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The Blood of Words

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It all starts the night 'The Stars Within'  is declared number one on the New York Times Best Seller list for the fourth week in a row. The entire office is buzzing with excitement, editors and their assistants moving from cubicle to cubicle, congratulating each other on a job well done in shrill voices punctuated with dreamy whispers about what it might mean for their tiny publishing house to have a book be so globally successful. The two people forming the entirety of their marketing department did a Tesco run earlier in the evening when the news first broke, bringing back three frozen strawberry cheesecakes as well a couple of five quid bottles of wine, and their spoils are now making their ways across their open-plan office space rather quickly.

With an average of fewer than six books published by their company every year, they have every right to be excited, Louis figures. Still, he’s only halfway through the manuscript he told himself he would finish today, so he turns another page and tries to tune the noises out.

Most days he understands and respects the lack of walls and obstruction on their floor, but in the midst of what is rapidly becoming a full-blown party, Louis allows himself one second to dream about a door to his office space. He sighs, adjusting his glasses absently for a second before focusing his gaze back on the page.

He can’t quite decide what to think of this one. The story isn’t anything revolutionary, some family drama set in the Scottish Highlands written by an English author who thinks the great big North is an adequate metaphor for the disconnect between his protagonists, and on any other day Louis might have already dismissed it, but the prose flows well enough to keep him engaged. 

It doesn’t quite belong in the 'no' pile yet.

He’s so lost in thoughts that he doesn’t hear the approaching clicking sound of his boss’ heels and he jumps in his seat when she drops a cheesecake slice on a Nando’s napkin leftover from her lunch on his desk.

“Bloody hell,” Louis whispers, one hand going to his chest to calm his racing heart while the other keeps his page in the manuscript. “Don’t scare me like that,” he adds warningly. “You know I hate being startled.”

Gemma laughs. “If you didn’t work so hard, you wouldn’t be startled,” she replies matter-of-factly, putting a bottle of wine right next to the napkin. “Can I tempt you with a glass?” she asks, drumming her fingers against the bottle, the red of her nail polish striking.  

“You’re probably the only CEO in London complaining about their employees working too hard, you know that?” Louis says teasingly, setting the manuscript aside with a pen between the pages to ensure he won’t lose his spot.

“I’m probably the only CEO in London with a such a stubborn employee who refuses to celebrate his victories and prefers to drown himself in work,” she says without skipping a beat. 

There are multiple reasons why Gemma Styles is the best boss Louis has had in his life and her quick wit and willingness to banter are but two of them.

“Well,” Louis says dryly, grabbing his mug and wiping any tea leftover with a tissue before handing it to Gemma so she can pour him some red wine, “lucky you, I suppose.”

She hums, pouring the liquid carefully before sitting down on Louis’ desk, one bum cheek on the corner of the furniture and one leg folded over the other. She’s delicately balanced with only one foot still on the floor to make sure she doesn’t fall over and on anyone else, the posture would be ridiculous, but she is a force to be reckoned with and even gravity knows it. It helps she renounced the pencil skirt today in favour of a flattering jumpsuit that ensures no awkward slip up when she starts mounting furniture. 

“I am lucky,” she confirms, giving Louis a small pleased smile. “None of this would have happened without you.”

Louis scoffs, hiding his face in the mug as he takes a big gulp, feeling his cheeks redden at the compliment. He’s proud of his work, of course, but not to the point of taking sole credit.

“I’d say it was a team effort,” he amends politely.

“A team effort?” Gemma snorts. “Louis, I love you, but 'The Stars Within' was your pet project. You found the manuscript. You believed in it when a lot of people didn’t. You worked relentlessly to make it the best book it could be. Please. Join the party and take the credit, alright? We’re on the NYT Best Seller List!” she finishes excitedly, shaking Louis’ shoulder.

Louis chuckles, warmth and happiness blooming in his chest. “We are,” he agrees, finally letting a smile appear in the corner of his mouth. “But so were we last week. And the week before. I think I’ve celebrated enough. I really have to finish this one.”

“Ugh,” Gemma groans. “Honestly, do you have to be so boring?”

“I’m afraid so,” Louis agrees with a solemn nod. “You know I’m married to my work.”

“Yes, unfortunately,” she says dramatically, widening her eyes. “We really need to do something about that by the way. I could -”

“No,” Louis interrupts before she can go any further. “I will not be set up. We’ve talked about this.”

“Yes and you are ridiculously stubborn every single time. But honestly, I know so many single gay men who would -”

“Right, because gay and single is my only partner requirement,” he replies jokingly. It’s not the first time they’ve had this conversation and it certainly won’t be the last.

Like most happily partnered people, Gemma suffers from the incurable disease of wanting to see every other human on the planet similarly loved up. It would be sweet if it weren’t so disgusting. And no matter what Louis’ therapist says about putting himself back out there and being ready, Louis doesn’t think so. Not now. Maybe not ever, but certainly not yet. 

Gemma hits him softly behind the head with a tutting noise, shaking her head disapprovingly at his cheekiness, and it takes everything in his power not to flinch and keep a smile on his face.

“You know that’s not what I meant!” she says, pouting exaggeratedly. “Although,” she adds, a wicked grin blossoming on her face, “if you’re willing to talk about the kind of man you’re looking for I’m all ears!”

Louis chuckles, rolling his eyes at her antics. “You know, I’m pretty sure this counts as harassment,” he declares, putting the mug back down on his desk. 

It’s an enamel yellow atrocity that his sister bought for 70p in a charity shop back home in Doncaster. To this day, Louis still doesn’t know what motivated her to buy it, but she gave it to him as a gift when he first got the gig at Styles Publishing, back when the company consisted only of Gemma, her best friend Chloe and a lot of hope. Louis can still remember the confusion and anxiety on his mother’s face when he announced he was moving all the way to London for an assistant editor job at a tiny startup, with no backup plan whatsoever. 

His sister, fortunately, had been more understanding. She’d known, without him having to say, that he needed this fresh start, needed the escape. So she’d given him the mug as a show of support, had grabbed the first thing she could find in the kitchen that was hers and symbolically handed it over. From the very first incarnation of Styles Publishing in the spare bedroom of Chloe’s parents’ London vacation house to their entire floor in Central London, the mug has served as a reminder of Louis’ roots.

“Please,” Gemma scoffs, “since when is caring about the happiness of my employees harassment?”

“I could go to HR,” Louis insists, pushing the joke further to avoid the uncomfortable tightening of his chest at her words.

Gemma hums thoughtfully. “To be honest, I think Chloe would agree with me. In the four years you’ve been working for me, I don’t think I’ve heard you mention going on a date once.” 

Louis pretends to ponder it as he picks up a tiny piece of cheesecake from the napkin. He pops it into his mouth and takes the time to chew and swallow before answering. “S’cause I’m a professional,” he reveals, tapping the discarded manuscript on his desk lightly. “I don’t think work is the most appropriate place to discuss my love life.” 

“So you’ve been on plenty of dates then?” Gemma asks and she truly does know him too well.

“I’ve been on dates,” Louis scoffs, bits of cake that were stuck to the corner of his mouth flying off.

He’s been on three dates. Two of them with the same man.

“Oh yeah ? With who?” Gemma asks, pouring more wine into his mug, probably in an attempt to coax him into joining the party. Or to make him talk. Or both.

“That’s actually none of your business.” 

Gemma sighs and shakes her head. “You’re a wonderful human being Louis,” she replies too sincerely, “and when you’re ready to open your heart, I will set you up with the hottest men in London.”

“Yeah yeah, sure you will,” he says dismissively, reaching for the manuscript again.

“Oh, not the manuscript again!” Gemma moans when she sees him. “It’s a party, stop working.” 

“I need to finish reading this, or do you not want me to find your next best seller?”

Gemma snorts unattractively, giving the manuscript a slightly judgemental look. “You think that’s our next best seller then? That’s the father and son Highland trip, no?”

“Yes,” Louis replies, feeling a bit defensive after spending half the afternoon with the story. “And it could be. It’s not revolutionary so far, but it’s not without potential.”

“High praises.” 

“I’m only halfway through,” Louis adds. “The finale could be mind-blowing.”

“Fair enough,” Gemma says with a flick of her hand. She pauses. “I really can’t convince to join our celebration, can I?”

She doesn’t look too upset. After all, after four years she knows him well enough to know attention and care to his work are as integral to who he is as the blue of his eyes.

“Not unless you want me to bring this bad boy home and spend the entire weekend working.” 

Gemma’s face falls into a horrified grimace. “Don’t you dare,” she whispers threateningly and Louis can’t help but burst into laughter at the appalled look on her face. 

“Not this time,” he amends. “We are on the NYT Best Seller list for the fourth consecutive week, after all. I think even I deserve a break.”

Gemma’s grin is contagious and suddenly they’re both giggling like school children, overly proud of all that they have accomplished. 

“If you’re not joining us tonight, you’re definitely coming tomorrow, right?” Gemma asks as she gets up from his desk.

“What’s tomorrow?” Louis asks, frowning slightly. “Did I miss something?”

“Dinner Party at my flat? To celebrate?” Gemma says. “I sent a text?”

“Ah,” Louis says, glancing at his phone lying forgotten in the corner of his desk. “I guess I was too busy with the Smith family to notice.”

Gemma’s eyes widen. “The Smith family? Really? Could that be more generic?”

Louis shrugs half-heartedly. “I think it’s on purpose actually. The everyday family and their issues. Bit on the nose when it comes to symbolism but…”

“Gee, I understand why you couldn’t check your texts then, what with such gripping storytelling techniques.”

“Should I just stop reading this?” Louis asks with a laugh. “If you’re clearly not interested in publishing it?”

Gemma shakes her head, waving her hands in his face. “No, no, no. Of course not. I trust you. You’re my miracle worker. If you think it’s worth it, then it’s worth it.”

“Alright.”

“But you’re coming to the dinner party,” she declares just before starting to walk away. “I know you like to isolate yourself and live a quiet life, but it’s literally just a roast between friends and coworkers. I never force you to do anything like that, but this time please show up for me,” she adds, fluttering her eyelashes prettily at him.

Louis narrows his eyes in suspicion. “No men?”

“Well, some,” Gemma admits. “Niall will be there since he lives with me,” she adds, referencing her boyfriend. “You’ll be there as well and some others from the office.” 

“No gays then?” Louis double-checks, afraid he’s about to walk into a trap.

Gemma winces. “Can’t guarantee it.”

Louis sighs. “No singles?” he asks lastly, tone very serious. 

“Potentially, but no overlap of the three categories that’s for sure.”

“Fine,” Louis finally agrees, weakened by the sense of victory over their recent professional triumph. “I’ll go. But only because this is partly a work event and also because I’m proud of our work on 'The Stars Within' .” 

Gemma raises a triumphant fist over her head,  starting to make her way across the office to rejoin the party.

“Louis is IN for tomorrow!” she yells. “The gift is a go!” she adds, turning back to wink at him as their coworkers start cheering, raising their glasses towards him.

He blushes a bit, waving them off with a grin on his face before getting back to the manuscript and letting himself be transported by the words on the page again.

&&&

It’s almost past nine-thirty by the time Louis makes it back to his flat. He makes his way up the three flight of stairs easily, pushing the door open and smiling when he hears the faint sound of Tchaikovsky coming from Zayn’s bedroom. He takes off his dress shoes quickly, dropping them carelessly next to the pile of vans and converses in the entryway.

He must have been making more noise than he meant to because, by the time he’s entered the kitchen and started sniffing around his flatmate’s leftovers for something to eat, he hears a faint “hiya” through the flat.

“Hey!” Louis calls back, knowing Zayn is probably painting and that’s why he hasn’t been greeted properly yet. “Haven’t had my tea yet, can I eat your Chinese?” he asks, eyeing the noodles Zayn ordered a couple of days ago but never finished.  

He waits a few seconds, leaning against the opened fridge door before Zayn predictably walks into the kitchen. He’s wearing his usual painting uniform; frayed denim shorts that have seen better days, grey wool socks bunched around his ankles and nothing on top, flickers of paint scattered on his torso. Louis, who runs cold even on the best of summer days, isn’t quite sure how his flatmate manages to tolerate such an outfit in the midst of autumn.

“Close the door,” Zayn says, absently gesturing towards the fridge before making his way straight to the sink to rinse his paintbrush.

“Chinese?” Louis begs, fluttering his eyelashes and cradling the plate to his chest.

He starts walking to the microwave to heat it up seconds before Zayn waves him off, mumbling “yeah yeah” under his breath.

“Good evening then?” Louis asks to Zayn’s back while he waits.

“Not too bad,” Zayn replies in a tone that’s not quite positive, finally turning around and leaning against the sink. “Got off work early though so that was nice. Was quiet so Boss Man closed the shop at six thirty. Gave me more time to work on this commission from hell.”

“Still frustrated with it?” Louis asks, wrinkling his nose and making a sympathetic noise in the back of his throat when Zayn grimaces.

“S’just not what I usually do. I really want to honour the client’s vision but…” he trails off, shrugging.

“Maybe you’re just too much of a perfectionist,” Louis teases as the microwave dings loudly.

Zayn snorts. “Pot meet kettle,” he replies dryly. “Don’t most people with office jobs come home for six?”

“I’m in a creative field,” Louis says with dramatic flair, moaning loudly when he takes a first bite of the noodles. “These are good,” he adds, mouth full.

“Yeah well, me too. And this guy is paying me a lot for that portrait. I don’t want to give him something he doesn’t like!”

“But you don’t want to give him something you don’t like either,” Louis points out before slurping loudly on his - Zayn’s - noodles. They’ve had a variation of this conversation every night this week, but Louis doesn’t mind. For all of his taciturn vibe, Zayn really does like talking things through to make sense of them.

He nods in response before sighing.

“At least you’ve still got time,” Louis offers comfortingly. “Didn’t he say he’s okay with you extending the timeline as well?”

“Yeah, but that’s not ideal. I mean… The goal is for him to recommend me to people.”

“Still, if you deliver a good product I don’t see how a little longer to wait would truly bother him.”

“I suppose so,” Zayn agrees. “Congrats by the way,” he adds with a small smile. “Saw the list online.”

Louis doesn’t stop himself when a satisfied grin blossoms on his face. “Fourth week in a row,” he declares, wiggling his eyebrows.

“Hell yeah!” Zayn agrees, offering him his fist to bump. His mum would probably say he’s too old for this, that he’s a professional now, but he lets his knuckles brush against Zayn’s anyway. “Are you taking time off work to celebrate? God knows you deserve it.”

Louis rolls his eyes. “Oh my god, is it some sort of conspiracy theory today? Gemma was on my case ‘cause I don’t party or date enough. She’s mad I’m working too much apparently and now you with the holiday talk,” he adds with a laugh, shaking his head.

“Smart woman,” Zayn agrees even though they’ve only briefly met.

“Well that’s true, but still. I’m quite happy working you know. If I had a job I hated like you, things might be different but…”  

“I don’t hate my job,” Zayn protests even though he complains about it every day. “Sure, the record store isn’t amazing, but I like music enough and it gives me enough time off to paint.”

“It’s customer service and you have social anxiety, but sure bro, you don’t hate your job,” Louis deadpans.

Zayn scoffs. “Well if people weren’t so unbearable…” he mumbles with an eye roll. “Honestly, this lady went off today because we don’t have a loo for customers.”

Louis snorts unattractively. “Gotta love when they do that,” he teases, eager to hear more. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a good story about someone being a twat. Louis almost misses his days at the Rovers Stadium for the anecdotes they procured him.

Almost.

Zayn sighs, displaying the kind of exhaustion only working with the public can cause. “Right? It’s like… I don’t know how to explain to you I’m emotionally detached from your bladder issues and calling me a,” his voice takes on a higher pitch as he imitates the woman’s obnoxious American accent, “ fucking douche is not gonna make a toilet appear for you.”

“Wow,” Louis says with a laugh, almost choking on the bite of noodles he was about to eat.

Zayn nods solemnly. “It was good we closed early today,” he says with an overly polite smile on his face.

Louis snorts. “I bet.”

“Still, just because you like your job more than I like mine doesn’t mean you don’t deserve some time off. Or even just time to celebrate like Gemma wants you to.”

“I’m going to a party tomorrow,” Louis offers casually to get Zayn off his back. It worked with Gemma after all so it's worth a try.

“No you’re not,” Zayn snorts, kicking Louis lightly in the ankle, making him shriek away from his scratchy socks.

“Yes I am,” Louis insists, dropping the last two bites of his noodles into the trash and leaving his plate on the counter before folding his arms across his chest.

“Highly out of character, but good for you actually,” Zayn says. “You gonna wash that?” he adds after a beat.

Louis sighs and makes a big deal of grabbing the plate before going to the sink to rinse it.

“With soap,” Zayn says like Louis is some sort of domestic heathen who doesn’t know how to do the most basic things, like his own room isn’t an absolute disaster that resembles more a Jackson Pollock than an actual living space.

“I know,” Louis scoffs as he continues the task. “Okay, so it’s not quite a 'Party' party,” he admits after a beat, ignoring Zayn’s predictable laugh. “It’s a dinner party at Gemma’s. She’s getting a couple of friends and coworkers together to celebrate ' The Stars Within' ’s success. Or something..”

“So it’s not a party at all and it’s a work event.”

“I like to think it’s a bit of both,” Louis argues. “Gemma isn’t overly formal as a CEO anyway. I’m pretty sure she’s invited people from outside the company. It’s really just an informal 'yay we did it!!!'  kinda thing.”

“That’s cool,” Zayn finally says when Louis has finished washing and drying his plate. “Hope you have fun mate. You definitely deserve a night out.”

“Yeah,” Louis agrees even though he doubts it’ll be anything remarkable.

&&&

Louis wouldn’t call himself a hermit per se, but it’s events like these that make him proud to lead the kind of life he does, a life where he almost never forces himself to attend soirees he has no interest in. Those kinds of evenings can be so dull is the thing. Still, his colleagues are mostly good conversationalists and Gemma’s friends can only be described as fun, but it's only halfway through the evening and Louis is already mentally making excuses to leave straight after dessert. Maybe he can fake a flatmate-related emergency? Or simply exaggerate his fatigue? 

Everyone is huddled close together around the table, elbows knocking as guests eat the delicious food Gemma prepared for them, and it’s getting uncomfortably hot for a mid-October evening. Louis is half listening to a conversation that’s happening a few chairs away, nodding when he feels is appropriate, when something interesting finally happens.

“Hey everyone,” a raspy voice calls from the door.

The entire table turns towards the noise, conversation dying down as everyone takes in the man who just arrived.

“Sorry I’m late. I brought wine though,” he says, showing what seems to be an expensive bottle, even though Louis can’t read the label all the way across the open living room and dining room space.

“Harry!” Gemma exclaims happily at the sight of her brother, getting up from her chair and joining him at the entrance. She doesn’t even give him the time to take off his denim jacket or put the bottle down before wrapping her arms around him in a tight embrace. “You made it!”

Louis eyes them up and down from his seat at the corner of the table. He’s got his back to the entrance which makes sneaking a look a bit difficult, but he can’t help feeling curious. After four years with Styles Publishing, Louis has yet to catch a peek of the younger Styles sibling. Oh, he’s heard plenty about him that’s for sure, but despite considering his sister to be one of his closest friends and despite having met their parents on more than one occasion, Harry has always remained a bit of a mystery.

Said mystery is now pressing a kiss into his sister's cheek, whispering something in her ear before letting go of the hug.

“So for everyone who hasn’t met him yet, this is my little brother Harry,” Gemma says with fondness, pushing him further into the flat, past the sofa and into the dining room area. “He’s sorry he’s late but he had a training session this afternoon that ran too long. As usual." She adds the last part a bit sternly, reaching for the jacket he's just taken off and throwing it onto the armchair in the corner of her living room. She whispers a small "yes" to herself when the jacket lands perfectly on the furniture, making everyone at the table laugh. "See," she tells Harry, "you're not the only athletically gifted person in this family." 

Harry smiles at her, rolling his eyes before turning his body towards the filled table. He waves at everyone with a bit of a dorky smile and Louis can't help but feel endeared at the sight of his sweater paws. "Hey," he says. "Sorry again. Really wasn't planning on leaving the gym so late, but my manager and I lost track of time." 

"Yeah, yeah," Gemma says sarcastically. "Easy to blame Liam when he's not here to defend himself. Still, I’ll forgive you this time since you’re actually in the country to celebrate my professional success for once,” she adds teasingly before turning a calculating look towards the table.

Since Louis has the only empty chair to his right, he knows what she’s going to say seconds before it happens.

