

“No he doesn’t,” Harry laughs, walking closer to bring Grace her coffee. Louis tries to tug his arm from Zayn’s grasp, to escape back behind the curtain and back into the comfy certainty of the sleeves of his sweater before Harry can see the Marker that he caused. Zayn doesn’t let go, though, not even seeming to notice Louis trying desperately to get away as he peers closely at his arm.

Harry draws nearer, and the moment he can see over Niall’s shoulder that no, Liam isn’t kidding, he drops Grace’s drink to the floor, the carpet muffling the dull thunk of ceramic and the splash of coffee.

As though he knows that this is big, a moment, Niall grabs Liam and Zayn (who struggles, eyes still locked on the dagger like an art lover finding a new Monet stashed in an attic) and they back away. Harry approaches cautiously, mouth dropped open in a perfect O.

“Lou,” he murmurs after a solid minute where Louis can’t breathe or move or do anything, really. “This is fucking amazing.”

“S’just a tattoo, Haz,” Louis jokes weakly.

“No, it’s.” Harry reaches out slowly. “It’s perfect.”

Harry’s fingertip touches the dagger, and Louis’ legs give out.

 

 

Louis passes it off as his foot still giving him trouble from when he hurt it at the Judge's House, and his dagger is pushed to the back of the minds of his bandmates as they hoist him back to the sofa and fall over themselves to fetch him water and snacks and a cool wet cloth and anything else, Lou? What do you need?

The moment they turn their backs, Louis digs out his phone and pulls up his web browser.

And that’s how he discovers that Markers, apparently, can be aphrodisiacs and severely sensitive when touched by the owner’s soulmate, which explains why there’s a clawing, aching, needy feeling low in his gut that hasn’t gone away and flares brighter and hotter every time he meets Harry’s worried eyes.

He sneaks away for the most intense wank of his life the moment they get back to the house, collapsing against the door and definitely not thinking of Harry’s awestruck face as he’d touched Louis’ dagger, lighting Louis up from the inside out.

 

 

They’re given one new outfit apiece—Louis instructed to wear a jacket because they don’t know what Simon’s decided yet about showing his dagger—and allowed a little free time for a short nap (which is nearly impossible to wake Zayn from, and it takes ten minutes of gentle coaxing from Liam before he’ll even open his eyes) before they’re bundled into a van and taken to the studio.

The welcome party is in a few hours but first, they’ve got a date with Simon Cowell.

His office is in a quiet corner of the Fountain Studios complex, one of those rooms designed in a strange mix of textures and colors that really shouldn't work, glass and wood and five white leather chairs awaiting them in front of Simon’s massive desk. There’s a screen on the wall playing video snippets he recognizes from bootcamp and a view looking out over foggy London and Louis gets a weird anticipatory feeling in his chest, something like someday I want a power office that terrifies everyone who walks in.

But for right now, he files into a seat on the less impressive side of the desk, Simon surveying them over the top of his glasses.

“Hello, boys,” he says, and they’re still in awe and intimidated by the very name of this man, so all they can do is mumble hellos and squirm in their seats. Simon knows, of course he does, but he kindly does not point out their knocking knees when he says, “I’ve got some things we need to talk about.”

The first of these, he continues, is Louis’ dagger. Still not used to having it out in the open and discussed like it’s not a massive, life-changing thing, Louis swallows quietly and tries to nod and not hyperventilate.

“We considered having you cover it through the run of the show,” Simon says, “but it would take almost constant work with all the behind the scenes interviews we film. If we hide it but someone gets a picture anyway and tweets it, they’ll be publishing articles about how you Bonded with everyone in the house as well as the judges within an hour.”

Louis, who’d unwisely chosen this moment to take a drink of water, chokes.

“Besides,” Simon continues over Louis’ spluttering and Harry slapping his back to clear his airways, “we think it could help the overall group image. A visible tattoo will make you all seem just a little bit older, and it’ll counteract the baby faces in the group,” he smirks, nodding at Niall and Harry, who don’t help their cases by scowling like upset toddlers.

“Does looking older help us?” Liam asks.

“It can’t hurt. You’re already the youngest act left on the show and you’ll be compared to adults from the moment the Judges’ House episode airs. Youth is always good in the entertainment industry, but you can’t seem too inexperienced. That’s where the tattoo comes in,” he waves his hand at Louis. “You can’t be aged with makeup like girl contestants can, but this subtly tells the audience that you’re mature enough to be here.”

Simon sets his mug down and leans back in his seat. He gives them a long, searching look over his glasses before continuing.

“Look, I like you boys. Raw talent alone could get you through the first few rounds of this show, and since you’re handsome lads you’ll have no trouble pulling a good bit of the female vote. And to be completely honest with you, you’re my strongest hope in this competition. I think with vocal training and time to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, you’ll have a recording contract by the end of the year.” Harry reaches over and squeezes Louis’ hand, hidden from Simon under the desk and shooting fire up Louis’ arm. “So you should start learning about how the industry works now, before you’re actually in it. I’m going to be very upfront with you about things, because you’re smart and I know you want this, and everything I tell you will only help you get further.”

The boys nod, their fear slowly disappearing under the gaze of the first person to treat them like adults rather than just really lucky kids.

“Of course,” Simon continues flippantly, “the moment I see you’ve put something I tell you on Twitter or record me to show to anyone outside this room, your career will be over as well as your chance of winning the show.”

Liam gulps audibly, they all rush to agree they’ll keep their mouths shut, and Simon starts talking.

He tells them that no group has won X Factor because they’ve never been likeable enough—they’ve all been in the same vein as FYD, choreographed out of their authenticity and frightened out of their originality. Girls don’t vote for girl groups, though that tends to be their main audience because if girls won’t vote for girl groups, boys definitely won’t. That’s two of Simon’s acts gone, right there.

Boy bands, he says, have to walk the narrow line of approachable and unattainable. They have to be seen as down-to-earth, just normal lads given amazing opportunities. They absolutely will not be successful if they’re standoffish or seem at any way unwilling to connect with their fans, but they can’t seem too available. Every reporter they will ever meet will ask if they’re willing to date a fan (to which, he says, they must always reply yes), because boy band fanbases are built on potential soulmates waiting in the audience. That’s where the unattainability comes in: they’re totally open to dating and Bonding with a fan, but that fan has to be the perfect person.

“Of course, if the marketing and messaging for the band is done well, every girl will consider herself a perfect match for her favorite boy band member,” Simon says. “That’s what makes them buy the albums and the concert tickets and all the merchandise, to seem closer to the band and their future soulmate.”

That’s how it worked for all the famous bands: Take That and Westlife and the Backstreet Boys.

“We don’t, um,” Harry interrupts. “I don’t think we consider ourselves as, like, a typical boy band.”

“Yeah,” Niall adds. “We practiced all types of music for the show, not just pop stuff.”

“And we don’t want to dance,” Zayn mutters, and Simon barks a laugh.

“Diversity is good,” he agrees. “And I definitely don’t think you fit the mold of a typical boy band, you’re right. But know that while you’re on the show, that’s how you’ll be seen.”

“Won’t-” Louis starts, before cutting himself off. Simon gestures for him to continue. “Won’t that be a good thing?”

“How d’you mean?” Liam asks.

“Well, if we’re seen as a typical boy band but then we do a decent cover of, I don’t know, Elvis or somebody like that, somebody that isn’t ordinary pop, it’ll make us seem new and different from other boy bands. Sort of like we’ve broken the mold, or something.”

Simon raises an eyebrow. “Impressive. You’ve got a good mind for the industry.”

Louis wants to stop this moment, right here, because Simon Cowell just complimented his idea and that may be the defining moment of his life (besides the whole soulmate thing, that was a little important too). Liam reaches over and pats him on the back, and Zayn sends him a wink like he knows what Louis’ thinking. Harry, never one for subtlety, beams and squeezes his hand again.

“So if you aren’t the next Take That,” Simon muses, “who are you going to be?”

They spend a decent half hour talking influences, favorite artists, and their comfort zones. They uncover common ground on everything from ‘70s rock to current chart-toppers. They talk image and styling and decide that, unless it fits the theme of the week and is their absolute last option, they don’t want to rely on ridiculous costumes or gimmicks to get votes.

“This is good, we can definitely play around with this to find your niche,’” Simon says, looking over his notes. He scratches a few more lines and then looks up, smiling. “We’ll talk song choices and set up a practice schedule tomorrow, but for now I think the party has started down in the studio.”

Simon’s right—the studio is hopping when they make it downstairs, happy shouts going up all around as new people enter and see friends from bootcamp who’d made it to the live shows.

“My boys!” cries Mary from the Over-28s category as they step inside the too-loud, too-crowded room.

“Mary!” they cry back, each stepping up to hug her. After that it’s like a massive game of Pass The Boybander, Louis getting separated from the others as he accepts hugs and surprised variations of you’re here! from Cher and John and Rebecca. He greets Belle Amie even though it’s only been a few days since he’s seen them; they seem friendlier here, now that their finalist spot is secured and the threat of being another failed X Factor experiment isn’t constantly breathing down their necks. He says hello to the FYD boys as well, and can’t help but think of Simon’s words back in his office, that they’re overprocessed and won’t last the double elimination rounds.

He turns after a polite head nod to Katie and—

“Ow, shit, sorry—Louis?”

Louis looks up, eyes watering from smacking face-first into: “Aiden!” he cries, bouncing on his toes to pull his friend down into a hug. “You’re here! I knew you’d be here!”

Hiding Place | Chapter 3

 “Liar,” Aiden laughs into Louis’ neck, and God, with worrying about his own future, Louis hadn’t spared a thought for results from the other Judges’ Houses. He presses his face to Aiden’s shoulder and laughs, bright and happy.

“Who else made it?” he asks as they draw back, smiling goofily at each other.

“Um, this guy Matt, he was in the Over-25s until they changed it,” Aiden says, shrugging. “He’s cool, quiet but an amazing singer. And then, uh…”

“Spit it out, arsehole,” Louis laughs, and Aiden just smirks and gestures over Louis’s shoulder. There’s a familiar face in the corner, sipping from a bottle of water with his nose wrinkled at the noise around him. “No, shit, Nicolo made it through? Excellent.” He rubs his palms together and smirks.

“You look like an evil chipmunk, stop it,” Aiden chuckles, batting at Louis’s hands. That’s how Harry finds them, giggling like mad and throwing ideas back and forth for the best things to slip into Nicolo’s sheets back at the house before he’s inevitably kicked off the show for his sour face.

“Aiden!” Harry says as he walks up, hugging him close. He pulls away quickly, though, and settles beside Louis with a strange look on his face, like he’s ecstatic to be here but at the same time would rather be just about anywhere else. Louis nudges him with his hip.

“Okay?” he asks, and Harry smiles back beatifically.

“Am now,” he answers, throwing his arm over Louis’ shoulders. He turns back to Aiden, whose eyebrows have lifted to successfully blend with the floppy front of his quiff, and grins, letting the silence settle. Louis squirms at the uncomfortable moment.

“Guess who’s here, Haz,” he says to break the silence.

“Who?”

“Our favorite fruit target,” Louis grins, nodding to where Nicolo is sighing his way through a conversation with one of the Over-28s, a loud guy with bright red hair. Harry actually slaps his knee in glee, laughing his loud, squawky laugh.

“Perfect,” he laughs. “Someone else for you to focus all your energy on.”

Louis is pouting at the insinuation that Harry doesn’t want his full, undivided attention and Harry is smiling innocently down at him like he’s not going to give in and apologize when Aiden clears his throat.

“I’m, erm, gonna see who else made it,” he says, gesturing over his shoulder at the amassed crowd. “I’ll see you both later.”

Louis frowns, wondering what his deal is, but then Harry is whispering about fruit trays and hiding spaces in the darker corners of the room and Louis is sufficiently distracted. Soon Nicolo is cursing in Italian and ducking fruit bombs as Louis and Harry and (once he sees the fun he’s missing) Niall are tossing from different locations so he can never catch them.

They’re shuttled back to the house an hour or so later, and Louis is delighted to learn that one of the single rooms across from theirs is Aiden’s, but the room owner himself just pats Louis on the shoulder to wish him goodnight and disappears behind his door without another word. Inside the boys’ room, Zayn has already settled under his covers, Niall is rummaging for his toothbrush in his bag, and Liam is doing sit-ups on the floor (“Disgusting, Liam, do you have to do that filthy habit in this hallowed room?” “I saw you use a dirty pair of pants to clean a cobweb earlier, Lou, I don’t think the room is ruined.”). Harry is already in his top bunk over Louis’ as well, and he beckons Louis closer once the light is shut off and Liam and Niall hop into their own beds.

“G’night, Lou,” he whispers, a streetlight outside catching on his eyelashes as he blinks slowly.

“Night, Harry.”

 

 

When Louis falls asleep, he dreams of an office and fancy desk and undiscovered new talent sat across from him, shaking and starry-eyed to hear him talk about their potential, and then he dreams of staring out his office window at the wide, wide world and a pair of strong, wonderful arms wrapping around his waist from behind.

“You did it, Lou,” the person rasps joyfully in his ear, and Louis wakes to a tear-stained pillowcase and the false memory of chocolate curls brushing his cheek.

...

 

2 October 2010

Harry is in the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on the last batch of still-warm cupcakes he’s just baked, when Louis scampers by and comes to a sliding halt at the bottom of the staircase. He cups his hands around his mouth and, in an impressive show of volume that Harry is sure no one but him will appreciate, bellows, “IT’S TIME!”

Just as expected, three different people stumble out of their rooms, yawning and stretching and looking otherwise put out that their alarm clock for their evening naps is a hyperactive boy who’s already snuck three cupcakes when Harry’s back was turned. Louis just smiles angelically and bounces back into the kitchen, reaching for his fourth snack before Harry smacks his hand with a wooden spoon.

“No!” he insists, not falling for Louis’ pouty bottom lip. “To the living room with you, I’ll be right there.”

Louis sighs dramatically but leaves the kitchen, and Harry finishes icing the last cupcake before arranging them on two trays and following him. As he makes his way to the large TV room in the center of the house, stepping gingerly to avoid the spill he’s very aware he’s capable of, Harry grins as he hears Louis ordering people off a particular sofa from three rooms away.

“I put up signs!” he’s whining as Harry walks into the packed room behind him, bearing dessert. “I claimed this seat!”

“Yes, it was adorable,” Cher laughs, holding up the PROPERTY OF CURLYLOCKS AND LOUIS sign. “But you weren’t here, so I did my British duty and colonized.” Katie giggles where she’s wedged in the sofa beside her.

“C’mon, Lou,” Harry says before Louis can start in on whatever insults he’s about to throw. “We can sit on the floor.”

Louis huffs and points dramatically at Katie and Cher, announcing, “Neither of you gets a cupcake!”

“Cupcakes?” Niall calls, his head popping up in interest from where he had been deep in conversation with Matt and Mary. The trays are passed around—except to Katie and Cher, at least until Harry feels bad and takes two over to them. When he returns to Louis’ side, Louis pouts, but still pushes and prods until he’s half in front of Harry, leaning back on his chest, and someone switches off the lights as a familiar voice floods the room.

Thousands applied, now just 32 acts remain-

The X Factor logo illuminates the room, and Harry feels a shaky thrill that, yeah, he’s actually on the show, and this time he'll actually be singing and no one will be telling him to go home. They watch the recap from last week, all the dramas of bootcamp summarized into a few quick shots, and then there’s Dermot, kicking off the Boys category at their Judge’s House with the Sydney Opera House looming dramatically behind him.

The room is silent save for the television spitting back recorded versions of their own words, which is strange in a group this full of colorful, loud people. It’s like they’re all waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Simon and a camera crew to bust back in and tell them you just thought you were good enough, but you’ll never actually do anything worthwhile!

It's Mary who breaks the silence, her deep laugh booming when her onscreen self forgets the words to the Coldplay song she’d been given. “Never even heard the song before,” she explains to the giggling group, “My daughter looked at me like I’d grown a third eye when I told her that.”

From there it’s more fun, more like what Harry expected when they’d agreed as an entire group to watch this week’s episode together. The Boys category portion of the show is already over but Matt and Aiden trade funny stories from Australia at each commercial break. Mary and John talk about the Irish manor the Over-28s had stayed in, how everyone was so serious except that Wagner fellow, who’s just a bit off even when the cameras weren't making everyone antsy. Then it’s the Groups being shown, and Louis takes great delight in regaling the crowd with the story of his foot injury like a soldier returned from war, complete with wistful sighs and a choked, teary voice. He gets an anonymous cupcake to the face for his efforts (though Zayn cackles suspiciously from the back where he's surrounded by the Belle Amie girls and an uncomfortable-looking Liam) but doesn’t really seem to mind, scraping the icing off his cheek and licking it off his fingers.

Harry looks away for a while after that, thinking of his Nan in lacy underwear and cemeteries and tries not to think about the hot press of boy leaned against his chest, at least not until he’s calmed down enough to pay attention to the TV once more.

Dermot reappears on-screen to introduce the next group performing. Cher does a pretty excellent impression of the guy from The Reason going off pitch on his solo, and then bam—there they are, the newly minted One Direction being broadcast to the nation for the first time ever as a group.

It’s strange seeing himself on the telly, Harry thinks distantly. It’s not like he doesn’t know what he looks like, but he stares at the screen expecting to find what he sees in the mirror every day and—between the nerves and the updated wardrobe and the makeup—his onscreen face seems alien.

There’s teasing aimed at the boys when they leave the screen after their song but it’s gentle, lighter, less pointed; Harry meets Niall’s eyes across the room and they trade unsurprised looks. They’d all talked about it after the welcome party in the studio; everyone had seemed surprised to see them, and there were rumblings about both of the Simon-created groups making it through to the live shows. Now, though, the others know that they’re here based on more than their looks and Simon’s heavy hand, that they can compete and improve and be in this competition for the long run.

They’re here to stay, and they aren’t leaving without a fight.

 

 

3 October 2010

The next morning, Harry stumbles down to breakfast and the kitchen goes silent.

“Good morning,” snickers Niall.

Very good morning,” Katie laughs.

“Hazza, put on some pants,” Zayn groans, burying his face in his hands. “This isn’t the bungalow, there are other people here.”

Harry shrugs, still wiping the sleep from his eyes, and wraps an afghan from a nearby chair around his waist before reaching for a plate.

“Okay, that’s your blanket now,” Cher says decisively. “You can have that one. Just don’t change blankets willy-nilly, I don’t want to cuddle under something that’s been against your bare arse.”

Harry just lifts an eyebrow and smirks. “Sure about that?”

Cher is throwing a muffin in retaliation when Aiden steps into the kitchen and clears his throat.

“Harry?” he asks quietly as the conversation starts back up around them. “Can I have a word?”

Harry follows Aiden to the deserted TV room, blankets and pillows and popcorn flung haphazardly from their group time last night. When Aiden turns, he’s biting his lip and looking supremely uncomfortable.

“Yeah?” Harry prompts.

“I was just, um,” Aiden says, looking anywhere but at Harry. “Just wondering if, like… if there’s anything going on between you and Louis?”

“Going on?” Harry asks, nose wrinkling. “We’re in a band together. He’s my best mate.”

“Yeah, but,” Aiden shrugs. “Like, is that it?”

“Does there need to be more?” Harry asks, a little irritated. He doesn’t just throw around titles like best friend like they’re nothing, it means something. “Louis is important to me. We’re best friends.”

“Best friends?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Okay, good.”

“Are we…?” Harry asks, lost. “Is that all you wanted? To ask if Louis is my best mate?”

“Um, yeah, basically,” Aiden shrugs again, grinning. And then he stops. “Are you naked?”

Harry just laughs, and they walk back to the kitchen. More people are awake, now, chattering happily over bacon and sausages. Louis has stolen Harry’s seat, resting his head on the table next to Harry’s plate of eggs. Harry nudges him until Louis relinquishes his seat and then settles onto Harry’s lap, burying his face sleepily in Harry’s neck and stealing bites off his plate. Harry attempts to eat with one hand, the other curled around Louis’ back, and pointedly ignores the glances they’re receiving from the rest of the room.

“What’s on the agenda today, then?” Rebecca asks, her quiet voice drawing attention just because the sound is so rare.

“We’re in the studio today, I believe,” Mary answers. “It’s our first official day.”

“Gonna be big,” Cher says happily over her tea.

She’s not wrong.

 

 

At the studio, they get their first shock of the day.

“Meet the Wild Cards!” Cheryl announces, and in walk four more acts to stretch the field of finalists to sixteen: Paije for the Boys, Treyc for the Girls, Wagner for the Over-28s, and Diva Fever for the Groups.

The original twelve acts feign enthusiasm (great, four more acts to compete against, every contestant's absolute dream) well enough that the cameras and the judges deem them okay to mix and greet the newbies, and Louis immediately turns to Harry with raised eyebrows.

“Diva Fever?” he asks, not even bothering to keep his voice down. “That’s the best option he had? They’re like the opening act in a gay club on burlesque night.”

Harry claps a hand over his mouth to stifle his bark of laughter. Then he realizes—

“Wait, Lou. How do you know what gay club dancers are like?”

Louis just winks and sidles away to mingle, and Harry’s stomach suddenly feels like he swallowed a snake.

 

 

They’re given Viva la Vida for the first show.

Which is—

Yeah, it’s good. Because it could have been N’SYNC or something, which would have started them on a terrible road down which lies matching sweatsuits and choreographed dance routines where they pretend to be puppets; or it could have been something wildly out of their comfort zones (which isn’t much, they’re open to a lot, but it could have been, like, Icelandic yodeling dubstep or some such). But still, it’s the most famous song in the world right now and one that can probably take very little variation or it’ll sound like a completely different song. So it’s good, because they’re getting good rock songs, but it’s also bad, because they’re getting really good rock songs.

So it’s… yeah. It's good. Probably.

 

 

To say it goes downhill after that would be like saying that rollercoasters also go downhill sometimes: a complete and terrifying understatement.

“Zayn, you’ve still not got the timing down. Know when you’re coming in or we’ll give the solo to someone else. Niall, you’re majorly flat. Liam, you’re overpowering everyone else, and it’s supposed to be a harmony. Harry, stop staring at Louis for ten seconds and you might not be a beat behind through the whole song.” Their vocal coach, Savan, rubs his temples and waves his hand as though even looking at them hurts his head. “Again.”

They start over. Zayn misses his cue once more, and Niall’s solo still sounds off. Liam runs over everyone else because the only one in the group with better volume is Louis, who Harry can’t stop watching because Louis gets flustered halfway through the chorus and stops singing which in turn throws off everyone else’s timing.

Savan stops the music again and pulls the CD out of the player, brandishing at them like it’s a weapon.

“Go back to the house and practice. We’ve got six days to perfect this as well as choreograph your staging, and right now I’m not sure that’s enough time.”

 

 

“Maybe Savan’s harsh on everyone?” Niall shrugs. They’re back in the van on the way back to the house and the other four are quiet, lost in thoughts of two hours spent with Savan and not one decent run-through achieved.

Apparently, he’s not.

“Savan loved our song choice,” Craig from Diva Fever brags over dinner. “He said we’d get a lot of attention for it.”

“He told me my voice was perfect for mine!” Katie agrees, chopping happily at her chicken.

Around them, all the acts chatter happily about their amazing first days of practice, some of them already moving on to work on their choreography with the creative director. Even shy, quiet Rebecca is grinning and swapping stories with Aiden, the two of them laughing over Aiden’s story of tripping over his mic stand.

Harry can’t look up from his plate, the snake in his stomach making its presence known once more.

 

 

“I just…” he tells Louis later. “I knew we wouldn’t be perfect, but I thought we’d be. I dunno. Better.”

They’re on the sofa in the TV room, the only two people interested in watching the second part of the Judges’ House episodes. (“You know what happens,” Niall had said when they’d brought it up at dinner. “Why waste an hour pretending you don’t know who got through?”)

Harry is nestled between Louis’ legs, his back to Louis’ chest and playing with the seam of Louis’ pajamas. Louis hums, gently untangling Harry’s rogue curls and braiding them.

“We’ll figure it out,” he reassures Harry. “And even if we don’t, even if Zayn misses his solo and Niall goes off-key-”

“And if you stop singing halfway through the song,” Harry adds darkly, poking sharply at Louis’ thigh.

“And if I stop singing halfway through the song,” Louis allows, tugging on a curl in retaliation, “we’ll still be okay. We can’t be the worst ones here, you saw the Judge’s House auditions.”

Harry snorts, but stays quiet. His next thought is interrupted by Rebecca, who walks into the room, covers her eyes and apologizes, and walks back out.

“That was weird,” Louis comments mildly.

“Not everyone’s used to walking in on two people spooning on their sofa,” Niall answers as he walks by the doorway. He laughs and calls up the stairs, “Hey Bex, at least Harry’s wearing clothes this time!”

“When were you not wearing clothes?” Louis asks. “I feel like I should be outraged and appalled at your behavior.”

Harry shrugs. “Breakfast this morning.”

“Oh. Well that’s just your typical Harry wake-up call, then,” Louis says, continuing his braiding. “I thought it would be a more scandalous story than that.”

Harry laughs, but the sound is weak. Needing something to do, something to focus on rather than the knot of anxiety lodged in his throat like bad medicine, he reaches for Louis' left arm and slowly pushes up the sleeve. The tattoo on Louis' arm is revealed slowly, and it feels like an unveiling, almost, because Harry got to see it once that first time but not since, as Louis gets cold easily and wears jackets and long-sleeves pretty much constantly.

It's fascinating, like discovering an entirely new facet of Louis that Harry could have never dreamed up. The black edge of the tattoo emerges bit by bit as Harry's hand keeps pushing his sleeve up and up. Louis is motionless, silent, not even breathing, it seems, as Harry reaches out and traces the bold edge of the dagger with the tip of his finger.

"Um," Louis says, but doesn't follow it up so Harry keeps touching, keeps swiping his finger along the dark lines and subtle shading. Louis coughs and shifts his hips and Harry pinches his inner elbow in warning.

"Stop that," he scolds. "This is my first real look at it."

Louis just hums, his hips twitching again against Harry's back. Harry's eyes follow his own finger up around the dagger handle and down around the blade. It's like it isn't even a tattoo, more like it's just an indelible part of Louis that was always there; a little shocking, a little bold, but doesn't that sum Louis up? Unexpected and attention demanding in the best way.

"'ve always wanted a tattoo," Harry murmurs. Louis doesn’t answer, but his toes curl against Harry’s shins. "More than one, actually. Loads. As many as I can get."

Louis lets the silence settle for a moment, lets Harry drink in his fill of the ink before pulling his arm away gently and returning to his braiding. Harry lets him, but only because his fingers feel good in Harry's hair and he couldn't give the dagger the attention it deserves anyway, not with his mind pulling a thousand different directions that are all somehow still pointing towards panic.

On the long-forgotten screen, the video versions of themselves are standing in front of Simon, waiting to hear his verdict on whether they’d made it to the live shows. Harry can remember Niall’s quick breathing, Louis’ shaking hand on his shoulder. So much panic in the moment, with so much happiness to follow.

Louis pauses in his braiding and watches with Harry as they’re passed through. He shifts a little, dislodging Harry from his comfortable resting place as he digs his phone from his pocket, and Harry watches as he opens Twitter.

They’d had to sign intense nondisclosure agreements and incredibly thick contracts before they could leave bootcamp, binding them to participating in the competition as a group. In it were agreements that they would practice with Simon-approved vocal coaches during the break and that they would be subject to any and all changes he saw fit, as well as a ban on any negative statements about the show, Simon, or the production company. They had to clean up their Twitter accounts of anything unsavory, and update their Twitter handles to include their band name in some way—once it had been chosen—as soon as the bootcamp episode was on. They couldn’t mention that they’d made it to the live shows until the episodes aired.

Now that their forced silence is over, Louis can tweet to his heart’s content.

Harry smiles, half-watching Louis scroll through congratulations tweets and answering a few. Louis, ever the perceptive one, hooks his chin over Harry’s shoulder and says softly, “Seriously, Curly. It may take us a while, but we’ll clean things up and get it right. We aren't going out of this competition on the first night, I guarantee it."

“I hope so.”

“I know so.”

 

 

4 October 2010

Louis is right, of course. After a long evening of rehearsing in their room until their throats ache as the rest of the house is silent in sleep, they wake up determined and inspired to blow their vocal rehearsal out of the water. And they do: Zayn hits his cue every time, Niall is completely in tune, Louis’ voice hangs with Liam so he isn’t overwhelming the other three, and Harry smiles and sings perfectly in time.

But it’s Savan’s reassurances at the end of their session that leave them bouncing and beaming on their way to staging practice.

“You lot are real contenders here,” he says. “Some of these acts, they’re here for novelty or for their pretty faces or because they used up all their talent just to make it to this stage. You boys are new and pretty, but your talents are just beginning to come to light. I’m going to push you, because I know you can do this.”

 

5 October 2010

Two days after the Judges’ Houses results episode airs, Louis wakes up to a congratulatory text from Stan (well done u wankerrr!! xx) and no idea what he’s talking about. Not, at least, until Zayn looks up from his own phone from across the room and says, “Morning, Lou. Check your Twitter.”

Ten thousand new followers. Louis drops his phone onto his face in shock.

Zayn laughs, but his eyes are wide with glee and he’s scrolling madly through his own mass of new fans.

Louis dresses in a daze, realizing at one point that he’s trying to put a beanie on his foot like a massively overstretched sock (which he promptly abandons, because who needs socks anyway?), and stumbles out of their room.

And, for the second time in too few days, he smacks straight into Aiden.

“Jesus,” Aiden laughs, keeping Louis upright with two hands on his shoulders. And then he looks Louis up and down and laughs harder. “What the hell are you wearing?”

Louis looks down to see neon orange trackies (Niall’s, complete with IRISH PRIDE in green across the arse), a purple plaid button-down, one wool glove, and two of Harry’s skinny scarves. He doesn’t even bother answering Aiden, just shoves his phone in his face.

“Look!” he beams. “I have fans!”

“Well shit, Mr. Popular,” Aiden says. “I got a couple thousand, but that’s ridiculous.”

“I think I’m going to use mine to rule the world,” Louis says dreamily. “I can mobilize them and take over London before anyone suspects anything amiss.”

“Yes, I’m sure your loyal following of teenage girls that want to have your children will jump at the chance to ransack the city,” Aiden scoffs. “Let’s get some breakfast, Herr Louis.”

Louis follows Aiden downstairs (after discarding the glove—he doesn’t mind trendsetting, but even he will admit that Michael Jackson is probably the only person that could ever pull off wearing only one glove) and claps delightedly when he sees the breakfast spread.

“Ten thousand adoring fans to worship me and pancakes? Best day ever!”

Louis settles into his customary seat in Harry’s lap—Harry only grunting in acknowledgment and continuing to eat steadily through his own stack of pancakes—and turns back to Aiden.

“Okay, if I can’t rule the world,” he speculates, reaching over to Harry’s plate to stab a slice of strawberry and pop it into his mouth, “I could at least rule England.”

“What, are you going to battle it out with the Queen to see who can wear the crown?” Aiden asks. “She could kick your arse and not have a single curl out of place at the end.”

“I don’t know,” Liam chimes in from across the long table. “Louis is scrappy. I box twice a week for my workouts and he almost beat me once when we were wrestling.”

“Excuse you, Liam,” Louis accuses, wielding his fork like a tiny trident and flinging bits of pancake everywhere, “I won that fight.” Harry, without ever looking away from his phone, calmly reaches out and takes Louis’ fork, setting it down next to his plate. Louis lets him, only because he has a point to prove.

“You did not,” Liam says, affronted.

“I did too! You were crying at the end, that means I won!”

“My eyes teared up because you threw sugar in them, that does not count.”

Louis waves his hand airily. “Semantics, Lima Bean. The moral of the story is that with my horde of rabid fans I could take over the country.”

“Rabid fans?” Niall asks interestedly. “Where and how and can I have some?”

“Check your Twitter.”

By the end of breakfast, their phones have been confiscated by Mary and Aiden and hidden somewhere so that they’ll perhaps talk about something besides their mass amounts of new followers.

They don’t, but it was a valiant effort.

 

 

6 October 2010

Now they’re on good terms with Savan and have gotten their staging mostly worked out with the creative director (they walk forward, sing, trade places, sing, spread out, sing, et cetera, et cetera), Louis feels a little freer when they step into the studio to rehearse. He teases Savan about letting them do Dr. Evil’s version of It’s a Hard Knock Life for their next performance, appeals for ballet to be added to their choreography (including a full demonstration of what he’s capable of, which ends with him falling on his arse but Harry in tears of laughter so all in a day’s work, really), and chases the wardrobe girls up and down the halls with cups of water he threatens to pour on their perfectly coiffed hair.

Now that they’ve hit their rhythm, and now that their song is on point and only getting better as each of them gets more confident, Zayn, Harry, and Niall are all on board with mischief making in the X Factor kingdom.

Liam, not so much.

“Honestly, Louis,” he groans after finding his headphones covered in chocolate syrup. “I was going to listen to our song some more. You know, the one we’re performing in front of all of England in three days?”

Louis scoffs. “You know that song better than Coldplay does at this point, Liam, honestly. Relax a little, have some fun.”

“I’ll have fun when we win,” Liam growls, swiping his headphones and iPod and stomping outside.

“Leave him be,” Zayn calls from the sofa where he and Matt are playing FIFA. “He’s just stressed.”

“Well he’s taking it out on me,” Louis grumbles.

“Quit pranking him, then.”

“He has the best reactions!”

“Harry!” Matt calls. “Come get Louis, he’s bored!”

“Coming!” Harry yells back, appearing in the doorway not five seconds later with a bright smile. “C'mon Lou, let’s make cookies!”

Louis sighs, but lets himself be dragged to the kitchen where he can eat cookie dough from the bowl and make fun of Harry’s horrible jokes rather than think of whatever crawled up Liam’s arse.

 

...

 

After the attention One Direction gets on Twitter, the producers decide to start a series of video diaries for fans to ask questions and get a chance to see the acts outside of their performances each week. One Direction film their first one and it’s only about a minute long, but they delight in watching the viewer count shoot up as Saturday draws nearer and nearer.

And already, there’s a storm brewing on social media, bigger than the boys even realize, big enough to raise eyebrows in the Syco offices. They don't understand the implications, that no one gets this much attention this quickly, and no one from Syco is going to tell them in case it breaks the spell. But the boys have a great time anyway figuring out what all the trends on Twitter mean, #TheWorstRoomSquad and #WhatTheCurlyHeadedGuySaid and, the most popular one, #teamlarry.

 

 

7 October 2010

Thursdays and Fridays are spent rehearsing on the actual stage rather than a practice room, and Louis in turn spends Thursday and Friday panicking just the tiniest bit.

Well, okay. A lot.

He feels so confident in his boys, his band, that he spares no thought to them not getting through to the next round. He could literally fall off the stage and he knows Niall would just jump right off behind him like he’d done it on purpose and the other three would do some vocal gymnastics to distract everyone from what happened until they could hoist themselves back up to finish the show.

But he thinks of Savan’s speech he directs to Louis every time he falls deep into his own thoughts during vocal coaching: ”You’re the backbone of this, Louis. You may not have a solo, but you have to hold the chorus up.”

He thinks of Harry’s sorrowful face back in Spain after the Judge’s House audition, near tears and adamant in his faith in Louis.

We struggle without you. We need you.

It’s too much to think about, almost. He’s never been needed, not before now. Sure, he’s been the best mate he could to Stan and Hannah, a good son for his mum and a dependable force for his sisters. But they’d survive without him, if they needed to. He was never necessary, never vital.

Apparently, that doesn’t hold true for his boys. And knowing that he’s needed, and that he could be a reason behind why they fly or a strike against them if they fall… It’s frightening, to say the least.

They haven’t seen Simon in a few days, but he shows up during their practice time slot on Thursday afternoon and watches from his spot at the judges’ table. Louis tries to deduce how he feels about their performance from his facial expressions, but he’s completely impassive during the longest two minutes of human history.

“Boys,” he says as they gulp down water, trying and failing not to look like all their hopes depend on his opinion, “That was excellent.”

Louis feels his knees go weak, and he leans into Zayn’s side as Liam fist pumps and Harry claps Niall on the back, grinning broadly.

“It’s only been a few weeks and you can hear the improvements,” Simon smiles. “You sound a thousand times stronger. Well done.” Harry reaches over and taps Louis’ shoulder, meeting his eyes meaningfully.

“Because of you,” he mouths over Niall’s head. “You make us strong.”

We struggle without you. We need you.

Louis takes a deep breath, because he can’t break down. He’s needed.

 

 

9 October 2010

Although it's one of those places he always wants to be, one of those areas where he just feels more alive, more Louis, than he does anywhere else, Louis has only been on an actual stage performing for actual people a grand total of five times in his life.

It's even less impressive when considering one of those was his initial X Factor audition, one of those was his bootcamp solo, and the other three times he'd been wrapped in a fake leather jacket as Danny Zuko in Grease back in school.

And even though his track record of important stage experience is rather slim and insignificant compared to the halfway-to-professional resumes boasted by the likes of Matt and Liam and Mary, Louis knows that on stage in front of thousands of screaming people is where he's meant to be.

He just wishes his nervous, bubbling stomach would jump on board with that idea as well.

Zayn is pacing, back and forth and back again in the tiny backstage area as the set from Nicolo's performance is pushed aside and cleaned up. Liam, in direct contrast, is frozen where he's leaned against the wall, staring fixedly at the floor and breathing so slowly Louis is a little worried for his health. Niall is Niall, unshakeable and unflappable, constant and consistent. He's pacing alongside Zayn one minute and dancing with Harry the next, then another minute passes and he’s bounding over to crew members to ask if they need help with anything. Harry is torn somewhere between all of these, staying glued to his small claimed section of the wall but shifting restlessly, joking easily with Niall when he's within earshot but otherwise silent, focused.

Louis just watches, afraid to open his mouth.

A crew member counts down out on the stage, and suddenly the crowd is roaring and the cameras refocus on the stage after a commercial break. Dermot's voice floats oddly over the applause, like it's being reflected to them off the crowd rather than coming through the speaker set up right next to them.

"Making their live debut performance, it’s the last of the Groups and Simon."

"Right," Simon says, "My last act up tonight: get ready, it’s One Direction."

The footage from their formation as a band appears on the screens in front of them, their excited faces larger than life as the video-Simon announces we’ve decided to put you through at bootcamp. Louis can't watch it again, not right now and for the dozenth time in the last few days. Instead, because it feels like the right thing to do and because if he doesn't do something he's going to snap, he pulls the boys into a huddle.

"Right," he says over the video version of himself telling everyone that he's eighteen and from Doncaster, "listen up. We've got more talent in our lovely little fingers,” he wiggles them for dramatic effect, “than half the contestants on this show put together. We are not going home tomorrow night, we are in this for the long haul. So we might as well start it off right, yeah?"

The other four nod, the video ends, the Viva la Vida violins start up, and off they go.

It's a blur, it's a rush, it's every performing cliche and so much more because it's real, it's happening to them.

And it's not perfect, because Niall's mic is too loud so his back vocals are the main focus during the chorus and Zayn still doesn't come in at the exact right time. Harry goes off beat a little in the middle but Liam ropes him back in with a tap on his arm. But it's still perfect, because it's Louis and it's Harry and it's Liam and Zayn and Niall and they're here on this stage doing what they want to do and, from the sound of the crowd, they're smashing it. Louis sings, he sings his bloody heart out, and he knows that now that he's found this feeling, he's not letting go.

Liam belts that was when I ruled the world and Louis throws his arm around his and Zayn’s shoulders, pulling them close as the crowd goes absolutely raving mad like they really do rule the world. Screams pour in like rain after a drought, heavy and all-encompassing and making Louis feel tiny on that big open stage.

It doesn’t stop, either, the boys having to adjust their in-ear monitors to be able to hear Louis Walsh extolling their virtues over the shrieks of hundreds of high-pitched voices. They scream over Dannii as well, and the boys can only barely hear Cheryl when she says, “You look like you were meant to be together as a group.”

As they crash their way offstage, cameras lie in wait to catch their reactions. They're perfectly willing to play along, grinning and sweating and screaming and announcing it was the greatest moment, the best thing ever. And then the cameras are off but they can't stop, still bouncing and rocking off this high, pulses still pounding from the force of their hearts attempting to beat straight out of their chests.

Louis' blood has been replaced, there's no other explanation, because right now his veins sizzle with liquid heat, with molten luck. And whatever has flooded Louis’ insides has infected the others too. Niall is vibrating, hugging each of them in turn and then hugging random assistants and stylists and passers-by as well. Zayn has Liam’s face in his hands, their foreheads tilted together, Liam’s eyes wide as Zayn whispers fiercely to him, a fast hiss of words that Louis couldn’t hope to catch. And Harry-

“Lou,” he all but moans, curls tugged out of their smooth sweep and into a thousand directions. He’s got a flush high on his cheeks and his lips are bitten raw and his eyes are brighter than Louis has ever seen them. It’s almost obscene, it’s terrible, Louis can’t catch his breath as Harry keeps yanking on the front of his shirt. “Lou, I- I need to do something, I have to go, have to-”

“Hazza, calm down-”

“Louis, take me somewhere,” he begs, “I need to- Oh! Lou! Take me to get a tattoo!”

“What?” Louis half-laughs, incredulous. “We can’t just-”

“No, that’s what I need! I’ve got this-” he cuts himself off, gesturing broadly to his chest, “there’s something, something there, it’s like, my heart, or- I need to focus on something else. Just- just sneak me out, we can call a taxi and I’ve got money, let’s go, take me to get a tattoo, Louis, please-”

There’s a jerk on Louis’ arm, and he and Harry are pulled in two different directions as the group is split to give individual post-show interviews. Louis barely concentrates, still able to see Harry over the interviewer’s shoulder; Harry’s hands are shaking wildly and he’s still peeking at Louis over his shoulder every few seconds. Individual interviews wrap, and they’re pushed together for one more as a group. The stage behind them is still relatively quiet during a commercial break, and, from his spot next to Louis, Harry starts to calm himself. The red stain on his cheeks is still evident but his hands have stopped trembling by the time the cameras stop recording and they’re moved to the room with the rest of the finished contestants.

Harry watches Louis from under his eyelashes like he’s just realized how desperate he’d sounded, like he’s embarrassed of his own reaction to the adrenaline pumping through him, but he doesn't say anything.

They’re pushed into a backstage lounge, a large TV on the wall displaying a direct feed from the stage, the rest of the contestants gathered around it. They watch the final three acts perform, though Louis finds it hard to focus on Wagner’s inane dancing and off-key opera when there’s unused energy still crackling in his veins and a nervous, twitchy boy beside him who doesn’t know what to do with the high of performing still burning in his lungs. It’s not until Aiden’s song starts that Louis is able to pull his body back under his control, his attention able to focus entirely on Aiden, who leaves the entire room breathless with his intensity when he sings.

In the quiet that follows, the room settles; the pent-up adrenaline seeps from the performers and out of the room like fog under a door. Aiden joins them eventually and smiles shakily, sweat carving trails in his makeup as he tries to control the trembling of his hands. Treyc performs last but the room isn’t hopping on misplaced energy anymore—it’s sleepy contentedness, the feeling of wanting to crawl into bed after facing a large amount of stress and coming through mostly unscathed. The entire crowd of thirty-odd contestants is settled and placid as they’re herded to a back door at the end of the show to head back to the house, acts slipping out in fours and fives into awaiting vans.

When One Direction steps out, the world seems to halt for a moment. There’s a breathless moment of stillness before bright white obscures Louis’ vision and he fears for a long few seconds that he’s gone blind. Flash after flash illuminates the grimy back alley behind Fountain Studios, and Louis wildly reaches out for Niall, who’d been in front of him only moments before. He finds a swath of fabric—an edge of a jacket, maybe—and lets whoever it is tug him along. After he blinks a few times and his vision clears enough to see that it is Niall’s familiar blonde head he’s following, the sound swells to hit him as well.

It might not have even shocked him if it had just been wordless screams; he had been on stage in front of a massive crowd not a half hour ago, he probably could have convinced himself that the shrieking was still in his head. But the shouts definitely aren’t just sounds, they’re deliberate, pointed.

“LOUIS TOMLINSON!”

It’s like a slap to the face from an invisible offender. He’s still half-blind from camera flashes and stumbling and someone is screaming his full name. More than one someone, a dozen someones, and he still can’t see.

That doesn’t happen, that isn’t supposed to happen; he doesn’t tell anyone his last name unless they’ve been friends for years and he has sufficient blackmail material on them (or if they happen to be a random curly-headed kid in an X Factor bathroom, but that’s an anomaly, really). How did they find out? How-

“HARRY STYLES!” breaks through his panicked mind next, shocking him into moving. If it had just been his own name he may have stopped to sort it all out but not when it’s Harry, poor Harry whose pupils are dilated from a potent mixture of surprise-fear-confusion. Louis shoves him into the van first (“ZAYN MALIK!” being shouted by multiple voices behind him, “LIAM PAYNE!”), urging the rest of the boys in quickly after him (“NIALL HORAN!”). The van door slides shut and the vehicle is eerily, echoingly quiet compared to the chaos right outside the metal door.

As one, like protagonists in a bad horror film, they turn back to face what they just escaped.

Girls. Dozens of them, maybe hundreds, brandishing signs and massive pictures of the boys' faces. All still screaming, all pushing as a mass to get closer to the van, the force of five or six burly security guards attempting to hold them at bay. The driver curses and speeds away before the girls can make it around to the front of the van, taking a curve dangerously fast to put them on a side road that’ll eventually lead them back to the X Factor house.

The adrenaline that had left their systems back in the studio has returned full force. Harry is hyperventilating, so Louis pulls him close with shaking hands.

“We’ll be okay,” he reassures all of them, though his quiet voice isn’t enough to break the debilitating echo of their names being screeched by unknown voices, over and over and over again.

 

 

They take turns hopping in the shower back at the house, not bothering to close the bathroom door because their time at the bungalow stripped away most of the need for modesty between them, plus Niall kept complaining that he couldn’t get to his toothbrush if they locked him out. Louis is under the spray now, watching makeup and sweat swirl down the drain and wishing the pounding anxiety could be washed away as well.

It’s not like he doesn’t want people screaming for him. Standing on stage tonight as they’d finished their song had been the most fantastic feeling he’d ever experienced: basking in the bright heat of the spotlight and having wave after wave of cheers and affirmation sweep him up.

It’s different, though, when it’s his full name. It’s not even like he’s worried about spontaneously Bonding with someone (because that traumatic life event has already happened, thank you very much Harry Styles), but it’s still jarring. It’s an entirely different experience to be cheered at while on stage and to be surprise-attacked on the way to a vehicle in a shady back alley. The press of people, the sheer feeling of being a small person in the epicenter of a large crowd, it doesn’t sit well on Louis’ bones. Not to mention the fear it etched on the rest of his bandmates’ faces.

He knows that celebrities’ last names are often well-known, and though he adores the thought of being famous he’s not quite sure he’s celebrity-level yet. He thought he’d have more time.

He sighs, and turns off the water.

Back in their bedroom, Zayn is pacing again. Liam is wrapped in a blanket, his legs fidgeting like he’s trying to keep himself under control. Harry is curled up in a ball in Louis’ bunk, Niall next to him and petting through his hair. Their energy from performing has shifted into something darker, making them flinch every time someone walks by out in the hallway and twitch with restlessness they can’t escape or relieve here in their tiny room.

It’s so wrong—this isn’t how this night was supposed to go. They were supposed to spill out of the van and into the house to kick off the We Survived The First Live Show party. Harry’d even baked a cake, and that morning all of the acts had joined in decorating the dining area just to keep their minds off of their performances that night.

Now they’re here, filled to the brim with stressful adrenaline, torn somewhere between fight and flight.

Something needs to be done.

“Right, boys,” Louis announces brightly, making Niall jump high enough to bash his head on the bottom of Harry’s bunk, “Grab your blankets and pillows and follow me.”

Like the Lost Boys following Peter Pan, they file out of the room behind him without question and three minutes later are tangled in a familiar pile in the backyard, limbs and fingers woven together on their spread blankets under the stars. It’s a warm night for October, a slight breeze soothing on overheated skin.

It’s still quiet, though, the jumble of boys twitching and shaking under their sheets but quiet like they’re afraid to shatter the silence. Like at any moment the fences around the house will fall like the walls of Jericho and they’ll be trampled and suffocated by thousands of hysterical fans.

Louis doesn’t like silence unless he’s using it for his own benefit, and this quiet is definitely not for his benefit.

“Rebecca, Katie, Cher,” he says, and he could start a career with the number of silences he’s broken tonight. “Fuck, Marry, Kill.”

“Lou,” Harry scolds reflexively. “That’s rude.”

“It’s a game, Hazza.”

“Still disrespectful.”

“We aren’t going to tell them to their faces, mate,” Zayn rolls his eyes. “Fuck Cher, marry Bex, kill Katie.”

“You’d kill Katie?” Liam asks interestedly.

“She uses more product in her hair than I do, and that’s cause for concern.”

Niall hums. “I’d fuck Rebecca. It’s always the quiet ones you have to look out for.”

Louis nudges Liam. “Hear that, Liam? Apparently you’re a sex god.” Liam, in an eloquent reply, chokes on his spit and turns an interesting shade of puce.

Fuck, Marry, Kill spills over into Who Would Win In A No-Holds Barred Cage Fight (“Wagner, obviously, have you seen the picture of him holding the lion by the tail?” Harry screeches) which transitions to talking about the actual performances.

“I still can’t believe we sang on national TV,” Liam breathes.

“And we didn’t pass out or throw up on Simon’s suit or anything,” Louis reminds them.

“We have, like, proper fans,” is Zayn’s contribution, which brings the mood down a little. In the stillness of the backyard, the screams of a hundred different blank-faced people echo off the inside of Louis’ skull.

Louis Tomlinson Louis Tomlinson Louis Tomlinson

“I feel like it shouldn’t be so scary, what happened,” Harry whispers.

“We’re ready for it now, it won’t startle us next time,” Louis promises. “There are a dozen different exits in that building, we can have Simon arrange for us to have leave from a different area next time. He’s probably seen this happen a hundred times before.”

“Yeah,” is all Zayn says, little more than a breath of air. Louis shivers, pulls the sheet around his hips higher up on his chest, and launches into a new topic:

“I’m pretty sure Dannii has a crush on me.”

“Come off it!” Niall snorts.

“She couldn’t take her eyes off me the whole time we were performing! Forget men her own age, I’m gonna sweep her off her feet.”

Niall’s laugh is enough to burst the tension into something a little more manageable, and the conversation sweeps along until they’re drifting off, chatter dying slowly as Liam then Zayn then Niall fall asleep. Louis rolls to face Harry, who’s still watching the stars like they’re going to spell out an answer to all his questions.

“It’s not....” Harry starts, shifting restlessly. “It’s not my fault, is it?”

“Your fault?” Louis asks, his face scrunching in confusion.

“Yeah, um. The, the name thing.”

“How could it be your fault?”

“Oh, well I. I said yours, remember? At auditions?” he says hesitantly, as though expecting Louis to put two and two together and come to the conclusion that everything is Harry’s fault and he can’t be trusted.

I've got a biggest fan. His name is Louis Tomlinson.

God, of course Louis remembers. The defining moment of his life so far, when Harry had said his name on stage and a dagger had appeared on his arm. And yeah, that wasn’t the best thing for Harry to do, to say Louis’ name in front of that audience, but he had been excited and nervous and Louis definitely knows the desperation to say the right thing when Simon is looking at you like you’re as interesting as the gum he scraped off his shoe.

“It’s not your fault,” Louis confirms, shaking away the faint memory of a burn on his forearm and the instantaneous appearance of a Marker.

“But-”

“There are thousands of people who go through those auditions,” Louis shrugs. “It wasn’t very likely that I’d get through to begin with, and there was an even smaller chance I’d be a finalist on the live shows. I’m sure not a single person remembers my name from that, and they didn’t even include it in the episode.”

Which is true—they’d watched their audition episodes at the bungalow, just for the sheer excitement of being on TV and to relive the high of getting through bootcamp before heading off to the Judge’s House. The only part of Harry’s audition they’d kept in had been his part about working in a bakery, and Louis got maybe fifteen whole seconds devoted to a snippet of his song and his thanks as he’d been passed through.

“Besides, that doesn’t explain how they know your name, or any of the other boys’. I think someone must have leaked it out somehow.”

Harry hums, his eyes a little less troubled. “Thank you,” he says after a moment, sincerity plain in his raspy voice.

“For what?”

“Getting us out of the mob. Getting us out of our heads. Getting us here, really,” Harry shrugs. “Take your pick.” Louis wants to wrap him in cashmere and happy thoughts and tell him he’ll be okay. He wants to never see this uncertainty in those eyes ever again.

“Ah,” Louis says, shifting onto his back so that he and Harry have the same wide blue view of a light-studded night sky. “Don’t thank me yet, I charge a steep price.”

“Oh yeah?” Harry chuckles.

“That’s right. I demand full control of the remote any time I’m in the same room as a TV and breakfast in bed every Sunday morning.”

“I can handle that.”

“Good.”

Louis thinks back, past the scare on the way to the vans, back to the situation he's been trying really hard not to dissect for meaning; he thinks of Harry clinging to him and begging him for a distraction, something to get him out of his head. Begging for release, really, though Louis knows it’s not the kind of release Louis so desperately wants to give him.

Although...

“I’ll make a deal with you, H.”

“What’s that?”

“The moment we pack our bags and leave this house with our recording contract, I’ll take you to get your tattoo.”

Harry sits up, beaming. “Really?”

“Really,” Louis laughs quietly. “As long as you promise your mother won’t murder me.”

“She won’t,” Harry swears. He lays back down, grins at the stars.

Time drifts and Louis feels himself do the same, but before his eyes close for good he hears Harry’s voice.

“I’m so glad I get to be alive at the same time as you.”

Louis doesn’t have an answer, not one that he can spill here into the night air without it being as painful as spilling blood from his veins, but he doesn’t need to have one. He reaches out and twines their fingers, falling asleep to the sound of Harry breathing beside him.

 

 

10 October 2010

In the morning, Louis wakes to a plate being pressed into his hands.

“Your terms demanded breakfast in bed on Sunday mornings,” Harry says, smiling brighter than the morning sunshine that outlines him in a halo of white. “You aren’t in a bed, so breakfast in the yard will have to do.”

It’s the best wake up Louis has ever had.

 

 

They’re in Simon’s office again but the mood is a little different this time, to say the least; there’s quite a huge difference in a quick meeting to talk about their musical inspirations while Simon jokes with them over his lunch and this, Simon surveying them closely over folded hands, dressed in full X Factor judge armor with his pressed blazer and shiny black shoes.

“Well boys,” he says without preamble when they’re escorted in, “heard we had a bit of an issue leaving the studio last night. Seems we need to have another talk.”

And so they do.

The problem with shows like the X Factor is when it’s starting out or in rough patches, it’s good to have friends in the media to write or report on your stories, to spread the gossip you want to be spread and to hype up potential audience members into viewing on a weekly basis. It’s a tricky line to walk, balancing between a tell-all and no stories being published at all. The key to X Factor is the human interest side of things—everyone loves Beyonce, but her jump from nobody to notoriety wasn’t documented and shown to the public on a week by week basis. The singers don’t have to be world class when they’ve got amazing stories, and it’s the job of X Factor to properly tell those stories.

But once the show reaches a certain level of popularity and it’s weaned off of having to feed stories to the media, the media still wants stories. The public doesn’t really care what the media has to do to get those stories, either. So, every year, some minor member of the X Factor staff is contacted and paid by reporters to keep up a steady flow of gossip and pertinent information.

“Last names of contestants aren’t always leaked,” Simon explains. “Even the other acts typically don’t know each other’s full names until there’s only a few weeks left together. But, when there is a particular interest by the public in getting the names of certain acts, the media will bribe whoever they need to for that information.”

“Particular interest?” Louis repeats, his mind catching on Simon’s grimace as he’d said it. “Is there a particular interest in us?”

Simon takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes.

“When we discussed musical influences, none of you mentioned other boy bands,” Simon says, and Louis knows he isn’t the only one thrown for a loop at the subject jump. “In fact, you said you didn’t think you really were a boy band. Am I right in assuming you’ve never been to a male pop band concert?”

The five of them shake their heads.

“And I’m probably also right in assuming you’ve never heard of Kevin?”

Louis knows a couple of Kevins, back in Donny: there’s Kevin that was in his class at school and there’s Kevin that works the deli counter at Tesco, and he’s pretty sure one of the backstage assistants here at the show is named Kevin too. But, despite all appearances otherwise, Louis is an intelligent individual and knows how to read a room, and so he keeps his lips sealed and shakes his head instead of shooting off a sarcastic reply.

Simon leans back, twining his hands over his stomach. “I didn’t even think to warn you, but of course you’re the perfect target for things like this. I thought we’d have until the finale, at the very least.” He looks up and meets the eyes of each of the boys across from him. “I owe you all an apology, and I think I should explain what’s actually going on.”

 

 

Like many strange things that still have effects reaching far beyond their intended outcomes, it all started in the 1990s.

Boy bands exploded onto the pop scene as a viable genre, a real moneymaker, and they pushed the image of the available superstar just like Simon said One Direction would have to do. The boy-next-door image was sold and sold and sold some more, pushed to its limit for every pop band, and every single one of the band members (according to their interviews and press releases, anyway) was looking for love and would be happy if they fell for a fan.

The trouble came, Simon explains, when that never actually happened. Boy band members were photographed falling out of clubs after partying with models and actresses, they Bonded with famous singers and rich heiresses and world-class athletes, and not a single famous boybander actually Bonded with a fan.

The fans, sensing shaky truths and forced statements, took matters into their own hands. They started bringing signs to concerts, but instead of the signs proclaiming how much they ♥ Take That, they painted their own names in large, easily-read block letters. The hope was that a band member would read the sign, the girl would hear her name being spoken by her soulmate, and her Marker would appear. Then she could show it to the band member somehow, she could say his name back so he could get his Marker as well, and they’d be happy forever.

“Record label executives loved the idea,” Simon admits. “It’s almost risk-free. Girls were more likely to come to concerts if there was a perceived opportunity to Bond with a band member that very night. The band could read the signs as though they were actively looking for a fan to Bond with, so they could maintain the available image. But even if someone’s actual soulmate was in the audience, what are the odds her sign would be picked to be read, or that the right band member would be the one to read it?”

It became a staple of every boy band performance, and sometimes it even spread to individual singers’ concerts if their appeal was high enough. Fans were happy, the artists were happy, and everything was fine as boy band popularity kept expanding into the new millennium.

Until one boybander read a sign at a concert and the inevitable one-in-a-million event happened.

“Kevin Richardson, one of the Backstreet Boys,” Simon sighs, typing his name into Google and spinning the computer screen so the boys can see. The first result on Google is a shaky video entitled simply KEVIN BONDS with over fifty million views.

It’s a short clip, all of two minutes, of a break between songs during a Backstreet Boys concert where they’re thanking the crowd for their support and reading a few of the name signs around them.

“Thanks for coming, Elana Smith!” a blonde one calls, waving.

“Hello Sarah Richards!”

“We love you so much Kelly Orrera!”

It goes on for a few more signs, then the tallest of the singers on the stage steps forward and says—

“I’m so glad you could make it, Kristin Willits!”

There’s a shocked scream from the audience, piercing enough that the low-quality camera catches it even over the roar of the rest of the crowd. The audience goes nearly silent, and the voice cries out again, this time shouting, “Kevin Richardson!” into the quiet arena.

On stage, Kevin lets out a harsh yell, grips his shoulder like he’s being burned (because he is, Louis realizes with a horrified gasp, remembering the searing pain of his dagger appearing on his skin), drops his microphone with a resounding thud, and runs off stage.

In the remaining few seconds of the video, the arena erupts into chaos. Then the video cuts to black.

The boys sit and stare at the screen in shocked silence.

“All hell broke loose after that,” Simon says. “Kevin’s picture was on the cover of every magazine and newspaper in the entire world the next morning.”

“Did he ever find the girl?” Harry asks, a hint of urgency in his tone.

“Oh yes,” Simon answers. “It took about a week to track her down. They had the test done to confirm their Bond and that was that. However, that’s not nearly as sexy of a story as it could have been, so their team spun it a bit. A press release was sent out saying that he immediately jumped into the audience and found her, still holding her sign with her name on it, and swept her away to a life of riches and glamour.” He rolls his eyes. “Obviously, the public ate it up.”

To push it even further, Kevin and Kristin’s Bonding ceremony was televised, and there were more reporters than family members in the audience. It was elaborate and over-the-top, the guest list a veritable who’s-who, a solid mix of press and A-list celebrities.

“It seemed perfect, because it was a PR strategy that never should have worked, and then when the inevitable finally happened they were able to spin it and get the most press out of it.”

“So, it all worked out?” Liam asks.

“It did, then Kevin left the band.”

When boybanders Bonded with models and actresses, they were expected by the fans—as well as their soulmates—to stay in the public eye, to stay relevant. When Kevin Bonded with Kristin, though, they both wanted to start a family, to have a normal life out of the spotlight. He had millions to retire on, and so he bought himself out of his contract.

“From a dream scenario to a worst nightmare for the PR team,” Simon tells them. “They went from having a story so good people were paying to tell it to being one band member down and the media counting down the days until the band broke up for good.”

And, through it all, the fans had gotten even more determined. The Kevin and Kristin situation was the dream; even though the odds were astronomical that a fan’s own soulmate was a member of a boy band and would happen to read her sign out of the thousands around, it became an even bigger deal. Because now, thanks to Kevin, they had proof it might actually happen.

“That’s what you’re facing,” says Simon. “That’s why the fans pushed so hard to learn your names. You’re ideal soulmate material, and they all want to be the one to wear your Marker.”

Louis shivers.

The X Factor has never had to deal with anything of this scale before, Simon explains. Boy bands that have come through the competition have traditionally never done well, and if they have then they’re usually outside the typical boy band age range.

That’s why FYD won’t last long, he says. They’re too old for their demographic. Belle Amie won’t have to worry because the same pandemonium is never seen for girl groups like it is for boys. Diva Fever are already publicly Bonded to each other, so they’re fine. Solo artists rarely get the same sort of attention, but Aiden and Matt will be warned.

“We can control the mayhem during the show because it’s structured and your time on stage is so short. No one can get mad at you for not taking time to read every sign in the building when you’ve only got two minutes to perform.” Simon leans forward to put his elbows on the desk. “We’ll beef up security around the studio and the house, and we’ll make sure your names are printed as little as possible. The fans might be an issue when the X Factor Tour rolls around, but we’ll deal with that when it comes.”

“We won’t, um,” Liam says timidly, “we won’t have to read the signs with the names on them, will we? During the tour, I mean. Since we’re not like a regular boy band.”

Simon just taps his fingers on his desk and turns to his computer, reading something apparently much more engrossing than Liam’s question. “We’ll see,” is all he says, and Louis’ stomach squirms for his bandmates, who have all gone pale and shaky as they’re ushered out to rehearse the group song for tonight’s results show.

...

 

It’s sort of mind-blowing to be in the same building as Usher. Even though they don’t actually get to meet him or watch him perform or anything, really.

But, you know, he’s still here. That’s pretty cool.

Harry looks out over a crowd of thousands and wonders if Usher ever felt like the weight of an audience’s stares was enough to crush the life from his body.

Probably not. Usher doesn't seem like the morbidly contemplative type.

Dermot is reading off the names of the acts that have made it through to the second week of live shows. Two of the groups, Belle Amie and Diva Fever, have already made it through safely. Six of the individual acts have been put through as well, leaving the stage emptier and emptier as each name is called.

“Next act through to the second week is… Wagner!”

“You’ve got to be joking,” Simon says snidely, just loud enough that his groups can hear. Louis snickers quietly into his palm—just like every other time Simon had muttered something disparaging about the other acts under his breath—and Harry feels his frown deepen.

He just doesn’t get it, Louis’ almost hero-worship with Simon. Since the meeting earlier that had left them all reeling, Simon’s non-committal assurances about having to participate in a ridiculous PR stunt like reading names off of signs in a crowd had left a sour taste in Harry’s mouth.

It's not that Harry doesn't respect Simon, he does. Obviously, he trusts that Simon has their best business interests at heart. He wants them to succeed, Harry truly believes that. It's just... This is terrifying, really, to look out over a crowd of a thousand people and know that those signs with your name dashed across them aren’t actually there for your benefit. It’s like finding out a friend only likes you for your money, or something; these screaming girls don’t like him for his sense of humor or his personality or his charm, not really. They just want to Bond with him so they’ll have a famous (and hopefully rich) soulmate.

“The tenth act going through is… Rebecca!”

Harry claps for Rebecca and tries to breathe. It’s all just so much. Harry wants to find his soulmate, of course he does, but does he really want to meet them because he was forced by his management to read their name off a homemade sign? His stomach rolls again just at the thought.

He'd always thought the revelation of his soulmate would be all rose petals and sunset-watching in somewhere romantic like New York or Paris. It’d be someone he knows, someone he’s comfortable with and they’ve mutually decided they’re ready to learn each others’ last names and have accepted and are excited about the possibility that they are soulmates. Not sharpie scrawls and glitter hearts on fluorescent green posterboard read out in front of a thousand other people.

His thoughts have been shaky since last night, since the ambush at the vans by dozens of sign-wielding girls. Harry hadn’t understood, then, what they’d wanted from him. Now he gets it.

“Returning to this stage next week is… Mary.”

The longer they’re out here, under the spotlights and the heated stares of the audience, the worse Harry feels. His skin prickles and he’s sweating, but his fingers are cold and he feels clammy. Zayn and Liam are comforting weights pressed against him on either side, but it's not enough. Louis, who has been shooting him worried glances since they took to the stage, eventually just wraps his arm around Harry's waist to pull him close.

Harry doesn’t think to thank him, but Louis can probably tell he’s the only thing keeping Harry upright.

“The next act that will be here for next week’s show is…”

Harry wants it to be them. Of course he does, he couldn’t stand it if they made it this far only to be knocked out in the first fight. He wants to be here another week, wants to prove to Simon (despite any ill feelings he may have toward him at the moment) and the rest of the nation that they are talented and worth paying attention to. He also wants to be very far from this stage and the hungry eyes of thousands of people as soon as he possibly can.

One Direction!

Harry turns, wraps Louis then Niall then Simon in hugs, and jogs offstage.

He then finds the first bin available and bends over it, vomiting viciously.

One week down, he thinks miserably. Nine more to go.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four: 11 October 2010 - 28 October 2010

11 October 2010

Something’s wrong with Harry.

Well, besides the obvious. Louis had bounced offstage to celebrate getting through to Week Two with his favorite curly-headed life ruiner only to find him headfirst in a bin and emptying his guts.

Louis’d chalked it up to excitement or nerves. It’s been almost twenty-four hours, though, and he hasn’t gotten any better.

“Hazza?” Louis calls into their bedroom, dark and empty save for the shifting lump in Louis’ own bed.

“Mmph,” is all he gets in return. He steps forward and pokes at the boy hiding under his blanket.

“Hazza, love, you’ve got to eat something.”

“Nmph.”

“Yes.”

Nmph.”

“They’re wanting us to film our video diary, and we need our charming one or it’s just gonna be awkward.”

There’s a noise and Louis thinks it’s a snort, but he’s been wrong before and Harry is still buried resolutely under Louis’ sheets.

Well, that’s quite enough of that.

Louis yanks the blanket back, exposing Harry’s two-days-with-no-shower mat of curls and sweaty skin. Harry yelps and clings to the material but it’s too late, and Louis whips the offending blanket into the floor in victory. He grabs both of Harry’s wrists and tugs, pulling him to his unsteady feet.

“Shower, put on one of your nice collared shirts, and come down to the staircase so we can film the diary and the camera crew can leave everyone alone,” Louis instructs, shoving him towards the bathroom. Harry still doesn’t say a word but trudges dutifully toward the open door, Louis watching as closely as possible to make sure he follows instructions without flat-out ogling Harry’s bare arse in the dim light of the room.

(Because apparently that’s not just a thing he does at the bungalow or when he’s alone; Harry is naked all the time. He has not one ounce of self-consciousness from his pigeon toes to his love handles, and takes absolute delight in walking the X Factor house hallways with it all hanging out just to see the shock on the other contestants’ faces. For Louis, however, all it’s done is increase his time in the bathroom because it’s the only damn place he can find the solitude for a sneaky wank before he’s confronted with the realities of Harry’s nudist side once more. And now Louis has had a naked Harry Styles in his bed, but due to impatient cameramen and Louis’ own rotten luck he wasn’t able to enjoy it. Life is so unfair.)

Louis lights a few candles on the bathroom counter (vanilla and apple cinnamon, Harry’s two favorites) for ambiance and steps back, admiring his work. He plans to head back downstairs to keep Niall from irritating the production crew too badly—because Louis is all about pranks but somehow the crew seems off limits, especially those with recording equipment and no sense of boundaries—when he hears a timid sound over the water hitting the wall of the shower.

“Lou?” Harry calls pitifully.

Louis steps hesitantly back into the bathroom. The shape of Harry is almost clear through the frosted glass of the shower door. His head is hung, the water trailing off his nose, and his eyes are squeezed shut.

“Yeah, babe? Need something?”

“No, but.” Harry pauses, his voice choked. “Can I… Can you stay in here with me?”

Christ, that’s a nightmare wrapped in a wet dream. A naked Harry Styles asking him to stay and shower with him, except not really at all.

But, because Louis is apparently a sucker for his soulmate, he hums an affirmative and perches on the edge of the bathtub. “Something on your mind?”

The water rattles against Harry’s skin as he clicks open his shampoo bottle (something coconut-y and fresh that’s good for Harry’s sensitive skin). His hair is completely covered in white foam before he answers with a question of his own.

“We deserve to be here, right?”

“Of course,” Louis answers automatically. “If we weren’t, we’d be the ones packing up and leaving instead of Nicolo or that other group. The annoying ones.”

“FYD.”

“Yeah, them.”

“I’m just,” Harry says slowly, even more thoughtful than his usual measured way of speaking. “Worried, I guess.”

“Well we’re all a little anxious, baby Haz. That’s just part of the competition.”

“No, not that.” Harry tips his head back into the stream of water, the white suds washing down his body and, okay, Louis should probably face any other direction so he can make it through this conversation without feeling like he wants to set himself on fire. He clears his throat and pivots a little, shifting to stare at his own reflection in the mirror instead of Harry’s dripping body that’s just starting to flush from the heat of the water.

“Okay, then, walk me through it.”

Harry takes a second to compose his thoughts, then: “I’m just thinking. About, um, what Simon told us? Like, that all those fans out there just want to Bond with us. They might not even like us for us, we just happen to be young and on TV.”

“Harry-”

“And like, there were other groups that didn’t make it here because of us, and." His voice pitches even higher, his words falling frantically into the echoing shower stall. "What if all the screaming fans and new Twitter followers are just around until they realize we aren’t actually good enough to be here? Or what if we get sent home early, I can’t bear- we just got started as a band and I can't be on my own again- And, and what if someone Bonds to me, oh God, what-”

“Harry!” Louis interrupts forcefully, abandoning his post on the bathtub edge and throwing open the shower door. Harry is sobbing, his arms wrapped around his middle and squeezing at his own ribs like he’s holding himself together through sheer force of will. He’s pressed himself into a corner, slumped like some invisible offender has punched him in the gut. Louis steps forward, not caring that he’s getting absolutely soaked or that he’s still fully clothed or that he just got his fringe to behave—it doesn’t matter, none of it matters. Harry is crying and he needs Louis, and Louis could never say no.

“Shush, love,” Louis says, crushing Harry in a hug. Harry wails, burying his face in Louis’ shoulder. “Calm down, it’s okay.”

Harry’s hands are curled into Louis’ drenched hoodie, his head tucked under Louis’ chin. “I-”

“Nope,” Louis cuts him off, determinedly cheerful. “No more. We’ve let all the bad out into the shower, time to let it go.”

“But-”

“Nope.”

Louis doesn’t know how long they stay there, but it’s long enough that the pounding water has turned from hot to warm to unpleasantly cool, like a steady rain they can’t avoid. It’s also long enough that Harry’s tears slow to soft hiccups and his shaking has subsided just a little. And lastly, it’s long enough for Matt to barge in, not noticing the two of them in the shower for a good few seconds and then letting out a high-pitched yelp when he finally does.

“Shit!” He hops backwards, sending his dry clothes and towel flying. “Um, okay.”

And then he backs out, shaking his head.

Harry snickers quietly, the sound muffled by Louis’ shoulder. Louis takes the opportunity to pull back a little, taking in Harry’s red eyes and watery smile (pun not intended).

“Let’s get you warmed up, then,” Louis murmurs, and Harry nods slowly. They shuffle across the hall, both of them leaving a dripping trail and Harry still very naked (Louis studiously ignoring Matt’s pained expression from his room and the Belle Amie girls’ catcalls and giggles) and then they’re back in their bedroom. Harry shudders in his puddle in the middle of the room, Louis digging through his suitcase for a production crew-approved outfit.

Louis shuts the door, depriving their leering audience from a show. He deposits some khaki shorts and a polo shirt onto the nearest flat surface and wraps a towel around Harry’s shoulders, pulling out a towel and a new outfit for himself as well.

“When we were at auditions,” Louis says lightly, stripping off his wet t-shirt with some difficulty, letting it fall to the floor with a sodden smack, “I didn’t plan on getting through. I’d already been and tried to be on the show once before, have I told you? Last year. I didn’t even make it in front of the judges, they just sent me home after I stood in line all that time. So I got to the stage this year and I thought, ‘Well, yeah, that’s a little bit further. I might even make it on television this time.’ I didn’t plan on getting through because I looked around everywhere and saw all this talent, all these voices that mine could never compete with.”

He takes a breath, letting Harry pretend he isn’t listening so hard he’s forgotten to keep dressing himself, leaving him half-crouched with his trousers pulled halfway up his thighs. Louis continues undressing like it’s just another conversation, just another talk with his best friend, and not like he’s pouring out his innermost thoughts while Harry slowly gets dressed and Louis slowly gets naked. His soaked joggers join his shirt on the floor.

“And I saw this boy,” Louis laughs quietly. While Harry’s back is turned, Louis drops his boxers to the floor and starts drying himself viciously with his towel. “With this ridiculous curly hair and these outrageous dimples, and he was so much cooler than I could ever hope to be, and so confident even though he was one of the youngest around. Then it turns out he sang like a fucking angel, which is really just the cherry on top of the unjust sundae. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Now that kid, he’s going places.’ And lo and behold, I nearly bash his brains in with a bathroom door and insult him by telling him I think he’s got brain damage when really he’s just the slowest speaker on earth.”

Harry giggles softly, finally yanking his own trousers up to his hips as Louis chases the last few drops of water off his chest and begins towelling his hair.

“I met that boy in a bathroom and I said to myself, right there, that once I’d gotten my rejection I’d go straight home and rack up the phone bill voting for him when he makes it through to the live shows. Because there’s no way he wouldn’t, right?” Louis continues, dropping his towel and reaching for his dry boxers. He smiles at the memory—it’s gold-tinted, like it happened years and years ago even though in the grand scheme of things it’s only been a little more than three months. “And then I got my M—uh. I got sick. That stomach bug, remember? Couldn’t pay attention to anything, just stumbled out to perform like it wasn’t the worst I’d ever felt in my life. I can’t even remember singing, it’s just a big blur of fear and pain. But I got through, and the first thing I thought to myself was that I get to see that Harry guy again, I get to be around him for another whole week.”

Which is, well. Slightly untrue. Those were definitely the words he’d been thinking, but they'd been tinged with just a hint more panic and he’d been so terrified of the new Marker on his arm that the thought of anything other hiding in his bed had been incomprehensible. But Harry is fully clothed now and has sank to the ground, staring open-mouthed at Louis and listening reverently to his every word, and Louis thinks a little bit of glossing over the specifics will be okay. Louis pulls a pair of jeans over his arse and reaches for his new t-shirt.

"Bootcamp was strange, because I felt like I shouldn't be there, and that somehow I'd tricked my way in. Surely as soon as I sang again they'd realize their mistake and kick me out, not even give me a chance to say goodbye. But somehow I got put in the same group as you when it was time for eliminations, and I didn't even think about being sent home anymore because there was no possibility in my mind that you wouldn't make it."

Louis smiles and fluffs his fringe. His eye catches on one of Harry’s jackets slung over the post of his bunk bed and he pulls it on. When the soft red and black material is warm on his shoulders and the sleeves so long they nearly cover his fingertips, he settles in front of Harry on the floor. Harry pulls at his bottom lip, his eyes wide.

"And then, well. You were there, you remember. They rejected us, but then put us together as a group and again, all I thought was that I'd get maybe another week and a half with you, and now with Niall and Zayn and Liam as well. But that was all we'd get, surely, because we were all individual singers and you can't just force a group together and expect miracles. I think that's why I sabotaged Liam's practice attempts so often at the bungalow, because I couldn't stand the thought of us realizing it just wasn't going to work." He stops and grins. "But also because Liam has a stick wedged up his arse and needed to let loose a little."

Harry laughs shakily into his hands and then sniffles. Louis laughs too, grabbing one of Harry's hands and turning it over, running a finger down his life life through the center of his palm.

"Then we sang together," he continues, grinning down at the hand that's big enough to cover his whole thigh. "I haven't given our chances a second thought since then. Because you and Liam, you two could be stars on your own. But with us, when we're together, it's... It's magic. It’s better than magic, it just fits. And I think you feel that way too."

Harry nods, watching Louis dance his fingers across his palm. "Yeah," he rasps, the scratch in his voice the only evidence of his shower breakdown.

"You don't know if we're supposed to be here, and I totally understand that. And I think Simon's chat yesterday left all of us a bit- well, a bit off. But I think you're wrong," he says, covering Harry’s left hand with both of his own. "I think we're exactly where we're meant to be. I think girls are screaming our names because we're good at what we're doing and we're cute and, sure, they want to have our babies but, like, in a nice way.”

Harry snorts, sounding like he didn’t mean to but it happened anyway, and Louis cuffs his chin lightly.

