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A Fantastic Wreck

Chapter Text

 

PROLOGUE

 

I want to taste tears
I want to free the beast
From its cage
Mad like my aging soul
I want to make it all
I want to make it all
Worth something
Worth the guillotine
On my head

I'm a fantastic wreck
Wrecking everyone around me
I'm a fantastic wreck
And if I'm a little bit deranged
Would you not
Estrange me
Or change me
And if I can write your name
Can I be
Angry
And nasty
And if nothing else can change me
And I am just this way
Then— would you love me?

I want to tease skin
I want to lace wings from all the faults
In my name
Walking heavy on a crystal life
I want to make myself
I want to make myself
Worth something
Worth the thoughts that run through my head

I'm a fantastic wreck
Wrecking everyone around me
I'm a fantastic wreck
And if I'm a little bit deranged
Would you not
Estrange me
Or change me
And if I can write your name
Can I be
Angry
And nasty
And if nothing else can change me
And I am just this way
Then— would you love me?

Would you love me?
Would you love me?
Would you love me?
Would you love me?

Would you love me?
Would you love me?
Would you love me?
Would you love me?

Would you love me?
Would you love me?
Would you love me?
Would you love me?

 

Montaigne, I'm a Fantastic Wreck

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

I don't want to be adored
Don't want to be first in line
Or make myself heard

Keane, Hamburg Song

Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through

When You Wish Upon a Star
From Walt Disney’s Pinocchio

 

A convoy of black limousines lined the Bayerstrasse, their engines purring along the southern border of the Munich Hauptbahnhof. The night sky was an Atlantic blue, inked darker through the limos’ tinted windows. The filtered streetlights could almost be the torches of distant fortresses. The sun had released its last sparks an hour ago. It lay behind the scrim of the horizon, a cold grenade.

A figure sat quietly smoking in the third car, forearm resting on a window, a wisp of smoke curling skyward. The arm was sheathed in a bespoke wool and cashmere suit, suitable for the northern climate but too warm for the Mediterranean air for which it was headed. A crisp, starched white cuff, with gold cufflinks— embossed with the royal insignia— was visible at the wrist. One fingernail, on the ring finger, had been bitten to the quick, the cuticle scarred and bloody. The fingers flicked the cigarette with practiced ease, elegant and swift. They drummed a silent tune against the car door.

The tall, imposing figure of a man exited from the second car and walked back to the third car. Joseph Gates’ shoes clicked against the pavement. His hair was thick and grey, slicked neatly to his right side. His face had the granite cut of ancient Roman senators. He stood at attention outside the open window.

“Mr. Gates,” a male voice issued from inside the car. The voice rang with a crisp edge.

“Your Royal Highness,” Gates replied, bowing slightly.

“Is it time?”

“Nearly, Your Highness,” he said. “The carriages have been inspected. Our boys are stationed outside.”

The Prince pulled deeply on the last puff of cigarette and sighed. This goodwill trip was a PR jaunt designed to show empathy toward commoners, and to solidify ties with his country’s allies.

He had just finished a six-city tour through Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Berlin, and Munich. To give an illusion of humility, he had had to forgo his private jet, limousines, and yachts. Instead, the royal crew was traveling en masse, security detail and all, by night train. A royal convoy of carriages had been provided by the prince’s own team, and would be pulled by the Bundesbahn engines tonight.

In fact, the expense far exceeded what it would have been to fly in his private jet— pilot, stewardess, masseuse, chef, and minder included. The travel was slow and cumbersome. His schedule had to be coordinated with the trains of these large cities, and the hours dragged by while the carriages were transferred, inspected and re-inspected by security. The train carriages, connected end to end, felt like prison on wheels, with their darkly tinted windows just above street level. Most of their traveling took place at night.

The loud, rhythmic clanking of the train and the mournful nocturnal whistling unnerved him. Even the shush of air moving through the vent ducts was haunting. Although they would cross the Alps, through the picturesque Brenner Pass, Prince Louis would once again miss seeing the mountains.

Reality, for His Royal Highness, Prince Louis William Tomlinson, would always be experienced through a dense filter, in the darkness.

Louis marveled at the gullibility of the public, and the extravagant means the royal PR machine went to shape his image.

But then, it wasn't just any image. Prince Louis, age 24, was heir-apparent to the Kingdom of Doncaster. Both parents had passed away suddenly when he was 15, victims of an overseas airplane crash. His grandfather, His Majesty King William, had presided over the kingdom for nearly forty years.

Louis was being readied to be the next king. The people of Doncaster had been anticipating, since he was fifteen, for him to step into the role.

His every action was public, every utterance recorded, every scratch of the nose and unzipped pair of pants and unfortunate haircut, tabloid fodder. He lived like an exotic beetle observed through a thick, soundproof cage.

Long ago, Louis had been trained to stand, to walk, to speak, to smile and laugh politely in conversation, to engage in lively verbal exchanges while giving away no personal details. Even the way his hands were placed casually, one palm flat against his lower abdomen and the other down at his side, was an act of calculated decorum.

His image was one of sweetness and decency, intelligence and compassion. His role as the heir apparent gave cover to his younger siblings, five sisters and one brother; it gave them room to breathe and grow. In fact, his oldest sibling, Princess Charlotte, was allowed to attend school in London, to study art history and couture. They were allowed patches of individual personality and human privacy, because Prince Louis was not. It was of utmost importance that the Prince’s life was immaculate. 

“Your Highness,” Gates said, “Owen and the security team will escort you to the carriage. Your train is waiting for you.”

“Are we going now?”

“Not quite yet,” Gates said carefully, clearing his throat. “A press gaggle has been assembled to take photos before we board.”

Louis glanced away. “Only photos.” Unconsciously, he straightened the folds of his suit. “Am I facing some questions as well?”

“They've been given a list of permissible topics, Highness,” Gates answered. “Obviously, given the upcoming press conference in Rome— ”

“They’re going to ask about Princess Eleanor.” Louis stared back at Gates coldly. “I understand.” A tone of faint annoyance crept into his voice.

Gates cleared his throat. “Undoubtedly, Your Highness. The pending trade agreements with Anesidora will be the most serious topic on our agenda.”

Louis snapped, “Which I will, of course, convey in the best possible light.”

“If Your Highness permits.”

“It’s the whole point to this elaborate charade. To sell the trade deal.”

“Ehem,” Gates demurred. “I have no doubt Your Highness will surpass all expectations. I trust Doncaster’s brightest future in your most capable hands.”

Gates bowed his head and quietly sighed. Being the Prince’s private secretary was a duty he was bound to serve. He was good at his job, a seasoned professional who had worked with the Prince for fourteen years. He had guided Louis through his rebellious years at Emmanuel College in Cambridge, rescuing him from dubious friends and situations, like the May Day when he arrived just in time to prevent a most unfortunate tattoo. He hired discreet personal guards to shadow Louis through every activity, even the most personal. Louis’ privacy was a matter of national security.

Louis’ life was a national emblem. He had to be kept pristine. There was no question about that.

Louis made a slight gesture with his wrist, and Gates opened the car door for him to step out. His figure was impeccable, not a wrinkle visible on either his face or the tailored suit. The shirt’s collar was unbuttoned. A few stray amber chest hairs peeked through. The modest cut of the trousers nevertheless showed a curved figure, nipped in at the waist, with lean, toned legs. He wore a Cartier watch on his left wrist. A thin, gold strand hung around his neck. A charm rested at the bottom of the chain, in the shape of a small treasure chest. Almost invisible was the engraved Greek letters on the bottom of the chest, spelling ελπίδα— ELPITHA— hope.

“Alright, Gates. Let’s go.” Louis brushed his hands together, and then followed his bodyguards, Owen and his men, as they led him toward the station.

Just then, a handsome man, about Louis’ age, stepped out from the car behind him. He was slightly taller than Louis, and wore a tailored dark navy wool jacket over a white shirt, with matching trousers. His hair was brushed into a loose, bronze wave on top, clipped short on the sides. His golden brown eyes were alert to their surroundings. He glanced quickly toward Louis, and then did a slow sweep, taking in every person around them.

“Mr. Payne.” Joseph Gates approached him. “How are we this evening?”

“Joseph.” They exchanged handshakes. “I thought the Munich press was nice to us, didn’t you?” Liam said, adjusting his cufflinks. “I have to admit, I was glad the New York Times and Reuters weren't there.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

“They've been covering the Anesidora angle pretty harshly. Cornered us in Berlin with climate change questions— d’you remember that?”

“Ah, yes,” Gates nodded. “I do.”

“I thought climate change was already talked to death at Zurich last year? The Americans balked at the new proposals, taking a little steam off for us.”

“Hmm.” They started walking toward the station, just behind the Prince. “Talked to death, maybe, but not yet resolved,” Gates said. “Frankly, it’s absurd to harangue the Prince, as if he would change his opinion to please them.”

There was no luggage. The Prince travelled with a fully stocked caravan of carriages. Liam kept his eyes sharp, calculating each movement in the periphery, assessing every passing pedestrian and motorist.

“They expect a small country like Doncaster to follow the same climate mandates as Britain and France,” Liam said. “It's unrealistic. There are reasons we didn't sign the Kyoto protocol.”

“The press can’t understand, Mr. Payne. Or if they do, they don’t care,” Gates said in a somber voice. “They spend more time on frivolous headlines than on the complexity of economies for small, invisible nations like Doncaster. They’re more interested in viewership and gossip.”

“We don't have a reliable energy source, for one thing,” Liam pushed on. “Our resources are barely sufficient to function.”

“A problem we may solve shortly,” Gates replied, exchanging a knowing glance with Liam. “If His Royal Highness cooperates.”

“He will,” Liam insisted. “Joseph, you must admit he’s been fantastic. Commoners love him. He’s charismatic— polite, witty, smart. Absolutely flawless.”

“No one is flawless, Liam,” Gates tsked. “Human nature being what it is. But the mere appearance of flawlessness will suffice.”

“My dear Joseph,” Liam turned quietly, “I’d be careful with words like those, if I were you.”

Gates was a servant. A powerful man, yes, but still a servant. That kind of criticism toward the Prince flirted with disloyalty.

“Liam.” Gates put a hand on his arm. “You know how important this meeting in Rome is. It took our diplomats months to set it up. Princess Eleanor may not be His Highness’s favorite person, but she’s been handpicked for him. She’s perfectly young and healthy.”

“Healthy!” Liam said wryly. “That’s a low bar for marriage, isn’t it? That she’s not dying?”

“You sneer, Liam, but the British are very good at it,” Gates said. “Diversion. Geopolitics. A headliner. Or, in this case,” he lowered his voice, “a royal marriage for the consolidation of power. Diplomacy really isn’t that hard, when you have photogenic people like— ”

“Like the Princess,” Liam finished, staring at the Louis’ back. “And our Prince. The hope of a nation.”

They waited as Louis squared his shoulders, ready to go in.

They entered through a rear door of the Hauptbahnhof, where their contact was waiting. Gates walked quickly to exchange greetings, and then ushered the Prince and his entourage through a private corridor to the waiting train.

Liam leaned his head closer to Gates. “By the way, how is King William? Is there any word?”

Gates whispered in a low voice, “Grim. Last I checked, his status remained tenuous.”

“Has he regained consciousness at all?”

Gates shook his head curtly. “Mr, Payne,” he said, “we mustn’t delude ourselves. Our time is running short. The King’s condition is precarious, and it may only be a matter of weeks, or more likely, days. It would be extremely helpful for our Prince be on his best behavior.”

Liam turned sharply toward Gates, both of them wary and grave. Then his attention was diverted again as the press began to assemble and talk amongst themselves, and the photo op began.

A press corps of a dozen or so reporters and photographers was waiting for the Prince to board. The walk had been cleared and cordoned off. A small elevated platform waited by the train, with a podium and a microphone.

“Good evening,” Louis addressed the crowd. His face, with its acute angles and planes, was classically handsome, but also guarded and impenetrable. Camera flashes went off in rapid sequence. Louis’ voice was steady, practiced and trained, both elegantly charming and noncommittal. “I would like to extend gratitude to the people of Munich, who have been so gracious in hosting our brief visit. I'm sad to have to leave this beautiful city. Let's start with a few questions. Yes.” He pointed to a male reporter near the front.

“Your Royal Highness,” the reporter said. “You've travelled to the capitals of several countries in the last two weeks. Can you tell us, which one is your favorite?”

Louis laughed politely, shaking his head. “I know it seems unbelievable,” he said, diplomatically, “but I really don't have a favorite. Every city I’ve been to has been more than welcoming. Each one has been uniquely beautiful. The people have been warm and friendly everywhere. We’ve been so spoiled.”

Besides, he hadn't had a chance to step out of the diplomatic compounds at all, other than to visit hospitals and war memorials. An eternal fire, a bronze man on a rearing horse, pillars of marble and cement— memorials were all the same. The wreaths that one laid were similar, too— grand flower arrangements, meaningless to Louis, placed with solemnity for bygone heroes.

Every flower Louis had ever experienced in his young life was like this: at the peak of their aesthetic appeal, perfect and immortal. His palaces were filled with them. Consequently, the flower arrangements blended into the background and became invisible to him. He couldn’t name a single species, and he couldn’t care less. 

“You, sir, in the grey,” Louis said, pointing to a man with a hand raised.

“Your Highness has just finished a goodwill tour of the Sudan” the reporter said. “Does Your Royal Highness not feel that there are better ways to raise aid for needy countries?”

“Good question!” Louis smiled charmingly. “Yes, we have just returned from a week in the Sudan, visiting orphanages for children displaced by the civil war. Doncaster is aware that its place of relative privilege comes with a global responsibility. I am happy to promote aid in any way I can.” The man seemed to have a follow-up question, but Louis scanned over him to the next reporter.

“Yes, ma’am, in the back,” Louis pointed to a middle-aged woman with glasses.

“Ehrenvolle Grüße, ihre königliche Hoheit,” she said in a high-pitched voice. “Your Highness, we have heard rumors of an important announcement to be made in Rome. Without giving it away, could you please give a hint on what it’s about?” She beamed at him. “We’re all dying of curiosity, you know.”

Louis hoped that no one saw the grimace that passed on his face.

“Rome!” he said, righting himself with a polite smile. “It’s always been a happy place for us. I certainly don’t want to ruin any surprises!”

“Might it have to do with Princess Eleanor?” she pushed encouragingly.

Louis laughed. “The Princess has always been a lovely friend to Doncaster. I shall be happy if she also happens to be in Rome.”

“The rumor is that she will be, Your Highness. Surely, your both being in Rome is more than a coincidence, and the Princess is more than a friend. Would you care to elaborate?”

“We have a good relationship,” Louis said, shutting her down. “Thank you.”

A man next to her, in uncharacteristically long, flowing black hair, spoke up without asking. With a prickly awareness, Louis recognized the Reuters insignia on his press pass.

