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Dreaming of You

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This time baby, I’ll be bulletproof.

He’s got about five or so minutes before he has to clock in. He’s good on time. Excellent on time. Perfect, even.

I won’t let you turn around and tell me now I’m much too proud. All you do is fill me up with doubt.

The snow and ice that slather the pavement crunch beneath his overly-priced, slip-resistant, water-resistant, seamlessly-black-because-God-forbid-there’s-a-splash-0f-character-or-color work trainers, the breeze assaulting his cheeks and threatening to split his dry skin open, slip into the cracks and freeze his bones together. It’s a bit fucking Antarctic outside, the sky white and threateningly infinite and on the verge of dumping curtains of soft snow—as it has been, consistently, for the past…three weeks? Give or take?

Louis is a bit goddamn tired of it. To be quite fucking frank.

This time baby I’ll be bulletproof.

His headphones are smashed over his ears, burying the noise of the engines idling in the drive-thru, burying the hustled sounds of shoppers who need to just go the fuck home and enjoy the day like any sane, happy-with-thyself human being.

Like Louis would be doing if he didn’t have to work.

Like always.

Fuck life, fuck it all.

With a firm expression on his face that is not a frown (he’s a pleasant person; he’s not scowling because his life is sludge and he works at a goddamn Starbucks, no of course not), he slips one frozen, mitten-ed hand out of the sanctity of his pocket and opens the heavy door to the small, mostly-glass building—thanks to those fucking windows with their fucking smudgy handprints left behind from sticky children and bad-mannered plebeians. Said door—the handle nearly burning through his gloves with its cutting chill—is speckled in stickers that boast of warm lattes and joy and individuality and all the other bullocks that is oh-so-charming.

And he’s definitely not frowning.

He’s happy. Elated, even.

This time I’ll be bulletproof.

The minute he walks inside—leaving absolute zero behind and instead being assaulted with nervous, burning energy—his senses are pelted with the all-too-familiar wave of burnt espresso beans and brewing coffee, the undertones of cleaning product and stressed smiles hanging in the air like fog or precipitation or anything else that is mostly unpleasant and sometimes charming.

It all feels very familiar. Or, as Louis’ inner workings have come to begrudgingly label it as: Home.

“Louis!”

Immediately comes the chorus of the green apron-ed bodies as he slips off his headphones (bye La Roux, sweet friend) with a proficient flick, sliding his iPod into his jacket pocket and assessing the zoo at hand.

The line at the till is manageably long, filled with teenagers flicking through their phones (probably searching for their fucking Frappuccino recipes on that goddamned ‘Secret Menu’) and a scattering of elderly people with pleasant expressions, clutching coupons. The hand-off plane holds a small cluster, but Niall’s currently on bar (thank Jesus—he’s the most competent of the lot here, quick on his feet and damn good at sequencing and even better at customer service, the little gem) so the drinks are being delivered as quickly as they’re coming, all with a bright smile and an “Enjoy the rest of the day!” that tinkles against the stainless steel and porcelain pastry plates.

Thatta boy, Nialler.

“Hey, kids,” Louis greets easily, pulling up the dregs of his positivity that are mostly still lying in his warm bed, nestled in the keys of his laptop, and resting in the pages of his notebooks. Strewn on his bathroom floor, near the radiator where his cat usually sleeps. Sitting on his kitchen table where he left it with his smiling sisters and warm mother.

“When do you come on the floor?” Zayn drawls from his place at the till, ignoring the customers before him with practiced ease.

Oh, Zayn.

He’s brilliant on bar—he’s the fastest barista they have—but his customer service skills are shit and he equates a smile with a bored scowl. His conversation habits also lie somewhere near “despicable” and “deplorable”. (Actual words from the store manager.)

To be quite honest, it’s his devastating good looks and caramel latte skin that has kept him his job. Louis suspects that he might know this.

“In about—“ Louis glances at the clock on the wall. “2 minutes?”

“Fuck’s sake, Louis,” Zayn smirks, and an elderly lady gawps at his casual use of such ungodly language.

Oh, and did Louis forget to mention that Zayn is a supervisor? Because yes, he is. Thus, he can swear and scowl as much as he wants to because he’s in charge and because he’s pretty and intelligent and a Coffee Master. This is how the world works.

Louis wishes he didn’t love him so that he could hate him.

“I’m hurrying, keep your kit on,” he grins, nodding respectfully towards the customers as they part for him.

“Tommo!” Niall thunders from the espresso machines, shouting to be heard over the steam wand and the laughing girls that keep whispering and casting lingering glances in his direction. “About fucking time! I need to eat something before I stick my head in the mocha.”

“He’ll do it too, ya know,” Louis says conversationally to a wide-eyed girl. “I’ve seen him. Mind you, he was in the backroom. But still counts.”

The girl startles into a laugh and Louis grins, unzipping his jacket and pulling his apron out of his bag (creased and a bit sticky with yesterday’s syrups, oops) before setting it down on the work station near the display case, currently littered with stray bags of coffee, strewn about papers, and empty whipped cream canisters.

And, really, it’s not so bad, he supposes. Being here. Now that he’s arrived, now that he’s actually managed to dress and make himself look presentable for the day, now that coffee beans and (probably) straight oxygen are filling his lungs, brightening him and giving a bit more bounce to his step, he supposes that this job isn’t quite as terrible as he sometimes thinks it is.

Because, sure. He typically hates his customers and their gold cards and their superior looks as they snatch their one Raw Sugar, extra dry cappuccinos out of his hand. The entitled fuckers.

But he absolutely and completely loves his co-workers. They’re probably the best co-workers he’s ever had, even. Have become his actual best mates—all his lifelong friends having abandoned him because they’re intelligent and driven and have actual careers and families and… No. Louis’ not bitter. He’s twenty-three and young and happy and he loves making coffee at the commercial monarch of coffee shops.

Point is, he’s got good people in his life and it’s because of this job. Even met his best, BEST friend here—Liam.

So maybe he doesn’t hate it.

By the time he’s clocked in and apron-ed up and wearing his best smile, he checks the duty roster, steeling himself for the dreaded “Drive-Thru Window” position (please no, please), only to find…

Louis Tomlinson: Bar

Yes.

Fucking yes.

“Alright, Nialler. Off you go. Time for the King to return to his throne,” Louis announces, already strutting over to his court and making as much of a show of it as he can, considering he’s wearing a stiff black polo and unflattering trousers. Thank the heavens for his arse, though—it makes even the cheapest fabrics look impressive.

He reaches Niall at the bar, surveying the splotchy counters, positions of the sauce bottles, and the general disarray of his tools (“Coffee is art and this is my medium,” he has insisted upon several occasions, most notably to a shy young girl on her first week here after she had the audacity to rearrange his pitchers; it was her first job though, so Louis kept his withering glare at a minimum) before settling his hands on his hips in impatience, meeting Niall’s eye.

“Be gone, stand-in,” Louis quips with a grin, thankful that he managed to fuss his hair into artful tufts today because a king is to always look his best.

Louis is, maybe, a tiny bit cocky about his skills. Possibly.

“A-fucking-men,” Niall smiles, unraveling his headset and stuffing it unceremoniously in Louis’ hands (disappointing—Louis likes to make a show of passing on headsets, likes when others set them atop his head like a crown; and no, he’s not taking the ‘king’ thing too far, he’s just gotta spruce up this job somehow), muttering about food and having to run to the loo and all other such hardships.

“Good to see you, too,” Louis smirks, assembling himself and stuffing the headset carefully over his soft and styled-just-so hair, pleased to find the earpiece silent.

Nobody’s in the drive-thru currently. So there’s a bonus. Yay. First positive situation of the day.

“Yeah, yeah,” Niall says, washing his hands. He’s got syrups and mocha splashed all up on his arms like bruises, some glued to bits of his hair. Messy little thing. “I’m just taking my lunch. I’ll be back on the floor soon enough.”

“Going to drive-thru, then? After that?” Louis asks, already assuming his duties and peeling off the sticker that’s just been printed (Vanilla Bean Frappuccino with Raspberry. No.) and smoothing it over one of the plastic cups that he’s grown to loathe.

“’Course!” he replies, already bounding away, lighting up the dark hollows of their tiny, shaded Starbucks. “Customers love me!” He clomps into the backroom and then he’s out of sight, leaving behind a swirl of unmade drinks and littered surfaces.

So.

It’s down to Louis. Time to start the day.

With a sigh and less-than-disguised sneer at the drink in his hand, he sets the cup on the cold bar, whips open the fridge, and begins pouring the milk.

And, of course, the drive-thru dings. And, of course, Josh just left his post at drive-thru to run to the loo before Niall.

With a pointed stare at Zayn—who smirks in response, scanning someone’s app with an indifference that comes as natural to him as breathing—Louis presses the button on his belt-pack, scooping ice into the pitcher.

“Hi, welcome to Starbucks. This is Louis. What can we do for you today?”

Fuck everything.

**

The day is long and sticky and Louis keeps dropping cups and bumping into people and slamming his knees into the fridges and it’s just one of those days.

His shirt is pushed up to the elbows so his arms are essentially soaked in sauces and liquids that have crystallized into white masses and there are about eight different rushes in the first two hours he’s there; he's practically drowning in Caramel Flan Lattes and Frappuccinos and he sort of wants to pour boiling water on everybody or dump their drinks over their heads. (It’s a de-stressor. He can have this.)

And it’s all just…tedious. So tedious. That’s honestly the best word for it.

Because here Louis is, sticking his fingers in milky, lukewarm sanitizer water and wiping milk residue off of steam wands. Here he is, burning his fingers on boiling water (because these machines need to rinse every five motherfucking seconds and who has time for that and why does that have to happen?!) as he reaches for his shot glasses and here he is, remaking a drink for a very angry Italian man with severe eyebrows and a mobile that is more important than the world around him—namely Louis, who, apparently, does not warrant the respect of eye contact.

“How’s that for you now? Better?” Louis asks with a tight smile that has absolutely taken at least three years off of his life as he slides forth a quad espresso macchiato—marked with exactly one scoop of soy foam steamed at the precise temperature and topped with exactly one shake of cinnamon powder—that he’s made for the third consecutive time. God forbid there be a shake and a half.

(He’s not bitter. He’s not bitter. He’s not bitter.)

Angry Italian With Eyebrows And Mobile grips the drink in his tan, ringed fingers and brings it to his lips without subjecting Louis to his gaze, still mumbling into his phone with purpose. Sunglasses sit atop his head and his leather jacket—worn over a pressed business suit—screams mid-life crisis.

Everybody is just so impressed.

Without a word, Angry Italian With Eyebrows And Mobile walks away, intermittently bringing his little bitch drink to his little bitch lips.

Louis is not bitter. He’s not. Not terribly, at least.

But he’s better than this. He is.

Because he did not slave away at university for however many years (first studying Theater and then—after the charms of the stage dwindled to nothingness and he was left with a slew of drama queens, illicit affairs, and absolutely no direction in life—in English and Writing), getting top-notch grades, just to become a mule for the caffeine-deprived.

He’d had expectations though, is the thing. That’s where he went wrong.

After he’d graduated, he had expected to find the dream job. Somehow. He had expected Someone to know Someone to know another Someone who held the ropes at, say, a music magazine? Or perhaps an underground newspaper? Or even just a Someone who worked at a publishing company who would hire Louis on the spot, because he's clearly capable and well-spoken, and thus bringing forth a life of ease and praise.

At the time, it seemed relatively plausible.

Oops.

And so now he’s here. A bit aimless, a bit bitter, and a bit confused as to how to get from Point A to Point B. Because he wants to get started—properly started; these macchiatos and espresso con pannas can go and suck it—but he has very little idea as to how.

Of course, having said that…

His time here hasn’t been completely in vain.

No, not at all. Aside from the already-expressed sentiments of having met his best mates at this Hell Pit, he can accredit Starbucks and its memorably soulless customers to providing a hefty source of inspiration for his writing. Because, yes, Louis likes to write. Whatever. No big deal.

Sometimes he writes convoluted, endless stories in his head while he scrubs chocolate off of plates and sloshes soapy water around in the industrial sinks. Sometimes he hums words as he’s counting out the change for someone’s tall Sumatra and catalogues the way they fit into a customer’s returning smile as he places the cool coins in their hand. And sometimes he scribbles words in the journal he keeps in his Partner Pocket in back and always inconspicuously tucks into his apron before he comes onto the floor. Whenever there’s a lull in his drink line and everything seems relatively clean, he’ll slide the tiny journal out of his pocket, uncap the pen he always keeps beside it, and just scribbles it all down in handwriting that is barely decipherable but there. He’ll scratch out words when he hears a disjointed, disembodied conversation that lingers in the warm air and trickles down Louis’ skin like the slow, milky pour of fresh espresso. He’ll glide his pen across the page in careless strokes when the café is empty, quiet, open. When the caffeine is numbing his fingertips and sparking the edges of his mind. When he’s standing at the bar with nothing to do and he has an internal list of descriptions about the day and the way the sun hangs in the sky in the evening, filling the shop with violet light and a hint of sadness.

He loves his journal. Writes in it every day—just random bits, small bits—and always keeps it at work, away from his sisters’ prying hands, and he tucks mementos in there, tucks receipts and memories in between the shitty pages and he writes about all the small things.

Because he needs to remind himself that, yes, his life still does matter and that he still has a road of opportunities ahead of him. That it’s all going to work out, even when he’s gritting out apologies to impatient, stiff-lipped customers sneering out “You’re taking too long”s as his feet ache and his stomach growls and his throat screeches in protest as it's assaulted by currents of steam, when the syrup splashes onto his skin and sticks there, when mocha speckles his glasses, when burns pepper the soft skin of his underarms.

It’s all going to work out. It’s all going to be fine.

And so Louis pours some more milk into another pitcher, flashing a relieved grin to Niall who has just returned from his lunch and is already assembling himself at the drive-thru window.

“Glad to you have you back, Nialler,” Louis smirks, pulling the lever and hearing the screech of steam cut through the air, the clinking mugs, the rustling newspapers, and chatter, chatter, chatter.

“Glad to be back, Tommo," Niall grins, much cleaner but still disheveled as he assembles his headset and swivels his hips for no other reason than just because. "Took the best wee.”

And Louis laughs and shakes his head as he hears the familiar ding of another car in his headset, listening as Niall’s sunshine voice lilts through his ears while he pulls the shots for the grande mocha he is currently concocting.

It’s not so bad.

**

It’s nearing six in the evening, and the sky is tie dye—just orange and yellow and pink, all bleeding into each other and setting the snow and ice on fire.

It’s so utterly beautiful. Beautiful enough to jot a brief description of it in his soggy journal. And it’s so utterly unfair because Louis still has another two hours before he gets to finally leave.

His feet hurt incredibly, his back hurts even more, his hands are sticky and dry, his hair is most definitely wilted, and his apron is so catastrophically stained that he is now going to have to wash it before his shift tomorrow and, really, that is just a hassle that he wants absolutely no part of.

He’s also a bit pissy maybe.

Because Niall left an hour ago (whistling and taking two full trays of drinks with him, as well as all the light in the air) and Zayn left wordlessly (he never says goodbye, always just slips away undetected) thirty minutes after that, leaving the middle-aged and thoroughly-unimpressed-and-bitter Supervisor to assume control. Who has, annoyingly, been harping at Louis to make whipped creams for the entire thirty minutes she’s been here when any of the other idiots could do it. Louis has a line of drinks, thank you. And he also has no patience, thank you.

So, naturally, he nearly collapses with joy when he suddenly sees Liam walking through the door, a bright smile on his handsomely boyish face, his rumpled clothes soft and clean beneath his enormous, puffy jacket.

“Oh thank fuck,” Louis groans appreciatively to the heavens, wrapping his arms around his espresso machine to support himself. “My prince!” he calls, robust and joyous.

Liam beams, brown eyes lit up as he strides inside, apron in hand. “Honey, I’m home,” he smiles in that amiable voice of his, seemingly proud of his joke, and Louis allows it, merely smiling fondly at him as he rinses his machine (again) and collects his speckled shot glasses.

“What can I make for you? Your soy chai? With all the caffeine we have to offer?” Louis teases, quirking an eyebrow.

Liam has terrible taste in beverages. His standard drink is a venti soy chai tea latte with eight pumps of chai, two vanilla, three frap roast, a splash of iced coffee, and four shots. Honestly, it’s a wonder that his heart hasn’t burst clean out of his chest. Louis can handle his fair bit of caffeine but that?

That is just…nauseatingly unapproachable.

“No, I think I’m going to get a doubleshot on ice. With toffee nut and white mocha. Grande,” he adds as an afterthought, noting Louis’ glare (size first, please) (no, he’s not a diva on bar, nope) and uncapping his Chapstick. He glides it onto his lips, eyes a bit glinty, large smile still in place.

Something’s up.

“I’ve got a date,” he casually mentions with a grin after a few moments—after Louis refuses to take the bait of his bright, dancing eyes.

“Another one?” Louis smiles, swirling the shots and syrups as they pour into the cup. “Who this time? That one bloke with the pretentious profile? With the bad hair? Who likes your ‘sense of wanderlust’ and ‘ability to provoke that fickle mistress we call situational irony’? Because that’s gonna get you a good shag. A good shag. Might even dress up as his cat or Napoleon or some shit.”

(Liam is intent on finding a boyfriend. So Liam is diligently and relentlessly dating online. And Louis is diligently and relentlessly making fun of Liam. It’s all very splendid.)

Liam narrows his eyes, but his smile is still present, leaning on the counter lightly as he watches Louis. “I think he’s nice.”

“Well of course he’s nice,” Louis rolls his eyes, shaking the shots up with the ice in the plastic tumbler; it's loud as fuck in his ear and completely unnecessary. “It’s a dating website. He has to be nice if he’s going to find his next victim.”

“Oh so now he’s a murderer?” Liam’s asking, amused. His treebark eyes are large and soft under the mood lightning that gently alights his tidy, close-cropped hair. His face is the sort of perfect pleasantness any Starbucks would die for—Liam is the physical embodiment of ‘inoffensive’. His manner is mild like a doe and his eyes wide like a newborn pup. His tongue is a bit quick though, Louis having corrupted him properly, and one could even call him ‘cheeky’ on a given day. He’s a good lad, sweet and mild and supportive and very sensitive. Likes to sing. Studied music in university before he dropped out because he had trouble focusing—undiagnosed ADHD.

It’s a story not altogether separate from Louis’ and so they bonded with commonalities and became best friends after they realized that they, somehow, were perfect compliments to each other. Where Liam was pleasant, Louis was obnoxious. Where Liam was humble, Louis was…not. Where Liam was trepid, Louis was smug, etc., etc., etc.

A match made in heaven, it is. Best mates for life.

“Never said he was a murderer, Liam,” Louis says, plopping down the finished drink of sugar slathered upon sugar upon caffeine. “You came to your own conclusions on that one. But now that you mention it, his jumper did scream ‘dice you up like an onion in the basement of me mum’s house’.”

Liam’s face scrunches. “It was a bad jumper, wasn’t it?”

“Not bad,” Louis corrects, planting his hands on the counter and smirking. He leans into it, letting the weight off of his feet and cocks his head a bit to the side as Liam eyes him. “Bloody atrocious.”

With that, Liam smiles, rolling his eyes, and shuffles to the backroom to deposit his jacket.

And just like that, Louis’ night is saved.

**

Liam is very. Very. Boy crazy.

He is on the hunt.

And it’s funny because Louis enjoys watching him flirt with every single customer that looks even remotely approachable and enjoys teasing him for it even more, enjoys the way Liam flushes and acts completely oblivious to any such antics. Which only sends Louis into delighted cackles. Sometimes Louis gives play-by-plays (over the headset) of Liam’s interactions so that all their co-workers can share in the mirth.

Liam has absolutely no idea that Louis does that. Which makes it even funnier.

But, as fun as it all is… It’s also a bit trying. Because Liam talks a lot. And Liam talks about this dating profile a lot. And Liam talks about wanting things like children a lot. And…

Liam talks a lot. And Louis doesn’t have enough emotional capacity to understand or tolerate it.

“Oh, will you just shut up about babies? Fucks’ sake,” he sighs, stalking out of the back room as Liam trails behind.

“I’m getting old,” Liam whines, wet rag in hand. For the past twenty minutes he’s been carrying the soggy mass, pretending to wipe things down when in actuality, he’s been describing his dream man to Louis and listing the reasons why he’ll probably end up alone.

It’s all a bit much.

“You do realize you’re twenty-two? Correct? And that I am, in fact, a year older than you? And have no qualms with slapping you in the face with a spoon?” To prove his point, Louis lifts the nearest object in question, brandishing the broad metal surface in Liam’s face, eyes narrowed.

Louis might be a bit sensitive about his age. Is, perhaps, a bit obsessed with staying as young as possible. Forever.

It’s fine.

Liam blanches only slightly before continuing. “Yes, but—“

And then Liam stops.

His eyes, which have widened infinitesimally and are a fraction more glazed, have hooked onto something over Louis’ shoulder, somewhere near the entrance to the shop.

No doubt a customer. No doubt male. No doubt a candidate for another round of ‘Highly Entertaining and Borderline Embarrassing Flirting Techniques by Liam Payne’: Louis’ favorite program. Much better than ‘Let’s Talk About Babies’.

So with an amused grin already beginning to peek through his lips, Louis turns around as he hears the sound of the door closing. He turns around, letting Liam drool all over the freshly-mopped floor, and his eyes travel to—

A total and complete hipster douchebag.

That is probably the best way to describe this character.

It’s a boy—and yeah, okay, he’s quite fit, could even be classified as beautiful by a susceptible youth—and he’s got good, proper hair (longish, a bit curly and wavy, smooth and brown like the chocolate Louis devours without mercy) and a good, structured face (hello, lips; hello, eyes; hello, everything) and he’s tall and stick-like and carrying a shoulder bag that most definitely holds his laptop. He’s got this large black scarf wound around his neck, his skin flushed pink with the cold.

And he’s got this…jacket. This utterly ridiculous, unforgivable, hipster jacket that’s anal-seepage-mustard brown and corduroy. With actual patches on the elbows. Like he’s some stuffy professor or Indiana Jones. An olive beanie is stuffed over his curls, a tiny white pin with a black mustache is stuck on his collar, and his face is buried in his tweed-bedecked iPhone—and is that a pinky ring? Please.

Louis likes to pride himself on never judging books by their covers. But he is thoroughly unimpressed at this moment in time.

Still, though. He paints on a fake smile.

As he opens his mouth to spew forth a falsely cheery greeting, he is suddenly cut off by the pleasant musicality that is Liam Payne flirting.

“Well, hello there,” he says amiably, nearly plowing Louis over as he rushes to the counter, eyes impossibly wide and sparkly.

And here we go.

Smirking, Louis walks to the bar, readies himself for whatever this little number is going to order. He predicts a cappuccino. Probably with an agave syrup stirred in.

“Can we get you anything to drink?” Liam asks sweetly, leaning so far over the counter he’s about to belly-flop onto it.

Louis bites back a chuckle, instead gently tapping his fingers against the tops of the cups that stand to his left.

“Erm, yeah...” comes the response, and Louis blinks a bit because his voice doesn’t really match his exterior. It’s oddly deep, sounding like it's been pulled from the center of the earth. Or a catacomb. Rumbly. Annoyingly drawn out. Probably because he’s still distractedly glued to his phone, oblivious to life and people that are more than just words on a screen.

Louis sighs, tapping his fingers impatiently.

“Something sweet?” Liam offers as he bats his eyelashes obscenely, and Louis nearly bites through his cheek to withhold that laugh.

At that, the boy breaks into a smile, the glow of his mobile alighting his features in cold blues. He looks up then, looks up at Liam with a happy face, and Louis mentally hands over a few generous bonus points for that.

He always hands out bonus points for a decent smiling customer. Louis is charitable.

“No, thank you,” he rumbles, now giving Liam his full attention. “Just a grande Pike. In a mug. With three seconds of soy, please.”

Three seconds of soy?

So he’s one of those.

Unable to resist rolling his eyes, Louis plucks one of the cream coloured cermanic mugs off the top of the espresso machine, immediately striding over to the carafes and pouring the steaming brew into the cup, leaving what—he can only assume—will allot for three fucking seconds of soy.

Honestly. How irritatingly specific can someone be?

He’s vaguely aware that Liam and the boy are flirting—or maybe Liam’s just flirting at him, he doesn’t know—but he’s already uninvested in the situation, instead opening the fridge and bending down for the soy, uncapping it loudly as he rises.

He pauses with the carton suspended above the cup, mildly unsure of the situation at hand as he eyes the black liquid.

“So what exactly do you mean by ‘three seconds’?” he suddenly asks, irate, cutting into the conversation being had and probably failing to disguise the distaste that flows off of him in waves. (So he’s heard.)

He stares firmly at Hipster Boy, soy carton still poised, and raises his eyebrow impatiently as Hipster finally turns to Louis for the first time, ripping his gaze away from his phone again. Those little green eyes slide unhurriedly over before clicking into place with Louis’ own and Louis expects an answer—he really, really does, any time now, thanks—but all he receives is a stare.

A long and unnerving stare.

“As informative as that is, it doesn’t really answer my question,” Louis says dryly after a moment, and immediately Hipster Boy blinks, huffing out a laugh and shaking his head a bit.

(Louis probably should work on his customer service skills one of these days; he's dangerously close to becoming Zayn.)

“Uhm, I’m not sure what you mean?” Hipster asks, amused, and he’s locking his phone now, stuffing it into his pocket as he turns to face Louis over the barrier separating the counter from the bar. Inexplicably, his face suddenly seems twenty times brighter, like a flashlight's been set on him. All eyes on deck.

It does nothing to soothe Louis' annoyance.

“Like. Is it three quick seconds? As in ‘one-two-three,'?" he explains with all the condescending patience he can summon, feeling Liam's miffed posture. Oh well. "Or is it slow seconds? Like ‘one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand’…? There's a lot of wiggle room here. I need specifics.”

Liam roll his eyes. “Just count, Louis. Come on,” he mutters hastily, looking like a poked bear, but Hipster Boy’s eyes are amused, watching Louis intently, laughter ghosting on his breath.

“I didn’t realize it would be a whole thing,” he comments, but the words are swept up in a warm smile so Louis can’t really take offense to them, can only take them as a mere nuisance because he’s still holding the soy and this boy still hasn’t answered him.

“Well, it is a whole thing. So. Answer me?” Louis asks/tells.

He realizes he sounds a bit…well. Dickish. Unwarrantedly dickish. So as an apology, he grins, smiles toothily and winningly, and flirtatiously bumps his chin against his left shoulder because he’s been told it’s cute and he likes to be cute, especially when he’s dangerously close to possessing Zayn-like social skills. Or lack thereof.

And it seems to do the trick, Hipster Boy’s smile immediately widening to an impossible size.

My, what a large mouth you have.

The better to…

What was it? ‘Gobble you up?’ No matter. Louis was never well-versed in that particular fairy tale.

Still, though. Physically, Hipster Boy is fetching, quite fetching, he must admit. Liam would be smart to snatch him up for a bit of fun.

“How about I count for you?” Hipster Boy finally suggests, and his voice sounds warmer, a bit fonder, eyes completely glued to Louis. Too glued. The scent of flirtation is in the air.

Louis glances at Liam, who’s staring between them a bit awkwardly.

Well, shit.

“Maybe we’ll have Liam count it for you, eh?” Louis asks, grinning impishly. The boy’s eyes slide back to Liam, almost as if registering him for the first time. Again. “What say you, Hipster Boy?” Louis presses. “Do you trust our Liam?”

“I’m very trustworthy. Counting seconds is a specialty of mine,” Liam says proudly, flashing his sparkling teeth, which makes Hipster Boy laugh.

Louis smiles, feeling a pride in his chest. Thatta boy.

“I definitely trust our Liam,” Hipster Boy replies and Louis flashes a grin in Liam’s direction as he preens.

So Louis begins pouring.

“One…Two…Three.”

Louis cuts off the flow, caps the soy, and stuffs it back in the fridge. By the time he straightens, ready to hand the mug over to Hipster, he finds it already gone, instead resting in Liam’s strong hands and being passed over to its new home.

“Here you go, then,” Liam grins, and Louis doesn’t miss the way his fingers deliberately brush over Hipster’s. “Hope my counting expertise has shone through.”

Oh dear god.

Louis fights back a snort, but smiles nonetheless, lightly shaking his head as he picks at some milk residue on the grating of the espresso machine.

“That’s probably the best three seconds I’ve ever heard counted,” Hipster Boy says dopily, and though his lips aren’t exactly smiling—more twisting about pleasantly, odd as it is—his words sound as if they are. He probably thinks he’s charming. One of those.

“I’m happy to hear it,” Liam practically purrs. “Enjoy. And don’t be a stranger. We’ve a long night ahead of us.”

Louis bites back another snort, schooling his face into neutrality.

God, Liam is so easy to laugh at. It’s just so easy.

“You and me both,” Hipster says, unperturbed. “I’ll be sure to stop by at regular intervals.” He grins then, and his smile is so sure and so effortless that it sort of irks Louis. Irks him enough to roll his eyes just the tiniest bit.

Luckily nobody notices and so he just picks up a rag from the sanitizer bucket and begins wiping every surface down as he hears Hipster retreating to his seat.

He then feels Liam sidle up to him as he dabs at a puddle of milk.

“I’m in love,” he whispers before he dashes off, delighted and quick.

Of course. Louis can only burst into laughter as Liam retreats, before slipping out the journal from his apron pocket. He scribbles down two words:

‘Found: Hipster’

And then he tucks it away, forgetting about it completely, and continues scrubbing the counter.

**

The rest of the shift is seamless, thank fuck. Louis has barely any drinks to make and even less work to do, so he considers himself alarmingly blessed when eight o’clock finally rolls around.

“Au revoir, peasants,” he sing-songs through his headset. “The King is leaving the building.”

“Stay? And work for me so I can flirt with my new husband?” Liam’s voice offers over the speaker.

Louis laughs, merely replying with a solid, “No,” before sliding off the headset, ejecting the battery and winding up the chord. He nearly prances to the backroom to clock out, dumping his journal in his Partner Pocket and grinning from ear-to-ear.

Goodbye Hell Pit, goodbye. Time for home and warmth and food and tea and sleep.

He calls out his goodbyes to his co-workers (and a pouting Liam who he just laughs at, ruffling his barely-there hair) and his regulars as he walks towards the door.

“Bye Louis!”

“See you, Louis!”

“Louis! Stay and have a drink!” the young girl by the leather chairs says (she comes in every night with her boyfriend and Louis never remembers her name—can only remember how fucking annoying her laugh is) as she gestures him over.

He easily declines, waving a hand. “Nah. Had plenty of drinks. See you tomorrow!”

He exits, stepping into the tundra, with the wind and snow whipping madly around him. As he trots to his car, past the long line of windows, he glances up only to find a wide set of eyes peering at him.

Oh yeah. Hipster Boy.

He’s still there, tucked in the corner and wrapped in his scarf (that ridiculous jacket hanging off the back of his chair) with a large pair of headphones stuffed over his ears, his Macbook set before him, papers strewn about. An impressively huge novel sits atop the chair pulled to his side.

And he’s staring at Louis, quietly, his hands poised over the keypad as if frozen.

So Louis makes sure to look away before the boy smiles, mind already at home, already far away and warm.

Chapter Text

The next day, as Louis pulls open the door to the shop and everybody’s head flicks up to beam at him (“Louis!!”), things are much the same as the day before. It’s still the Ice Age and it’s still fairly miserable and uninspiring and he’s tired and wishes he was at home, snuggled up with his heated blanket, his cat, his siblings (though he would rather set himself on fire than tell them so) and a mug of tea.

Again, the café is filled just enough for him to be annoyed. But today he’s a bit crabbier; because he has a closing shift. (Yay.) And the only good news is that Zayn is his Supervisor through it all—small victories.

“Tommo,” Zayn greets mildly as he’s shifting through some official-looking papers at the work station. He glances up casually, his eyelashes nearly brushing the ceiling, his hair looking impossibly soft and deliciously disheveled. Did Louis ever mention how unfairly fit Zayn is? Freakishly and unfairly fit? “Are you my closer tonight?” he asks, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

“I am indeed,” Louis smiles in response, unzipping his jacket and allowing the fumes of coffee to assault him, hoping they will miraculously seep through his flesh and ignite his very sludgy, still-in-bed veins. He glances around at who’s working—neither Liam or Niall.

Bollocks.

“Looks like we got the dream team, then,” Zayn mutters as he peruses the schedule, pleased, and glances up at Louis. “Liam’s coming in at five.”

Praise!

“Yessss,” Louis suddenly grins, mood lifting immediately as he offers up a cheeky wink. “A night to remember, then, Superior?”

“A night to remember,” Zayn agrees with a chuckle. “So. You’re gonna replace Missy on bar as soon as you get on the floor, alright?” he adds lazily.

Louis’ heart positively sings.

“Sounds perfect,” he trills, and nearly skips into the backroom to deposit his belongings, tucking his journal into his pocket as he passes.

**

Liam arrives fifteen minutes before five and Louis’ already in a good mood (business having been pleasantly steady and the customers and partners alike providing Louis with sufficient laughs and fetching smiles) so the outlook is already pretty positive, all in all. He’s been patient and accommodating and hasn’t rolled his eyes once—not even when someone ordered a “S’mores” beverage. Which. No.

So he’s feeling even more gregarious when Liam steps onto the floor, tying his apron in the back and smiling.

“Look who it is,” Louis beams, topping off a white mocha. “The Payne. Bringing the pain.”

Liam rolls his eyes but smiles amiably. “Let the games begin.”

“’S not a game, Payno. It’s a matter of life and death, the Starbucks. Ain’t that right, Superior?” Louis calls sweetly, capping the drink and setting it near the drive-thru window.

“Fuck Starbucks,” Zayn mutters in response from across the way, crouched and entering the code to the safe.

Liam furrows his brow, opening his mouth—to scold Zayn’s language, no doubt—but Louis cuts him off, laughing.

“Starfucks?” he offers.

Zayn grins, casting an appreciative glance Louis’ way. “Wanna go to the pub after we close?” he asks, rising from his crouched position. “Need a drink after this week.”

“I never say no. You coming, Liam?”

Liam shrugs. “Yeah, I guess.”

Louis beams. “Perfect. Now let’s make sure to close up fast tonight, lads. Don’t wanna be here till the wee hours of morning. Louis’ thirsty. Louis needs pink vodka.”

“Louis needs to stop talking like that,” Liam chides with a smile and shake of the head.

Which makes Louis kiss his nose. “Louis talks as he pleases, dearest friend.”

“Did you just kiss my nose!?” Liam balks incredulously, as though his nose has never been kissed before. Honestly.

Naturally, Louis grins lasciviously, flicking out a wink as Liam splutters. “I could kiss your dick next time?" he offers sweetly as Liam turns the color of raspberry syrup.

“Oi! Not on my watch,” Zayn calls from the other end but he's grinning and drumming a pen on the counter; Liam merely rolls his eyes.

“You’re creepy. Do you know that?” he says, brushing past Louis and assigning to his computer at the drive-thru.

“I have an inkling,” Louis smiles breezily, casually petting at his hair which makes Zayn chuckle and Liam glare.

He loves his life. Sometimes. Right now.

“Speaking of kissing dicks, though,” Liam says, lowering his voice as he closes the cash box, and Louis can’t help but laugh. “I wonder if Harry will come back tonight.”

“Harry?”

“From yesterday? My husband?”

Louis thinks for a moment, sifting through nameless faces and searching before suddenly—

“Ohhhhhh, Hipster Boy? Hideous, pretentious jacket? A smile that is altogether too sure and a phone that can’t be ripped from his hand? Scarf that lasts for ages? That one?”

Liam positively glares. “Harry. Yes,” he says coldly and it makes Louis smile wider.

“Ah, you got his name then? Well done, Payno,” Louis says easily, rinsing his machine and assembling his shot glasses. “Dare I say I’m proud? How’d you do it? You’ve got a date? Proper chatted him up, did you?”

There’s a brief moment of hesitation as Liam clears his throat, resolutely looking nonchalant as he adjusts the volume on his headset. “Not exactly.”

Louis quirks an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“I, uh. I might've looked at his gold card," he mumbles sheepishly, now inspecting the cabinets.

Delighted, Louis guffaws. “You what?!” he laughs, doubling over the stainless steel counter as Liam sniffs the air, features smooth. “Does he even know you have his name?”

“Of course he does,” Liam snaps, but his expression breaks into amusement as Louis continues to cackle unabashedly. “Granted, he did seem a bit surprised when I said it, but…” He shrugs. “Oh well!”

“Well, I’ve got to hand it to you, mate. Good job! You’re the creepiest I know,” Louis laughs, wiping delicately at his eyes with the back of his hand.

Oh, Liam. Lovely, shameless Liam.

He grins, a suspicious twinkle in his eye. “I also added him on Facebook. His name’s Harry Styles, he’s from Cheshire, loves cats, and his profile picture is of him holding a child on his shoulders. His cover photo is him sitting on top of a mountain. Louis.” He places his hands on Louis’ shoulders, stares him dead in the eye. His green apron glows. “I’ve struck gold.”

Oh dear lord.

“Gold, you say?” Louis tries not to snort. Hardly. Sounds a bit cheesy and boring, to be honest. But Louis is nice, so he won’t spoil the fun. “Yes, I think you may have, friend. Now get him before he disappears into the night on his scooter—“

“He doesn’t have a scooter.”

“—Details,” Louis brushes aside, before continuing seamlessly, arm thrown around Liam’s shoulders, “and don’t be a tit and fuck it all up with your emotions and easy attachment. He seems to be a simple type, so he shouldn’t be difficult to trap.”

“Thanks,” Liam replies dryly, but Louis merely grins, pinching his cheek.

“Look at our Liam. Found his Prince Charming at the Starbucks!” he coos.

Liam beams, eyes unspooling and shoulders slumping in a daydream.

“I wish you all the luck in the world,” Louis continues, disengaging himself. “I know it’s been awhile. And it’s starting to show, to be honest. All this talk of babies lately…”

“Shut up,” Liam glowers, snapping out of his reverie and smacking at any part of Louis he can reach. "Just because you're soulless..."

Louis grins, about to agree--

But then suddenly the heavy sound of the door is heard and, like clockwork, there he is: Hipst—er, rather, Harry. There is Harry.

“Ohhhh, lookee, Cinderella; speaking of! Charming’s here,” Louis whispers, jabbing a finger into Liam’s ribs as he sidles past, immediately making to busy himself in order to avoid unwanted conversation and leave them to it.

He goes straight for the coffee grinder. Elegantly (or what he likes to think is elegantly—he can only do so much with a horse brush) he picks up the comb, dusting the excess coffee particles into the bin and wiping the residue off of the metal bits, half-consciously eavesdropping with a bemused smile soaking his face.

“Harry,” Liam greets, a little breathlessly, and Louis bites his smile because he really is dangerously close to laughing in their faces and he absolutely refuses to ruin this for Liam. He’s going to be a good mate. A proper bestie.

“Hi,” Harry greets, and his voice is just so deep, isn’t it? Such a dopey voice. Sounds a bit like the thick, creamy breve toppers Louis scoops onto doppio espressos.

Louis slides his rag around the machine, takes his time scrubbing the forgotten corners. His back faces the pair.

“I’m sorry,” Louis hears Harry continue after a momentary pause, and he sounds it, his tone flavored with embarrassment. “I’m shit at names. What was yours again?”

He can practically hear the sound of Liam’s heart deflating. Louis frowns.

Clearly, Harry is thoughtless. Probably looks down on the 'little' people. Doesn't think baristas deserve names or summat. They're all just work bodies to him.

“Oh. No problem," Liam lies through his teeth, his tone clearly distressed. Louis makes a mental note to buy him a round tonight. "It’s Liam, actually.”

“Ah, yeah! Of course!" Harry croons, recognition coloring the tone, and Louis eases up a bit, movements a little less clenched. "Liam! Hi, Liam. How are you today?” he continues kindly and it’s all very polite and cordial and smiley and Louis is totally rolling those eyes of his. Since he’s been on good behavior all day, he figures it’s allowed.

“Really good. And yourself?”

God, this is boring. He re-dips his rag in the sanitizer water, carefully squeezes it of excess droplets. The sound is a bit harsh, water dumping down in great plops.

“Pretty good. It was my first day of lessons today. At school. So. I think it went well?”

Hm. He must be a student.

“Oh yeah? What do you teach?”

Louis blinks.

Or not.

“Well, we’re discussing Transcendentalism right now, actually. So I’ve just been showing my students a few of my favorite paintings and things and exploring its definition. You know, the typical stuff,” Harry laughs nonchalantly, probably waving a pinky-ringed hand in faux modesty.

He's obviously pretentious. But...at least he's teaching interesting things. Whatever.

“That sounds fun,” Liam lies. (Because Liam is probably the most unscholarly person on this planet; he can name any composure within the first three seconds of any sonata but mention the word 'literature' and he balks and starts talking about ice cream.) “Do you talk a lot about…that stuff? As an English teacher?”

English teacher?

Louis pauses momentarily as he’s wiping down the sinks. He once wanted to be an English teacher. A long time ago. In a galaxy far away.

He continues working, discreetly humming the Star Wars theme song.

“Well, I mostly just discuss the relevant themes or cultural eras that surround whatever text we’re reading," Harry explains slowly, too slowly. "So. Uhm. I guess?”

Not very articulate for an English teacher.

“Cool.” Liam’s tone sounds the very opposite. Louis has to bite back a snort. “So. Can we get you something to drink, Professor Styles?”

“Yes, please,” Professor Styles chuckles, and the sound of a phone being unlocked clicks through the air. “Coffee in a mug. Three seconds of soy, please.”

Louis rolls his eyes.

He continues working, works as Liam fetches the coffee and teasingly counts the soy, and works as he hears Harry laugh and smile and it’s all just a bit annoying to him because this odd little duck is now apparently an English teacher (an occupation Louis once truly seriously considered) and is so obviously confident and just a bit…obnoxious? No, that’s not the word. Overly-confident? Overly-good? Maybe that’s it.

In any case, he’s all pleasant words and pretty looks and he wears scarves and sips from his mug as he plans his apparent lectures and…

It’s just annoying.

So it’s only after he’s left the counter that Louis finally stops cleaning everything in sight and reassumes his position at the espresso machine. He’s there for all of five seconds—as Liam rushes to the safety of the backroom and begins excitedly retelling every single word Louis had already just heard between Harry and him, over the headset, as Louis jots down a quick ‘Liam’s Prince: A Hipster with a Degree, existing in a school and, undoubtedly, misshaping the youth’—when suddenly Louis’ aware of a presence in his peripherals.

He looks to his right (the handoff plane) and briefly wonders if he’s missed a drink as he slips his journal into his apron pocket, lightning fast, before he realizes who it is.

“Can I get you something?” he asks Harry, walking forward begrudgingly, a polite, toothy smile in place.

Harry smiles, shrugging, his mug sat on the counter between his large hands as he stares at Louis, that bloody scarf wound around his neck in large loops. He’s not wearing the beanie today. Good. It was inexplicably obnoxious on him. Now his hair's all loose and swirly, fluffy atop his head. Much more natural this way.

“So that’s a no, then?” Louis asks with a raised eyebrow.

“I just wanted to say hi,” Harry responds, still smiling, eyes wide and very nearly the color of Louis’ apron beneath the soft lights. Does this kid blink?

Louis nods slowly, his smile retreating. “I see. Well. Hi.” He places a hand on his hips, leans a bit on the counter as he eyes the boy before him.

“Hi, Louis.”

“Louis?” he repeats, dumbfounded. How the actual fuck does this guy know his name?

Instantly, Harry’s face falls, any bravado gone. “Is it not Louis? I’m sorry—I thought--what is--?” he stutters, and Louis notes his slightly pinkened cheeks and his blinking eyes and his face that suddenly looks much less cardboard-y. He looks flustered.

So, naturally, Louis can’t help but take the piss a bit.

“It’s actually Barnabus,” Louis says, feigning offence and folding his arms over his chest.

Harry stares. “Barnabus,” he repeats, and Louis can clearly see him wracking his brain, trying to recall the truth in this.

“Barnabus,” Louis affirms, face unrelenting as he glides disapproving eyes over Harry. “But I couldn’t expect you to know that, Henry.”

If possible, Harry’s face falls even more.

“My name’s not Henry,” he protests, looking truly stricken, lips in a comic pout.

He's like an errant toddler, Jesus.

“Well, my name’s not Barnabus,” Louis reasons smoothly, face impassive.

Harry stares.

Louis smirks.

“It really is Louis, isn’t it?” he asks slowly, a hesitant smile suddenly beginning to reform.