“We know what to expect, now. We didn’t have any trouble leaving the studio last night, and now we know how the crowds will be. We can get security if it’ll make you feel better, and we can get as much help from Simon as he can give us.” Louis scoots closer to Harry, brushing a damp curl from his eyes. “I don’t really believe in fate, because even if it’s real it’s screwed up enough things that I can’t put faith in it. But you, and me, and us, this band, this competition. Yeah, I believe in that. And this is exactly where we’re meant to be.”

Harry is sniffling again, but this time he’s beaming, and he buries his face in Louis’ shoulder once more.

“Thank you, Lou,” he murmurs, and Louis pulls him closer instead of answering.

 

 

Ten minutes later, the cameras are rolling for their video diary and Louis feels a warm hand brush comfortingly down his spine out of the sight of the cameras.

“Louis is the leader,” Harry proclaims, and Louis pretends like he isn’t going red in embarrassed delight. He gives the camera an of course I am look and what he feels is an appropriately modest shrug. That is, until Harry smirks and continues, “‘cause that’s the only one that’s left.”

Louis splutters and flips him off (ignoring the mutters from the camera crew of “Gonna have to cut that”), but he can’t help smiling as he turns back to the front, burrowing back into his borrowed jacket that smells like Harry’s coconut shampoo and the boys’ shared bedroom upstairs.

Then, embarrassed at his own mushiness, he yells “I like girls who… eat carrots,” just to hear the boys laugh.

And they’re right where they’re meant to be.

 

 

At family dinner that night (as Harry insists it should be called when they all eat together at the massive dining room table), Sophia from Belle Amie leans across the table and says, “So, either Nicolo or FYD’s empty room is the sex room now, right?”

It’s a very strange sentence, and most of the group laughs in surprise, but the funniest part is seeing Harry’s eyes widen comically as he flushes bright red and chokes on his roast potatoes.

“The what?” he exclaims when his airways are clear.

“The sex room?” she continues, raising an eyebrow like he’s the crazy one. “Like if we want to bring someone home but have roommates or just don’t want some random to be in our rooms and steal our stuff. We could keep it well stocked.”

“You’ve put a lot of thought into this,” Matt laughs, but Harry still looks scandalized.

“A sex room sounds like a brilliant idea,” Wagner announces in his heavily accented voice. “I believe I will try it out for myself as soon as possible.”

And that effectively ends that conversation, because the thought of touching the sheets that Wagner’s sweaty ponytail had once rested on during his passionate lovemaking is enough to turn anyone’s stomach.

It’s a running joke through the entire next week, though, FYD’s old room newly adorned with a glittery handmade sign made by Niall and Cher, and the contestants delight in bringing it up during interviews just to see the reporters laugh along like they’re in on the joke (or suddenly get serious, like they’ve dug up new gossip on the contestants’ sex lives). They’re all pretty sure no one’s used it, not yet at least, the door staying tantalizingly unlocked; and it’s literally just an empty room—totally bare save for a bed and a desk and the smell of lemon floor cleaner, but Sophia’d had a very, very serious look on her face and it’s really only a matter of time before someone breaks the seal.

Harry’s face turns red every time he passes the room, and it’s Louis’ favorite thing in the whole universe.

 

 

14 October 2010

Except, despite Louis' soliloquy about his X Factor journey and heartfelt words on faith and fate while he and Harry dripped together on their bedroom floor, despite a night spent tossing sex room jokes around the dinner table, despite Louis’ best efforts during the video diary to keep things light and lovely, Harry doesn’t get better.

Well, he does a little. He stops moping in their room upstairs and continues showering regularly, but now he just mopes in the kitchen and the TV room and the various lounges as well, and spends an hour in the shower every morning just standing there, letting the water run over his downturned face. He sings when they go to vocal practice and his his marks during choreography training, but it's hollow and he's quiet and reserved through it all. He hasn’t spoken in an interview since their video diary, preferring to hang back and smile vacantly and let the other guys do the talking.

When the next Saturday and their next performance draws uncomfortably near and he’s still moping and avoiding everyone, Louis assigns each of the boys a task and ropes a couple of their housemates into Operation: Figure Out What The Hell Is Wrong With Harry.

Liam (codename Bieber Hair) is on song duty. There's nothing Harry loves more than singing, as he'll tell anyone that has unfortunate enough luck to ask. Liam's job to coax Harry into singing when he looks sad coincides wonderfully with Liam’s own insatiable need to practice every minute of the day not devoted to sleeping.

Harry obliges Liam a few times, but instead of rehearsing the Kelly Clarkson song they're performing this week he forces Liam to harmonize with him on various songs so depressing that even happy, bubbly Niall can't be in the same room as them.

“No more!” Liam shrieks when Harry brings up yet another Joy Division song for them to try. “No more!”

Niall (codename Lucky Charms) is the distraction. Liam (reluctantly) agrees to sing sad songs with Harry again? Nope, Niall swoops in with bowls of ice cream and a DVD they haven't seen yet and tugs Harry away. Harry meanders upstairs to continue his trend of napping every two to three hours? Niall is already in their room, insisting that yes, this is the best time for him to teach Harry guitar and no, it can't wait, Niall made a solemn vow and “do respectable Irishmen go back on their words? No, no we do not!” Harry spends an hour staring at the rain out the window? Niall shoves oven mitts on his hands and demands to be shown the correct process for perfect pastries.

Harry may be depressed and he may be locked in that curly head of his, but he isn't an idiot, and he soon finds places to sleep or wallow where Niall doesn't think to look. One day Louis knocks one of Cher's snapbacks off her shelf to the floor while they’re deep in conversation over Rihanna versus Nicki Minaj, and he yelps in surprise when he bends down to pick it up and comes face to face with Harry, curled in a ball under her bed and fast asleep.

Zayn (codename DJ Malik at his insistence) has one move, but it’s incredibly effective: when Harry is pouting or looking otherwise forlorn in his presence, Zayn plops himself in Harry’s lap, smacks a kiss on his cheek, and starts discussing the first thing that comes to his mind. There’s a variation that allows for a standing Harry as well, where Zayn wraps himself, koala-like, around Harry’s front. He locks his arms behind Harry’s neck and his legs around Harry’s waist and Harry has no choice but to wrap his hands around Zayn’s thighs to support him as they launch into yet another discussion on the manic qualities of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker and whether it was too over-the-top.

Louis could have put himself on cuddle duty, sure, but Zayn is an excellent replacement and tenacious as all hell.

Cher drags Harry to her room for deep, introspective talks on the price of fame and the culture of superstardom. Katie and Rebecca clean out the boys’ tub and run baths for Harry, complete with fancy oils and bubble mixtures and sugar scrubs that leave his skin glowing. Matt teams up with Niall to teach Harry guitar. Mary talks to him for hours about her daughter and her pets at home. Aiden drags Harry shopping after they’re dismissed from the studio at the end of each day.

Louis (codename Dragon Fire (though everyone refuses to call him that, citing unfairness in his choice of codenames, which of course he vehemently denies)) is the assistant to each and every phase of Operation: Figure Out What The Hell Is Wrong With Harry. When Liam is about to search out Harry for another mini vocal practice, Louis hands him an iPod filled only with songs about sunshine, puppies, young love, and candy. He shoves random items into Niall’s hands as distractions to throw at Harry (“What am I supposed to do with lipstick and an ink pen, Louis?” “Do your job, Niall, that’s what you do!”). When Zayn walks anywhere near Harry, Louis trips him or hip checks him or picks him up and sets him on Harry’s lap himself. He tags along when Aiden takes him shopping and he helps Katie and Rebecca choose the best bubble bath for Harry's sensitive skin and he locks Harry in Mary’s room for hours, because if anyone can convince him of the joy this show can bring, it’s her.

It still doesn’t work.

 

 

...

 

16 October 2010

It’s not that Harry didn’t realize what was going on around him all this week. The boys weren’t particularly stealthy, with their codenames and their mission reports and their grand plans of fixing Harry. Louis, especially, was about as subtle as a sledgehammer when he was using their bandmates or housemates to try to draw him out of his funk.

And it’s not like he wanted to be a miserable arsehole. He’d honestly thought that after he and Louis’d had their talk, he’d be fine and ready to go and perform the hell out of another song so they could survive another week on the show. And he was fine for a little while, until he’d made the mistake of checking his Twitter mentions and saw nothing but garbled caps-locked shouts about having his babies and handcuffing him in basements so he could never leave. The few that mentioned their singing at all were pretty adamant that One Direction wasn’t good enough to be on the show.

And there he’d gone again, spiraling back into that horrible circle of panic and doubt and fear.

It’s so much more that what he prepared for, now. This show is meant to be the acts impressing four big names in the music industry and securing enough voters from the general population to root for them and keep them in the competition week after week. It’s meant to be a showcasing of talents, not a parade of eligible teenage boys that everyone from screaming girls to women their mums’ age are reaching out to sink their nails into.

He’s being pulled apart, and the ones doing it aren’t even kind enough to make it quick.

Because that’s what it feels like, every time Harry’s full name is shouted over the ambient noise of a crowd. Every time the X Factor contestants leave the studio, every time Aiden drags him out to shop or walk or see a film, every time they pass through the gates to get to the house—there they are, a mass of fans jumping and waving and screaming his name. It’s taking that part of him that had always been reserved for the people closest to him and chucking it out to the masses. It’s breadcrumbs tossed to pigeons, but the pigeons have their own agenda and are using the breadcrumbs for their own nefarious purposes. It’s like someone throwing out sheets of paper with his bank information all over it, it’s like someone renting a billboard to display his home address and the hours he’ll be there. It’s private information and now it’s shared with the world.

And, now that it’s out there, Harry lives in complete and utter fear every single day that someone is going to shout his name and a Marker is going to brand itself onto his skin. And the thing is, he’s not even sure why that is bad. He's always wanted to meet his soulmate, so why is the thought of it happening now causing him to lose sleep at night?

It could be the fear of having his soulmate find him and then lose him, especially if he wasn’t allowed to stop and try to find the person. It could be that he is wary of being deceived, of being tricked into thinking someone Bonded with him when they didn’t. It could be the fear of the pain, the anxiety of knowing that if he does Bond then it’s going to hurt, at least for a little while. It could be the fear of Bonding to someone who doesn’t Bond back, but that’s a rare problem and really the least of his worries.

It could be that he’s afraid there’s no soulmate out there waiting for him at all. That a Marker will never appear. That he’s meant to be alone but people will go on shouting his name at him anyway.

He finds it hard to spend time with the other acts, because they get to live the amateur musician’s dream and spend their time rehearsing to perform every week with only a few spare paparazzi following them for a few minutes as their penance. And he finds it hard to spend time with his bandmates because they’re receiving the same crazed treatment that he is, full names shouted like it’s nothing special and cameras brandished in their faces and security having to sneak them out of back doors, yet they’re all holding up perfectly fine.

Harry has longed for his soulmate his entire life. The moment he found out what that white lily was on his mother’s ankle, he’d thought of little else as much as he thought of the person he’d someday Bond with. He’d spend hours imagining bringing his soulmate home, introducing them to his family, making plans for the future, travelling the world together, raising children. It had always been something happy, something good to look forward to in times of stress. But now, as the possibility of actually being Bonded looms ever larger every day, Harry just wants to run.

It’s melodramatic and awful and Harry hates himself for dragging his friends through this. But he still can’t shake the nausea in his stomach or the trembling of his hands.

He can’t focus on being his best with this fear forcing him to carry its weight. He needs to prove to himself, to Simon, to the other boys, and to the nation that One Direction is worth the hype. That they’re more than pretty faces that Simon Cowell has decided will become popstars one way or another. They can earn this, they can win it on their own terms, but not when he the thought of performing makes his hands shake so badly he drops his mic.

It’s more than a need to run. It’s a need to flee, to be away from the madness of this new life for just a little while.

He just needs ten minutes so he can feel like Harry Styles again.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

“Harry, you’re missing your cue again! Start it over!”

Harry’s got another solo this week, a full verse right after Liam kicks off the song on his own. He knows his cue—thank you very much, Savan, he isn’t an idiot—but if he opens his mouth he’s going to puke all over the freshly-mopped X Factor stage.

The song restarts, Liam sings the opening lines, and Harry misses his cue again.

“Okay, take a break,” Savan says, rubbing agitatedly at his temples. “Harry, look over the lyrics. You can’t start panicking now, we’ve only got nine hours until you perform.”

Right, well. That’s exactly the pressure Harry needs right now.

He doesn’t follow Liam and Zayn as they move to sit in a few chairs offstage but just plops down right next to his mic stand, his stomach rolling like waves at sea. The cool metal of the stand is nice where it rests against his forehead.

His hearing is a little muted, thanks to the blood pounding in his ears and fueling his headache, so the conversations around him slide in and out of his head without meaning. He’s pretty sure Niall is next to him, chattering away and attempting to distract him even though he can’t hear a word he’s saying. However, it’s clear as a bell when an assistant in the soundbooth calls down to Savan, “Um, I think their music is missing?”

“What?”

“Like, the song file. It isn’t on the laptop anymore.”

Harry doesn’t know why he’s surprised. Their audio file going missing hours before they perform is just another punch to the gut—it’s been an entire week of up and down and then further down and then down some more.

There’s chaos around him, crew members running every which way attempting to solve the problem of the missing song and generally panicking. Harry ignores it, staring at the empty air in front of him until he feels something wet and cold pressed into his hand.

“Drink up, love,” Louis is saying, his blue eyes muted in the dimness. There’s something else being pushed into his other hand as well. “I bought you a few minutes, but you’ve gotta go fast.”

“Wha-” Harry says, looking down to see a water bottle in one hand and a familiar blue mobile in the other. “What did you do?”

“Deleted our song off the sound laptop,” Louis shrugs.

“You did what—”

“Not the time, Harold.”

“Lou—”

Louis crosses his arms and nods toward the side stage door. His single raised eyebrow is brooking no argument, and Harry has never loved him more than he does now.

Go,” Louis commands, and Harry wraps him in a quick hug before scampering for the exit, ignoring the protesting of his stomach and the pounding of his head. It’s a matter of moments to find an unoccupied supply cupboard to shut himself in. He dials his mum’s number with shaky fingers.

“Hello?” he hears, his mum’s voice tinny through the speaker but perfect and absolutely what he needed, and Harry can’t help but sob when he answers.

Mum.”

“Oh, Harry,” Anne breathes, “you scared me!”

Harry chokes a laugh, then starts to bawl.

Louis is the most brilliant human on the planet. Harry doesn’t know how Louis figured out that he needed something comforting and familiar but he did, and he deleted their fucking song and completely screwed up their performance day rehearsal just to let Harry get fifteen minutes away from cameras and assistants and new friends with pity on their faces.

It’s a tiny thing but it’s huge, and if Louis wasn’t already well on his way to becoming Harry’s best friend before, he’s certainly top of the list now.

Harry lets it all spill out, right there onto the dirty floor of the supply cupboard: their talks with Simon about things that shouldn’t concern him, the screaming fans who somehow got a hold of their last names, the so-called “journalists” who leaked their names onto Twitter in the first place, the smirky production crew who watch them like they’re just stupid kids and they aren’t good enough to be here, Liam’s work ethic and Niall’s bounciness and Zayn’s fluttering conversations and Louis, Louis, Louis.

Anne doesn’t say much, just hums and makes the appropriate noises at the appropriate times. When he wraps with another sob and a dwindling sentence about the ache in his ribs that has weighed him down all week, she sighs sadly.

“You know what this is, babe,” is all she says, and Harry lets his shoulders slump.

“Yeah,” he whispers.

Anxiety had plagued Harry from an early age, tugging on his nerves like plucked guitar strings, pulling at him with thoughts about being unloved and a burden and strange. Different. And then he’d gotten older and went to school and had those fears confirmed, even by his closest friends—”You’re so weird,” they’d laugh as he danced in the hallways or used words with more than three syllables, and he’d smile but inside his heart would race and his traitorous brain would whisper you already knew that—and he’d learned to shut it out, a little, gotten more confident in the parts of him that were different and unique. It’s how he got so far on the X Factor in the first place, it’s how he was interesting enough to be chosen for the band.

And sure, sometimes Harry still does strange things that make Liam shake his head in bemused confusion and make Zayn and Niall cackle with glee (“Legend,” Niall always shouts, and that’s how it makes Harry feel, like a legend), and he could always look to Louis to see that yeah, he’s weird, but it makes his friends laugh and it makes Louis’ eyes crinkle like he’s looking in the sun and that must mean it’s okay.

But then came the other side of things, because he can’t have something in his life that’s as wonderful as his band without receiving something bad as well; so now there’s the side where he can’t blend into a crowd anymore when he wants to, because girls are trailing after him and screaming and paparazzi hide to catch proof of him talking with his mouth full or tripping and falling while out shopping. Everything about this competition takes what originally made him stand out and makes them his defining characteristics: his curls and his voice and his weird sense of humor.

It hadn’t felt like anxiety, this time around. It had felt different, stronger; some new beast to grapple with rather than an old familiar nemesis.

“Yeah,” he says again. Like Voldemort, though, fear of the word anxiety only increases the anxiety itself, and speaking about it has always lessened its impact. At least, it does when told to the right people (Harry has a scattered string of once-friends who caught him panicking over simple things like art projects and Halloween costumes or throwing up over being teased about his clothes, and rather than helping they only laughed along. He's more careful about who he opens up to now).

“But it sounds like you’ve got help, at least,” Anne says, and Harry can hear her smirking from Holmes Chapel. “Liam and Zayn and Niall and…”

“Louis,” Harry supplies too quickly, then smacks his hand over his face when she laughs.

“Ah, of course. Lovely Louis, how could I forget.” Because of course Louis had charmed the absolute pants off of Anne the moment they’d met at the bungalow, had her giggling into her hand in the first thirty seconds. Harry’s pretty sure they even exchanged phone numbers and have been texting ever since. Luckily, Louis is equally annoyed that his mum Jay loves Harry just as much, and that she always insists Louis give him a hug at the end of their phone calls. “The boy who’s replaced me as the most important person in your life.”

Harry can’t help but giggle. “Mum, stop. He’s a good friend. M’best friend.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” she says.

The storm in his stomach has died down a little, the pounding in his head reduced down to something paracetamol might be able to handle. “Thanks, Mum.”

“Love you, sweetie. And call me first, next time, rather than bottling it all up,” she chides. “Even though it sounds like you got the pampering of your life this week.”

Harry chuckles. “I did. I’ll pay ‘em back, though.”

“I know you will.”

It’s still a little hectic on stage when Harry sneaks back, assistants still bustling about and tossing papers like they’re going to find the digital version of the song underneath a stack of scripts or something. The other boys are at their mics, Savan working on getting them ready to practice without music until a backup copy can be brought to the studio. Harry steps up to Louis and crushes him against his chest, his face buried in the back of Louis’ beanie. Louis squawks, drawing the attention of Savan and the other boys, but relaxes in Harry’s hold after a few seconds.

“Thank you,” Harry whispers fervently. Louis turns in his arms and gives him a bright grin.

“Anything for you, Hazza dear. What say we get this rehearsal going?” he claps his hands together gleefully. “And maybe someone will catch the miscreant that deleted our song.”

Harry laughs breathlessly and thanks whoever might be listening for Louis Tomlinson.

 

 

They give Harry’s solo to Liam since he's still a little shaky, but it’s okay.

He still avoids everyone as much as he can in the crowded studio hallways, dressing quietly and smiling silently through hair and makeup. He’s better, after recognizing the problem and talking it out with his mum, but he still needs a little recuperation time. He’s never had a stretch of anxiety last a full week, and the last vestiges of it stick to his limbs and his thoughts, like the dregs at the bottom of a cold cup of tea.

But the performance nears and he feels better, less like he’s going to fall over at any minute and more like the spark he’d felt before their first song last week, the nervous thrumming of excitement.

It’s okay. He’s okay.

 

 

The stage lights go down and they take their spots at their mic stands, the crowd screaming and brandishing signs. It’s less pointed, more of a wall of indefinable sound rather than spears of individual names. That helps, soothing Harry’s frayed edges. He grips the mic and breathes, breathes.

The lights go up. Liam sings. They all join in. Harry feels his shoulders move without his consent, feels the beat pulse up through his boots and into his veins. He’s back.

Zayn hits the final note, and Louis wraps his arm around Harry’s shoulder. Harry tilts his face into Louis’ neck for a moment, just a moment, and feels the last ashes of his anxiety bleed out onto the floor.

“Thank you, thank you,” he whisper-shouts to Louis again, and Louis laughs and tugs him closer.

“Anytime, Haz.”

Harry can barely hear him over the screams. Somehow, it’s still okay.

 

 

Back at the X Factor house, they throw the party they’d meant to throw the week before to celebrate surviving another grueling week of rehearsals and interviews and judges sniping at each other to create drama. They’re all too exhausted to do anything more than shovel cake into their mouths and drape themselves across the sofas in the TV room, but it’s still a party. Harry reaches his hands up and stretches, sprawling himself out even further across the laps of his bandmates. They all accepted his position with very little fuss, probably knowing the cuddles are necessary at this point.

In a quiet moment, Mary says, “It’s good to see you back, Harry.”

Murmurs of agreement go up around the room, even from those who hadn’t actively helped try and bring Harry’s good mood back. Zayn squeezes Harry’s ankle, and Liam smiles to himself as he fusses with the hem of Harry’s shirt.

“Yeah,” Harry says honestly, sitting up a little to look at everyone, “thank all of you. I… wasn’t having the easiest week,” everyone chuckles at the understatement, “but it would have been so much worse without your help.”

“Wasn’t us, love,” Rebecca answers quietly. “That was all Louis.”

Louis is uncharacteristically quiet, running a hand through Harry’s hair instead of answering. Harry tilts his head back to look at him, grinning.

“I know,” he says quietly, and Louis flickers a smile. “He’s the best.”

Several people coo—Niall being the loudest—and Louis turns an impeccable shade of red, burying his face in Harry’s hair.

“Well if one good thing came out of this week,” Aiden calls from the sofa he’s sharing with Matt, “it’s that Louis was so focused on making you better that he couldn’t wreak havoc on the rest of us.”

Everyone laughs as Louis lifts his head and points across the room with a screeched, “You’re first on my list, Quiffy!” Harry giggles at Louis’ faux outrage.

Louis had told him that he doesn’t believe in fate, and maybe he was telling the truth; but how could it be anything except meant to be that they’re here, together, doing what they love and doing it well? It’s fate, and fate is kind, and Harry is so, so happy.

 

 

17 October 2010

Results shows are terrifying in their own way, because there’s absolutely nothing more they can do to convince the voters to call their number. If they’re at the bottom, they’re at the bottom, and that’s just how it goes.

And the worst part is, they can’t even spend the whole time preparing to get their answer. Instead, they have to go out and perform a silly group song with all the other acts, knowing full well they’re making fools of themselves and that some of them are going home within the hour.

But their performance of Telephone is over and done, Katy Perry has performed, and Harry is standing next to Simon and listening to his muttered remarks throughout Dermot’s roll call of survivors, little phrases reverberating through his mind that Simon tosses around like it’s nothing—Wagner, really? and honestly, she’s very lucky because she did bloody awful and what the hell are people thinking.

The anxiety creeps back up, prodding at Harry and telling him that if Simon wasn’t his mentor, he’d be saying similar things about them. But then Louis flickers his gaze over, crossing his eyes and sticking out his tongue to make Harry smile, and Harry firmly pushes the lung-crushing panic away.

They make it through to week three, and Harry jumps straight into Simon’s arms.

 

...

 

A still from the video of the results show gets passed around Twitter, arrows and bright red circles drawn to highlight a strange smudge on Louis from One Direction’s arm. Within hours, fans have screenshotted multiple instances of that same black spot that could be seen during ITV footage from the X Factor house and the video diaries, but there’s no consensus as to what it could be. It isn’t until a snip of a few seconds of X Factor Life Through a Lens footage is found that the shape reveals itself to be a dagger, dark and bold on Louis’ arm where it’s slung over Harry’s shoulder as Harry cooks breakfast.

#LouisStabMeWithYourDagger trends on Twitter for the next three days.

A “secret insider” leaks information to The Sun that it’s Louis’ Marker, and that he’s already Bonded with someone related to the show: either a judge, a stagehand, or another one of the contestants.

Louis himself has been coy about the whole situation and has not yet issued an official statement, someone named Dan Wootton writes, but our insider suggests we don’t need to look outside the X Factor house for his soulmate. In fact, more than one source reports that there is one particular person with whom Louis seems to spend the majority of his time.

All we can say is this: curls may get the girls, but it turns out they may get the boy band members as well.

 

...

 

18 October 2010

Louis isn’t sure whether it’s the potent combination of a happy Harry and another guaranteed week in the X Factor house or if someone slipped really good drugs in his tea, but he can hardly contain his fondness for the silly curly one through the entire video diary the next day.

The other boys are being ridiculous about it, though; they were integral parts of the cheering up Harry operation, they should be ecstatic. Instead, Zayn jams his thumb hard into Louis’ side when he leans over and bites Harry’s shoulder, and Liam kicks him in the back when he spends the entire question time making faces at Harry from under his hood.

It’s just some fun, honestly.

Plus, the hood hides Louis’ eye roll when the questions all turn out to be about the kind of girls they’d date rather than anything interesting.

Like, you know. Music.

 

 

19 October 2010

With Harry back to his normal sunshiney self—a good call to Mum is all you need sometimes, and Louis is happy to prescribe it to any friend in need—and another good performance under their belts, the band begins to settle into their roles and responsibilities and practice schedules. They’ve learned a good many of each other’s quirks, thanks to spending every night and the majority of every day together. It should feel forced at this point, like a sleepover that’s gone on far too long, but it doesn’t. Something’s clicking, something’s happening, and it feels amazing.

There’s only one problem, one that has simmered since the creation of the band and comes in the form of one scowling, huffing bandmate: Liam.

It comes to a head a few days after the second results show. Louis and Niall are throwing things over the second floor railing onto Harry below them, fast asleep and sprawled on a beanbag chair.

A sock has just been tossed to land on Harry’s stomach (“Ten points!” cries Niall, before Louis knocks him to the floor hissing “Hush, you idiot! He’ll wake up!”) when Liam finds them, dragging Zayn behind him.

“We should rehearse,” he declares, brown eyes serious as he takes in Louis attempting to gag Niall with his own sleeve.

“Nah,” Louis laughs, yanking Niall’s shirt halfway off to give himself some extra leverage. “I’m good.”

“Louis-” Liam tries again, but Louis just cheers triumphantly when Niall’s mouth is successfully bound.

“We practiced all morning, Liam!” Louis insists. He doesn’t even look up, expecting Liam to either give in and help him tie Niall’s wrists with the other sleeve or to walk away. Liam does neither.

“Louis, would you listen to me?” he shouts, and the echoing stairwell rings in the wake. “This is a competition, we can’t spend our days acting like morons and expect to win! Don’t you want this?”

Louis feels his eyes widen, the smile dropping from his face when he sees the sincerity and ferocity on Liam’s face. “Li—”

“Don’t Li me! I’ve had it with trying to make you do any work. You’re too busy screwing around and flirting with Harry do anything worthwhile. If you didn’t want to work hard, you shouldn’t have accepted your place in the band.”

Liam storms away. After a moment of ringing silence, Zayn follows, tossing Louis a stony look.

A quick glance around tells Louis that the argument has drawn a little bit of attention. Harry is awake and staring up at him from his beanbag, biting his lip like he wants to say something but doesn't know what. John, Aiden, and Matt are all leaning out of their rooms, and Mary and Katie are looking out of the kitchen. Everyone is quiet.

Louis looks down at Niall for a little bit of support, but Niall just shrugs and says garbled nonsense through the fabric of the sleeve still stuffed in his mouth. Louis pats him on the arm.

“I don’t know either, Niall.”

 

 

Liam is in one of the lounges, his headphones in his ears and his eyes closed as he taps his fingers along to a muffled song. Louis slinks in and watches, just for a moment.

He completely understands where Liam is coming from. Louis has always been the type to put off thinking of unpleasant things, to have fun while he can and work when he must. He drags Niall and Harry and Zayn into his shenanigans because it’s more fun with friends and he knows they don’t want to sit around doing nothing. He’s an entertainer at heart, can’t stand the idea of someone being bored in his presence.

And Liam, well. Liam is the most focused person Louis has ever met. He doesn’t know if it stems from events in Liam’s life or if it’s just his personality, but it’s part of the reason that he’s so likeable. He throws that determination into everything he does, not just singing: he’s the perfect person to have on your team in just about every situation.

They’re two opposites, but they aren’t too opposite. Louis knows he can step up, be more focused on the work when work needs to be done. But Liam can loosen up a little too, because time and time again they’ve proven that they work so well as a group because they fit, and only by spending time together and having fun will their connection strengthen.

Liam looks up, his eyes suspicious when he sees Louis lingering in the doorway. Louis waves meekly.

“Hey.”

“Yeah,” Liam says, peering around Louis like he expects him to be hiding a water gun behind his back. “Hey.”

“Can I sit?” At Liam’s nod, Louis slides next to him on the sofa. Liam takes out his headphones, the tinny sound of his music not breaking the awkward silence between them. “I just wanted to tell you that, well, I know I don’t always seem like I take this seriously.” Louis folds his hands in his lap, which are twitching insistently at the forced honesty. “I know I joke around a lot, and I know sometimes I go over the line. And I’m sorry about that.”

“It’s okay,” Liam says, but Louis waves it off.

“No it isn’t,” he says. “You’re absolutely right, this is a competition and not a vacation, and I should focus more on making sure I’m ready for each week. But…” he looks up, meeting Liam’s eyes. “Just because I mess about and have fun with the lads doesn’t mean I’m not in this for real. I know that we can win this, but that it won’t be easy. I can focus more during our rehearsal sessions and help keep us on track. I should have been doing that to begin with, anyway,” he shrugs, looking down at his knees.

Liam takes a deep breath. “I know I get…” he waves his hand. “Intense. About everything. And it’s been something I’ve done for a while, and that’s probably why I don’t have-” he stops, rubbing his neck awkwardly. “Um. It’s not a new thing, and I know I need to learn to let go sometimes. I think I’m still stuck in the solo mentality, you know? Like if I don’t do the work, I won’t get any further.”

“It’s good you work so hard,” Louis reassures him. “We wouldn’t be anywhere without you. It’s probably why you’re the most confident one out of all of us. You could do this in your sleep.”

“Can I… can I tell you something?” Liam asks, and Louis nods. “I’m completely bloody terrified. Absolutely shitting it.”

Louis laughs outright, shocked. “No way! You’re, like, Mr. Confidence!”

“Absolutely bluffing every minute of it,” Liam continues, his eyes crinkling at Louis’ continued laughter.

“And I thought I was a decent actor,” Louis jokes, nudging him slightly.

Liam chuckles, but when he nudges Louis back he’s switched back to sincere. “We wouldn’t be anywhere without you either, Lou.” Louis shrugs again, but Liam tugs his sleeve to make him stop. “Honestly, we wouldn’t. We did awful without you at the Judge’s House.”

Louis smiles down at his hands, but doesn’t answer. Liam’s the second person to tell him that he’s necessary in this band, and of course Louis would love to think that, but he’s still having a hard time believing that it’s more than just Harry and Liam being sweet. Obviously, he knows he doesn’t have the natural vocal talent they do, or Zayn or Niall either, and the complete lack of solos even being considered for him basically lets him know his place here. He’s loud and he can carry a chorus with the best of them, and that’ll have to do for now. But, Liam’s being kind and it’s not his fault he’s the best singer in the band, so Louis mutters a “Thanks, man,” and lets the silence simmer around them. Both of them grin down at their knees, awkwardly avoiding eye contact until a familiar Irish-tinted catcall fills the air.

“Kiss and make up already, would ya!”

Louis and Liam look up to find an audience, three sets of eyes watching them not-so-sneakily from the doorway. Louis’ eyes go straight to Harry, whose dimple is visible even where he’s trying to hide. He sighs dramatically.

“If you say so, Niall,” Louis says heavily, then launches himself at Liam, peppering his face with kisses and sucking a love bite onto his neck. Liam squawks in indignation, trying to ward off Louis’ attack and failing miserably.

“Heyyyy,” Harry pouts from the doorway. Louis lifts his head from a bright red Liam to grin.

“Jealous, Curly?”

“Maybe,” Harry bites his lip, scuffing his toe. Louis feels the blush creep up his neck and ducks to hide his face. Harry skips over and launches himself onto Louis’ back, making Liam groan under the added weight. “I’ve always wanted to kiss Liam and you beat me to it.”

“Oi!” Louis laughs, attempting to buck a giggling Harry to the floor. Niall and Zayn throw themselves into the fray as well, and within minutes they’re all sweaty and grinning uncontrollably.

“So,” Liam says, lifting his head from the bottom of the pile. “Is now a good time to rehearse?”

The other four groan, Louis leaning over to flick Liam on the nose, but it turns to laughter easily enough and they spend the rest of the day there in that tiny lounge, joking and talking and yes, even singing.

 

 

20 October 2010

Louis doesn’t hear about the latest article until a smirking Matt pushes it against his bowl of cereal one morning, his eyebrows waggling.

“Are the rumors true then, Louis? You’ve Bonded with a judge and you’re rigging the competition so you lot can win?”

Louis, having only looked down to catch a picture of himself spread across the cover of the day’s Daily Mail, chokes on his coco pops as Matt howls, pounding him halfheartedly on the back. Cher giggles from across the table.

“Is it Dannii or Cheryl, then?” she asks. “Or, oh God, it isn’t Simon, is it?”

“Right,” is all Louis says, faking a laugh and pushing away from his cereal. “It’s, you know. All three. Same time. Foursomes, ha.”

Cher and Matt collapse in giggles, pounding the table and Louis’ back. “Fucking brilliant,” Matt laughs; Cher is already on her phone, texting the hilarious news to the rest of their housemates who are spread out across the house and out at the studio. Louis shoots them a grin over his shoulder and swipes the Mail as he heads out of the room, abandoning his mostly-full cereal bowl. He begs a cigarette and a lighter from one of his favorite cameramen, Ricky, and kicks the back door open, striding out into the quiet morning.

He doesn’t have a destination in mind, but he does have a goal: sweet, peaceful solitude for a few fucking minutes so he can wrap his head around yet another article—the fifth this week, and that’s just the major papers—speculating on Louis and his Marker.

He’s denied it twice already. Simon hadn’t even asked for the truth, he’d just pointed Louis toward a specific reporter lying in wait as they left the studio one day and told Louis to deny, deny, deny. So Louis did, fuck all good it did.

To keep away fans and paps, the X Factor house is on its own private bit of land—Louis isn’t sure exactly how big the property is, but it’s large enough that they’ve had two separate footie games going at the same time that never even came close to overlapping. It’s easy to find an empty patch of trees and a bare bit of ground to wallow on. He spreads the paper out and sighs at the horrible title.

TOMMO’S “TATTOO” screams at him above a strategically chosen picture of Louis with his arm wrapped around Harry’s waist, the tip of the dagger visible under his pushed-up sleeves, both of them beaming and flushed from the X Factor finalists’ shopping trip yesterday. Honestly, they probably had dozens of pictures to choose from if they wanted one of Louis and Harry together; he’d been stuck to Louis’ side like he’d been superglued there through the entire shopping trip, and Louis had let him because he knew just how terrified Harry was going out to face the press and the fans for the first official time since they’d been ambushed behind the studio. It had seemed like a wonderful day, though, for all their apprehension; the fans had been excited but respectful, not a single last name was screamed that they could hear, and the boys had been optimistic that their days of Bond-obsessed fans were already over. It had been a good day, and Louis had gone to sleep happy. Then this bullshit was tossed in front of him before he’d even finished his morning tea and here we are.

X Factor star flaunts symbol on his arm, the article goes on to say, but is it really a tattoo like he claims? Bond expert Dr. Laura gives her opinion on the potential Marker, and we talk to fellow X Factor finalists on just who they think Louis’ lucky soulmate might be!

The caption under the picture is what makes Louis toss the paper aside, growling. Louis Tomlinson, 18, and bandmate Harry Styles, 16, celebrate their band’s place in the X Factor final twelve. Styles and Tomlinson were seen together the entire outing, and sources report the boys are never far from each other’s sides.

Fuck. Fuck.

Louis doesn’t have to worry about the other finalists catching on to what's really happening; they all think it’s hilarious, the greatest inside joke that isn’t really just between them, every new day bringing another round of waggled eyebrows and insinuations.

(“Saw you in the kitchen with the Sainsbury ladies, Louis. Got something you need to tell us? Someone you should introduce to the family?”

“Dibs on maid of honor at the Bonding ceremony!”

“Dibs on, um... Officiant!”

“Like anyone’d let you officiate an actual Bonding ceremony, Niall.”

“Well, looks like you lost my services for your ceremony someday, Aiden.”)

Louis laughs along, because the only other option is to go ahead and announce that the Marker is for Harry but yeah, thanks, he didn’t get a Marker in return. It’s fine. It’s fine.

The public, though, aren’t so easy to convince. The fans seem to be split half-and-half—one group tweets him invasive questions about who he’s Bonded to (the majority convinced it’s Harry, #teamlarry flourishing yet again), and the other half believing it’s a tattoo but tweeting him suggestions of what they’d do to him if he was their soulmate.

Louis draws in a deep breath, letting carcinogens fill his lungs, exhaling a smooth rush of smoke. His fingers twitch around the cigarette, because this isn’t the addiction he’s satisfying, the craving he needs to quench.

Because through it all, right by his side, is the beautiful, oblivious, problem-causer himself Harry.

Louis has thought about a lot of things about his Marker and his Bond to Harry over the past few weeks. He’s moved far past the denial stage, and he’s well on his way to acceptance, but.

It’s just, all things considered, if Harry had Bonded to Louis in return, if they were proper soulmates, it may have been the greatest love story of all damn time. For all Louis has scoffed at the idea of fate, this story fits the definition to a fucking T.

The circumstances leading up to Louis bumping into Harry in the bathroom are ridiculously far-fetched. Like just the other day, when Louis had suggested they perform a song by The Script and Harry had made some offhand comment about seeing them in concert, then comparing dates and finding out they’d been at the same show. The same fucking show. Louis could have met Harry two years earlier, could have danced and sang with him like the couple of idiots they are without the eyes of the world on them. And there’s the whole meeting in the toilets thing too, because there were thousands of people at the Manchester auditions, thousands, and out of all of them, Louis went to the exact right bathroom at the exact right time to find Harry (well, find may not be the right word. Assault Harry with a door, maybe, but it’s all semantics in the end).

And even beyond all that, moving past all the things that led to Harry being there in that bathroom and being the type of person that laughs when his brain chemistry is questioned by a stranger, nothing could possibly convince Louis more of fate meddling in their lives than the fact that he and Harry just told each other their full names within fifteen minutes of meeting each other.

Because just months later the thought of strangers knowing his last name had sent Harry into a week-long anxiety cloud that he’d barely clawed himself out of, but first he’d told it to Louis like it was nothing.

And Louis, God, Louis can count the people he’s told his last name to on one hand. His mum had never checked the boxes on the forms at school that let his last name be shown in the records, so his teachers never knew. When Louis had created a Facebook account he’d made it entirely private, not clicking the option to let certain people see his last name if he allows it, just in case someone had looked over someone else’s shoulder and seen it. Even distant family members don’t know it, just like he doesn’t know theirs. He and Stan had only swapped names because they were young and curious and Stan’s mum had make a joke about them being already Bonded because they were so attached at the hip.

Louis just doesn’t tell people his last name. He never has. He’s seen far too much heartbreak come from a name dropping from one person’s lips and causing a Marker. And it’s not like it’s the eighteenth century—no one is ostracized anymore for sleeping with people if they aren’t Bonded. Sure, traditionalists still claim that sex should wait until the Bonding ceremony ends, but that way of thinking is quickly dying out and Louis has met more than a fair few boys and girls that didn't let him not telling them his last name get in the way of a good time. He’s gotten off in enough dark corners at parties and bathroom stalls in clubs to know that not being Bonded can still lead to a decent orgasm, and he’d been perfectly fine with that being the situation for the rest of his life, no messy Bonding required.

But he’d walked into that bathroom and spilled his best kept secret to angel-faced Harry Styles. And then, instead of him being just another close friend that happens to know his name, Harry turns out to be his soulmate.

Fucking fate. All that’s missing to make this an actual fairytale is the lack of Marker on Harry’s arm.

A shout from the house breaks Louis from his thoughts.

“Lou, if you’re out here we’re getting ready to go to the studio!” Liam calls, his voice echoing in the still morning air. Louis inhales one last deep drag of smoke and stands, crumpling the cigarette and the Daily Mail article under his shoe.

Fucking fate can jump off a fucking cliff.

 

 

21 October 2010

Savan calls for a break, and Louis immediately makes for the door. Vocal practice this week has gotten a little tougher, Savan adding more complex harmonies, pushing them to expand their ranges, and to work on singing louder in general; it makes Louis nervous, which makes him drink more water, which makes him have to run to the bathroom every time he gets a chance. An annoying cycle, sure, but at least it’s better than getting flustered and staying silent throughout half a performance while feeling the disappointment radiating from Harry.

Louis opens the studio door, and for the third time in too few days smacks directly into a familiar broad chest.

“We have to quit meeting this way,” he says, rubbing his stinging nose. Aiden just grins.

“You should look where you’re going, I think.” He rubs the back of his neck and gestures toward the studio. “Rehearsal?”

“Yeah, taking a short break. Just popping to the toilet, so.” Louis starts to back away, sending a little wave over his shoulder. He’s almost to the bathroom door when Aiden calls him back.

“Wait, Louis!” he says, jogging up to meet him again. “Wanna hit a pub for a drink with me after this?”

“A pub?” Louis asks. Are they even allowed at pubs? He can drink legally, yeah, but as X Factor contestants they’re under quite a bit of scrutiny. “Can we go to a pub?”

“Sure,” Aiden shrugs. “Matt and I went to one a couple days back, and the Over-28s go as a group once a week. That’s why we never have to deal with Wagner on Tuesdays.”

That does explain a lot—Louis had always just assumed someone had finally told Wagner off for his incessant opera or he’d decided Tuesdays were for meditating or something.

But, fuck, does a night away from the house sound great. He grins. “Pub sounds great, mate.” Then the other shoe drops, along with his smile. “Are you sure you want me to go?”

Aiden frowns. “Yeah, ‘course. Why not?”

“Well,” Louis shrugs, and gestures to his arm. The tip of the dagger is barely visible under the edge of Louis’ pushed up cardigan sleeves. “Things have been a bit, um. Hectic? Since this got out. Sort of get swarmed every time I step outside.”

“We’ll sneak out, then,” Aiden smiles, and Louis feels the pull of his own in return. “I’ll get you a wig from wardrobe, they’ll never know.”

Louis laughs and agrees, waving again after they make plans for whoever finishes their rehearsals first to meet at the other’s studio room.

Aiden’s rehearsal ends earliest, as it goes, and when Louis and the rest of the boys file out of their studio he’s propped up against the opposite wall, spinning a bright purple wig on his fingers. Louis cracks up at the sight and immediately shoves it onto his head, airily brushing the sparkly fringe out of his eyes.

“How do I look?” he asks seriously. “Inconspicuous?”

“The very picture of sneakiness,” Aiden agrees solemnly, and they both laugh again. “Ready?”

“Always.”

Louis follows Aiden a few steps before a hand on his arm tugs him back. He spins to see Harry, frowning deeply, the other three boys pretending not to watch over his shoulder.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

“Pub,” Louis says, tilting his head. “Need a break from the madness for a while.”

Harry glances over to Aiden, his eyes tightening a little. “Can I come?”

Louis is about to agree—if Harry wants to follow Louis around like some kind of beautiful shadow, Louis isn’t going to be the one to protest—but Aiden interjects before he can.

“It’s over eighteen only tonight,” he says, stepping up behind Louis. Very, very close behind Louis. He can feel the solid weight of Aiden’s chest press against his shoulders, one of his knees nudging the back of Louis’ thigh, a hand on Louis’ hip. “Sorry, H.”

Harry’s eyes tighten a little more, though his smile is still friendly. He steps up a little closer to Louis as well, one of his hands reaching out to brush nonchalantly at Louis’ shirt over his stomach. Louis shivers, the too-light touch tantalizing on the sensitive skin right above the waistband of his jeans. “Can’t pick another place?”

“Nope. Meeting others there, too late to change.”

“Hmm,” is all Harry says in return. He looks down at his own finger, which is now tracing up the buttons on Louis’ shirt. His eyelashes smudge against his cheeks.

Louis can’t breathe.

“Maybe next time,” Aiden says, and his hand on Louis’ shoulder pulls him away, Harry’s eyes snapping up as Louis takes one step back, then another. Zayn, his face carefully blank, moves up to pull Harry away in the opposite direction as well.

“Right,” Louis says, wrangling his vocal chords under his control. “I’ll be back later.”

“It’s film night,” Harry calls. “Don’t miss it.”

“I won’t,” Louis promises, because of course he wouldn’t—film nights were his idea in the first place.

And then Aiden tugs him down a side hallway and away from Harry’s penetrating stare. Louis hears Niall exclaim “What the fuck was that?” and, honestly, he’d like to know the answer to that as well.

He’s been to parties, he’s been to clubs; he knows that behavior, and it isn’t often seen anywhere outside of a crowded dance floor. Not to brag or anything, but Louis’ been the middle of more than one aggressive sandwich of jealous boys and girls who were dancing with him first before someone else came along and wanted a try.

But that couldn’t be what just happened. Aiden’s his friend, and Harry’s his best friend. And he knows how Harry looks when he talks about sex: it’s all smirks and wiggling eyebrows and overly-exaggerated smoothness, and definitely not soft touches and bitten lips and lowered eyes.

He’s probably just a little hurt that he’s missing out on a fun night. Well, all the boys are—Louis hadn’t known the pub they’re going to is over-eighteen-only tonight, but even if he had it’s not like the others could drink in public. He’d assumed they’d want to go back to the house anyway, as it’s been a long day.

Aiden and Louis slip out an unguarded side door, Aiden grabbing Louis’ wrist as they sneak behind a group of paps hanging around the main studio entrance. Louis tosses the purple wig in a bin as they pass one but pulls the hood of his jacket up, just in case.

The pub Aiden takes him to is clean and brightly lit, the food good and the music decent. Aiden shrugs when no one else shows up, saying something about them getting held up at the studio or something, though Louis’ not exactly sure who was even supposed to join them in the first place.

Louis doesn’t care. Aiden buys him the most ridiculously colorful drinks on the menu and they claim the jukebox for a full half hour, refusing to play anything but Destiny’s Child and Britney Spears until the old men at the bar are cursing at them. Louis feels light and breezy for the first time in at least a week, probably longer, and he hasn’t stopped laughing since they set foot inside. Aiden is no better, his three straight pints before the food even arrives causing his cheeks to bloom red and his eyes to shine brightly.

They trade jokes and their best impressions of the other contestants as hours slip past, no interruptions between them.

Louis’ just on the edge of too drunk, long past tipsy and into the point where the room is pleasantly hazy and the colors swirl like paint in water. Somehow he and Aiden have ended up on the same side of the booth, pressed together from shins to shoulders. It’s warm. It’s also nice, because Louis hasn’t gotten to be near a cute boy who isn’t a member of his band in months. Which, honestly, is unfair for Louis’ mental stability.

When Louis tries to share this with Aiden, it comes out more like, “You’re warm, an-and cute but so are my other boys, like, my band? And tha’ makes me sad.” Aiden howls and slaps the table—and Louis’ not quite sure it was hilarious enough to warrant that reaction, but he is a very funny person so he might be wrong—when his phone buzzes in his pocket.

(8:34 p.m.) Hazzaface: Louuuu x
(8:35 p.m.) Hazzaface: Come home, it’s movie time! x

Louis texts back what he thinks is an affirmative and pokes Aiden in the shoulder. “Home,” he says, assuming Aiden will get his meaning. Louis stands and sways a little. When Aiden blinks up at him confusedly, he pokes him again. “C’mon, home now.”

“Mmph,” is all he gets, but Aiden drags himself up and lurches forward to throw his arm around Louis’ shoulders as they make their way outside. A cab swings by to pick them up—Louis thanking the driver profusely for being so wonderful and then asking how long it took to grow his spectacular mustache—and then they’re on their way back to the house. Louis slumps against the seat, his head flung back as he watches lights illuminate the ceiling of the cab before flickering away and plunging them back to darkness.

“This ‘s fun,” he says, grinning. He rolls his heavy head around to get a look at Aiden, who’s grinning back.

“Yeah,” Aiden agrees happily. “Was.”

The familiar sound of clicking cameras starts up the moment the cab turns the corner in front of the X Factor house, paparazzi jumping to their feet to capture Aiden helping Louis out of the cab and the two of them stumbling through the gate and up the short drive. One of the Over-28s, John, is sitting on the front steps, mid-cigarette, and gives them an amused once-over as they approach.

“That explains it, then,” he says, but refuses to elaborate as he helps Louis up the stairs without falling on his arse.

“Cryptic mo’fucker,” Louis mutters, and John laughs as he pushes open the door.

“Nah, not really,” he grins. He slings his arms around Louis’ and Aiden’s waists and helps them make their fumbling way up to their respective rooms.

“Thank you, sweet soul,” Louis says sincerely, patting John’s forehead. John chuckles and pats his shoulder in return, then leaves the two of them in the hallway, swaying and grinning at each other.

“W’should hang out more often,” Aiden says. Louis nods enthusiastically.

“Yesh.” Louis frowns. “Yesss. There, fixed it,” he says happily.

Aiden laughs lowly and steps closer. “‘nks for comin’, Lou,” he murmurs, then presses a smudgy kiss to Louis’ temple. Louis beams blearily up at him.

“Yeah, ‘course. Nighty night,” he waves, falling into his room. Aiden watches, grinning, as Louis struggles with his cardigan until he gives up and falls into bed, face-first and fully dressed.

 

 

22 October 2010

Louis wakes with a throbbing head and a dry mouth, and no memories that would explain why Harry glares at him until lunchtime or why Aiden keeps shooting him small, secretive smiles.

However, tabloids and Twitter alike explode over TOMMO AND AIDEN’S WILD NIGHT OUT and their supposed love triangle with one Harry Styles.

Who will win our lovely Louis’ heart? Dan Wootton asks gleefully in his article, as though he’s bet on a winner and feels good about his choice. Only time will tell.

 

...

 

The first house Bond happens that day, on the Friday of week three. Fridays are when the excitement of performing starts building low in everyone’s guts, when some retreat to their rooms and shut away the world, and others expel their energy through late-night rehearsals or jogs through the neighborhood or pick-up footie in the yard. But they always make sure to gather for dinner, because the following night they’ll eat when they have a spare moment at the studio and by Sunday evening some of them will be going home.

So it’s when Harry’s popping veggie fritters into a pan and Mary’s marinating some chicken that there’s a scream from upstairs.

Before anyone can move, there’s an excited thundering of footsteps on the stairs. Treyc and John appear around the corner, breathing hard but beaming.

A second of silence, then—

“We Bonded!” Tracy shrieks, and the kitchen erupts in chaos.

The two new soulmates grin shyly at each other across the room as they’re passed to each contestant to be fawned over and squealed at. Mary shoos the group away after a few excited minutes—”Go on, t’ lot of ye. Give ‘em some breathing room”—and Harry, shivering with excitement (because he loves Bonding stories but he’s never been a part of one, this is amazing), announces he’ll bake something to celebrate. Another cheer goes up at the news, the mass of people wandering back to whatever they were doing before.

Harry’s stomach flips when he sees Aiden and Louis make their way back upstairs—because why, what are they doing, why can’t they hang out downstairs in full view of everyone else, why—with Aiden’s arm thrown jauntily over Louis’ shoulder.

The fritters are mostly finished, so Harry sets them aside and pulls out the flour and sugar and eggs, his mind preoccupied as his hands follow the familiar task.

It’s not that Louis can’t have friends, because, well obviously not. Harry wants everyone to be friends with Louis. All people should be subjected to time with Louis to see how wonderful and funny and perfect he is. It just makes sense.

It’s just.

Harry’s stomach has been bothering him since yesterday, an angry rolling thunder that luckily held itself off during their rehearsal time but picked up right as they stepped out to find Aiden waiting for Louis to sweep him off to a fun night out. And, well, ever since Louis nearly singlehandedly pulled Harry from his anxiety attack last week, when things start to feel off that’s immediately who he reaches for. And now that Aiden’s spending so much time with Louis alone, Louis isn’t there when Harry reaches for him.

And, you know. Aiden keeps touching him and it's just weird. Uncomfortable.

Liam says he’s being unfair, but like. What does Liam know? How is it unfair to ask Louis to stay home with his best friend who might be ill instead of going out with Aiden?

And it’s just gotten worse since then. Harry woke up this morning and a copy of The Sun had been taped to the boys’ bedroom door, a massive picture taking up a majority of the page showing Aiden propping up a red and giggly drunk Louis. As though it had waited for Harry to stand up and walk around a little, the sick swooping feeling in his stomach came roaring back in full force.

The pan is greased and the batter beautifully thick as Harry pours the cake mixture in, swiping over the top with a spoon to get an even, flat surface. With the cake in the oven and the chicken and veggies cooling, Harry rounds up help to carry dinner in to the main table. There’s an appreciative rumble as the group tucks in, the ones sitting near Harry and Mary patting them on the back before reaching for their forks.

With Zayn and Katie deep in conversation on his one side (“You don’t have a teasing comb? Honey, you’ve got-” “Of course I’ve got a teasing comb, what kind of barbarian do you think-”) and Esther and Sophia from Belle Amie gossiping on his other, Harry silently picks at his chicken, his mind still whirling. He’s not looking up at Aiden and Louis, who are sitting directly across the table from him and spelling rude messages with their peas.

Harry really likes Aiden. He’s hilarious and a massive dork and when he hangs out with all of One Direction he might as well be a sixth member. He’s always up for a prank and hates talking to interviewers so he makes sure to make things awkward as possible so they’ll leave him alone, and his mum sends care packages that he always shares with Harry. They’ve gotten on so well through this whole thing.

And it’s more than regular friendship, because that’s what X Factor does: it accelerates everything. Living and eating and breathing every second of every day with the same people shoves relationships into fast-forward. They know little details about each other that lifelong friends don’t even know, and Harry knows more about most of these peoples’ sex lives than he ever wanted (because late nights lead to invasive questioning and too-honest answers, and Harry couldn’t look Rebecca in the eye for three days after she explained that she was pretty sure he’d never been to her version of the Eiffel Tower).

Even if it weren’t for the media tossing Harry’s last name out into the world like it’s nothing, he’s pretty sure the others would know it by now anyway. There are just far too many official documents lying around thanks to the production crew, and they’re all in such close quarters that it’s almost impossible not to overhear sensitive information. So Harry now knows most of the last names of his fellow contestants. (And subsequently found out that none of them are his soulmate, because it turns out the Niall Approach of just automatically saying someone’s last name as soon as you learn it so you aren’t caught in potential Bond limbo has caught on, the majority of people in the house just choosing to end all the questions and know immediately whether they’re going to Bond or not. So no, Harry isn’t Bonded to any of the four Belle Amie girls, Matt, John—no surprise there, now that he and Treyc are showing off their matching treble and bass clef Markers on their calves, Katie, Cher, or Aiden.)

Harry likes Aiden because they’re ridiculously similar in sense of humor and hobbies, and he’s honestly going to miss him when they eventually don’t see each other every day. Before Louis had gotten over whatever issues he’d been harboring at bootcamp and talked to Harry, Harry and Aiden had been inseparable. It’s just that if Harry’s friendships in the house have grown quickly, it’s nothing compared to the relationships with his boys.

For example, Zayn has kissed Harry’s cheeks more in the last three weeks than Harry’ mum probably has in his entire life. Harry doesn’t go more than fifteen minutes without talking to Niall or Liam unless they’re all asleep, which sometimes means they text each other from different rooms of the the house if they’re too lazy to get up. And then there’s Louis, who has filled more gaps in Harry’s life than he could ever hope to count.

This is more than best friend territory; it’s well on to codependency.

So Harry sees Aiden pressed against Louis as they share the same chair and it’s- it’s-

“Wrong!” Zayn cries at Katie, and, yeah, that sounds about right.

The timer in the kitchen goes off, and Harry sighs quietly before standing up. He gets a round of cheers when he sets the finished cake down in front of John and Treyc, but Louis and Aiden are too busy giggling at each other to even look his way.

 

 

23 October 2010

At rehearsal the next morning, Simon tells them the song doesn’t sound right.

Eight hours to go, and they have to polish up their backup song that was meant to be used if they end up in the bottom two acts and get it performance ready.

Liam gets an unhealthy gleam in his eye and he and Louis share a nod before they hustle the other three boys into an empty studio, Nobody Knows by Pink on constant repeat for the next few hours before they can take to the stage and try again.

“Yeah, seriously good,” Simon tells them this time, and they all breathe a sigh of relief.

 

 

24 October 2010

Another week, another results show starting with a cheerful group song before they’re put through the mental anguish of waiting for Dermot to call their names and send them to the next round.

One Direction makes it through.

Treyc and John are the bottom two, and they have to compete to see who stays in the competition and who goes home. They’ve been Bonded all of 36 hours, and now they have to see who is staying in the competition and who is going home. Treyc is already crying.

 

 

Treyc wins. 

 

 

Later, when Harry asks John if he and Treyc are going to be okay (and no, he isn’t tearing up because that would be ridiculous, it must have been all the dust in the air), John just ruffles Harry’s hair and smiles gently.

“‘Course we will. There’s more to life than singing,” John promises. He looks over his shoulder and, apparently not seeing whoever isn’t meant to overhear, leans closer. “Remember that, alright? When important people are in your life, make sacrifices. Keep him happy.”

Harry doesn’t have a chance to ask who “he” is supposed to be before John is kissing Treyc and waving to everyone else as he steps out of the X Factor house for the last time.

 

 

24 October 2010

Apparently tired of running the same Is X Factor’s Louis Bonded and to who? stories (which leave Harry feeling oddly angry, like he wants to find the journalists responsible and fill their shoes with yoghurt), the tabs start publishing articles of a new breed.

Harry chokes on his bacon as his own face stares up at him from the front page of The Sun, a white line and a cartoon heart separating him and—

“Is that Frankie Sanford?” Niall asks over his shoulder. Zayn stands as well, clapping Harry on the shoulder and giggling.

“Finally broke in the sex room, did you?” he teases, and everyone listening in (which is everyone, basically) laughs. Harry reads the the headline again, feeling sick—ONE DIRECTION’S HARRY: ‘I FANCY FRANKIE’.

“Mornin’,” comes Louis’ voice, scratchy from sleep. He wobbles his way to Harry, covering a yawn with one hand and balancing a full bowl of cereal in the other. “What’s-?” he asks as he sees the paper, stopping when the words hit him. “Oh.”

Harry squirms. “I didn’t- Lou, I didn’t. They made that up.”

“I know, love,” Louis says, resting his cheek against Harry’s forehead. “They do that.”

 

 

25 October 2010

The boys are shaken awake at the truly awful hour of eight a.m. by a camera crew insisting they film their video diary before heading out for a full morning of interviews.

“Please don’t put this bit on the Xtra Factor,” Harry mumbles as he shimmies down from his top bunk wearing nothing but tired eyes and sleep-rough hair. The cameraman keeps the lens pointed solidly above his waist, but Harry still has the sneaking suspicion that some part of his naked bum is going to end up on the internet.

Once dressed, they’re shuffled down to the back staircase—nicknamed the Vidcase by Liam who thinks he’s hilarious and has a way with words, and who pouted when Niall pointed out he literally just pushed two unexciting words together to make an unexciting hybrid—and Harry’s steered toward the front step, Louis by his side. In protest of the early morning and (at least according to the dark muttering he spews every few seconds) those “ungodly flickering lights,” Louis wraps a scarf around his face and almost immediately dozes off against Zayn’s knees.

It takes a few minutes for the crew to set up and to hunt down the Twitter questions they’re meant to answer, but eventually Louis is shaken awake and the countdown begins.

3, 2, 1, and cue the red recording light and Louis’ Entertainer Voice.

It’s different than his Interview Voice, see: in the interviews that are shown before their performances each week he sets his sentences up perfectly so that his last line can be said with gravity, like a punchline to a good joke even when it’s not meant to be funny.

His Entertainer Voice’s main characteristic is that it’s just loud, loud, loud. Louis in entertainer mode has no qualms and no shame. It’s over-the-top and it feels a little like he’s overcompensating (because Harry listens when Louis thinks no one is paying attention to him, and he knows Louis still believes he’s here only through sheer luck, knows he’s starting to itch for a solo and when he was told he had one when the finalists sang Forget You he’d lit up, at least until he realized it was the spoken part and was included only for comedic effect). The Entertainer Voice is Louis acting out in the only setting that allows it, because the only interviewer that specifically asks him any questions is Dermot right after they perform each week, and that’s only because Louis always ends up standing by him because he’s the shortest in the group and has to be in front.

It’s loud and the tiniest bit obnoxious but it’s also so Louis, it wouldn’t be right to make him rein it in.

He high fives Harry after Zayn talks about their “best performance yet,” which, of course, Harry agrees with, but he can’t really chime in because Louis doesn’t pull his hand away for a few seconds and the blood in Harry’s body has all moved into his arms, tingling and sparking where his palm rests against Louis’. Louis turns his face into the wall, probably to hide a yawn, Harry can’t really see; but then Entertainer Voice is back and Louis spends the rest of the diary pretending he’s confused where Liam and Harry are sitting and it’s all great fun.

He leans in at one point and puts his face directly in front of Harry’s mouth and, for an inexplicable moment, Harry sways forward.

And then he realizes what he’s doing and pulls back.

Probably just a natural reaction to someone (could be anyone, didn’t happen just because it’s Louis) being that close to his face. He in no way was going to kiss Louis in that millisecond of brain loss. That would be ridiculous.

Just to make himself feel better, Harry smacks Louis in the face a minute or so later.

 

 

28 October 2010

In punishment for being the last contestants at the studio that Thursday night, One Direction,Treyc, Aiden, and Wagner are roped into a quick Question Time interview. Louis is handed the question cards—because, at this point, he’s basically the unofficial host; if One Direction ever gets voted off they’ll probably keep Louis around just to make people laugh in the interviews nobody wants to do—and is pointed towards the center chair.

Aiden beats Louis to it and grins cockily up at him, patting his lap. “Saved you a spot, Lou,” he laughs. Since Louis sitting in people’s laps is so common that it’s an anomaly to see him sitting in his own seat, Louis shrugs and sits primly, already reading through his questions. Aiden, who apparently didn’t get the memo that Louis does this with literally everyone—honestly, he rode to the studio this morning on one of the security guard’s laps—beams like he won a prize.

Louis sits on Harry’s lap during breakfast every morning. It’s not that big of a deal.

(Maybe Harry’s just hungry, because all of a sudden his stomach’s acting up again.)

Like with everyone else he comes in contact with, Louis using his Entertainer Voice makes Aiden overdramatize himself as well, his voice grand and booming in the little room. He and Louis bounce off of each other like old partners, like cohosts on an actual show, like two people who’ve known each other decades. Aiden pulls the cards from Louis’ hands and passes them to Harry.

“You wanna read the questions, Haz?” he asks, and though Harry feels like he’s gonna be sick he sees Louis nodding encouragingly, so he stands and reads the first question about speaking other languages.

“Little bit of French,” he says when it comes his time to answer.

“Do it!” Aiden demands of Harry, jostling Louis so he giggles.

“Little bit of German.”

“Do it now!” Aiden says again.

Harry reaches for his primary school-level French but loses all the words in his head, English or otherwise, when Aiden looks away from Harry and plants a lingering kiss to Louis’ neck, just out of the sightline of the cameras.

Louis and Aiden laugh together through the rest of the interview.

Harry doesn’t answer any more questions.

 

 

When they get back to the house, Harry grabs Louis tightly by the wrist and drags him to the kitchen, telling him they’re having Best Friend Time and watching crap telly and that he gets no say in the matter. Louis just shrugs and clambers onto the countertop as Harry pulls together some snacks.

They joke and talk about their song for the week and Harry doesn’t give in to the weird urge to scream that is bubbling in his throat.

“Um,” Louis says as Harry turns to dig some ice cream out of the freezer. “Back in a sec, H.”

Harry waves him off, scooping generous helpings of mint chocolate chip out into two bowls, each garnished carefully with crumbled up cookies. He grabs a single spoon—because they only ever use one anyway, passing it back and forth between them as need be, and Harry doesn’t want to dirty up extra dishes for no reason—and makes his way toward the TV room.

“Lou!” he sings, stepping gingerly around the piles of wellies and tennies that litter the area by the front door. “Got you some—”

He steps into the TV room, smiling at the back of Louis’ familiar gray jacket. And then he drops the ice cream, the ceramic bowls cracking as they hit the solid wood floor.

Aiden, funny and sweet and tall and lovely, horrible Aiden, is kissing Louis, and Harry's heart has fallen from his chest.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: 28 October 2010 - 9 November 2010

 

28 October 2010

“...think that Katie’s going to straighten my hair tomorrow, since we’ve got some free time in the morning, she's been begging for ages, and then I think I heard that Simon wants us to…”

Louis watches Harry flit around the kitchen and can’t help feeling like something is off.

It’s been off, too, ever since the morning he woke up to his mother’s disapproving texts (the sun online has a whole gallery of pics of u drunk, boo. ur sisters r asking if ur ok) and the cottony discomfort of too much alcohol coating his mouth.

It’s not like Louis isn’t going to go out with friends just because his mum and his pouty sixteen-year-old best friend want him to stay home. Yet, somehow, he still feels like he should apologize.

Which is ridiculous, really. He didn't do anything wrong.

Harry is amassing enough junk food to kill your average American, and has just flung open the freezer door—”Ice cream, Lou! Gotta have ice cream.”—when Louis sees a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye.

It’s Aiden, half-hidden in the doorway and beckoning him over. Louis excuses himself from Harry for a moment and makes his way over.

“What’s up?” Instead of an answer, Aiden grips Louis’ wrist and tugs him toward the TV room. Louis frowns in confusion. “Aiden—”

“Wanna go out with me?” Aiden asks quickly, like he's shoving the words out by force. “Tonight?”

Louis’ frown deepens. He just changed into his pajamas, and Aiden wants another pub night? No thanks. “Tonight?” he asks, wrinkling his nose.

“Yeah?” Aiden asks back. “Or, um. I don’t know. Any night?”

“Well we don’t have to make plans now, it’s not like my nights are booked up.”

Aiden looks stricken. “Yeah, um...”

“Plus, I promised Harry mmph—”

All of a sudden, like Louis’ the lead actress in a cheesy rom com, like he's Rose and Aiden is Jack, like every bad cliche in the book come to life, lips are on his and rendering him silent. Aiden presses forward, one hand sliding up Louis’ back and the other on his neck, his mouth tentative but sweet against Louis’.

Before Louis has the chance to register any thoughts or feelings about this turn of events beyond an echoing what???, there’s a loud crack behind him and several gasps.

And Louis knows. He knows that whoever it is that decides quantities of luck likes to fuck him over: likes to put him in a band with his soulmate so he has to find something new to admire every day but not be able to have him, likes to push pretty boys at him when Louis is undeniably emotionally unavailable and unable to handle them, likes to make everything in Louis’ life as difficult as possible.

Louis detaches from Aiden and turns with guilt already bubbling in his gut, panic already racing through his veins.

There stands Harry, eyes wide, hands shaking. Two bowls lie broken beside his feet, ice cream pooling around his socks. His lip is trembling, tears already glistening in his eyes.

And then he’s gone, stumbling towards the stairs and pushing past the unwitting audience to the soap opera playing out in the TV room: Katie, who’s covering her mouth with both hands and Rebecca, who looks like she’s seconds from tears herself and Mary, who’s watching Louis with intense scrutiny.

There’s a moment of silence, then a door slams upstairs and Louis is shocked into action.

“Harry!” he yells, pulling out of Aiden’s arms and sprinting toward the stairs. He nearly slips in the spilled ice cream and he stops for an absurdly long moment, wondering if he should clean it up, it is his fault, but then Cher is there behind him holding a rag and pushing him towards the stairs once more.

“Hazza, Harry!” he cries, dodging Katie and Rebecca and Mary, feet pounding and breath coming out in sharp gasps. He skids to a stop in front of their room, yanking on the doorknob. Locked.

He pounds on the door. “Harry, please! Harry, let me in!”

There’s no answer.

Louis rests his head against the door. “H, please. Please, I’m begging you. Let me in.”

It doesn’t even make sense. Why, why on earth did Harry run? And why did Aiden kiss him? Why is this all happening?

"Harry, please."

And Louis knows two things, just as surely that he knows grass is green and Harry’s eyes are greener: Harry isn't letting him in anytime soon, but Louis can't be anywhere else but right here waiting when he does decide to open the door. So he turns, presses his back to the unforgiving wood, and slides down into a miserable heap.

And then, in a moment of startling clarity, Louis remembers that he currently lives in the clearest of all glass houses. Camera crews roam their halls day and night, searching for the perfect bit of footage to spice up another week of Xtra Factor or to perfectly balance out their pre-performance videos. He also knows that there are a couple dozen newspapers and a couple thousand girls on Twitter that would pay dearly for video proof of Aiden kissing Louis, and would empty the bank vaults for the thrilling sequel of Louis dashing away from the kiss to console a crying Harry. Panic squeezes his throat shut, at least until he looks to his left and sees Zayn and Liam keeping watch at that end of the hall, Mary and Niall at the end to his right. Not watching him, really, but watching out for him.

With that settled, he sends up a sincere thanks for being surrounded by the best people on Earth, then tries to clear his mind of anything that isn’t how sorry he is, because it’s unlikely but maybe being Louis’ soulmate has given Harry the power to read his thoughts.

Except the only thing he can think is a running loop of my fault my fault my fault.

And, speaking of things that are Louis' fault...

At Niall and Mary's end of the hallway there are whispers. Mary’s voice is soothing and careful, her Irish lilt subdued, a direct contrast to Niall's ever-raising tones and furiously waving arms. Mary looks down the hall at Louis and meets his eye for a long, silent moment as though she’s asking a question, then turns back toward whoever is in front of her and nods, letting the person through.

A few eternity-stretching seconds later, Aiden slides to the floor next to Louis.

"So," he says, and somehow there's still a hint of humor in his voice. "Guess that answers my question."

“I’m sorry,” Louis says, and it’s less than a whisper, little more than an exhale, but it’s all he can give at the moment.

Aiden hums in answer, tilting his head back. Silence reigns between them. The air grows thick in Louis’ throat, nearly choking him: the stifling feeling of his world on fire.

Beside him, Aiden fidgets. He picks at his fingers and slides his feet in patterns across the floor and then, like he’s aiming for nonchalant but missing completely, he moves his hand to Louis’ left arm. Louis freezes, but doesn’t stop him as he slowly pushes up the sleeve of Louis’ jacket to reveal the dark shape of the dagger. Strange, how this feels like the echo of Harry doing the exact same thing downstairs while they’d snuggled on the sofa so long ago; Louis is even wearing the same jacket.

But then it’s so, so different, because Harry had been jumpy with adrenaline and fascinated by the bold lines and Aiden doesn’t even touch it, just looks on resignedly. But, then again, Harry was touching something that he caused: it’s basically his, even if he doesn’t know it. Aiden is just an innocent bystander.

Aiden doesn’t really ask when he says, “It’s for Harry, isn’t it.” And Louis doesn’t really answer when he shrinks in on himself, running a self-conscious hand over the dagger. But, then again, maybe it is an answer.

Aiden takes it as one, at least. “I’d always wondered, you know. Because you’re affectionate with everyone, but. You’re different with him. Like he’s special.”

And this is how Louis loses the last shreds of his sanity; because if it took Aiden three weeks to figure it out, how long until the media put two and two together? Or the boys, who are always watching Louis and Harry like they already know, who are already telling interviewers things like Harry and Louis are like an old Bonded couple and we’re all best mates but Louis and Harry are something else entirely, how long will it take them to find out? Or, God, how long until Harry himself notices, starts feeling uncomfortable around Louis because he loves him but not in that way?

Maybe this is the way out. Aiden is offering something more than just a date or some fun while stuck together in the X Factor house. It’s a chance to move past Harry, to be able to be his friend without any other attachments getting in the way. Louis and Aiden already click, Louis knows that they’re compatible. And Aiden knows that Louis has already Bonded, so there won’t have to be an awkward reveal. Maybe Aiden thinks the same way Louis used to—that a Bond isn’t necessary to have a good relationship. He likes Louis for who he is and isn’t going to expect anything Louis can’t give. He and Aiden could be perfectly happy together. They could.

Logically, it makes sense. In reality, it makes Louis’ stomach turn.

Because it isn’t fair to Harry, who is inevitably a part of this and, someday, somehow, will have to learn the truth. (Maybe. If Louis ever works up the courage.)

It isn’t fair to Aiden, who, by dating Louis, loses the opportunity to go find his own soulmate. Who would always know that he was a second choice when all Louis wants is Harry.

And it’s not fair to Louis.

“I’m not going to ask you to do anything ridiculous like choose between us,” Aiden says like he's reading Louis' thoughts. “Partly because that’s an awful thing to do to two of your close friends, but mainly because I know you wouldn’t choose me. After all this," we waves his hands to indicate the door and Harry's silence behind it, "if I can have you both in my life in some capacity, I’ll be happy.”

Louis smiles sadly. Why is everyone around him too good for this world? “Sorry,” he whispers again.

“Lou,” Aiden scolds, words soft. “You can’t help who you Bond to. And, for what it’s worth, I think it’s really brave, what you’re doing. Most people would have ran, or forced Harry into a Bonding ceremony by now.”

Louis still smiles, but he shakes his head. He isn’t brave, he’s anything but. He’s weak and selfish; like an addict with a limited supply, but rather than weaning himself off he’s taking bigger and bigger hits. Swimming deeper and deeper into murky water and knowing there’s no escape but to drown. Setting himself up for the worst kind of heartbreak, because he’s letting himself believe something that could never come true.

And, somehow, he’s made Harry believe it as well. Because best friends aren’t supposed to get upset when they see their friends kiss other boys. The sheer number of times Stan high-fived Louis when he’d walked in on him shoving guys up against walls at various parties throughout their friendship is probably lost forever to history and smoky memories. That’s how best friends react. Best friends don’t cry and barricade themselves in their bedrooms.

It has to be Louis’ fault, that somehow he’s half-convinced Harry that they’re in some sort of relationship—like it’s dating without sex, emotional intimacy without physical intimacy. And they aren’t, Louis wouldn’t have ever done this on purpose, because Harry had always been adamant in his stance that he’d never date or sleep with anyone that he couldn’t see as his soulmate.

("No, it's not- I just. Obviously I'd love to have sex, like, as soon as possible,” Harry had insisted when they'd talked about it one night, causing Niall to sputter with laughter. “But. I also really like the idea of waiting for my soulmate? It just seems... right, somehow? It's stupid, I know." Niall and Liam had teased him for being old-fashioned, but it’s one of the things Louis loves about him: Harry believes in romance and fairytales and fate, of all things, and there’s something wonderfully admirable about that even if it is naive.)

Aiden stands, brushing off his trousers, and nods toward his room. “I shouldn’t be here when he opens the door, he might get the wrong idea,” he says ruefully, eyes on the ground. As he steps away, he says, “I know things’ll probably be weird between everyone for a while, and I’m sorry about that. But I hope we can get through this quickly, because you lot are my closest friends here.” Another quick, small smile and then Aiden leaves Louis to his riotous thoughts.

It’s fitting, Louis thinks later when the other acts have filtered through the hallway—tiptoeing around Louis still sitting outside their bedroom door, Louis not looking up to see the pity or accusation on their faces—and Zayn, Liam, and Niall have cleared off to claim some sofas to crash on until Harry unlocks the door.

It’s so, so fitting that Louis never wanted a soulmate, ever, and then he got one. And it feels like a punishment matching the crime, because he couldn’t Bond to someone boring and quiet and out of the spotlight; he’s just the first of thousands and thousands of people who are going to fall for Harry Styles in their lifetimes, and because he’s too weak to let Harry go for good he’ll be around to watch every single one of those other people fall, and he’ll be around for the day Harry falls in love right back.

 

 

29 October 2010

It’s still dark outside when Harry creaks the door open, Louis startling awake and half-falling backward into their moonlit bedroom. Harry’s eyes are shadowed, careful, ringed in red and bruised purple from lack of sleep.

They stare at each other for a moment before Louis speaks for the first time in hours: “Go for a walk with me?”

And in the navy-black of almost-morning, frost coated grass underfoot, Louis promises Harry that it meant nothing.

“Aiden’s just a friend, and we talked about it and it won’t happen again,” he swears, and he means it.

Harry says he understands but that he’s not sure he’ll be able to be around Aiden, at least for a little while. Louis tells him that it’s completely his choice, and that he’s sure Aiden will respect that.

As they cook breakfast for the rest of the house (well, as Harry cooks and Louis samples), the familiarity between them is uneasy, but it’s there. Harry shoots him a tentative smile as Louis starts gathering plates and silverware to set the table, and he thinks maybe they’ll be okay.

 

 

The rest of that morning is a little weird, because everyone’s eyes are dull and blotchy from the late night drama and they’re all walking about with half-formed smiles, trying to pretend they all got adequate amounts of sleep. The camera crews pick up on it, nudging people for details, but everyone just tells them it’s the pressure of competition. I’ll be better once I’ve had me tea, they say, or just a little nervous, I think.

And, for most of them, that’s part of it as well. As it’s Halloween week, some of them are performing in costumes or with dancers for the first time. One Direction isn't doing anything over-the-top, but the wardrobe girls are having lots of fun slashing up outfits for them to wear Saturday night.

The boys are at the studio, just leaving their last costume fitting before the performance and heading off to their afternoon rehearsals when a familiar voice calls to Louis. He turns to find—

“Simon!”

He’s in his standard white button-down and jeans, and Louis always feels better when he sees Simon in normal clothes; he’s unconsciously associated Simon’s pressed blazers with uncomfortable discussions in his office about hordes of fangirls throwing themselves at (mostly) underage boys.

“Hello, hello,” he says, looking down at his phone and sending off a quick text. “I’ve got somewhere I need to take you, won’t be but a moment.”