“Your Highness,” he said, in an American accent, “in light of the trade agreements pending between the two countries, would you characterize your ties to Princess Eleanor as being strategic to Doncaster’s economic interests?”

Louis glared at the reporter who had broken interview etiquette. The question wasn’t on the approved list. He had spoken up without being addressed. That was simply not done. What was his deal, anyway? The question asked, Louis could not simply ignore it. 

The reporter stared up from his notes, his eyes challenging, equally determined.

“What is your name, sir?” Louis softly interrogated, his gaze glacier-like.

“Steve Aoki,” he replied. He held up his press pass, the insolent prick. “Reuters News Agency.” Louis looked at him from head to toe. Aoki returned his steady glare, unfazed.

“Mr. Aoki, Doncaster and Anesidora are neighboring countries,” Louis said in a clipped voice. “Naturally, I expect our national interests to be closely aligned.”

“But they’ve not always been, Your Highness,” Aoki pressed. “Isn’t that right? In fact, they have historically been at odds. I’d even say that conflict between the two countries is the norm, not the exception. And now, with Anesidora’s dominance in nuclear energy and rare minerals, and its build-up of nuclear power, isn't Doncaster even more dependent on its goodwill?”

“Mr. Aoki— have I got your name right?” Louis smiled icily. “We are working together to strengthen our mutual interests, and to raise our standings internationally. Thank you. That is all for tonight, ladies and gentlemen,” Louis glanced toward Joseph Gates and Liam Payne. “You have all been so gracious," he said in a neutral, clipped tone. "We have a train to catch. Good-night, everyone.”

He turned and stepped down from the podium, ignoring the stirs of reporters wanting more. They always wanted more. There was never an end. Their cacophony was like a gaggle of bickering geese. Louis turned his back on them, and they ceased to exist for him. The world receded.

Louis entered the carriage of the train. It had been designed to his specifications. The room was spare, with leather sofas and chairs and a large coffee table. A few shelves, filled with literature, lined the walls. On one of the empty shelves was a snow globe, made of crystal. Inside was a single Italian toy woodcarver’s cottage, painted in greens and blues, the opalescent snow collecting at its steps.

Once he crossed the doorway, Louis let his shoulders drop, took off his jacket and tossed it to Liam, who caught it deftly in one hand.

Joseph Gates hovered at the door.

“We should be leaving in a few minutes, Your Highness,” he said. “Do you think you’ll need anything else?”

“Can I run away?” Louis asked mirthlessly. He turned to meet Gates’s impassive gaze. “I'm kidding, Joseph. Payno’s here. I'll be fine.”

“As you wish.” Gates coughed, keeping his eyes on the ground. “Good night, then. We’ll meet in the morning.”

“You know I’ll be here,” Louis sang half-heartedly.

Gates bowed his head curtly and left the room. The atmosphere relaxed. Louis took a deep breath and exhaled. He stretched his arms behind him, spreading his hands widely.

"My Prince," Liam scolded mildly. 

"What?" Louis snarled. "What did I do?"

“You need sleep,” Liam said. Louis looked at him, ready to spar. “You look tired, Your Highness. I’ll bring your milk and medicines.”

“Liam,” the Prince said sternly, “I've told you a million times. When we’re alone, call me Louis.”

Liam’s face showed a mixture of amusement and pain. “Your Highness— ”

“I insist, Payno. Let’s not get into it again.”

They stared at each other for a few seconds before breaking into grins.

“As you wish.”

Still standing, Louis yawned, the back of a hand covering his mouth. He was obviously exhausted, but his eyes were rimmed in darkness, the mark of insomnia. “Payno, do you think I’ll ever fall asleep without pills?”

“You’ve had a stressful week,” Liam answered. “Dr. Bonnachoven gave exact instructions. No skipping medication days until the tour’s done.” He made a sympathetic grimace.

“I don’t like it. The pills make me feel… bad,” Louis said. He ran a hand through his hair. “I swear I'm having more nightmares. I just can't remember any of them.”

“Yeah?”

“Hmm.”

“I'm sorry to hear that.” Liam’s expression was tender. “The doctor did say it might take a couple of weeks to get used to them.”

He gestured for Louis to enter the carriage and sit down. Louis plopped into one of the leather couches in the room, swinging horizontally so that his feet were resting on the armrest.

“The doctor thought the medicines might cut down on the nightmares,” Liam said. “It’s not working, I guess?”

“I can’t remember any of them, to tell you the truth,” said Louis. “Just remember darkness. Terrible, vast darkness, the kind that swallows you whole. And being scared. Paralyzed. Not able to run away.” He glanced sideways at Liam. “What a big baby, huh?”

“I imagine it must be terrifying,” Liam said.

Louis closed his eyes. “I don’t even want to go to sleep, honestly.”

“Well,” Liam deliberated. He hung up Louis’ jacket in a closet, crossed the room, and sat down on the chair opposite Louis. “That’s not a good solution. We have a whole day of travel, a day of rest, and then another day before the conference. You could use the down time. Your Highness has been in the public eye every day since we started. Once we get to Italy, the sunshine might do you some good.”

The train shuddered, then lurched slowly forward. The lights inside flashed on and off. The landscape outside drifted by.

Louis swung one arm over his eyes. “Will I actually get to see the sun this time?” Liam grimaced as Louis continued, “I’ve done some reading about it. Big yellow thing in the sky, bright. Round-ish?” He waved his hands. “Fireball. Power of the whole solar system. Been around for ages, from what I’ve read.”

“Oh golly.” Liam said. “We’re a bit cynical.”

“Do you blame me?" Louis rejoined. “That’s my life, mate. I am scheduled to go to the toilet at 7:26 AM, and my shit will pinch off at precisely 7:35. At 7:36 a robot will wipe my arse with eight sheets of royal toilet paper. After two squirts of the bidet at 31 degrees Celsius and a towel off, away we go.”

Liam sighed and stood up. It was already 9:49 PM. He’d better hurry. After all, Dr. Bonnachoven had given explicit instructions. Louis had had insomnia for so long that he was beginning to act erratic, and the doctor had said it was very important to stick to the schedule. Liam didn’t want to find out what would happen if he didn’t follow instructions to the letter. Before the medicine, purple bruises were beginning to bloom under Louis’s eyes. He could be found at odd hours of the night, wandering through the palace. And now, in eleven minutes, he would take the required dose. He would. There was no question about that.

 

 

 

•••••

 

 

 

Outside, Steve Aoki stood near a steel pillar of the train station, jotting down his final impressions before filing his story.

What story, though? The prince basically dodged all the questions. He was media-trained within a nanometer of his perfectly manicured life.

Steve sighed. His piece would get buried; it was as good as writing on a blog no one reads. Sic transit modern journalism. He scrolled down his contact list to text his friend.

you there, harry?

He waited for a few seconds, and then the reply flashed on screen.

where are you steven

munich. hauptbahnhoft junket. if you can even call it that. just got done

whatcha doing?

royalty, man. was a dud, total waste of time

the prince, what’s his name—

louis, future king of doncaster

right. did you get to ask any questions?

ha! a few...

ask about anesidora?

tried to, man. but the bastard basically dodged everything

slick, huh?

slicker than the exxon valdez, if you know what i mean

Steve waited for the dots on the phone to hold still, feeling Harry’s commiseration through the inanimate handheld device.

good media training, the royals. tight as swiss vaults

haha. wouldn’t know. never seen one

swiss vaults? nothing to write home about, trust me

you know i drove down from berlin? took me six hours. a fucking waste of petrol

After a pause of a minute or so, Steve saw the next line.

what was he like?

guarded. on edge. the guy’s like an ice box on the outside, but

but what?

like unexploded landmines inside, you know?

ooo, you make it sound so enticing. can’t wait

Steve could almost hear Harry’s disgruntled sigh. He nodded his head in agreement.

right, you’re supposed to interview him huh?

don’t fucking remind me, steven

gotta kiss that royal ass harry. i don’t envy you, man. where are you again? rome? florence?

i’m in rome

good times! well, good luck trying to get anything out of his royal tight ass. it’s worse than pulling teeth

couldn't get an exclusive, unfortunately. Harry texted back. will have to try my best at the embassy junket

oh shit. sorry about that

Steve knew how it was to get attention in a crowd of reporters. It was part of the reason he kept his hair long, to be noticed. Once he had their attention, he worked his questions in. Every veteran reporter had their own tricks.

no loss probably

yeah

Steve thought for a second. hey who's your tog?

nialler

Steve nodded. Niall Horan was a thoroughly professional photojournalist, had been around the block a few times.

good man. loved his piece on the vatican scuffle

niall’s alright

fantastic reflexes, that irish

hey btw. i don't even know what he looks like

niall?

no, the fucking pope, steven. i mean the prince. Louis whatshisface

google him. Steve texted. he’s a handsome man. compact

as in, he’s a shrimp?

no, no

a troll?

google him harry. think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

can’t be bothered. he could look like shit for all i care, just need a few quotes on record, preferably on the trade deal

fyi, he doesn't look like shit

no?

not remotely

i couldn't care less steve

he’s quite the looker

mmm. so tell me, what is he really like

like a devil. a clever devil

The dots on Steve’s phone hovered for a few minutes, and then disappeared. Steve shut it off. Harry was the best, but he was going to have to work for this one.

Steve didn't envy him one bit.

 

 

 

•••••

 

 

 

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Lux, calme et volupté.*

Louis glanced at the paper he held, mouthing the words. His tutor had assigned the poem to memorize and recite, but he had waited until the last minute, as usual. He found memorization tedious. At best, he would spout it to some important bureaucrat who would praise him. Louis was surrounded by people like that. No one sincerely thought he was clever. No one ever really heard what he said, nor cared. He could recite nursery rhymes or gangster rap and no one would know the difference.

The palace was abuzz because of the birth of his youngest siblings, fraternal twins Doris and Ernest. Louis had just turned thirteen. He already had four younger sisters, and knew how it would go. There would be two weeks of uninterrupted rest for his mother, Her Royal Highness Johannah, the Princess of Doncaster. There would be celebrations for the citizens. Then would come the christening with its pomp and circumstance. Louis could escape then, to be alone.

As he lulled around the study, Louis heard the door open and someone walk in. The door closed imperceptibly. Light, irregular footsteps came quietly upon him. Louis continued reciting the poem from his cheat sheet, distracted.

A pair of soft hands blindfolded him.

“Marius.” Louis could recognize his smell anywhere.

“Louis!”

Louis turned around. The other boy was thin and pale. Straight strands of white blond hair streamed down from his scalp like flaxen corn silk. His eyes were heavily lidded, giving them a hooded look. Light, opalescent blue irises shone beneath. Louis always thought he looked like a forest elf; all he needed were the pointy ears. He was a year older and a few inches taller than Louis.

“What are we doing today?” Louis asked.

“You're studying.”

“Oh, this stupid thing,” Louis said, tossing the paper on the chair beside him. “It’s not important. Just my French homework.”

“What is it?”

L’Invitation au voyage. It’s so boring. I’m bored, bored, bored. Show me something fun.”

“How about— let's take your homework with us. You can study there.”

“Where?”

Marius took Louis’s hand.

“Come on.”

“Marius, tell me where you’re taking me!” Louis half-laughed.

“It’s a picnic!”

Louis‘ eyes opened in curiosity. It was February, still in the midst of winter. The grounds were frozen. There was not a glimpse of life outside. Louis imagined biting down on frozen bread, drinking icy chunks of lemonade, holding a cup with his mittens.

“You're daft, Mar. Have you been outside? Even the stables are a million degrees below zero.” Marius’s father was the head groomsman of the royal stallions.

“Don’t worry,” Marius said. He smiled mysteriously, his lips thinned into pale lines. “I have it all ready, as long as you’re up for an adventure.”

Louis raised an eyebrow and tilted his head. Of course he was up for an adventure. But his tutorial was in an hour, and soon Mr. Gates would come looking for him.

“Allons-y, mon copain,” Louis said.

He folded the poem in quarters and stuffed it in the pocket of his trousers. Marius gave his hand a squeeze, and they ran through the study, down the corridors of the Great Hall, past the library and various grand parlors, past tea rooms and armor rooms and the Great Dining Hall displaying hundreds of coats of arms, past the smoking room immediately adjacent to it, past the music rooms overlooking the formal gardens, to the southwestern arm of the enormous structure, the southernmost point of the palace.

The further they receded from the front of the palace, the quieter the corridors became. No one was around. They were watched only by the long-dead eyes of dukes and baronesses on the walls. Their footsteps clicked through the stone floors of the hallways, muffled by thick layers of carpeting in between.

Marius opened the door to the conservatory. A dazzle of colors burst through.

Louis couldn't believe his eyes.

In the middle of the conservatory was a dressing table with theater makeup, creams and colors in an extraordinary selection. And all around, dozens of costumes, in a variety of sizes, hung in their flamboyant splendor.

Pirate costumes. Witches and wizards. A mermaid. A chef and an acrobat. A circus ringmaster. A costume of Michelangelo’s David, which, in its diminutive incarnation, was heroic and endearing. Clown costumes with matching floppy waffle shoes. The abominable snowman. An alien with its green, reptilian skin and elliptical, flickering eyes.

A makeshift stage had been set up to one side, with thick, dark crimson velvet curtains held back to reveal a stage floor.

On a small table on the opposite side of the room, a picnic feast had been set up, with plates and cups, cakes, biscuits, finger sandwiches, and bottles of soda. Linen napkins and silverware lay by the plates.

“Marius,” Louis asked, his mouth agape. “How? When?”

“I thought we could use some fun,” Marius said. “Winters are so dull. I asked Leonora— do you know her?— she’s in charge of the royal garments. She dug these costumes up from storage— they sit there for ages, waiting for costume balls.”

“But they’re gorgeous.”

“None of them have ever been worn. Poor things,” Marius said. “They were all boxed up in storage. There's tons more, actually.”

“I mean it,” Louis turned to him. “How did you know? This is perfect.”

Louis walked over to the costumes. They had been made by the royal seamstresses, once upon a time, and were each unique, one-of-a-kind. He touched the silks and velvet ribbons, the linens and sequins and foam-stuffed shoes.

“Which one will you pick?”

“Hmmm. It's so hard to choose,” Louis said. “They're all so incredible.”

Louis thumbed through each costume. The vivid colors formed a fine chaos. Besides the clothing, there were hats and gloves, swords and wands, boots, scarfs, capes. It was every carnival of Louis’s life gathered in a one place.

He finally settled on a Greek toga, white charmeuse silk trimmed with gold, and a golden laurel crown. Louis and Marius had recently read a book of Greek mythology together. Louis took off his jumper and trousers, tugged on the leggings and fastened the toga with a gold clip to the left shoulder. He arranged the laurel crown carefully on top of his head, its leaves pointed skyward. His bare skin was pale and fine.