Louis shrugs. “I suppose it is. What’s yours, then? Liam mentioned it but I don’t really remember,” he lies, realigning his steaming pitchers with lazy movements. Bored.

“Harry,” Harry replies, and he still looks put out, glancing down into the surface of his coffee briefly before pulling his gaze back up, cheeks still pink.

“So, Harry,” Louis continues, unfolding his arms and pressing the ‘Rinse’ button on his machine, lining up his shot glasses beneath the stream. It’s a bit of a nervous habit. “How did you know my name?”

Because it’s not like he’s seen it on his nametag—Louis never wears a nametag. Despite it being ‘mandatory’, he absolutely refuses to abide by the rule. For no other reason than just because he’s expected to. (He’s kind of a shit like that.)

Harry shrugs (he’s a big shrugger—it’s annoying) and keeps his stare on Louis, watches him as he fiddles with the glasses. “Heard a few people call you it. Yesterday when I was here. When they were saying goodbye to you when you were leaving.”

Louis’ eyebrows shoot up as he turns to look at him.

Harry smiles confidently in return, clutching his mug.

“Weird," Louis comments idly, side-eying him. He pauses, watching Harry's smile grow. "But good to know.”

And with that, he walks away, striding towards the backroom because he’s had quite enough of this boy. The workplace is not a time for socializing.

“Nice chat, Henry,” he calls over his shoulder as he continues forward.

He can’t hide the smirk in his voice, practically feeling the smile fall from Harry’s face.

**

The rest of the night is spent with Harry wasting Louis’ fucking time.

Not that he talks to Louis because, no, Louis would not allow for that. He is careful to always distract himself or turn away or even just simply walk away the minute Harry looks like he’s about to approach him—he doesn’t have time to make friends or entertain the bored little English teacher just because he’s struggling to formulate his lesson plans.

Harry does, however, talk to everybody else.

Including Zayn. Whose verbal communication usually mirrors that of a tombstone. Not tonight though, apparently—he’s been chatting away with the curly, elbow-patched, teacher boy, laughing at his jokes and keeping eye contact easily, not a shred of disdain coloring his irises.

It’s annoying.

Louis huffs around the shop, busting his arse to finish all the chores that need to be done before close, picking up the slack that his [suddenly] conversationally-gifted colleagues are leaving behind.

Liam’s in absolute heaven, batting his eyelashes and laughing coquettishly every time Harry says…pretty much any word. When he was sent on his lunch, he spent most of it talking to Harry (who, Louis was happy to note, approached Liam first) and laughing about… Well. Who the hell knows. Still, it made Louis smile as he collected dishes and swept crumbs off of the counters.

But he stopped smiling after social hour became social hours.

Because then Zayn—who already takes for-fucking-ever when he counts cash drawers and counts pastries and does every other little task he (and only he) can do—was milling about, laughing with Harry like he were one of the regulars that have come for, say, more than two days in a row.

‘Hipster Prince has become Hipster Pest’ Louis scribbles down, trying not to break the pen in his clenched fist.

He continues to work around them all, gritting his teeth and firmly avoiding Harry’s gaze which he feels following him, prickling at his skin incessantly and unpleasantly. The fucker.

So it’s a colossal relief when the store finally closes, the clock ticking ten o’clock and sending Liam and Harry on their way.

“Should I ask him for a ride?” Liam asks nervously, zipping up his jacket and ambling up to Louis.

Louis peers at him over the stack of dishes in his hands, crumbs tumbling down his apron. “You have a car, Liam. Why on earth should you need a ride?”

“But like. Should I lie?” he asks, eyes wide.

A sigh escapes Louis as he brushes past him, dishes clanking together with each movement. “I think he’ll figure it out, to be honest.”

“Should I ask him to get food, then?” Liam continues, following him closely, eyebrows furrowed.

Louis rolls his eyes, ignoring the massive brown eyes and fearfully drawn lips. “Sure, go ahead, I don’t care—just leave my store so I can clean it up and leave this bloody place!”

“Hey, still up for a drink afterwards?” Zayn asks suddenly, popping up out of nowhere from around the corner.

Liam looks to Louis, instantly delighted. “OH! I’ll invite Harry!”

“Perfect,” Louis sighs, exasperated, dumping the stack of dishes into the sink and sending spits of suds and flecked water everywhere—namely on Louis’ face and apron. Marvelous. “Now go and flirt or fuck or whatever, and leave!”

With a beam, Liam trots away, catching up to Harry (who has just packed up his belongings carefully, eyes continuously flicking to the backroom) and together they exit the store, chatting amiably.

“Have we got a new friend?” Zayn asks after he’s locked the door, watching through the large windows as Liam and Harry walk into the night, surrounded by swirls of breath and moonlight.

Louis laughs from the back, elbow deep in suds and dishes. He slides his hair out of his eyes with the driest part of his wrist. “God, I hope not.”

Zayn chuckles as he walks away, and Louis scrubs for his life.

**

Harry doesn’t come.

“Said he has to get up for school tomorrow,” Liam pouts, already three drinks in. Which is excellent because it most likely means heartfelt crying will occur at some point. Louis’ favorite.

“Sorta makes sense tho, doesn’t it?” Louis says, thumping him on the back. “On account of him being a teacher and all?”

Liam doesn’t respond, just hiccups despairingly.

Zayn raises his eyebrows, sending Louis a look.

Louis sighs. “Don’t worry, Payno. You’re making remarkable progress. I think he likes you!” he encourages, faux-smile bright beneath orange lights and lingering cigarette smoke.

Simple as pie, Liam perks immediately. “Yeah? You think so?” he asks eagerly, shooting up in his seat. He looks from Louis to Zayn, then back again, like a meerkat.

“Oh yeah,” Zayn agrees with forced feeling after catching Louis’ threatening eye, and it’s so exaggerated and over the top that Louis wants to laugh, wants to laugh forever. Zayn clinks his glass against Liam’s reassuringly as he nods fiercely.”A lot, I reckon.”

“Yeah? A lot?” Liam asks, eyes positively shining, thirsting for affirmation.

Louis laughs, unable to keep it in any longer, throwing his head back and sliding further down the booth, throwing open his arms to rest on the back of it.

“A lot, a lot,” he reassures though his laughter, and presses a sloppy kiss to Liam’s forehead before he orders them all another round, sending a wink to Zayn from across the table.

“I sure hope so,” Liam sighs, on the verge of being downright glum.

Taking pity, Zayn reaches over in an uncharacteristically tender act, squeezing Liam’s shoulder sympathetically. “Don’t worry, Payno,” he says, breathe tinged with hard liquor and cigarettes. His hair is wilting a bit—it somehow makes him look even better. Fucker. “You’ll probably end up marrying the bloke--you never know what can happen.”

“Yeah,” Louis laughs, kicking up his feet with a cocksure smile as Liam blinks morosely. “You never know what can happen.”

Chapter Text

As luck would have it, the next day the cosmos have aligned and, praise, Louis doesn’t have to work until six PM. Therefore he will only have to endure a blissful four hour shift and the world and celestial beings love him. And he loves them, too.

So he sleeps until eleven before taking his time finally waking up, tapping out snippets of stories onto his laptop while perched atop his bed, still swaddled in blankets and flannel. After he’s sufficiently satisfied, he snaps the device shut with a definitive click, slides off the achingly soft mattress, and trots into the kitchen, combing his fingers through the soft hair of his two sisters as they pass him by, mounds of toys piled in their small arms—toys he’ll most likely have to pick up later.

Ah, the joys of family.

“Morning,” his mother greets with a smile as he pads his bare feet into the kitchen, the cool linoleum smacking lightly beneath his warm soles. She glances up from the counter where she’s plucking groceries out of brown paper bags, a calm serenity painted upon her face—most likely due to the fact that the majority of his sisters are at school and the younger, homebound ones are currently sufficiently occupied. The usually chaotic air flows only with the smooth bump of radio voices that drift in and out like the tide, the occasional clunk of a can being set upon the counter, and the soft crinkle of the bags.

He grins, rubbing the remnants of sleep away from his eyes, goose pimples forming on his skin. “Morning, mum.”

“You work today?” she asks, carrying a small tub of ice cream to the freezer. Strawberry. Louis’ favorite. Good mum.

“Not till six,” he yawns, scratching his stomach and poking at the bags before filling the kettle with tap water.

The sun is pouring through the windows, glinting beautifully upon the ice that lines the sill. Everything is blue and white gold outside and the mounds of snow and ice just make it all brighter, louder, more blinding.

It’s nice.

“Oh, lovely,” she smiles. “We have some time together today, then. Feels like it’s been ages since I’ve proper seen you.”

He nods, smiling fuzzily through the sunbeams as he sets the kettle atop the stove, clicks it into life; the flame ignites immediately, clawing at the bottom of the black iron. Louis yawns again, breathe wavering the flame.

“I know. It’s like a day off, innit? Feel like a proper prince with all this royal treatment.” He shuffles to the table, sitting down heavily in one of the creaky wooden chairs and stares out the window, humming Coldplay under his breath. He absorbs the tranquility of the moment, cherishes that he has nowhere to be, that he can just exist.

He’s just shutting his eyes, his body humming a bit too peacefully and the threat of falling back asleep looming over him, when his mother’s soft voice breaks through the surface.

“Found an advert for a job in the papers this morning,” she says, eyes following her movements as she removes a carton of eggs, the paper bag scraping her hands. “Thought you might be interested.”

A job.

Now. It’s not like Louis isn’t interested—he needs to get the fuck out of Starbucks, and fast—but… There always seems to be an unspoken pressure within his mother’s soft words. A pressure that Louis just doesn’t feel ready for, doesn’t want to touch or even look at.

So he opens his eyes against the hazy sunlight warming the floorboards, shifts his gaze over to her, and sets his chin atop his hand in feigned nonchalance.

“What kind of job?” he asks politely.

“A reporter for the paper.”

“I didn’t study journalism, mum,” Louis sighs, shutting his eyes again.

“You could still try for it,” she says, not unkindly. “Thought it might be a step in the right direction.”

And which direction is that, exactly? That’s what he wants to ask.

But instead he says:

“Yeah. Maybe.”

And it’s left at that before his mum changes the subject—probably in defeat—and instead asks Louis to help her prepare lunch for the little ones.

And Louis is thankful.

**

By the time work rolls around and he’s firmly planted inside the drug den that is Starbucks, aproned and ready to go, the sun has set and night has begun descending upon the tiny, warmly lit shop filled with studious regulars and caramel macchiatos. (So many caramel macchiatos.)

And, as luck would have it (the celestial beings really do love him, don’t they?), Liam is working again tonight. Louis is almost starting to feel lucky.

“Hey Li—“ Louis begins happily, before impossibly wide, eager eyes and a near rabid smile descend upon him with lightning speed. Fuck.

“I had my mate come in today,” Liam interrupts immediately, no moment for a breath, pulling him aside insistently. “To suss out Harry.”

Louis raises his brow, eyes travelling from Liam’s death-clutch on his elbow, up to his on-the-verge-of-foaming mouth.

Harry’s here? He didn’t see him when he walked in….

Then again. Louis wasn’t exactly looking.

“Harry? He’s back again?” And Louis likes to think he keeps the distaste out of his tone. A bit.

“Of course,” Liam quips, as if it were common knowledge. “He’s only just moved here. It’s, like, his third day of teaching or summat. He doesn’t like his flat so he comes here to grade his papers and do his teacherly things.”

Carefully avoiding the obvious temptation to mock ‘teacherly things’, Louis merely dislodges his arm, quirking his lips into a light smile as he glances at the clock. He’s got five minutes. He can indulge Liam a bit.

“How on earth do you know all of this? Do you harass him when he comes to the counter?”

“Of course not,” Liam says, affronted. “I just follow his Twitter, his Instagram, his Facebook, and he’s just added me on Snapchat so—“

“Dear Lord,” Louis mutters, rolling his eyes as he plows past Liam, whose mouth is still open and ready to form more words Louis sort of doesn’t care about at all.

“No, but listen Louis,” Liam continues, undeterred, as Louis enters the backroom and nods a greeting to Zayn—who is pulling pastries with a scowl, his iPhone blaring Anthony Hamilton at full, unabashed blast—before stuffing his jacket over one of the hooks and plucking up his journal from the Partner Pocket. “My mate came in and observed Harry, yeah? Says he reckons he’s gay.”

Louis scoffs, shaking his head as he slides his apron on, adjusting it carefully before tying it, looking up incredulously at Liam through his lashes. “’Course he is! I coulda told you that!”

Liam blinks, confused. “You what? But how did you know?”

“I’ve got a sixth sense, me,” Louis responds with a long-suffering glance towards the ceiling. “What do you mean, how do I know? How the fuck did your friend know?”

“Oh,” Liam says, blinking several more times and staring off blankly. “I guess…that makes sense.”

No it doesn’t. Liam can be a bit of a prat sometimes.

“Just so we’re clear here,” Louis continues as he clocks in, still hearing the whirs and clicks of Liam’s brain trying to think. “That means neither your friend nor I actually know if Harry is ‘the love that dare not speak its name,’ mate.”

Liam stares, face blank. “The love that…what?

Smiling a little, Louis clarifies. “Neither of us know if he actually fancies men, Liam. We can only make intelligent guesstimations. Suss it out with instinct and trial and error.”

“Oh," Liam deflates a little, soft features shadowing.

Fondly, Louis feels his smile widen as he settles a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “Yeah.”

“You’re on bar, Lou,” Zayn’s voice suddenly calls from the freezer, causing both their heads to turn in its direction.

And oh. Bar? PRAISE. Louis immediately beams.

“Fuck yes,” he breathes in response, walking with a bounce to his step as he emerges from the backroom and onto the floor, Liam nibbling on his fingernail behind him. Which, by the way, is a health and safety no-no. But Louis isn’t in the mood to give a fuck about it so he says nothing, just lets Liam chomp away at the brittle remains of his forefinger. “So have you asked him on a date yet then, Payno? Is there a Mister Payno developing in the near future?” he asks conversationally, waltzing over to his domain. “Or are you still just awkwardly flirting?”

“Awkwardly flirting,” Liam affirms. He opens his mouth to elaborate before he suddenly shuts it, a smirk blooming upon his lips, eyes cast past Louis. “But perhaps tonight will be the night.”

Louis spins around and ah, yep, there he is, clomping to the counter with his freshly-emptied mug and black scarf and hideous jacket and bouncy curls that have gotten him too far in life—they’re positively obscene. He probably uses a curling iron. Or it’s a perm.

Regardless, Louis hates those curls.

“Hi, Harry!” Liam actually waves, and he’s one step away from giggling like a shrill preteen. It’s a bit horrifying, a bit fantastic. Louis loves Liam.

As the mating ritual commences, Louis allows himself an amused smirk, turning his back instantly on the two and casually walking-with-purpose towards the corner by the sinks. He likes to call that corner the Dome of Solitude; it’s blocked off enough to be hidden from customers and is peacefully shaded, allowing him to stew in the gloom—which also generously hides his physical imperfections—when he’s in a foul temper. He also uses it to stealthily shoot back espresso shots whenever he’s reached an emotional or physical slump.

Louis loves the Dome of Solitude. And it’s never failed him once, so with practiced ease, he sidles over to it, inconspicuously avoiding any attempts at small talk with Harry.

“Liam!” Harry greets happily, expression open and delighted; the Dome of Solitude has once again prevailed, Harry completely oblivious to Louis’ presence.

Liam’s face nearly splits in two as he beams at Harry, who sets his empty mug atop the counter near the till. “Can I get you anything?” he practically purrs, striding forward immediately.

Harry nods as he smiles, sunny and free, his curls the very portrait of a shimmering, unkempt halo. “Mind filling me up?”

There’s a very, very poignant .35 seconds where every light bulb in the building almost snaps under the tension as Louis uses every fiber of physical and emotional strength within him not to burst into laughter while Liam undoubtedly has to resist the urge to come in his pants.

To say that Liam turns positively crimson would be putting it lightly.

“F-fill you u-up?” Liam stutters, skin radiating reds, and Louis actually has to smush his face against the wall to prevent himself from biting through his lip with restrained laughter at the spectacle.

Harry blinks a bit as his smile fades, a delicate crease forming between his brows (that are probably waxed—no gentleman could be so lucky to have such fine lines) as they furrow, his confusion evident as he takes in Liam’s flustered demeanor.

“Yeah,” he says slowly, hands limp where they lie on the counter, fingers spread. Long fingers. “Like. My mug…?”

“Mug? MUG!” Liam practically shouts as realization blooms, somehow managing to become redder. “Your mug! Your mug needs filling up!”

Slowly, Harry nods as he stares at Liam, completely befuddled.

This might be the best day of Louis’ life.

“Alright there?” Harry asks, a little unsure, one corner of his lip tugging up. The poor thing is terribly confused and verging on being bashful. Awweh.

“Oh yes!” Liam squawks, waving a hand dismissively, face still the color of burning embers. “Brilliant, really! Really brilliant!” he continues and Louis briefly wonders if he might jump over the counter or spontaneously combust. “Here, I’ll just—“

And then suddenly the headset dings.

Louis can’t help but chuckle at the way the lights immediately go out in Liam’s eyes at the intrusion, his blush beginning to wilt with disappointment. He’s such a sensitive pup. It’s unfailingly endearing and ridiculous.

With an apologetic and flustered smile towards Harry, Liam presses the button on his belt pack, picking up the line immediately over his headset.

“Good evening, welcome to Starbucks, this is Liam. What can we get started for you?” he asks with pristine customer service skills, and his voice is the very intonation of patient pleasantness but his face looks absolutely murderous. Begrudgingly, he shuffles over to his computer as the girl on the other end prattles off her list of Frappuccinos. Louis’ favorite.

With a sigh, he emerges from the Dome of Solitude and heads for the cold bar, hauls the pitchers into place, and is just about to pump the frapp roast into the cups when he hears a soft sort of rumble behind him.

He straightens, glancing behind him and—oh.

Harry’s still there.

“Can I help you?” Louis asks, sounding a bit meaner than he intended. Oops.

But Harry seems unperturbed, his smile blooming to take up most of his youthful, flowery face. “Louis!” he greets in delight, teeth exposed. Perfect teeth. Of course. “I didn’t know you were here! What rock did you just emerge from?”

And Louis can’t help but smile at such open excitement about his presence, so he does, flicking his eyes towards the ceiling as he turns back around to continue making his drinks, lightly shaking his head with an amused smirk.

“Hello, Henry.”

“Harry.”

“Who?”

And Louis casts an impish glance over his shoulder at Harry, who looks decidedly put out.

There’s a pause as the headset cuts off and Liam trots over to the drive thru window, the doors clicking as they open automatically. Harry continues to stand there, staring at Louis owlishly, skin the color of steamed soy.

“What do you need, then?” Louis asks, pumping base into the pitchers. He adjusts his voice to a kinder timbre because he's a gentle soul at heart. He really is. Ask his mum.

“Just the refill. And I need to be rung up,” Harry replies (does his voice twinkle? it might. does Harry know this? he might.) and Louis nods.

“Liam’ll have to do that. I don’t have a till.”

He presses the button on the blender and it whirs to life in chaotic noise as he leans against the counter, watching the ingredients mix together in a flurry of sound and color. Momentarily, he zones out, fiddling with his apron strings. Until a voice booms through the noise.

“So how was your day?” Harry ask-shouts, his low rumble straining to be heard over the screech of mechanics.

Surprised (rarely do customers ever ask the employees such things), Louis turns around, taking in Harry’s face which is surprisingly intent, eyes unyieldingly set on Louis as he nibbles lightly at his bottom lip, the empty mug still sat before him.

“My day? It was…good,” Louis answers loudly, unsure if he’s appreciative or annoyed with the chatter. “Only got here a little bit ago. So I can’t exactly complain, can I?” He offers up a smile as the blender stops, immediately lifting the cover and releasing the pitcher. There’s a beat of silence as Harry waits politely, a beat long enough that Louis feels compelled to ask in return: “How was yours, Professor?”

Harry chuckles at that, a sound akin to the smooth glide of whipped cream being dispensed from its cold, metal canister.

“Good, thanks. But. My class was a bit…troublesome today.” There’s a smile in his voice. Louis hears it as he dumps the Frappuccinos into the awaiting cups, knocking the excess out with skilled taps. “We’re studying Frankenstein right now and nearly everyone fell asleep. Or, like, stared blankly at me. Sometimes I forget that not everybody loves that book as much as I do.”

“Hm,” Louis hums, the tiniest inklings of interest prickling the bottom of his stomach. This is an area he enjoys, an area he feels one with. He used to be a student, back in the day. He sorta likes those things they call books. “You like Frankenstein, do you?”

“Of course,” Harry says immediately, without an ounce of hesitation. The words almost fizzle in their rush to leave his lips.

Interesting.

Louis tops off the Frappuccinos with whipped cream, squirting mocha drizzle on just one of them, before capping them with a proficient click and setting them by Liam’s till, occasionally flicking a glance Harry’s way. He’s still just patiently standing there, a vague and unfamiliar expression faintly coloring his face.

“Don’t you?” Harry asks. “Don’t you like Frankenstein? It’s a classic, you know.” Rumble, rumble. There’s a bit of fuzz stuck to his scarf.

Liam turns around at that point, finally extracting himself from the window, about to prance back over to Harry like a reindeer. Until he sees the already-made Frappuccinos sitting on the counter. With a sigh, he grabs them, trotting back over to the window.

“It’s alright,” Louis shrugs. “Not bad. Just a bit…overrated, to be quite honest.”

He strides forward, having no other current drinks to make, and grabs Harry’s mug before bringing it over to the coffee carafes. He begins filling it, the liquid warm and rich and gorgeously dark as it spills into the white porcelain, little curls of steam blooming from the surface and licking his cheeks.

“I think…I like it in theory better than I do the actual novel,” he continues. “You know? Like. Don’t get me wrong, Mary Shelley was a brilliant writer, especially considering her age, but even the grotesque tone and all that bullshit stark depression couldn’t get me hooked on that hot, scientific mess. And the end—where did that come from? Like?” With a shake of the head, he finishes pouring the coffee, sets it on the counter before Harry, then raises his gaze.

Harry is staring at him. A slightly glazed quality blankets his features.

“Soy today?” Louis asks, motioning towards the drink.

Harry swallows, still staring with wide, hazy eyes. They look a bit smoky, more like a jade green today. It pairs nicely with his soft brown hair that looks like fallen leaves. Harry Styles is made of earth tones.

“No, thank you,” he manages, shaking his head. Pause. “You’ve clearly read Frankenstein, then.”

Stunning deduction, Sherlock.

“Obviously,” Louis says, folding his arms across his chest as he stands before Harry, the slab of green-speckled granite separating them. “Hasn’t everybody? It’s a requirement for most curriculums.”

“But, like. You clearly know what you’re talking about,” Harry continues lowly. He hasn’t blinked, his chin scraping the soft knit of his scarf.

“I studied English," Louis shrugs. "I know what I’m about.”

Harry stares. His eyelashes are delicate, framing his eyes and curling upwards, almost femininely. Mascara, probably.

Louis can hear Liam still chatting amiably to the customers at the window—they’re probably flirting with him. They always are. He wonders if he should save him.

“I studied English, too,” Harry says instead, and he’s smiling, his cheeks pushed up with it and glowing, and he really does have such a pleasant smile though, doesn’t he? His face is a sunny one. Louis can give him that.

Liam has decent taste, at least.

“Well, obviously you did, English teacher,” Louis teases as he nudges his mug forward a bit more. “I think I can put two and two together.”

Harry doesn’t reply, just beams lopsidedly.

“You know,” Louis says after a moment, fingers tapping against the granite in a steady rhythm, his lips quirking into a slow-forming smile. “You should probably discuss Oscar Wilde with your students.” A pleased sort of feeling blooms within Louis’ chest as he says the name. His favorite author. His favorite poet. His favorite playwrite. His favorite personality.

Louis is, maybe, a bit of an Oscar Wilde enthusiast.

“Wilde?” Harry asks, and his smile diminishes faintly, the mechanics behind his eyes working. “Ernest, Right? He wrote Ernest? Or…?”

“Correct,” Louis says, just as another ding sounds over the headset, and the inklings of intrigue have just been replaced by tendrils of disappointment. Because The Importance of Being Ernest to Oscar Wilde is like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to Nirvana. Or any hit song by your favorite band. It’s good, brilliant, yeah, and everybody knows of it, everybody’s heard it. Of course.

But it’s just the surface. It’s only the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more and that is the stuff that’s truly brilliant. The stuff that really matters and keeps you awake at night and floods your veins with words. Words that travel to your fingertips, that pour onto pages and bleed through ink.

In a timely fashion, Liam’s plucky voice picks up over the headset. “Hi, welcome to Starbucks…”

“It’s not his best work, though,” Louis resumes, the order for a triple grande mocha drifting through his ear. He immediately begins pouring his milk as Harry shuffles closer, leans on the barrier separating the bar from the counter, folding his arms atop the blonde wood and giving Louis his full attention. “It’s a damn good play. But it’s not my favorite.”

Harry nods and his eyes still seem to be considering, his motions quiet. “Wilde,” he repeats, almost as if to himself, a tranquil tilt to his mouth, a contemplative look in his eye.

“Wilde,” Louis grins, now pulling his shots. “But it’s his short stories, Henry—“

“Harry.”

“—His short stories are where it’s at,” Louis continues breezily, highly amused at Harry’s huff as the steamer shuts off.

“I’ll have to check him out,” Harry says after a moment, watching as Louis pours the frothy milk into the cup, watches as it swirls with the mocha and espresso.

“Yes you will.”

And Louis glances up to connect eyes with Harry before sending forth a smile, which Harry reciprocates immediately, the solar system bursting through his lips, before returning his focus to his work.

“Sir? Are you ordering?” a faceless customer asks Harry.

“Oh! No, I’m sorry. Go right ahead,” he says hurriedly, immediately removing himself. He begins walking away, just a bit slowly, so Louis glances up yet again, finds Harry still looking at him from across the way. He offers Louis a silly little wave—his hands are probably as big as whale flippers—and Louis reciprocates with a smile and a nod.

Then, from nowhere, a little bit of chaos descends upon the shop as a random splurge of customers begin filing in and the headset dings repeatedly in succession. Liam looks a bit flustered, casting repeated glances towards the direction Harry had retreated to, between wide smiles and almost manic laughter.

Louis shakes his head, laughing to himself. Oh, Liam.

They plow on through the continued madness of simultaneous customers—thank god he and Liam work so well together—and Louis just pours more and more milk and pulls more and more shots.

All the while with a tiny, tiny hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

**

After the rush finally, finally dies away, there is but one thing left to do: Clean up the mess.

Louis is currently sponging up puddles of cold milk as Liam drops to his knees and begins furiously scrubbing out the fridges, the proper good worker that he is.

“On your knees again, Payno?” Louis can’t help but let slip teasingly, eyes slitting with a smirk. “Where’s Harry?”

Liam blushes within seconds, beet red to the roots of his hair. “Louis,” he hisses. “That’s unprofessional!”

He receives a roll of the eyes in response. “We’re glorified coffee pots, Liam. I hardly think decorum is an issue here. Besides, have you met Zayn?”

Who, by the way, is currently eating a sandwich in the café as he jots down numbers onto a clipboard between texts. There’s a chunk of cheese stuck to the paper. Extremely professional.

“Even so,” Liam grumbles. “You need to watch your tongue.”

“Maybe tomorrow.”

Liam shakes his head. Louis winks.

And then suddenly a customer walks to the till and Liam splatters on his winning smile, immediately pouring out a, “Can we help you today?” as he pops up from the ground like a daisy while Louis pretends to be busy cleaning something (he’s not feeling very social today). Only when the stickers are printed and Louis sees the order for two breve lattes, does he quit his puttering and emerge with a smile.

Thank the lord they’re not fucking Frappuccinos.

It’s as he’s steaming the cream that Liam walks over, bored, and begins rinsing his pitchers. Louis, also bored, meets his eye as he presses the button for the shots, a smile in place.

“It’s like you’re my mirror,” Louis begins singing, smile twitching as Liam immediately picks up on it; it’s a song they sing continuously, one of Louis’ current obsessions. He may or may not sing it incessantly. May or may not sing it over the headset. Sometimes sing it to the customers. Maybe.

“My mirror staring back at me,” Liam adds, busting out his vocal chops. Such a proper showoff. (Only on a good day will Louis admit that, okay, yes, Liam can sing. Liam can sing really well.) (But only on a good day.) (He’s dangerously close to being cocky about it.)

Louis beams, swaying his hips as he removes the steamed pitcher from the wand, wiping it down carefully. “I couldn’t get any bigger—“

“—with anyone else beside of me!” comes an entirely new voice. A deep, sultry, deep—did Louis mention deep?—voice.

Liam looks taken aback, his mouth still opened and ready to sing, and as one, both Liam and Louis’ eyes slide to the handoff plane and—ah.

“Henry,” Louis greets, not terribly annoyed at his presence.

This time, Harry’s smile doesn’t falter.

“Barnabus,” he greets in return, a proud smirk to his voice.

Louis genuinely smiles at that, almost feeling a swell of pride.

Liam looks betwixt them, brows furrowing. “What…?” he begins, but Harry’s eyes are glinting and set on Louis and he plows on obliviously.

“I love that song you were singing,” Harry smiles, his chin nearly buried in that damn scarf, his pinky ring glinting under the lights. “I was just listening to it a little bit ago, even.” His eyes are still on Louis, never once darting to Liam. Not once.

“Er. It’s good stuff,” Louis reasons, smiling over at his friend. Who is staring at Harry with very obvious longing.

“It’s the best,” Liam agrees, a bit breathless.

Harry’s eyes then flicker to him briefly, offering a flash of a smile, before returning to Louis.

“Do you like Justin Timberlake?” he asks, hands dancing across the granite as he stares, tilting his head. One of his curls tumbles out of place.

Louis grins, pouring the steamed cream into the cups with the caramel-brown espresso, the soft pillows of foam rising to the top. It takes a lot of willpower not to lean down and lick a strip of it. (He might be hungry.)

“We’re actually going to a concert of his, aren’t we, Li?” Louis says, nodding towards a drooling Liam, and capping the two drinks.

Liam nods, barely comprehending, as he stares at Harry. “Yeah.” A man of many words.

“You’re expected to come with us, of course,” Louis says breezily to Harry, and Liam jumps a little at that, his eyes glowing brighter as Louis moves towards the handoff plane, drinks in tow. “TWO TALL BREVE LATTES,” he calls out to the café as he sets the drinks on the counter, and Harry moves a fraction to the left, allotting room for the customers to grab their beverages, but his eyes...

His eyes are definitely stuck to Louis. Intently. And…purposefully, a lingering pull of something lying behind his irises—a pull that isn’t a far cry from the look in Liam’s lust-filled gaze.

Uh oh.

Louis tries not to notice, instead begins rinsing his pitchers as the headset dings again.

“Good evening, welcome to Starbucks, this is Liam. What can we…” Liam’s voice drifts as he tentatively departs, eyes flicking between Harry and Louis.

“I’ll definitely go to the concert with you,” Harry grins after Liam’s gone, prattling in the background. He slides his hands into his pockets as Louis rinses more pitchers, his thumbs resting on the dark denim of his jeans. (He’s got nice nails. Trim and clean.)

Louis chews his lip, feeling Harry’s stare, sloshing water around the metal pitchers covered in caked-on milk residue and mocha splatters. The water from the faucet is cold, cutting the skin of his hands, and Harry’s voice is soft and low and maybe a bit too soft? And Louis is sort of stuck.

Because, you see, the trouble with the sink is that it’s placed directly at the handoff plane. So now Louis is awkwardly standing directly across from Harry. When Liam should be the one standing across from Harry so Harry can stare at him like that.

“Yay,” Louis responds weakly, eyes focused on polishing the sticky milk off of the metal, scraping at it with a spoon. Awkward.

There’s a moment of silence, filled only with clanking metal and the sound of rushing water, before Louis turns off the faucet and begins reassembling his station, unpeeling the sticker for his next drink: a grande vanilla spice latte.

He begins pouring the milk, focusing on his movements, very aware of Harry’s lingering presence.

The boy won’t leave.

“So. I have a bit of a stupid question,” Harry’s voice suddenly begins, quiet and slow.

And oh fuck.

Louis clears his throat, wondering what Liam is currently doing (probably chatting up the customers at the window) before tossing out an uneasy, “Yeah?”

In his peripherals, he sees Harry’s hands skimming out lazy, absentminded designs on the granite of the handoff plane.

Louis waits, chewing on the inside of his lip, wishing Liam would come back.

“Did Oscar Wilde write The Picture of Dorian Gray?”

And that’s the last question Louis anticipated.

He freezes, blinking owlishly before he turns to face Harry; his brow is creased, eyes downcast, and his hands are still skimming the surface of the counter. His cheeks are slightly flushed, contrasting harshly against the pallor of his skin.

“Yes he did,” he says, perking up immensely, stomach muscles unclenching.

Harry’s face splits into a grin, his eyes rising to meet Louis’. “I knew he sounded familiar,” he mumbles but his voice is stronger, more confident, robust with color and interest. “I actually just read Dorian Gray for the first time a couple months ago. I just…” He pauses, his eyes flickering about as he searches for the words, pulls them up one by one and assembles them in his head as Louis watches, curious. “I just loved it,” Harry continues, looking back to Louis, hand gesticulating his meaning. “It was one of the best books I’ve ever read—if not the best. The images and the messages and…it was just so brilliant. Like. I still think about it. It, like, echoes inside of me. Sort of.” There’s a bit of a blush there, a little bit of bashfulness as Harry mumbles the words to the counter.

Louis stares, frozen to the spot. ‘Echoes inside of me.’

Echoes

Inside

Of

Me

Oh, fuck.

Louis tries not to drop the bottle of caramel drizzle he’s holding as he stares at Harry, his soft, boyish face smiling as he glances up at Louis through his curls. Looking all seemingly innocent. Like he didn’t just wax fucking poetic about Oscar fucking Wilde. Louis' lifeblood.

“Yeah?” Louis scratches out, stunned and utterly pleased. “Well, that’s…brilliant.” He laughs, drizzling the caramel macchiato before him, his smile humming his skin. “It’s an incredible piece. Oscar’s the best—the best.”

“I don’t know enough of his work to agree with you wholeheartedly,” Harry remarks thoughtfully, and he’s pressed so close to the counter that it digs into him, wrinkling his clothes and pulling his t-shirt, his hands splayed on the cool granite as he leans forward. “But I’m also not going to argue with you. His style is amazing.”

Oh. Okay. Well then.

Louis tries not to flush with pleasure.

“Think you might be a bit smarter than I took you for after all, Henry,” he smiles, a bit coquettishly (oops) as he smooths another sticker on another drink—hazelnut cappuccino.

“Hey, I’m plenty smart,” Harry grins, and he might even lean a bit more forward, dangerously close to tumbling over.

Louis finds that he, sort of, doesn’t mind.

“Finally,” Liam huffs, bumbling up from out of nowhere with a sigh. “The damn thing’s stopped dinging. Might have a moment’s silence.”

“Ah, the joys of Starbucks!” Louis mocks as the steam wand spits into the pitcher, the frantic bubbles clustering to the surface of the milk.

“Right?” Liam sighs, rubbing his temple as he smiles sheepishly at Harry. He looks tired, save for the sexual thirst.

Harry smiles, large lips pressed into each other. So pink. “I remember it well,” he says, and at that, both Louis and Liam blink in surprise.

“You worked at Starbucks?” Louis asks, eyebrows raising.

With a nod that sends his curls flopping, Harry smiles wider, exposing those shiny little teeth. “For about a year and half, yeah. Before that, I worked at a bakery.”

A smile is quick to form on Louis’ lips, surprise fluttering inside of him. “Seriously? I worked at my cousin’s bakery right before I came here as well. Was there for about a year.”

“Are you joking?” Harry asks, voice raised in delight and edging on laughter. His eyes are so bright. “We’ve actually had the same work history?”

“Well. Barring the part where you have an actual career and I don’t, then yes,” Louis smiles, and he scoops careful amounts of foam to the top of the cup, all the while as Liam watches Harry, stars in his eyes.

“I never worked at one but I like eating at bakeries,” he says immediately, with a barely decipherable sigh. “If that counts?”

Jade eyes slide to Liam, smile never faltering. “It absolutely does, Liam. That’s basically the reason I worked there, after all.”

“Free pastries?” Liam asks, and yes, he’s blinking a bit too much for that to be natural.

Louis smirks.

“Tons of them,” Harry nods. “I was in very real danger of becoming incredibly overweight.”

“Being overweight is a state of mind,” Liam brushes aside with a grin and Harry chuckles appreciatively.

Louis rolls his eyes. “Says the bottomless pit, over here. With the metabolism of a race horse.”

A seamless grin fills Liam’s face as he shrugs, casting glances at Harry. “I’m blessed, what can I say?”

“Not all of us are so lucky,” Harry replies, but it’s amiable and easy and Louis wonders if Harry is going to sit down ever again.

“Don’t you have work to do? Papers to grade?” Louis asks once Liam takes the hazelnut cappuccino and departs for the window. “You’ve spent most of your night standing here—“ He’s about to say ‘chatting me up’ but he bites his lip and cuts himself off, his mind immediately conjuring up the image of Liam.

Which. Is a touch strange. It’s not like he was meaning anything by the comment.

Still, though… He holds back.

“I’m a bit ahead of schedule at the moment, actually,” Harry shrugs, taking a sip from his mug. “Besides, I’ve been cooped up for hours. Wanna talk to some fellow human beings, don’t I?”

“Fellow baristas, you mean?” Louis supplies, and they share a small smile as the headset dings again, Liam dutifully picking up as he stands by his computer, once again casting repeated smiles Harry’s way. “That’s funny that you worked here. And yet you come here every day?”

Harry shrugs, fingers tapping against the porcelain of the mug. “I always used to stay after my shifts and work on homework or write. I dunno, I guess I just like the atmosphere here? So as soon as I moved here, I made sure to find the nearest Starbucks because I was already in the habit of it and, I dunno, I guess I just sort of wanted to find something a bit familiar? Like. My flat’s a bit shit and it’s empty so I don’t much like being there. And I like, like, talking to people. Being around them. So… Here I am.” He smiles, a bit self-consciously, shrugging his shoulders and glancing down into the surface of his coffee.

His eyelashes are quite long.

“That makes sense,” Louis reasons, pouring more milk (so much milk) as more drinks fly through the headset. “It is a bit cozy here, innit?” He glances around, takes in the soft lights and the leather chairs and large portraits hung on the walls. “Nice scenery.”

Still staring down at his coffee, Harry smiles, wide and unruly. “Yeah,” he says, low and quiet, as if sharing a secret with himself.

Zayn walks by then, still meandering around in the café, picking at his teeth. When Louis catches his eye, he sends forth a wink, a bit of hair falling into his eyes. He looks fresh out the pages of one of those photo shoots where scantily clad models play in waterfalls—usually adverts for perfumes or jeans.

That absolutely stunning wanker.

Louis feels himself smile, shaking his head and looking down.

Liam’s voice is still chattering in his ear, warming up the customers as they order at the box.

“What other writers do you read?” Harry asks, cutting through the momentary lull, the sound warm beneath the lights. “Or, like, what do you read?”

Oo. What an excellent question.

“What do I like?” Louis asks, mostly to himself, before he clucks his tongue, a slew of names and titles flittering across his brain. “That’s a bit difficult. I love Hemingway. I love Fitzgerald. I love Ovid. I love Poe. I love Keats… I love what I love, you know? I really like late seventeenth century literature. Eighteenth century literature is amazing as well. I enjoy Old English poems and prose… It’s a bit scattered, I guess. I’m prone to short stories mostly, though.” Louis shrugs, turning the pages of his brain, searching for the topics he hasn’t touched in months—he’s been out of school for over a year, none of his friends would dare touch a book, and his life consists of serving angry people caffeine.

To say he’s a bit rusty would be an understatement.

But it’s nice. And he misses it.

Harry’s nodding, nodding along to Louis’ words as they fall from his lips, his eyes cast there. His face is quiet, listening, and he just looks like he’s absorbing the information, placing it in cabinets for later.

It’s intriguing. Almost endearing.

“Do you like poetry?” Harry asks.

“A bit. Mostly Romantic Era poetry. I’m not jaded enough to pretend that Shakespeare’s sonnets aren’t lovely, though. And, obviously, I enjoy Oscar.”

“Obviously,” Harry smiles, the word warm. Everything about Harry is very warm, isn’t it? Louis’ torn between being drawn and repelled by it.

“I dunno about what else, though. Can’t think right now. What about you?”

“I love Emily Dickinson,” Harry replies, the words slow and dripping and genuine. “And a lot of modern poetry. Do you?”

“Nah,” Louis says, capping another drink and handing it to Liam—who’s brow is furrowed, not once looking at Louis as he takes cup after cup. Odd. “I’m more of a Classics kinda guy,” he continues. “Are you a modern boy?”

“A bit, yeah.”

“Nothing wrong in that.”

“Gotta have both, don’t we? We complement each other,” Harry says, the words smooth and a little raspy and they make Louis’ eyes flash to him briefly, gauging his facial expression. Which, by the way, is pleasant and tranquil. Nothing too…predatory.

“Maybe,” Louis says, a safe noncommittal answer, but he smiles nonetheless.

“Do you write?” Harry then asks, and all these questions should be bothering Louis but they don’t. They’re questions Louis sort of wants to be asked because nobody else asks them.

Because he doesn’t really have anybody to talk with about all of this. And it makes his chest warm, his hands warm, and it makes his glances up to Harry feel a bit warmer as well as they linger momentarily, catch onto the spring in his gaze and the autumn in his hair, the winter in his skin. The summer in his lips. Of course Harry likes poetry—he looks like poetry.

“I do,” Louis says, clearing his throat and staring firmly ahead. “Flash fiction. Snippets of prose. Some stories—all of that.”

“Would you like to write a novel someday? Or just keep it as a hobby? Like, on the side?”

The questions are earnest, sincere.

“A novel would be the dream,” Louis smiles quietly, chuckling. “But I don’t know if it’s in my future.”

“I’m sure it could be,” Harry says immediately, so positive, so optimistic. “From the way you carry yourself and the way you speak alone, I can only imagine what you sound like on paper. Probably very Wildean. But unmistakably unique.”

And oh fuck. Fuck.

Louis’ heart positively preens, truly flattered. He bites his smile, nearly bites clean through his lips. “Oh, stop it, you charmer,” he says, brushing the compliment aside outwardly, but inwardly tattooing the words onto his ribcage. Louis loves compliments. Louis lives for compliments.

And that? That was a fucking stellar compliment.

“I’m serious,” Harry continues, undeterred, sweet and brown and pale. He’s got ink stains on the fingertips of his right hand. “The way you discuss things, the way you feel things—“

“I feel a lot,” Louis assures, offering up a half-grin, briefly meeting Harry’s eye. So, so bright.

“Exactly,” Harry chuckles, and his coffee must be cold, but he clearly doesn’t care, just smiles and shines instead. Such a little golden boy. “You should pursue it. If you want to, that is. It’s up to you, obviously. Whatever makes you happy. But.” Harry smiles, a bit depreciatingly, shrugging as his words stumble over themselves, cheeks pinkened. “You know.”

“I do, yeah. You’re right.” And all of this is sincere and Louis barely even knows this boy, but it still feels nice and it still feels significant, so he lets himself shine a bit as well, cocking his head as he observes Harry through steam. “I’m sure you make an excellent teacher, Henry,” he muses. “With all your encouraging words and lovely smiles.”

“Lovely smiles?” Harry asks hopefully, perking visibly and standing up straighter. “You think I have lovely smiles?”

Oh dear lord.

“Er—“ Louis begins, just as Liam ambles up, his smile the tiniest bit strained.

“You leave in about five minutes,” he notifies, and though his grin is there, his eyes are slightly…hardened.

“I’m here until ten, I thought” Louis says, confused, but Liam’s shaking his head.

“Zayn said you could leave an hour early. We need to cut the wage bill. So. I can take over on bar.” His smile becomes a bit more genuine at that, eyes traveling to Harry. “I guess it’ll be up to me to entertain our guest now,” he says sweetly.

Harry blinks, a bit startled, but grins nonetheless, eyes only momentarily lingering on Louis. “Yayyyy,” he cheers, balling up his fists and pumping them dopily over his head. Everything he does is slow and loopy. Weird boy.

Sighing, Louis shakes his head, removing his headset as he steps back, making room for Liam.

Because Liam is obviously jealous (and, really, he probably has a right to be, what with Louis practically monopolizing Harry’s attention—granted, unwittingly) but he doesn’t need to be. Fuck’s sake. Harry may be a very pretty young man and he may say lovely things and look at Louis like he’s treasure but… But Liam likes Harry and Louis is not looking for anything right now.