So Louis shrugs to the other boys and follows as he’s led out of the crowded backstage hallways and to the more spacious office locations on the second floor. Expecting them to head to Simon’s office, Louis is a little thrown when instead they bypass it and Simon stops by a door labeled Conference Room B. He opens it and ushers Louis in.

Waiting for him on the other side of a long, expensive-looking black table is a group of well-dressed people in full business attire—men in sharp white shirts with their jackets draped on chairs behind them, young women with perfectly coiffed hair and sharp eyeliner and classy, professional pantsuits. It seems like they’ve been here a while, judging by crisp shirtsleeves that have been rolled to their owners’ elbows and the nearly empty water pitcher sweating on the table in front of them. Louis feels utterly ridiculous in his TOMs and his beanie and the red eyeshadow still lingering from his makeup test.

The two men in the middle seem to be the most important; they’re the only ones with water glasses and they’re the only ones who don’t have stacks of paper or buzzing iPhones on the table in front of them. They’re also the most relaxed in the room, chatting casually as the other four or five people sat around them stay silent.

“I’ve brought Louis here for you,” Simon announces, drawing their attention. “Got to run to rehearsals, but he knows his way back when you’re through with him.”

“Ah, Louis. Nice to meet you,” the important man on the left says, extending a hand. “Richard Griffiths.”

“Harry Magee,” the other introduces himself, and they gesture for Louis to take a seat.

Louis wonders if their casual use of their last names is because they are already Bonded and have nothing to fear, or if it’s some kind of power play he’s never encountered; either way, he takes the proffered seat and swallows uncomfortably.

“We are the founders of Modest! Management, which is the managerial side of the Syco brand,” Griffiths explains, pouring a glass of water and pushing it across the table to Louis. “We work with artists on everything from songwriting and recording to touring to publicity.”

“Ah,” Louis squeaks, and then takes a gulp of water just to have something to do.

“We offer our services to all X Factor finalists because if the show does well, then Syco does well,” Magee continues. “Normally we’re only called in for a bit of media training but, sometimes, we also handle special cases.”

"Special cases?" Louis asks. The other people who aren’t Magee and Griffiths seem to be their assistants or interns; they’re scribbling notes on legal pads and tapping rapidly into their phones, not missing a word either of them says. Louis gets so distracted watching a girl dash hasty notes in shorthand that he nearly misses what Griffiths says next.

“Yes, special cases, which is why we're here today, actually. Are you Bonded to Harry Styles?”

Louis jolts, spilling water across the front of his jeans. He sets his glass down unsteadily and swipes the liquid onto the floor, his face burning.

“No,” he eventually stutters. “No, I’m- I’m not Bonded to anyone.”

Magee and Griffith survey him closely, like checking for weaknesses.

“So the dagger on your arm is not your Marker?”

Louis flinches. “No, it’s uh. It’s a tattoo.”

“And if we tested it, we wouldn’t find you were lying?”

“No!”

Griffiths sits back, apparently satisfied. “That’s good to hear. It never goes well when members of a band are Bonded. Look at Fleetwood Mac, that was a disaster in the end.”

“We’ve been getting questions,” Magee says. “Questions having to do with your video diaries. Everyone seems to think that you and Mr. Styles are Bonded based on how you’re interacting and the appearance of your tattoo, of which there is no record in any form before you auditioned for the show.”

“No, I’m. No. It's a tattoo. And Harry's my best mate, that’s it,” Louis protests.

“Good,” Griffiths says again. “That’s good. However, I think it’s in the best interests of the band that you and Mr. Styles tone it down a little. You can’t draw in female fans if you’re focused only each other.”

“Simon tells us he’s discussed the expectations that fans have of boy bands. If two of the members seem unavailable, it’ll sink the entire brand.”

Louis swallows. “Right.”

"Luckily, it’s not gone on too long to be fixed. We've leaked the X Factor house whereabouts to some of the fans on Twitter. They won't be able to get to the actual house, of course, but you'll be expected to greet some of them at the gates tonight for autographs and pictures."

Fanservice, that's what Simon had called it. Giving the fans what they want, even if what they want is to Bond with you and spend all your money.

Magee gestures to a woman on his left, pin-straight blonde hair tied back in a tight ponytail and sharp, immaculate red nails tapping rapidly on Blackberry keys. “This is Claudia,” he introduces. Claudia looks up at Louis and nods, her eyes sharper than her nails. “She’ll be the liaison between us and your band. She has your phone number, and she’ll be checking in periodically in person as well with messages from us or Simon.”

"We can't alienate any fans at this stage,” Griffiths says. “Just keep doing well and listen to our instructions, and you boys will be sure to get your record deal."

"I think we'll be seeing a lot of you and your band mates in the future, Louis," Magee says with an air of finality. "Good luck."

Louis stammers a goodbye and leaves Conference Room B, stumbling a little as he makes his way back down to the practice studio by sheer muscle memory.

"What'd Simon want, Lou?" Liam asks when he steps back into the room.

"Um," Louis says dazedly. "They, uh, want us to do autographs and pictures with fans tonight. They're leaking the location of the house."

As it has been a few weeks since their terrifying ambush after the first results show, the fear of facing dozens of screaming fans has lessened for them just a little. It's still overwhelming, but with security always within arm's reach it becomes a little more manageable. Simon had even convinced them to begin stopping for pictures with the fans that waited for them at the studio every morning; the other boys have grown bolder because of it, far less jumpy at screams and camera flashes.

"Chatting up a bunch of girls who fancy us to bits?" Niall asks, raising an amused eyebrow. "Not a bad night." And then he leans over, sharing a high five with a smirking Zayn.

"Ha, yeah," Louis agrees faintly, and then they go back to rehearsing.

It's not that Louis doesn't appreciate every single one of their fans. Of course he does; they've only made it this far because some people have deemed them worthy enough of the time to cast a vote or two to keep them in the competition.

He's just already tired of describing his ideal girl just to give the fans something to scream about.

The other boys eat it up, grinning and asking did you hear all the girls screaming tonight and look how many girls are outside the studio and do you think the girls will like our song this week? And Louis just smiles dully and makes a joke every time a reporter asks "So how has being on X Factor helped with girls?"

Maybe Louis is biased. He's always loved girls, loves their soft hands and secret smiles and long, smooth legs in short skirts. Loves long lashes and lipstick-sticky kisses and high, breathy gasps. But it had only taken a few experiments in his early teens to realize that, yeah, he likes boys too, likes strong hands and sharp angles and deep, bone-melting voices. And while he'd never turn down a pretty girl that wanted a dance or a snog, Louis was always sure that if he ever settled down, it'd be with a boy.

And, lo and behold, he Bonds to a boy.

So of course he appreciates the fangirls, but he doesn't appreciate them because they're girls. He'd be just as thankful if they were old ladies or young boys or thirty-year-old men.

(In fact, he might have preferred if they were thirty-year-old men, but that's neither here nor there.)

 

 

"Thanks for coming, love," Louis smiles at the last girl waiting at the fence for a hug and a quick picture. He gives her a short peck on the cheek for the camera and grins when she screams a little, then makes her promise she'll vote like crazy to keep them in the competition this weekend.

"I will, I swear," she says solemnly.

The boys walk back to the house in the chilly twilight air, Zayn and Niall teasing each other at their fumbling attempts to talk to the first few girls they’d approached—"Eh, um, eh, hey ladies, I'm t' Irish one. Want to hear me burp t' alphabet?" "Like you're any better! Vas happenin'? What does that even mean?"—when Liam nudges at Louis' shoulder.

"You're pretty good at all that," he says shyly, waving his hand over his shoulder to indicate the gate and the now long-gone crowd of screaming girls that Louis had successfully wrangled.

"Yeah, Lou," Zayn agrees, smirking. "Right smooth talker you are."

"They're just people," Louis rolls his eyes. "Yes, they have boobs, but they're still just people."

They're still laughing at Niall's exaggerated impression of Louis wooing all the girls ("Right, ladies, single file line and hands above the waist. It costs extra to touch the goods!") as they walk into the house. Harry's laugh stops abruptly as they come upon Aiden on the stairs, who is sheepishly and unsuccessfully trying to blend into the wallpaper.

"Hey," he says softly, and no one answers except for Louis' quiet hey in return.

In all the terrifying excitement of getting confronted over his Bond to Harry (the image of Magee and Griffiths staring straight into his soul will haunt him forever) and the fan service that had followed, Louis had almost forgotten about Aiden's kiss and Harry's hurt feelings; last night feels like it was decades ago.

He sighs as Harry pointedly turns his shoulder away, brows furrowed unhappily, the other boys following his lead and ignoring anyone who might be on the stairs as they stomp as a group past the miserable looking Aiden.

 

 

The evening continues to be strange, most people heading to bed early to combat being kept up late the night before. The One Direction boys are on edge, taking turns facing off on FIFA but being strangely cordial about it, Niall and Zayn and Liam flicking glances between Harry and Louis like expecting an eruption of a fight or tears.

Their salvation comes, funnily enough, from a wandering camera crew needing to film the Who’s Who segment that week.

And it’s Louis’ time to shine.

“Let’s do an impression of Wagner!” he says. Harry halfheartedly agrees and Louis immediately forces himself in Harry’s space, clutching at his cheeks in a way only one of Wagner’s actual victims would understand (the boys being frequent targets of Wagner’s strangely intense promises of affection and money when he wins X Factor—the chances of which are about as likely as the chances he’ll convince anyone to go on holiday with him when he does).

He smooths Harry’s curls exaggeratedly. “I vill take you on holiday.”

Niall jumps in. “You are so beautiful, I vant to kees you.”

Harry reluctantly grins as Niall ruffles his hair and massages his shoulders. Louis, sensing a weakening of Harry’s bad mood, steps closer and runs his hands up and down Harry’s sides and chest, then pinches his cheeks and pulls him in. Harry is grinning widely when Louis presses a forceful kiss to his cheek, trying to push Louis and Niall away even as he beams at the cameras.

Harry participates wholeheartedly as they mock Belle Amie next, cheeks still pink from Louis’ kiss.

Mission accomplished.

...

 

30 October 2010

Louis Walsh looks up at them from the Judge’s Table after they sing Total Eclipse of the Heart, smiling and barely audible over the screams of the girls behind him, and says, “I think there’s something great about you.”

The words reverberate louder than the cheers in Harry’s head as he leads them offstage, his legs still clumsy and shaky from their performance.

Something great, something great

And then something else, something that feels like an echo of words he’s spoken to Louis at some point, but that feel even stronger now—

We’re better off together here

Something great

 

 

1 November 2010

It isn’t until they’re all perched on the Vidcase Monday afternoon that Harry blinks blearily—his daily nap had been rudely interrupted to film their video diary—to see that it’s Zayn, not Louis, perched next to him on the front stair.

“‘re’s Lou?” he mumbles, rubbing his stinging eyes.

“Dunno,” Zayn answers, tugging at his necklace. “They called us down to shoot this and he disappeared. I’m sure he’ll turn up, though.”

And he does, thirty seconds after the crew members throw up their hands in defeat and start filming without him, a rubbish bin lid perched jauntily over his face.

Every time Harry turns around to answer a question or make a comment Louis answers with his typical blinding grin, but it fades earlier than usual and he often glances away to look at the production crew. Harry turns back and forth several times to see what caught Louis’ eye, but the only thing Harry can see is the blonde lady standing with the crew.

She’s watching them sharply and texting on her Blackberry, her red nail polish flashing viciously, and when she meets Harry’s eye he gets shivers chasing up his spine.

 

 

2 November 2010

After a third run-in on the staircase with Aiden that leaves them both stammering awkward apologies and excuse mes, Harry decides enough is enough.

Aiden is, despite recent events, one of his closest friends in the house. Sure, he kissed Louis.

(Which, okay—best not to think of that when he’s working up the motivation to make amends with the guy. Just the thought of of the kiss makes Harry unable to see anything but long fingers tangled in Louis’ soft hair and a large hand spread across his small, smooth back and—no, no, no, okay, no.)

So he kissed Louis. But Louis told Harry that nothing was going on between them, and Harry believes him. He also believes that Aiden is sorry for what he did (and Harry still doesn’t have a good reason why he should be sorry. He spent a full night tossing and turning and thinking angrily he should have to apologize, but then another part of him that sounds suspiciously like Zayn would whisper but why? you don’t own Louis and he can kiss whoever he wants and Harry never thought up an acceptable response. Louis and Aiden are friends and they’re both single and they are consenting adults and they can do whatever they want but at the same time they can’t do that, it’s just not right, it isn’t right) and Harry knows, deep down, that he should fix this bridge before it’s burned to complete ash.

Not knowing the best way to jump into an uncomfortable situation and wanting some form of edible bribery to make things go smoothly, Harry bakes a batch of cookies—peanut butter double chocolate chip, Aiden’s favorite—and slides them onto a pretty decorative plate he finds in the cupboard. He makes his way up the stairs, takes a deep, steeling breath in front of Aiden’s closed door, and knocks.

“It’s unlocked,” Aiden calls, and Harry steps inside.

He’s sitting at his desk, laptop open and Facebook pulled up, dressed cozily in sweatpants and an oversized t-shirt, mug of tea cooling on the desk in front of him. He looks incredibly surprised to see Harry in the doorway.

“Um,” Harry says, because the cookies help with the entrance but not the whole talking-about-things part. “Cookie?”

“Fuck, of course,” Aiden laughs, looking happier than he’s been in days. Harry settles onto the bed and munches on his own cookie, picking idly at Aiden’s sheet.

“I just, erm,” he starts, but Aiden throws a bit of cookie at him.

“Hush,” he says, smiling a little. “Me too. We’re good.”

They polish off the entire batch of cookies before Louis finds them, his eyes sparkling happily as he takes in the scene—Aiden and Harry side by side on the bed, laughing uproariously at Aiden’s ex-boyfriend’s attempts at sexy bathroom mirror selfies. Louis lets out a war cry and leaps across their laps, barely avoiding crushing Aiden’s laptop and sending them all into fits of vicious giggles.

At dinner, Liam and Zayn and Niall watch with careful eyes as Harry and Aiden trade bad knock-knock jokes over Louis’ head while he pointedly ignores them, at least aside from the occasional jab with a fork to refocus their attention back on him for a moment. It’s not back to normal, but it’s better.

...

 

4 November 2010

“How old were you when you got your first kiss?” Niall asks when they’re pulled from a rehearsal break to shoot the Question Time interview again this week.

Louis panics. He picks his most grating, annoying accent to distract everyone from his moment of silence and says, “I actually only had my first kiss last week.” And then he freezes.

He’s an idiot; he’s so, so stupid because he got his first kiss when he was ten fucking years old, it was Sarah from school and it was behind the library and Aiden was in no way his first kiss, why, why, why

Zayn snorts and Niall laughs like he does anytime anyone does anything, really, and Harry grins as well, but Louis still truly, truly hates himself.

 

 

Zayn and Harry are weird at dinner.

Well, weirder than usual.

They sit at the corner of the massive dining table and whisper through the whole meal, neither of them really eating but picking slowly at their food. Louis tries to keep up in a highly competitive game of “Name That Random Early-2000s R&B Song” with Niall and Liam but he’s quickly outmatched—he's more of a Britney and Christina guy rather than a fan of Nelly and Chingy and other assorted dudes wearing chains with their names on them.

Instead, he watches Zayn and Harry: Harry with his nervous-bitten lips and Zayn with his wistful eyes.

It all comes out when they’re huddled in the TV room, an old episode of Top Gear playing while only Liam watches. Matt and Aiden are curled up and napping on another sofa, Aiden’s mouth hanging open as he snores and Matt’s hat askew. Mary, Katie, Rebecca, and Cher are deep in a game of bridge. Wagner is singing opera somewhere, the sound echoing dimly like they’re being haunted by a particularly unthreatening Brazilian ghost.

“Zaynie, Hazza, you’re making me sad,” Louis pouts, pulling them both close. “Let me solve all your problems and fill your lives with joy.”

“Just need your smile for that, darling,” Zayn says, deadpan.

“And your bum,” Harry adds cheekily, squealing when Louis smacks him with a throw pillow.

“Tell me what’s wrong!” Louis demands. “I saw your pouty faces all through dinner. Spill!”

Zayn sighs and rubs a hand through his hair. “Mum called, a little before dinner. Waliyha’s first boyfriend just broke up with her so they’re doing a big family weekend thing to cheer her up.” He shrugs. “Just feel weird that I’ll miss it.”

Louis frowns and pulls Zayn close. He misses his mum and sisters, too, calls them as often as possible and is planning to arrange tickets to one of the live shows for them as soon as he can, but Zayn is even worse—he calls his mum before every breakfast and again at night, texts his sisters and his dad incessantly. Louis knows he’d never have missed out on something like pampering his little sister after her first heartbreak if he’d been home, so it must be killing him to ear about it from afar.

“Okay, that’s one sad boy explained,” Louis says. “Now you, Curly.”

“I dunno,” Harry answers listlessly. “It’s just a not-great day? For me, you know. Like, I just feel sad? And it’s my nan’s birthday but I missed her call because of rehearsals today.”

“Well boys,” Louis says seriously. “There’s only one thing that can happen now.”

“Yeah?” Harry sniffs. “What’s that?”

The answer is, naturally, the world’s most awesome sleepover.

Which, okay, since they sleep in the same room every night it may not seem like a big deal. But Louis pulls out all the stops, because he cannot handle cute, sad boys pouting at him to fix things.

So, thirty minutes later, Zayn and Harry are propped up in Louis’ bunk, mugs of hot chocolate in their hands and a bowl of popcorn being passed back and forth between them. They are, at Louis’ insistence, wearing their nicest pajamas (Harry in red flannel, Zayn in Batman chic) and the most ridiculous slippers on their feet that Louis could scrounge up (Mary’s classic bunny slippers on Zayn and Cher’s blue cotton-candy-explosion inspired ones on Harry). Louis’ laptop is at the foot of the bed, the Heathrow opening scene of Love, Actually playing on fullscreen. Louis steps back with a satisfied smile.

“Perfect,” he beams. “Now, boys, I’ll leave you to wallow and cry over Hugh Grant and his beautiful face.”

“What, no!” Harry protests, and Zayn frowns and throws popcorn at him.

“Stay, idiot. We’re in your bed.”

“Well…” Louis says, because Liam had wanted to work with Louis on strengthening the harmony in Kids in America for tomorrow night, but—

“Yeah, alright. Budge up.”

“No, no,” Harry says, wagging his finger like Louis is a naughty schoolchild. “Put on your nicest pajamas and find some slippers, then you can get in bed.”

“And hurry up, you’re missing the movie,” Zayn mumbles, sipping his hot chocolate and watching Bill Nighy throw a fit in a soundbooth. So Louis pulls on his blue plaid pajamas and convinces Rebecca to lend him her favorite white satin slippers and then he settles between Zayn and Harry in his bed, throwing an arm around each of them so they can lay their heads on his shoulders, demanding that they feed him popcorn.

They don’t bother leaving when the film ends, and Louis closes the laptop with his foot before turning on his side, yawning. “You can stay,” he says, and that’s all Zayn and Harry need before they’re pulling the covers over all three of them, Harry snuggling close to Louis’ front as Zayn buries his face in Louis’ back.

It’s all very comfortable and warm and a little bit perfect.

 

 

5 November 2010

Zayn is still asleep when Harry and Louis crawl out of bed the next morning, and when he finally stumbles down to breakfast he places a long kiss in Louis’ hair, mumbling a thank you that does not make Louis tear up in the slightest, of course not. He pinches Zayn’s cheek in return.

That night, as they all move around each other in familiar nighttime routines, Zayn insists that he’s fine and can sleep in his own bed, and besides Harry talks in his sleep and Louis kicks and they’re basically the worst people to share a bed with, ever. Louis sticks out his tongue at that and Zayn flips him off, grinning as he settles into his bed. Harry, though—

A soft cough makes Louis look up from his phone, his text to Stan unsent. There stands Harry in his usual sleep attire (which are tiny, tiny black boxers that make Louis irrationally angry at Calvin Klein because how dare he create such flattering things) and he’s pulling at his lip like he’s got a question he doesn’t want to have to actually ask.

Louis just throws the covers back and pats the mattress next to him, turning back to his phone and trying not to laugh at the massive grin on Harry’s face as he cuddles in next to Louis.

Harry's out like a light before Niall even returns from brushing his teeth.

 

 

6 November 2010

Early rehearsals on Saturday morning go extremely well, Simon heaping praise on them that they aren’t really sure what to do with.

“That is brilliant,” he says, crossing his arms over his chest and smiling like the most smug man in the world—which, to be fair, many people claim he is. He dismisses them for a quick lunch, and Louis hooks his arm through Liam's as they bounce toward the exit, both of them throwing thank yous at Uncle Si as they near him.

A firm hand grabs Louis as they pass, though, Simon giving him a look that spells trouble or disappointment or something else equally terrible, and so Louis waves Liam on and waits to hear what he did wrong.

(He'd tried to stay away from Harry during the video diary this week. He tried, he did. He sat the furthest away from him and he literally wore a bin lid on his head so when he could feel a ridiculously fond smile pour over his face, he could clamp it down and hide behind the plastic. Claudia didn’t look pleased, but Louis feels like Claudia is one of those people who never looks pleased.)

Simon turns Louis so that they’re both surveying the stage, looking out over the gathered dancers in red and white and blue cheerleader outfits and he stays silent, like he and Louis are just watching them rehearse for the hell of it.

“It’s not a tattoo, is it,” he says, and Louis feels his knees lock. His breath leaves him in a mighty whoosh and that’s it, it’s over, Simon will ask to publicize it for votes and that’s the end of Louis’ life.

It was good while it lasted, he supposes. He’ll have to go live in a cabin in the Alps now, or a cave in the Scottish highlands. Aren’t there deserts in America where no one lives? Really, anywhere that they don’t have TV or internet or radio or newspapers or a carrier pigeon station or wood and matches for smoke signals because he doesn’t want to be around people when they find out he’s the unluckiest bastard in the world. Complete and utter pity will be rained down, not to mention how weird Harry will probably get when he finds out (because he’s such a good person that he’ll probably feel bad about the whole thing, and that’s just the worst part of it all).

Or maybe Simon won’t even keep him, maybe he's more trouble than he's worth at this point. Maybe Simon will make him quit the band and use Louis’ Bond as a reason for the split. It would make some massive attention-grabbing headlines: LOVE IN ONE DIRECTION—LOUIS TOMLINSON’S HALF-BOND REVEALED.

Louis is probably going to vomit. He hopes Simon doesn’t mind.

“I Bonded at nineteen,” Simon says, pushing through the panicked waves of thoughts breaking over each other in Louis’ mind. “She’s a beautiful, wonderful woman, and more than I could ever handle. We’ve been separated for more than fifteen years now.”

Oh, apparently Louis isn’t getting the quick boot; Simon’s feeling nostalgic.

Maybe he can convince him to let Louis stay for true love’s sake.

“Every day I look at my Marker and it hurts,” he says, and it’s said so simply, like it isn’t a sentence full of pain. Is that how Louis will be in a few years? Dead to the agony, numb to the loss after Harry inevitably Bonds with someone lovely and perfect and decidedly not Louis? Maybe Louis can hang out with Simon and learn how to channel his aggression into making millions off of cultivating the talents of others. “You can work through it, you know. The heartbreak. It’s not like your heart actually stops beating. It just beats a little slower.”

“I’m so sorry,” Louis finally says, and he doesn’t know if it’s for Simon’s story or for not telling about the Bond or for Bonding in the first place.

Simon turns and regards Louis with careful, careful eyes, so different than his usual razor-edged glare. “You can work through it,” he says again. “But you can’t wear your heart on your sleeve. This industry will rip you to pieces, and throw the scraps to the public for dessert.”

Louis gulps and nods, still waiting for the bad news. Is he staying in the band as the lovestruck, lovesick fool, or is he out of the band for good? What nightmare will he read about himself tomorrow in The Sun?

“If you aren’t going to tell the world, I won’t either. No one should be forced to share that information if they don’t have to,” Simon says, and suddenly oxygen seems to exist in the universe once more. “Come by my office if you need anything. Otherwise, you’ve got your pre-performance interview in an hour.”

And then he walks away, like he didn’t just drop a bomb and then walk away without detonating it.

 

 

Because the universe has a hilarious sense of humor, the interview they do for their pre-performance video is all about life in the X Factor house, and Harry immediately starts talking about his burning desire to turn into an actual Disney princess.

“I was kinda looking forward to being the domestic one,” he says, straightforward and serious as ever, his little cherubic face glowing with earnestness.

Louis, whose stomach feels like it’s about to burst apart with the weight of the apprehension lodged in it, who has just had his Bonding status with Harry questioned for the third time in the past week, snorts loudly.

And Harry, perfect, sweet Harry who is absolutely ruining Louis’ life, pouts and says, “I was being serious!”

And Louis laughs even harder, because he is actually Bonded to motherfucking Snow White.

 

 

It seems incredibly ironic that tonight, after hearing that one of the biggest names in the worldwide music industry knows his deepest secret and sort-of pinky-swore not to tell anyone, Louis is wearing a short sleeved shirt for the first time during this whole competition. And he's the only one, the other lads in full star-spangled schoolboy attire with their blazers and varsity jackets. Louis runs an anxious hand over the dagger, an automatic reaction when it's out in the open; rubbing his fingers back and forth like if he creates enough friction it'll just smear off.

Their opening video plays behind them as the lights are tested and the cheerleaders get into place. The audience, who are asked to remain quiet until the video ends and the song is about to start, swell with half-whispered murmurs every time a spotlight flashes over the boys.

Louis might as well have just worn a shirt with an arrow pointing right at the dagger—the fabled maybe-Marker that The Daily Mail has been raving about for weeks is finally on live TV, not just seen through blurry, far-off pap photos and pixelated screenshots from the video diaries.

“One Direction!” the video announces, and then they’re off, bouncing around in the physical representation of a Niall fantasy: cheerleaders as far as the eye can see (he’d spent the week telling every camera crew that walked by that he was supervising the dancers, leering at the camera and repeating “It’s a hard job, but somebody’s gotta do it.” Louis had heard him say that exact line at least five times. Niall is a creep). The crowd is screaming their little hearts out as the boys jump around onstage like the hyperactive idiots they are.

Louis still feels like a spotlight is trained on his arm as Louis Walsh and Simon bicker about the rulebook and their song choice, and for the first time he thinks he might have an inkling of how Harry felt when his anxiety had hit so hard—he wants to be as far away from this stage as possible, as soon as possible.

How long until they find out? his mind whispers treacherously as he looks over the crowd, a few recognizable faces standing out from their fanservice with the girls outside the studio this morning. How long until the dagger isn’t just a curiosity, but a symbol of what the world knows you’ll never get to have?

How long do you have until it's all over?

Dermot reads out the number to call to vote for them and Louis breathes a sigh of relief, itching to get out of here and back to his nice, safe room back at the house where the only people who scream his name are his fellow contestants when he forgets to put the milk back in the fridge.

But then he feels a weight drop onto his shoulder, curls tickling at his ear, and he looks down to see Harry’s chin digging into his collarbone as he glances up at Louis and smiles.

tumblr_m2lh2w3tmf1qbhk9c2.jpg tumblr_m2lh2w3tmf1qbhk9c.jpg

And all the stress, built heavy in Louis’ limbs and head and hands and weighing his feet down with each step he takes, melts away, gone through the cracks in the stage floorboards and far, far away.

Sometimes Louis looks at Harry and he can't breathe. And it's really unfair, you know, because Louis already has a dagger on his arm and a carved out niche in his heart and a good chunk of his sanity, all of that dedicated to Harry, and it's not fair that he also has to deal with fizzing in his stomach and tingles in his fingers and an inexplicable urge to wrap him up and hide him from the world. Harry is Louis' soulmate, his destiny in human form and his true other half (if the stories are to be believed and now, after two months of living with and touching and growing to need Harry Styles, Louis is starting to believe them). There's all that already happening, but Louis never planned on actually falling for him.

But sometimes, when Harry's stolen his breath and Louis waits for him to give it back, Harry is looking back at Louis like he scattered the stars. And it probably means nothing.

But maybe it means something.

 

 

Louis had completely forgotten that they’d been able to score tickets for all the families and friends to the show this week, what with all the Bond questions from powerful men who want to use him to make a lot of money and loudly doubt his life choices along the way. He’s just caught Harry around the waist after a shrieking chase through the halls—the post-performance adrenaline still as potent as it had been on week one—when he hears a familiar admonishment.

“Louis William.”

“Mum!” he cries, spinning to see Jay, his sisters, and Stan all watching him in varied states of amusement, and suddenly it feels like his hand is burning where it’s clutching Harry’s hip. So he unwraps himself from where he’s pressed against Harry’s back as casually as he can before launching himself at his mum.

“Missed you, Boo,” she says, and Harry claps in delight.

“Boo!” he snickers. “I will never call you anything else.”

“Don’t you have someone else to annoy?” Louis grumbles at him, but Harry just smiles sunnily and kisses Louis and then Jay on their cheeks before spinning and skipping to the other side of the room where his own family is waiting. Louis pulls each of his sisters in for long, tight hugs, wiping tears off of cheeks when necessary, then turns to Stan.

“Excuse me, Mr. Popstar, I’m looking for my best friend,” he says to Louis seriously. “He’s got a dumb shaggy haircut and wears normal-colored jeans, and thinks he’s actually going to make it on TV.”

“Oi, wanker,” Louis laughs, punching his shoulder and then leaping into his arms.

There’s a quick game of catch-up, Fizzy and the twins filling him in on everything that has happened since they spoke on the phone yesterday (which, apparently, is a lot), and then Harry’s there again, tugging on his hand.

“They’ve brought the vans around, Lou,” he says. “We’re heading to the W Hotel for an afterparty.”

“Which door?”

“Um. Dunno, I’m gonna follow Liam, he usually knows what’s going on.”

Somehow, the five boys and assorted family members all successfully find themselves at the right door—thankfully with no paps or fans in sight, as their regularly scheduled ambush may have traumatized the younger kids in their group—and herded into vans. It’s a short trip, Louis regaling his audience with tales from the house and giving everyone the lowdown on what the other contestants are actually like when they aren't on telly.

“Rebecca? Ah, yeah, Bex is actually the nicest human on earth. But then one morning I used the last of the milk and she almost ripped my head off. Luckily Harry baked brownies for me to give to her as a peace offering.”

“Yeah, Wagner is as weird as he seems. Hazza and I once spent the whole afternoon trying to find him, because we could hear him singing but he wasn’t in any room we checked. I think he haunts the attic.”

“I’ll introduce you to Aiden, he’s the best. Haz swears he should’ve been put in our band instead of Niall, but he just says that when Niall can hear to piss him off.”

“Alright, Lou,” Stan scoffs after a few minutes, “Let’s hear one story that isn’t about perfect-curls Harry, yeah?”

Louis blushes so hard he’s pretty sure he’ll melt the frost on the window, and avoids Stan’s and Lottie’s and his mum’s identical smirks for the rest of the drive.

The hotel is lavish: colorful and bright against the dark night, large windows on the bottom floor showing a view into their party from the pavement outside (perfect for pap pics, Louis thinks), a smattering of sparsely-decorated tables and modern lamps bouncing light off the bottles of champagne on every available surface. Louis is pulled away to change into less sweaty clothes and to wipe the makeup from his face with the rest of the boys, all of them chattering in excitement and pulling promises from each other to meet everyone’s families.

Harry and Louis walk out to find their mums have already found each other, laughing and swirling half-full glasses of wine. Gemma is showing Lottie how to braid Fizzy’s hair in a fishtail on a nearby sofa, and the twins are talking animatedly with one of Zayn’s sisters.

It’s a strange night, but it’s fun. Louis and Harry introduce their mums to the other contestants and are introduced to other family members in return. (Liam’s mum pulls Louis in for a tight squeeze, saying “I’m so thankful Liam is with such good boys. He loves you all so much,” and Louis sniffles, suddenly choked up, and whispers to her, “We love him too, don’t worry.”) They laugh and joke and wine is drunk and Anne even lets Harry have a glass of champagne, though she tells Louis to watch him and Louis can tell from Harry’s pink cheeks that that’s not an idle warning but one born from experience.

When Louis asks, Harry just groans and covers his eyes. “It was one time.”

“Four times, Harry,” his mother corrects. She turns to Louis and Jay with a familiar dimpled grin. “Harry likes to think he can sneak through a dark house after going to parties without knocking anything over or falling down the stairs or forgetting which room is his and crawling into the wrong bed.” Louis laughs, loud and bright, as Harry attempts to drown himself in the little bit of alcohol left in the bottom of his glass.

Eventually, though, Louis can’t avoid Stan’s knowing eyes on him any longer and makes his way over to the sofa where he and Niall are connecting over a shared love of hor d'oeuvres and cheap booze, Louis settling in and swiping a spinach puff from Stan’s plate. Zayn and Waliyha join them after a moment, drawing Niall into another conversation as Stan turns to Louis with shrewd eyes.

“It’s less noticeable on TV,” he says, popping an olive into his mouth. He waves his hand airily. “The whole fond... thing.”

“Well,” Louis says timidly, “that’s good, I suppose. I’d hate for things to be obvious.”

Stan just snorts, sipping at his wine. “'Fess up, Lou. It’s him, right?”

Ugh, this is the worst. And Louis can’t get away with lying, because Stan knows his every facial expression like he’s written an encyclopedia on them. So Louis just sighs and nods, saying, “Yeah.”

Stan nods as well and then—that’s it. He switches the subject to that of Oli’s attempt at dyeing his hair black and never makes another comment. Louis thinks he’s gotten off scot free, until he’s searching for a bathroom at one point and he hears two familiar voices from behind a large column. Louis stops to listen, stomach tense.

“... hurt him, alright? He’s a right git sometimes but I love ‘im, and he deserves the best,” Stan is saying, words sharper than Louis is used to hearing from him even after all the wine.

“Of course I won’t,” Harry protests, his voice quiet but sure. “Never. I love him too. He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

A quiet moment, then: “Good. I want him to be happy, and if you’re what makes that happen then I’m glad you’re around.”

 

 

After Louis kisses his mum goodbye later that night, he presses his face to her shoulder and breathes in deep—one last moment surrounded by the smell of home before it’s back to his new life of paparazzi and show rehearsals everyday.

“I miss you,” he murmurs, and she presses gentle hands to his neck.

“You too, love. But this is good, I think. You’re really making it here.” Louis just smiles into her collarbone. “And…” she starts again, “your, um. Tattoo situation? Is that all okay?”

Louis thinks of earlier, how a smile from Harry cleared the storm from his sky.

“Yeah,” he says honestly. “I think it’s good. It’s all good.”

 

 

9 November 2010

There's a window seat in Simon's office that Louis has claimed as his own.

It’s not particularly comfortable, but it gives Louis a view of the clouds that shift by overhead and the crowds gathered around the studio entrance down below, the paps on one side and the screaming girls on the other, an interesting scene to observe as he listens to Simon run the world from just a few feet away.

Sometimes Zayn joins him when he needs a moment of quiet, his knees pressed against Louis’ as he reads or plays on his phone. Niall comes up to find him here when he wants a nap, his face pressed into Louis’ thigh as he twitches in sleep. Liam doesn’t often make his way to the office, just because he always has a thousand other things he thinks he should be doing: rehearsing their next song or practicing choreography or working out or giving interviews or personally greeting each fan waiting outside the entrance, trying to have long, meaningful conversations with each one of them when really all they want is a picture and a kiss on the cheek.

Harry sits with him sometimes too. He wiggles his way between Louis’ legs to lay against his chest, his hair in Louis’ nose as he dozes or whispers random thoughts to Louis about dinner ideas or shopping trip plans with Aiden and Niall or little details about his mum and sister or his friends from home or their friends in the competition. Sometimes he falls asleep and Louis has to shake him awake when it's time for another rehearsal or the vans are there to take them home.

(“Harry.”

Nothing.

Harry.”

Still nothing.

Harry Styles!”

“Hmm, wha-? S’going on?”

“You’re an idiot, that’s what.”)

Sometimes it’s all four of the boys, pretending they need a break from the madness downstairs but really craving that special time together that they’ve grown so accustomed to, where they sprawl together and talk about everything and anything. They’re usually at the studio from far too early in the morning to long past sunfall; rehearsals and choreography practices and quickly inhaled meals and interviews and behind-the-scenes extras all stretch the days into unscheduled masses of time together where they don’t actually get to be together. It’s helped that Savan has taken a step back in vocal rehearsals, working them through their harmonies the first couple of times and letting them practice on their own after that, checking on them sporadically to check their progress throughout the day rather than holding their hands through multiple excruciating hours of singing the same two minute section of a song. So now the boys have a little bit more down time, and sometimes they spend it up in Simon’s office.

And sometimes it’s just Louis.

Simon hadn’t batted an eye when Louis had showed up at his office door on the Sunday morning after he’d asked about Louis’ Marker, when Louis was on a break between rehearsals. He’d just waved Louis in and continued his phone conversation with Leona Lewis, who apparently wants to dye her hair again and Simon is trying to talk her out of it.

Louis uses his time in Simon’s office to think, and the other boys know this. It’s why, when they wander in, they’re always quiet whether or not Simon is even in the room. Louis loves them for it, because he has to plan.

And, well. Planning for life after the band is a bit like writing a will, Louis thinks.

Not that he’s written his will. If, for some reason, he dies anytime soon, his stuff will go to his mum (except maybe the clothes the other boys have stolen for themselves, but to be fair they’ve basically all dumped their suitcases onto Harry’s empty bunk for a communal wardrobe and it’s gotten to the point they don’t remember who actually owns what). But, basing his knowledge of writing a will off of what he’s seen on in movies and on TV, it’s probably a similar process. It’s uncomfortable and a little morbid and, really, all it is is planning for the worst.

Because, obviously, Louis does not want to leave the band. He doesn’t want the band to fail, either. He wants to be in One Direction forever, if that’s an option. But, based on common sense and Simon’s comments, at some point, someday, being a boybander won’t pay the bills, and Louis will have to figure something else out.

His old plan had been teaching, though he’s not really sure why. Maybe because he’d always had to deal with teachers who were unhappy in their jobs and hated him for being loud and not super great at geography, or whatever, and he wanted to help out kids who someday will go through the same thing. He could spend his days reading plays or literature and making classes do improv activities. It had seemed like a viable choice at the time. Not anymore.

Now, Louis sits in Simon Cowell’s office and absorbs everything he says. He memorizes and stores every word when Simon talks about demographics and pre-sales and social media reach. It’s fascinating, really, how tugging one tiny string can set off an effect felt ‘round the world, how the right word said to the right newspaper can boost album sales, how a tweet at the perfect moment can change the public’s attitude, how a perfectly placed pap can be worth the thousands spent to put him there.

Louis sits in Simon Cowell’s office and learns how to survive in the music world even if you aren’t making music.

Because Louis loves being on stage, and he hopes the audiences love him being there. But, at least most of the time, Louis is a realist: he knows that with each progressing week and yet another lack of solos for him, his importance in the band seems less and less solid. And he loves his boys for sticking up for him when he gets upset about his voice, but that doesn’t magically make him into Robbie Williams. It just makes him a decent singer with really great friends.

When they’d been at the bungalow for a few days back in September, Anne and Robin had come to check on them and dropped off a few newspapers that mentioned any of them in their X Factor reports (as individuals, since the bootcamp episode hadn’t aired yet). Harry got quite a few mentions, several writers putting him in Who To Watch lists. Zayn got a couple of sentences here and there, and Niall did too for his cheeky back-and-forth with Katy Perry during his audition. Liam was in every single article, reporters falling all over themselves to say it’ll be him bringing home the trophy, giving him six-to-one odds of winning it all. He’d already been linked to Cher, the two of them called the new X Factor power couple. Louis was in none, not even the Doncaster papers.

The situation in the press is a little different now. Liam still gets a lot of attention, yeah, and they’re still linking him with Cher, but it’s little more than vague speculation and gossip about Liam’s dreamy eyes now. Harry is the tabloid darling, the new Justin Timberlake, the one linked to the models and the actresses five or six years older than him (even though, if the tabs could actually see him, they’d find he spends conversations with girls his age trying—and failing—to be cool and he spends conversations with older women stammering and blushing and he spends his nights wrapped around Louis instead of any of them).

Niall and Mary are Irish royalty in the press, Zayn is the bad boy (and how they got that idea, Louis would love to know; Zayn is the cuddliest kid on the planet).

And Louis is the guy with the dagger.

Not one note about his voice, only mentioning the competition or the band when they need to explain who he is. Louis’ headlines don’t come through any talent or action of his own, but from a highly visible involuntary reaction.

And that’s why he’s writing his One Direction will, because someday he and his dagger will be old news and management will either leave him behind or find someone to replace him who can actually sing.

Louis is pretty sure Simon knows about this plan. He lets him in his office, for one thing, but even more helpful is when he introduces Louis to the people who come in to meet with Simon for his various projects. He doesn’t even chase Louis from the room when the meetings start, just waving his hand at the other person to keep going when they see Louis hanging about by the window and stop to raise their eyebrows questioningly.

It’s how Louis learns about pap walks and Tweetdeck and the power dynamics in every single working relationship.

And sure, maybe none of these producers or executives or managers will remember him later, but maybe they will. And maybe is all Louis needs.

 

 

That night in their room, when Zayn is falling asleep and Niall is watching a movie on his phone and Liam is checking Twitter (but refusing to tweet because he’s terrified of breaching contract in some irredeemable way), Harry turns around in Louis’ arms and puts on his Serious Talk Face.

“Lou,” he says quietly, cuddling close. His eyes don’t meet Louis’, instead watching his own finger trace the outline of Louis’ collarbones with faint, barely-there touches. (It’s very, very distracting.)

“Yeah?”

“Why do you trust Simon so much?”

It is, at the same time, exactly the question Louis was expecting and not what Louis expected at all. He knows Harry has a hard time around Simon, knows that’s why he only comes up to visit Louis during his quiet time in Simon’s office when he’s desperate for a cuddle or some reassurance of some kind. Louis had always chalked it up to nerves—Simon is still incredibly intimidating, and Louis spends multiple hours with him every day now—or to feeling like his office is somewhere Harry doesn’t belong.

Apparently not.

“I think...” he starts, because Harry wants a serious answer and so Louis needs to fight his natural reaction of sarcasm to think of one, “I think I don’t, actually. I know Simon is out for two things, which is to win the competition and to make the most possible money. But we’re his only chance to win since Belle Amie went home, so I assume all decisions he makes regarding us, at least right now, are for our benefit.”

“But-”

“Look, love, I get what you’re saying. If Simon thought he could make a profit off of us performing disco tunes in our onesies, that’s what he’d make us do. He doesn’t really think about the effects on us, like, as people, just the effects on the band and the show. And maybe someday that might hurt us. But…” he stops, gathers some more stray thoughts into something logical. Harry shuffles a little closer. “Honestly, the more time I spend with him and the more I learn about the music business, it’s fascinating, right? All these people we assumed were out there being famous just because they want to be or they‘re good enough to be—it’s not like that, it’s super calculated and takes teams of people to make one person into a star. But it’s also, like, the most extreme example of a dog eat dog world, because they’ll do literally anything for money. That’s why I don’t trust Simon, but at the same time I trust him more than I’d trust anyone else.”

He thinks of the Modest! executives, Griffiths and Magee and their cold, manipulative stares. He thinks of Claudia and her ever-tapping fingernails on her Blackberry, reporting his every move to her superiors.

“Simon is blunt and mean sometimes, but you know exactly what you’re getting with him and where he stands,” he finishes. “He might stick a knife in you, but he’ll at least have the decency to let you know it was him that did it.”

Harry is quiet for a moment, which draws Louis’ attention to the fact that the quiet has settled over the rest of the room as well. Zayn’s eyes are open, watching Louis carefully. Niall has pulled his headphones out of his ears, and Liam has locked his phone, tapping it against his shin.

“You’re really interested in all this, aren’t you?” Harry finally asks. “Like, the other side of this whole thing.”

“Rather be a mogul than a popstar?” Liam adds helpfully, and Harry nods.

Louis, in eloquent answer, shrugs. “I don’t know. I want to be in this band, first and foremost. But someday you lot might get sick of my shit and toss me out, and then what do I do?” He laughs and covers Harry’s mouth, smothering his indignant protest. “I know, Hazza, you won’t ever kick me out. But it may not be up to you. I’m not exactly the frontman of the band, you know? So yeah, it’s interesting. And… no, it’s stupid.”

“Aw, c’mon Lou. Don’t do that,” Niall says. “Finish your thought.”

“It’s just—well, Simon sort of has the power of God, doesn’t he? He can choose one person out of thousands or millions who has the same amount of talent as everyone else, and he can make them into a star. Can you imagine that? Like even if it’s just for a little while, he can just reach out and pull anyone he wants to fame. If I could do that...“ he chuckles. “I’d spend my days trolling YouTube and Twitter for people who have talent but don’t have any way to make their dreams happen. I could be their way in.”

“That’s lovely,” Harry says, removing Louis’ hand so he can talk. “That’s so amazing, Lou.”

Louis shrugs again, embarrassed but a little pleased.

It’s quiet again, the boys all lost in their own thoughts, when Zayn suddenly pipes up, mischief in his voice.

“You have a YouTube video out there somewhere, don’t you Louis?”

And, despite Louis’ vehement denials to the contrary, they end the night by listening to Louis’ old covers of The Fray, because of course Louis has a YouTube channel and an old dream of someone like Simon Cowell stumbling upon it and making him a superstar. After the fifth replay, Louis tries to shut the laptop and is met with loud opposition.

“This is art!” Zayn cries. “Art!”

“Someone figure out how to put this on iTunes, it’ll be number one by tomorrow,” Niall says. Liam just laughs and laughs, pinching Louis’ cheek in happy retaliation of all the nonsense Louis has put him through.

Harry snuggles close and grins. “We do this because we love you, Boo.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Louis grumbles, but he can’t stay mad for long. “Love you too, arsehole.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Six: 11 November 2010 - 3 December 2010

 

11 November 2010

Louis and Niall have invented a game.

It's a sort-of cross between beer pong and Chinese checkers, with added elements of Tetris and also maybe Jenga? Harry's not really sure. No one is really sure, even after the third run through of the six pages of sloppily written rules that only Niall and Louis can decipher.

And, thanks to the X Factor house’s strict no-alcohol-in-the-house-or-anywhere-near-you-ever rules (strengthened tenfold and actually being enforced after Aiden and Louis's papped night out, which absolutely does not make Harry smirk every time someone complains), there isn't even any beer to put in the cups. Harry admittedly has only limited experience with the game of beer pong, but the alcohol was easily always the only enjoyable part.

Currently, he’s watching Louis direct Liam and Niall into stacking a third table on top of two others in a wobbling pile.

“Like a six-pointed star!” he keeps crying. “That’s what we need!”

Niall, as co-creator of the game, is happily on board. Liam doesn’t look so sure, but at the same time he’s been walking around with that oh God he actually likes me look ever since he and Louis had their heart-to-heart and decided they were both in it to win it. Harry doesn’t blame Liam, as he’s pretty sure he’s still in his starstruck-by-Louis phase as well, and if Louis required a piece sawn off the Eiffel Tower and a lock of Simon’s hair for the game, he’d be the first to volunteer for the errand.

Liam and Niall finally get the tables situated in a way that makes Louis make a happy noise, and then he’s flitting around shoving random shoes from the pile by the doorway under table legs to keep them from wobbling. Then he stands, and claps, and says, “Right, then, we need one more person. Harry, be a doll and go fetch Aiden, he’ll love this.”

Harry doesn’t give it a second thought, just nods happily and hops up the stairs. He’s humming to himself as he enters Aiden’s room, the need for knocking long past as Harry is perpetually naked and he’s walked in on Aiden changing before so they’re even, there’s nothing else that can happen to be embarrassed about.

(Or so he thought.)

The room is dark, lit only by a lamp half-covered by a thrown jumper in the corner. There’s a sound of shifting on sheets, bare skin on cotton, and something else, maybe, something slick and sensual. But Harry doesn’t notice any of this in the moment, too preoccupied with picking his way into the dim room without face-planting and receiving a bollocking from the makeup team who’d have to cover up his black eye.

But then he hears a, “God, Aiden, yes,” and he finally looks up and realizes what he’s walked into.

And then he’s stammering out apologies, because he’s a moron who can’t just sneak quietly from a room when he walks in on two close friends in the middle of what seems to be very enjoyable sex.

“God, sorry, I’m—” Harry jabbers, and Aiden’s head pops up off the pillow to stare at him, his mouth open in shock and his pupils dilated. Matt looks surprised as well, but he’s three fingers deep in Aiden and he still hasn’t stopped moving and, okay, Christ, Harry needs to leave but his feet won’t work. All he sees is slick skin and damp sheets and fingers and, “I’m so- shit, shit, sorry, I’m so sorry!”

He backs into the desk, trips over a stray boot, falls against the door and mumbles one more, “Sorry, sorry!” before he’s finally in the fresh, clean air of the brightly lit hallway.

And then he runs to the bathroom and locks himself in. Half-formed thoughts fly through his mind as he shucks his trousers and gets a hand around his suddenly-straining dick.

Christ he didn’t- 

It’s not like he’s never thought about-

Of course he’d known that guys could-

But why was it so hot-

His hand moves quickly, his breath stuttering, and he’s trying to picture the scene without any reminders that those are his friends he’s quite literally wanking over: his very good friend Matt whose thick, slick fingers had pushed into Aiden so easily and Aiden, his very, very close friend who had just taken it, who’d been gasping like it had been the best thing he’d ever experienced.

It’s so easy for Harry to picture himself instead and, oh, heat stirs up his spine and tingles in his fingers as he imagines being spread out across someone’s sheets, and he has no idea what it would feel like to have someone inside of him but based on just-witnessed evidence it’s pretty fucking awesome. His hand pulls quicker and quicker, a familiar tugging sensation growing below his stomach, and he’s panting and moaning and all he can imagine is someone’s chest as they hover over him, hair brushing his stomach as they dip low, lips on his skin and fingers probing gently at him, back muscles shifting beautifully when he looks down to watch, sweat causing limbs to glide easily across each other, the muscles of their forearm flexing under the dagger tattoo with each press inside—

Fuck,” Harry moans, one last twist of his wrist throwing him over the edge, gasping and shuddering as his vision whites and his limbs go numb for just a second, his heart pounding wildly as the sparks dissipate slowly from his veins.

That was… “Fuck,” is all he can think.

His mind is pleasantly hazy as he trips back down the stairs, where he finds that the idea of tables stacked on top of each other has gone about as well as anyone should have expected, one of the tables now upside down with its legs pointing toward the ceiling and one teetering dangerously as Louis attempts to balance cups full of a mysterious liquid on it. Liam and Niall are arguing, yelling over each other and gesturing at the upside-down table.

“Where’s Aiden?” Zayn calls from where he’s watching the entertainment unfold from the nearest sofa.

“Um,” Harry says, because he sort of forgot what he’d meant to be doing and definitely didn’t come up with an excuse. His voice is languid and throaty, so he clears his throat. “Asleep?”

“Bullshit,” Louis snorts, turning around. “He thinks our game is stupid, doesn’t he? Well that is not going to work, he is not better than us. C’mon, Hazza, let’s go punch him til he joins—”

Harry panics, which is the only explanation for his next actions.

He pounces, throwing Louis to the floor in a bounce of flailing limbs and Louis’ screeches. Louis stares up at him in alarm. “Hazza, what the hell?”

Harry just shushes him with a finger pressed hard to his lips, steals his glasses, pulls the bottom of Louis’ shirt up to cover his face, unties the drawstring of his sweatpants so they’ll fall if he doesn’t tie them back, then stands and sprints upstairs. He skids into Cher’s room with the sounds of Louis’ muffled cursing following him like hunting dogs nipping at his heels.

“Yeah?” she asks, raising one exquisitely groomed eyebrow as though it’s perfectly reasonable for Harry to burst into her room, panting and sweating.

“You- Louis- beer pong,” he gasps, and maybe he should work out more, because this is embarrassing.

“Beer pong?” she asks delightedly. “Why didn’t you say so?”

Louis is still slowly getting to his feet when Harry leads Cher downstairs, his sweatpants drooping low on his hips and his hair mussed from his t-shirt. Before he can ask what he clearly wants to ask, Harry bounds to his side.

“Look, I found your glasses! And Cher, she wants to play. Look!” Harry holds out the glasses like an offering. Louis just squints at him.

“You are a strange, strange creature,” he says, but accepts the glasses and points Harry and Cher to their places around the three-table monstrosity of a pong game.

They’re all confused about the rules by the second round; Harry can hardly wrap his mind around a game that includes balancing empty cups, hand-eye coordination, and math when he’s also trying to have an internal crisis in peace. (And it doesn’t matter that he just wanked, he’s so confused and still so turned on that the breeze caused by Louis’ excited jumping is almost enough to set him off again, right here in front of everyone.) The Red Bull and Lucozade mixture standing in as a substitute for their lack of beer is making them all twitchy and laugh too loudly at things that aren’t really that funny.

It’s still an intense competition, though, Louis and Cher and, surprisingly, Liam all locked in intense battle to the very last round.

Louis wins, of course. He celebrates by running countless laps around the outside of the house in nothing but his sweats, whipping his t-shirt above his head and howling at the moon.

Harry celebrates Louis’ win with another two orgasms in the shower, his knuckles red and covered in indentions from his teeth when he’s finished.

And then he lies awake for hours, watching the moon make its way across his windowed view of the sky while Louis sleeps curled around him. His breath is warm on Harry's neck and sending shivers through his limbs, and Harry is trying very hard to concentrate on anything but his sudden, overpowering interest in having someone absolutely wreck him.

 

 

12 November 2010

Harry is standing outside Aiden’s door.

It’s been a long, strange day. He spent the majority of it in the studio rehearsing with the boys, but he also worked in time for a nap in Simon’s office on Louis’ chest, a run with Liam, cooking family dinner for the house, and still, still cannot get the burning curiosity from yesterday out of his mind.

He’s just… amazed probably shouldn’t be the right word, but that’s what he is.

Harry has thought about sex about as much as anyone would expect for a teenage boy. He’s watched countless hours of porn alone in his room at home, has perfected the art of the two-minute wank, wakes up with extreme morning wood more often than not. He’s felt the thrill in his stomach when a girl runs her hand up his arm, that possibility of something more than a friendly kiss to the cheek (even though that's the extent of his experience, and just because girls have hinted doesn't mean they followed through). He knows that sex is the big perk of Bonding, and that most of the time guys his age only want to Bond because they may finally get some guaranteed sex out of it.

But he’s never thought about sex with a boy. According to the half-hard state his dick has been in all day, he’s very interested in the idea.

And it’s not like, before yesterday, he’d have anything against a Bond or a relationship with a boy. It’s just so uncommon for same sex couples to Bond that he never really gave it more than a cursory thought, a shrug and a hey, a Bond’s a Bond. If his soulmate was a guy, so be it, but since it was so unlikely he never really thought through those implications.

Now he knows, though. He’s aware of gay sex. It’s on his radar. He’s more than keen on the idea. And he has no fucking idea what to do with that.

He needs help. So he’s outside Aiden’s door, his palms sweaty and face already burning in embarrassment, but he knocks anyway.

“Yeah?” Aiden calls, and Harry lets himself in.

And then freezes, because Matt is laid out across Aiden’s bed, idly strumming at his guitar.

“Need something?” Aiden asks, lips twitching into a smirk at Harry from his desk.

“I, um. Can I, uh- can you- yeah?” Harry rambles, and he feels like an even bigger moron when Matt quirks an eyebrow at him and stands, stretching.

“I’ll leave this stimulating conversation to the two of you,” he chuckles, winking at Aiden and closing the door behind him when he leaves. Aiden watches Harry, still grinning, but seems to take pity on him after a moment and gestures to the bed.

The bed he and Matt have had sex on, probably more than once.

Right.

Harry perches on the very edge of the mattress, basically sitting on nothing and pretending there’s no strain in his thighs because of it. Aiden notices, though, and rolls his eyes.

“The sheets are clean, dork,” he says, and shoves Harry backward so he’s fully seated on the mattress. Then he clambers up beside him, propping his chin on his fist. “So… what’s on your mind, doll?”

It would be so much easier if Harry could just say it. If he was Louis, or Niall, or somebody else who doesn’t get embarrassed easily, he could just spit it out and they could have this conversation like the almost-adults they are. Harry is not Louis, though, not nearly as brave even in dumb matters like asking their mutual friend how to go about sticking his fingers in himself and/or asking someone else to stick their fingers in him. So Harry stammers out something stupid like, “I just wanted to, um. Talk? Like. You know.”

“Ah, yes. Talking. Texting with voices. I’ve heard of it.” And of course Aiden’s taking the piss, because Harry’s an idiot and he’s making literally no sense. So he tries again.

“Like, maybe you could. Um. Answer some questions?” and then Harry immediately regrets it, because the smirk unfurls once more on Aiden’s face.

“Questions about what, dear Harry?”

Harry hates himself. “Um.”

Aiden laughs loudly, a single bark right in Harry’s ear. And then he laughs again as he slides off the bed and rummages through a drawer in the bedside table. He pulls out a bottle, and Harry flushes even hotter when he reads the label—Astroglide it proclaims, and then underneath that are even scarier words: Anal Lubricant.

“You’re lucky I just went to the shops,” Aiden says, laughter still evident in his voice. “Two-for-one offer, so I stocked up. Otherwise I’d tell you to go get your own.”

Harry gingerly takes the bottle and it feels a bit like it felt the first time Harry had watched porn—illicit and dirty, but hot, really really hot. He doesn’t want to get caught with this, but the fact that he could makes him shiver. And then he remembers that he still doesn’t really know what to do.

“Can you… how do I—”

“Christ,” Aiden says, dropping his face into his hands, “This is less funny, now.” But he looks up at the ceiling like seeking solace, sighs, and then turns back to Harry with a determined expression.

Thirty minutes later, Harry’s mouth is hanging open as Aiden describes his third favorite sex position (doggy style) and how it affects prostate stimulation (very, very well apparently). He has a note open on his phone where he’s typing in words that Aiden says that he doesn’t recognize to look up later (he has no idea what felching is but he’s very interested in finding out). He now knows more about the inner workings of his arse than he ever thought necessary or possible.

“I have to ask,” Aiden says as he wraps up a story involving his neighbor, a treehouse, and a children’s birthday party that has Harry cringing. “Is there a… particular reason you’re asking all this?”

“Um,” Harry says, because how do you tell your friend that walking in on him getting fingered by another friend possibly awakened a new part of your sexual identity?

“Got your eye on anybody?” Aiden tries again, and his eyes look more serious now, his grin less prominent.

“Not really,” Harry answers, and he’s pretty sure it’s the truth because he truly hadn’t been able to get over the mere existence of gay sex, let alone been able to imagine himself with anyone else in particular. Not that he can’t tell when a lad is attractive—he sleeps next to Louis every night, he knows what a beautiful boy looks like.

“Oh,” Aiden says lightly. Harry gets the feeling he was expecting another answer. “So nobody’s caught young Hazza’s eye?”

Well, of course people have caught his eye. Or, well, one person. But he can’t shag his best friend because it’s just a horrible, terrible idea. Really, it can only lead to heartbreak; he knows he isn’t Louis’ soulmate even though it feels like Louis is his other half sometimes, and Louis isn’t his. He’s said Louis’ full name plenty of times, he’d know if Louis suddenly got a Marker.

But it hasn’t happened, so they’re best friends. It’s fine. He doesn’t want to have sex with Louis. The thought just makes his head spin a little, that’s all. Sometimes he thinks about kissing Louis and his spine feels like it’s been lit on fire. But that’s, like, not that big of a deal.

Aiden is watching him knowingly. “Right,” he says. “Good talk.”

“Hey,” Harry says, because this chat can’t be all about embarrassing him. “You and Matt, how long’s that been going on?”

Aiden just waves a hand. “Oh, I don’t know. A couple weeks? It’s just some fun, Harry. Nothing serious.” “Just some fun,” Harry echoes. He’s never really thought about casual relationships, always assumed someone came out of them hurt. Maybe not, though.

“Yeah,” Aiden shrugs again. “It’s not that big of a deal. Lots of people have casual sex.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, of course. I know some people are against it and wait for their soulmate, or whatever, but it’s not a bad thing to want more than one person in your lifetime. And it really helps you figure out what you want out of sex, and what you like. So, when you do meet your soulmate, you don’t have to fumble through awkward sex to get to the good stuff.”

Any sex would be the good stuff to Harry at this point, but he’ll let that comment go. And then, for some reason, his mind slides to Louis again. How sometimes he talks to that one younger camera guy, Ricky, and cocks his hip out like he’s flirting. His jokes and stories about sneaking into clubs when he was still underage and all the wink-nudge fun he had. How his hips move when he knows people are watching him, like he’s putting on a show. How he doesn’t get stuttery or awkward when girls grab his arm or his hand, how he just laughs like it’s no big deal and touches them right back. Like he’s used to strangers having their hands on him.

And, well. Harry’s pretty sure it’s not a secret to Aiden that Harry wants to kiss Louis sometimes. He’s pretty sure Aiden can keep his secret, and he’s dying a little bit because he needs to know. So he asks.

“Has, um. Has Louis ever talked about… anything like that? Casual relationships?” he asks, staring down at his hands. When he looks back up, Aiden’s eyes are sad.

“I think he’s the one you should ask,” he says quietly. “That’s his business.”

“But you know,” Harry presses.

Aiden just sighs. “I think Louis knows what he’s doing,” he says, and then refuses to answer any more of Harry’s probing questions.

But he doesn’t really need to. There’s something odd brewing in Harry’s stomach that tastes metallic and feels like poison, and that’s really all the answer he needs. So he switches the topic again, asks Aiden something about flavored lube that sends him on another wild ride of anecdotes and advice, and tries not to think about other people that aren’t him getting to be with Louis.

 

 

Later, Harry slips out of Aiden’s room and back into the boys'. Zayn is reclining on his bed, flipping through a graphic novel he bought the other day, and doesn’t pay attention as Harry pretends to rummage through his bag and hides the bottle of lube under some of his t-shirts he never wears. He’ll use it later, when he can get the room to himself and doesn’t feel like throwing up because other people have touched Louis in places he hasn’t and probably never will.

 

 

13 November 2010

Except, here’s the thing. Harry never gets a chance to use the lube.

Not the rest of Friday, because everyone gathers in the TV room that night to watch a film and it’s one of those togetherness moments where they all get clingy because someone will be going home after the next day’s performances. And then, of course, there is no such thing as alone time on Saturdays during the X Factor, because when he’s not rehearsing this week’s song with the boys or practicing their choreography and staging, he’s being shuttled from interview to interview to makeup chair to another interview. Grace is buttoning Harry’s blazer and shooing him out to join the other boys backstage and before he knows it, Simon is announcing “One Direction!” and the video of them at the Harry Potter premiere showing on the big screens as they’re led out to their positions on the stage.

Harry loves Elton John, and for some reason this song seems particularly apt tonight. He turns and sings to Louis as the words hit him, cameras and Aiden’s cautious words forgotten.

I need to tell you, how you light up every second of the day
But in the moonlight you just shine like a beacon on the bay

It’s like each week it gets better and better, being on stage—the fan frenzy has only multiplied but they’re used to it, at least a little. The threat of a crowd is underwhelming compared to the joy it brings to see hundreds of people singing along, and it isn’t even their song. Someday it’ll be their lyrics, their words spilling from the mouths of thousands.

It’s enough when Simon says, “This is the first time I genuinely believe a group is going to win this competition,” it’s enough to be by Louis’ side on that stage, to have Liam and Zayn’s arms around him, to have Niall grin back at him every time the judges mention them making it to the final, it’s enough to be here on this stage with these boys.

He wants Louis for himself, yeah; but he doesn’t need anything else but this right here.

 

 

14 November 2010

Sunday dawns bright and early; Harry is flipping pancakes and joking with a sleep-rumpled Louis, whose hands are wrapped around a steaming mug of Yorkshire tea as he blinks drowsily and slings quick words in his raspy morning voice. The peace is ruptured, though, when Aiden appears in the kitchen and asks them both to come with him.

“There’s been a leak,” he says in a rush when they’re alone. “On Twitter. My friend sent it to me. I’m last in votes, at least as of a few minutes ago, so I might be going home tonight.”

“No,” Louis says automatically. “You won’t. You’ll win a sing-off. You’ll be fine.”

“You never know,” Aiden shoots back, and it sounds like less of an argument and more like a surety, that show business—and the X Factor specifically—is, above all else, fickle. “Katie’s been in the bottom three times already and keeps fighting her way out. I haven’t ever been in that situation, and my backup song isn’t my best. I could go home.”

“No,” Louis says again, forever stubborn, but it’s wobbly this time. Harry still can’t make his vocal cords work: he knows the show is a competition, that every week someone goes home—the ever-increasing number of empty rooms in the house is a testament to that. It’s just that so far, he’s only said goodbye to people he was friendly with, not actual friends. He can’t bear the thought of Aiden just being gone.

Aiden pulls them both close, the kind of hug that pushes the world away for a moment.

“I didn’t tell you this to make you sad,” he laughs self-consciously. “I have actual news, something I think you both should hear.”

“Yeah?”

He steps back a little and pushes a hand through messy hair. “It actually, um, happened after our... our chat, Harry,” he says, and Harry tries very hard to change his expression into one of innocent curiosity, because Louis is now watching Harry with that sharp, attentive look in his eye—the one that promises that there will be no secrets around him. Harry gulps before he can help it, but then Aiden is continuing and drawing both of their attention back on him. “I was talking to Matt, about, well.” He flickers a glance at Harry. “I was talking to Matt, and…”

“Say it,” Louis says, his eyes wide like he already knows the news. Harry is still completely lost—what could Matt and Aiden have talked about that would be spurred on from a conversation about lube and no-strings-attached sex?

Aiden just grins, and flips his wrist so the soft underside is facing upward to show—

“Oh my God!” Harry cries, leaping forward to pull Aiden into a hug. “Oh my God, oh my God!

There, right across the veins and pale skin of Aiden’s wrist, is a subtle, beautifully-curling M that hadn’t been there before.

“You Bonded! You Bonded!” Harry is still cheering into Aiden’s neck, and Aiden cackles and slams his palm across Harry’s mouth, hissing for him to be quiet but still beaming like a child with a new toy.

Harry turns back, surprised that he’s the one that has to be shushed when he’s in a room with Louis, the loudest person to have ever spoken words, ever—but Louis looks struck dumb, mouth gaping. Harry decides to give him a moment and turns back to Aiden, smiling so widely his cheeks hurt.

“This is amazing,” he gushes. “I’m so happy for you. And your dumb soulmate, who should be with you at all times so I could give him a hug now too.”

“My dumb soulmate,” Aiden says, raising a dainty eyebrow, “is sleeping off the very enthusiastic night we just spent together, and has already moved money around in his account so we can get a flat in London together soon if I do go home tonight. So you can shut your mouth.” But his eyes crinkle and he grins like sunshine and Harry is so, so happy for him.

“So what’s it like?” Harry asks, bouncing a little. He’s known people who were Bonded before (John and Treyc are still in the house’s group text and send updates or little good luck! messages before the show each week), but he’s never actually had Bonded friends and this is a fabulous opportunity to ask as many questions as possible. “Being Bonded, how is it?”

Aiden, instead of answering Harry directly, looks at Louis; Louis, meanwhile, is biting his lip like he’s half-scared Aiden is going to scream obscenities at him for some reason.

“It’s…” he says, and his eyes are so, so wide, trying to push a meaning through to them and Harry believes him without even wondering what it is he’s meant to be believing. “It’s good. It’s really, really good.”

Louis sighs, or maybe he coughs; all Harry knows is that Louis looks like he’s been punched in the gut and told to look happy about it. But he finally moves, finally steps up and wraps Aiden in a real embrace.

“Happy for you,” he whispers.

For one terrible second, Harry wonders if Louis actually means it.

 

 

It truly seems like mockery that each week, as the finalists get more nervous and the stakes get higher and the goodbyes get harder, the group songs to kick off the Results Shows get cheerier and cheerier.

This week, it’s Can’t Stop Moving—ironic, then, that all Harry wants to do is stand still and take it all in, to stop the world from turning just for a little while.

(Well, maybe that’s not true. Maybe he wants the world to spin a little faster, so it’s past showtime and past the reading of the results and past a time when he has to fret about Aiden going home and all the implications surrounding that. So he can just know whether his heart’s going to be broken when he goes to sleep tonight.)

Harry’s not even the one in danger of going home, but he watches Aiden fidget and twitch and shoot glances at Matt from the corner of his eye and Harry’s heart is certainly beating like it’s the last time he’ll be on stage.

And, for some unfathomable reason, all the acts are in denim. Which is, like, the most laidback of fabrics. The kind that says, nah, bro, everything’s chill. Grab a beer and let’s hang.

Harry does not feel chill. Harry wants to run a marathon and punch a couple of walls.

Louis is watching Aiden as well, but his gaze seems to be different: sharper, maybe. A little less fond and worried, like Harry’s, a little more baffled. Evening creeps closer and the three of them spend a last night together joking and talking in wardrobe like they usually do as Grace brushes powder to cover the bags under their eyes—and it may not even be the last time, Aiden might have gotten an influx of votes throughout the day, or he could still beat someone in a final showdown, but it still feels like he’s leaving and Harry’s stomach has never felt so unsettled—and they very much do not talk about Matt. 

“Just a secret for a little while,” Aiden had said to Harry and Louis that morning. “Just to let us get used to the idea, and to get our feet under us. We won’t keep it quiet forever, especially after Matt wins this whole thing and can shower me in his newfound riches.”

And then he’d bounced away, cackling, Harry chasing after him with a shrieked, “You take that back! We’re gonna be the ones who win and shower you in riches!”

But now they aren’t talking about it, and it’s almost like a normal night: one where they’d sing a silly group song and then stand on stage until their names were called and then it’d be back to the house for a night of popcorn and pajamas or out to the afterparty to schmooze and mingle. Someone else would be gone: an acquaintance that Harry might miss nodding at in the mornings over cereal, someone he might have joked with during rehearsal breaks, not a friend.

Louis has talked before about the music business being brutally competitive and aggressive, and Harry, logically, gets that. And X Factor is sort of its own little world, a miniature version of the entertainment industry around them; puppy-eat-puppy rather than dog-eat-dog, perhaps. So he knows that he, at this point, should see all the other competitors as The Enemy. Not to be trusted. Only out to do one thing—to win the competition and steal his chances at fame.

But that’s not how it works.

He’s been in the X Factor house for six weeks, and in those six weeks he’s gotten closer with some of his competition than he did over sixteen years with most of his friends back in Holmes Chapel. Sure, there were people in the house that he wasn’t always super crazy about—Wagner springs to mind though he mostly keeps to himself now, and there was Storm who’d bashed One Direction for being cutesy, and the FYD guys who were so focused on winning that they didn’t have any friends to be sad for them when they left. And there are the others who Harry likes but who just clicked with other people, Treyc and the Belle Amie girls and Paije.

It’s only been six weeks but Harry can’t imagine living anywhere but where he is now, that not-quite-townhome not-quite-country-house not-quite-mansion with all the tiny bedrooms and drafty corners and piles of shoes by the front door. He can’t imagine not getting a kiss on the cheek from Rebecca and Mary for cooking breakfast every morning. He can’t imagine not arguing over control of the TV with Matt or being grossed out by Cher’s fake eyelashes left wherever she damn well pleases or Katie curling Zayn’s hair when they were all bored one night, then doing Liam’s and then it wasn’t funny anymore because he actually looked really good. He can’t picture a morning not spent laughing with Aiden while a mostly asleep Louis sits on Harry’s lap and steals his food.

It’s not the big things that have drawn these people into Harry’s personal orbit, it’s not their singing abilities or their potential superstardom, it’s the little things. The things he doesn’t even realize he likes about them until they aren’t there anymore and he suddenly misses those tiny, insignificant parts of the day that build into something a lot like friendship but a lot like family, too.

And now Aiden is so sure he’s going home. He’s going home and breaking out of the X Factor orbit and he’s disrupting the balance of Harry’s entire universe and he just Bonded with Matt and it’s so, so unfair to be forced to live with people until you start to love them only to have them taken away.

With that thought, Harry’s gaze flicks to Louis.

It’s two minutes to showtime. Stage assistants have placed them all along the corridor up to the stage, Dermot standing amongst all the denim-clad performers like a besuited dream, a Beauty School Dropout kind of vision. Harry is at the end of a clump of boys, in front of Paije and behind Niall. They aren’t supposed to get out of order, they were put this way for a reason for filming purposes yadda yadda yadda. Harry can already imagine the hissed threats from the assistants whose noses are glued to their clipboards until they smell a hint of trouble or notice anyone sticking a single eyelash out of line.

But, you know what? Fuck it.

Harry slides against the wall, ducking past Niall and Zayn and Liam until he’s next to Louis, who’s still watching Aiden warily while simultaneously holding a half-hearted conversation with Mary. Harry leans around him and kisses Mary on the cheek, tells her, “You won’t forget the words, don’t worry” (because she always worries and always, always does amazingly), and spins her to face Rebecca. She picks up her thread of conversation like it had never dropped, Rebecca immediately leaning in and listening attentively.

With all of Louis’ attention now on him—as well as one perfectly curved eyebrow raised in his direction—Harry just says it.

“Move in with me.”

Louis laughs, teeth and eyes glittering in the low light of the stage wings. “We live in the same room and sleep in the same bed, Hazza. We cannot live together any more than we already do.”

“After the show,” Harry continues, insistent. It’s not a joke, it isn’t funny. Aiden is probably going home tonight and Harry’s world is being rocked and there is one thing in his life right now that is day-to-day consistent, his North Star in all this madness, and he will not let that slip away when their run on the show is over. “Live with me. In London, in Doncaster, in Holmes Chapel, I literally don’t care. Let’s move in together.”

The smile slides into open-mouthed shock on Louis’ face, and the director calls for quiet and counts them down. Harry is still watching Louis and Louis is still staring at Harry and somewhere in the background Dermot is speaking (“Tonight, on the X Factor,” he says ominously to the camera, but who cares, who cares).

A makeup artist steps in front of Harry and mimes fluffing his hair for the cameras. Harry ignores her, staring over her shoulder.

Louis still looks shocked, but a slow grin appears.

They aren’t supposed to talk, what with Dermot attempting to give a stirring speech to open a wild night of intrigue and entertainment or whatever his job is meant to be, but Louis cocks his head to the side and crinkles his eyes when he giggles and steps around the makeup artist like she’s not even there.

“Let’s move in together,” he agrees, and Harry smiles so widely his cheeks ache.

 

 

The group song is ridiculous but Louis gets a solo, so at least there’s that.

Well, it’s not a real solo. But the camera focuses on Louis while he, Matt, and Liam harmonize on the last line together and it looks like he’s got a solo, and that’s more than what he usually gets. He’s smiley and bouncy and dances up to Mary when the camera is on them and he thrives under the spotlight.

Louis looks like the fucking sun, and Harry is so happy to burn.

 

 

As he predicted, Aiden is in the bottom two acts, right next to Katie.

Harry loves Katie, her weird quirky style and raspy giggles and her unconditional support of everyone around her. He loves Katie so much, would do anything for her, but God does he want her to go home.

Aiden is shaking under the harsh spotlight, his hands rattling the microphone and it’s obvious even from the stage wings where Harry and Louis are standing on either side of Matt, watching the world fall to pieces.

“Aiden, never been here before,” Dermot says over the crowd, “how’re you feeling?”

Aiden just shrugs, his movements jerky. Matt laughs wetly, rubbing at his eyes. “Idiot,” he says fondly, and Harry is so familiar with that particular brand of affection (feels that swell of oh my God, why do I like you again? every time Louis pours milk in Harry’s boots or writes LOUIS WAS HERE in permanent marker across his back while he sleeps) that he instantly steps closer, slipping his hand into Matt’s and squeezing. Louis wraps his arm around Matt’s waist, and then they wait.

There’s a call for a commercial break, and Aiden and Katie are led to another area until it’s time to perform. The lights come up as the judges make their way to their seats, and it feels like the whole world is waiting in silence. Zayn and Liam are standing a little ways off to watch the results as well, whispering to each other worriedly, and Niall has his arm around Mary’s shoulders nearby. Most of the acts are still here, actually, which is different from most weeks.

But most weeks, they aren’t outraged by the person sitting in the bottom two, and, between the show politics and the talent levels involved, they all usually have a pretty good idea who’s going to go home before the singing even starts.

Matt pulls Louis closer and rests his head on top of Louis’ hair, pulls Harry closer too and brings their clasped hands up to his mouth. “He shouldn’t be up there,” he whispers, and Harry hates how close he sounds to breaking.

“No,” he agrees. “He shouldn’t.”

 

 

Aiden sings first in the final showdown. It’s decent but he’s shaky, and Harry can see Simon’s tiny frown as the lights come back up.

Katie nails her song.

 

 

Simon votes to send Aiden home. Dannii votes for Katie. Cheryl votes for Aiden. Louis Walsh votes for Katie.

Because of the tie, they go to deadlock and back to the first public vote.

Aiden had the fewest votes. He’s going home.

 

 

It’s all a bit blurry after that, and not just because Harry’s teared up more times than he can count.

Aiden comes trudging off the stage and straight into Matt’s arms, and then, like all the acts sent home before him, is passed around for hugs and kisses and you’ll be alrights and keep in touch, yeahs and Harry has a hard time watching, because of course Aiden saves him and Louis for last.

“I have something I want to say to you two,” he says quietly, fiercely, leaning in close. “I don’t care what comes out of this show, and I don’t care if you lot get your album deal and go on a dozen world tours. All I care is that you both take care of each other. Because this,” he points to the two of them, voice shaky, “this is something great, and I refuse to let you two lose it. Take care of each other, because no one else will be able to.”

He wraps them both in a hug, and doesn’t even seem to mind that Harry soaks his shirt with tears. With Aiden between them, Louis reaches out and grips Harry’s hand, and it feels like a promise.

 

 

15 November, 2010

It’s all a bit somber the next morning, breakfast a muted affair. Katie looks on the verge of apologizing for everything, but it’s not really her fault and there’s not really anything anyone could do. Everyone presses kisses to Matt’s forehead as they leave the table for various errands and rehearsals, because although Louis and Harry are the only two that know he and Aiden Bonded, everyone can still see how torn up he is about Aiden being gone.