“There,” she exclaims, pointing at the tiny sliver of space next to Louis before sprinting towards the kitchen, coming back only a few seconds later with a wine glass. “Well, go on then,” she whispers, pushing him towards the seat. She puts the glass on the table, ignoring Louis completely before adding“I’ll get you a plate" and vanishing again.

“Hey,” Harry says as he squeezes into the seat. His waist is tiny enough to fit, but his shoulders are quite broad, so he looks a bit uncomfortable when he finally makes it. “Sorry,” he mumbles apologetically to Louis when their arms brush as he reaches for the wine glass Gemma just put on the table for him. He smiles sheepishly, one dimple popping unexpectedly. “I’m Harry,” he adds like Gemma hasn’t already introduced him to everyone a few seconds ago. He smells fresh, Louis can’t help but notice, not at all like someone who just spent an afternoon training.

Harry Styles, Louis thinks avidly. 25 years old, lives in London but travels a lot for work. He’s some sort of athlete, which makes sense considering his shape, Louis notes appreciatively, though he can never quite remember what he actually does. He’s sure Gemma has mentioned it more than once, but Louis, who has little interest in sports beyond football, usually tunes her out. He does remember her telling him that once when they were kids, Harry told their mother that Gemma was a drug dealer to get back at her. It’s clearly a favourite story of hers, if only for the way she tells it, barely able to stop herself from laughing before she’s finished. She’s never quite mean when she talks about him, but Louis, who has a small army of younger siblings himself, is quite familiar with the particular brand of pride and annoyance that comes with being the eldest. She always gets very soft, losing her edge when she mentions something she’s proud of, like the fact that Harry has some sort of social science degree and isn’t just a meathead. History? Art History? Louis can’t remember.  

“Hey,” he replies politely with a nod, unsure why he’s so taken aback. “I’m Louis.”

Harry’s eyes widen in recognition. He smiles even bigger now. Impossibly, a second dimple appears. Oh, Louis thinks and it takes him by surprise, the sudden flare of arousal and attraction.

He hasn’t been attracted to someone so effortlessly in a long time.

“So you’re the illustrious Louis then?” Harry says teasingly, but with no malice as he pours himself some red wine.

“Illustrious?” Louis asks, still a bit shaken. His eyes drift to the shape of Harry’s hand around his glass.

“Oh yes,” Harry confirms before taking a sip. “You have quite the reputation in my family,” he adds, eyes twinkling.

They’re green, Louis’ brain supplies uselessly, matching almost exactly the colour of his jumper. “Careful,” he replies, letting his voice drop to a well-practised teasing tone, “you’re going to give me performance anxiety.”

Harry snorts into his glass. “Am I?”

“Illustrious,” Louis repeats slowly, lowering his voice to make himself sound dramatic. “That’s a lot of pressure.”

Harry shrugs and Louis gets distracted for a second by the way his curls brush against his shoulders. “If it makes you feel better, you’re doing great so far.”

“Well I haven’t said anything yet, so I don’t think it counts.”

“Fair enough,” Harry agrees, smiling at his sister when she approaches their side of the table to give him a plate. “Thanks, Gems,” he says, squeezing her arm softly.

“Are you two making friends?” she asks, a hint too eager. “Louis needs more friends,” she adds to her brother in a whisper.

“That’s offensive,” Louis deadpans. “I’m offended. I have plenty of friends,” he says for Harry's benefit and he's not sure why he feels such a strong need to defend himself.  He sighs deeply at Gemma, shaking his head slightly before winking at Harry. “That being said,” he adds, “you don’t have anything to worry about. Your two favourite boys are getting on well. You can go back to your seat and stop micromanaging us.”

“Niall would be one of my favourite boys way before you,” Gemma replies automatically with a judgemental gaze.

“It’s okay,” Louis teases, putting a hand on Gemma’s arm. “He’s on the other side of the room, he can’t hear you. You don’t have to lie to protect his feelings.” He’s about to keep going, to tease her some more when he jumps a little in his seat at a squeaky noise coming from his closer dining companion.

Louis turns, delighted to see Harry laughing now silently, both of his hands hiding his mouth.

“You’re an idiot,” Gemma says, rolling her eyes and pushing Louis’ hand away. “And you,” she adds, pointing to her brother. She shakes her head. “I should have known you’d encourage him.”

“I’m not doing anything,” Harry protests with a scoff, stopping himself laughing long enough to reply.

“Yeah, yeah… Eat the food before it gets cold,” she says authoritatively, ruffling her brother’s hair before leaving them alone.

There’s a beat of awkward silence after she leaves. Harry isn’t laughing anymore and Louis isn’t quite sure what to say. After a long pause, Harry finally listens to his sister’s instructions and starts eating with enthusiasm, tongue first as he takes big bites.

“Hungry then?” Louis asks with a small chuckle.

Harry swallows, cheeks heating a bit in what Louis assumes is embarrassment. “Sorry,” he says sheepishly. “I’m famished. I usually eat straight after training, but I was already late enough as it is, so I only had enough time to finish my morning smoothie.”

Louis winces. “Not ideal, I’ll give it to you. And I’m not judging. I’m astonished at how quickly you’re inhaling that chicken roast, but I’m not judging.”

Harry snorts. “Yes, I can see from your eyebrows how much not judging you’re doing right now,” he teases, pointing his fork in Louis’ direction.

“No judgement,” Louis insists, “simply care and concern for my CEO’s little brother. That’s all. Wouldn’t want you to choke because between you and me, I don’t know the Heimlich manoeuvre and by the time someone who does extract themselves from this very tightly packed table, you’ll most likely be dead. And then…. whatever sport it is you do for a living will have lost its greatest representative.”

“I see why you’re in the writing and publishing industry,” Harry simply says after Louis’ rant.

“Oh do you?” Louis asks, raising his eyebrows, curious about Harry’s opinion against his better judgement.

“You’ve got quite a vivid imagination.”

Louis smiles. “What’s life without it?” he asks softly, not expecting an answer.

Harry hums before taking another massive bite off his meal, giving Louis a small side-glance.

“Boxing,” he finally says with a smirk, like that has anything to do with what they were discussing.

“I beg your pardon,” Louis, reaching for his wine glass and pushing his plate a little bit forward, just enough for him to have space to put one elbow on the table, his chin leaning on his palm. He can mentally hear his grandma scolding him for the terrible etiquette, but yet, he soldiers on.

“The sport I do,” Harry elaborates though Louis supposes he should have realised. “I’m a boxer. I’d have thought Gemma would have mentioned it.”

“She probably did,” Louis admits before taking a sip. “But if it’s not Football, I have very little interest in sports. Especially not mindlessly violent ones.” He adds that last part in a quick whisper, mostly to himself, punctuated with an impolite eye roll he couldn’t keep in even if he tried.

He doesn’t want to get into an argument with a stranger, especially not one he likes as much as he does Harry so far, but he can’t pretend to like the gratuitous spectacle of violence. Not even for a man with eyes as pretty as Harry Styles.

“Boxing isn’t mindlessly violent,” Harry replies and to Louis’ surprise, he doesn’t sound annoyed.

Louis laughs. “Okay,” he replies with a nod, old habits dying hard as he tries to make peace for a conflict that isn’t even happening.

“A lot of people think that,” Harry continues easily, “but I can’t see it that way.”

“I guess it would be weird if you did.”

“Yeah,” Harry agrees. “Don’t think I could let my entire livelihood depend on something I have no respect for. I think it’s a beautiful sport,” he admits. “To me, it’s about the discipline required. And about being in shape and being in total control of your body.”

Louis smiles politely as he listens. “I just have a hard time forgetting the fact that the entire goal of the sport is to knock someone out,” he replies with a small shrug. “I don’t mean to be rude about what you do, I just don’t get it. It’s worse than American Football,” he adds with disdain,  “and they like to throw each other around quite violently.”

“No,” Harry interrupts passionately, eyes lighting up as he starts elaborating on something he clearly loves dearly. “See that’s a complete misconception. The goal isn’t to get a K.O.”

“It’s not?” Louis asks, frowning a little before he takes another sip of wine.

Harry shakes his head. “Nope,” he replies, exaggerating the p sound in a way that shouldn’t be cute. “It’s a surprisingly strategic sport. The aim is to gain as many points as possible.”

“By hitting your opponent a lot.”

“In strategic areas, yes.”

“You’re still hitting him,” Louis says, throat closing up uncomfortably.

“And he’s hitting me.”

“I guess I just don’t understand how anyone could feel joy hitting people, or being hit, or watching people do those things.”

Harry’s gaze shifts subtly at the harshness of Louis’ tone. He’s about to apologise for being rude when Harry gives him a very pointed look.

“Then I guess I’ll stop trying to change your mind,” he says respectfully, taking Louis by surprise.

“Thank you.”

“And I don’t particularly feel joy hitting people,” Harry adds after a beat. He wrinkles his nose, looking up and making a slight humming sound. “Actually,” he finally says, “I don’t think I’ve ever hit someone outside the ring."

“Really? No drunken uni brawl?” Louis asks, finding this hard to believe. It’s not that Harry exudes a particularly violent energy, but Louis can’t help but wonder how it would be possible for someone to have such an aggressive hobby and not let it bleed through everything else.

Harry laughs, then licks his lower lip. He gives Louis a quick once over, before leaning forward in what Louis is quite certain is an accidentally seductive way. “Nah, see,” he starts saying, voice low and distracting, “the problem with dickheads who drunkenly hit people is that they’ve got no healthy outlet for their aggression. I do.”

Louis can’t help the bitter chuckle that escapes his mouth at Harry’s comment. “Yeah,” he agrees without elaborating, not really in the mood to explain how he’s intimately familiar with that particular brand of dickheads.

“What about you?” Harry asks vaguely when the silence has stretched far beyond the comfortable point.

Louis blinks at him owlishly, racking his brain as to what Harry could possibly be asking him. There’s a tiny part of his brain - the usually incredibly unhelpful one - that wonders if it’s written all over his face. If his reaction to Harry’s comment might have been too obvious, his silence too revelatory.

“What about me?” he finally asks, slowly and carefully, before bringing his wine glass to his lips again. He doesn’t let himself dwell on the automatic satisfaction he feels at the fact that his hand isn’t shaking.

Harry shrugs. “I don’t know,” he replies. “Editing? Publishing? All we’ve done is talk about me and the fact you hate my job, I’m trying to bring the conversation into less awkward territory.”

“Oh,” Louis mouths silently, relief spreading through his body, fast and effective. He smiles. “I don’t know that there’s anything I have to say about my work at Styles Publishing that your sister hasn’t already told you twice over to be honest. I know I certainly annoy my siblings to death with work anecdotes. And they do the same.”

“I like Gemma’s stories!” Harry protests and their closeness is something Louis always found incredibly endearing, even before he got to meet Harry.

It’s one of the reasons him and Gemma got along so fast and easily he suspects, both of them elder siblings who would take a bullet for their family, unapologetically fond of their siblings in a world where cynicism and disliking your kin is the trend. Especially when they were in their early twenties; Louis with his gaggle of teenage sisters he refused to disown or be embarrassed about and Gemma with her younger brother who was taking centre stage with his blossoming career, easily upstaging her in every way. Yet the fondness in her tone never faltered, the pride in her eyes only increased.

And from taking one look at Harry, Louis can tell it’s mutual.

“I’m sure you do. I don’t deny that. I’m just saying… I know how it is to hear the same kind of anecdote over and over again. Gets a bit tiring.”

Harry scoffs, an amused spark twinkling in his eyes. “You mustn't know Gemma as well as you think. She’d never be caught repeating herself,” he whispers, glancing at the opposite side of the table where she’s entertaining people with what seems to be a story about one of their most difficult writer.

Louis can’t help bursting into laughter, muffling the sound with his hand when half the people listening to Gemma turn around to see what the commotion is about.

“He’s fine,” Harry says with a dismissive wave of his hand before putting it carefully on Louis’ shoulder.

It’s not a sudden movement. Harry’s hand is warm and light against Louis’ body and somehow he can feel him seep through his shirt like he’s touching him properly. When pressed, Louis would admit it’s not an unwanted gesture.

He still jerks away automatically, body reacting before his mind can even process what just happened.

“Sorry,” Harry says, taking his hand away and putting a few more inches between their bodies despite the tight fit around the table. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to -”

“You’re right,” Louis interrupts, turning slightly away from Harry and facing the table again. “Gemma would rather die than be caught repeating herself. She’s above all of us in that way.”

He waits for a second, then two, then three, silently hoping Harry will drop it.

“Right,” Harry replies slowly and Louis can see him awkwardly putting both of his hands between his legs underneath the table in the corner of his eyes. “So… what made you want to become an editor?”

“I just loved stories…” Louis admits. “Loved them more than anything else.”

He’d always told them is the thing. To his mother, when he started having the words for all the worlds that lived inside of him. To his younger siblings, when they were old enough to listen. When they were old enough to beg their mother for just 'five more minutes before bedtime so Lou can finish the scene please mummy!' Even before they were old enough, Louis would always cradle them as babies, whisper tales and adventures in their ears, delighting in the sleepy noises they would make in response. He would tell them to his friends at school, would act out entire elaborate plays about grave dangers and last minute victories. But more importantly, he always told stories to himself. When the lights went out and things got tough, Louis would tell himself stories. After all, he more than anyone knows the incredible power words can hold.

“Why not become a writer then?” Harry asks and Louis’ mind flashes to the little black notebooks hidden underneath his mattress, to the novel that’s nowhere near perfect enough or finished enough to show someone yet, to the secret he’s holding close to his heart until he feels brave enough to share it.

Louis grimaces exaggeratedly. “Too much work,” he admits and it’s not a lie, not quite. “Ever tried writing a novel?” he demands.

“No,” Harry says, passing a hand through his hair, moving hypnotically without even trying.

“Well, it’s rubbish,” Louis reveals, emphasising the last word as much as he can. After all, he’d know. “Honestly, such hard work and so little reward. Even on a good day. And if you’re lucky and persistent enough, you might end up with a first draft that’s automatically going to be horrible and then you need to rewrite it about a dozen time to make it good.”

“So I take it you tried and gave up?” Harry says with a laugh and something about the word choice rubs Louis the wrong way.

“Let’s say I realised editing is my favourite part anyway and that I can do that without the painful first bit,” he replies. “After my Bachelor's Degree, I took a bit of time off, went back home to help my mum out with my younger siblings. I was considering some Masters Degrees and looking at jobs, thinking about where I was going when your sister’s job offer popped up. Seemed like fate. I desperately needed to get out of Yorkshire and start my own life…”

“And Styles Publishing was there,” Harry finishes for him.

It’s the short version of the story, the one most people get when they start asking questions. Apart from his mother and his therapist, no one knows the details. No one gets to read the small print in the corners of every single moment of Louis’ life since he was eighteen years old. Even Zayn, who he would easily call his best friend, doesn’t know everything. Louis suspects he’s guessed a lot, but it’s an unspoken agreement that they don’t mention it. Ever.

“And Styles Publishing was there,” Louis confirms.

“Seems a bit risky, no? To move to an entirely different city for a tiny startup. I mean… I remember how rough it was at the beginning. They almost went under a few times.”

“Not riskier than dropping out of uni for a career in sport,” Louis says easily in response. “I mean, what if you get injured permanently and you can’t fight anymore? What about when you’re too old to fight?”

“I can coach. And I own a training gym with my manager in Soho. Good investment. Also, I did finish my degree, so that’s always an unexplored option. I mean, it’s Art History so that’s basically a degree in unemployment, but you know… Options.”

“I wasn’t -”

“You were just defending yourself and trying to prove we’ve all made risky choices for our careers.”

“Yeah,” Louis says with a laugh. He grimaces. “Sorry… I get defensive. It turned out all fine, bit of a success story even if the New York Times is to be trusted, but my mum still talks of it like I did the wildest thing imaginable. It’s like I’m still five and can’t make my own decisions. In her defence, she still has five years old babies running around the house so I think it’s harder for her to forget we’re not all that age anymore, but still. You struck a sensitive chord.”

“Your youngest siblings are five?” Harry asks, eyes lighting up at the thought of kids and if that isn’t a punch to the gut.

“Yep. Younger twins. They are… in my own extremely biased opinion… the most adorable creatures on earth,” Louis declares seriously, feeling a small twist of triumph in his belly when Harry starts laughing, dimples on display.

“Well,” Harry says, index in the air, “I think I should be the judge of that. Impartial and all.”

Louis frowns, pouting a bit teasingly. “Is this you angling for baby pictures?” he asks, palms pressed together, fingers drumming against each other.

“Hell yeah,” Harry replies. There’s a second of silence before his eyes widen. “But not in like… a creepy way,” he adds, lowering his voice on the last two words, making Louis snort.

“Oh my god, why would your brain even go there?” Louis asks, between bursts of laughter. “I don’t think I wanna show you the pics anymore.”

“Well, you don’t know me!” Harry protests. “I’m just confirming I’m not a creep. Gemma can vouch for me. I’m good with babies. I’ve got like…. six godchildren.”

“Wait, really?” Louis asks, back in control of himself. “How old are you?” he demands, even though he knows. It’s one of those useless little nuggets of information about Gemma’s life he’s absorbed like a sponge from working with her for so long.

“Yes, really,” Harry insists, a faint blush decorating his cheeks. “I know I’m only twenty-five, but I’m very mature and responsible, which all of my already parents friends love and respect.”

“I’m not making fun, I think that’s incredible,” Louis says sincerely, somehow feeling like he’s just discovered something deep about Harry he hadn’t expected. “How about a trade?” he offers. “I show you pictures of the twins if you show me pictures of your godchildren?”

“Oh god,” Niall says as he walks nearby, piling up plates on one extended arm. “Don’t offer that, you’ll never get him to shut up. You’d think the kids were his with how proud he is. It’s all 'Ruby crawled the other day'  and 'Jackson’s going to primary in three years how crazy!' and 'Arlo pooped in the potty should we call the Dailymail?' 

Louis smirks, taking a glance at Harry’s face. He doesn’t look too embarrassed, smiling widely as he shrugs.

“What can I say? They’re the best kids ever.”

“Ugh,” Niall says loudly, popping his head between both of them. “Barf. Honestly,” he teases, before grabbing both of their now empty plates and pressing a loud kiss on Harry’s temple.

“You love me and you love hearing about it,” Harry shouts to his retreating form. He giggles when Niall manages to flip him off just before entering the kitchen.

“So,” Louis says when Niall has finally left them alone, “have we got a deal?”

Harry grins widely before reaching for his phone.

&&&

Suddenly, without Louis knowing where the time has gone, it’s half past one in the morning and every other guest has seemingly disappeared. He and Harry are still huddled in one corner of Gemma’s living room, talking about awkward stories from their university days. Gemma and Niall are nowhere to be seen, but Louis can hear soft music coming from the kitchen as well as the clanging of dishes. Harry, it seems, has a never-ending supply of embarrassing anecdotes and somewhere between the second or third bottle of wine they’ve emptied, Louis turned into a helplessly giggly version of himself.

“He did not!” Louis gasps between bursts of laughter, hands on his tummy and folded in half.

“He did!” Harry insists.

“Stop, I’m gonna piss myself!” Louis admits, giving Harry a half-hearted tap on the shoulder.

Harry snorts into his wine glass. “Oops?” he offers, dimpling endearingly.

“I can’t believe how much of a dork you are. Your sister is so cool. Did she steal all the cool? Was there no cool left for you? How does this work? Are you even related?” Louis wonders aloud.

There’s a snort coming from the dining room and when Louis looks up, Gemma’s leaning against the wall with a smirk on her face.

“I was about to throw you intoxicated idiots out of my flat, but now that I’ve heard that I might have to reconsider Tomlinson,” she says teasingly. “Although I guess part of me thinks I should beat you up for teasing my little brother. But I think the part who takes pride in being the better Styles wins, as selfish as that makes me.”

“It’s not like he said anything that’s untrue,” Harry says helpfully from Louis’ right and he looks a little too pretty for this to be fair, what with the way his cheeks are flushed and his lips are bitten red. He looks snuggly as well, wrapped up in what looks like the cosiest jumper ever. “I am tragically uncool.”

“Dork supreme,” Louis whispers, elbowing Harry in the ribs and setting them off into a cascade of giggles again.

“Alright,” Gemma says loudly, “I’m calling you guys some cabs.”

“No, no, no,” Louis protests, getting up from the sofa. It takes him a few seconds to get there, but once he’s standing he gives her a goofy grin. “I’m way fine. I can definitely get the tube home.”

