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Louis is in trouble. That is, unless he can somehow pull off the miracle of finding an available English tutor a literal two weeks before final exams. He’s failing, like really, actually failing, and his mum’s disappointed, and his coach is on his arse, and he can’t fucking breathe. But if he puts it all aside for a moment, all the people who depend on him, expect too much, he sees a light at the end of the miserable tunnel that has been his third year at Berkeley. And that light will only come if he passes this pointless class on the almighty Shakespeare.

It wouldn’t be fair to complain, exactly. He is a theatre major, after all. It makes sense that he should have some knowledge of the subject. But he’d like to maintain the illusion of an excuse that allows him to feel like he’s less than totally responsible for this particular mistake. Sure, he was busier than ever with football this year. Or soccer, as his American peers call it. Incorrectly. Making the varsity team was a dream come true. And in the same year he earned the star role in the school’s original production, an honor with an original piece only coming along every few years? Louis Tomlinson written on the marquee, big and bright and promising? He couldn’t be happier. But this happiness, and the hard work that’s come with it, has put a...damper on his grades. And now’s the time for a last-ditch effort to remedy that.

He’s asked around, bugging the team and his castmates all day, but to no avail. Any tutor worth a damn is, of course, booked up by this time. And so Louis has been on the school site, student forums, and even social media for more than an hour now, searching hopelessly for someone generous, or masochistic, enough to carry him toward that light.

He’s seconds, clicks, away from closing his laptop, giving up for the night, out of exhaustion and frustration, with himself more than anything else, when he spots a brand new post, seemingly made just for him. He rubs his palms over his tired eyes, just to make sure he’s not seeing things, and reads again, English major looking for any last-minute tutorees. Proficient in grammar, lit, composition. Serious inquiries, please contact Marcel at mstyles@ucberkeley.edu.

Louis doesn’t stop to think before he copies the email address and types out a message to this Marcel. Any number of students could be scouring the internet right now hoping for a savior, and Louis isn’t taking any chances. Hello , he types hastily. My name is Louis, and I need to pass Lit 3, and that isn’t going to happen without help. Interested?

He sends the email, reeking of desperation, and waits, hands clasped tightly in anticipation. It isn’t a full minute later that his computer dings, signaling a response from his, hopefully, new tutor. Shakespeare, correct? That’s all it says. What if he hates Shakespeare? Louis honestly just wants to tell this kid whatever he wants to hear, whatever will make him agree to be his tutor. But he doesn’t know the first thing about him, other than his name and his major.

So he tells him the truth - there’s no point in lying anyway - and waits with bated breath for him to either agree or crush every hope Louis had of holding onto varsity and lead roles and his dignity. Yes, Shakespeare. Too late to even try? he tacks on, trying to conjure up a memorable conversation out of nothing. Way to play it cool, Tommo.

Before he has the time to lose his patience and start pacing frantically around his room, Marcel replies again. Not at all! How often would you like to meet? My fee is $8 per hourly session.

“Thank God,” Louis can’t help but sigh, finally exhaling in relief. Perhaps prematurely, depending on how Marcel responds to his next message. He takes in another deep breath and types, As often as you can manage. I’m sure you must be busy preparing for your own exams, but honestly...I wouldn’t be opposed to meeting every day. My evenings are mostly free after 5 pm.

He includes his phone number at the end of the plea, and another sigh of relief escapes his lips when his phone lights up moments later with a text message from an unknown number. This Marcel? He must be a very brave soul to not have run for the hills yet. Louis hasn’t done a great job of pretending not to be a fucking disaster, and he’s still here.

Hi Louis. This is Marcel. In response to your last email, I should be able to meet with you daily, excluding this Saturday and Monday and Tuesday of next week. Unfortunately, I have a very full schedule those days and won’t have any extra time for sessions. I see no reason why I couldn’t meet every other day. Would you like to start tomorrow? Big coffee shop on campus at 5?

Louis can’t help but smile, feeling just a fraction of the stress of everything falling from his shoulders. He shuts his laptop and climbs into bed, burrowing under his sheets until the only parts of him still susceptible to the cold air of his room are his eyes and fingers, tiredly typing out one last message before he succumbs to sleep. Sounds perfect. See you then.

……

Louis wakes with a headache. Because of course he does. These next two weeks need to go more smoothly than any other two weeks of his life if he’s going to pull this off. Everything he cares about is riding on this stupid class. And the hopefully very knowledgeable, and forgiving, Marcel.

He throws his warm duvet from his body before he can fall back into a dream and swallows down a very nutritious breakfast of salt and vinegar Pringles and an energy drink before hurrying out the door.

A morning of classes, one in particular being the bane of his existence, and an afternoon of rehearsals and footie practice later, Louis finds himself, half unconsciously and half totally rattled with nerves, on his way to the bigger coffee shop on campus to beg a well-spoken stranger to save his arse.

He takes a step inside, greeted by the tinkling of bells above the door and his friend Niall’s cheery voice from behind the counter. “Hey, Louis! What’s up, man?” he exclaims, waving him over.

Louis takes a quick look around the shop, and upon finding every patron already sitting with another, figures Marcel hasn’t yet arrived and he can spare a minute or two for Niall.

“Hey, mate,” he says, extending a fist for Niall to bump. Because Niall always goes for the first bump. Classic Cali dude and all that. “How’s it going?”

Niall rolls his eyes dramatically as he begins to wipe down his station. “Alright. Ready to graduate and get the hell outta here. You?”

“Actually here to meet with a tutor. Need to pass Lit, and it’s not looking great at the moment.” He glances around the shop again. “Doesn’t look like he’s here yet.”

“Who is it?” Niall asks distractedly. “A lot of student tutors come here.”

“Marcel Styles?” Louis inquires. “You know him?”

Niall smiles then, and Louis doesn’t know why, but he guesses it’s a good thing. He must be alright if the mention of his name can make Niall smile like that. “Oh, Marcel? Yeah, he’s here a lot. Real quiet. Nice guy.” He takes a break from wiping up for just long enough to look up at the door, brought to his attention by the bells chiming overhead. He nods in the direction of the sound. “That’s him actually. Perfect timing.”

Louis follows Niall’s line of sight until his eyes catch on a tall lad in the most professional ensemble he’s ever seen on a student tripping over his own two feet and careening toward the dirty floor. A girl who only barely looks familiar manages to catch the poor thing before he brains himself on the tile, and Louis watches in equal parts terror and amusement as he thanks her, righting himself frantically.

He’s obviously nervous, and Louis catches himself wondering if maybe he’s having a bad day or if he’s just...like this. Regardless, the furious blush on his cheeks, almost hiding behind his oversized glasses, is incredibly endearing. His smile, even from where Louis can see it, is devastatingly adorable. And while those corduroy slacks he’s sporting may not necessarily be the latest fashion, they accentuate his long legs, make him appear to be floating above the ground, even in his clumsiness.

And, well. Louis falls in love a lot. He falls in love with the flip of a girl’s strawberry hair over her shoulder, with a beautiful line of poetry or the whole poem if it’s just right, with a perfectly bloomed flower waiting for spring rains, with a good home-cooked meal, with his baby sister’s tiny fingers and his baby brother’s laugh.

And evidently, with cute, awkward boys with legs for days and glasses too big for their noses.

Marvelous.

“He doesn’t bite,” Niall says, momentarily ripping Louis’ attention from the gazelle making his way across the shop. “At least, I don’t think he does.” Louis knows his cheeks are beet red when he turns to face him, and that is immediately confirmed by Niall’s shit-eating grin. “He might, though. If you ask nicely.”

He waltzes away, giggling under his breath, as Louis mumbles out a nearly incoherent, “Fuck off,” before gathering up his embarrassment and walking with as much coordination as he can muster to the table Marcel has selected.

Time moves too slowly as he watches him pull out his laptop, adjusting the placement until he seems satisfied with its position, perfectly parallel to the table’s edge. He fishes for a bottle of water in the bottom of his bag, taking a sip before screwing the top back on tightly and carefully setting it what looks to be exactly two inches from his computer.

It’s only when Marcel peers up at him expectantly, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose before extending a hand in greeting, that Louis realizes he’s made it to the table. And that tutoring probably isn’t going to be very effective.

“Louis?” The first word out of Marcel’s mouth, and the sensation of hearing his name said in such a way already has Louis a bit lightheaded. His voice is deep but breathy, maybe a little shaky. It matches everything else. It’s lovely.

He’s lovely.

Fuck.

“Louis,” he replies intelligently, distracted by the warmth that spreads through his every vein at the feeling of Marcel’s hand meeting his own.

“Nice to meet you, Louis,” Marcel says, calm and unaffected, like he didn’t just feel the Earth stop spinning. “I’m Marcel. Guess you knew that, though.” He blushes again, a pretty pink settling on his cheeks, and Louis feels the burn on his own.

He isn’t even exactly sure what it is about this boy that’s got him all heart-eyed and breathless. He’s just a lanky kid with too much gel in his hair and glasses that won’t stay put. But he can’t think of anything that would better accentuate those gorgeous green eyes. And his hair is the softest chestnut brown, even lovelier in the few places curls have fought and won against the product, sticking out in little tuffs. And now that he’s close enough to touch - not that he will, he’s not completely lost his mind - he can see that the rosiness of his cheeks seems to drip into the deepest set of dimples he’s ever seen, coloring them a little darker than the light pink spreading across his freckled skin.

“You going to sit down?” Marcel asks, not at all trying to hide his smirk when Louis jumps at the interruption to his daydreams.

“Y-yeah,” Louis stutters out, trying to ignore the shakiness in his bones. He lowers himself into the chair opposite Marcel with as much grace as possible in his current predicament. “So, uh,” he rambles, anything to make Marcel stop looking at him like that, “Shakespeare?”