Harry slides him extra bacon, at a loss for what else to do.

When they’re sent to the Vidcase, Louis clearly has absolutely no interest in pretending to care about filming a video diary. He grabs a book from Rebecca’s room on the way and reads lines from it instead of answering questions. Niall and Zayn think it’s hilarious—and it is, Harry is pretty sure everything Louis does is hilarious, but he’s really more focused on the tightness around Louis’ eyes than anything else—and poor Liam just tries to direct the derailed train of this diary back into some semblance of order.

“On Sunday we got through, which was amazing, but the sad thing was that Aiden went home as well and he’s one of our close friends,” he says, oblivious to the quick intake of breath and stuttered phrase from Louis as he tries to pretend absolutely nothing has just been brought up, a massive elephant that sits among them and uses up all the oxygen.

“We were all a bit shocked Aiden was in the bottom two,” Harry says, watching Louis stiffen from the corner of his eye.

‘No!’ Jimmy protested,” Louis reads from the book, studiously ignoring everyone and reverting back to his need to keep others laughing to distract from his own internal issues.

It’s awkward until Liam says that he’d quite like to be a birthday cake, and then that’s the end of that as Louis and Harry both turn to mock him mercilessly.

 

 

17 November 2010

Every morning when Harry unwraps himself from Louis’ sleep-heavy arms and stumbles to his bag to dig for clean clothes, he feels a jolt when his hand brushes his illicit bottle of lube.

He still hasn’t been able to use it. It’s sort of an impossibility to get more than half a second alone in this house, which is ridiculous because there are literally fewer people living here every week and yet Harry can’t get one moment to himself.

He’s so fucking frustrated he might actually combust.

The whole waking-in-Louis’-arms bit isn’t helping much, either. At least being the little spoon means he isn’t waking Louis with his morning wood. Instead, the weight of Louis’ morning erection pressed against his back tends to be exactly what propels Harry out of bed and to the bathroom every day for a quick, unsatisfying wank.

Even if he had all the time in the world, though, Harry’s not sure he’d actually be able to… you know. Do it.

Because it’s one thing to think about having someone around you, above you, inside of you in an abstract, tormenting way; it’s something entirely else to pour slippery stuff on your fingers and stick them up your own bum. What Harry really needs is a moment to himself with a laptop so he can research this thoroughly, because as helpful as Aiden was with his discussion of banana-flavored lube and the pros and cons of the reverse cowgirl position, it doesn’t really explain what he’s supposed to expect. Or do. Or be looking for. Like yeah, there’s a prostate somewhere in there, but where? And what do you do when you find it? Is it like a button you’re supposed to push—instant orgasm guaranteed? Or is it one of those things where you have to know exactly what to do and how to move to make the good things happen?

Harry needs answers.

It’s on his mind more than it probably should be over the next few days, seeing as how everyone else is focused on surviving another week in the competition and making it to the final seven acts. But it’s Beatles week, and they’re doing one of those songs that Harry would literally have to suffer brain damage before he could forget the words. And the distracting thoughts always seem to pop into his head at the worst moments: like when Louis is licking ice cream from a spoon or when Louis sighs against Harry’s neck and snuggles closer in his sleep or when Louis flutters his hand while speaking and draws attention to his delicate, gorgeous fingers and fuck, Harry starts realizing that he may not be quite as terrified anymore because he wants that, wants fingers buried deep inside of him—

So, okay, maybe he is ready.

He starts making excuses when they’re at the house to slip up to their bedroom to try and get a private moment. But then Niall will follow him upstairs, chattering about organizing a house-wide footie match that night after dinner, or Zayn will already be there on the phone with his mum or cuddling with Liam (which happens more than Harry would have ever guessed, but between Zayn and Louis they’re starting to wear down Liam’s walls that make him blush madly at physical affection), or Louis will catch him on the way upstairs and cling like a koala, refusing to let Harry out of his sight. Even aside from his bandmates there is no privacy to be had, and he realizes this when an ITV camera crew almost catches him smuggling the bottle of lube to his bed when he finally gets a rare moment alone.

If only there was a place to go, a secret door he could stumble across that opens to a room with a bed and a guarantee of no interruptions. Somewhere he could go specifically to have a spectacular, drawn-out orgasm and—

Oh, Jesus. Of course.

The sex room.

In all the madness since that first Sunday when FYD and Nicolo had packed their barely-unpacked bags and left the house and their newly empty rooms, Harry had completely forgotten about the sex room. Niall and Cher’s gaudy glittered sign on the door—The Sex Room: No clothes and no X Factor babies allowed! Don’t be silly, wrap your willy!—had become just a part of the background to him. He doesn't even know if anyone has ever used it, or if it still has recently washed sheets (well, washed six weeks ago, but if no one’s used them that still counts, right?) and the lingering scent of lemony cleaner.

Maybe he'll be the first to break it in.

 

 

Harry takes the first opportunity he's given to sneak away—Niall actually does end up organizing a game of football out in the backyard just as night is setting in. Harry waves everyone off with promises that he'll be out in a moment, he can be substituted in at half, just have to check something really quickly, you lot go get started, and weaves through the small crowd heading outside to get back upstairs and to his room. Before he loses his nerve, he sticks the bottle of lube and a small towel up his shirt and scurries to the sex room. He looks furtively over his shoulder for camera crews, errant contestants, or the wandering, curious eyes of the Xtra Factor hosts who tend to show up at the most inopportune times for a juicy bit of gossip. When he slips inside, the door closes behind him with a foreboding click.

The air smells a little stale, and the bed is still perfectly made; somehow, these tiny pieces of evidence proving Harry’s the first in here makes him feel the slightest bit better. Maybe if he forgot about this room, so did everyone else.

He strips off, folding his clothes and setting them on the empty desk. He pulls the top sheet back carefully, and lays himself across the bed, shivering a little at the cool fabric against his overheated skin.

Then he stares at the ceiling, because what’s the next part? Does he just… go for it?

Fuck it. If Aiden didn’t tell him that this whole thing has specific steps that need to be followed, he’s pretty sure it’s just sort of make-it-up-as-you-go.

So he starts with his hands. Running over his thighs first, light fingers up the inside of his legs toward his interestedly twitching cock, up past his hips and his waist and over his ribs to his nipples. He’s always been sensitive here, always been able to tug on them a little and feel it all the way down in the base of his dick; some strange nerve ending that stretches the length of his torso and makes him bite his lip involuntarily at the tingling, needy feeling that shoots through him. Soon he’s making noises as well, little mmphs and bitten-off ah-ahs that slip past his teeth.

His cock is heavy against his leg by now, his interest in the proceedings beginning to outweigh his trepidation. He palms himself once, then can’t stop because Jesus, it’s been ages since he was able to devote more to a wank than a hasty minute in the toilet; this feels spectacular now that he’s able to work himself slowly to full hardness rather than having to push out a quick, fleeting orgasm. He throws his head back, his left hand stroking circles across his chest and his right pulling slowly at his cock.

He keeps his right hand moving, up and down and collecting the drops of precome from the top to make the slide easier. With his left he reaches out, fumbling for the lube, and tries to pour some out onto his shaky finger.

And—shit. He drops the bottle onto the tile floor with what has to be the loudest clatter of all time. He launches himself off the bed and chases the lube as it skitters across the room, tripping over his own feet in his haste. When he finally has the bottle safely back in hand, he tries again.

Attempt number two goes just as poorly when he realizes there’s a safety seal under the lid and he can’t actually get any lube out onto his finger. Frustrated and turned on beyond what is probably healthy, he huffs and pulls off the seal, finally able to slick his fingers.

He reaches back slowly with one hand, past his aching balls to—there. He twitches automatically at the cold lube on his hole, but it warms soon enough and then it’s good; no, beyond good, it’s amazing. He didn’t expect to be so sensitive but every brush of his finger makes him shudder, his eyes slipping closed automatically as he just lets himself feel for a moment, the building heat thrumming along with his heartbeat.

After another solid minute, he works up the nerve to change the angle. He moves his wrist down a little more, angles his finger up, and shoves past his rim and inside.

And immediately pulls back out, because—

“Fuck!” he hisses, the pain of the stretch too much, completely yanking himself out of any rhythm he’d built. His arse stings angrily, and he feels bitter tears of frustration well in his eyes.

It’s so stupid; how can the thought of someone else’s fingers be so hot but then when he actually tries it, it’s so awful?

But… maybe that’s the key.

Harry thinks back to a week ago, to the brief fantasy that had bled into his mind after seeing Aiden and Matt together, the one that had made him come so hard that walking had been next to impossible. He can remember it perfectly—the thought of someone working their way up his body, tracing lines with their tongue and slipping fingers into him with no fuss, no sudden pain. A strong, tanned back that Harry can mark up as his and shining, sweaty skin. Blue eyes peering up at him through their fringe as they take his cock into their wet, hot mouth—

He whines quietly as his hand falls back to his cock, picking up the rhythm of the imaginary person sliding up and down, sucking lightly and lingering lovingly on the sensitive spot under the head. He pictures the person reaching out and snagging the bottle of lube as he slicks up his own fingers once again, sliding over his hole carefully and feeling his hips jolt at the sensation.

His imaginary partner smirks up at him, taking him deeper as their finger becomes more bold, rubbing quicker across his fluttering rim. Harry’s left wrist starts to protest at the angle and so he shifts and just like that, his finger slips past the loosening muscle and into himself and he barely notices. His fantasy partner is slowing now, his mouth languid as he pays more attention to his finger in Harry’s arse than his mouth on Harry’s cock. His finger slides slowly, so slowly, up past another knuckle and it stings but it’s okay, it’s fine because he’s still got that heady pressure on his dick and the stretch is slowly disappearing and suddenly it’s happened, Harry’s got a finger inside himself.

Harry moans at the thought more than the actual feeling, because it’s nice and it feels pleasant enough but it’s not what he was expecting, he wants more. So he pushes a little deeper and, wow, oh, yeah that’s better, the thickness of his finger filling an empty space he didn’t realize even existed.

His fantasy partner thrusts his finger in and out, slowly and carefully but deeply, and Harry’s back arches as he grinds back, seeking more, always more. He pictures this partner chuckling darkly, his high, raspy voice asking, do you like that, Haz? How do my fingers feel inside you? and oh, God, it’s not just any voice he’s imagining, it’s Louis.

It’s Louis whose delicate pink mouth he’s picturing stretched around the head of his cock and making his hips jump erratically, it’s Louis whose finger is pressing deeper and deeper into Harry and making his feet slide on the sheets in overwhelmed bliss, it’s Louis who watches him fall apart with sharp eyes and shifting, lithe muscles and a raspy, affected voice, do you want more, love? I can make you feel so good.

It should be wrong but it isn’t, because of course Harry wants Louis to be the one to do this, of course he wants Louis to break him into pieces and put him together again.

Harry pulls his finger out and reaches for the lube again, reapplying it to two fingers this time. He breathes deep and pulls his knees to his chest and presses in.

It’s another sting of pain but the stretch is so worth it to feel the fullness, to know that he’ll still feel this when he’s done, moans spilling into the room that he couldn’t possibly contain. And then he slips back into his fantasy; Louis is lying between Harry’s legs and licking slow stripes up the bottom of his cock as he fucks in and out of Harry with two fingers, pressing into places that have never been touched. Harry whines again, needing even more, needing gasoline poured on the fire that’s burning him alive from the inside out. As his wrist cramps again, he changes the angle once more so that his fingers are crooked inside of him, dragging over his walls and—

Fuck,” he moans as his fingers slide over something that makes his vision flash black and his whole body arch desperately off the bed and yeah, God, that’s exactly what he needs to chase the building orgasm low in his groin. His imaginary version of Louis’ eyes darken as Harry loses it, keening and gasping as he rubs over the spot again and again and his hips pump desperately up into his fist. “Please, please,” and he doesn’t even know what he’s begging for, doesn’t remember anything except heat and want and pulsing thrusts and, “Please, Louis.”

Harry’s voice is deep and broken and he can imagine Louis biting his lip, leaning over to press kisses to Harry’s shaking thighs. He throws his head back, gasping desperately. It’s almost done, he’s so close, the pressure has built so high that he may explode before he comes, he might just evaporate because one person isn’t supposed to feel all this, it’s madness and ecstasy and all things good in the the world all at once. He’s teetering on the edge and he just needs something to push him over, and so he hears Louis’ voice in his head, murmuring filthy words against Harry’s sweaty skin, come for me, love and let me see you, I want to see you.

Louis!” Harry cries as his orgasm crashes into him, his body thrumming and pulsing with each stripe of come that splashes across his chest. He’s dizzy and exhausted and sated and still so full with two fingers inside himself that it aches when he pulls them out. He’s blissfully content, breathing deep as the tingles fade from his limbs.

As he comes back down, shivering and stretching, he realizes that the room is just a little brighter than he remembers, a little less echoing. With a horrible sinking in his chest, Harry props himself up on his elbows.

Rebecca and Mary stand in the doorway, mouths agape.

They definitely saw. They definitely heard Harry scream Louis’ name. And they definitely can see that Louis himself is nowhere around.

They know he was fantasizing about Louis while masturbating. Christ.

“We were going to make s’mores,” Rebecca says faintly after a horrible minute spent staring at each other. “Couldn’t find the marshmallows, thought you might know where they are.”

“Um, yeah,” Harry says, and he sounds like he’s been fucked for hours, his throat garbling his syllables and making his words scratchy and even slower than usual. He coughs, and that doesn’t help at all. “They’re in the cupboard next to the fridge. Behind the sugar.”

Mary’s lips are twitching. “Sure, we’ll check again.” She starts pulling Rebecca out of the room, who is already trying to stifle giggles into her palm. “We’ll... leave you to it.”

They pull the door closed behind them, and Harry can immediately hear them dissolve into loud, side-splitting laughter out in the hallway. He just pulls the disgusting sheets over his head and prays that this is all just an incredibly realistic dream and that he’ll wake up soon.

No such luck.

 

 

Harry takes a shower and slips down to the TV room while everyone’s still outside playing footie, the muscles in his arse and thighs too sore to put up with anything more strenuous than sitting. He only gets a few minutes of solitude, though, before a glistening, panting Louis deposits himself in Harry’s lap, still high from his apparently single-handed victory. His beanie is slipping off his sweaty hair and Harry’s old t-shirt he stole is sticking to his back, and Harry actively has to control a whimper as Louis rocks back and forth on his lap in excitement.

“We won, Harry! It was brilliant, and you missed it, and you should definitely be ashamed,” he says, poking Harry in the chest.

“Oh he’s ashamed all right,” Mary says from another sofa. “He locked himself away just to punish himself.”

Rebecca nods sagely, her lips twitching. “Yeah, he was absolutely begging for forgiveness. Surprised you couldn’t hear it from outside, he was quite loud.”

Harry glares at them, but Louis just looks bemused. “Sure, I bet that’s exactly what happened,” he says dryly, then turns to press a thumb to the spot where Harry’s dimple usually sits. “Seriously, Haz. Wanted you on my team. Where were you?”

“I- nap,” he stutters. “I was. Nap. Upstairs? Yeah, sleeping. Up there.” He points upward, like Louis doesn’t know where upstairs would be.

Mary and Rebecca collapse into giggles.

 

 

19 November 2010

Louis and Harry are wasting time on their phones and Niall is napping on a nearby sofa when Cher knocks on the doorframe to catch their attention. Harry doesn’t notice, his headphones in his ears, but Louis looks up. “Hello, love.”

“Hey babe,” she grins. “C’mon, crew wants us to film this week’s Question Time.”

Question Time long ago became the Louis Tomlinson Show, complete with Niall as his announcer and Harry as his lovely assistant, the Vanna White to his Pat Sajak. In fact, most of the behind-the-scenes interviews have become One Direction focused, and the other acts assure them they’re fine with it.

“Keeps us from having to watch our every step and saying something we shouldn’t, because most of the cameras are on you lot,” Mary laughs when Louis asks.

It’s a good thing, too, because it sort of becomes like second nature for them to expect a camera to be there to catch their every word, at least while they’re at the studio. Louis has—in his humble opinion—perfected the art of the one-liner directly into the awaiting lens, and has no qualms about pretending he’s filming an episode of The Office and rolling his eyes to the camera when something vaguely eyeroll-worthy happens. With their familiarity of being on camera growing, the boys are sought out for more and more inane sponsor-hosted segments, like Megamind or Pop, Flop, and Fizzle and, of course, Question Time.

(Sometimes Louis thinks the other acts let the boys act like morons and monopolize the media attention because they think it might distract them or throw them off when it comes time to perform. Oddly enough, the little voice in his ear that says these things sounds a hell of a lot like Simon.)

Louis sighs and stretches, yawning a little. “Harry.”

Harry’s eyebrows are furrowed down at his phone screen, his tongue poking out a little as he lines up an Angry Bird shot. Louis pokes him. “Harry Styles, you pay attention to me.”

Harry tugs his headphones out of his ears and smiles. “Did you say something?”

“Question Time, come on,” Louis explains before helping pull Harry to his feet. He wakes Niall with a sloppy, wet kiss to his forehead and skips away, giggling maniacally, when Niall wakes cursing and wiping Louis’ spit off his face.

They’ve invited actual customers of the sponsoring brand to ask questions this week, so Louis doesn’t even have to deal with the question cards. He just settles into his customary chair—with Harry resting comfortably on the floor between his legs, and it’s proof of how accustomed everyone is to Harry and Louis being, well, Harry and Louis that the only person so much as batting an eye at them is one of the guests—and learns the names of the two new people so he can introduce them in the most over-the-top way possible. The camera crew counts them in, and Niall does his ridiculous announcer voice to introduce the segment and your host, Louis!

“Hello, and welcome to Question Time!” Louis booms, and calls for the guests to start reading questions. They’re pretty standard: who would you like to sing with in the final, who would you like to interview. Then one of the guests reads her next card (“Who has the worst habits in the house?”) and Rebecca, sweet, quiet Rebecca, laughs hysterically into her mug of tea, Mary slapping her knee and chuckling loudly beside her.

Louis can feel Harry stiffen where he’s resting against Louis’ leg, shaking his head at them. Mary just laughs louder.

“Is there something we’re missing?” Louis asks, a little bit of real curiosity slipping through the overacted enthusiasm of his voice.

“Go for it if you want,” Harry says, voice just a little too loud. Louis would possibly murder for a chance to see his expression, but since he can’t do that he compromises by staring directly at the back of his head.

“I won’t,” giggles Rebecca.

“Go on, lay it on me,” Harry says even louder. “Lay it on me, Bex!”

“I won’t!” she laughs. “Erm…”

“Go on!” Harry shouts, and Louis covers his mouth because now he’s dying to hear what Rebecca is going to say. But she doesn’t say anything, continuing to um and uh for another few seconds. Behind the camera, one of the crew starts rotating his finger in a circle, the classic hurry up gesture.

“Gonna have to rush you for an answer here,” Louis says.

“Um, me?” Rebecca says. Everyone giggles.

“You what?” Louis chuckles, because out of everyone in the house it’s definitely not Rebecca who has the worst habits.

“Taking long baths, by any chance?” Niall asks, and everyone laughs again, even the guests who clearly don’t know anything about any of their bathing habits.

Harry, though, doesn’t relax again until Louis throws him an easy question about musical influences and rubs a soothing hand through his hair as he mumbles something about John Mayer and Stevie Wonder and Elvis.

 

 

Back at the house, Harry disappears upstairs for a little while and Louis spies his chance to wrangle an answer out of Mary and Rebecca. He finds them chatting in the kitchen over a freshly-opened tin of biscuits. Louis tries his best to be casual, sliding innocently up to them and grabbing a handful of biscuits and propping his hip up against the counter, but they immediately stop their conversation to grin at him shrewdly so he drops the act.

“What do you know that I don’t know?” he demands, biscuit crumbs flying. Rebecca dissolves into another fit of giggles, and Mary just shakes her head, smirking.

“So, so much,” she laughs.

“Please?” Louis begs. “Please tell me. I hate not knowing things. Please. Please, Bex?” he asks, fluttering his eyelashes at Rebecca.

“It’s nothing, Lou. Just some fun. Nothing to worry about.”

“I don’t believe you,” he declares, but knows a losing battle when he sees it. He’ll regroup and try again later.

He thinks he hears Mary mutter, “Idiot boys don’t know what’s right in front of them,” as he leaves, but he doesn’t have any idea what she could mean because he’s pretty sure he’s not missing anything at all.

 

 

20 November 2010

The next afternoon, they’re back in wardrobe for the first time since Aiden left. He, Harry, and Louis had usually spent their evenings together before shows, the three of them and sometimes Niall and Zayn and Liam, waiting around as each one got changed into the night’s outfit and then had his hair and makeup done.

Tonight Harry and Louis go in early before the rush for a lack of anything better to do, joking with Cher as multiple stylists tease her hair into its usual massive volume.

“Still need to pick which dress you’re wearing tonight,” Grace reminds her as she bustles past them holding Wagner’s Sgt. Pepper-style jacket, and Cher pouts.

“What, out of these two?” Harry asks, gesturing to two similar white dresses hanging behind her. Cher nods and Harry moves closer to inspect them. Louis follows and nudges him softly.

“Gonna steal the one she doesn’t wear?” he jokes, but Harry’s serious face makes the laughter fade pretty quickly. “Hazza, tell me you aren’t going to take the dress. It’s definitely not your size, for one.”

“No,” Harry says slowly, sliding careful fingertips down one of the dresses. “Girls have it so lucky, though.”

“What?”

“They, just, they get so many better options than guys get for clothes. Like, feel this,” he says, bringing Louis’ hand up to touch the material. It slides through his fingers like water, silky and cool to the touch. “If a guy wears a silk shirt, he’s automatically camp and flamboyant and a hundred other ‘not manly' things. But girls are expected to wear nice stuff like this all the time.”

“Sort of a double-edged sword, innit?” Louis asks, though he thinks he gets Harry’s point. “Girls are expected to dress feminine a hundred percent of the time, and guys are expected not to care that much about how they look. People should just wear what they wanna wear and other people shouldn’t judge them for it. Girls or guys or whoever else, doesn’t matter.”

“Yeah,” Harry agrees, biting his lip and smiling. “Yeah, that’s absolutely right.”

“Am I gonna have to buy you some silk, love?” Louis asks lightly, and Harry giggles and shakes his head, still running his hands over the dresses like he can’t stop.

“No. I’ll buy my own, someday.” He sighs wistfully. “I can’t wait for when I’ll be able to afford clothes I actually want to wear.”

“Yeah?” Louis asks. Harry wears pretty normal clothing now, at least as far as he’s seen. Jeans and sweaters and t-shirts, all pretty basic stuff.

“Yeah,” Harry says, chewing on his lip again, though this time it seems to be from nervousness rather than to hide a smile. “With my, um. My anxiety, it makes it feel like it’s hard to breathe, sometimes. And when I was little, I always associated that with the collars of my shirts, so when I got anxious I’d stretch my collars out so I wouldn’t choke anymore. Obviously, that’s not what actually caused it, but that’s what stuck in my head.”

“Is that why you don’t like wearing clothes?” Louis asks cautiously. Harry’s talked a little about his anxiety, but always obliquely, and this is the first time he’s mentioned it directly since his weeklong attack nearly two months ago.

“I think so,” Harry answers. “After shirts became connected with my anxiety, I sort of stopped wearing them whenever I didn’t need to, and that led to not wearing anything altogether. It doesn’t help that I have, like, super sensitive skin, so heavy denim and stuff like that can get really irritating after a while.”

“Hence the silk,” Louis nods, and Harry snorts.

“Yeah, hence,” he laughs, elbowing Louis and breaking their quiet bubble. “Dork. Let’s go get changed, I want to find Liam and go over our harmonies in the second verse, I think I’ve been going sharp but I can’t tell.”

 

 

The screams are louder than ever before after they finish their version of All You Need Is Love, the judges completely inaudible as they try to give their comments.

Dermot shoves a mic in Louis’ face, asking something none of them can catch over the still-shrieking crowd, and Louis just laughs and says, “Sorry, I didn’t hear a word of that.”

Dermot laughs as well, his very white teeth glittering in the spotlight. “You’re happy, right?”

“Yeah,” they all agree, and it shocks Louis how true that actually is. He’s happy.

 

 

21 November 2010

Early Sunday morning, all the contestants are shuffled out of the house and to the studio to rehearse for the group song performance. Rather than covering a fun, silly song like usual, this week is the debut of the series’ charity single, and everyone from the producers to the PAs are doing everything to guarantee that it will go off without a hitch.

Recording the single itself had been a strange experience, because all Louis knows about recording music comes from TV and movies, and so he'd expected every sound booth to be like the one in Love, Actually with the instruments scattered about and stools for the singers, posters of famous concerts on the walls and warm, worn rugs on the floor. For the X Factor single, though, since the group is so large, they got short amounts of individual time in the booth and then were stood on risers like a primary school Christmas performance and told to project as much as they possibly could.

It had also been early in the season, way back in September, so the producers had assigned the solos without knowing who would still be in the competition when it was time to perform it and who would have to be called back: Treyc, for example, had a pretty important solo, as did Aiden. Wagner and Katie got barely anything, though they’re still actually in the competition. One Direction didn’t get a part together as a group, though Zayn, Harry, and Liam got solos while Niall and Louis mouthed along for the video—it seems pretty clear that they weren’t really supposed to hang around this long in the competition, and Niall and Louis were supposed to have been long forgotten by now.

A weird thought, but sort of empowering: go ahead, try and get rid of me. I’m still here.

It’s strange, looking around now as the Belle Amie girls and Nicolo and Storm file into the studio like they’d never left, and it makes Louis realize just how short this competition actually is in the grand scheme of things. How fleeting the run on stage can be, especially if the audience doesn’t take to you.

But they’re going to be on an actual, sold-in-stores album, which is... God, it’s amazing. Never in a thousand years would Louis have ever believed that he’d be in this position: a finalist on the X Factor, in one of the most talked-about bands in the country, recording a single for charity.

And, of course, the return of voted-off contestants means they get to see—

“Aiden!” Harry cries, leaping up from his seat and into Aiden’s arms as soon as he steps into the room. Louis follows, wrapping them both in a tight hug. They break apart reluctantly, each pretending they don’t see the others’ red-rimmed eyes or hear the throaty, choked edge to their laughter.

It’s all smiles through the early rehearsal and then the fittings for the acts who haven’t been in the studio throughout the week and then the afternoon rehearsal and then pre-show hair and makeup. It’s like Aiden never left, like the past week hasn’t happened, and Matt is glowing, never further than a few feet from his side; even when they go onstage to perform, he stays as close as possible.

Louis feels a strange sort of contentment spread through his limbs at the afterparty that night, sipping wine with Liam and running a hand through Harry’s sweat-dried, hairsprayed hair, watching Matt and Aiden twirl around the impromptu dance floor. (They play it off as friendly, because they still haven’t announced their Bond; maybe it’s better this way, with the paps more than happy to photograph Harry’s head in Louis’ lap rather than the actual celebrity couple just on the other side of the room. Louis is definitely willing to take the tabloid bullet for them if being in public together can make them this overjoyed.)

Harry seems to feel it too, sighing wistfully. “Wish we could just stay here, like this,” he mumbles. “Don’t want to say goodbye to anyone else. Just want to be here with you and the boys and all our friends.”

Louis bends and kisses his forehead. “I know, love. Me too.”

Matt dips Aiden at the end of the song, and looks up to wink at Louis as he does. Louis drains the rest of his wine, suddenly very tired and very aware that he won’t get to spin his favorite person out on a dance floor anytime soon, not with the eyes of the nation on him, salivating for proof that Harry is his soulmate.

And it’s not even the eyes of the nation he’s worried about now; it’s the eyes of Claudia in the corner of the room, reporting their every move back to the Modest! bosses and probably suggesting they bring Louis in for yet another meeting about subtlety and private versus public relationships (which would be his fourth such meeting with Griffiths and Magee in the past few weeks, and he truly does not need a refresher).

Louis wishes, just for one night, that he could let it all go—the dagger, the executives looking over his shoulder, the screaming and crying girls who will never get him to Bond with them.

Unfortunately, life isn’t a Hugh Grant film, and real life is never easy.

 

 

22 November 2010

Louis is taking a well-deserved nap in an empty lounge at the studio—because Simon is in America this week and so Louis has had to find new places to spend his break times—when he registers a gentle tapping on his arm.

“Sorry, love,” Grace is saying, and Louis wakes slowly to see her standing over him, looking apologetic with a cup of tea in one hand and a piece of paper in the other. “Can I get you to come with me to wardrobe?”

“Bit early to be getting ready for Saturday night, isn’t it?” he asks sleepily, rubbing his eyes. “It’s all of ten o’clock on Monday morning.”

“It’s noon, dear,” she laughs, and, oops, so much for his super-quick nap, “and it’s never too early. But this is for tour wardrobe, not the show.”

“Tour?” Louis squeaks, finally sitting upright. He accepts the tea that Grace hands him unthinkingly, gaping at her.

“Yeah, tour. Remember, the thing that happens when the show ends?” she laughs again. “I’d assumed you lot had already discussed all that with Simon, since he sent the go ahead to start compiling your outfits.” She waves the sheet of paper around and starts down the hallway, Louis trailing after her and trying desperately to wake up a little quicker. “He must be pretty sure that you’ll sign your contract with Syco at the end of the season, most of the acts that sign with other companies don’t come on the X Factor tour.”

“No, we haven’t talked about it,” Louis murmurs into his tea. “Won’t we have to, though? Sign with Syco, I mean.”

Grace shoots him a funny look. “Not necessarily. Simon will obviously be the first to offer, of course, since you can’t sign any other outside contracts while on the show and I’m sure he’s monitoring who can talk to you at the moment, but there will probably be other offers as well. You boys are pretty popular.”

She leads him around a corner into wardrobe and Louis suddenly feels like he’s stepped into the closet of an incredibly swanky pirate—red, white, and navy as far as the eye can see, gold accents on everything from blazers to beanies, eight different sets of braces flung over the nearest chair. Grace turns to him with a glint in her eye.

“Did you know that dagger tattoos are considered traditionally nautical?” she chirps. “Completely related question, how do you feel about stripes?”

 

 

(Louis tries on more outfits than he could possibly hope to count, and they all look exactly the same. Sailor Louis, apparently, is going to be a thing.

One good thing comes of all the fuss, though—Grace has to leave halfway through for a Katie-related hair emergency and Louis is left to explore the wardrobe room fully for the first time with no one around to distract him. He rifles through cupboards and shifts things around on some shelves, not really looking for anything but enjoying being nosy. He stands in front of a large shelf full of nail polish for a long time, looking over the rainbow of colors; Harry's been begging Grace to paint his nails for the show for months, but Simon keeps saying no.

He steps through a curtain he’d never noticed before to find a long room filled floor to ceiling with old costumes and clothing: rack after rack of outfits, shoes, and accessories, some catalogued with the names of contestants from two, three series ago. Louis, ever the tactile kind of guy, runs his hands along the clothing as he passes and stops only when something made of luxurious, cool fabric catches his attention. He pulls out a silk shirt, off-white and vintage, and immediately stuffs it under his hoodie to smuggle it out of the room.

Later, he gives the shirt to Harry, who promptly bursts into tears and refuses to stop hugging Louis for a solid twenty minutes. The shirt is just a little too big on him, but he’s only sixteen and he’ll probably grow into it. And even if he doesn’t, he still looks amazing, radiating happiness as he runs joyful hands over the fabric again and again.

“I’m keeping it forever,” he promises Louis, pressing a kiss to his cheek and wiping away another wave of happy tears. “You’re my favorite person in the world and I love you so much.”

“Love you too, Hazza,” Louis grins in return, and Harry will never, ever understand how true that really is.)

...

 

 

25 November 2010

“I never thought I’d say this,” Niall says from his sofa, where he’s been staring at the ceiling for the past hour, “but sometimes I hate living with a bunch of girls.”

“Heeeyyy,” Harry frowns, because it’s not nice to call people girls as though it’s an insult and it’s also not nice to insult your friends (or your bandmates who hold your musical future in their hands, but whatever). Zayn doesn’t even react, just punches the air when his left winger gets past Harry’s defenders for the umpteenth time to put him even further ahead in their third game of FIFA. Harry pitches his controller to the side, huffing.

“Not you,” Niall says, throwing a pillow at Harry, “though you are very pretty. I mean the actual girls.” And then he waves his hands toward the kitchen, where Katie, Cher, and Rebecca are up on the countertops and painting each other's’ toenails.

“Oh.”

“Yeah. I mean, I love ‘em. They’re like me sisters. That doesn’t mean I want them around all the time, though, with the screaming and the drama and the hairspray.”

“That’s what it’s like to have actual sisters, grouchy,” Harry says peaceably. “They probably feel the same way about you.”

“You just need to get laid, mate,” Zayn finally says, winking over at Niall, who shoots straight up.

“Can we?” he asks, eyes bright.

And then they’re scampering upstairs, leaving behind a horrified Harry.

What?” he screeches, chasing after the two of them (though that may be a bad idea, he realizes, but honestly, what). “You two- are you two-”

“Christ, H, chill out,” Zayn laughs as Harry turns a corner to find the two of them changing out of their sweatpants and into jeans and nice shirts. “Niall and I are not swapping orgasms, I swear.” He reaches over for his magical bag of hair supplies and heads into the bathroom while Niall douses himself in Axe body spray.

“Not today, anyway,” Niall winks, and Zayn laughs broadly. “Nah mate, there’s, like, tons of chicks that hang out down by the front gate. We go talk to them when we can,” Niall explains, fluffing his fringe.

“You do?” Harry asks, sinking down onto his bed. (Well, Louis’ bed, but honestly there’s not much of a difference anymore.)

“Yeah. Liam comes sometimes, too, but he’s a little too shy for it.”

“Why didn’t you invite me?” Harry feels like he should be offended, but Niall just shrugs.

“You’re always with Louis, figured you were just fine.”

“Oh. And… Louis doesn’t go?”

Niall laughs and ruffles Harry’s hair. “Don’t get jealous, Haz. Louis never comes.” And then he frowns. “Good thing, too, those girls love him. They’d never pay attention to us if he went. They literally carry bags of carrots around just in case he shows.”

Zayn steps out of the bathroom, his hair perfectly coiffed.

“Ready?”

“Ready.”

“Wait!” Harry stands. “I want to go.”

“You do?” Zayn asks, eyebrow raised. “Where’s Lou?”

Harry shrugs, feeling a little miffed. He’s not Louis’ keeper and they aren’t conjoined twins—they can do things on their own every once in a while. Besides, he’s starting to feel a little weird about the Louis-based fantasies that have popped into his head the last few times he’s been able to sneak off to use his lube (with the door firmly locked, just in case). Just because he wants Louis so badly it makes his heart race doesn’t mean Louis feels the same, and he wants to try and get a grip before he does anything he can’t take back.

Like throwing Louis against a wall and snogging him until neither of them can breathe. That might ruin the friendship, a bit.

“I want to go,” he says stubbornly, stripping himself out of his own pajama pants. “Give me three minutes.”

Zayn and Niall exchange a look, but they both lean against the wall to wait. Harry throws some jeans on and switches his (Louis’) old t-shirt for one of his button-downs, then checks his teeth in the bathroom mirror. A quick shake of his hair and then a swoop of his fringe to the side, and he’s ready to go.

It’s chilly in the near-dark of a wintery early evening, but it’s a lot warmer than it could be for this time of year. Harry follows Niall and Zayn as they approach the group of ten or so girls by the gate, feeling slightly apprehensive.

“Sometimes we text or tweet them, other times they’re just, like, waiting,” Niall says, and then shoots Harry a dirty grin. “Good to be on TV, right?”

Zayn and Niall split off when they reach the girls, posing for some pictures before stepping in closer to a few fans in particular, their voices going soft as the girls blush.

That doesn’t seem that hard. Harry can do that.

“Hello,” he says cheerfully to one girl, who immediately starts sobbing, shoves her camera in Harry’s face and blinds him with the flash, then runs away. He blinks, spots still in his eyes, and asks dazedly, “What did I do?”

There’s a soft chuckle from his left, so he turns and blinks some more until another girl appears, pushing long brown hair behind her ear. “You frightened her off with all your good manners,” she says. “Shame.”

“Yeah, it is,” he says, a bit dumbly. She’s quite gorgeous, this girl: large blue eyes and amber-colored hair and smooth, tan skin. “I’m Harry.”

“I know,” she grins. “I’m Ashley.”

“Hello, Ashley. Please don’t blind me and run away screaming.”

She laughs. “I’ll try my best.”

Ashley is lovely, really—hilarious, and cheeky, and very smart. She lives just around the corner, apparently, and her friends had wanted to come see the X Factor house and she thought she might as well join. “Part of being underage, right?” she sighs. “Can’t do anything actually fun yet, so I’m making do.”

“I wouldn’t know,” he shrugs, blasé. “I get to do fun things all the time. I’m famous, see.”

“And so humble, too,” she says seriously, making Harry double over in laughter. “Want to take a walk with me?”

Harry looks over her shoulder, seeing Niall with his back to the gate, his arms around the waist of a dark-haired girl who is kissing him deeply, and then Zayn, whispering in another girl’s ear as he leads her toward the shadows of the trees ringing the house. He looks back at Ashley, who’s biting her lip and waiting for a response. “I’d love to.”

Ashley grabs his hand and pulls him along, long hair fluttering in the slight breeze. They laugh and joke as they meander up the street, the cool evening air making them the only souls around. Harry’s heart thumps in anticipation every time their hands brush. It isn’t long before he’s got her pressed up against an alley wall, nuzzling at the side of her throat as she runs her hands across his chest.

“You’re so fit,” she gasps, ducking to press her lips to his cheek. Harry grins against her skin and trails his lips up, seeing her match his smile. Her blue eyes shine brightly even in the low light, and she smells like cotton candy and vanilla. He’s just about to lean in, just about to press his lips to hers (and will she be able to tell she’s his first? He hopes not, he hopes this is something he’s not awful at, that this can be a story they both tell their friends without regret) when she smirks and quirks an eyebrow. “What’s the deal, Curly?”

And that—

Okay.

Blue eyes. Honey hair. Quick wit. Tan skin. Loud, bright laugh.

Harry has found the girl version of Louis.

He stumbles back, aghast. Ashley looks stunned as well, still leaning against the dirty brick wall.

Harry is seconds away from screaming in frustration; he needed one night to get Louis off his mind, to help him remember that Louis is his friend, nothing more, and he goes and finds an exact replica of his best friend who actually does want to kiss him.

“I’m sorry,” he croaks, “So sorry.” And then he turns and sprints away.

It’s only a couple of minutes back to the house, but Niall and Zayn and the small crowd of fans are long gone. Harry jogs inside, up the stairs and to the boys’ bedroom. Louis is there, curled up and sleepy-soft in his bed, watching something on his laptop. He beams when he sees Harry.

“Hey, Curly. What’s going on?”

Harry doesn't say anything as he crawls into bed, shoes and coat and all, and presses his face to Louis’ neck, breathing deeply. Louis doesn't pry, just runs a soothing hand over Harry’s back.

A few minutes later, Harry’s spine has relaxed and his nose isn’t cold and he can pretend that he forgot his first kiss was almost with a girl named Ashley when he really wants it to be with a boy named Louis. And Harry thinks he may have gotten away with it, can lock it away in his mind and be left in peace; at least until Niall traipses back into the room, cheeks red and grin bright, and shoots Harry a broad wink.

“Alright, mate?” he asks, chipper. “How’d it go?”

“Yeah, good,” Harry mumbles into Louis’ shoulder. “Fine.”

Niall throws him an odd look but doesn’t ask anything else as he changes back into sweatpants and heads back out, and Louis is still quiet.

Until—

“Hazza, why do you smell like cotton candy?”

“Um. No reason, Lou.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, promise.”

 

 

27 November 2010

Week eight. One away from the semi-finals.

Harry’d never thought they’d get this far, not in his wildest dreams. They were so untested, coming in, still feeling out their own personal sounds, not nearly ready to choose a style for their hastily constructed band.

And here they are, one of the final seven. If they make it through the double elimination this weekend, they’ll be in the final five.

That’s, like, proper famous territory. That’s being one of the headliners on the X Factor tour when it kicks off in the new year. That’s almost a guaranteed recording contract and an album and tour of their own someday.

Of course, they have to get there first. And Simon leaving them alone this week is sort of terrifying. Because Harry chose one of the two songs, and what if he got it wrong? What if they do horribly and it’s all his fault? He wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he caused them to go out early.

But Cheryl had approved when she sat in on a rehearsal, and Savan said it was a strong choice. So maybe they’ll be okay.

He hopes they’re okay.

 

 

Jacket taut across his shoulders, makeup smeared on his skin, hairspray keeping the curls intact, and it’s time to perform.

Harry looks over at Louis—wearing stripes for the third time this week, and when Harry’d asked Louis just rolled his eyes and said, “Get used to it, might as well change my name to Captain Jack by the end of all this”—who meets his eyes and nods, smiling softly.

He’d spent the whole night before reassuring Harry that the song choice wasn’t going to sink them. He’d been all praise and affection and whispered reassurances, though he had needed to clarify one point before they’d fallen asleep.

“Real quick, though, Haz, and be honest. You didn’t suggest the song because it has the word ‘69’ in it, did you?” Harry had burst into giggles, and Louis had continued, mock serious. “I won’t stand for that, you putting our futures on the line because all you think about is sex.”

Harry shouldn’t have worried; it goes off like a smash, the crowd clapping enthusiastically to the beat and the screams as loud as ever. It’s like he’s an overinflated balloon at the end of the performance, filled with so much joy and excitement and acceptance when Simon announces, “I had nothing to do with it, Harry chose the song,” and Niall tugs him into a hug and Louis gives him a smile, that smile, the one that says I’m here for you and I’m proud of you and we did it.

They run offstage, bouncing and glowing and happy, so happy, and this time they actually get to do something with all that energy. They get to perform again, twice in one night, and it shouldn’t feel this huge but it is.

Grace ushers them into wardrobe, where they’re stripped and redressed and sent back out to wait for their second song of the night.

It’s You Are So Beautiful this time, and it’s the most stripped-down performance they’ve done yet. No backing track, no recorded back vocals, just a piano and their voices.

It is a little hard to look at Louis as they settle into their places, though, because this would be a perfect time for him to get his first solo and his soft, clear vocals fit the song beautifully. But, again, he and Niall are left with nothing while the other three do all the singing. Harry knows Louis wants a solo, though he hasn’t asked for one yet, and he hopes and prays that Louis doesn’t hold it against him that he’s getting three-quarters of the solos tossed his way every week now, really whether he wants them or not.

Again they nail it, and Harry beams when Louis leans back and mouths well done as they step up to get their comments from the judges. Louis reaches back (out of the view of the cameras, of course) and wraps his hand around Harry’s wrist, rubbing soft circles and grinning, or at least grinning until Louis Walsh says, “You’ve proven that everyone in this group can sing,” and then the smile disappears.

 

 

“I know I’m a decent singer,” Louis whispers into Harry’s throat late that night, his face hidden even though he can feel Louis’ eyelashes blinking rapidly and the hot roll of a tear or two. “I know that, and if I wasn’t I wouldn’t be here. I just want to prove that I deserve it, you know?”

“I know, Lou,” Harry murmurs, pressing a kiss to the top of Louis’ head. “You do, your voice is beautiful. I’ll drop my own solo next week if I have to, because you deserve to have one.”

Louis shakes his head, smearing his tears into Harry’s skin. “No, Hazza. You’ve earned your solos. I need to earn my own.”

Harry lets the silence settle for a moment before opening his mouth again, crossing his fingers that Louis will let him lighten the mood. “If not, we’ll just make sure there’s a ridiculous speaking part in each of our singles, since that seems to be your job for the group songs and you do it so well.” He grins, letting Louis feel it against his hair.

Louis stiffens for a second, then snorts and flicks Harry’s nipple. “Great, cheers. Tosser.”

“I mean it, Lou. All the spoken word poetry we can fit into our record, it’s all yours,” he swears solemnly, trying not to shriek as Louis pokes at his ribs.

“I’ll show you spoken word-” Louis threatens, but another voice in the dark room makes him pause.

“I will murder you both if you don’t shut up,” Zayn swears, and Harry stuffs his fist against his mouth to keep his giggles inside. Louis kisses the tip of his nose and rolls over, pushing back into Harry’s space and letting Harry wrap his arms tight around his waist (even though he’ll complain about it in the morning when they wake up sweaty and disheveled).

“Love you,” Louis murmurs a few minutes later, sleep pulling him under.

“Love you,” Harry answers into the back of his neck, holding Louis just a little closer as he, too, drifts off.

 

 

28 November 2010

Another Sunday night, another results show.

Someday, this won’t be their life, and it’s going to be very, very strange. But for now, Harry lines up next to Liam and Zayn as Dermot opens the show from backstage.

There’s no group song this week, so once Dermot shoots his opener and Grace checks their outfits one last time, they’re allowed to watch The Wanted and Justin Bieber and Nicole Scherzinger perform before they’re herded back to line up for the results. Louis wrinkles his nose through The Wanted's whole performance.

“They sort of seem… what’s the word I’m looking for?” he says, waving his hand like he might conjure it out of thin air.

“Presumptuous?” Liam suggests, and Louis shrugs.

“I was going to go with ‘twattish’ but that’s probably nicer. Good vocabulary, Liam.”

They line up with Simon on stage to hear the results for the eighth week in a row and, for the first time, Harry allows a little bit of stress to bleed through. The competition has thinned out almost all of the weaker acts, and there’s a real shot of them being in the bottom three. And if they’re at the very bottom, they get sent home straightaway, no chance at redemption. They might be going home.

Or not.

“The fourth and final act that is definitely going to the semi-final is... One Direction.”

Zayn and Liam jump into a hug, Niall and Harry throw themselves at Simon, and Louis punches at the air, howling in triumph.

They did it. The semi-finals.

 

 

Another Sunday night means another results show which means another afterparty at the same hotel. It’s funny, because Harry’s actually pretty sure these parties are meant for networking, so the acts can meet others in the business and make connections to help them when they’re out in the industry. Harry just uses them as a place to score some excellent cheese and mini sandwiches while making fun of everyone with Niall, and Louis comes for the choice wine. The boys only really hang out with each other, and Rebecca and Matt and Aiden, when he was here. Cher, too, when she deigns to come, and Mary when her knees aren’t hurting too badly after the performances.

Harry’s never really felt that need to go out and make nice with the bigwigs. As conceited as it sounds, if they really are producing the kind of hype that Simon says they are with the public, the right people will come to them. And if not, Simon has introduced Louis to dozens of record execs and writers and others with pull, and he’s kept all their contact information if for some reason they someday need it. (The business cards are hidden in his backpack, right next to a photo of his mum and sisters and that pack of cigarettes he thinks Harry doesn’t know about.)

It’s another lazy night at the party tonight, Louis swilling the white wine in his glass between bites of crackers and cheese, Zayn and Liam whispering to each other over Niall, who’s stretched out with his head in Zayn’s lap and his feet in Liam’s. Harry is tucked into Louis’ side, stealing sips from his glass every few minutes and feeling his cheeks getting warmer with every swallow.

Suddenly, there’s a shadow over their sofa.

“Evening, boys,” says Simon, and he’s positively smirking. Harry feels himself shivering involuntarily. “Harry, a moment?”

Harry exchanges a wary glance with Louis, but gets to his feet and brushes off his blazer. The wine, luckily, doesn’t seem to have affected his balance at all, which is good because Simon immediately turns and leads him away, weaving through the crowded room. Eventually they come upon Dermot, of all people, laughing with a beautiful woman in a short, almost indecently tight dress.

“Harry,” Simon says, drawing the attention of Dermot and the woman as they approach, “I’d like to introduce you to Caroline Flack.”

Caroline looks Harry slowly up and down, which is something he didn’t think people did in real life, only high school rom-coms with evil cheerleaders as the main villains. She smirks and extends a hand. “Harry Styles, so good to meet you.” Harry shivers again at the sound of his full name leaving her blood red lips, but shakes her hand anyway. She sticks out her lower lip in a pout. “Aw, no Bond Marker? Drat, I thought I could scoop you up before someone else gets their claws in you. You’re positively edible.”

Simon and Dermot chuckle, and Harry suddenly feels like he’s missing out on something rather huge. “Erm, hello,” he says, and, ah—there’s the effect of the wine, his tongue fuzzy and heavy in his mouth. He swallows and tries again. “How are you?”

“And polite, too? You’re quite the catch, Mr. Styles,” she winks, trailing a hand down his arm.

“Caroline will be the host of Xtra Factor next year,” Simon says, and while that answers one question it definitely doesn’t answer the other hundred in Harry’s mind, especially the one that asks why Caroline is running her fingernails along the soft inside of his arm as though that’s a normal thing to do to someone you just met.

“Oh,” he chokes. “That’s good. Nice.”

“Thanks, doll,” Caroline purrs, and she slides across Dermot so that she’s next to Harry rather than across from him, and then the conversation between her, Dermot, and Simon continues as though Harry isn’t standing there, wondering what the hell he’s supposed to gain from this.

Caroline definitely isn’t letting him leave, though, directing a few questions to him about life in the house and how it feels to perform on stage. He answers best he can, though Simon and Dermot steer him out of more than one phrase that begins, “Oh, um, I dunno, I guess…”

“But you’re the biggest band in the country now,” she says, raising her glass in a mock toast. “Front page of every paper, it seems.”

“Oh, yeah, Harry’s our resident heartthrob,” Dermot laughs.

“I can see why,” Caroline answers, her eyes lingering on Harry’s lips for a moment.

There’s a small noise behind them, and they turn to find Louis standing there, watching Caroline with a careful expression.

“Louis!” Dermot cheers, and finishes another glass of wine.

“Hello,” he says quietly, then turns to Harry. “Hazza, they’re bringing a van around, we’re all headed back to the house.” He flicks his gaze around the circle, landing last on Caroline’s hand lightly gripping Harry’s forearm. “Coming?”

Harry looks at Simon, who’s looking at Caroline, who’s looking at Louis, eyebrow raised in amusement.

“The famous Louis,” she says, extending her hand once more. Louis takes it, face still blank. “I’m Caroline. I’ve read all about your little bromance, it’s adorable.”

Louis laughs, but his eyes stay narrowed. “That’s us, a couple of super adorable teenagers.” He turns completely away from her and back to Simon. “What do you think, Uncle Si, can I steal Haz back? I’ve been promised the chance to choose the film tonight.”

Harry grins at that, happy that Louis is here to drag him out of this strange conversation and that he’s being so absolutely Louis about the whole thing. “You’re just going to make us watch The Notebook again.”

Louis nudges him, smirking. “You’re just so pretty when you cry, I can’t help it.”

“Adorable,” Caroline says again from behind them, and a sour look crosses Louis’ face for a split second. Simon waves his hand airily.

“Yes, yes, I’m done with him. See you around the studio tomorrow, Harry, and Louis, I’ve got a writer coming in at three I’d like you to meet.”

“See you around, Harry Styles,” Caroline purrs, and Louis’ grip on Harry’s hand tightens. “I’m sure we’ll meet again soon.”

“It was nice to meet you,” Harry answers automatically, though he really isn’t sure that’s true.

Louis frowns the whole way across the room and into the van, where Zayn, Niall, and Liam are stretched across the back seat in various states of consciousness. Once the door is closed behind them and they’re headed back to the house, the question Harry can hear stewing inside Louis finally bursts forth.

“So who is she, anyway?” he asks, then immediately looks out the window like he didn’t say it.

“Apparently she’s going to host Xtra Factor next year?” Harry says, still a little unsure himself. “Not exactly sure why I needed to meet her.”

Louis fumes out the window for another minute. “I didn’t like her.”

“Me neither,” Harry shrugs. “Sort of gave me the creeps. Like, she’s pretty, yeah, but also almost as old as my mum. And that’s quite strange, when you think about it.”

The firm line of Louis’ shoulders slump as he laughs his real, bright giggle for the first time since Harry was dragged away. “She was a fan of our ‘bromance,’ though, so at least she has good taste.”

Harry scowls. “I hate that word, bromance. It’s homophobic. Also, I have never once called you my bro.”

Louis flutters a hand to his chest and sticks out his lower lip. “You don’t want to be my bro?”

“I am so much more than your bro,” Harry laughs, pinching Louis’ pouty lip.

“That’s what everyone calls us, though,” Louis says lightly. “Just two bromantic dudes bein’ bros together. Broing out, if you will.”

“Well if you’re my bro, we’re a whole new species,” Harry says, and pulls out his phone.

“That’ll teach her,” Louis says, rolling his eyes, but he grins the whole way home.

 

 

29 November 2010

At some point between afternoon rehearsals at the studio and Savan sticking his head into the practice room to tell the boys the van has arrived for them, Louis disappears.

Not for long, not really. Just long enough to make Harry think that he should probably go check because somewhere there might be something (or someone) on fire. But he’s comfortable, sprawled out on the floor with his head on Liam’s chest.

(They’ve slowly convinced Liam it’s the best way to practice their vocals, and Savan even played along and told him he’d read studies about it, it helps you sing from your diaphragm rather than your throat or some other appropriate-sounding nonsense. It’s all rather convincing for a prank in which the sole purpose is to secure more resting time for four lazy teenagers and their ultra-competitive bandmate.)

Before Harry can get truly worried, Louis slinks back into the studio. He smiles at Zayn’s greeting, but his eyes are stormy and his hand twitches every few seconds like he sort of wants to punch something.

But, in true Louis fashion, he refuses to comment and brushes his disappearance off as another meeting, no big deal, lads, just some good old fun with Uncle Si.

And then, when they’re back at the house and told to meet at the Vidcase for their video diary, he changes into his glasses and a button-down shirt and bowtie.

He cuts Liam off in the middle of discussing the double elimination of the night before, adopting that strange, nasally voice that tends to creep in when he’s being over-the-top and he’s very, very aware of it.

“Um, I’ve decided to take this moment to say, the boys have told me I need to be a bit more serious in the diaries.” Harry frowns at that, because he’s never said any such thing, and the other boys have the sense not to say it either. Stopping Louis from acting how he wants would be like trying to force a hurricane in the opposite direction. “So I’ve tried to go for a bit of a smarter look, just trying to be more serious.”

Harry turns, because he can’t help it, and finds Louis staring off camera, an eyebrow raised challengingly. The only person in his line of sight is Claudia, someone on the PR team or something who is always there when they film their video diaries and pre-show interviews and outside interviews—he only knows her name because he accidentally overheard a not-quite-friendly exchange between her and Louis once after he and Harry’d been out shopping and gotten papped holding hands as Harry had dragged Louis from store to store.

(“...careful, because every time you are in the papers it hurts the band a little more…” “...excuse me, Claudia, if I ask you to take your bosses’ suggestions and return them, preferably shoved neatly up their arses.”)

Her eyes are narrowed, her red nails tapping testily at the back of her Blackberry. They narrow even further, hardly more than angry slits, when Louis leans up and rubs at Harry’s shoulders.

Harry feels somewhat like a pawn in a game of chess he didn’t even realize was being played.

Eventually Louis reveals a Superman t-shirt hidden under his button-down in spectacular (and loud) fashion, and it’s like his weird telepathic tug-of-war with Claudia is done for the day.

At least, until—

“If you could Bond with any celebrity, who would it be?”

Louis pats at Harry’s shoulder. “I’d Bond with you, Harry.”

There’s a cracking sound somewhere in Claudia’s area as she drops her phone, but it hardly registers. Harry stares at Louis, because—that’s more than playful flirting under the guise of their "bromance." Louis looks completely serious, none of his ridiculous accents or voices or cheeky winks in sight. At least a hundred years pass, or some other measurable but simultaneously infinite amount of time, and then a hint of a smile appears on Louis' face, a tiny quirk of his lips. “Because it rhymes.”

Liam snorts and ruins everything. “No it doesn’t.”

“Hush, Liam, I’m being funny.”

Harry feels his lips tug up without his permission. Louis wants to be his soulmate. And, well, he isn’t. Because if they were soulmates, Harry’d have a Marker on his arm and these past few months would have been entirely different. But—

He still wants to be.

 

 

30 November 2010

The thing about being on X Factor is that it lets you see what it's like to be famous without actually being famous.

Like, Louis knows that his is not a household name. He has a pretty big following on Twitter, sure (he’d texted Stan with every new follower from 19,901 to 20,000, and by the fiftieth text Stan had threatened to change his number). People scream for him during the live shows, yeah, but he's still not anywhere near celebrity status. When he and Harry and Niall sneak out to Tesco to restock on ice cream and crisps, no one gives them a second glance. Not until there's tipped-off paparazzi on their trail, and then nobody actually recognizes them, just that they must be known for something.

So when Louis leads the way out of the limo (a limo) onto the red carpet (a real red carpet) of the Royal London Chronicles of Narnia premiere (an actual, A-list film premiere) and a thousand different cameras start clicking and flashing in his direction, it's nice to feel a little famous.

Leicester Square looks like Christmas came early, benches and lampposts and fountains covered in holly and red velvet and gratuitous amounts of fake snow. It’s smaller than the Harry Potter premiere they’d went to a few weeks back (and it could never compare, because that’s where Louis got to meet Emma Watson. That actually happened), but at that one they had been little more than guests with a slightly higher access than the common folk. Here, they’re still not guests of honor or anything—that would be the Queen, bloody hell—but they get their moment on the red carpet and some time with fans who came out in droves in the cold just to meet them.

“Hello, love,” Louis smiles as he approaches the barrier where the fans and standing and cheering. The girl, who has a bright red 1D painted on her face, squeals a little and hands him a notebook and pen.

“Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, you guys are my favorite,” she gushes, vibrating with excitement.

“Yeah?” he laughs. “Keep voting, then, we aren’t quite to the end yet.”

“Of course! Thanks so much, Liam!”

Niall bursts into laughter beside him. “To be fair,” he laughs, patting Louis on the back, “all white brunette boys look the same. Go blonde, they’ll never forget your name.”

Louis pelts him with fake snow.

Linda, one of the X Factor assistants, rushes up to them once they’re finished at the fan barrier. “You’ve got one scheduled conversation with Joe McElderry that we have to video, and then you’re all done appearance-wise.”

“That’s it?” Zayn asks, rubbing his arms. The wind has picked up and it’s gone from a little chilly to borderline freezing.

“That’s it,” Linda confirms. “You can hang around if you want, but we weren’t able to snag tickets to get you into the actual film.” She gives them a parting nod and then bustles off to brief Matt, who’s still at the fan barrier signing autographs.

They find Joe McElderry, the X Factor winner from last year, and have a terribly awkward conversation, where Joe beams and spouts vapid clichés for the cameras while the five boys smile and nod in answer. “You’re nearly there now,” he promises. “You just gotta get out there and totally go for it.”

There’s not really anything they can say to that (because it isn’t really advice, is it? It’s just saying that they have to do what they were already going to do. It’s non-advice, if anything), but the camera crew signals that they’re good and wrapped. The moment the camera light switches off, Joe’s beatific smile drops and he puffs warm air onto his hands.

“Fucking hell, so fucking cold,” he swears angrily, hopping from foot to foot. Louis immediately likes him a thousand times more. “Old Simon got you out in the snow for a bit of press coverage, eh?”

“It’s supposed to be a perk for us,” Harry says, and Joe laughs.

“Right. Well, congrats, you’ve officially stood in the general vicinity of Liam Neeson and froze your bollocks off so that the press could get some pictures of you in suits. What a night.”

Harry looks a little distressed that his fun night might have the secret, nefarious purpose of getting more press attention for the show. Louis pulls him a little closer under the guise of keeping warm.

Joe leans close. “Alrighty, boys, listen up. For the three seconds we’ve got no cameras on us, I’m going to give you some actual advice.” He looks over his shoulder and drops his voice even lower, causing the five of them to crowd closer. “If you want to make it once the show’s tour is over in the spring, you’re going to have to trust each other and nobody fucking else. You got it? I don’t care what bullshit Simon has spouted, he cares about money and only money and if you aren’t making enough to keep him happy then he’ll find a new way to squeeze it out of you.”

Someone calls from another area, “Joe, we need you up on stage in five!” and Joe adopts his smile once more, waving over at them in confirmation.

Before he leaves, he mutters one last, “Trust each other, but no one else.”

“That was…” Niall starts shakily, and though he doesn’t finish, they all get what he means.

“We already knew that, though,” Louis says, trying to wipe the petrified look off of Zayn’s face. “We know not to trust anybody, we know they want to make money off of us.”

“Yeah but we’ve never heard it that… bluntly,” Liam says, eyes wide.

“Then I’ll be more blunt from now on,” Louis says, huffing. “I’ve been saying the same thing for months.” He grabs Liam and Zayn and moves them along, because they’re still uncomfortably close to the fan barrier and a dozen different paps to be having this conversation. When they reach a more secluded area, he turns back to the four others who are following him like lost ducklings, looking around at the decor and the people milling about like everything in their lives has been a lie. “C’mon, lads. We get one night out, let’s make the best of it, yeah?”

Louis gets four pouty shrugs in return, and rolls his eyes. “That’s the spirit.”

Despite the boys’ abrupt slap of reality courtesy of Joe McElderry, they realize that they shouldn’t waste perfectly good suits, a square full of celebrities, and an evening free from their obligations. So they wander. They almost lose Niall when he swears he sees Prince Philip (“That’s just an old dude, Niall, not the fucking prince. Stop shouting at him, Christ.”) and it’s still cold as hell, but they have fun celebrity-spotting and walking through the square and stopping for pictures with fans.

Louis can’t think of anything that could have made the night better, not when he has his boys by his side, minor celebrities seeking them out so they can get papped together, and a phone full of texts from a jealous Lottie and Fizzy who beg him to get Ben Barnes’ phone number. And then—

“Snow!” Liam says joyfully as the first fat flakes fall. Zayn and Niall look up as well, Zayn’s lip quirking into a smile as Niall laughs delightedly.

Harry is standing just a little ways off, facing away from them, his head tilted back at an angle as silent snow falls gently around him. His curls glint in the firelight thrown his way by a gas lamp. He looks like a painting, a work of art; like if the snow around him stopped in the air for just a moment, he’d belong in a museum.

Fuck the Mona Lisa and her smile when there’s beauty like this out in the real world.

When Harry turns, he’s got pink cheeks and snow in his eyelashes and a soft grin specifically for Louis.

And a thought appears in Louis’ head. It isn’t particularly violent or blunt, not like the lightning strike metaphor of which people seem to be so fond. It’s quiet, less than a whisper but no less true because of it, a warm unfurling that starts in his chest and pushes out to his tingling fingers, his heated cheeks, his weak knees, his frozen toes.

Louis is in love with Harry.

He’s known since the second day at the bungalow that he loves Harry. He’d moaned it out over pancakes that morning: “Fuck me, Harry, I love you and your pancakes.” He loves all the boys, and he tells them regularly. They’re sort of shockingly affectionate for a group of teenage guys.

But this… this is different. This is being willing to act like an idiot in a thousand video diaries if it means making Harry laugh. This is being called into meetings with Modest! every single week because he’d rather put a hand on Harry’s waist during an interview than play along with their public narrative. This is knowing that someday Harry will leave, find someone worth his while, and he’ll Bond with them and have the happily ever after that he craves, and Louis will be left cherishing the time they had together.

This is waking up next to Harry every day, and wanting nothing more out of life than to just keep doing it.

It’s surprising, this sudden revelation, though it shouldn’t be. Every major world religion and most Hollywood films with a romantic plot say that soulmates are complements, the perfect other half. If there’s one thing about Louis and Harry that is true, it’s that they fit like puzzle pieces: Harry is the dawn to Louis’ dusk, his exact complement.

Louis didn’t really think he was missing a whole half of himself before he met Harry, not really.

He was wrong.

Louis breathes in deep and stares at his soulmate, a boy who smiles like sunshine and sings like rainfall falling on a tin roof and who will never love Louis back, not in the same way. And then Louis tips his head back to look at the night sky flecked with white snowflakes, and he laughs and laughs and laughs at his luck.

 

 

3 December 2010

A laptop screen is shoved in front of Harry’s face unceremoniously while he naps, and he almost falls off the sofa in surprise.

“This,” he hears, and then a familiar tan finger is tapping at the screen impatiently. “Hazza, listen. This, I want to try it.”

Harry scans the screen groggily, still half-asleep and befuddled at the turn of events. From what his blurry eyes can tell, it’s a recipe of some kind on the BBC website.

“You want me to cook for you, like I do every night, and you decided to wake me up to tell me this,” he says, not even lucid enough to lift the end of the sentence up into a question. Louis frowns.

“No. Sit up and listen, this is important. I want to cook this.”

Harry sits up. “You want to cook.”

“I want to cook.”

“You want to cook your first meal by making-” and then he leans over to read the screen again, “chicken stuffed with mozzarella cheese and wrapped in parma ham.”

Louis beams. “Yes, yes I do.”

This is a horrible idea. A truly awful idea. Louis can make tea and cereal, and... that is the end of the list. He put water on the stove to boil for pasta one day and then forgot about it, almost burning the whole house down. He regularly scorches toast until it’s unrecognizable as food. His favorite kitchen utensil is the massive filet knife, because he can grab it and say, “It looks like I’m in Psycho, Haz, look!” and then imitate screeching violin sounds at the top of his lungs. If he didn’t need a stovetop to make tea, he would have no use for the kitchen at all.

But he’s beaming like it’s the best idea ever and Harry is helpless to grin back. “Alright then. Let’s make you into a chef.”

 

 

It goes rather spectacularly awry from the word go.

“WHY DO YOU KEEP SAYING BUTTERFLY, I DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS,” Louis screams, violently stabbing at the chicken breast in front of him. The oven beeps angrily behind Harry, reminding him that it’s been preheated and ready to go for several minutes now. There’s cheese stuck to the ceiling and olive oil in his hair and enough salt on the floor to dehydrate the whole city.

It’s quite a bit of a disaster, and Harry can’t stop laughing.

He waits for an opportune moment (when the actual weapon—why was this a good idea—is pointing away so he doesn’t lose a finger) and gently takes the knife from Louis’ hand. He slides the mutilated chicken across the counter and reaches for another, standing behind Louis and wrapping his arms around his waist. Louis stills immediately, watching Harry’s careful hands.

“Butterfly means cut it almost in half,” he says, grinning into Louis’ shoulder as he slowly slices at the meat, “then fold it outwards. That’s where the mozzarella goes.”

“Oh,” Louis says quietly, then reaches for another piece of chicken and the knife. “Gimme.”

He cuts cautiously, hands a little shaky as he butterflies the second piece of chicken, tongue poking out in concentration. Soon, though, there are two pieces of stuffed chicken wrapped in ham and ready to fry. Louis looks at the olive oil popping in the pan in trepidation.

“Want me to do the first one?” Harry asks carefully, but Louis shakes his head.

“No, I want to do it.” He shoots a self-deprecating smile at Harry. “Can’t be that hard, right?”

Harry bites his tongue, but it actually goes pretty well. There’s a moment he thinks they’re going to lose one of the chickens, Louis gesturing a little wildly with the spatula while telling a story and nearly sending the meat flying. He saves it, though, and grins delightedly when Harry applauds his quick hands.

It’s too much for Harry to handle on his own, so he shares it with the world.

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When the chicken is slid into the oven and the potatoes are boiling, Harry starts reaching for plates and silverware.

Louis slaps his hand away. “What are you doing?”

“Um.” Harry frowns. “Setting the table?”

“No,” Louis disagrees, pulling the plates from Harry’s hands. “My job.”

“But—”

“This is the part I’m good at, Harold. Let me shine,” he winks, then swans around the corner and out to the main dining table to set their places. Harry rolls his eyes but smiles as he checks on the chicken and starts mashing the potatoes. Louis insists on ladling the finished potatoes into one of the fancy glass bowls and using the wine glasses for their water.

“Ambiance,” he claims, fluttering his fingers. “Atmosphere. Drama.”

“Well, you’ve got one of the three covered,” Harry murmurs, giggling when Louis pulls at his ear.

When the oven is switched off and the sink is full of dirty dishes, Louis stands at the doorway waiting for Harry, looking slightly apprehensive. He wipes his palms on his sweatpants and adjusts his shirt, almost like he’s nervous.

“Ready?” he asks, holding out an arm as though to escort Harry to the table and, honestly, Harry really doesn’t know what all the fuss is—

Oh. Oh.

Rather than the usual ragtag assortment of X Factor contestants, Sainsbury employees, film crew members, assistants, or Xtra Factor hosts that always seem to find themselves hanging around the dining room during the evening, it’s completely deserted.

But not empty, not by any means. The center of the long table is almost overflowing with candles, a few tall white pillars in the center all the way down to dozens of tiny tea lights.

“What…”

Louis stands off the the side, hands clasped behind his back and grinning.

“Lou,” Harry says weakly, “what is this?”

Louis shrugs. “I realized, the other day, that the two of us have never had a real, proper meal together. Not without a dozen other people around.”

“Yeah, but-”

So,” he continues loudly, smiling. “I asked everyone, very politely, to give us an hour to ourselves.”

“You asked politely?” Harry grins. “Well. I asked, at least.”

Louis clears his throat and steps forward to pull out Harry's chair, waving him forward. He shakes out Harry's napkin—a cloth napkin, where the hell did he get a cloth napkin—and then ruins the proper gentleman illusion by draping it gently across Harry’s face. Harry snorts, slipping the napkin into his lap and ruffling his hair back into place.

Conversation between them flows as easily as it always has, even despite the unusual situation. The wafting scent of chicken and spices floats in the air. They watch each other eat and talk and laugh like it’s a foreign experience, their familiar faces new to each other in the flickering candlelight. They trade stories about their days even though they were together for most of it—Harry talks about their staging for Saturday’s show, how the creative director wants them to actually dance this time and Zayn had laughed in his face at the suggestion. Louis, in return, tells him about the writer Simon had introduced him to, someone named Rami who’s written songs for everyone from the Backstreet Boys to Bon Jovi and is interested in working with them when the show is over. They compliment each other on a meal well done and giggle over the replies to Harry's tweet and it should be weird, right? Because this has all the signs of a classic date, with the homemade meal and the candles and the actual alone time in a place where that sort of thing tends to be an impossibility.

They used the fancy plates, for Christ’s sake. Harry's never been on a real date in his life but he feels proper wooed.

Their loud laughter dwindles into something more gentle as the evening rolls on, candlelight reflecting off of empty plates as their voices get softer and they lean closer. Louis rubs his hand on Harry’s thigh when Harry tells a joke and doesn’t move it when he’s finished laughing (and this shouldn’t make Harry’s pulse pound like it does, it shouldn’t make his throat go dry in anticipation, it shouldn’t be a big deal because Louis does this all the time, it doesn’t mean anything).

(But what if it does?)

If this was a film, this would be where the soft acoustic guitar starts playing quietly in the background while Harry shifts closer. It would be where Harry notices how Louis’ eyelashes cast delicate shadows on his cheeks when he looks down to trace patterns on the tablecloth, where he can’t pull his eyes away from Louis’ mouth and the way he licks his lips right after he laughs. He’d notice Louis’ hands, his gentle wrists, his slender fingers and the way they dance up Harry’s arm.

He’d look up at Louis and see the sparkle of something promised in his eyes, and he’d lean in slowly, so slowly it doesn’t feel like falling so much as ebbing, a tide pulled to its rightful place.

Harry’s lips are inches, mere breaths, from Louis’ when Louis speaks.

"If a picture of this ends up on the Internet,” he says conversationally, and maybe Harry’s imagining the forced nonchalance, or maybe the blood rushing in his ears is making him hear things incorrectly, “I'm suing all of you."

Harry is confused until he looks up, finding a small crowd of people watching from a balcony above them. Liam waves sheepishly, the only one who actually seems to be ashamed of being caught spying. Cher and Matt pretend to wipe away tears of pride, but Mary and Rebecca look to be on the verge of actual tears. Niall, naturally, is not even trying to hide his phone or the shutter sounds it makes as he takes picture after picture (“Don’t worry, I’m sending all of these to Zayn!” he says, laughing). Even some of the production crew have put their cameras down long enough to watch, Harry recognizing a few friendly faces who wouldn’t record this and give it to the producers—Jim and TJ and Louis’ favorite Ricky that he sometimes shares cigarettes with when the rest of the boys are inside.

With the abrupt realization that Harry and Louis aren’t as alone as they feel, the restive, quiet mood between them is broken. Louis laughs and flips their audience off, then helps Harry blow out the candles and get the dishes to the sink to be washed. The rest of their housemates trickle downstairs for their normal activities as Harry cleans up and Louis sips his nightly cup of Yorkshire, pretending it’s just another Friday evening and nothing has changed when really, everything is different.

But, just like any other night, they fall asleep that night in each other's arms.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: 4 December 2010 - 12 December 2010 

4 December 2010

It’s tense in the studio going into the semi-final.

Which makes sense. They’ve come so far and they’re all so close to the finish line, but one act is going home tonight and the other four will make X Factor history and, as one can probably imagine, that puts a little bit of a strain on everyone in the building at Fountain Studios.

It keeps building as morning wears into afternoon, pushing almost to the edge of everyone’s breaking points. They all know they’re high strung on nerves and adrenaline, too little sleep and too much pressure, but they can’t help but snap at each other over the tiniest of things. Matt makes Cher cry when she accidentally sprays hairspray in his eye, and they all decide that cramming together in the overflowing wardrobe room isn’t the best route to take tonight.

Cher goes one way, sniffling, Matt goes another, Rebecca stays to have her long hair twisted up in a gravity-defying bun, Mary goes to call her daughter, and One Direction find an empty room to themselves where they can breathe freely and talk louder than a whisper without setting someone off.

Of course, the nerves haven’t magically vanished just because they’ve moved to a new room. Within minutes, Niall and Louis are screaming at each other over God knows what, Zayn is staring angrily into a corner, arms crossed tightly across his chest (and Harry can’t tell if it’s because of the screaming match or because he’s not been invited to join in the screaming match). Harry himself is pressing his hands to his ears to block the noise, overwhelmed and terrified and feeling that awful creep of anxiety begin to spin through his veins.  

Liam stands, claps loudly a few times, and yells over the din, “Favorite song we’ve performed on three!”

They all stop in their metaphorical tracks. Niall's mouth is still open after a wordless shriek of anger, and Louis is paused mid-shouted sentence (“...wring your neck, leprechaun-”). Zayn raises a single unamused eyebrow, not deigning to speak but communicating quite clearly: Is he serious?

Liam starts counting. “One."

Apparently he's serious.

"Two.”

Louis snorts, his eyes challenging.

“Three."

Harry opens his mouth to answer, feeling a little like he's powerless to stop himself. He isn’t the only one.

Summer of ‘69,” Harry says.

Nobody Knows,” Zayn says.

Kids In America,” Niall says.

Torn,” Louis says.

Bemused silence radiates through the room. Liam looks like a smug babysitter who got the kids to calm down, eyes crinkling as the corner of his mouth tugs up in a satisfied grin.

It’s not a good look on him.

“I thought you hated Guilty Pleasure week, Z,” Harry says, anxiety unspooling a little in his stomach before it can get any traction. Zayn unwinds his arms, his fists unclenching.

“Nah,” he chuckles, “Just thought they were gonna make us do something stupid. But then they gave us an actual decent song, so I felt better about it. Summer of ‘69, though? I thought that one about caused you to have a meltdown, didn’t think it’d be your favorite.”

“Well it’s the first song we got to pick on our own, and you guys agreed with my choice. It was,” Harry stops, grins at his hands. “It was nice, y’know? Happy day.”

Zayn grins as well and punches him softly on the arm.

“Why, um. Why Kids In America, Ni?” Louis asks, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. Niall laughs and looks down.

“I liked the cheerleaders,” he says, and Louis giggles. “And we basically hopped around like idiots through the whole thing, it was awesome.”

“Why Torn, Lou?” Zayn asks curiously.

“Yeah, that was probably our worst one we’ve ever done,” Liam adds.

Harry snorts. Louis sends him a sharp look in return.

"What was that about?" Liam asks, eyebrows furrowed.

“Nothing, Liam,” Louis says quickly. “Nothing at all.”  

“Secrets, secrets,” Niall mutters. “I don't like it.”

Louis loudly switches back to the original topic. “I like Torn because it’s how we became us, y’know? That could’ve been our first and last song together, but it wasn’t.”

The room is a lot more comfortable after that, the stress eased away. “Good tension breaker, Liam,” Harry says, and Zayn nods in agreement.

“Thanks!” Liam says brightly. “I was watching Friends last night, right, and it was the one with the game where they say the first thing that comes to their minds to make a decision. Just sort of popped into my head, you know?”

“I like it,” Louis says approvingly, and that’s how they pass the next hour.

“Favorite James Bond movie.”

“Favorite Disney princess, and don’t pretend you don’t know any, Zayn, we all know better.”

“Favorite Friends character.”

“Favorite Rihanna song,” Harry asks, “In honor of our first performance tonight.”

They’ve all slid into the floor to lay in a star shape, their heads together and legs pointing outwards. Grace is going to kill them when they show back up at wardrobe for their pre-show check with wrinkled clothes and flattened hair, but they really don’t care at the moment.

Umbrella,” Zayn says first. “Classic.”

“Yeah, that’s a good one,” Niall agrees.

“I like Unfaithful,” Liam chimes in. “I like the piano.”

Rude Boy,” Louis announces. Zayn snorts.

“Of course, Lou,” he laughs, and Louis just grins.

“It’s basically my life in a song, “ he says seriously. “The full title is actually Rude Boy: The Untold Story of Louis Tomlinson.”

“In this scenario,” Liam questions thoughtfully, “Are you the rude boy, or are you speaking to the rude boy?”

Louis shrugs. “Both? Sometimes I am the rude boy, sometimes the rude boy is after me. But,” he says, grinning lasciviously at the ceiling, “no one ever asks if I’m big enough. Or if I can get it up.”

Niall and Liam groan in answer, but Harry bursts into giggles. “I want to see you try and pull someone by just singing Rude Boy at them.”

“Yeah?” Louis asks, rolling his head against the carpet to look over at Harry, smirking. “Wanna watch me dance up on someone and tell them to take it?

Oh.