So. It’s not even like that. Harry doesn’t interest Louis romantically. He’s pretentious. And a bit too sure of himself. And his scarf is too long. And he wears pinky rings. All wrong.

“Well, allow me to just skedaddle, then,” Louis smiles, coiling up his headset and smacking a kiss to Liam’s cheek.

He splutters, pushing Louis away, but he grins nonetheless, eyes softer as they fall on him. “You menace,” he says, but Louis pushes in close, wraps an arm around his shoulders in a quick embrace, bringing his mouth to his ear.

“Pretend your car’s broken tonight,” he whispers, giving his shoulder a squeeze. “Then have tons of beautiful sex in his car. That’s an order, Payno.”

Liam actually squeaks at that, bring an appalled hand to his mouth, but his eyes are dancing as Louis pulls away and any hardness or distance is gone, just like that.

Louis smiles, relieved.

“Have fun, you two,” he says, casting a wave over his shoulder as he exits for the backroom.

“Heading out?” Zayn asks from the desk.

“Yeah, obviously. Since you need to save wages and all that,” Louis says, sliding his arms through his jacket.

“Hm? Oh. Sure,” Zayn replies absently, eyes fixed on the computer screen. “Karaoke tomorrow?”

“Always,” Louis grins.

Wednesday is official ‘Karaoke Night’ at the pub by Niall’s house. Do they go every week? Yes. Does it get tiresome? Yes. Does Louis still go? Yes. Because why the fuck not.

“I’ll wear my Wednesday best,” he teases, pinching the back of Zayn’s neck, who swats him away half-arsedly.

“See you tomorrow, Lou,” he mumbles into a smile and Louis salutes him as he walks away.

“Till tomorrow, Superior.”

He emerges from the backroom and is just heading towards the door, waving goodbye to Liam—who is detail-cleaning the coffee carafes, Harry nowhere to be seen, when—

“Louis! Come here, real quick?”

Louis looks over and, ah. There’s Harry, sitting in his usual spot by the windows, laptop open before him, books scattered about. Rolling his eyes, Louis strides forward, shaking his head to Liam who is now watching from afar, the line of his back a bit tense.

“Liam,” he calls, waving him over. “Come look at what Harry’s going to show us.”

“Oh,” Harry says, a bit surprised, as Liam nearly hops the counter. “Well, it’s not a big deal or anything. I just wanted to show you my copy of Dorian Gray. I actually have it with me.”

Louis’ heart patters as Harry removes the book from his bag—a gorgeous brown leather-bound thing with gold pages, the cover a bit worn. There’s red velvet ribbon for a bookmark.

Louis’ feelings have an orgasm.

“That’s brilliant,” he admires in awe, stroking a finger along the cover reverently.

Harry beams, watching Louis’ face carefully, inclining towards him that much more.

“Er. Yeah. That’s…special,” Liam says flatly, eyebrow raising. “Books are…fun.”

“Hush, Liam. You could stand to read one,” Louis shoots back, and Harry chuckles.

“I would love to read one, actually. Maybe I could read one of yours, Harry?” Liam asks, voice an octave higher.

Harry nods enthusiastically. “Yeah! Of course!”

Louis snorts, but doesn’t comment.

“Very nice,” he eventually says with one final tap to the cover of the book, flashing Harry a smile, who returns it ten-fold.

Stifling a yawn, Louis slips his phone from the pocket of his jacket then absently, checking for the time but instead finding a text from Stan. It’s a gif, with the words “FUCK YOU” flashing amongst glitter and stars. It’s supremely important.

“Oh, man,” he laughs, watching as the stars shift in color and size, the glitter twinkling merrily betwixt the words. “This is fantastic,” he tells nobody in particular. He’s tired and he’s amused. “Okay, honestly, if my soul could be summed up in one thing, this would be it.”

Upon seeing Harry’s inquiring expression, he raises the phone to his face. His eyebrows nearly disappear into his hairline, a surprised laugh escaping him. “Oh!” he exclaims, shiny and delighted (sort of like the gif), laughing, a little speechless. “Brilliant!”

Louis smirks.

Liam scoffs, folding his arms.

“Do you want to see my soul summed up in one thing?” Harry asks then, and Louis raises an eyebrow, stuffing his phone back in his pocket.

“Let’s see it, then.”

With a thoroughly pleased expression, Harry clicks through a few things on his computer, his fingers moving in quick flashes, before his face splits into a satisfied grin. He turns the laptop towards Louis and Liam, teeth glinting.

It’s a gif of a kitten forcing affection on another kitten. Clobbering it. Practically suffocating it. All bouncy and boisterous and ‘let me love you’.

“Oh dear lord,” Louis mumbles with a roll of the eyes as Liam actually squeals.

“That is adorable,” he simpers, quickly becoming a pile of goo. “That’s my soul, too!!”

“That’s probably fairly accurate, actually,” Louis half-smiles as he watches the kittens over and over and over. The one looks completely miserable, barely tolerating the boisterous one’s affections. “That poor kitten,” he says.

“Poor kitten?” Harry repeats, feigning being aghast. “He’s receiving affection! Cuddling is nice! Hugs are good!”

“They really are,” Liam sighs, probably most definitely envisioning embracing Harry. Repeatedly.

“Not really,” Louis sniffs. “I prefer not being touched.”

A few bodies walk past the window, ready to enter. Louis takes that as his cue to leave. Casually, he begins to depart.

“So you’re the other kitten, then,” Harry says, turning his laptop back around, never releasing eye contact. “The one that’s not me.”

“I am the other kitten,” Louis concludes, flashing an ironic thumbs up before turning around fully. “It’s been a pleasure, lads,” he calls, reaching for the door, holding it open for the customers. “See you tomorrow.”

“Bye, Louis!” Harry calls, waving a smidge shyly, his headphones hanging around his scarf-clad neck, his curls shivering with the movement.

Liam offers a small wave as well before turning back to Harry, his smile large enough to generate the city’s electricity.

But Harry’s eyes follow Louis.

**

When Louis gets home, after he kicks off his shoes and rips off his coat, dumps his keys on the counter and flops onto his unmade bed, Louis only then realizes, apron still in hand, that he forgot to put his journal in his Partner Pocket.

He flicks through it for awhile, eyes hazy and puffy and threatening to close as his body relaxes, sinking into his mattress.

The last thing he writes before he finally falls asleep is ‘Henry’, written next to a small doodle of Liam.

 

 

Chapter Text

It snowed again.

It snowed again (a lot) and Louis works at one o’clock, so this means that he is now going to have to get ready faster and leave earlier, allotting for ample time to drive through treacherous ice and sludgy snow. Since the tires on his car have about as much traction as silk, he’s going to need to be extra cautious.

So. In short. The day is already marvelous.

“Best leave soon, pup,” Louis’ mother calls as she cuts the crusts off of two cheese sandwiches for his sisters.

The sound of cartoons blasts in from the other room and the air smells of cookies, smells warm. Louis wants to stay, never wants to go to work again.

“Yeah. Just gotta get dressed,” he mumbles, finishing off his tea, the liquid now lukewarm as it slips down his throat, signaling the end of his freedom.

His mum casts him one small sympathetic smile as he dumps his cup in the sink, the sound loud and jarring against the tranquil atmosphere. His eyes glaze past hers in a half-hearted returned smile before he strides out of the room and up the stairs, taking them one by one because life pulls him down and moving is hard. He enters his room, his work clothes still on the floor in a heap.

He picks up the black polo distastefully, surveying it in the mid-morning light trickling through his closed curtains. With a sigh, he begins getting dressed, before noting his journal, still lying amidst the swirled blankets of his bed, opened to the page he last scribbled in before he fell asleep.

With a smirk, he picks it up, surveying the blurry words, his polo still dangling from his fingertips. Grabbing the nearby pen and clicking it into life, he pauses before he jots down, on the fresh page, ‘Day 4’, before shutting it with a snap and pulling on his trousers.

**

“Thank fuck,” Louis grins, upon immediately spotting Niall, Zayn, and Liam as he steps into the Starbucks building.

Christmas has come at last!

“TOMMO!” Niall roars happily, hopping around with an ice bucket. He’s clearly had too much espresso (he’s a fucking beast when it comes to caffeine, makes Liam looks like a lightweight—he typically has eight shots in his trenta iced coffee plus eight pumps of frapp roast plus chai) as his cheeks are rosier than usual, his eyes brighter, and his hair is mussed and almost twinkling with pent-up energy. He’s also got a timer clipped to the collar of his apron so, praise, he’s Customer Support for the day.

Yes yes yes. Two thumbs up for the Starbucks Gods.

“Well, look who it is!” Liam beams immediately after, stuffing scones into a pastry bag. His headset is on and it appears… Ah, yes, it appears that he’s at the drive thru window.

Excellent, excellent. Four thumbs up now.

“The one and only,” Louis grins cheekily in response as Zayn smirks at him from the work station. His sleeves are rolled up, hands splayed on the counter, and he looks to be in deep thought.

Yet. There is literally nothing in front of him. The counter is clean, yielding nothing but the smooth polish of its surface.

“Zayn?” Louis questions, ambling up to him, eyes sliding curiously to the bar. (Jen’s there, looking frazzled and frizzy and sticky with syrups and steam.) “Alright?”

“I’m high as fuck,” Zayn mutters calmly, as if commenting on the time, and Louis nearly bursts out laughing.

“Christ. You closing tonight?”

Zayn drags pinkened, sleepy eyes over to him, offers up a half-smile. “’Course. Karaoke tonight, remember?”

Louis rolls his eyes. “How could I forget. Seriously though, you’ve fucked yourself over. You’re not going to get anything done in that state. We’ll be here till midnight.”

Zayn merely shrugs, clearly lost to his inner haze. Employee of the month, he is.

Louis chuckles. “Good chat, Superior, good chat.” And then he walks to the backroom, deposits his belongings, slides on his odorous apron (it smells like old cheese, ew) and clocks in, patting the bump in his apron that he knows to be his journal.

He’s a bit lost inside of himself as he makes his way onto the floor and over to the bar, staring out the windows at the chunks of falling snow and the cars creeping along cautiously. It’s a cozy day, a fuzzy day, even. And he just feels so tired. Whether it be from his uninspiring life, his lack of vitamin D, or a creeping depression that has somehow secretly bested him, he knows not.

But he feels tired and he feels uninspired and the snow just gently falls.

He’s still lost as Jen greets him at the bar, hands him her headset with all the gusto of one who just wants to get the fuck out of here, and gives him a rundown of what all needs to be done.

“I’m pulling your shots for your Doubleshot,” she says, and her left eye is twitching. She looks exhausted.

“Busy day, love?” he asks, a bit hesitantly.

“Only in the morning,” she assures, casting a glance towards the near-empty café. “Since the snow’s picked up, it’s been pretty slow. You should be fine for the rest of the day.”

“Good.”

She smiles before patting his bum and nearly jogging off the floor afterwards, which makes him squeak.

“Oi!” he shouts, but he’s smiling, and the fumes of fresh espresso are tickling his nose, his body beginning to awake, the drifting sounds of Niall’s singing and Liam’s pretty little sentences filling his eardrums.

He’s adjusting his headpiece as Niall trots by and smacks his arse (why must everyone constantly be treating it as their own personal bouncy ball?) (not that Louis minds, of course) (kind of loves the attention, of course), and he slowly turning around, ready to pinch the boy in retaliation, but.

He gets distracted.

Because of fucking course, there, at the handoff plane, stands Harry.

Standing there all neat and patient with his hands folded atop the green granite, small smile in place, eyes hooked on Louis. Almost like he’s waiting for Louis to notice him or acknowledge him or… Whatever.

“Henry?” Louis inquires, blinking his surprise.

School. School’s in session. Isn’t he supposed to be teaching?

Harry beams. “Barnabus!” he greets in reply and his casual acknowledgment of their newfound nicknames tugs at Louis’ lips. He’s got a large, brown knit sweater on, his black scarf wound extra tight around his neck today, and he looks proper bundled and cozy, soft and smooth and clear.

“Well, well, well. What are you doing here?” Louis asks, raising an eyebrow at Harry’s large frame, haloed by white, blinding light and snow gleaming from the windows. “Don’t you have minds to mould? Bunking off, are we?” His voice is teasing, probably could be misconstrued as flirtatious.

People say Louis’ a flirt. Louis says Louis’ sociable.

“Snow day,” Harry offers simply, the words curved into a grin. “Have the day off.”

“He’s been here all morning,” Liam suddenly smirks, sidling up out of nowhere. “Being a proper teacher. Grading papers and the like.”

Louis raises one brow. “Grading papers?” he repeats. “You have a rare and precious gift like a snow day and you’ve chosen to grade papers? Not, say, go sledding? Or have a snow fight? Or stay at home and watch shitty movies all day while you eat cheese? Henry. You’re an embarrassment to mankind, to society. The Snow Gods do not approve.” He says all this as Liam swats him, hisses for him to “Shut up shut up, be nice!”

“Cheese?” Harry questions completely unbothered, laughing lightly, face scrunching. “Why cheese?”

“Why not cheese?” Niall asks, randomly clomping over with a bin of espresso beans. “You got a problem with cheese?”

“Depends on the cheese.”

“You’re a bastard,” Niall says simply in response, causing Louis to burst out laughing and Liam to squawk in horror. “All cheeses are created equal.”

But Harry’s smile never falters, his shoulders loose and relaxed, his fluffy curls spun together like hay atop his head. “You’ve clearly never had Limburger, then,” he replies, before picking up one of his clumsy hands and waving it in greeting, all child-like and uncoordinated. “Hi,” he sings, and Louis quirks an eyebrow at the spectacle as Harry’s grin widens and potentially fucking sparkles. “I’m Harry. Nice to meet you! I come here every day.”

God, Harry is just an enormous dope, isn’t he? A bright little sunflower-y dope. Cute little thing that he is.

Cute.

Louis bites his cheek at the thought.

Niall scrunches his face at Harry, surveying him properly before placing his hands on his thin hips, brow furrowed. “You do not. I’d know you.”

“He does, actually. He’s a recent addition to our store,” Louis explains as Liam opens his mouth as well, clearly excited at the prospect of knowing things. Things about Harry. Oo la la.

“He’s just moved here. Comes in every night after school. He’s a teacher. For English.” Liam says each word like he’s proud, like he’s showing off his new toy.

Which, Louis supposes, he kind of is.

“Oh, yeah?” Niall responds, and his face immediately lights up in delight, simple as that.

Niall is the king of employee-to-customer repertoire. He knows everybody, everybody loves him, and oftentimes people will specifically request him when they come through the drive thru. He’s like the star of Starbucks. (Hah.) Put the surliest, quietest, gruffest person in front of Niall Horan and he will befriend them in less than four minutes, probably have a friend request on Facebook, and a scheduled lunch date. It’s a fact.

“Well, good to meet you, mate,” Niall continues, all jovial and smooth. “The name’s Niall. And it’s Harry, right?” Harry nods, taking Niall’s extended hand to shake heartily, straining over the handoff plane. “Harry’s a good, strong name. Good lad. I’ve read Harry Potter.”

“You have not,” Louis interjects, rolling his eyes. “You watched the movies. And got piss drunk halfway through every one.”

A sated, wistful expression overcomes Niall’s features as he gazes off, recalling a distant time. “That was some excellent whiskey,” he reminisces, undeterred, before emitting a low whistle. Then, without transition, he turns around, barreling away with a bounce to his step. “Let me know if you need anything, Hazza!” And he actually clicks his heels.

Louis laughs at the nickname, laughs at the entire situation because it’s so Niall.

“He’s nice,” Harry comments once he’s gone, eyes gliding from Niall’s retreating figure, back to Louis.

“He’s Niall,” Louis corrects. “There’s no other word to describe that boy.”

“Smelly,” Liam reckons thoughtfully. “Smelly would work.”

“And loud,” Louis offers, just to be fair. “Though, I suppose I’m not one to talk, eh?” He smirks.

Harry just stares in response, grinning so painfully. Honestly, it looks like his grin will split him in two, all while watching Louis. Which. Seems a bit random and uncalled for, even if it does pool a flattered warmth in Louis’ innards.

Is he laughing at him? Is there something on his face? Louis almost instinctively moves to swipe a hand over his chin (is there mocha or milk dribbled there?) before stopping himself, instead squaring himself up to Harry, quirking an eyebrow.

“What? What’s that big smile for? Why are you smiling like that?” he interrogates, trying to keep his own grin at bay (Harry’s smiles are like yawns—they’re contagious and infectious and irritating), feeling Liam’s presence at his side.

Harry immediately turns pink, his smile freezing. “Oh,” he says, blinking rapidly, his mouth contorting into forced indifference. “I didn’t realize—I was—“ And, dear lord, is he flustered?

Louis just stares, completely befuddled.

“Do you need a refill or anything, Harry?” Liam’s voice suddenly clips then, and Harry’s still floundering and Louis’ still confused.

Did he miss something?

“No, no, I think I’ll just, like, sit down,” Harry rushes in a mumble before bumbling away purposefully, his head slightly bent.

? What the hell?

With wide eyes and an unexpected feeling of disappointment, Louis turns to Liam, whose face is impassive, arms folded over his chest. He’s not looking at Louis, instead opting to stare out the wall of windows with unreadable eyes.

“Was it something I said?” Louis asks, lost.

Why did Harry leave? Does Louis look like trash today? Is he unbearable to look at? Is it his breath? Was he being mean?

Liam merely shrugs before walking away, leaving Louis alone with only the bright, industrial espresso machines for company and absolutely no drinks to make.

How utterly boring.

So if he keeps casting glances towards the handoff plane with some distant, barely-there hope of finding a certain presence…well.

Obviously, it’s only in hopes for Liam.

**

Within the next few hours, business becomes slower and slower until they’re just completely barren of customers, save for, of course, Harry. But he’s studiously working in his corner, his laptop alighting his face as his fingers tap purposefully on the keys, his giant headphones stuffed over his ears (such a dope), and so, basically, it feels like nobody’s in the store—especially since Niall and his infinite volume clocked out about a half an hour ago.

It’s sort of amazing.

“Well, we’ve got everything done,” Zayn announces through a yawn, stretching cat-like, his bones clicking into place, eyes slit with glittering contentment. He’s such a fucking stud, with his apron tied loosely around him, his shirt pushed up to his elbows. His hair disheveled and raven. Louis hates him. He also likes to stare at him. “So we’ll probably get out of here early. Head to karaoke earlier than planned.”

“The roads aren’t too bad, are they? I don’t want to drive if the roads are bad,” Liam says worriedly, staring out at the expanse of windows as he sips on a whipped cream-loaded frappuccino—which is a dire mistake. Liam is lactose intolerant. Yet, for reasons beyond Louis, he insists upon ignoring the fact and has decided that drinking milk-based coffees and cream drinks is a beneficial life choice.

It’s partly Louis’ fault though—he’d mistakenly made the thing and so he unthinkingly offered it to Liam rather than dumping it out. And, of course, Liam took it with a grin that Louis, at the time, hadn’t understood.

Unfortunate.

“I’ll drive you, Payno,” Louis offers easily, hauling out the last of the cleaned dishes. “Provided you don’t shit your pants in my car.” He gives a pointed look to the frappuccino and Liam throws him a glare, hollowed cheeks inhaling the beverage at an alarming speed. “You have to come, though. I’m restless and bored and want to get pissed. Besides, you promised you’d sing The Lion King. A promise is a promise.”

At that, Liam’s frown lines turn into elation, a laugh escaping. “Okay, yes, fine, I forgot. I’ll go—so long as you’re still my backup singer?”

Louis sends him a look. “Honestly? You think I’d back out? I’m a man of my word. Proper honorable.”

There’s a pause then, as Zayn surveys the pastry case for something to munch on and Louis’ carefully stacking plates, before Liam sidles up to them both, throwing his now-empty cup away and nibbling on his lip.

“Hey,” he says, quiet and low.

Both heads turn to stare at him inquisitively.

“What if I invite Harry?”

A small feeling, almost like a flick, presses into Louis’ stomach.

“Yeah,” he finds himself saying, before Zayn can respond. “Yeah, you really should, though.” A brief pause. “I mean. Now’s your chance, innit?” he adds.

Zayn nods, returning back to his pastry examination. “Yeah, go on,” he agrees, selecting a pain au chocolat. “I like him. He’s a mate.”

Liam’s body nearly bursts into sparkles at the words and his grin is just as offensively cheerful.

Louis distinctly does not have the urge to smile.

“Okay. Wish me luck!” he nearly squeals (because that was all the encouragement he needed, apparently) and scuttles out into the café, traipsing to the corner where Louis can see Harry’s bowed frame in the reflection of the window, where he can see the glow of his laptop and make out the enormous headphones disassembling his curls. Fluffy little curls.

“Alright?”

Louis jumps, turning to Zayn who’s now looking at him, a bit of chocolate on his chin, his cheeks filled with croissant. And either Louis’ mistaken or there’s mirth in Zayn’s goddamn eyes, a smirk dabbing at his lips.

Louis is never mistaken.

And Zayn is a little fucker.

“Yeah, I’m alright. Thank you for enquiring,” Louis clips briskly before sauntering off, determining to wash the sinks for the third time that night.

**

Of course, Harry agrees to go. Of course.

And, yeah, it’s totally partially Louis’ fault because he absolutely encouraged Liam to ask Harry in the first place.

And, yeah, he absolutely warmed a bit to the idea himself—if for the mere fact it’d be fun to make fun of Harry trying to sing, the little pretentious fucker that he is. It was a golden opportunity to have a laugh at another’s expense, okay?

But the prospect seems less amusing now, just more troublesome and annoying or…something. And Louis regrets his encouragement.

“Don’t you have school in the morning, though? Need a proper night’s sleep?” he accuses before he can stop himself, and Harry’s eyebrows rise as Liam sends forth a bitter, withering glare Louis’ way.

Oops. Whatever.

Harry shrugs from the handoff plane, sliding his hands into his pockets. His tiny, snug pockets. His large, clomping hands. “Doesn’t mean I can’t have a social life.”

“Doesn’t it, though?” Louis smirks, and Harry chuckles as Liam’s glare intensifies.

“You have a point, Barney,” Harry concedes but his words are so smiley as he grins, burrowing his chin into his scarf.

It’s.

It’s.

It’s just. It’s kind of cute. That’s all.

It’s weird.

“Barney?” Louis repeats, feeling pleased and oddly charmed, and fuck, now his words are smiley. “You can’t give a nickname a nickname!”

“Oh, can’t I? Because I believe I just did.” Smile. Every word curled into a verbal smile.

“Ohhhh, big words from a little man!”

“I’m not the little one in this equation.”

“Alright, Professor Harry-Henry-or-whatever-it-is-you-call-yourself,” Louis then bristles, voice shrill, and Harry’s teeth are revealed as his lips pull back to an impossibly wider degree, his smile radiant. Dimple, dimple, dimple. Lips, lips, lips. Dope. “I would seriously consider your next words if you value your hair or your well-being.”

“Oh no—not my hair!” Harry squawks, clutching it in his hands in an exaggerated move of fear, and Louis can’t help but laugh at his expression, all wide-eyed and cartoon-like.

It’s cute. Okay? It’s cute.

Liam’s boy is cute.

Liam’s boy.

“Oh, so it’s your hair you’re concerned about, not your well-being? Well,” Louis chuckles, tilting his head as he observes him, wondering if Harry’s soul is made of chai or espresso or brewed coffee, “good to know that your priorities are in order.”

Harry’s grin is toothy, it’s dimply, and it’s trimmed in rouges and curls. “Well-being is subjective. But good hair? That’s—“

“That’s never up for debate,” Louis concludes, and he might’ve just unwittingly finished Harry’s sentence given the way his expression just opens with delight, his eyes catching all the lights in the room, maybe some stars peaking through the windows, too.

A short, inexplicably significant pause descends upon them as they share suppressed smiles and locked eyes.

Then suddenly there’s the jarring, scratchy noise of someone clearing their throat and, oops. There’s Liam. Clean dairy pitchers in hand. He may or may not be glaring.

“So. Harry,” he says, immediately setting down the stack and waltzing forward, not-so-subtly bumping Louis out of the way. “What do you plan on singing tonight?”

And. Okay. Louis can take a hint.

He picks up the pitchers Liam set down, walks them over to the cabinet and lines them up, organizes them properly as they clink against each other, chewing the inside of his lip. It’s not like he feels a creeping guilt inside of him. Or anything like that. Why would he feel guilty? Nah.

“Uhm,” he hears Harry say, and his voice sounds confused at the sudden shift in atmosphere. Louis can practically hear his questioning gaze as it flicks over to him. “I’m not sure. Something…happy.”

“Happy?” Liam giggles coquettishly and he sounds like a right loon. He never laughs like that. That’s not his usual laugh. “I’m going to sing Disney,” he continues and his voice is dripping with hearts. “Lion King. You’re welcome to sing it with me, if you like?”

And Louis almost bumps his head as he shoots up because fuck, did he just get kicked out of Lion King? Has he been ousted?

“I thought—“ he begins to protest, eyebrows furrowed, and Harry’s gaze skitters over to him immediately, but Liam plows on, completely undeterred.

“I used to sing in school, actually. Studied music and voice. It’s sort of a hobby of mine.” He’s batting his eyelashes. He’s actually doing that.

Bloody show off. Wait, no--shit. 

Another flash of guilt streaks through Louis.

“As did I. Before English,” Harry says and, oh. Interesting. “Lots of musicals.”

“Lots,” Liam agrees, and they exchange a smile. Which is nice.

“I hate musicals,” Louis mutters, shutting the cabinet with a thud. “Except Moulin Rouge. Is that a musical? Ewan McGregor’s fit.”

Immediately, Harry brightens.n“I love that movie! And the music!”

Louis nods, swiping a hand across the smooth, steel counter before him, catching stray espresso beans in his palm. “Brilliant music. Even I can admit that one.”

“My favorite song is—oh, shit. What’s it called. That one song they sing…”

“Oh, of course,” Louis says flatly. “That one song they sing. That was really emotionally charged.”

“Stop,” Harry laughs before gazing back into space, trying to recall. He’s snapping his fingers, as if to speed up the thinking process, and Louis watches the clicks, almost hears the whirring of his brain. “By Elton John…?” he offers, glancing at Louis again.

Ah.

Louis knows exactly which song he’s talking about. Because Louis fucking loves that song, used to sing it alone in his room when he was younger and pretended he was dancing in the night sky, and yes, okay, Harry loves it too. Everybody loves that song. Clearly. Obviously. No big deal there.

Your Song,” Louis clarifies, and Harry jabs a pointer finger in his face, alight with triumph.

“That one!” he confirms. He continues to stare at Louis, eyes regaining normal size, and Louis’ smile wakes into life. The barrier between bar and counter separates them.

And Liam. He separates them, too. Liam, who is currently staring between them a little murderously. Or maybe it’s Louis’ imagination.

But it’s definitely not Louis’ imagination when Harry opens his mouth and out comes:

Myyy gift is myy sooong!”

All the while as he stands on the other side of the handoff plane, acting as natural as can be, the sweeping sound of his voice resonating.

And Louis stares.

Because Harry just sang. To Louis.

The café’s empty, thankfully, but still, Harry just sang and Liam almost gets whiplash with how fast he looks at him, taken aback because people don’t fucking do that, they don’t just start singing to strangers. (Because Louis is basically a stranger to Harry. Basically. Might as well be.)

And as luck would have it, it’s also at that exact time that Zayn decides to emerge from his den in the backroom, clipboard in hand, making his way to check the temperatures of the fridges. He startles the minute Harry’s voice is heard, stops to stare at the spectacle with ‘what the fuck’ eyes.

And he startles even more when Harry continues to sing—yes, continues—since he is seemingly oblivious as to how society works. (You don’t sing to people, you just do not.)

And this one’s for you,” Harry continues, completely unabashedly, and oh, did Louis mention that he’s singing? Like they’re in High School fucking Musical?

“And you can tell everybody that this is your song.

It may be quite simple, but now that it’s done.”

He’s still singing. In Starbucks. Without an ounce of shame.

But it only gets worse.

Because.

Well.

Somehow…

Somehow Louis finds himself singing back.

It’s out of amusement. It’s amusing. Louis always sings at work—he does, he’s known for it. He sings with his partners and he sings “Mirrors” with Liam and he sings over the headset and he sings as he scrubs dishes and whenever a customer quotes a lyric and Louis just sings a lot, alright? So. This isn’t terribly out of the ordinary for him, nor is it uncharacteristic.

(Now, has he ever sung with a customer? No. But there’s a first for everything, isn’t there.)

“I hope you don’t mind,” he immediately joins, and fuck. His voice is so light next to Harry’s thunderous baritone and they create a natural harmony and, okay, they’re doing this. No big deal.

“I hope you don’t mind.”

They never break eye contact, their voices gaining a bit of volume. Their lips are touched with smiles, Harry’s increasing with every word Louis sings just as unabashedly.

“That I put down in wooooords.”

God, their voices. Harry’s voice. What is even happening?

There’s a beat then, a sweet, simple pause where even the greasy espresso beans strain to listen, waiting expectantly, before two sets of lips open as one, still locked in a gaze, in a grin.

“How wonderful life is now you’re in the wooooorrrrld.”

And the song ends.

The air, previously warm and unassuming, is suddenly heavy and calm at the same time, the lights seeming to shine upon only Louis and only Harry and everybody else? Everything else? Is in shadow.

Louis feels weird. His smile fades a bit, his gusto quieting, his fingertips buzzing. All the while as he stares at Harry.

Then Harry smiles, sweet and warm and honey, and the intensity breaks apart a bit, ripples back into reality. “I love that song,” he says, but his voice is devastatingly soft, almost as soft as his expression.

It feels like a fucking movie.

Does this stuff actually happen? Because it just happened. It happened and it happened between Louis and Harry and Liam loves Harry and Liam is Louis’ best friend.

“So do I,” Louis croaks. He’s got his hand limply clutching the steam wand, just for something to do, something to hold onto.

And they continue to stare at each other.

“Wow,” Zayn suddenly drawls, eyebrows raised as he breaks their weird little bubble. There’s definitely a smirk staining his lips but thankfully he keeps silent, sauntering away without even touching the fridges, their temperatures long forgotten. The keys on his belt jingle with his every step.

Liam awkwardly clears his throat. Liam.

Louis’ actually afraid to look at him.

“Well, I guess you’ll have no trouble singing tonight then, will you?” Liam laughs brightly, but it’s fake and it’s forced and Louis’ insides suddenly feel tight as he rips his gaze away from Harry, grabbing a rag to clean anything and everything in reaching distance.

He’s got to fix this, he’s got to.

“You guys should sing a duet,” he instantly blurts, insides twisted up and ears ringing a bit. His voice sounds odd, even to himself. His cheeks feel taught.

He can feel Harry’s quizzical, slightly hurt gaze then, hears the question in his voice when he says, “Uh, yeah... Maybe.”

“Definitely,” Liam assures, and Louis hears his smile and his hope and Louis feels like complete and utter shit.

“Well. We best get back to work,” he chirps, scrubbing at syrup stains with clumsy fingers. He’s so fucking uncomfortable. What the fuck just happened? Oh, yes—he sang a love song with Harry. In the middle of Starbucks. Oh, yes. Obviously. “Got plenty to do. Until later, Professor.” He sounds normal now, his joviality returning as he regains feeling in his fingertips, the world feeling more like reality and less like film.

“Until later, Pupil,” Harry teases right back, his confusion being replaced with warmth once again.

And Louis can’t help but mock glare at that, snapping out of his remaining reverie to snark out a protesting, “Hey!”

Harry giggles, delighted, before bumbling away, hands deep in his pockets and his smile filling up every corner of the room. He looks mostly undeterred by what just went down, calm and perhaps a bit dazed. Looks more delighted though, maybe a bit punch-drunk.

Which is just excellent.

“Well,” Liam says, and his voice sounds distant and echoey as Louis stares hard at the counter, rubbing at a caramel stain with his thumb. “I guess you two have officially bonded.”

He doesn’t know what that’s supposed to mean.

“I guess,” Louis shrugs. But he doesn’t look up. “He’s a bit of an odd duck, though.”

A pause.

And it’s a heavy pause, neither of them really moving or looking at each other.

So Louis finds his voice.

“But you have my blessing,” he continues, focusing on that caramel stain. “To, like, marry him, or whatever.” He paints a grin on his face now as he looks up, meets Liam’s wary eye with a twinkle. “Any man who sings Elton John in my Starbucks is fit for my Liam.”

Why does it feel like he’s swallowed a watermelon?

Liam beams his relief at that, claps his hands excitedly because that’s all it takes for any concern to wash away. “Oh, brilliant,” he gushes, and everything returns to normal just like that, the tension dissipating easily as he begins to relate his favorite things about Harry and all the things he’s planned for their wedding, over the headset.

And it’s like nothing at all just happened.

Louis half-smiles through it all, a very real sense of dread beginning to creep upon him. Because it’s not as if he’s unhappy or unsupportive for Liam, or anything. It’s not as if he genuinely fancies Harry. Not really. Because how could he? He barely knows him.

It's just that there are two words currently echoing inside of him, two words that are bouncing around his skull and stomach. And they’re replaying over and over, replaying in time to Liam’s words as he begins naming his and Harry’s unborn children.

Oh no.

**

It’s eight o’clock when he gets off of work finally, clocking out and winding the strings around his folded up apron, his journal tucked into the pocket of his jeans. He’s decided to bring it to karaoke, lest something amusing or inspiring happens—he’s been a bit lacking in luster lately. It can’t hurt to try, right?

He’s tired, a bit crabby. Doesn’t feel like talking much, having heard enough Harry bullshit from Liam, which… Which is just weird because is Liam seriously not at all bothered by the fact that Harry sang to Louis? Really?

Because Louis is kind of bothered.

Luckily though, after their Disney moment, Harry hadn’t come up to the counter again, had instead remained in his seat, bent over his paperwork and tapping a pen against his thigh. Occasionally he’d bring the pen to his lips and chew. (No, Louis had not been looking at his reflection through the window. No. That would just be silly and ill-fitting, not to mention creepy. And out of character. And. And Louis is a liar.)

Anyway. Whatever.

All that matters is that Louis is off of work and Louis is free.

Relieved at the space and the silence—he’s not sure how he’s going to survive the rest of the night, to be quite frank—he emerges from the backroom and is just deciding whether or not to go straight to Niall’s now, when Zayn suddenly appears, chalk markers in hand.

“I’ve got to count tills, bro. Draw this week’s promo, yeah?” he sort-of asks, already shoving the markers into Louis’ hands.

Because, see, Louis is the store’s resident “artist”—for the mere fact that he enjoys drawing and writing and doing any such artistic activities. He enjoys doing them here even more so because it makes him feel like his life is a little bit more creative and a little bit more expressive and it feels nice and reassuring. Plus, it’s fun. And Louis’ been told he’s good at it. So, whenever Zayn doesn’t have the time or is just too lazy, Louis gets to design the menu board. Like now.

“Anything you say, Superior,” he agrees with a salute and a wry smile before Zayn flicks him and walks away.

He’s just about to search for a table to work at—the café has filled up by now, all their nightly regulars taking up all the spaces with their laptops and bookbags and jackets—when he hears Liam laugh, then Harry, and his head snaps up, surprised.

Liam’s on bar, making one steamed beverage or another, looking as if he’s just won the lottery as Harry chats with him, standing idly at the handoff plane, a large smile on his face as he talks, using his hands and gestures, eyes earnest.

Louis’ only ever seen Harry talk to him like that.

Not that that's...a thing.

He tries not to eavesdrop too much as he sidles up to the till, deciding that he does want a beverage after all, the menu board still in his hands and bumping against his knees.

The minute Harry catches sight of him, locks eyes from across the way, he stutters in his speech a bit, before continuing with a smile that keeps pushing at his lips, bright eyes repeatedly flicking back to him.

It makes Louis smile a tiny, tiny bit.

“So, like, when he asked everybody what they enjoyed most out of it, I was the only one who mentioned the students, you know?” Harry continues, smooth, raspy, slow.

And, ah, okay. He’s talking about his job.

“And my professor even asked me what it was that affected me so much and I explained that, like, it’s not just about teaching them, is it?”

Louis perks his eyebrow the exact moment Liam asks, “How do you mean?” as he pours the steamed milk, a blush in his cheeks.

Harry looks at Louis as he explains.

“Well, for me, the most important thing about being a teacher is making sure that the kids feel loved. You know? And I know I only have them for a given amount of time per day before they’re off on their own, but it still matters. Like, before they can start acquiring all this new information and working on all these projects and things, I want them to understand their own value and understand that I genuinely care about them. I want them to know each of them are appreciated individually and that I’ll never judge them or hate them or anything. Like. I just want these kids to know that I care and that I support them. That’s what any person needs, I think. And that’s what matters to me, that’s why I love what I do.” He smiles a bit, blinking away from Louis (who’s currently got something that feels akin to a planet in his throat and a balloon in his stomach because who the fuck is this ‘Human of the Year’ and is Louis on a reality show right now?) and looking down at his hands. They’re skimming the counter again in wide designs—he does that a lot. “I even started tearing up a bit as I was telling my class about my kids,” he says with an embarrassed laugh, cheeks pinkening. “I just get really, like, emotional.”

“You cried?” Louis hears himself splutter in disbelief, unable to stop himself, and Liam starts and looks over at him (clearly only just now realizing his presence) and Harry looks up, hair soft as it travels across his cheek in tumbles.

“Yeah,” he says with a shrug. “Nothing to be ashamed about.”

“Sure,” Louis scoffs, rolling his eyes, but he feels a tender press to his heart, a spread of affection filling his torso like a drop of ink penetrating a glass of water. Which he shall never speak of. “You’re quite a sensie, Henry,” he says instead. “Quite a sensie.”

“Sensie?” he questions, brow furrowing.

“Sensitive creature.”

“Oh. Well, yeah. I am,” he agrees amiably, smiling crookedly. He looks as if he were pleased with himself. “I bruise easily—I’m like a peach.”

“Great big fuzzy peach,” Louis accidentally says out loud (and, maybe, a bit fondly) as Liam coos, soppy eyes once again on Harry.

“Your skin’s as soft as a peach’s,” he purrs, and for just one brief moment, Louis feels an uncharacteristic flash of irritation.

But then, thankfully, sense plows back into him and he brushes it away (because what the fuck?) and he hoists the menu board up, deciding that he just really needs to get this done so he can leave this goddamn place and go to Niall’s, maybe smoke a bit. Fuck getting a drink, fuck conversation—he just needs to do this and leave. Adios. Au revoir.

So he departs from the till, turns around to search for a spot and.

Of course, since this is how the world has decided to work, there is but one, singular, empty table in the building. One. And where is it?

Right next to Harry’s table. In the corner.

Oh fucking well. The world can fuck itself. Louis isn’t fazed.

Determinedly, he stalks to it, ignoring Harry’s gaze as it follows him.

“Are you going to sit with me?” he asks, still standing at the handoff plane with those long flamingo legs of his and, fuck, he sounds hopeful and surprised and, fuck, it’s sweet. It’s very sweet.

Louis hates sweets. He’s always had oversensitive teeth and they’ve given him more cavities than he deserves. So he’s not suddenly going to be on board with sweet. Louis hates sweet.

“I’m going to sit next to you,” he clarifies, dropping the board onto the surface of the table.

“Oi, is that the menu board? I wanted to do that. You always get to,” Liam frowns.

At that, Louis sighs, long-suffering, another flash of irritation whirring through his body because he's tired and worn and nothing is making sense.

“We know, Liam,” he says, irritable, uncapping the marker. "Next one, yeah? Zayn only asked me because I'm off and you've got to make drinks since you're still working. Next time, promise." He glances at the sample drawing, taped to the corner of the board, and gives it a single onceover before unsticking it, crumpling it, and stuffing it in his pocket.

Immediately, he sets to work.

It’s not long before he feels a presence over his shoulder.

“I like that,” Harry rumbles, somewhere around his ear and no no no. No, Louis does not support such close proximity, especially from Harry, from this stranger. This stranger that his best friend is in lust with.

“Er. Thanks,” he says, shuffling away as he continues drawing a croissant. (They’re hard little fucks to draw. Who knew?)

“Were you an artist?” Harry asks after a moment, still too close, but he doesn’t move any closer, allowing Louis to ease away. He smells nice, though. Like soft cologne and warm blankets.

Which is entirely inconvenient.

“Pffft,” Louis scoffs, shading in the croissant, eyes focused, tongue occasionally darting to wet his lips. “Not even.” He pauses, considering the words as he reviews his work. “Though, I did have big dreams in secondary school—as one does.” He smiles wryly, turning to Harry who has now stepped to the side a bit, shoulder to shoulder with him.

Well. Not exactly shoulder to shoulder. Harry is, after all, the Jolly Green Giant.

“I took a mess of art classes and thought I created the world before I realized I loved writing more," Louis continues. "Those were the actual worlds I wanted to create—worlds in literature and in the mind. You know? Sort of internal? I was shit at art—I thought I felt it and understood it, but I didn’t. It wasn’t until I started writing scenes and stories that I sort of…” he drifts off, looking down at the drying streaks of marker, feeling Harry’s intense stare. He shrugs, a bit self-consciously. “I sort of really felt it. Connected with it in a way I hadn’t with anything else before. As ridiculous as that sounds,” he adds in an undertone.

But Harry’s already shaking his head fervently.

“No. No, I understand you. I also wanted to become an artist in secondary school.” Of course. At this point, Louis’ not even surprised. “But I chose poetry instead. Because I felt it, too.” Harry swallows, eyes never blinking, his expression soft and open. “I get it.”

Of course.

Louis refuses to smile, is absolutely affronted at his own body when he catches his reflection in the windows and finds that he already is.

“Professor Poet Styles,” he teases before writing the final words on the board, their milky ink spilling out smoothly with each glide.

They both watch the ink dry, Louis’ resistance at Harry’s proximity lessening, finding himself growing accustomed to his warmth and the way his body ever so gently sways. Growing accustomed to his soft, sweet smell.

He’s like chamomile tea.

“Do you ever feel like—“ Harry stops, seeming to rethink his words. His gaze is still on the board, his expression odd.

Louis turns, watches his profile for a moment, before nudging him gently. “What?” he prompts.

Harry blinks a few more times—soft, slow blinks—before seeming to decide, opening his mouth again.

“Do you ever feel like you have so many options of what to do? That, like, you were given so many abilities and, like, opportunities? And you feel like you’re decent at a lot of things but you’re only just that? Decent?”

Surprised, Louis straightens, considers the words seriously before Harry shakes his head, curls bouncing as he sends a rueful, apologetic smile Louis’ way.

“No, I’m sorry. I sound like a tit. I’m sorry, never mind.”

“No,” Louis argues, thoughtful. “I get what you mean. Like. You’ve sort of got the tools to be good at a handful of things and you’ve got to choose just one but you’re not sure you’re going to choose the right one? Sort of like, you’re going to spend your life being mediocre if you pick the wrong thing or you’re going to spend it being as good as you can be if you somehow make the right decision?”

Which, hello: welcome to Louis’ life.

“Yes, exactly!” Harry says, instantly brighter. He smiles balefully. “You’re better at saying things than I am.”

“Well, I’m the one who writes the over-descriptive prose,” he jokes, capping the marker. “You’re the one who writes elusive poetry.”

Harry's cheeks push against his eyes, his lashes fanned over soft green. He's standing very close. “Together we could create something truly special.”

“Or truly terrible," Louis counters, ignoring his pulse. It has no right to speed up like that. No right at all. "In summary, we're just a bunch of my long-winded sentences and your incomprehensible sentiments." He pauses. "We're like the beatnicks but, somehow, still more useful.”

Harry bursts into laughter, composure loosening like elastic bands. “That is probably the most frighteningly accurate thing you’ve ever said,” he chuckles, and he looks so happy and carefree. How can a person always manage to look so happy?

It makes Louis feel happy, like he's filled with gurgling vanilla syrup and warm milk. “And I’ve been known to be very accurate,” he remarks, his smile widening as Harry continues to titter, limbs softly brushing against Louis.

A pause descends over them then—one of those peaceful, comfortable ones that are becoming commonplace—and they both observe Louis’ work, a smile on Harry’s lips.

“You’re really good. That looks incredible,” he muses, soft.

“You’re a liar and you’re trash,” Louis responds seamlessly, just as soft.

Harry bursts into a laugh again, composure slipping once more. “I’m genuinely not lying!” he protests, but it doesn’t stop him from giggling, shoving playfully at Louis with hands that are surprisingly gentle, given their size. “I wouldn’t even know how to draw a croissant anymore. And you’ve even shaded the thing. Little artiste that you are.”