“Right,” Gemma snickers. “How about you walk to the front door without stumbling and I’ll let you take the tube babe.”

“Fine,” Louis replies with a shrug, which sends him slightly off balance and he crumbles back into the sofa, colliding accidentally with Harry’s body on his way down. “Oh,” he says to himself. “Oops,” he whispers, imitating Harry’s earlier deadpan tone. Harry snorts and Louis isn’t quite sure how it happens but suddenly he’s got his arm around Harry’s shoulders. “I can do it,” he says after a beat. “Just give me a second.”

“It’s okay, we can share an uber,” Harry says. “Right Lou?”

He ponders it for a second. “Yes,” he finally declares after a beat, tightening his grip on Harry's shoulder. “Let’s do that.”

Harry starts squirming, reaching into the back pocket of his jeans for his phone without kicking Louis out of the way. Once he’s finally grabbed the pink case, it takes him a few seconds to unlock it, the iphone seemingly rejecting his print. He wrinkles his nose unhappily before wiping the phone against Louis’ shirt, then doing the same with his finger. This time, the phone unlocks on the first try.

“Hell yeah,” Harry singsongs triumphantly as he navigates the apps easily, ordering them a car in a few clicks.

By the time the car arrives, Louis has started nodding off against Harry’s shoulder.

“Boys,” Gemma whispers, shaking Harry’s shoulder slightly. “Car’s here.”

Louis gasps, body tensing automatically when he starts feeling his pillow move.

“S’okay,” Harry whispers sleepily, voice calming and comforting as he starts rubbing one eye with his fist. “S’just Gems.”

Louis gulps. “Right,” he says, giving Gemma a small smile. “I think we’ve abused your hospitality a bit too long,” he adds, getting up slower than before to give himself a chance. He grabs the jacket Gemma is handing to him, doing his best to put it on despite his alcohol-induced clumsiness. Once he's succeeded, he starts patting the back of his jeans loudly, making sure he’s still got his wallet, keys and phone before leaving.

“Nonsense,” Gemma whispers, leaning in to press a kiss on Louis’ cheek. “You’re always welcome Lou, you know that.”

“I know,” Louis replies, wrapping her in a hug.

“Don’t forget your gift,” Gemma says as they separate, reaching for the gift bag he had to open in front of everyone earlier during the evening, an obviously humiliating process that Louis subjected himself to only because he loves his boss so much. Thankfully, the gift turned out to be great so he didn’t have to fake enthusiasm as he opened it.

“Thanks again,” he says, grabbing the bag containing the vintage watch she bought for him. It’s too much, but Gemma shut him down so quickly and sharply when he tried protesting earlier in the evening that he doesn’t dare to try again. “Seriously,” he adds, lowering his voice, “I love it.”

Gemma shrugs, her entire posture screaming smugness. “Well, I have great taste and I know you well so…” She’s interrupted by a car honking.

It makes Harry chuckle as he buttons up his denim jacket. “I think Jacob is getting frustrated,” he singsongs pointing at the front door behind him with his thumb.

“Don’t leave without saying bye to me you jerk,” Niall calls from the kitchen before appearing in the room, jogging his way to Harry and jumping on him to embrace him fiercely.

Louis’ eyes widen and he’s about to take a tentative step forward to help Harry out, but to his surprise, he just groans a bit, barely stumbling backwards as he grabs Niall’s thighs and supports his weight easily. For the amount of alcohol they’ve consumed during the evening, it’s quite an impressive physical prowess.

Once again, Louis is annoyingly reminded how attractive Harry is.

“Don’t lock yourself in that stupid gym okay,” Niall says in Harry’s ears. “Or I’m gonna start thinking you love Liam more than me and that is not okay. I’m your childhood best friend, he better remember that.”

“Okay,” Harry replies with a laugh, nuzzling adorably in Niall’s neck.

“I didn’t know Niall was your brother’s best friend,” Louis whispers to Gemma as he watches them say their goodbye like they’re both leaving for war in different regiments rather Harry going back home after a dinner party.

Gemma scoffs. “There’s a lot about me you don’t know Tomlinson.”

Jacob honks again, this time twice in a row, and Louis winces as he goes to the door, opening it to wave at the angry driver.

“Okay,” Harry says, taking his hands away from Niall. “I’m going now.” He snorts when Niall stays attached to him for a second too long before letting himself slide off Harry’s body and falling to the floor with a loud thud.

Gemma sighs loudly, bending down to give him a hand. “Bed for you and home for you two, alright,” she says sternly.

“Bye Gems, bye Niall,” Harry says as he follows Louis out the door. “Thanks, the food was delicious!”

Once they’ve managed to squeeze themselves in the back seat of Jacob's car, apologising profusely as they do so, they both stare at each other incredulously when he asks them where they’re headed.

“Yours first,” Harry says, smiling widely, “this one’s on me.”

“No, no -” Louis starts protesting, tapping his fingers against Harry’s shoulder.

“Yes, yes,” Harry interrupts. “Consider it my gift to congratulate you on a job well done,” he adds, handing his phone to him so he can enter his address in the Uber app. “Loved the book by the way,” he says when Louis is finally done and Jacob starts the car.

Louis rolls his eyes, embarrassment spreading through his belly. “I didn’t write the thing. I feel like people forget I didn’t write the thing.”

“You still worked hard. You deserve some credit. Collaborative process and other... bullshit.”

“Does your manager gets some credit when you win a fight?”

“Sure,” Harry agrees easily, making himself more comfortable as he rests his head against the back seat and closes his eyes. “I wouldn’t be where I am without his support. Or his training regiment.”

“Collaborative process,” Louis repeats softly.

“Yep,” Harry agrees, the muscles of his face relaxing. It only takes a few more seconds for him to start snoring.

Louis gulps uncomfortably, staring at the way Harry exists so peacefully in sleep. He’s not sure what this feeling is in his gut, but it twists and stings. It’s attraction and interest, that’s for sure, but mixed in with something he can’t quite explain. There’s a closeness, an ease, a fondness Louis loathes to mistrust, yet he can’t help himself. It’s like second nature by this point, the little voice at the back of his head telling him that this is dangerous .

Five years on and he’s intimately familiar with the destructive powers of his intrusive thoughts, so he closes his eyes and exhales, trying to remind himself all the reasons he doesn’t actually find intimacy threatening.

“Don’t be stupid,” he whispers to himself almost angrily, the buzzing of his anxiety faint, yet omnipresent. “You’re not even intimate with him.”

“What?” Jacob calls from the front, just as he pulls over in front of Louis’ flat, making Harry stir.

“Nothing,” Louis says, eyes fixed on Harry as he starts waking up.

“Are we at your flat?” Harry asks sleepily, rubbing at his eyes as he takes in Louis’ neighbourhood. It’s not very posh, certainly not as posh as Gemma’s, but he refuses to feel embarrassed for this.

“Yeah,” Louis replies in a whisper, resisting the urge to do something absolutely ridiculous like tuck back one of Harry’s long curl behind his ear.  

He hasn’t genuinely felt this way in so long.

“Hey, it was nice to finally meet you,” Harry says, sleep-soft and dimpled, unaware that he’s on the verge of sending Louis spiralling.

“Same,” Louis agrees before getting out of the car as quickly as possible.

He’s not running away.

“Cheers mate,” he says towards Jacob, risking a last glance towards Harry.

“See ya’” Harry says with a half-hearted wave.

'Not if I can help it', Louis’ anxiety whispers treacherously in the back of his mind.

&&&

“How was it?” Zayn asks when Louis walks into their flat a few seconds later, sprawled on their sofa and smoking a joint lazily. There are canvases everywhere on their living room floor, Zayn’s art occupying the entire space.

“It was…” Louis trails off, trying to find a good way to describe it. “Gemma got me a watch,” he finally settles for, carefully making his way between the paintings to reach the sofa and hand Zayn the bag.

“Woahhh,” Zayn whistles when he reaches inside the bag and opens the box nestled inside while Louis lets himself drop on the couch. “She must really like you. I wish my boss gave me nice gifts like this.”

“Didn’t that commission girl give you that nice notebook a few months back?” Louis asks, battling against his jacket. He wiggles a little, grunting with effort as he twists and turns against the sofa.

“I think she was trying to sleep with me more than anything else,” Zayn replies. “And she wasn’t my boss, she was a client,” he adds, grabbing Louis’ jacket when he throws it. “Careful please, not all of these are dry.”

“Sorry,” Louis says sheepishly, more mindful as he takes off his shoes. He puts his feet up on Zayn’s lap, making grabby hands towards the joint.

“Anything else interesting happen?” Zayn asks as he passes it along.

Louis shrugs. “Not really. Met her brother,” he says, hoping the statement doesn’t sound as loaded as Louis feels it is.

“Whose brother?”

Louis frowns. “Gemma’s? My boss? She has a younger brother. I hadn’t met him before.”

“Uh. You never mentioned him,” Zayn says casually.

“Never met him before," Louis repeats even though he knows what Zayn is saying. "He was nice, though.”

“Nice?” It's not that Zayn's tone is particularly revelatory, quite the opposite. There's a lack of distinctive emotions in that one single word, the lack of emotions Zayn uses only when he's trying to get Louis to talk; when he's hoping if he hums and repeats whatever Louis just said long enough, he'll get to the part that truly matters. Hoping that he'll get to the truth buried so deep Louis doesn't always know how to excavate it. Even when he wants to. 

Louis gulps. “Yeah," he says vaguely. "He was… I don’t know,” he shrugs, nervous under the scrutiny. “He was interesting.”

“That’s funny,” Zayn chuckles, not a hint of mockery in his voice.

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” he replies. “You don’t usually find men interesting is all.”

&&&

CHAPTER ONE

I wonder what the breaking point is, Oliver thinks absently as he cleans up the ruins of a fight he never wants, but can’t help but continuously, accidentally, start.

It’s not too bad tonight, he supposes. There’s no broken glass, no inexplicable bruises. Just torn pages and a few discarded books. A turned over desk. Equations upon equations he could never dream to understand everywhere on their floor. Oliver wishes Evan would at least number his notes and exercises. Or even buy a notebook like every other university student on the face of the planet instead of dedicating himself to a tortured genius aesthetic. That would make everything so much easier when the frustration gets the better of him. As is, Oliver just does his best, grabbing pages after pages of the important data Evan needs for tomorrow’s seminar, putting them in neat little piles on the desk he’s put back in place. One of the legs is wobbly, a constant reminder of the abuse the desk has suffered since they moved into their tiny one-bedroom flat two years ago.

Evan is a tortured genius, Oliver reminds himself. Above and beyond the frustrating world surrounding him. Being with him requires a lot of patience. And a bit of suffering. Most days, Oliver thinks it’s worth it.

Still, he can’t help but wonder what the breaking point is, ears still ringing from the shouting.  

Chapter Text

The next morning, Louis wakes up with a headache and a vague sense of discomfort. His heartbeat starts quickening, discomfort quickly morphing into anxiety. He gulps before breathing out, pressing a palm against his chest, against his heart, waiting for the moment to past, for his heartbeat to slow. The pressure helps a bit even though he’s still disoriented, mind trying to pinpoint the cause frantically.

Morning anxiety is usually brought on by a bad dream, yet he can remember nothing of the sort. No matter how many times he tries, Louis comes up with a blank, a great black hole in his head where a nightmare would usually still linger. He never forgets bad dreams, unfortunately, the sounds and images often taking a few days to truly slip out of his mind. They normally haunt is the thing, and this morning, there’s no aftertaste.

By the time his heartbeat has finally settled and he’s managed to chase the vaguely uncomfortable feeling away, Louis shuffles around in his bed, stretching beyond the mattress to reach for the phone he surprisingly had the forethought to charge last night despite his inebriated state. He opens the phone easily, checking important emails and deleting spam with quick fingers. It’s a morning routine he lives by, his desire to keep his life organised stronger than any lazy aspirations.

Even though it’s the weekend and they were celebrating late last night, Gemma has sent him a reminder that he has a meeting with one of their writers and her agent first thing on Monday morning and Louis can’t help the twinge of amusement that courses through him at the sight. He’d never say so to her face, but the slight hypocrisy of her spending ages scolding him for being such a workaholic when they’re literally cut from the same cloth never fails to make him chuckle. Of course, Styles Publishing is her company, her baby one might say, and Louis supposes things are different for her. She can never quite step away.

He sends her a quick reply confirming the appointment, using the opportunity to remind her she’s supposed to be off too, before moving on from his Gmail account. He ignores Facebook, not in the mood for news from an overwhelming amount of people he only vaguely cares about, preferring to open Instagram and start mindlessly scrolling. He smiles at pictures of Lottie’s night out, liking all of his sister’s outfit and makeup photos, before grinning at his mother’s most recent snap of the twins. He ignores a few actors’ selfies, not in the mood for pretty boys, when his heart stops in his throat at a picture from Gemma’s account.

It’s her and Harry, arms around each other, big breakfast plates in front of them and cheeks exaggeratedly round with what Louis assumes is too much food. They look goofy and a bit tired under the restaurant’s lights, but Louis’ eyes can’t help but follow the slope of Harry’s nose and the curve of his neck, spending more time on the photo than he’d ever admit. Harry’s wearing a horribly patterned shirt, a yellow monstrosity that’s open at the collar to expose more skin than necessary in October. Louis is devastated to notice that even in the light of day, and through the lens of sobriety, Harry looks incredibly charming.

Without noticing what he’s doing, Louis clicks on Harry’s account where he’s tagged on the picture, frowning a little when he sees Harry’s icon. It’s a photo of him hugging a punching bag almost as tall as he is, his gloved hands pressed against the material and a wide grin on his face. His account is verified, which takes Louis a little by surprise, and his eyes widen when he realises he’s got almost 300 000 followers.

“Jesus,” he mumbles to himself as he scrolls past a few photos clearly taken this morning at brunch.

They’re surprisingly artistic for pictures of food and Louis finds himself humming in interest as he goes further down the profile. It’s an eclectic mixture, that’s for sure, especially for a professional athlete. Most of the photos are of foreign scenery, all of them appropriately tagged and accompanied by a song lyric or a quote. Places Harry has visited for work, Louis would bet, surprising himself as he mentally notes how well framed most of the snaps are. Harry clearly has an artistic eye, there’s no denying it, though Louis isn’t quite sure why he’s so surprised by it. Museums, especially art museums, seem to be his ultimate weakness though, rows and rows of pictures of artwork taking up space on his profile whenever he visits a new one. Unlike the pictures of landscapes and buildings, Harry doesn’t caption these with long quotes. Instead, they’re all neatly labelled with the title as well as the artist, and accompanied with a one-word caption. Always a feeling. Whatever Harry felt looking at the piece? Whatever Harry assumed the artist to have felt making it? Louis can’t tell, but his heart squeezes in his chest nonetheless, a treacherous action he can’t even blame on alcohol.

He’s brought back to Earth quite vividly when faced with a picture from one of Harry’s matches, one of the many boxing related photos Louis has quickly scrolled past and tried to ignore before. He scrolls past the promotional picture a bit too quickly, a bit too harshly, and his thumb accidentally slipping in the corner of the video that comes right after. He jumps when the thudding of Harry’s gloved fists hitting the speed bag fills his room suddenly.

“Fuck,” he mumbles, quickly reaching for his phone’s volume. He gulps when the video finally mutes, the image itself distressing enough as it is.

Harry’s certainly efficient and precise, Louis notices, slightly hypnotized by the now silent movement. He shakes his head before scrolling on, a sour taste left in his mouth. It’s not like he’d forgotten, but …

The next post is another training video and Louis sighs before noticing it’s only Harry’s skipping rope regiment. Not explicitly fighting, or upsetting in any way, Louis justifies to himself as he looks at the video a lot longer than he should, letting it start over and over again. It’s in black and white for some reason, Harry’s agile body going through the motion over and over again like an old forgotten film. He could probably have given Daisy and Phoebe a run for their money, back in their jumping days, Louis thinks, the corner of his mouth lifting in a half a smile.

His finger hovers over the follow button for a second before he sighs. “What are you thinking?” he mumbles angrily to himself, turning the phone off and letting it bounce on his bed.

He forces himself to remember the first video, the violence of the punches, the aggressivity of the noises. He can’t afford to be endeared by who Harry is outside the ring. The ring will always be part of him and Louis just… can’t.

He ignores his phone, dragging himself out of bed half-heartedly before putting some joggers and a hoodie on, making his way to the kitchen with a yawn.

“Finally back from the dead?” Zayn calls from the living room when he hears Louis’ door creak open and Louis simply grunts in response, not really in the mood to be teased before he’s had his morning cuppa.

It’s only once the steaming mug is in his hands that he joins Zayn on the living room floor, carefully walking between the paintings that are still scattered everywhere.

“Thought you were working on the commission?” Louis asks once he’s snuggled against Zayn’s side, looking at his friend’s art.

“It depressed me too much,” Zayn admits with a slight shrug, moving Louis’ head where it is resting on his shoulder with the movement.

“Been productive though,” Louis states, eyeing the canvases with a mixture of awe and disbelief.

He was only gone for a few hours.

Zayn shrugs again. “I’m playing with simple lines,” he explains, pointing at the portrait closest to them.

Thin lines representing a caricaturesque visage, simple colours; a child could have made it, yet there’s an anger seeping through the character that can’t quite be defined. Even Louis, a writer, finds it beyond words.

“Wow, you were really mad last night,” he comments absently, eyes stuck on the piece.

“And you were really pissed,” Zayn teases, probably deflecting.

“I wasn’t that bad,” Louis says, letting him get away with it. God knows Zayn lets him be cagey often enough; he can take a bit of teasing once in a while in exchange.

“True,” Zayn agrees easily, “but you were more pissed than I’ve seen you in a really long time.”

Louis hums as he takes a sip. “Yeah, I suppose.”

“I’m not teasing you,” Zayn adds, always careful. “Well, not too much,” he amends almost as soon as the first sentence is out of his mouth, one of his hands going to Louis’ thigh to pat him lightly. “I’m glad you had a nice time. You deserve to have a nice time.”

“I did,” Louis admits, blurry snapshots of the previous evening flashing through his mind as he takes a big gulp of tea, remembering the way he laughed with Harry at various pictures of his siblings, remembering the way he wrapped an easy arm around his shoulders carelessly.

“Did you at least flirt with that guy?” Zayn asks, interrupting Louis’ pondering of the lack of boundaries he so clearly displayed.

“I…” Louis hesitates, heart squeezing in his throat.

“Gemma’s brother?” Zayn presses unnecessarily. “You said you had fun with him last night.”

“No, I know. I know who you meant.”

“Well,” Zayn demands, moving his shoulders on purpose to disturb Louis.

“I … I don’t know,” Louis finally admits after a beat, continuing to mentally review the evening and trying to examine his own behaviour with fresh eyes.

He finds no answer, simply a small spark of panic igniting deep in his stomach. Was he flirting?

“You really are out of practice,” Zayn says with a small laugh and it’s not mean because it’s Zayn, but Louis can’t help but feel a deep sense of dread and repulsion joining the panic in his lower belly.

There are many reasons why he shouldn’t be flirting with Harry, or imagine anything happening with him. Reasons that have nothing to do with Louis being out of practice. But he can’t help thinking that if he were flirting, or if he eventually started flirting with someone more suitable, he’d be so out of his depth that there would be almost no point in trying at all.

It’s a downward spiral of shame and useless thoughts, the kind his therapist likes to remind him are toxic.

Break the pattern Louis. Break the pattern.

“I don’t mean anything by it,” Zayn says after Louis has stayed silent for a bit too long.

“No, I know. I just… I wasn’t. I wasn’t flirting I think. And if I was, I shouldn’t have been so it doesn’t matter. Now tell me about those new pieces,” he says with a sense of fatality, ending the discussion for good, putting everything - especially Harry - out of his mind.

He spent years without ever meeting him after all, it shouldn’t be too hard to forget his existence.

&&&

The next Monday, Louis realises with sharp acuity how impossible it’s going to be to ignore his own confusing feelings when Harry shows up at the office unannounced, armed with a homemade lunch for his sister and a friendly smile for all of her coworkers.

“Hiya,” Harry says when he walks in, his deep voice carrying throughout their entire floor.

Without meaning to, Louis automatically looks up from the fourth draft he was revising for one of his authors. There’s already a flock of employees fluttering around Gemma’s brother, most people familiar with him in ways Louis had no idea. Harry is laughing and hugging everyone, apologizing for his informal attire.