Harry feels his face flame, his mouth drop open. He definitely doesn’t picture it; definitely doesn’t think of Louis in a darkened room where the bass pulses against the walls and the air is heavy with sex and smoke. Louis with shiny skin, too-tight skinnies, sweaty hair shoved back off his face, his hips moving filthily as he pushes someone back against a wall (not Harry, definitely not Harry, not that he’s even thinking about this happening at all, of course not). He doesn’t think of how Louis’ breath would be warm in his ear as he murmurs “Do you like it, boy?” into Harry’s ear, their chests pressed together. He doesn’t think about Louis’ hips lining with his, anchoring him in an indecent rhythm. He doesn’t think about letting go of all control, about letting Louis catch him as he tilts his head back and surrenders.

He doesn’t think of any of that, and he definitely, definitely doesn’t feel his cock twitch in his jeans. “Um,” he says when he manages to figure out how words work, and then he coughs.

Louis’ grin widens, and he sings loudly, “Tonight, I'mma let you be the captain. Tonight, I'mma let you do your thing, yeah.” He shimmies his shoulders, drops his eyes to Harry’s bitten lips. “Tonight, I'mma let you be a rider. Giddy up, giddy up babe.” Niall, who is cackling at Louis’ antics as always, slaps a hand over Louis’ mouth to muffle the chorus.

Is this what death feels like? Or is this a religious experience? Either way, Harry can’t breathe.

Maybe it’s just the light in the room shifting, but Louis’ eyes seem a lot darker when they meet Harry’s again. Harry’s stomach feels full of cooling lava, of electric butterflies, of powdered sunshine; something that leaves his veins sparking and his pulse thrumming. Louis still hasn’t looked away.

The spell is broken by Liam. “Favorite brand of cereal!” he all but yells. Harry startles at the noise, finally able to force his gaze back to the ceiling and take a deep, shaky breath.

Liam may be a smug bastard sometimes, but he may also be an actual saint.



Only Girl in the World is actually Harry’s least favorite song they’ve performed yet, just because it really isn’t his style and there’s not much room to show off their vocals. But it’s right up Zayn and Niall’s alley and their energy is catching, so it’s a fun time bouncing from one side of the stage to the other.

At the end of the song, Louis wraps an arm around Harry and Zayn’s shoulders, who reach for Liam and Niall and pull each other in for a group hug. The crowd eats it up, screams its approval.

There’s no way to know for sure, but Harry’s got a gut feeling.

After they sing Chasing Cars, the gut feeling morphs into full-blown confidence.

This time next week, they’ll be performing in the final.

...

 

5 December 2010

If Saturday at the studio had been tense, it’s nothing compared to Sunday morning. Little sleep and less patience has led to an ugly cocktail of tears and frequent shouting, followed by weepy iterations of I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it and hugs that threaten strangulation. Louis has caused and solved more breakdowns this morning than he has the past five months of being on this show, and all he wants is a minute away from the hysteria.

So he grabs Harry (the kid who is on the verge of collapse due to nerves every time they take the stage and yet who is the only lucid human in the fucking building at the moment) and drags him down a hallway until he spots a familiar head of light blonde hair.

“Ricky!” Louis calls, and he spots a grin behind the massive camera that whips his way as he bustles up the hallway. “I need a distraction.” Ricky automatically reaches for his pack of cigarettes, but Louis stops him. “Nah, something else. Got any segments you need willing participants for?”

Ricky’s grin widens, and he unshoulders the camera. “Sure do, Lou. Got a sponsored game that was s’posed to be filmed a week ago, totally forgot.”

“Is it mindlessly stupid? Ridiculously cheesy? Incredibly embarrassing?”

“You know it.”

Louis smirks at Harry, who’s watching the exchange warily but smiles back when Louis catches his eye.

“Let’s do it.”

Ricky leads them to the room everyone’s been using as a large coat closet, the decor consisting of one long makeup mirror, various belongings of the crew and acts strewn about, and an empty sofa. Louis has to refrain from making the obvious amateur porn joke.

Well, he tries really hard to refrain. It’s worth the blow to his joke-telling dignity when Harry squawks a loud, surprised laugh, eyes squinting in glee. After he’s recovered, Harry sprawls himself across the sofa, kicking both feet up to rest along the back. Louis perches next to him, awaiting instructions.

Ricky is completely right: it’s a stupid game, one of those where the sole purpose is to make minor British celebrities do embarrassing things on camera. Sainsbury’s, for some unfathomable reason, wants them to unwrap as many chocolate coins as they possibly can in one minute.

As it turns out, a full minute of something so dumb is more than Louis can handle. Halfway in—two chocolate coins unwrapped apiece, not that he’s keeping track—Louis goes for the sabotage. He grabs for Harry’s still-wrapped pile, stealing more ammo and making Harry laugh a delighted raspy laugh. Harry retaliates by going after Louis’ stash in return.

Which, conveniently enough, is neatly situated in Louis’ lap.

Louis screeches when Harry’s massive hand grabs for the chocolates and completely misses, palming his dick through his sweatpants.

Fuck. Why would anyone need such huge hands? It’s impractical, and unnecessary, and rude, and—oh, hell, and it’s making Louis hard. What does he do? What does he do?

He panics, that’s what he does.

Louis throws his pile of chocolate at Harry’s face. Harry takes it in stride and fends off the attack, giggling. Louis has just run out of coins to throw when he hears Harry half-whisper through his giggles, “Now kiss me, you fool.”

Louis freezes; there is not a single universe in which he is strong enough to resist when Harry Styles asks to be kissed.

However, he does just barely have the strength not to launch into a full-on snog when there’s a camera pointed at him and he’s got a mouthful of stolen chocolate coins. Especially since it sort of sounded like an actual request but also sort of sounded like a joke, and Louis would probably actually die if he leaned in to kiss Harry and Harry leaned away, claiming he was just kidding. Harry’s usually open-book face is written in code now, and Louis doesn’t have the time to break it to see if he really meant what he said.

Louis takes a breath and takes a chance, going for a sort-of compromise. He leans forward, laying hard kisses along Harry’s throat and trying not to choke on chocolate. He pushes frantic hands through Harry’s hair (because he has lost all control of the situation and his limbs) and wonders if this looks like two mates just having a laugh.

Probably not.

Christ, this is a bad idea. Harry is an idiot for asking on camera, and Louis is an idiot for giving in. He’s going to be in so much trouble.

The thought of Magee and Griffiths staring down their noses at him as he explains yet again that he is not Bonded to Harry and no, that video evidence isn’t what it looks like is enough to send Louis scrambling backwards, straightening his beanie. Harry laughs breathily as he leans away, the skin on his neck red from Louis’ lips, God; Louis turns to the camera like it was always the plan to devolve their dumb game into a faux-snog with his best friend.

“So,” he laughs uneasily into Ricky’s camera, trying to ignore they way the cameraman’s eyebrows have risen behind the eyepiece. “Who won?”



Ricky eventually leaves Harry and Louis alone when they’ve given him sufficient material to make his bosses happy, and they spend their remaining free time there in the coat room, chewing on discarded chocolate and talking with Mary, who’s barricaded herself in with them after making Rebecca cry about her false eyelashes.

Harry chatters on like nothing’s wrong. Louis tries really hard not to think about the way Harry’s hand felt on his cock. He tries even harder not to puzzle out why Harry would tell Louis to kiss him in front of a camera.

Or at all, really.

Eventually, responsibilities find them in the form of Liam, and they’re dragged to wardrobe to change out of their sweats and into their typical results show uniforms—gray and black as far as the eye can see, Harry in his usual blazer and Louis in a skinny scarf.

Louis tugs at his own sleeve to hide the dagger and tries to breathe deeply as they’re led on stage to find out whether they’re going to the final.



Saying goodbye to Aiden had been awful. Like losing a limb, or sending a brother off to war.

Well, okay. Maybe not the brother part, since Aiden had pretty adamantly tried to stick his tongue in the vicinity of Louis’ mouth multiple times.

But, for metaphor’s sake, it was a similar experience. Just completely gone from one day to the next, nothing remaining except his involvement in the house’s group text and the t-shirts Louis had stolen from his wardrobe. It had been truly, truly terrible, and Louis still misses him every day.

And yet, somehow, losing Mary is even worse.

Louis had never even considered that she’d be gone. She’s a Dublin hero, a national treasure, a powerful singer and a wonderful woman and sometimes the only thing that stood between the X Factor finalists and total chaos. There had never been any doubt in Louis’ mind that she’d be in the final.

But the judges vote to keep Cher in the final four, and so Mary has to leave.

Harry is sobbing, as is Niall. They cling to each other as Mary leaves the stage, her head held high and her elegant black gown sweeping the floor. Louis can’t breathe, his own sobs caught somewhere in his lungs. He rests his head on Zayn’s shoulder, lip trembling.

Mary smiles when she sees them waiting offstage, a single tear rolling down her cheek. She gathers Niall and Harry to her, hugging them close and looking over their heads to where Louis, Liam, and Zayn are watching, their arms around each other.

Her rich voice rolls over them in a soothing rhythm, repeating the same words over and over again: “Be happy, my boys. Be happy.”


6 December 2010

The boys find the Vidcase cordoned off the next morning. There's a large sign proclaiming wet paint, even though nothing is a new color or looks wet or smells like paint at all, really.

There's another new addition as well: Claudia stands just next to the sign, business classy from her blonde ponytail to her almost-too-high pumps to her crimson lips that match her sharp fingernails. Her professional air is not quite good enough to hide that bit of a sneer twisting the corner of her mouth.

"No video diary this week, I’m afraid," she says coolly, looking straight at Louis.

So, the Superman bit last week had gone too far. Or maybe that wasn’t even on the radar, maybe they’re being punished because Louis proclaimed he'd Bond with Harry (and oh, the irony). Or maybe it was the chocolate coin game.

There’s a lot for them to be punished for, apparently.

Either way, Louis pissed off Claudia’s evil overlords enough to cancel their last ever video diary. The one chance they get to thank the fans and let them get to know the band a little better. Bastards.

It's almost worth it, though, to know that Louis' stunts must be making enough of an impact that action must be taken. That he doesn't sweat and squirm through all those meetings with those blank faced men for nothing. That all the little comments and critiques at his expense haven't gone to waste.

Louis isn't sure what management actually thinks is happening. Sometimes they confront him like he's playing up a fake Bond for personal publicity, using a real tattoo as a fake Marker and Harry as his accomplice. Sometimes they talk like he's just a silly boy with a crush and that his infatuation is so clear that media outlets are using it to sell stories independent of his wishes. They haven’t asked again if Louis is actually Bonded, and he wonders if Simon has convinced them otherwise. Or maybe they think he’d tell them if he was.

(It's sort of terrifying to be told that your Bond—or pretend Bond, and really there’s no difference when it comes to the press—can ruin the band. But it's even more empowering, because it means Louis holds a little bit of information that makes the most important men he’s ever met shake in their Italian leather shoes.)

Louis might be winning the war (because what can they do, really? They can call him in for a thousand meetings, it won’t make him stop loving Harry. And it’s not like they could make him date someone else, that’s just ridiculous) but he’s lost this battle, and Claudia’s sneer tells him she knows it too. He’s just opening his mouth to let loose some sort of snarling protest when someone beats him to it.

“No,” Liam says authoritatively. “We have to do a video diary. That’s out of the question.”

Claudia’s eyes flicker over to him. “Sorry, that’s what I’ve been told.”

“Well you were told wrong, then. The fans are expecting it, and we can’t let them down.”

Liam doesn’t scream or bluster when he argues, he’s all thought-out phrases laid one after the other to inflict maximum damage. Louis would love to learn his fighting secrets, if he only had the patience to sit and formulate arguments rather than screeching oh yeah, well fuck you at the top of his lungs. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be in Louis’ cards, but he sure is glad to have Liam on his side in this case.

“Again, sorry to tell you this-”

“Then don’t,” Liam says, lifting his chin and showing a little defiance, some steel behind his soft exterior. “We’ll take it up with Simon later. I’ll be sure and let him know it was you that told us no.”

Claudia is too good to flinch, but her eyes do tighten infinitesimally.

“Fine,” she says.

“Fine,” Liam shoots back.

And then he herds the other boys away, and he even grins a little when Louis turns back around to stick his tongue out at Claudia.



Simon agrees with Liam.

“Of course you’re doing a video diary,” he says, looking affronted. “Who told you that bullshit?”

“I don’t know her name,” Liam says, eyes crinkled a little in the corner at having Simon agree with him. “Blonde lady, think she’s with PR.”

Louis clears his throat. “Claudia,” he says quietly, and Simon catches his eyes for one beat, two, three.

“Ah,” he says succinctly. “Well, we’ll fix that. It won’t be today, though, we’ve got too much to do. You’ll be doing the home visits all day tomorrow and won’t have time to rehearse.”

Harry bounces on his toes a little at that—they’ll be visiting each of the four English boys’ cities (Mullingar is out of the question due to some intense snow, and Niall isn’t taking it very well), but the Holmes Chapel stop will be at Harry’s actual house.

Simon grins, and pulls out a sheet of paper. “Let’s talk about song choices for the final,” he says, and in true dramatic fashion he slowly slides the paper across the desk rather than just reading out what they’ll be performing. The five boys’ heads knock together as they lean in to read, but nobody complains as they take in the three songs that will literally decide their fate.

“Elton!” Harry breathes happily.

“Robbie Williams,” Liam whispers rapturously.

Torn,” Louis murmurs, and he looks up to see the other four watching him closely. He thinks of his own words from just a few nights ago—it’s how we became us—and grins, a little out of breath with things like redemption and happily ever after swirling through his mind. He gets four grins in return, and he stores them away in the back of his mind like trophies.



It’s weird in the boys’ bedroom that night. Louis has the itching urge to apologize, though he’s pretty sure he hasn’t done anything wrong and doesn’t really know what he’d be apologizing for. Still, something’s… off.

The boys move around each other like choreographed dancers in the small space: Harry tosses Niall a t-shirt from the communal laundry pile, Niall twirls out of Liam’s way as he moves toward the bathroom, Liam reaches over as he passes to cover Zayn’s bare foot where he’s kicked his duvet crooked, Zayn tugs on Louis’ elbow in a silent plea and almost dislodges his toothbrush, Louis grins and hands Zayn his phone charger so he doesn’t have to leave the warmth of his blankets, all of them moving pieces in the nighttime clockwork routine.

Liam is the one to break the silence. “Let’s talk about today, shall we?”

“What about today?” Louis asks warily.

“We sounded bloody fantastic, that’s what,” Zayn answers.

He’s not wrong. They won’t be able to really practice She’s the One in full until their scheduled time with Robbie Williams on Wednesday (which, by the way, is still something that Louis hasn’t thought too much about because he might scream or faint or cry, even though he should probably get all that out of his system before he does all three in front of Robbie), but Your Song is the perfect mix of rocky and soft for them, and Torn

When they practiced Torn it sounded like it was being sung by a group who’s been together for decades and know each other better than they know themselves. Like it was being sung by people much older and more experienced than the five boys who were actually singing.

“I know we’ve gotten stronger since we got here and started getting regular vocal lessons, but-”

Niall cuts Liam off. “We sound fucking ace, yeah. I just don’t get where that comes from, ‘cause like, it takes a lot more than some vocal coaching to get us from how we sounded at the Judge’s House to how we did today.”

Harry snorts.

Zayn looks over at him sharply. “What, H?”

Harry flicks his eyes over to Louis, who’s starting to understand why he feels that need to apologize. He stays quiet, though, and so does Harry.

“Nope!” Niall announces. “Nope, no, we aren’t doing this shit. No secrets among bandmates.” He throws a balled-up sock at Harry and points threateningly. “You tell us what you know.”

Harry tosses another glance at Louis, and seems like he’s going to keep from answering until he’s hit in the face with a pair of Niall’s boxers this time.

“Jesus, okay! We sounded different at Judge’s House because Louis turned off his mic when we performed.”

The room rings with the echo of his words. Louis feels the residual shame well up in stomach as Liam, Niall, and Zayn turn to him, looking betrayed.

“You did what?” Liam gasps. Louis can’t stand the confusion on their faces, so he turns away.

Harold,” he admonishes quietly. “That was months ago! Thought we were past it.”

“Nope,” Harry says, popping the ‘p.’ “Still mad at you ‘bout all that. And there’s no secrets between bandmates, see.”

“Damn right,” Niall says, throwing a sock at Louis this time. “What’s the meaning of this?”

“I didn’t want to ruin our chances!” Louis answers defensively. “I didn’t think I was really necessary.”

“You were,” Zayn quietly throws in. Louis can see Harry nod from the corner of his eye.

“He knows. I made sure he knows.”

Louis rubs absentmindedly at his forearm. He can remember it like it was yesterday, Harry’s disappointment, his words that had echoed in Louis’ mind for hours after that, keeping him awake far into the early morning. We needed you. “Yeah, I know.”

Niall clears his throat. “That was good. Therapeutic. Now, any more secrets that need to be aired out?”

Louis curls in on himself, trying to look like all his secrets have been bled out for the day. He’s not about to go announcing that he’s Bonded to Harry when something as small as him not singing one song four months ago caused that big of a reaction. The other boys are quiet too: Harry is chewing on his lip and Niall is messing with his fringe and Zayn is looking at his phone but clearly listening intently, his eyes never moving.

It’s Liam that bursts.

“Harry used the sex room!” he reveals, then claps a hand over his mouth.

What?

Wait, no.

No, he’d never—

“No,” Harry says dazedly as Louis turns slowly to face him. “No, that’s. No-”

“I overheard Rebecca and Mary,” Liam continues. Louis sort of can’t breathe. “They talked about how loud you were, and that you kept saying someone’s name but they didn’t say who.” Harry shakes his head wildly.

“No,” he says again. Louis feels like his insides are being yanked out of his body, but it’s happening so slowly that he can feel every painful inch of it. Someone else, someone that is very much not Louis, got to touch Harry? Got to lay him across unused cotton sheets and touch his skin, hear his moans, see him flush with sex and endorphins? Had him screaming their name? Louis needs- he needs to find out who, needs to hunt them down and hear whether they treated Harry like how he deserves—

Niall and Zayn look to be on the verge of delighted laughter, Niall’s eyebrows already raised in surprise.

“I didn’t, it wasn’t-” Harry says to Louis, and it makes him wonder what his face looks like right now. It can’t be good, going by Harry’s panic.  

“Was it that brunette girl from the other night, Hazza?” Niall asks, grinning darkly. “Bet it was, she was all over you.”

A memory hits like a sledgehammer: Louis cuddling a shaky Harry in this very bed not too long ago, still fully clothed and smelling like strange, sweet vanilla. His stomach twists.

“Yeah, I was with her friend,” Zayn adds. “Ashley, right? She was hot.”

“No, it was no one!” Harry cries in anguish. “There wasn’t anyone in there with me!”

There’s a stunned silence as Harry’s meaning hits home. Louis sits up, the sinking feeling in his stomach dissipating a little.

“Oh my God,” Liam says.

Niall collapses against the nearest wall in laughter. Zayn howls, slapping an open palm on his mattress. Liam is chuckling into his palm, still looking a little contrite.

Louis feels like a balloon has popped in his chest.

“Hazza, love,” he giggles, deliriously happy that he doesn’t have to hunt anyone down, reaching over and rubbing at Harry’s ankle. “If you needed time for a wank, you should have told us. We’d have given you some space!”

“Christ,” Harry moans, burying his face in his hands. “Please, please stop.”

“Whose name were you yelling?” Zayn asks, cackling. “Who’s the fantasy wank material?”

“Nobody,” Harry mumbles through his hands.

“Oh my God, do we know them?” Niall asks, gleeful. “We do, don’t we? Is it Cher?”

“Nah, mate, gotta be Cheryl,” Zayn says.

Harry stands suddenly, his limbs tight and uncoordinated. His face is angry red, splotchy. “It’s no one, alright? Back off!”

It’s not very convincing, as far as threatening exclamations go, especially since Harry’s voice breaks horribly in the middle of it. He stares at the ground but, just once and like he can’t help himself, he flickers the briefest glance at Louis. The silence turns immediately into something stretched and uncomfortable.

Louis's skin feels too tight all of a sudden.

He’s pretty sure he hears Niall whisper, “Oh.”

Harry buries his face in his hands again. The room is horribly quiet.

"I'll be in the shower," Harry mutters, even though his hair is still wet from the shower he took not an hour ago. The other three turn to look at Louis when the door closes.

"You two aren't..." Liam trails off delicately, and Louis shakes his head. He feels numb.



It goes quiet after that, the lights turned off and the other boys badly pretending to sleep, letting Harry have his alone time but ready to jump out of bed if he needs help. Louis uses the time while Harry showers to try and reorder his jumbled thoughts, because he’d flown so frantically from shame to anxiety to hot rage to glee to… whatever this is, something that feels like confused secondhand arousal.

Maybe Harry was lying because he could tell Louis was hurt. Blatantly lying isn’t a very Harry-like thing to do, but trying to spare his feelings definitely is.

Oh, God. What if he can read Louis’ attraction to him like it’s stamped on his forehead? It has to be so obvious, there’s no way he can’t have some idea of how much Louis wants anything Harry is willing to give.

Then again… even Harry isn’t so self-sacrificing to let other people think he loudly masturbated rather than having sex with an actual person. So what if that’s not what happened? What if Harry actually was just getting himself off?

What if he was getting himself off to thoughts of Louis?

Christ that’s. That’s beyond flattering, that’s like. That’s the kind of thought that makes Louis’ brain spin, and he can’t linger on it too long without dreaming up ridiculous scenarios in which Harry decides to protest the entire biological process of Bonding and decides to just stay forever with his infatuated best friend in a semi-but-not-really-platonic lovefest. Which isn’t going to happen, because Harry is the guy who cries over the thought of meeting his soulmate on a weekly basis. And Louis shouldn’t want that anyway, he should want Harry to find his soulmate and be happy and not want to have sex with Louis.

It’s getting hard, though, to pretend that all those glances and touches and whispers and I love yous don’t mean something more.

He’s still awake when Harry tiptoes back into the room, and he feigns sleep as Harry pauses by the bed, as though deliberating on whether or not to climb in like nothing’s changed. Harry eventually slides in behind Louis, pressing his face between Louis’ shoulderblades and murmuring, “I know you’re awake.”

Louis turns over. “Sorry. I just-”

“No,” Harry says, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-”

“It’s fine, Hazza,” Louis whispers, aware of the other three boys in the room probably straining to listen. 

A long, long pause.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”



7 December 2010

Louis is in a van that is hurtling down the A1 somewhere between London and Doncaster at an ungodly hour of the morning, and Harry is holding his hand.

Well, sort of.

“They’re just so tiny,” Harry whispers, his massive paw cradling Louis’ hand to compare sizes. Louis tries to make an affronted noise but it comes out more like a sleepy grumble, and his skin is tingling where Harry is stroking his thumb over the pads of Louis’ fingers.

“Not that small,” Louis says. “Not the smallest ever.”

“The smallest in the history of time,” Harry says in awe, tracing Louis’ wrist. He twists around in the V of Louis’ legs and shoots him a sly grin. “I’ll be taller than you with my next growth spurt.”

“Excuse you,” Louis sniffs. “I could have a growth spurt too.”

“I’ll be tall and strong and you’ll still be-” He stops at Louis’ raised eyebrows, “-slightly less tall but just as strong?”

Louis snorts. “I’ll always be older, at least.”

Harry hums, turning back around and wiggling to get comfortable, his back against Louis’ chest. “Uglier, too.”

“Why, I never,” Louis gasps, pinching Harry’s side and making him giggle into his palm. “The impudence! The audacity! The-”

“Unmitigated gall?” Harry finishes, gasping in air between laughs. “I was with you when you watchedThe Grinch last night, remember?”

Louis pokes him in the ribs. “Hush, you. Back to your original, unnecessary, and totally untrue comment, my mum says I’m the prettiest boy in the world.”

Harry grins, tracing Louis’ palm again. “She’s not wrong.” Louis feels his face burn, so he drops his forehead down to rest on Harry’s shoulder in lieu of answering. “Speaking of mums,” he continues slowly, “I think I’m gonna tell mine today, in person. About us living together?”

Louis freezes, sending a furtive look around the quiet van. They’re the only two still awake besides the driver; the cameraman in the passenger seat is fast asleep, and the three other boys nodded off not long after they left the TV studio this morning after their interview for Ireland AM. This van is the kind where the second and third rows of seats face each other, leaving an empty space in the middle for easier access in and out of the vehicle. Perfect for paparazzi photos of a group of people arriving or leaving an event, funnily enough, but it also means Harry and Louis get a perfect view of Niall with his feet angled up against the window while he snores loudly and Zayn using Liam’s lap as a pillow.  

Louis is pretty sure the crew member driving isn’t paying attention to them, too busy humming along to U2 on the radio to hear their conversation. Still, he whispers when he answers Harry’s comment.

“Were you being serious, then? You want to live together?”

Harry frowns. “Yeah, of course. Did you think I wasn’t?”

“No, God no,” Louis half-laughs. “I believed you. We just haven’t talked about it in, what, three weeks?”

“What’s there to talk about? I mean, we won’t really know what we can afford until after the show ends, but then we can start looking for places we like.”

“Hazza, love, there’s so much more than that,” Louis says gently. “I’m not, like, an expert, but I’d started looking at housing for uni before the show and there’s so much that goes into it.”

Harry is quiet for a moment, biting his lip. “Like what?”

“Like… Like we never even picked a city. So, do we both like London enough to live there? And if so, where in London? What neighborhood? What style of flat do we want—a studio? One bedroom, two bedrooms? Do we have to get insurance? What about security? And that’s just the flat itself, we don’t have anything in the way of our own furniture. Plus, God, Hazza, you’re still sixteen. Would I have to be your legal guardian since you’re underage? I have no idea how any of that works. There’s so, so much to talk about.”

Harry’s shoulders slump further with each new word, and Louis feels awful for that but he can’t let Harry continue thinking it’s as easy as picking a flat and throwing out some cash. Louis runs a soothing hand up his spine, about to apologize, when—

“I want to live in London, and so do you, that’s what you said when we first moved into the house. If we can choose to live anywhere, I’ve always wanted to live at Primrose Hill, but I’m open to just about anywhere. We could do a three bedroom flat, one for both of us and a guest room for if our families come to visit. I can talk to my mum about insurance, and about borrowing some furniture from our house that she isn’t using. Simon will set up security if we want it, I’m sure. I have pictures saved on my phone with ideas for decorating a kitchen and a living room. And I don’t care if I have to do a tree’s worth of paperwork to live with you, that’s what I want to do.” Harry has turned fully to look at Louis, his voice never above a whisper but his eyes blazing. “I want to live with you, Lou. I really do.”

Louis feels a little bit like he’s been hit by a truck, his heart pumping loudly with all his feelings for this ridiculous boy. He wants to jump on top of this van and shout it to the world, to tweet it to the hungry mobs following him on Twitter, to announce it to all of England when they go live on Saturday night.

But he can’t do that, so he grins and pulls Harry back against his chest and into a hug. “I would love to move in with you,” he says, muffled into Harry’s shoulder. “Now,” he says, sitting back up in time to catch Harry’s beaming grin, “show me these kitchen inspiration pictures.”



Harry nods off a little into their discussion of the ideal flat color scheme (Louis likes gold and red and black and white, Harry likes pale greys and lavender and cerise, even though Louis is pretty sure that isn’t even a word, let alone a color), leaving Louis time to think. Now, normally this isn’t a good thing—a bored Louis with nothing but his thoughts in a silent van nearly an hour from their destination would ordinarily be recipe for chaos and bloodshed—but right now he’s feeling languid and lazy and introspective and less like he wants to tie Niall and Liam’s shoelaces together.

Today they’ve got four distinct stops for appearances: a school visit, a home visit, a signing, and a concert. And it’s strange, it’s so, so strange, that the crew chose Doncaster for the school visit. Almost like fate, except Louis doesn’t believe in fate. Actually, in a weird way all of the stops throughout the day seem to align pretty decently with what each boy is hoping to get out of the home visits.

Like Harry: the boys had watched old X Factor series to prepare for the final, and Harry had teared up at every single one of the interviews with the finalists’ family members or friends. A party for the band at his house in Holmes Chapel is perfect for him: he gets to spend time with his mum and sister and stepdad, and he gets to introduce his bandmates and new best friends to extended family and his friends from school. He gets to have his sob-inducing conversation with his mum about how proud she is of all he’s done. He won’t have to sing for any of them (“I know it’s ridiculous, because we sing on national TV every week, but… like, the thought of singing in front of a room full of people who’ve watched me grow up makes me want to puke,” he’d told Louis when the home visit discussion first started, and the green tinge to his skin lent him some credibility on that front). He gets to see all the important faces and remember who he’s singing for each week without actually having to face the pressure of performing in front of them.

Then, they’ll go to Bradford, and Zayn will get to experience the popstar life with the signing at the HMV. He’ll get the chance for friends to come see him be proper famous without having to worry about cameras following around his parents and sisters, because from what Zayn’s said they’re all pretty private and he doesn’t want them to get overwhelmed.

And lastly it’s the performance at Wolverhampton, where Liam will get to show everyone that doubted him and bullied him and ignored him that he’s already done more with his life than they ever will, though Liam won’t see it that way.

“I’m just excited to show all those people who were so put out when I didn’t make it through last time that it can happen. Like maybe some little kids will be inspired because we’re from the same place and if I can make it this far, so can they,” he’d said shyly.

Because Liam is the actual nicest human on Earth, and Louis absolutely does not understand him at all.

But before they get to all that, it’s Donny and a visit to Louis’ old school. And this might be the most poetic of all the appearances, even more than Harry getting strength from his family or Zayn being reminded what’s awaiting them after the final and Liam proving that he’s worth something to the people who thought he wasn’t. Because inside that school, waiting in the auditorium, are a dozen people who believed in Louis and wanted him to succeed (his mum will be there, of course, and his sisters, and Stan and Hannah and maybe a couple more friends from the footie team and the drama club), and a thousand other people who told him he’d never make it.

There’s the geography teacher who said he’d never amount to anything—and God, Louis remembers that day like it was yesterday: the shaking in Louis’ hands, the barely contained anger. He’d never actually wanted to hit somebody that badly before, but there’s a first for everything and Mr. Johnson was begging for a bloodied nose, his ankles crossed on his desk and his smirk fixed in place. And there’s the boys Louis used to hang out with and take the piss out of for fun, that group of friends that wasn’t actually all that friendly, but they fell in together because they hated their teachers and hated their schoolwork and could sneak beer out from under their dads’ noses for lad’s nights. Oli and Calvin and Nizam, guys who laughed when Louis said he’d auditioned for Grease until they realized he wasn’t kidding, so he didn’t even bother telling them about X Factor.

And now they’re all still there, still in Donny with the dead-end jobs and lack of motivation and their petty, vindictive jealousy.

And here he is, an X Factor finalist.

Ah, justice.

With the thought of the look on Mr. Johnson’s toady old face, he falls asleep with his face pressed into Harry’s curls, the van's tires against the road his lullaby. 



For a few long seconds, Louis thinks they’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up in some parallel universe.

Because he expected a couple dozen fans, some overexcited preteens with nothing better to do on a snowy Tuesday. But standing in the freezing cold outside Hall Cross School, jumping and screaming and waving signs and wearing the boys’ names on their shirts and faces and arms, has to be at least two hundred people.

“Oh my God,” he murmurs, and Harry taps an excited rhythm on his thigh in agreement.

After three hours in a stuffy vehicle, the cold blasts their ears and faces and hands as they step out of the van, Louis leading the way and waving around to the excited crowd. It’s almost too much, like that first time they’d stepped out into the alleyway behind the studio and were mobbed by screaming fans, but this time they know to stay close together and work through the crowd as a unit, signing posters and scarves and posing for quick pictures.

The boys are pushed inside and led toward the auditorium. Even with the heavy backstage door closed, the chanting from inside echoes clearly in the hallway: One Direction, One Direction.

“We aren’t even singing,” Louis has to remind himself, and Niall laughs beside him.

“Doesn’t seem to matter, does it?” he says.

The roar is deafening as they take to the stage, the microphones not loud enough for them to drown out the crowd with their pleading for more votes and their thanks for the support so far. But like Niall says, it doesn’t really matter: Louis blows a kiss at one point and the roof nearly collapses, the high-pitched screams ringing loudly.

He spots bitter old Mr. Johnson among the teachers, scowling at the noise. He sees Calvin and Oli and Nizam leaned up against the very back wall of the auditorium, arms crossed as they take in the scene.

“We love you, Donny!” Louis shouts as they leave the stage, feeling higher than he does after any Saturday night performance.



It’s a quick, teary hello and goodbye with Louis’ mum and sisters before they’re hustled back into the van and on the road to Holmes Chapel.

“Three whole days without my face, and then you’ll see me again Saturday for the final,” Louis had reminded them, wiping tears off of Daisy’s face. “Cheer up, buttercup!”

Jay had pulled him close before they’d left, kissing his cheek fiercely and whispering, “I am so, so proud of you, Boo. So proud.” And then Louis’d had to pull away before he started bawling and refused to leave ever again.

But now—

Holmes Chapel!” Liam reads off a sign as they draw near, a picturesque village appearing in the distance. They get a police escort all the way to Harry’s front door, which can’t be seen behind the crowds of people spilling over his lawn and trampling his neighbor’s petunias.

It’s quiet inside the house, which is a blessed miracle after the pounding their eardrums have taken since this morning.

Or, it’s quiet until they round a corner into the kitchen and they’re accosted with the sound of champagne bottles uncorking and party poppers cracking, a cheering crowd of people in Harry’s mum’s kitchen beaming widely at them. Harry leaps back at the sudden noise, grinning widely and pawing at the air in a halfhearted attempt to ward off an attack.

The crowd inside is boisterous but manageable, hugging each of the boys just as tightly as they hug Harry, aunts and uncles and old school teachers and friends greeting them like this isn’t the first time they’re meeting. Ridiculously, for the second time today, Louis feels his eyes well up. It’s been far too long away from the Tomlinson clan for him, and he misses the overwhelming atmosphere of too many relatives in too small of a space.

Eventually, though, Harry’s stepdad Robin wrangles everyone’s attention and calls for a toast.

“Harry, it’s absolutely great to have you home,” he says, his gentle voice commanding in the quiet room. “And the rest of the boys with you as well. It’s like you’re all family now.”

Louis feels a smile twitch at his lips, and he looks up to catch Harry watching him, his eyes shiny and his lips wobbling.

Robin lifts his champagne flute to the boys. “To One Direction.”



They have an hour to mingle after that, all but one of the cameras stowed away so the boys can grab as much champagne as they want without offending the eyes of the nation. Louis is on his third glass and sort-of listening to Harry’s friend Jonny and his old boss from the bakery swap stories, watching Harry and Anne on the sofa across the room. He’s trying to see whether Harry’s told her about their plan to get a flat together—surely not, not with that camera right in his face—when he feels a hand on his arm.

“So, you’re the famous Louis,” says a girl with lavender hair and Harry’s green eyes, and Louis grins.

“And you’re the famous Gemma,” he says in answer, and a dimple appears in her cheek to confirm.

“What’s this I hear about a tattoo?” she asks, leaning forward conspiratorially. “The Sun says you Bonded with Louis Walsh, they’re calling you Louis Squared now. And since they are the epitome of top-notch journalism, I believe them.”

Louis laughs and pushes back his sleeve, letting Gemma inspect the dagger. It’s still strange that people can, y’know, see it, that his love for Harry is literally branded onto his skin, but Gemma just inspects it with a raised eyebrow and an impressed nod.

“I like it, you can hang around,” she declares, then loops her arm through Louis’ as they make their way around the room. Gemma prods him for information between introducing him as Newt Scamander to her relatives to see who gets the reference, but then everyone is calling him Newt and Gemma is laughing as he pouts.

“Hiya,” Louis hears after their lap around the room, and turns to find Harry beaming at him.

“Hiya,” he says, and they grin at each other until Harry notices Gemma’s arm twined through his. He frowns like an angry kitten. “Back off, Gemma, find your own best friend.”

“Oh, Harry,” she says, feigning surprise with a hand fluttering to her chest. “You mean my friend Newt?”

Harry ignores her and turns back to Louis. “So…” he says meaningfully, raising his eyebrows.

Louis feels a weird flip in his stomach, even though it’s really not a bigger deal than any two mates sharing a flat together. It’s cool, he’s chill. “Yeah?”

“She said it probably can’t happen right away, money-wise and with the whole, like, me being underaged thing, but maybe we could look during the X Factor tour?”

“Yeah?” Louis asks again, smiling so widely his cheeks hurt. “Really?”

“Really,” Harry nods, and they both laugh incredulously at the same time, reaching out to wrap each other in a tight hug. Gemma’s eyebrows have skyrocketed to her hairline.

“Why do I feel like I just watched the consummation of an arranged Bonding?” she asks, shaking her head and leaving the two of them in their bubble.

“You’re moving in with me,” Harry breathes. Louis hugs him tighter, closing his eyes and breathing him in.

You’re moving in with me,” he counters giddily, ignoring the way his dagger tingles on his arm every time Harry’s hand brushes it, reminding him of all the ways this is a bad idea.



Pulling into Bradford is less exciting than the previous stops, even to Zayn, because the day’s been so full of excitement followed by long stretches of stillness as they're cooped up in a vehicle that it feels like it’s been a decade since they left London. The crowd is amped, though, and by the time they get into the store even Zayn is giggly and bouncing, third wind caught and carrying them through.

The signing is… a lot to take in. The HMV is not set up for a line of hundreds of people. Girls are screaming, crying, throwing things, chanting, and really, in all honesty, not paying that much attention to the actual band.

It’s like, they get so overwhelmed at the idea of meeting the boys that they end up not talking at all, just thrusting posters and shirts in Louis’ face as he tries to ask how they’re doing and then wailing as they walk away.

It’s sort of mind-boggling.

Still, at the end of their allotted hour they’re shuffled back outside and into the awaiting van for one last trip, and the crowd’s energy as they speed away keeps them hopping and joking for the full two hour trip to the outskirts of Wolverhampton, where Simon joins them for the last few miles.

“I try to make it a habit not to lie to you boys,” he says, and if Louis didn’t know better he’d say that was awe in Simon’s voice. “X Factor contestants don't get this kind of reaction. I don't care who they are. This is big."



Wolverhampton positively roars when they take the stage.

Louis wants to roar back. He wants to shout his appreciation from the rooftops; these people took time out of their lives, where they have families and jobs and school and a hundred thousand other things to focus on and worry about, but they still took time out of their days to vote for five silly boys who just want to be famous.

Louis can't roar back. One, because they probably wouldn't be able to hear him but two, because how do you thank people for something like this? Simon gave them their second chance when he formed the band, sure, but the voters at home gave them their third (and their fourth and their fifth, week after week up to now, just a few fitful days from the final).

Louis can't roar back to Wolverhampton and the rest of Great Britain that voted for them, but he can sing.

So that’s what he does.

Over their heads, the sky bursts into life with color and light, fireworks tracing brilliant shapes in the air.



For the sixth and final time today, the boys are led to the van amidst a crowd of screaming girls. They wave as they pull away, watching out the rear window as some of the girls try to chase the vehicle through the sleepy streets of Wolverhampton.

“Oh, shit,” Louis hisses as one girl wipes out on the icy pavement. Beside him, Liam claps a hand to his mouth, stifling a laugh. “Niall, did you see-”

Louis turns to find Niall sprawled out on the floor of the van, fast asleep and snoring softly. Zayn and Harry are already curled up like kittens sharing body heat on the opposite seat, blinking slowly as they watch Louis and Liam with sleepy eyes.

Louis prods and pushes Liam until he has him how he wants so they can fall asleep comfortably as well, Louis curled into Liam’s broad-for-a-teenage-boy chest with Liam’s arms wrapped around him. He’s just closing his eyes when Liam shifts a little, arms tense, breathing in like he wants to ask something but is still looking for the words.

“What?” Louis mumbles, “Just say it.”

Liam presses a rueful grin into the top of Louis’ head. “Sorry. Just been wondering something lately, never got a chance to ask… Why don't you ever want to Bond, Lou?”

The air doesn’t freeze in Louis’ chest but he does feel a little colder, his dagger tingling like it wants to be noticed. Across Niall’s sleeping form, Zayn and Harry have both blinked their eyes back open, watching Louis carefully. He shrugs, clinging to shreds of nonchalance, and picks at a string on Liam’s jeans. “It’s a sad story, Li. ‘M not sad right now.”

Liam huffs a little, breath warm on Louis’ forehead. “You’ve said that before.”

Louis remembers; it was a calm night under the star-sprinkled sky, the trampoline warm under his back, the bungalow lights dim against the darkness. Harry to his left, Zayn to his right, frustrated silence between the five of them filled by Harry’s sleepy slow voice spinning soulmate stories from Gemma’s old hand-me-down book. Louis’ own voice soft in the heavy, warm air.

I’ve never really wanted to be Bonded.

It was true before Louis went to auditions and Bonded with Harry, it was true at the bungalow, and it’s true now. He’d lost his faith in Bonding the moment he and Lottie had to hide in the wardrobe and press blankets to their ears to muffle the screaming of their parents, when he had to steal the twins from their cribs in the middle of the night and barricade them in his room because the sound of breaking dishes and slammed doors had startled them awake.

And then, because fate doesn’t take his opinion into consideration, he Bonded anyway. And Louis loves Harry with his whole heart, but being Bonded to him without having him Bond in return is the absolute hardest thing he’s ever lived through, like surviving every day without breaking down and begging Harry to love him back is a mighty accomplishment.

Louis closes his eyes and breathes in, breathes out. “It’s still true.”

He tries not to notice how Zayn’s eyes flick to meet Liam’s, his expression troubled.

He tries not to notice the sadness in the corners of Harry’s eyes as his gaze traces Louis’ face.

He still sees. It still hurts.

There’s still more than a hundred miles until they’re back in London, and Louis spends every one of them wondering why love is always painted in colors like pink and yellow when it feels so much like blue.

 

8 December 2010

There are billions of people in the world who could potentially be Harry’s soulmate.

In direct contrast, there are five people who it definitely is not: Liam Payne, Zayn Malik, Niall Horan, Jonathan Harvey, and Louis Tomlinson.

Jonny, he knew that one early. He’s the only person from Holmes Chapel that Harry liked and liked Harry in return for more than just a few months. Not that Harry was ever disliked; no, people loved to get to know him, because he was just a little too pretty to ignore, just this side of weird to be interesting. Just close enough to different to be eclectic. People liked the quirky side of him, in theory, at least until they were forced to confront reality in the form of Harry’s painted nails or love of poetry, his rocketing anxiety over things they always assured him didn’t matter. Those little tics and things that made him just a little less like everyone else. Jonny, though, Jonny didn’t leave him behind like an abandoned hobby, a curiosity. Other friends dropped Harry when they realized he never would get over his “interesting” quirks, but then came rushing back to be his friend when he was suddenly regularly on TV. Jonny stayed through it all.

When they were twelve and had been friends for almost five years, they’d done what all kids do—they swapped last names to see if they were soulmates. Jonny had laughed it off when nothing happened, but to Harry it had been sort of heartbreaking when he’d heard “Harry Styles” and no Marker appeared, because what if Harry never found anyone who liked him as much as Jonny?

He’s moved past that now, obviously, but that first rejection had been rough. He’d felt like there was something inside him that had to be wrong, because Jonny is funny and smart and a good person and what does that mean if he doesn’t match with Harry?

Next was Niall, that first night in the bungalow when he’d read out their names like it was no big deal. Later, Harry’d said Niall’s in return when they were alone. Again, nothing happened, and Niall had nodded in confirmation before clapping Harry on the shoulder and leaving to find Zayn for a dip in the pool. That one had felt less like a rejection and more like a confirmation of what he already knew: Harry loves Niall, had already loved him at that point even though they’d only known each other a month, considers him a brother, but could never see himself Bonding with him.

Zayn and Liam had been at the same time. They’d circled together one night in their bedroom in the X Factor house, when Niall was terrorizing the girls from Belle Amie and Louis was sneaking a smoke with that cameraman friend of his. The room was dark around them save for one of Harry’s flickering candles. It had been oddly ceremonious, Harry solemnly reciting their names and hearing his in return. Again, nothing happened, but it was sort of nice to have that cleared up. They’d all made stilted jokes until the uncomfortable tension melted away, and then they’d raced each other downstairs to get the first seats for dinner. Harry didn’t notice until later that Liam and Zayn never said each other’s names, but he figured they probably already had at some point during all their alone time together.

And then Louis. God, Louis.

If a person could will themselves into having a soulmate, Harry and Louis would be Bonded a dozen times over. Sometimes it hits Harry like a tidal wave, a need so deep he loses his breath with it when he sees Louis cover his grin with a dainty hand. He didn’t know people could feel like this; he didn’t know that one person could have so much sway over him.

And yet they aren’t soulmates, because Harry has said Louis’ name multiple times, and he’s sure Louis has said his in return. It’s a cosmic tragedy that he isn’t meant to be with Louis, that there’s somebody else out there that he’s going to love because of his biology or brain waves or whatever when he’s got the most perfect boy in the world right here in front of him.

It almost makes Harry want to rebel against fate.

Which is, God, definitely a new train of thought. Even as recently as a couple of months ago, there’s no way in hell he’d have even entertained the possibility of being with someone who isn’t his soulmate. But now, he really doesn’t care. He’s done waiting around when what he wants is dangling just within his reach.

His thinking might be a little influenced by Louis, because he’s always been so resolute in his distaste for Bonding as a whole. There’s a story lying deep in that boy’s heart that he doesn’t like thinking about, that dashes his blue eyes with grey when it’s brought up. He’d laid his head on Liam’s chest just last night in the van back to London and gotten lost in his own head for long minutes between slow answers, his eyes caught somewhere in the middle distance, making Zayn shift uncomfortably and Liam send flickering looks of panic to Harry. Harry had just watched, waiting for Louis to pull himself out of wherever he goes when serious Bonding talk is brought up. The hurt in his eyes is like a knife to Harry’s gut every time, so very reminiscent of the dagger tattoo staining Louis’ arm.

(Did he get the dagger because of whatever happened that he doesn’t talk about? Is it a reminder? A warning? A symbol of danger, of hardship, of strength? Harry aches to know, but that’s another secret Louis keeps locked away like precious gems in a treasure hoard.)

Harry wants to talk to someone about all this, but Louis seals his secrets up like a high security bank vault and Harry doesn’t want Zayn or Niall or Liam to get any more ideas after that distressing conversation about Harry’s activities in the sex room. Not that he doesn’t want them to know important information about his life, but he wants to be sure about things first. Besides, he already knows exactly what they’d say.

Niall would laugh at first, thinking Harry was joking. And then it’d dwindle off, and he’d get that look on his face and he’d go full Irish, “H, be serious wid me. Is it Lou? Y’ can tell me, I won’t tell ‘im. But I knew it, I knew you two would end up t’gedder.”

And Zayn, he’d let Harry talk and get it all off of his chest, but he’s too diplomatic to tell Harry his actual opinion. He’d help him see from all sides, yeah, but in the end Harry would just be bogged down with even more details and Zayn would be watching him with sharp eyes and absolutely no answer to make it easy on him.

Then, there’s Liam, good ol’ Daddy Direction, Mr. Responsibility himself, and he’d say exactly what Harry’s mum would say, just in a deeper and less sure voice: “But, Haz, look. You’re so young, and, like, of course you feel like this now. And of course you love Louis, like, there’s no doubt about that. But what if it’s just because he’s the first for you? Like, first love being overwhelming is a really common thing, you know. I just want you to be happy, and Lou too.”

And, okay, yeah. Hypothetical-Liam would be right in some ways, because Harry is only sixteen. But there’s been nothing and no one to impact him and actually change his beliefs as intrinsically as Louis Tomlinson, and that has nothing to do with his age.

So maybe he’ll take his fate into his own hands. Maybe he’ll sit down with Louis and have an adult discussion about their relationship and where they go from here.

Or maybe he’ll work up enough courage to just kiss him and figure out all the boring stuff later.

He does know one thing, which is that he doesn’t want to start anything potentially life-altering when they’re days out from the biggest performance of their lives. The final looms, ever-present, shadowing over every conversation and vocal practice and even the video diary they filmed this morning, so much that even Zayn and Liam were uncontrollable, bouncing out of their seats because of Zayn’s “energy juice.”

So Harry will wait, because if he’s going to do this then he’ll do it right, and he wants to be able to devote all his time to making the right decision, both for him and for Louis. He’ll tamp down on the heart eyes as much as he can—and, God, it’s been rampant lately, Harry has basically kept nothing under wraps—and he’ll be the best mate he can for Louis. He’ll sort out his emotional stuff when the show is over. He’s accepted his bone-deep crush on Louis, and it’s under control until he can figure out what he wants to do.



Well, okay. Just because Harry’s finally got his crush under control doesn’t mean he wants to watch Louis flirting hard enough with someone else that even Zayn is turning pink.

And especially not when the person Louis is flirting with is Robbie fucking Williams.

Harry clears his throat, stepping back up to his mic stand. It’s slick with sweat, because it’s sort of terrifying to sing an internationally famous singer’s song while in his presence, and his usual means of tension relief (Louis) is too preoccupied (flirting) to help him. “Shall we?” he croaks, and Liam shoots him a nod and grabs his mic as well. Louis is still giggling at whatever Robbie is saying, his hand resting lightly on the older man’s forearm as Robbie bellows a deep laugh.

“Lou,” Zayn murmurs, but it takes three more tries to get his attention.

“Sorry, lads,” he says breathily when he turns around, fussing with his fringe. “From the top, then?”  

Harry tries really, really hard to keep his expression neutral. He knows how Louis gets around attractive older men, all pink and raspy-voiced and soft, like he’s suddenly six inches shorter and a thousand times softer. He’s seen it a dozen times before, with that blonde cameraman Ricky and a couple of reporters and even Simon, once or twice back in the beginning. And now he can add Robbie Williams to the list.

Harry would shake it off if it wasn’t so purposeful. Louis flirts with everyone, it’s just how he is. He can call anyone love or darling and have them tripping over their feet to fetch him whatever he wants. But with certain people, it’s like there’s intent behind it. And, from the way Louis leans into Robbie’s arm around his waist as they sing, he is another one of those certain people.

“Sorry,” Harry says in the middle of a run-through, Savan pausing the music as Harry runs a fitful hand through his hair. “Just. Can I get a minute?” He’s off the stage and in a deserted bathroom before Savan or anyone else can answer.

He splashes water on his face and breathes deeply. He’s being an idiot, because he can’t really get mad at Louis for flirting with a popstar when he doesn’t know Harry’s spent every hour of the day so far thinking about their hypothetical future together.

He just wishes he didn’t have to see it. Or hear it. Or know that it was happening at all, to be honest.

He dries his hands and stares at himself in the mirror, willing himself to get a grip before heading back out to try again. He’s about to step onto the stage when he hears whispers just on the other side of the wall.

“...think you’re doing?” he hears Niall hiss, and the tell-tale thwap of a slap to a fabric-covered arm. “Robbie Williams is Bonded, Jesus, Lou!”

“Fuck off,” Louis’ voice growls. “I’m not actually doing anything, I’m just talking.”

“You’re just being an arsehole, that’s what you’re just doing,” Niall mutters. “You’re acting like a starstruck idiot and you’re making your best mate so uncomfortable he had to leave the stage. Or did you not notice Harry leaving when you were batting your eyelashes at the forty-year-old with a soulmate and kids waiting for him at home?”

Louis is silent, giving Harry a chance to settle the loop-de-loops his stomach started doing the minute his name was dropped into the conversation. Then Louis sighs, and there’s the quiet sound of a shoe scuffing at the floor. “I was going to check on him, I promise,” he murmurs, and Harry hangs his head. God, he must have been so obvious. “I didn’t… I don’t mean to make him upset.”

“He doesn’t mean to get upset,” Niall replies easily. “And, fuck, Lou, we all know you’d never hurt Harry on purpose in a thousand years. Just, like. Keep in mind that he watches you, y’know? Even when you don’t realize it.”

“Yeah,” Louis breathes. Harry hopes it’s not meant to sound as resigned as he’s making it out to be in his head. “Yeah, of course. I can’t stand making him sad, it’s like kicking a puppy.”

Niall snickers. “Actually think it’d be easier to kick a puppy. At least it wouldn’t apologize for hurting your foot, not like Haz would.” Louis laughs too, little more than a huff of air. “Love you, dick.”

“Love you too, arsehole,” Louis shoots back. “I’ll fetch H, just give us a minute.”

Niall’s shoes squeak as he walks away, and Harry tiptoes back to the bathroom to avoid being caught eavesdropping. He tries to look less satisfied at having some of the best mates in the world, but his reflection just isn’t having it. He’s still grinning a little when Louis appears in the mirror, arms crossed and a little smile of his own tugging at the corner of his lips.

“Hey, you,” he says. “Ready to get back to work?”

“Yeah, course,” Harry answers, drying off his already-dry hands. He makes his way over to Louis and the door, reaching for the handle before Louis stops him, a gentle hand pressed to Harry’s chest.

“I didn’t mean to flirt with Robbie Williams,” he says bluntly. “Usually that would be bullshit, but it’s true. He’s, like, my childhood hero, and I guess I got sucked in a little.” He looks down at the tops of his shoes, twisting his foot awkwardly. “‘m sorry.”

Harry shrugs. “It’s okay, Lou. You don’t owe me anything.” 

“Yes, I do,” Louis replies quickly. “I knew how nervous you were about all this, and I didn’t help at all. That was shit of me, Haz, and I know it.”

“It’s okay,” Harry says again, grin settling into something a little more sincere. “Can’t really blame you, can I? You aren’t here to coach me through anxiety attacks.”

“Um, yes I am,” Louis says, raising an eyebrow. “That’s basically written word for word in the best friend code. Thou shalt not abandon your best mate when he can’t breathe in the presence of a popstar.”

Harry laughs. “You’re an idiot.”

Louis grins back. “Yeah, but I’m your idiot.”



Practice goes a thousand times more smoothly after that, and Robbie doesn't even notice when Louis isn’t glued to his side anymore and instead spends his time checking on Harry after each run-through of the song. He rubs a soothing hand over Harry’s shoulders as the end of rehearsal draws near, leaning close to whisper in his ear.

“You’re doing amazing, love. So proud of you.”

Harry feels warm all the way down to his toes, his skin burning like Louis left an imprint long after he’s back at his own mic stand.

...

 

11 December 2010

Louis wakes to Harry scrambling out of bed, bare feet thudding as he scampers to the bathroom. There’s a door slamming, the sound of a faucet being wrenched on, and the tell-tale sound of retching echoing off the walls. Louis pads sleepily into the bathroom and finds Harry face-first in the toilet, eyes streaming as he gags and coughs again and again.

“Sorry,” he says roughly, spitting into the toilet. “You can go downstairs, I’ll be fine.”

“Nope,” Louis replies softly, wetting a cloth and dabbing at Harry’s forehead. “Best friend code, remember? I have to hold your hair back while you puke, it’s in the job description.”

Harry just moans and presses his face to the porcelain, accepting the glass of water Louis passes him gratefully.



The Sainsbury ladies are bustling about the kitchen when Louis finally convinces Harry to lurch downstairs. They cluck at Harry’s pale face and promise a nice warm brekkie as soon as they sit down.

Harry takes one look at the syrup dripping from his pancakes and dashes back upstairs, hand pressed to his mouth.

“Maybe not today,” Louis apologizes, sliding some plain toast onto a plate and heading up to find Harry again.



They rehearse with Robbie for an hour, then practice the staging for their own song for another. And then they’re dismissed, told to keep busy and stay inside the building until Grace comes to fetch them to change into their performance clothes.

Unlike last time, the acts are so wrapped up in their own heads they don’t bother snapping at each other, so they all end up hanging out in wardrobe like it’s any other week. The stylists have already started on Rebecca’s hair, teasing and spraying and doing a lot of things with combs that Louis doesn’t really understand. The boys and Matt don’t really have anything to do, not for several hours at least, but they don’t want to leave the area with all the excitement. They dig up a Playstation and hook it to the tiny TV in the corner, getting through several rounds of FIFA before Cher gets back and Matt has to go rehearse.

Eventually, though, even FIFA can’t hold their jumpy attention, and the boys spread out on the sofas and floor, tossing questions and jokes at each other in an attempt to keep calm.

Louis sees Harry move next to Cher to watch her get her nails done and it gives him an idea, so he steals one of the stylist’s nail kits and drags a small table over in front of the sofa.

It’s a calming routine for Louis, because he used to paint Lottie and Fizzy’s nails as a distraction when things weren’t good back home. And Harry’s been wanting to paint his nails for weeks, though Grace kept apologizing and telling him that Simon wasn’t allowing it. Louis pulls Harry away from Cher and sits him down on the opposite side of the table, hands spread on the surface as Louis looks through his little bag of tools. 

“Lou,” Harry murmurs as Louis gets started with a file, smoothing the ragged edges of his bitten-off nails. “Can’t do this, we’ll get in trouble.”

“I’ll use a nude color, don’t worry,” Louis reassures him. “Want to pick some lotion for me, love?”

Harry bounces to his feet and heads to the cabinet in the corner with the massive array of sprays and lotions and creams. He comes back with a bottle of something hypoallergenic and lightly scented of cocoa butter. Louis massages the lotion into Harry’s skin, pushing on the pads of his palms with his thumbs and stroking outward, down Harry’s long fingers.

Harry hums happily, drawing Zayn’s attention.

“Whatcha doin’, Louis?” he asks, picking up the tube of lotion and smelling it.

“Getting Hazza here performance ready,” he says, winking at Zayn and going back to work with the cuticle trimmers. “Want me to do you next?”

He doesn’t really expect Zayn to say yes, but Zayn has sisters too and has probably been subjected to manicures of his own many times, and so he isn't really surprised when Zayn shrugs. “Alright then. Got anything with sparkles?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Louis laughs, uncapping the nude polish and tapping the excess off the brush. He slides on an even coat, one stripe down the middle and one to each side, broad strokes to cover Harry’s wide nails. Soon he’s sliding over in front of Zayn, filing off a few uneven edges on his nails but otherwise not finding anything to fix. Liam watches interestedly over his shoulder, holding out two different bottles of clear sparkly polish for Zayn to choose from.

Niall squawks when he looks over to see a group activity he isn’t part of, and Louis prepares himself for the lecture he knows either he or Harry could probably do in their sleep—nail polish isn’t just for girls, Niall, don’t be a prick is already sitting on Louis’ tongue. Happily, though, he never has to say it, Niall just pulling a bright blue polish out of the bag and waving it in Harry’s face.

“Do me, Haz, do me!”

“Don’t think we can do blue, Ni. Grace said Simon wouldn’t let me do a bright color.”

Niall pouts, a wrinkle appearing between his brows. He digs in the bag again and unearths a pale pink, so light it’s almost white. He holds it up for Harry’s inspection, Louis watching from the corner of his eye as he spreads a subtly glittered clear coat over Zayn’s nails.

“Yeah, if we only do one coat this should be fine,” Harry murmurs, pulling Niall’s hands close and frowning. “But, um, first…”

Louis looks over and laughs, Harry’s trepidation clear on his face as he takes in Niall’s dry, cracked hands, calluses from his guitar strings, and nails that have been bitten to the quick. He pats Zayn’s finished hand and scoots over, wielding a nail file and handing another over to Harry.

“Dream Team to the rescue,” Louis says, grinning and bumping Harry’s shoulder.

Twenty minutes later, Niall’s hands are freshly moisturized, his cuticles are under control, and his nails are smooth, even, and painted in a light coat of Ballet Slippers. Niall holds his hand up in awe, his mouth agape.

“This… is… wicked,” he breathes.

And then he prances around the room for another hour, hands aloft to show everyone his legendary nails.


The wardrobe room, which is crowded and bustling even on slow days, fills to the brim as all twelve of the acts that have already left the show swoop in throughout the day to grab their outfits and congratulate the finalists. They swap gossip back and forth—the Belle Amie girls in particular dig for everything they’ve missed since being sent home in October—and the stylists flit wildly about, spraying down flyaway hair and adjusting ill-fitting jackets and dresses.

Aiden greets each of the boys with massive hugs, pulling Louis close and smacking a kiss to his forehead just to hear Grace shriek about smearing his makeup. He pulls Harry off to the side for a minute, and Louis can’t hear what he says but he would kill to know, especially since whatever it is makes Harry turn bright red and flick a glance over to Louis. Aiden doesn’t even try to be subtle, turning to look at Louis as well and dropping a huge wink his way.

Whatever, it’s fine. Louis loves being the focus of attention, even if he doesn’t know why.

He shakes his head and moves to hug Katie, who’s just made it in and is already in happy tears at seeing everyone reunited.

Eventually, though, only the final four acts are left in wardrobe, their hair and makeup immaculate as the minutes tick onward toward showtime.



The group song passes in a blur of dancers in metallic jumpsuits and oddly clashing outfits (“Why d’you get to wear sweatpants, and I’ve got to wear an evening gown?” Rebecca had whined, picking at the seam of Louis’ bright red trackies before they’d went on. Louis had just shrugged—he didn’t get it either). Then the finalists are rushed backstage, waving thanks to all the other acts as they call good luck before being shown to their places in the front few rows.

The boys have to sit for almost half an hour before it’s their turn to get back on stage. One of the countless assistants is leading them up to their places when Louis stops.

They haven’t got long, thirty seconds, tops, but he has to do something about this achy, nostalgic-for-something-that-hasn’t-ended-yet feeling in his chest. The other four circle around him, slinging arms around waists in their customary pre-show huddle.

“I,” Louis starts, but horrifyingly enough he chokes, his voice cracking. “God, sorry boys. I’m just…”

“We know, Lou,” Liam says over the low rumble of the crowd. His eyes are focused, his expression calm.

Zayn snickers, plucking at Louis’ shirt. “And we love you too, loser.”

Louis takes a deep breath and smiles. His four favorite boys on the planet smile back.



Louis never was much of an Elton fan, preferring new music to old in ninety-nine percent of cases.

He has to admit, though, there’s something about the words of Your Song that just strike true. He sings it to Harry, just like he’s sang every song to Harry, and the words roll like truths right off his tongue.  

I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words
How wonderful life is now you’re in the world



Back offstage, back to wardrobe, jumping into neatly-hung suits waiting for them in a row.

Louis adjusts the collar of Harry’s ridiculous purple suit and smiles.

“Let’s go sing with a legend, yeah?” he grins, and Harry grins back.



They don’t actually sing that much once Robbie gets onstage, just those little harmonies in the background. Still, Robbie beams when they hit you’ll be flying and high fives each of them, slipping back between Harry and Louis and hugging them close until his next solo.

Harry looks near delirious, he’s so happy. He laughs over Robbie’s shoulders as they tumble into a group hug, Robbie’s deep bellow of a laugh rolling over them as the crowd goes absolutely nuts.

Louis wants to press this moment between the pages of an old book and keep it forever. There’s no way life gets better than this, it’s just not possible.



It’s almost too easy to forget that, at the end of all the good, it’s still a competition and so there must be bad to balance it out.

“In no particular order, the first act going through to the final three is… Rebecca.”

Louis breathes deep, because that’s not a surprise. He beams at Rebecca as she floats by, but then the lights go down again and it’s time to focus. Two more acts going through.

Zayn’s hands are twitching out of the corner of Louis’ eye. The barest hint of glitter on his nails catches the spotlights, and somehow that little bit of abnormality in the sea of familiar nerves calms Louis’ racing heart.

There’s nothing they can do now. It’s out of their hands.

“The second act through to the next stage of the X Factor final is…”

Louis has never wanted anything so badly in his life, save the boy bouncing anxiously on his toes next to him. (There’s nothing he can do about that, either. That was out of his hands from the second the dagger appeared.)  

“One Direction.”

They’re through.

They did it.



There’s no afterparty at the hotel tonight, no champagne to be popped or arses to kiss, no possibility of staying out too late or risking their vocal cords. Just seven tired people splayed out across the sofas in the TV room back at the house, the smell of too much hairspray and too little sleep still lingering in their pores. They snack on cold popcorn and sip lukewarm mugs of hot chocolate and try to wind down after the longest day of the longest week in existence. Rebecca is curled up like a cat in an armchair, her long lashes fanning across her cheeks. Matt and Niall are laid at separate ends of the longest sofa, their feet tangled in the middle. Matt is still beaming, still looking incredulous at his luck. Niall is back to staring at his pale pink nails.

Zayn is on Liam’s lap in another armchair, wrapped in a light blanket and blinking sleepily as Liam pets his hair. Louis, shockingly enough, is curled against Harry’s side, tracing tired circles on his ribs as they take in deep, even breaths.

“It’s quiet,” he mumbles, and, indeed, it’s quiet enough that everyone hears.

Harry hums, his chest vibrating under Louis’ cheek. “Bit creepy, innit. There’s supposed to be noise at all times here.”

“Did tonight actually happen?” Matt asks, staring at the ceiling. “Or did I dream that?”

“It happened,” Rebecca smiles, never opening her eyes. “We’re the final three.”

“The final three,” Liam breathes reverently.

“The final three,” Niall laughs.

“The final three,” Harry murmurs into Louis’ hair.

For one brief moment, everything is perfect.


12 December 2010

It’s a quiet, peaceful morning breaking over London. The air is cold, the achy kind that pours chills into bones and doesn’t let go, icy claws biting at exposed skin. It catches in Louis’ lungs and mingles with the smoke when he breathes in, making his eyes water when the wind hits just right.

He taps the ashes from the end of his last ever X Factor cigarette and watches the world wake up.

It’s been six months. Six months of being in Britain’s next big boy band, six months with four lads who fit scarily well into the empty niches of his life, six months of showbusiness and interviews and video diaries and the sleepy, curly-headed wonder he left sprawled out in his bed just a few moments ago.

Six months ago, Louis made a decision to go to bootcamp and get to know Harry Styles, because he thought that would be the only chance he’d get to do so. He expected to wave goodbye as Harry headed off to the Judge’s House and Louis went back to Doncaster, that he’d watch Harry’s career bloom each week on the show until the world was at his feet, begging for bits of his attention. He expected to love Harry from afar just like everyone else, always out of reach, until the day Harry Bonded to someone else and Louis could pretend to move on.

This is not where he thought he’d be.

The X Factor final. A chance at a recording contract. Four new best friends, closer than blood. A veritable crowd of other talented new friends. Connections in the music industry. The potential to prove everyone wrong and make a name for himself.

But there’s the other side of all this as well: his face (and arm) in the tabloids at least once a week. Speculation over his potential Bond running wild. His biggest secret within reach of thousands of people who just aren’t looking hard enough or don’t have enough sway to convince others of the truth. Secret meetings with angry old men who want him to be someone he isn’t. Waking every morning with fear in his heart that today will be the day that someone with an audience finally finds that elusive proof that Louis’ dagger isn’t just a random tattoo.

And, to top it all off, Harry Styles is in his bed every night, in his arms every day.

It’s too much, and it’s exactly what he’d feared six months ago when he’d contemplated the risks of seeing Harry again. Back then, he’d feared loving Harry and losing him too soon. Now, he fears that Harry will love him back and there’s still nothing they can do.

Because it doesn’t really matter, does it? Louis’ fate is decided, it’s wrapped around Harry like the latest Topman blazer. He can’t move on from this: his relationship with Harry now, (mostly) platonic as it may be, is the only relationship that Louis will ever have. There is no After-Harry version of Louis, there’s just this one: the one that loves Harry too much for his own good. Destiny chose his future, and destiny says he can only be happy with Harry.

Harry’s fate, though, is about as clear as a mud puddle. He’s happy now, yes, spending the majority of his waking hours and all of his nights with Louis. But someday that will change. Someday he’ll outgrow boner jokes and nine hour FIFA tournaments and cuddling with his (mostly) platonic best friend. He’ll meet somebody who will say his name and sweep him away, off to his domestic dream life with a mansion and kids and cats and dogs. There is an After-Louis version of Harry, and Louis doesn’t know how much of a role he’ll be allowed to have once someone else steps in to take his place as the most important person in Harry’s life.

It doesn’t matter what Louis wants, because he can’t derail the inevitable. And someday he’ll be left alone with nothing but his memories and the smell of vanilla and cinnamon candles and coconut shampoo.

He doesn’t regret getting close to Harry, could never regret something that has brought him the kind of earth-shattering joy that Harry did. He’ll never mourn his time on X Factor or his time in One Direction, however long that may be. But he will regret his lack of strength, the way he let Harry close to his heart without even trying to keep a little distance, because someday that will be what breaks him.

Maybe Simon will offer them a recording contract no matter how they do in tonight’s show, and they’ll still get to record an album and go on the X Factor tour and maybe even a tour of their own. Maybe they’ll become the biggest band in the world. Maybe they’ll go down in history.

It doesn’t matter. One day, probably soon, Harry will find someone he loves more than Louis and he is going to leave. And Louis already fears the inescapable pain in his future, the Harry-shaped hole he’ll have to live the rest of his life around.

Louis breathes in cold morning air and nicotine-flavored smoke, and breathes out a steady stream of self-loathing and dread.



Simon is waiting for them in his office, his glasses perched low on his nose as he flicks through a thick stack of papers. He waves them in distractedly, holding up a finger to stop any pleasantries until he gets to the end of his page.

“Sorry, boys,” he says, voice smooth as he sets his papers to the side. “How are we feeling, then? Confident?”

There are about four hundred people standing outside the studio already, despite the cold and the fact that the final doesn’t actually start for hours and hours. The fans screamed themselves hoarse when the boys stepped out of the van at the studio entrance, and even cheerful Liam was shaken by the intensity. They might be a little used to the commotion but they’ll never actually be comfortable with it.

So, basically, Louis feels like he’s going to vomit all over Simon’s very nice desk.

“Good,” Simon booms even though no one answered. “Look, I’m not going to keep you from rehearsals. Just a quick note, because I know we won’t have much time tonight no matter how the voting goes.” He slides his glasses into his pocket and leans back, crossing his arms. “I’d like to schedule a meeting, just the six of us, for tomorrow morning. I have some things I’d like to discuss, and while some of it hinges on the results tonight, either way I want us to be able to have a talk about the future of the band. Does ten o’clock work for you?”

Four heads turn in Louis’s direction, seeking approval. Their reliance on Louis’ steadiness helps beat back the nausea rolling in his own stomach.

“We’ll be here,” he answers firmly, because accepting a meeting doesn’t mean accepting a deal of any kind, even though he’s pretty sure if they sign with anyone they’ll sign with Simon because he’s a familiar evil. No need to tell him that, though, especially when the boys have so studiously ignored talking about album deals at all, even amongst themselves.  

“Excellent,” Simon smiles. “Great news. Well, off to rehearsal with you, and I’ll be by to check in before it gets too late. Don’t forget that we’ve booked rooms at the W London for you and your families tonight.”

It’s a clear dismissal, so the boys slink out of the room and downstairs to the studio for their rehearsal time.


The atmosphere is subdued in wardrobe tonight. There are no FIFA matches being played on the TV in the corner, no bouncy pop playing through the speakers, no chitchat or whispered gossip. All the contestants besides One Direction and Matt and Rebecca are quiet when they come in for their outfits, kissing cheeks and whispering wishes for good luck but leaving quickly to get dressed somewhere else.

Matt’s eyes are red as Grace rubs moisturizer into his skin, and Rebecca is still as a marble statue in the stylist’s chair. Niall is picking nervously at the polish on his nails, dismantling all of Louis and Harry’s hard work. Liam and Zayn have disappeared, and Louis feels like doing the same thing.

It’s exciting, of course, but there’s so much finality in the air that Louis feels like he’ll drown in it. No matter how the voting goes tonight, this is the end. No more group songs or film nights at the house or five boys crammed into one too-small room. No more performances, at least not until the tour. Everything they do after this point will be of their own volition, no X Factor to act as a platform to boost them.

Louis doesn’t realize he’s shaking until Harry sits next to him on the sofa, pulling him close. It’s a reversal of their usual ways—Harry likes being the little spoon and Louis likes making him feel safe—but it feels right, somehow, to burrow into Harry and not come out until Grace is calling for him to get dressed.



For the second time in less than twenty-four hours, Louis is singing on the same stage as Robbie Williams.

During that first rehearsal last week, when technical issues had dragged their practice on far too long and Robbie had leaned close to joke in Louis’ ear, he could feel himself getting softer, quieter, more tactile than his usual self, wanting to appeal to Robbie and putting more effort into it than he ever does with anyone his own age. He hadn’t noticed Harry’s panicked exit until Niall was dragging him to a corner to berate him about flirting with a Bonded guy.

And it wasn’t even like that, not on purpose. Stan has joked about Louis’ daddy issues enough that he’s aware of the way he compacts himself around older or bigger men, but he never does it on purpose. It always hits him later, that he must have looked like a proper flirt with his delicate voice and lingering hands. He doesn’t mean for it to be that way, but that’s still the way it happens.

Now, he looks over at Robbie and Robbie looks back and sends him a wink, and there’s no flutter in his tummy or tingle up his arms. And, really, that hadn’t happened at the rehearsal either. Robbie makes Louis nervous, just like every attractive older man makes him nervous, but he doesn’t make him excited.

He doesn’t make bolts of something rush across Louis’ skin when their arms brush.

Not like Harry does.



Harry grips Louis’ hand tightly as they’re led to their places for their first song of the night, the stage lights off so their opening video can be seen clearly. Louis doesn’t need the lights on to feel the nerves running through the five of them like a chain of electric shocks, jumping from boy to boy, fluttering heartbeats and twitching fingers. Louis wants to pull them all into a hug, to postpone this for just a moment, but they’re already in place and the lights are starting to brighten.

Liam may be just as anxious as the rest of them, but his voice is steady, and hearing him sing the first line of Torn feels a lot like coming home. Like they’re back at the bungalow, firelight flickering between them, Niall and his guitar weaving music around the sounds of distant traffic and the waves lapping in the pool. Five voices learning each other in the dark, five boys dreaming of their big chance.

It isn’t anything like their Judge’s House performance. Louis’ mic is on, for one thing, and he can hear his own voice blending with the others’ as they harmonize behind Liam. Niall isn’t bouncing like he’s had too much sugar, and Zayn isn’t trying to hide his face behind Liam’s shoulders. Liam’s still probably doing his brooding stare, but at least they’ve gotten him to tone down the intensity a little bit over the past few months. They’re connected, a working unit, five pieces of the same machine. And they sound amazing, they sound perfect, better than any rehearsal they’ve had all week and a thousand times better than their stumbling performance of the same song at the Judge’s House.

Louis harmonizes with Harry as they head into the chorus and there’s that feeling again, that heat in his lungs and the dizziness in his head that says this is too easy, we aren’t supposed to fit this well. He’d felt the same at bootcamp when he sang Michael Jackson with Harry and watched him light up the sky with his grin.

They sing you’re a little late, I’m already torn and Louis can’t stop from reaching out and touching Harry, just for a moment. And he can’t help but shiver when Harry reaches back, lashing them together.


The stage lights falling as Dermot announces who is moving forward shouldn’t be routine. It isn’t meant to be, it’s supposed to be nerve-wracking and terrifying and all those things Louis felt on the first results show. But now the fear is familiar, the ache of want so ingrained that Louis uses it to propel himself forward, to his usual spot in front of Simon and next to Harry.

Matt gets through first, which is no shock to anyone. Through the haze of the spotlights and the madness of the crowd Louis can see Aiden, right up in the front row next to the stage with the other acts, his eyes wide and shiny like he’s holding back tears.

Somehow, that calms the rush of anxiety at being in the bottom two for the first time in the entire competition.

Dermot takes a deep breath into the mic, as though he knows he’s about to demolish someone’s dream and is feeling regret for that already. Louis flicks a glance to Harry, sees him pinching the skin between his eyes like he’s fighting off a headache rather than about to hear the most important news of his life. Louis pats his hip, breathing deeply. They’re going to be okay, because they’re going to get through.

“The second act still in the final is… Rebecca.”

Wait.

No, that’s-

That’s not right.

Rebecca is crying, and so is Liam. Zayn hasn’t moved, dumbstruck.

They’re all dumbstruck. Niall’s jaw is slack, staring at Dermot like he expects him to retract his statement. Harry’s fists are clenched, his breathing ragged. Louis has no idea what his face is doing. In a thousand years, a thousand scenarios, Louis never once considered not actually winning.

Which is stupid, because of course they only had a one in three chance tonight. They barely had any chance at all, really; it’s sort of a miracle they even made it this far.

There’s a pit where his stomach used to be. He can’t get enough air. It’s all over.

Dermot moves them to the middle and introduces the video of their X Factor journey as Niall breathes out shaky sobs and Liam crouches, holding his head like he’s in pain.

There’s Harry at his audition, there’s Louis right after him. There’s the last day of bootcamp and their formation as a band. There’s Louis jumping into Harry’s arms like he’s coming home. There’s the Judge’s House performance, Louis’ hair all shaggy, Liam’s stare intense, Harry’s eyes flickering to Louis, his eyebrows tilted in a slight frown. Simon putting them through, their first on-camera group hug.  

There’s the live shows, Viva La Vida and Kids in America and the Harry Potter premiere and Halloween and Beatles week and the England game and song after song after song.

Six months of their lives, condensed into a ninety second video clip.

Dermot asks Louis about the highlights of being on the show and he stutters through something about working hard and ends on a shrug. How is he supposed to reflect on his time here when there’s an ache in his chest, when his favorite people in the world are devastated around him like he’s the epicenter of an emotional earthquake?

“Zayn,” Dermot says, leaning across Louis. “What’s going to happen to One Direction now?”

Zayn doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t even blink. “We’re definitely gonna stay together. This isn’t the last of One Direction.”


There’s a small crowd waiting for them in a room backstage, a horde of mums and dads and sisters and grandparents and friends that cheer when they enter, like they’ve won instead of getting the boot an hour into the final show. Louis is swept up into a hug by what seems like his whole family at once, Phoebe and Daisy squeezing his legs as Lottie thumps into him from behind and Fizzy from his front, flinging their arms around his neck.

Louis’ mum presses kisses to his cheek, smearing his makeup.

“Mum,” he protests, laughing, “off!”

Stan coos from behind her and kisses Louis’ other cheek.

“But we love you so much, Boo Bear!” he simpers, and Louis laughs and pushes him away.

“We do!” Daisy agrees from where she’s sat on Louis’ shoe.

“Even when you smell like too much hairspray,” Lottie adds, wrinkling her nose.