Alright, so. Harry’s flirting. Harry is clearly flirting. He’s looking down at Louis with fondness and a smugly teasing eye and he’s totally flirting, his hands slow to slide down Louis' arm, fingertips catching on the sleeve of his shirt.

Oh no.

Oh fucking no.

Louis' pulse is being unruly. So is Harry. 

“You charmer,” he brushes aside, voice less firm than he'd like, and he’s not flirting back, nope. Well. Not intentionally. At least. “Your words are poisoned honey. And my croissant looks like a nappy.”

Another laugh from Harry. He'll laugh clean into the next century at this rate. “It does not,” he protests amidst a breathy smile and fumbling lips that gleam ruby.

“Does too,” Louis protests a bit softer, skin prickling as he fights a smile.

“Stop, Rembrandt.”

“Rembrandt? Really?”

“Really.”

They’re grinning at each other, grinning wildly and standing side by side and the board’s done and Louis should probably go to Niall’s.

“Hey. Do you want to hear my favorite song?” Harry asks suddenly, randomly. He’s still smiling.

Louis should go to Niall’s.

“Depends,” he says instead. “Do you want to hear mine?”

“Yes.”

“Then yes.”

And after a moment’s silence, they both spin around to Harry’s laptop, scuttling to reach his headphones in a race, giggling like idiots.

“Mine first!” Louis shouts with a laugh, because he’s a competitive fuck. A few heads turn towards them, raising their eyebrows. Some of them glare at the noise.

“No, mine first,” Harry whines, but, oh, his smile. There’s nothing but sugar in it. Sweet, raw, real sugar.

Naturally, Harry wins—because he’s Stretch Armstrong with that twenty kilo arm span—but Louis basically let it happen. He smiles triumphantly, pumps a half-hearted victory fist in the air. Such a dope.

Louis’ about to protest and pinch his nose or something but then suddenly there’s a headphone being stuffed over his right ear and his cheek is being pressed against Harry’s cheek and. Oh.

Oh, okay. They’re both going to listen to the headphones together. As one. Sharing the headphones.

That’s fine.

That’s great, even.

So Louis doesn’t comment as his surprise calms him down a bit and he especially doesn’t comment on Harry’s sudden burning blush or his quivering hands as he opens up his iTunes.

Instead, he listens and pretends that what is happening to him right now doesn’t feel like a fucking romcom.

He listens to Harry’s favorite song and he closes his eyes and he pretends.

**

When Starbucks finally closes, Louis and Harry gather up Harry’s things, chatting amiably and chuckling intermittently.

Somehow, Louis never left for Niall’s, instead getting caught by Harry for the past two hours—from listening to each other’s favorite songs to very embarrassingly quizzing each other on classics and literature and, at one point, Harry even shyly showing Louis some of his poetry.

Which was, of course, brilliant.

But Harry was blushing furiously and kept stuttering, so Louis let him off the hook and praised him sincerely before Harry panic-changed the subject and Google’d his favorite Emily Dickinson poem, thrusting the screen in Louis’ face, demanding him to read it out loud. Which Louis did, if only to ease Harry’s burning flesh (it might sear off in a few days if he keeps his blushing frequency up) and because Harry’s eyes gain a milky quality to them whenever Louis speaks and it’s sort of flattering and nice and odd and wonderful.

Harry is flattering and nice and odd and wonderful.

They shared a mug of lukewarm black coffee betwixt them and Louis’ feet hurt from standing (he never left Harry’s side somehow) and Harry kept sniffling because he said his nose always runs when the weather’s cold and they brushed limbs a lot and laughed a lot and made fun of each others’ laughs and Louis sort of completely forgot about a lot of things.

Like Liam, for instance.

Who worked resiliently, never once speaking to either of them. Whether it was because he was genuinely engaged elsewhere or whether he was fucking furious, Louis was not sure.

Either way though… Louis is going straight to hell.

Because he’s evil and he’s a traitor and he’s probably going to end up in the final circle of Dante’s Hell, being chewed on by Satan, right alongside Brutus and Judas.

“Want to, like, get some food while we wait for them to finish up here?” Harry asks after clearing his throat, his entire stance and expression hesitant and hopeful as he takes the stack of papers Louis’ currently holding out for him.

Oh.

Oh no.

Oh no oh no oh no oh no oh no.

This is the opposite of good. This is the opposite because LIAM and KINSHIP and TRUST and LOYALTY and it’s the opposite of good because Louis’ insides spark to life at the question, his immediate instinct screaming a ‘YES!’ and, nope.

No, Louis is not going to let himself get chewed on by Satan. He’s got to squash whatever’s going on between them while he still can.

“Er,” he begins, clearing his throat. There’s a low, heavy feeling inside of him. Is that guilt? Discomfort? Misery? Regret? What is that? “Actually, I think I’ll just stay here. Not very hungry,” he lies.

A wave of disappointment visibly crashes over Harry.

“Oh,” he says, and it’s the exact sound of a baby raccoon being crushed by a tree. “Okay. Well. I guess I’ll just...” He drifts off, clearly not knowing what to say or where to go. Because it’s not as if Louis can text him when they get there—he hasn’t got Harry’s number.

Oh shit. That is not a good idea. Harry’s number.

But Louis is weak and never does what he should, so it comes as no surprise when he opens his big mouth and says happily:

“Give us your number, then. I’ll text you when we get to Niall’s. We’ll meet there then walk to the pub, yeah?”

At the words ‘number’ and ‘text you’, Harry beams brilliantly again, his crushed expression evaporating instantly as he practically sways on the spot and jesus fuck, if that’s not flattering, then Louis doesn’t know what is. He’s warmed by it, charmed, and he’s handing his phone over to Harry with the instructions, “Enter your number. Enter your name. I expect to be impressed.”

“Impressed?” Harry questions, eyebrows furrowing in amusement. 

Louis rolls his eyes impatiently. “I mean like, don’t be the boring sort that just puts his name and his number and doesn’t add a bit of flare. I want flare, boy, I want flare.”

Harry laughs at that as he takes the phone, tapping out his number diligently before pausing with an impish grin, eyes sweeping the room in thought.

Pleased, Louis smiles as he watches him.

Harry’s eyes narrow then, only briefly, before a wide smirk suddenly fills his face and he taps away again, causing Louis’ intrigue to prickle. He hands it back with a grin, with the home screen on.

Louis quirks an eyebrow at that (because just how the fuck is he supposed to find Harry’s number now?) and Harry immediately says, as if reading his thoughts, “Got to find it now. I expect you will. And I expect you’ll be impressed.”

Ah. Good boy.

A matched smirk is made and Louis nods, examining the phone in his hand, weighing it in his palm.

“I see. Well.” He looks up, twitching his cheeks into neutrality as Harry unabashedly grins like a newborn dinosaur. He holds up the phone, taps it once. “I’ll be contacting you shortly, Professor. Until then? Drive safe.”

Harry smiles, nods, and then Zayn’s jingling keys are coming closer and his smoky voice is mumbling an, “Alright, get on with it. Out you go.” He pauses as Harry begins shuffling forwards reluctantly. “Unless you’d like to stay, mate? Makes no difference to me.”

Stay?

Harry stay? Stay so he can talk to Louis more and flirt more and make more references that Louis always gets?

No thank you.

“He’ll distract you, Zayn,” Louis says hurriedly, before Harry can take him up on the offer, and Harry blinks owlishly at him before he closes his mouth and shakes his head, more to himself than anything.

“You sure?” Zayn asks, glancing from Louis to Harry.

Harry’s giving Louis a look—is it exasperated? Fond? Sad?—as he narrows his eyes a bit and smiles small before adjusting his shoulder bag and stepping back.

“Yeah. I’m going to drop my things off at my flat. I’ll see you at Niall’s,” he says amiably and Louis feels rushing relief as he exhales through his teeth. “Bye,” he sings, waving goodbye as he exits backwards, feet nearly stumbling over themselves. Zayn’s following him, getting his keys out to lock the door behind him. Harry’s eyes find Louis' over Zayn’s shoulder. As they always seem to. “Text me,” he says, still waving.

“If I can find you,” Louis retorts, and recoils when he realizes he’s waving back enthusiastically. Shit fuck. Stop.

He plays it cool though, drops his previously-waving hand to sift through his hair, and if Harry notices his self-reprimand, he makes no notice, instead focusing on never walking forwards ever again, apparently.

At last, Zayn ushers him out, practically has to push him out, shouting farewells before locking the door and bounding back inside, winking at Louis as he sidles past him.

“Now let’s get the fuck out of here as fast as we can,” he breathes, and leaves to join Liam in the backroom. (Louis still hasn’t seen Liam. Worrying. He’s definitely going to be chewed on by Satan.)

It’s then that Louis pulls out his phone, immediately pulling up his contacts and typing in the search bar.

Harry

No results. Good. He passed the test.

Styles

No results.

Well shit. Maybe he actually got a bit clever with it.

Professor

No results.

He thinks only a moment longer before the obvious dawns on him and he types in ‘Henry’ with a victorious smile, feels even more victorious when a name appears—and then promptly feels the smile fall from his face as his heart jumps in his mouth and his insides fall out of his bum.

‘Lord Henry’ it says.

Which, yeah. ‘Henry’ is what Louis jokingly calls him.

But ‘Lord Henry’?

That’s the name of Louis’ favorite character in Dorian Gray. And Harry obviously did it on purpose (intelligent little fucker) since he read the book, loves the book, knows exactly how Louis feels about Oscar and that book and that’s why he was so smug and smiley and—

He expected Louis to be impressed and, well, dammit, he is. He’s really fucking impressed.

So Louis sits down in one of the leather chairs hidden from view of the windows, never exiting from the screen on his phone, and waits as Zayn and Liam rush to close, his thumb hovering over the ‘Send Message’ button.

Before he does though, before he texts him, he slides his journal out from his pocket.

He opens it to ‘Day 4’.

He writes ‘Lord Henry’s made a space for himself.’

And then he continues to stare at his phone, wondering just how the rest of this night is going to go.

Chapter Text

“Alright,” Zayn’s smooth, smoke-crisp voice announces through the dark as he storms forward from the backroom, an almost manic smile filling his face. “Let’s get the fuck outta here, Lou.”

It’s only been about ten minutes since Starbucks closed—a record time for them to be finished—and Louis would normally be obnoxiously impressed at their speedy efficiency (and therefore pick apart everything they did because he’s a little fuck like that), but currently, he’s a little too focused on watching Liam. He’s trailing closely behind Zayn, face largely unreadable, his eyes a bit tired.

Louis stands from his shaded nook the minute he sees him, his fingers twitching without his consent, and he’s not nervous or feeling guilty at all (lies) as he watches his face closely, before greeting him with a slightly tentative smile.

“Payno,” he says brightly, counteracting the tight coil of his stomach.

Liam nods to him, corners of his mouth a bit strained.

It’s not altogether unpleasant. He could just be tired. In fact, that’s probably what it is.

“Free at last, eh? Time to sing some Disney tunes with your best mate,” Louis grins, and flings his arm over Liam’s shoulders as he falls into step with him.

A small smile breaks through Liam’s face as Zayn unlocks the door, releasing them into the blistering night air, the ice and snow glistening beneath stars and moonlight.

“Free at last,” he agrees, then glances around the parking lot, a crease forming between his brows. “But where’s Harry?”

“Oh, he went back to his flat to drop his stuff off. Told him I’d text him when we got to Niall’s. Give him directions,” Louis says.

And the crease deepens.

“Text him? You have his number?” Liam asks and, oh shit.

Zayn snorts under his breath, clearly amused as he locks up the store, his breath pluming before him. Louis shoots him a narrowed eye before turning to face Liam fully, smoothing his features into nonchalance. And an expression which he hopes says ‘supportive best friend.’

“Liam. I had to contact him some way, didn’t I? Here, I’ll give you his number—“

“No,” Liam cuts off firmly. “No. If I’m going to have his number, he’s going to give it to me himself.”

Ah. Well. Fair enough.

“You’re sure?” Louis asks, eyebrows raised. “You could text him pictures of your dick.”

“I’m sure,” Liam says firmly, cheeks only coloring faintly, and Louis chuckles in time with Zayn’s keys as they’re being tucked into the safety of his pocket

“Excellent,” Zayn then concludes, strutting forward and walking through the space between them. “Now get on, you tits. I need a drink and a pack of cigarettes.”

And with that they leave. But not before Louis texts Harry Niall’s address (careful to avoid using any cutesy emojis). And, no, his pulse does not jump with tiny little bolts of anticipation when he receives Harry’s answering text.

Which most definitely includes a lot of cutesy emojis.

**

The drive to Niall’s is stressful.

And why is it stressful? Well. Because.

Because Louis is a bit…shall we say… Trepid.

He’s not dumb, is the thing. He’s not oblivious. Louis Tomlinson is anything but those things, so therefore he is completely aware of the situation at hand—the situation between Harry and him. He is aware that what is transpiring between them follows most Disney plotlines and he is aware that there is a connection and he is aware that, with one false step, he could end up being the shittiest human being on the planet.

Because Liam is his best friend and Liam wants to have Harry’s kittens and Louis needs to step the fuck away before something dangerous happens, before he finds himself irrevocably sucked in by this pretentious, dopey, poorly attired English teacher with a smile that sets the sun on fire and realigns the galaxies.

He needs to rip himself away from the easy laughs and the quiet smiles and the odd thrills that shoot through his body every time Harry says something he just gets or understands. And he needs to rip away this very moment because he’s about to embark on an entire night centered around alcohol and fun—a night that is undoubtedly going to toss Louis’ inhibitions, common sense, and any and all reservations out the window.

And so Louis needs to rip himself away right now, before he even reaches Niall’s, and he needs to ensure that Liam has his happy ending.

And so the drive to Niall’s is stressful.

**

“About fuckin’ time!” Niall greets the minute he opens the door to his flat and Louis barrels forward, attacking him in an embrace just because he can, just because he’s free and happy and feeling a strange surge of energy filling up his veins. He feels Niall’s arms wrap around him as Zayn and Liam cackle from behind, feels the reverb in Niall’s chest as he laughs. “Thought you were supposed to come hours ago, Tommo.”

At that, Louis stiffens.

Because he was supposed to come a few hours ago. But then Harry. Harry happened.

“Er. Yeah,” he says as he disengages himself before taking a step back, the fine hairs on his body standing alert. All eyes are on him. Liam’s eyes are on him. “Well. I had to express some of my artistic flair at the Starbucks, didn’t I? I had menu boards to design!”

“It didn’t look like it took you that long,” Liam says, and his voice has…a bit of careful edge to it. Enough to bristle Louis and flood him with some of that guilt he’d been feeling earlier.

“Well. I mean.” Louis looks to Niall. “I was also chatting with Liam’s new boyfriend. Making sure he’s up for the job, you know.”

“Liam’s boyfriend?” Niall asks, folding his arms over his chest. “Who’s that, then? Why doesn’t anybody tell me anything?” And Niall’s clearly pouting which is cute because Louis is almost positive that Niall doesn’t actually give two fucks or one fuck or any fucks, really.

“Harry,” Louis explains easily at the same time Zayn sings the name in a trill and they catch each other’s eye and grin wickedly even though it feels like something is clawing at Louis’ stomach.

Liam squawks his protest. “He’s not my boyfriend!” he splutters, but Louis waves a hand dismissively and Zayn snorts, shuffling off his jacket and searching for his cigarettes.

“Not yet,” Louis mumbles and the words make Liam blush and Niall laugh, but they just sit funny in Louis’ mouth. He sort of wants a drink to flush them away. “Anyway, he’s on his way,” he continues as he removes his jacket, toeing off his shoes by the door and padding into the flat with socked feet.

“Keep them feet off the furniture,” Niall warns. “They’re rank. I can’t wash that smell away!”

Resisting the urge to hide his dirty socks in Niall’s bed, Louis sighs dramatically and agrees, too tired to do much more. He plonks onto the couch, right next to Liam who’s still got his shoes and jacket on, hands in his pockets.

Niall’s apartment is small, brightly lit, and fairly sparse, save for the piles of random instruments, tidy stacks of textbooks, and game station controllers whose cords are twisted and tangled on the floor in snake-like heaps, next to the incredibly oversized flat screen that sits atop a simple wooden table. It’s a nice flat, small but decent, well-kept, and cozy.

Louis’ always loved that about Niall—how he’s this tornado of energy and speech and action yet his life is so…in order. He works at Starbucks during the day and sometimes bartends for the pub at night and he’s taking online courses, all in hopes to go back to school so he can become a nurse. Which is perfect for him, really. Anything that has to do with interacting and looking after fellow human beings is right up Niall’s alley. And his flat reflects his life perfectly, with its comfortable leather couches and few frivolities, only a few pictures stuck to the wall with pushpins, a random bag of crisps here, a spiral notebook there. There’s a lot of white and navy blue and black and it’s Niall and it smells like lasagna and beer and cologne and Louis loves it, loves it like he loves Niall.

He really needs to get his own flat. He wants a flat that smells and looks like him. His would probably smell like hair product and look like a spending problem. Which is pretty accurate.

“Here,” Niall says as he passes out opened beers to each of the boys before sitting on the arm of the sofa, next to Liam. He smiles as he looks down at him, ruffling his hair. “So, when’s your—“ he begins at the exact moment there’s an uneven knock at the door.

Taptap rap tap.

Louis does not, by any means, almost spit out his beer at the jolt it sends through him.

(That is a lie.)

“Harry, that’s probably Harry,” he says before he can chide himself, wiping his chin with the palm of his hand. He glances at Liam guiltily on an instinct, but luckily Liam’s too busy looking like he’s just shit gold, his face broken into a glittery grin.

“I’ll answer it!” he sings, immediately hopping up off the couch, and Niall guffaws as Zayn whistles, offering his pack of cigarettes to the lads.

Niall takes one, already fishing out a lighter from his pocket.

Louis takes two. And he’s probably going to need about seven more plus weed and vodka, what with the way this night’s already treating him.

“Harry!” Liam nearly squeals the minute he swings open the door with a flourish. He sounds like a seal. “You found the place okay? Alright? How are you? You’re not too tired, are you? You look really nice. Really good. Really nice.”

Oh god, this is embarrassing.

“Oi, Li, let him get a word in,” Louis scolds from the couch, refusing to turn around for the spectacle and instead lighting his cigarette, sucking in the smoke with as much reverence and desperation he would Beckham’s dick. “Don’t mind our pup, Henry. He hasn’t been walked all day. He’s a bit squirrely at the moment.”

“Am I a pup or a squirrel?” Liam questions dryly, but Louis doesn’t hear any actual offense in his voice so he smiles as he breathes out curls of smoke, still refusing to turn around as he nervously taps ash into an empty beer bottle sitting nearby.

Because if he turns around, he’ll see Harry.

And.

Like.

What if Harry looks good or something? What if he’s wearing something other than his black scarf and shitty hipster jacket? What if he looks sexy? Louis doesn’t want that. Louis wants to spare himself that. Wants to spare Liam that.

(No, he’s not addressing the fact that he will obviously have to look at Harry at some point. What’s the point? No.)

“Hey guys,” Harry’s disembodied voice says and he’s smiling, Louis can already tell. He’s always fucking smiling. “Thank you for inviting me.”

Polite fucker.

Louis takes another drag of his cigarette.

“Anytime,” Niall says happily, standing up and making his way over. “Can I get you a drink? What’s your poison?”

“Uhm. Just whatever everyone else is drinking, thanks,” Harry says and he’s so sweet and mild. He’s a vanilla latte. “Thank you for letting me come to your abode, Niall.”

Abode? Abode?

Fuck.

Louis will not be charmed.

Niall laughs his delight as he roots in the fridge for another beer, laughs still more as he pops open the cap off the edge of the counter. “You are welcome in my abode any time, mate. Good to see you again, Harry.”

“Cigarette, Harry?” Zayn offers then from his nook in the couch, elegant fingers extending the pack. And that’s pretty much the nicest thing he can do, that’s how you know Zayn has accepted you into his life—he offers you cigarettes.

“No thanks, I don’t smoke.”

Louis still won’t turn around.

He’s also the only one that hasn’t greeted Harry. And yet he’s the one who texted him directions. So that’s probably weird. But who gives a fuck if it’s weird? He’s thinking of Liam; he’s putting Liam first. If he acknowledges Harry, he might laugh and feel impressed or amused or, even worse, he might feel affection and that is the last thing that this recipe calls for so, no. Louis doesn’t care if it’s weird.

God, this is going to be an awkward, shitty night, isn’t it?

There’s a moment where Niall hands Harry the beer and he mumbles a sincere thanks and Liam flutters over to the kitchen table (where there are only two chairs, slightly apart from everybody else, clever boy) and Louis is expecting to see Harry now, is fully expecting him to follow Liam and enter his field of vision and fuck up the recipe.

So he does not expect it when there’s a gentle poke on his shoulder and a warm-voiced, syrupy, “Hi, Louis,” dripping over his head.

A personalized hello.

Once again his body betrays him and buzzes, flattered and charmed at once, and he looks up immediately, a smile already present.

“Hi, friend,” he smiles, leaning his head back against the neck of the sofa to meet Harry’s eye and—

Oh god.

God fuck shit fuck ass fuck fuck.

It’s just as Louis feared.

Harry looks good. Harry looks good. Harry looks…almost sexy. Almost a lot sexy. Extremely fucking bend-me-over-a-motorcycle sexy.

He’s in all black, that fucking scarf and that fucking elbow-patch jacket nowhere to be seen. No, oh no. Instead, instead, he’s wearing a black hoodie beneath a black leather fucking jacket (hello instant erection) and he’s got his fucking Renaissance curls swept away from his face in a…headband-scarf thing that Louis doesn’t understand but never wants to live without again.

He basically looks like a sunflower dipped in charcoal and it’s a contrasting image that makes Louis’ hips want to snap.

But just who the fuck gave him these clothes??

English teachers don’t wear these clothes.

Professor Harry Styles does not wear these clothes.

Louis nearly crushes the cigarette in his hand. He’s going to need to get real fuckin’ high real fuckin’ soon. Weed always blankets his overactive sex drive.

“How was closing?” Harry smiles in dazzling enquiry, like he were a Disney princess (a Disney princess wearing leather, GOD), looking down at Louis with fondness and eyelashes and he is basically a stranger, Harry is. Five days ago Louis did not know this person.

And now…

Now here he is, standing in Niall’s flat looking like sex on legs and Louis is finding himself extremely attracted to him and sort of finds himself coming to begrudgingly adore his fucking personality and Liam is a smitten kitten for him and Liam is Louis’ best friend and Harry’s fucking up the recipe and it doesn’t look like he’ll be leaving anytime soon and…

Louis needs to be high now.

“It was very taxing on my body,” Louis responds wittily because he is weak and he’s Louis and smirks up at Harry. “I had to sit down the entire time while they worked. I don’t know what to do with myself right now. One wrong move and I might break.”

Harry opens his mouth to say something more, and Louis notices his fingers are resting on the couch near Louis’ face, long and pale and close, but then Liam’s voice splits the scene.

“Sit down, Harry. Over here, there’s a chair. Relax a bit before we leave!” And Liam practically kicks out the chair opposite him, motioning to it with his nervous hands and manic glint in his hungry eyes.

Instantly, Harry smiles, nodding. “Alright. Thank you,” he mumbles before slouching over, the leather squelching a bit, gleaming over the muscles of his back.

The fucker.

Louis finishes his cigarette faster than he means to, nearly coughing on the fountain of smoke inside of him, and Zayn is already laughing, finishing off his second beer. (He drinks like a fish. He’s a champion and he’s a fuck.)

They spend the next forty minutes drinking and conversing, slowly getting buzzed as they complain about customers and discuss partners. Luckily Harry’s experience at Starbucks lends him enough material to keep interested in the conversation and he laughs with the rest of them, understands their perspectives and annoyances—“I remember those secret menu frappuccinos made me want to do something terrible to their drink. Like, put the wrong scoop of ice in the blender, or something.” “Oh, you rebel you.” “Louis be nice!”—and all the lads make sure to include him, filling in the gaps, asking him all the polite questions, and doing everything else that exhibits good behavior.

And Harry’s a good lad. He works. It’s not surprising, of course, given that he’s already made friends with most of the staff. But even in this casual atmosphere, in this different setting, it works and Liam looks like he’s a supernova as Harry tells the story about a lady who requested that her venti iced coffee have twenty Splendas and seventeen pumps of classic syrup, sending everyone into disbelieving protests and over-dramatic gasps. (Particularly Zayn—he’s quite possibly the most stoic creature in the universe, but get him drunk and he becomes an emotional mess, gasping in horror during unpleasant situations and giggling at everything and sometimes crying if he feels you’ve been wronged in a past relationship, adamantly demanding “You’re beautiful and you are titanium!” It’s Louis’ favorite thing in the entire world.)

It all just works. And it’s nice.

Louis finds himself getting steadily more pissed as he finishes beer after beer and he feels his smiles lingering on Harry (that fucking headscarf needs soliloquies written for it—he really hopes Harry writes poems about his own choices of headware because it deserves it) and feels Niall pressing into his side where he’s taken residence on the couch, and his cheeks feel warm and his eyes feel fuzzy and the world seems so promising and fun and he loves his friends and his life and, golly, Harry really is an attractive little bean, isn’t he?

Liam’s lucky to have claimed him first.

Louis wants to claim him.

He’d never admit it in the sober light of day, but Louis wishes he’d claimed first Harry because Harry’s pretty and he reads Oscar Wilde and he has good taste in music and he makes Louis laugh and he’s positive and ambitious and caring and loves poetry and literature and he understands the things Louis says.

He’s nice.

“Welp,” Niall says eventually, clapping his hands and hopping up, just as Liam is laughing hysterically, hunched over the table and grabbing at Harry’s hands. Someone is drunk. How cute. “Shall we go?”

“Yeah, let’s go! I want to sing. Will someone sing with me?” Zayn asks, and he’s all wide brown eyes and genetic-mascara as he blinks and looks around like a little kitten.

“I’ll sing with you, my love,” Louis almost-slurs (is he drunker than he thought?) as he slings an arm around his shoulder, bumping his body into his. “I’ll sing whatever you like.”

Zayn’s expression is hopeful. “Usher?”

“Absolutely not.”

“I’ll sing Usher with you, Zayn!” Liam says from across the way and, oh. Harry’s helping him stand up, their hands linked, Harry looking pink-cheeked and giggly.

That’s nice. Good for Liam. Good.

“Yeah, let’s go,” Louis says curtly then, his voice gruffer than he meant it, and he strides forward, dragging Zayn along with him (who stumbles) and refuses to look back.

**

They’re walking in the falling snow (of course it’s snowing again, it being the end of the world and all that) and it’s so cold that Louis can’t feel his limbs, but he’s almost drunk—if he isn’t already—and he’s busy laughing with his arm linked with Zayn’s, Niall occasionally bumping into the pair as he hops into the air and brandishes his mobile.

Harry and Liam are somewhere to the right, but Louis isn’t keeping score and he doesn’t want to look at them because Harry looks sexy tonight and he doesn’t want to feel like a shitty friend.

He doesn’t want to feel wistful, either. And he’s dangerously close to feeling wistful.

He’s also dangerously close to wanting to trip Liam or pray that he falls into a snowdrift and that’s just not nice, that’s not nice. Liam is his best mate. Hormones should never, ever prevail over your best mate. Even if alcohol is added to the mix.

“I’m going to sing Backstreet Boys,” Louis announces, cheeks flushed and frozen. “I hope you’re all very prepared. I am the best at singing boyband songs. The best.”

“Not even true,” Niall protests. “I am.”

“Excuse me,” Zayn says, as if there’s no competition. And with Zayn, there’s really not. “I am the best.”

“Don’t forget about me!” Liam’s voice calls, and Louis leans over to stick his tongue out at him, maybe laugh in his face.

But when he does, he sees Liam is solo. As in, without Harry. He is Harry-less. Harr-less. There’s a pun in there somewhere.

He’s just feeling a sobering sort of confusion when he suddenly feels a knock on his left shoulder—the Zayn-less one—and he looks over and bam! There’s Harry . He’s found Harry.

“Hey, you,” Harry smiles, clearly tipsy. His curls are tumbling into his face in the gentle breeze, snowflakes falling on his skin. His white, icy skin. His scarf thing looks so bloody good.

“Heyyy, Henry,” Louis grins, feeling suddenly warmer, instantly pleased. Much better. “Oi! Hey! You!” he then says accusingly, and jabs a finger into Harry’s leather-jacket-chest. “You put ‘Lord Henry’! We haven’t discussed that yet.”

“No we haven’t,” Harry agrees, and his grin might tip him over. “Were you impressed?”

“I was so fucking impressed. I almost humped my phone,” the alcohol says and, oops. Louis needs to keep his mouth in check.

Liam. Remember Liam.

But Harry looks as if he’s reached the pinnacle of his existence. Oh god, it’s just so flattering. It’s so endearing. Louis is helpless. The world should feel bad for Louis. Liam should feel bad for Louis and just…have feelings for someone else. He should just find someone on that online dating profile of his.

Oh god, what is he even saying? Louis has drank too much.

Blushing furiously, Harry looks down at his feet, nearly falling on some ice. “I-I’m glad you liked it. I wasn’t sure if it was, like, too much? Or. I dunno. Maybe you’d get offended that I’d compared myself to one of Wilde’s characters.”

“Offended? No such luck,” Louis continues, and Zayn is now listening, smoking his fiftieth cigarette and craning his head towards them. “You’re my new best friend now, Harry. Anybody who makes Oscar references automatically becomes my new best mate. Isn’t that right, Zayn?”

“It’s true,” he mumbles around the stick. “That’s why I don’t say shit about that old dead man.”

Louis nearly throws Zayn into the street.

“NEVER SPEAK AGAIN!” he shrieks into the night, and his voice echoes against the silhouetted houses and empty streets, bouncing off the crisp sky.

“Shhh!” Liam giggles insistently, finger to his lips. “You’ve got to be quiet!”

Which only spurs Louis on more because if you’re going to tell Louis Tomlinson to do one thing, then he is absolutely going to do another.

“YOU CAN’T SAY THAT STUFF, ZAYN!” Louis screams again, louder, just to illicit a reaction as Niall thunders out laughter, bouncing along with his hands in his jacket pockets, Liam giggling like a shivering leaf. Zayn tries to press his hand over Louis’ mouth, cigarette tucked between his teeth.

He stumbles while trying to avoid Zayn’s hand, nearly slips on one of those treacherous patches of ice that almost just got Harry, but a warm hand is suddenly gripping his arm, another warm hand on his waist.

“Careful,” Harry giggles in his ear, and oh. Harry’s the warm hand.

With a blinky smile, Louis leans back, looks up at him. “Thanks, new best friend.”

“You’re welcome, new best friend.”

“Alright best friends,” Zayn suddenly says, and Liam is ahead of them now, obliterated and drunk, traipsing up the stairs of the pub. “Let’s get inside before we freeze to death, yeah? Come on.”

Louis giggles and tugs Harry up the stairs by his jacket before he realizes what he’s doing, but doesn’t let go as they step inside the smoky dimness even after he does realize. He just grips his jacket and files through the hoards of people while some drunk, messy thing screeches out a Madonna song onstage.

Is that “Like A Virgin?” Or is that the sound of a cat giving birth? It’s very loud. And unpleasant.

At last they find a mostly empty table, a few empty glasses littering the surface, and they plop down, their skin glowing under the pink and blue lights.

“Drinks?” Niall’s asking, but he’s already heading towards the bar.

“Ima go help him,” Zayn mumbles, trudging forward, nearly tripping over a stray stool.

“Get me something!” Liam shouts sloppily, drooping as he sways atop his stool, eyes bleary. He clutches his stomach and grimaces, before his eyes refocus.

“Hey, mate. You feeling alright?” Louis asks, taking in his appearance as he sits down across from him.

Harry takes the seat beside him, close enough so their knees touch.

“Yeah. Just want another drink,” Liam slurs, and he blinks up at the screen on the stage, where the bright words of the lyrics flash. “Gotta sing Lion King. Gotta stay and sing it.”

“We can sing it next week?” Louis offers, sobering with concern as he reaches across the table and takes Liam’s hand, eyes flicking over his pale face. He looks a bit sweaty and peaked. Something definitely looks off. “Maybe we should leave.”

“No, no, no,” Liam says immediately, hand moving to shove at Louis’ mouth. “’M fine.”

At that, Louis doesn’t respond, just stares at him with pursed lips and calculating eyes.

Harry shifts beside him but says nothing, watching the exchange with a furrowed brow, clearly buzzed and clearly not wanting to encroach.

“Okay,” Louis relents eventually, just as Niall and Zayn return with a tray of shots, laughing carelessly. “But you let me know if you don’t feel any better.”

Liam nods as he watches each of them take a shot and clink their glasses and refrains from partaking, eyes un-focusing just a bit more.

“Here’s to our impeccable talents!” Louis toasts, holding his shot as high as he can, sloshing just a bit over the sides.

“And to the band we should’ve made!” Niall adds boisterously.

“Here’s to alcohol!” Zayn snickers, making Louis snicker (Zayn is definitely becoming Drunk Zayn) and Harry beams from beside him.

As one, they drink, and Louis feels the burn of Harry’s stare as he throws his shot back, before closing his eyes and feeling the burn travel down his throat, gliding alongside the tequila.

**

Liam definitely does not feel any better.

In fact, Liam is currently in the toilets. Louis went to check on him about ten minutes ago but was greeted with an, “I love you, mate, but let me do my thing,” and he hasn’t seen him since.

“I think he’s sick,” he says to Harry, who’s sipping on a bottle of Carlsberg and looking dopey and pretty, the sleeves of his hoodie pushed up. His watch is chunky and large, contrasting with his delicate wrist.

Little cutie.

Zayn and Niall are at the bar, chatting up some girls, hands thrown about each others’ shoulders. Every once in awhile Louis can hear Niall’s laugh.

“Want me to look in on him?” Harry offers, and his knee bumps against Louis’.

Some guy is singing “House of the Rising Sun”. Louis’ humming under his breath, the hand that’s not clutching his vodka tonic drumming against his thigh.

“Love this song,” he says randomly, and Harry nods almost immediately.

“Me, too,” he smiles and his knee knocks against Louis’ again. Intentionally, that time. Louis quirks his lips. Harry’s eyes glint. “So, what are we going to sing?” Harry asks then, and he sits a bit straighter, sets his big green eyes on Louis.

Louis should check on Liam again.

“Oh, are we singing something? I wasn’t aware,” Louis says, glancing at his phone. No texts from Liam. Well, that’s probably a good sign.

“Of course we are,” Harry says, almost petulant, and now he’s turned his stool to face Louis completely, both of his knees knocking Louis’. “Let’s sing Moulin Rouge.”

“’Your Song’?” Louis laughs, sliding his phone back in his pocket and finishing his drink.

“Yes,” Harry beams, looking proud of himself. “I mean, we did sing it in Starbucks today. We’ve got the practice.”

“You are so weird for having sung that,” Louis laughs again, and the liquor bubbles pleasantly inside as the lights dance across his warm flesh. “I can’t believe you did that.”

“I can’t believe you sang back,” Harry grins, and his eyes follow Louis as he rocks with drunken laughter, giggling with his hands cupped over his mouth. “I was so happy you did.”

So happy you did.

Louis is so fucking charmed.

Since he’s dangerously close to doing something like lick Harry’s cheek or purr, Louis quiets his giggles, turns towards the direction of the toilets.

“I’m going to check on Liam again,” he says, hopping onto the ground a bit unsteadily. Of course, Harry’s hands shoot out, wrapping around his limbs gently until Louis’ balance is restored.

Evil. He’s evil. The entire world and fate and everything is evil.

He begins heading towards the toilets, the music loud and the bass heavy, reverberating in the soles of his shoes.

“You’re a good friend,” Harry calls from behind him.

Louis casts a glance over his shoulder before flashing a thumbs up, never breaking his stride. “I’m the best. Which you’ll soon find out, new best friend.”

Harry doesn’t say anything after that, so Louis picks up his speed a bit, pushes the door of the loo open.

“Liam?” he calls hesitantly before stepping fully inside.

And, ah. There, on the floor, looking the color of the sea, is Liam. He looks up at Louis, miserable. “So, remember that frappuccino I had?” he says, a grimace to the words.

And, ohhhhh. Okay. Lactose intolerant. Oh yeah.

“Yes I do. Do your intestines?” Louis enquires, offering his hand.

“The memory’s pretty fresh, actually,” Liam winces as he stands, his stomach gurgling threateningly. He winces again.

“Home?” Louis asks, but it’s more of a conclusive statement than a question.

But Liam shakes his head, clutching Louis’ arm. “No, you guys stay. Have fun. I can drive, I’m sober now—I think I flushed my system clean. A proper detox.” Louis tries not to chuckle. “I just want to go home, to be honest. Alone. Just, like. Sleep and lie down.”

“Maybe cry a little bit?” Louis asks, smirking slightly, his body still thrumming with alcohol and music and the bump of Harry’s knees. (Fuck. Stop.)

“Definitely cry a lot,” Liam affirms and Louis laughs, feeling warm. He wraps his arm around Liam before they leave the toilets, walking back to the table together.

“Liam’s going home,” Louis announces once they return, and luckily Zayn and Niall are back, sitting on their stools and singing along to Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight”—which is being sung by an impressively elderly gentleman wearing a cowboy hat. Interesting.

“You’re leaving?” Harry asks, deflated, brows pinching as he meets Louis’ eye.

Louis shakes his head. “No, Liam is. I’m just walking him to his car cuz I’m a good date.”

“Piss off,” Liam burps, head bent with embarrassment.

Louis smiles cheekily, clutches Liam closer to him. “See? He’s infatuated.”

Harry chuckles, gains a softer gleam to his eye as he stares at the pair, tilting his head a bit as speckles of color and light flick over his face and catch in his hair. That scarf-headband-thing thing really does wonders for him. He has a really nice forehead. And his curls are so springy.

“Want me to join?” his brown velvet voice asks. “Or would that be ruining the date?”

Louis’ about to say yes, is opening his mouth to do so, but reconsiders almost immediately once he takes in Liam’s haggard appearance and shamed stature. And because he also feels a sharp, warning pinch at his side, Liam’s fingers digging in mercilessly.

“Er—best not,” Louis says, shifting out of harm’s way. “I’ll be right back, though.”

Harry’s lights go out the slightest bit but he nods, smiling easily as he waves a tiny goodbye to Liam. “I hope you feel better, Liam,” he says earnestly, studying his face. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

“Blow him,” Niall says simply, lifting his bottle to his lips, and Zayn immediately swats him in the stomach and Louis nearly drops Liam.

“What’d you say?’ Harry asks, leaning closer, looking confused, and thank god.

“Nothing,” Zayn says hastily and Niall merely smirks, unapologetic.

“Right. Well. I’ll be right back,” Louis says again and leads Liam out—who is flushing, red as a rose.

They stumble out into the night, walking carefully down the steps and avoiding the ice. The snow has stopped falling, a thin layer coating the world. It sparkles silver and blue.

“Don’t have too much fun while I’m gone,” Liam mutters as he climbs into his car.

Louis freezes. “What? I don’t—“

“Don’t like. Get donuts or something. Or make memories.”

Make memories. Oh. Okay. Sweet relief.

Oh, Liam.

“Will do, Payno. In fact, I’ll make sure to get so obliterated drunk that I never remember a thing from tonight,” Louis promises, chuckling.

“Good,” Liam yawns, sitting in the driver’s seat and searching for his keys. “And don’t shag Harry, either. He’s mine. I want a boyfriend.”

Again, Louis freezes, but this time his blood positively congeals.

Fuck.

Fuck fuck fuck.

Guilt.

Guilt and shame and fuck.

He’s been caught.

“I wouldn’t—I’m not—I don’t—I wouldn’t—“ Louis splutters, flushing brilliantly, but Liam merely yawns, stretching his limbs as he finally finds the right key, sticks it into the ignition.

“I think he likes me,” Liam says, a little oblivious.

Oh. Okay.

Louis’ insides prickle.

“Yeah. For sure,” he agrees, a little hollow.

“He’s really fit,” Liam says, yawning once more. “And he’s smart. Like, proper smart. He reads and stuff.”

“This is all true,” Louis nods, sliding his hands in his pockets. He’s uncomfortable. He’s uncomfortable and he wants to go back inside. He still hasn’t gotten high—maybe he should do that right now.

“I really think he likes me,” Liam then sighs dreamily, and god, is this going to last all night? Just Liam sighing and bragging about how much Harry fancies him? Because no, Louis did not sign up for this, even if he is Liam's best mate and, in being so, absolutely signed up for this.

He just wants singing and alcohol and a warm night with his mates. That's all. Is it too much to ask? No heavy talks, please. 

“I reckon he’s going to ask me out soon," Liam continues, bleary eyed as he situates himself further. He's talking absently,  fumbling with his keys in the dim light. "At least, hopefully. I need a boyfriend and I need one pronto. I need a good fuck--" 

Aaaaand that’s enough.

“Liam,” Louis interjects, trying not to visibly grimace. “Go home, okay? Sleep.”

There’s a pause before Liam sighs, relenting. “Yeah, okay. I’ll see you at work tomorrow!”

“Nope. Off tomorrow,” Louis smiles.

“Oh? Well I’ll see you soon, I’m sure,” he amends, and Louis smiles again, small, still feeling a small tidal wave of guilt as he waves goodbye when Liam shuts his door.

He watches him drive away, smile sliding from his face. The headlights becoming pinpricks in the night before they disappear completely.

**

When Louis finally returns to the sanctity of the warm, noisy bar, Zayn’s turning in his song request, Niall right behind him.

“You’re next!” they insist to Louis the minute they spot him, jabbing their fingers in his direction as they stride ahead.

Louis grins as he walks to Harry, shaking his head and chuckling as they walk to the side of the stage, handing the DJ their papers. “Oi, Professor,” he says upon reaching him, who’s got his feet kicked up on Louis’ stool. “Make room. I need to sit.”

Without a beat, Harry perks, immediately sliding his long legs off the stool, his posture straightening. “Sit away,” he smiles, setting down his half-empty bottle on the table. “I’m really good at this.”

“At what?”

“Sitting with people.”

Louis turns to look at him, trying not to grin (Liam’s words are still fresh in his mind, as is a new batch of guilt because everything’s horrible) as he searches his face. Harry looks proud, maybe a bit cheeky, maybe a bit flirty. He’s smirking, his dimple more prevalent than ever.

“I can sit really well,” he continues and oh, lord, his smile. Dopey, cute, sweet boy.

“Oh?” Louis enquires, Liam’s echoed words being drowned out by the thumping of his own heart. And some alcohol. “And can you shake hands as well? Lay down? Roll over? Speak?”

“Of course,” Harry answers simply, giving a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders and blinking regally. “I’ve even perfected not begging for scraps at the table.”

They keep eye contact, both of their smiles pressing tighter against their lips, before they burst into laughter as one.

“You’re so ridiculous,” Louis chuckles, signaling the bartender for another drink.

“I know,” Harry responds, shrugging. “So are you.”

Louis catches his eye, smiles. “New best friends,” he reminds. Or confirms. Or promises? Who knows.

“New best friends,” Harry nods, before they clink empty glasses and Niall and Zayn return to the table, not-so-subtly looking between them.

**

Louis is perched atop his stool feeling spectacularly drunk, sandwiched between Harry and Niall as they sway their pints in time to the melody of the song.

Zayn is currently onstage, belting out Whitney Houston like it were a walk a in the park. Every single person in the bar—male and female—is drooling. Hell, even Louis is drooling.

“He’s so fucking fit!” Louis shouts above the noise, and Harry pauses his swaying momentarily to blink at him, before reassembling himself.

“Who, Zayn?”

“Yeah!” Louis enthuses, sloshing beer on his hand. “Don’t you think?”

Harry shrugs. “He’s alright.”

“Alright?!” Louis repeats, lowering his glass and turning to face Harry, perplexed. “He’s a fucking Greek God! Even Niall would fuck Zayn!”

“I absolutely would,” Niall assures, poking his head forward to nod solemnly.

Harry doesn’t reply, just lowers his own beer and turns back to watch Zayn (who’s throwing his head back, effortlessly hitting the high notes, his black button-up rolled to his elbows, a few of his tattoos peaking out and cutting against the caramel of his skin—stud) and his face quiets, his smile no longer taking up half his face.

It’s not much longer before Zayn finishes, the entire bar applauding—and Harry applauding a little weakly, Louis couldn’t help but notice—and he’s smiling so wide it’s blinding as he ambles up to the group, sweaty and stylish and model-chic.