Marcel nods and looks down to type something into his laptop. “Right. So I’ve just shared an online document with you. Today, we can just go over some basic stuff so I can get some idea of what you need help with most. Then you can start posting any readings you’re struggling with or any questions for me, and I’ll answer them and maybe give you some practice questions. I’ve taken this class, and I remember what the final exam was like. How does that sound?”

He gives his speech without ever looking up from his screen. With no shortage of effort, Louis hears all the words and makes sense of them, but most salient is his want, his need , to have those eyes trained on him again. There might just be something misfiring in Louis’ brain, but he’s pretty sure Marcel could destroy the world if he so desired. If only he looked for long enough, with that burning intensity. Burning, but too soft to hurt. Kindness and amusement shining like stars through the tops of trees, and Louis is standing on the forest floor, mesmerized.

When Marcel finally glances up at him, eyebrow quirked like he might actually be concerned, Louis nods frantically, turning away to open his backpack and pull out his laptop. Distractions are good. “Sounds good,” he finally squeaks. “So you’re a senior?”

Marcel looks at him quizzically for a moment longer, like there’s a lingering question on his mind, before shaking his head. “Freshman.”

“How have you already taken Lit 3?” Louis asks, concentrating more than he should have to in order to open his email and find the document Marcel has sent him.

“Tested out of some classes. Took it in the fall,” Marcel replies quietly, but Louis catches the blush on his cheeks before it dissipates quickly.

“Lucky you,” Louis says, hoping for another smile.

He’s rewarded, Marcel trying to contain a shy smile, his two front teeth adorably bigger than the others.

A short silence, electric - to Louis anyway. Then, “Um...” Marcel clears his throat, “We should probably get started. D’you have a study guide or a play or anything?”

Right. This is supposed to be about tutoring. Passing his Lit final. Staying on the varsity team and keeping his role in the spring production. What it isn’t supposed to be about is his inability to take his eyes off a pair of lips too pink to be real, his mind filthy with thoughts of how obscene they must look when he’s been kissed, his totally inappropriate desire to be the one to make it so.

So this is Hell.

He swallows the fever crawling up his throat, sliding his notebook across the table for Marcel to read what’s written there in his nearly illegible handwriting. “We just finished As You Like It. We could start there, if that’s...if you want to take the lead…”

Marcel takes the notebook, raising it for a closer look. Louis only sulks for a moment at the missed opportunity to graze his skin once more, his fingers tingling where there had been only the smallest of spaces between them. “This is for you,” Marcel says, flicking through the pages. “You’re in charge here. Just tell me what works best for you. The goal is for you to pass your exam, yeah? So you’ve just gotta tell me what you need.”

Don’t ask me that, Louis thinks, the thought racing before he has the chance to suppress it, to focus on what’s important. He can’t bear to admit that he already feels he could need this. Need him.

“Has your professor given you some idea of what to expect?” Marcel asks, still gazing at him curiously. And of course he is. Louis probably looks like he’s about to have a heart attack.

“Um…” Louis tries. “Yeah.” Marcel blinks, waiting patiently. “Identification...like be able to say which works given quotes are from.” Marcel nods. “A few short written answers, probably about themes. She goes on and on about overlapping themes literally every class.”

Marcel chuckles, “Dr. Fajbik?”

Louis nods, unable to stop a smile from forming on his lips just at the sight of Marcel’s. “You had her?”

“Oh, yeah,” Marcel says, his eyes sparkling with amusement. “She’s a character. Awesome lady. Just a little neurotic.” Then, “Sounds the same as when I took it. Free thought essay?”

“Yeah, she said we could write about anything. We know about the prompt in advance so we can do the research, but we aren’t allowed any materials when we write it.”

“Any idea what you’d like to write about?” Marcel asks, typing some unknown something with his nimble fingers.

An answer that has evaded Louis for weeks. And now it all seems so obvious. So simple.

“Love,” he nearly whispers, his voice leaving him at the most inopportune time.

That pretty pink blush creeps over Marcel’s cheeks again, crawling into Louis’ chest to ignite a spark. “Shouldn’t be too difficult,” he says, voice undeniably lower than before, “to find stuff. About love.”

Louis is still smiling like a lovestruck idiot himself, and it only grows more manic when Marcel squeaks out nervously, “I mean it is Shakespeare, right?!”

He giggles, the pink turning red, spreading to his ears. Before Louis can interject, can conjure the courage it would take to reach across the small table and push Marcel’s glasses back up the bridge of his nose himself, can give him a comforting smile or rest his hand upon Marcel’s larger one, Marcel straightens himself in his chair and returns his attention to Louis’ notebook. “So As You Like It?

And just like that, all the bravery Louis had built up in the last minute is gone. Marcel is still blushing, the color falling from his cheeks slowly, as if it doesn’t really want to leave at all. And sure, it looks like Marcel is feeling this, too, whatever this might be, but what if...what if he’s just embarrassed? Or like...a nervous person? Is it really such a brilliant idea to take that chance?

Call it selfish, but he quite literally needs Marcel. It’s not like he’s taking advantage, he’s the one with the crush. He’s just going to have to keep it together at least until he’s managed to get through this semester. He can’t take the gamble, no matter how desperately he might want to run his fingers through Marcel’s stiff hair, just to see how many more curls he could tease loose.

So they pour over his messy notes, Marcel mostly succeeding in translating his scribbles. Marcel adjusts his glasses and spends some time staring at the pages of Louis’ notebook when Louis can’t help but look for too long, and Louis blushes furiously each time he’s caught. Marcel suggests from memory some lines from plays that sound familiar, and Louis types them into their shared document. He’ll have to be careful what he writes there.

When they’ve only minutes remaining, minutes until the agreed upon time to part, minutes until Louis will no longer be allowed to sacrifice his pride for the pleasure of gazing into warm emerald green, those very eyes light up, brighter than gems could ever hope to be, as Marcel says excitedly, “Found your line from As You Like It!

Louis leans over, glancing toward Marcel’s laptop which he’s turned this time. Each play they cover, each day that passes...it’s a day closer to being done with this class. And that’s exactly what he thought he wanted. Until now. Now that it also means a day closer to losing this. This feeling that has taken him already, made him so afraid to lose it. This lovely boy sitting across from him, his starched collar just as sure and unmoving as his quiff, a bubblegum pink smile and dimples so deep Louis could fit a thumb there.

Marcel reads aloud, ignoring Louis’ silent agony, perhaps not entirely unaware of it, if one were to judge by the rosiness once again blessing his cheeks. The words are true, and from Marcel’s lips they sound like a song. Like a teasing promise.

“Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?”

Certainly not Louis Tomlinson.

……

Louis meets Marcel the next day at the same table, with the same sparkling eyes pathetically glued to Marcel’s blushing cheeks, his slicked-back hair, his lips shiny with his nervous habit of licking them.

They talk about The Tempest; the next day, Macbeth. Louis pays more mind to the way the words fall from Marcel’s tongue like warm honey than their meanings.

Hours are spent conquering the strange language of Shakespearean comedies and tragedies and sonnets, stupidly wishing for the chance to someday whisper the more holy of the declarations against Marcel’s fine skin. Marcel creates a practice exam of sorts, and Louis fails miserably because what could be as important, more worthy of his attention, than the faint line over Marcel’s brow when he squints in concentration writing the questions?

This is a disaster. Louis is a disaster.

But Marcel takes it in stride, frustration not an emotion with which he seems familiar, smiling supportively, encouraging him like his whole world isn’t falling apart.

Saturday comes, much too quickly, and Louis has his first taste of what a day is like without Marcel. Without the race to five o’clock, the promise of sneaky curls and a toothy grin after a long day. He plays footie with his sisters in the morning and helps his mum with lunch, runs lines with a few friends at the park while the sun is still hanging in the sky. But the best hour of the day passes, no Marcel, no shyly-spoken, cheeky comments or bright smile when Louis throws them right back. And when he’s finally walking back to his apartment, heat still sticking despite the moonlit darkness surrounding him, he knows. He knows exactly what’s missing. And he knows he’s got to do something about it.

Sunday brings Marcel back to Louis. And takes away the brief bout of courage he’d felt only when he wasn’t drowning in dark green waters. The moment he sees him, waiting on the only bench covered in shade in the main courtyard, he’s resigned to go back to whatever the hell he’s been doing for the past week. Pining like a lovesick teenager. Longing for someone he can’t have, like some distressed lord or lady in a Shakespearean tragedy he’ll never be able to understand.

Marcel waves him over, lifting his hand from the laptop balanced precariously on his crossed knees. “So did you get anything done without me?” he teases, handing over an extra iced tea. “Didn’t know what you like, so I got peach for you, too. Hope that’s okay. It’s my favorite.”

He’s blushing, of course he’s blushing, and Louis wants to roll his eyes with how endearing it is, how perfectly cruel of the universe to give him such a pretty, rosy hue and not allow Louis to reach out and caress his cheek. “Thank you,” he says instead.

They read, and Louis suffers, and Marcel laughs at jokes Louis doesn’t understand in Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But Louis doesn’t mind. Not with the airiness of his giggles, the way the sound is carried by the breeze as if even the wind craves him.

Another hour is gone in what feels like the blink of an eye, the beat of his aching heart, and they part. “See you Wednesday,” Marcel says softly, reminding him that he must somehow survive two days without this. And all Louis can do is try to stop the tears from falling when Marcel’s hand grazes his own as he walks away.

Louis makes a half-hearted effort to outline The Merchant of Venice on the days he must do with his own company. He’s mostly unsuccessful, to no surprise of his own. But he does stumble upon a line particularly well-suited for his essay on love. Among other things.

“One half of me is yours, the other half yours,” he reads aloud, half memorizing, half speaking it into existence for another matter entirely. “Mine own, I would say; but if mine, then yours. And so all yours.”

“A lovely sentiment,” his mum interrupts from the door. She smiles, raising her eyebrows just enough to make it a question.

“Studying for Lit,” Louis provides, an excuse for waxing poetry about a boy he has no claim to, didn’t even know eleven days ago.