Eventually, Louis untangles himself from his family and Stan and they find a place to sit, Jay gripping Louis’ hand tightly like she’s afraid to let go. They chat about the drive to London and the horrid parking situation and their room at the W Hotel, and definitely do not talk about the show at all.

Harry finds his way over after a few minutes, leaving his mum and stepdad talking with Liam’s grandparents. “Lou!” he says, throwing himself into Louis’ lap. “I found you.”

“Well done, Hazza,” Louis laughs. “Good job finding me in this roaring crowd.” He gestures around the room, at the thirty or so people all milling about and talking quietly.

Harry pouts and Louis flicks his lip. “Hello, Jay,” he says primly, dimples appearing. “And Phoebe and Daisy and Lottie and Fizzy and Stan.” The girls all wave, Lottie’s face going an interesting shade of red at being talked to by a boy. Stan grins, nodding his hello. Harry turns back to Louis, tugging on his shirt. “Lou, my mum wants to talk to you at some point about flat hunting, because she’ll have to take time off work and wants to schedule that soon.”

“Flat hunting?” Jay asks coolly, and, in a horrible flash of realization, Louis remembers they’ve only shared their plan for moving in together with half of the mothers involved. He slides Harry off his lap, leaning forward to grab his mum’s hands. She lets him, eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“Mum,” Louis says, smiling winningly. “Star of my heart. Light of my life. Hero to all. Have I mentioned you look incredible? Not just tonight, always.”

“Louis William,” she warns.

“Harry and I want to get a flat after the X Factor tour ends in April,” he rushes out. “In London. We have a meeting with Simon tomorrow to talk about contracts and we’ll know after that what we can afford, so you don’t have to pay anything.”

“You are eighteen years old,” Jay says.

“Almost nineteen,” he protests.

“Harry is sixteen.”

“Almost seventeen,” Harry pipes in.

“I would have been moving out for uni anyway! And Harry’s more of an adult than I’ll ever be, Mum. He cleans and cooks and everything.”

“So you’re moving in with him so he’ll baby you,” Jay says shrewdly.

“No!” Louis argues.

“Besides, I like cleaning. Laundry is fun,” Harry says, beatific.

Phoebe frowns up at him. “You’re weird.”

He shrugs. “I know. So is your brother.”

She mirrors him, shrugging nonchalantly. “I know.”

“Can we talk about this later?” Louis asks weakly. “We sort of have to go congratulate the winner onstage in a few minutes, and I’d rather I still had my head when we do.”

Jay hmphs but leans back, and Louis takes that as an agreement to scamper to his feet, pulling Harry behind him. “Love you Mum, bye!”

They grab Niall and Zayn and Liam and rush back to wardrobe, and Grace scolds Louis for sweating off his foundation.

“Sorry, Gracie,” he sighs. “Just broke the news to me mum that I’m probably never moving back home.”

“Ooh,” she hisses sympathetically. “Poor mum.”

“Poor Louis,” he argues.

“Poor Harry,” Harry says from the next chair over, and Grace and Louis can’t help but agree with that.



Everyone waiting backstage for the winner announcement is dressed in all white except One Direction. Again, Louis doesn’t know why. Fashion is beyond his comprehension most nights, let alone the biggest reality TV night of the season. Maybe it’s an us versus them thing? The three finalists in color and the others washed out? Metaphors, man. Who knows.

All the acts except the last two are just offstage, watching Matt and Dannii and Rebecca and Cheryl get into place, all the dresses and Matt’s sweaty forehead sparkling under the spotlights. Matt shoots a look their direction, smiling sweetly and wiggling his fingers in a tiny wave. Louis jumps in front of Aiden and blows kisses back, making Aiden cuff him round the head and sending Niall into a fit of giggles. An assistant shushes them, swatting their direction with a clipboard.

“What do you think, then?” Louis murmurs to Liam as the crowd noise dies down. “Who’s our champion?”

“Matt,” Liam answers in a whisper. “One of the assistants left Dermot’s voting tally behind last week after dress rehearsal and I saw it. He’s been number one every single week except that very first week, and Mary won that one.”

Mary, who’s right behind them in a glittering white gown of her own, snorts. “You’re damn right I did.”

Harry chuckles on Louis’ other side just as the spotlights rise and the stage lights go down.

“Judges, contestants, this is it,” Dermot says above the steady thrum of the crowd.

“Isn’t it weird how the judges are basically more important than the actual acts?” Zayn mutters. “Like the phone numbers to vote have the judge’s faces next to them instead of ours.”

“And they get a better entrance at each show,” Niall adds.

“They’re the stars, we’re just here to make them more famous,” Katie says, and it’s sad that everyone around them (ignoring Dermot’s speech about what the nation has decided and the cacophony that is the dramatic reveal music) nods and chuckles deprecatingly.

“The winner,” Dermot booms, “of the X Factor 2010 is…”

“I just want it to be over,” Aiden whispers.

“I just want it to never end,” Harry murmurs.

“Matt!”

Matt drops his head into his hands. Aiden bursts into loud tears. The lights flash wildly. Matt hugs Dannii. The X Factor music thuds all around. Matt hugs Rebecca. Aiden hugs everyone standing around him, still sobbing.

Matt is handed a microphone and Dermot announces his first single, and after a verse and a half the other acts are finally allowed to rush onstage and congratulate their winner.

Somehow, Niall is the first to reach Matt, leaping onto his back. The others mob around him as well, his black jacket a beacon in the sea of white. Harry and Louis are right in the middle, Louis pushed to Matt’s side and Harry with his face against Matt’s neck. But Aiden fights his way to the front of the crowd, the others stepping back a little almost out of instinct, and Aiden and Matt sing together into the microphone, if I take a bruise I know you’re worth it. Then, like a dam bursting, like a volcano erupting, like a supernova exploding, Aiden pushes into Matt’s space and kisses him fiercely. The song is forgotten as they clutch at each other, the M on Aiden’s wrist catching the light perfectly as he tangles his hand in Matt’s hair.

The world flares, or at least this little part of it does, the crowd screaming and the lights from cameras and phones flashing madly. This kiss will make all the front covers tomorrow, but Matt and Aiden are too wrapped up in each other to care.

Across a mob of contestants who are just as shocked as the audience, Louis finds Harry, who is already looking back with shiny wet eyes and a wide smile. They move toward each other automatically, meeting at the back of the crowd of contestants, everyone so busy watching Aiden and Matt that they aren’t noticed at all.

There’s no final comment before the final live show ends, no send-off from Dermot to close everything neatly, just pandemonium and celebration and Harry and Louis crashing into each other in a breath-stealing hug, fitting from hips to shoulders like puzzle pieces clicking into their rightful places.

 

 

Chapter Text

part two: to be loved and to be in love

Chapter 8: 13 December 2010 - 21 December 2010

 

13 December 2010

There’s a thick contract on the table in front of Louis, and he feels like he’s supposed to be more excited than he is.

Not that he isn’t excited. It's… complicated.

It could have something to do with the absolute lack of glamour of this entire process. He was pretty sure—before this morning, at least—that contract signings are supposed to happen with press conferences and beaming handshakes and snap-happy photographers clamoring for the best shot.

This feels more like all those meetings Louis had with the Modest! execs, where everyone is a little tense and nobody lets their guard down for even a second.

One of Simon’s lawyers is talking; has been, actually, for quite a while. He’s covered everything from promotional merchandise to brand image to non-disclosure agreements and artist rights. It’s all very jargon-filled and carefully vague, Louis is pretty sure, and he knows he needs to pay attention because they don’t have a lawyer on their side of the table to do the listening for them. In fact, Louis seems to be the only one on their side of the table even still awake: Niall dropped off long ago, his jaw slack, not even keeping up the pretense of propping his eyes open. Zayn has his glassy stare pointed straight out the window, and Louis hasn’t seen him blink since they sat down. Harry made it a little longer, but he’s slumped over as well, head on Niall’s shoulder and eyes blinking blearily. Liam is sitting bolt upright next to Louis, but his eyes are red and even glassier than Zayn’s, focused probably on a spot on the wall behind the lawyer’s head, but Louis can’t really tell. They're all running on little sleep and large headaches, and Louis is itching to crawl under his chair and curl up to take a nap.

He can refrain, though. He's a strong, independent boy who don't need no nap.

“...twenty-one days from the end of this meeting to make a decision, corroborating only with the legal assistance deemed capable by Syco Entertainment and Modest! Management…”

The lawyer is still talking. It shouldn’t be possible. It’s been hours and hours, doesn’t he need a water break? Besides, Louis is pretty sure he could melt this speech down to its essentials in less than a minute, probably with time to spare: we’ll pay you, but not too much because you're new and your fans are fickle, and you don't get much say in anything at all. Done.

There's ringing silence for just the shortest of seconds when the lawyer finishes, and Simon is the one who fills it.

"We'll leave you boys to discuss. How's half an hour sound?"

He's gone before Louis can answer, his retreating form followed by the small crowd of essential Syco and Modest people who have been sitting in on the discussion. Then the five boys are alone, blinking and yawning and slowly shifting awake.

Zayn smacks the back of Niall's head and he wakes with a start, snorting and rubbing drool from his face.

"Wha-? D'miss somethin'?" He mumbles, rubbing his eyes. "S'over?”

"Not yet, dear,” Louis mumbles, rubbing at his temples. “They're giving us a little bit of time to talk over the basics, and if we agree to those then we can take the full contracts to read over and decide."

Niall holds up a thumbs up as he stretches, groaning loudly. Louis sighs and flips through the massive stack of papers, feeling wildly out of his depth.

"Let's have it then, Tommo," Niall yawns, waving him on.

(Tommo used to just be a media thing, something Louis was never really called until Niall started using it as an answer to his Louis-given nickname of Neil. Louis still isn't sure he likes it, the whole casual use of the last name thing, but as that information had already been released to the public and he's already Bonded, there's really nothing else that can happen.

Plus, it's sort of like his own version of Becks, and he will take any excuse to be more like the most amazing human to ever live. So Tommo is stuck, at least for now.)

"Right," he says, leaning forward and folding his hands together. "I can't catch everything that he's saying, and I think that's on purpose. But what I have understood doesn't seem out of the ordinary. At least, I don't think it is. He’s being pretty strategic on what he is and isn’t saying, but nothing has sounded weird so far.”

“So, we’re good?” Niall asks. “That’s it, and we accept the contract?”

“I don’t think we should sign right away,” Louis says, and Liam nods next to him. “We should definitely have a lawyer look over it, and we might want to come up with some demands of our own if we see some weak spots. But we won’t know any of that until someone trained for this can read it all the way through.”

“I agree,” Zayn admits. “I don’t think I heard anything after the first heretofore.”

Louis snorts, rubbing his face. “Let’s just call it an end and head back to take a nap. I can’t decide anything when I’m this tired.”

“Yes,” Harry finally speaks up, though he doesn't lift his head from the table to do so. “Nap. Please.”



They get their nap time, and a little more besides; it's five in the evening when Louis rolls out of the hotel bed he'd collapsed face-first into, rubbing at his grainy eyes. He stretches and scratches at his stomach as he pads into the kitchen, barefoot and bare-chested, his sweatpants slung low on his hips. He flicks on the kettle, settling against the counter to watch the sun fall over London through the suite’s massive windows and wondering how the hell he can still be tired.

He’s not even hungover, is the thing. The afterparty down in the hotel lounge had strung along until almost four in the morning, with people plastered all over the furniture and each other, yelling and cheering and spilling drinks. Dermot fell out the door holding a bottle of champagne when he tried to leave, toasting anyone he recognized and singing Matt’s new single at the top of his lungs. Matt and Aiden made out through the entire party; they’d arrived hand-in-hand, took a couple of pictures, then claimed a sofa for themselves and never resurfaced. There were so many people, from the contestants’ families to record executives to past X Factor contestants. And, of course, there was those groups of people who just seem to gravitate towards others more popular than them, brandishing phones and cameras to capture their success at mingling with the uncommon folk.

It had been a smashing party, to be sure, but between the watchful eyes of the One Direction mothers and the X Factor minders and the numerous reporters, none of the boys had managed to even slip away for a cheeky smoke outside, let alone to sneak any alcohol.

Which was fine, because even though Louis is perfectly legal and able to drink, he’s never really been comfortable with the idea of getting sloshed in front of his sisters. So he’d stayed perfectly sober along with the other boys and watched the party descend into alcohol-fueled chaos, chatting and laughing with his family and the boys. As the night turned into early morning the families drifted off to do their own things: Zayn’s mum led his sleepy sisters like a line of ducklings to the elevator, Gemma and Niall’s brother Greg ducked away from their parents to do shots at the bar, Liam’s mum kissed all the boys on the cheek as she said goodnight. Louis and Harry were roped into herding the Tomlinson clan up to the fourth floor, so they trailed behind their gossipping mothers, each carrying a sleeping twin, doing their best to block Lottie’s attempts at sneaking back down to the party.

As it turned out, Louis and Harry’s families were in rooms right next to each other, so Anne and Jay took the unconscious twins from the boys’ arms once they arrived and shooed them away.

“Have a good time!” Anne called.

“And don’t do anything stupid!” Jay had added.

“I’m not going to lie,” Harry had said as they’d walked back to the elevator bank, “I’m exhausted.”

“Oh thank God,” Louis had laughed. “I didn’t want to go back down but I thought you wanted to. It’s no fun being the only sober people in the room.”

So they’d changed tracks, calling an upward bound elevator and making their way to their suite on the top floor. To their surprise, Zayn, Liam, and Niall were already there, sprawled across bright red sofas and talking quietly. Louis and Harry settled in and seamlessly joined the conversations, whispering with voices rough from earlier tears and exhaustion as light started to flood the room, a weak winter sun peeking over the London skyline.

“We should want to be apart by this point, shouldn’t we,” Niall had said at one point.

“We are shockingly codependent,” Zayn had murmured back, burrowing into Liam’s side and hiding his eyes from the light.

“It would feel weird to be in the same building and not be in the same room, anyway,” Harry had said, and that was the end of the conversation as each of them tipped over into sleep, at least until the alarm on Louis’ phone started blaring at nine o’clock so they could get ready to meet Simon.

The kettle whistles and Louis hears a pained grunt from a nearby sofa, a head of messy brown hair appearing over the back.

“Morning, Tommo,” Liam yawns, and Louis smirks.

“Evening, Lima.”

Liam grabs a water bottle out of the fridge, cracking it open as Louis sips his tea. “Where’s Harry?” he asks, wiping at his mouth. “Thought he’d be stuck to your side like usual.”

Louis shrugs. “Dunno. It’s a big suite, could be anywhere.”

Like he’s been summoned, Harry stumbles out of one of the bedrooms, wearing only the tiniest pair of pants Louis has ever seen (and, honestly, Calvin Klein, fuck you very much for all the hot liquid Louis just inhaled). “Tea?” Harry croaks hopefully, and Louis starts him a mug so he can turn away and not look at this ridiculous boy and his ridiculous abs and ridiculous curvy hips for just a moment. Niall bounds in soon after, wrecking the peaceful early evening with his revived energy.

“Let’s talk business,” he says, rubbing his hands together. “Also, food. In fact, food first. Shall I call us some room service?”

Without waiting for an answer, he hops over Zayn’s still-sleeping form (he didn’t even make it to a sofa, poor lad, just curled up right inside the front door like a well-dressed cat) and finds the sleek hotel phone. He’s grinning widely when he comes back.

“I ordered one of everything. Also, beer.”

Louis groans and puts his heads in his hands, fearing the gleeful headlines when Simon decides they’re not worth paying for and gives them the boot, and Harry rubs a calming hand between his shoulderblades. It’s Niall they have to soothe, though, when the food cart arrives with no alcohol.

“Sorry, sirs,” the waiter says, rolling in the heavy cart, “but we were instructed by Mr. Simon Cowell not to serve drinks to this room as there are minors present.”

Niall gives an almighty sob, shortly cut off by a mouthful of pizza. “Sad,” he garbles.

“Someone go wake Zayn so we can start on this monstrosity,” Louis says, flipping through one of the contracts in front of him. Liam jumps up like he’s been lit on fire. The other three stare at him, Niall still chewing sadly.

“I’ll. Um. I’ll do it,” Liam says, blush creeping up his neck. Harry sends Louis raised eyebrows when he turns away, shuffling over to Zayn. Louis shrugs back—he doesn’t understand Liam on his good days, let alone when their sleep schedule has been fucked to pieces and they’re all a bit loopy.

Eventually, though, all five are seated around the massive dining table, munching on chips and steak and sushi (because Niall literally ordered one of everything, and so they’ve got the strangest mix of food that Louis has ever seen piled in front of them) and paging through their contracts, speaking up when they come to a passage that sounds important or off in some way.

“It says here we only get one to two percent of album sales, is that right?”

“Why do our families have to sign nondisclosure agreements? What could they possibly say that is that damaging?”

“We get no say on merchandise, apparently. I dread to see what our faces are going to be put on.”

“I hate to be this person,” Zayn says as he finishes ahead of everyone else, “but… this doesn’t mention money. At all.”

Louis has hit the same wall. “They probably took those pages out so we couldn’t take them elsewhere to get a better offer.”

Zayn hums, flicking his hair out of his eyes. Liam shifts a little, flicking a glance around the table. “Gonna be honest, lads, a contract is a contract to me. Either way we’re being paid to make music.”

“Hear, hear!” Niall cheers.

Louis nods as well, but an unsettled feeling creeps into his stomach the more he reads things like artist releases all creative control and forfeit of social media rights as necessary and positive promotion regarding Simon Cowell, Syco Entertainment., Modest! Management, and all related subsidiaries.

It feels a bit like calm before a storm, and Louis isn’t sure they’re prepared for the size of the clouds approaching.



14 December 2010

Louis is on the trampoline at the bungalow, the black canvas warm from a day in the sun. The sky is cloudless overhead, marbled gold and sunfire pink and sickly green. The stars form constellations and dissolve before his eyes: first Sirius, rearranging into the Gemini twins, then Leo’s long mane.

Harry is here somewhere. Maybe to his left, or to his right, Louis isn’t sure. But he’s here, his warm cashmere-chocolate-firelight presence soothing to Louis’s soul. And then Louis can feel him, his curls against Louis’ temple and his long legs pressed against Louis’ shin. It’s all wonderful and happy, and Louis takes a deep breath that tastes like honey and bottled sunshine.

But:

"I hate you," Harry says simply, a peaceful offering to the sky. “I hate you, because you keep secrets and you want things from me that I can't give."

Louis can't speak. His words have been stolen. The sky rumbles, twisty charcoal and smattered white. The honey in his mouth turns to ash.

"The other boys hate you too," Harry continues, his doe eyes tracing the shifting patterns in the stars and never once flicking to look over at Louis. Louis wants to grab his face, to force their eyes to meet, but his arms are too heavy. "That's why they aren't here, because they hate you so much. They can't even stand to look at you. We're kicking you out of the band and taking all the money you made, so now your family will hate you too. And you deserve it."

He finally looks at Louis, and the green in his eyes is actually black, flat obsidian with no remorse, no care.

"You've loved me for six months and you want me for yourself, but I'm meant for better things than you. This is goodbye, Louis. I'll never see you again."

Black-eyed Harry slips to his feet, a thousand times more graceful than the green-eyed version of himself. He walks away and doesn't look back, his shoulders straight and unburdened with Louis' weight anymore, and Louis can't breathe. His stomach is sinking in, he's screaming but making no sound, he's imploding like a black hole, he’s—

He's awake, blinking rapidly and gasping for air. Sheets are tangled around his hips, sticking to his sweaty skin. He's staring up into wonderfully green eyes.

"I made bacon!" Harry announces. He’s sitting cross-legged on Louis’ chest, smiling brightly. Louis feels like crying again, and it’s not because Harry’s weight is making it hard to breathe. "Also, you’ve got a promise to keep."


The boys have the whole day off, a glorious twenty-four hours of rest before they have to meet with a lawyer and make terrifyingly far-reaching life choices.

Liam (who is already awake and finished with his morning jog) and Zayn (who is still asleep and probably will be until the clock switches from AM to PM) are planning a movie and dinner night out. Niall (who is awake, happily texting nonstop, and has already eaten all the bacon) is spending the day with his family, who took time off of work to spend a few more days in London. Louis and Harry, apparently, are going to get—

"A tattoo? Today?" Louis asks weakly, thinking of how wonderful Anne's hugs are and how well he and Gemma get on, and how he's probably not going to get that warm treatment anymore when they find out he's the one behind Harry’s obsession with permanent body modification.

"Yes," Harry says gently, the same voice a parent would use to explain to his child why they have to go to school. "You promised that as soon as the show was over, you would take me. Technically the show ended two days ago, so I've been very patient."

“And you’re absolutely positive your mother won’t murder me?”

Harry hums, twirling his fork through the syrup on his plate. “I’m pretty sure,” he shrugs. “She was okay when Gemma got her nose pierced.”

Louis groans, lets his head drop into his hands. “That’s not permanent though, Haz. We’re talking forever, here.”

Harry shrugs again. “I know what I like and what I don’t, and I know what I want. It’ll be okay.”

“Please tell me you’ve at least done research,” Louis pleads. “That you have an idea of where to go and what to expect. And money, because they’re expensive.”

“Oh,” Harry frowns, lips pouting as he thinks. “Can’t we go where you got your dagger?”

Louis’ heart skips for a second, panic blanking all his thoughts before he can come up with a quick addendum to his fake backstory. “It’s in Doncaster, we can’t drive all the way there.”

Harry’s pout deepens. “But-”

“No, Harry. If we’re going to do this, there are perfectly good tattoo artists in London. In fact,” he says, a plan slowly forming, “why don’t you have Zayn help you look up some options while I hop in the shower? He knows more about tattooing than I do, and he’d love to help.”

Green eyes go supernova as Harry’s pout turns into a blinding smile. “Perfect, great idea Lou!”

Louis internally congratulates himself on a job well done as he gathers his things for a shower, slipping his phone between the folds of his towel so he can sneak it into the bathroom without catching anyone’s attention.

He’s only got about half an hour to brush up on tattooing basics before his shower will start to seem suspiciously long, and he plans to use every minute of it to ensure his secret stays a secret.



Zayn was delighted to help Harry research tattoo artists in the area, and even had a few recommendations based on his expansive list of artists he wants to work with someday. Harry asks if he wants to tag along and get his first bit of ink as well, but Zayn makes a face and says no.

“M’ mum said she’d murder me if I came home with a tattoo before I turned eighteen, and I’ve got less than a month left, so," he breathes in and scrunches his eyes shut like it hurts to be responsible. "I can wait."

Harry and Louis wave goodbye and bundle themselves in a cab to head to Shangri-La Tattoo, the grey London morning cool on their skin and the city’s people rushing around them like a stream parting around unmoving stone.

The building is smaller than Louis expected, exposed brick painted bright blue and a crooked sign on the front door claiming “Come in, we’re OPEN.” It’s bright inside, warm and comfortable, just a few people lounging about on crumbling vintage furniture and chatting while a woman with the side of her head shaved tattoos a tiger across a man’s back.

The conversation stops as Harry and Louis step in, a little bell above the door tinkling their arrival. A man hops up, throwing out a heavily-tattooed arm and grinning.

“How’re ya?” he asks, shaking their hands enthusiastically. “What can I do for you lads?”

“Do you have time for a walk-in appointment?” Harry asks, voice a little shaky. His eyes keep flickering to the man getting the tiger, the way his muscles shake as he tries to keep still.

Their greeter smiles a little wider. “Why yes, we do. A little early Christmas present for yourself?”

“Something like that,” Harry agrees.

“Well then, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Liam.”

Louis almost laughs, because this Liam is nothing like their Liam, and he can’t help but picture his bandmate with a big bushy mustache and an armful of tattoos. Harry must be thinking something similar, because a tiny grin appears for the first time since they’ve stepped into the shop. “Harry,” he answers, “and this is Louis.”

“Good to meet you. Now, what are we thinking for today?”


Louis hadn’t noticed in the cab—too preoccupied with making sure they got to the right place—but Harry has brought his little leather-bound journal along with them: it’s well-worn and curved a little, like it spends a lot of time with his big hand wrapped around it, bending the spine to form it to the curve of his palm. The pages are torn and heavily marked, dog-eared and tattered, and Louis had spent countless evenings at the X Factor house watching TV or chatting with his mum on the phone while Harry curled up next to him, scribbling away and filling pages like he was being paid to do it. Louis never tried to peek, knowing if Harry wanted him to see he’d make it clear, but he always itched to read the words in Harry’s head put down on paper.

Apparently, someone was listening to his wishes.

“‘ve got a list,” Harry says when Liam asks for artwork ideas. “No actual pictures, but it’s pretty simple stuff.”

“You have a whole list?” Louis asks, surprised but also not really, because Harry is always thinking a dozen steps ahead; he probably started cultivating tattoo inspirations from the moment he saw somebody else’s ink and thought I might want one of those.

Harry ducks his head and grins at the ground. “Yeah. It’s probably stupid. I just don’t want to forget any ideas.”

“S’not stupid.”

Harry scuffs the floor with his boot. “Wanna see?”

Louis feels his expression brighten, and before he can answer Liam is ushering them to the back of the studio where there’s a desk littered with paper and pencils and pens of all kinds, half-finished artwork scattered around. Liam winks and pulls up a couple of chairs.

“I’ll leave you two to discuss,” he says, then heads back to his seat on the sofa to give them a little privacy. Harry sits and opens his journal, flipping to a page near the front filled with words written in at least five different colors of ink, crossed out lines and little doodles.

“Can I…” Louis asks, motioning to the journal, and Harry slides it to the middle so they both can read.

The first few entries have been crossed out with heavy strikes, leaving nothing behind. The first legible words are star outline, then another that says G and A. There are little notes next to most, like the one that says bird/birdcage and then, next to it, (ribs? or chest). Louis reads through the list, peering closely at the ones he can barely make out, picturing each of them inked across Harry’s pale skin. There are some lines that are little more than vague descriptions, like Hebrew or front of ankle, maybe GM? and some that are highly detailed. It isn’t until most of the way through the list that one catches Louis’ eye.

Hi?” he asks, pointing to the two small letters with no notes or drawings beside it. Harry shifts in his seat.    

“Yeah, erm. It’s just. I’ve always wanted to be able to use whatever tattoos I got as a symbol of, like, things I’ve been through or people I’ve met. Like a record of my life, y’know? And I knew I’d want something to symbolize the X Factor, because even though we didn’t win it’s still life-changing. But I also knew I’d want one for the people I met through it.”

“So…” Louis says slowly, realization dawning, “hi is-”

“The first word you said to me,” Harry finishes, blush pinkening his cheeks. “I know it’s sappy, and stupid, probably. But I didn’t just get fame and a band out of the X Factor, I got you, too.”

Louis can’t feel the expression his face is making, but he’s sure it’s probably incredibly mushy and embarrassingly transparent. How did he end up with a person in his life as perfect as Harry Styles? It’s almost like he was really, really good in a past life. Like a monk, or a firefighter, or something.

“Wow,” he finally says, and Harry’s mouth twitches at the corner.

“Good wow?”

“Best wow,” Louis answers. “Is that what you’re getting, then?”

“Well, I really want the star outline,” he says, pointing to the top entry. “It’s got a lot of meaning behind it that is important to me. Plus, five points, five boys—I think it’s a perfect X Factor commemoration and it’s not too crazy for a first tattoo. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to get Hi too.”

“Why would I mind?”

Harry shrugs one shoulder. “Dunno. Might think it’s stupid, or something.”

“Never,” Louis murmurs, tapping his fingers on Harry’s arm. “I never ever think you’re stupid.”

Harry calls Liam back over and explains what he wants, pointing out two spots on his bicep. Liam’s going over pricing and sizing when he asks about the font for Hi.

“Could, um,” Harry says, turning back to Louis (who is still looking over Harry’s tattoo list, because right after Hi there’s a string of ideas that all seem to fall under the same theme: a ship, a compass, an anchor, a rope, a mermaid, a lighthouse… The dagger on Louis’ arm is tingling like it agrees Harry should get all of those). “Could you write it, Lou?”

Louis looks up, blinking away the sea-faring phrases still rolling in front of his eyes. “Yeah, course.”

They dig up a pen and some paper, and Harry indicates how big he wants the word to be. Louis writes it, tongue sticking out between his teeth in concentration, because if there ever was a time for good handwriting it’s when it’s about to be permanently inked onto your best friend. Soon, Harry’s being led to a chair and settling in, his lip bitten hard between his teeth. Liam’s bustling about, snapping on some gloves and pulling out a disposable razor and black ink caps.

Harry grows still when Liam preps the area, leaving it pale and smooth and ready for ink. He’s back to chewing on his lip in earnest, though, when the star stencil is being placed, his arm stretched above his head so Liam can get to his inner bicep easily. Louis scoots as close as he can, grabbing Harry’s outstretched hand and leaning close, as interested in seeing the process as he is to keep Harry occupied and calm.

The tattoo gun is buzzing mere inches from his skin when Harry chokes out, “Wait, wait.”

Liam shuts off the gun immediately, placing it gently back on his side table then rolling his chair back over to Harry’s side. “What’s up?”

Harry’s broken the skin on his lip, and his hand’s gone all clammy. “What if…” he clears his throat. “What if that’s where my Marker is supposed to go? How am I supposed to know?”

Louis feels his own hand spasm in Harry’s without his permission. Liam, however, looks perfectly calm.

“Some people do choose to wait until their Marker shows to get tattoos, yeah,” he says, tilting his head. “A lot of people tattoo around them once they appear, like a centerpiece. However, keep in mind that your body knows where your Marker will appear, even though you don’t. If you feel good about this spot,” he says, tapping Harry’s soft inner arm, “you’re probably good to go.”

Harry shifts his gaze to Louis. “This isn’t a bad idea, right?”

Louis runs a hand over Harry’s outstretched arm, the star stencil and it’s sharp points, Harry’s bicep waiting for its ink. And then, because he’s masochistic and can’t help himself, his eyes flicker to Harry's bare left forearm: the place where, if Louis was only so lucky, if only fate was a little kinder, there would be a corresponding Marker on Harry’s arm to match his own dagger. “No, Hazza,” he finally says, tearing his mind away from its litany of if only if only if only, “I think it’s brilliant.”

Harry grins, a little weak but none the worse for wear, and Liam clears his throat. “Besides,” he says cheerfully, “if a tattoo you get happens to overlap with your Marker, there’s a simple laser surgery that can remove the tattoo without harming the Marker.”

“Really?” Harry asks, eyes wide. Liam grabs the gun and brings it buzzing back to life.

“Absolutely. Sort of a common procedure—a ton of people tattoo over their Markers on purpose when they got angry or sad or, honestly, who the hell knows their reasons, but then they want to go back and uncover it later when whatever they were mad about calms down.” He laughs, then rolls his shoulders and indicates the gun in his hand. “Ready?”

Harry hesitates, looking back up at Louis once more. He’s trying to hide it, but he’s so nervous: his hand shakes in Louis’, and sweat beads at his hairline.

A horrible, terribly brilliant idea has been forming like a particularly violent hurricane in the back of Louis’ mind since he saw two little letters in Harry’s handwriting in his journal, and he loses his hold on the words sitting heavy on his tongue.

“How about,” he says, “if you get hi, I’ll get oops.”  

Harry gapes at him. “You will?”

Louis laughs, runs a hand through his hair. He shouldn’t. He really shouldn’t. Tattoos are so, so permanent. But, well. Tattoos might be permanent, but so are Markers, and either way Harry’s already permanently altered him. Might as well get something of his own choosing, this time. “Yeah, I will.”

Harry smiles and the world turns a little faster, Louis’ heart beats a little louder, and the buzz of a tattoo gun echoes in both of their ears.

Soon, Harry’s breath is hitching as the needle pierces skin, ink flowing under Liam’s careful hand. Harry’s fingers squeeze Louis’ and it hurts, but soon there are new additions to Harry’s arm; a sharp-pointed star to stand for his boys and Hi, one scrawled word, not even really a phrase, not really meaningful at all, except it is. It’s so meaningful, the most important word Louis has ever spoken to the most important person he’s ever spoken to. The lines appear on Harry’s skin and Louis is in awe, because maybe this is more meaningful than a Marker. Harry will not choose who he Bonds to someday, but he chose to have a memory with Louis immortalized on his skin.

His lips are still bitten red but he’s not shaking anymore, and with his pink cheeks and flyaway hair he’s the prettiest thing Louis’ seen in a lifetime. Louis sort of wants to kiss him (more than usual, that is), even though he knows he can’t.

It takes all of twenty minutes for the ink to seep into Harry’s skin, and then he’s done. He’s tattooed. The star and the word are covered in ointment and a bandage, wrapped in tape.

Now, it’s Louis’ turn.

He shouldn’t be this nervous. There’s no way the bite of the needle can match the burn of his Marker appearing, and that happened out of nowhere. He knows what’s coming this time, can see the gun waiting as Harry draws out OOPS! on a spare bit of paper and Liam transfers it to a stencil.

Maybe that’s why he’s shaking like a leaf on a windy day: he’s anticipating the pain this time, and it’s sort of terrifying.

Harry notices, because that’s what Harry does. His eyes are careful as he watches Louis strip off his sweater and tug at the hem of his t-shirt, hands twitchy. Louis’ eyes, meanwhile, are trained on Liam as he changes gloves and cleans all the trappings left over from Harry’s tattoos.

“Well, looks like someone’s ink cherry has already been popped,” Liam notices delightedly, gesturing at the dagger once it’s unveiled. Louis just smiles, knowing it’s too weak to seem genuine, but he can’t really bring himself to care. Liam takes it in stride. “Want your new one next to it?”

“No,” Louis hears himself say. “Other side.”

Harry’s hand is hot in his as Liam switches sides, setting up next to Louis’ right arm. Liam catches Louis’ eye, gets a nod of confirmation, and starts up his gun for the third time.

The sting of the needle is fierce, more rough and impure than the white-hot heat of his Marker. But, as quickly as it comes, it levels out into something manageable. It’s strange, almost as though choosing to bear the pain makes it lesser, like the bite grows softer as Liam draws the second O, the swoop of the P. He traces Harry’s underline with a steady hand and that’s it, it’s done.

Louis prods the slightly inflamed skin around the tattoo, careful to avoid the ink but unable to tear his eyes away, at least not until there’s a small voice breaking through his consciousness.

“Can I see?” Harry asks, and careful long fingers lightly outline the word near the crease of his inner elbow. As always, Harry’s skin on Louis’ sends sparks that have no end, trails of heat that flare under his fingertips, and the skin around the OOPS! throbs like it knows Harry’s the reason it was put there. Harry traces a circle around the new ink, accidentally smearing a bit of the ointment daubed over it.

“Oops,” he says, peering up at Louis through his eyelashes.

Louis laughs, the sound loud in the small shop. “Hi,” he answers.



Liam shakes their hands again as they bundle up to leave, handing them both business cards and instructions to call if they’re ever back in town and wanting some new ink.

“Liam Sparkes?” Harry asks, reading off the card. “Is that your real name?”

“Nah,” Liam laughs. “Picked it out of a book once. Used to be Sparks without the E, but it got mistaken for a porn name one too many times. But this way, people can look me up online.”

Louis grins, liking Liam Sparkes more with every passing minute. “You’d make an excellent porn star,” he assures him on the way out the door, and Liam howls his thanks.

“I like him,” Louis declares as they settle into a cab.

Harry beams next to him. “Yeah, me too.”



The boys are properly in awe when they meet back up in the hotel suite that night and see the twin ink on Harry and Louis’ arms.

“You saps,” Niall laughs, but his eyes are bright as they pull the bandages off.

Zayn claps them both on the shoulders. “They’re our saps, though.”

Louis rolls his eyes but can’t stop smiling, Harry in the same way where he’s tucked under his arm. The plastic wrap around their bandages glints in the light of the television as they settle in to watch the new Inbetweeners episode, their boys tossing popcorn at each other around them as night turns to morning, their day off turning forward to a day back at work.



15 December 2010

As they’d been told during their meeting with Simon, they were given three options for lawyers they could work with to go over their contracts and decide whether they wanted to sign or not. Between the five of them, their knowledge about the legal system and entertainment rights went about as far as what Simon had allowed Louis to learn throughout the course of the show and what they saw on Entourage. So, really, it didn’t really matter which lawyer they chose, because any of them could say anything, and the boys wouldn’t know whether he spoke the truth or not. And, based on the fact that all three of their choices for lawyers are paid by Simon, Louis doesn’t trust any of them one bit.

When the lawyer they’d randomly selected steps through the door of the suite, that distrust grows like a weed in the sun. He’s a slick lawyer cliché, with his greased-back hair and sharp-creased suit, briefcase carefully placed on their suite’s dining table, the shiny leather stark against the candy wrappers and banana peels littering the surface.

His name is James, and Louis sort of hates his guts before he even speaks.

“Gentlemen,” he says, smiling a shark-like smile, a firm handshake distributed among them. They take their places (once Louis and Liam have made enough small talk that an embarrassed Harry could speed-clean the table, leaving behind a clean surface cleared of rubbish and old food) and begin.

Unlike the last lawyer, who talked in circles just to see their heads spin, this one speaks like he’s explaining the contract specifics to toddlers.

“Let’s cover the basics. It’s a combined five year-five album deal with Syco Entertainment and Modest! Management. Syco covers the music production side of your affairs, Modest! handles your public image and all that entails. At the end of the five years, you can negotiate for an updated contract or extend this one for a longer amount of time.”

“Is that five years or five albums?” Liam asks.

“No, that's five years and five albums. You are expected to record the next album in the break between each tour.”

Louis clasps his hands on the table, his hands shaky like his jangling nerves.

“Due to the nature of your previous contract, you will take part in the X Factor Live Tour from February to April no matter what you decide in regards to this contract,” James continues, tapping the thick stack of paper sitting in front of him. “If you do decide to sign, you’ll begin recording on the album the moment the tour ends. Mr. Cowell has decided that he wants a single by fall at the latest, summer if it can be managed.”

Something seems off about that, but Louis can’t stop to think it over because James is barrelling forward.

They discuss percentage cuts of album and ticket sales, and he tells them not to be worried about seemingly-small percentages because a small percent of a multi-million pound tour is still a lot of money, and others besides just them have to be paid as well. He says that most artists leave merchandising decisions to their management team, so they shouldn’t worry that their contract would say they have no final say over the use of their images to sell products. He says that, since none of them are experienced in any part of the recording process, they can’t be expected to suddenly turn into a band that writes all its own music on the very first album, so the clause about not having complete creative control should be seen as a good thing.

The thing is, Louis has no idea if he’s just spewing bullshit or not, but it sounds like Simon (through James) is trying to put a positive spin on something that isn’t actually that positive for them. As it stands, they get a tiny percentage of tour sale income and an even smaller percentage of album sales, no merchandising control, and no creative control. But, as part of their NDA, they can’t go get a second opinion from anyone. Not even their parents. And Louis doesn’t know how, but he’s sure Simon would know if they tried going to someone else.

“Most of these changes and decisions wouldn’t begin until after the X Factor tour ends,” James says. “However, assuming you accept, there is one thing that will need to change immediately, which is your social media. Now that the public knows your full names, Syco and Modest! would like for you to drop any references to the band in your Twitter or Instagram handles to make it more authentic. Put your full name like any other celebrity, and we’ll get your accounts verified. Also, you will need to update your passwords and security questions to something more strong to keep out fans and hackers, and you will give that updated information to management as well.”

Add loss of social media control to the list too, then. For the first time all day, Liam’s face goes a little pinched, and Louis remembers his hesitation in their meeting with Simon when he’d asked if they’d have to read fan name signs at concerts. None of them are comfortable with the idea of playing fans and their hopes of Bonding to sell more tickets, and changing their social media to their full names just seems like it’s handing the fans more ammo.

“Now, let’s talk money,” James says, and his grin grows sharper. “The part you’ve probably been waiting for, eh?”

“No, actually,” Louis mutters under his breath. Not everyone is out to get rich, and that attitude makes Louis' stomach twist. Maybe James doesn’t hear, but Louis thinks he sees his eyes tighten just a little.

“In a standard five-year contract, the cut that goes to the artist is dependent on guaranteed sales. As you are a new artist and there is no way to predict sales, Syco has outlined a standard straight-percentage cut.”

“Okay,” Niall says testily, “but what does that mean?”

James inclines his head. “It’s a two million pound record deal, with later payments coming after albums and tour tickets are released. Of that original two million, some goes to your management, some goes to Syco and your producers, some goes to your daily handlers that will be with you for publicity appearances and on tour. A large portion is set aside for tour and recording expenses as well. You, as the artist, get a cut of 40,000 pounds.”

Liam’s pinched expression flees along with the tension in the room. “Each?” he asks breathlessly. Niall looks like he’s already seeing all the beer and bad hats he can buy with his pile of earnings. Fuck, that’s more than Louis thought he’d ever see at one time in his life.

“No,” James says, and the happiness disappears as quickly as it came. “Forty thousand split between the five of you. Eight thousand each.”

Oh.

James leaves soon after that, leaving a card so the boys can call with questions (even though he warns he’s a busy man and may not be able to answer right away, which, “Thanks for bending over backwards to help us out, Jamie boy,” Niall mutters at his back as he leaves) and the suite is left in silence.

“Eight thousand pounds is still more than I’ve ever had in my life,” Zayn offers weakly.

“And we’ll make some off of the albums and tours,” Harry says. It’s still echoingly quiet.

Liam puts his face in his hands. “Is this ungrateful? It feels ungrateful.”

“It’s not,” Louis says quietly. “You hear two million pounds, you expect to get a little bit more than a few thousand tossed your way. We’re the artist, right? We’re supposed to be paid, at least enough to live off of. No one can survive five years on less than ten thousand pounds.”

Niall slaps his hand on the table. “Look. We knew that we wouldn’t get the best deal because we didn’t win. But we still got a recording contract. That’s massive, lads, and we should be proud.”

“Niall’s right,” Harry declares. “And, it’s not like we’ll pay for anything while we’re on tour, I don’t think. And then we record an album, and we’ll get paid when the album is sold. So we’ll be okay.”

Louis admires their optimism. And Niall's right—they didn't win the competition, and so they aren't going to have ridiculously generous contracts right from the start. They have to prove themselves first, and they're probably lucky to be getting an offer at all. But still, he wonders if every artist signing a recording contract feels this same way: like they’re walking face-first into a trap.



That night when Louis and Harry fall into their claimed bed, Louis presses his forehead between Harry’s shoulderblades and tries to breathe for the first time since the lawyer left the suite.

“Something isn’t right with this, Hazza,” he whispers into the dark of the room. “Most X Factor acts take at least a year to put out an album, we get six months? It’s like he’s afraid people will forget about us if we don’t put out music as quickly as possible. And we can’t even see if any other recording company would be willing to take us on, because that’s a breach of contract. I don’t like it, babe.”

“You said once,” says Harry just as quietly, a raspy echo, “that you don’t trust Simon but you trust him more than any other executive. And I think that’s what we need to keep doing. Like, keep our distance, but assume he’s doing what’s best for the band. Because if we’re able to make him money, then he's happy and we can keep doing what we love to do. So yeah, maybe we have to rush an album out in six months to make sure people remember us, but then once that’s done then we can take time to make music we want to make.”

Louis smiles a little into the back of Harry’s neck. “When did you get so wise?”

“I always have been, grasshopper,” Harry says loftily. “You were just too busy fretting over our future to see it.”



19 December 2010

It’s the eighth time they’ve sat and watched Love, Actually together as a band, but Harry says that’s okay because now it’s actually the time of year where they’re supposed to watch it.

They’re curled up in front of the suite’s massive television, all of them except Liam on the floor because he’s the only one who can get comfortable on the horribly stylish furniture littered around the room. It’s dark save the light from the screen, and they’re watching as Hugh Grant pines away inside Downing Street, his beautiful face heartbroken when he sees that guy Angelina Jolie married kissing that brunette lady from EastEnders.

“This is the worst relationship in the whole movie,” Niall complains, his voice wafting above the sad music.

“No way,” Liam shoots back. “Colin what’s-his-name and the Spanish lady—”

“Portuguese,” Zayn corrects.

“Right, Portuguese, that’s the one. How do they think that relationship will last? They can’t speak to each other and they literally have nothing in common!”

“Ah, he’s a romantic, Li,” Louis says faux-wistfully, waving his arm around like he’s painting a scene. “He loves the idea of love, he just needed a pretty girl to fill the spot. Besides, the worst relationship is clearly Snape and Trelawney—”

“Wrong movie,” Zayn corrects again.

“Right, right, Hans Gruber and Nanny McPhee—”

“Louis, I swear to God—”

Anyway, those two are the worst. She doesn’t care but at least she’s trying for the kids, and he doesn’t care and he just fucks everything up for some random chick.”

From the silence that follows, Louis figures the joking in his voice faded out to something a little more sincere, but he can’t really help it if the father leaving the family storyline hits a little too close to home.

“Can we agree that Keira Knightley and the guy whose name I can’t pronounce are the best ones, then?” he continues loudly, filling the quiet. “Like, she didn’t leave him for the pretty boy with the grand romantic gesture, and their Bonding ceremony was fantastic.”

“Oh, definitely agree,” Niall says. “Or maybe the guy that has the orgy with the American girls.”

“Don’t think that counts, Ni,” Zayn laughs, tossing a throw pillow at him. “Not really a relationship, is it?”

“It could be, we don’t know,” Niall says, indignant. “Maybe they’re in a polyamorous relationship.”

“Big word, Neil,” Louis says approvingly. “Kudos.”

“The best couple is clearly Martin Freeman and the blonde lady.” Zayn throws his arms up, stretches. “Nice, normal relationship, no drama, fake sex on camera. And then we know they stay together at the end.”

“I think it’s the little boy and the little girl,” Liam says.

“Young love,” Niall simpers, rubbing his knuckles through Liam’s hair. Liam makes an affronted noise, batting his hands away.

“Liam Neeson,” Harry says quietly, finally joining the conversation. “He and his soulmate are the best relationship.”

“Why, babes?” Zayn asks, tugging on a curl.

“True love?” Harry says, shrugging. “He got to be happy with his soulmate for a little while, and that’s more than what a lot of people get.”

That… hits a little too close to home for Louis’ liking. He has already accepted that he won’t get his own happy ending, but to think that Harry could ever lose his soulmate—it’s too much. Far, far too much emotion for an evening in with the boys.

“Too many feelings!” he says, bounding to his feet. “Boys night in is not supposed to end in tears.”

“Yeah!” Niall agrees, jumping to his feet as well. “Let’s do something!”

“Like what?” Zayn asks.

“We could finish up the list of questions for the lawyer,” Liam suggests, gesturing to the page ripped from Harry’s journal and full of half-articulated inquiries. “The next meeting with him is in two days.”

“Ugh, work,” Niall sticks out his tongue. “Club! Pub! Something fun.”

Liam frowns. “Can’t drink in public, can we? Still being watched to make sure we don’t end up in the papers.”

“And it’s not like we could convince any bouncers that you and Harry are anywhere near eighteen,” Zayn jokes, squeezing Niall’s cheeks. “Adorable little baby faces.”

Niall pouts. “Get off me, brute.” And then he brightens again. “Lads night in, then! We’ll sneak in some booze, make it a proper night.”

“Lou’s the only one that can buy,” Zayn says. Niall turns his pleading eyes to Louis.

“Please Lou. Please. Please please please—”

“Is this even what everyone even wants to do?” Louis asks, eyes flicking over to where Harry’s still curled up and watching Liam Neeson’s stepson learn to play the drums on the screen.

“Yes,” Niall says decisively. “We do.”

Zayn shrugs. “I’m in. S’long as you get something decent, not just cheap beer.”

“Li? Haz?” Niall asks.

“I guess,” Liam says slowly. “If that’s what everyone else wants to do.”

“They do,” Niall says again. “H?”

Harry tears his eyes away from the screen. “Sorry, what?”

“Head in the clouds, that one,” Zayn laughs. “Lads night, Lou’s gonna get us stuff to drink if you want.”

Harry sits straight up, eyes wide. “Really? A party?”

“Party of five,” Niall chuckles. “S’all we need.”

“Yeah!” Harry says, grin wide. “Sounds fun!”

And that’s it, Louis is powerless to resist the dimples. “Fine,” he sighs heavily, “but I’m not buying all on my own. Fork over some cash.”



There’s an off-licence not too far away, just up the street a little. A couple of paps are lounging across the street from the hotel’s front door, but they don’t look his way when he slips a beanie over his head and pulls his hood up, his gray sweatpants and backpack blending him into the surroundings like any other student.

It’s a small corner shop, neon glowing in the windows. A bored-looking woman sits behind the till, popping her gum and flipping through a magazine. Louis sends her a nod as he steps inside, surveying his options.

Liam and Harry hadn’t had any requests, Zayn wanted “something that doesn’t taste like fucking piss, mate, that’s all I ask,” and Niall wanted Guinness, lots and lots of Guinness.

Right.

Louis goes for his own favorites first, grabbing a bottle of cheap vodka and some coconut rum. He passes the small section of schnapps and grabs a bottle of peppermint, thinking Harry will like the taste. He finds Niall’s Guinness and a bottle of Jack for Zayn and he has no idea what Liam would want, so he snags some Fireball for him. The girl at the register raises an eyebrow when he hauls his load to the front, but rings him up with no comment.

“That all?” she asks. A familiar row of white boxes behind her head catches his eye and he grins.

“Not quite.”



“The prodigal bandmate has returned,” Louis announces as he steps back into the suite, backpack clinking ominously. He gets four loud cheers in answer, the boys skidding around the corner to see their prizes. Louis pulls out each bottle like unveiling treasure, lining up each one on the table so the boys can voice their approval.

“And something for Zaynie, because I may have snuck one and noticed you were low,” Louis says, pulling out a box of Marlboros from the bottom of the bag with a flourish. Zayn’s eyes go wide, and he throws his arms around Louis in a tight hug.

“Alright, alright,” Louis laughs, kissing Zayn on the forehead then shoving him gently away. He reaches for the bottle of Fireball and cracks it open, pouring five shots' worth in the cheap souvenir glasses he'd picked up from the guest shop downstairs.

"To us," Louis says, officious as he could possibly be for a boy with bare feet and sweatpants still wet at the bottom from the dirty snow outside. The other boys bring their glasses up to clink against his.

"To us," they echo, each throwing back the burning whiskey.

The shots hit like bullets: Harry splutters, Liam grimaces, Zayn hums, Niall whoops.

Louis just grins, the clinging taste of cinnamon on his gums, and settles in for a good time.



There are more shots, lots of them, a number large enough that Louis should be concerned but, well, fuck that. Then Niall finds individual bottles of juice and cans of soda in the fridge and they can drink even more, the fruity tang of Louis’ pineapple-mango juice blend cutting the harsh sting of his admittedly heavy-handed pours of vodka.

His arms feel floaty. Leaves on the breeze, or something else appropriately poetic. Light and buzzing, just the tiniest bit. And, like, he can see, that’s not the issue. His eyes are working just fine, thanksverymuch. Everything is just a little... fuzzy. Particularly ‘round the edges. His tongue is fuzzy, too, making it hard to say things like salivating salamanders in Spain (which, believe it or not, is a phrase that came up organically in a conversation with Zayn). Harry’s fuzzy too, just in an even better way, his curls soft against Louis's thighs.

Harry looks—he looks like one of those guys. From the films, the ones who wear togas and lounge around on uncomfortable-looking furniture all day. The Greeks! Romans? Something. Either way, Harry looks like those guys; like he should be surrounded by girls waving palm fronds to cool his skin and- and fruit being hand fed to him by pretty Nubian boys. Nairobian. Nubile? Whoever it is, they should be feeding Harry fruit. Louis could feed him fruit, he's pretty sure Niall ordered grapes the last time he got room service and surely there’s still some in the suite somewhere. He could feed Harry grapes. Or grape juice. Grape juice and vodka. Mmm, vodka. And grapes. Shit, isn't he supposed to be feeding Harry?

"Not hungry, Lou,” Harry slurs into Louis’ knee. “Don’t want grapes.”

“Mmkay,” Louis agrees, leaning back and carding a hard through Harry’s hair. He wonders if the curls would stay as curly if Harry grew his hair out. Like the ginger from Brave, only better. Less nasal, and, you know. Less archaically Scottish. Maybe Harry is the ginger from Brave, only instead of wishing for his mum to turn into a bear he wished to be sent forward in time to be a famous musician. And a boy. And a non-ginger. Yeah, that’s possible, Louis will just have to come up with a clever plan to see if Harry knows how to use a bow and arrow. “Harry, y’ever kill a bear with a bow and arrow?”

Nailed it.

“Saw a bear at the zoo once,” Harry mumbles, turning over on his back. They’d turned out the overhead lights ages ago, but Harry still squints upward like he’s staring straight into the sun. He makes his hand into a claw shape and holds it up, pawing idly at the air. “His real name was Roscoe, but I named ‘m Chicago in m’head.”

“Why?”

“‘Cause he was a grizzly. And, and ‘cause, like. The Bears suck, y’know? Like, bring in a quarterback who knows what he’s doing.”

Louis doesn’t know what that means. Harry scrapes Louis’ cheek lightly with his hand-claw, then drops it to pat the ground for his mug, lifting it to his mouth and pouting when nothing drips out.

“Lou, empty.” He pokes at Louis’ leg. “Lou, look. Empty.”

“Yes, your highness,” Louis says, moving Harry’s head from his lap and clambering to his feet. “One refill, coming up.” He bows low, almost falling over, and smudges a messy kiss to Harry’s hair. Harry hums contentedly and flops his arm over his face, grinning like an idiot.

Louis stumbles his way to the kitchen, past Niall who’s lining up another three shots for himself while simultaneously finishing up his last bottle of Guinness. He avoids Zayn where he’s dancing to Beyonce by himself next to the sound system, eyes closed but somehow still avoiding stepping on Liam, who’s sprawled out on the floor and giggling at something on the ceiling. Louis looks up. There’s nothing there. Liam is weird.

Louis avoids one of Zayn’s flailing arms and ducks into the kitchen. He flicks on the kettle and rinses out Harry’s mug, setting it to dry as the water heats. He pulls a new glass for himself out of the cupboard, filling it with water and taking a large gulp.

He’s not actually that drunk. It takes quite a bit for him to actually get sloshed, which was a wonderful thing to discover about himself as a young teenager and also an incredible bragging right to hold over Stan’s head, who, to Louis’ never ending delight, is a weepy drunk who loves everyone and feels the need to tell them. Repeatedly.

So yeah, he’s not really as pissed as he seems, but he likes how loose his limbs feel and how he doesn’t feel the need to screen every word in his head, because it’s been a long time since he’s just, you know, let go. He couldn’t at the X Factor house, not with camera crews following his every move and gossiping reporters around every corner. Also, the whole alcohol ban thing, which may or may not have been his fault. He’d tried to let loose on his one pub night with Aiden (the one that may have led to the alcohol ban in the first place), but had failed pretty spectacularly at that when he spent the whole time texting Harry instead of forcing as much alcohol into his system as he could handle. He probably hasn’t had a real piss-up in, God, months. Maybe since the good-luck-wanker-hope-you-get-famous-so-you-can-buy-me-things party Stan had thrown for him before auditions. And that was, what, July?

Louis doesn’t drink to get drunk, he drinks to have fun. And it is fun, alcohol is so much fun. But as much fun as it can be, he can never really go full out because it always feels like there’s something he’s hiding, something that he can’t just let drop if he gets careless. Now it’s the dagger and the whole soulmate… thing, but there’d been stuff to hide back in Donny, too. He’d go to parties and drink and see his friends and dance and laugh and yet, somehow, there would always be someone at the party who would stop him and ask about his mum, how’s she doing, heard from your dad lately? Couldn’t believe when I heard about all that, that blows, mate, they’d say, then stumble away, presumably to ruin someone else’s night by dredging up old painful memories. And Louis knew, he always knew, that they weren’t just asking to be polite; that’s not how it works in places where everyone knows everything about everyone. His parents’ split was big gossip, and people wanted more. He had to learn to drink without forgetting, to party without letting go. How to drink enough to make things a little blurry but not enough to pour secrets like rain.

And now, he has even bigger secrets, and more people trying to hear them.

But here, in this suite, with these boys, he knows he’s safe. If he ever decides to open up about his parents or his absolute shitshow of a childhood, the boys will be there to listen. He doesn’t want to, but he knows it’s an open-ended invitation that, someday, he might take them up on. When it’s just the five of them, Louis feels like he can let the alcohol be felt, let the words in his head slip out a little easier.

The good thing is that he knows he could have a whole shelf of wine and a barrel full of vodka to himself and he’d never spill the big secret, the whole half-Bonded-to-Harry thing. Probably because it’s just a part of his life, now, just like how his eyes have always been bluey-greeny-blue and his mum’s always been a nurse, Harry’s always been his soulmate. He just didn’t know about it before. But now he does, and he knows better than to tell anyone.

“Tell anyone what?” Zayn calls, never pausing in his dancing.

“Nothing, twat,” Louis answers, and the kettle whistle distracts them both. Zayn continues twirling perfectly to the beat of Single Ladies, and Louis leans over to switch off the kettle, pouring out a mug full of water, dumping in some instant hot chocolate mix, and pulling his mind out of serious things he doesn’t have to worry about right now. He reaches for a nearby bottle and thinks of something happier.

Like Harry. Harry, who is a ridiculous, ridiculous boy and, as it turns out, does not have a high alcohol tolerance but who is the pickiest drinker Louis has ever met. He took one sip of Louis’ ninety-percent-vodka-ten-percent-juice cocktail and grimaced, smacking his lips like he was trying to will away the taste. So then he tried Niall’s Guinness, to a similar result, then part of Zayn’s Jack and Coke, which he deemed “not terrible but also not good.”  

Then he had a taste of the peppermint schnapps Louis had bought for him, declared it to be Christmas in alcohol form, and dumped a fifth of the bottle into a mug of hot chocolate.

Just from the first few rounds of shots and his sips from the others’ drinks, Harry was already flushed and wobbly, his voice like a recording on half-speed. His first schnapps-laced hot chocolate had him singing at the top of his lungs to Destiny’s Child’s greatest hits (which prompted Zayn’s one-man dance party in the first place) and sprawling across anyone he could force to lay still long enough.

“Christ, Hazza, haven’t you drank before? Ever?” Niall had laughed, his voice slightly muffled behind Harry’s shoulder as Harry climbed into his lap.

“Had beer at parties in school,” Harry’d answered, reaching up to braid tiny sections of Niall’s hair. “Beer is gross, so I didn’t drink a lot. Weed is good, though. And so is schnapps.” He stopped, looking concerned. “Are schnapps. Is schnapps plural? Is there such thing as one schnapp?”

Niall had just snorted, shaking his head and patting Harry’s cheek.

Hot chocolate number two had Harry abandoning Niall’s lap to join Zayn on his smoke break out on the balcony, stealing his cigarette to take a drag and promptly launching into a coughing fit for five full minutes afterward, sparking a debate between the two on the point of smoking if it doesn’t get you high. Zayn won, but only because Harry had forgotten what he was doing and wandered back inside halfway through his argument, rearranging Louis so he could drop his head into his lap, nudging Louis’ hand with his nose until Louis started running fingers through his curls.

“S’just like m’ mum,” Harry’d slurred, which. As a best friend, that’s a high compliment. As a person who is thoroughly, disgustingly in love with him, not so much.

Louis finishes creating the masterpiece of Harry’s third spiked hot chocolate with a jaunty peppermint candy resting right on top of the marshmallow mountain. Harry makes an overjoyed noise when he sees it, making grabby hands and wriggling excitedly. (Liam, whose abs are currently being used as Harry’s seat, winces but doesn’t say a word.)

“You are my favorite,” Harry tells Louis very, very seriously. It takes him a full minute to say the whole sentence.

Louis pats his curls and walks back over to the sofa—which, through the miracle of alcohol, has suddenly become passably comfortable—and settles next to Niall, stealing his vodka Red Bull and taking a long sip. Niall shuffles and throws an arm around Louis’ shoulders, nuzzling into his hair.

“Excellent night,” he says, tipping his glass to clink against Louis’.

“Excellent night,” Louis agrees.



The night slips on, accompanied by a soundtrack of Beyonce, and Liam and Niall’s bickering over things like the necessity of Cadbury eggs in society, and loud laughter when Zayn tries to do the robot and smacks himself in the face. Louis is still in that pleasant past-tipsy stage but not into full-on plastered, a delicate balance he’s perfected over the years.

He has no idea where most of the others are now. Liam and Zayn fucked off an hour ago, and Louis is pretty sure they’re asleep but couldn’t tell you where. He knows Niall is still in the suite too, because every once in a while there’s a delighted Irish cackle usually followed by an ominous noise like glass breaking or shelves falling. Louis would check, but, well, he’s still making noise so he has to still be alive, at least. Niall’s also either on the phone with someone or talking to himself, his voice echoing when he shouts nearly incomprehensible phrases about Derby or guitars or Guinness.

Harry is smashed, utterly and completely pissed. He’s curled up in Louis’ lap with his head on Louis’ shoulder, giggling at nothing, his mouth pressed against Louis’ collarbone so that every time he speaks his lips drag hot sparks on Louis’ skin. He’s talking now, long, dragging phrases that catch in Louis’ ear and linger.

“...m’ friend Ash said there’s another ‘rticle in th’ paper,” he’s saying, words syrupy slow and just as sweet, “‘bout me havin’ an older girlfriend. Said ‘ve been dating a Blueberry model. Bur. Burberry.” He giggles, then frowns again. “But ‘m not. ‘m not dating anyone.”

“Just people making up stories, love,” Louis says. “Don’t pay them any mind.”

“But ‘s wrong,” Harry protests. “Like, ‘ve apparently been dating all these, like, older women ‘nd stuff, whatever, but ‘ve never even been on a date at all.”

“Neither have I, though, so that’s not that big of a deal,” Louis reassures him. “Lots of people don’t date until they’re out of school or ready to settle down.”

“No,” Harry growls, frustrated. He sits up, wobbling a little. “No. ‘s not fair. They say I’m- I’m like a sex symbol. S’what Ash said. Like, th’ I hook up with fans all the time and go out with all th’se ladies. But ’ve never even been kissed—”

“Really?” Louis asks before he can stop himself, a little voice in his head yelling shut up, idiot, change the subject! “Never? Not even when you were little, like a kiss on the cheek?”

Harry’s lower lip wobbles. “No, never. Nobody wanted to. But I want to. ‘s not fair, Lou.” He tilts his head, looks up at Louis through his eyelashes. Louis would think it was a move if he didn’t know Harry was absolutely sincere. “Can you? Will you kiss me?”

Fuck. This is worse than sad naked Harry climbing into his bed back in the X Factor house for comfort, worse than snuggling up to Harry every night, worse than knowing in an abstract way that someday Harry will leave. This is real, Harry in front of him looking like a wrecked fallen angel, lips puffy and eyes bright and hair a complete mess. This is Harry offering himself to Louis, and, fuck, all Louis wants to do is take and take and take.

He leans forward.

He can’t do this.

He keeps leaning forward.

What is he doing? Harry is drunk, so drunk, and he might not even remember this but Louis definitely will.

His hands settle on the top of Harry’s thighs. He’s so close he can count Harry’s eyelashes as they flutter shut.

He’s inches away, he's centimeters away.

He can’t do this.

“Why not?” Harry whispers, and oh, Louis is thinking out loud again.

“You’re drunk, Hazza. I can’t do this when you’re drunk,” he pleads, leaning away just a little to try and clear his head.

“I’ll remember,” Harry promises, leaning forward again. Louis stops him with a hand on his shoulder.

“Not the point, love.”

“Kiss me, Louis. Please.”

“God, Harry,” Louis groans, running fretful hands through his own hair. “Don’t make me do this. You can’t make this decision right now.”

“In the morning, then,” Harry says. Louis looks up to see green eyes clearer than they have been the whole night. “When ’m sober again.”

Louis studies his best friend in the entire world and thinks. Despite Harry’s moment of clarity here at the end, this is obviously the most he’s ever drank in one sitting. If it’s anything like Louis’ first time drinking, Harry’ll be bed-ridden all morning. He probably won’t even remember this, as the last moments of a night are always the haziest.

“Yeah,” Louis agrees. “Yeah, tomorrow. When you’re sober. If you still want to.”

Harry holds out a solemn little finger. “Pinky swear.”

Louis pinky swears.

Harry grins, pats Louis’ cheek, and is asleep within minutes.



20 December 2010

Louis wakes with a stiff neck, a dry mouth, and a horrible feeling that he made a very stupid promise to his very drunk best friend.

He’s on a chaise lounge near a massive window looking out over a grey Leicester Square. It’s bustling, a typical London almost-Christmas scene, and for a second he forgets that he might have a mess to deal with and wraps himself a little tighter in the blanket he’d pulled off a spare bed. It’s early, but they’d all went to sleep early too, Louis carrying Harry’s sleep-heavy body to the room they usually share just a little before midnight. It’s probably not even eight o’clock, but he’s never been able to sleep late after a night of drinking, his stomach upset with him for his bad choices and making its protests known.

He needs a shower, but it can wait. For right now, he’s got a quiet view of his favorite city and a moment to himself to collect his thoughts.

Or, well.

“Morning,” Liam yawns, stretching widely. He’s in basketball shorts and nothing else, looking tired but happy.

“Morning,” Louis murmurs. Liam fixes himself a glass of ice water and sits next to Louis’ feet on the lounge. “Where’d you get to last night?”

“Dunno, really,” Liam says thoughtfully. “Think we were in Matt’s suite for a bit, he’s right down the hall. Or maybe it was Rebecca’s, she was there too. Either way, they have a Wii and we played tennis for a bit.”

“You had a Wii party without me?” Louis asks, scandalized. Liam smirks.

“You and Harry looked perfectly content where we left you, don’t even pretend otherwise. And we invited Niall, but he was on the phone with his friend Bressie talking about pasty-faced English cunts so I figured he didn’t want to come.”

Louis laughs, pulling the blanket higher up to cover his shoulders. “Probably not, no.”

Liam stands and finishes his water. “Thought we might sort out those questions for the lawyer and email them over, that way he’ll have answers ready for us when we meet up tomorrow.”

“Sounds good,” Louis agrees, before stopping him from walking away. “You, erm. You aren’t the one actually sending the email, right?”

Liam rolls his eyes. “No, Louis, I will let Zayn type the email. I’m aware that I’m not the best spellist—”

“Not a word, love.”

“—and you and Zayn have all email and text-sending rights after last time.”

“Well, Lima, asking the lawyer about our anal salary is a rather large difference than asking about our annual salary.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he mutters, but ruffles Louis’ hair anyway.  Louis stretches his legs when Liam leaves, preparing to drop back into a doze and rest a little longer before the day officially has to start. That dream is crushed, though, when Liam reappears, flopping down onto Louis’ legs and ignoring his pained grunt as he reads over their list of questions. "I figure we should ask about those nondisclosure agreement sections, especially for our families. It's not like we're hiding massive secrets, at least not as far as I'm aware, so there's nothing our families could say that could hurt anyone."

Louis stares at him. Liam looks up from where he's scribbling notes, brow furrowed. "What?"

"We're doing this now?"

"... yes?”

“It’s like,” Louis reaches over, grabs his phone, “fuck’s sake, it’s only seven-thirty, Liam.”

“And?”

They don't look away, neither willing to give in. Louis’ stubbornness is a thing of legend, but he does sort of want to just be over and done with the whole thing so he just sighs and waves a hand. “Continue.”

They bang out a couple more suggestions, ideas on improving the merchandising clause to be a little more in their favor and options they like better than the whole no-creative-control-because-you’re-young-and-dumb thing that Syco has written up. Liam’s just laying the list to the side to show the other boys later when the suite’s front door smashes inward, a dishevelled Niall standing in the doorway.

“Did I break a table last night?” is his first sentence, and both Liam and Louis shrug in answer. He toddles to his room, stepping back out almost immediately, looking the slightest bit like a scolded puppy. “I did.”

Liam looks constipated at the news, but Louis just chuckles and stands, stretching, and fixes enough tea to drown the protests of their achy limbs.

Zayn rolls out of bed at around eleven, disheveled and still prettier than any human has the right to be, silently joining them on the sofa and stretching facedown across Niall’s lap. Niall pats his hair and then uses the back of his head as a resting place for his can of Coke.

It’s nearly noon before Harry appears, looking like a bedraggled, half-drowned kitten. His curls are matted to his face on one side, lines from a pillow still pressed into the skin of his cheek.

“Water,” he groans. He stumbles toward them and Liam intercepts him, spinning him (slowly, as Harry’s a little green around the edges) and chaperoning him to the bathroom.

“Shower first, H. You’ll feel better.”

Harry just blinks like Liam’s spouted off something in German. “Shower.”

“Yes, shower,” Liam agrees. “Water and soap, good for the soul and…” he pauses, flicking his glance to Harry’s nest of hair, “... other things.”

Harry mumbles something that must be agreement and meanders into the bathroom, idly stepping out of his boxers before Liam can close the door. Louis feels heat flash up his neck and across his face, and he stares at the table in front of him until he feels the blush die down a little and he can return to the conversation around him without babbling about perfect pale arses.

Harry eventually emerges looking a little more human and a lot more wet, leaving a dripping trail as he makes his way over to where the boys are watching old Doctor Who reruns and arguing about who is going to have to get up to order lunch. Louis stares at the screen with a burning intensity as Harry sleepily greets Liam and Niall and Zayn, his voice scratchy like sandpaper. When he can feel Harry's gaze on him, he takes a deep breath and prepares for the inevitable awkward moment he's sure is coming.

Because of course it's going to be awkward. It's like their first time performing on the X Factor live shows all over again—Harry got overwhelmed and asked for something he didn't really want so he could take his mind off of things. Or, well, maybe not the best example, because Louis did end up taking him to get that tattoo he promised, but. He's pretty sure Harry won't be begging for a kiss again now that he's sober.

Besides, Harry's got to have realized by now that he can open his Twitter at any point and have anyone he wants, someone happy to give him his first kiss with no strings attached and no baggage, unlike Louis who is so tied up in strings and lugging such heavy bags that he probably looks like a ball of yarn trying to run away from home.

So Louis turns, bracing himself for a sympathetic look or awkwardly avoided eye contact, and instead finds Harry with his normal sunshiney grin and a stupid, stupid tiny towel wrapped low around his hips.

"Morning, Lou!" he chirps with his dumb gravelly voice, then flitters away to put on some clothes.

Huh. Must have actually forgotten the whole thing, then.

That suspicion grows as they settle in for lunch, Harry throwing together some sandwiches to “give room service and Simon’s wallet a break,” and not once does he pull Louis off to the side to explain anything or have a chat about their feelings.

Not that Louis is lingering in corners by himself to make it easier, or anything. He doesn’t need closure on this. It’s fine.

Lunch is quiet, Zayn still sporting a headache that even paracetamol can’t defeat and the others nursing hangovers of their own as well. Louis can’t keep still, his hands twitching when he reaches for his water or fork and jumping every time Harry opens his mouth to speak. Harry doesn’t seem to notice, powering sleepily through his sandwich and yawning occasionally.

Eventually Zayn breaks the comfortable quiet, standing and pushing away his own half-finished sandwich.

“Gonna go, um,” he says, waving his hand nonchalantly, “gonna see Rebecca. Talk about, like, her kids. And stuff. That’s it.”

“Having fun smoking with Rebecca, then,” Louis laughs, and Zayn throws his napkin at him but grins as he slips on some shoes, promising that if Rebecca has any extra he’ll try to wheedle it off of her.  

Liam leaves soon after as well, claiming that his stomach has settled enough that he can still get in a decent workout. He waves cheerily before disappearing out of the suite, his iPod and headphones in hand.

And then there were three.

Harry pushes back from the table and yawns yet again, his new tattoos catching the light when he stretches, and then starts to gather the dirty dishes. Louis and Niall both snort when they hear water hit the bottom of the sink in the kitchen and the sound of Harry quietly whistling as he scrubs at their plates.

“I’m fully convinced he’s an alien,” Niall says. “No teenage boy cleans to get rid of a hangover. It’s just not natural.”

Louis feels like he should defend Harry, but, to be honest, it is pretty strange.

He and Niall stay at the table for a little longer, Niall texting and Louis leaning back with his eyes closed, listening to the familiar sounds of Harry in a kitchen, his quiet humming barely audible over the sounds of clinking dishes and pouring water. He’s humming Hey There Delilah, and Louis wonders why, but not enough to get up and ask.

Then, Niall ruins everything.

“Bressie’s in London!” he says delightedly, responding rapidly to a text. “That fucker, I thought he was still back in Mullingar all this time. Guess he got in this morning.” He stands like he’s going to leave, and Louis panics.

“You’re going?” he asks, and Niall looks at him like he’s grown a second head, nodding slowly. “Why, though? Bressie can come here and hang out! Free food, y’know. And… and we can finally meet him, yeah?”

“Don’t think he wants to have flown to London just to hang out in a hotel, Lou,” Niall says carefully. “But I’ll bring him by tonight, introduce him to you lot.”

He putters off to change out of his sweatpants and is back within minutes, slipping his phone into the pocket of his jeans and throwing on a snapback to cover his messy hair. Louis walks him to the door (with Niall flicking strange glances at him but not saying a word) and claps him on the shoulder. “Have a good day, mate,” he says, sounding weak even to his own ears.

“Yeah, ‘course,” Niall answers cheerfully. “Always do, don’t I?”

And then he’s gone.

Louis takes a deep breath, steeling himself for an afternoon with an oblivious Harry who begged Louis to kiss him just hours ago and then forgot all about it. Maybe he can sneak back through the living room and sleep the rest of the day away. Or he could just leave, he’s mostly dressed and his wallet and shoes aren’t too far.

Or, he could stop fucking around, coming up with scenarios to avoid his best friend and just deal with the situation. This is Harry. He cries when he sees pigeons hit windows, he’s not going to hurt Louis.

He takes a deep breath and turns.

Harry is there, less than a foot between them, head cocked a little to the side and watching as Louis slowly loses his mind. Louis sucks in a gasp before he can help it, the sound loud between them.

“You’ve been twitchy all day,” Harry says.

“Have not,” Louis mumbles. “Just. Hungover, you know?”

Harry just watches him, like he expects a little more. When he doesn’t get it, he speaks again. “You pinky promised me something last night.”

“Oh,” is all Louis says. He’s going to have to book a flight to Antarctica as soon as this conversation is over, because surely this must be the part where Harry apologizes and says he didn’t mean it and Louis has to accept that his life is a bad romantic comedy where he’s the best friend who never gets his happy ending. He feels himself bracing like the words will be a physical impact, curling in on himself.  

Harry takes one step forward because he doesn’t understand personal space and Louis takes one step back, finding himself against the entry wall. He has to look up, just a little, which is ridiculous because just a few months ago he and Harry were exactly eye level, and how has he not noticed that Harry’s gotten a little taller just since they’ve known each other? He’s literally grown right in front of Louis’ eyes, which somehow feels symbolic and also like something he shouldn’t be worried about as Harry stares at him now, fiddling with the neckline of his t-shirt.

“Lou,” Harry says, and that’s all he gets before Harry sways forward, pressing his lips lightly against Louis’.

It’s not fireworks, because bad clichés have no business being anywhere near Harry Styles. It’s not electricity either, or magic: it’s like standing in the ocean and feeling the waves pull at his body. It's floating and freeing and the wonderful sense of rightness, of being exactly where he belongs. Harry’s lips are soft and careful and, oh, of course, this is Harry’s very first kiss, that’s why his mouth is so tentative and unsure. This is the story he’ll tell to his kids someday when they ask, remember Louis, he was in that band with me; yeah, he was my first. Louis doesn’t move, doesn’t breathe, just lets Harry take what he wants.

And then Harry pulls back, and it’s over. It’s the waves receding back into the sea, low tide pulling him away from Louis’ touch.  

And it’s not enough.

It’s never been enough, not with Harry. There’s never been a moment with Harry where Louis thought, this is all I want, I’m content with what I have. There's no end to the need, no finish line where Louis will stop. He’s always wanting more, pushing for it even though that little rational part of his brain is screaming that it’s a bad idea.

When he went to bootcamp it wasn’t enough just to be civil to Harry, he had to fall in with his group of friends and stick by his side like he’d been glued. When they were at the bungalow it wasn’t enough to just become a better bandmate to Harry like he did with the other three, they had to become inseparable, codependent after just two weeks. When they were at the X Factor house it wasn’t enough to spend every moment of the day with him, Louis had to have Harry by his side every night as well.

And so when Harry touches the softest of kisses to Louis’ lips, there's no way it's going to be enough.

“No,” Louis says nonsensically, and he wants to have enough control over himself to be able to walk away but he doesn’t have that, so instead he puts a hand to Harry’s chest and takes control of something else. “No, not like this.”

They switch roles, Harry taking a stumbling step backward and Louis crowding into his space, pushing until Harry’s back hits the opposite wall, the breath rushing out of him. His eyes are wide, mouth hanging open. Louis gives it a moment, a build-up of anticipation as they stare at each other, then he surges up onto his toes and gives Harry a real first kiss before nerves and logic get the better of him.

If the last one was like waves on the surface of the ocean, this must be the current underneath, impossible to fight. It’s inescapable, Louis drowning under the crushing weight of Harry Styles and knowing that this is the best end for him. Exactly what he needs to survive and the poison that kills him all at the same time. Louis leads and Harry follows, exchanging breath as their lips move, Harry making little noises every time Louis’ teeth bite down gently on his lower lip. He presses forward, chest against Harry’s and feeling him shiver, persuading him to open his mouth with little swipes of his tongue.

Fingers twine around curls as Louis moves even closer, pulling away from Harry’s lips just to slide lower and kiss the skin under Harry’s jaw, behind his ear, down his neck. Harry makes a shocked noise, his hips jumping against Louis’, and Louis hums in answer. He slides his mouth back to Harry’s and it’s another glorious minute without breathing, just lips sucking and tongues sliding. He tries to keep his eyes open, to see the way Harry looks when he makes the noises currently driving Louis crazy, but they keep sliding shut when Harry tentatively brushes his tongue against Louis’ instead of letting Louis lead every single moment.