“The world just fell in love with you. Again,” Louis adds, smiling warmly as he slides a hand up to his shoulder. He’s flirtatious, okay, but it’s innocent. Zayn’s mostly straight and, no, Louis probably wouldn’t ever fuck Zayn. At least while sober. Well, no. Never. He’d never fuck Zayn. That would make it weird, that would be… It would just be weird.

Zayn beams, all uninhibited and expressive. “I need a cigarette. Cigarette, yeah? Thanks,” he adds as someone brushes past him, telling him he’s “bloody brilliant.” His beam brightens even more. “Come on,” he urges, all invigorated with adrenaline and tugging on Louis’ hand. “Cigarette.”

“Yeah, okay,” Louis grins, sliding off his barstool. “I heard you the first time.”

“I could use one meself,” Niall says, downing his pint.

They’re shrugging on their coats, Zayn still accepting praise from strangers, but Harry remains sitting, eyes studying the water spots on the glass in his hand.

“Hey,” Louis says gently, tugging one of the chords of Harry’s hoodie.

Harry looks up, his smile slow to reach his eyes.

“You coming?” he questions.

Harry shakes his head, returns his gaze back to the glass. “Nah. Don’t smoke.”

“But you talk. And I like to talk. Come talk to me,” Louis pushes gently, tugging again on the chord; he gets so damn flirtatious when he's drunk, swaying into Harry's space. Really, he should never drink again. 

There’s a pause where Harry seems to be considering it, eyeing Louis' rogue smile and pesky hands, before he finally smiles and knocks Louis’ shin with his foot. All gentle, like. “In a bit,” he promises, and his smile is still off but Louis’ too drunk to care, so he grins and taps Harry’s scarf thing and winks before sidling away, closing in on Niall’s back and biting his shoulder.

**

When they stumble back inside the bar, smelling like cold air and smoke, Louis’ laughter falters the moment he sees a very blonde and very tight-shirt-ed young man laughing coquettishly with Harry, his hand on his thigh.

Harry’s smiling pleasantly, laughing back.

But.

He doesn’t seem entirely comfortable. He keeps nervously scratching at his arm and rolling his shoulders, eyes flicking to and fro.

And no. No, that will not do.

“So then I said—“ is the last thing Louis hears Niall say before he storms ahead without another thought, fast as a hummingbird in flight.

“Oi!” he greets, a little too abrasively, before he’s even properly reached Harry, almost slamming into him when he does. He rests his elbow atop his shoulder and Harry’s smile brightens magnificently when he turns to him, instantly becoming genuine and pure. The lights of the karaoke screen are reflected in the cloudy green of his eyes.

“Hey,” Harry breathes, voice all gentle and pleased, and Blonde Thing’s face falls.

“Hello Henry,” Louis grins, tugging on a curl (he shouldn’t, he knows, but these are special circumstances) before turning to face Blonde Thing, jaw set. “And who might you be?”

“I’m—“ he starts, narrowing his eyes, posture stiffening as he removes his hand from Harry’s thigh hastily.

“Leaving, aren’t you? You’re leaving?” Louis says, and he smiles cleaner and brighter, flashing his teeth.

In his peripherals, he can see Harry’s smile widen as he ducks his head. Probably to hide it.

Bashful bird.

“Yeah, whatever, sure,” the guy mumbles, before rolling his eyes and striding away slowly, eyes already searching for a new target. How fetching.

“Thanks,” Harry immediately says as he raises his head, and he’s looking at Louis like he’s dipped in gold and honey. “He was a bit…skeevy.”

“To put it lightly,” Louis scoffs, immediately removing his arm. “Where’d he even come from, anyway?”

Harry shrugs. “Dunno. He just sort of appeared and told me I was sexy.”

A flash of fire burns through Louis.

Sexy. That’s Louis’ assessment. Louis thinks Harry looks sexy tonight. Nobody else can steal his assessment.

“Sexy,” Louis repeats, unable to keep the distaste out of his mouth.

“Yeah,” Harry says, gauging his expression. “What? You don’t agree?”

Another flash. Different kind of fire.

Louis takes a sip of his abandoned drink before he answers, considering his words. “You’re not sexy,” he finally concludes, fighting every natural instinct inside of him because, well. Because of Liam. “You’re too…sweet-faced to be sexy,” he lies. He coughs in his palm. Lying is hard.

Harry looks like a popped balloon. “Oh.”

“You’re more like a little cherub,” Louis continues before he can stop himself. “All curls and smiles and sweet, soft skin.” Pause. “Just gotta get you into a nappy.”

“A nappy? You mean the croissant you drew?” Harry teases, laughter flavoring the words.

“Hey! You said it didn’t look like one!” Louis exclaims in mock outrage, pinching his side, and now Harry squawks, giggling and grabbing Louis’ hands.

He continues to snicker, continues to hold Louis’ hands, and Louis smiles through his drunken haze, teetering a bit on his feet because Harry is pretty and Harry is warm.

“You look like a cherub,” he says again and almost hiccups. He grins.

“Like Cupid?” Harry’s still holding his hands.

Louis nods.

“So I, like, make people fall in love?" Harry asks, voice quieter. Louis may or may not imagine the phantom feel of a thumb brushing over the back of his hand. Gentle, gentle. "Pierce their hearts with love arrows? With my love bow?”

Louis nods again, actually does hiccup this time. “Sure.”

Harry’s about to say something else, opens his mouth, but then suddenly there’s Niall, engulfing him completely in his pale arms, and he’s grinning like a madman as he jerks Harry’s entire body, jerks Harry’s hands out of Louis’.

“It’s our turn, lads!” he beams, “Come on, it’s our turn.”

And Louis is momentarily lost before he looks onto the screen and, yep, there are all four of their names, written in big, bold letters. Right next to The Beatles’ “A Little Help From My Friends.

Oh god.

“We’re not seriously going to sing that all together, are we?” Louis says, eyebrows raised.

“We absolutely are,” Zayn affirms, grabbing his hand.

Harry tracks the movement with his eyes.

“No,” Louis groans, being dragged forward. “I’m sick of Drunk Zayn. I want my Sober Zayn back. Where are you? Come forth, child.” He looks over his shoulder, notes that Harry is, once again, still sitting, Niall having trotted ahead. “Come on, Henry,” he slurs, grabbing Harry’s hand.

“No, you guys go ahead. You’re mates. I’m just the intruder,” he says, a small frown on his face.

“No, you’re our mate now, too,” Zayn insists. “You’re coming here from now on, yeah? With us? So come on.”

“Come on, Hazza,” Niall thunders in the microphone from the stage.

Louis grins, interlocking his fingers with Harry’s more tightly and Harry meets his eye, a hint of hesitation still lingering in the green.

“I’m not letting go of you until you come, you know,” Louis says in a low voice, meant to be threatening. Which ends up sounding more seductive. And, heyo, Louis could make ten jokes about letting go and coming, but. But Liam. So he bites his tongue, plowing on before he falls victim to himself. “Come along, Professor, come along,” he sing-songs, and Harry finally smiles before he finally stands up, following easily and never releasing Louis’ hand.

They assemble onstage in their sweaty, drunken glory, Niall brandishing a guitar he conjured from the air, and Zayn taking the middle of the stage, hair wilted and messy, his smile wide and unreserved. Hand in hand, Louis and Harry share a microphone beside him, their smiles matching as they flicker eyes back and forth as the opening notes play, their natural inebriation mingling with their synthetic, all beneath the lights.

As one, they sing together, voices overlapping, and they sound quite good, actually.

Or maybe Louis’ just spectacularly drunk.

“…I get high with a little help from my friends…”

Either way, they sing and they sway, laughing through the lyrics and stumbling into each other, Zayn singing an octave higher just to show off and Niall strumming an air guitar and Louis and Harry swaying, still connected by their sweaty palms, and Louis sort of forgets everything.

But he does remember the color of Harry’s eyes and he does remember the silk of his voice and he does remember the slide of his skin against his as his fingers were lost within his own.

**

When the bar closes, they stumble out, pockets lighter (Louis bought so many drinks, he is trash) and they walk through the empty, snow-blanketed streets, singing The Beatles. Harry’s got his arm around Louis, who shivers with each slight breeze, and he burrows into the feeling because Harry’s warm and because the moon is large and because Zayn and Niall keep cooing and taking pictures of them, tossing snow tufts into their hair.

“I’m so fucking hungry. Breakfast, yeah?” Niall basically insists.

“BREAKFAAAAAAST!” Louis agrees through a scream-sing and Harry giggles, pulling him in closer and buries his laughter in Louis’ neck, his lips cold.

Everyone is so drunk.

“We’ll take a cab,” Zayn announces wisely, and he’s already pulling out his phone to call one, because he’s intelligent and useful and Harry is warm.

“Lord Henry,” Louis mumbles drunkenly, eyes lidded, as he sways against Harry and listens to Zayn’s silken mumble. He bops Harry’s nose with his finger. “My little Lord Henry. New best friend.”

Harry shines.

“Louis the Sun King,” he says, softly and quietly, just like the snow.

“Henry the Eighth.”

“Louis the Sixteenth.”

“Henry James.”

“Louis Vuitton.”

At that, Louis bursts into laughter, throwing his head back to laugh into the limitless, cold sky. Maybe the stars are frozen. Maybe the moon is ice.

But Louis feels like fire.

Eventually the cab comes and Niall’s singing Irish folk songs, piling in first, and Zayn follows with a sleepy smile and Harry lets Louis climb in before settling behind him and shutting the door—with some difficulty. Zayn clambers on Niall’s lap and Niall smiles into his shoulder blades and Louis is pressed against Harry’s side. Harry leans his head against Louis’, sighing softly. His leather smells musky and sweet and it’s soft to the touch and squeaks a bit and Louis wants to fall asleep on it.

But instead they arrive at a 24/7 diner and stumble out of the cab in a heap, slowly and crookedly making their way into the restaurant, smiles dizzy. Niall’s still humming The Beatles and Zayn’s eyes keep shining with mirth as he breathes out random giggles and Harry…

Harry walks with Louis, his warm presences never far, his limbs clunking into Louis’, and his smile is always a glance away, his eyes always bright and soft and watchful whenever Louis looks up.

“Booth for four, please,” Niall says easily once they’ve entered the warmly lit building, the atmosphere saturated in a smoky, bacon-sizzled buzz.

“Can we smoke in here?” Louis hears Zayn enquire earnestly, politely to the hostess, and Louis can’t stop the giggles that seem to pour from his lips, so he presses his mouth against Harry’s shoulder trying to stifle the sound. It makes Harry chuckle and it makes Harry brush the enormous expanse of his hand along Louis’ arm and it leaves a trail of sparks and aligned particles and memory.

And Louis is so fucking drunk.

He’s so drunk that for the rest of the night he just clings to Harry, hangs on his arm because he’s solid. He clings to him and he didn’t even know him five days ago. Or is it six days now? What time is it?

Either way, Harry is a stranger and Louis clings to him and understands his smiles.

“Where are your arrows, Cupid?” Louis mumbles as they slide into the booth, Niall cursing after he hits his elbow. “You haven’t got any arrows.”

Harry smiles crookedly, completely ignoring the menu placed before him and instead leaning into Louis, hands folded in his lap.

“They’re invisible,” he says, and it’s so heavy and slow that it pulls Louis’ eyelids down.

“You don’t have any arrows, do you? Guess nobody’s going to fall in love now,” Louis sing-songs, and he taps Harry on the nose and swipes a finger across his headscarf thing before guzzling the water that has suddenly appeared before him, the entire room swaying in his peripherals.

“Hey,” Harry protests then, suddenly beginning to fish through his pockets.

Louis watches him, quirks an eyebrow as he wipes his mouth of the excess water that’s begun to slide down his chin, his glass now empty. So thirsty.

Then Harry’s eyebrows hold a hint of triumph as his hands find what they’re looking for, and out comes a pack of Post-It’s from Harry’s jean pocket.

Post-It’s? What the…?

But Louis’ too drunk to question it, so instead he just laughs. “Oh my god, you actually carry Post-It’s,” he laughs, just as Niall emits a, “What the fuck you got in your hands?”

Harry merely shrugs though, smiles as he places the pad onto the table and grabs the pen that’s sitting nearby, next to the salt and pepper, conveniently placed by a small stack of customer surveys.

“You’re such a fucking teacher,” Louis laughs, brushing away his sweaty fringe, and Zayn smiles hazily through a yawn.

“I wanted to be a teacher.”

“You still can be,” Niall reasons, nudging him. “You should try for it.”

“Maybe,” Zayn murmurs, and then snickers, eyes travelling to Harry. “Liam loves teachers.”

Oh god. Liam.

Louis’ about to undergo an emotional crisis but, thankfully, it’s at that time that their server comes, hair pulled into a loose bun, notepad held loosely in her grip.

“Anything to drink, lads?” she asks, and that’s the end of that.

**

“Tonight was brilliant,” Zayn says later, chewing on his last strip of bacon. “But you didn’t sing enough, Louis. I like when you sing. ‘S nice.”

Oh, Drunk Zayn.

“Yeah, where were you tonight?” Niall chimes in, shaking his head as he finishes his juice, having already finished his plate twenty minutes ago. “Usually you’re fighting us off for the microphone.”

Harry’s nursing a cup of black coffee and Louis is poking at a shortstack of pancakes, the butter puddled on top in a white swirl. He’s not hungry anymore, just tired and drunk and whoozy.

“I was everywhere and all about,” Louis yawns, chin on hand.

“You were with me,” Harry smiles into his palm, chin also on hand.

“Oh yeah...” Louis smiles in response, his eyes crinkling as he pivots to look at Harry. “I was with Cupid.”

“Cupid?” Niall questions, confused. His eyes are red, his hair mussed. “Why are you being a weirdo?”

“Cuz he’s a cherub. Look at him,” Louis explains sleepily, lifting a hand to card through Harry’s curls, fingers catching on the headscarf.

“You make people fall in love, Harry?” Zayn questions, swirling the water in his glass. He's got shadows beneath his eyes. 

Harry nods, blinking heavily as Louis continues to sift absent fingers across his scalp like it were normal. Like this is a thing and this is what they do. “I hit their hearts with arrows. ‘Gotcha!’ I say, when I sink a hole in one.”

“Wrong terminology,” Louis murmurs, eyes drooping, words slurred.

Harry grins crookedly, gazes down at Louis. “But I only hit the hearts that need a little bit of encouragement.”

The lights in the restaurant are too bright, the booths too hard.

“Such a dope,” Louis mumbles, lips smudged into his palm.

“Gotcha,” Harry just repeats, eyes drifting shut. Then Louis removes his hand and his eyes open again.

“Ready to go?” Niall yaws, scratching his stomach.

“Yes please,” Louis sighs.

They pull themselves out of the booth—Harry tugging Louis out by his hands and Niall pulling up Zayn—and stumble back outside…before realizing they need another cab.

“Never doing this ever again,” Louis mutters through his clattering teeth, but he’s smiling and Harry’s looking down at him like he’s never going to look anywhere else for the rest of his life. Everything feels so dream-like and distant and simple and fun.

“How about next week?” Niall offers, just as the cab is pulling up.

“Abso-fucking-lutely,” Louis promises, and Harry laughs.

Once again they climb in and, within seconds, Louis falls asleep, head on Harry’s shoulder.

**

When he wakes, it’s to Harry gently petting his cheek, urging him into wakefulness.

“Come on, Barney. Time for bed,” he whispers scratchily, and it’s enough to open Louis’ eyes.

Half-asleep, he allows himself to be maneuvered out of the cab, up to Niall’s flat, and Harry supports him over the threshold, his hold strong and unyielding. He then feels himself being lain down on the couch, feels his shoes being tugged off, feels a blanket cover his body and, god, is this what heaven feels like?

Harry is so nice.

“Text me if you need anything,” the thunder of Harry’s voice says then, somewhere in the distance.

Louis snuggles deeper into the couch.

“Will do. Goodnight, mate. I had a brilliant time. Text me tomorrow. We should grab dinner or something,” Niall’s voice drifts.

“Definitely. And, uhm..." Harry's voice pauses, lowering. Quieter. "If Louis wakes up—well. Not ‘if’. When Louis wakes up, could you—just. Just, like, tell him I said goodnight. And—yeah. Tell him I’ll see him. I hope he sleeps will.”

There’s a smile in Niall’s voice when he mutters a, “Sure thing, man. Will do.”

Then they exchange goodnights and Louis is just about to fall into unconsciousness, hand falling limply to his chest—

When suddenly his fingers catch on the corner of what feels like…paper?

Blearily, he looks down, eyes nearly crossing.

And there, stuck to his chest, over his heart, is a small, yellow Post-It. Only one word is scrawled upon it:

Gotcha!

 

 

Chapter Text

When Louis awakens the next morning, it’s to the sound of a hammer being pummeled into his skull.

Or perhaps that’s just a headache. And perhaps that’s just his pulse in his frontal lobe.

He’s miserable. And Niall is cooking breakfast, whistling, and the TV is flicked on, the news playing at a low volume and, fuck, is that drool encrusted to half of his face? Yes it is.

“Morning!” Niall’s voice chirps as he flips eggs, and Louis pulls his heavy, crusty, miserable eyelids open to send forth a glare, nausea and fire consuming his body.

“Hi.” His voice sounds like a pile of scrap metal. Consequently, it feels like a pile of scrap metal.

“Sleep well?” Niall then asks, happy and loud and bright—because he has no common fucking sense; who asks The Hungover questions first thing in the morning? Who??—before he sends a suspiciously smug smile Louis’ way, his blindingly white t-shirt hanging off of his thin shoulders.

Stretching—ouch—Louis nods, immediately flopping over onto his side to fall back asleep and pretend Niall doesn’t currently exist…

When suddenly his hand catches on a crisp, curled bit of paper—that fucking Post-It—and bam! He’s awake.

He’d forgotten about the Post-It.

Hastily (or as hastily has his half-deceased body can muster) he glances back at Niall as he curls into himself, shielding it from view. Niall’s still smiling that troublesomely smug little smirk to himself, still tending to the eggs and looking like a fresh spring morning in the dead of winter after an unrelenting night of liquor and partying. (Bastard.) So Louis quickly unpeels the Post-It, feels for his journal (resting in the pocket of his nearby jacket) and with silent, stealthy fingers, slips the note in between the pages, careful not to bend the corners.

He’s keeping it, alright? Nothing wrong in that. He’s just keeping it as a friendly memento from a night of fun. It’s fine.

Still though, he’s careful to ensure Niall doesn’t see.

He flops back down then, his head threatening to burst apart in a flash of white light, but just as he’s settling back onto the pillows and pulling the blanket around his shoulders—

“So you fancy Harry, then.”

And my oh myyyy, that is the last thing Louis wants to hear right now.

Niall sounds smug as he walks over to deposit a steaming mug of tea on the table beside Louis—which is the only reason that he’s not currently being shoved out of a window.

“Excuse me?” Louis splutters, eyes splitting open, his poisoned body immediately hauling itself up into a sitting position, almost sending the mug flying. “What did you just say?”

“You fancy Harry,” Niall repeats simply, looking up to meet his eyes before retreating back to the kitchenette. Cloudless and carefree. “He obviously fancies you as well. Suspect he might even be in love already.” There’s so much amusement in his tone that is it’s obscene and offensive. Niall Horan is a shitty person.

It’s too early for this.

“No, Niall,” Louis sighs, settling back down and swearing he hears his limbs creak. “He’s Liam’s boy.” If he sounds petulant, it’s only because he’s hungover. “It’s got nothing to do with me.”

“Except it has.”

Louis closes his eyes.

“He’s not interested in Liam, you know,” Niall then says, and it splits Louis’ frail body apart even more. Shut up, Niall. “I can tell. He’s only got eyes for you, he has.” Shut up shut up shut up.

“He just needs to get to know Liam,” Louis responds with tightly shut eyes and a stomach that is roaring its head in protest, “It’ll be fine.”

It’ll be fine, yes. And Louis will throw rice or flowers or beads or whatever the hell it is people throw at people’s weddings these days. He’ll write a Best Man speech about how he watched them fall in love and how he knew they’d get their ‘Happily Ever After’ all along and he won’t think about Harry’s passion for Frankenstein or his bright eyes when they talked about Dorian Gray and he won’t think about the smiles and the laughs and sharing of the headphones and he won’t remember how warm Harry’s body was when he was pressed against him in the cab last night and…

Oh god.

“I cannot believe I was practically hanging off of him last night,” Louis suddenly groans, smashing his hands over his face as flashes of memories begin to flicker in front of his eyes. Lots of Harry memories. Lots of Harry’s eyes. And hands. There was a lot of touching, wasn’t there? Fuck. “Oh god, I barely even know this kid and I fell asleep on him, Niall! I practically fucking cuddled him,” he nearly shrieks now, sitting up at a speed that turns his stomach. Misery. This is completely misery.

Niall stares blankly, turning off the stovetop. “And?” he says, waiting for the punchline. Which never comes. “What’s the fuss, Tommo? You’ve fucked people you’ve met the same night. Why you suddenly being all shy about falling asleep on some bloke’s shoulder—“

“Because it’s not ‘some bloke’, it’s Harry,” Louis protests, sitting up now, eyes open and wide and pained, clutching the couch and looking helplessly at Niall. Or, roughly Niall’s direction. Things are spinny.

“And?” Niall continues to question patiently. “It’s harmless, kid. There’s no reason to worry.”

“It’s not harmless, though.”

“Sure it is. Everyone was piss drunk. And Harry almost came in his pants every time you touched him, practically had fucking hearts in his eyes—“

“Don’t SAY that!” Louis screeches and fuck, his throat hurts. So does his head. And his heart. Everything hurts.

“Well, he did,” Niall continues, shrugging his shoulder as he flicks off the stove. “He’s like a puppy, following you around and whatnot. ‘S cute.”

“It’s not cute. It’s bad.”

“Why? No harm in it.”

“Remember Liam? He’s about yay tall. Brown hair, brown eyes, has a heart that quivers if the wind’s too strong. You know. Liam? He’s kind of in love with Harry.”

Niall laughs, begins slathering jam on toast as he shakes his head. “Liam is most definitely not in love with Harry, Lou.”

“Not yet.”

“Not ever. It could’ve been any bloke that walked through the door, so long as he had a pretty face, and Liam would’ve weed on his leg. You know he’s just looking for a boyfriend and Harry’s the easiest option.”

It’s true. It’s so true it hurts.

But that’s not a good enough reason to hurt a best friend.

“Liam and Harry would make an excellent couple,” Louis says firmly, and if his pulse throbs a bit more, he doesn’t notice. Much. “And it has nothing to do with me, and that is the end of that.”

“So then why do you care so much about how you behaved last night?”

And, oh. Apparently Niall is now wise and the King of Asking Questions. Brilliant.

“Because.”

“Because why?”

“Because… Because it’s Harry.” That still works as a sufficient explanation, right?

But Niall is shaking his head, proper chuckling now as he collects plates from his cupboards, the clicks of glass cutting through the warm, bright air of the flat. “You fancy him, don’t you?” he asks with a grin, pulling out the silverware drawer. “You proper fancy him. You want to hold his hand.”

And then what does Niall do? He begins to sing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles. While distributing eggs onto two plates.

Total prick.

“I don’t fancy him, you wretch,” Louis mumbles scornfully as Niall brings the plates over, sitting down heavily on the couch beside him and nearly smashing Louis' feet. “If I wanted to date a baboon, I’d visit a zoo.”

“Clever. But Tommo—you can’t help how you feel,” Niall continues, unaffected. “Especially when you two are so cute together.”

Niall is going to die.

“We’re not cute. Stop it. Stop talking,” Louis groans, grabbing his tea in his cold, clammy hands and willing the world to explode.

Niall is laughing, so clearly unaffected and unbothered, so clearly not hungover. Acting as if this were all simple and fun. “No, but you are though. I think Zayn even thought so! Which is no small feat, I can assure you.”

Fuck. Just fuck.

Louis gulps his tea—and burns his throat, yay—as he grimaces, before pulling the now-empty mug away from his mouth and wiping his wet lips with the back of his hand, his heart convulsing and vomiting, his brittle state of mind threatening to collapse. He’s not a morning person, see, and this conversation isn't doing him any favors.

“Look, Niall,” Louis begins carefully, his voice taking on an uncharacteristically serious edge. He sighs, setting down the mug with a soft thud, and scrubs a hand over his face, his fingers catching on his eyelashes. “Don’t, like. Mention this to anyone, okay? Especially Zayn. I don’t want this to become a thing, okay? This can’t become a thing.”

Niall quiets then, chewing on his toast and eggs and tea (probably all at once) as he observes Louis through a soft gaze, his tousled blonde hair and blooming pink cheeks the very portrait of innocence. “I think Zayn already put it together, to be honest,” he says, taking another bite of toast. But his amusement is mostly gone, replaced by a pondering silence and eyes that retain a margin of seriousness. Which Louis appreciates right now.

“Yeah, probably,” Louis agrees, sinking deeper into the couch as he pokes at his eggs with the fork. “But. If it doesn’t get worse, it won’t… There won’t be anything to actually put together. You know? So the less said, the better. Just….” Louis chews on his lips, keeps playing with his eggs. He doesn’t really know what he’s saying. His mind keeps flicking back to the Post-It. “Just try not to mention it around Zayn. And, obviously, Liam. Let’s dispose of this quietly.”

“And by ‘this’ you mean Harry and you,” Niall clarifies. He’s stopped chewing, is just observing Louis.

Louis nods. “I don’t want to fuck this up for Liam.”

There are few moments of silence, poignant enough for Louis to awkwardly bring a forkful of eggs to his mouth just to do something, before Niall starts nodding, turning back to his plate with unaffected glory.

“Alright,” he agrees with a shrug. “This’ll stay just between you and me.”

“Yeah,” Louis nods, swallowing the eggs, throat dry. “Just between you and me.”

**

Eventually, Louis makes his way home, parting from Niall with a solid hug and a smack on the arse and a wink, and he greets his mother and sisters when he walks through the door of his home, the promise of a day off surging through his sleepy, hungover veins.

Day off. Day off. His options are limitless. He could bake or draw or shop or exercise or build something or write—anything.

He’s probably just going to sleep, though.

So he crawls to his bed after changing into fresh pajamas—fresh, soft, lovely pajamas—and is just about to close his eyes, the soft sounds of his sisters’ feet pattering against the wood floors downstairs…

When his phone buzzes. A text.

Trying not to growl, he rolls over heavily, reaching a little blindly for his phone, praying he isn’t being asked to come in to work because no, absolutely not. He brings the phone to his groggy face, focuses on the screen and—

Oh sweet fancy Moses.

Lord Henry:  What would you do if I sang out of tune?’

Text from Harry.

Text from Harry and fuck no, do NOT quote Beatles lyrics you cute, offensive bastard. Do not do that. (Granted, he’s just making a reference to the song they all sang together last night at karaoke, but still. It’s enough to send Louis into spirals of further frustration.)

He swallows, swallows down a swell of a smile and a surge of warmth and shoves his phone down onto the mattress with more force than necessary, every bone and muscle and blood vessel in his body screaming at him to ignore it. To just ignore it and sleep and—

Buzz.

Goddammit.

‘Lord Henry:  Would you stand up and walk out on me?’

Ignoring. Louis is going to ignore this. Or maybe he should forward it to Liam? Is that the etiquette? Or maybe set himself on fire. That’s probably the better etiquette. Besides, doesn’t this fucker have school?

He closes his eyes again, pulling his blankets up and over his head because he’s weak and small and in all kinds of various pain; he’s just beginning to drift into a restless sleep, when:

Buzz.

Lord Henry: What do I do when my love is away?

It’s because he’s half asleep and holds such passion for The Beatles that Louis finds himself unthinkingly responding.

‘Does it worry you to be alone?’

‘Lord Henry:  How do I feel by the end of the day?’

Louis can practically feel Harry’s smile in the words, could feel his smile the minute he sent a response.

He’s humming it now, humming the tune as he dutifully types out the lyrics with a sleepy smile before he can stop himself, his phone tucked between his hands and resting atop his chest.

‘Are you sad because you’re on your own?’ Louis throws back, but there’s no immediate reply, and their iMessage indicates Harry’s not typing.

There are a few more moments of silence, where Louis is viciously internally chastising himself for being a weak, pitiful excuse for a human being while trying—and failing—to convince himself to turn off his phone; and then suddenly his phone buzzes again in his hand and his stomach jumps up into his throat and the entire world begins laughing at him as he reads the screen because:

‘Would you believe in love at first sight?’ it says.

Which. Okay. Those are the lyrics to the song. Fair enough.

But Louis did not ask for this. Louis did not ask for this at all. He must’ve done some truly terrible shit in his past life.

He doesn’t reply, just stares at the words with an unsteady heart and a sour stomach and he stares and stares until there’s another buzz and the words, ‘Yes, I’m certain’ scratch through Louis’ corneas and the soft tissue of his heart.

Okay. Okay so now Harry is answering his own questions and leaving off certain bits of the lyrics. Okay. So that’s what they’re doing.

Louis continues to stare at his phone. In horror.

He’s about to respond (and, truthfully, he has absolutely no idea of what to say) but just as he begins tentatively texting out a ‘haha’ (Louis never says ‘haha’; he is not wearing ‘stand-offish’ well at all) his phone begins buzzing again. But this time it’s a call and it’s from…

It’s from Liam.

Which is obviously a punishment from the Gods.

His entire body flushes, his paranoia set to ten, and he feels as if he’s been caught red-handed, feels like he’s just committed murder in front of an audience, and he’s going straight to Hell, Louis is going to Hell. So with a burning shame and enough guilt to consume him for the rest of his life, he picks up the call with fumbled fingers and a blush.

And Louis never blushes.

“Hey! Hi! Paynooo!” he overcompensates, his voice too loud and too chipper, all uncharacteristically shiny.

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.

“Lou? You alright? You sound funny,” Liam’s voice says and he sounds so innocent and quizzical and Louis could never willingly hurt him. He just couldn’t.

“Yes, of course. What can I do for you, mate? Don’t you have work?” Thump thump thump goes Louis’ heart. Beating out of his chest and shooting across the room in a panicked mess.

There’s a deep sigh then on the other line and Louis listens closer, furrowing his brows, his heart calming a bit as he focuses.

“Yes I do,” Liam says, an edge of annoyance to his voice. “In about twenty minutes. But my car broke down. So….would you be able to give me a ride?”

“Oh shit.” Louis blinks. “Of course, mate, yeah. Sorry about your car, shit. Any idea what’s wrong with it?” he asks, already hauling himself out of bed and running to stuff on his shoes and jacket.

“Dunno,” Liam says gloomily. “Could just be the cold weather. Could be my battery. I’m not sure. Don’t have time to figure it out, though.”

Louis nods, descending the stairs, phone pressed tight to his ear. “Yeah, alright. Well, I’ll text you when I’m at your house, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Liam agrees. “Thanks, mate.”

“Anytime,” Louis smiles before sliding his phone in his back pocket.

“Where you off to, love?” his mother asks, her arms filled with toys and a stray wisp of hair falling into her face. “Not work, I hope?”

“Nah, Liam’s car just broke down. Giving him a lift,” he says, grabbing his keys, and his mother nods.

“Aw. Poor dear,” she says sympathetically before he presses a kiss to her cheek.

“Back in a bit,” he waves and she smiles fondly, shooing him off before he opens the door and steps into the frigid air, another fresh batch of snow coating the world.

**

“I’m pissed off,” Liam says grumpily, sitting in the passenger seat in a huff, arms crossed.

Since the moment Louis’ picked him up, Liam’s been a stroppy mess, all furrowed eyebrows and snippy answers and it’s understandable, yeah, it’s totally understandable, but… But Louis is taking Liam to work when he could instead be in his bed, reading and writing and sleeping and… A little appreciation would be nice right now. Just a tiny bit.

“I can see that,” Louis mutters irately, gliding into the next lane.

“I don’t even want to work. Work for me?” Liam pouts, now turning to Louis with wide, pleading eyes.

“Work for you?” Louis repeats incredulously. “You realize that I haven’t had a day off for fifteen days, correct? And that I’ve already taken three of your shifts this month? So you could go on dates?”

Liam merely rolls his eyes, folding his arms tighter across his chest as he stares out the window, pout on his lips. “You always have an excuse,” he mumbles but he's flushing a bit, clearly shamed. 

So Louis chooses to ignore it. Because he's kind and generous.

They spend the rest of the drive in silence, Louis humming along to The Rolling Stones’ “Tell Me” and Liam bringing forth the apocalypse with the intensity of his glare. At last they park, Liam already unbuckled and slamming the door behind him before Louis can even turn off the engine.

So. One of those moods.

With a sigh, Louis clambers out behind him, following him inside.

“You should bring me dinner,” Liam suddenly pleads, opening the door. The wave of espresso and energy washes over them.

“Why?” Louis asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Because today’s shit. And I’m hungry,” is all Liam says before he’s storming to the backroom and Louis just stands there, watching his retreating figure with a sigh. Everybody always says Louis' the dramatic one but, clearly, Liam takes the cake. His bad days are always infamous.

It's just as Louis is whipping out his phone to text  Liam and ask him what he'd like for dinner (he's a whipped best friend, is what he is) when suddenly a robust voice announces a, “Weeeeeeelll,” and Louis looks over to the bar, already feeling a smile form. “Look who it is!”

There’s Niall, grinning and bright, his apron strings wrapped twenty times around his lithe little body, his timer clipped in place, a large cube of espresso beans in his arms. Beside him is Zayn who is uncharacteristically on bar (supervisors rarely ever make drinks—which is a shame because before he was appointed the position, Zayn was the master) and, when he spots Louis, sends a warm nod his way, eyes smiling and his lips just barely quirked.

“’Tis I!” Louis announces grandly, dusting off his shoulders and pumping his muscles, just for show, just for fun. Why not?

Niall laughs. And then he beckons Louis over to the handoff plane, setting down the cube of espresso on the countertop. There may or may not be a glint in his eye.

“Hey,” he says in a whisper, just as Zayn walks away and Louis ambles up.

“What?” Louis asks flatly, feeling…wary.

“Your boyfriend’s here,” Niall says, and Louis rushes out a breath, immediately spinning to glance around, ensuring that nobody’s within earshot.

“Fuck’s sake, Niall,” Louis hisses, positively glaring. “I told you not to do this!”

But Niall merely smiles, reaching out to knock a knuckle against Louis’ chin from across the granite plane. “Nobody’s around. Besides, Professor’s got his headphones on. Hasn’t gotten his nose out of his laptop the entire day, either. Not once. Not even for a wee. He’s oblivious. Suspect that he doesn’t even know you’re here—he’s that focused.”

Niall. Oh, Niall.

Still glaring, Louis sighs, leaning in a bit closer and dropping his mumble even lower. “Why is he even here? I thought he had school?”

“Another snow day.”

Louis curses. Because of course. This fucking snow.

He’s just about to comment on his splendid lack of luck when suddenly there’s another brighter glint in Niall’s eye and then he’s retreating, holding up a finger in Louis’ direction.

“Hold a tick,” he says, laughter in his voice, before he scuttles into the backroom, leaving Louis at the handoff plane, feeling painfully naked and exposed and terrified that Harry will look up and see him and come over and talk and… And just exist around him. Which is no good.

So he slips his hood up inconspicuously, averting his back to where Harry can usually be found (he hasn’t actually looked to see if he’s in his usual spot, for sheer blind terror) and ducking his head. He should probably just go. Liam clearly isn’t in the mood for socializing, seeing as how he’s disappeared completely, and it’s slow enough in the café that Louis is just bored, wants to go home and have some alone time—

And then suddenly The Beatles are blaring through the speakers. What song, you ask? “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

Niall is funny. Louis can’t help the expletives that slip through his lips as soon as the opening chords unleash.

Ever since Niall discovered that the Starbucks sound system can play iPods, iPhones, and any such devices, he’s found a constant source of amusement in playing the most random songs at the most random times. Or, as in this instance, playing songs that he finds appropriate for certain situations that arise.

Because he thinks he’s funny.

He’s not.

Louis is blushing again (that’s the second time today, too, fuck) and tugs his hood down even further. He’s just about to walk out, leave and never return, when Niall starts bumbling back, laughing almost hysterically (an overreaction, to be honest) and Louis is sending him the most hateful expression he can muster.

“It’s your song!” he shouts as he makes his way closer. “You can sing it to your boy!” he laughs. But then there’s a sudden shift in his expression and his gaze shifts over Louis’ shoulder, his steps slowing, the brightness of his eyes diminishing ever so slightly...

And oh no.

Oh please no.

“Your boy?” a deep voice repeats from behind Louis. And all the lights go out.

Why. Why??

Slowly, painfully, Louis turns with all the fear of a hog at slaughter, before coming face to face with Harry, who has got a deep crease between his brows, looking at Louis.

Oh no oh no oh no.

Be gone, dangerous creature, be gone.

“Er—“ Louis begins, helpless, ignoring Harry’s soft jumper and his black scarf and messy curls and sleepy eyes. “Hi, Henry!” he says instead, painting himself in cheery colors.

But Harry’s brow is still furrowed as his eyes dart from Louis to Niall. He’s blinking a lot and he’s chewing on his lips and his hands are twisted behind his back and it’s all pretty adorable, save for the hurt-puppy expression. And, awweh, bless him, he looks as if he’s trying to disguise it, what with the way his features are currently twisting.

“Hi Hazza,” Niall greets dumbly, but there is most definitely a look of ‘oops’ on his face as he glances at Louis. Who is looking back murderously.

“You have a boy?” Harry asks, throwing aside cordialities, and his voice is pretending to be so light and casual that it’s actually two octaves higher than normal and his eyes are so intense and unblinking as they stare into Louis.

“Er—“ Louis fumbles again and, shit, he really just feels embarrassed and stupid right now with his hood up, his flushed cheeks, and his silent, flapping jaw.

But what is he supposed to say?

It's then that matters get a tiny bit worse. Because it's then that Zayn begins making his way back over.

“It’s just a joke,” Niall offers awkwardly, looking a bit terrified. Which would be amusing on any other day. “The song’s a joke. Louis doesn’t actually have a boyfriend,” Niall explains, and he should probably just stop because Louis’ face is burning and the air is about to actually spark with tension.

Louis can feel Harry staring at him. He refuses to look back.

Shit shit shit. This is a hot mess. And Zayn’s getting closer, is most certainly going to hear what they’re talking about and enquire and…

Oh god. This spells so much disaster.

“Yeah, Louis’ single,” Niall continues when the silence drags on just a bit too long, and his helpless fear is evident but it’s only seeming to make matters worse, just pushing unnecessary words out of his lips as Louis stares in horror, watching a train derail. “He just fancies someone. That’s all.” As soon as the words are out, Niall looks like he wants to set himself on fire. That is a big ‘oops’ face.

And oh. fuck. no.

Fuck. No.

Louis feels murderous. He can see Harry snap his head over to Niall in his peripherals, can feel his gaze flicker between their bodies, and he can feel the actual buzzing hope that lingers in the air and it crushes down on Louis, crushes painfully into his body and he sort of wants to die right now because what is happening??

And also especially because Zayn has just reached them, two gallons of milk in hand, a bored scowl on his face.

Louis panics.

With a meaningful look at Niall that he hopes appropriately conveys ‘Shut the fuck up right now, you bumbling shamrock, before Zayn hears one word’, Louis jerks his head in Zayn’s direction (for added emphasis) before pressing a finger to his lips.

It’s a little obvious. And really stupid. But Louis is panicked and he can’t think properly. And he can feel Harry’s unyielding stare, watching his every move. It’s a hard situation to be in.

“Oh shit,” Niall then mutters under his breath, also turning to look at Zayn, looking well and truly fucked.

Thankfully, Zayn is in his own world, checking the temperature of the sanitizer trays and examining the expiration dates on all of the sauces. Thankfully.

“Erm, yeah. Forget all that. Forget I said anything,” Niall mumbles hastily, awkward as fuck as he keeps glancing worriedly at Zayn, before scratching the back of his head and wandering away, leaving Louis with the mess. Just like that.

Reluctantly, Louis turns to Harry, on the verge of making up an incredible, elaborate lie and hoping his blush has tamed. Yet, in a strange twist of events, he instead finds Harry retreating back to his seat, the line of his back taught, his expression largely unreadable and a touch stony.

Which is odd, to say the least.

And Louis wants to take that as his cue to leave then, he really does… But there’s something about the hard line of Harry’s brow that holds him back, that urges him to follow him carefully, hands in the pockets of his jacket, trying to catch Harry’s eye. If only just for a moment.

“You alright there, Henry?” he asks, quirking an eyebrow.

Harry grimaces (or is that an attempt at a smile?) and nods his head, settling back in his chair and picking up his large headphones. “Of course,” he says, but his voice says otherwise, sounding faraway and tinny as he stuffs the headphones over his ears.

And that’s that.

There are a few beats of silence. And that’s good actually, because this is an excellent opportunity for Louis to leave and forever change the tides between Harry and him. It’s good.

So he makes to leave, a strange, niggling feeling corrupting the depths of his innards, when Harry’s soft, low voice suddenly cuts through the hum of espresso machines, soft enough to be ignored, but loud enough to tug at Louis’ limbs.

“Hey.”

Louis turns back around.

“I really had fun last night,” Harry says, a little lamely, eyes wide and morose as they watch Louis from afar.

That’s all he says. And if it sounds a touch wounded and the smile that’s forming on his lips is a bit melancholy, then Louis can’t explain it

But he sort of understands it.

“I did as well,” he responds with a smaller smile. And then he does turn around and he does head for the exit, each step hurting just a tiny, tiny bit.

But then he’s finding himself pausing on the threshold, hands on the door, unable to push it open, his heart dueling with itself, his brain battling fiercely with sense and reason and reality. Still though, despite the war and chaos, he looks back to Harry, who is still watching Louis, a small frown at his lips, his eyes so impossibly wide. “You’ll come again next week, yeah?” he finds himself asking.

Which. Okay, it’s not that bad. Because that’s what he would say to any friend. And him and Harry can be friends, right? Right. So. Louis’ just being a friend. And besides. Liam will thank him.

At the words, Harry’s lips twitch into a smile. “Yeah?” he asks, hands in his lap, perched atop the chair.

Louis nods, eyes squinted with a smile. “Yeah.”

And then he leaves before he can watch Harry’s grin grow.

**

Louis spends the rest of his day writing. (And staring at that Post-It. But—details.)

He meanders around the house, doing a bit of laundry here, cooking dinner there, and plays with his sisters and chats with his mum and listens to some DJs on the radio as he chops vegetables for a stew and, in between it all, he writes in his journal, occasionally brushing his fingers over the ‘Gotcha!’ for the mere fact that he enjoys the texture of sticky notes. But he writes and writes and writes. Because he’s feeling inspired.

The only problem is, is that he’s mostly inspired…by Harry.

He writes about Harry. He writes about the way his voice sounds and the way his curls look at night and the way his skin reminds him of cream and he writes about how Harry thinks and how he looks at Louis and the way his voice sounds against his own.

He tries to write about himself, but the only words he can find are words that lead nowhere. So he writes about being a little bit lost and a little bit aimless, and he writes about Harry. And maybe Harry represents hope. He’s not sure.

“Have you looked into that advert?” his mother asks in a careful voice, stitching up a torn mitten at the table.

“Uhm. Not yet,” Louis says with a discomforted smile, and nothing more is said.

It’s not a nice feeling, per se. But it’s all he can respond with.

So he writes about Harry.

**

The rest of the day is silent.

He doesn’t receive anymore texts from Harry—praise—and nothing particularly eventful happens. It’s nice. It’s what Louis needs. In fact, aside from his unyielding self-reprimands and forcibly suppressed memories from the night before and the lingering, longing stares he keeps casting at that goddamned bloody Post-It, Louis would say it was one of his better days off.

He’s just settling back into bed as night descends and blankets his windows and the snow outside begins to fall (will it ever stop snowing? Is it even physically possible at this point?) when his phone suddenly begins ringing again, buzzing painfully loud on his bedside table.

Liam.

“I don’t suppose you could pick me up from work? And I could stay at yours tonight? Just until my car's fixed?” he asks in a pleading voice.

Louis sighs, a small smile at his lips as he shakes his head fondly. “You tit,” he smiles as he shuts his journal. “On my way.”

And then he rolls out of bed.

**

The snow is bad.

The snow is bad.

It’s worse than Louis thought, so much worse, and he’s currently creeping along the roads (is he on the road? He honestly can’t tell) like a snail, the winds whipping his car and the snowflakes creating a chaotic wall of white swirls and his headlights aren’t doing shit and Louis might never make it to Starbucks at this point. He might die instead.

Still though, he turns up his music, grips his hands on the wheel a bit tighter, and pushes forward.

“Oh, Liam,” he sighs as his car thumps over a snowdrift. “Only for you.”