He’s clearly coming from a run or going on a run, Louis can’t tell from his ‘office’. It’s too far from the receptionist’s desk where Harry is leaning to be able to judge if he’s sweaty or not, but his outfit doesn’t lie. Between the oversized grey hoodie, the leggings underneath the shorts and the alarmingly neon pink trainers, there’s no denying it. Louis thinks he can spy the white of his earbuds spilling on his chest from underneath the collar of his hoodie. His long hair is up in a bun, a red hairband stopping any rebellious curls from slipping out on his forehead.

Louis allows himself a few seconds to observe before adjusting his round glasses and giving the manuscript his full attention again. He’s tapping his red pen against his low lip, rereading the same sentence for the third time, trying to figure out why it bothers him so much when Gemma’s voice distracts him.

“Harry, hey!” she says, probably moving in for a hug, not that Louis is looking. Or paying attention.

“Hey, I brought you lunch,” Harry replies. Is he kissing her cheek? Handing her the meal?

“Awww, you didn’t have to do that Haz,” Gemma replies happily, sounding clearly pleased that he made the effort. “Come, come,” she adds, probably dragging him to her office space.

Is it the comma? Louis wonders, as he rereads the sentence once more.

“Had some leftovers and I wanted to do a longer run today anyway so I figured I’d drop by,” Harry says, his voice getting closer and closer.

It’s probably the comma.

“Hi Louis,” Harry says as they both walk past his desk space and he can’t help but look up at that, giving Harry a friendly wave with the hand still holding his pen. It’s a bit of an awkward gesture, what with him sitting down and them just passing through, but it would be rude not to, after all.

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Gemma says warningly, looking over Louis’ shoulder at the project he’s working on. She didn’t even bother to greet him as she went past his desk, knowing his working habits a hint too well. “He doesn’t like to be disturbed when he works,” she adds towards her brother, stopping a little further down when she realises Harry isn’t moving anymore.

“Oh,” Harry says, giving Louis an apologetic smile, hovering at his desk. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“It’s fine,” Louis replies, giving Gemma a nasty look, suddenly fiercely annoyed that she’d tell on him to Harry like that. “Don’t listen to her, she just hasn’t understood that it’s her constant prattle that disturbs me. I don’t mind friendly people saying hi.”

Harry laughs, leaning a little on Louis’ desk, his thigh alarming close to Louis’ phone where it lays on the edge of the desk. “Oh, ok. Good to know. Hi again, then,” he says, drumming his fingers right next to Louis’ phone. Louis would barely have to move his hand to touch both.

“Hi,” Louis replies, eyes looking up quickly to meet Harry’s. “How have you been?” he adds, trying to remember how to act like a human being.

“Not bad, not bad. Got my first proper workout since our little drinking escapade later today. Hopefully, I’m not going to be too rusty. Liam - he’s my manager - he… doesn’t like it when I drink. Says it’s not the best way to take care of my body.”

“Right,” Louis agrees absently. “Your body is the money making machine so I suppose it makes sense he has a vested interest in it.”

Harry snorts. “Yeah. I mean, I barely drink anyway so it’s not really a concern, but he can be very patronising when he wants to. He’s got the teachers’ eyebrows, you know? Does a truly fantastic disappointed frown and -”

“Not that it’s not fun to watch you two exchange platitudes,” Gemma interrupts and Louis actually jumps in his seat a little, having completely forgotten she was there, “but I was promised food.”

“Right,” Harry says, snapping his fingers and stepping away from Louis’ desk. “Would you like to eat with us?” he offers, waving the container he’s holding in his other hand in front of Louis’ face. “S’just a salad, but I’m sure there’s plenty for us three to share.”

“Nah, Louis doesn’t want to eat with us. He’s got his whole routine. Same sandwich every day.”

“It’s true,” Louis replies with a tiny shrug, refusing to feel embarrassed. He likes his work routine, likes the sense of security it provides him. It might mark him as somewhat odd to other people, but he doesn’t really mind.

“Oh, alright. Well, we won’t be bothering you anymore then. It was nice seeing you again though,” Harry says before following his sister towards the back of their office where her massive desk reigns.

If Louis can’t quite find his concentration again, constantly distracted by the hushed whispers and giggles coming from his boss’ desk, then no one has to know.

&&&

That night, Louis settles against Zayn to pick bites off his salad, both of them leaning against the counter in their kitchen, too lazy to make the move to the living room where their tiny dining table sits in one corner. They slowly talk about their respective days, Zayn complaining once again about how mentally exhausting being a salesperson is, even if he truly loves the records he’s selling. Louis nods and hums in all the right spots, chewing silently as he tries to find something to say about his day that doesn’t involve Gemma’s surprise visitor. Zayn is curious enough about Harry already, the last thing Louis wants to do is add fuel to the fire. In the end, he doesn’t really say anything, mentions his meeting in passing and the fact that it went well, before thanking Zayn for sharing his meal and retreating back to his bedroom like he was never there at all.

In all, their interaction lasted maybe twenty minutes and another flatmate might be dissatisfied with the lack of proper socialisation, but ever since that first fateful message on spareroom.co.uk four years ago, Zayn and Louis have fitted together like two halves of a beautifully platonic whole. They vibe on the same leave me alone frequency and on days like today, where Louis doesn’t want more than a few minutes of chatting, he’s honestly so relieved Zayn’s ad was the one he first responded to.

Back in his room, Louis grabs a grey jumper before nestling in his bed with his most recent notebook, fully intending to finish Chapter Twelve of his novel. He’s had the final scene stuck in his head for almost a week, fighting to find a way out through his busy schedule, but now that he finally has time to dedicate to it, words seem to fail him. He sighs a little, tapping his pencil against the open Moleskine, racking his brains, trying to find the anger and the tension required for the continuity of Oliver and Evan’s story.

He knows this story. He knows it intimately. He knows every difficult beat of it, every ground tooth and tightening fist. He knows every drip of sweat uncomfortably sliding down from the nape of Oliver’s neck, every quickening of his heartbeat. He knows Oliver’s every self-assured fallacy, the lies he tells himself to sleep soundly.

Louis knows because he remembers.

Yet, as he rearranges his pillows a couple of times and changes the music drifting through the room from his discarded Mac on the floor, the words still refuse to come. It’s like every time the tip of his pencil touches the page, Louis’ brain shifts and squirms. Neon pink trainers. The curve of a dimple neither Evan nor Oliver possesses.

He’s distracted.

He sighs after fifteen minutes of staring at a blank page, closing the notebook swiftly before leaving the comfort of his bed, shivering his way to his work satchel. Boxers only on the bottom are his bedroom attire of choice, yet every autumn as the temperature drops he questions all of his life choices. He puts the notebook back on his desk, too lazy to hide it back underneath his bed with the others, before opening his bag and grabbing a new manuscript to start. He’s supposed to be dedicating all of his time to the last corrections on a novel about a slowly failing marriage, but his assistant mentioned liking the beginning of this one LGBT fantasy story from his query pile so he couldn’t resist bringing it home.

It’ll be the perfect distraction from his distraction, Louis thinks to himself as he hides underneath his covers.

&&&

The next day, Louis is a little less surprised when Harry shows up again. Not to say that he’s in any way prepared for his arrival, but this time, at least, he more or less knows what to expect.

Again, Harry shows up in a training outfit; same bright sneakers, same type of leggings, grey shorts and a green henley. His hair is up in a bun again, no hair band this time to hold back the few curls that frame his face. He’s holding a large bottle of water that reads Treat People With Kindness in big blocky letters. It’s a look that surprises Louis in its softness.

This time, he doesn’t seem to have brought lunch and instead of dragging him back to her desk, Gemma walks past Louis’ with her bright red jacket in one hand and her purse in the other to meet her brother at the front. They embrace quickly and just as they’re about to leave, Harry whispers something in his sister’s ear, seemingly encouraging her to go down without him.

Louis can’t help but feel surprised when he realises Harry is making his way to him, even though a part of him feels like he should have known. It’s a fleeting feeling, gone before he can’t quite put his finger on it, a little voice in the back of his mind going ‘ he feels this too, of course he’s coming to see you’ before vanishing from his brain.

“Hey,” Harry says, resting his bottle of water on the edge of Louis’ desk.

“Hey,” Louis repeats, fiddling with his glasses for a second just to do something with his hands.

“We’re going out to lunch,” Harry explains like that justifies him going out of his way to get to Louis’ desk.

“I’m surprised she’s letting you go out with her dressed like that, to be honest,” Louis teases, eyeing Harry’s relaxed outfit. It’s a sharp contrast from the pencil skirt and blouse his sister is wearing today and he smirks when Harry barks out a big laugh, bending in half with the weight of how funny he finds the remark. It’s flattering is all, for Harry to still laugh at his stupid jokes like that in the light of day when they’re both sober.

“Me too,” Harry says when he’s finally stopped laughing. “I think she misses me when I’m gone so she’s dealing with it. I’m going back to the states for a series of matches in late November and in December so… We’re trying to make the most of it before I leave.”

“That makes sense,” Louis replies, nodding to himself. “I couldn’t imagine having my siblings in a completely different country,” he confesses, the thought making him squirmish. They’re a lot younger than Harry is and imagining them so out of reach feels like a nightmare. “They’re only a few hours away and I already feel like I don’t see them often enough.”

“Well, I still live in London. It’s not like I’d move over there permanently, but we’re close enough that it sucks when we don’t get to see each other as frequently as usual you know? Long phone calls just aren’t the same. Especially with the time difference.”

“Yeah, I can imagine. It’s good you’re around right now. She’s been in such a good mood with everything that’s been happening with the company! It’s nice you’re there to celebrate with her.”

It’s lovely to see the way Harry smiles, pride shining in his eyes at the mention of his sibling’s success.

“I know! It’s insane how well things have been going!” He leans down a little, whispering in Louis’ ear, his breath a sharp and sudden tickle on Louis’ neck. “To be honest, I think that’s why she doesn’t mind me showing up here in all my training stuff. She’s too pleased to kick up a fuss about appropriate business attire.”

Louis laughs, but still automatically pushes at Harry’s shoulder so he can straighten up, so he can move away.

“It’s not like you work here anyway,” he says, relieved to see Harry take a step back without looking offended. “I mean… She can’t force you to dress up to visit.”

Harry snorts. “You’d be surprised. But she knows I’ve been upping my training for the trip so I think that’s partly why she tolerates being seen with me like this.”

“Such a good and open-minded sister,” Louis teases.

Harry nods, no hint of sarcasm on his face. “Listen, I know you probably already have some lunch plans. I mean… Gems said you bring your own food and all, but you’re welcome to join us if you want. We’re not going anywhere fancy or anything.” He looks down at himself, smiling goofily. “Duh.”

“Thank you,” Louis politely, biting back a smile. He can’t. Of course not. But for one fluttering second… he wants to.

“That’s a no then?” Harry asks, wrinkling his nose for a second before bringing a finger up to scratch it.

“I’m afraid so,” Louis confirms with a tiny nod. “You’ve wasted your time coming all the way to my desk.”

“Oh,” Harry squeaks, frowning adorably. “I didn’t come to your desk to invite you,” he explains, letting out a slight chuckle. “Just wanted to say hey.” He shrugs easily and he would be the perfect picture of nonchalance if it weren’t for the hint of self-consciousness in his posture.  

Louis feels himself redden a little.  “You didn’t have to do that,” he blurts out before realising it’s a bit rude.

Thankfully, Harry doesn’t seem to care. “I know,” he agrees.  There’s a beat of silence between them as they stare at each other. “Well, I suppose I’ve made her wait outside long enough now,” Harry finally adds when it becomes evident Louis isn’t going to say anything.

Though he’s not quite sure what reply Harry is expecting, to be completely frank.

“So yeah… Hey,” Harry says before taking a step backwards away from Louis’ desk. He waits for a second before adding: “See ya!” as he makes his way back to the front door of their floor, gone so fast Louis almost thinks he made him up.

&&&

CHAPTER SEVEN

There’s a shock that comes with being hit for the first time; a split second that lasts for an eternity where the blow hasn’t quite settled in yet, where the pain isn’t quite sharp, and the brain wonders what the fuck just happened. Then it hits. All over again.

Oliver remembers that first time, he remembers that disbelief, that neverending second…

&&&

“Harry’s been visiting the office a lot,” Louis casually mentions one evening a few days later. It’s been almost every day this week, like a new routine established for the Styles siblings and their entire floor has to suffer through it without a comment. It’s none of his business of course, but Louis, as someone vaguely attracted to Harry, feels like he should have been consulted about the constant presence of such an irritatingly charming distraction.

Surely he should be allowed veto power, right?

Zayn slams his laptop shut, pausing the show they were watching on Netflix abruptly as he sits up in his bed, giving Louis a serious look. “Harry Harry?” he asks like there’s another Harry Louis could be talking about. “The guy from the dinner party?”

“No, the Duke of Sussex,” Louis replies with a snarl. He rolls his eyes when Zayn remains silent and keeps looking at him expectantly. “Yes,” he adds in a quick whisper, already hating the fact that he brought it up. “Gemma’s brother. The guy from the party.”

“So he’s been visiting you at the office?” Zayn demands and Louis is already shaking his head no before the sentence is fully out of his mouth.

“No, no, no. Of course not, don’t be stupid. He’s not visiting me, he doesn’t know me.”

“But that’s what you just said,” Zayn argues even though it is absolutely not.

Louis pinches his nipple quickly in response before saying so. “I said he came to visit the office, not me you twat,” he adds.

“Alright. And?”

Louis frowns, feeling a bit cheated. “What do you mean ‘and’ ?” he asks, leaning back into Zayn’s pillow and folding his arms across his chest.

“Well, you’re the one who brought it up,” Zayn replies with a laugh. “Why are you talking about him?”

“I don’t know,” Louis says, suddenly hyper-aware of the way his heart is thumping in his chest. “I just… I don’t know, I’m making conversation.”

“We were super comfortable watching something, is there any particular reason you felt like making conversation now ?”

Louis huffs. “Bloody hell, just tell me if I’m bothering you. God. I was just in the mood to talk about work I guess.”

“You like him,” Zayn declares, leaving no room for argumentation. Not that Louis would deny it at this point. Zayn knows him well enough to see right through it anyway. “Are you going to ask him out?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not interested in…. That stuff. You know I’m not.”

“I just thought maybe it was time,” Zayn offers, lowering his voice slightly, putting a friendly hand on Louis’ shoulder. “Clearly this guy is special for you to be talking about him when you don’t talk about anyone ever.”

Louis sighs. He supposes Zayn isn’t wrong. Not exactly. “Even so,” he replies, “I don’t know if he’s interested in me.”

“He doesn’t show up at your offices for four years and after one evening chatting with you he’s suddenly there every day? Come on Louis, you might not be dating around a lot, but even you aren’t that dense.”

“There’s a million reasons he could be coming around. Besides, even if that’s the case… There are other factors okay. It wouldn’t work.” Louis says it with a sense of fatality that he hopes will be clear enough for Zayn not to push.

Zayn hums, which is not pushing per se, but the urge to defend himself rises all the same.

“It wouldn’t,” Louis insists, not wanting to spell it out. His mind automatically goes back to that Instagram video, to the way his throat closed up and to the goosebumps rising on his arms as his entire body became tense and alert.

Even if Zayn is right and Louis is the reason Harry has been dropping by every day, there’s no point lingering on the thought, on the possibility. Louis already knows how this story ends. He already knows he’s not ready for what it would take to make something like that work. Not yet.

But for the first time in five years, that knowledge leaves a bitter taste of disappointment in his mouth.

&&&

“Cute picture,” Harry says a few days later.

Louis catches him pointing to the family photo on his desk from the corner of his eyes. He barely reacts to Harry’s presence anymore, so used to the timbre of his voice, the hovering shape of his body against Louis’ desk as he stops on his way to greet his sister. He’s no longer a surprise, no longer a novelty. Still, Louis remains hyper-aware.

He hums as he turns a page, a grin automatically blooming on his face as the warmth of the summer day the photo was taken starts filling him as it does every single time he looks back upon the memory.

“Family photo,” he declares, finally looking up to Harry. He turns the frame a little, giving him a better look.

“Yeah,” he nods, “I remember.” He squints a little. “Lots of twins, right?” he adds knowingly, like Louis’ never-ending prattle about his siblings the night they met was something worth remembering.

“Yeah,” Louis chuckles. “Lots of twins.” He pauses. “How are you?”   

“Good,” Harry replies, nodding to himself. “Just getting lunch -”

“With Gemma,” Louis finishes for him, slipping into a familiar teasing tone. “I know.”

Harry winces. “I’m that predictable, uh?” he says, rolling his eyes.

“Well, it’s been the same thing almost every day for the past couple of weeks so… I don’t think I deserve a prize for assuming,” Louis jokes.

“You guys are gonna start thinking I’m stalking the company or something,” Harry replies under his breath, looking down at the wood of Louis’ desk, letting his fingers dance against its edge.

Louis laughs low in his throat, almost like he’s choking on it, and with Zayn’s words still twirling in his mind, he can’t stop it from happening.

Harry’s eyes widen. “I’m really not, I swear!” he says jokingly, reaching for Louis’ shoulder before stopping himself.

“I know, I know,” Louis replies, with a more natural laugh this time.

“You sure? You sounded a bit creeped out there mate.”

“I was… just choking on my spit,” Louis lies quickly, trying not to let himself feel embarrassed. “Thank you for noticing,” he adds with a dorky finger gun pointed at Harry.

He’s already mentally googling ‘self-immolation’ when Harry snorts.

“Never pleasant,” he replies diplomatically, tilting his head a smidge to the left.

“Or dignified,” Louis says, widening his eyes exaggeratedly.

“Want some water?” Harry asks, offering him the bottle that never seems to leave his side.

Louis shakes his head, putting one hand up in protest. “No, no. I’m fine now. Thank you.”  

“Alright,” Harry replies. He stops for a moment, before pointing towards Gemma’s office. “I better go,” he says meekly, “she’s giving me an intense look, I think she wants to speak to me.”

“Have fun!” Louis says easily, letting him go.

Strangely, Harry doesn’t look back at him before leaving, walking past Louis’ desk with his head down.

Louis frowns a little, looking over his shoulder only to catch Harry frozen a few feet away from

his sister’s desk and Gemma making frantic gestures at him. She has a stern finger up and keeps pointing it towards the front of their office space like she wants Harry to walk back out.

They seem to be stuck in a silent argument, Gemma mouthing the words “go” over and over again at him. Finally, after what seems to be a firm battle, Harry sighs and turns back around only for his eyes to widen when he realises Louis has been staring at them the whole time.

“Hey,” he whispers when he reaches Louis’ desk again.

“Hey,” Louis echoes, a bemused smile on his face. “Can I help you?”

Harry purses his lips for a second before exhaling loudly. He crouches next to Louis’ desk so that they’re almost at the same level.

“Okay, so basically,” Harry starts saying, body full of nervous energy as he starts drumming his fingers against Louis’ desk again, “I had a lot of fun the other night. At Gemma’s dinner party.”

There’s a long pause where neither of them says anything.

“Yeah,” Louis finally acknowledges. “It was a nice evening.”

“No. Well, I mean… Yes obviously. But that’s not what I’m trying to say. What I’m trying to say is that I had fun with you, specifically.”

“Oh,” Louis gasps quietly, suddenly understanding where Harry is going.

“Yeah. And like… I asked my sister for your phone number after I first visited the office because I felt super silly and kinda rude asking you out at work, but she said it would be even ruder for her to give out your number without your permission, which makes sense. I guess I didn’t think it through, you know? And now every time I’m here, which has been ridiculously frequently because I can’t seem to man up, she’s been giving me those big disappointed looks… So yeah… I’m sorry if this is the worst way you’ve ever been asked for your number, but would you give me your number so we can get a drink sometime? Or a meal? Or a movie? Or all of it?”

“Harry,” Louis starts hesitantly, endeared by the way Harry’s eyes are honest and hopeful, endeared by the way he’s biting his lower lip as he’s waiting for the answer, crushed by the knowledge he’s going to have to make things awkward now.

He doesn't have to say more than one word. Harry’s face falls for a beat, his lips reshaping into a polite smile so quickly that anyone not so close to him would have missed it. It’s almost unbearable to witness.

“It’s okay,” Harry says easily and there’s no doubt he means it, his voice devoid of bitterness or frustration. “You don’t have to explain yourself. I thought I’d felt a bit of… I don’t know… chemistry? between us, but I see now it’s one-sided.”

“It’s not that.” The words are out of Louis’ mouth before he can even process saying them and he closes his eyes when he finishes the sentence, already regretting this outburst of honesty.