“Mmhm,” she hums. “You want to talk about it?” She gives him a knowing glance, soft but a little teasing. “I don’t think I’ve seen you this worked up since your first crush. What were you, maybe six?”

Louis rubs his palms over his tired eyes, covering the redness of his face. “Five,” he grumbles. “And this is so, so much worse, Mum.”

His mum steps closer, pulling him down to sit beside her on the edge of his old bed. “Tell me about him.”

So Louis does. He tells her about Marcel and his bright, evergreen eyes, always exaggerated by his round frames, and his dorky, well-fitting wardrobe and his shy, perfect smile and the constant flush of his cheeks that haunts Louis’ dreams. He tells her about the way Marcel always stumbles a bit when he slings his heavy backpack over his shoulder and how his face lit up like the sun when Louis had told him peach tea is his favorite now, too.

She listens to it all and hugs him tight after walking him to the door. And just as he’s turned to begin the journey back to his own apartment, she lets out an excited little squeal. Louis questions her silently, raising his brows just as she taught him to.

10 Things I Hate About You! ” she exclaims, clearly waiting for Louis to understand, to react with as much joy as she’s radiating from just outside the doorway, her wavy hair reflecting the light of the lamp overhead, smile bright and just a tad mischievous. It’s no mystery where he gets it from.

Understanding finally dawns, and the look on his mum’s face is enough to pull a laugh from his throat. “You’re awful,” he says. And all he gets in return is the sly grin of a mum who knows exactly what she’s suggesting.

……

It’s finally Friday, and Louis has been floating on cloud nine since his and Marcel’s session yesterday. Since Louis had asked with bated breath and clammy hands if Marcel would maybe, possibly be into a study-slash-movie night featuring the greatest modern adaptation of Shakespeare, the best film to come out of the 90s, the one and only 10 Things I Hate About You.

Marcel had given an eager nod, cheeks gloriously pink under shimmering eyes. “I’d love to,” he’d said, breathy and all too encouraging to Louis’ dreams.

The whole thing is a bit blurry, but what Louis does know is that in ten hours, he’ll have survived his last day of classes before finals and hopefully won his last game of the season, and that neither victory will feel quite as sweet as that of having Marcel Styles in his apartment.

He tries his damned best to get through the day with a mind not completely distracted by the thought of Marcel giggling on Louis’ couch, blushing at the more explicit scenes, maybe getting sleepy and slumping over onto Louis’ shoulder. He tries not to think of the possibility of Marcel staying over, accidentally on purpose. He tries not to obsess over the possibility of the stars finally aligning so that he might kiss the lips he dreams of, reading Shakespeare’s words like they’re his own, biting them gently when he’s embarrassed, pressing against his own without hesitation. Because in Louis’ dreams, Marcel knows Louis belongs to him and kisses him accordingly.

He’s not very successful, but the day passes anyway. Eventually, he finds himself sweat-soaked and grass-stained on the field. it’s seconds until the last buzzer, and he’s got a shot, and he can’t breathe because he just had to have that cigarette at halftime, but he kicks the ball as hard as he can. Time stands still. And the very next thing he’s aware of is every last one of his teammates crowding around him in triumph, punching his shoulders a little too roughly, nearly sending him hurtling toward the ground. The screams are deafening from the stands, the excitement buzzing like electricity in their messy huddle.

He actually did it. He made the goal, and they won. They won! He’s sure his smile looks insane, and he can feel the tears in his eyes. His teammates are pushing him toward the stands, and he catches a glimpse of his mum and oldest sisters, clapping and jumping and yelling things Louis can’t hear. And then his heart skips a beat.

Because right before his eyes, just to the left of his family, is Marcel. Marcel, standing still amongst the vibrating crowd of fans, arms crossed over his chest, hip cocked to match the crooked smile on his face. His smile grows when they lock eyes, and if Louis thought breathing was difficult while running down a field, giving it all he had to make that winning goal, he was wrong. Watching Marcel simply look at him, his gaze never wavering despite the pandamonium surrounding both of them, and remembering that oxygen is a requirement? It’s the biggest challenge he’s ever faced.

Finally, when escape is possible and he’s given his mum a tight, sweaty hug and his sisters kisses they expectantly wipe from their cheeks in disgust, he makes his way over and up a few bleacher steps until he’s standing exactly where he wished to be all day.

“Hey,” he says, still a bit winded, from the exercise and the adrenaline and the way Marcel makes his heart feel so wonderfully, painfully bruised. “Didn’t know you’d be here.”

“Couldn’t miss my best student winning the game of the season, could I?” Marcel says, his skin flushed from the heat softening his smirk. And then Louis’ falling, or at least it feels that way, because Marcel steps forward and pulls him into a hug. A brief moment of panic swells in Louis’ chest as his first thought is of how disgusting he is, sweaty and smelly and still out of breath. But Marcel holds him against his body, his arms wrapped tightly around Louis’ back, and when he rests his chin atop Louis’ shoulder, none of that matters anymore.

Louis breathes through it, overwhelmed and gloriously happy and definitely at the cusp of something that feels an awful lot like falling in love. Marcel pulls back, stumbling momentarily on the shaky bleacher seat on which they’re standing.

“So, uh…” Louis tries, still feeling the shakiness in his bones that comes with exhaustion and want.

“Not too tired for our movie night, are you?” Marcel asks, actual worry settling across his brow halfway through the question.

“No!” Louis exclaims, unwilling to allow Marcel to think for even one second that his top priority is anything other than sitting with him in his poorly-cleaned apartment watching a great movie based on an awful play. “I’m good, I swear. Just have to grab my stuff and say some goodbyes. Will you...will you wait for me? Or I don’t know if you’d -”

Marcel smiles, effectively cutting off his rambling. “I’ll meet you at the gate.”

And then he’s gone, slipping past Louis, leaving him to watch breathlessly as he disappears into a frantic crowd.

Louis bids his team and coaches farewell and finds his family for another round of hugs and to tell his mum that her plan is sorta, kinda working. Hopefully. She kisses his brow, the sweat there finally beginning to cool with the night air, and sends him on his way, pushing him not altogether gently toward the gate where Marcel said he’d be waiting.

Of course he’s there, smiling that perfectly crooked smile, as promised. They walk to Louis’ apartment just off campus, the air heavy, with heat and humidity and possibility. Louis spends the walk wishing he could reach over and hold Marcel’s hand, pull it to his heart, to his lips.

The walk feels longer than it ever has on his own, but they make it there before Louis has an actual panic attack. Marcel pulls his laptop from his bag the moment he’s made himself comfortable on the couch.

“Let’s get this over with,” Louis huffs, plopping down on the couch, just far enough away that their knees don’t touch when he lands in a heap.

“‘S not that bad, Lou,” Marcel says. Louis’ heart slams against his sternum, a painful, wonderful, relentless thing. Lou. If it weren’t for the furious blush crawling up Marcel’s neck, up, up, up to the highest point of his cheeks, Louis might think he imagined it.

“Prove it,” Louis retorts breathlessly, desperate to put them back on track.

Marcel nods and opens up his own copy of The Taming of the Shrew, laying it out on the coffee table. “I’ve outlined a few choice quotes you could use for your essay. Do you remember anything in particular you had trouble with when you read this one?

Louis can’t remember a goddamn thing right now that isn’t the way Marcel just said his name. Lou, Lou, Lou, swimming circles in his brain until he at least realizes he needs to say something. “I think...I think just going over the main points would help?” he manages. “Themes and stuff.”

“Themes and stuff,” Marcel repeats, smiling as he turns over pages, dimples on display just for Louis.

It’s Louis’ turn to blush, and he makes no effort to hide it. They pour over the play, Marcel focused on themes of love and disguise and foolishness, Louis focused on the way the lamplight softens Marcel’s jawline, the imagery of his own lips kissing careful bruises onto the fine skin there.

“I burn, I pine, I perish,” Marcel says, pointing to a line in the book. He looks up to catch Louis’ gaze, always on him. Louis looks down, maybe just embarrassed at being caught staring, and the words are wavy on the page, the weight of them sitting on his heart.

“I burn, I pine, I perish,” Louis repeats, pleading with his lungs to continue their rhythm.

“You know what I love about these stories? About Shakespeare?” Marcel asks. It’s an unexpected question, but he asks it with a softness in his voice. A genuineness. Like he’s revealing something special, and Louis has somehow been found worthy of that.

“What?” Louis asks, desperately curious and terrified to know.

“Even the silliest of loves are honored.” He says it with that same lingering tenderness, so truthful, full of wonder. “Even the most temporary or poorly won or altogether ridiculous loves are treated with as much importance as any other. And I love it,” he continues, his breath hitching, the world stopped around them. “I love it because to the characters, those loves are real. And it’s not up to us to decide what’s real. Even the silliest loves feel real when you’re in them.”

A moment passes, hot and heavy and sparking. And it’s too much. It is real. It’s too real. Marcel is looking at Louis, sure and unyielding, and he isn’t blushing like he usually does after saying so many words at once. He’s never laid himself this bare in Louis’ company, and he looks so confident in what he’s offered. The green of his eyes is bright with the light of the lamp and something else Louis can’t place.

“You proved it,” Louis says, grateful that all the required body parts cooperated well enough for him to get out any words at all.

Marcel’s brow pinches in confusion. “Proved what?”

“It’s not that bad,” Louis breathes.

Marcel smiles, his thick eyebrows rising back above his thicker frames. “You really think so?”

Louis nods, movement slow as he wades through a head full of syrupy sweetness. “I think…” he starts, swallowing down the urge to say the one thing he really means. “I think I’m starting to love it.”

Marcel’s resolve seems to crumble at Louis’ half-confession, as if he heard what Louis only wishes he could say. The rosiness that rests so at home on his cheeks is back, his skin glowing as if a fire burns beneath. Louis’ every thought is overpowered by that sweet blush he’s come to crave, and he finds himself, without any consciousness, lifting a hand to caress it away.