**

Louis survives. He survives and the wind picks up just as he parks in the Starbucks parking lot and it’s so fucking insane—he’s never seen weather like this. The wind whips relentlessly, almost knocking him over, almost blowing the world away with it, and the snow beats down heavily and this must be a blizzard. Louis is in a blizzard.

Splendid.

He makes it to the door, ducking his head against the assaults and wrenching it open with all his might, before tumbling inside where the coffee and the warmth and the mood lighting greet him like a safe haven.

He spots Liam immediately—his apron wrapped up and sitting on the table, his shirt untucked and unbuttoned, his smile looser—and he’s just about to stomp up to him and swat him in the head, when he stops. Because there’s Harry as well.

Harry is still here and he’s got his headphones around his neck as he leans back against the wall, tucked in his corner, laptop still open and bright. He looks sleepy and smiley as he watches Liam talk, stretching his arms and running a hand through that unruly mess atop his head he calls curls and… He looks cozy and soft and Louis’ heart actually beats irregularly. Which Louis didn’t know could happen. He thought that was an exaggeration, invented by films. Hearts beat irregularly? Seriously? This shit is real life?

Real life is horrible.

“Louis!” one of their regulars then greets, and Louis jumps, turning around to wave at the young girl and her boyfriend, putting on his widest smile.

“Hey kids,” he greets, winking, and the girl giggles a bit, probably even blushes, but Louis doesn’t take the time to watch, instead spinning back around to greet Liam. Who actually looks delighted to see him, which is refreshing. Probably because he’s standing at Harry’s table, joking around and having fun.

Which is good. Honestly, it’s good. The part of Louis that isn’t shrinking is genuinely warmed by it, genuinely relieved, and one could almost say that it feels nice.

So he smiles wide as Liam beams out a, “Hey Lou!”

“Payno,” he greets, hip-checking him, making Liam giggle. Then he lifts his gaze to Harry…whose smile could cure cancer.

God this is hard.

“Henry,” he nods, trying to reign in the smile that wants to assault his face.

“Barney!” he exclaims joyously, immediately hopping out of his chair to stand. He actually exclaims and he actually stands. He doesn’t just greet Louis, he doesn’t just say ‘oh, hi,’ he actually fucking exclaims and almost fucking curtsies and it’s already sending Louis back to Square One. Square motherfucking One.

But Louis plays it cool, instead sliding his gaze away and settling it back on Liam, refusing to think about the situation because Harry is Liam’s and this is all just the worst thing ever. Honestly, ever.

“How were the roads?” Liam asks, an edge of fear overcoming him as a sudden wind whips around the building, rattling the windows. Liam is afraid of storms and, most notably, the wind. So this is not an ideal situation for him.

“Shit, if I’m being honest,” Louis sighs, gazing out into the storm. “Almost died. Several times. You know, I expect full reimbursement for risking my life to come get you.” He grins, a wicked glint quick to form. “In the form of sexual favors.”

Liam blushes instantaneously and rolls his eyes, swatting Louis away as he cackles.

Harry’s lips quirk as he shakes his head in amusement.

“You’ve got to admit it’s beautiful though, innit?” Louis continues once Liam’s skin tames, observing the rushes of flurried snowflakes and all the ways that they twist beneath the burnt glow of the streetlamps. “Like static on a television,” he hums.

“It does look like static,” Harry says quietly then and Louis turns to meet his gaze. Harry looks a bit bashful, almost as if he’s been caught or something, but his smile is warm and Louis absorbs it immediately, can feel his own smile reacting without his consent—as it usually does around Harry.

“You should write a poem about it,” Louis teases, and Harry smiles wider.

“But what will I call it?” Harry asks, words on the verge of a giggle. Endearing. Too endearing. Louis is so totally stuck in Square One. He’s probably never going to leave. ‘Operation: Let’s Just Be Friends’ is not working.

“Snownado,” Louis says simply and Harry laughs, sending warm bolts through Louis’ legs and arms.

“Do you think it’s going to get worse?” Liam’s worried voice then asks as he stares fearfully out of the window. “Should we just stay here?”

“Stay here?” Louis repeats. “And what? Sleep in the toilets?”

“Starbucks sleepover!” Harry sings as he pumps his fist into the air and Louis laughs because he kind of loves Harry’s genuine sweetness and his open expressions and he feels loose from it, feels himself warm into puddles of laughter.

“Now, now, Henry,” he says with a smirk. “Only employees allowed.”

“Oh, but Barnabus,” he says right back and it makes Louis’ grin widen, “I used to be an employee. Still counts!”

“Does not.”

“Does too!”

“Does not.”

“Oh, would you both just shut up,” Liam grumbles, rolling his eyes. “It’s not even plausible for us to stay, so why bother arguing?”

“Because I like winning implausible arguments,” Louis responds without hesitation, and it makes Liam roll his eyes harder and Harry laugh. Still though, Louis sidles up to Liam’s side, throws an arm around his shoulder. “So how was work, love? Is Zayn still here?”

At that, at those two sentences, Harry’s smile falters, his mirth freezing, and it’s subtle enough that Louis probably shouldn’t have noticed. But he does.

“He left a few hours ago,” Liam says, carefully watching the way the road signs nearly bend in half. “Yvette is here now.”

Harry’s watching Louis again, his face impassive.

“I love Yvette!” Louis chirps, and Liam nods distractedly, causing Louis to sigh and squeeze his shoulders. “Don’t worry, Liam. The wind’ll let up soon. Besides, look on the bright side—this storm is an incredible photo opportunity. Snownados don’t come every year.” Louis slides his phone out of his pocket, taps it against Liam’s chest.

“Oh dear god,” Liam sighs, long-suffering. “You’re not going to take selfies in the snow, are you?”

Instantly, Louis perks. “Snow selfies?” he asks, ideas bursting within. “Why, Liam. That might be the most brilliant thing you’ve ever said!”

“Oh my god.”

But Louis ignores the deadpan voice and the judgmental eyes. “No, but seriously—selfies in this weather? That’s fucking brilliant, man! How have I never thought of this before??” He claps Liam on the back.

“That would be cool,” Harry muses, lips quirking as he stuffs his hands into his pockets.

Louis grins over at him. “That’s the spirit, Henry.” Harry smiles. “So let’s do it.”

“Do what?”

“Take snow selfies.”

“Now?”

“Well, yeah, obviously,” Louis rolls his eyes, reaching out to tug Harry. “Come on, let’s go! We aren’t going to get an opportunity to do this ever again. Let’s go out in the tundra and take some badass photographs. We’re going to look like snow warriors, it’s going to be brilliant!”

“You realize how incredibly foolish this is, right?” Liam asks, incredulity pouring out of his orifices. But Louis spies the twitch of his cheek, amusement held back in his brow. “And vain?”

“’Vain’ isn’t a real word, Liam,” Louis dismisses as he tugs Harry along, who laughs brightly and grabs his jacket (that hideous fucking jacket) as they head towards the exit. “You sure you don’t want to come, Payno? It’ll be excellent fun. Your abs will look sexy in the snow.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Liam sighs, rolling his eyes. “Because I’m not an idiot!”

But Louis merely laughs as Harry zips up his jacket, phone already in hand. His expression is bright as he watches Louis—who is attempting to sort out his hair in the reflection of the glass—and “Teenager In Love” drifts through the speakers, Louis humming along under his breath. After a moment he realizes Harry’s humming, too.

He tries not to smile about it.

“So,” he announces once his hair is adequate enough for immortalized portraits. He turns to Harry, hands on hips, a dazzling grin on his face. Harry actually laughs at the image, so clearly amused and delighted. Harry makes Louis feel like he’s funny. It’s so nice. “Are you ready, m’Lord?”

“As I’ll ever be, peasant.”

“Ohhhhh, heyyy!” Louis laughs, eyebrows shooting in the air as Harry laughs louder, bolder. “Look who’s gotten sassy! Our sweet, quiet professor is neither sweet nor quiet no more!”

His gaze is absolutely sparkling as it flicks over Louis’ face. “You’ve had an effect on me,” Harry comments, lips red and beaming.

“And just what is that supposed to mean?”

“You’re influential.”

“You’re calling me a bitch, aren’t you?”

Harry laughs again. “I’m not!”

“You are, you gutter rat. Now please try to withhold your insults while we make some memories, alright? Promise?”

“Promise.” Harry’s giggling so much that the word is barely decipherable.

Louis is trying so, so hard not disintegrate into a mass of fluttering butterflies. “Ready? On the count of three. One…”

“Two…”

As one: “THREE!”

Side by side, with faces split into grins, they push the door open with all their weight, fighting against the snow-speckled gusts of violent wind, before tumbling out into the storm with lose limbs and buzzing skin. The earth is roaring, loud and unforgiving and white, and their laughter is swallowed up and swept away with the wind that never seems to stop coming.

“THIS IS FUCKING SICK!” Louis shouts as loud as he can, squinting against the assault of icy pinpricks, and he turns to Harry—whose hair is completely covering his face. He bursts into laughter, snow cutting through his flesh and slicing him open, crawling down his throat.

“I CAN’T SEE ANYTHING!” Harry whines, but he’s grinning and it makes Louis laugh even harder.

He rushes forward as he begins snapping photos of the spectacle, before lifting himself onto the tips of his toes and swiping a hand over Harry’s fringe, pulling it back from his face. “SAY HI TO THE SNOW GODS!” he shouts as he tugs his head back, and Harry beams as they stare up—or try to stare up—into the sky.

Harry actually waves. “Hiiii Snow Gods,” he sings, and Louis doesn’t let go of his hair, can only laugh as he watches Harry’s self-depreciating, sloped, sweet grin and gets lost in the white.

And then there’s no warning and suddenly Louis’ hands are being tugged, his entire body being pulled forward, and he’s being spun. He’s being spun like Rose in Titanic and the waterfalls of snowflakes turn into unblemished white walls as everything blurs around him as Harry fucking spins him, as Harry’s cold hands grip tightly to Louis’ and as the their feet slide on the slick pavement.

“What are you doing?!” Louis laughs and shrieks, swallowing so much snow.

“Twirling!” Harry thunders happily, picking up his speed a bit—which nearly sends them both flying.

Of course, Harry is uncoordinated. Of course. Of course he’s an endearing pile of rubbish limbs and vertigo as Louis is the one who has to support them both, grip Harry by the crooks of his elbows while he slides and fumbles and manages to hold his ground as the roar of the wind fills his ears.

And Harry’s just laughing.

He’s laughing so hard, his cheeks brazen red and his hair a comical, unattractive mess, and he’s beautiful, isn’t he? He’s beautiful right now and Louis can’t look away as his own laughter bounces against his and he steadies them, manages to find his footing as the wind whips and the snow falls and the lights shine.

“You’re a mess, Harry,” he giggles lightly, examining Harry’s eyelashes when he ducks his head to watch his bird feet as they grip precariously at the icy ground.

At the words, Harry’s head shoots up. “You said my name,” he says softly, affection crinkling his eyes. And it’s so soft that Louis probably shouldn’t be able to hear it over the storm. But he does.

And he feels this seizing of his heart and he feels his pulse and he feels tender petals of feelings encompassing his entire body and midsection and all Louis can say back is, “Oops,” his voice scraping along his throat.

They stare at each other. Amidst the snownado engulfing them, with Louis’ hands gripping Harry’s elbows and the tips of their toes touching, their skin on fire with the cold and the streetlamps casting static orange glows over their features, they simply stare at each other.

And then suddenly there’s an iPhone in Louis’ face and about fifty thousand photographs are being snapped.

“What are you doing?” he laughs as he swats at Harry’s phone, but Harry’s eyes are bright as he lets Louis push his hand away and his gaze is so unyielding—Louis wonders if he stares at everybody like this. But then he stops wondering because he doesn’t want to think about the alternative.

“I want to remember what you look like,” Harry says.

“Are you saying I have a forgettable face??” Louis gasps, mock-offended.

“No, I’m saying that—“ He stops, a flicker of something dancing across his features. Louis can’t define it but it looks soft in the dim light. “I want to remember what you look like right now.”

And oh dear god, what the fuck is that supposed to mean?

Louis’ heart stutters.

“You’re beautiful in the snow,” Harry continues, honestly, openly, sincerely. A little breathlessly.

And oh. That’s what it means.

That’s some poetic shit. That’s complete and utter poetic unfair SHIT and Louis’ swallowing his tongue right now, along with the bucketfuls of feelings and miseries that are slowly beginning to fester inside of him as Harry observes his face with reverent eyes.

He wants to say the same to Harry. And carve the words into his bones and tuck them into his soul.

“You’re so odd, Henry,” he says instead, and he lets go of him, takes a step back. But he can feel the words formed with a smile. Fuck.

“I’m just honest.”

“Too honest.”

Then there’s silence and snow and Harry’s eyes that look just a touch apprehensive, like they’re asking Louis if he’s overstepped the line, and Louis wants to say ‘yes’ with his own stare, wants to say ‘leave and never come back again, please,’ but he’s weak, he’s so fucking weak.

So all he does is tug on Harry’s sleeve, smile, and say, “Let’s go back inside, yeah?”

And Harry grins and nods and grabs Louis’ hand as they run back, laughing and shouting and getting swept away.

**

They spend the next hour inside of Starbucks watching the winds die down, huddled around mugs of Pike Roast and short breve lattes with too many shots. Louis makes Harry laugh and that makes Louis laugh and their laughter fills up the empty café, drowning out The Everly Brothers. Yvette’s in charge, wants to close early, but she doesn’t mind their presence, just keeps handing them free croissants and cups of iced tea, shaking her head and smiling whenever Louis makes an inappropriate joke or waggles his eyebrows.

Liam’s smiling, too. He’s flirting with Harry unabashedly, his mood completely unaffected by Louis and Harry’s brief adventures in the snow; in fact, when they returned back inside, damp and red with breathless smiles, his attentions were focused on the fifty-seven year old surgeon that he’s been obsessed with since day one. Louis always teases him about it, calls the guy “Ancient Ruins” and watches Liam squawk. (His real name’s Eric. He’s actually the sweetest soul on the planet, always smiling and chatting with them and making pleasant jokes when he gets his grande coffee in the thermos that he brings with him every evening. He’s recently separated from his wife and he’s rich—a detail that is never forgotten when Liam imagines their future together. One time he told Liam he was attractive and Liam could barely walk for the rest of the night, much to Niall’s, Zayn’s, and Louis’ amusement.)

Louis wonders if the Gods would be kind enough to give Liam his sugar daddy and give Harry to Louis.

Then Louis promptly feels like a douchebag.

“So where do you live, Harry?” Liam asks Harry as he leans on his table and bats his eyelashes, his smile positively predatory.

Harry seems largely unfazed by it though, all loose limbs and soft shoulders. “In those flats behind Tesco.”

“Really? That’s just down the road,” Louis says, surprised, arms folded over his chest. He’s stood a bit back, trying to give Liam and Harry their space, which is potentially the most difficult task in the world—it prickles the hairs on the back of his neck and it goes against every instinct screaming inside his body. His nails might be digging into the soft skin of his arms just a tiny bit. He’s never been good at restraining himself.

Harry nods. “Why else do you think I’m always here? It’s certainly not to see you!” he teases with wicked lips and beautiful eyes.

Louis smirks as he flicks Harry’s arm, just once. The responding smile he gets probably birthed a fairy somewhere.

“So, when can we visit?” Liam then asks with purpose, and his voice is so sugary sweet that it caramelizes in the air.

“Uhm, whenever, I guess,” Harry shrugs. “There’s not much in there, though. It’s, like, mostly empty. I hate it.”

“But it’s your space!” Louis protests, shocked. “You can do whatever you like with it—why wouldn’t you want to fill it with all your treasures?”

“Treasures?” Liam repeats, deadpan. “Really, Louis?”

“I love treasures!” Harry defends happily, moving to sit on his hands. “I love finding them, too. But.” He bites his lip. “I suppose I just don’t like to…like, shop on my own? I like to be with other people.” He’s looking at Louis, all bashful eyes and wilted curls.

Well, fuck.

“Liam and I will go shopping with you,” Louis offers before he can stop himself. “It’ll be grand. We’ll find antique furniture and—“

“I love antique furniture!” Harry yips excitedly at the very moment Liam utters a disgusted, “Antique furniture?”

“Or not,” Louis says testily, glaring at Liam, who rolls his eyes in response. Louis smacks him; Liam smacks him back. They share a smile. Thus is their relationship.

“No, that’s brilliant!” Harry continues. “Tomorrow? We can go antiquing tomorrow?”

“Wait. You actually want to go?” Louis asks, chest prickling.

Louis loves antiquing. He really does, ever since he happened upon the quaintest little shop near his university, back when he was in school. He’d bought a sickeningly beautiful teacup, a small gilt soap tray, and an oil lamp. It was the single greatest day of his life. And, since then, Louis has harbored a not-so-secret obsession with all things antique and vintage, an obsession that absolutely nobody has shared with him despite his countless persuasive speeches and puppy eyes.

And Harry wants to go antiquing. He wants to go.

… EVERYTHING IS HORRIBLE.

“Absolutely,” Harry nods earnestly. “I used to go with my aunt all the time! I love vintage shops.” He quirks his lips. “Don’t all hipsters?”

And, oh, he’s referencing that one time, so long ago, when Louis might have referred to him as a hipster. Heh.

Louis smiles. “Good Hipster, good boy,” he praises, patting Harry’s curls, who actually closes his eyes and beams and stretches into the touch like he’s a pleased little pup and it’s so fucking cute.

“Alright, let’s go then!” Liam then says happily. “This will be fun! Tomorrow? Like, at noon?”

Harry looks to Louis. “Does that work for you?”

“Yeah,” he shrugs. “I’m off, so. Whenever.”

“Brilliant!” Liam beams. “Tomorrow at noon it is!”

But it’s a little difficult for Louis to feel excited, his smile tight as he nods.

And when they leave that night, waving goodbye to Harry as they depart into the now-much-calmer night and drifts of snow, Louis schools his face into neutrality as Liam gushes the entire way back. He schools like he’s never schooled before.

Because Louis is having a hard time.

Because Louis is fucked. Louis is so, so fucked.

Because Louis Tomlinson is completely and utterly and hopelessly smitten—with Professor Harry Styles.

Chapter Text

By the time Louis opens his eyes to the bleary morning sun and ice, he’s already gotten about five texts from Harry sitting patiently in his phone like neatly written death sentences. ‘Can’t wait to go antiquiiiiiiiiing!!’ and ‘Text me when you’re awake. Good morning in advance! Hope you slept well, Barney’ and ‘What does one wear when shopping with new friends?’ , etc.

They all contain emojis. They are all endearing. And they all center around today’s emotionally detrimental activity: antiquing.

And Louis is so, so incredibly fucked.

Fucked enough that he can’t text him back, not right now, so he instead just locks his phone and groans dramatically, rolling his cold, miserable body out of his bed, his feet landing on the scratchy carpet with an uninspired plunk. His phone stays resolutely out of his clutch, his morals are well in check, and his only current priority is Liam—who is currently asleep on his couch and who he is totally and completely going to bring breakfast to. (Not for any subconscious guilt reasons, obviously. It’s just because Louis loves Liam.) (Obviously.)

Might as well get this day of…antiquing started. The proper way.

**

“I feel like complete and utter shit,” Liam growls over his cup of morning tea about half an hour later, sinking into the cushions of Louis’ couch. His hands are a pleasant shade of grey and the bags under his eyes are larger than the ones sat in his mug. “I think I’m going to die.”

“Yeah, well, I’d rather die than do what I’m doing,” Louis grumbles in response, sniffing his black polo; it’s not too repulsive. Totally acceptable to wear again.  He stuffs it over his cold, goose-pimpled torso without another moment’s hesitation, too tired and bitchy to care about what he looks like today at work.

Since, you know, it was supposed to be his day off.

 A few things have happened this morning:

  1.         Liam’s woken up unreasonably ill and petulant, looks the color of sour cream, and has no immediate plans to leave the sanctity of this house.
  2.         While splashing ice-cold water on his flushed, bedsheet-crinkled face, Louis received a lovely phone call from none other than the Starbucks.

“Louis?” Zayn’s voice grunted over the line, gravelly and unfocused. Zayn rarely works mornings and when he does, no amount of caffeine can make up for the precarious state of his emotions. Or body.

“No,” Louis clipped immediately, already sagging dejectedly against his white porcelain sink that perpetually smells of rose water and rust. “No, no, no.” He shook his head violently with each sound, hoping it would convince the universe that he does, in fact, deserve his day off.

No such luck.

“Lou, mate, come on. We’re short-staffed and we need you to come in. You’re the last person I called but we need you bro, please.” It was said with such irate exhaustion that Louis couldn’t even find it within himself to whine.

Sighing (and somewhatly thankful for the excuse to avoid antiquing with Harry goddamn Styles and his rippling back muscles and very warm smiles and very ugly jacket that Louis is slowly, begrudgingly growing fond of) he finally pressed a cool palm to his eyes, frown lines set deep. “Fine. I’ll come in. But I hate you and I hate what you’re made of.”     

“Cool. See you in thirty.” Click.  It was a heart-warming conversation.

And now the day is shit.

“I feel bad. I wish I could work for you,” Liam mutters, wrapped up in blankets and shivering like a Chihuahua. Disney’s Robin Hood is playing on Louis’ TV, volume pitched to the lowest setting, snow flurrying past the white, ice-framed windows. Their cups of tea are sat on the coffee table, steaming and inviting and tinted the most beautiful shade of mahogany. “I feel like you’re working all the time lately. And usually because of me.” Frowning, Liam’s lips pout, shiny and off-colored.

Yeah, he’s clearly ill.

“Don’t feel bad, you git. I don’t want your pity,” Louis sighs, but it’s laced with fondness as he pats Liam’s foot and swallows more burning tea, willing his eyes to wake up just a little fucking faster. His work clothes are stiff from unwash and his mood is somewhere below the floorboards. “I just need you to plant your arse in this couch all day so that when I get back, you’re alive and well. Deal?”

“Deal,” Liam nods after only a short pause, all forlorn and distracted as he half-watches Robin Hood. Maid Marion just made her first appearance. Liam once admitted, whilst drunk, that this was the greatest love story of their time.

“Okay,” Louis clips then, setting down his now empty mug as he pushes himself off of the comfort of the couch, cushions swelling with loss, springs groaning in protest. The couch clearly misses him. “I’ve got to head out. I’ll see you when I get back, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Liam mumbles, lips pale. He buries deeper into the couch and Louis frowns, swipes another hand across his forehead—still warm. “I’ll be here.”

“Mum’ll tend to you,” Louis reassures for the tenth time. “Just let her know if you need anything—“

“I know, Louis, I know,” Liam mutters in exasperation but it’s secretly pleased; Liam loves when Louis gets all motherly on him. “Just go and leave me. Leave me to die. Go on without me and live your life.”

Louis snorts, unimpressed as he makes his way towards the door, soles of his feet so heavy. “You’re turning into me.” He shakes his head.

“Kiss Harry goodbye for me! Tell him I love him!” Liam calls then, weak and warbled, and it almost makes Louis trip into the door as he opens it, hands jolting with fresh bolts of emotional electrocution. And guilt. Guilt and self-consciousness.

Remember that time that Louis began falling for the same guy as his best mate? Yeah. Good times.

“Totally,” Louis finds himself answering weakly, a chuckle just barely crackling its way out of his throat as he shuts the door behind him and steps into Antarctic winds and white streets.

Today’s going to be a long day.

**

It’s most definitely a long day. A long, shitty day.

Why, you ask? Well.

The minute Louis arrived at Starbucks, he ambled over to Zayn who was sitting at one of the small bistro tables near the windows, munching on a sandwich and clutching a black cup of coffee in a death grip. He had about twenty minutes or more to spare before his shift, so Louis flicked his shoulder, smiled as he sat down across from him.

“Hungry? You stoned?” Louis teased, but Zayn merely rolled his eyes, chewing, cheeks stuffed.

He glugged a bit of coffee before he swallowed and set down the bit of sandwich pinched between his thumb and forefinger. Wiping his hands on a napkin, he looked up at Louis through his scowl and endless raven eyelashes. Beautiful asshole. “I had to open today, Louis. Open.”

And, ah. It’s bad enough when Zayn has to wake up before noon, let alone open a store at four in the morning. No wonder he sounded so lifeless on the phone earlier. He’s been awake almost ten hours longer than is custom. 

“Rough day, then,” Louis concluded as Zayn gulped more coffee and nodded, the muscles in his neck working.

“I’m actually off now,” he said, burping the words out as he scrunched up the now-empty paper cup. He popped the last bit of sandwich into his mouth before continuing, words muffled as he chewed. “Gonna dash over to the shop then come back here and read a bit. If I go back home, I’ll just fall asleep and it’ll fuck up my sleep schedule.”

“Understandable, understandable,” Louis nodded, quirking his lips a bit.

“Oh, by the way,” Zayn then mentioned. “Harry came in. Was looking for you.” He was still chewing the last remnants of his sandwich, gathering his crumpled up napkins and piling them on his empty plate.

Louis paled instantaneously. “Looking for me?” he repeated, feeling a small drop in his stomach. “How do you mean?”

Zayn paused, raised just one eyebrow. “What do you mean ‘how do I mean’? He was bloody looking for you, wasn’t he? Said he thought you might be at work cuz he hadn’t heard from you.”

Oh jesus.

So Louis doesn’t text back for a few hours and suddenly there’s a search party? Liam called him to cancel the antiquing. Liam told him Louis was called into work, he told Harry neither of them could make it. And yet, still, Harry is wandering the town, searching for Louis?

Excellent. Great. Fuck.

“Oh,” Louis exhaled primly as he gently laced his fingers atop the table. He schooled his features into neutrality, met Zayn’s sallow eyes that shone with sleep-deprivation and poorly made life choices. “Well. What did you tell him?” He sounded unaffected. Cool.

“That you were coming in later,” Zayn replied without a blink, picking a bit of chicken out of his teeth.

“Oh, alright. Makes sense,” Louis nodded calmly but his stomach soared upwards, landed somewhere in his windpipe, and his hands suddenly felt charged. A small, twisting feeling was writhing through him.

Harry came looking for him. Even though he knew plans had changed. Harry’s probably going to come back.

Fuck it all.

It was then that Zayn left and Louis started his shift, the very prominent waves of guilt and nausea interspersing his bouts of self-doubt and boredom as he pulled the steam wand lever over and over, making latte after latte after caramel macchiato.

And so now Louis is having a long, shitty day. A day where he has wondered—countless times, embarrassingly enough—what Harry could possibly be doing. Where he’s at. If and when he’ll show up today.

Meanwhile, his best friend in the entire world has the Black Plague on his couch but here Louis is, thinking about Harry and—

And it just makes him a horrible person, doesn’t it? Especially considering how much bitterness he’s already scribbled into his journal.

New Year’s Resolutions:

  1.         Don’t fall for your best mate’s crush
  2.         Don’t wallow about it
  3.         Get a proper job you dick
  4.         Avoid attractive teachers at all costs, especially when armed with Oscar Wilde books’

In a very small way, it makes him feel better. But, honestly… This all needs to stop. He hasn’t even known Harry for a week. So, really, he has no right to feel this lovelorn.

Sure, he may be smitten with the boy. Sure, they may have some unworldly, unbelievable, Disney-esque connection that has the world stopped and staring. Okay, fine, sure.

Louis is not weak. Louis is not pathetic. Louis is not dependent on anybody but himself. So. He can get through this. He can set aside his freshly-budded feelings and watch Liam fall in love and he can make glorified coffee and listen to the oldies and live his life as he searches for something greater. Yes.

With a sigh, he wipes the steam wand, feeling something very final and lackluster settle upon his shoulders. Something very suspiciously akin to defeat.

But, oh well. He’ll just keep humming and swirling mocha and espresso, watching as the snowflakes drift on by.

**

It’s about twenty torturous minutes later (Louis spilt an entire pitcher of steamed milk on his crotch; the jokes are endless and the pain is real) when he looks up and finds Harry strolling through the door. Superb.

“Hi, Harry!” Jen calls, happy as can be, because everybody knows Harry already. Everybody loves Harry.

Louis hates Harry.

“Hi, hello!” Harry sings back, waving sloppily with one hand, the other clutching a thick textbook stuffed with crinkled papers. He looks as he always does—scarf wound around his neck, hideous jacket buttoned up, smile wide and pale face open. Warm eyes.

Louis hates him so much.

Praying to the Starbucks gods that he won’t be seen (his defenses are weakening, he can’t risk himself, and the area around his penis is damp and faintly smells of hot milk), Louis begins furiously scrubbing the inside of the milk fridges, body hunched as low as it can go.

Please let him walk past, please let him walk past—

“Barney!”

Cock.

Baring a forced smile, Louis pops up into a standing position immediately, hand thwacking against the fridge door and shooting pain up his arm. He grits his teeth, meets Harry’s eye; he’s at the handoff plane, book on the counter, hands on the counter, looking like he’s moving in. Here to stay. Looks so warm against the snowy windows and ice-paved streets.

“Henry,” Louis greets accordingly, fiddling with his loose apron strings as he walks hesitantly to the counter, feeling his smile already growing unruly because Harry has a pull dammit, a warm-lipped pull. “Hey, friend. Sorry about cancelling today. Got stuck.” He motions to himself, the apron, his surroundings.

Harry, meanwhile, just looks joyous, couldn’t be less bothered. He shrugs, smile in place. “I’m not mad. Still get to see you, don’t I?”

Louis tries not to bite through his tongue. “Yeah,” he jokes half-heartedly, trying not to let his skin fluster. “Lucky you.”

“Lucky me,” Harry agrees, all warm and goopy like caramel drizzle.

Abort mission. Abort.

“I’m sorry Liam’s sick,” Louis rushes then, feeling a tidal wave crash upon his brain. “But, you know, you’re totally welcome to keep him company. He’s at my house. Uh—he’s just chilling. You two can bond, or whatever. I mean. Cuz he’s sick. And I’m just working here so, like—it’s probably boring to stay here with me, so you can visit him?”

Alright. That was not executed well. That was a trainwreck. That sounded as awkward as it felt.

Almost instantly Harry’s smile stills, a question writ in his eyes as he gently skims fingers over his textbook and watches Louis with increasingly quiet eyes. “Oh,” he says on a small exhale. It’s an unreadable tone and it makes Louis bite the inside of his cheek as he wipes milk residue off the espresso tray’s grating. “Well, I actually came here to do a bit of studying as well.” He motions to the book, lip caught in his teeth. “So I don’t have to… Distract you. I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t bother you at work so mu—“

“No!” Louis finds himself reassuring, dropping the sanitizer rag and pressing closer to the counter, something thumping in his blood. He’s feral and confused, like a cornered raccoon. “No, I didn’t mean it like that! I just don’t want to be shit company. I’m awfully boring when I’m at work.”

“You’re not boring, Louis,” Harry snorts, pleasure once again filling his tone and appearance. His smile is back, full force, and his posture is loose. “I mean, yeah, you’re even more fun outside of the apron”—he reaches over the counter, gently flicking the green apron strap around Louis’ neck and thus spiking his heart rate embarrassingly so—“but that doesn’t take away from your natural charm. You’re always fun to be around. At least, I think so.” He smiles, drops his hand. There’s a touch of bashfulness in his face, his smile uneven and pressed into his teeth.

“You’re the charmer,” Louis counters, softer than he meant to as he tilts his head, smiling. “Though, um.” He clears his throat, flicks his eyes off to the side before they settle back on Harry. “Liam’s probably more of a charmer.” He grins, weaker, wondering just how transparent he’s being. He feels like a sheet of glass.

Harry’s lips tighten. “And I’m sure Zayn’s probably more of a charmer, too.”

It’s said so quietly that Louis almost thinks he’s misheard.

“Zayn? What?” he asks, volume pitched back to normal as his eyebrows scrunch and he leans still closer, marble cutting into his abdomen. “What about Zayn?”

Instantly, Harry’s entire face flushes, blossoms into a red rose. “Oh, god,” he murmurs, the back of his hand flying to his lips, his cheeks blazen. “I didn’t mean to—I mean—I’m sorry. I just—“ He stops, squirms, looks so uncomfortably and painfully awkward that part of Louis wants to drop the whole affair.

But what did he mean? Zayn? Why the hell is Harry talking about Zayn?

“Uh—“ Louis begins, unsure of how to word his next question—

But then Harry’s gathering up his book and Niall’s walking through the door and the atmosphere shifts entirely.

“Lou!” Niall calls joyously, throwing hands up in the air, his apron rolled up and clutched in his right fist, just as Harry dashes away, skin still on fire.

Louis stands there, mouthing like a fish as he flicks his eyes between the both of them; Harry’s already sat down, though. Pulling out his headphones and working determinedly, so Louis just sighs and musters up a tired smile for Niall.

“Hey, Trouble,” he smiles. “Congratulations. You get to work with me today.”

“What a time to be alive,” Niall grins, practically prancing into the backroom.

And then silence returns, save for the music drifting over the speakers. And Louis is sort of confused.

**

It’s been an hour. It’s been an hour and Harry hasn’t once tried to talk to Louis again.

And Zayn’s here now, reading in the corner and occasionally balling up straw wrappers and throwing them at Louis, smirking down at his book whenever Louis glares at him. All the while as Niall thumps around filling the espresso hoppers and chatting to customers in Drive-Thru while also charming the clientele in the café and just…is Niall, basically. Louis can’t help but laugh, can’t help but feel his energy heighten just by being around the kid, and everything is pleasant enough that he’s momentarily able to set aside his Harry issues, focusing on his perpetually damp palms and syrup-sticky arms instead, pulling espresso shots and smelling the sweet, creamy bliss as it mixes with white mocha. (White mocha always smells so better than it tastes. It’s life’s greatest tragedy.)

“Niall, if you don’t wash one of my pitchers in the next ten seconds—“ Louis starts, trying to hold back a laugh as Niall struggles with the dome lid on a frappuccino, before he’s suddenly cut off by the Drive-Thru dinging again (where are all these cars coming from in this very cold and treacherous snow?). Niall huffs as the lid finally clicks into place, adjusting his headset and rolling his eyes at Louis.

“Thanks for choosing Starbucks…” he begins animatedly before proceeding to charm the trousers off a poor unsuspecting victim.

So it’s then, as luck would have it, that the sticker machine jams.

“Well, shit,” Louis curses, not really giving two fucks that he shouldn’t be swearing on the floor because this is a disaster, this is a mess. If the sticker machine is broken then that means Niall will have to mark cups in his illegible chicken scratch and the last time that happened, the Drive Thru was backed up for almost half an hour because Louis couldn’t read those goddamn hieroglyphics and Niall couldn’t remember what he’d written.

Luckily, Louis’ currently only got one drink in queue—a venti six-pump, whole milk, stirred white mocha with no whipped cream. Cool. Easy. He pours his milk and sets about his task.

“Didn’t you get a sticker?” Niall asks, eyebrows pushed together, as Louis hands him the warm cup, sliding it into a sleeve.

“Nope,” he grumbles as he glances furtively over at the machine. “It’s jammed again.”

“Fuck,” Niall swears under his breath, the very real flashbacks mirroring themselves in his crisp blue eyes. “Well, alright, hold up. Let me hand this lot out and then I’ll fix it. I can fix anything.”

“Sure thing, boss,” Louis smirks as he rolls his eyes, and then wanders over to his little corner of sanctuary, wiping his hands clean and taking a moment to enjoy the calm of the shadows in the brief lull. It’s nice.

“Oi!” Niall calls about three minutes later, sounding a touch frantic. Louis looks over, mid-sip of his lukewarm plastic cup of water, his eyes widening. The sticker machine is pulled apart and messy, papers strewn everywhere and parts disassembled, little sticky bits clinging to Niall’s arms, the paper coiled around his ankles. Great. “Malik,” Niall belts, brows furrowed, “get your ass behind the counter!”

Blinking from his spot in the corner, mid-sip of his espresso shots over ice, Zayn looks up. “But Yvette’s the shift,” he protests in a whine, though his face is void of expression. “I’m not on the clock.”

“She’s counting pastries, twat. Who cares? Come back here and help with this damn thing.”

Grumbling, Zayn finally pulls himself out of the bleached blonde chair, shoulders waited with obvious annoyance.

“Oh, you’ll be fine, Superior,” Louis smirks, trying to tame back his laughter as Zayn glares and makes his way behind the counter. “A little bit of volunteered work never hurt nobody.”

“I beg to fucking differ,” Zayn grumbles, reaching out to pinch Louis’ arm—who ducks out of the way at the last second. Skills. “Alright,” Zayn continues in a sigh, wiping at his tired eyes and picking up the roll of stickers, now coiled on the countertop like a sleeping snake. “Give me some space. I’ve got this. It’ll take me two minutes, tops.”

Louis and Niall glance at each other (Niall looking a bit frustrated and thunderous beneath his rosy exterior) as they exchange bitten smirks, taking a shared step back.

Unsurprisingly, it’s about five minutes later when Zayn finally growls and throws his hands up in the air, sending a few tapering stickers flying. “I give the fuck up!” he snaps in frustration, pupils dilated.

And Louis has been on his best behavior, he really has. But he can’t help but break into laughter at the sight before him; Zayn looks a hot mess, the vein in his neck prominent, and the progress on the sticker machine has, somehow, regressed even more. Good thing it’s a slow, snowy day and their customers are scarce.

“Oi,” Zayn glares, rounding on Louis, but he’s got a twitching lip and eyes that are trying to be more serious than they feel, so Louis just lets himself continue to laugh, arms wrapped around his stomach to make a show of it. “Oi,” Zayn repeats again, but laughter colors his tone now as he flicks shreds of stickers off his fingers and wraps an arm around Louis’ neck, pulling him into his side; he’s either attempting to tickle Louis, strangle him, or secure him in an unyielding headlock for the unforeseeable future. All possibilities are torturous.

“Unhand me, you thief!” Louis yelps, trying to kick out as Niall thunders out laughter and smacks his bum (because Niall always smacks Louis’ bum whenever he can) and it’s all frivolous and fun, the radio crooning pleasantly across shiny espresso beans and laughter and the quiet heads of customers reading in the café. Louis feels bright and caffeinated and manhandled and everything’s nice, brilliant even—

And then he suddenly sees a shaded figure standing awkwardly at the handoff plane. From his precarious position nestled into Zayn’s side, his head trapped under his arm, his hands gripping Zayn’s hips as he laughs… It’s then that he meets eyes with Harry.

“Harry,” he blinks, laughter frozen in his throat as he stills, Zayn’s cackles still flittering above their heads, Niall blinking owlishly as he swivels his head.

“Harry!” Niall beams, much more enthusiastically.

Zayn turns around, still embracing Louis, and flashes a smile, nods a greeting. “Mate,” he greets calmly.

Louis’ skin flushes. Almost as much as Harry’s does.

“Er—sorry. Sorry! I just thought I overheard you talking about the sticker machine and I used to be really good with it at my store and I just—never mind. I’ll just go over—“ he’s bumbling, bright and embarrassed and looking like he’d embrace death if it happened upon him and Louis feels so inexplicably caught, so hot and weird.

“No, no,” he calls, untangling himself from Zayn’s grip as he hops over to the handoff plane, extending a pleading hand. Harry pauses, eyes weary. “No, come on, get back here. Zayn thought he could help but he’s just shit at everything he does”—“Hey!”—“ so, yeah, come on, Henry. Step back into your old life and join the crew.” He smiles warmly despite the flush in his cheeks and there’s only one moment where he wonders if Harry will just walk away anyway, neck hot and hands balled in his pockets. But then Louis softens his voice, pleads out a small “Please?” and then Harry’s lips stretch into a smile as he swiftly walks to the other end of the counter, making his way around it with all the comfort of one who’s actually employed here.

His arrival is met with raucous applause, Niall whooping over-exaggeratedly and Zayn smirking as he shakes his head and leans on the opposite counter, mumbling, “It’s impossible, just warning you.”

“He’s here, we caught him,” Louis grins, winking Harry’s way as he nears; it makes him bite his lips in a grin.

“Gotcha?” Harry mumbles, almost too quietly to hear, but Louis hears it and Louis’ heart kerplunks and he tries to remain even-keeled as he feels Harry move unnecessarily close to him as he sidles past him, arm brushing against his abdomen, cologne invading Louis’ senses.

Right. Cool. This was a good idea.

“Okay,” Harry mumbles, licking his lips as he gently begins opening up the sticker machine, movements practiced and easy. Louis watches, mesmerized, as Niall and Zayn gather closer, taking mental notes as Harry gently explains his actions in the deepest of baritones. He sounds like microfoamed milk being poured into hot espresso. Milky hot espresso. In a porcelain cup, pressed against your lips.

Yeah, okay, focus.

“I hope you’re watching, Louis,” Harry suddenly rumbles and Louis doesn’t need to see his mouth to see the upturned lips there as his hands fiddle with paper and tug it gently upwards, lining up the strip with the tiny razor teeth. “These are important lessons to be learned.”

“I’ve been dictating your every word,” Louis quips with seriousness as he shuffles nearer, propping up on the balls of his feet (not because he’s short, but just because there’s so many people and he can’t see) as he examines Harry’s movements.

It takes a solid twenty seconds before he realizes how close his mouth is to Harry’s shoulder. How close he is to Harry in general. How, if he fumbled a bit, he would most definitely fall into Harry, chest to back, and probably get a mouthful of curls or neck or smell. Here he is, Harry Styles, draped in that goddamn scarf, and he smells like a huge, throbbing pheromone air freshener and he looks so abnormally beautiful beneath corporate coffeeshop lighting with that fucking hair and fucking face and Louis decides, right then and there, that Harry Styles would definitely look even better with a Louis Tomlinson strapped to his back.

Shit. Just… Shit.

“There,” Harry suddenly concludes with triumph, snapping Louis out of his reverie as he takes a step back and nearly sends him tumbling. “Finished.” He grins widely when he turns around, all askew and pretty. He’s the human equivalent to mittens. Louis isn’t sure what that means but it means something.

Both Niall and Zayn are nodding appreciatively, slowly. “Cool,” they mutter as one. On the same page of bewildered and stubbornly impressed.

So it’s Louis that rests a casual hand on Harry’s shoulder, flashing him his best smile as he nods. “Thanks, Henry,” he teases, his fingers betraying him and giving the thin fabric of Harry’s shirt a squeeze. Warm and soft.

For a moment, it appears that Harry stills, his eyes briefly flickering to the point of contact, a softness overcoming his features as he stands there, in front of Louis, still as a statue. Then he meets Louis’ eye, grins, and exhales a soft, “You’re welcome, Louis.” The three least substantial words in the world and Louis just wants to roll in them like a pig in shit.

Help help help.

“Right, then,” Louis coughs, removing his hand and stepping back, allowing Harry exit. “Back to work, kids. There’s over-priced drinks to make!”

And just as quickly, Harry is walking away, casting silent but lingering glances Louis’ way as Zayn trudges back to his seat, Niall mumbles to himself as he examines the sticker machine again, closer, and Louis wishes his life was just a little bit different than it is.

**

When Louis eventually gets off of work (at! long! last!), he balls up his apron, stuffs his journal in his partner pocket, and waves goodbye to passerby, eyes set on the door and the icy sky and the cold snowy breezes that will soon assault his warmth. It’s just as he’s about to reach the door, hand stretched, that he hears his name.

“Louis!”

He turns, eyes already set in a scowl…

That is, until he sees it’s Harry. Then, predictably, he turns into soft cheese.

“Oh, hi Henry,” he smiles before he can stop himself, hand falling away from the door.

Harry’s grinning, perched atop his chair over in his usual spot, beckoning Louis over with a small smile and clumsy hand. His books are piled all around like they always are, papers and papers and more papers. Macbook open and lighting up his skin in blue-tinted light.

Sighing dramatically, Louis walks over, trying to keep his grin at bay as he smiles upon reaching Harry’s table. His shirt is red and plaid and buttoned to the chest, a small patch of smooth skin exposed. The perfect amount of room for one kiss. Fuck.

Louis closes his eyes, opens them, then breathes out a smile. Calm. Collected. Platonic. “Well, what do you want, pest?” he teases, but his voice is as delicate as thin glass and he feels his body leaning towards Harry, like some cosmic pull. “I’m just about to head out.”

“I know,” Harry smiles, sitting on his hands as he swings his legs a bit, sweet but a little shy. “Just wanted to say bye.” He shrugs, smile crooked.

“Say goodbye?” Louis questions, staring with unimpressed eyebrows. “You called me over here to tell me what you could’ve told me from over there?”

Grinning more fully, Harry nods, curls floppy. Dope. Pure dope.

“Well, goodbye,” Louis laughs, shaking his head to himself as he makes to depart, but Harry straightens, reaches a hand that falls short before it lands in his own lap.