“You don’t have to explain yourself,” Harry repeats, his voice gentler this time. “I’m sorry I bothered you.”

“It’s just complicated,” Louis replies after a beat, opening his eyes and offering Harry a small smile.

Harry nods, before dropping his eyes to the ground. “Gemma did mention you weren’t really dating around.”

“Yeah,” Louis says, throat closing up with a familiar panic. “I just… I’m just not looking for anything.” He pauses. “At least not right now.”

Harry nods again, face closed off in concentration. “How about looking for a new friend?” he offers kindly and in the past, from other men, this kind of offer has felt like a trap. It’s felt underhanded, like a way to bide their time until Louis’ ‘no’ becomes a ‘yes’, but ever since Louis has met him, he’s noticed the easy ways of Harry’s honesty. They’ve only talked a few times here and there, yet he doesn’t seem to be playing any sort of games as he speaks his mind and means it. From him, it seems like a true request.  

Yet, Louis still hesitates.

“Everything I said about us getting on really well still stands,” Harry continues with a shrug, neither pushing nor explaining himself. “I mean, meals and movies certainly don’t have to be romantic. But again, no pressure.”

He looks up at Louis to give him a crooked smile, one dimple on display despite the fact he was just rejected. It’s the true lack of expectations in his eyes that transforms what was going to be a stern refusal. Instead, Louis licks his lower lip and holds out his hand in expectations, silently demanding Harry’s phone with the twitches of his eyebrows.

“I guess I could always use more friends,” he mumbles to himself as he enters his number in Harry’s contacts. If he were flirting, he’d probably write himself down with some suggestive emojis or a cute nickname. As it is, he neatly types ‘Louis Tomlinson’ before adding his mobile number and handing the phone back.

Later on, much later, once he’s fallen so deep he can’t possibly imagine himself getting out of it unscathed, Louis pinpoints this precise moment as the beginning of his slippery slope.

&&&

To Louis’ surprise, it takes almost a week before anything even happens. So much time passes that he starts thinking maybe he read this completely wrong, that maybe Harry was never interested in being his friend in the first place, that he was just being polite or trying to save face when he still asked for Louis’ number. He doesn’t even show up to have lunch with Gemma once, every sign pointing towards the fact that now that he has been denied access to Louis’ pants, he couldn’t care less about his existence.

It’s a humiliating enough thought in itself when it first pops into his brain, but then anxiety takes a hold of it, amplifying it drastically until it becomes a low thrumming in the back of his head. Constant. Irritating. Invasive.

He knows if Harry never contacts him it won’t be because he’s lacking. Rationally, he knows that yet the thought won’t leave him alone and every day that goes by without even an emotionless ‘hey’ text, Louis becomes more and more agitated.

That week, during his session, he talks about putting himself out there and trying new things, about failure and the pressure he puts on himself in front of other people’s haunting gaze.

This is exactly why he’s not dating, Louis thinks viciously. He’s so needy and insecure he can’t even go a week without confirmation from the new person in his life that he’s not unwanted, that he hasn’t fucked up yet.

“You’re being very unkind to yourself,” his therapist remarks when he brings it up.

Louis sighs. It’s one of the things he’s actively working on doing less. With medium to low success rates, depending on the day.

“Besides,” she continues, “don’t you think it’s a bit of a self-fulling prophecy?”

“No,” Louis automatically replies defensively, folding his arms across his chest. He pauses before relaxing his posture. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“You’ve just told me you know those intrusive thoughts aren’t true. You’re fighting them off. Why are you using them to justify your self-imposed isolation?”

“I guess it’s easier,” Louis admits with a shrug.

That night, Zayn goes out with some of his coworkers, all of them celebrating the fact that they managed to score a rare Saturday off meaning they can drink as much as they want without the nine am opening of the store killing their buzz. Zayn politely invites him, but after the mentally exhausting week he’s had, he declines in favour of a nice night in curled up in a scalding hot bath with a book.

He’s halfway through a thrilling mystery, knees poking out of the water, almost all of his bubbles long gone, when his phone buzzes against the toilet’s tank next to his vanilla scented candle. Louis eyes it for a second before turning the page. He’s just getting back into the action when the phone buzzes a second, then a third time. He sighs, dropping his book to the floor and grabbing the teal hand towel he’s left next to the tub to make sure he had something dry on hand if needed. Once he’s sure his hands are completely dry, he finally reaches for the phone, a little annoyed to be bothered during his relaxing time.

His first reaction is to frown when he initially notices he’s received a text from someone not in his contacts. Then, without permission, his mouth twitches then morphs into a small smile as he reads the texts.

Hey! Are you busy tomorrow afternoon?

This is Harry btw. Sorry I took a while to text you, s’been a CRAZY week.

Styles! It’s Harry Styles. Just to clear that up. That previous text was vague af.

Louis laughs a little, feeling a mixture of silly for his overreaction and endeared at the content of the texts. The vindictive part of him wants to leave him on read for a bit as punishment, but in the end, his desire to know what Harry has in mind is stronger.

It depends , Louis texts back. What are you suggesting?

Harry starts typing right away.

I’m going to the museum tomorrow afternoon, wanna come with?

“What museum?” Louis asks, unwilling to agree to anything without knowing the exact details of the plan.  

&&&

“Seriously?” Louis demands when he finds Harry sitting at one of the fountains in Trafalgar Square the next day.

“And hello to you too,” Harry replies with a laugh, taking his sunglasses off, sliding them on top of his head so they can hold back his hair.

“Trafalgar square? The National Gallery?”

Harry laughs again. “It’s a great museum. And it’s free. Here, I brought lunch,” he says, reaching to his right for a tote bag featuring lineart of an alien smoking a fag with the words But Is It Art? cheekily scribbled underneath.

“Great, I’m starving,” Louis says, sitting down next to Harry, their bodies pressed together with how packed it is, tourists everywhere around them even so late in the autumn. “What did you bring?” he asks excitedly, trying to sneak a look inside the bag.

All he’s heard for weeks now is Gemma bragging about all the great meals Harry has been cooking for her, about how glad she is that he’s home because that means Sunday Roast at his flat is back on and she misses it so much when he’s not around. He’s heard so much about the man’s cooking skills that he can’t help the way his face falls when he catches a glimpse of what seems to be a meal deal.

“Oh my god, did you bring some cheap pre-packed sandwiches?” Louis asks with a squeak of indignation. When Harry promised him he’d take care of the food, this isn’t exactly what Louis had in mind.

“What were you expecting?” Harry asks, a hint of arrogance in his tone. “A home-cooked lunch? It’s not like it’s a date and I’m trying to impress you. You can take a Tesco meal or you can buy your own stuff,” he says with a huff, handing over a cheese and onion sandwich.

Louis’ cheeks automatically redden. He grabs the package quickly, lowering his eyes to avoid Harry’s, about to apologise for making assumptions when Harry bursts into laughter and the noise forces him to look back up.

When he does, Harry is biting his lower lip, eyes sparkling. “Sorry, sorry,” he says when their eyes meet. “I’m just teasing. I was gonna make something, but then Liam showed up to my flat at like…. eight o’clock this morning to go over the gym’s books and I was so late this is all I had the time for.”

“It’s Saturday morning?” Louis exclaims, offended on Harry’s behalf. “Who in their right mind does the books on Saturday morning? I’m a workaholic and even I don’t read manuscripts on Saturday morning.” Louis stops himself to think for a second. “Well,” he amends quickly, “definitely not before nine o’clock.”

“That’s Liam for you,” Harry chuckles as he continues to empty his tote, handing Louis a packet of sea salted crisps and a bag of grapes. “Got both a healthy and less healthy snack, I figured we could share.”

Louis nods, setting both aside on his thighs as he opens the sandwich.

“Was everything okay with the books then?” he asks.

“Yeah, yeah. Liam just got nervous about something and wanted to sort it straight away. To be honest, I’m terrible with all that business stuff so I can rarely help, but I think he just likes having someone to talk it through.”

Louis smiles. “That sounds familiar,” he admits. “My flatmate is the same. He doesn’t actually want any help with his problems, just someone to vent to.”

“A hand holder,” Harry supplies, taking a bite from a sandwich Louis never saw him open.

“Yes! Exactly!” Louis exclaims. “A silent entity who knows when to nod.”

Harry snorts, putting his hand in front of his mouth, trying to hide the mess he’s making as he laughs through his lunch. “That’s me,” he finally says after he’s swallowed his bite. “I’m very good at nodding. Unless it’s about my boxing career. Then I’m driving him mad and micromanaging him when he’s supposed to be the manager.”

Louis hums. “Don’t you trust him?” he asks, trying to sound casual. He’s usually quite good at reading people and he had Harry pegged as an overly trusting individual, what with the way everything he says is dripping with sincerity.

“Of course I do,” Harry scoffs like the opposite is unthinkable and Louis has to refrain himself from smiling triumphantly. “I’d trust him with my life. I trust him with my investments when I let him take care of everything at the gym. But with boxing it’s… I don’t know. It’s personal, I suppose? It’s my name , my career? I couldn’t not be over-involved.” He stops for a beat. “Anyways, my entire lunch plans got derailed. And they were good plans too, so we’re gonna have to do this again.”

He says it offhandedly, yet Louis’ heart skips a beat when he realises it means Harry wants to hang out with him again. His heart probably shouldn’t be doing things like that if they want to maintain a sustainable and healthy friendship, but Louis revels in the sensation all the same. It’s unwelcome and a bit wrong, but it’s been so long since he’s felt that way about anyone and there is a flutter of trepidation in his lower belly that he can’t fully deny himself.  

“Sounds like a deal,” Louis replies, opening the packet of crisps and grabbing a handful before offering it to Harry. “Are we really going to go to the National Gallery then?”

Harry laughs. “Of course. That’s the plan, isn’t it?”

“I just can’t believe you’d go there voluntarily. On a weekend too. It’s going to be crammed, surely you know that.”

“So?” Harry asks, unapologetic. “I want to look at art.”

Louis, who associates anything touristy with the words cheap and embarrassing, can’t really relate.  

“And one of the billion of small galleries found in London won’t do?” he asks, thinking of a few names he’s heard Zayn mention before.

Harry shrugs. “I feel like… living here, it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to have all of this famous art, all of this famous history, just around the corner?  It’s so easy not to want to act like a tourist that we forget acting like a tourist in our own city can be fun because there’s actually fun things to do in London. People travel thousands of miles to see what’s on our doorstep and I love taking advantage of that. Does that make sense?”

Louis considers it for a second. “I suppose it does. I just… I’ve never done any of the touristy things,” he admits carefully. “When I moved here I was just…” he hesitates, unsure how much he wants to share. He was still a mess, truth be told, and he moved to London against his mother’s wishes, set on escaping his past and starting all over again. “I was so focused on starting over that I didn’t have the energy to invest in that kind of things, I guess,” he finally decides to say. “And then I settled into a routine, with my job and my friends and my neighbourhood and my usual hangs...”

“So wait…,” Harry says, putting his food aside and turning his body slightly to be able to face Louis properly. He wobbles a little, his balance off for a second before he seats himself safely against the fountain again. “You’ve never visited London properly?” When he’s done asking, he dramatically lets his mouth hang open in shock.

“I do live here you know,” Louis replies with a laugh, unable to stop himself in front of the sheer disbelief on Harry’s face.

“Yeah, but have you even been to London if you haven’t been to all the museums? Visited Westminster? Saint-Paul’s Cathedral? The London Eye?”

Harry’s tone becomes more and more disbelieving and agitated with each mention being met by Louis’ blank gaze.

“Meh,” he simply says dismissively, just to see Harry’s reaction and he feels a deep sense of satisfaction when Harry’s cheeks flush.

“Wow,” Harry replies, shaking his head. “It’s one of the first things I did when I first moved down here. I just… I felt like I had to get to know every single bit of the city, including the obvious and very cheesy ones. That’s kind of why I like the National Gallery so much, I suppose. It reminds me of settling in and having my first proper adult flat. Finally out of uni, you know? Brand new start? I used to go there… every few days. Just… listen to some music and look at the paintings. Now, it’s the one thing that makes me feel like I’m back home when I’ve been away travelling for so long. It’s like I haven’t come home until I’m walking through those front doors.”

“That’s…” Louis hesitates for a second, uncertain how to describe the way the words make his heart twist a little painfully. “That’s really sweet,” he finally says after a beat, before his eyes widen in realisation. “Wait a minute,” he mumbles, half to himself. “Have you not been since you’ve come back from your latest trip?

Harry shakes his head.

“But it’s been weeks,” Louis protests automatically, suddenly feeling awkward and out of place.

“No rest for the wicked, I’m afraid,” Harry says cheekily before finishing his sandwich in one big bite.

“But…” Louis hesitates for a second. “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to intrude on a personal ritual,” he automatically apologises, a deep sense of discomfort spreading through him. Surely he shouldn’t be here.

Harry smiles, his eyebrows furrowing slightly in confusion. “You do know I invited you, right?” he asks, tone a bit mocking, though not unkind.

Louis flushes. “Well, yeah but still. You didn’t have to do that.”

“I know I didn’t. I wanted to. You’re a nice person and wicked smart. I like getting to know you. And I thought you might enjoy this. Now that I know you’ve never been, I’m even more glad I invited you,” Harry finishes with a wink before grabbing a few crisps from the bag and popping them into his mouth, chewing loudly.

“I…” Louis flounders for a moment, unsure what to say. Harry’s not flirting; there’s no twinkle in his eyes, no intent in his posture. He’s just saying these things matter-of-factly.

“Why have you never visited London like a tourist then?” Harry asks, putting Louis out of his misery.

“I don’t know… I guess I never took the time. And my flatmate is a bit of a hispter-y snob. I think his disdain for tourism might have rubbed off on me.”

Harry shakes his head. “Highly blasphemous. But don’t worry, I’ll fix that. Next time we can do the London Eye.”

Louis scoffs. “Certainly not. I’ll do museums with you, that’s fine, but I’m not paying thirty quid for what is essentially an over-glorified Ferris Wheel.”

“I’ll pay,” Harry offers. “You can get a coupon online for good discounts. Half price.”

Louis rolls his eyes automatically. “Obviously I’ve got the money for it, but I’d just rather die than to spend it there.”

“That’s fine,” Harry agrees easily, annoyingly. “It’ll be my treat.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Come on, It’ll be fun,” Harry says with a big pout. “Please,” he adds, fluttering his eyelashes.

“Yeah, that’s not gonna work on me,” Louis deadpans. “It’s called the Coca-Cola London Eye.”

“So?”

Louis scoffs. “It’s tacky,” he explains with disdain.

Harry nods. “Agreed,” he replies, a small smirk in the corner of his mouth.  

“I’m not going,” Louis says sternly. “Nothing you can say will change my mind.”

Harry straightens up a little, squinting at Louis with a very serious look on his face. Then, after almost a minute of silent observation, a full smile finally spreads on his face. “Fine,” he says, starting to put their rubbish into his tote. “Come on,” he adds, as he gets up from the fountain, “we’ve got some art to look at.”

“That’s it?” Louis demands, putting a hand against his forehead to shield himself from the sun, staring at Harry a bit suspiciously.

Harry shrugs, putting his sunglasses back on and he truly makes a spectacular vision in the October sunlight, the mustard of his jumper fitting a little too conveniently with London’s current palette. Louis lets himself appreciate his figure for a second, the way his blue jeans cling to his muscular thighs before he gets up too.

“Considering the fact you fight for a living, I didn’t expect you to give up that easily,” Louis says, nose twitching underneath the bridge of his glasses.

“Who says I’ve given up?” Harry scoffs before he starts to walk towards the stairs leading up to the Gallery’s entrance. “It’s all about endurance love,” he calls over his shoulders.

&&&

They walk into the gallery easily, Harry opening his tote bag for a friendly looking security guard before they get waved in. The minute they’re past security, Louis starts fumbling into his jeans for his wallet, wishing a good day to the employee next to the donation box as he drops a fiver in. When he turns around, he’s pleasantly surprised to see Harry doing the same on the other side of the entrance hall, his big laugh carrying as he jokes around with two gallery employees.

“You’re really going to be the dickhead who walks around the gallery with sunglasses on?” Louis asks when they meet in the middle in front of the main staircase.

Harry snorts, pushing the glasses up again so they’ll hold his hair, the curls brushing against his neck and shoulders, framing his face prettily. “Nah,” he replies. “Wouldn’t want to be that guy. So, where do you want to go first?”

Louis widens his eyes. “How would I know? You’re the expert here, aren’t you? Where do you usually go first?”

Harry shrugs, pointing vaguely towards all the rooms. “I just roam around, to be honest.”

“Aimlessly?” Louis demands, fingers tight around the gallery map he grabbed after donating.

Harry shrugs again. Then, he wrinkles his nose, cheeks pinking. “I come here a lot,” he admits, “it doesn’t really matter to me at this point.”

Louis sighs, a tiny thing, before shaking his head. Then, he folds the map carefully, putting it in his back pocket. “Alright then, let’s wander,” he declares, making his way to the top of the stairs and picking a room at random.

Harry doesn’t talk much once they start exploring properly. He pauses in front of pieces that attract his attention, reading the labels carefully, making small humming noises as he pulls on his lower lip with his thumb and index. Once in a while, he’ll take a few steps back to observe the painting from afar, on occasion taking his phone out of the back pocket of his jeans to snap a quick picture. Louis tries not to find it endearing, but it quickly proves to be a difficult endeavour.

“So…” Louis begins after they’ve done two rooms in complete silence. “Which is your favourite?” he asks, not because the silence was awkward or demanding, but because he genuinely wants to know.

Harry turns away from the painting he was looking at at the sound of Louis’ voice, giving him a small smirk. “In this room?” he asks, index in the air as he rotates his wrist delicately, pointing at the entire room at once with one swift movement.

Louis shrugs. “Not necessarily. Just… In general? You did an art degree, no? So who’s your favourite?”

“I did Art History,” Harry clarifies. “Very different. I wouldn’t call myself an artist. Unless you consider boxing an art,” he teases and it takes everything in his power for Louis not to wrinkle his nose in distaste. Harry must know because he snorts. “I don’t really do favourites,” he admits. “Or at least not for art. I think… I don’t know, it’s a bit pointless anyway? Restricting ?”

“I mean… having a favourite doesn’t necessarily stop you from appreciating everything else,” Louis replies before Harry has the chance to elaborate. “Or at least I don’t think so. Why would it be restricting?”

Harry hums. “I don’t know. I like focusing on what art makes me feel over anything else. I think prioritising one artist or work over the others doesn’t really help me furthering that goal so I just don’t do it. I have artists that I love, pieces that are important to me, but... I don’t know. Nothing really beyond that.”

“I guess I see what you’re saying. But… what if what an artist makes you feel is that they’re your favourite?”

Harry snorts. “Fair enough,” he replies, spreading his arms out and giving Louis a sheepish shrug. “Wanna know a secret?”  he asks after a beat.

“Always,” Louis, who as a writer has always wanted to scratch beyond the surface and find what people hide beneath it, replies automatically.

“When I was at uni, a lot of people I studied with used their favourite artist or favourite work as weapons.”

“Weapons?” Louis repeats, unable to stop himself from frowning in confusion.

“You know, part of their arsenal of intellectual superiority. It was exhausting to keep up with. I can’t be bothered with that shit.”

“Ah,” Louis says with a laugh, suddenly understanding. “Yes, I’m quite familiar with the issue. Not that different from my English department, if I remember correctly.”

“Right,” Harry agrees with a nod. “So yeah, I just can’t be bothered,” he repeats.  

“So basically what you’re saying is you do have favourites, but you won’t say who they are,” Louis teases, walking away from a religious painting towards another religious painting.

Harry chuckles. “I’m neither confirming nor denying.”

“I see,” Louis says, giving Harry a quick side-glance. He clears his throat before speaking again. “I’ll figure it out, you know. At some point. I’m really good at figuring people out.”

“Just like I’ll get you to go to the London Eye with me,” Harry replies without a second of hesitation, raising one challenging eyebrow as his smirk widens.

Louis scoffs. “Right. Except, unlike you, I’m actually going to do it.”

Harry’s smile slides off his face slightly and he gives Louis a serious look. “I believe that. You strike me as the quiet observant type who would manage to guess.”

“I’m not that quiet,” Louis protests, even though he definitely is. Most people fail to recognise it though, too impressed and overwhelmed by the select moments where Louis is undeniably the loudest person in the room to remember all the other instances where he stands silent, wrapped in a quiet bubble of his own making.

Harry hums. “Well,” he says after a few seconds of silence, “I suppose you know best. I’m only a new friend after all.”