It feels like a small eternity has passed since Louis shoved Harry against the wall and pressed their mouths together. Harry’s moaning with abandon now, raspy and deep in his throat, his hands shaking where they’re clutching at Louis’ waist. They’re moving as one, Harry catching on quickly to the way Louis’ head tilts and his hips shift and how he gasps involuntarily when Harry finds the sensitive spot on the back of his neck with his clever fingers. Not too bad for a first kiss floats through Louis’ mind, and then he realizes.

This was never supposed to go this far. This was never supposed to happen at all.

Louis wrenches himself away, staring at Harry from far too close as they gasp in air.

"I'm sorry," he breathes, and it's true, it's always been true, he's been apologizing since the day they met and Louis will never be able to make any of it up to him. He backs up to the suite’s front door, finding the knob behind his back. "I'm so sorry, Haz. I'm..."

There's no more to say. He throws open the door and slams it shut behind him. As the door closes, he thinks he hears the soft, shocked sound of Harry saying “No, Lou, wait-” but he’s probably just hearing what he wants to hear. He sprints up the empty hotel hallway to another room, pounding on the door with a heavy fist.

He doesn't have long, he knows. It'll only take Harry a minute or so to recover from Louis' abrupt exit and then he'll be out in the hallway and he'll find Louis still there and want to talk and no, no Louis definitely can't do that. So he raps at the door again, his hand stinging at the force of knuckles on wood.

He looks down and remembers suddenly that he's barefoot. He has no wallet and no coat and he’s pretty sure he just broke his best friend’s heart and broke his own in the process, and there's the creeping knowledge in the back of his head that Harry will get over this someday but Louis definitely never will, and all of this is happening all at once and still the only thing Louis can think is I'm not wearing any shoes and why is nobody answering the fucking door-

The door opens, Aiden filling the space with a surprised smile and the smell of stale sex. Louis sort of hates him, even though he doesn't. Aiden’s smile drops when he sees Louis, barefoot and shaking and teary-eyed.

"Shit," he says, which sums things up quite nicely. "Matt!" he calls over his shoulder, then tugs Louis inside. "Lou, Christ, what's wrong?"

The door shuts and Louis can breathe again, knowing that Harry can't corner him to talk if he can't find him. Matt rounds the corner, looking similarly content and rested before he can fully take in the scene and his smile drops as well. "What happened, Louis? Is everything okay?"

"No," Louis says. It's the truest thing he's ever spoken. "Everything hasn't been okay in quite a while."

There's a sudden pounding on the door, a desperate call of "Matt, open up!"

Louis scrambles to hide around the corner, Matt and Aiden watching with wide eyes. "Make him leave, please," he begs, and he doesn't even care that they share a wary glance before Matt goes to open the door.

"Oh, thank God," Harry says from out in the hallway, and Louis wishes he could see him but is also so glad he can't. "Have you seen Louis? I just- we- he just left, and he didn't take anything and I'm worried."

He sounds worried, that's for sure, voice all wobbly and unsure. Another thing for Louis to apologize for later. That particular running tally has grown far, far too large.

"Um, no, mate," Matt says. "Haven't seen him. I can give you a ring if we do, though."

"Perfect, thanks," Harry says, and then he's gone. Louis lets out the breath he didn’t know he was holding and opens his eyes.

Matt and Aiden’s suite is similarly decorated to theirs: modern, futuristic furniture in shades of red and white and overly large electronics tucked into every available space. Louis wants to talk about that. Or maybe Matt’s new contract with Syco he just signed, or Aiden’s, or bloody politics. Anything, really, he'd rather talk about anything right now except what's going on.

"Lou," Aiden starts but Louis pulls away, shaking his head.

"I can't, I can't, I'm so sorry but it's all fucked up and I just need time alone but I can't get any in that suite and I don't have any shoes and I'm sorry, I'm so sorry-"

"We can get you shoes, babe," Matt says carefully. “And a coat, too, if you need it. It's freezing out there."

Louis was planning on staying indoors but now that Matt’s mentioned it, out there sounds like a pretty damn great place to be.

"Thanks," he says gratefully, and soon he's bundled in Aiden’s jacket under Matt’s coat and Aiden’s shoes with about six pairs of socks because they're so large on his feet. He's also loaded down with promises that he won't do anything stupid and that he'll call if he needs help.

"I know you don't want to right now," Aiden says as he checks the hallway to make sure Harry's not still out there searching for Louis, "but come talk to us when you're ready. I want to help, and so does Matt."

Louis doesn't need help, he needs self control and a few hours to himself and a fucking time machine if he can manage it, but he nods anyway and slips out of their suite and out of the hotel. He doesn't think, doesn't talk, doesn't plan a destination, just walks and tries to lose himself in the rhythm of London and pretend he's not Louis Tomlinson for just a little while.



There’s only so far Louis can go in too-big shoes and there’s not really anywhere he can go with no money, so Louis stops at a park and huddles on a bench, watching the footprints of passerby muddying the once-pristine snow on the pavement.

It’s hard not to see symbolism in that, stomping all over something that once was innocent and now is tainted, but that’s a little heavier than Louis ever planned to go so he stops that train of thought.

His lips still taste like Harry. 

His phone vibrates incessantly, and as he pulls it out to silence it he catches some of the words on the screen and wants to throw himself off the nearest building.

(1:34 p.m.) Hazzaman: Lou please tell me where you are
(1:38 p.m.) Hazzaman: Im really worried and no one has seen you
(1:42 p.m.) Hazzaman: sorry please im sorry just come back im so sorry

(1:58 p.m.) Zaynie Poo: harry says you left and he’s really worried?? everything okay?? xx
(2:23 p.m.) Zaynie Poo: it’s been over an hour, mate, you need to call and at least let us know you’re alive. xx

(2:08 p.m.) Nialler: haha mate h said he cant find u are u lost????
(2:19 p.m.) Nialler: but really lou haha where did u go hes rlly worried
(2:31 p.m.) Nialler: not funny anymore answer ur phone!!!!

Louis breathes in a shuddering breath and unlocks his phone, sending a quick text to Liam, who must still be at the gym otherwise he would’ve sent more texts than the rest of them combined and assembled a search party while he was at it.

(2:33 p.m.) Louis: Hey Li I’m out taking a walk and I’m fine , will you let H know? Don’t know when I’ll be back. x

And then he shuts off his phone.

He’s being overdramatic and he knows that; he’s seen every bloody romantic movie, he knows that lack of communication is the source of ninety-nine percent of problems. Honesty and trust, right, that’s all it takes.

Except that’s not all it takes, because sometimes honesty would just make things worse and sometimes one half of the relationship puts entirely too much trust in the other half who has done nothing to earn it.

From day one, Louis should have been working on keeping whatever happened between him and Harry as platonic as possible. He went into this friendship, hell, he went into the entire fucking competition, knowing that he and Harry would never be together and that he would have to learn to live with it. But then, somewhere between the cuddles and the forehead kisses and the I love yous and the nights spent wrapped around each other it all got muddled. And, again, Louis can deal with his own emotional breakdown, it’s inevitable and he knows it and he’s already prepared to spend a solid six to eight weeks crying on his mum’s shoulder when Harry’s actual soulmate comes into the picture.

What he can’t deal with is Harry’s emotional distress, because somehow Louis has led him to believe that it’s a good idea to start something romantic between them when there’s literally no way it will end well. Because even if they do this, even if they start an ill-thought-out relationship, Harry will Bond with someone else. And that means he’ll have to leave Louis, and he’s such a good fucking person that it’ll probably cause him all sorts of anguish to see Louis alone and Louis is not okay with that.

The same goes for coming clean and telling the truth—if Harry were ever to find out that Louis is Bonded to him, he would drop all pretense of trying to find his own soulmate to stay with Louis. And, God, while that literally sounds like the best outcome to anyone’s life ever, Louis can’t do that to Harry. He can’t force him into some sort of pseudo-legit relationship just because his biology or whatever is fucked up and decided Harry was the best option to dump his pathetic future on. Especially since Harry’s biology was smart enough to keep him away from the emotional trainwreck that is Louis Tomlinson.

It’s a lose-lose situation for Louis, but at least someday Harry will be Bonded and Louis can know that he won’t have ruined everything for the best person he’s ever known. He can live with his own unhappiness, but he can’t live with Harry’s.



The whole hotel is quiet when Louis gets back, almost like it’s holding its breath for the eruption that’s about to happen. He almost stops in front of Aiden and Matt’s door to stall, but he knows everything will just get worse the longer he waits, and so he keeps trudging on in his too-big shoes and too-big coat.

He has to knock when he gets to their suite, since his key is in his wallet and definitely not on him. There’s the sound of the TV being muted, a rush of footsteps and then the door is thrown open to reveal Harry, looking anxious and tired, Zayn and Liam and Niall behind him in a similar state.

“Oh, thank Christ,” Harry gasps, pulling Louis inside and wrapping him in a hug. Louis clears his throat and pulls back, looking up at Harry and trying really hard to ignore the other three who are watching closely.

“Can we talk?” he says quietly, and Harry nods and lets him lead the way to their bedroom, closing the door behind them with a solid click. The TV volume is turned back up on the other side of the door, and Louis is so grateful for the little bit of noise suddenly filling the space between them.

He turns to find Harry perched on the bed, watching him. His nails are bitten down and bleeding, his hair a mess. He looks haggard, like he hasn’t slept in days even though Louis was only gone for six hours at most.

Louis prepares his carefully made speech in his head.

“I’m sorry,” he says, and then he realizes Harry’s said the exact same thing.

“Why are you sorry?” they both say in unison, and Harry grins weakly.

“It’s my fault, Lou,” he says, and Louis automatically shakes his head. “It is, I shouldn’t have tried anything and it wasn’t fair for me to do that.”

So much for Louis’ agonizingly crafted speech; though, really, he really should have planned for Harry to take the blame onto himself. “No, God no, Haz. It’s my fault, I feel like I’ve been leading you on for months, and you may have started it but I took it way too far.”

“But I wanted that,” Harry argues. “You didn’t take it any further than what I wanted. You could have taken it further, even.” Louis has to suppress a shiver at that, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Don’t,” he begs. “Just let me apologize.”

“No,” Harry says stubbornly. “I don’t accept. It’s not your fault.”

Louis crosses to sit next to Harry on the bed, carefully keep space between them. “It is, because we both know that we aren’t soulmates but I still pushed past what friends normally do. This isn’t how best friends are supposed to act.”

“It wasn’t just you, though,” Harry retorts. “I asked to sleep in your bed first, and I told you I love you first. You started the forehead kisses, yeah, but I gave them back just as often. This isn’t a one-way relationship.”

“I could have said no, though, even if you started it.”

“Why is that your responsibility?” Harry asks. “Why is it up to you to decide what we can and can’t do?”

“Because I’m older!” Louis says. “I’m the legal adult, I’m the one that should know better.”

Harry lets the silence sit for a moment, his eyes searching out answers in Louis’ face.

“It’s not up to you to carry the world, Lou,” Harry says softly. “Eventually you’re going to get tired.”

Louis laughs, but it’s quiet and sad. “I am tired. I’m so tired, Hazza.”

Harry scoots back and lays down, patting the bed next to him. Louis gives in and lays down as well, face to face with Harry and able to see every bit of the stress he put him through today. “So, what now?”

“You’re my best friend, and I’m happy with that,” Louis says quickly. “We don’t have to change anything just because I have no boundaries.”

“I want to, though,” Harry whispers. Louis swallows, his mouth suddenly dry. “Kissing you today was… God, I can’t get over it. It felt right, you know?”

“Yeah,” Louis whispers, because it had. Nothing had ever felt more right.

“And so I don’t see why we have to stop,” Harry barrels on, and that’s when Louis has to sit up.

“Harry-”

“Listen to me, Lou. You’re my best friend and my partner in crime, and now you’re my first kiss. You’re important to me, and you’re never not going to be a part of my life. I don’t see how something like us kissing can ruin that.”

“It can,” Louis says desperately. “Hazza, someday you’re going to meet your soulmate, and that person probably won’t be very happy that you spent your time kissing your best friend instead of waiting for them.”

“This isn’t the Dark Ages, people can kiss whoever they want if they aren’t in a relationship,” Harry says, annoyed. “And any soulmate of mine is going to have to accept that. Besides, wouldn’t it be better that I’m kissing you, who I trust, rather than going out and finding random people in clubs or something who might want to hurt me?” He sits up as well, creeping close to Louis’ side.

“Harry,” Louis says, because he’s run out of arguments but he still knows this is a bad idea.

“Shut up, Louis,” Harry whispers, and kisses him.

It’s heated and apologetic and sure, like Harry’s gotten the answer he wanted and is celebrating, and Louis tells his hands to push him away but his hands pull him closer instead, hips aligning as Louis falls backward and pulls Harry along for the ride. They’re gasping breaths every time their lips disconnect before they collapse back into each other, tiny moans escaping into the air between them.

Eventually, Harry pulls away, leaning his forehead against Louis’ and catching his breath. He’s grinning a little, smug.

“See,” he says quietly, his lips brushing Louis’ with each word. “This is right.”

Louis needs to say no, but his mouth won’t form the word. “Okay,” he says instead. “What are a few kisses between friends?”

This is an awful idea. Louis leans up and kisses Harry again. 

Harry huffs a laugh when Louis pulls back. “I can’t promise I’m going to stop with a few.”

Louis groans. “What monster have I created?”

Harry giggles and leans down to catch Louis’ lips again instead of answering, and they don’t leave the room for the rest of the night.


When it’s too late at night to be morning and too early in the morning to be night, Louis is barely awake and finds his arms wrapped tightly around Harry’s waist, the scent of his vanilla candles and coconut shampoo heady around him. Harry’s breath is even, steady as waves on a shore.

“I want to be enough for you,” he whispers to the back of Harry’s neck, and then he’s falling asleep to the rhythm of Harry’s heartbeat.



21 December 2010

Zayn, Niall, and Liam gang up on Louis when he emerges for breakfast the next morning.

“Scared us half to death,” Liam says, hands on his hips. He’s never looked more like Louis’ mother than he does right now, but Louis knows better than to tell him that.

“Yeah,” Niall chimes in. “You have to talk to us. Communicate!”

“Don’t be an idiot, basically,” Zayn says, and Louis would roll his eyes if he didn’t know they were all genuinely worried for him.

“Sorry,” he says quietly, and Niall throws an arm around his shoulders.

“You’re forgiven,” he says genially.

“Have you apologized to Harry yet?” Liam asks. “He’s the one you ran out on with no explanation.”

Louis looks over to where Harry’s at the stove, frying bacon and pretending he’s not listening. His lips are still a little puffy from last night, a mysterious red scratch that matches Louis' fingernails like a brand across his shoulder.

“Yeah,” Louis says, “yeah, I think I made it up to him.”

Harry doesn’t say anything, still valiantly pretending he can’t hear what’s going on, but the corner of his mouth lifts just a little.

“Breakfast is ready,” he calls before Liam can be all disapproving in Louis’ direction again. Louis scampers up to help Harry set the table, trailing a finger over his hip when the boys aren’t looking and delighting in the tiny intake of breath he gets as a response.

They didn’t exactly agree to keep it a secret from the others, but Louis knows Harry didn’t tell them the specifics from yesterday and exactly what it was that made Louis leave. He also knows just how disapproving Liam can get and he is already berating himself enough for letting it go this far, so he definitely doesn’t need Liam’s help.

They sit and have breakfast and Louis is appropriately apologetic and Harry spends the whole meal running his foot up Louis’ shin and grinning every time Louis’ breath hitches.



Apparently, while Louis was out on his trek across London to Sort Shit Out, Liam had wrangled the other boys into finishing up their questions and negotiation ideas for the lawyer to send to Simon. Not only had it sufficiently distracted all of them from worrying about Louis, but they’d actually cobbled together some pretty impressive arguments and compromises to get a little more room to work with their contract. After a few emails back and forth, the negotiated segments were ironed out and Simon invited them in to have their official contract signing so they could go home a few days early for Christmas.

It’s still strange to see how empty Fountain Studios can be when there’s no show to prepare, the narrow halls empty and echoing with their footsteps. Even Niall is subdued as they trek through the corridors, the omnipresent feeling of being somewhere they don’t belong hovering over their heads. Besides the couple of bodyguards who let them in, they don’t see a single person on the way to the upstairs conference rooms.

Until they open the door for their meeting, that is, and find a small army of besuited men and women waiting for them, Simon in the center of it all like a worshipped god accepting sacrifices from lesser beings.

There’s not much buildup, just the same boring lawyer from before explaining that their input was taken into account and some of the sections were changed, though the non-disclosure agreements for them and their families were still necessary.

Louis didn’t expect any different—the other boys may not be toting around any earth-shattering, band-ruining secrets, but he sure is, and Simon was right in thinking his family knows. His hand shakes a little when he signs his name right under Zayn’s, but then it’s over and done and glasses of champagne are passed around like it isn’t eleven o’clock in the morning.

“I think you made a good choice, boys,” Simon says, shaking each of their hands. “I’m flying you out to California to talk with some of my producers and writers before the tour starts, so I’ll send you the details once they’re finalized. Until then, enjoy a few weeks off.”

Zayn turns to Louis, eyes wide. “California,” he whispers, and they punch each other in excitement until Liam drags them off to go talk to important people.

There are congratulations passed to them from every side, including one from Claudia that Louis wishes he could have ignored and an entire smirk-filled conversation with Magee and Griffiths that he wishes he could have skipped all together, but soon Harry’s making an excuse on Louis’ behalf and pulling him out of the crowd and into an empty office a few doors down. There, they celebrate the contract signing in their own way: Louis’ tongue in Harry’s mouth and his thigh between Harry’s legs, gasps and moans in the small space.

No one comments on their absence when they get back, but every time Louis looks across the room and sees the flush on Harry’s cheeks he feels a little thrill, and he wonders how long they could possibly hope to have before this all blows up in their face.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 9: 24 December 2010 - 10 April 2011

24 December 2010

Harry wakes up at 12:01 (thanks to three alarms and Gemma yelling at him through the wall to turn all of those alarms off), sends a tweet that he’d saved in his drafts, and calls Louis while his phone pings with retweets and favorites.

fice tweets 4.jpg

“H’lo?” comes Louis’ raspy, sleep-heavy voice, and it sends a thrill up Harry’s spine.

“Haaappy birthday to yooouuuu,” Harry sings loudly, and Louis giggles sleepily. “Haaappy biiiirthday to yooouuuu. Haaaappy biiiiiiiiiirthday dear booooo bearrrr,” and Gemma starts beating on the wall again, “Happy biiiirthday to youuuuuu.”

“That was gorgeous, love,” Louis laughs softly. “Number one single, if only I’d thought to record it.”

“Only the best for you, Lou,” Harry grins. He plays with a loose string on his sweatpants and, before he talks himself out of it, says, “Next time I see you, the very first thing I’ll do is give you your birthday kiss.”

It’s quiet for a second, and Harry worries he’s overstepped some line he didn’t even know existed, forgetting that every new step for them along this road is precarious and unsure. But then Louis giggles again and the world rights itself. “I’ll hold you to that. Hope we’re not in front of paparazzi when we reunite, though. Could be awkward.”

“Ah, right,” Harry agrees. “Me too, because I already said I’d do it and I'm a man of my word.”

“Right,” Louis says, voice amused, and Harry sort of wishes he’d Skyped him instead of calling because he really wants to see Louis’ face right now. “Thanks for the wakeup call, babe.”

“Don’t mention it. Had to be first, otherwise you wouldn’t remember it.”

“Nah, I think I’d still remember even if it wasn’t,” there’s a rustling sound, “12:06 in the morning. Very punctual, you are.”

“Of course I am.”

“Gonna go back to sleep, if you don’t mind. Call you later when I can be my usual witty self.”

“Course, Lou. Happy birthday again.”

“Thanks, Hazza. Love you.”

“Love you more.”  

 

Louis does call again later when Harry’s watching TV with Gemma, full to bursting with exciting news about the Rovers jersey he’d gotten from his mum and the party Stan’s throwing for him that night.

“His parents are leaving early for his nan’s and left him the house, and he’s already got everything set up. And he promised he’d make sure I don’t make too much of an arse of myself just in case someone takes a picture to try and sell to the Mail, so he’s not drinking until almost everyone leaves. It’s going to be wicked,” Louis gushes, his voice just as sparkly and wonderful as it usually is, even though Harry has discovered that he might like his gravelly sleep voice just as much.

“That’s amazing, Lou,” Harry says, and he means it, because Louis deserves all the best things in life, especially when Louis doesn’t agree. “Are all your friends able to make it?”

“Yeah, sure, I think,” Louis had said, and Harry can just imagine the way he’s probably waving his hand about like he’s trying to bat the question out of the air. “That’s not what’s important, though. What is important is that he also invited all those bitches who said I was an idiot for trying out for X Factor and now have to pretend they supported me the whole time.” He sighs dreamily and there’s a thumping sound, almost like he’s fallen backward onto his bed in bliss, which Harry would bet is exactly what happened. “It’s going to be beautiful.”

“Sure,” Harry snorts. He turns over to see Gemma watching him from the recliner, rolling her eyes because Louis is loud enough that she can hear every word even without him being on speaker. Harry flips her off and shuffles onto his back, getting comfortable under a too-small blanket. “I was, um, talking to Mum earlier, and she said it was okay if you want to come to Holmes Chapel and visit soon? The United versus Stoke City match is early in January, maybe then?”

He actually hadn’t talked to his mum about it at all, but asking Anne if Louis could come visit would be a bit like asking a child if they wanted ice cream: even if it isn't in the best interest of anyone involved, the answer is always yes. It’s a little frightening how charming Louis can be and Anne is one of those people he tries hardest to win over, even though she’s already sold.

And, well. Now that their relationship is… different, Harry wants to be able to do things with Louis. For Louis, really. Not a date, just. Similar to a date. A best friend date. A best-friends-who-kiss-sometimes date.

“Really?” Louis says excitedly. “A chance to see my favorite Premier team and my favorite boy?”

“So you’ll come?” Harry asks.

“How could I possibly refuse,” Louis says, and Harry’s cheeks hurt from smiling so widely.

Louis begs off a few minutes later, arguing with Stan who’s in the background bellowing something about helping set up decorations, but he promises he’ll call Harry later as soon as he gets a free moment.

Gemma is smirking when he hangs up, but pretending she isn’t. “How’s the boyfriend?” she asks innocently, and Harry throws a pillow at her.

“Not my boyfriend,” he says, but he can’t help the squirmy feeling in his stomach that starts up when he remembers the very boyfriendy things that he and Louis do now, including the very thorough goodbye he got before they parted ways back in London.  

Gemma must be able to tell, because she fake-retches and throws the pillow back and tells him to take it upstairs if he’s going to have impure thoughts in front of her.

 

Harry takes Gemma’s advice after a while and heads up to his room, but only because there are only so many Christmas film reruns he can sit through before he wants to burn down their Christmas tree, and there’s not really anything else he can do.

Holmes Chapel at Christmas is, like, peak Holmes Chapel. It’s snow-covered churches and red and green storefronts and children building snowmen and carolers and tinsel literally as far as the eye can see. But none of his friends that are home from uni or on winter break from school have time to see him between all their own holiday plans, and Liam and Zayn and Louis are too far away for a quick visit while Niall is in a different country altogether. So here sits Harry, alone in his room and scrolling on his laptop waiting for something interesting to happen on Facebook, listening to his family downstairs get increasingly louder from the red wine his mum had brought out.

And, of course, he is definitely not waiting for a text from Louis. Because that is pathetic and also not what certified Cool Popstars With Recording Contracts do.

So he announces the Twitcam session he’d promised yesterday and sets his laptop up so it won’t be wobbly, pulling a sweater over his head (because while he’s fine appearing on camera without a shirt, his mother told him if his nudist streak was captured on video one more time that he’d have to worry about a lot more than some rabid fangirls) and digging out a Santa hat to look a little more festive.

All his Twitter mentions seem to be centered around wishing Louis happy birthday, so he lasts all of fifteen seconds into the Twitcam before mentioning Louis himself. “Does anyone want to see Louis’ Christmas present I got him? Or,” he corrects, knowing how important a distinction it is for Louis that his birthday and Christmas be kept separate, “not a Christmas present, it’s his birthday present.” He reaches behind his laptop and grabs the box he’d wrapped earlier, silver and shiny. He sets it back off to the side, carefully not laying it over his phone so he won’t miss if Louis calls or texts.

But Twitter is a little dead, probably thanks to people actually spending time with their families or whatever, so he lasts another minute and a half before the lure of his phone is too much. “Gonna call Louis,” he says, even though he’s well aware that it’s nearing ten o’clock and Louis’ party is surely well underway by now.

Louis doesn’t pick up. Harry tries not to read too much into that. “Went to answering machine,” he tells the surely riveted Twitcam viewers with a self-deprecating grin. “I got rejected on Christmas Eve.”

 

Harry ends the Twitcam early and goes to bed early as well, feeling irrationally disappointed that he hasn’t heard from Louis in over ten hours and also embarrassed at himself for being so glaringly dependent on his best friend.

He wakes hours later to an insistent buzzing under his cheek, his phone blinding him momentarily and showing a massive string of unread texts.

(10:34 p.m.) Lou Bear: Hazza look !!!
(10:34 p.m.) Lou Bear:

fic pics.jpg

(10:35 p.m.) Lou Bear: They’re vodka pokeballs !!!
(10:38 p.m.) Lou Bear: Not as tasty as they look :/… xx
(10:59 p.m.) Lou Bear: Miss ur face xxxxxx
(11:18 p.m.) Lou Bear: chrstmas treee dance prty XXx !
(11:24 p.m.) Lou Bear:

fic pics 4.jpg

(11:27 p.m.) Lou Bear: m mate saRa lol
(11:38 p.m.) Lou Bear: ur th human vers ion of watrmlon vodka
(11:40 p.m.) Lou Bear: thts my favorte its impportant to me yu know that
(11:48 p.m.) Lou Bear: its almst not my birhdy anymrew :(
(11:51 p.m.) Lou Bear: yarent u hre i lve yu
(11:59 p.m.) Lou Bear:

fic pics 3.jpg

(12:00 p.m.) Lou Bear: hey mate thot u might want this pic for urself :) - stan
(12:06 a.m.) Lou Bear: ok this is stan again he made me take another one
(12:07 a.m.) Lou Bear:

(12:10 a.m.) Lou Bear: says he looks like james bond… do with that what u will. time for me to get drunk, night h! - stan
(12:12 a.m.) Lou Bear: stanly toook my phon! !! why
(12:23 a.m.) Lou Bear: mm tqueila
(12:33 a.m.) Lou Bear: pARty rok is n the hous tbight evrybd juuus Hv a good
(12:47 a.m.) Lou Bear: lve u love u ove yu

Harry grins, saves the non-blurry pictures to his phone and emails them to himself just in case, and sends one text back in reply.

(1:09 a.m.) Harry: Love you too, more and more every day. Hope the hangover is kind to you tomorrow. Happy birthday, Boo. :) xxx

And then he falls back asleep with a smile on his face, knowing that at least his favorite person misses him too.

 

 

26 December 2010

Louis wants a refund from whoever decided it would be funny to make his birthday on Christmas Eve, because helping his mother wrangle a brood of overexcited Tomlinson children on Christmas morning after too much watermelon vodka and not enough sleep is number one on his list of Not Fun Things To Do.

And the worst part is that his mum knew. She so knew why Louis had to keep a hand on a stable surface at all times and why he had to sprint to the toilet when he caught a whiff of slightly-burnt bacon, and she definitely used it against him.

“Take your sisters out to run off some of their energy,” she’d instructed mid-morning, and when he groaned and dropped his head to rest on the table she continued, “or I’ll do it and you can get started on Christmas roast. The carrots still have to be boiled, and I heard somewhere those are your favorite…”

Louis had considered being left in the kitchen all alone to cook the most important meal of the year, all while being assaulted with a dozen different overpowering smells, and he felt his face go white in horror.

“That’s what I thought,” his mum said smugly, and that was how Louis spent all Christmas afternoon chasing after his sisters and trying valiantly not to throw up.

It was still fun, which is the annoying part, because even when he’s so hungover that the sunlight reflecting off the snow felt like knives in his eyes, he still loved being able to spend time with his favorite ladies and see their faces when they opened the gifts he bought for them in London. His mum had cried when she’d unwrapped the tiny diamond pendant he and Harry had found at a vintage store tucked away near their hotel in London.

He’d collapsed into bed that night with a nightmare of a headache but a smile on his face, sending a few short texts to Harry that guaranteed that he'd lived (but only just) before falling asleep.

The next morning Louis is in a better state, his stomach interested in the idea of food even if his head says it's still a bad idea. He lies in bed for a solid hour after he wakes up, trading texts with Liam and Niall, who are both spending Boxing Day with their extended families. Harry's still not awake, judging by his unanswered texts, and Louis wouldn’t dare text Zayn before noon.

That's how Stan finds him, halfway underneath his duvet with his phone two inches from his face, playing Angry Birds until Harry wakes his pretty arse up and decides to text him back.

"You survived the best birthday party ever, then," Stan says cheerfully, falling across Louis' legs and ignoring his squawk of protest.

"Barely."

"That's me as well. Mum kept asking me if I'd caught a stomach bug, but I think they pieced it together when the sight of the mulled wine sent me running for the toilet."

Louis grins up at the ceiling. He loves his boys but he misses this as well, Stan's uncomplicated friendship, his unwavering support. He likes having a person who knew him before the spotlights hit, and if anyone's up to the task of keeping him grounded, it's Stan.

"Figured we could grab some Nando’s for lunch," he's saying, wriggling his way under the covers next to Louis. "Maybe catch a film, or I scored some weed off Nizam's cousin. Up to you."

"God, Nando’s sounds bloody amazing," Louis laughs wistfully. "I’ve had nothing but hotel room service for the last two weeks."

Stan turns, gives him his most unimpressed look. "You poor, starved child. How did you ever survive." He rolls onto his back, taking one of Louis pillows and most of the duvet along with him. "Sleep time now, then Nando’s. You woke me at a completely unreasonable hour."

"What?" Louis half-yelps, affronted. "You woke me!"

Stan just pats his face, hard. "Shut up, superstar. And you're paying for lunch."

 

They doze for a few more hours, until the twins bounce their way into the room and demand that Louis help give them makeovers with the beauty kits he'd bought them for Christmas.  

"Sorry ladies," Stan grins, used to dealing with Louis’ sisters and all that entails, "his afternoon is all accounted for. Tonight, though, he's all yours."

They grab their takeaway (Stan rolling his eyes when Louis gets stopped twice for autographs, but smiling when he thinks Louis can’t see him and offering to take pictures for everyone) and head back to Stan’s, Louis running to hug Stan’s mum before they barricade themselves in the basement. Before long, the homey smell of cheap weed and cheaper food fills the room.

"It's been so long," Louis moans, taking a deep drag. "I've missed you."

"Aw,” Stan coos, pinching Louis’ cheek. “Missed you too, Lou."

"Was talking to the joint, actually."

“Oi,” Stan scoffs, swatting Louis on the back of the head. "Arsehole."

Louis laughs, holding up his phone to snap a picture of himself blowing out a stream of smoke. It's hazy and gritty and all sorts of artsy, something Harry definitely would approve of, so he texts it to him and sends it to Zayn as well just for good measure. Zayn texts back a picture of himself smoking from a hookah next to his older sister, holding thumbs up and grinning. Harry answers with one of himself pretending to smoke a lit decorative Christmas candle, Gemma hiding her eyes in embarrassment in the background. Louis giggles, saving that picture to the almost full secret folder on his phone.

"What's Harry up to, then?" Stan asks lazily after a long pull on his own joint.

"With family, I think," Louis answers, falling slowly to lay his head in Stan’s lap. After a moment, he bites the bullet. "He kissed me."

"Course he did," Stan says, unruffled. "’M a little miffed it took you so long to tell me."

"What?" Louis asks, confused. "No, it was last week. The day before I came home."

"What was special about that one, then?"

"It was our first kiss,” he says, baffled. He thought Stan would realize how big of a deal this is. “That's what was special!"

"Christ, no shit?" Stan says, words slow and sleepy even though his eyes are wide and earnest. "I'd have sworn on me mum’s grave you two have been at it for months. Why wait so long?"

"I'm not his soulmate, Stanley,” Louis reminds him, aiming for nonchalant and missing by a mile. He pulls on the joint again to keep up the pretense of aloofness. “I didn't want to drag him into anything he'd regret later."

Stan snorts. "Maybe you’re too hypnotized by the curls when it happens in person, but I know you’ve at least seen video footage of the way that kid looks at you. I doubt he'd regret anything you ever let him do."

"But," Louis groans, pressing his palms to his eyes, "that's the problem. I'm, like, forcing him into doing this but somehow he thinks it’s his idea."  

“Lou, Jesus, you aren’t forcing him—”

“I am, I fucking am,” Louis says in despair, sitting up. “He’s sixteen years old, and I’m nineteen now, and he thinks he knows what he wants but he doesn’t, and I’m taking advantage of all of that and using it to make out with him at every opportunity.”

Stan narrows his eyes, exhaling smoke before he answers. “You don’t get to decide what he wants.”

Louis laughs brokenly. “That’s what he said, too.”

“Probably for good reason.” Stan tosses the roach from the joint in the cereal bowl they’ve been using as a makeshift ashtray for years and turns to face Louis fully. “Look, Lou, you know I know next to nothing about dealing with lads in this type of…” he waves his hands, “situation. And I know even less about the music business, but I’m sure that you’re going to have to keep all this a secret for at least a little while, even if Simon approves. Why don’t you deal with that rather that some misguided idea that Harry doesn’t want you?”

“Fuck,” Louis says, dropping his head into his hands. “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. Even if Harry does want to do this, it’s such a bad idea.”

Stan rubs his back soothingly. “Someday, I hope you’ll realize that whoever it was that made you think you don’t deserve good things was wrong. You deserve to be happy, Lou, and he makes you happy. That should be enough.”

Louis’ breath hitches on a sob he’ll never admit to, and he curls into Stan’s side like he used to do when they were a lot younger and a little stupider. “I love him.”

Stan pets his hair, steady as ever. “I know you do.”

"I sort of want to tell him," Louis says quietly. "Just get it out in the open. 'Hey, Harry, you're my soulmate. Sorry I'm not good enough to be yours in return.'" 

"Lou," Stan chastises. "This isn't some kind of fucking karma. It's biology, and so what if biology is working against you?" 

"But it would end all this drama," Louis sighs. "Every day is like walking a tightrope. Is today the day he reads the fans screaming about my stupid dagger on the internet and realizes it all makes sense?"

"That's up to you, of course," Stan says with a frown. "Tell him if you think it'll make you feel better. But think about it from his side, too. What if he came up to you out of the blue and was like, 'Hey, Lou, you're my soulmate and I'm not yours, and I've kept that a secret but now that we make out regularly I felt like I could trust you enough to finally tell you.' Like, that would sting to hear." 

Oh God, it would. Harry would be torn a thousand different wayshe'd be trying to figure out if Louis actually loves him, or if it's just some reflex from the Bond, or if Louis' lying, and if he's not lying why he didn't tell the truth for so long. It would send Louis reeling, that's for sure, and Harry would probably be just as bad. 

"I don't know what to do," Louis confesses quietly. "No matter what I do, he's going to get hurt." 

"Well," Stan says slowly, "you're happy now, right? Maybe you should just keep doing what you're doing." 

What Louis is doing is swinging on a pendulum, swaying back and forth between I love him so much I'd die without him and I hate myself for taking him when he belongs to someone else. But Stan is right; even with that tug-of-war inside his chest, he's still never been happier here in this state of limbo. 

He takes a last pull on his joint and lets all his cares out with the stream of smoke. 

 

4 January 2011

“Welcome to Holmes Chapel!” Harry says grandly, flinging open Louis’ car door before he’s even shifted into park. Louis laughs and pulls Harry close, checking no one is watching before leaning in to kiss his cheek.

“Been here before, love,” he reminds him, pulling his keys out of the ignition and reaching into the backseat for his bag. “But thanks for rolling out the welcome.”

Harry’s eyes seem more sparkly here, or maybe that’s just because it’s been almost two weeks since Louis has seen him and laptop webcams do not do him justice. And then Louis steps out of the car and has another realization.

“You got taller,” he accuses, poking Harry’s chest. “How did you get bloody taller, it’s been ten days!”

Harry dimples at him. “Dunno,” he shrugs innocently. “Mum says I’ll hit six foot before I’m twenty.”

Louis huffs. “Rude.”

Anne’s in the kitchen when they step inside, baking something that smells amazing. She kisses Louis on the cheek and tells him how to find the guest bedroom upstairs before shooing them away. Harry rolls his eyes and intercepts Louis before he can open the guest room door, pulling him across the hall to his own room.

“Like I’d let you stay anywhere else tonight,” he says lowly, pulling Louis’ bag off his shoulder and laying it off to the side.

Louis laughs and steps close, looking up at Harry through his eyelashes. “Let me, hmm? What would you do if I said no?”

Harry growls low in his throat and pushes Louis onto the bed, straddling his hips. His lips crash down on Louis’ without warning, pulling a low moan out of Louis that he can’t stifle. His tongue is strong and sure as he presses his way into Louis’ mouth, commanding and confident and making Louis melt back into the mattress to let Harry have his way. When he finally stops for breath, Louis gasps, “Okay, I’m convinced.” Harry grins and leans back in, only to freeze at the sound of footsteps on the stairs.

When Harry’s stepdad Robin pokes his head through the doorway, Louis is sitting primly on the edge of the mattress and Harry is unpacking his bag for him, innocent as could be. “You boys ready for the big day?” he asks, and Louis and Harry agree enthusiastically. “Leaving in ten, then.”

“Bit early, isn’t it?” Louis asks, but Harry just grins.

“Got a bit of a surprise. And no, I won’t tell you,” he says when Louis opens his mouth. Louis pouts until they’re in the car, Harry typing on his phone and looking excited when Louis’ pings with a notification.

fic tweets 5.jpg

Louis narrows his eyes. “Why did you tag Ferdy? We’ve met him all of once at the England game, Haz, and I bet he doesn’t even remember.”

Harry just shrugs, looking smug.

Louis crosses his arms, because Harry knows how much he hates not knowing everything that’s happening. He rereads the tweet, looking for hidden meaning. “You should have put commas,” he says spitefully. “It makes it look like you’re calling me your father.”

Harry roars with laughter as Robin chuckles from the driver’s seat, and Louis lets a small smile slip as he settles in for the drive to Manchester.

 

Robin drops them off with a wave in front of the Old Trafford glass-fronted entrance, right next to the statue of the United Trinity. Louis is in awe, and then even more so when Harry grabs his hand and pulls him to a well-hidden side entrance he’s never noticed before. A smiling woman in a Manchester United jacket greets them as they approach.

“Harry?” she asks, and smiles when he nods. “Welcome to Old Trafford. Right this way.”

They follow the woman—Melissa, as her badge announces—through the sparse hallways under the pitch. The incline grows steeper as the decor grows more ornate, red and black and gold murals and glass cases filled with trophies and framed jerseys adorning the walls. Louis feels like his insides are going to burst, he’s so excited, and Harry shooting him little smiles every few seconds doesn’t help.

Suddenly, they’re passing the locker rooms and just up ahead, no, they can’t be—

Melissa leads them right onto the Trafford pitch, the lights bright overhead and the grass soft underfoot. Louis spins slowly, taking in the white seats among the red spelling out MANCHESTER UNITED and STRETFORD END and the Nike swoosh, the Sir Alex Ferguson stand, the dugouts awaiting their players. He’s so busy staring at his surroundings that he almost misses that tell-tale thump of a hard boot to a ball.

“Come on,” Harry whispers when Louis freezes, seeing the international football stars having a kickabout just a few feet away. He takes Louis’ hands in his and tugs, pulling them forward until one of the players notices them.

“Hello, hello!” Rio Ferdinand calls, jogging over the them. He’s already in his jersey and sweats, the 5 blazoned across his back and the Champions League patch bright on his sleeve. “Harry and Louis, yeah?”

Christ, Rio Ferdinand knows Louis’ name. He shakes Ferdy’s hand silently, afraid of what will happen if he opens his mouth. Harry is bubbly enough for the two of them, thankfully enough, thanking Ferdy and the other players—his brother Anton and Ashley Williams of Swansea City—for letting them come.

“No problem at all,” Ferdy grins. He points over his shoulder to the home dugout. “Got a couple of extra balls if you want to join.”

It’s official, Louis is dead and in heaven and somehow he got to take Harry and Rio Ferdinand with him.

 

Louis loosens up when he gets a ball underfoot and is able to play around a little, joking with Anton about size not mattering as he lines up to take his first shot. It’s a perfect kick, netting exactly how he wants in the top right corner just out of Anton’s reach. He can feel himself blush red when Ferdy and Ashley hum approvingly, Ferdy reaching over to pat his shoulder.

“Might have some competition in warm up today,” he says, making Louis bring his hand up to his mouth to cover his giggle.

Harry lines up for a couple of tries as well, and even though he doesn’t make a single one he laughs delightedly all the same, charming even the perpetually frowning Ashley. They’re allowed almost a full half hour on the pitch before Melissa reappears to show them to their seats, the first few members of the crowd starting to trickle in.

“Good to see you lads again,” Ferdy says, shaking their hands. “Hang out after the match, we’ll see if we can find somewhere to go and cause some trouble.”

Louis swoons as Ferdy jogs back down the tunnel, falling into Harry’s arms.

“So,” Harry chuckles as he helps Louis upright again. He scuffs the grass with his trainer, biting his lip to keep from smiling too widely. “Good first date?”

“Oh my God, Hazza,” Louis answers weakly. “Best first date.”

Harry beams but tries to hide it, hugging Louis close before they trot over to an amused Melissa, who takes them back to the tunnel and through the hallways until they’re out with the rest of the fans streaming in to find their seats. They find theirs pretty easily, Robin already waiting with nachos and drinks for both of them.

“Have fun, boys?” he asks, eyes twinkling like he can tell Louis is a few seconds from fainting in excitement.

“Oh my God,” Louis says again. Harry laughs and tells Robin it was great, letting him know that Ferdy invited them to hang out after the match.

“Right little superstars, you are,” Robin says, raising an impressed eyebrow. “Invitations from footie legends are hard to come by for the average folk.”

Louis turns to Harry, who’s trying not-so-stealthily to steal a nacho from him even though he has his own plateful. “How did you set all this up?”

Harry grins. “Ferdy followed me on Twitter after we met him back in November, so I messaged him and asked if there was any way we could set something up. He sent me Melissa’s number, and here we are.”

“Christ, you are magnificent,” Louis laughs fervently. “What did I ever do to deserve you?”

Harry shrugs and steals another nacho. “You love me.”

He says it like it’s obvious, like being capable of loving him is worth being rewarded. Like loving Harry Styles isn’t the easiest habit Louis has ever fallen into.

“I do,” he replies softly. “I love you a lot.”

 

The match is fantastic, thrilling up to the last minute. Ferdy doesn’t even play, resting up for the Liverpool match just a few days away, but it’s still an incredible time. Louis leans over to press a kiss to Harry’s cheek at the half, more than a little overwhelmed.

Ferdy and Anton are waiting for Harry and Louis outside the locker room after the match, Ferdy spinning keys on his finger and grinning. “Ready?” he asks, and Robin slips Harry some cash before they’re whisked away to Ferdy’s Porsche in the player’s parking lot for a speedy drive through the Manchester streets. Ferdy parks curbside in front of an elegant looking building, ROSSO declared proudly over the door, and this time it’s Harry who’s gripping at Louis’ hand in shock.

“My family has tried to eat here before, it’s always booked,” he whispers to Louis in awe. “And Ferdy owns this place, this is amazing!”

Ferdy and Anton lead the way in and head straight for a table in the center of the restaurant, waving when people call greetings to them and stopping for a couple of autographs and pictures. Diners give Harry and Louis once overs as they pass with the towering Ferdinand brothers, as though trying to figure out what they’ve done with their lives that allows them to hang out with famous athletes.

The food is fantastic when it arrives, the wine flowing freely and laughter loud and boisterous. Ferdy teases Louis for being starstruck earlier, so Louis teases Ferdy about being so old he needs to skip a match to rest up for another one days away. Harry asks after Ferdy’s kids and Anton groans like he’s heard all the stories a thousand times, tossing a napkin at his brother’s head.

“Don’t get him started,” he laughs, guarding his drink when Ferdy winds up to throw the napkin back. They’re interrupted by a small cough, and the four of them turn to find a teenage girl standing at the edge of their table, pen clutched in her hand.

“Hi,” she breathes and then, to everyone’s surprise, turns to Louis and Harry. “I’m a huge fan, can you guys sign something for me?”

“Uh, sure,” Harry says, a little startled. The girl hands Louis the pen and he grabs a nearby drink coaster.

“What’s your name, love?” he asks, and she flutters her hands before answering.

“Amelia.”

“Gorgeous name,” Louis winks, signing the coaster with a flourish. He passes the pen to Harry, who chats with Amelia as he writes a little message, signing his own name with two xs after.

“Suppose you two must get that a lot,” Anton comments when Amelia leaves.

“Only when we go outside,” Louis answers jokingly, and Ferdy howls with laughter.

Brave Amelia must have clued everyone in to the existence of boybanders in the crowd or tweeted or something, because it’s like she opened the floodgates and soon Louis and Harry can’t take more than a couple of bites of their steadily cooling food between excited teenage girls coming up and shoving pens and paper and phones in their faces. Ferdy laughs through the first dozen or so, but after twenty minutes and no sign of slowing down, he signals for a waiter and has them relocated to a private room in the back.

“I had no idea my restaurant was so popular for teenage girls,” he says, and Harry shrugs.

“We’re used to it.”

Ferdy pats his shoulder in solidarity, and they finish their meal in peace.

 

They’re settled comfortably in the backseat of Robin’s car when both Louis and Harry’s phones buzz with notifications.

fic tweets 6.jpg

Louis thumps his head against Harry’s shoulder. “Pinch me, Hazza, I think I’m dreaming.”

 

It’s quiet at Harry’s house when they pull into the drive, Robin warning them to be careful going up the stairs so they don’t wake Gemma. Harry and Louis undress for bed in a sort of daze, their phones still pinging with new tweets from Ferdy and Anton and Ashley Williams, who’d joined them later in the night.

Louis snuggles against Harry once they’re in bed, unable to control the spreading feeling in his veins that tells him to pull Harry close and never let him go.

“You’re too good to me, Harry,” he whispers, and Harry grabs his hand tight.

“Nah,” he says easily, “I just try to treat you exactly how you should be treated.”

Louis smiles and buries his face between Harry’s shoulder blades. He reaches behind him for his phone, typing out one more tweet before falling asleep.

fic tweets 7.jpg

 

23 January 2011

California here we come, right back where we started from, Californiaaaa,” Harry sings, only stopping when Niall claps his hand over his mouth.

“You aren’t allowed to sing that anymore now that we’re in California,” Liam decides. “We’re not on the way anymore, we’re here. It’s happened.”

“Okay,” Harry agrees cheerfully, then sings, “California knows how to party, in the cityyyy—”

“I’m going to murder you and no one will ever find you,” Zayn says conversationally from three chairs over, and even though he doesn't bother to open his eyes, everyone is aware that his threat is entirely valid.

“Now, now,” Louis says, stretching. “All love, no stress. We’re in California!”

California dreamin’, on such a winter’s day—”

“Okay, Hazza," Louis interrupts in exasperation. "Give it up or I will let them murder you.” Harry beams and taps his hand on Louis’ thigh.

“No you won’t,” he laughs, and he’s right. How could anyone be angry when they’re here, LA, the City of Angels, home of the stars, only a few short hours standing between them and a scheduled meeting with the producers for their album?  

“Maybe our producer is Jay-Z,” Louis says wistfully. Zayn snorts.

“Yeah, and maybe we’ll get a duet with Beyoncè on this album, too.”

“And Paul McCartney while we’re at it,” Niall chimes in. “He can sing backup.”

“And Taylor Swift on tambourine,” Liam finishes.

“That would be an interesting song,” Harry says seriously. “Genre-crossing.”

“You’re an interesting song, sweetcheeks,” Louis reassures him, squeezing his shoulder. He shoves his sunglasses further up his face and kicks his legs back out, basking in the California sunlight.

They’re the only ones out at the pool which, considering it’s January, isn't really that surprising. But for five boys who stumbled onto a plane at arse-o’clock this morning wearing four layers apiece to combat the chilly London winter, Cali is a balmy paradise at a sunny 22 degrees.

(Though there had been a hint of a panic when Louis had checked the weather app on his phone as they were landing and it declared the temperature outside to be 72 degrees. Niall had curled up in his seat, refusing to leave the plane for fear of bursting into flames, and it was all very dramatic until Zaynwho was still more than a little irritated that Louis had convinced him that the plane would do a loop-de-loop after takeoffreminded them that Celsius and Fahrenheit are things that exist and that people live in LA so it’s unlikely that the weather there is hot enough to roast people to death. Zayn is very intelligent and long suffering and deserves good things for putting up with the idiots in his band.)

Niall shifts in his chair, his cheeks already red just from the few minutes they’ve been outside.

“How can you all just lay there,” he says as he sits up, looking around at his four lounging bandmates in disgust.

“S’nice,” Harry says drowsily. He's already a little closer to tan and a little further from typical porcelain Englishman white. “Warm.”

“Well I’m going for a swim,” Niall declares, jumping to his feet and racing to the pool, hitting the water with a Tarzan yell and an almighty splash. He’s back at the lounge chairs in seconds, shivering violently. “Cold,” he moans, wrapping himself in all the towels they brought from the hotel suite, even stealing the one Zayn was using as a pillow.

“It’s January, Ni,” Louis reminds him sleepily. “Water’s probably going to be cold.”

Niall makes an affronted grunting noise from under his pile of towels. “You are all terrible humans for letting me do that.”

“We don’t let you do anything, we just sit back and let nature run its course,” Zayn murmurs.  

Louis’ eyes are closed so he misses the transition to the next bit, but suddenly there’s a very high-pitched shriek, and Louis blinks back to wakefulness to find a livid Zayn in waist-deep water, screaming insults at Niall, who is cackling by the side of the pool.

“I will murder everyone you’ve ever loved,” Zayn swears, his hair wilting sadly. "I'm going to put acid in your shampoo. I'm going to pull out your teeth and sell them to fans on eBay, but for not very much money so it's really embarrassing."

“So violent today,” Niall admonishes. He’s so busy prancing and giggling that he misses Liam sneaking up behind him until it’s too late, and then Niall is being flung once more into the pool as well. Zayn laughs triumphantly and splashes Niall, then splashes Liam, who shrugs and dives into the pool too, coming up shivering but beaming.

Louis laughs loudly at them, because that’s what you do when your friends are idiots and do idiot things, and he reclines in his lounge chair and basks in the sun, appreciating himself for being warm and dry and Not An Idiot.

Then the world goes sideways as Harry picks Louis up out of his chair like it’s the easiest thing in the world, and suddenly Louis is underwater and cold and what the fuck

When he emerges from the water, coughing and glaring and dripping chlorinated water into his eyes and honestly, what the fuck, he’s face to face with Harry, who apparently jumped in after he threw Louis and is now doing a decent impression of a wet poodle, curls dripping rivulets of water down his face and past his massive, ridiculous grin.

Niall and Liam and Zayn are laughing, their play-hate at each other directed now at the one who was laughing at them. Since they’ve got an audience, Louis can’t kiss Harry until neither of them can see straight and then push him underwater while he’s distracted, so he just does the second half instead. Harry flails as he falls but somehow wraps a hand around Louis’ wrist as he goes, pulling Louis under with him.

It's quiet there, under the water, calm and peaceful and, yes, freezing as a fucking iceberg but he’s already here and it’s freezing out of the water as well, so Louis stays; he floats a few inches off the bottom of the pool and enjoys being in the water. Harry stays with him, eyes wide and dancing in the clear water, bubbles escaping through his grin. He reaches out a hand, slow as it cuts through the water, and runs a single fingertip from Louis’ temple to his jaw.

It's ridiculous how intimate it is, a single touch felt through water and within crotch-smacking distance of the lower halves of their other three bandmates who aren't supposed to know anything is happening.

It’s affectionate and surprising and also stupid as all hell, because the water is still very clear and they are very visible to their very nosy best friends. But Louis is well versed in stupid choices, and attempting to convince himself that kissing his best friend won’t end in heartbreak is tip top of the list. So Louis lets it happen, blinking at Harry and Harry blinking back and they stay underwater grinning like morons until Louis’ lungs start to ache.

They resurface and, as though they’d discussed it while they were underwater, turn to the other three and immediately start a vicious splash war. Louis emerges victorious through the strategic use of hiding behind Liam until everyone was tired, though Zayn says nobody wins in a splash fight since everyone ends up wet anyway and Niall is under the (incorrect) impression that he was the winner.

Louis is a gracious and kind champion, and only laughs at them for being losers for five minutes, tops, but apparently five minutes is too long and they toss Louis back into the pool anyway.

 

Louis is well aware of the work hard to play hard dichotomy.

He knows that, since they didn’t even win the X Factor, and since it’s been years since a British X Factor act got any traction at all outside of the U.K., they have a lot to prove. He knows that boy bands have a short shelf life as it is, and if they’re serious about making music as their careers they have to set a solid foundation to build off of later. He knows that it doesn’t matter how much they want to succeed, if their first album flops then it’s game over and Simon will kick them off his label as soon as he can. And he knows that for this album to succeed, they have to have excellent working relationships with their producers and writers and musicians and, if they do have good relationships with them, they may get to offer some of their own opinions and be taken seriously in making their own music.

And for all that to happen, they have to meet these writers and producers and make a good first impression. Louis knows this, he does. It’s just…

It’s hard to concentrate on work, even fun work, when there’s a palm tree outside the window blowing in the balmy breeze and the guy on TV this morning said today’s the best kind of day for surfing.

Yet here they are, their fourth meeting of the day with yet another group of writers, and Louis knows he has to suck it up and concentrate and play nice and be the Business Brain of the group, using all that industry knowledge he learned while they were on the show. But they only get, like, two and a half days in California before they’re shipped back to foggy London and life as usual, and he didn’t plan on spending every bit of it indoors.

This is the big one, though: they’re meeting the guys responsible for churning out what will become their first single. If these people do a shitty job because they have a bad first meeting, that’s One Direction’s future down the drain in one fell swoop.

The assistant who’s been in charge of shuttling them to each meeting knocks on the door of yet another boardroom, ushering them in when a voice calls, “Come in!”

Louis takes in the room as they enter, the tall ceilings and wide windows and polished table and a familiar face in the middle of it all breaking into a smile.

“One Direction!” Savan cheers.

“Savan!” they yell back, falling over each other to hug to their X Factor vocal coach. He steps back once Niall is finished attempting to smother him and beams.

“So good to see you!” he says, then looks around at each of them. “I swear you’ve all gotten taller. It’s only been a month!”

“Everyone but Lou,” Zayn snickers.

“Oi!” Louis cries, “Unfair! My genes are working against me.”

“Your jeans are working for me,” Harry winks, smacking Louis playfully on the arse. The others groan, and Louis reaches back to pinch a cackling Harry on his ribs.

“Right,” Savan agrees bemusedly, knowing full well that they will get no work done at all if he lets all that continue. “Come on over and have a seat, I’ll introduce you to the rest of the team.”

There are about ten people lounging around the room, drinking from water bottles or speaking quietly with their heads close together, jotting down notes on crowded sheets of paper. There’s no music being played at all, which seems odd in a songwriting session.

“This is Carl, he’s a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, and over there is John and Phil, they’re our engineers. Next to them is Iain, and I think you’ve met Rami before?”

Louis recognizes the lanky Swede when he stands, remembering a meeting in Simon’s office back in December. “I have,” he says, stepping up to shake Rami’s hand. “Good to see you again.”

They exchange pleasantries with the rest of the song-making group, and then Savan sits at the end of the table with them to go over the process.

It’s funny, Louis thinks idly, that their vocal coach is apparently also a fairly accomplished songwriter and who, thanks to the months spent working with the band, now has a decent amount of knowledge on the boys’ voices and ranges and what they can and can’t do. It’s also funny that Rami is the other main writer, when Louis was specifically called to Simon’s office to meet him before they’d ever even signed a contract.

Or, at least, it would be funny if it wasn’t so terrifying in a Simon-Cowell-is-a-puppetmaster-controlling-every-aspect-of-the-world-around-me sort of way.

Savan explains that he and Rami have been working on finishing the single so that the band can start recording once the X Factor tour ends in April. Savan and his team of writers already have the lyrics down, and Carl and Rami have been tweaking the music to get it perfect.

“Can we hear it?” Liam asks, patented puppy eyes wide.

“Yeah,” Niall begs. “Please?”

“C’mon Savan.”

Please.”

“Alright, alright,” Savan laughs. “I think we have a recent demo we sent to Simon, hold on.”

He grabs his laptop and fits himself back into the middle of the boys, clicking through his files. He finds what he was looking for and hits play, and then pulls up a word document that must be the lyrics, WHAT MAKES YOU BEAUTIFUL in bold across the top.  

Catchy guitar floats through the speaker, a sort-of familiar melody that Louis can’t quite place. He reads the lyrics to the first verse as Savan’s recorded voice sings along.

It’s a fun song, no doubt. A little repetitive, a little vapid, but they are a boy band, so Louis knows he can’t really expect Stairway to Heaven for their first single. It’s catchy, and it’ll be good for the radio. There’s just something… off about it. Looking around at the other boys, he can tell they hear it too.

Part of it might be the division of the lyrics. According to Savan’s word document, Liam and Harry split the verses and bridges between them and all five sing the choruses, and that’s it. Just like on the X Factor, Niall and Zayn and Louis are just the Supremes to Liam and Harry’s shared role as Diana Ross. And yes, there’s a whole album’s worth of other songs being written that Louis and Niall and Zayn might get a chance to solo on, but it won’t be the first single, and that absolutely blows.

Niall seems to be thinking on a different track. “Can I-” he starts, his fingers twitching as he thinks, then spins, searching. “I need me guitar, can’t believe I forgot it.”

Carl, who’s sitting nearby and apparently listening in, leans closer. “Got one over there,” he says, pointing to a corner where a small pile of instruments waits to be played. Niall bounces to his feet, returning with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulders.

“What if,” he starts when he’s settled, “what if the tempo is a little faster. Like-”

He scrunches his eyebrows together in concentration and plays the opening guitar riff, then again, speeding it up a little. The familiarity catches at Louis’ mind again, until he realizes:

Summer Nights!” he exclaims, clapping. “That’s what it sounds like, that was going to bother me.”

“Oh,” Liam says, eyes wide. “It does!”

Niall starts over, the chords a little smoother as he gets used to the melody.

“Can we…?” Harry asks, gesturing to Savan’s laptop and the lyrics on the screen. He nods, gesturing for them to have at it. Louis crowds closer so he can read, noticing out of the corner of his eye that the rest of the writers in the room have stopped to watch them.

“Okay, Liam starts,” Zayn says, so Niall counts them in. Liam sings through the first two lines, then taps Niall’s arm to stop.

“What if it was like,” Liam says, brow furrowed “like instead of ending the line like normal, what if we stretched it a little?”

“Oh, yeah! Like,” Harry looks over to make sure he’s got the words right. “You’re turning heads when you walk through the do-or-or.”

“I like it!” Louis says. “Okay, Liam, start over.”

Liam, with Niall’s guitar accompanying him, sings through the first verse with their changes. Harry takes over at the bridge, fumbling a little as he remembers how it’s supposed to sound.

“Try this,” Zayn suggests, “instead of ending like you did, try dropping the note. Like, everyone else but you-ou.”

“Perfect,” Niall chimes in. “From the top.”

They work their way through the song like that, just like they used to do for their performance songs during all those live shows. They figure out a solid harmony for the chorus which is carried mostly by Louis and Liam, stretching you don’t know-ow-ow like they did in the verses. Louis suggests Zayn take the next verse instead of Liam again, and he shoots Louis a grateful look for proposing it. They’re a little stuck for something to make the second bridge not so repetitive until Niall sings, “na na na na” in place of lyrics, and Harry snaps a one, one-two beat along with him. Harry has Niall sing the last bridge, they finish up on a strong chorus, Louis sings the last line, and that’s it. They’re done.

The room is quiet when they look up. Rami looks stunned, Savan a little smug.

“Taught ‘em well, didn’t I?” he laughs, and though some of the writers don’t look happy that their song was dismantled by a bunch of teenagers, most of them seem quietly impressed.

“Think that’s enough work for the day,” Niall says cheerfully, handing Carl his guitar. He rubs his hands together and grins. “Now, back to the pool?”

 

“It’s cool they, like, took us seriously,” Liam says later when they’re sprawled across a massive king-sized bed in their suite. “When we were working on the song, I mean.”

“I hope they keep the changes,” Louis says. He yawns, pushing his head back to rest on Niall’s knee, glancing over at the flickering images on the muted TV screen. A young Will Smith is wearing a lot of neon colors and animal print while gesturing wildly on screenthere's been a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air marathon on since they got to California, and they haven't changed the channel since they found it.

“They’ll have to keep some of them, at least,” Harry says, biting at his lip. “We may not have music engineering experience or whatever to back it up, but I think our version sounded better.”

“Do you think we’ll get to write any songs in the future?” Niall asks. “Like from scratch? I think we’d be good at it.”

“Harry’s got all kinds of songs in that journal of his, I’d bet you anything,” Zayn teases softly, tousling Harry’s curls. “Waiting for the right moment to unleash them on the world.”

“I just want our songs to have a little more…” Harry trails off.

“Substance,” Louis finishes for him.

“Yeah. Like, I know we’re aiming for a certain market and that market likes cutesy pop, but they can like other things, too. Deeper things.”

“Maybe next album, babes,” Zayn reassures them, and they eventually drift off with superficial teeny-bopper pop playing in their heads.

 

24 January 2011

Louis’ back hits the wall and he loses his breath on a moan. In the next moment, Harry is pressed against him and trying to give it back.

For someone who, just a little over a month ago, had never even been kissed, Harry’s taken to it like a duck to water. His lips are soft but all-encompassing, his tongue slow and searching. He knows that stroking Louis’ ribs when they kiss makes him jump forward and push their chests together, and that if he lightly touches the back of Louis’ neck it’ll have him melting into whatever surface is closest.

He’s a natural, probably one of those people who just decides he’s going to be good at something and then just is. It’s not fair, and he’s using it against Louis and that’s even unfairer.

Like right now—Liam, Zayn, and Niall are waiting downstairs with Savan, who says he knows a club that doesn’t card and will let them in so they can party tonight. Louis and Harry are meant to be meeting them, but Harry’d taken one look at Louis, shirtless and pulling on his tightest jeans, and all hope of being ready to go in the next few minutes had disappeared.

He rolls his hips against Louis’ now, hands hard against the wall on either side of Louis’ head. Louis’ fingers are trailing up Harry’s torso, lingering over the sensitive spots by Harry’s hip bones and brushing lightly over his nipples. Harry gasps, biting Louis’ lip in answer.

“Harry, Hazza,” Louis breathes as Harry moves to trail a line of kisses up Louis’ neck. “Feels-feels amazing, baby.”

Yeah, Lou,” Harry whines, hips stuttering.

They lose track of time to each others’ mouths, breath heavy in the air between them. Louis feels lightheaded, happy for the wall behind him and Harry’s solid presence in front keeping him upright. He’s tangling hands into Harry’s hair to keep him close when he hears the door to the suite close.

The two of them spring apart; or, well, Harry springs backward. Louis just tries to look like it’s not a strange thing that he’s plastered to the wall, panting, cheeks heated. No one appears, though, and he and Harry shoot each other confused glances when the suite remains empty.

“Must have been next door,” Louis shrugs.

The close call cools them off though, enough for Louis to throw on a shirt and for Harry to ruffle his curls back into place after Louis’ hands had wrecked their smooth order.

“Like waiting on a bunch of girls,” Niall grumbles half-heartedly when they finally find their way down to the hotel lobby, but nothing else is said and the night devolves into a hazy mess of glitter and thumping bass and too many margaritas, a celebratory exclamation mark on the end of their very first California journey.

 

26 January 2011

Flying is usually something that Louis enjoys, because it means a break in the monotony of daily life, a chance for adventure.

Flying while hungover, though: not nearly as fun. 

Zayn, Louis, and Harry are in a row together, with Liam and Niall on the other side of the aisle next to one of their security guards. Niall had begged Liam to watch Anchorman with him until Liam had given in, and then three minutes into the movie fell asleep. Liam wasn’t much better, though, nodding off with his head against Niall’s shoulder.

Harry didn’t even make it to the air; he was out before the plane left the runway. He’d handled his shaky stomach and pounding head with less grace than the rest of them this morning, thanks to it being only his second time seriously drinking, so Louis had plied him with Tylenol he'd found at the hotel shop and gallons of water until Harry’s exhaustion took over and put him to sleep just minutes after they’d settled into their seats.

It’s been hours now, and they’re apparently nearing the American east coast. It still looks the same to Louis, but he lost interest in looking over Harry's sleeping body out the window when the ocean disappeared and made way for patchwork green farmland as far as the eye could see. He and Zayn are on their third round of Monopoly on Zayn’s phone while the newest Harry Potter plays on Louis’ laptop.

The film ends, the familiar orchestral music flowing through their headphones, and Louis moves the cursor to pick something new. He’s stopped, though, by a hand on his wrist.

“Lou,” Zayn says quietly, voice oppressively muted by the still air of the quiet cabin. “I need to talk to you about something.”

Louis quirks an eyebrow. “Yeah?”

Zayn turns in his seat, his face more serious than Louis expected. A dozen scenarios pop into his head, each less plausible than the last—is Zayn going to tell him he’s as obnoxious as he always feared? Are they kicking him out of the band? Is someone ill? Is he ill? Did he Bond to another unsuspecting teenager?

Okay, he’d probably know if the last one was true; still, stranger things have happened.

“It’s about…” Zayn says carefully, his eyes flicking down to where Harry’s head rests in Louis’ lap, his mouth open a little in deep sleep. “Well, it’s about you. And Harry.”

Louis keeps his expression pleasantly confused, or, at least, that’s what he’s aiming for. By the look Zayn’s giving him, it’s probably not working. “What about me and Harry?”

“About you two being, like. Y’know. Together,” Zayn says, eyebrows raised meaningfully.

Shit.

Still, the best advice Louis ever got from Simon comes into play once more: deny, deny, deny. “We’re always together, all five of us,” Louis says dryly. “Part of being a band, I suppose. Lots of quality time together.” 

“Lou,” Zayn gives him an unimpressed look. “We saw you yesterday. Walked in on everything at the suite last night before Savan took us out, because you two were taking so long and we were sent to see why. I saw you.”

Louis remembers the sound of a door closing, air suddenly appearing between his body and Harry’s as they'd leapt apart. There’s no way to know if anyone had really been there before the noise, and the only memory Louis has is the sound of Harry’s moans, his pleas for more whispered into Louis' mouth.

Zayn rolls his eyes when Louis gets a little lost in his head at that particular thought, not even the threat of exposure enough to pull him out of that memory. Zayn snaps in front of his face a few times, looking exasperated. “Alright, then, head outta the clouds or the hotel suite or wherever the hell it is. Even though," he smirks, "that is a pretty good impression of yourself yesterday when Harry had you up against the wall.” He waggles his eyebrows at Louis, shimmies a little in his seat.

Okay, so Zayn knows. Maybe more people do too, he did say we to begin with. That’s—it’s not good, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be bad, either. Zayn’s good people, he wouldn’t throw Louis and Harry under the bus or run and tell Simon. And it's not like Louis want to hide anything from him, he wants to be able to share the happiest part of his life with the boys.

“So what now?” Louis asks quietly. 

Zayn stops shimmying and shrugs, flicking his hair. “I was going to ask you the same thing. What’s the plan, babes? You and Harry aren’t Bonded, and you know better than to think anything good can come of this.”

“I know, Zayn, it’s… It’s complicated.”

Zayn snorts. “I’ll say. It’s like, this is your thing, it’s not my business to tell you what to do. But at the same time, it does affect the band and so it’s sort of all of our business? So yeah, I’d definitely say it’s complicated.” He flicks his contemplative gaze to Louis. “So, again, what’s your plan here, man? This can’t end well.”

“It’ll end just fine,” Louis says shortly. “Either Harry or I will Bond to someone eventually and we’ll go our separate ways. Stay friends, nothing changed there, we just won’t keep doing… what we've been doing." 

“You’ve talked about this, right? You’re on the same page?”

“Yes, Zayn, we had a very mature discussion, and then Harry stuck his tongue in my mouth. It was very productive.”

Zayn wrinkles his nose. “Alright, thanks for that.” He pats Louis’ shoulder, back to serious. “I just want you two to be happy.”

“I know, mate. And we are. He’s my best friend, and now sometimes we kiss. That’s all. No qualms, no fuss.” 

“Yeah, okay,” Zayn says skeptically. Louis rolls his eyes and shifts, glancing down at Harry to make sure he slept through the entirety of this conversation. When he finds Harry's face still smooth and slack in sleep, he looks past Zayn across the aisle to make sure Niall and Liam missed that whole conversation as well.

No such luck: apparently the two of them are better actors than Louis gave them credit for, as they're both very awake and watching from their own seats, bright eyed but cautious. Liam is worrying his lip between his teeth, Serious Face on full blast. Niall just looks careful, a spark of something else hidden deep in his baby blues.

"Love you, Lou," Niall says quietly, apropos of nothing. "Hazza too. Just want you to be happy."

Louis just nods, his gaze falling to his own hands twisted in his lap. It's kind of hard for him to look at the faces of three (or, really, four, because even though Harry’s asleep he’s still part of this) boys who want the very best for him, and don't begrudge his happiness even when it's so clearly going to end in someone getting hurt.

It’s quiet for a moment, then Zayn nudges Louis with his elbow.

“Enough heart to heart for one day. Let’s watch Iron Man next.”

 

1 February 2011

fic tweets 8.jpg

Louis hits send and the tweet goes out, hundreds of his followers already favoriting and retweeting his message. He sits and watches the numbers go up just for a second. 

He is definitely not stalling. That would be ridiculous.

It's just lunch. A quick meal with his four favorite boys, who now all know that Harry and Louis are in some sort of pseudo-kinda-sorta-relationship. And then Anne and Gemma and Robin as well, who very much do not know that Louis spends a lot of his time now pushing Harry into closets for quick snogs. 

Harry's birthday will be a little quieter than Louis' and Zayn’s (both of which they'd celebrated belatedly in California, since they couldn't all be together on the actual days). But, of course, as the youngest of the group Harry's just now turning seventeen, still a full year away from legality and public wild nights out. So this year, Harry just asked for a lunch with the boys and his family before they head to Fountain Studios for their first ever tour rehearsal.

Louis smooths his shirt and pulls the keys from his car’s ignition, twirling the keyring on his finger as he saunters his way into the restaurant. He's led to a private room in the back, steeling himself and pasting on an easy smile before he flings open the door.

Everyone’s sat around a large round table in the center of the room, a modest pile of presents taking the place of a centerpiece. Niall, the closest to the door, looks up from his phone and catches Louis hovering in the doorway.

“Louis!” he says happily. “Thought you’d gotten lost.”

Louis grins, ruffling Niall’s hair. Niall’s drawn everyone else’s attention now, a chorus of greetings shouted from around the table. Harry, who’d been talking with Gemma, turns and sees Louis, his eyes lighting up.

“Lou!” he exclaims, like Louis hadn’t help coordinate everyone’s schedules to plan this lunch and was obviously going to make it, “you’re here!”

Harry jumps to his feet, making his way around the table and skidding to a stop in front of Louis, bouncing on his toes in excitement. And then, as though they’re the only people in the room, he presses a kiss to Louis’ lips. It’s chaste and sweet and sends Louis’ heart thundering against his ribs for more than one reason.

“Uh- erm,” Louis stammers when Harry pulls away. His eyes must look like saucers, they feel so wide, and his muscles ache from tensing so suddenly. “Hello?”

“Hi,” Harry grins, kissing Louis again. “Missed you.” 

“It’s been four days apart, love,” Louis says, still wondering what the hell Harry’s doing but not able to keep himself from laughing. “And we talked on the phone for two hours last night.”

Harry just grins and bites his lip, tugging on Louis’ hand and pulling him to the empty seat next to his own. Louis takes a deep breath and finally looks around at the damage.

The boys haven’t batted an eyelash, as though it’s a common occurrence to see Harry and Louis kissing even though not five days ago Zayn was grilling Louis about his intentions and plans in proper big brother fashion. He’s smirking now, though, and trying to hide it behind his pint. Niall and Liam are talking amongst themselves, though they’re smiling too much for a conversation about workout schedules while on tour. Robin didn’t react at all, other than chuckling into his own pint and patting Anne’s back.

Anne and Gemma’s eyebrows have raised so high they’ve practically migrated to the tops of their heads.

“Hello, Louis,” Anne says, eyes flickering between him and Harry.

“Hi Anne, Gem,” Louis says bashfully, lowering his eyes to his plate. Gemma’s eyes have narrowed now, like she’s able to read Louis’ every thought and is wholly unimpressed. Anne still looks shocked.

Robin laughs again. “Come on, dear,” he soothes, patting Anne’s hand. “it’s not like this is news. Not with H going on about a ‘hypothetical’ guy he knew who ‘hypothetically’ kissed his best mate and ‘hypothetically’ wanted to do it again.”

That startles a laugh out of Louis, and he reaches over to pinch Harry’s flaming cheek. Harry bats his hand away and drops his forehead to the table. “Robiiiin,” he grumbles. “That was private.”

Everyone hoots with laughter, Niall even pounding the table, tears in his eyes.

“Was it private when you told me Louis tastes like butterscotch and happiness?” Liam asks, eyes sparkling.

“Or when you texted me asking if it was too early to swear off kissing anyone else ever?” Niall adds, wiping his eyes.

 “Or-” Zayn starts.

“Okay, okay, that’s enough,” Harry cries, leaping to his feet and smashing a hand over Zayn’s mouth. “New topic!” 

Louis raises his hand. “One quick comment,” he says, grinning. “I don’t even like butterscotch.”

Harry groans, dropping his face into his hands and blushing all the way down to the V of the unbuttoned top of his shirt. Louis just laughs, clinking his glass against Robin’s when he offers and wondering if this is how it’s supposed to feel being Harry’s soulmate.

 

“This isn’t the X Factor competition anymore,” the creative director says later when they make it to the studio for rehearsals. “You aren’t trying to establish yourself to new audiences or break new boundaries. These fans know you, and they want to see you as they saw you on the show.” 

“So…” Zayn asks slowly. “No dancing?”

“No dancing,” the creative director nods, and all five boys sigh in relief.

 

 

...

 

19 February 2011

When they were on the X Factor, or at least towards the end of the show, nerves didn’t tend to hit Harry until those final few seconds before he stepped on stage. He always had something to distract him, or he could watch the other acts and forget about his own issues for a while.

Their first time performing on tour, though, that’s a whole new beast.

Rehearsals have been fine, since they’re only updating songs they already did on the show and could spend their time focusing on choreography or timing or, y’know, the whole popping out from under the stage thing to kick off their section of the show. 

Harry’s naturally clumsy. He trips over his own feet daily; the idea of being flung on stage in front of thousands of people is mildly terrifying.

But he’s not the only one panicking. There’s hours to go yet, their big kick-off show in Birmingham starting at 2:30, but every act is already backstage, shaking their way through makeup and wardrobe. They’d had the big tearful X Factor family reunion last night, tears flowing as easily as champagne, and now it’s like they never left the show, teasing and joking and soothing nerves as crew bustles around them.

Harry is between Louis and Mary on a sofa, Louis’ arm around his shoulders and his face nuzzled into Louis’ neck. Matt, Aiden, and Niall are nearby, messing around on Niall’s guitar. Liam’s listening to his iPod and pacing. The hair and makeup girls are trying to figure out what to do with Katie’s shorn-off hair, and Cher and Rebecca are chain smoking just outside.

Louis taps his fingers on Harry’s knee. “Wish we could go outside, concentrate on something else for a while,” he says into Harry’s ear, and Harry doesn’t know if he means kissing or football or something else entirely but he’s definitely on board.

“Can we?”

Louis gets a mischievous look in his eye, the one that tells Harry he's got a halfway cooked up a scheme swirling in his head and is about to drag him away for something clever and annoying and possibly illegal. 

Harry is so ready.

"Let's decorate Liam's bunk on the bus with his shaving cream," Louis grins, rubbing his hands together. Harry laughs and agrees, but then Louis stops and furrows his brows at something just over Harry's shoulder.

A harried-looking assistant drags an unapologetic Zayn through the doorway, the usually-smooth Zayn tripping over his own feet. “Sit,” she commands, shoving a his shoulder until he sprawls himself across Louis’ lap, snickering. Her mouth narrows into a thin line. "Keep an eye on him. We're liable for any damage he causes."

“Hello, dear,” Louis says mildly, petting Zayn’s hair. “Getting into trouble a little early, aren’t we?”

“You’re,” Zayn starts, then breaks off in giggles, “you’re only in trouble if you get caught.”

“You smell like a coffeehouse in Amsterdam."

“I’m in trouble,” Zayn says, toppling to the floor. He frowns for a moment, rubbing his bum, then giggles again. Louis rolls his eyes and stands, hauling Zayn to his feet as well.

“Let’s get this one sorted. Jesus, you reek.” Zayn just laughs, docile as a kitten, head lolling onto Louis’ shoulder. 

Harry plans to follow as Louis leads Zayn away, but he’s stopped by a hand on his arm.

“Is it true, then?” Katie asks, eyes twinkling merrily. “I heard someone spotted you and Louis kissing behind the buses.”

Harry feels his face heat, works to keep his face neutral.

He and Louis, though unsuccessful in keeping their relationship a secret from the boys, have decided they really are going to try and be more discreet while on tour; Harry remembers the serious look on Louis’ face on the way to the studio after his birthday lunch like its burned into his skull, his careful words still echoing in Harry's head. 

“You know I love you more than anything, Haz,” he'd said, hands confident on the steering wheel as he wove his way through traffic. “I’m happy the boys and your family know about… what we’re doing and that they don’t care, but other people won’t be as kind when they find out. And management specifically wants us to seem available. So, and I hate this, but I think we’re going to have to be careful and keep things between us for a while.”