Louis stood before Marius, arms splayed open for admiration. He looked as if he could soar away, if only he had wings.

“Who are you supposed to be?” Marius tapped his chin, amused.

“Guess.”

“Hercules,” Marius said.

“Ugh,” Louis said. “No. Try again.”

Marius held his chin in one hand and contemplated.

“Eros,” he decided. “God of love.”

“No!” Louis rolled his eyes. He rearranged himself, striking a heroic pose. “Come on now. Guess again.”

Marius took his shoulders and gently spun him around, Louis’s tinkling laughter trailing his body.

“Dionysus,” Marius said. “Leader of the Bacchae. Wine drinker. Party animal. Chaos maker.”

“Dionysus! Are you bonkers?” Louis continued to laugh. “No. Look at my crown.” Louis tipped his chin upward, and sighed. “I’m Apollo, the sun god. But I could also be Perseus, slayer of the Medusa.” He held up an air sword in one hand, the other hand holding the invisible head of the Medusa.

“Oh, a hero!” Marius said. “Of course you are. Maybe even Prometheus!”

“Stealer of fire,” Louis said. “Perfect! And you, Mar. Who do you want to be?”

“Well, if you’re Prometheus,” said Marius, his voice drifting down, “I guess I could be Pandora, the most curious girl in the world.”

Louis’ lips parted with a thin breath. He hadn’t expected Marius to say that. Something shifted inside him, or began to open, like a chrysalis. It wasn’t an entirely peaceful feeling.

Meanwhile, Marius began to shrug off his clothing. His body was thin and pale, taut with small muscles. Wandering through the costumes in only his pants, Marius wrapped fabrics around himself, auditing them by feel, finally selecting a simple white costume, hanging alone. He turned his back to Louis to put on the nearly diaphanous dress— and he definitely picked a dress, not a toga. Chiffon and damask silk drifted down from an empire waist, elegantly trimmed in creamy satin.

When he turned around, the static of the fabric had repelled his hairs from the nape of the neck. Electricity blew his hair around his face like dandelion wisps.

For a moment, Louis stared wordlessly. Then he blinked.

“You look almost,” Louis whispered, “like a girl.”

The light streaming through the conservatory windows framed Marius with a corona of brilliance and shadows. His face was nearly in the dark. The sunshine around his head burned like a white fire.

“Do you like it?” Marius said. “Watch this.”

Marius sat down at the dressing table. He picked up a jar and carefully smeared the color into his face. His complexion turned pinkish peach, a shade warmer than his pale birth color. He bit his lips to plump them, and then opened another jar and dabbed the cherry red right in the middle. He opened yet another tube and drew out a curled applicator to brush his eyelashes out, thickening and darkening them. Louis watched, entranced.

“What do you think?” Mag asked.

“It's—amazing,” Louis said. “You’re beautiful.”

Marius was otherworldly. He looked like nothing and no one else Louis had ever seen, less like a curious girl, and more like a mythical creature—combining both the human and the divine, like Psyche atop the sacrificial cliff.

“Would you like to try, Your Highness?”

“No, no,” Louis demurred. “No, I shouldn't... I don’t think so.”

He stared at his companion in a state of paralyzed wonder. Marius stood up, towering over Louis. He swayed as if to an unheard music. He raised his hands above his head and stretched, a languorous dance, his torso long, pale, and gaunt as winter aspen, the ruffled bodice of the dress puckered and empty.

Marius smiled down at him. Louis sat rooted to the spot, unable to look away. Then, as if it lifted by a phantom arm, Louis’s hand reached out and touched the left side of the dress, caressed the fabric between his fingers, and pulled it away from the torso, stretching it. His other hand swung around to touch the back of the dress, pulling Marius’s legs closer. Marius sank into his embrace.

It felt right. Louis couldn’t explain or understand it. But it was as if this was where he was meant to be. He felt complete; he was no longer alone.

The conservatory door opened. Both boys quickly and reflexively turned their heads toward the door. There, Mr. Gates stood silently watching, his body a dark silhouette. Louis abruptly dropped his hands and backed away.

“Your Highness,” Gates enunciated, finally. “Your French tutor, Monsieur Acheron, is waiting in the atrium. Shall we go?”

“Joseph,” Louis said in a high, thin voice. The laurel crown came off. Louis tucked it behind his back. “Hi! I wasn’t— We were just playing.”

“I see that.” Gates hesitated ever so subtly. “I shall wait for you in the study, Your Highness.”

Gates bowed, and then exited and closed the door.

Without looking at Marius, Louis rapidly shrugged off the toga and yanked on his jumper and trousers. His heel not quite in his right shoe, he started to stumble away anyway, not looking to see where he was going.

“Your Highness,” Marius called to him. Louis could not watch his face, the colorful makeup underscoring the pallor beneath.

“Thanks, Mar,” Louis answered, not turning around. “This was great. Sorry we didn't get to the picnic. Catch you later, huh?”

Marius stood with his hands awkwardly at his side. He watched as Louis hurried away with one foot barely in his trainer, the right trouser leg caught in the heel.

“Louis,” he said, his voice damp. “Louis, please!”

Louis did not reply. He walked briskly through the door.

He shut the door closed behind him. Mr. Gates was gone. Louis’s heart rabbited in its cage. Louis rested his back on the door for a moment, his vision dark and head swimming. He hopped on his feet, fixed his shoe and then walked quickly down the corridor. He hoped the tremor of his body would not be noticeable by the time he got to the French tutor.

The sheet of poetry crinkled in his trouser pocket.

 

Aimer à loisir
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble.

 

To love at will, to love and die, in a country like you. The lines rang like a seashell in Louis’s ear. He felt as if he were sliding off a precipice.

One early morning a week later, when Louis went down to the kitchen to look for Marius, he wasn't there. Elaine, one of the kitchen’s prep chefs, told Louis that Marius’ father had been promoted. The stable chief was now in charge of the royal race horses at the national stables, two hours away. His entire family had moved. They would never come back.

 

 

 

•••••

 

 

 

Liam Payne would never not be amused by the image of Prince Louis in trackies running around the small courtyard, his fists clenched in front of his chest, feet shuffling half-heartedly.

The embassy grounds in Rome were rather confined. The courtyard was barely larger than half a basketball court, ringed on its sides by hedges and trees. Louis held small weights in his hands, occasionally swinging them out in front of him and to the sides at shoulder level, to the barks of his trainer.

Once in a while, Louis would shout out, “I'm doing it, you sadistic bastard!”

Liam bit back a laugh.

He sat in the half-sun, the warm, fragrant summer breeze blowing around him, rustling the newspaper in his hands.

Liam Payne loved Rome. For one thing, there was nothing quite like the Italian sun, more brilliant than all the stars in the night. Compared to the anemic northern skies, Italy was a honeyed dream.

The big event was still a couple of days away. It was good to stop for a while, to catch their breath.

The Doncaster embassy in Rome was old-fashioned, roomy and spare, housed in a sixteenth century palazzo near the Villa Borghese. Despite its age and grandeur, it felt light, modern. Air and sunlight cascaded into the courtyard. The antique walls and beams were offset with minimalist contemporary furniture, in elegant leather, glass, and steel.

A sweaty Louis plopped down in the lounge chair next to Liam, one foot on the ground and the other splayed out in front of him. He cast the weights to the ground, then wiped his forehead with a towel. He grabbed the bottled water in front of him and swigged.

“Check out this headline, Your Highness.” Liam showed him the newspaper. “Prince Louis Arrives in Rome in Darkest Hours. They made you sound like a Messiah or something!”

From low in his chair, Louis lifted an eyebrow. “Excuse me, Liam. Am I not?”

“Haha, forgive me, sir!” Liam’s face folded with mirth. “Should we inform the Vatican?”

“They’ll find out soon enough.” Louis unlaced his shoes and threw them to the ground. He reached for the pack of cigarettes on the table in front of Liam, lit one and took a drag. “They’re always the last ones to know, aren’t they?”

Liam shook his head in exasperation.

“Your Highness,” Liam said. “When in Rome, shall we try to do as the Romans do? At least be nice to them.”

“I change for no one, Liam. I am allowed to be me when I'm alone.” Louis rested his cigarette on the ashtray, took another sip of water, then poured a dollop into the palm of his hand and splashed it around his sweaty face, slicking his hair back. “And I told you. It’s Louis.”

“Your High— ”

“No argument from you, Payne.” Louis interrupted, “It’s Louis. Just Louis. Let me hear you say it.”

Liam genuinely looked pained. “Fine.”

Louis reared his head back happily. “I‘m serious! It’s not a request. One more time and I’ll have to make him spank you.”

Liam glanced at the personal trainer, who waited patiently at the periphery of the courtyard, out of earshot. The trainer, a thin, wiry man in a royal blue tracksuit, politely averted his gaze, pretending to see nothing.

“All right then,” Liam said, sotto voce, “Louis. You’re impossible, you know. It's totally against protocol, if anyone overhears. My arse would be on the line.”

“It's my choice, Liam,” Louis said. He took a drag and flicked the ashes to the ground. “I got your back. I’m the Prince, aren’t I? I’d like to have one person near me to treat me like a friend. Or pretend to, anyway. Someone who isn't family. And I respect you, Payne. You’re a decent sort.”

“Thank you, Your— ” Liam cleared his throat. “I mean, Louis.”

“That’s right,” Louis replied, smiling and pointing his cigarette at Liam. “You’re getting it now.”

Liam caught Louis’s sly glance. “So. Besides the 11 AM photo op, you have a free day tomorrow,” Liam said. “Is there anything you’d like to do?”

“Is it just a photo op?”

“For the most part,” Liam scanned the papers. “The Italians know you're here. There might be a reporter or two, but they know this is just a formality.”

“Has Eleanor arrived?”

Liam spotted the twitch in Louis’ cheek.

“Why?” He turned toward Louis. “She’ll be here soon enough. Did you have something in mind?” He added hopefully, “You want me to set up a sightseeing tour with her or what?”

“Yeah, right.” Louis flicked his cigarette ashes. “You know I’d love that.”

“An intimate amble through St. Peter's Basilica, just the two of you. Eating gelato sweetly from each other’s spoons, on the Spanish Steps. Just like a real couple on The Bachelor.”

Louis leaned over to smack Liam’s bicep, ashes falling from the cigarette.

“Don’t make me sick,” he said. “No thanks.”

Liam dodged him easily, laughing. “Louis, this is serious. For real.”

“I know,” Louis said, taking a long drag on his cigarette. “I know, Payno. You don’t have to tell me.”

“Sorry.”

“Stop saying sorry!” Louis flicker ashes to the ground. “For Christ’s sakes, I know the whole drill. I’m supposed to be King and marry Eleanor. We’re going to knock out a couple of little Doncaster princes for the future… ” Liam winced, but Louis continued, “And then we’ll have our respective lovers, and never see each other again, except for weddings and funerals.” He slumped down in his chair and drank more water. “Thank God for small mercies.”

“Louis,” Liam knew Louis wasn't wrong, in some ways. “You should try looking on the bright side. You never know. Things might turn out better than you think.”

“Oh, trust me,” Louis laughed sardonically. “They won’t.”

“How can you be so sure? You haven’t seen Eleanor for ages. You hardly even know her.”

"Because I know."

Liam folded the paper. Louis stared straight ahead, his fingers rapidly flicking the cigarette. Ashes fell into the ground in quick succession. Louis puffed on the cigarette, then looked away and vehemently expelled the smoke, blowing skyward. His silence was amplified by the twittering birds around them, carried on the gentle breeze.

“Louis?” Liam said. “I’m sorry. Have I said something wrong?”

Louis stood up and circled behind Liam, pausing to take a long drag on his cigarette, and then returned to the table. His eyes were dark, his face unreadable. He put both hands on the table.

“Liam, what do you think about love?”

Liam was taken aback by the question. “I don't know,” he stammered. “What do I think about love?”

Louis said impatiently, “Yes, what do you think? Have you ever been in love?”

Liam shrank into his shoulders and shrugged self-consciously. “As in romantically?”

“No, Liam,” Louis said. “I’m asking about your dog Wolfie.” He scowled. “Of course romantically, you dolt.”

Liam straightened up. “I mean, yes. I— uh, I have had a few experiences.” His ears pinked as though he were being interrogated for state secrets. Having a conversation about intimacy was definitely one thing Liam never expected with the Prince of Doncaster. Was there a protocol for this?

“Well? What’s it feel like?” Louis demanded, as Liam watched him curiously. Louis’ brows were arched with hopefulness, his lips open slightly.

“It makes one feel… special? Like someone sees the real you, for the first time.” Liam’s eyes softened. “You don’t have to pretend.”

“You feel honest,” Louis prompted.

“Yes,” Liam answered. “Even if it’s temporary, you feel more honest and true than you have ever felt. Than you will ever allow yourself to feel, under ordinary circumstances. You feel seen and heard. Understood. Real.”

Briefly, anger and sadness flickered across Louis’ face, before he covered it again with absolute control.

“It must be nice?” he asked tentatively.

“It’s the best,” Liam said. Watching Louis closely, he added, “But Your Highness, you could have that.”

After a moment, Louis answered quietly, “No. That’s not an option for me.”

Liam looked up into Louis’s face. Something about the steely, cold tone of Louis’s voice frightened him, as if a door was being closed.

“You’ve never been in love, Louis? You’re the most eligible bachelor of Doncaster!”

“That’s meaningless, as you know,” Louis said with a shrug. “The truth is I don’t know anybody. And I won’t. Not in private. No one knows me. No one sees me. I've never even had a proper kiss.”

“You’re joking me!” Liam blurted out without thinking. He recoiled in embarrassment. “Oh golly. Sorry.”

Louis laughed. “Stop saying sorry! It’s fine, mate. I would have reacted the same way.” He picked up the cigarette and took a pull, puffing out the smoke in a tight stream.

“But… no one? No kisses? Ever? What about from your cousins, or friends at school?”

Cousins.” Louis rolled his eyes. One hand picked up the lighter and flicked it on and off. “Are you even serious right now? You think incest counts? I’m talking about a true love’s kiss, Payno, not a drunken spit swap at some sweaty undergrad gig.”

Liam cleared his throat vigorously. “So, like— ”

“For your information,” Louis raised his eyebrows. “I’ve had tongue action. Maybe even below-the-waist action,” Louis sighed dreamily, “which was nice, by the way. Very nice. I enjoyed.” 

Liam exaggeratedly shielded his eyes. “I’m afraid that is a tad bit too much information, Your Highness.”

“But not a true love’s kiss,” Louis went on, his voice tight with regret. “And I probably never will, by the looks of it.”

Liam looked up at Louis, who suddenly looked much younger than his twenty-four years, a man of enormous privilege who could never be allowed out of his gilded cage. Touching Louis’ arm, Liam’s face softened.

“My Prince.”

Louis kept toying with the cigarette stub in the ashtray.