He catches himself, pulling back just before skin touches skin, and something foreign flashes in Marcel’s eyes. He doesn’t know what it is, but he knows what must be in his own. Fear. Longing. Unwandering adoration.

He jumps up from the sofa before his eyes betray his heart any more, pulling a sound of surprise from Marcel’s lips. “You okay?” Marcel asks, his gaze trained on his book as he closes it and takes it from the table. He’s not looking at him, purposefully, and it hurts.

Louis keeps his voice as steady as possible and says, only sounding a little weathered, “I need to shower. I, uh...I stink, so...I’m gonna shower. You can, um...just make yourself comfortable. There’s tea in the fridge if you’re thirsty. I have, like, crackers and stuff.” He’s rambling now, but he can’t stop, every nerve in his body hot and buzzing with humiliation, turning his skin redder than it had been on the football field.

Marcel nods as Louis turns toward the hallway and retreats to the safety of his bedroom to gather clothes that don’t smell of grass and sweat and fear. He shuffles across the hall and into the bathroom, cleaning himself quickly and efficiently to avoid making Marcel wait any longer than necessary. He focuses on his breathing as he brushes his teeth and attempts to fix his fringe into anything other than a floppy mess. Slipping on a clean pair of sweats and an old vest, he wanders back out into the cooler air of the living room where Marcel is lying back on the couch, lazily scrolling on his phone.

“Better?” he asks quietly, smiling tentatively when he notices Louis’ return.

“Yeah,” Louis says with a matching smile. He pulled himself together a little in Marcel’s absence, but the nerves are still there, thrumming steadily underneath the surface. He walks to the kitchen to give them time to further dissipate, and pours two glasses of iced tea, a tradition of sorts.

He returns to set them both on the table, and Marcel thanks him quietly, nodding shyly when Louis asks if he too needs popcorn to properly enjoy a movie. He sneaks a peek at Marcel while their treat is popping wildly in the microwave, deliciously filling the room with the smell of salty butter, and sees him setting up the movie, having taken the disc Louis had waiting on the table and put it into the player and now playing with buttons until the sound of the menu song begins to roar through the house. He might have had the volume a touch too loud playing FIFA last night.

“Sorry!” Marcel exclaims over the noise, turning it down just as Louis takes the bag from the microwave. Louis flips off the light and returns to the living room, setting down a large bowl of freshly-popped popcorn. “Mmmm,” Marcel hums. “Smells amazing.”

Marcel moves the bowl to balance it on the cushion between them and points the remote at the TV. The movie begins to play, and Marcel is immediately enraptured. Louis can’t take his eyes off Marcel. He laughs not a minute into the film, dimples deep and teeth sparkling in the dim light. He’s beautiful.

Louis watches as Marcel reaches for his tea and takes a sip. He watches as his eyes light up upon discovering the taste of peach lingering on his tongue. And he watches as he looks over at Louis to find him already staring and drops his nearly-full glass directly into his lap, the cold liquid splashing onto his clothes and the sofa and the floor.

It takes Louis a moment to react, but the first thing he notices is Marcel turning the most angry shade of red he’s ever seen on him as he squeaks out a horrified “Oops!” Louis usually loves to see that blush because it means he’s said or done something to make Marcel happy. Usually there’s a smile underneath. But right now, he looks absolutely mortified.

And well. Louis cannot allow that.

So without another thought, he kicks his foot into the air like he’s lost all control of his extremities, sending the bowl of popcorn flying into the air.

And the thought of having to clean up this disaster is so insignificant. Because the moment Marcel realizes what’s happened, he laughs. A high, bright giggle floats through the room, piercing Louis’ heart. Out of nervousness with the way Marcel is staring at him wild-eyed, he spits out, “Hi,” only prompting Marcel to laugh even harder.

“Why’d you do that?!” Marcel shouts, the red of his cheeks calming to a happy pink.

“I thought you wanted to have a food fight,” Louis supplies. “I think I won.”

“I don’t know,” Marcel says, still laughing. “I mean, I did spill a gallon of tea on myself.” He looks down to take in the mess he’s made. “And your couch. And your floor. Oh my God, Louis, I’m so sorry!” He jumps from the couch and runs toward the kitchen. “Where are your cleaning supplies? I can -”

Louis rushes toward him, pulling him away from the kitchen and toward the hallway. “Don’t worry about it,” he says, as seriously as he can manage with his own laughter still in his throat. “I’ll get you some clothes and do a quick clean-up while you change.”

Marcel exhales a heavy breath and leans against Louis’ side for just a moment, not long enough for Louis to even register the contact. “I’m sorry, Lou.”

Louis turns and places his hands on Marcel’s shoulders, the lightest touch his body will allow. “M,” he says, nearly on a whisper, trying out a name of his own. Marcel seems to like it, his lips again turning up in a smile. “It’s really okay. I promise that couch has seen worse.”

Louis leads Marcel into his bedroom and searches for his biggest t-shirt and pair of sweats, stuffed into the back of his drawers, and tosses them to Marcel, hoping they’ll fit his larger frame. “I’ll be right back,” he promises.

“Thanks,” Marcel says with a smile, turning to place them on the bed as Louis leaves to give him privacy.

Louis quickly sweeps up the popcorn littering the floor and wipes up the spill, soaking as much of the liquid out of the stained material as he can with paper towels, before fetching the DVD from the player and shutting off the TV. He returns to the kitchen to grab two bottles of water and returns to his room to find Marcel sitting gingerly on the edge of his bed, like he’s not sure he’s allowed to get comfortable.

“Better?” Louis asks, repeating Marcel’s earlier question, offering a soft smile.

“Yeah,” he says, relaxing a little under Louis’ gaze. “How’s the sofa?”

“It’ll survive,” Louis says, sitting beside him. He hands the disc over to Marcel, “Still wet, though.”

Marcel rolls his eyes, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “I can’t believe I did that. “‘M so embarrassed.”

“It’s really not a big deal,” Louis says. “You can relax. I promise I’m not going to kick you out.”

“But I ruined movie night!” Marcel whines.

Louis flashes the disc in front of Marcel’s eyes, “No, you didn’t. We can watch it in here if you want.” He realizes the gravity of what he’s suggesting, and panic rises in his gut as he thinks that maybe Marcel doesn’t want to share a bed as much as Louis does. Maybe he didn’t dream of this moment. “I mean, I don’t…” he tries, failing to find the words. “If you want. We could watch it on my laptop,” he finishes lamely, his mouth snapping shut so he doesn’t humiliate himself further.

“No, we can!” Marcel exclaims, seemingly surprising himself with his own outburst. Louis giggles nervously, nodding and standing to grab his laptop from his desk before he can lose his nerve.

The movie starts, and Louis rests the computer between their legs, in the foot of space of which they both seem to be hyperaware. Louis lies down, hoping and praying that Marcel will follow his lead.

He does, after a few minutes. He lies back slowly, like he’s testing out cold, unfamiliar waters. Louis watches him closely, eyes lingering on the white, flashing light of the computer screen illuminating his eyelashes, the hollowing effect the darkness has on his deeper dimple when he smiles sleepily once he’s gotten too tired to laugh at some hijink Heath Ledger’s trying to pull off onscreen.

Slowly, steadily, Marcel falls asleep, his breathing evening out as the moonlight streaming in through the window covers him in a satin sheen. Going against every instinct he has to let Marcel sleep, to keep him here as long as he’ll stay, Louis nudges him gently, and asks when Marcel blinks up at him dazedly, “Do you want to stay the night?”

Marcel nods and moves closer, forcing Louis to snatch his computer from the bed before Marcel knocks it to the ground. He places it there gently, close to his nightstand so he won’t accidently crush it in the morning, and when he comes back up to arrange himself carefully on the bed, Marcel has moved into his space even more. Louis melts into the duvet, letting his head rest on his pillow as Marcel snuggles against his chest, calmly breathing in and out like the fabric of the universe wasn’t just destroyed by the touch.

Louis thinks back to the words Marcel had spoken earlier. The reason he cited for loving the works of William Shakespeare. Even the silliest loves feel real when you’re in them.

His thoughts are dragged back to the first play they ever studied together, on that first, fated day that they met. The line he hadn’t dared utter, for fear that the want and need he felt even in those first moments would shine through and leave him fully visible.

Now, with Marcel sleeping soundly in his bed, touching him with soft hands, softer breaths hitting his skin in a peaceful rhythm, he finally finds the courage. He removes Marcel’s glasses and places them carefully on his nightstand, joy soaring in his heart when Marcel comes closer every time he strays even for the briefest moment. He braves the softest, gentlest of touches upon Marcel’s lips, tracing the boy’s lines as he sleeps, memorizing his shape.

And he whispers the words of a language he’s only just begun to understand. “In thy youth wast as true a lover, as ever sighed upon a midnight pillow.”

He could never hope to say I love you with such eloquence. So he borrows the words, praying they’re enough.

……

Louis wakes to the cruel sound of his alarm blaring through his quiet bedroom, his phone rattling violently on the nightstand. He groans and nearly throws his arm out of its socket trying to stop the unpleasant intrusion. It’s only when he rolls back over, intent to steal another ten minutes of sleep, that he remembers.

Marcel is still sleeping peacefully beside him, curled into himself, even breaths leaving his slightly open mouth to caress the pillow that holds his head. His hair is a mess, sticking up and out in every direction, still stiff from the gel he applied to it yesterday, his slick quiff destroyed by deep sleep.

It’s strange and wonderful to see him in the morning light, the sun rising over the hills of his cheekbones, his nose delightfully free of his glasses. He looks so peaceful, radiant in the soft, clean light reflecting off of Louis’ white duvet.

Louis doesn’t realize how long he’s been staring at the sleeping beauty in his bed until his phone interrupts him with his snoozed alarm. He reaches over to grab it and stop the loud music from waking Marcel, but when he’s turned over, Marcel is blinking slowly into the sunlight, rousing gently.