“So, this is all you do then?” Louis asks, purposefully changing the subject, heart throbbing fast and loud with how easily Harry managed to read him. “Walk around the same paintings over and over again in silence?” he asks as they exit the room and walk into a suddenly much more crowded corridor. “What the hell?” Louis mumbles as he gets pushed around a little towards Harry’s body.

“That’s where the Van Goghs are,” Harry whispers in his ears from behind, putting two fingers on Louis’ elbow to alert him of his presence, to make sure they won’t get lost in the crowd.

Louis looks up towards the windows in the doors of the next room, trying to see the paintings inside.

“We can skip it if you want?” Harry offers, though Louis can’t imagine how they’d manage to escape the queue now that they’re in it.

“I don’t know how we’d do that,” Louis replies with a small laugh. “It’s fine. They’re some of the most famous paintings in the Gallery, might as well, right?”

“Yeah,” Harry agrees. “I’m quite fond of them, truth be told.”

“Look at that, Mr. No Favourite is revealing himself.”

“Ha. Ha,” Harry replies as they are pushed forward, the doors finally opening so they can be let through. “And I don’t just walk around moodily in silence looking at paintings, by the way.”

Louis automatically lowers his head to hide his fond smile even though Harry is still behind him, ashamed that his feelings are spilling out so easily.

“I never said you were moody,” Louis replies. “You’re putting words into my mouth.”

“You definitely implied,” Harry argues back before starting to defend himself. “There’s a lot of games to be played here I’ll have you know. At uni, I used to date this Australian guy and he loved to play a game he called ‘root’, ‘loot’ or ‘boot’, which is the art people’s version of ‘fuck’, ‘marry’, ‘kill’.”

Louis gasps at the same time as the old lady next to him does and he can’t help but turn around to face Harry and to hide his loud snort at the lady’s reaction.

“Explain,” he demands sternly, lips pursed as he tries to stop himself from giggling.

Harry gives him the most innocent smile before explaining the game. “Well, essentially you have to pick which paintings you’d fuck, which painting you’d steal and which painting you’d throw away. I have to say, there is a lot of ‘well, I guess I’d fuck Jesus’ in this game if you’re attracted to men.”

“Oh dear,” the old woman mumbles before pushing through the crowd to get away from them.

“Please tell me you always play this game, even if you’re by yourself,” Louis demands, still laughing.

“Always,” Harry declares solemnly, putting a hand against his heart. “I mean, I’m appreciating the art, of course, but that guy really impacted the way I visit museums. I can’t even be mad the relationship went sour. Every time I’m in a modern art museum and I think to myself, yeah I’d fuck the squiggly lines representing existential dread, I chuckle to myself and remember him.”

“Why did it go sour?” Louis can’t help but ask. Sometimes he wishes he were the kind of person who can focus on the joke and forget the rest of it. Instead, he goes for the jugular every single time, his inquisitive little fingers pressing where it hurts with no mercy.

Harry, easy-going as ever, simply shrugs at the personal inquiry. “Just one of those life gets in the way type of situations. I wanted more serious things than he did, more commitment. It was at the beginning of my career, right when I started travelling for work. He didn’t think it was fair of me to ask him to wait on as I spent weeks away sometimes for what was essentially a casual relationship we’d kept through uni and graduation. I asked him explicitly to make it serious and he said no.”

“That sucks,” Louis replies with a sympathetic hum. If he knew Harry better, he’d maybe put a comforting hand on his shoulder or he’d pat him on the back. As it is, the queue is moving along and he has to turn away from Harry to keep up the pace.

He knows it’s selfish, but sometimes, Louis’ first instinct is to not relate to those kinds of trivial relationship issues normal people have, a part of him always screaming you don’t even know what a hard relationship is!!! It’s the bitter, hurt voice in the back of his head he usually doesn’t allow himself to listen to; an unhelpful scream of anguish for what he went through. Giving it too much attention nourishes an otherness Louis hates feeling though and empathy for others’ suffering is both a weapon and a balm in those situations. After all, Louis knows, more than anyone perhaps, that most people fight battles other could never know or understand. Still, it’s hard sometimes.

He can feel Harry shrugging from behind him before he elaborates on his feelings.

“It hurt at the time. I was quite a bit in love with him,” he admits, cheeks pinking a little when Louis turns a smidge to catch a glance, his eyes shifting to the left, avoiding Louis’ gaze. “S’a bit embarrassing,” he continues, wrinkling his nose. “He obviously didn’t feel the same. But there’s not much I could have done about that.”

“No,” Louis agrees. “If there’s one thing we don’t have control over, it’s other people’s behaviour or feelings,” he declares. Then, lowering his voice, he adds: “I learned that the hard way.”

Harry makes a humming noise in the back of his throat and Louis can’t quite tell if it’s in agreement with what he just said or an invitation to say more. Either way, he’s said too much already.

“Who would have thought Van Gogh was so popular?” he jokes, changing the subject with a lack of subtlety he already knows he’ll regret once he’s back home and over-analysing the entire day, replaying every stupid thing he said in high definition with unhelpful commentary.

“I know, it’s wiiild,” Harry says sarcastically when they finally arrive at the famous painter’s section.

Louis sighs a little, looking at the first painting. “Though, to be fair,” he half mumbles, “his work is beautiful.”

“Yeah,” Harry agrees. “It really is.”

It takes them a few minutes, but soon enough they get to the main event, both of them pressed close together as they face one of the artist’s famous sunflowers painting.

“How does it make you feel?” Harry demands.

Louis squirms uncomfortably, looking at the long queue of people waiting after them for a small glimpse of the famed flowers.

“I don’t think we really have the time to ponder,” Louis whispers.

Harry shrugs, taking a picture of the painting. “They’ll get their turn.”

Louis sighs. “How does it make you feel?” he asks, trying to buy time as he looks at the sunflowers, the twisted petals, the slope of their descent,  the irregularity of their shapes, the overwhelmingly bright yellow that takes over the entirety of the frame.

Harry shakes his head, making a small noise in the back of his throat. “I asked first,” he says when Louis looks at him.

Biting his lower lip, he turns back to the painting. He takes his time, letting the noises of the gallery fade away as he truly observes. It makes him feel….

“Imperfect,” Louis declares in a small voice. “It makes me feel imperfect,” he repeats more strongly this time, before moving along to another Van Gogh.

Thankfully, Harry doesn’t say anything and they finish their turn of the crowded room in silence, exiting through a more quiet and muted room.

“I didn’t mean that in a sad, self-deprecating way,” Louis says once they’re in the almost empty room, suddenly feeling the need to explain himself, the need to not look stupid in front of Harry.

“You don’t have to explain it,” Harry replies, putting his phone aside. “That’s not how the game works. You just have to say what the art piece makes you feel, that’s all. There’s no obligation beyond that.”

“So what did it make you feel?” Louis asks, suddenly remembering Harry never answered the question.

“Peaceful,” Harry replies without hesitation. Louis strongly suspects it might be one of the favourites he previously claimed not to have. The way he softened when they got to the painting and his unwillingness to leave despite the pressure of the crowd seem like breadcrumbs, little clues Louis can’t help but pick up on. “It always makes me feel peaceful. Reminds me of quiet summer days.”

Louis nods. “I can see that. I guess that’s in there too,” he teases half-heartedly. “It doesn’t make me feel imperfect in a bad way,” he adds after a beat. “I know I don’t have to explain it, but I want to. You like talking about art, no? This is me talking about it the only way I know how.”

Harry squints, standing in the middle of the empty room, the rich red of the walls making it feel bigger than it is. “There’s no right or wrong way,” he replies. “But go on, if you want to.”

“It makes me feel imperfect,” Louis declares before inhaling deeply. “And like… like it’s okay to be that way. Those flowers are fading,” he adds, gesturing towards the room they just left. “Some of them are dying already, but they’re still beautiful. They’re still bright and joyous. They’d still brighten up any room they’re put into.” He closes his eyes when he finishes, unsure how he feels after sharing so much.

Blissfully, Harry doesn’t say anything. Maybe he knows this was deeper than he, as a near stranger, can understand. Maybe he understands none of it was meant for his ears anyway. Either way, when Louis opens his eyes, Harry is staring at him silently, no judgement in his gaze. His eyes are clear, soft, the same green Louis has treacherously started getting used to. Then, after what seems like an eternity of them staring at each other, he nods.

&&&

“How the hell does one become a professional boxer anyway?” Louis demands a couple of hours later after it feels like they’ve been through the entire gallery twice, rooms and pieces of art blending all into one jumbled mess into Louis’ brain. “I feel like I know how it works with other sports, but boxing…. I have no clue.”

Harry smiles, grabbing the tray the nice lady at the gallery’s coffee shop is giving him, carrying both their teas as they start looking for an empty table. “Well… It started as a self-defence thing, for me. I was very scrawny in secondary school,” he admits, pushing between people easily and Louis can’t help but be fascinated by the way his body moves. It’s no wonder he’s an athlete.  “And like… quite obviously gay,” Harry adds when they finally find a table. He puts the tray on it and takes his tote off before sitting down in front of Louis and continuing. “I wasn’t super flamboyant by any standards, but you know how it is. Wear a rainbow bracelet or nail polish once and you’re branded.”

I was and I do , Louis thinks automatically, heart in his throat. “You were bullied,” is what he says instead, dread dropping low in his belly.

Harry shakes his head.

“Not as such,” he replies and there’s a hint of something there that tells Louis there’s more to the story. He won’t press, not today, but he files the information away for later, unable to help himself. “I mean…” Harry continues, “I wasn’t getting beaten up or anything dramatic like that, you know?”

Louis nods.

“I was teased, for sure. Lots and lots of name calling. I shook it off because I’ve always been really easy-going, but… the truth is, it made me feel really helpless.”

Louis gulps. “I can imagine,” he replies, a deep sadness in his voice he can’t seem to shake. It’s so unfair.

“Boxing was a way to get back some of that control for me. I know you’re not the sport’s biggest fan and I really respect that, but I could never see things your way. It was such a lifeline for me when I was in a dark place. It really helped me feel at home in my body and… safe I guess.”

“I understand.”

“It’s like I told you the night we met… I’ve never hit someone outside the ring. And obviously I can’t predict the future, but I can’t imagine a situation where I would. But knowing I could… It was a powerful mantra through my A-Levels when some of the lads at school were trying to stir shit, you know? I stopped being so scared and they started leaving me alone.”

Louis hums. “That… that actually makes sense,” he replies, blushing a little when Harry raises his left fist over his head triumphantly. “Oh shut up,” Louis mumbles. “I still don’t like it.”

“And you don’t have to.”

“How did it become a career though? It doesn’t seem like the most obvious path.”

Harry laughs.

“I don’t mean to be insulting, I just -”

“No, no. You’re not. I agree. It’s not quite what I imagined myself doing either. I kept up the training when I got into uni because it was such a big part of my life by that point. Just a way for myself to feel healthy and stuff. One of my mates was studying Physical Education and so he kinda became my personal trainer?”

“Your manager,” Louis guesses, starting to see how Harry might have fallen into it.

“Yeah,” Harry replies with a fond smile. “Liam. It was good concrete practice for him, for uni stuff, you know? And it meant I had a free personal trainer so I didn’t really mind being used as his scapegoat,” he explains, a slight chuckle escaping his mouth that seems to indicate there’s a funny anecdote hidden in there. “He was the one who first suggested starting to book some proper fights for me. It never occurred to me before that, to be honest, but… I guess I was curious to see if I could win.”

“I’m assuming it went well,” Louis teases.

“Yeah. It took off. A lot more than either of us expected to be honest. I started winning and doing really well. Liam even switched his focus to Sports Management so he could keep taking care of my career and… Here we are I guess. Now we co-own this gym in Soho and things are still good.”

Louis hums. “So you literally just… fell into it,” he realises.

“Yeah. I know I’m lucky. I make quite a bit of money doing something I love and it wasn’t even a big plan… Some boxers work their whole life towards that goal, you know? Makes me feel a bit of a fraud sometimes. But… at the same time… I wouldn’t be winning so many matches if I was, so… I try not to worry too much about it.”

Louis laughs, slightly envious of the way Harry dismisses his anxieties so easily. It’s always a shock to realise not every single person on Earth has the same issues with keeping them under control as Louis does, that some people just get to live without the darkening cloud of crippling fears hanging overhead. Still, good for Harry he supposes.

“What did you want to do? Originally? I mean… You did Art History with a goal in mind, I’m assuming?” Louis asks, stirring his tea carefully.

Harry shrugs. “Not particularly to be honest.”

“Really?” Louis demands, astonished. He’s known he wanted to be a writer since the first time he understood what a story was and who were the lucky people who got to make them up.

“Yeah… I mean… I had options I was thinking about, but nothing settled.”

“What kind of options?”

“You’re very curious,” Harry teases, blowing over his cuppa even though they’ve been sitting here long enough for it to be cool by now.

“Oh, excuse me for wanting to get to know my new friend.”

“Prickly,” Harry remarks, ignoring Louis’ offended gasp. “I did consider some stuff like museum curating or even art dealing? Teaching was also something I was interested in. I might go back to it once I’m too old for boxing,” he jokes. “What about you?" 

"What do you mean?" 

"You vaguely mentioned something about switching from writing to editing the other night? What happened there?" Harry asks. 

"I told you," Louis replies, wrapping a defensive arm around his own waist. "Writing is difficult." 

"But.. if it's what you wanted to do, your passion -" 

"Oh come on," Louis scoffs, edging towards impoliteness. "It's like... every self-indulgent English Lit major's dream to be a writer. It's cliched. Unrealistic. Life happened. I stopped writing." 

Life happened brutally is the God's honest truth of it. So sudden, so vile, that Louis hadn't even realised he'd been robbed of his art, of his voice, until he finally extracted himself from the mess of a relationship he was in, only to find himself alone, void. Trying to rebuild himself with empty blocks he didn't know how to fit together, trying to find words for the unnameable. It took him years to pick up a pen again and even now, no one knows. 

"I'm sorry," Harry mumbles. "It's none of my business. I just think it's sad if you gave up your art. Even if you made the decision not to make a career out of it." 

"Who says I've completely given up my art?" The words are out of Louis' mouth before he can fully process them. Easy as that. He's just spilt one of his biggest secrets to an almost stranger.

He hasn't even told Zayn he's writing right now. Bloody hell, even his mother has no idea, though she stopped asking about it years ago. His therapist keeps hinting he should start again and he hasn't even had the courage to admit that he's writing, has been for months now, that he's telling his story the only way he knows how; wrapped in fictional characters and brutal truths. Yet, one comment, one critique, from Harry Styles and the lies he's protected himself with for so long start crumbling. In one easy instant. If he wasn't so surprised by his candour, Louis would be terrified. 

Harry smiles, a wide thing that transforms his whole face, showing off his dimples. "So you are still a writer?" he exclaims, eyes suddenly alight with interest. "That's wonderful. Gemma failed to mention it." 

He either hasn't noticed the conundrum Louis finds himself into, or he's politely ignoring it. 

“Ah,” Louis says carefully, licking his lower lip. “That would be because she doesn’t know," he replies, which is more than an understatement. 

“Oh,” Harry says, face falling a little. “Is… is it a secret?” he asks, looking over his shoulders dramatically.

Louis chuckles, somewhere between bitter and soft. How is he supposed to admit to it? “Of sorts,” he finally chooses to say.

“So… you don’t want to be published?” Harry asks, making so many leaps of logic Louis almost wants to laugh.

“I definitely didn’t say that,” Louis replies, choosing honesty again instead of the careful lies he usually offers. 

Harry has the decency to blush. “Sorry,” he says sheepishly. “I assumed. I mean… with your industry connections, why wouldn’t you try?” he hypothetically asks with an easy laugh like Louis’ manuscript is not the most intimately painful thing he’s ever worked on, like it’s not a part of his own soul he’s ripping away from himself and pouring onto the page almost every night.

Sharing it is never going to be easy.

“Maybe I don’t want to get by with connections,” Louis offers quietly underneath the clinking of spoons and forks in the cafe.  

“Is that the reason then?” Harry asks like he can read Louis’ mind. “For the secrecy?”

“You ask a lot of questions,” Louis declares instead of answering.

Harry smiles, a faint blush suddenly decorating his cheeks. Despite his obvious embarrassment, he doesn’t seem apologetic. On the contrary, he seems almost shameless. “I guess I’m curious too,” he admits with a quick wink.

&&&

“This was fun,” Louis says when they reach the escalators in the tube station where their paths separate. He's surprising himself by finding that despite the hitch of embarrassment underneath his skin at how much of himself he's revealed, he actually means it. 

“Yeah?” Harry asks with a small grin at the corner of his mouth.

He’s probably only fishing for praise, but Louis, who is in a good mood after their lovely afternoon, doesn’t feel like denying him.

“Yeah,” he agrees with a nod. “I surprisingly liked it. I’m more into modern art usually, to be honest. Probably my flatmate’s influence. He’s an artist, you know. I feel like everything I know about art comes to me pre-filtered through his opinions so… yeah, this was surprisingly refreshing. Thank you.”

“Oh my god,” Harry gasps. “You can’t drop a bomb on me like the fact that your flatmate is an artist and then not give me more information? What type of stuff does he do? Is he on Instagram?” he demands, eyes sparkling with genuine interest.

Louis snorts. “I shouldn’t have mentioned it. He’s gonna steal you away if you meet him. I’m not clever enough to sustain discussions about art as long as either of you, you’re both going to leave me behind.”

“Oh I highly doubt anyone would be more interesting than you are to me,” Harry replies automatically, eyes widening and cheeks flushing when he realises what he’s just said. “I mean…” he trails off, giving Louis a panicked look. “Anyways….” he says after a second, shaking his head and frowning to himself. “We’ll check out something more modern next time. It’s gonna make ‘root’, ‘boot’ or ‘loot’ a lot more exciting,” he teases with a hint of panic, wiggling his eyebrows.

Instead of putting a stop to it immediately, Louis lets himself feel flattered for a moment before pouting. “But who am I if I can’t say I’d fuck Jesus every two seconds? Is there even a point to the game if religious paintings aren’t in?”

Harry laughs, moving aside to let a few irritated commuters through. “Trust me, it’ll be just as fun.”

Chapter Text

Louis is just walking out of the tube when he feels his phone vibrate in his back pocket. He fumbles for a second, stopping in the stairs to grab it to the annoyance of multiple commuters, before smiling when he sees the caller ID.

“Hey mum,” he answers as he makes his way onto the streets.  

“Hi baby,” Jay’s voice responds and immediately Louis feels like home. It’s crazy for him to think about sometimes, the way no matter how settled he feels in London, how grown up he is, the sound of his mother’s voice always brings him back to his roots without her even trying. Reminds him of late night pyjama parties in the living room with his younger siblings, reminds him of folding laundry with Jay after school, reminds him of helping out with the kids in the morning – lining up lunch boxes on the counter of their cramped house up north.

“How have you been?” Louis asks, suddenly realising uncomfortably that they haven’t talked in quite a while. “Did I miss one of our phone dates?” he adds, frowning a little at the thought. It’s a bit sad they have to schedule their talks like this, but between two busy timetables – well six if Louis counts his siblings’ who impact Jay’s – it’s difficult to catch each other spontaneously.

That being said, he usually writes down the moments they agreed on in his agenda to make sure he won’t forget to call and he’s sure today’s date was completely blank, except for the tiny NG with H.S scrawled in the afternoon.

Jay laughs and Louis releases tension he didn’t even realise he was carrying. “No, no,” she says and he can see the way she’s probably shaking her head fondly from miles away. “Not at all. Don’t feel bad. We didn’t say we’d talk, it’s fine. It’s just I haven’t heard from you in some time so I figured I’d try catching you on a day off. Am I bothering you and your big social life?”

She asks it teasingly, but Louis can hear the reproach in her voice, the concern. She hates the thought of him isolating himself, no matter how many times he tells her it’s easier sometimes to be alone.

Louis takes a turn into a quieter street, shivering a little against the wind. It’s not cold enough to justify a proper coat yet, London’s winter chill still a few months away, but he’s starting to regret not bringing a scarf. He loves himself in this leather jacket, but it leaves his neck exposed and with the days already shortening, the darkening streets are colder than Louis can tolerate. He was comfortable at midday, but now he regrets every single of his life choices.  

“You know you’re not,” he replies, fighting to keep his voice level and reaching inside his pocket to grab his headphones. “Gimme a sec,” he adds, quickly putting them on and hiding both hands in his pockets. “Sorry, it’s freezing tonight so I had to put headphones in. But now you’re not bothering me at all. Just walking back home.”