Liam continued, “Life is long, Louis. You're too young to give up.”

“Maybe,” Louis said enigmatically. “Mainte fleur épanche à regret / Son parfum doux comme un secret.* Do you know it?”

Liam shook his head no.

“It means love is a bunch of poisoned flowers,” Louis looked toward the garden walls. “Sweetness comes with pain. Nothing is given freely. A bitter moral, but realistic.” Louis put the lighter down and stood up, rapping the table twice in quick succession and ending the discussion. “Anyway, what’s our agenda for today, Mr. Payne?”

“Well. Alright,” Liam opened his binder. He glanced at his watch. “Let’s see. Your workout was supposed to have lasted another thirty minutes.”

“Haha!” Louis grinned cheekily. He looked over to his trainer and waved a hand. “What a shame. Thank you, love! You're dismissed!” The trainer shook his head, bowed, and left. Louis mischievously shook out his arms, then flexed his biceps and triceps with smug satisfaction. “Done. Next?”

“A late lunch this afternoon with the Presidente del Consiglio— at 14:30.”

“What time is it now?”

“It's— ” Liam consulted his watch again, “nearly noontime.”

“Go on, then. After lunch.”

“Let’s see. We have a cocktail reception at the opera house immediately after, followed by an attendance of La Traviata. And then, of course, your yoga and milk, and in bed by midnight.”

“Opera?” Louis rolled his eyes. “You’re killing me, Payne. Tell me we can skip it.”

“You have V.I.P. box seats, Your Highness, and the Italian press corps will cover it. It would be noticed if you don’t show.” Liam watched Louis’ grimace deepen. “Perhaps we can leave early. After all, you need to get your rest, right?”

Louis groaned. “Balls.”

“Go on. Take a bath,” Liam said. “I’ll have Arthur draw it for you. Have a nice nap. You’ll feel right as rain after.”

Louis grabbed his lighter and cigarettes. “God willing I might drown before the opera starts.”

“Stop that,” Liam said. “I’ll fetch you before the luncheon. Does that please you?"

Louis walked away, raising his arm in a mute salute and dismissing Liam with a practiced wave. Liam watched his back recede. He didn’t know whether to feel charm, pity, or irritation.

Royals. Liam swore they were the oddest animals in the zoo. Still, he couldn’t help but be endeared to this one.

 

 

 

•••••

 

 

 

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

From Leda and the Swan, by William Butler Yeats

 

Louis relaxed in the scalding water, a mountain of bubbles piled onto his chest. Arthur has scented the water with rosemary and freesia. Sweat and humidity beaded on his face. His fingers were pruned and the scabs on the dry cuticles had lifted away. He shifted his tired legs. The water swirled around them, cushioning the movement, adding to their weight and inertia.

He hadn't realized that he was so tired. In fact, he was in a zone between falling asleep and becoming awake, in the incoherent moment when one was too tired to close one’s eyes, and the surroundings seemed both to expand further away and to pulse closer. He tapped the water lightly, flicking away the fine bubbles closest to him.

Was it the press conference tomorrow that weighed him down? The days of poor sleep catching up with him? His eyelids flickered heavily.

He wanted a cigarette, but the pack was in the bedroom, and he wasn't about to get out of the bath to get it. If he yelled loudly enough, maybe Liam would come running, but Louis was too comfortable and lazy.

There was absolutely no one around. He was in the royal suite, designated only for the Doncaster royal family. Since King William never traveled anymore, the suite was almost never in use. Nevertheless, it was kept in pristine condition. There was not a speck of dust in sight.

Like the rest of the embassy, the rooms had enormously tall ceilings, and ornate, Corinthian molding. Unlike the rest of the embassy, the royal suite was decorated like the palace back home, with hand-carved furniture in exotic, burled woods. A luxurious bed was on one side of the room. A generous walnut desk and mahogany dressers were on the other side. The walls were a muted ivory color, and the ceiling was painted to resemble a blue sky, with wisps of clouds in trompe l’oeil. Antiques of various provenances filled the niches. 

On the other side of the room was a sitting area with sofas, chairs, and ottomans. Twin bookshelves flanked a fireplace. Tapered candlesticks anchored both ends of the mantle. A painting of the Princess Johannah, aged sixteen, hung in between. She smiled sweetly from the frame, her hands holding a bouquet of white lilies.

The private en suite was a world away from the rest of the embassy. The closest sound was the muted horns of the Roman cars and buses from outside the windows, one story down, a wash of traffic noises sounding like a distant wind.

Louis’s hands rested on his chest.

The street sounds lulled him to close his eyes. His hands drifted into the water.

The sound of laughter seeped through the mist. He was in the woods. There were sounds of people running.

Shadows, branches breaking.

A herd of deer ran to his right, their galloping, fleet-footed shapes blurring in the darkness. They ran as if spooked, or being chased, silently and swiftly, with purpose. More than five or six. The smallest in the back, struggling to keep up. A doe in the rear. They ran past, their hoofs striking the earth like dull castanets. Louis smelled their excitement and fear. They faded into the woods.

Then darkness, distant sounds.

Louis put his hand out to touch the trees next to him. They felt like velvet. His fingers brushed the top of a tall bush, with white, wild flowers. The flowers crumbled to the ground. He put his hand up to his face. The flowers smelled like candy, sweet and fragrant, but also heady and sensual.

The sound of voices advanced. They were singing. Louis began swiftly walking, but they came too fast. He ran into the darkness. They came after him in pursuit. He heard feet running, the cracks of branches breaking, the steady push of a relentless creature in the dark.

Louis scrambled to the edge of a vast, opaque lake. The surface was a dark, indistinct hue. Below was a pool of deep green. On all sides, the woods surrounded the lake, which extended into the black horizon. The voices came behind him, fast and wild. He looked back and saw a crowd gathering, advancing upon him. Panicked, he turned back toward the lake.

He knelt down on the ground at the edge of the lake. The water was as still as a mirror. The sound of singing and shouting was now loud enough to cause ripples in the lake.

Louis’s heart pounded in his ears. His necklace, with its gold charm, dangled over the water.

He closed his eyes.

Warm hands cupped his face. He opened his eyes in surprise. A pair of arms had reached through the water. All he could see was the deep, emerald, wet green of the long arms.

The arms pulled him into the water.

Louis did not feel wet. He was alive and breathing under water. He went deeper, inexorably pulled, sound and light fading away.

In the darkness, he felt a hand caress his face, and another behind his neck to pull him close.

Lips touched his own. The taste of pomegranate was inside his mouth. The kiss was sensual and warm. Louis stirred, being pulled in slowly, waking to the kiss.

They descended deeper. Louis thought he was falling toward the center of the earth. It seemed to grow lighter.

The lips parted his own, and a tongue darted out to taste him. Louis felt helpless. His body became alert, awake. His belly warmed in anticipation.

Hands grasped him and pushed him down. He felt entangled and enthralled, unable to resist or protest.

A body pressed against him, male, muscular, stiff. Louis’s heart leaped; his thighs pressed together. His head tipped back, or was being tipped back. A warm palm held the back of his head and lightly pulled his hair. A breath circled his jaw, settling just behind his ear to suck the skin in. Involuntarily, Louis groaned.

He was being kissed, on the neck, behind his ear, on his lips. He pushed his hip forward, feeling the friction and losing himself. He felt hands grab his own, and cup it around his tensing erection. The hand strayed down to brush his testicles, stroking them and cupping them, teasing the space behind. Then it gripped his hand and began tight, fast strokes. It wanted. It craved. It possessed him. 

Louis held his breath, then began breathing in short, irregular bursts. He could feel how wet he was, how intensely stimulated. He howled quietly, making small, inhuman noises of pleasure and pain. He was being pulled onto a precipice. It took him, muscular and relentless, and he was helpless to resist. He felt as if he was being slowly pulled apart. The tension coiled at the base of his hand.

“No, no,” Louis protested. “Please. No.”

The body pushed against him and rutted up once, twice. Simultaneously, Louis felt the coil release, and there was an explosion of pain and pleasure as he moaned aloud. He was flying. His orgasm lasting for minutes, he seemed to respond to the slightest touch. A flicker to his body, and he spurted forth, wetting the world, coating everything around him. 

It felt incredibly freeing.

“Don’t,” he moaned. “Please, please. Don’t.”

Louis woke suddenly. The bath had turned lukewarm. The room was quiet and still, and the sun was still bright outside. His hands were on his groin. He was still half hard. The water was murky near his hands. He looked around quickly— there was no one here. Thank God.

Louis wanted to sleep for a hundred years.

Slowly, he got out of the tub and pulled the drain. Still naked and dripping, he walked to the bed and threw himself on top of the covers, on his back. His hair soaked into the pillows. The heat in his groin slowly melted away. The droplets on his body cooled.

Louis stared up at the ceiling. He listened to his heartbeat calm down. He tried not to dwell on the lingering emotion of the dream.

He didn't have to say it. He knew.

It was fear. It had always been fear.

It wasn't that he was afraid to be king, or that he was afraid of romance, responsibility, marriage, even sex. Louis was trained for media scrutiny. He had been in front of crowds his entire life, and heir-apparent since age fifteen. He could push down personal grief, suppress his need to cry, put on a stoic face. He could knock out a smile with no pain at all. He knew what it felt like to stand in front of thousands, to make a statement that wasn't from the heart, to say prudent and expedient things even though they felt like the biggest lies in the world.

He knew that Doncaster was his special duty. He was supposed to place it above everything else: God, family, himself.

He was okay with all of that.

He wasn't even afraid to be with Eleanor. He’d known her for ages. She was a human being, just like him. Maybe she also felt compelled by circumstance. She also had her responsibilities. He had no sympathy for her, nor animosity, really. He didn't feel anything for her. They were both cogs. 

What he truly feared was himself.

He was a twenty-four-year-old man who did not know himself. And it seemed almost too late. His grandfather’s illness had pushed the dilemma to the forefront.

And the most terrifying thing was, there was a Louis inside. He could sense him in there. Behind the bespoke clothing, the polite façade, the measured and diplomatic words, there was a Louis ready to wreak havoc, the real Louis. He was there, waiting to spring upon the world. He had the power to tear down a future king, an entire kingdom. 

He was the running deer. He was the advancing, maddened crowd.

Louis wasn't afraid of this terrifying creature. No, indeed not.

Rather, Louis was afraid he would like him. That he would like him too much. That he had waited his entire life to uncage this creature because it was the purest, most honest form of himself, that once he found this Louis, he could never let him go. That the chaos unleashed upon the world could not be caged again. He was afraid to open the door.

Louis stared at the ceiling, breathing shallowly. In his chest, he felt a mixture of terror and elation. His mind was again between waking and sleeping, his fatigue so deep that it felt hallucinatory.

The painted clouds formed odd patterns on the ceiling. One of the spaces between the clouds was like the silhouette of a fairy, a blue fairy. Her wand darted into the cloud where sunlight sparkled through. In Louis’s state of mind, her wand seemed to point at him, the sparks flying toward him, their secret message going straight to his heart.

Louis played with his necklace and the small charm that had fallen to one side. He had worn it for so long that the corners of the box, being pure gold, had become rounded. He rubbed the inscription on the bottom like a mantra.

Hope was the last thing in the box. The thing left behind.

His most fervent wish was also his most terrifying fear. Louis thumbed his necklace nervously. There wasn't much time. Not much time at all to become a real man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 *The French poetry in this chapter is from the great work Fleurs du Mal, by Charles Baudelaire. 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

The only joy in the world is to begin.
Lavorare Stanca, by Cesare Pavese

Their car slowly nosed forward through the morning crowd. It was May 2015. Harry was supposed to meet his contact at 10:30 AM, outside el-Fishawi coffee house. They were at the Khan el-Khalili bazaar, in Cairo.

In the wake of the 2011 Revolution, Egyptian state brutality was resurgent. There were reports of young people—students, activists, protesters— being rounded up by state security forces and “disappeared,” tortured for months at a time, or killed. There were stories that children as young as 14 and 15 had been sexually assaulted, tortured and battered in secret detention.

Harry’s contact came through an underground network of anti-government protesters. “Atef” was a young man in his early twenties. One day, he had followed Harry after he left the Reuters news offices in Cairo, and approached Harry while he was waiting for lunch at a nearby cafe. Atef’s name and photograph had been run through an international criminal and terrorist database. He had no records. He was an unknown.

Harry worked with his photographer and videographer, an Italian named Mattia Moscardi. Moscardi was a free agent on assignment for Reuters. He and Harry got along because both were addicted to Egyptian coffee, heavily saturated with sugar. And, while Mattia was not fluent in English, he did speak some Arabic. He could translate for Harry, who was bilingual in Italian and English.

They had been working together for four months. Harry was very fond of Mattia. His skills were top notch. He had the best instincts, for both photography and survival. Mattia had been in the business for almost twenty years. His wife and three young children lived in a small town near Florence, Italy.

Harry’s mother Anne had married a fellow Briton, a businessman named Robin Twist who had lived as an expatriate first in Rome, and now in Naples. Consequently, Harry had spent a large part of his young adulthood in Italy and learned Italian.

Their driver Abdul had been nervous about this potential meeting. Several reporters had been injured during the recent unrest. Drivers and photographers had been sent home with serious injuries, including foreigners. There were incidents of journalists being kidnapped, too— again, including the American and European press corps in Cairo. The crowds could become inflamed and unpredictable in a few seconds. To make matters worse, the driver had two foreign passengers with press passes, one of whom had a huge assortment of expensive video and camera equipment. They stood out like a sore thumb.

“Mr. Styles,” the driver said, in his Arabic-accented English. “You know this contact?”

“His name is Atef Mohamed,” Harry answered. “He checked out with us. He’s got a clean profile, at least as far as the Reuters background data scans can tell. We’re meeting in a public place, in mid-day. I don't have serious concerns. Do you?”

The driver shook his head imperceptibly. “Maybe it’s not my place to say. Something feels wrong.”

Harry rubbed his cheeks; he hadn’t shaved for days. It was easy to get lazy abroad. The stubbles prickled. “I’ll be careful. You know I will. Just stay within eye contact with me, Abdul, will ya?”

“Il tuo uomo ci porta in un altro posto?" Mattia asked Harry. Is the contact taking us to a second location?

Harry replied, "Non mi ha fatto sapere niente.” He hadn't said anything about it.

“Non avere peli sulla lingua.” Is it on the table though?

“I don't know,” Harry answered.

Harry had tried hard in the last few weeks to locate one living witness who was willing to go on record after being in state detention. There had been a few leads from Amnesty International, but so far no luck. He needed someone to substantiate the claims of state brutality, and needed them to provide names and dates. Without a witness, all he had were second and third-hand reports, from friends and relatives.

Atef Mohamed had offered a potential witness, someone he was unwilling to reveal, but whose story was consistent in the timeline of disappearances, who provided convincing and realistic details and could name the people involved in his capture. These interviews would substantiate the connections to the current government.