He doesn’t have a chance to experience those first moments of confusion that come from sleeping in a foreign place. Louis is before his eyes the moment they open. He squints into the early morning light, and Louis’ breath catches in his throat as he prays Marcel won’t be upset, won’t feel foolish for staying here or that Louis tricked him.

Marcel smiles, a small, tired smirk, and closes his eyes, perhaps not yet ready to face the day. Louis understands. He wishes he could stay in bed all day. Preferably with Marcel.

“Good morning,” Louis says around a yawn, trying to keep his morning breath from Marcel’s face.

“Morning,” Marcel mumbles, grinning into his pillow. He opens his eyes and inhales deeply, looking up at Louis. “Can I have my glasses?” he giggles. “Can’t see you.”

Louis can’t help the quiet chuckle that escapes his own lips as he again reaches for the nightstand, bringing the most adorable, too-big glasses back with him. “Here ya go,” he murmurs. “Didn’t want you to crush them.”

“Thanks,” Marcel says, sliding them up his nose and laying his head back down carefully. “That’s better.”

There’s a moment of silence as they lie there, just looking. Breathing together in the kind of serenity that only comes with dawn. It should be awkward. But it isn’t. It’s just...simple. Perfect.

Louis enjoys the quiet, the feeling of Marcel’s eyes on him for as long as he can. Until reality slaps him in the face with another alarm blaring from his phone nestled in the sheets between them. “Ugh,” he groans, apologizing when he sees Marcel wince at the disturbance. “I have rehearsals today,” he says, by way of explanation.

Marcel stretches quickly and clambers out of bed, Louis’ brain still focused on the picture he made stretching like a spoiled cat, soft tummy peeking out under the hem of Louis’ t-shirt, by the time he’s made it to an upright position. “I’m sorry to intrude,” Marcel says. “Don’t usually get so sleepy watching movies. Thank you for letting me stay.”

Louis pushes himself out of bed, fighting the urge to tug on Marcel’s hands, the hands that had danced across Louis’ chest in sleep, and pull him back to bed, like he has any right. “Of course,” Louis says, feigning nonchalance, pretending it wasn’t an answer to his prayers, that he isn’t desperate for much more than an innocent sleepover. “What’re you doing today?”

“Um…” Marcel hesitates. “Well, nothing, really. Didn’t have any plans other than meeting with you this afternoon. Did you not want to still -?”

“Yeah,” Louis interrupts, a little too eagerly. He has no regret, though. Not when Marcel finally smiles again, looks a little less like he’s ready to bolt. “You could, um...you could stay if you wanted. I mean, I’ll only be gone for maybe two hours. Just...if it’s easier for you to just hang out here for awhile. You’re more than welcome to the shower and the kitchen.”

Marcel is still smiling that gorgeous, captivating, shy smile, so Louis does the only thing he can think of. He keeps talking. “There’s bread for toast and I might have some eggs if you want breakfast. ‘M not much of a breakfast guy meself, but -”

His rambling is cut off by a squeak of amusement coming from Marcel. His cheeks are pink, a result of his quiet outburst, and Louis feels his own face heating up to match. “What?” he breathes, confused.

“Your accent is just really cute,” Marcel says, and then he slaps his hand over his mouth like he hadn’t meant to say it.

Louis barks out a surprised laugh, knowing his cheeks are just as red as Marcel’s. Just maybe not as painfully cute. “Thanks,” he says, trying to lighten the atmosphere. “Been working on it for a few years.”

“It’s heavier in the morning.” Marcel says, his mouth once again betraying his brain, if the lingering burn of his cheeks is anything to go by.

“Still have sleep brain,” Louis says, pointing at his head, turning his voice robotic. “Hard to understand.”

Marcel nods with a smile and crosses his arms against his chest, and Louis can’t get over how perfect he looks in that stupid, old footie tee. As far as he’s concerned, it’s Marcel’s now. All he can hope for is that Marcel might think of him if he ever wears it. That he’ll maybe get to see it again.

“So, um...d’you want to stay? We can go over Romeo and Juliet when I get back.”

“If you really don’t mind,” Marcel says, dropping his brow in seriousness.

“I promise, I don’t mind,” Louis swears, placing his hand over his heart. “Scout’s honor. You can watch the greatest movie ever made since you shamefully slept through it last night.”

Marcel chokes on a giggle, his throat still dry from sleep, voice raspier and more delicious than Louis’ ever heard. “Okay, then,” he says. “I’ll, uh...I’ll be here when you get back. I’ll probably just study. And use your shower. I’m afraid of what my hair looks like right now.”

Louis turns to gather clean clothes for the day, smoothing his rumpled duvet and tossing his computer on the bed, successfully holding back his fondness for Marcel’s messy hair. “Make yourself at home. I’ll be back before you know it.”

He’s out the door five minutes later, and he might be home before Marcel knows it. But Louis is counting every minute, every second until he runs back through that door, back to Marcel.

He goes through the motions at rehearsals, spouting out his lines and moving in practiced form. He pretends to listen as his castmates chat amiably about their exams, the stress that comes with the end of the term. His thoughts don’t stray far from Marcel, despite the many distractions.

He ruminates over the night before, over this morning. Did he come off too strong? Has Marcel left because he was just so obvious it made him uncomfortable? If he has, will he come back?

His heart pleads for the small chance that he might still be there when he gets home, that he’ll still be wearing Louis’ clothes, resting against his pillow. He pulls forward the memory of Marcel’s beauty when they awoke together, his eyes big and bright even without his glasses, his hair falling from the gel’s hold. He wonders if Marcel brought anything to fix it after he showers, always has some product stashed away. He hopes not. He hopes for the chance to see his curls. Even more, to run his fingers through them, to feel how soft they might be against his skin.

Finally, finally, the director calls it a day, and Louis is sprinting home, his mind and body barreling toward his apartment as if it contains the only oxygen in the world. He bursts through the door and abandons any dignity he might have left to call out Marcel’s name, trying at least to keep his voice somewhat even, just short of completely manic.

“In here!” comes Marcel’s voice, flowing from Louis’ bedroom.

Butterfly wings flutter in Louis’ stomach, against his ribs, inside of his lungs, at the sound of his voice. He’s still here. He stayed. He waited.

Louis ventures to his bedroom, dropping his backpack on the ground as he settles against the doorframe. “Hi,” he breathes. “I’m back.”

“Finally,” Marcel quips, a shy smirk playing on his lips. “You do know how to keep a boy waiting.”

Marcel’s cheeks are red, and there really isn’t any reason for it, but Louis could never tire of watching him blush. His hair is curly, loose and wild and distracting. He must notice Louis’ gaze because he says quickly, combing his fingers through the top of his hair, “Thanks for letting me shower and all that.”

“Of course,” Louis says, nodding. Then, letting a smile of his own come through, “How do you manage to tamp that mess down every day?”

The color on Marcel’s cheeks brightens. “It takes some effort.”

Louis walks carefully, cautiously over to the bed where Marcel is sitting cross-legged at the top, books spread out around him. He looks like he belongs there. Louis wishes he could stay forever.

He sits in front of him, mimicking Marcel’s position, letting their knees knock together as they mirror one another. “I quite like the curls,” he says bravely. “Why do you hide them?”

Marcel shrugs. “Honestly? I was teased when I was younger. Got tired of it. Fixed that with a new style.”

Louis reaches up, courage and fear racing through his veins in a toxic sting combination, and tugs on a particularly springy piece. “Well, I think they’re lovely, M.”

Marcel smiles and looks down, his closed eyes unable to actually read anything laid out below him. “Thanks,” he whispers.

The air grows heavier around them until Marcel glances up, pushing his glasses further up his nose with his index finger, seemingly getting back to business.

“So...do you want to cover R and J now? If we finish earlier than we planned, we could practice your essay, too.”

Louis nods and stands to retrieve his laptop and notebook from his desk. “Sounds good.”

Marcel packs up his own materials and sets them aside, and Louis replaces them, Marcel opening up Romeo and Juliet between their crossed legs, inside of the points where Louis’ skin is lit ablaze each time Marcel fidgets and presses his knees against his.

They read through the scenes Marcel thinks are most likely to be referenced in the exam, and Louis takes the best notes he can manage to jot down in the moments he can take his eyes off of the boy reading Shakespeare like it’s some kind of lifeline.

“Come what sorrow can,” Marcel reads aloud, running his fingertips across the words reverently, “it cannot countervail the exchange of joy that one short minute gives me in her sight.”

Louis struggles to breathe, the air so thin, somehow heavy still, full of promise, of longing. I felt that today , he wants to say. All I wanted was to come back to you. Even if you’d have left the moment I returned, that one short minute would have been enough. It would have been everything.

The fading light of the falling sun dances over Marcel’s features, a small, serene smile never leaving his lips. And Louis is in love. With the way the light kisses his cheeks, the breathiness of his voice when the words are too much, the aversion of his gaze when he catches Louis looking at him too long, like it’s his fault somehow. He’s in love with Marcel. He’s in love with everything about him. And it took bloody Shakespeare to make him really see it. To make him see just how painful such a thing can be.

Louis writes when they’ve finished their last play, and Marcel reads through notes and scribbles on outlines, preparing for his own exams. They don’t speak, both focused on what Louis would classify as less important topics. How could American Lit ever compare to the feeling of Marcel’s hand against his own? How could writing an ode to love letters ever hold a light to writing one himself, no matter how inferior, for the loveliest boy, lounging in his bed with a bitten-down pencil caught between his teeth, smiling at his books?

The hours pass, and the sun leaves them, the moon taking its place in the sky as they lie together peacefully. Books and screens and papers have been abandoned, and nothing separates Louis from what he wants most, a careful three inches away. Marcel blinks slowly, smiles as Louis talks without giving the words much mind. The silence into which they first fell was too intense, too loud with the worry Louis can’t seem to shake. So now he talks about nothing, just to keep himself calm.