“Well, like. If you’re not doing anything, you can keep me company. I’m taking a break from grading papers, so…”

“So you need to be entertained, is what you’re saying,” Louis says wryly, but he already feels his limbs tugging him into the chair, ignoring his minds’ humming reminder of Liam.

Angelically, Harry beams. “Exactly.”

**

They spend the next two hours talking, much to Louis’ surprise. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t stay more than ten minutes but after Harry made him snort tea out of his nose when he tried to imitate Jackie Wilson, he sort’ve lost track of the time.

The snow’s blurring the sky into white static, the lights are warm and watery, glazing every surface in gold and Harry’s voice is as warm and rough as the cotton wrapped around his soft neck while his hands flit too close to Louis’, as he stands and nearly hooks his chin over Louis’ shoulder when he’s gazing at his phone because Louis wants to show him pictures of his little sisters. He chuckles warm breath in Louis’ ear, he smells like linen and boy and his chest lifts and pulls with soft breaths; they swap cups of cold coffee and deflated steamed milk and get chocolate on their lips from mochas and Louis can’t stop laughing because Harry can be silly, is the thing. He’s not just this professional, noble little school teacher with a vast library and heart of gold; he’s this weird and slightly hyper child, is what he is. They make perverted, childish jokes and Louis always follows it with an unnecessary “that’s what he said” and for some reason it makes Harry laugh?

They argue about pretentious things like literature and Harry reads Louis his poem about a dead bird (“Don’t laugh, Louis!” “I’m sorry, but you just described a dead bird as melodic; are you ignoring the cruelty in that irony or…?”) and sing Sam Cooke together (A Change Is Gonna Come, obviously) and try to write each other’s names upside down as they snort about the teenagers in the corner who keep taking selfies with frappuccinos.

It all flies by and Louis just keep smiling. Like it’s easy, like it’s simple.

“Someday I’m going to publish a book of all the things you say,” he grins, playing with the sleeve on his cup, his feet kicked on the rings of Harry’s chair.

Harry smiles, chin propped on his hand, laptop pushed to the side. “I’ll be your biggest fan,” he grins, teeth brushing his clumsily placed fingers. “Will you sign my copy? Will you be mad if I buy every single one?”

Louis laughs, flicking a bit of foam at Harry with his fingers. “I won’t sign your copy and yes, I’ll be mad if you buy all of ‘em,” he grins, just as Harry traps Louis’ ankle between his own, a mock-glare on his face.

“Got your ankle. And I won’t let you go till you like me as much as I like you,” he jokes, but it still sends tiny ripples in Louis’ body as he feels Harry’s sharp bones press into the soft parts of his skin.

He takes a sip of his drink, throat a little tighter than it should be. “Suspect we’ll be here for a long time, then,” he replies delicately and it makes Harry laugh. A sound like a wonky bird trying to fly into a sunset, one of its wings longer than the other.

“Seriously, though,” he continues, once his wonky bird laugh tames. “You’re going to be brilliant, if you choose to write one day. You’re going to be brilliant at whatever you do, though. And you still have so much time, Louis. You can choose your own happiness, if a career is what you want. Whether it be publishing or writing or editing or even, like, tree-chopping, you still have so much time to create a life for yourself. You deserve happiness, Louis.”

“Doubt it,” Louis laughs, huffing as he focuses on picking apart the sleeve, feeling a touch self-conscious under the scrutiny.

“No, I’m serious.” Harry’s face quiets as he straightens and leans closer, lips red. “You’re so smart, Louis. Incredible. It’s fascinating how your brain works. You could so much with it. You have, just… So much inside of you.”

At this, Louis can only laugh again, though it’s less humorous and more unsure. “You hardly know me, Henry. Don’t get cocky on me.”

“No, really,” Harry presses, face still earnest as he leans that much closer, tugging on Louis’ jacket like a child. “You just have to go out and do it and you’ll succeed. That’s all you have to do, Louis.”

That’s all you have to do. Huh. When he says it like that, it almost seems plausible. Almost seems like Louis doesn’t have to actually work at Starbucks for the rest of his life, dishing out coffees with the same soulless enthusiasm as a drone.

Wryly, Louis smiles after a moment, glancing up at Harry as his fingers still, falling from the torn up sleeve of his paper cup. “You make the difficult things seem so possible,” he remarks, almost absently, as he shakes his head.

“You make the possible things seem so difficult,” Harry shoots back gently and Louis hears his heart beat.

For a moment they just look at each other, hands on the table, settled so close that they could reach out their fingers and touch, crumpled papers and books littered between them. They could link fingers across words. Across the classics.

“You can let go of my ankle now, Harry,” Louis finds himself saying quietly, lips tasting sweet as his eyes flicker across Harry’s face, through his hair, alongside the sweep of his lips. Pretty earnest boy who listens so closely.

A small smile. Almost hopeful. “Are you saying you like me? Because that’s the only way I’ll let you go.” It’s laughter in Harry’s tone but, briefly, his ankles squeeze Louis’ tighter.

“Maybe.”

Harry’s responding smile is gorgeous. Too gorgeous. Dangerously gorgeous.

And unfortunately, Louis’ already being a bit of a selfish prick, everything suddenly sort of crashing in on him as he thinks of Liam, at home, probably sick and dying and waiting for Louis to return.

His stomach twists, a frown twisting his mouth.

“Hey, Harry, it’s been lovely chatting with you. But I really gotta go.”

It’s barely a transition, is probably transparent, but Louis can’t quite care when his veins suddenly feel so small and shriveled.  

In an instant, Harry’s smile falters, dimming the lights and whipping the harsh winter winds outside even moreso.

Sighing, Louis pulls his ankle back, hopping off his chair with a determined fluidity that he hopes escapes Harry’s notice. He just wants to go home, check on Liam, and pretend he’s barren of emotions. Just for a little while. Until he next sees Harry, at least.

“I best bid you goodnight, sir,” he smiles, a little off, but he nods to Harry all the same as he gathers their cups.

“You don’t have to clean up,” Harry assures, but he’s watching Louis closely, lips sad. “I can do it. Just go home. You’ve had a long day and I’ve taken up too much of your time already. I’m sorry.”

Louis shakes his head. “Don’t be sorry. It was nice.” Harry smiles. “But I really gotta go. I’ll see tomorrow probably, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Harry nods, lip caught in teeth. “Yeah, you know me. Practically live here. Gonna bring a bed in one of these days.”

“Hah, I know the feeling,” Louis jokes wryly, zipping up his jacket. “Might do the same, myself.”

“Or you can share mine?”

Christ. Time to get the fuck outta here.

“Yeah, definitely, bye Harry!” Louis rushes all at once, refusing to let his cheeks heat at the prospect of sharing a bed with Harry.

Determined, he turns around and walks out the door, embracing the icy chill that immediately breaks through the barrier of his jacket, all the while as he pretends that he doesn’t see Harry waving goodbye through the warm, foggy windows.

Life is hard.

**

The next two weeks are an insane blur of self-restraint, panicked emotions, little sleep, lots of alcohol, and sage advice from everybody who’s willing to give it. Which is basically no one, save for the calm, blank pages of Louis’ fastly filling journal. So, excellent; his closest confident is a stack of bound paper. Splendid.

Luckily, Liam’s got his car situation fixed so he’s able to drive himself around again, back to steering with both hands, singing what he’s dubbed “Popera” (pop songs in an impressive opera voice that always, always forces Louis to plug his ears, else he’ll wince himself into a migraine), and stuffing dirty pasty wrappers in every possible crevice.  There’s a gold mine in the glove compartment.

Other good news includes the bond that Liam and Harry have begun to develop over the past two weeks. That’s great news. Truly award-winning news.

It probably has something to do with the karaoke night two weeks ago. Seeing as how Louis was a neurotic mess of guilt and horniness, he tried steering clear of Harry in the most polite and respectful manner he could manage, instead latching onto Zayn with a near rabid fervor.

“Why are you dry humping me?” Zayn asked dryly, not yet drunk enough to enjoy human contact.

“Because,” Louis groaned into his shoulder, breath pungent. “I am a hot mess of a boy. I am in a dark place. I’m confused Zayn, and I’m miserable.” He peered one eye out, glancing over to where Harry was frowning deeply at him, only half invested in what Liam was currently prattling to him—Liam, who had his phone out, scrolling his dating app as he sucked on an Amaretto sour and kept making sexual hand gestures. Obviously drunk.

“Are you being dramatic?” Zayn asked, lightly amused as he sipped his beer and watched the scene before him: Niall was onstage, singing Barbora Streisand with a newsboy cap on his head, a half-eaten slice of pizza in one hand.

“No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t know,” Louis huffed, turning away from Harry’s pretty eyes and pretty face and that curl that’s currently swirled against his temple like a tiny brown hula-hoop that Louis would love to twirl in for the rest of his life. Harry was probably an excellent hula-hooper. Probably has excellently nimble hips. Louis groaned at the mental image.

“Look. Mate,” Zayn sighed, turning fully to him as he gripped his shoulders, eyelashes spiked and curled almost to his eyebrows. Louis wished he was in love with him. It would probably be easier than pining after Harry. “How about we have a smoke, take a breather, then come back inside, have a few drinks, and sing our song. Yeah?”

Fuck yeah.

“I love our song!” Louis chirped, suddenly delighted as he swayed closer to Zayn, hands unsteady on his arms. He might’ve been a little drunk. “You and me, baby, we ain’t nothing but mammals.”

“So let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel,” Zayn grinned, a twinkle in his pumpernickel eye as he pulled Louis along.

And so they had proceeded to do just what Zayn had mapped out for them, Louis having such a lovely time that he was even able to briefly forget Harry a little bit.

That is, until Harry and Liam dueted a nice little Grease number.

Grease. As in Louis’ Grease. As the opening chords to “Summer Lovin’” rang out in the stale air of the pub, he almost dropped his bottle, mid-drink.

Liam sang Sandy. Harry sang Danny. It was the cruelest form of heartbreak. And they were laughing and nudging each other and sharing a mic and being flirty and drunk and pretty and—

And Louis had the most irrational spike of jealousy that he’s ever felt.

“Gotta go!” he blurted, slamming down his bottle hard enough on the table to slosh beer out of its neck. Zayn blinked, startled, as Niall raised one eyebrow over his own bottle. “See you lot tomorrow. Bye!”

And before anybody could even register anything, Louis stomped purposefully and determinedly out of the pub, leaving the scene before him in a gusto of despair and loss and hot, hot jealousy.

Ever since that night, Harry and Liam’s relationship has…changed a bit. Which is fine. Totally sick. Brilliant.

It’s great that Harry and Liam have a bond now, that they text and laugh together and share jokes that Louis hasn’t heard yet. It’s amazing that Harry sometimes flashes Liam a grin that could probably restore sight to a blind kitten. It’s fucking phenomenal that last week’s karaoke consisted of Louis drinking vodka tonics with the same sort of shriveled despair that he had the week before as he watched Liam grab Harry’s leg and take selfies with him, all the while as Zayn drunkenly pet Louis’ hair comfortingly, Niall fetching him drinks and dabbing fermented kisses to his cheeks because they thought he was feeling ill.

Great stuff. Phenomenal.

What’s even more phenomenal is that tonight’s another karaoke night. Yay. The crowd’s going wild.

Once upon a time, this was a fun, momentous night. A night where merriment was made and Zayn would get emotional and plastered and Niall would swing arms around everybody’s necks and drink everybody under the table and Liam would sing endlessly, trilling at all octaves and giggling endlessly.

Once upon a time, it was a night Louis loved. But now?

 Now it’s just pure torture.

“I’m going to ask Harry if he’ll want to grab dinner with me before we head over there,” Liam says as he’s flicking through his phone as he edges to leave. “Do you want me to bring you anything?” He’s typing out a message. Probably to Harry. It’s probably flirty. Harry’s probably sending him emojis.

Life is shit.

“No, thank you,” Louis says glumly, never looking up from his diligent scrubbing of the dishes. “You have fun.” Does his voice crack? It might crack.

“Will do. I’ll text you when we get to Niall’s,” Liam beams, only briefly glancing up at Louis before he ambles out of the backroom, trilling back a, “Good luck with closing!”, a skip in his step.

It’s so joyous and lighthearted and everything that Liam deserves, that it makes Louis groan, glaring into the dirty dishwasher before him, his fingers pruny and his shirt soaked.

Tonight’ll be fun. A grand ol’ time. It will be. It has to be.

Gritting his teeth into a smile, Louis flecks his hands out of the water, wiping the excess suds and droplets off on his apron before pulling out his journal, soggy on the edges, and clicking his pen into life with a stiff thumb.

‘Another night to watch my mistakes first hand. Maybe if I was blessed with the ability of communication I wouldn’t be in this position? Or maybe I was just born to be fucked. Not in the desired way. Good luck to Liam though. If anybody deserves somebody like Harry, it’s Liam.’

Without even bothering to reread, he stuffs the book into his apron pocket and focuses his attention back to the dishes, gritted smile still cut into his face.

It will be a fun night.

**

The night is much the same as every other week: everybody’s fairly tipsy and warm with liquor as they trudge in the snow to the pub down the street, feet slick against ice and slush, voices loud and puffing out blue-tinged steam that curls beneath an ice-sharp moon. The sky is velvety and black, lit by bright stars and red noses that pear up at in laughter, and everything feels sterile, it’s so fucking cold.  Everybody’s having fun, arms tangled up, laughter bubbling.

Well. Everybody except Louis.

He’s stone-cold sober—afraid of what a bit of liquor could do to him and his emotions because sometimes he becomes a moody, troublesome sort who can’t shut his trap—and he’s lagging behind, bundled up in his jacket with his hands deep in his pockets. Silently, reservedly, he watches the scene before him: Zayn and Niall chatting animatedly about some reality show, their hands quick, cigarettes dangling between their lips, Liam who is texting on his phone while intermittently cooing at Harry—who is speaking about something that Louis can’t really decipher, given the low, steady timber of his voice that seems to get covered beneath the snow and the thick, heavy darkness of the night. Which is for the best, really, because Louis doesn’t want to hear any of it right now.

But Harry’s walking, hands stuffed into his jean pockets, and he’s got those huge feet that sorta stumble about and he’s so tall and beautiful and smart and just…

Louis is tired. And sober. And he doesn’t want to be here.

“The goal is to sing twenty songs tonight, lads!” Liam exclaims excitedly, pumping a fist into the air as they reach the steps to the pub. He’s fairly obliterated already—hair askew, cheeks red, eyes glassy. Sweet lil pup. Louis’ best mate.

He smiles fondly as he watches him, smiles still more fondly as Zayn and Niall cackle their delight.

“We’ll keep track, mate, we’ll keep track!” they laugh as Liam swings the door open.

Louis stops at the foot of the steps, watches them pile in, something tugging low in his stomach, something sinking and dreaded as he takes in the noises from within, the lights pink and blue and saturated, spilling out onto the pavement. Liam stumbles inside, then Zayn, then Niall…then Harry. Louis watches as their hands brace the door for the other, watches as none of them look back. They’re warm and buzzed and excited. They’ll notice Louis’ missing eventually, sure.

But they won’t notice for awhile.

It’s enough opportunity for Louis to take.

Bypassing the steps, he tugs his collar closer to his neck, feet crunching crushed ice and frosted pavement as he walks down the sidewalk, face set in steely determination and listlessness. He tucks his chin into the folds of his jacket, seeking a small patch of warmth because it’s just that fucking cold outside, the wind sneaky and sharp.

It’s silent out here. Quiet and hummed only by the distant sound of the pub, now fading into the darkness with each step Louis takes. The houses all around are quiet and glazed, their windows dull and reflecting warped reflections of the streetlamps. Snow clings to fenceposts and leafless trees, hangs low on the bows and blankets the shrubs. It’s peaceful. Gives Louis some time to settles his stomach and the odd, stilted feeling of missing someone he never really had.

He’s almost walked the length of the street, lost in the blankness of himself, lost amidst the slick pavement and icy patches and drifted snow and moonlight, before he suddenly hears his name.

“Louis.”

The ice from the pavement shoots through his shoes, saturates his skin, and freezes his entire being as he stills sharply, sucking in a breath.  

Fuck. Harry.

Slowly, he turns around.

And there he is. The boy with the curls. That damn boy that is just…so, so lovely. Somehow. So enchanting.

“Henry,” he smiles wryly, feeling the sadness in his quirked lips. It’s been quite awhile since they’ve been alone together, has been longer still since their conversation has been relaxed and neutral; everything’s been so off lately, so jarring, what with Louis trying to bring up Liam every five minutes, trying to assuage his guilt.

He misses Harry.

Even if he is currently looking at him like he’s mad.

“What are you doing?” he asks, but it’s soft and questioning and almost hesitant, his hands kept to himself, his feet pressed together. His cheeks are pink from the cold, as ruby red as his lips and the rims of his wind-blazen eyes. “Why didn’t you come inside?”

Well, then. Right to the point.

Louis swallows, adopting a fake smile as he toes at a dirty chunk of snow.  “I think the real question at hand here, Professor, is why on earth were you following me? Especially this far? Without even saying a word until now?” He glances up, catching Harry’s eye before he drops it, returning to the snow.

He can almost feel Harry’s flustered blinks, despite the seriousness of his tone. “Look, Louis, I’m serious.” In his peripherals, Louis sees him lick his chapped lips. “Are you alright?”

Louis’ foot pauses, mid-swipe of the snow.

“Because I feel like it’s something I’ve done,” Harry rushes in an exhale, hands extracting from his pockets and gesticulating in the air as he takes a hesitant step forward. “And—and I just wanted to say that I’ll leave if you want me to. Right now? I can go home. These are your friends—I can go. I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable around your best mates, alright? I don’t want to do that.”

Oh dear god. This perfect, sweet boy. He thinks Louis doesn’t want him here? How very ironic; he wants him here more than he should.

A dry, bitter chuckle falls from Louis’ lips then, one that crackles against the icy, stagnant air and tinkles against the icicles hanging from the streetlamps. “Oh, Henry. Harry,” he chuckles, dry and sad. He shakes his head. “No. I don’t want you to go.”

Harry quiets momentarily, his hands falling at his sides, eyes flickering across Louis’ face. His brows slowly begin to pinch. “So then what’s wrong?” he asks slowly, low, like a turtle.

Shrugging, Louis kicks at some ice. “So much.”

“Tell me?”

Hah! Louis merely smiles sadly, lips shut. How could he tell him about Liam? It’d be a dick move. It’d be a total dick move. Harry may be wonderful, but he’s not worth tampering with a best mate. So Louis just remains silent.

A frustrated exhale pushes itself out of Harry’s lungs. “Look. Alright. I know you probably don’t trust me—“

“I trust you,” Louis rushes, head snapping up before he can stop himself. But then he feels his skin warm, Harry’s eyes trying to latch onto his own before he averts his gaze again.

“I’m glad,” Harry mumbles, gentle and enunciated. “And I’m here. If you need to talk.”

Frustration sizzles through Louis’ nerve endings, branching from his spine as he sighs, meeting Harry’s eye. “I know that. I know that, okay? That’s—“ He wants to say ‘that’s the fucking problem, isn’t it?’ but he can’t. He just can’t do that. He doesn’t know what to do, honestly. “Go back, Harry. Go have fun and sing those beautiful songs that make your voice sound even more beautiful. And drink and have fun and take tons of sexy selfies, you minx. Go on.”

But Harry doesn’t move. Instead he says, “Hey, Barney?”

The nickname, so oddly at ends with the gravity of the atmosphere, with the tentative dance they’ve been performing around each other, sends Louis into a single, scratchy chuckle. “Yeah?”

“Would it be okay if I walked with you?” The words are hopeful, gentle as cotton swiping skin.

“Harry…”

“If you hate me or something, then I won’t,” Harry says, taking another step closer, his hands once again midair. “But. Could I? If you don’t hate me? I’d like to walk with you. Would rather be out here than… Well, than back in there wondering where you are.”

Fuck fuck fuck.

“Of course I don’t hate you, you great pillock,” Louis sighs, every coiled ounce of determination unravelling. Harry’s eyes somehow look softer at night, lit up by dim blue shadows. “So. Yeah, alright. Walk with me. Though I’m not very fun right now—your opinion of me will, undoubtedly, go asunder.” He lifts a corner of his mouth.

“No,” Harry begins slowly, smile spreading across his face as he blinks, eyelashes sweeping. “I don’t think it will.”

And with that, he falls into step beside him.

**

They walk amongst snow, amongst the empty streets.

“There’s no way you’ve memorized the entirety of Pride & Prejudice,” Louis laughs with incredulity, thwacking Harry on the arm. He’s wearing his leather jacket so it smacks like wet rubber and resounds in the air. “You’re just trying to show off because you want to look clever.”

Immediately, Harry clears his throat, peacocking his head high in the air as he struts forward, jaw jutted and words clear: “’It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good—‘”

“Oi, fuck off,” Louis laughs, thwacking him again before Harry catches his hand, pulling it towards him as Louis fights him, stubborn and gleeful. “Everybody knows the first line, twit. But, even so!”—he shouts, just as Harry opens his mouth to continue—“I don’t need an audio book, so hush your little lips”—he purses Harry’s lips shut with two fingers, making him squawk—“and tell me something else impressive about yourself. Something that doesn’t make you look like a soppy nerd.”

“Hey,” Harry protests, lips still squeezed between Louis’ fingers.

He relents his grip, smirk flickering as Harry releases his hand, fingers hesitant to depart as they brush against the warm skin of Louis’ inner wrist. “Okay, well, I have many impressive attributes. I have four nipples, for starters. And I can juggle. I’m well-versed in early twentieth century music, did you know? Also! I can make jewelry. And, uhm, I have really smooth hands. Also, one time, I duct-taped someone inside their room—like, full on. Duct-taped the entire doorway. And I—“

“Hold up, hold up,” Louis laughs, cheeks bright, eyes glinting as the soles of their shoes scrape ice. “So I ask you to tell me something interesting about yourself.” Harry nods, rapt. “And the first thing you tell me is that you can recite Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, front to back?” Harry nods again. “Rather than,” Louis continues, slathering the words with incredulity, “revealing any of those gems you just spouted? I mean, four nipples, Harry? Really? And did you really duct-tape someone inside their room?”

“Absolutely,” Harry beams, proud and sweet as he moseys along, eyes on Louis. “Oh! And I can read and write and speak a fair bit of Old English.”

“Whew!” Louis flutters, fanning himself with exaggerated gusto. “Please, Harry. We’re in public. You mustn’t excite me so.”

Harry grins, walking a bit closer, his eyes glinting with mischief and softness as he wraps a warm arm around Louis’ waist, tugging him closer. “You know,” he begins, low, “there are, like, a bajillion ways to say ‘the’? In Old English?”

Maintaining steady eye contact, Louis exhales. “Shit,” he whispers, feigning incredulity. “I think I just got hard.”

Surprised, Harry bursts into a laugh so bright it springs their bodies apart with the force of it. Wildly, Louis grins, watching him.

“I hate your laugh,” he smiles fondly, feet crisping against snow.

“I hate your smile,” Harry shoots back, laughter dying, his tongue teasing between his teeth. He looks goofy and silly and buoyant.

“I hate your face.”

“I hate your name.”

“I hate your personality.”

“I hate every single thing about you,” Harry grins, tugging on Louis’ hand and pulling him to a stop, bringing their chests flush together. He looks down at him, eyes green and murky and camouflaged in the cold night, breath ghosting from his lips, the tip of his nose pink. He smiles like thick blankets and candles. Warm, warm, warm. “I hate your messy hair, I hate your pretty smile, I hate your arms and your laugh and your wit and your intelligence and your bloody infuriating sense of humor.” He grins, swallowing Louis whole with his eyes that sweep over his face, with his hands that gently brush down his arms. “But, most of all, I hate that I’ve barely seen you smile these past two weeks. And I miss this. I miss talking to you.”

Swallowing, Louis’ smile falters, heart thudding irregularly. “Harry, you barely know me.”

“What I know, I adore,” Harry smiles back, sure. “So I was wondering…”

Louis blinks, frozen. “Yeah?”

“If, maybe…you’re hungry?” Harry blinks, lips caught in his teeth.

“Hungry?” Louis questions, baffled. “What, now?”

Harry nods, hands sliding to grip Louis’, loose and gentle, barely there.

“Sure, a little.” He eyes Harry, watching his smile spread. “May I ask why?”

“Because I want to take you to get food. It’s cold out here and I want to keep talking to you. And my stomach’s been grumbling so I want, like, breakfast or something. Let’s go to that diner. We can have cocoa!” Harry grins like he’s proud, like he’s excited, his hair curled and swirled atop his head.

Louis can only breathe, smiling as he finds himself nodding. He missed Harry, what can he say? He just fucking missed him. “Alright,” he nods, smiling. “Let’s steal a car and find a diner.”

Harry chuckles, tugging Louis down the street. “Why steal a car when we can steal a horse?”

“A horse?” Louis deadpans, trotting to keep up with Harry’s strides. “Where the hell do you think we’ll be able to find a horse, Henry? Honestly, what kind of weed do you—“

But before he can finish his sentence, Harry’s suddenly letting go of his hand and flying down the street, running at an impeccable speed, only pausing to shout over his shoulder, wild laughter in his voice, “Race you to my car!”

And Louis has never been one to shrink away from a challenge.

So he legs it, hauling off the ice and his slackened work shoes as he tries to glare. “You fucking cheat!” he bellows, but he laughs as their feet slide down the empty street, snowflakes wafting down from the trees.

**

They each order greasy sandwiches and piles of chips, soaked through the paper and coated in vinegar and split a milkshake between them. Their fingers glisten as they lick them, mouths moist and shiny between burps and laughter, arguing about who the best Beatle was.

“Clearly George,” Louis scoffs, kicking his feet up on Harry’s side of the booth. “Inarguable.”

“It’s John,” Harry emphasizes, pinching Louis’ ankle, which earns him a light kick.

They guzzle their milkshake, swatting at each other for turns, before they have to order two waters apiece and try to make the other laugh in hopes they’ll snort it out through their noses (which Harry did end up doing because Louis is witty, dammit) before blinking sleepily at each other as they recline in the plastic booth, limbs lazy while they sing songs to each other and mumble author’s names.

“I fucking hate Faulkner,” Louis yawns, shaking his head. “Fuckner, as I like to call him.”

“He’s alright,” Harry shrugs. “It’s Steinbeck that’s awful.”

“Hey!” Louis sits up, eyes wide. “Steinbeck’s brilliant!”

“Says the bloke who actually enjoyed Heart of Darkness,” Harry mumbles, but it’s smiling and teasing and lit by mischief so Louis finds it only appropriate to ball up his napkin and throw it in Harry’s face; he catches it with his teeth, kisses it for no discernible reason, then pockets it in his jacket. Truly impressive.

“For later,” he says, as if that explains anything, before winking and sending Louis into an amused smile, shaking his head fondly.

Eventually they leave, Harry insisting on paying their bill as Louis fights not to lean on him, his limbs aching and his feet sore.

“C’mon, love,” Harry mumbles to him as he gently ushers him out the door, fingers warm as they wrap around his shoulder, wrap around his cold fingers.

Louis bites his smile.

**

They sit in Harry’s car, sipping steaming cups of tea that they purchased at the bakery a few doors down from Niall’s flat.

“Wonder if they’re wondering where we are,” Louis mumbles, checking his phone for the tenth time—no new messages.

Harry merely shrugs, watching as the sun’s light slowly begins to peak above the horizon. “Bet they figured it out.”

“Yeah.”

They fall silent, humming The Shirelles because Harry got it stuck in both of their heads for a few hours now.

“Don’t you have to teach tomorrow?” Louis asks suddenly, frowning as he turns to Harry. “Like… Don’t you have to teach in a few hours? Oh god, did I just ruin your day?”

Warmly, Harry laughs, shaking his head as the steam tickles his nose. “Nah, they cancelled another day of school because there’s supposed to be another ice storm.”

“Oh, joy.”

“Indeed.” Harry grins, taking a tentative sip of his cup, both hands engulfing it. “But, uhm. Even if they hadn’t, I still would’ve… You know. I still would’ve gladly stayed up. To be with you.”

Louis freezes, tea halfway to his mouth. His breath slows, so quiet so as not to miss a word. “Oh, yeah?”

He hears Harry shift, sees him turn to face him in his peripherals, lowering his tea as his eyes bore into Louis’ profile. “Yeah, of course, Louis. Since I moved here, you’re the only person I’ve really, really felt like… Connected to. So, I mean.” He falls silent.

Exhaling, Louis sips his tea, his bones on edge as he feels the car’s heater fan across his cheeks. “Yeah.”

“And, like… You’re worth it, you know.”

Chest prickling, Louis turns to him, turns to look Harry dead in the eye as he stares at him, lips suspended and cheeks bright.

“You’re worth staying up for. Worth losing sleep for. You’re…you’re pretty amazing, Louis.”

“Harry…” Louis starts, voice catching on a rasp as he feels his fingertips go numb, feels his face melt off his body because this is not good, this isn’t. But it’s fucking wonderful and it’s confusing, it’s…

“I’m sure it’s pretty obvious how I feel about you—“

“Harry,” Louis continues weakly, lowering his cup of tea as he stares helplessly at Harry, his intent eyes and determined expression, the way he leans that much closer to Louis before setting aside his cup, hands seeking out Louis’. He closes his eyes tightly, swallows down lumps and jitters.

“You’re beautiful, Louis, a beautiful person. You make me laugh, you know? And you’re fun and interesting and I’m sort’ve—“

“You’re sort’ve crazy,” Louis laughs, opening his eyes as he teasingly squeezes Harry’s hands, smile unable to stay off his face.

Beaming, Harry nods, smile uneven. “Yeah, probably,” he shrugs but he laughs, low. “For you.”

“Oh my god, no you did not just do that, you dork,” Louis groans, but he’s grinning, almost manically, trying to extract his hands and turn away—

When suddenly he feels warm lips press against his own, hands coming to cradle his face and successfully cut off any smart retort he was about to make.

Harry. Harry is kissing him. Sweet dopey Harry, who sings softly and quotes novels and has terrible taste in jackets, is kissing Louis, his lips as soft as they look, his kiss polite as he is, the pads of his fingers gentle as they guide Louis’ jaw, angling their heads as he nudges that much closer, that much deeper, his nose pressing into Louis’ skin, his cologne clouding the air, his breath intoxicating Louis’ lungs.

Louis’ not made of steel. So he kisses him back before he realizes what he’s doing. Before he’s even aware of his actions, Louis’ hands are in Harry’s hair, tangled up in those thick strands that twist like hot coils, that ensnare Louis’ fingers, maybe forever. He presses back into him and nudges his face closer and opens his mouth because he’s weak, goddammit, he’s weak, and he inhales sharply through his nose because Harry’s is mesmerizing, this boy is mesmerizing.

“You’re kissing me,” he mumbles against Harry’s mouth, breathless and disoriented.

“I’ve been planning on doing this since the day you sassed me about my three seconds of soy,” Harry mumbles back, smiling even as his lips smudge across Louis’ mouth, his hands so damn gentle.

“That’s still bullshit,” Louis murmurs, unable to pull away, unable to release his hold. “Three seconds is very subjective and you can’t just—“

Harry presses his mouth against Louis’ again, firmer, swallowing up Louis’ words with one great swoop. Like a pelican.

Eventually, they release, their mouths redder and wetter, their eyes a bit wilder, their hands a little shaky as they return them to their laps, smiles lopsided and giddy.

“You kissed me,” Louis says again, trying to smirk but probably cooing. God help him.

“You kissed me,” Harry responds in kind, soft as a meadow lark. He blinks, gentle and with grace. His blinks are legendary. “Can I kiss you again?”

Again? Shit.

Shit, no. This is already…

Gulping down a torrent of conflict, Louis laughs, breath gusting out of his mouth as he glances at the dashboard’s clock. “It’s late, Harry. We really should be going to sleep. I’m about to pass out in your car.” He laughs a bit awkwardly, a slow panic beginning to buzz beneath his skin as he rubs at his eye with the palm of his hand.

Harry watches him for a moment before he nods. “Yeah, no, you’re right. I should drop you off at your car.”

“Nah, that’s not necessary. I’m just parked over there.”

“But it’s cold,” Harry protests, frowning as he makes to shift gears. “I’m happy to drop you off.”

“Harry,” Louis says, gently but firmly as he lays a hand atop his. “I’m fine. Promise. I’ll just walk the short distance, alright?”

It takes a moment for Harry to nod, eyes a touch cloudy with something Louis doesn’t understand and can’t analyze, not when a small drip of enormous guilt and crisis has begun to slide down his spine. “Alright,” he says, quiet, before Louis smiles, pats his hand, and opens the door.

“I’ll text you,” he smiles, pausing to lock eyes with Harry. He suddenly looks so sad, so glum and kicked, that Louis doesn’t even think about it—he just leans over and pecks a kiss to the corner of his mouth. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

Slowly, Harry smiles. “Yeah. You will.”

“Brilliant,” Louis grins, stomach twisting. “Goodnight, Henry. Thank you, er, for a lovely night. For putting up with me.” He laughs, a touch hollowly before he bolts out of the car, waving a lazy hand goodbye.

He watches Harry drive away, a stone embedded in his gut.

What the fuck did he just do.

Chapter Text

Louis Tomlinson is a horrible person.

Louis Tomlinson is the kind of person who kisses his best mate’s love interest after a beautiful, mesmerizing night of romance and fun. He’s the type of person to alternate between rushes of fizzy-headed adrenaline and crippling shame as he skulks around in his home, before pressing his forehead to the cold wood of the table as his mum putters around the kitchen and clinks silverware, radio drifting lazily through the air. He’s the type of person to stare at his phone in petrified horror when it vibrates, low and threatening, rumbling across the table.

Fuck. It’s from Liam.

Lip caught between his teeth, he unlocks the screen, body tense as his eyes skim over the words in the text.

‘Where did you guys get to last night?? You missed Lion King!!!’ is all it says, accompanied by music note emojis.

That’s all.

No accusations, no hurled insults, no grainy photos of Louis and Harry kissing inside Harry’s car, tongues stuck down each other’s throats like the reckless rubbish they are…

Louis’ just about to exhale his pained relief, stomach prickling with hope, when suddenly another buzz rattles through his phone, screen flashing up with another text from Liam.

‘Lol Harry just asked me to lunch with him! Guess I’ll winkle it out of him ;)’

And Louis stares, stomach disappearing entirely.

Harry…just asked Liam out to lunch? Harry? Just-kissed-Louis-last-night Harry? Asked Liam? Out to lunch?

Despite the convoluted mounds of self-doubt, shame, guilt, and angst that are currently piled atop him, he can’t deny the alarming streak of jealousy that suddenly courses through him, fiery and gripping. Because, like, sure—Liam deserves this. This is what was supposed to happen from the beginning. Yes. Alright.

But…

But Harry kissed Louis last night. Harry told Louis he was amazing last night. So why the fuck wouldn’t he ask Louis to lunch? What the hell? Is this kid some kind of player? Is that what’s going on? Is Louis fucking Tomlinson being played right now?!

Groaning, he reunites his forehead with the table, body slumping in despair, phone falling out of his clutch.

“Alright, kitten?” he hears his mum asked, slight bemusement in her tone.

“No,” he grumbles, lips smashed. “Never alright.”

“Work problems?” she prods gently.

“Love problems.”

“Ah,” she says carefully, smile in her tone. “Yes, I remember my young days. Lots of love problems. But don’t worry, Lou—it always works out. However it’s supposed to, it works out.” With that, she walks past him, ruffling his hair in a gentle hand before she drifts into the other room to fetch the twins, who are currently making a mess of their dolls across the living room floor.

Louis can only grunt in response.

**

It’s another boring day at work. The presumed ice storm ends up being less tumultuous than previously predicted, resulting in patches of icy rain and white skies but nothing more threatening than that. Thus, Louis is presented with a slow day, a cold day, with nothing to occupy his thoughts to save him from himself.

Why did Harry ask Liam to lunch? Why is Louis the worst friend in the world? Where are they now? What are they doing? Could they be fucking? That’s probably irrational but what if they’re fucking?

Gritting his teeth against himself (he never used to be this erratically jealous, not ever), Louis wipes globs of dried syrup off the counters and walls, tendons tight in his arm.

“Peace out, kiddo,” Niall’s voice suddenly calls, trotting towards the door.

Blinking, Louis looks up, eyebrows pushed together. “Where are you going? I thought you were gonna work on your laptop? Your online course…?”

“I am,” Niall nods, nonchalant as he wraps a thick green scarf around his neck and waves at a passing car. “Gonna grab lunch first, though. Want anything?”

“Nah,” Louis sighs, dropping his rag in the bucket of sanitizer, watching it plop despairingly, sending lukewarm droplets everywhere. He frowns. “Not hungry.”

“Alright. Well I’ll be back in less than a tick.”

Before Louis can even wave half-heartedly, the door shuts, gusting flurries in its wake.

So, Niall’s gone. Great. There goes Louis’ only source of entertainment for the day.

Feeling a heaviness in his bones, he sighs and begins scrubbing out the fridges, goose pimples dusting his arms.

It’s not twenty minutes later when Niall suddenly bursts through the door again, strides quick as lightning as he makes a beeline for the backroom, eyebrows bunched in a line.

“Er…” Louis begins, watching him a little blankly from his spot at the pastry case. “Everything alright? Lunch a little funny?”

“Nah, mate,” Niall says in a rush, a little breathless. He powers to the backroom before emerging shortly with his laptop slung over his shoulder. “I’ve actually gotta go. Liam just texted me saying he needs ‘girl-talk’, whatever the fuck that means. Says it’s a bit of an emergency or summat. Seems upset, I dunno,” he says as he’s striding for the door, movements purposeful.

Louis blinks, startled as he drops his hands to his sides. “Oh. Did he say…what’s wrong?” he asks, feeling the tiniest bit insulted that Liam hadn’t come to him. (Okay. Feeling very insulted. A bit jealous.) (Louis sucks.)

“Nah,” Niall shakes his head, leaning his shoulder on the door, pushing it open with a grunted push. “Suppose I’ll find out though, won’t I? I’ll see you later, bro.”

And then Niall’s gone in a flash of flurries.

Hm. Interesting.

It’s odd, this situation. It’s odd enough that Louis has to check his phone and, nope. Liam hasn’t texted. Hm.

He returns to work anyway, pushes all thoughts from his mind as he absently scrubs the counters, face blank.

He’s just humming the song on the radio—Herman’s Hermits—and squeezing out the excess sani-water into the sink with a graceful twist of the wrist, when suddenly he hears the muted thump of the door closing and he looks up, still humming, and sees—

Harry. Shit.

Instantly, a nervous ripple shoots through his stomach, jarring against his organs, and he almost drops the fucking sani-rag because he’s a nervous bag of balls who was full of shit when he said that he could get through this, was a total and complete prat for having kissed Harry back last night and—

And shit.

“Henry,” he greets instantaneously, a knee-jerk reaction as his body softens against his will, watching his long limbs and floppy hair. He feels himself smiling already.

But Harry…doesn’t exactly smile back.

Instead, he walks to the handoff plane, eyes far away, his curls gently falling into his face. His hideous jacket’s on, wrapping his limbs up and glowing that putrid shade of sewage. He’s got his scarf, he’s got his skinny jeans, he’s got his leather shoes…

And he’s got a distracted frown on his face.

Louis swallows.

What does this mean?? What happened with Liam? What’s going on?

“Alright?” Louis asks, a bit nervously, gripping tightly onto the counter as he examines his expression closely.

Harry reaches the handoff plane, his midriff bumping against the granite. His hands are in his pockets and his eyes are averted, staring off into the distance. At Louis’ words, he blinks, catching his gaze with a slow-to-form smile that’s far from reaching his eyes. “I just… I dunno.” He stops, unsure as his eyes fall down to his hands, the corner of his lip sucked into his mouth.

Louis waits.

“Yes?” Louis prompts, leaning forward unconsciously. His heart bumbles a bit, his hands knock awkwardly.

Harry’s brows furrow a bit more, eyes steadying upon Louis. “I just received…very strange advice.”

“Strange advice?” Louis repeats slowly, raising an eyebrow. What?

“Yeah. Like. Really strange advice.” Then Harry breaks his gaze and looks down at his hands, a frown creasing the line of his lips.

Okay. So something is definitely off.

“Well, uhm. Are you alright?” Louis fishes, feeling a bit breathless for no discernible reason as he stands there and tries not to drum his fingers against the counter, impatient and jumpy. Maybe that’s nerves that he’s feeling? Considering his tongue was in that mouth less than twenty-four hours ago, nerves is probably a safe bet.

Harry shrugs off-kilter, clearly undergoing inner distress. “I guess. I just…” He pauses, then shakes his head, eyes foggy. “I’m sorry. I’m being weird. How are you today, Louis? Did you get enough sleep? I hope we didn’t—“ He stops himself, reassess his words. “I’m sorry if I took up too much of your time last night.” And then a blinding fake smile, drooping at the edges like soggy paper.

“Of course you didn’t,” Louis replies, gentle and careful as he tries to search Harry’s face, wracking his brain for what could be wrong.

Does this have to do with his lunch with Liam?

After a few seconds of responding silence, Harry nods to himself, eyes fallen to the granite. “Good, good,” he mumbles, though his tone suggests otherwise, all quiet and absent. Then he lifts his head up, something strangled in his eyes as his voice carries a low weight. “Even so. I’m sorry.” It’s almost tinged with bitterness.

“Sorry?” Louis questions, taken aback as he stares, the hairs on his arms prickling—not in a good way. What is going on?? “Why are you sorry? I thought—“

“Look, I really shouldn’t be bothering you,” Harry mumbles, cheeks reddening as he stuffs his hands deeper into his pockets, beginning to gnaw on his lip. “I should go. I guess I just wanted to stop by and see you, but. But I realize how out of line that is and I should probably go home. I didn’t get enough sleep last night, so—“

“Right, yeah,” Louis nods curtly, feeling a gripping surge of irritation as he purses his lips, foolishness beginning to grip at his neck and skin because, alright, he’s not an idiot. He can take a hint. Harry wants to leave. Probably because he’s in love with Liam now and he regrets every kissing Louis. Logical. Alright. “Yeah, alright. I don’t want to keep you.”

And with that, Louis turns away, storming into the backroom and leaving Harry behind, stood alone against the backsplash of wintry windows and ice.

**

The rest of Louis’ shift is really fucking strange.

Basically, Louis’ doing everything in his power to busy himself in hopes to get his mind off of his completely inappropriate and undeserved heartbreak over the fact that Harry does not, in fact, have feelings for him (despite his fucking speech last night and his smooth words and his sentences and—he was probably just trying to get lucky, wasn’t he? God) and is probably actually in love with Liam now. Which was the whole point of everything. Right? Right. Ever since Harry strolled in here on those hipster legs with that long scarf and those giant headphones and pretentious conversations and hideous elbow-patches, he’s been meant for Liam and Liam alone. So it’s completely unwarranted for Louis to feel like his insides have been scraped by a melon baller.

He sighs in deepest despair as he polishes the bean grinder vigorously, grounds flittering up into his nostrils and speckling his arms.

The grinder wouldn’t break his heart. The grinder wouldn’t kiss him in a car and leave him for yesterday’s leftovers.

God, he needs to get a grip.

It’s just as he’s looking up from the freshly-polished machine before him that he sees Zayn strolling inside, sunglasses perched on his nose, cigarette still lit between his teeth.

“Zayn, Jesus!” Louis laughs, instantly brightening as Zayn flicks the glasses up into his messy hair, a smirk in place. “You can’t fucking smoke in here—put it out, Christ!”

Unaffected, Zayn merely shrugs, stubbing the aforementioned item out on the granite countertop before him. “Whatever. I could do plenty worse.” He smiles sweetly before he huffs it into the backroom, a lingering trail of smoke left in his wake. Bless him and his nonchalant rebelliousness.

Louis chuckles to himself just as the headset dings.

“Thanks for choosing Starbucks, this is Jen…” Jen recites dutifully, sweeping her way forward as Louis grits his teeth while the teenage girl prattles out an order; it’s a frappuccino. Dammit.

Unable to resist rolling his eyes, he slides a cold plastic cup out of the dispenser with artful grace, striding over to the cold bar with lackluster limbs and narrowed eyes, procuring a tiny giggle from Jen’s round, smiling face. It makes Louis’ lips quirk in response as he pumps frap roast.

“Need any help?” he suddenly hears, grunted over his shoulder.

“Why on earth are you asking to help me make one drink?” Louis asks, raising an eyebrow as Zayn yawns, catlike, scratching his stomach. “Don’t you have…supervisor stuff to do? Financial business and all that?”