The car stopped in front of a large marketplace, the entrance milling with people. Egyptians mingled with tourists. The atmosphere was busy but not frenetic, the usual bustle of late morning shopping.

“There,” Abdul gestured. “You see? Through that narrow entrance. Go down about half a block. There will be tables outside; you’ll see them easily. That's el-Fishawi’s.” He glanced back at Harry and Mattia. “I think this is as close as I can get.”

“Thanks, Abdul,” Harry said. “Try to stay around here if you can, yeah? You have my number. Call me if you see anything suspicious.”

“Be careful, Mr. Styles,” the driver nodded. “Mr. Moscardi. I have a not-good feeling.” 

Harry braced himself. “Keep the car running.”

Harry and Mattia stepped out of the car with Mattia’s equipment hanging from his shoulder bag. Harry carried his leather binder with a legal pad and pens. Pepper spray was tucked in his trouser pocket. They made their way toward the café quickly.

Approaching the café, Harry saw masses of empty tables outside, just like Abdul said, chairs pushed together to make room on the sidewalk. Shoppers walked by with bags of fresh produce. Sometimes they had to step into the narrow street that was barely wide enough for a car. A few men smoked and chatted, gesticulating with their hands and occasionally raising their voices.

Harry did not see Atef after a quick search outside the café. He decided to head in for a look. Tipping his chin, he signaled to Mattia that he was going in.

“Devo venire, Harry?” Mattia asked. Should I come?

Harry said, “Non lo so.” I'm not sure. “I’ll have a quick look around and come find you.”

“Fine. I’ll wait here.”

Harry went into the café. His eyes adjusted to the dimmer light. Inside, various crowds of people were seated at the tables with small glass jars of black coffee in front of them. Several groups were speaking heatedly and animatedly, voices rising and falling like dominoes. Failing to locate Atef after a quick scan, Harry decided to take a stroll around the room.

He was startled when an Egyptian man appeared in front of him, Dressed in a thin, black, collared shirt, the man was evidently a waiter. He held an empty tray by his side and touched Harry on the arm.

“May I help you, sir?” he said in Arabic.

“No, thank you,” Harry replied in English. “I'm trying to find a friend.”

“As you wish,” the man said, to Harry’s mild surprise, also in English.

As the man walked away, Harry stared after him, unease crackling in his mind. A lot of locals spoke a few English phrases. But a waiter? Out of the blue? He decided to look for Atef more expediently. As he had only met with him once, Harry wasn't sure whether he could identify him. If they didn’t find him soon, they were out of there.

Harry was about to leave when he heard a burst of loud shouting erupting outside. It sounded like a mad fight. He made his way out, expecting to see Mattia near the door, but instead came upon a scene of utter chaos.

Men in uniform, with pistols drawn, were yelling at civilians. A military jeep was in the narrow alley, knocking over store displays and tables. He heard a shot fired into the air. People pushed each other, running in panic. Some people fell into the streets.

Harry ducked his head and surveyed the area. Mattia was nowhere to be seen. The jeep was blocking his way back to their car, and the soldiers were angrily barking out orders. From the few Arabic words that Harry knew, he heard the words, “Move! Go! Go!” 

Down the street, Harry could see the billowing vapors of tear gas. He pushed his collar up to cover his nose and mouth on instinct, squinting his eyes. Harry looked to see whether anyone was behind him, and then retreated to the café, seeking a way out through the back.

In the meantime, the café had erupted in confusion. People were rushing in every direction. Some gathered near the windows to see what was happening. The voices grew louder, more fearful and indistinct, like a swarm of hornets.

Harry found a small door on the side of the café leading to another part of the street. He opened it slowly, peeking out. The soldiers were further up the street from this entrance. It was quieter here, downstream from most of the confusion. Harry could see the way clear to his car, and Abdul. The priority was to get himself and his companions out of there, pronto.

He slipped out the door, looking around for his Italian companion’s tall frame, his brown shirt, light brown hair, and black equipment bag. Eventually, Harry spotted him standing at the corner. He was also frantically scanning the area, trying to find Harry and inching toward their car.

Harry ran out to the street.

“Mattia!” he called. “Sono qui! Over here!”

Harry pushed through the chaotic masses toward his photographer. Finally catching his attention, Harry gestured for Mattia to move toward their car.

They both started bolting. In the rush, Harry lost eye contact with Mattia, but he was nearly there and pushed ahead with a journalistic instinct for survival. He could glimpse Abdul fretting anxiously in the driver’s seat, windows rolled up, leaning deeply forward with both hands madly tapping on the steering wheel.

The crowd’s chaotic, adrenaline-fueled shouts surrounded Harry as it surged forward.

Like a display of fireworks, he heard the shots before he saw the soldiers. Instinctively, Harry ducked and rushed the last few steps toward the car.

Mattia hadn’t made it there yet. He wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Harry turned toward the direction he was coming from, trying to see him in the overwhelming chaos. His hands raised over his head, Harry crouched next to the car.

“Bloody hell!” he shouted. “Mattia! Mattia!”

“Mr. Styles!” Abdul rolled down the window. He shouted to Harry, crouching below. “Where is Mr. Moscardi?”

“He was coming this way. Didn’t you see him?”

Abdul shook his head anxiously.

“Damn it.”

Then Harry saw Mattia. He was about twenty meters away, trapped behind a large group of men. They were facing the soldiers and jeeps, standing and shouting belligerently. Mattia was trying to push his way out, his face pale with fear and determination. Harry’s vision blurred. As Mattia came to the edge of the crowd, a fusillade of shots rang out. The crowd scrambled outward from the center. Harry’s heart clenched as Mattia vanished from view.

“Abdul! Over there!” Harry pointed toward the crowd. They both ducked as more shots rang into the sky.

The crowd scattered rapidly. The noise was furious and overwhelming; Harry could taste the metallic scrim of smoke in the air. The soldiers were rolling past, moving with a clamorous roar. A whiff of tear gas drifted through the air, causing Harry to cough violently. He couldn’t hear himself. Everywhere people were shouting and screaming.

“Get in, Mr. Styles!”

Abdul forced the car through the short distance, his face frozen with grimness. The crowd ran past them in every direction. It was almost impossible to pass through, impossible to see.

When they finally managed to inch through, Harry located, after some searching, the long, lanky form of Mattia tousled on the ground. A few people stood around him, and a few were crouched next to him. His body was splayed with a leg bent acutely at the knee. Harry flung the car door open and ran out.

“Mattia!” He rushed toward his friend, parting the crowd. “Non ti muovere!” Don't move. I'm here!

The photographer lay still. In a protective way, his right arm held onto his photography equipment, his fingers tightly gripping the thick nylon strap.

Harry realized, with a sick feeling of panic, that there was blood seeping slowly from Mattia’s back.

“Harry,” Mattia said softly. He opened his eyes. “Me l’ha messo in culo.” I’m fucked. 

“No. You’re going to be okay,” Harry replied in Italian. He looked around for an ambulance. “Mattia, hang tight. Couple of minutes. We’re going to hospital. We’ll get you some help. Breathe for me.” 

“Harry, let’s go to Italy,” Mattia said. “Fuck this, man. Let’s go home. I'll take you to the best restaurant in Florence. The pesto, it’s divine. It’s better than anything on earth.” His raised his hand, and Harry grasped it, holding it tightly.

“Mattia, non dire sciocchezze,” Harry said. Don't talk nonsense. He realized Mattia’s face was ashen and pale, his hand clammy. "I'm right here, pal. Stay with me. Don’t talk shit, my friend. You’ll be alright. I’m right here. Breathe, breathe.” 

Harry wished he could force Mattia to take a deep breath, to stretch his chest open and gulp the air in. The blood was flowing steadily, brighter than he thought it possible. He wanted Mattia to wear his healthy brown tan again, to have his reassuring, sweaty arm hairs brush against him, to laugh his shy, deep laughter.

“Give a hug to my little ones,” Mattia said, his breaths drawn out quickly and shallow. “Will you, Harry? When you get back? Prometillo. Tell them about me.” Promise me. 

“Prometto. Prometto,” Harry said, in a voice he was sure Mattia could hear. “I’m taking you home. We’re going home.”

Harry squeezed Mattia’s hand and waited until his breathing slowed to nothing. When the ambulance finally came, his hand still felt warm.

Weeks later, after Harry got back to Italy, he did go visit Mattia’s family. He hugged every one of his children, two girls and a brown-haired boy. And he did eat at the best restaurant in Florence, the place that, according to Mattia’s wife, they always went to for celebrations.

The pesto was, indeed, fantastic.

 

 

 

•••••

 

 

 

 

“Can we drop the yoga tonight?” Louis squealed. The tailored shoulders on his suit stood up as crisply as his chest sagged. “Please? The opera was a killer. Eleven hours of screaming ladies and a short man. It was bloody punitive.”

Walking into his bedroom, Louis unknotted his tie and handed it to Liam, who trailed behind.

“It was barely three hours, Your Highness,” Liam said, looking toward Joseph Gates. “But it is getting late.” Louis shrug off his suit jacket and flung it into Liam’s waiting arms.

Gates glanced at his watch. “Dr. Bonnachoven gave instructions— ”

“But he’s not here,” Louis cut him off. “Is he? Come on now, Joseph. No one’s going to tattletale. Will you, Payno?” Liam shook his head in the slightest way, looking at Gates. “It's our little secret. Joseph, don’t you ever get tired of doing the right thing? Just this once.”

Gates looked on impassively.

“It isn't the right thing for me, Your Highness,” he said, “but rather for you. You have a big day tomorrow, and you've had a full evening.” Gates took two steps toward Louis. “Dr. Bonnachoven insisted that yoga would relax you. Then it is followed by warm milk, for your digestion, and then medication.”

“Can’t we skip it?” Louis said with an edge. “Just for one night. I’m so beat.” Louis saw the two men exchange skeptical looks. “I really am. I’m going to sleep like a baby tonight. In fact, I'll ring for you if I have a nightmare, I swear.” He yawned, blinking his eyes slowly for effect.

Gates hesitated.

“We may skip the yoga,” he finally said. “But I don’t think it’s wise to disrupt the routine too much. Tomorrow is of utmost importance.” He noted Louis’s grimace as he turned his face away, rolling his eyes. “I will have Owen send in your milk and medicines.”

“Make sure he brings my teddy, too,” Louis added. “And sing me a lullaby. And bring a clean nappy. Tomorrow’s an important day for the baby.” He winked wickedly to Joseph's impassive face.

Gates returned Louis’ challenging look, then bowed and turned to walk away. Louis and Liam silently watched his back as he disappeared through the bedroom door and closed it quietly behind himself.

“Louis,” Liam admonished. He shook his head with an air of reproof.

“What?”

“You know what.”

“He’s like the secret police, always checking up on me,” Louis retorted. “He’s creepy. I don’t like that.”

Louis flopped onto his bed, legs dangling over the edge and staring angrily at Liam. He was in a mood, and would be difficult tonight.

“He's only doing his job.” Liam tilted his head. "And he's good at it. You have to admit that."

“I don’t care,” Louis said. He plopped back in his bed and put his hands behind his head. “I don’t want to take the damn medication anymore. I’m not sick.” Louis swung his legs. “In fact, I want to go out. Want to dance.”

“Yes,” Liam laughed. “Don’t we all!”

There was a knock at the door. Liam crossed the room to answer it. A tall, middle-aged man, with broad shoulders and a military haircut, came in, followed by a smaller, stony-faced man, holding a crystal glass of milk and a porcelain saucer.

“Owen!” Louis called to him. “Right on time. You must have been eavesdropping.”

“Your Highness,” the man in the military haircut stoically replied, bowing deeply. “Mr. Gates informs me that there will be no yoga tonight?”

“You heard right,” Louis said, sitting up. “No downward facing dog, hahahaha. You'll have to find some other amusement.” He nodded at the other man. “Arthur, how are you?”

“I'm well, Your Royal Highness. Thank you for asking.”

They watched as Arthur set the milk and saucer, with a small pill inside, on the nightstand next to the bed. He proceeded to the dresser on the far wall and opened the third drawer, taking out powder-blue pajamas. They were in a luxurious, matte silk fabric, with white satin piping around the borders. The pajama shirt had mother-of-pearl inlaid buttons down the front, and a patched pocket over the left breast embroidered with the initials LWT and the royal crest, in golden thread. It was one of thirty pairs that the Prince owned, all made to his measurements.

Louis stood up. The man named Owen cleared his throat.

“Would Your Royal Highness require anything else tonight?”

“I'm zonked, Owen. Time to hit the sack.”

Owen stood impassively, his hands clasped in front of him, still as a statue.

“Owen, it’s fine,” Louis waved a hand. “Payno can fetch anything I need. You’re dismissed.” He locked his blue eyes on his security guard.

Owen’s pale eyes remained equally expressionless. “Mr. Gates did say— ”

“What did he say?”

“Mr. Gates asked me to stay until you’ve had your medicine, Your Royal Highness,” Owen stated. He stood stolidly while Louis took in this information.

Louis’s head swayed the smallest amount from side to side. Meanwhile, Arthur approached and set his pajamas on the bed.

Angrily, Louis walked over to the nightstand, snatched up the pill, and made a movement to fling it toward his mouth. Instead of holding it back in his palm, as he ustalky did, the pill slipped and went into his mouth. It was too late. Louis gulped it down with a swig of rich whole milk.

As Owen solemnly watched, Louis opened his hand to show that he actually did take it.

“Happy?”

Owen bowed without showing emotion. “Good night, Your Highness.” He turned and left the room, shutting the door quietly.

Louis stood up. Without exchanging a word, Arthur came to him, began unbuttoning his shirt and taking off his cufflinks. Arthur unclasped the tropical wool trousers, unzipped them, and slipped them off Louis’s legs as Louis went through the motions. The older man moved silently and elegantly, accustomed to this choreography. Their partnership was one of fluid, bored efficiency. Arthur picked up the pajama shirt as Louis extended his arm reflexively to put his arm in.

“Arthur,” Louis said contemplatively, “D’you ever get tired of putting pajamas on me?”

“Your Highness,” Arthur replied. “It is and has always been my mortal privilege. I absolutely live for it. It is the climax of my evenings.” 

“Ooo, you’re a sass-ball tonight,” Louis said, threading his arms through the sleeves to point finger guns at him. 

“Is there something not up to standard? I can fetch another pair if Your Highness desires.”

“No, everything’s fine.” Louis turned so Arthur could do up the mother-of-pearl buttons. “Fine, fine. They’re all the same anyway. That’s just it. They're too perfect— d’you know what I mean?” He patted the pajamas, smoothing down the fabric over his abdomen. “Such a bloody royal thing. It’s like wearing a prison uniform.”