His mindless chatter isn’t enough forever, though. He’ll surely regret the question the moment he’s asked it, but he can’t stop it from spilling from his mouth. “Will you stay?” he asks, heart thumping wildly.

He surprises even himself with this unfamiliar brand of honesty. He’d planned to simply state that this was to be their last meeting, at least in this official capacity, as teacher and student, and wait for Marcel’s response. He’d told himself he’d ask if Marcel would want to hang out after exams. He’d intended to let him simply fall asleep again, without forcing the matter, just hoping for it without asking.

But his nerves are tingling, his stomach in knots and his heart beating so hard it might give up before the night is through. And he has to know. Will you stay?

The question doesn’t hang unanswered for long. Marcel takes an unsteady breath, only visible to Louis with their closeness. He wishes he could feel his slow exhale upon his skin, wishes that breath could caress his collarbone rather than the pillow Marcel has claimed as his own. But then he answers with the sweetest of smiles and a whispered “yeah.”

Marcel moves closer, sliding his shoulder against the cool duvet until Louis’ eyes close and he can’t see anything, can’t feel anything but Marcel’s lips pressing so gently against his own.

It’s not electric. There aren’t fireworks shooting off behind his eyelids. It’s calm. It feels like peace and understanding and finally.

It’s perfect.

They move together, slowly taking and giving back with quiet, shared breaths. Hands come to life and wander across skin, and Louis’ mind is spinning, but it’s far from the chaos that was wanting to kiss Marcel and not having that right, not having the courage to claim it. Kissing him isn’t scary at all.

Kisses replace words, and none are needed. Not right now.

But just before sleep takes him, Marcel’s eyes flutter open, and he offers a few. “You have witchcraft in your lips,” he murmurs, smiling so bright, the moonbeams shining in through the window seem so pale in comparison to his joy.

Louis isn’t quite the literary expert yet, so he’s not entirely sure if he’s quoting something or if the words just come that easily to him. But he does know it’s the best thing he’s ever heard.

And there are questions that remain unanswered, cravings left to desire. But Louis watches as Marcel’s eyes begin to move under his lids in dreams and his breathing evens out to slow rolls of his chest, and he closes his eyes, inviting the darkness, saving those questions for later.

With their legs tangled atop the duvet, a metaphor, he thinks, for feeling so in love and only having the courage to dip a single toe into the waters, he snakes his arm around Marcel’s waist and pulls him closer. And when Marcel makes the most tender, beautiful sound of contentment, Louis welcomes sleep, another day closer to knowing exactly how Shakespeare felt about love.

Because now he understands. If love be blind, it best agrees with night.

……

The next time Louis opens his eyes, it’s to a brightly lit bedroom, the sun making its lazy morning climb up his walls, across his duvet, and into his dreams. His smile is immediate, the thought of falling asleep wrapped up in Marcel never leaving him, invading his sleep through the night. It’s immediate, but short-lived, because when he turns around, confused at how cool air could be hitting his back, why there isn’t a sleep-warm boy pressed against him, Marcel is gone.

He feels the sheets where Marcel had lain, where he’d felt him slip beneath them in the night, letting him pull them over his own body, as well. The material is cold, and for a moment Louis is worried he dreamt the whole thing. But they’re wrinkled from a boy’s restful sleep, and they smell like him, too, Louis confirms, laying his head upon them in quiet agony.

He rises and, after a quick stop in the loo, searches every nook and cranny, making absolutely sure Marcel isn’t hiding somewhere, that he isn’t having a breakdown for no reason. But Marcel is nowhere to be found.

It just...it doesn’t make sense. Why would he leave? He’d specifically said he was just going to be studying today. He’d smiled at the thought of sleeping in, of a lazy morning. Louis had, maybe foolishly, believed he meant together.

He grabs his phone from the couch, where he’d left it last night, entirely too distracted by everything Marcel to care at all. Marcel is the only person he’s talked to in awhile anyway, besides his mum. No texts, no calls, no nothing.

Marcel left without a word, without a trace. Louis doesn’t even know when he left, had been sleeping so soundly still believing Marcel was snuggled in his arms as he’d been in his dreams.

Louis certainly isn’t going to reach out if Marcel so clearly doesn’t want that. He would have said something, would have woken Louis up, would have said goodbye, at the very least.

So Louis cleans his apartment, everything but his sheets. Can’t quite bear to let the scent of him go, needs some sort of proof that it was real. Marcel kissed him, and it was soft and sweet and knowing and perfect. It meant something. Maybe that’s why Marcel left. Maybe it was too much, maybe Louis was too much.

He studies through the weekend, lonely and distracted but giving it his best shot. He takes his exams as they come, writing essay after boring essay, bubbling in page after page of answers on scantrons that make his eyes cross. Marcel never visits their bench. Or well, the bench they shared once and Louis now thinks of as their bench. He never goes to the coffee shop. Niall quickly gets into the habit of automatically shaking his head anytime Louis saunters through the door, bells tinkling overhead just to remind him of Marcel’s brighter laughter.

He breezes through his Lit final. It’s not so difficult to remember lines of poetry when the loveliest boy in the world read them in the quiet of Louis’ bedroom like they came from his own heart, like they were for him. Prompted to write an essay on love, like some kind of cruel joke he perhaps should have seen coming, he puts pencil to paper and searches in his hazy, painful memory for all of the lines Marcel loved best. There’s something else Louis studied for this, memorized as if his life depended on it, something he and Marcel never discussed. Sonnet 116. He read the poem over and over, determined to know it backward and forward, to include it in his essay, to surprise Marcel. He doesn’t know why. He’d only had a thought one night they were apart, upon reading it, finally starting to understand the language. And Marcel might be gone. Louis might not have even the slightest idea what any of it means, might be confused and terrified and heartbroken. But he made this promise with himself. And with Marcel, even if Marcel never knew, never will know.

So he writes for as long as the clock ticking steadily across the room will allow him, as quickly as his cramping hand will let him. He pulls all of the ideas and words about love he’s read over the past two weeks and compiles them into one, hopefully, thoughtful essay. And when his professor gives a five-minute warning and he wants to rip his hand off, he writes even faster, the half-ignored pain in his heart fueling him to a single purpose.

Love is not love, which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove. O no! It is an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempest and is never shaken, he recites, pencil scratching madly, loudly. If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

He hands in his exam with a heart beating too quickly, thunderous amidst the quiet, defeated shuffling of crumpled papers and tired feet around the auditorium. He didn’t fail, he knows that. Just being in Marcel’s presence made him a better writer. One would need to have a firm grasp of romantic language to even begin to describe Marcel and all his magic, all his beauty. That’s not what’s got his heart beating fearsomely against his ribs, bruising his lungs as he rushes out the door and toward the coffee shop.

Rather, it’s the knowledge, the realization, that he can’t just let this happen. He can’t let Marcel leave, vanish, disappear like a sweet creature only ever dreamed of. Marcel has to know the truth. He has to know Louis loves him. And Louis is going to have to let his fear give him the strength. It’s worth it, so worth it.

His life has become a bloody romantic comedy, but he can’t be bothered to care when even the thought of seeing Marcel, the slightest chance has his lips widening in a frantic smile as he races through the courtyard. And with an arsenal of memorized love declarations still locked in his mind, he quotes his friend William aloud one more time, to steady his nerves, to convince himself that this is what he’s meant to do.

“A heart to love, “ he breathes, “and in that heart, courage, to make love known.”

……

Summer has begun, and Marcel is still in the wind. Louis finally gathered the courage to text him, even call him a few times, but he never responded. The last day of exams, when Louis had aced his Lit final and immediately sprinted toward the coffee shop in search of his new confidant, Niall had been thrilled to help him. But nothing’s changed, despite all their planning.

So Louis goes about his business, pining like a pathetic teenager. He agreed to help coach a recreation footie team, and that’s where he is now, jogging around on a field of kicked-up grass, yelling excitedly at out-of-breath children. Most of them don’t know what the hell they’re doing, but it’s all in good fun.

The final whistle is called, and the teams line up and shake hands, bidding their rivals “good game.” Louis chats with a few parents and the head coach, picking up equipment and empty plastic bags that held orange slices before halftime before heading to the bleachers to collect his own belongings and head home.

And that’s when his heart stops.

Because sitting way up on the top bench is a very familiar, very beautiful boy. He isn’t looking, isn’t aware of Louis’ gaze. Which is odd. He isn’t used to looking at Marcel to not find him already looking back, that permanent twinkle in his eye, smiling with dimples so deep Louis thinks he could fall into them. He wouldn’t mind living in those dimples.

He takes a deep breath and climbs the steps, his heart beating frantically the higher he goes. But as he gets closer, he realizes something isn’t right. It’s Marcel, no question about it. But it’s not his Marcel. Everything is just... wrong.

He must have started wearing contacts because his green doe eyes aren’t magnified further by a pair of too-big glasses. His hair is obviously wild and curly, just how Louis had the pleasure of seeing it that one night, had the unbelievable right to run his fingers through the night they kissed. But those beautiful curls are trapped under a bright red snapback. His typical button-up and sweater combo has been exchanged for a t-shirt sporting the bold letters of one of the biggest fraternities on campus.

Marcel notices his arrival and looks at him questioningly. Neither of them say a word, Louis out of utter confusion, maybe a twinge of fear. Marcel looks confused, too. And a little amused. Louis really doesn’t know what the fuck is happening.

Then he smiles. And Louis’ heart falls into his gut, disintegrating in a pool of humiliation and heartbreak. Because his smile is wide enough for both dimples to pop, and yet, this boy’s cheeks are smooth. It isn’t Marcel.

“Can I help you?” the boy asks, mild judgment in his tone, clearly entertained by Louis’ panic.

“N-no,” Louis stutters. “Sorry, um...thought you were someone else.” He stumbles down the first few steps before the stranger can respond, before catching his balance to jog the rest of the way to the ground.