Jay hums, a small noise of compassion. “What have you been up to today?” she asks, always inquisitive and there’s a hint of surprise colouring her voice. She wasn’t expecting that answer, so used to her son’s sedentary lifestyle.

“Went to the National Gallery actually,” Louis explains, raising his shoulders to hide his neck from the wind. “I’d never been, so…” he trails off, letting her make her own conclusion about his motivations.

As predicted, she gasps before letting out a small laugh. “Really?” she asks, sounding both amused and doubtful. “Zayn’s idea I assume,” she adds after a beat.

Louis shakes his head before replying, pleased to know she can’t see him rolling his eyes. “Harry’s, actually,” he finally says, forgetting the fact he hasn’t mentioned their budding friendship to her before. Or the fact that Harry exists at all. 

There's one long second of silence through the line, a moment that stretches too long to be comfortable, a beat where Louis immediately regrets being so candid. In that long moment, he knows she’s going to make a big deal out of this.

“Harry?” Jay asks, too nonchalant to be anything but dying with curiosity. This is where the investigation begins.

Louis gulps. “Yeah,” he says, cagey without meaning to be. “He’s uh… Harry Styles? Gemma’s little brother?”

“Oh,” Jay says. Then, after a second, she declares: “I didn’t know you two were friends.”

Louis laughs. Uncertain. Awkward. “Well, it’s quite a recent development? I met him at one of Gemma’s dinner parties. I’d heard about him of course, I've met Gemma's parents and everything... but that was the first time we actually met each other. And we got on really well, I guess. He’s funny and… well, like everyone else in his family, he’s really nice. He’s an athlete, but he studied art history so he loves that kind of stuff and he invited me to tag along. I’m not the biggest museum fan, but it was actually really interesting. I can’t believe I’d never been before. It really took me by surprise.”

“That’s good, baby. I’m glad you had fun.” Jay pauses. “It’s lovely you’ve made a new… friend.”

“Don’t,” Louis interrupts. “Don’t pause like that. He is just a friend.”

“I wasn’t trying to hint anything,” she argues even though they both know that she was.  

Louis sighs as he finally turns on his street, his tiny flat in sight. She means well, he reminds himself firmly before inhaling. Slowly. Deeply.  “If I started dating someone,” he says, carefully choosing his words, “I would tell you about it.”

Jay sighs. “Oh honey,” she replies, tone full of compassion. “Of course. I know you would. But… if you do find yourself dating someone and you don’t feel ready to talk about it, that would be okay too. It’s fine to have things you want to keep to yourself. Even if we are close.”

Louis stops in front of his building, looking at the door for a second before sitting down on the curb.

“I know that,” he whispers. “And I mean it when I say I’m not ready for that yet. I don’t think so at least, even though everyone thinks I am.”

“Well,” Jay starts carefully, “what matters is how you feel about it. And if you don’t feel ready then it’s no one’s business, isn’t it? Even if we tease and probe.”

“Yeah.”

“Is he gay though?” Jay asks jokingly, automatically bursting into laughter.

“Oh my god mum, stop it!” Louis snorts, shaking his head.

“I’m going to check on Facebook,” she adds with a cackle and Louis feels his cheeks redden.

“You will do no such thing! And yes, alright? He’s gay and he asked me out, but we’ve decided we were only going to be friends because I’m not ready.”

“Oh,” Jay replies and Louis locks eyes with his neighbour’s cat as the silence stretches around them. “Do you think you could like him like that?”

“It doesn’t really matter,” Louis replies, a lump in his throat.

“It matters to me,” Jay says. “I always want to know how you’re feeling. Even if it’s going to make me sad.”

And isn’t that a punch in the gut? To know how much his stubbornness, his pain, his anxiety, is upsetting her.

“I started writing again,” he admits, realising only as he says it how much it weighed on him to have shared this with Harry – almost a stranger – and not with her. It’s like he can breathe a little easier now that it’s out of his mouth like a load has been taken off his shoulder.

“Louis!” Jay exclaims, sufficiently distracted. “That’s amazing! How long has this been going on?”

Louis bites his lower lip, rubbing the sole of his trainers against the pavement as he seriously considers lying and telling her it’s a new development.

“A few months at least,” he finally admits. “I’m not ready to share what it’s about it yet,” he adds quickly, knowing it’s going to be her next question, everyone’s next question. The million dollar question he can’t bear to think about it.

“Oh, don’t worry about that love! I’m so happy for you. You used to love it so much.”

“I did,” Louis agrees with a small laugh. Then, he corrects, “I do.”  

“Are you… thinking about publication?”

Louis laughs, a full body one this time, before shaking his head fondly. “What did I just say?”

“Alright! Alright!” Jay amends quickly. “I’m gonna…” she trails off, then starts mimicking a zipper sound.

“Please do,” Louis says, jokingly stern. He shivers, then looks up towards their windows. “Listen, I just got home and I haven’t had tea yet so maybe I could call you back after I’ve eaten?”

“Oh no, no. It’s fine. We’ll talk later. Go enjoy your evening.”

“Alright, if you’re sure. Give a kiss to the girls and Ernie from me, alright?”

“Will do,” Jay replies before saying goodbye and hanging up.

&&&

The next morning, Louis wakes up to an Instagram notification claiming a certain @ harrystyles has requested to follow him. He blinks, still half asleep before smirking at his phone. Without thinking about it, he screenshots the notification then texts the picture to Harry with a Stalker !!!! message attached to it. It’s only when he’s back in his bed armed with a giant mug of tea he has to wrap both of his hands around that he wonders if that could be misconstructed as flirting.

He scrunches his nose, then shakes his head, before placing the mug on his bedside table and grabbing his phone again. He opens up his conversation with Harry, rereading his message while biting his lower lip. It sounds friendly, right? Louis ponders to himself. He’s halfway out of bed, ready to ask Zayn’s opinion when he stops in his track.

“Don’t be stupid,” he mumbles to himself, kneeling on his bed again. The last thing he needs his flatmate’s brand of mockery so early on a Sunday morning.

He can hear Zayn puttering about in the flat, humming along to whatever classical music he’s chosen to listen to this morning. He was putting protective plastic all over their kitchen floor when Louis left with his tea, armed with arguments that even though it’s a smaller space than both Zayn’s bedroom and the living room, the light is better there in the morning and who was Louis to argue, really? He smiles to himself as he tries to recognise the tune, secretly pleased at the way Zayn’s art is slowly taking over their entire flat, spreading from room to room as he gets more and more commissions.

There’s no point bothering him when he’s clearly busy. Besides, Louis suspects he knows what Zayn would say already. Something about inappropriate flirting between friends and Louis being in denial and Louis needing to put himself out there and Louis being stupid for not knowing how to interact like a normal human being and Louis –

No , Louis tells himself sternly, putting a hand against his racing heart, applying a reassuring pressure on his chest.

Zayn wouldn’t say that. Certainly not with such contempt at least. And if Zayn wouldn’t say that then surely Louis shouldn’t waste time imagining him doing so.

He sighs loudly, looking back down at his phone. The screen is turned off now but the message he impulsively sent still burns in his brain, a taunting image he can’t help but regret. What a stupid thing to do. Why would he feel compelled to send such a thing? Louis closes his eyes, tapping his phone against his chin one, two, three times.

“Oh well,” he mutters. What is done is done and he can’t exactly spend the entire day worrying about Harry’s reaction, no matter how much his anxiety wants him to.

Instead, he opens his phone again, deciding to face the day’s notifications and messages now that he’s fully awake. First, he goes through his work emails. Gemma would have his head if she knew he’s working on a Sunday, but Louis has always found it easier to keep stress at bay when he buries himself deep enough into something that the outside world ceases to exist. Writing often does the trick, but nothing is as efficient as immersing himself into his work. It’s a one-way ticket to forgetting every dumb thing he’s ever done in his life and especially forgetting the way his dumb brain reacts to them.

Next, he has a quick scroll through his Facebook and twitter notifications, wrinkling his nose as he makes his way as quickly as possible. He mostly has accounts for work-related reasons - finds the sites unbearable on most days if he’s being honest - but no matter how much he wishes he could delete the entire thing, he has to keep a strong online presence, has to represent Styles Publishing and spread the word.

At least that’s what his boss says.

Truth be told, it’s not all so bad. Louis gets to spread the word about his manuscript wishlist on Twitter, not to mention he gets to give advice to querying authors which might be his favourite part of having an online presence. There’s a lot of background noise he finds difficult to navigate, but the feeling that he’s being helpful and can give advice to aspiring authors and to answer their questions… Well, that’s priceless, isn’t it?

Once he feels like he’s fulfilled his work obligations to his satisfaction - meaning he’s forgotten to feel bad about the awkward text - Louis finally opens Instagram.

The @ harrystyles follow request is seemingly flashing in neon colours. An undeniable presence. Louis licks his lower lip, thumb hovering over the confirm button. He frowns, suddenly uncertain, then he makes his way back to his account, starting to scroll down his own pictures to make sure there’s nothing totally embarrassing in his feed. He blushes as he deletes a couple of bad selfies and teenage throwbacks, going all the way down to his very first post from a few years ago twice before he deems it good enough to accept Harry’s follow request.

He gulps once it’s done. “Can’t go back now,” he whispers to himself, as he clicks on Harry’s account.

The first picture is new, a snapshot of a man helping Harry with his hand wraps as he laughs goofily at the camera, an undeniable reminder of why this entire thing is a bad idea. His hair is in a bun on top of his head, a thin red headband keeping the curls in place. He’s wearing Nike shorts, part of his muscular thighs on display, his pale skin attracting Louis’ gaze straight away.

It’s a really really bad idea.

Louis’ eyes make their way to the caption and he can’t help the small smile blossoming on his face.

Sunday morning at the Gym™.  No rest for the wicked.

Louis clicks on the image, hoping to discover who the poor soul in the photo forced to work on Sundays is. He smiles when the   @liampayne appears on the screen, confirming his suspicions that the man is Harry’s famous manager. They both look relaxed and pleased to be there and Louis suspects from the little Harry has said about his friend and business partner that Liam is probably the one who insisted they work on the weekend.

He frowns a little when he notices @nike is also tagged in the picture and he looks back up, a small chuckle escaping his lips when he reads the Paid partnership with Nike underneath Harry’s username.

Somehow he’d forgotten Harry is kind of a big deal in his field. A proper athlete with a successful career and brand sponsorships. It’s weird to think about if Louis is honest with himself as he struggles to reconcile to two sides of Harry he’s been presented with.

He keeps scrolling down his account, startling a little when he realises the next picture is one from the National Gallery, a photo of the sunflowers posted late the night before. Louis’ heart skips a beat seconds before he reads the caption, both dreading and expecting it.

Sunflowers. Vincent Van Gogh. 1888.

“Imperfect”.

There it is, on Harry’s account for everyone to see, a little piece of Louis’ soul with thousands of likes and comments already. Louis drops his phone onto his duvet, staring beyond the image, lost in thoughts.

A part of him feels like he should be angry, should feel betrayed. What he confessed was for Harry and Harry alone, yet he can’t help the way his heart beats a bit faster, flattered that Harry chose to express Louis’ emotion rather than his own. Because it’s the way the painting made him feel that everyone is responding to and there’s a power that comes with it that Louis can’t quite explain to himself.

Wiggling his toes on the duvet, Louis reaches for his mug, frowning a little as he takes a big cold sip of tea. He forces himself to drink a second one, hating to waste such a full cuppa, before putting it back on his nightstand and grabbing his phone again, fully intending to read through all the comments on Harry’s photo.

The first one makes him pause, heart squeezing painfully in his chest when he reads Harry’s response.  

@rob54: it’s funny, i never noticed *how* imperfect they are before because they’re so beautiful.

@harrystyles: Exactly.

Oh, and the way Louis’ stomach tighten, the way he feels a bit fluttery, is so dangerous. He should back away, listen to the frightened little voice in the back of his head that is screaming for him to run the other way.

Instead, he goes back up Harry’s profile and follows him, against all rationality and common sense.

He can deal with the kind of content Harry posts. Or at least he hopes so.

&&&

Louis’ phone buzzes with a text from Harry a few hours later, after he’s eaten lunch with Zayn and spent a while working on his novel. He pushes his notebook away at the noise, grabbing his phone and smiling against his will when he sees Harry replied to his screenshot with one of his own, Louis’ follow and like of the Sunflower picture both in one shot.

Ditto!

Then, his phone buzzes again.

What have you been up to? :)

Louis repositions himself in bed, sinking into his pillows as he composes an appropriate response.

Not much. Did some SM stuff for work; twitter Q&A and stuff… Had lunch with my flatmate. I was just writing now. Working on the good old novel.... You?

Louis presses send before he has the chance to feel self-conscious about talking about his writing so candidly, drumming his fingers against his thighs as the read message appears quickly followed by three dots indicating Harry is writing his response.

Gemma was right! You are a workaholic!

Louis snorts, fingers swift against his screen. You can talk, Mr Early Training on Sundays! I’m an IG stalker, remember? I see everything.

He waits for a beat, then two, heart thumping hard when his phone buzzes again.

Haha. You caught me. I just got back home. Was a good session though.

Yeah? Louis sends back, not really interested in the details of Harry’s job, but unwilling to let the conversation fizzle out.

This time, it takes a little longer for Harry to reply, the grey bubble the only indication that he’s not given up on chatting with Louis completely. Finally, Louis’ phone buzzes again.

I’m sure boxing is the last thing you want to hear about so I won’t bore you with the details. Harry sends. Suffice to say things are going well with my training regiment and I’m feeling confident for my series of matches coming up.

Sounds like something you’d hear in some bullshit inspirational sports movie. We are confident !!!!!!!!

Harry sends back a row of crying with laughter emojis and Louis can’t help the way warmth spreads through his body. He knows most people don’t send that when they’re actually laughing, but he’s hoping he managed to make Harry smile at least.

Sorry if my answer was too generic for you. Harry sends right after. I know you don’t like boxing so I’m trying not to be a dickhead. I can babble about it for hours if you want … ?

Maybe next time? Louis sends back politely, hoping Harry won’t take him up for it.

Harry sends him a thumb up.

Okay, but talking about work is boring when I have some super important questions to ask you. He adds straight away and Louis can’t help but be endeared at the way Harry is revealing himself to be a double texter.

Important questions? Louis asks, a spark of nervosity blossoming like a poisoned flower in his torso. He’s having fun. This is a fun conversation, he reminds himself. Fun. Lighthearted. There’s no need.

Life or death. Like…. The way you answer these questions is gonna affect our entire relationship! Harry sends. Then, a few seconds later, he sends  Friendship*, making Louis gulp.

Alright. Go for it.

You’re stuck on a desert island, you’re allowed one song, one movie and one book: what are they?

And Louis…. Louis can’t help it. He just bursts into laughter as soon as the text comes through, thoroughly amused by the mixture of ridicule and sincerity displayed.

Seriously?

Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!! Harry sends back. Choose wisely.

Only if you’re answering it too!! Louis sends back, furrowing his brows as he goes through his options.

Madam George - Van Morrison / Goodfellas / Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami

Louis snorts. Not fair!!!! You clearly had your answers all planned while I’m having a nervous breakdown over which book to pick!

Harry sends more laughing emojis with the smug sunglasses wearing one tacked on at the end, just to make it clear he’s happy to witness Louis’ dilemma. Louis’ downfall.

How is he supposed to pick only one book? That’s torture right there- a devilishly sneaky form of torture that initially appears innocent, but is in fact devised by Satan himself.

Oi! Louis texts, tongue poking out as he focuses on typing every word. Books are my whole entire life! It’d be easier to make me choose which limb I’d like to lose than which book I’d want to read for the rest of my life.

There’s a moment of stillness as Louis waits for a reply, gasping - tiny but offended - when it finally buzzes through.

Drama queen. the text simply says.

Louis huffs.

Drama queen? he sends back straight away. I’d like to see you try to decide which painting you’d bring to a desert island… It’s not as easy as it looks when it’s something you care about!

For a moment, Louis thinks he’s offended Harry. The text goes through, the little read sign appearing straight away but it takes a while before Harry starts replying. Long enough for Louis’ heart to start beating uncomfortably fast in his chest and for him to reread the innocent enough text he sent a few times over, wondering which part of it he should be apologising for.

Finally, Harry’s reply comes through: Oh my god! What kind of dickhead brings a painting to a desert island?!!, the response making Louis laugh so hard he almost chokes on his own spit.

He blushes once he’s regained control of himself, rubbing one of his cheeks with the palm of his hand, secretly glad that they’re not having this ridiculous conversation face to face. When he looks at his phone again, he’s got a mortifying text from Zayn that simply reads: who tf is blowing up your phone like that on a sunday morning?

Louis’ eyes widen as he lets himself slump down in his bed and raising his shoulders, part of him subconsciously trying to hide.

“Fuck,” he mumbles, mostly to himself before typing a quick Nobody. Mind your own business!!! to send to Zayn.

It’ll only keep him at bay for a short while. Soon enough, Louis knows he’s going to have to explain himself. Live and let live might be the motto of their shared home, but that’s not going to stand when it comes to Louis’ dating life, as he learned the hard way the last time he went to a catastrophic date and Zayn harassed him for information about it for weeks after.

Not that texting Harry has anything to do with his non-existent dating life, of course. But Louis knows Zayn enough to know he’ll interpret this the wrong way, read into things the way Louis doesn’t want him to. Still, his firm rebuttal should at least buy him some time.

By the time Louis has finished texting Zayn back, he’s gotten another message from Harry.

Anyway, nevermind all that. Obviously, this was the wrong question to ask since it sent you in such a turmoil. I’ve got a better one for you now. You’re on a desert island with a phone with only one contact on it. This is the person you’re going to be stuck talking to for the rest of your life. Who is the one contact you’d want?

Louis smirks, licking the corner of his mouth as he starts typing his response.

Desert island again? Really? Have you got a fetish?

Oi! Answer the question or else I’ll assume something horrible about you, like the fact that your contact is probably something work related…. Ew.

You do realise the only relevant work contact I could possibly bring is your sister. I mean… ew? Bit offensive mate. She wouldn’t like that. Not to mention, I’d just use whatever contact I have to ask for everyone else’s #.... Checkmate.

Hum, excuse you that is cheating. And my sister would agree it’s ew to only have a work contact. She has a life you know! And you still haven’t answered the question!!!

Alright, alright, Louis writes, rolling his eyes with fondness as he types. Gosh, you’re as annoying as Gemma.

Runs in the family :) Harry replies before Louis has the chance to expand.

If I’ve only got one contact… one person to talk to for the rest of my days while I’m completely cut off from the rest of the world… it would have to be my mum.

Louis sends it quickly, refusing to feel embarrassed. There’s no one else in the world he’d trust to keep him sane and grounded in a tough situation. Louis knows not everyone is as lucky as he is; she might be overbearing sometimes in the way she wants him to overcome the trauma of his past, but there’s no one else he’d want pestering him.

Me too , Harry sends endearingly a few seconds later, the buzzing of his phone startling Louis out of his thoughts. I mean, Gemma would be a close second, but I’m a mama’s boy through and through. No shame. I literally can’t go more than a week without calling her. Esp. when I’m abroad.

That’s sweet, Louis replies. Now, my turn to ask questions!!

Soon enough, without noticing, he’s wasted the entire day exchanging nonsense with Harry.

&&&

Genma marches to his desk with determination the next day, grabbing the Tesco sandwich he was about to open and throwing it the bin underneath his desk in one swift movement.

“Gemma!” Louis gasps, angry, offended.

“You’re having lunch with me today,” she declares, reaching for the red jumper on the back of his chair and throwing it on his lap.

“It’s so wasteful,” Louis moans, eyes fixed on the bin. He paid for that, how dare she.

Gemma sighs, rolling her eyes before bending down and reaching inside the bin, taking out the still packaged sandwich before throwing it over her shoulder casually.

“Free food guys,” she yells out, every head in the office turning towards them. Timidly, one of the interns they hired for the semester makes his way to where the sandwich fell. He and Louis make eye contact before Louis shakes his head and gestures at the intern to take it.

There’s no way he’s getting out of this lunch with Genma. Knowing her determination, she’ll be forcefully dragging him out of the office if he doesn’t comply soon.

As predicted, once the intern has vanished with Louis’ food, Gemma grabs his arm and drags him out of his chair, looking a bit surprised when he follows her easily.