Arthur continued working without flinching. “The same pajama makers have been making them since His Majesty King William was a young man. They are four generations of the finest royal tailors, toiling away in their dungeons.”

“Making prison uniforms.”

“If you say so, Your Highness,” Arthur said in his subdued voice. “Please lift your right leg, sir.”

Louis did as he was told and slipped his leg into the satin trousers, supporting his hands on Arthur’s stooped shoulders.

“What do you wear to sleep, Arthur?”

“A pair of beige cotton pajamas, sir.”

“Beige!” Louis repeated. “Boring! I would have pegged you for pink polka-dots man.” Louis waited for Arthur‘s stoic acknowledgement, then turned toward Liam. “How about you, Payno?”

“I don't know, Your Highness,” Liam blushed savagely. ”Boxers, I guess? A tee shirt?”

“See!” Louis turned to Arthur. “That’s what I’m talking about.” He put his other leg into the pajama bottoms. The fabric swirled elegantly around him. “Arthur, did you know that some people sleep in nothing at all?”

“My goodness,” Arthur replied without emotion. “It would leave one rather vulnerable.”

“I bet they have good dreams,” Louis continued. “Sexy dreams. Porno dreams, even. Bet they dream about— ”

Liam cleared his throat loudly.

“Thank you, Arthur,” he barked. Liam turned toward the door and took a few steps.

“If there's nothing else His Royal Highness requires?” Arthur said impassively.

“I’m alright,” Louis glanced mischievously at Liam. “Snug as a bug in a rug. No porno dreams for me tonight.” 

Arthur glanced up at Liam, and then, bowing deeply, retreated toward the door. He closed it quietly behind himself. After Arthur left, the suite settled with a magical, dark silence.

Liam turned to look at Louis with affection.

“Behave yourself,” he said. “Do you want some company to fall asleep to?”

“I’ll be alright, Liam,” Louis answered. His voice sounded giddy. “You go to bed. Tomorrow’s the big day.”

He climbed to standing on the large bed and began bouncing on it lightly. “Honestly, I don’t know what’s come over me. I don’t feel sleepy at all.” Small pillows jiggled at the head of the bed, falling off the duvet one by one.

Liam stood by the edge of the bed, anxiously listening to the royal bedsprings bounce up and down. He was a parent whose child wouldn’t leave the playground, who was running around with a pair of scissors and manic energy, trying to tear apart every piece of playground equipment. There was nothing he could do but wait it out.

Louis jumped a few more times, and then, noticing Liam’s pained expression, abruptly stopped.

“You want to take a turn, Liam?”

Liam rubbed his brows once more. “No, I do not.” He uttered a barely perceptible sigh. “Thank you, Your Royal Highness.”

Louis was bouncing lightly on his toes again. The silky fabric of the pajamas trailed around him, gliding over his curves. Finally, he sat on the edge of the bed, hands flat on either side of him.

“Liam.” Louis’ hair was tousled wildly about his flushed face, his fluid pajamas askew. He took fast, shallow breaths. “Can I ask you something? Do you believe in ghosts?”

Liam turned his head. “Come again?”

“I was thinking about the Romans,” Louis said. “Like Julius Caesar, or Marcus Aurelius. I wonder if their spirits dress up like normal people and roam around the city at night. Do you get it? Rome? Roam? Haha. It’s a pun.” 

When Liam realized that Louis was actually asking a question, he replied, “Yeah, I suppose they could.”

“D’you really think so?” Louis flicked his head toward the outer walls. “Out there somewhere, right now.”

Liam chuckled. “Old emperors chucking coins into the Trevi Fountain.”

“Having a laugh at the tourists,” Louis said. “Or being a tourist. Just another ordinary person, in an old Hawaiian shirt or something.”

“In disguise.”

“Mmhmm.”

Liam studied Louis’ thin, handsome face. It was the face of a captive animal with an impossible longing.

“It’s late,” Liam said. “Shall we sleep?” He removed the remaining tufted pillows from the top of the bed, and gently pulled the duvet back, exposing the pristine white sheets underneath.

Louis breathed out slowly, deflating air from his chest.

“I guess.”

“Please try, Your Highness. A little sleep may do wonders.”

Louis got into bed, and waited until Liam pulled the cover up to his chest. Awkwardly, Liam patted the edge of the bed, taking care not to touch Louis.

“You’re a good person, Payno,” Louis exhaled. His raspy voice came out in small, warm puffs. “Have I ever told you?” 

“I am aware of it. Good night, dear Louis.”

“Good night, Liam.”

 

 

 

•••••

 

 

 

 

Was this what it felt like before? To be wasted?

The room seemed to dilate and contract. Louis’ body felt slammed to his bed, bolted in the dark.

Murky white swirls advanced and receded from the painted ceiling. The clouds looked like bruised plums in the sky.

Louis closed his eyes. The embassy was in a quiet, residential area, but Rome was always humming. Every few minutes, the soft staccato of spoken Italian or the rumble of a motorbike engine would drift through the windows.

Wasn’t he supposed to feel sleepy by now? It must have been at least thirty minutes since Liam turned off the lights. Louis turned on his side, pulled the covers around him, and tried to relax. He used the yoga trick of counting backward from thirty while slowly exhaling, first in English, then French, followed by ancient Greek and German. He tried to visualize that golden glow within, the precious box that held all his secrets locked and safe.

Of course, his golden box was made of electrons and nerves and Louis’ carefully censored desires and memories. It was safely inside him and would never be revealed. From time to time, it threatened to open, shapeshifting into the size and sounds of a young boy, his laughter high and wild and hair flaxen like corn silk.

The more Louis thought about it, the more irked and awake he felt. He wasn’t anywhere close to feeling sleepy. Abruptly, Louis opened his eyes. They had adjusted to the darkness. From across the room, he saw the slash of moonlight coming from the slit in the French doors.

In his quick, calculating way, Louis knew that security was just down the hall, and cameras were monitoring his bedroom door. Nevertheless, he got out of bed and puttered to the French doors, looking out onto the courtyard.

In the moonlight, the trees and shrubbery were cast into dark relief. The grounds were completely empty, like his soul.

He felt like nothing. He was a fake nothing who would soon be dressed for the media. A small, insignificant puppet with an empty core. He was a hollow pawn. 

Suddenly he wanted so badly to get out of his pajamas. He hated all of the pajamas, sitting in the drawers waiting for Arthur to pick them out. Louis impulsively unbuttoned his pajama top, slipped his arms out, and dropped the shirt to the floor. His skin prickled from the exposure to the air conditioning. He took off his pajama bottoms, too, and then picked both pieces and crossed to the room to the dresser, where he stuffed them into a drawer. Opening another drawer, he saw the carefully folded exercise clothing inside, the high quality t-shirts and track pants that he was allowed to wear only for working out.

He picked out a black pair and put them on.

He felt better, more real. Maybe he could blend in on the street, he thought. He could bump into Caesar’s ghost and they could share a gelato near the Colosseum. They could watch ordinary people drink wine and have dinner. They could trade jokes about the moon, about asinine state agendas and secret rendezvous. 

Louis put his head down and considered. Could it be the medicine? He was jittery and restless, the exact opposite of what the pill was supposed to do. Louis marched to his bed, intending to get in, but then pulled the covers over his pillow and briskly stepped back.

An idea began to form, as gently as a bud breaking out of a seed.

He wasn’t going to to get back in bed. He wasn’t going to do anything he was supposed to do. Louis felt his abdomen grip painfully tight, his left foot curl at the instep.

It was crazy, this idea. Crazy and nice. Soft and revolutionary.

How would he even make it out of the embassy? Wheels turned in his mind. He had to act quickly, before he lost his nerve.

In the darkness, Louis felt for his pajama in the dresser drawer, then went to the adjoining ensuite, running the water as hot as possible. He soaked a hand towel and whipped his pajama under the faucet, wetting it. Once the towel was scalding hot, he wrung it out and hurried back to the bedroom while the it was still steaming.

The camera monitoring the entrance was mounted near the fireplace, pointed toward the door. In the shadowy half-light, Louis dragged the chair over and held the the towel up to steam the camera, just enough to fog the lens. When it was adequately blurry, he draped the towel over the camera to cover it completely. He knew it would eventually be noticed, but it would buy him a few minutes.

From his dresser, Louis grabbed a random heap of clothing and hurried back to bunch them under the bed covering, the way he had seen it in American movies, molding them into an approximately sleeping human shape.

Then he opened the door to the room and casually walked out with his wet pajama top in his hands.

A young security agent sat in a chair at the end of the hallway, texting on his phone. He glanced up just in time to see Louis walking toward him. He bolted straight up and shoved the phone into his trouser pocket.

“Your Highness,” he stammered loudly. He stood up awkwardly with his hand still in the pocket, trying to bow to the Prince and push the phone down at the same time.

“At ease,” Louis smiled. He put on his kindest face. “How are you, lad?”

“I’m grand, thanks,” the agent said. “And Your Royal Highness?”

“Oh, I’m good. Listen, would you do me a favor?”

The agent stood stiffly, a strand of hair falling into his face. He did not fix it. He appeared even younger than Louis.

“Of course, Your Royal Highness.”

Louis held out his pajamas. “I was a little clumsy, and got these wet while I was washing up.” The agent was watching with large, round eyes. “I’m afraid I can’t sleep in anything else. I wonder whether I could toss them in the dryer for a minute?”

“Would you like me to— ” The agent moved toward Louis with his hands out, “I can ring someone to come get it, Your Highness.”

“No, no,” Louis reassured. “This is so minor, lad. It’s not worth bothering anyone about it. Could you— maybe— point me to the laundry room? I’ll just toss it in the dryer for a few minutes. I’m sure that’s all it takes.”

The agent’s face wrinkled like a worried pug. Louis watched him actually wring his hands.

“It isn’t really— the protocol,” the agent replied. “Don’t you have any other… I mean… I’m not supposed to leave or let— ”

“Oh no,” Louis raised his hands, palms up. “No, no. Hey, I understand. I don’t want to get you in trouble. You do your job. I just wanted a dry shirt without bothering anyone. This happens to be my favorite pair of pajamas, but nevermind.”

His words had the intended effect. The agent already looked guilt-ridden, ready to step up to help.

“Maybe I could run it to laundry,” the agent answered. He looked behind him, as if hoping for a solution. “Or— um…”

Louis continued, “No, it’s okay, lad. I’ll just sleep in this wet thing; it’s not even that wet. It’s fine. I’m good. I’m sure I won’t catch pneumonia or even the slightest cough, not that tomorrow is an important day or anything. Good-night.”

As Louis expected, as soon as he started walking away, the agent blurted, “Your Highness!”

Louis stopped in his tracks, a wisp of a smile on his lips. He bit his cheek to stop it.

“I’ll— um— I can show you where the laundry room is,” the agent said. “It’s just down the hallway a bit. I think no one’s there now. If you’ll just— come right out when you’re done… ”

“Really?” Louis opened his blue eyes widely. “Well, that would be amazing. You sure?”

“Ye— yes,” the agent said. “It’s this way.”

They walked through several dark, wide hallways, with walls in cream-colored plaster and marble floors. Then they descended dark stairs to the ground floor and followed some more hallways, until they entered a spacious room with a large, wheeled laundry bin in the corner for bedding and towels, and three commercial sets of washer and dryer machines.

“Would you like me to do it, Your Highness? I’m sure I can figure it out in a few minutes,” the agent said.

Louis saw damp perspiration on the agent’s forehead, near his hairline. He didn’t even feel that sorry.

“Oh no,” Louis lied. “We have these exact same— uh— drying things— machines, whatever, in Doncaster. Makes me feel right at home.”

“It would be my pleasure.” The agent chewed on a lip.

“Look, you’ve been very helpful.” Louis leaned closer to him. “Thank you. I’ll sleep much better tonight.”

The agent bowed and left. In case he came back, Louis opened a dryer door and stuffed his shirt in, pretending to figure how the blasted thing worked. He couldn’t care less about the million and one electronic buttons on it. 

As soon as all was quiet, Louis opened the door to the laundry room and began tiptoeing out. He was halfway down the hall when he heard footsteps approaching. They were slow but business-like, someone who was on a mission.

What now? Who worked at this time of night? Louis exhaled impatiently.

Louis had to choose what to do, and quickly. He ran quietly back to the laundry room. Seeing no closet to hide in, Louis spotted two large laundry bins in the corner. He climbed into one of them, setting the metal wheels squeaking, and quickly covered himself with sheets and towels. He curled into fetal position, hoping the bedsheets were sufficiently wrinkled to conceal his shape.

To his surprise, Louis heard the door open. Loud, shuffling footsteps— trainers, maybe— entered the room briskly, marched noisily around, and then approached his bin. With a jerk, he felt the bin move. He was being pulled away.

He hushed his breathing. The bin bumped and creaked as it crossed the room and through the door. A second bin, presumably a replacement, was pushed into the corner in its place. Then the person began pulling his bin again, down a hallway, through tight turns and right-angled corners, the metallic wheels making high-pitched squeaks.

Eventually it slowed to a stop. Louis heard a distinctly different quality of sounds in the background, still quiet, but with a bass hum of traffic noises, the mixture of motor roars and muted horns like a shushing forest. He felt stifled in the bin but dared not move. A second set of footsteps approached, and then a voice called out.

“Giulio.”

Louis froze suddenly at the familiar, confident tone, knowing exactly who it was.

“Yes, Mr. Gates.”

“Warm weather tonight,” Louis heard Gates say. “Isn’t it?”

“It’s been going up and down,” Giulio answered stoically. “Crazy this year, we’ve had lots of rain. Hope summer decides to stay.”

Louis felt something touch the rumpled fabric in the bin above him, patting it down. His eyes stayed focused on the blurry white shadows around him. Despite himself, his body shook slightly. He felt as if his heartbeat were thunderbolts, broadcasting to Gates.

“You got your work cut out for you,” Gates said. “That’s a lot of laundry there. A tall heap.” 

“Yes, sir,” Giulio replied. “We’ll take care of it, sir. I enjoy it.”

“Good man,” Gates said. “Buona serata, Giulio.”

“Buona serata.”

After Gates’ footsteps receded, the bin began moving again. Louis felt a rough bump as it was pushed over a ledge and rolled into an echo-filled, metallic floor. He bit his lips to keep from grunting with the rough jostling. Then the footsteps stomped away, and a thunderous clang shut the door.

Louis heard a dim, low-pitched engine noise, then felt thrumming motion around him. He was probably in the back of a laundry truck.

A few minutes later, Louis shook the laundry off his body and awkwardly scrambled out of the bin, trying to balance himself. He was indeed in the back of a delivery truck, surrounded by large containers of used sheets, towels, and assorted embassy uniforms. The rear door to the truck was halfway open, on the top. Through this opening, Louis saw the truck rumble down the dark street, pulling away from the exterior of the embassy and picking up speed.