He rushes home, lost and hopeless. There are only two explanations he can come up with for what just transpired. One, all traces of his sanity have finally slipped away completely. He’s imagining things, seeing Marcel in strangers. Next, he’ll start creating him out of thin air, sitting on their bench or in the coffee shop, lying beside him under his sheets. Or two, the universe is actively torturing him now, playing tricks on his mind, not content only with Louis’ self-imposed suffering.

He isn’t sure which would be worse.

Despite the pain and confusion, the ever-present longing for someone he can’t have or even find, Louis picks himself up every day to coach his team or go jogging with Niall or run his lines with his castmates. The famous Berkeley fall production is well underway, the cast having been working on the play since the start of the year. He feels elated, comfortable in his starring role, like he belongs there. But he’s never really in one place, no matter where that place may be. He’s always distracted, by the thought of candy-red lips and curls as soft as silk.

The director barrels in one afternoon, chaotic and frazzled as always with her bright, red hair and colorful cloaks, informing the cast that they’ve been invited to visit a real, honest-to-God film set. A war epic is being filmed in Los Angeles, and they’ve been chosen from a long list of drama programs for the experience. Louis is ecstatic, has always wanted such an opportunity, and they quickly set about making plans for transportation, chirping with excitement, not really getting much done for the rest of the day.

A week later, Louis and his friends are listening in rapture as a production assistant rattles on about his responsibilities and what it’s like working with some of the biggest, most talented stars. And that’s when it happens again.

A tall lad, lanky but somehow also muscular, appears out of nowhere, short curls popping out of his World War Two-era soldier’s helmet. He glides past their group unaffected, like Louis’s world isn’t crashing down around them, his heart thundering more loudly, with more intensity, than the fake bombs going off in the distance.

Louis knows, just like the last time, that it isn’t Marcel. It can’t be. But it’s hard to convince himself of that when the boy turns around, emerald eyes piercing Louis’ heart, shy smirk playing on his lips as he notices Louis’ stare. Louis remembers the way Marcel had smiled at him like that before he kissed him, before he left without a trace, before Louis knew nothing but heartache.

The boys looks at him for too long, and Louis lets him, searching his eyes in vain for any sign of familiarity. And they’re green, but they’re lighter than they should be on a face that pretty. His lips aren’t quite as pink as they should be with him biting into them like he is.

The confusing, uncomfortable intimacy only ends when his mate Liam pokes him in the side and asks much too loudly, “Whatcha staring at, Tommo?”

Louis rips his eyes away from the dream walking away, beautiful in almost every way. But he’s wrong. Imperfect. Because though he may look just like him, he isn’t Marcel. It’s just another mirage, another trick of the universe, another sign that Louis is losing his damn mind.

“Nothing,” he murmurs, playfully shoving at Liam’s shoulder. “Let’s go see the cameras.”

When summer is almost over, and Louis has lost the ability to pretend he’s okay, Niall jumps into action, roping Liam into his plans simply because he happens to be in the coffee shop when Niall bounces over to Louis, evidently sick and tired of his moping.

“Got tipped off about this guy the other day,” Niall had said. “Supposedly really good. He’s performing near here in a few days.”

Liam had chimed in with an eager “Let’s go!”

And Louis wasn’t given a choice. So now he finds himself being shoved into some weird, hipster bar smelling of sweat and booze. The music is too loud, but the sound is nice. What Louis can only guess are original melodies float through the crowded room, a lovely voice crooning beautifully sad words to a beat straight out of classic rock and roll.

He’s pushed to the front of the crowd, Niall and Liam on either side of him, half determined to see their friend have a good time, half already lost to the excitement themselves.

He isn’t even surprised when it happens the third time. He looks up toward the stage, to the young man swaying in time to his music, fingers strumming a guitar like he was born to do this. There might be tears in his eyes, but Louis is more concerned with their coloring. Forest green, eerily familiar, heartbreakingly gorgeous. They call to him cruelly, as he has no right to gaze upon them, no right to have memories of them.

The boy with the song is all legs, tattooed chest exposed with his loose, flowing blouse unbuttoned to the point that Louis wonders why he slipped it on at all. His lips are obscene, red and swollen like someone else’s after Louis had kissed them.

But his hair is too long, curls tickling his collarbones. Those maddening eyes aren’t behind a pair of oversized spectacles. His hands aren’t soft enough where they move with his instrument. The tattoos shining like fresh ink on the pale skin of this stranger are a reminder that Louis hasn’t found him. Not really.

His eyes prickle, a new wetness coating them, and he knows he has to get out of here. He can’t just stay here and accept the fact that he somehow always gets so close, but never to the real thing. The truth of the matter is he really doesn’t know if he’ll ever see Marcel again. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever be so lucky as to kiss him again, to watch another movie with him or listen as he quotes Shakespeare. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever again be allowed to hold him as he sleeps, to feel him whisper sweet nothings just before he falls into a dream, confident perhaps only because he thinks Louis is already asleep.

He doesn’t know. And it’s devastating. He can’t understand why he left, why he disappeared from Louis’ life. He can’t understand why he’d kiss him and then just take that blossoming love away without any explanation.

His smile that night was genuine. Louis can’t believe otherwise. He’s replayed that moment when he first realized Marcel was going to kiss him and all the ones that followed a million times. And in none of them did Marcel seem anything but sure. Nervous, but happy. Content. Real.

And now he’s gone, and Louis is still trying to cope with the fact that he was right to worry. He really can’t breathe without him.

It’s worse in the bar, drunk strangers pushing him around, sloshing sugary cocktails and foamy beer onto his shoes, as he heads for the door in a dull panic. The music sounds like white noise, and the exit seems further away with every step. He doesn’t even know if Niall and Liam are following him.

Finally, he bursts out of the heavy atmosphere and into the warm night. He sinks to the ground just out of the way of any cars that might pull up, crossing his legs and hiding his face in his palms. And he cries.

He wishes with all of his heart, all that’s left, that he’d never learned to understand the language of love, of tragedy. That he didn’t have so many memories to haunt him with the sound of Marcel whispering declarations of love in the moonlight. That he’d never read any of it, that he could forget.

He knows he never will.

Alas, that love, so gentle in his view, should be so tyrannous and rough in proof.

……

It’s finally the premiere of the fall production, the night for which Louis and his cast mates have been preparing throughout the busy year. The backstage is bustling with excitement, costumes and makeup and stage props scattered everywhere, cheerful wishes of good luck and nervous last minute recitations filling the air.

Louis is so ready for this. He didn’t sleep at all last night, going over his lines again and again, like he doesn’t, by now, know them like the back of his hand. He’s dressed and done up and as prepared as he possibly could be. When the curtain rises, he comes alive.

He delivers his performance effortlessly, feeling as if he were born to be on this stage. Every costume change or quick break backstage comes with praise from his peers, which he easily returns, and frantic smiles from the director. The audience is wonderful tonight, laughing at all the right times, gasping with every twist.

It’s an interesting play. Thought-out and clever, it touches on important issues while maintaining the veil of dramedy. He’s having the time of his life. He tries not to let himself get carried away, to shout too loudly or wave his arms about too wildly out of such delight.

He’s happy. And with that happiness, the rush and the focus that comes with being on stage in front of hundreds of strangers, he’s also distracted.

That is, until he looks just a little further to the right than he has all night, wanting to really feel out the first few rows of the audience now that he’s gotten his nerves under control. He’s distracted until he glances out into the sea of faces and sees his brightest dream and darkest nightmare. Marcel, or well, a clone of him, sits smiling not twenty feet from where Louis stands on the stage.

He’s shaking suddenly, struggling to breathe. And someone is speaking to him, prompting him to say something. Words he knew only seconds ago are gone. He can’t remember what he’s supposed to say, what he’s meant to do. He can’t remember how to breathe, much less how to finish this scene. He frantically wishes for the curtain to fall from above and swallow him whole.

He moves against his every instinct, his every desire, and tears his gaze from the mirage in the audience. He focuses all of his energy on taking a deep breath, holding it for a practiced three-count, letting it go with the fear and the dizziness and the agony. He has to keep going. That’s his only choice. He just has to keep going. Despite the confusion and longing to reach out and see if he’s real, to get closer. Despite the sound of his heart in his ears and the queasiness in his gut. He has to keep going.

He does, eventually, pull himself together. With some gentle verbal nudging from his costar and a few nurturing embraces backstage during intermission, he distracts himself again, enough to get through the play and stand in the center of the cast line as the curtain rises one last time. They bow together, sweaty arms wrapped tightly around backs covered in thick, colorful costume material.

The stage lights are bright, but Louis can still see into the audience when his name is called last and he steps to the front of the stage to wave and thank his audience. And the illusion has evidently broken. There is no Marcel, no longer a phantom image of him haunting the far right.

Louis isn’t sure if he’s happy about his disappearance. The ghosts aren’t what he wants, of course. They aren’t real, aren’t tangible. But if he can’t have the real thing, can’t truly hold Marcel in his arms and kiss his perfectly pink lips and hear him whisper around shy smiles, then why shouldn’t he take the next best thing?

He rejoins the rest of the cast in their lineup as they take one last bow, the audience’s wonderfully loud applause following them offstage. After returning his costumes to the closet and collecting the entire garden his mum and sisters had sent to his dressing room, he takes his time leaving. He chooses the long route out of the arts center and toward the parking lot, letting himself recall bits and pieces of the night, allowing the glow of happiness to settle over his wildly-beating heart.

Eventually, his hand finds the door, and he pushes it open, inviting the surprisingly cool night air to wash over his heated face. He takes half a deep breath of that fresh air before all of it leaves his lungs in a rush and he feels his blood turn cold. Not five steps away is, again, someone who looks very much like the love of his life.

He apparently still hasn’t learned his lesson, because there’s hope in his heart even now.