Zayn shrugs, still itching beneath his shirt. “Yeah, but. I don’t wanna. Wanna chill for a bit while I wake up. I think I’m gonna make a drink, what should I make?”

Just as Louis opens his mouth to answer, the sudden sharp sound of porcelain being slammed atop granite resonates through the air.

Blinking, he whizzes around, only to find Harry standing at the till, empty mug sat before him.

“Harry,” he blinks, startled. “I thought you left?”

“Nope,” Harry replies, curt and sharp, popping the ‘p’. He looks uncharacteristically sharp, having emerged from seemingly nowhere, his eyes flicking between Louis and Zayn with an almost accusatory edge. Which is…different. “Decided to stay and do some reading. We’re studying Jekyll and Hyde next so I thought I’d get a head start on planning.” There’s something about the way he’s standing, rod-straight and stiff, his eyes a cutting shade of green. Like glass bottle shards. “I won’t take up much of your time, I promise. Just needed a refill.” The words are without humor and Louis can only raise his eyebrows.

Everything is weird.

“Never been bothered with taking up my time before,” he tries to grin, aiming for teasing, but Harry’s mouth just tightens a bit, lips pressed together as his eyes settle on Zayn.

“Well?” Harry asks, looking clear past Louis with a hardened expression. “Aren’t you going to ring me up?”

Eyebrows rising even further, Louis slowly turns around as the frappuccino blender silences, glancing at Zayn—who’s leaned against the counter, arms crossed, eyes lost in contemplation as he ponders what to drink. Louis nudges him, startling him out of his thoughts.

“What?” Zayn blinks before lazily smiling and nudging Louis back.

“Refill,” Harry says firmly, something petulant in his gaze and it’s just so unlike him, isn’t it?

What the hell happened today?

“Someone’s being a bit rude,” Louis remarks in response, his eyes narrowing as he follows a bemused Zayn to the till. Harry avoids his eye, looking down at his hands atop the counter, jaw still set. Like a stubborn toddler. “No need to treat my Zayn like he’s made for your disposal.”

Harry snorts, skin darker than its usual shade of cream. “Your Zayn. Alright.”

What?

At this, Zayn’s own eyebrows raise, his hands pausing on the screen. He glances between the two, unaffected as can be, without a trace of insult because Zayn is the least sensitive person on this planet, never taking insult with anything or anyone. “Uhh, is this a thing?” he asks with a slow blink, casual and loose. “Like, between you two? Cuz I can go stand over there or something.”

“Yes,” Harry says firmly, just as Louis quips a snorted “No.”

They stare at each other.

“Riiight,” Zayn drawls, slowly backing up. “I think I’ll just, uh… Walk over here. And make my drink later. Unless you wanna do the honors, sweetcheeks?” He lifts one corner of his mouth Louis’ way, smacking his bum with the same practiced ease all the partners do.

It results in Louis rolling his eyes and agreeing with a labored sigh while Harry’s eyes trace the contact with laser-like precision. As soon as Zayn walks away, though, it’s just Louis and Harry, Jen picking up Louis’ frappuccino slack in the background—bless her; he’s got more important matters to attend to.

 After a few awkward seconds of silence, Harry’s the first to crack. He sighs, scratching the back of his neck as his face falls a bit, a frown settled in his mouth.

“’M sorry,” he mumbles, almost too quiet to discern. “I was being a bit of a prick just now.”

“More than a bit,” Louis replies, but it’s more gentle than he realizes, little dabs of concern dotting his eyes as he picks up a venti iced up, fingers pushing into the giving plastic as he tries to decipher Harry’s face. His collar’s scratching his neck, right alongside with Harry’s penetrating stares that he keeps flicking his way. “What’s up with you, Harry? All day you’ve been acting strange. Was it last night? Did it get weird? Do you not want to talk to me anym—“

“No, god no,” Harry rushes, brows pulled together as he straightens and looks up, looking near aghast. “No, I want to still be your friend, of course I do. I just feel—I feel foolish, is all. Just dumb right now.” He pauses, looking at Louis with something that could be deemed as open hurt. “And I wish you would’ve told me.”

Louis blinks. “Told you?” he questions, baffled. “Told you what?”

“About…you know.” Awkwardly, Harry flaps his hands in the vague direction of Zayn. “I wish I didn’t have to hear it from Liam, is all and—“ He stops, freezes, eyes growing wide before he lifts one large hand to his mouth, apologetic. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—I know it’s not my business—even though it sort of is—but it’s not! I know that!”

What the actual hell is this boy talking about.

Lost, Louis stares at him, eyes flickering to and fro as Harry blushes crimson and takes fumbled steps backward, hands nervously tucking curls behind his ears. “I’m going to go now. For real. I’m just going to go home and take a shower or something. I’m sorry. Uhm. Yeah. Sorry. Bye, Louis.”

“What? No! Harry! Get back here this instant!” Louis calls, stunned and completely out of his element (not to mention bewildered because what?!), as he leans over the counter, even going so far as to reach out one hand—but Harry’s already walking out the door, leaving Louis to gape, Harry’s cold, empty mug still sitting atop the counter.

**

The next few days bring no clarity. None whatsoever. (Of course. Could Louis really expect anything less?)

And today doesn’t seem like it’ll be any more promising. It’s snowy and cold but not quite so Antarctic. Rather more chill and cozy almost, so that’s one positive. Both Liam and Louis are working and Harry’s presumably at school, so it starts out all fun and games, with Liam and Louis laughing at clientele and flicking each other on the arm as they swap names and snigger behind their hands, singing and dancing the hours away. It’s fun, it feels like old times, and things are mostly splendid.

Until Harry arrives, that is.

As luck would have it, Louis had just volunteered himself to clean bathrooms (he’s fastest) so when Harry comes waltzing in with his curly hair and wind-blown smile, Louis’ bedazzled in fluorescent green rubber gloves and a toilet brush while Liam smiles dazzlingly at the bar, preparing an iced tall peppermint mocha with finesse.

“Hi,” Harry sings, smiling warmly at Liam as he stands at the handoff plane, grin widening when Liam makes an awful pun in greeting. (“You sure come here a latte!”—it’s his classic line for the regulars.)

Louis tries not to growl in despair, shoving at wild bits of his hair with his wrist; the rubber from the gloves leaves his skin red. Stunning.

Harry hasn’t seen him, yet probably won’t see him for awhile, so Louis just sighs as he turns around and hauls his bucket of cleaning products over to the bathrooms, trying not to grumble as he hears Liam’s laugh pierce through the ozone layer. (When did he become such a jealous bitch?)

For the next twenty minutes, Louis hugs toilet bowls and scrubs at piss stains, all the while as he hears Harry and Liam flirt. Clearly, they’re falling in love, what with how things have been transpiring over the past few days. Louis was obviously just the practice round for Harry.

And while Louis has no idea why things are the way they are (when he’d texted Liam asking him if he’d told Harry anything out of the ordinary, Liam simply denied it with a one worded ‘nope’ over iMessage), he does know that things are probably working out for the best. So he tries not to dwell. Tries not to dwell on the memory of Harry’s lips in the car while the radio crooned softly and the snow fell or the way his fumbled mood swings slapped Louis in the face a few days ago or the way he looks soft and happy and sweet as he stands over there with his hands piled atop each other, leather shoes chipped at the toes, knees knocking as he smiles and laughs with a mouth that would, proportionally, be freakishly large on a anyone else.

Ugh.

Frowning (and reeking of bleach), Louis grumbles to himself as he pulls off each rubber glove with a snap, hair falling into his eyes as he sneaks glances towards Harry and Liam, gnawing on the inside of his lip to keep his mouth shut. He will not make snippy comments and he will not be jealous and he will act his age.

Fortunately, it’s just as Louis is feeling particularly salty over the way Harry’s tilting his head back and laughing at some story Liam’s telling him, that Zayn strolls in, swinging his keyring on his finger, sunglasses sliding down his nose.

“There he is!” Louis bellows, paying little care for volume-control as customers raise their eyebrows in his direction; what can he say? He’s happy Zayn is here. Grinning, he holds his arms out in a wide embrace, smile splattered across his cheeks. “My one, my only!”

Smirking, Zayn swipes of his sunglasses with his keyring hand, combing his other through the messier strays of his hair. “Tommo, hey Tommo,” he mumbles in a singsong, just as Liam trills out a wave and a sung “Hiiii!” and Harry’s laughter pauses.

A chorus of greetings meet Zayn, who nobly receives them with nods and cool smiles, but Harry… Harry just stares at him, eyes flickering between him and Louis like he’s trying to calculate a particularly rough equation and it’s odd, is what it is. Odd enough for Louis to quirk one questioning eyebrow his way as he makes his way into the backroom, Harry’s face immediately flushing as he looks down at his hands, a grumpy set to his mouth.

Everything about everything is weird. That’s just sorta becoming fact, isn’t it?

So Louis just sighs to himself as he trudges along with his green plastic basket, cleaning products in tow as the plastic bottles bump and rattle with every step, drowning out the sound of Liam’s laughter.

**

Not forty minutes later, Liam is sent on his lunch break.

“Thirty minutes of freedom,” he sings happily, clapping his hands like a seal. Bless him.

“Going to keep the ol’ mop of curls company?” Louis asks wryly as Liam unassembles himself, pulling off his damp apron and winding up the chord of his headset. He’s trying to be on his best behavior.

“I actually think I might run out and grab some food,” Liam says excitedly (Liam loves to eat) as he snatches up his phone and thumbs through messages. “I’ve been craving salsa all day. Salsa, of all things! My palate is getting spicier.” He grins at Louis, proud.

“Wild,” Louis nods in a deadpan but he cracks a smile, flicking Liam lightly on the arm. “Bring back some for me, yeah?”

“Of course, love,” Liam nods seriously, grabbing his jacket. “I’ll bring us back a feast.”

“Good boy,” Louis grins, laughing as Liam’s eyes shine with possibility. “I’ll be here!”

He watches as Liam hustles out the store, eyes intent and easiness resting on his wide shoulders. Liam’s a good best mate. A proper good human being.

Louis would never hurt him. Never, ever.

With that thought, he makes his way to the bar.

**

“Hey, stranger.”

Louis stills, mid-whip. He knows that voice anywhere.

Regaining composure, he finishes swirling the whipped cream atop his latte, movements focused and careful, voice even. “Hello, Henry.”

Instantly, Harry smiles, his jumper soft and shifting along the line of his shoulders as he settles his weight on the opposite foot. He flaps a lazy hand at Louis before it plops atop his other, resting and sprawled atop the counter. The column of his neck is the same color as the soy he puts in his coffee.

“I feel like it’s been awhile since, uhm… Well, since I said hi,” Harry shrugs, a little awkward as his eyes dart from his hands to Louis’ face.

“You’ve been busy, it seems,” Louis remarks, trying very valiantly not to sound as petulant as he feels. (He did, after all, officially get snubbed after being kissed. So that’s a thing.)

“And I know you have,” Harry agrees but there’s a tone there, a tone, and Louis doesn’t miss it.

“Not really,” he quips back, trying to not to glare, but he does anyway, setting down his whipped cream canister with an unforgiving thunk and shoving the white mocha in Jen’s hands just a little too roughly. She glances at him, eyebrows shooting up, but says nothing, merely whipping off the splattered bits of whipped cream with a silent, stealthy napkin. “I’ve actually been pretty chill myself. If anyone’s too busy for anyone, it’s you, sir.” He finishes the sentence with an overly sunny grin, completely belied by the tight malice of his eyes, and it sends Harry’s grin sliding off his face.

“I haven’t been busy,” Harry frowns, shuffling a bit, eyes focused on Louis’ every move.

“Well, neither have I,” Louis murmurs, knowing he sounds petulant. He sighs.

He’s being crazy. He’s officially being crazy and irrational and emotional and he has no right to do any of this because his best mate is all but courting this kid. Fuck’s sake, he needs to get himself together. It’s not like he’s a jilted lover, or anything.

Not totally, at least.

(He is being jerked around like a dog’s chew toy, though. That, he can attest to.)

“Look,” Louis sighs, frowning as he watches Harry’s eyes droop. “I’m sorry if I’m being rude. I’m just a little out of sorts today.” He exhales slowly, adopting a faint smile. Harry’s eyes track it as he blinks, his posture relaxing infinitesimally. “I’m glad you’ve said hello. Was almost beginning to miss your pretentious commentary and obscene face these past couple of days.”

“Obscene face?” Harry questions, amusement lacing the words as he lifts one eyebrow.

“Words, I’m just using random words,” Louis dismisses with a hand, and Harry chuckles. “That’s the problem with you English professors. Always over-analyzing sentences.” He grins then, more genuinely than he has yet, and folds his arms across his chest, hip bumping the counter as he leans.

“Well, to be fair, it is what we’ve been trained to do,” Harry points out, hands sliding in his pockets as he observes Louis through soft lids. “Don’t act like you haven’t experienced such training.”

“I refuse to admit to ever being trained to do anything,” Louis quips, shaking his head, and Harry smiles wider. “Can’t be tamed. Wild animal.”

“Wild with an ‘e’?” Harry questions, teasing. “Are you a Wilde thing?”

Delighted, Louis laughs. “A Wilde flower!”

“Born to be Wiiiilde,” Harry sings on a rasp, so serious and unexpected and loud that Louis just coughs out a laugh, hand fumbling to press against his mouth.

“Oi, great,” he tries to cluck, but he’s still chuckling a bit as he walks to the sink. “Now you’ve made me break health code. Soiling me hand!” Playfully, he shoves said hand in Harry’s direction, palm up.

Grinning, Harry watches it. “It’s not soiled.” For a moment, something fills his eyes, something odd and brief before he clasps Louis’ wrist in his hand, bringing the palm to his mouth as he puckers just one delicate kiss there, releasing as quickly as he’d grabbed it. “There,” he says, though his cheeks are beginning to fill pink, determination in his eyes. “Now it’s soiled.”

Louis can only stand there, mouth lightly agape.

Holy fuck. This kid just kissed his palm. In the middle of a Starbucks. While Louis’ on the job.

He just kissed his palm. After snubbing Louis for days in response to their first actual kiss. After all that, Harry has decided to kiss Louis’ palm.

Internally, Louis groans. And maybe sobs a little.

“Now you’ve gone and done it,” is all he rasps out, clearing his throat as he runs warm water over the affected area, pretending like he’s not trying to recall how Harry’s lips felt there. He scrubs his hand harder. “The Starbucks police have been alerted.”

“If they arrest me, I’m taking you down with me,” Harry murmurs, smirking as his blush finally fades, still watching Louis. He’s chewing his lip, looks a bit shy again.

“I’m sure you will.”

Silence settles on them, broken only by the faucet as Louis sanitizes his hand, eyes firmly focused.

“You know, I’m so used to it being winter here that I have no idea what I’ll do, come summer,” Harry remarks without transition, eyes roaming the wide windows, watching the snowflakes tumble and swirl beneath the scrapes of car tires. He turns to Louis, smile crooked. “Think of all the activities!”

He’s just acting like nothing’s wrong. Fuck him. Louis hates him.

“There are no activities here,” Louis says flatly, but it makes Harry laugh again. Dammit. “You can either get drunk or sleep, but that’s as exciting as you’re gonna get.”

“Are there parks?” Harry asks, hopeful.

Louis tries to glare. And fails. “Well, yeah, there are parks. Obviously.” He rolls his eyes, tamping down a smile.  

“Perfect!” Harry claps, bright and loud. “We can have picnics.”

Despite his best efforts, Louis smiles again. “Oh, wonderful,” he remarks dryly. “How intense.”

Harry grins, too, an easiness returning to his features as he watches Louis’ face. “You’ll have to show me around, Louis. Show me what’s fun.”

For a moment, Louis almost agrees.

But then his conscious kicks in and his smile falls, his hand cold as he turns off the faucet. “Liam’s better at that stuff than me.”

It effectively ends the subject and Louis doesn’t fail to miss the way Harry’s eyes fall downward, his smile ebbing away.

Fuck. Now he just feels bad. He just feels like shit. Every possible course of action just seems shitty.

Louis frowns to himself, turning around to fiddle with milks and spoons.

“I should probably sit down,” Harry says, a little off and a little quiet. He tries to smile though, even if it doesn’t nearly reach his eyes or his eyebrows that always seem to express so much.

Louis frowns harder. “Um. If you want? I don’t want to keep you from your studies.”

“Yeah,” Harry nods, and his smile is so clearly fake as he knocks knuckles on the counter, taking a step back. “I’ll go. Good seeing you, Louis.”

“Yeah,” Louis drifts, watching as Harry walks away, an anvil in his stomach. He stares down at the spoon in his hand. “Good seeing you.”

**

When Liam gets back on the floor, Louis smiles at him, a little weaker than he intends.

“How was food?” he asks, distracted and oddly on edge.

“Phenomenal. I brought back four tacos for you,” he smiles, licking his lips.

“Tacos? I thought you wanted salsa?”

“I got both,” Liam grins and it makes Louis smile more genuinely. “Did you talk to Harry? Tell him why I left?”

“Uh,” Louis blinks, unsure of what to say. Harry never asked, so… He just assumed he’d known? “No, but he mentioned something about you showing him around during summer. Cuz he doesn’t know what to do. Or something like that.” The sentences are short, direct, a little bereft of feeling.

Liam must notice because he scrunches his eyebrows briefly, stuffing on his headset. “Oh, cool. I just bought the best vest, makes my arms look incredible. He’ll never be able to resist me.” He winks, grinning, but his brows don’t unbunch. “You alright, Louis?

“Marvelous,” he dazzles, whipping past Liam as he mentally flits through the store’s inventory, wondering how he could fastest set himself on fire.

**

‘Officially fucked. Officially reverted back to a spoilt teenager. Jealous about Liam and Harry. Told Liam Harry wanted him to show him around this summer, despite Harry having asked me. Am sad and torn and don’t know what to do, especially because sadness clashes with my hair and facial features. Like Harry so much, can tell he still probably likes me at least a little bit. Even if he has been weird lately. Miss him. Was such a nice kiss. Such a lovely night. Wish things were different. I sound pathetic. Bye.’

He sighs and stuffs his journal in his pocket, accidentally glaring at the girl currently squeaking a request for some kind of bullshit refresher and tea concoction as Jen hastily scribbles detailed notes onto a cup.

Then he meets Liam’s eye from across the way and smiles, trying to ignore the sadness tugging in his stomach.

Yep. He’s officially pathetic.

**

The next day, things aren’t any better. Like, at all. Not even close. They’re worse. They’re completely worse.

Louis awakens in his home, wrapped up in warm grey blankets and smelling his own shampoo, sun warbling through the blinds and lazily drifting across the soft blue shadows on his walls. He smiles to himself, feeling rested and warm despite the nip in the air that still manages to poke at his socked toes, but he stretches and yawns, getting out of bed with warm muscles and creaking joints.

He pads into the kitchen, still feeling positive as he greets his mum, who already seems to be preparing tea.

“You seem a bit down lately,” she smiles warmly, sunlight in her hair. “Thought I’d help your morning a bit.”

“Thanks, mum,” he smiles, rubbing at his eyes. He pauses as she continues to smile, cutting up celery for the twins’ pre-lunch snack. He watches her movement, words that he’s been meaning to say on this tip of his tongue.

He’s been thinking about this for awhile. Something he’s been meaning to tell his mum, something he had wanted to tell Harry, before all this weirdness started. Something that began seriously budding in his mind after his and Harry’s talk, all that time ago.

“Hey, mum?” She looks up, eyes bright. Louis licks his lips, carefully choosing his words. “You know how you’re always helping me out with jobs? Like, trying to encourage me?”

She stills a bit mid-chop, eyes gentle as she nods.

“Well, uh,” Louis coughs into his fist, pulling on the hem of his t-shirt as he perches on the edge of a chair. “Thanks. For caring, you know. I’ve, uhm… I’ve been chatting with a friend at work and he’s sort of encouraged me to start pursuing my interests as well and I just wanna say thank you, I guess. Because I needed a little bit of a push. I think I’m gonna go back to school and look into publishing and editing. Or maybe something else, even. I just know that I want to start getting my life set in a better direction. And you’ve helped with that so thank you.” He smiles, a little balefully.

“Oh, love,” his mother coos immediately, dropping her knife as she comes to swoop down on him like a bird. She clutches him to her chest, his face smushed in her neck, limbs tangled and pressed against his chest. “I’m so proud of you.”

“Mum,” he muffles out, her hair in his mouth, his lungs squished. “Love you. But please release me.”

She chuckles as she lets go, swiping soft fingers through his fringe before she makes her way back around the counter. “Proud of you,” she says again, eyes twinkling as she laughs under her breath.

Louis grins, feeling like the world has settled a bit, his limbs finally relaxing…

And then his phone rings. Liam.

“Hell—“

“HE SAID YES!” Liam’s voice bellows down the line, words at full speed.

Wincing, Louis takes the phone away from his ear briefly before tentatively pressing it back. “Pardon?”

“I ASKED HARRY OUT AND HE SAID YES! I HAVE A BOYFRIEND!” Liam screeches, even louder, but this time Louis doesn’t wince, he just freezes, phone midair, as his stomach shoots out from his arse.

Harry said yes when Liam asked him out.

Harry and Liam are going on a date.

Harry and Liam. That’s a thing now.

Swallowing past a bed of nails, Louis fights for his composure, posture stiff as he grits his teeth and closes his eyes. “Wonderful,” he manages and he doesn’t miss the way his mother’s eyebrows pop up. “Splendid.”

“I mean, like, technically I’m not sure if he knows it’s a date,” Liam says airily, as if this is a minor detail. “I just told him I needed to get my car checked again—it’s making a noise and I’m paranoid it’ll break down again—and asked him if he wanted to keep me company while I had lunch beforehand BUT! He said yes! And this is like the third time we’ll be having a meal together, just us, so it’s obviously a date!” Louis can hear him beam over the line. “So I’m no longer single and the world has righted itself. Thank god. I can finally delete my dating apps!”

Louis swallows, feeling mildly overwhelmed. There’s a lot of words being thrown his way and he hasn’t even have put his trousers on yet.

 “Are you actually going to delete your dating apps, Liam?” he asks, voice warbled as he tries to remain calm, ignoring the dull, pulsating throb in his chest. Pathetic, pathetic.

“No, probably not,” Liam replies instantly, carefree. “I mean, Harry’s great and super cute but, like, you just never know. My true soulmate could still be out there, Louis. Doesn’t hurt to look!”

“You don’t think Harry’s your true soulmate?” Louis asks, hope now in his chest, right alongside the pain.

“What? I don’t know. Louis! The point is, is that I have a boyfriend!”

“Not really.”

“Sort of!”

“Not really, Li.”

“Alright, well I’m on the road to sort of getting a boyfriend!”

“Bingo,” Louis half-grins then, and it’s easier like this, easier to just listen to Liam’s silly words and happy smile, with Harry just beings the subject in a sentence rather than a person stood before him, flaunting a future that Louis could never have. “You’re doing good, Li. Good job. Happy for you.”

But his throat still feels tight and there’s this feeling in his stomach. In his chest. Not good.

“I’ll see you at work later!” Liam sings and then he hangs up, leaving Louis to sit there, staring at his phone.

“Bye,” he calls faintly, hand drooping.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Troubles?” his mum asks, sounding far too indifferent to be indifferent.

“Not in the mood to even start that conversation,” Louis grumbles, swiping a hand over his eyes. “Maybe next year.”

He hears her laugh as he makes his way back to his room, playfully pulling the twins’ pigtails as he passes, eliciting shrieks and squeaks and little feet padding after him as he laughs and trots away, pretending that the pain in his ribcage is heartburn and not, say, heartbreak.

Nope. Definitely just heartburn.

**

When Louis arrives at Starbucks, the air is as it always is—sharp and potent and buzzing with nervous energy, stress, and chemical-release. It also smells a bit like self-loathing. Or maybe that’s just Louis.

“Tommo,” Niall beams as a few regulars lift their smiles in greeting, coworkers offer up waves, and Zayn nods from his place at the safe, scribbling in the duty roster and eating a breakfast sandwich.

“Lads,” Louis smiles in response, walking swiftly past them so as not to tempt conversation.

He’s not in the mood for pleasantries, thank you.

“It’s the dream team tonight,” Zayn calls into the backroom, crumbs stuck to his lips as he smiles, flashing a thumbs up. “You, me, Niall, and Li tonight.”

“Brilliant,” Louis beams sunnily, feeling like a freshly shredded piece of paper. “Just brilliant!”

God, he’s being a bitter bitch. When did he become so weak?

Sighing, he adorns his apron, carefully tying the strings with tired hands as he makes his way onto the floor. “Bar?” he asks Zayn, hands falling to his side.

“You know it,” Zayn mumbles around a mouthful and pats him on the bum as Louis trots off, ready to start his shift.

**

Liam eventually arrives. With Harry.

“We got here at the same time!” he squeals in a whisper, after he’s dragged Louis into the backroom.

Louis clenches his fist so tight, his fingernails imprint crescent moons into the soft cushion of his palm. “Cool,” he grins, all teeth.

“Totally my boyfriend,” Liam winks, then practically skips into the back, depositing his jacket and belongings.

“Totally,” Louis repeats, resisting slamming his head into the pastry cart.

**

When eight o’clock finally rolls around, Louis is strung to the point of snapping. Like a damn guitar string, ready to strike.

He’s seen enough of Liam puttering around in the café for no other reason than to chit-chat with Harry, Louis watching their reflections in the window because Harry always sits out of sight, tucked in his corner on his very tall chairs, curls ruffled over his headphones and books balancing on his thin legs. Fuck him, honestly.

Louis frowns as he makes cappuccinos, wondering if it would be entirely out of line if he splashed scalding milk in Harry’s face. Or maybe his lap. Maybe just spill it on his shoes. Ugh.

But then the clock strikes eight, blessed eight, and Zayn whips around, flicking Louis in the back of the neck. “You’re released,” he grins before his eyes fall somewhere over Louis’ shoulder. “Hey, Harry. Alright?” He sends a cheery wave (cheery for Zayn—it’s more of a lazy flick of the wrist) as Louis’ blood slows and he pivots on his heel, frown already set in his face.

Harry flushes lightly, face twisted in some morphed expression of cordiality as he nods primly and flees back to his seat from where he’d been throwing away a stray napkin. Which is great; now, it appears, he’s completely avoiding Louis.

Great, great, great. Great!

“See you lot later,” Louis mumbles, neck hot with frustration and insult as he storms off the floor, offering a weak smile to Liam—who is chatting up customers in the Drive Thru, happy as can be. Sometimes, Louis wishes he hated him.

Thankfully, the back room is empty, save for Niall’s dirty boots (he’s taken to shoveling out snow from the local business’ sidewalks because he’s the nicest kid on earth, honestly) and a stack of day-old pastries, lined in a Tupperware. Briefly, Louis eyes the croissants, wondering if he should poison his body given his current despair. But then he thinks better of it and comes back to his senses, plopping down into the desk chair and clocking out, his fingers flying over the keyboard.

There. Done. Time to go home and wallow.

He sits there for a few moments, looking at his phone with no new texts, no updates, no anything. He sits there and stares at a too-bright computer screen, the soles of his feet aching and his hands flecked with mocha. Shirt damp and smelling of milk. Hair wilted and dim. Bags under his eyes. Tired.

His hands search for his journal before he even realizes what he’s doing.

‘Liam asked Harry out today. Going on a ‘date’ tomorrow. Would never begrudge the guy happiness, seeing as how he’s me best mate and happen to love him. But still selfishly wish it was me. Hah! Funny, right? Doesn’t matter anymore, though. No chance. Wake up, Louis. Clearly meant little to nothing to Harry. Will clearly die alone, surrounded by bags of Starbucks coffee and empty cups and thousands of journals filled with my silent, pitiful woe. The world is cruel.’

He sighs and stands up, lost and dazed within himself as he grabs his jacket and yawns the exhaustion away, journal still rested on the desk.

Time to go home.

It’s as he’s making his way to the door (sending goodbye nods to regulars) that he looks up through his daze and suddenly finds Harry in front of him, eyes blinking rapidly as he takes a step back, surprised.

“Oh! You leaving?” Harry asks, and it’s such a soft, quiet question and it’s simple yet it’s devastating, because it seems more significant of a question than that, seems symbolic and final, like the end of the movie. The end of a tragedy. Rips the earth apart and exposes the lava. Louis’ heart is molten rock.

Yeah, he’s definitely surpassed pathetic at this point.

“Yeah,” he says and looks off into the distance, where the moon is risen in the sky, shining watery over crests of snow and ice-paved roads. “I’m done with my shift, aren’t I?”

And Harry nods sadly. “Oh. Well. I’m gonna be here the whole night,” he says and Louis wonders if he’s fishing for Louis to stay but he’s not because he’s going to have his happy ending with Liam. It’s not Louis’ story, it’s Liam’s. Goddammit. “I don’t even have that much to work on…” Harry chuckles, a little stilted, and Louis fights the urge to tug on his arm or jacket or hand, just as an excuse to be close to him because it feels nice to be close to Harry. Feels warm and familiar and invigorating, all at the same time.

“Liam’s working the closing shift tonight,” is all Louis actually says in response, hands firmly pressed to his sides.

“Yeah,” Harry replies, like he already knows, and somehow that hurts too and Louis has to step away.

“Goodbye, Harry,” he says. And he knows it sounds final and he knows it’s a surrender but he says it anyway as he stumbles towards his car, his throat jagged and his eyes moist.

Fuck. He hasn’t cried in years. But he stops himself, forces himself to turn around because he has just last one thing to say to Harry.

He finds Harry turned around as well, just watching Louis walk away, eyes squinted in the light and hands limp at his sides, and Louis swallows before he says, “By the way. I’m going back to school.” He laughs emptily, humorlessly. Awkwardly. “I’m going to do that thing—work towards a career that I actually care about. You know.” He swallows again. There’s just not enough saliva. Everything’s so dry. “Thought you should know because you’re partly the reason I’m doing it. Not, like hugely, or anything. But. You inspired me to. All that.” So dry. “Just thought you should know,” he says again, and his voice cracks on the last word and Harry probably didn’t hear it but he can’t waist time to find out so he just rushes out  the door and to his car, ignoring what may have been the sound of his name being called, instead blaming it on the wind.

Chapter Text

In a beautiful turn of cruelty, Louis’ shift the next day starts at the crisp hour of eleven in the morning.

And, sure, that’s not all that early—but Louis has been sleepless and angsty and adjusted to the night life so his body is mildly confused when he drags his carcass out of his sheets at 10AM and pulls cold cotton over his sleep-tingly limbs, still warm and creased from his sheets. But whatever. He’s already in a shit mood; might as well get this day over with.

After all, Liam and Harry will probably be going on the date soon, so. Distractions will be welcome.

He kisses his mum goodbye, kisses his sisters (despite their protests) and drives his clunky car to work, blinded by sunbeams bouncing off of crystallized snow. Everything’s white light and cold, his breath pluming and his hands numb in his mittens.

It doesn’t get any warmer when he parks his car and tucks his keys in the pocket of his jacket, jingling and cold, poking out at odd angles. It gets even colder when he scuttles across icy pavement and waddles inside, ripping off his stocking cap and fluffing a hand through his messy hair, cheeks brazen red.

And it get colder still when he sees Liam sitting at a table near the backroom, all by himself, hands folded over a book atop the table, lips pursed and brows furrowed.

What the hell?

Frowning, Louis’ strides slow. Isn’t he supposed to be with Harry right now? Or, at least, soon? Shouldn’t he be getting ready? Doing his hair? Snapchatting everyone? Updating his relationship status on Facebook?

“Payno?” he calls tentatively, voice sounding just as unsure as he feels as he walks to the table.

Liam lifts his head almost immediately, his frown deepening the moment he meets eyes with Louis. “Hey.” His tone is off.

Louis stops, bites the cushion of his lip. Instinctually, his hands tighten in his jacket pockets, his posture stiffening because something feels wrong right now and that something feels like it has something to do with Louis.

“What’s up?” he asks, feigning casual as he shifts his weight, closely watching as Liam gently unfolds his hands, picking up the book on the table and—

Louis’ blood drains from his face.

Oh dear god. That’s not a book. That’s…

That’s Louis’ journal.

He stops breathing.

“Look, Liam, I—“

“You left this on the desk last night,” Liam says calmly, quietly; too calmly, too quietly.

Louis swallows, clamps his jaw shut as he wills his pulse to remain steady, skin flushing with shame.

Moments pass, silence filled only by the bustle of Starbucks; coffee being poured, milk being steamed, syrups being pumped, voices carried and greetings called, crisp pastries being stuffed into bags and handed off to eager hands.

“You should’ve told me,” Liam says at last, eyebrows creased as he thumbs gently at the journal before him.

“You shouldn’t have read it,” Louis argues, face so damn hot as his jaw clicks defiantly, standing tall and gripping the liner of his jacket for dear life.

“But I’m glad I did,” Liam protests gently, turning in his seat to look at Louis full on, eyes wide and sad. Very brown. Very canine. “Like, I know I shouldn’t have just started reading, Lou, but it was open, it was just sitting there, and I saw my name and I couldn’t stop and…” He drifts off, lips thinning into a frown as he smoothes another hand over the cover, Louis shrinking in his shoes. He looks up. “I didn’t know.”

“I didn’t know how to tell you,” Louis responds quietly, breathing through his nose.

“I mean, I suspected,” Liam adds, searching Louis’ eyes. “But I didn’t realize how…intense it all was.”

Shit.

Louis hangs his head then, ashamed and burning as he rubs a hand across the back of his prickly neck. “I’m sorry, Liam,” he says, quiet and genuine and sounding so unlike himself that he chances a look up, trying to school his expression to neutrality.

But Liam’s already looking at him, slightly incredulous. “Sorry? For what? There’s no reason to be sorry, Lou. You’ve been an incredible friend. Like, shit.” He whistles, low, shaking his head as he looks back to the journal, eyes searing through its pages. X-ray vision. His tongue darts out to lick the line of his lips, his next words careful. “I’m the one who should be sorry.” Pause. “He likes you, you know.”

Again, Louis stops breathing.

“He told me,” Liam continues, sounding just a bit more strangled than before. His own cheeks redden, his Adam’s apple bobbing on a swallow. “The other day. At lunch. The reason he asked me to go was because he wanted to talk to me about you.” Again, he swallows. “I honestly didn’t think you actually liked him, so I told him as such. And, er, I may or may not have insinuated that you and Zayn had a thing? Sorta?” He winces as Louis’ eyes bug.

“Zayn? Are you serious? You told Harry that Zayn and I had a thing??”

“I was panicked!” Liam rushes, defensive and red. “I just figured that if he thought you were tied to someone else, he would officially give up on you! I genuinely didn’t think you were interested in him like that!”

Sighing, Louis rubs his hand over his eyes, fingers lingering over his temples.

Fuck. This whole thing is a mess.

“Then last night, I found this,” Liam continues, face still read but tone stronger. “And I read it. And…I just couldn’t go through with it today,” he exhales, shoulders slumping as he searches Louis’ face almost desperately, perched on the edge of his chair now. “I couldn’t go on that date, Lou. Not when… Not when it’s like this.” He gestures towards the journal, eyes pained. “You should’ve told me.”

“I should’ve told you,” Louis nods, feeling an odd combination of numbness and adrenaline. “I absolutely should’ve told you but it felt like such a shitty thing, such a shitty situation that I didn’t even want to mention it to you. I thought you adored him—“

“Not, like, that much, to be honest,” Liam shrugs, though his expression is still pained. “He was just…there. You know how I get. Give me any decently attractive man in within reaching distance and I’ll be on the hunt.” He smiles wryly, almost shyly, and it procures a small laugh out of Louis. It sounds like relief. “And, uh. Just so you know? I told him everything.”

Louis’ laughter dies.

“I told him the truth. About you and Zayn, I mean. Like, I don’t know if he called you or what—“

“He didn’t,” Louis says faintly, eyes widening as his fingers prickle.

“Well.” Liam purses his lips. “Then he’s probably waiting to see you in person, I guess He was pretty… Well. He seemed pretty passionate about the whole thing. Was a little mad at me. Maybe a lot. Went on about misunderstandings and things. So, uh. Yeah. Sorry.” He flashes a small and shamed smile, head ducked.

Louis can only stare.

“I’m sorry, Louis,” he says quietly, frowning.

Immediately, Louis shakes his head. “No, I’m sorry, Liam.”

“Don’t be.”

“I am,” Louis protests, insistent.

“Well so am I,” Liam protests harder, standing up and stuffing the journal in Louis’ hands.

As one, their eyes meet, reluctant smiles budding on their lips as Yvette calls out a venti mocha with no whipped cream. There’s just one pause, one moment of hesitation—and then they hug, barreling their chests together as they thump backs and smile into each other’s shoulders, Louis carrying a tiny, overwhelmed smile in his mouth.

“Fuck, this was overdramatic,” he laughs as they part, Liam scratching the back of his neck.

“Oops?” he offers, squinting his eyes.

“Oops indeed, you fuck,” Louis laughs, just because, relief flowing out of his pores as he tries to soak up all the information he just received. Fuck. All this drama? Over nothing? He’s too old for this. “So you really don’t care if I were to date Harry?” he asks again, just to be sure, as they make their way into the backroom.

“Honestly? No,” Liam says simply as he follows him, hands in the pockets of his khakis. “Truth be told, I’m still talking to that one guy I went on a date with way back when.” He smiles, embarrassed. “I know. I’m a prick. But I think I like him?”

“Oi, fuck’s sake,” Louis can only sigh, unable to hide his smile as he grips Liam in an unexpected headlock and mussing up his hair, Liam squawking protests and flapping like a bird.

**

For Louis’ entire shift, Harry fails to show.

Which isn’t, like, terribly concerning or anything.

‘Harry hasn’t texted or anything. Hasn’t come to Starbucks. What gives ???????’

Aside from that text Louis frantically sent to Liam over his lunch break, he’s been completely unaffected.

So he’s not exactly expecting it when he clocks out and leaves the backroom, ready to hide in the nearest rubbish bin and croon about the missed opportunities of his life, when he suddenly finds Harry waiting for him, leaning up against the wall with wide, unblinking eyes and a scarf that nearly covers his mouth, skin prickled with cold and hair swirled from the icy wind.

“Can we talk?” he asks instantaneously, bounding off the wall, and it’s gentle and he’s Harry.

Louis exhales, feeling his nerves jingle as he swallows and nods, pressing his bundled up apron into his chest. “Um. Yeah. Of course.”

They shuffle to a more secluded corner of the store despite the place already being fairly empty, given the weather and time of day. Even for a Saturday, late afternoon/early evening provides a lull. Thankfully. They stop near the small tower of newspaper, leaning against the wall and facing each other, the hum of music drifting between their expectant bodies as Harry nibbles on his lip and Louis bites absently at his nails, their eyes stuck on each other but neither speaking.

Then, as one—“Liam talked to me”—“So Liam told me.”

They blink, staring at each other for one pressed moment before their smiles erupt at the same time, laughter coloring the air.

“Right,” Harry chuckles, nervous, as he exhales and tugs his scarf away from his mouth, smoothing one hand through his hair. “Right, so. Cool. Same page, then.”

“Same page,” Louis nods, but he’s expectant and buzzing, something playful lying just below the surface. He smirks, bats an eyelash or two. “Now would you care to tell me what exactly this page entails?”

Harry puffs out a laugh, shaking his head as he shifts his weight, shoulders relaxing that much more as he sets fond eyes on Louis, exasperation coloring the corners. “Making me spell it out.” He shakes his head, lips pressed in a held-back smile.

“Well, you are an English professor,” Louis points out, and Harry laughs, relaxing still more. “Spelling should be your specialty. I mean, you claim you can quote Jane Austen novels—“

“I can!”

“So I’m sure you can outline a single page for me, Henry.”

“Fair’s only fair?” Harry questions, smirking.

“Something like that. Now. Harry Styles. Is there something you would like to tell me?” Louis grins, birds taking flight in his chest as he tilts his head and smiles patiently, watching Harry lick his lips and straighten his posture, words assembling in his head.

“I thought you were with Zayn,” he blurts out first, eyes taking on a slightly wild edge. “That’s why, after we kissed, I was so stand-offish. Remember that strange advice I received? Yeah, that was Liam. He told me to back off of you because you were with Zayn but I didn’t understand because we had literally just kissed and you never said anything!”

“Because I’m not with Zayn,” Louis points out calmly.

“Exactly. But I didn’t know because it seemed believable, I dunno. Like, I already  sorta thought you had a thing for him and thought it was sorta obvious so it was super easy to believe him, you know? And then, like, I was just confused and maybe a little upset. And I’m sorry for not communicating that to you. I should’ve been more clear even though… I was pretty clear the night I kissed you, I think.” He pauses, lifting his eyes to Louis’, a smile tugging at his lips.

Louis returns it, reaching out to tug once on his scarf because Harry looks so adorable all bundled up, sweet and wide-eyed and shy. “You were, darling. It was almost mildly embarrassing,” he teases.

Harry only grins wider. “I know. It was bad, I know.” He sounds anything but apologetic as he takes a step closer, eyes zeroed in. “It was really shitty that I just, like, pursued you so intently without knowing your feelings, though. I should’ve been more respectful, especially given everything with Liam.”

“Did you know he liked you?” Louis asks, face softening into genuine curiosity. “Like, did you have any idea? Because I thought it was apparent, with the way I kept mentioning him, that he was the one chasing after you.”

“I thought you were just trying to steer me in another direction,” Harry protests, low and earnest, frowning slightly. “Especially after Liam told me you were with Zayn. I thought I was making you uncomfortable.”

“Shit,” Louis curses, low and exhaled. “I didn’t even think of it like that.”

Harry nods, careful and slow. “But I figured it out, sorta. Even though I was still interested in you. I just thought I didn’t have a chance? You know? But I still sorta had this hope and I know that that’s not really healthy—to be that attached that quickly and to just let everything show, wear your heart on your sleeve and just, like, pursue? I know that. I know that it’s much better to take a step back and focus on yourself first and play it—“

“Oi, oi, oi,” Louis interjects, eyebrows shooting up in tandem with his hands. “Did you read a self-help book or summat? Where’s all this coming from?”

A flush dots Harry’s cheeks and neck. “Uhm. Well, I’ve been talking to my sister at night, after her kids have gone to bed and when I can’t sleep,” he mumbles through a vivid blush and Louis laughs, limbs relaxed and feet light.

“No, you idiot,” he laughs fondly, taking Harry’s hot cheeks in his hands as he smiles, soft and crinkled like worn sheets. “Don’t do that. Just. Don’t.” He drops his hands, tugging Harry to stand directly in front of him, looking him in the eye. “There’s no ‘right’ way to act. Just be honest with me, yeah?”

Harry nods rapidly. “Same to you.”

“Promise,” Louis agrees, gentler. “Cross my heart and everything.” He makes the motions, swift and clumsy with cold, jumping fingers.  

And Harry smiles, taking another step closer. Louis’ eyes soften at that, soften even more when Harry’s eyes flit to his lips, his  hands coming up to grip Louis’ arms.

“Oh?” Louis quips, a little breathless as his own eyes fall to Harry’s mouth. “Going to kiss me now, are you? Like the proper romcom that we are? Kiss me in this Starbucks? Where we first met?” He wants it to sound cheesy but it just sounds like a sigh, coasting on espresso fumes and melted buttery sugar.  

“And what if I do?” Harry teases in a low question, shifting forward that much more, fingers pressing into Louis’ arms in a promising kind of way.

“I won’t stop you,” Louis says simply, and Harry glows before leaning in, so gently and hesitantly and sweetly and plants his lips upon Louis’. It’s sort of wonderful. For the mere fact it’s Harry, even. His lips are bitter and warm like coffee and his skin is smooth as milk and it’s an effortless kiss, their mouths sliding together. “Remember that time you sang Moulin Rouge to me in the middle of the store?” Louis suddenly asks, lips mumbling against Harry’s mouth.

And Harry breaks off, bursting out a laugh. “I was wooing you,” he says, chuckling brightly, looking down at Louis fondly as he swipes a hand across his cheek.

“My god, you were embarrassing,” Louis murmurs, shaking his head.

Harry swats at him but beams. “Well, remember that time when you liked me back?” he asks, words twisted up into his kiss-bitten lips, and Louis grins at that, leans forward and catches his mouth again, feeling his spine prickle at the swipe of Harry’s tongue.

“Yes,” he breathes into Harry’s mouth, and he feels Harry smile. “I do.”

“Good,” Harry sighs, holding him that much tighter, lips moving closer, forming words against the warm cushion of Louis’ own as he tilts his head, eyes catching in the light. “Gotcha.”

And when their mouths meet, Harry’s hand finds Louis’ heart.

~The end.