Louis exhaled slowly, watching the brick sidewalks recede. Air came out out of him as lightly as champagne bubbles.

He was out!

The truck sped along the streets, coming closer to city center. As many times as Louis had been in Rome, he had never truly been a tourist, and had never seen the streets in the nighttime, naked and unadorned.

The reds and pinks seemed brighter to him; the shadows, darker. The smells of summer— the juniper and rosemary bushes, the whiff of garlic and dust and trash— seemed more pungent.

As the truck travelled into the narrower city blocks, it began to slow down for frequent traffic stops. Louis saw more people strolling in the streets. Numerous bars and restaurants were still open, their incandescent lights like fireflies.

Still more people were just now coming out to find their dinners. The reflections of street lamps flashed by from opaque windows.

The night was so pretty, Louis thought. Like a fairytale.

Louis held on tight to the back of the truck, awestruck by every mundane detail: the crooked pavement, the laughter of pedestrians, the distant clink of wine glasses.

As the truck paused again at a traffic light, he clambered out of the truck and jumped off, landing on one leg and falling to his side. A few passersby eyed him in a funny way. Louis quickly hopped upright and brushed off his pants, then ran toward the sidewalk.

The bluish glow made his thin frame look like a forest sprite. He checked out his surroundings as the truck pulled noisily away.

Louis was alone. In the great old city of Rome.

A horse-drawn carriage was clip-clopping toward him, the bells on the harness jingling pleasantly. The driver chatted amiably in Italian with the young couple on the carriage seat. His eyes veered from the road from time to time, but the horse was an experienced mare. Steadily and slowly, she ambled along on autopilot.

As the carriage rounded the corner, Louis impulsively hopped on to sit on a bench on the back bumper. His arms gripped the seat to steady himself as they rattled along.

It was a beautiful night, slightly cool, the smell of trees mixing with the familiar, strong scent of horse. From time to time, Louis noticed people gathering near old-fashioned spigots on the sidewalk, filling water bottles or simply cupping their hands to drink from them. The water ran clear and dark. Other people were strolling hand-in-hand, or gesticulating with both hands as they conducted conversations. Cars swerved around the carriage, only slowing down at the red traffic lights, and then rocketing ahead as soon as they saw no one at the intersection.

Rome, his Rome, was alive with possibilities— chaotic and in technicolor.

They passed a flower stall that was just closing. The shopkeeper, an elderly woman with a scarf loosely tied around her neck, made eye contact with Louis. Her face came to life.

“Ciao bello, dov'è il tuo innamorata? Perché sei fuori da solo?” Hi handsome, where is your sweetheart? Because you're out all alone?

She shouted and waved at him, and Louis started, wondering whether he would be kicked off the carriage for trespassing. The next second, she was throwing a flower at him— a single, long-stemmed red rose.

He barely caught the flower by the petals, bruising them. A few petals fluttered to the ground. The flower was overripe, its blossom nearly unraveling, the intense fragrance verging on degeneration. Louis realized it was the one of the only imperfect flowers he had ever held in his hands. His face fell into the rose, and he breathed in its velvety softness, barely protected by thorns that had worn limp through water and contact. The imperfect rose unlocked something in him, a possibility of change. 

He hopped off the carriage. At twenty-four-years-old, Prince Louis found himself astray at a dark intersection, with no straight road in sight. The teasing sounds of talk and laughter drifted from across the way.

An aqua Vespa motor scooter zoomed past, surprising him. Louis heard the rider shout something indistinct as they clattered away. He watched it vanish, then slowly made his way to the sidewalk.

It felt strange for people not to move out of the way for him. It was oddly exhilarating to be yelled at, to have strangers throw things at him. It felt extraordinarily ordinary. Louis breathed in the boundless Roman air, feeling dizzy with possibility.

In fact, he did actually feel a little dizzy. He stepped onto the cobbled walkway but missed the step, stumbling forward. Where did the ground go? He must have misjudged. Louis shook his head, trying to clear his eyes. Bloody hell. What was happening? Everything seemed dimmer, blurrier. His feet became entangled in each other. He tried to walk forward, but the ground swam ahead. Louis made his way to a bench, grabbed the back and fell into it. One hand tentatively held on to his rose while trying to grip the bench. He was on a wobbly piece of driftwood, floating to sea, and feeling drowsier and drowsier.

Louis closed his eyes for a second. The street noises around him sounded like mermaids singing. In the darkness, a sliver of his dream crept back. He was sinking into the earth as a crowd pursued him. A hand reached out of the water. Fear, curiosity, anticipation.

A warm embrace. A force pulling him down. Safety and chaos, intertwined.

Louis was so tired. His will to resist sank layer by layer, until he was taken into the darkness.

 

 

 

•••••

 

 

 

Once in a while, two people meet
Seemingly for no reason, they just pass on the street
Suddenly, thunder showers everywhere
Who can explain the thunder and rain?
But there's something in the air

The Pretenders, Don't Get Me Wrong

 

 

“Harry!” Adam yelled from the living room, raising his arm in a casual wave. “You’re right on time! Come on in, pull up a chair. Niall’s just got here too.”

“Niall Horan’s here?” Harry shouted back, his front teeth showing through his smile. “I thought you stopped letting in riff raffs?” 

He hung his jacket on a peg by the door and looked into the warmly lit flat. The others were just settling down, bringing their drinks and food to the poker table. The men belonged to a small group of freelance and full-time expatriate journalists and photographers stationed in Rome— an American, a couple of Brits, and an Irishman.

Niall’s brogue pierced through the noise. “Hazza! We got your drink right here.”

Harry pushed up the long-sleeves on his henley as he joined them. He had on faded black jeans and a battered pair of brown leather boots, way past their prime. As usual, his feet pointed slightly inward, in a funny pigeon-toed way. His sister always teased that he looked as if he were about to take off in a triple toe loop.

“Irish,” Harry said, coming around to his seat. “Thought I wouldn’t see your ugly mug till tomorrow.”

“Oh yeah? What’s tomorrow?” Mitch tossed back a handful of mixed nuts. Mitch Rowland was in news, a staff writer for the Washington Post— a position that Harry looked on with some envy.

“We’re interviewing some crazy rich royals, Mitchie,” Harry said. “It’s the kind of gritty, minute-by-minute, world-changing news old Harry Styles is in charge of these days.”

He plopped down in his usual spot, next to Niall. Adam Prendergast, one of the English freelancers in Rome, handed Harry a whiskey on ice, his usual drink.

“Harry and I are covering the Prince of Doncaster,” Niall answered. “Delegation just came into town. They’re giving a big press conference tomorrow, at the Doncaster embassy.”

“Oh yeah?” Adam said. He settled on Harry’s other side. “Near the Borghese, isn’t it? Nice building, if I remember it correctly. Anything good?”

Niall grinned. “We’re supposed to be getting an important announcement or something.” He checked with Harry. “They’ve been teasing it for a few weeks now.”

“Two announcements, maybe,” Harry said, looking up from his drink.

“Sounds intriguing.” Adam rubbed his hands together. His face crinkled into a sly smile. “You lads care to share?”

Harry paused. “Well, we think one’s going to be the nuclear deal between Doncaster and Anesidora.”

“Impending deal, you mean,” Niall corrected. “It’s not done yet.” 

Mitch glanced at Harry out of his peripheral vision and began shuffling a deck of cards, his hands making a colorful blur.

“Anesidora?” he asked. “Wasn’t there a story recently…”

“...the Russian thing,” Adam interjected. “Wasn’t it? Anesidora’s consumption of Russian oil dropped way down after they developed their own nuclear power. It was quite a disruption. Caused quite a diplomatic kerfuffle, if I recall.”

“Hmm,” Mitch pondered. “That’s an important alliance then.”

“It is,” Harry answered. “Big alliance for both countries. You’ll never guess the second announcement.”

Mitch thought for a moment. “Is it related to the first one?”

“Oh yeah. Kind of seals the deal, in a way. With a royal kiss.”

After a second, Mitch‘s face opened in realization. “Oh God. Ha! No way. Is it the old two-royals-falling-organically-in-love-for-oil trick? The usual geopolitics.” 

“Yes. We’re probably getting a wedding announcement,” Harry said. “The Prince is expected to get engaged to the Princess of Anesidora, Eleanor.”

Mitch shuffled the cards reflectively. “What’s the matter with countries these days? They can’t just sign treaties like normal people?” 

“Doncaster isn’t taking any chances,” Harry said. “The King's health is fragile. You’d know if you read my gossip columns, Mitch.”

“Oh,” Adam’s face lit up, putting the two together. “Yeah, I heard something through the news grapevines. The King’s on his deathbed or something, right?”

“Exactly.” Harry tipped his drink toward him. “Anesidora has a monopoly in earth elements too, especially neodymium— they lead the world market. Bet Doncaster wouldn’t mind a share of that.”

“A royal wedding ensures that they’ll always be good,” Niall said. He set a bowl of nuts down between him and Harry, and began picking out his favorites, the pistachios. Noticing him, Harry dug them out of Niall’s hand and started tossing them in his mouth. Niall slapped at him. “Stop it, Hazza! Get your own.”

Harry grinned.

“Hmm.” Adam started to distribute the piles of betting chips for tonight’s poker game. “There’s one thing I don’t get. Enlighten me for a minute, Harry. I understand why Doncaster would go for this deal. What’s in it for Eleanor though?”

Mitch shuffled the cards expertly, and began dealing them out in front of the small piles of chips. “Gentlemen, I’m assuming we go with the usual? Texas hold ‘em, dealer on the button, no wilds.”

The guys growled their agreement. Niall cleared the table of food, and got up for another beer. Each man squared up their chips into neat piles.

“Stability,” Harry said, answering Adam. “An end to border conflicts. Access to Doncaster’s alliance with the West.” He tossed back his drink and set it behind him. “A power redistribution.”

“Sounds like it could be a pretty good story,” Mitch said tentatively, finishing the deal and setting the cards in front of him. He glanced quickly at Harry.

Harry's scorn was immediate. “No offense, Mitchell, but are you fucking kidding me?”

“What? H, a royal wedding’s always a headliner,” Mitch answered. “Add to it the political intrigue—

“You could make it into a real piece,” Adam finished encouragingly. “He’s right, Harry.”

“You know what my old editor used to say?” Mitch went on. “A story’s only as good— ”

“— as the reporter,” Harry finished. "I‘ve heard that." He became quiet all of a sudden, his mood turning darker. “Been around a while, Mitch. Not my first rodeo.” Everyone watched Harry quietly, afraid to make a move. “The story’s good, unless the reporter isn’t up to it.”

The air had turned few degrees chillier; the men all felt it. Mitch stayed silent, and Adam glanced at Harry sympathetically.

“Come on, Harry.” Adam nudged him. “You know you’re good. You’re easily one of the best English journos in Rome.”

He watched Harry intently, as Niall plopped down and put a fresh beer on the table. Niall’s thumb stopped midway opening his beer. He looked from one to the other, sensing the awkwardness in the air.

Adam went on. “You’re going through a rough patch, that’s all. Everyone has those. It’s not a big deal.”

They held their breaths as if they were counting down a hand grenade. Without meeting their eyes, Harry tapped the table diffidently with his fingers. Then, on reflex, he snuck a peek at his cards, shielding them with his left hand. His face belied nothing.

“No,” he exhaled softly. “Everyone doesn’t. Not like me.”

The table stayed quiet. Harry jiggled his knee up and down, but no one dared move.

“You’ll get back there,” Adam said finally. “Go on. Give yourself a break. It just takes a bit more time.”

Still looking down, Harry muttered to himself, “Not sure about that. It’s been three years, Adam.”

“Everyone has their own timetable, lad.”

Studying Harry, Mitch forcefully cleared his throat. “Dudes, are we playing cards or jerking off? You opening, Adam?”

Adam quickly directed his focus back to cards. “Yeah, yeah. Let me look at my cards. Stop pressuring me, alright? I’m an old man.” 

The betting began, and they played through the night, the usual penny ante poker game that always ended with the pot going to the host at the end of the night.

Harry’s mood improved steadily with each whiskey. As the night went on, his wit became sharper. The betting would get more aggressive and he became more entertaining. It was one of the perks of playing poker with Harry; he played smart, to the end. Unlike Niall, Harry didn’t have a tell, not even when he was drunk. He was loose playing a real hand, and loose when he was bluffing. Consequently, the men knew never to play the river with Harry. He was the Cheshire Cat— he’d take them for a ride. It was a good thing, therefore, that they didn’t play for real money.

Around midnight, Niall checked the time on his phone, and then tapped the table, clearing his bets.

“I’m out, lovers,” he said. “How about you, Haz? You coming with?”

Harry sipped the last of his whiskey, which was excellent, a blended malt that a friend had shipped Adam from Scotland. He looked longingly at his glass, and then reluctantly set it down.

“Yeah, we should go. Thanks for the evening, boys,” he said, standing up. “It was brilliant, as usual.” His hand touched the table for balance.

“Thanks for coming,” Mitch said. “We’ll do it again soon. You two get some beauty sleep. Big day tomorrow, yeah?”

“You know it,” Niall said. He walked toward the foyer and retrieved a light jacket hanging on the wall. “I can never get enough sleep.”

“Not enough to make any difference, Irish,” Harry said, swaying slightly. “You’re too damn ugly.”

Niall chortled. “God, you’re a disgraceful drunk.”

“I’m fine,” Harry said, “Neil.” He threaded an arm precariously through a sleeve. “‘M completely fine.”

“Stay safe, guys,” Adam called.

“Ciao, Adam.”

”See ya, Mitch.” 

They said their farewells to the host, then walked out together and parted outside, bidding each other good night.

As Niall left him, a warm breeze ruffled Harry’s hair. He pushed it out of his face and brushed the longer strands back, only to look up and see someone sitting on the park bench directly across the street, under the streetlight.

It didn’t seem to be anyone Harry knew, except— it was odd to see someone out so late at night, sitting alone and so still. In fact, the person was so stone-still that Harry half-wondered whether he might be dead. Harry shook his head and fuzzily rubbed an eye, trying to gather his faculties. From this distance, the person seemed to be young— about the same age as himself— and dressed in casual but tailored clothing. His hair was conservatively cut, and he was clean-shaven.

So, not a street person then.

Harry walked closer, keeping his eyes on the man, who remained immobile. A few cars sped across the street between them. When the traffic was clear, Harry jogged across and slowly approached him.

The man’s eyes remained closed. He seemed to be unaware of his surroundings. His dark brown fringe cascaded into his eyelids, which were laced with long, thick lashes.

In fact, on closer examination he was simply gorgeous. Harry watched him intently, transfixed. The man’s lips pouted slightly as he slept, in contrast to the sharpness of his high, angular cheekbones. His complexion was supple and clear. His hands were open, palms up, in his lap. His body was lean, and his fitted shirt showed well-defined, sensuous curves. He was wearing track pants cut close to the thighs, the toned muscles accentuated by the night’s shadows. The sleeping beauty must be in his early twenties, Harry guessed.