Louis chances a step forward, not entirely sure that such an act of bravery won’t cause the ghost of him to float away on the breeze, but having to try.

The boy turns around as Louis takes the step that gives him the ability to reach out and touch if he had the courage. Breathing is impossible.

Green eyes, as bright as emeralds even in the darkness, magnified by a pair of glasses that don’t seem to want to stay where they belong. A small, nervous smile. Full, cherry red lips framed on either side by the deepest dimples Louis’ ever seen. Curls hidden away, perfectly slicked back into a stiff peak. A crisp, white button-up underneath a chunky sweater, sleeves on this one to make up for the chill in the air tonight.

A light breeze dances around them, respecting the silence. As it caresses Louis’ face, it brings with it the smell of autumn, of grass and books and laundry detergent. His throat tightens as tears well in his eyes, and he can’t believe this is happening. It’s Marcel. And everything about him is right. He’s really here, and he’s beautiful and perfect and real.

It’s a shock to hear his voice again, that sweet, angelic sound, when Marcel says, almost on a whisper, “You were wonderful tonight.”

Louis can’t speak, so he thanks him with a gentle touch of his hand, taking another step closer and reaching out to rest his palm against his rosy cheek. Marcel smiles, and Louis can’t resist dipping his thumb ever-so-tenderly into one of the dimples that have haunted his dreams for months. Marcel leans into the touch, pressing his face further into Louis’ hand. His eyes flutter shut, perhaps in a poor effort to hide the tears gathering on moonlit green, and Louis doesn’t need any more permission than that.

Every last flower, gripped tightly in his free hand by their solid stems, hit the ground silently as he holds something infinitely more beautiful, slipping his fingers into the hair at the back of Marcel’s neck and finally, finally, meeting his lips with his own. Marcel kisses him back immediately, Louis having just enough awareness of anything outside of breath against breath, lips on teeth and tongue and skin, to feel a pair of warm, shaky hands settling against his back, pulling him closer.

Any doubt Louis might have had upon looking at him disappeared the moment Marcel’s lips opened against his. He could never forget the feeling of this, the way Marcel kisses like he’s drowning and Louis is his only hope of ever breathing again. They kiss for minutes, hours, years, and Louis would never choose to end it, but Marcel eventually pulls away just enough that Louis is forced to open his eyes.

Louis waits for Marcel to say something, anything, but he doesn’t. They stand in each other’s arms, gazes never wavering. The quiet is comfortable, but there’s a heaviness, the air between them full of unspoken questions and a weight that, to Louis, feels a lot like hope.

“It’s really you,” Louis breathes.

Marcel leans in and kisses him sweetly, a soft brush of his lips. “I’m so sorry I left,” he murmurs. “I was...I was scared. I acted so cowardly. Please forgive me.” Another kiss, this time to Louis’ cheek, Marcel’s lips like a cooling balm against his flushed skin. “I’m so sorry, Lou.”

“Where did you go?” Louis asks. He must ask the question gently enough because Marcel doesn’t flinch or curl into himself. “I looked for you everywhere. You just...disappeared.”

“I volunteer as a camp counselor every summer,” he says. “Up in Washington. No cell phones. I have no excuse for leaving like I did, but I honestly didn’t see your messages until I got home a few days ago. I just...I woke up that morning, and I was watching you sleep. And something just came over me. I didn’t know what it was then, didn’t recognize the feeling. And it scared me. I was terrified. And I did the worst thing I could have done. I regret leaving so much. I’m so sorry if I worried you. If I made you think it wasn’t real to me.”

Louis swallows past the lump in his throat. “What was the feeling?” he asks carefully, trying in vain to hide his desperation. “Do you know now?”

Marcel nods, the movement jostling Louis where their foreheads touch. “Yeah,” he whispers, a smile growing on his lips. “Figured it out a long time ago.”

“What was it?” Louis whispers back, hoping he already knows the answer resting on Marcel’s tongue. Hoping it’s the same feeling that’s kept him from sleeping, pillows stained with tears but never slept on.

Marcel looks up into his eyes before kissing him still. When their lips part, he says, voice almost breaking on the single word, “Love.” Louis blinks to let a tear escape from his eye, dropping to his cheek only to be kissed away before Marcel says it again. “I love you.”

Louis breathes out a laugh, a frantic giggle born of delirious happiness. Marcel smiles back at him, kissing him as best he can, mostly catching his teeth, his nose wet with the fresh tears that refuse to stop falling from Louis’ eyes. “I love you, too,” he whispers, kissing him better, kissing him for real, how he dreamed of kissing him for so long. “I knew the day we met that I was in trouble. Knew I was going to fall in love with you,” he sighs.

“I love you, Louis,” Marcel says between kisses. “‘M so sorry, love you so much.”

Louis kisses him quiet, all things forgiven, all heartbreak so insignificant to this blinding joy. “No more apologies,” he says. “We’re okay now.” Marcel laughs unexpectedly as Louis pulls away to gather his discarded bouquets. He arches an eyebrow in question. “What’s so funny?”

“I’m very happy that I’m forgiven. Even happier that you love me,” he murmurs, smiling like he has a secret. “But I prepared a whole speech. Lots of Shakespeare. Want to hear my opening line?”

A startled laugh escapes Louis’ throat, and he nods, his mind calling back his own words he’d practiced for if he ever saw Marcel again, the words he forgot when it actually happened.

Marcel wraps his arms around Louis’ back, pulling him against his chest, flowers crushed between them. “Hear my soul speak,” he says, voice soft and smooth around the familiar words. “Of the very instant that I saw you, did my heart fly at your service.”

Louis understands, his heart fluttering wildly as he hears those words, ready to break free of his chest and fly into the night sky. He reigns in the lovesick feeling rolling through him and responds slyly, “ The Tempest. Nice choice.”

Marcel smiles. “You must have done alright on your exam if you still remember it now.”

Louis kisses him once more, lightly on the lips, his own moving to brush again Marcel’s jaw line. Just because he can. “Aced it, thanks to a cute boy with secret curls,” he says, messing up his hair even more, hoping for the chance to see those curls spread out on his pillow tonight and every night. Marcel blushes furiously, the heat spreading to light Louis’ heart on fire. “I practiced what I’d say to you, too, y’know,” he admits.

Marcel looks at him curiously. “Well, let me hear it then,” he teases. “What’ve you got?”

Louis knows he’s blushing, but he couldn’t possibly care. It doesn’t matter. Not with the way Marcel is gazing at him like he’s never seen anything more beautiful.

He takes a breath, Marcel overwhelming his every sense, and he recalls the words he’s whispered into his pillow more nights than he can count. “I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?”

Much Ado About Nothing is my favorite,” Marcel says, smiling.

Louis nods, enraptured by the ever-constant twinkle in Marcel’s eye. “I know.”

A moment passes between them in quiet comfort, both content only to be holding one another tightly. “You’re not angry with me?” Marcel asks.

Louis shakes his head, his nose catching on Marcel's in an Eskimo kiss. “I was never angry. Heartbroken, but never angry. I’m just so relieved it’s really you.”

Marcel’s brow furrows in confusion as he pulls away to look at him more clearly. “What do you mean?”

“I mean you’re not a pretend soldier or a cocky frat boy or a bloody rockstar!” He lets himself laugh about it now, now that the torture is over, the pain has dissipated. “I’ve been losing my mind all summer, seeing you everywhere. Imagining...I don’t know! Clones! Mirages! Tricks of the light! In every possible situation I find myself in. I’ve been going absolutely mad.”

Marcel bursts into laughter at his confession, and Louis feels the blush on his cheeks, but he can’t help but smile at Marcel’s amusement. Marcel covers his face, and his fingertips come away wet from tears. “Oh my God!” he wheezes, giggling so hard his eyes are nothing but slits as he throws his head back. “You’re weren’t imagining anything,” he says when he’s finally calm enough to speak.

“What do you mean?” Louis asks, repeating Marcel’s question from before.

Marcel’s answer comes out all tense and high-pitched, like he trying not to laugh again. “You must have met my brothers. We, um...we look alike. What are the chances you’d run into all of them?”

“What?!” Louis exclaims, laughing with Marcel as he starts up again.

“Yeah, um. The soldier would have to be Alex. He’s an actor. Shooting a war film right now. Then there’s who I would guess was Edward. He wears his fraternity letters everywhere. Was probably wearing that stupid red hat we all tease him about. And lastly, Harry just signed a record deal. He’s been performing all over lately. I suppose you could consider him a rockstar if you didn’t know him. He’s really a huge dork.”

“I can’t believe what you’re saying to me right now,” Louis says, replaying all of those stranger encounters in his head, his grip on sanity finally being validated.

Marcel sighs, exhaling the last of his laughter. “I’ll have to introduce you. You’ll like them. They’re a lot cooler than me.”

“I doubt that very much,” Louis argues, kissing Marcel’s already red lips, wishing to paint them even darker.

Marcel accepts the kiss, giving back all that Louis has ever dreamed of. “I’m not many people’s favorite of the bunch.”

“You’re my favorite,” Louis says, encouraging the rosiness on Marcel’s cheeks to brighten. He relishes another moment in Marcel’s arms before stepping back. He takes his hand and pulls him along as he begins the journey to his apartment, knowing Marcel wants to be together as badly as he does, that there’s nothing on Earth strong enough to take him away again.

Marcel slides up beside him, letting go of his hand only to grasp it tighter as they walk, hips bumping together, fingers entwined.

“The course of true love never did run smooth,” Marcel says later, as they lie pressed together under warm, rumpled sheets. He kisses Louis’ shoulder, his collarbone, his sore neck covered in blooming, kaleidoscopic bruises. “I guess we should have known.”

And Louis would have to agree. But as he gazes at Marcel, creamy skin bright in the moonlight, lips swollen and kiss-bitten, curls wild and dark against the white of his pillow, he knows they’ll be just fine.

After all, love is forever and a day.