Harry had agreed, even though it had stung to hear. He'd never want to do anything that made life difficult for Louis, but that's all he seems to do lately. He'd resolved, right there in the passenger seat of Louis' shitty car, to keep their relationship a secret if that's what Louis wanted, even if Harry himself wanted to shout it from the rooftops.

Now, though, it’s strange to have to deny it to people who’ve been with them from the beginning.

“Um,” Harry says to Katie. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

“Psh,” Cher scoffs, joining the conversation. “Look at that grin. Someone’s been bad, eh?”

“It’s not like that,” Harry protests, but Cher and Katie’s smiles widen like he’s just confirmed everything.

“Is it you, then? He really did Bond at the house, and it was to you?”

“How romantic,” Katie coos, clutching her hands together.

“I-” 

“Where’s your Marker, then? Hid it well, didn’t you.” 

“Guys, really-”

“What’s this about a Marker?” Mary asks. “Little Harry, did you find yourself a soulmate and forget to tell us?”

“It’s Louis!” Cher announces giddily.

“Really?” Paije asks, eye wide. “I thought The Sun was just spewing bullshit the whole time.”

Harry casts his eyes around, a little overwhelmed, and locks eyes with Aiden and Matt and Niall, all three who are watching worriedly from across the room as the crowd around Harry grows. Harry drops his head, scuffs his shoe on the floor.

“There’s nothing going on between me and Louis,” he says finally.

“Oh, I don’t believe that for a second,” Cher laughs. “We lived with you, remember?”

Harry just smiles, tries to keep from burning the place down with the heat of his blush. “I have to- to go,” he says vaguely, waving his arm toward wherever Louis dragged Zayn.

“We’ll get it out of you sometime,” Mary chuckles, and then everyone is distracted by Niall declaring he’s going to streak during the concert and Harry can finally get away from invasive questions asked by people with good intentions.

 

They’re under the stage at the LG Arena, the crowd roaring above them as their “journey to X Factor” video plays for ten thousand screaming people. Louis has gathered the band to him, his Lost Boys searching for some confidence before the biggest show of their fledgling careers.

Harry sort of wants to throw up and curl into the fetal position but also sort of wants to just go, to smash their first ever concert and get it over with, to stand on stage like he’s always wanted to do.

“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” Louis reminds them, stilling a shaky Niall with a hand to his shoulder. “This is why we auditioned, and this is why we worked our arses off for months on end. For this.”

“Let’s do it, boys,” Liam grins, and they throw their hands in like an American football-style huddle. And then they laugh, because no one says anything so they just stand there like a bunch of idiots.

“We really need t’ come up with a chant or something,” Niall muses as he and Liam and Zayn head back to their spots.

Louis grips Harry’s wrist hard before he ever gets a chance to leave, his hand sweaty. His eyes are wide, but not playful or excited like they usually are. He looks terrified, his pupils blown.

“Tell me I’m going to be okay,” he begs Harry, leaning close.

Oh, fuck, that’s right. Harry’s been so wrapped up in the excitement of the flashing lights and seeing old friends that he’s completely forgotten their new song arrangements: Louis and Niall are finally performing their first real solos.

It had been decided at that first rehearsal on Harry’s birthday, the five of them negotiating with their new vocal coaches—Savan still in California, apparently—to spread the solos and duets out a little more evenly, giving each of them a chance to show what they’ve got.

“I haven’t sang anything on my own since my bootcamp solo,” Niall had said, voice like steel. "I want to sing, s'why I'm here."

Harry and Liam had pushed hard for the shift, knowing they would be the recipients of the new solos if things didn’t change. Eventually, an overwhelmed creative director had been brought in to settle things and, knowing the boys from all their rehearsals during the run of the show, told the vocal coaches to take their opinions into account.

Louis hadn’t said anything while in the meeting, but the way he’d kissed the breath right out of Harry later that evening let Harry know he truly was grateful.

But now it’s time to deliver, time to put on a real show and sing five songs back to back with no break, no breathing time. Just the five of them and a screaming crowd waiting to cheer them on.

“You aren’t going to be okay,” Harry murmurs just loud enough for Louis to hear over the rumble of thousands of people. Louis tries to pull away, looking hurt, but Harry doesn't let him, nudging Louis’ forehead with his own. “You’re going to smash it. You’re going to be the best thing this world’s ever seen.”

Louis gasps brokenly and pulls Harry in for a searing kiss, the waiting world forgotten for just a moment. They pull apart as Liam starts hissing at them to cut it out and get to their spots, the music for Only Girl in the World starting to pound through the arena.

“I hate this song,” Louis laughs, shoving Harry away so they can get to their trapdoors in time.

They’re launched onstage. Harry doesn’t fall. The world goes bright as a supernova when Louis sings.

 

 

20 February 2011

Harry supposes there will be a time in his life that he gets tired of being asked about potential celebrity crushes and his hair care routine, but that is not this day.

It’s the X Factor acts’ first ever press day, the time between the matinee and evening shows devoted to spreading the word about the tour on every platform possible. A large backstage room at the LG Arena is filled with reporters and interviewers, all jostling around the performers to try and get the perfect sound bite or video footage. Flashes from heavy duty cameras are constant, jarring, and the music blasting overhead makes it hard to even think. But it's still exciting, the thrill of knowing people want to listen when you speak.

One Direction had done their first few interviews together, but the last one had devolved into a spirited game of tag (initiated by Louis, naturally) that had the reporter fuming and so the boys had been divided and sent their separate ways to do individual interviews.

Harry’s situated on a sofa not too far from where Louis is doing his own interview, curled up and smiling coyly at a man who’s already flustered. Louis grins at Harry over the man’s shoulder, winking quickly before turning his attention back to the poor guy who probably just wants an update on their album plans and instead is getting the full Tommo Treatment, batting eyelashes and scathing wit and all. 

Two girls, not much older than Harry, throw themselves suddenly onto the end of his sofa and turn to him, beaming. Harry, startled, flails for a moment before he realizes they aren't fans who have snuck in.

“I’m Kate,” one says, smiling uncomfortably wide. “This is Carly. We’re with Sugarscape. Mind if we ask you some questions?”

“Sure,” Harry agrees, smiling. They seem friendly enough, and at least these two seem harmless, not like the middle aged woman with shiny hair and shinier teeth who’s backed Zayn into a corner, brandishing her microphone like a sword.

Turns out they are very nice, giggling at his jokes and complimenting his hair. It’s sort of like hanging out with his girl friends back home, only this conversation is being recorded.

“Okay,” Kate says, “last few questions, and we’ll do these all together. First snog, first celebrity crush, and first real crush?”

“My first snog was, um,” Harry stalls, then decides to keep it vague (and a lie, but it’s not like the real person will contradict him). “A girl from school. My first celebrity crush was… Frankie Sanford when she was in S Club Juniors, and my first real crush was…”

His gaze falls immediately back to Louis, who’s in between interviews and playing on his phone. His hair has fallen in his eyes, a caramel waterfall he brushes back with a light hand. He looks up and catches Harry staring, a slow smile spreading across his face. He’s beautiful, the most beautiful boy in the world, and Harry’s chest aches when he flicks his gaze away like he can’t let himself look at Harry for too long, the pink in his cheeks even visible all the way over here.

“Louis Tomlinson,” he finishes.

“Who?”

Harry turns back to the camera, holding back a smile. “Louis Tomlinson.”

“Louis Tomlinson?” Kate grins. “How does he feel about you?" 

Harry thinks of sneaky kisses in the parking lot between the buses, long sessions on various pieces of hotel furniture that leave his lips tingling and swollen, the relief on Louis’ face when Harry had welcomed him back after he ran away, like he’d expected Harry to turn a cold shoulder and instead was smothered with a hug, his raspy whisper when he thought Harry had been asleep that same night, I want to be enough for you.

“Mutual,” Harry tells the Sugarscape reporters. “We’ve discussed it.”

 

Harry does dozens of interviews that day, all sorts of feature pieces for papers and radio shows and TV programs across the country, so it’s easy to forget about his comment until he’s at a late dinner with the boys that night, still hyped after their second show of the day. His and Louis’ phones both buzz in the middle of the table, and they roll their eyes and joke about what badly used meme Gemma has decided to send in their group text today.

Needless to say, it isn’t Gemma.

(8:49 p.m.) Unknown Number: Management would like to speak to you both tomorrow, 10:00. They’ll send a car.

 

21 February 2011  

The blonde PR lady Louis hates is waiting on them when they stumble off the bus at 9:55 the next morning. She looks like she wants to stab them with her stilettos, but instead she smiles stiffly and silently leads them to a black sedan idling nearby.

“Don’t know why we couldn’t just have a meeting on the bus,” Louis says loudly as they slide next to each other in the backseat. Claudia visibly restrains herself from responding as she sits next to the driver. “There’s a lovely breakfast nook slash pull out bed we could have sat at.”

“Do you know where we’re going?” Harry whispers to him once they’ve driven a little ways from the venue. Louis seems far too calm, almost as though he’s whisked away for secret meetings all the time and has become a pro at it.

“Not specifically, but I can give a pretty decent guess at what’ll be there,” Louis says darkly. “Lots of uncomfortable chairs and a table that is too long for the number of people sitting at it, all to give the illusion of power.”

“Lou,” Harry murmurs desperately. “Tell me what’s going on.”

Louis takes a deep breath, avoiding Harry’s eyes, but he’s saved by a sharp bark from Claudia: “We’re here.”

The chairs are really uncomfortable, just like Louis said, and the table is far too long for the five or six people gathered for the meeting. Harry and Louis are ushered to the empty side of the table, and they settle into high-backed seats that already have Harry’s back aching.

There are three men sitting across from them, a flurry of assistants like moons orbiting three self-assured planets. The men are calm, sipping from glasses of water and watching Harry and Louis like they’re visiting a mildly interesting exhibit at the zoo. 

Louis said something about the illusion of power, but there doesn’t seem to be any illusion about it. These men reek of unfiltered wealth and understood influence, the kind that doesn't need to be flashed about to prove that it exists.

“Louis, Harry,” one of them says, a small, hard smile appearing on his otherwise emotionless face. “Good to see you again.” 

“Right,” Louis says, a touch sarcastically. “How’s Susan and the kids? Manage to fit in any good golf lately?” He rolls his eyes. “Just say what you need to say and we’ll go.”

“There’s no need to be antagonistic, Louis,” another man says. “This matter affects all of us.”

“I don’t even know what the ‘matter’ is,” Louis snarls, miming quotation marks in the air, “but I can guarantee that it only affects the two of us and has nothing to do with you.”

The men ignore Louis completely, all three turning to Harry like a choreographed routine. “I believe we’ve never been introduced,” the first man says. “I’m Richard Griffiths and this is Harry Magee, and we represent Modest Management. With us today is Simon Jones from HJPR.”

Harry nods at them, still shaky from their abrupt dismissal of Louis and his open hostility. He's hit by the feeling that he's stepped into something deeper than what he can see on the surface, like he was just dropped into the middle of a war zone with no weapon and a disgruntled ally.

“Hello,” he says quietly. He feels himself shift closer to Louis unconsciously, then regrets it immediately when Magee’s eyes automatically narrow on the disappearing space between their bodies.

“There’s an issue we need to discuss,” Magee says. “It may be too late to keep it from reaching the public, but we can at least prevent something similar from happening again.”

Harry sort of wants to ask what it is they're meant to be preventing, but has the distinct feeling that it would be a bad idea. So he waits, watching one of the assistants place a laptop at the head of the table, the screen black. She leans up and taps the space bar before heading back to her seat.

Harry is shocked to see his own face fill the screen, the familiar white brick wall from the LG Arena acting as the interview background. His video self spends most of the thirty second video looking offscreen, and Harry doesn’t have to try hard to remember who exactly he was paying attention to when the questions were being asked.

“My first real crush was Louis Tomlinson,” his video self declares, and everyone in the room besides Harry flinches.

Even Louis. 

Magee leans over and slaps the space bar again, pausing the video on Harry mid-snap of his gum. The silence is heated, like the glares Louis is sending across the table are enough to set the table in front of them on fire. He's scratching at his forearm like he's trying to remove the skin through his sleeve.

Harry cowers in his seat, wondering what punishment he’ll receive. Will he have to go on the record or something and take it back? Are they going to yell at him? Harry’s never been good at confrontation. Maybe he won’t ever do any more solo interviews, since he screws things up so badly. Christ, Louis had warned him they'd have to be discreet, and he still couldn’t play it cool.

It’s like a brick to the stomach when, instead of saying anything to Harry, Magee and Griffiths turn to Louis with thinly veiled contempt.

“We told you to handle this,” Griffiths says coolly, hands folded in front of him. “This doesn’t look handled.”

Louis looks downright livid. “No, you can’t- No. You said to handle it but there’s nothing to be handled. I can’t be blamed for things I didn’t do.”

“We expected you to share with Harry that whatever you two do in your own private time must stay private.”

“Nothing happens in our private time,” Louis insists. “And even if it did, this is not that big of a deal. Who cares? The way he said it could be played off as joking anyway." 

“If I may,” Jones says, speaking for the first time. “It’s not so much an issue of whether Harry was joking or not, it’s how the fans take it. And, thanks to observant fans during the show and the help of the press, you two already have a large following looking for any proof of ‘evidence’ of your relationship. This will only add to that, no matter how much you claim it was a joke.”

“It cannot be stressed enough,” Magee says, slapping the table emphatically, “you are nothing without your image, and your image must be to seem available. If you act like a Bonded couple, you do not seem available.”

Louis throws himself backward, his shoulders thumping against the unforgiving back of the chair.  He crosses his arms testily. “It’s already posted, right? So there’s nothing we can do now.”

“Yes, this Sugarscape website,” Griffiths reads with a sneer, “has already posted all of your interviews. They don’t have a high readership, but they’ve been gaining aggressively for a few months.”

“I do not care,” Louis says sharply. “Just say your piece so we can go. There’s nothing that can be done now.”

“Well,” Jones says slowly, “you could always schedule some dates with known, easily recognized fans, that would-”

No,” Louis growls. “No, absolutely not. We’ll play nice, but you can’t pimp us out to save your own wallets.” He stands abruptly, holding out a hand to help Harry to his feet as well. “We’re finished here.”

“You need a car to get back to the arena.”

“We’ll call a cab,” Louis says, then slams the door behind them.

 

They’re silent until the car arrives, Louis pacing the small space in front of the office building they'd been dragged to, Harry biting his nails and trying not to cry.

Louis gestures for Harry to get in the cab first, sliding quickly in next to him and muttering the address to the driver.

Hot shame has welled up in Harry’s stomach, his eyes wet and throat closing with unshed tears. He feels like the worst person in the world. Louis had told him, he’d told him, he knew Louis needed him to be careful in front of cameras and he still answered without thinking. And then, instead of stepping in and taking the blame like he should have, Harry let Louis take the brunt of the accusations, like Harry had no part to play instead of being the reason for all the trouble.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispers, not even knowing if Louis can hear him. The cabbie isn’t listening, too busy humming along to the radio to pay him any attention. “Lou, I’m so so sorry.” A sob escapes, scratching at his throat on the way out.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Louis says mournfully, a marked difference from the venom that had leaked into his tone back in the meeting. Harry glances up to see Louis unbuckle his seatbelt and slide across the seat, his eyes unfathomably sad. He pulls Harry into a hug, fingers curling in Harry’s hair. “No, no, baby, don’t apologize.” 

“But-” Harry hiccups, tears flowing freely now, “it’s-it’s my f-fault, it’s be-because I-”

“Absolutely not,” Louis says fiercely. “This is not your fault. I should have been more clear.” 

“No, n-no Louis please, please, I’m sorry-”

“Stop apologizing,” Louis begs quietly, muffled in Harry’s hair. “Please. I can’t stand to see you upset.”

Harry sniffles into Louis chest, tears leaving a wet patch on his shirt. “Lou,” he says, sitting up and wiping wetness off his cheeks, “how many meetings with them have you had before today?”

Louis avoids Harry’s eyes. “Oh, Haz, I don’t know. A few.”

“A few?” Harry laughs brokenly. “You practically have a routine down with them. You knew exactly where we’d go and what they’d say before we even got there.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Louis says quietly, picking at a loose thread on his trousers. “I got called in once, God, months ago, back in October I think. It was, um,” he flicks his glance up, apologetic, “after the whole Aiden… thing. And they basically said we had to be careful, because tabloids were looking for stories and if they thought we’d Bonded then it would be in every paper for weeks even if it wasn’t true.”

“Why didn’t they talk to me?” Harry demands. “I’m as much a part of this as you.”

Louis shrugs. “I don’t know, love. But they brought me back in a few times after that. After some of the video diaries and the sponsored segments.”

“Oh, God,” Harry says weakly, a stray thought striking like a bolt of lightning. “I told you to kiss me in that one video. The chocolate coin one.”

Louis laughs a little. “Yeah, you did. Scared me to death, too.” He brushes his fringe out of his eyes with delicate fingers, then places his hand carefully on Harry’s. “Don’t blame yourself, please. If anything, I should've seen this coming. Once I realized they only panicked because it was their profit at stake, I stopped worrying so much about their threats. I mean, what can they do? Force me to Bond with someone else? But I knew they'd bring you into it eventually, use you to get me to cooperate."  

"How would they use me?"

"Think it's pretty obvious, love," Louis smiles softly. "Start getting that look on your face like you're about to cry and I'll fold like a house of cards."

Harry sighs, the grief still welling deep in his stomach but soothed a little by Louis’ honesty. “I’ll try to be stronger,” he offers.

Louis shakes his head, the motion almost violent. "Don't you dare change a thing."

They’re almost back to the venue, the line of buses for all the acts appearing in the distance. They’ve got a long day ahead of them, a six hour drive from Birmingham to Dublin taking up the majority of daylight.

Louis squeezes Harry’s hand just before they exit the cab, the tiniest shadow of his usual playful smile tugging on the corner of his mouth. “So…” he says slowly, drawing it out. “I’m your first real crush?”

Harry groans, pulling Louis in by the back of the neck to silence his giggles with a rough, quick kiss.

“Don’t go telling anyone,” Harry laughs when they separate. “I’ve got a reputation for chasing middle aged women to uphold, you see.”

 

26 February 2011

It’s funny how something extraordinary can become routine over time.

Harry stands center stage at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast, the words of Chasing Cars rolling off his tongue without thought. It’s their eleventh show, their second in Belfast, and already Harry is sure that he’ll never want to do anything else ever again. 

Well… okay. He wants to do this forever, but maybe not this specific tour.

The wardrobe department (or Simon, or their PR people, who knows, honestly) has decided to put them in the same basic outfit for every single show. Harry has no idea why, and he remembers Louis saying he’d had to do a fitting for a whole bunch of nautical themed clothing and Niall had went in to try on some sweaters, but none of that seems to be available. Instead, Harry’s in the same grey blazer every night, the boys just as monochromatic around him. There’s one night where they get to change things up, just a little, but then it’s back to black and grey, the blazer chafing at Harry’s shoulders.

Plus, they don’t get to sing their own songs. Singing covers of their X Factor songs feels a little like glorified karaoke, with flashing lights and fireworks to distract from the fact that they’ve already performed these songs on TV before.

And then there’s Magee and Griffiths, who hover like overgrown vultures, only meaner. They’ve appeared backstage after every performance since the meeting (y’know, the one where they revealed they’ve been blackmailing Louis into acting like he and Harry are nothing more than cordial friends). Harry tries to ignore them, but it’s sort of like trying to ignore police sirens—they make themselves known, making sure to pat Harry on the shoulder before they leave so he has to acknowledge they were there. Louis always asks them if they’ve got anything better to do, but they just smile like Louis is a toddler throwing a tantrum and don’t answer.

Claudia is even more omnipresent; not a tweet gets sent without her approval, not a single interview happens without her there, watching with narrowed eyes over the interviewer’s shoulder. Every time she sees Harry’s hand so much as innocently brush against Louis, her Blackberry is in her hand to report it. 

So yeah, if Harry could just take his band and then the other acts he likes as well and stick them all on some other tour of England and Ireland, that’s the one he’d want to do forever.

But, he has to admit, even with all the management-related drawbacks it’s still pretty wonderful. The crowds are enthusiastic, even if they aren’t at the shows to see One Direction specifically, and they always scream loudest during their intro video compared to the other acts. 

And, even better, Simon has security confiscating all signs at the doors, so they don’t have to deal with onstage fan service just yet.

There’s a slow turntable they use during the beginning of Forever Young and that’s where Harry finds himself, staring out over the crowd as he belts his lines. He pivots to face inward at the same time as the other four, Zayn’s grinning face across from him. 

Harry doesn’t much want to be young forever, but he’d trade almost anything to be able to stay on stage with these boys forever instead.

 

5 March 2011

“It seems… bigger.”

“Well, Neil, that’s the beauty of being the only people here, as compared to being among hundreds of other people all fighting for attention.”

“We aren’t the only ones here! Rebecca’s right over there. And Matt and Aiden are- oh, Jesus, okay, don’t look. But they’re here too.”

“Missing the point, Ni.”

Wembley stretches out in front of them, the stadium empty and waiting for a crowd to fill its seats. Louis, Zayn, and Niall are sitting at the edge of the stage, their legs dangling. Harry’s laid across their thighs, eyes closed, head in Louis’ lap and ankles crossed in Zayn’s. He inches closer to sleep with every stroke of Louis’ hand through his hair.

“Hello, boys,” Mary’s voice floats over to them. A shadow passes over Harry’s face and then is gone, followed by the sound of a chair squeaking as Mary sits.

“Hello, love. You’re looking ravishing,” Louis says, all charm and cheek, and Mary chuckles. 

“Oh, hush you. I’ve no need for another pretty boy falling all over himself to tell me nice things.”

“Another?” Louis gasps dramatically. “Mary, I thought what we had was real! I love you! I need you!” 

“Reject another one, did you Mary?” Rebecca’s voice calls, and Niall cackles. Rebecca’s heels tap sharply on the stage as she settles next to them. “Can’t believe we’re back at Wembley.”

Zayn rubs a light thumb around Harry’s ankle, his voice contemplative when he speaks. “Bootcamp seems like years ago, doesn’t it." 

Rebecca hums, her warm voice like the sunlight falling across Harry’s face. “Time moves fast when you’ve got other things to worry about.”

“We were a ragtag bunch, weren’t we?” Louis laughs.

“Ah, but many a ragged colt made a noble horse,” Mary says wisely.

“I think I used to have that on a t-shirt,” Niall muses.

“Remember when Zayn refused to dance?” Cher teases, her distinctive lavender perfume settling as she joins the steadily growing group.

“For good reason, too,” Zayn grumbles. Harry can hear Liam’s chuckle right behind Zayn.

“Remember when Louis wouldn’t stop dancing?” Harry asks, eyes still closed as he grins, and everyone laughs as Louis makes an affronted noise.

“What are we talking about?” Aiden’s voice calls, his heavy shoes thumping against the stage.

“Bootcamp.”

“Ah, those were the days,” Matt sighs. “There was that girl, remember? She came back for the final with that group of rejected acts, but she showed up to rehearsal that first day with beer dried in her hair.”

Katie shouts with laughter. “Christ, no, that wasn’t beer. She was supposed to be in my room, so I heard the whole story. That was definitely a mix of vodka and come, potentially with some cocaine mixed in.”

“Wasn’t she a mum?” Liam asks.

“Lord help that child,” Mary says.

“And the guy that broke down crying when he messed up his solo, remember him?” Aiden asks. “Full on tears, right in the middle of Michael Jackson.”

“Tobias,” Harry supplies.

“Was he the one that asked you for a date, Hazza?” Niall snickers.

“No,” Harry says, and then frowns, remembering kind eyes and a nervous request to spend some time together but no name. “That was, um-”

“Christian,” Louis answers shortly.

“You little heartbreaker,” Cher laughs, reaching over Niall’s lap to tap Harry’s cheek with a long fingernail. “And you had that Xtra Factor segment with all the girls, too.” 

“Yes, yes, he’s quite the charmer,” Louis says loudly.

“Aw, don’t be jealous Lou Lou,” Katie giggles. “He wuvs you bestest.” 

“Damn right,” Louis says, but his voice is tinged with laughter. He tugs on one of Harry’s curls, and Harry nuzzles his stomach in answer.

The wind is the only noise for a little while, all of them contemplative over times long gone. It is strange how things have changed in such a short amount of time; that was less than a year ago, and yet here they all are, fundamentally different.

Rebecca, Matt, Aiden, Cher, Mary, and One Direction all have recording contracts. Katie’s gone from media darling to having her family’s dirty laundry dragged piece by piece across the front of The Daily Mail every week. Wagner is… well, who knows about Wagner. There’s talk of Cher getting her own fashion line. Mary has a shrine dedicated to her back in Dublin at her old job, a testament to how much the Irish love her. Rebecca’s kids will have enough money to go to school and live comfortably as long as they want. Aiden and Matt are Bonded. They survived the X Factor machine, made it out the other side with some semblance of dignity and, if not that, then at least a little bit of cash to keep them afloat. 

“Did you ever dream we’d be here?” Harry murmurs to Louis. 

“Not together,” Louis chuckles. “I thought you’d be off dazzling the world and I’d be back home, pre-ordering your albums and wallpapering my room with your posters.”

Harry giggles, finally opening his eyes. Louis is radiant above him, the sun silhouetting him from behind like a work of art, his hair fluttering in the breeze. His eyes shine, and his fingers trail a soft pattern up Harry’s ribs.

“I’m glad you’re here with me,” Harry whispers. “Just like I pictured it.”

 

 

8 March 2011  

Niall is in the lounge at the back of the bus, strumming idly at his guitar as the bus nears the Liverpool Arena. Harry’s next to him, scrolling through Twitter and trying to pass time until they stop and he can get up and stretch his legs a little. The radio is playing softly, the driver listening to a station with a nice mix of current and older music. Familiar piano starts playing, and Harry drops his phone onto his chest to sing along, Niall strumming an accompaniment.  

Easy come, easy go, that’s just how you live.”

Oh, take, take, take it all, but you never give,” Liam’s voice sings back from the kitchen, the sound of cereal hitting the bottom of a bowl adding to their harmony.

Harry grins. “Should’ve known you was trouble from the first kiss, had your eyes wide open, why were they open-”

Oohh,” Niall and Zayn both vocalize, Zayn laughing softly in his bunk.

Liam takes over from there, his strong voice handling Bruno Mars’ runs with ease. Harry leans back and just listens, because he loves to sing but he also loves hearing people sing, especially when they enjoy doing it. Niall sings the yeah yeah yeahs in the background of the chorus, Zayn piping in when he feels like it.

There’s a whisper of cloth as the curtain of one of the beds is whisked open, and Harry looks up to see familiar feet kicking out of a top bunk, Louis’ legs and then bum appearing slowly as he wiggles out of his bed, sleep-rumpled and rubbing his eyes.

(Harry’d tried to convince him to take a bottom bunk, but the look on Louis’ face had been enough to stop him in his tracks. So now, Harry has to make sure to keep his arms pulled close to his chest while he sleeps at night or Louis might stomp all over him when he tries to get up for a piss or a drink of water.)

Louis settles into Harry’s lap once he’s made his way into the lounge, forehead against Harry’s cheek as Liam keeps singing. He’s humming along under his breath, his sweet tenor no more than a whisper.

“Go on,” Harry whispers, nudging Louis when Liam takes a break, presumably to take a bite of cereal if the audible crunch is anything to go by.

Louis blushes, but sings quietly. “Gave you all I had but you tossed it in the trash, you tossed it in the trash yes you did-”

“Louder!” Liam calls, and Harry stifles a laugh into Louis’ shoulder, Louis huffing in Liam’s direction.

To give me all your love is all I ever asked, ‘cause-” 

“Louis, LOUDER!” Liam shouts.

WHAT YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND,” Louis sing-shouts back, laughing, “IS I’D CATCH A GRENADE FOR YA.”

“There we go,” Liam yells, satisfied.

THROW MY HAND ON A BLADE FOR YA,” Louis sings, jumping to his feet and pulling Harry along.

I’D JUMP IN FRONT OF A TRAIN FOR YA,” Harry belts back, grinning and spinning the both of them in a circle. “YOU KNOW I’D DO ANYTHING FOR YA.

Louis giggles and steps close, looking up through his eyelashes. “I would go through all this pain,” he sings, soft but clear, his voice like bells. His palms rest on Harry’s chest, warm, bright spots of heat through Harry’s t-shirt. “Take a bullet straight through my brain. Yes, I would die for you, baby.” He takes a deep breath, smile melting away, his eyes going sad. “But you won’t do the same.”

They don’t sing anymore after that, letting Liam and Zayn take over as Niall plucks steadily away in the background. They just sway with the motion of the bus, back and forth in the tiny open space of the lounge, their eyes never leaving each other.

The song ends eventually, Liam breaking into his own falsetto vocal run as Zayn sleepily clambers from his own bunk and, according to his footsteps, joins Liam in the kitchen. Niall stands, sighing, and swings his guitar to his back. 

“Gotta get outta here before I see something I don’t wanna see,” he grumbles, but he’s smirking as he shoulders softly past Harry and Louis. “Fucking disgusting, I swear. Heart eyes and drool all over the place.”

Louis hums and pulls Harry closer as soon as they’re alone, resting his cheek against Harry’s shoulder.

Harry kisses the top of Louis’ ear. “I would do the same,” he murmurs. “You know that, right? I know it was just the lyrics, but I would do the same. I’d do anything for you. Anything.”

Louis leans back a little, bites his lip. He looks like he’s about to argue, but Harry can’t let him. Not about this.

So he presses close and kisses him hard, sucking Louis’ bottom lip into his mouth. Louis tastes like the tea he’d had not an hour ago and the chocolate he thinks no one knows about even though they’ve all been stealing pieces for weeks. Louis moans a little, a bitten-off sound that reverberates into Harry’s mouth.

"Disgusting!" Niall shouts. "I can hear you from here, and that is too much!"

Louis pulls back, giggling. “Oh, sugar bear, baby cakes, light of my life eternal!” he says loudly, swooning dramatically.

Harry laughs. “Sweet cheeks, pumpkin spice latte of my heart, never let me go!” 

Niall fake retches from the kitchen, and Louis doubles over in laughter before he tugs Harry's hand, leading him to join their bandmates. Harry drops into a chair, pulling Louis into his lap.

“Sounded good though, didn’t we?” Liam says brightly through a mouthful of Cheerios.

“Swallow first, then speak,” Zayn says, tapping Liam’s chin. “But yeah, the song was awesome. Too bad we can’t switch out something in our set.”

“I am getting a little tired of Kids in America,” Louis admits. “It’s not really meant to be sung, you know? It’s a shouty song. Like that one about Mickey Mouse.”

Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind-”

“Shut it, Harry. We should ask, then,” Niall says seriously. “I already know the guitar, we can smooth out the harmonies. What can it hurt?"

 

 

Apparently it can hurt a lot, judging by the pained look their main vocal coach gives them when they ask.

“I don’t have time to deal with this,” he snaps. “Wagner has decided he wants to do a show entirely in German and Matt lost his voice, so I do not want to deal with any more changes. Maybe later.”

Harry drops his eyes to the ground, his lower lip pouting before he can help it. Louis squeezes his arm and steps forward, stopping the coach from leaving with a hard hand on his arm.

“You don’t have to do anything. It’s already ready to go, and we all agree on what song to replace. Plus, people on Twitter are starting to complain about the concerts looking like the same show every night, what with the same songs and same outfits. They want a unique experience, and you want happy customers. Right?”

The coach narrows his eyes, watching Louis silently for a moment. Louis stands his ground, raising a single eyebrow.

“Fine,” the coach surrenders, throwing up his hands. “Get approval from the band, let me hear a solid run-through by at least three o’clock, and we’ll see.”

 

 

 

They convince the backing band to give it a shot, and Niall even gets to play his guitar on stage. The vocal coach reluctantly agrees, and they sing Grenade that night in Liverpool to four thousand fans. It’s probably not even that big of a deal, but somehow it feels like a win.

 

“I actually quite like you calling me baby cakes,” Harry tells Louis that night, playing with Louis’ fingers as they watch another streamed episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in Harry’s bunk.

“Yeah?” Louis grins. “Well I quite like being called sweet cheeks. Fitting, innit?” he gestures to his bum, which is nearly obscene in his red sweatpants.

“Very fitting,” Harry agrees solemnly, grabbing a handful of Louis’ arse and earning himself a slap to the chest, a bright laugh, and a long, lingering kiss, in that order.

 

 

9 March 2011  

Before every show, the boys decide on a different way to exit the stage after Forever Young. Usually they just have a contest to see who jumps the highest, but sometimes they get creative. Like one night in Dublin, when Niall dared Harry to do a forward roll that ended up with Harry nearly kicking Liam in the face and Niall in tears from laughing so hard. Before they’d popped through the trapdoors to start their set tonight, Louis had smirked and called out to the others, “Bet I can get off stage faster than any of the rest of you.”

A race, then, is set, all of them sending half-joking waggles of eyebrows through Forever Young as they make their way back to the main stage, jostling each other to be first in line back to the center stage stairs.

There’s no doubt Louis will win, as he is actually really athletic and, when he wants to be, could outrun any of them and double back to laugh in their face. But they can’t just hand it to him, and Liam is the most competitive human that Harry has ever met, so the five of them go tumbling out the exit of the stage in a mad topple of flailing limbs and shrieks. Harry stumbles backwards out of the fray, arms pinwheeling, and is only stopped by a solid weight at his back.

“Oof,” he wheezes, then realizes it’s a person he’s slammed into. “Thanks, mate, I would’ve-”

He turns to see his savior and automatically takes a step back, Magee’s scowl like a physical barrier.

“Well, Harry, looks like you’re all having…” he trails off meaningfully, glancing over Harry’s shoulder to where the other boys are probably still wrestling, “fun. Excellent, excellent.”

It doesn’t feel excellent. It feels like Magee wants to lock him in a room until their next show so he can’t cause any more damage, at which point he will be allowed to go perform only if he agrees to be the empty-headed, vapid frontman who doesn't cause any problems that they want him to be.

“Have a good few days of rest,” Griffiths says coolly beside him. “Spend time with your families, but let’s not see anything unwanted on Twitter or in the press, hm?”

And then they’re gone, leaving behind strained silence and a pit of rage in Harry’s stomach. He jumps when a hand touches his shoulder.

“Everything okay, Haz?” Louis asks quietly. Harry shakes his head.

“Can we go somewhere? Not the bus, just. Somewhere.”

“Sure, love,” Louis says, eyes careful. “We have to be back in about twenty minutes for the final song, though.”

“I don’t care,” Harry huffs, pulling angrily at his hair. “Just.” He drops his head into his hands. “Please, Lou.”

“Yeah,” Louis whispers, “‘course.”

Louis finds an empty dressing room, probably Aiden’s that he doesn’t use because he unofficially shares with Matt at each venue. Louis pulls Harry onto a sofa, a firm hand pulling him to rest his head under Louis’ chin.

“Gonna tell me what’s wrong?” Louis asks into Harry’s hair. 

“Is this how it felt?” Harry whispers. “All that time you were being called to secret meetings, is this how you felt?”

“How do you feel?”

“Like I can’t do anything that they can’t see,” Harry murmurs. “Like any wrong step I take could be the end of everything we’ve worked for.”

Louis is quiet for a moment. “Yeah,” he finally says. “Sounds familiar. But you know what helps?”

“What?”

“Knowing that they can’t really do anything to stop us. If I decided I wanted to kiss you in front of all the people at the next show, there’s no way they can stop that from happening.” He pokes at Harry’s stomach, making him chuckle reluctantly. “Don’t worry, I won’t. I think the Twitter meltdown would be worse than anything management could do.”

“Someday,” Harry says. “I want you to do that. Kiss me in front of everyone. When our future album sales don’t rely on us being potential boyfriends for all our fans.”

Louis laughs. “Sure, babe. When that day comes and if you still want it, let me know.”

“That is, if your future soulmate doesn’t mind sharing,” Harry jokes halfheartedly. Louis laughs again, but it’s strained.

“I’m sure we can work something out,” Louis says, and then quiet reigns again.

It’s strange to think about Louis having a soulmate that isn’t Harry. Not that Harry’s thought (much) about what it would be like to be Louis’ soulmate himself, but he’s given absolutely no thought at all to Louis someday having someone else to come to when he’s lonely or homesick or tired. 

And maybe unconsciously he’s realized that it’s probably going to happen, because every night there are thousands of people watching them perform and some of them are screaming their names and, at some point, one of them might hit and stick and one of the boys will be Bonded. And it might be Niall or Liam or Zayn, and it might be Harry, but there’s also a chance it could happen to Louis and that thought makes his lungs feel full of boiling water. 

So he refuses to think about it.

“Remember after our first show, when I was stressed out and asked you to take me to get a tattoo?” Harry asks.

Louis scoffs. “Asked? I don’t think so. Demanded, more like.”

Harry giggles, curling closer to Louis’ side. “I was very polite, I’m pretty sure.”

“Right,” Louis teases. “Well, Harry, I do remember that. And, just my opinion, but we probably shouldn’t get you inked every time you feel overwhelmed or upset, because I think we’d run out of skin by the time you hit eighteen.”

“I don’t get upset that easily.”

“You cried two nights ago when Aiden stepped on your boots and got them dirty, love.”

“Those are nice boots!”

“Either way,” Louis laughs, “let’s save tattoos for the big moments, yeah? We’ll find another way to de-stress you for the rest of the time.”

“You could buy me a kitten.”

“Or… a sweater. That requires no food and won’t poop everywhere.”

“A yacht, maybe. I’ve always wanted a yacht.”

“I’d rather buy you a kitten.”

“A vacation home in the Alps,” Harry sighs wistfully. “Or- oh!”

“What? Harry, I can’t afford a home in the Alps. Give me a few years, yeah?” Louis says, concerned. Harry scrambles to sit upright, grabbing Louis’ hands.

“Let’s take a trip at the end of the tour! We aren’t recording the album right away, right? We’ve got a little bit of a break. Let’s go somewhere.”

Louis doesn’t look convinced. “A trip where?”

“I don’t know! That’s the fun part. We could go to Germany. Or… Japan. Or America! I liked California, and I’m sure the rest of the country is good too.”

“Babe, I don’t think management is going to let us take off on a romantic couple’s vacation together,” Louis says apologetically.

“Then we take Niall along, buy him his own room, and leave him there to entertain himself. Or Liam and Zayn can come too, and make it a boys’ holiday.”

“I think they’re all going to want to go home, see their families.”

“Stan, then! Bring Stan, because he loves you and would probably enjoy a vacation, and I’ll bring my mate Jonny, and then it’ll look like it’s just a friend trip. Nothing romantic about it at all.”

Louis sighs, but his lip quirks into a smile at the corner. He rubs his face and grins ruefully. “Alright then, H, let’s do this.”

Harry cheers and flings himself forward, kissing all over Louis’ face.

“Get off, you bloody great puppy!” Louis laughs, holding Harry at arm’s length. Harry persists, though, and eventually is wrapped completely around Louis like an octopus, his head on Louis’ chest. Louis frees a hand, rubs it up and down Harry’s spine. “You were really upset, weren’t you?”

“It’s just a lot all at once,” Harry admits into Louis’ shirt. “Because there’s stupid Griffiths and Magee every time we step off stage, and that automatically ruins any excitement. Then Claudia, always staring at me like I’m a delinquent who’s gonna steal her jewelry or something. And then everyone else, being all- well, you know.”

“Yeah,” Louis sighs heavily. “I know.”

Harry doesn’t know if one of the boys told (which is unlikely, but it also seems like the sort of thing Liam would do thinking that he was helping), or if everyone else just put two and two together, but somehow it got out to the rest of the acts on the tour that Harry and Louis were telling the truth and hadn’t Bonded, even though they’re obviously far past platonic now. And, since everyone on this tour is determined to know everyone else’s business, they’ve all gotten very involved. Like, trying to start heart-to-heart talks about how waiting for their soulmates is an exciting thing, and that Harry and Louis shouldn’t rush into hasty decisions that are going to hurt each other. Or having conversations just within their earshot about how legal Bond contracts are perfectly acceptable if two hypothetical people want to go that route, but it’s just not the same as a real Bond. And sending them pitying looks when they’re just sitting backstage, perfectly casual, keeping their hands kept to themselves and trying to enjoy their tea. They’ve been careful with their touches since Modest! started breathing down their necks, and they’ve never been caught by anyone except Niall or Zayn or Liam, but it’s like everyone’s just assumed they were kissing all along and never told.  

“So where should we go for our holiday?” Harry asks, trying to shake the weight from his bones. They’ve probably only got a few minutes before they have to head back to the stage for the big finale after Matt’s set, but he’s not ready to give up a quiet moment with Louis all to himself.

Louis hums. “You know where I’ve always wanted to go?”

“Where’s that?”

“France.”

 

10 March 2011

(1:33 p.m.) Lou Bear: Stan agrees to be our chaperone to France if we pay his way and agree to let him have a bedroom to himself if he brings a lady home. Do we accept? xx
(1:36 p.m.) Harry: We do. Tell him we reserve the right to refuse if his lady friend is interrupting Friendship Time. x



(1:42 p.m.) Stan: it’s a good thing ur in a homosexual relationship with lou, cos that was the gayest thing i’ve ever read mate
(1:44 p.m.) Harry: FRIENDSHIP TIME PRIVILEGES REVOKED 
(1:46 p.m.) Stan: no wait
(1:47 p.m.) Stan: i still want to hang out!
(1:47 p.m.) Harry: NOPE 

 

(1:51 p.m.) Lou Bear: Stan is crying on my bed about missing out on friendship time . Care to explain? 
(1:52 p.m.) Harry: He knows what he did. 

 

(2:23 p.m.) Lou Bear: Stan just asked how far the drive is between Donny and Holmes Chapel. He also wants to know your favorite type of cake, and apparently those two questions were unrelated. 
(2:25 p.m.) Harry: It’s double chocolate fudge, but make him sweat a little longer. 
(2:26 p.m.) Lou Bear: Don’t insult me, I know your favorite type of cake !! Goodness man you’d think we weren’t best friends or something. Do you know mine? 
(2:29 p.m.) Harry: Any kind of birthday cake that isn’t red, green, or frosted to look like a Christmas tree. 
(2:30 p.m.) Lou Bear: You DO love me! xx
(2:31 p.m.) Harry: Obvss xxxxxxxxx

 

(2:42 p.m.) Stan: harry please!
(2:43 p.m.) Harry: NO 

 

(3:03 p.m.) Lou Bear: Mum is making Stan clean the girl’s bathroom upstairs because he’s depressing everyone. 
(3:08 p.m.) Lou Bear: Stan: ‘You aren’t my mother!’ Mum: ‘I’m as good as! You’re doing laundry next.’ Stan: ‘Yes ma’am.’
(3:11 p.m.) Lou Bear: Stan just found Lottie’s training bra and screamed. This is the best day. xx

 

(3:15 p.m.) Stan: i’ll come clean ur bathroom!
(3:17 p.m.) Harry: NO x
(3:18 p.m.) Stan: i’ll give lou a kiss for u!
(3:20 p.m.) Harry: DON’T YOU DARE 
(3:21 p.m.) Stan: i’ll buy u a pressie!
(3:24 p.m.) Harry:
(3:26 p.m.) Harry: What kind? 
(3:28 p.m.) Stan: dunno yet, but somethin good! promise!

 

(3:38 p.m.) Harry: Friendship Time privileges restored. Buy me something nice. x
(3:39 p.m.) Stan: ur the best! see u in a couple weeks!

 

(3:43 p.m.) Gems: Stop laughing at your phone like an idiot, loser.
(3:44 p.m.) Harry: Stop pretending I’m not the funniest person in this family, loser.
(3:45 p.m.) Harry: Or the most talented, or the most famous, or the eventual richest, or the best dressed, or SFKwrgg$#yK2sa

 

(4:02 p.m.) Gems: [video attached]
(4:02 p.m.) Gems: How much do you think the Sun will give me for proof that Harry Styles can get beaten up by a girl?
(4:05 p.m.) Lou Bear: I’d go with the Mail, they pay better. xx
(4:06 p.m.) Gems: Good advice, Newt. You can stick around.

 

(4:04 p.m.) Lou Bear: Did I just receive a video of Gemma putting mashed potatoes in your hair while you screamed? xx
(4:05 p.m.) Harry: … Maybe.
(4:06 p.m.) Lou Bear: What is that she used to tie you down? 
(4:07 p.m.) Harry: My X Factor audition scarf. 
(4:07 p.m.) Lou Bear: Kinky. xx

 

 

12 March 2011

They come back from their short break to play the Manchester Arena twice, and it’s like all of Harry’s wildest childhood dreams come true. His and Louis’ families are able to make it for the second night, both Anne and Jay’s eyes shiny with tears when Harry shouts “We love you Manchester!” and gets a roar from the crowd in return.

Louis switches places with Liam during Grenade that night, slipping his palm up Harry’s spine when the lights go dark after the song ends. His eyes are near sparking when the lights come back on, staring straight at Harry like there isn’t a crowd—including their mothers—watching them, mouth parted just the tiniest bit.

Harry almost misses his cue to start My Life Would Suck Without You when Louis licks his lips.

 

 

The moment they tumble offstage, Harry is dragging Louis away by the collar of his shirt, ignoring Zayn’s teasing call of “Use protection!”

Harry slams the door behind him when they find an empty office, tugging Louis close and spinning them, shoving until Louis’ back hits the wall with a solid thump.

“You’ve got twenty minutes,” Louis breathes against Harry’s lips, eyelashes fluttering. He grins at Harry’s hitch of breath. “Let’s see what you can do.”

Harry kisses the breath out of him, their lips sliding and sucking in a way that still sends Harry’s fingers and toes tingling even after weeks of exposure. Louis fists a hand in Harry’s shirt, tugging him so close he can hear their heartbeats like an echo of each other.

 

 

They’re only a little late in getting back to the stage for the finale, hair disheveled and cheeks pink while they adjust themselves in their trousers. Aiden rolls his eyes, thumbing a blossoming bruise on Harry’s neck and tugging his blazer’s collar up to cover it.

 

 

26 March 2011

“Erm, lads?” Liam says hesitantly, holding out his phone. “Have you seen this?”

There’s a blurry picture on his screen, pixelated and clearly zoomed in to the full capacity of whatever device had been used to take the picture. It looks sort of like the side of one of their tour buses, and two shapes that might be Harry and Louis but, honestly, the quality is so bad that it’s nearly impossible to tell.

“I can’t even figure out what I’m supposed to be looking at,” Louis says, munching on a bag of crisps.

“Well, the fans are saying it’s you and Harry,” Liam explains apologetically, as though he’s the one that started the rumor. “And that you were,” he lowers his voice, “kissing, outside of the bus.”

“Probably not, then,” Louis shrugs. “We keep everything inside these four walls.” He gestures to the bus around them, the glasses in the cupboard rattling a little as the bus takes a turn.

“Well,” Harry corrects slowly, something half-remembered sticking out in his mind. “There was that time- Nottingham, I think? We thought we were the only ones in the parking lot.”

“Shit, you’re right,” Louis says, but munches another handful of crisps. “Luckily they only got this crappy picture.”

“What if management sees, though?” Harry asks. “What will they do?”

“What can they do, really?” Louis laughs harshly. “They can yell all they want, or look disapprovingly in my direction. I don’t really care. That,” he waves at Liam’s screen, “is not proof of anything. Let’s see what they’ve got for us.”

 

 

28 March 2011

 “Well, you asked for it,” Liam gently chides.

 “I guess I did,” Louis answers quietly. “I’m so sorry, Haz.”

 Harry doesn’t say anything, just reads the headline for the fifth time. His stomach feels coated in lead.

 “I mean, it could be worse,” Zayn tries, looking worried.

 X Factor’s Harry Styles ‘dating 23-year-old model,’” Niall reads over Harry’s shoulder. “Shit, man, they’re pushing that again?”

 “Why is it such a big deal who we may or may not be dating anyway?” Liam asks. “Every time I talk to Cher we have our picture taken and it ends up on Twitter.”

 “Same for me and Bex,” Zayn nods. “It’s all bullshit, surely everyone knows.”

 “Not the point,” Harry says hoarsely. “I don’t want to be this person. The idiot teenager trying to hook up with models because he’s sort of famous now. I want fans to know about the actual Harry Styles.” He looks up at Louis. “Is that stupid?”

 “It’s admirable, love,” Louis tells him, brushing a hand down his side. “Most seventeen year olds would be ecstatic to be linked to,” he leans over to read from Harry’s phone, “Syanne Patterson. Or, okay, maybe not. I don’t even know who that is.”

 “Think that’s the point,” Niall says grimly. “She needed promo, you and Harry need punishment, it’s a perfect fit.”

 Harry sits, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “I mean, I guess Zayn’s right. If the worst thing they can do is tell the world I’m dating an older model, it’s not that big of a deal.”

 Niall snorts. “Yeah, especially since once again Niall gets no press love at all. What do I gotta do to get a headline? Snort coke off Wagner’s breasts?”

 “I think you may be glad for that later, Niall,” Liam says reasonably. “I mean, I don’t like most of the headlines about me. Clearly neither does Harry.”

 “Whatever,” Niall says. “I want all my sleazy antics to be captured forever and shared with the masses.”

 Louis scoffs. “You fell asleep with each hand in a bag of crisps at 9:30 last night, Ni. Not exactly out banging strippers or doing hard drugs.”

 “Ah, but!” Niall says, holding up a finger. “They were stolen crisps. So. Who’s the bad boy of One Direction now?”

 “Did you steal my crisps?” Zayn asks, outraged. Niall smiles, pinches Zayn’s cheek, then bounces back to the lounge as though he thinks he can escape while in a moving vehicle, whooping at the top of his lungs. Zayn gives chase and Louis follows, and then of course Liam and Harry have to go as well and throw themselves onto the wrestling pile.

 Harry forgets about the model he’s never met but is apparently dating almost immediately.

 ...

 

3 April 2011

The Sugarscape reporters remind Louis a little bit of One Direction, just on the media side of things instead of the music side: the two girls they send for their interview are full of jokes and innuendo, not afraid of being silly or a little unprofessional to make the boys feel more comfortable. It helps that Claudia had to take a phone call and step outside, so her presence isn’t making them all second-guess themselves like usual.

“I’m Kate, I interviewed you all back in Birmingham,” a brunette girl says, smiling brightly as she shakes their hands. “And this is Sara.”

“Got a bit of a game for you,” Sara says, grinning shamelessly. She pulls out a mass of pink silk, unfolding it to reveal a large pair of ladies’ underwear. “We’re going to try and fit all of you into these.”

Liam immediately gets his Competition Face on, narrowing his eyes at the fabric like sizing up a boxing opponent.

“Both legs?” he asks brusquely. Kate and Sara exchange a gleeful glance, probably not expecting them to agree so easily.

“Yeah, both legs. If they rip, you lose.”

“Do we just… jump in?” Harry asks.

“Go for it!”

Less than a minute later they’re sprawled across a sofa in a tangle of limbs and shrieks, Niall, Harry and Louis with both legs inside the constricting fabric, Liam and Zayn with one each. Zayn is, unsurprisingly, the last one standing, and is the only one that isn’t making pained noises as their circulation is cut off, unlike Niall and Harry who are both screaming bloody murder.

Tension successfully broken, the rest of their interview questions with Kate and Sara flow easily, banter and teasing remarks tossed back and forth on both sides of the camera (once they’ve escaped the pink satin panties, of course). They chat about everything from Pokemon to fan manips to Harry’s frequent nudity.

Harry was naked about... thirty minutes ago in that room,” Louis points, gesturing to the hotel room connected to the one they’re using now. And he had been, refusing to put on yet another blazer, wearing nothing at all until Liam coaxed him into some boxers so Grace could come in and talk some sense into him. When he’d still refused, crossing his arms over his bare chest and his hip cocked out in his sassiest stance, wearing the tiniest, clingiest boxers Louis had ever seen, Louis had smiled sweetly at Grace and pinched Harry in the side until he agreed.

Harry protests the accusations of nudity, the corner of his mouth tugged up in a grin. Louis wiggles next to him, getting comfortable with his leg thrown across Harry’s thighs.

The subject eventually changes to something a little more appropriate, something about album dates that Liam can answer smoothly. Harry looks over and catches Louis’ eye, winking.

 

 

Once Sara’s camera is packed away and she starts her goodbyes, Kate pulls Louis and Harry off to the side.

“I heard you got in trouble after our last interviews,” she says quietly, apologetic. “And I wanted to make sure everything was okay with you.”

“How did you know?” Louis asks quickly.

“What do you mean, ‘okay?’” Harry asks at the same time.

Kate huffs a quick breath, flicking her glance over to where Sara is joking with Niall and not paying attention to them at all. “Listen,” she says even quieter, and they both step closer to be able to hear, “I can’t say too much. Let’s just say I have a contact within Modest! who I trust, and they told me about your meeting. And as far as whether you’re okay or not…” she trails off, looking pained. “Look, I don’t want to be the first to tell you this, but I think it won’t really be a surprise. Modest! and Syco are both known for having not super great business practices, and a lot of their artists have left the label from stress or actual injury from being overworked. I think Simon and those idiots from your management team know they have something big with you boys, and I’m worried they’ll try to squeeze you for all you’re worth. And if they were unhappy with you for ruining a part of their plan, I know they don’t hesitate to stoop pretty low for punishment.”

Louis breathes out shakily. She’s right, it isn’t really surprising, but hearing it all laid out so factually is a bit of a blow.

“I’m working on,” Kate bites her lip, “a bit of a side project, I guess. No one knows about it, except me and my editor. But I think we can work together to keep you from being completely taken advantage of.” She holds up a hand to stop Louis when he opens his mouth. “No ‘insider scoops’ or anything like that, and definitely no tell-all interviews. We’re still too new for that, no one would believe it. But, if we do things the right way, I think we can undermine a lot of the work they might do that you lot aren’t happy with. Especially since they can punish you, but they can’t punish me or Sugarscape itself.”

“What can you do, then? What’s the plan?” Harry asks.

Kate grins, and the edges of her smile holds a sharpness Louis recognizes in his own smile. “A few well-placed comments here and there can make a world of difference, Harry.” She holds out her hand. “Do we have a deal?”

Louis shakes it without hesitation. Harry does as well after only a moment of deliberation.

“I look forward to working with you,” Kate says. “I think it’ll turn out to be very beneficial. For all of us.”

 

 

Kate texts Louis later, when they’re all in the lounge at the back of their bus watching Batman Begins. He reads it, grins, and tilts the screen so Harry can read as well.

(7:49 p.m.) Kate (Sugarscape): Project Fuck Syco and Fuck Modest Too is apparently already in motion. Just heard from my contact that your favorite person Claudia is in trouble for leaving the room and letting you lot wear panties today, since we were able to tweet that One Direction wears ladies’ underwear and they can’t do a thing about it :)

 

 

6 April 2011

Louis steps off the bus into a beautiful day, the kind of spring afternoon that makes him forget where he lives and the ever-present rain or fog or wind that’s sure to sweep in and ruin everything soon. The mood around the venue is bright and cheerful, the last dregs of winter leaving everyone’s systems.

It’s their second day in Cardiff, their last stop on tour, and it’s starting to feel like it did towards the end of the actual X Factor show. All the acts are just a bit clingier, a little more emotional when they sing Heroes together at the end of each performance.

So they all jump on the chance for a game of five-a-side footie out in the fenced-in space behind the venue when Louis suggests it, even Rebecca trading her heels for some tennies. Mary is off to the side, acting as cheerleader for both teams since her arthritis won’t let her play.

Harry and Louis are put on separate teams, and spend more time teasing each other than actually paying attention to the game. Especially since, bless him, Harry’s like a baby deer on wobbly new legs, and sometimes he kicks the ball and ends up flat on his back on the pavement, laughing up at the sky, so when Louis actually tries to play against Harry he ends up feeling bad about beating him.

It takes Katie huffing out a plea for a break for Louis to look up and realize they’ve been playing for an hour, long enough for fans to have flocked around the edges of the fence with cameras and phones held aloft. Louis gives the gathered crowd a wave as he trots over to where Liam is passing around a water bottle, making sure everyone gets a drink before he finishes off the bottle himself.

Louis wraps an arm around Harry’s waist, tugging on a belt loop of his jean shorts. Harry smiles down at him, pushing his sweaty curls off his forehead.

“Uh oh,” Niall murmurs next to Harry. “Here comes trouble.”

Claudia is leading a small group of reporters and camera crews across the pavement, pointing some of them off to where Aiden and Matt and Rebecca are lounging, and bring the last two interviewers over to where the One Direction boys are standing.

“Split up into two groups,” she says briskly. “These interviews are going online at noon, so please stay on topic and try not to get yourselves into trouble.”

A reporter in a striped t-shirt comes up and shakes Louis and Harry’s hands. “Vanessa, from Wales Online. So great to meet you lads.”

“Nice to meet you,” Harry says, beaming. Louis can see the moment Vanessa melts a little under that famous Harry Styles charm, stuttering out the beginning to her next question.

“I-I, erm, I’ve been asked specifically to say your last names when I introduce you, and that’s always an uncomfortable moment when it happens on camera, so do you mind if I just get that out of the way now?”  

“No, of course,” Louis reassures her, a little surprised. “No one’s ever asked before, it’s usually just an assumption that since they know it, they can say it.”

“I’ve seen a couple of Bonds happen during live segments, it’s usually incredibly awkward,” she laughs. “And while I don’t think that’ll happen today, you never really know do you?”

“They do seem to strike at inopportune times,” Louis agrees.

“Okay then; Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson,” she says, pausing for a second just to make sure.  

Harry examines his arms and his bare legs. “No Markers here.”

“Yeah, I think you’d know, Hazza,” Louis teases, tucking himself against Harry’s side and rolling his eyes for Vanessa’s benefit.

“Okay, now that that’s out of the way,” Vanessa laughs, “let’s get the cameras rolling and I’ll get out of your hair.”

Vanessa is a lovely interviewer, asking questions outside the standard “Who’s your celebrity crush?” or badgering Harry for information on the latest of his model girlfriends. She asks about their favorite places they’ve seen while on tour, and Louis tells her about Niall dragging them all over Dublin for the few days they were there. She laughs at their stories about life on the bus and their favorite fan gifts.

“Cardiff is your last stop on the tour, correct?” she prompts.

“Yeah, we’ve got five shows left here, counting tonight’s, and then we’ll take a break,” Harry answers.

“Recording your album, or do you have other plans for your time off as well?”

“Doing a bit of recording, but I think that’s mostly happening over the summer. We’ll go home for a while, see friends and family,” Louis says.

Harry nudges him. “And France.”

Louis grins. “Right, France.”

 Vanessa’s eyes are sparkling. “What’s in France, then?”

“Just a little best friend trip as soon as the tour ends,” Harry explains, his smile wide. “Us two, Louis’ best friend Stan and my best mate Jonny are heading to a resort for a few days to ski and see the sights.”

“Fun!” she gushes. “France is gorgeous this time of year.”

“I’ve never been,” Louis admits. “I’m really excited, and Hazza’s mum told us they loved the resort we’re going to, so I think it’ll be great.”

“Yeah, we booked an apartment at a chalet right on the slopes. Just a couple of rooms and a kitchen, but that’s all we need, really,” Harry says, smiling crookedly at Louis. Louis feels his face heat a little, remembering the promises on the chalet’s website about discretion and romantic scenery.

“That’s wonderful that you’re taking your friends as well,” Vanessa says. “I’m sure they appreciate that.”

Louis snorts. “Took a little bit of negotiation, but it all worked out.”

Harry throws an arm over Louis’ shoulders. “Communication is key.”

Louis laughs, feels his eyes crinkling without his permission but honestly, this boy. He’s too much for this world.

Louis is almost so caught up in Harry’s exuberant sharing of their plans and his wildly gesticulating arms that he almost misses Claudia’s narrowed eyes over Vanessa’s shoulder, her fingers rapidly tapping on her phone.

 

 

Vanessa wraps up the interview with a congratulations on the successful tour and a promise to keep an eye out for the album when it drops later in the year. Harry tugs Louis closer as Vanessa turns to help her crew pack up, his arm still snug around Louis’ shoulders while Louis slinks an arm around his waist.

“‘M sleepy,” Harry yawns, pulling his sunglasses off for a moment to rub his eyes. “Football wore me out.”

“Same,” Louis agrees, stretching. “Need a good nap, a cup of tea, and a phone call to me mum before I can even start to think about a show tonight.”

Harry nuzzles the side of Louis head, and Louis is just about to suggest that they find themselves a patch of shade to claim for a little nap when Claudia reappears, pulling her phone away from her ear, mouth in a straight line.

“You can’t run the interview,” she says to Vanessa.

Louis suddenly feels wide awake. 

“What?” Vanessa asks, surprised. “Why?”

“It goes against the image we are trying to promote for the band,” Claudia sniffs.

“Alright, hold on,” Louis says, his temper flaring. He steps forward, a disgruntled Harry following. “There’s nothing wrong with the interview. They can cut out the part about France if you’re unhappy with it.”

“It’s the entire thing,” Claudia says lowly, turning her back to Vanessa as though trying to keep her out of the conversation.

“I don’t think I asked anything inappropriate,” Vanessa says confusedly over Claudia’s shoulder.

“You didn’t,” Harry reassures her.

“What do you mean, the entire thing?” Louis asks Claudia incredulously. “We talked about the album and tour and the bus, how is that damaging to the band?”

“It’s not the words you said,” Claudia says, ice on every syllable. “It’s how you acted. You were touching through the entire thing. Harry didn’t look at the interviewer once. And then you described in detail your couple’s vacation, which is how fans will take it even if you did mention the other people going.” She turns back to Vanessa. “If it is posted, it will be without our permission and you will be hearing from our lawyers.”

And then she’s gone.

“I’m so sorry,” Harry mutters to Vanessa.

“Right,” she says blankly, then shakes her head a little as if to clear it. “I’m sorry as well. I would have diverted you if, well. If I’d have known.” She smiles thinly. “Good luck to you both. I think you’ll need it.”

“Thanks,” Louis murmurs as she and her crew pass to get back to their van. “Wait, Vanessa!” he calls, and she turns back to face him. “Who asked for our last names to be included? Was it your editor?”

Her brows furrow. “No, actually, it was your management.”

She sends them a sympathetic smile before turning around and Louis and Harry are left alone, a path of destruction and bad choices in their wake.

 

 

10 April 2011

There’s something in the air on the last day of tour that reminds Louis of the stress of Christmas; it was such a far-off date back in the beginning that no one ever really planned for what they’d do when it eventually and inevitably rolled around. The crew seems just a little more frantic than usual, the acts a little more sentimental. They gravitate together as morning turns to afternoon, the scrappy little mismatched family thrown together by fate and Simon Cowell, who bicker and compete like siblings but love each other just the same.

It’s strange, and Louis has had this thought before, but he doesn’t quite know what to do when he’s not around these people. When this show ends tonight that’s it, their X Factor ties will be almost completely severed. They might run into some of the others that are on the Syco label with them, but Louis doubts they’ll ever see Katie again, or Wagner (not that much of a loss, but he’s still a familiar face in an unfamiliar industry), or Paije.

Louis is suddenly ferociously glad for his boys, because he can’t take Aiden and Matt and Rebecca forward with him into this lightning strike of a career, but he can take the guys who have become closer than his brothers. He started this whole process, all those long months ago, as a solo artist, just him and his voice up on stage, but now he can’t imagine it; his voice sounds wrong on it’s own now, it needs Niall’s to lift it and Liam’s to challenge it and Zayn’s to accentuate it and Harry’s to wrap around it, to gild it into something shiny and almost unrecognizable. He needs his boys, not just onstage but always.

He’s with those boys now, and Louis can’t tell if the expression on his face is happy or sad but he knows at whom it’s directed, because Harry’s eyes are sparkling right back at him in the gleam of the spotlights. They’re on the turntable singing Forever Young, and strange, unwelcome nostalgia is running in his veins. It’s so misplaced, this nostalgia, because this isn’t supposed to be the end for any of them: the point of this tour, of this whole show, is to be a beginning, the kickoff of dazzling music careers. But it still feels like an ending, a draining drag of sadness and fear of what may (or may not) lie ahead.

There’s one face through the whole night that hasn’t been affected by the sentimentality of the end of all this, and that’s why Louis can’t keep his eyes away: Harry glows, he shines, he seems to have no doubts of their future or their friends’ futures.

Do you really want to live forever?” Harry sings right to Louis, and Louis doesn’t know the answer.

Yes, of course he wants to live forever. (And, with his Peter Pan syndrome hard at work, he wants to be young forever too.)

It just doesn’t seem quite worth it if Harry’s not there as well.

 

 

Harry has one of the last notes in the charity single, the song they all perform together for the big finale of each show. It had been a big joke between the boys back when they gave the part to Harry at rehearsals in February, because the producers pushed so hard for both Liam and Harry to be the frontman that sometimes it was like they were competing with each other and they both got solos in the single, when really the opposite was true.

It’s less funny now; in fact, Louis might even go so far as to call it poetic.

Almost all the artists on the tour have signed contracts and have already set in motion the process for recording their own albums and planning their own tours, but nothing is ever set in stone. Those albums could fall through, those tours may not sell tickets and might be cancelled altogether. There’s no way to know if this series’ X Factor finalists will truly go on to do inspirational things, or if they’ll fall to the wayside like so many reality TV hopefuls before them, forgotten and bitter.

This might be the last time One Direction stands on stage together; hell, this might be the last time Louis is on a stage ever. And it’s poetic because it’s Harry, the youngest person on the whole show, the one who should be most vulnerable, the one who should be taking pictures of the crowd like Cher and Katie or crying like Rebecca and Aiden, no one would blame him.

But Harry sings his line and he sings it straight at Louis, and Louis knows. He knows that it might be all over tonight or they may become international superstars or they may fall somewhere in between, but his X Factor experience begins and ends right here, with the two of them. A fated meeting in a bathroom all the way to Britain’s biggest stage, and all along it was them, two souls meant to find each other through all the madness.

It doesn’t matter, for this one moment, that Harry doesn’t love Louis the way that Louis loves Harry. What matters is that they made it, and they made it together, and no matter if they go on to change the world or if the band breaks up tomorrow, they are what they each got out of X Factor. The oops and hi forever tattooed on their skin confirms it.

The crowd is thick on stage, unorganized and chaotic in a way that X Factor finales tend to be. Everyone is hugging and crying and celebrating a beginning and mourning an end, and Harry sings to Louis, we could be heroes, just for one day. And they’re pressed tightly together, partly because of the other singers jostling them but partly because there’s nowhere else they could be, and when Harry sings Louis hears it straight from Harry’s mouth rather than distorted through his in-ears.

Confetti explodes from the ceiling. Harry hugs Louis, Louis crushes him back.

We could be heroes.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10: 10 April 2011 - 2 July 2011

 

10 April 2011

The warm, fuzzy feelings of camaraderie and family during the X Factor acts’ final show ends the minute they find their way offstage. Claudia is waiting, toe tapping as though impatient that she had to sit through a performance before the boys were ready to go do whatever it is she’s dragging them away to do.

They’ve got one last Q and A, apparently, which will be released on Twitter while the band is on its short break. They’ll film it in the bus, and then they’re free to go.

But first, they have to change out of their sweaty performance clothes.

“Has anyone seen my white shirt?” Niall bellows from the bus lounge, hands on his bare hips, his suitcase lid thrown open and displaying the pell-mell mess inside for all to see.

“Just grab another one, between us all we have to own a thousand plain white tees,” Zayn calls back from the breakfast nook, already fully dressed and playing on his phone.

Oh, it’s what you do to meeee—

“Shut it, Harry.”

“I need my t-shirt!” Niall insists, heading toward the bunks. “If any of you fuckers stole it, I’ll piss on your suitcase.”

“Lou, I think you took my black V neck,” Harry says, poking his head into the lounge. Louis looks down at Harry’s black V neck, which he’s currently wearing.

“No I didn’t,” he says, and Harry rolls his eyes but grins. He’s still shirtless, Louis can’t help but notice, so when he squeezes past Harry on his way to the front of the bus he makes sure to scratch lightly at the sensitive spot on the back of Harry’s hips. Harry’s breath hitches, and he drops the shirt he was trying to unfold. Louis counts it as a win.

“Niall, pick another white shirt!” Liam calls, fluffing his hair as a single cameraman sets up to film them.

“Oi, fuck off, that one was my favorite!”

“I’m going to miss this,” Zayn says, deadpan, and even though it’s sort of sarcastic Louis knows he really means it.

Harry has to dig out one of his own white t-shirts for Niall before they can finally get started, Claudia handing each of them with a generic question they pretended to pick from Twitter.

What was the loudest crowd on tour?” Liam reads, and Louis tries to answer but then Harry starts rubbing his hand up and down on a water bottle and he loses the ability of speech.

Because oh, right, that’s still a thing. Post-show adrenaline used to manifest itself in shrieking games of tag up and down the Fountain Studio hallways, or stealing Zayn’s bag of hair products and leaving clues for him to find it. Now, well, Harry usually just bites his lip and flutters his eyelashes as they step off stage and Louis finds them an empty room to snog in until they can't feel their lips anymore.

They didn’t get to do that tonight, though, so Louis watches Harry’s massive hand slide up the water bottle again, twisting a little at the top. He’d think Harry was doing it on accident, if it weren’t for the way Harry’s leg keeps pressing insistently up against his and the way his mouth is ticked up in the tiniest of smirks.

He misses Harry’s answer about the loudest crowd, but it doesn’t really matter because he pays him back later: when Harry goes to say his favorite song to perform, Louis runs a delicate finger up the seam of Harry’s trousers and makes him half-shout his answer.

Another win for Tommo.


Liam’s parents and Niall’s mum are outside when the interview wraps up, Maura rolling her eyes at her son’s half-zipped suitcase and the trail of socks and underwear he’s leaving behind. Niall smacks a kiss to each of the boys’ foreheads and bounds away, jabbering excitedly to Maura about stopping at Nando’s before they head to the airport and oh, by the way Mam, someone stole me favorite white t-shirt! Lousy load o’ cunts, to which Maura replies by swatting his bum and telling him off for his language, much to the delight of his bandmates.

Liam’s exit is a little more subdued, just hugs for Zayn and Harry and a minute spent running away from Louis while he cries, “Li Li, I’ll miss you!” until Louis finally tackles him and smothers his cheeks in kisses. Harry is barely able to pull Louis away, apologizing to Karen as Liam clambers to his feet, blushing profusely.

“Love you my little spring blossom, my handsome puppy face!” Louis calls just to see Liam go even more red while his eyes get those little crinkles like he’s trying not to give in and smile.

“Love you too, Lou,” Liam mumbles bashfully before he’s settled into his parents’ SUV, waving as they pull away.

Zayn turns and kisses Harry and Louis on their cheeks as well, hitching his knapsack higher on his shoulders and clicking the button on his suitcase handle. “You’re back from France in about a week, yeah?”

“Yup,” Louis nods, straightening a stray piece of Zayn’s hair.

“A couple of days before we head to the studio,” Harry confirms, pulling Zayn close and nuzzling into his neck. “We’ll miss you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Zayn laughs. “Miss you too, babes. But I also miss my mum’s cooking and I'm s'posed to be catching a ride with Bex, so I think I’m gonna go.”

“Call us when you get home,” Louis instructs.

“And tell your family hello for us,” Harry adds.

“You’re like my second set of parents,” Zayn teases, rolling his eyes. “I’ll be fine. Love you both.”

“Love you too,” they chorus back to him.

And then there were two.

“Hey,” Harry says suddenly. “I should check my phone. Which is on the bus. And you should come with me.”

Louis eyes him carefully. “You’re being weird.”

Harry steps close, brushing his lips against Louis’ cheek. “You should come with me,” he repeats, slower and deeper.

“Right,” Louis coughs. “Good idea.”

Harry yanks him by the belt loops all the way to the back of the empty bus. “Our parents are running late,” Harry tells him, shoving him unceremoniously onto the sofa, “so we have some time.”

“C’mere then,” Louis breathes, and Harry grins and pounces.

“God,” he moans against Louis’ mouth, pausing only to suck on Louis’ bottom lip until it tingles. His tongue curls around Louis’ like he’s sucking ice cream from a spoon. “Been too long. Always have a time limit or someone walking in.”

“Mm, yeah,” Louis agrees nonsensically, wrapping his hands around Harry’s back to bring him closer. Harry shuffles forward in his lap until his face is hovering over Louis’, their chests already heaving with heavy breaths. No clothes have been removed but this is still the closest Louis has ever felt to Harry, their hearts thumping loudly in the silent space.

“Need you alone for a full week,” Harry murmurs into Louis’ ear before licking a stripe up his neck. “You and me and a bed, nothing else. No one else.”

“Well,” Louis pants. “That’s why we have France, right? Stan and Jonny can chase girls and you can do what you want with me while they’re gone.

“Jesus,” Harry says, voice cracking. His hips are moving slow circles, his arse grinding against Louis’ lap. “It’s like Anastasia,” he continues in gasped, frantic phrases, and Louis thinks he’s lost his mind for a moment. “Together in Paris.”  

“You’re an idiot,” Louis half-laughs into his mouth. “We aren’t even going to Paris.”

“Haven’t got to sleep in your bed for weeks,” Harry says pitifully like he didn’t hear Louis’ comment. “Wouldn’t let me get in your bunk for some reason, I missed you.”

“We can’t both fit in those bunks, Hazza,” Louis groans. “Have you seen my bum?”

“Oh, Christ, your bum,” Harry moans loudly. “I love your bum. I dream about your bum.”

“Fuck,” Louis grits out. Harry’s been rocking against him steadily through this whole ridiculous conversation, and now Harry’s talking about his bum in reverent tones and Louis has always had a bit of a thing for being looked at like he hung the stars, so he’s inching closer to what could become an embarrassing situation in his trousers and—is that a phone?

“Haz,” Louis gasps, “Harry, phone’s ringing.”

“Don’t care.”

“It’s probably your mum, babe—”

“Shut up, Lou—”

There’s a knock at the front of the bus. “Yoohoo!”

“Shit, it’s my mum!” Harry whispers frantically.

“I told you!”

Shut up!

“Louis William, you had better be packed!” comes another voice.

“Shit, it’s my mum!” Louis gasps, horrified.

When Anne and Jay reach the back of the bus, their noses wrinkled at the detritus left behind by four messy boys and a Snow White wannabe who couldn’t keep his bandmates in line, Harry and Louis are sitting at opposite ends of the sofa, both clutching pillows nonchalantly in their laps and studiously looking anywhere except at each other.


Much later, after dinner and wine and hugging all the Tomlinson ladies goodbye, promising to call when they get to France, Harry and Louis are snuggled together in the back of Robin’s car. Anne is asleep in the passenger seat, Robin humming tunelessly to the radio, and it’s like the two boys in the backseat are the only two people in the world.

“Can’t believe it’s over,” Harry murmurs, shifting a little. He’s got his legs thrown over Louis’ lap, his arms looped around Louis’ shoulders. “Can’t believe we actually did a tour.”

“We’re the real deal, babe,” Louis grins, tapping Harry’s nose to see it wrinkle.

“Gonna miss everyone, though. ‘S weird we won’t see them anymore.”

It is weird. Louis has tried not to think of it too much, because he even though they’re the youngest of the X Factor bunch he still feels protective over all his friends, worried about no one signing them or their labels treating them badly and, of course, very worried that their schedules will never coincide so that they can see each other again.

Embarrassingly enough, Louis starts getting that itching feeling in the corner of his eyes like he’s going to cry, and he tries to bury his face in Harry’s shoulder. Harry clucks and shifts, pulling Louis’ face into his hands. He smiles sadly when he wipes the first tear off Louis’ cheek.

“Love you,” he whispers.

“Love you too,” Louis answers. He wriggles his phone out of his trouser pocket, wanting to commemorate all the feelings swirling in his chest in the only way he knows how.

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15 April 2011

The moment Louis steps through the door of their home away from home for the week, it’s like the air gets a little easier to breathe.

Harry gasps when he follows Louis in, dropping his bags to the floor, mouth agape.

Stan is a little more vocal: “Fuck off!” he says, laughing. “This is fucking wicked!”

Jonny is the last in, grinning to himself as he shuts the door. He’s a quiet one, kept to himself most of the trip from Manchester to Moutiers Salins Brides les Bains, but he seems nice enough and Louis knows Harry cares for him a lot, so he’s trying to not scare him off.

Louis abandons his suitcase and knapsack near the large, comfy-looking sofa and meanders through the rooms, taking it all in. The apartment is all paneled wood and homey red and blue and cream fabrics, looking more like a French aunt’s home for which she lovingly knits covers for all the furnishings than a chalet at a luxury French ski resort. It’s shabby and warm and perfect; Louis has had enough of sleek modern hotels for a while.

There are two cozy bedrooms, one with a queen sized bed and the other with two twins. The kitchen is the largest room in the apartment, fully furnished with a small refrigerator and an old oven, and Harry is already pulling snacks and drinks from their bags and stocking the cupboards. The only bit of technology in the whole place is a large flatscreen TV, tucked into a corner like it’s the only thing to be replaced in the last couple of decades.

It’s late in the day already, streaks of pink and orange taking over the blue of the sky, streetlights blinking to life outside the windows. Harry calls out asking for quesadilla preferences (basically just for Stan’s, because Harry has been cooking for Jonny for years and for Louis for months), and Stan cracks open one of their multiple bottles of vodka, pouring generous drinks for all of them.

“To one hell of a vacation,” he toasts, and he and Louis share conspiratorial grins and throw back their drinks while Harry sips his own, grimaces, and returns to the steak sizzling in the pan.

 

Louis is wobbly when he crawls into bed, unsure of the time but knowing it’s far too late for respectable adults on their very first vacation to still be awake, and yet far too early for him to give a fuck.

Harry’s already there, stretching and groaning and pointing his toes, smacking his lips after a yawn. He’s in one of his pairs of tiny, tight boxers than usually make Louis want to set things on fire, but tonight he feels too hazy and pleasantly numb to care about propriety or touching Harry when he really hasn’t earned it. He cuddles up close to his soulmate, wrapping his arm around Harry’s waist, his vodka-infused breath sweet in Louis’ face.

He’s breathtaking like this, curls falling across his forehead and softly illu