“Well,”  Louis says, reaching down for his jumper before it hits the floor, “I guess we’re going out for lunch?” His eyes automatically drop to where her fingers are wrapped around his arm, still holding him.

Her grip isn’t very tight. She’s not even hurting him. He can barely feel it. And yet. Discomfort grows as seconds ticks by and she still doesn’t let go of him. Like pinpricks on his skin, Louis is hyperaware of the placement of her hand, each finger a knife mentally stabbing him. The desire to flinch, to push her away, is so strong, crawling underneath his skin uncomfortably.

He gulps, a small subtle thing, forcing the feeling away. He awkwardly twists his face into what he hopes is a vaguely smiling expression. He knows the smile won’t reach his eyes, but Gemma is so busy planning their outings and being bossy that she won’t notice.

She doesn’t look ashamed. And why should she? She has no idea how he feels about being manhandled. It’s not her fault. Still, the itch of discomfort only grows as she grins – wide and triumphant – before giving him a nod in response.

Then, finally, after what feels like a flash of eternity, she lets go of his arm. Louis can breathe again.

“Meet you at the front door in two minutes,” she shouts at him over her shoulder, walking past to get to her office. Gone in a flash. Almost like she wasn’t even there.

Louis uses this moment of solitude to calm down his racing heart. Inhaling. Exhaling. Inhaling again. Exhaling much deeper this time. Then, he puts on the jumper clumsily before walking towards the exit, rubbing his chest soothingly with one hand.

The French bistro she settles for is only a couple of blocks away from their office and definitely too posh for a casual lunch between colleagues. As he fiddles with the menu, his eyes roaming over the unfamiliar French writing, Louis can’t help but feel a tad nervous, scenarios of different catastrophic levels flickering through his brain. He settles on the thought he might be getting fired before quickly dismissing it. He’s too good at his job for that.

“So,” Gemma starts ominously after she’s closed down her menu and placed it in front of her, flat on the table, clearly waiting for the waitress to make her reappearance.

Louis’ eyes stay focused on the entree page for a few seconds longer before he glances up, face half hidden by the red menu. Gemma’s eyebrows are raised in a silent question and he can’t help but raise one of his in defiant response. Whatever this formal informal lunch is about, Louis isn’t going to let himself be intimidated. He’s done a fantastic job these past few months, he reminds himself sternly. He certainly doesn’t deserve a scolding with a side of expensive lunch paid for by the company. Whatever this is about, it can’t be his performance. His anxiety, however, isn’t as easy to convince. Instead of calmly agreeing with his rational arguments – which, it should – it wants him to start babbling on and on, to defend himself, to apologise for whatever it is that he might have done wrong.

Well trained after years of dealing with this, Louis ignores the urge, pushing it deep down within himself, refusing to let it bubble up to the surface.

Gemma, bless her unaware soul, stays silent for what feels like forever before continuing her sentence.

“... apparently, you managed to endure my brother’s presence when he’s in an art museum or a gallery,” is what comes out of her mouth when she finally continues speaking. She actually looks serious is the thing, extremely so, her eyes wide as she is staring him down. “That’s not an easy thing to accomplish, you know. Many have tried and failed before you.”

Part nerves, part incredulity, Louis laughs, unable to stop himself. Of all the things he imagined she was going to say… Something about Harry Freaking Styles was the last thing on his mind. A part of him feels like he probably should have known, or it should have occurred to him at least, especially after spending almost the entire afternoon getting to know Harry better the day before. Strangely enough, the more he gets to know Harry, the more he forgets his connection to Gemma and their workplace. It’s not that they’re completely different people, quite the opposite. They’re similar in ways Louis didn’t expect. They look alike of course with the same shaped face, the same eyes and the same disconcerting beauty that makes people feel a bit intimidated at first glance. Beyond the physical though, they’ve got the same wicked sense of humour and the same extraordinary kindness that shows they were raised in the same household. Getting to know Harry better only confirms what Louis already suspected: there isn’t a member of the Styles family he hasn’t enjoyed meeting so far.

No, it’s more that, as he gets to know Harry, the bubble of timidly emerging friendship they’ve started to create doesn’t extend to the world around them. The world that they both know and share. It’s like it’s theirs only, something that hasn’t quite breached beyond what’s brewing between them. Not quite a secret they share, yet almost a confidence. It’s bit of a shock to be reminded the world outside the bubble still keeps turning. For a second there, Louis genuinely forgot Gemma and Harry know each other.

“Meaning you, I’m assuming?” Louis teases, knowing how impatient Gemma can get. He’s had to deal with it first hand often enough when deadlines aren’t respected, or when things aren’t moving at the pace she’d like them to. He can hardly imagine her spending hours roaming the halls of some museum, silently trailing behind as her little brother hums and ahs pensively.

She makes a show of squaring her shoulders. “Honestly, do we need to sit in front of some cubist painting for thirty minutes?” she exclaims with more exasperation than Louis has ever heard in his life.

There’s a story hidden there, something specific and horrific – according to Gemma, he assumes – but Louis doesn’t really want to know simply because he doesn’t agree. His time with Harry at the gallery was wonderful and there’s a part of him that doesn’t like the idea of it being mocked this way.

Still, Louis forces a smile, then shrugs. “I don’t know,” he replies quietly. “I thought he was fine? I don’t know why it should be labelled as something to endure, to be honest. He just gets a bit quiet, that’s all.” There is a beat of silence, then Louis adds “Pensive.”

It’s hard for him to see it as a negative trait when he himself spends so many hours in one day thinking and being quiet – overthinking some would argue. It would be a bit hypocritical of him to judge Harry for that. Besides, they spent most of their day either laughing and playing a game, or quietly sharing their opinions. Neither of which was as unbearable as Gemma is trying to make it out to be.

Gemma clearly disagrees. Her mouth hangs open in shock for a second before she shakes her head. “Exactly!” she exclaims with a laugh, eyes sparkling with passion. There’s a fondness there, of course, that reminds Louis that no matter how much she complains, she’ll always say yes when Harry asks her to come along. “Honestly, you’re trying to have a conversation with him? Be a bit sophisticated? Discuss the art? Mister is in the zone ,” she says the word while wriggling her fingers to illustrate her point, “and wants some quiet to ponder the meaning of the art. He just… straight up doesn’t reply! Did you notice?” She asks the question rhetorically, immediately moving on to another point before Louis even has the chance to open his mouth to disagree. “But then! Then! If you’re the one who is getting into it and wants a bit of quiet time? Oh, now Mister Styles wants to discuss! And he’s out there pestering you with a billion questions! And he gets ridiculously introspective and deep as well. It’s like… I just want to look at paintings not reevaluate my whole life? But no, he needs to know how the paintings make you feeeeeeel. ” Gemma rolls her eyes exaggerated before flicking her hair off her shoulder. “Honestly, absolute nightmare he is.”

Louis laughs at her theatrical rant. Even though he can’t agree with her assessment, he’s rambled on and on about his own siblings enough to know there’s no point disagreeing or arguing with her about this. She just wants to complain a bit to someone who knows Harry too and Louis is happy to sacrifice himself to the task. He simply shrugs his response, not to admit how much his experience with Harry didn’t match what she just described. At all.

Gemma, however, is too smart for her own good. She deflates a little and Louis tries to hide behind his menu when she mutters “Oh god,” to herself before addressing him again. “You enjoyed it, didn’t you? You’re one of the freaks who like the quiet and the introspection! I should have known….” She shakes her head. “Cut from the same cloth you are,” she whispers, mostly to herself and it makes something twist uncomfortably in Louis’ lower belly.

“I think you guys are just… out of synch when you visit museums together,” Louis offers politely, declining to comment on her last statement. He’s not sure what he’d say even if he wanted to reply if he’s honest with himself, so he just pretends he hasn’t heard her, saving the both of them a deeper conversation he’s probably not ready to have. Besides, she was talking to herself anyway.

Gemma hums. “Maybe,” she concedes. “Either way, you’re braver than I am for agreeing to go with him. Though I suppose you had no idea what you were getting into when you first said yes.”

She’s about to speak again when their waitress comes back to the table.

The brown-haired girl has wide blue eyes, her ponytail swishing through the hair as she bounces through the bistro happily. Her name badge reads Adèle.

“Are you guys ready to order?” she asks with a big smile and a charmingly thick accent.

They’re really going for an authentic feel, Louis figures as he smiles politely at the young woman. It doesn’t occur to him to be worried until Gemma says they are indeed ready and orders a soupe a l’oignon, the french adorably wrong in her accent. Louis can see the way the waitress is endeared, but his heart skips a beat when both women turn to look at him. He flushes, looking down at his own menu, heart in his throat as the letters mix and dances in front of his eyes. He has absolutely no idea what most of these dishes are, the short English descriptions not offering much for him to go on. Finally, he closes the menu with what he hopes is confidence.

“I’ll have the same please,” he says, handing her the menu. The gesture is accompanied by what he hopes is a warm certain smile.

Gemma smirks, handing back hers, her eyes never leaving his. “We’ll both have a glass of house red as well please,” she adds before the waitress nods and leaves them to it. “You have no idea what you just ordered, do you?” she asks with an amused twinkle in her eyes once they’re alone.

Louis shrugs. “Someone distracted me as I was reading the menu. It would have been impolite to keep her waiting.”

“Well, lucky for you I have impeccable taste.”

“Is it really wise to drink wine on our break though?” Louis asks, ever concerned about their workplace and people’s opinion of him. He can’t exactly come back from lunch with their CEO drunk, what would it look like? “We do still have an afternoon of work ahead of us.”

Gemma laughs. “I know you’re a lightweight, but I hardly think a glass of wine is going to stop you from doing your job correctly. Please unclench, we’re having a fun time mocking my brother here.”

Louis rolls his eyes. “Fine,” he agrees. “As long as you’re paying for it. And if Harry asks, I never participated in the mockery.”

“Evidently my brother has you wrapped around his finger already,” Gemma comments. “Not that I expected anything else. He has this… way of winning everyone over. It’s irritating.”

Louis blushes, feeling caught. “I’m not won over,” he protests. “I just… I don’t think it’s quite in good form to start a friendship with someone by bitching about them behind their back.”

Gemma laughs. “I was not bitching about Harry, my god! You’re so dramatic… Honestly, just a bit of complaining about the younger, annoyingly more charming Styles sibling. It’s healthy for me and my self-esteem. There’s too many people on his Instagram and Twitter comments kissing his arse and half in love with him. I have to bring him down once in while otherwise his head won’t fit in his ridiculous boxing helmet thing and then where would we be?”

Louis smirks. “You know you’re the superior Styles,” he teases. They haven’t explicitly addressed this, but he knows Harry agrees. “Don’t even try.”

Gemma smiles genuinely, no longer a self-satisfied smirk, but rather a ray of happiness. “Why thank you!” she says, coquettish as she poses, head raised and one of her shoulders pushed forward. “This is why you’re my favourite editor, you know?” she says after a second.

“Because I constantly boost your ego?”

“Yes. Well, also because you’re the most efficient of the bunch and you always find gems that you improve with your keen eyes and unparalleled storytelling skills.”

Louis feels himself redden. It’s not the first time she’s spoken like this about him, but he’s always uncomfortable whenever she goes on and on. It’s not like he thinks she’s wrong. He knows the value of his work, knows he’s an accomplished professional who deserves praise for his talent and dedication. Yet, there’s always the nerves underneath the pride, the unwillingness to be displayed in front of others as a success. Most days, Louis doesn’t feel like a success. Most days, he feels like a mess more than anything else.

It’s not as bad when she isn’t doing it in front of other people though, so he smiles with heated cheeks and bows his head slightly in appreciation.

“Cheers,” he replies, raising his glass of water towards her since he hasn’t received his wine yet.

Gemma smiles and copies the gesture. She takes a long sip, then puts the glass back onto the table.

“Can I tell you something?” she asks, suddenly looking quite serious.

It’s an unexpected change of mood, considering the lightheartedness of their lunch so far so Louis automatically straightens up in his chair at the change in her facial features.

“Of course,” he replies, trying not to let his uncertainty show.

“I’m really glad you and Harry have decided to be friends.” Somehow, it doesn’t quite sound like a happy thing or a compliment. “I’m gonna be honest here, and please don’t take this the wrong way,” she warns and Louis can already feel a prickle of irritation at the way she’s phrased this, “but I was super worried when he said he wanted to ask you out.”

Louis looks down on the table, rubbing his left index against the wood, every muscle in his face completely utterly still. Unnaturally still perhaps, but he can’t let show how much he hates this already, how much what he assumes is distrust on her part truly hurts.

He hums in response, doing his best to sound disinterested in the whole thing.

“It’s just… Harry doesn’t have the best track record. He’s my little brother and I hate seeing him always get entangled with the wrong men.”

The word wrong echoes in Louis’ head, bile rising in his throat.

“He’s a big softie. I know he doesn’t necessarily look it when you don’t know him well, especially considering his job, but he’s sensitive. And he’s away a lot. He needs someone who is going to be able to be okay with that. Someone who isn’t going to give up on him the second things get hard like all the other fuckboys before. And you…”

She trails off and Louis counts to three before raising his head to face her, their eyes meeting silently.

“You’re one of my favourite person in the world, you know that. You’re not just an employee, but a friend. But the truth is, you’ve never been interested in stuff like that. Romantic stuff. And Harry is a romantic. I know you got on well, which… I knew you would,” she says with a shrug, like she’s been thinking about this for years. Louis briefly wonders why she didn’t work harder for them to meet before when she drops a bomb that stops Louis’ heart in his chest for one incredibly long second. “You are his type after all.” She says it matter-of-factly and Louis can’t help but wonder if all those times she’s vaguely hinted at wanting to set him up, she was thinking about her brother. About Harry, beautiful and warm Harry who couldn’t be more wrong for Louis if he tried, though through no fault of his own. He wonders if maybe she’d been testing him all those time, carefully watching the way he approached the thought of romantic relationships. If maybe he failed the test by acting cold and disinterested. “You guys have a similar sense of humour and everything,” she adds and Louis has to remind himself he’s not looking for a romantic relationship – he’s not ready for one – before he starts defending himself against her accusations.

She’s right. She’s right to think they would be ill-suited. She’s right to think it would end badly for her brother. She’s right to be relieved that they’ve decided to be just friends. She’s right to want better for someone so important to her. She’s right to think Louis isn’t good enough for Harry. Louis knows that she’s right about all of those things – he’s been telling himself the same thing since the first time Harry sat down next to him at that dinner party and some butterflies he didn’t know he could still feel started fluttering in his belly against his will. He knows, and yet…

The instinct to defend himself still rises out of nowhere.

She’s still talking though, so Louis swallows back his misplaced offence and listens to the rest of her speech.

“But despite the fact that I always knew your personalities would mesh well, I also knew you’ve never been interested in deep romantic stuff.”

Louis breathes in. Louis breathes out. He closes his eyes for a second, less than, committing himself to reject this anger that’s brewing inside of him, fighting its way out. Gemma doesn’t know. She can’t possibly understand. She doesn’t know what she’s saying. And it’s partly his fault. She doesn’t know his wounds, doesn’t know his scars, mostly because he’s never been comfortable enough to share. And maybe he never will be. She can’t have compassion for something she doesn’t know about, Louis reminds himself – tense, firm, angry. She can’t understand his fear of… She can’t understand if she doesn’t know how and why. There’s no point in feeling angry about being judged over a secret he might never share with her. Yet, the burning shame of his fury sizzles as she keeps going, walking all over him without even realising it.

“And that’s okay, you know? You don’t have to be interested in romance or anything like that… but knowing Harry, when he mentioned his interest… I don’t know. I got scared? He’s had enough disappointing one night stands or fizzling relationship and I didn’t want you to be another one on the list of men who have disappointed him.”

“When have I ever had a one night stand?” Louis demands, voice cold. He’s never had a one night stand in his entire life and the implication that he would truly rub him the wrong way.

He knows there’s nothing shameful about it, knows that of all the things she’s said, it’s the silliest to take offence in, but he can’t help himself. Maybe it’s the easiest thing to vocalise right now. Maybe it’s the one thing his anger can cling onto. Maybe he doesn’t like the idea that she’s been secretly thinking this about him all this time – that he’s uncaring and just fucks his life away every weekend when no one is looking – when it’s not true . Maybe he’s just angry that he can’t have what he wants. Maybe he’s just a mess and it hurts to think other people have noticed, have judged him for it.

Gemma has the decency to blush a little, her eyes rounding as her mouth closes. She shrugs, about to speak when the waitress finally comes back with their glasses of wine.

She announces happily that their food should be ready shortly before bouncing away from the table with a bubbly smile on her face, completely unaware of the tension between them.

“I’m sorry if the implication offends you,” Gemma replies carefully before taking a small sip of wine. “Not that it should,” she adds pointedly after a second. “There’s nothing wrong with no strings attached sex. I just know that’s not what my brother is interested in.”

“Well, neither am I,” Louis says. “Your brother’s virtue is completely safe from me and my non-romantic dark soul,” he adds sarcastically.

“Louis,” Gemma replies, her face falling in shock. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“I’m not offended,” Louis replies, downing a much bigger gulp of wine than he should. He’s lying. They both know he is. He wants to be Harry’s friend though. He’s the one who asked for it, the one who rejected Harry’s romantic interest in the first place. He’s not sure why he’s feeling so worked up about meeting Gemma’s disapproval.

“You are.”

“Okay, I am. I know there’s nothing wrong with having a lot of sex, but you’ve literally been teasing me about being a loner for years so sorry if it’s a bit unexpected for me to find out that actually, you’ve been secretly thinking I’m too much of a slut for your brother all along. I’ve got whiplash, to be honest.”

“Woah, I never said any of that, nor would I ever say it,” Gemma interrupts, raising one palm towards Louis to interrupt his tirade. “All I was saying is that I know you and Harry wouldn’t have been on the same page romantically so I’m glad you’ve decided friendship was the way to go. I actually think you guys are going to be amazing friends. I was trying to pay you a compliment. I think you were wise to reject him. I’m glad you did. It’s gonna pay off a lot more this way. If I had known you were gonna aim for friends, I would have introduced him to you a lot earlier,” she admits and it does hurt a bit, to know that she kept Harry away from him because she knew them so well that she thought they’d fail.

Her assessment of their romantic potential was probably correct. It's nothing for Louis to get worked up about, and still. The pang of hurt at the thought still resonates through him, an echo of all the reasons why he forces himself to be alone that haunt him at night when he can’t sleep. Louis gulps, swallowing back down his frustration, the hurt, and offering Gemma as sincere a smile as he can muster.

“You’re right. Sorry. I overreacted. It’s just…” he hesitates for a second, the thought of opening up a little on the tip of his tongue. “I have my reasons as to why I’m not dating,” he finally admits after a beat. “People might not understand or agree, but they’re mine. Harry seems like a great guy.” Louis sighs. “I got offended because it seemed like you thought I would have purposefully toyed with him. And I wouldn’t do that. Ever. I’m upfront when people ask me out. I don’t do it. At all.”

Louis can see that she has questions. It’s the same questions he’s been asked before about whether he simply doesn’t feel romantic or sexual attraction (he does), about whether he might be hung up on an ex (definitely not), or if he’s stuck in the past of a relationship that’s ended badly and he can’t overcome (it’s closer to the truth but not quite), about whether he’s simply scared of intimacy and letting anyone in (no comment)… His scars aren’t something he likes to share unless forced by his mother or his therapist, so he turns his face to determined steel, the kind of expression that stops even the most curious and insistent of people.

Gemma can probably see that there’s no point in trying to get anything out of him, her face blanks as curiosity vanishes from her eyes. She nods. “I can understand why you’d interpret it that way,” she agrees. “I’m sorry too. It’s really not what I was trying to imply. At all. You’re one of the kindest people I know. You’d never hurt someone. Especially not on purpose.”

It’s always nice to have someone’s affection and high esteem of him confirmed, even though the treacherous voices at the back of his head always tell him it’s not true, that she couldn’t possibly mean it, that’s she’s probably just saying whatever to reassure him without being sincere.

“Well,” Louis replies casually, masterfully hiding the hurt he still feels, “as long as you know I’m not a player.”

Gemma has the audacity to laugh, twisting the knife a little. “No one would think you're a player Louis. In what world??” She shakes her head, raising her wineglass to her mouth and taking a delicate sip.

It doesn’t change anything, Louis figures. He was never going to let anything happen between them anyway. But now, without him really noticing, the small voice at the back of his head who thinks it knows better and that he’s too damaged to be loved feels vindicated. It treacherously shifts, metamorphoses, into the voice of a reasonable friend, someone he loves and whose opinion he respects.