Harry shook himself out of reverie. The whiskey he’d had still dragged on his reflexes, flushing his neck pink. He tapped the man on the shoulder.

“Svegliati! Questo non è un letto,” he said. Wake up! This isn’t a bed.

The guy didn’t budge. His chest rose and fell steadily as he slept on. Regardless of why he was there, Harry felt like he needed to go home. He obviously didn’t belong on a public bench; he was too young and too well-dressed. Harry felt oddly protective of him, maybe because he appeared utterly isolated and so young. Harry tapped him again, and when that didn’t produce a result, patted him lightly on the cheek. His skin was soft, chilly.

No response.

Not too sober himself, Harry sat down to figure things out. He rested his arm on the back of the park bench. His pulse thudded in his temple. He swiped a rough palm over his face, trying to wipe off the alcohol’s flush.

Other than the slight ruffling of the man’s hair, he was completely immobile. What’s worse, he was barely wearing anything for a night like this. Harry could see his entire torso, the muscles slim and curvaceous under the thin clothes. Without thinking about it too much, Harry took off his own jacket and leaned over to drape it on the man. He detected a light scent of flowers as he got closer. Was it cologne? Anyway, the guy smelled good.

Still no response.

“Hey,” Harry tried louder, in English. “Mate, you’re loitering.”

He sat closer, nudging him sideways. It was a bit like trying to wake a sleeping penguin; the guy was all snuggled down. Harry knocked the man’s chin, gently. Then he did it again, a bit rougher. Finally, the man groaned and opened his eyes.

“Wh— ” He blinked twice, scrunching his nose, confusion settling over his face. “Where am I?” Even in the darkness, his eyes were electric blue, like gemstones in the night. He stared blankly at Harry. British? Maybe. He definitely sounded upper class. Schooling abroad, most likely, with a trace of an unplaceable accent. “Take me back at once, you ruffian. Where have you brought me?”

“Relax, mate.” Harry backed off. The lights made the man’s face glow like a cinema star. “I saw you from across the street. You alright?”

The man was taking in his surroundings, suddenly realizing he had a stranger’s jacket on. He seemed remarkably comfortable with it. His chin dipped, nudging the fabric. His eyes swept around slowly. Then, finding the situation satisfactory, he snuggled down into the jacket, scrunching his shoulders as if it belonged to him. His self-confidence had an imperial air.

“I’m— ” He blinked drowsily, his words coming out slowly, with a raspy edge. “I’m lost.”

“Yeah?” A breeze ruffled the man’s hair and he flipped it away. His cheekbones stood out like small apples. Harry raised an eyebrow. “So it seems. Who are you? What’s your name?”

“You may address me as Your— ” he stopped. “My name’s… uh… you may call me Pemberley.” He turned toward Harry and collected himself. “I’m Louis Pemberley. Yes, exactly. Louis Pemberley. That is my name indeed. Who are you?”

“Pemberley.” Harry scratched his nose, working the name over in his mind. “Ah. Jane Austen fan, eh?” Louis’ eyes widened. His mouth opened, then closed. “Don’t worry,” Harry said. “Your secret’s safe with me. Pride and Prejudice is a wonderful book. Solid choice.”

“That is my name,” Louis protested, embarrassed. “You can believe it or not, but it is. Now tell me your name at once.”

“Demanding, aren’t we?” Harry laughed again. He nudged Louis. “You know, Pemberley, you could stand to be a little nicer. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ wouldn’t kill you. Since you are wearing my jacket.”

Louis jumped, letting the jacket fall from his shoulders. However, exposed to the night air, he quickly pulled it back up and tucked his hands inside. “Thank you for the jacket.”

“You’re welcome.”

Pushing himself up, Harry ambled to the street to scan for a taxi. A few cars hummed by, but the street was not well-travelled and the traffic was light. Louis followed his movement from under the jacket, his shoulders scrunched and chin tucked down.

“I’m going to call a car service.” Harry jogged back. It was a bit chilly; he felt it. “Usually I’d try to walk home, but I’m not up for it tonight. Want me to get one for you?”

Louis did not reply. He seemed to be in a trance, staring ahead into space. Harry waited a few more seconds, wondering whether he was alright, then began tapping his information into his mobile phone.

“Suit yourself then. And Pemberley, I’m going to need my jacket back. If you don’t mind.” He held out his hand expectantly, and indicated with his eyes.

“Oh!” Louis snapped his head up. “Right, yes, of course.” He shrugged it off, showing a delicate collarbone. Harry saw him quickly shiver. “It’s nice, your jacket. It smells good. Like pudding.”

“Pudding?”

“Like cake, maybe.” Louis wrinkled his nose. “Dessert. Cake and cream. And grass, I guess. Like a meadow. It smells very clean and sweet.”

Something about Louis’ voice caught Harry’s ear. Louis’ been trained in elocution, for sure; he was precise and elegant. But there was also a wild and adventurous edge to him, a combination of purity and curiosity. It was hard to pin down. What he said was also weird to notice about a stranger’s jacket. It was guileless and too intimate, as if Louis hadn’t ever had normal human interactions. He was like an alien imitating humans. It could also be that Harry was imagining things; his head wasn’t the clearest. 

As Louis leaned over, a thin, gold chain slinked down, dangling a small charm. Louis tucked his necklace inside and brushed a fringe away. The shadows from his eyelashes fanned his cheeks. The alcohol must be playing tricks on Harry, because Louis looked magical. Harry noticed how pale Louis’ skin looked— ghostly silver in the blue light, missing any tan lines. The entire expanse of skin, from neck to chest, was pale cream. They were in the middle of an Italian summer, yet Louis was seemed to be a luminous creature from a cave, never exposed to sunlight. 

Harry walked toward the curb, standing nonchalantly with his back to Louis, waiting for his car to come. He could feel Louis just sitting there, the mystery of him. Finally, he couldn’t stand it anymore and turned around.

“Pemberley,” Harry was surprised to see Louis staring at his back. “Are you absolutely sure you don’t need a ride?”

“Why?” Louis’ voice was high and clear, with a hint of a foreign accent, not Dutch, not German. “Do you care?”

“Why are you being so difficult?” The whiskey was evaporating from Harry’s body, taking the its warmth into the atmosphere. Harry shivered. Louis’ arms appeared even more bare and small in his thin shirt, his skin glowing in the cool night.

“Can you please just tell me,” Harry repeated. Louis didn’t have an ounce of fat, did he? He seemed to shrink down into himself. “Do you need a ride or not? Yes, or no? The car’s going to be here any minute.”

Just then, a tiny, burgundy car pulled up to the curb, its license plate matching the car Harry had called. He turned back toward Louis, who quickly looked away.

“Harry?” The driver called out the window, then double-checked his phone.

“Sì.” With a gnawing ambivalence, Harry opened the car door, standing indecisively at the curb.

“I’m Tomaso.” The driver looked down at his mobile, then squinted at him. “Harry Styles, correct?”

Harry scooted into the car’s warm, dry interior. He glanced back at Louis, who seemed to be watching him as well, his face in the shadows. Harry continued in Italian. “That’s me. You have my address?”

“Sì, sì.” The driver started the engine but stayed idling. He was maybe in his late thirties, with a black wool cap pulled over thinning hair. Harry saw his gnarled knuckles tap the address of his flat into a mobile GPS system. After that, the driver fussed with the radio dials and played with the car windows, but was in no hurry to shift into drive. They sat there quietly, waiting.

After a pause, Harry asked, “Tomaso, we can go.”

The driver gestured toward Louis, who was pretending to study something far away. “No? We’re waiting for that one, aren’t we?”

Harry said curtly, “No, we’re not.”

“He’s not your friend?”

Harry scorned. “No. Lui è un’ oca.” He’s flighty. “He wants to stay, he said.”

“Un cane in chiesa?” Tomaso gruffly said. Crazy dog in a church?

“Sì,” Harry replied. “A crazy dog. Now let’s go?”

The driver put his chin in one hand, studying Louis. He glared back at Harry, and then made an awkward noise with his mouth, and crumpled his face.

“Looks pretty cold out there, Harry,” Tomaso said as Harry fidgeted. “The little one’s freezing. He doesn’t belong here, no? There’s no predicting what will happen to him. You should get him.”

“But we’re not together,” Harry protested half-heartedly. “He doesn’t belong with me. I don’t even know him, really.”

“That’s funny, because he seems to know you,” Tomaso said. Indeed, Louis was staring straight in their direction. “Look.”

Meanwhile, Louis pretended to scan the street for an imaginary best friend who would never show up. The driver was right. Louis was a bit off the beaten path. He was definitely unusual. And yet... he looked lost and vulnerable. There was something about him that tugged at Harry.

Tomaso urged, “You can’t abandon him, Harry Styles.”

Harry sighed. He stared out the car window at Louis, who was now glancing at them nonchalantly. “You think I should go get him?”

“You know what my grandmother says,” Tomaso said. “You can never go wrong by doing the right thing.”

Reluctantly, Harry threw open the car door and saw Louis’ head twist toward him, then insouciantly turn away. Did he actually turn his nose up? The little snob. The thought of Mitch or Adam looking outside, and watching him trying to drag a stranger into a car, irritated Harry immensely.

He walked up to Louis, who had curled both feet under himself. He had tucked his hands under too, looking as snug as a muffin. He probably was cold, damn it. What an impossibly, infuriatingly adorable person.

“Come on,” Harry said to him. “The driver wants to take you home.”

Louis tilted his head and squinted. “The driver wants to?”

“He says it’s dangerous to be out here alone,” Harry lied. Louis’s blue eyes bore into Harry’s, who quickly looked away. “He says it’s not a safe area.”

“What do you think?” Louis asked.

Harry blew on his lips. “Listen, Pemberley. It’s cold out here. I’m cold. You’re freezing. Can we please go now?” Harry ran a hand through his hair and dragged out the strands. He could honestly pull them all out. “You’re irritating the driver, you big baby.”

“Did you just call me your big baby?”

“No, I certainly did not,” Harry firmly stated. “Don’t flatter yourself.”

“I’m not your anything,” Louis said. “I don’t even know your name. Why should I trust you?”

Harry took a deep breath and slowly exhaled through his mouth. Louis sat there on the park bench as if ruling from a throne. He was ridiculous. Harry was doing him a favor, for God’s sakes. But Harry had to admit, Louis looked amazing, his blue eyes blazing and mouth a little tart, a little haughty. He was hot as hell, Harry had to give that to him. Louis was probably used to people running circles around him. What kind of fucking royalty?

“Fine. I’m Harry Styles.” Harry finally gave in, shaking his head. Louis, a stranger, actually made him do this. He extended an arm, palm out, pointing in the direction of the car. “Nice to meet you. Are we good?”

“Harry Styles? Sounds fake, if you ask me.”

“Look who’s talking, Louis Pemberley,” Harry said. “Make up your mind, Your Majesty. We don’t have all day.”

“Actually, it’s Your Royal Highness,” Louis said, standing up. “And don’t worry, it’s a common mistake. No penalties this time.” Harry’s lip snarled, but he was in no mood to argue, happy to be moving at last.

Louis began walking regally toward the street, at an even, leisurely pace as if he were used to walking in front of large crowds. Right in front of the car, Louis stopped dead as if hitting an invisible barrier. Harry, following him too closely, walked right into his back. They paused there: Louis hesitating, Harry confused.

Tomaso rolled down the passenger’s side window and yelled to Harry, “Apri la porta per lui!” Open the door for him!

Louis looked to Harry, who glared back in disbelief at Louis’ perfectly good, obviously unbroken arms. As Harry’s mouth parted to protest, Louis stepped forward, quickly opening the car door, and slid across the back seat.

“È carino!” He’s cute! Tomaso called to Harry again. “Good decision, Harry.”

“What did he say?” Louis asked.

“I don’t care,” Harry retorted back to Tomaso, in Italian. “He’s a fucking menace.”

Tomaso turned to smile at Louis and gestured with his thumb toward Harry, “He’s handsome, eh?” he said in English. Louis rolled his eyes and turned to look out his side of the window.

Harry got in after Louis, spreading his legs so he took up all of his side of the space, and a little bit of Louis’ side. Louis’s legs were closed, well-behaved. He rested his elbow on the seat beside him, looking at home as if he got chauffeured all the time. His chin rested demurely on his knuckles. Somehow this annoyed Harry even more.

Tomaso put the car into drive, and began cruising down the narrow, winding Roman streets. It hummed with a soothing vibration.

Harry couldn’t help noticing how close Louis’ knee was to his, the starting point of the straight, narrow line to his muscular thighs, his gently curved waist, the swell of a generous, toned hip. He smelled nice too, soft and delicate. His hand was curled on the seat, right next to Harry’s thigh. Harry moved it away, the heat rising from his leg.

He cleared his throat. “What’s your address, pal?”

“So what did the driver say?” Louis insisted. 

“Nothing,” Harry brushed him off. “He just wanted to know where to drop you off.”

“Really?” Louis smiled. “Sounded like a bit more. Is that what carino means?”

Harry stared at him. “Do you speak Italian?”

“French,” Louis said. “But it's not that hard, Harry Styles.” His hand reached up to stifle a yawn. “Romance languages are all related. My French tutor once— ” He hesitated. “Never mind.” 

Harry watched Louis, his eyelids beginning to droop, face soft and sleepy. “You alright?”

Louis’ hands twirled in his lap, and he blinked several times. “Hmm. Actually, I’m tired.” 

Feeling repentant, Harry retracted his legs to give Louis some space. “Let’s get you home then.” Louis was gazing out the window with an unfocused expression. “Where are you staying?”

“Oh,” Louis shrugged. “Well. I’m not sure.”

Harry sat up. “What do you mean?”

“Yeah. I don’t know,” Louis answered sweetly. Harry wrinkled his brows in confusion. “I usually have servants to take me home. They tuck me in bed, then I go to sleep. It’s not that deep. I just don’t pay attention to it all that much. I don’t have any money either. I’m sorry, Harry. I guess I just don’t think about these unimportant details.”

“You don’t know where you live?” Harry repeated incredulously. “That’s a pretty crucial detail, mate.”

Louis nodded sleepily.

“Then we have a problem,” Harry said. “Louis, listen.” Louis leaned against him, his weight sinking down. “Do we need to go to the police station or— ”

“Can I just wear your jacket, Harry?” Louis cut him off, his voice raspy with fatigue. He was sinking back, chewing on the inside of his cheeks. His eyes closed halfway, tuning everything out. He said dreamily, “Please? I like it. It’s warm; smells really good. You can work out the rest. I’m cold.” 

Harry’s suspicious feelings about Louis deepened. As a journalist, he was detecting all sorts of bad vibes on how Louis ended there on the park bench. Even though Louis was good-looking and posh, there were still many ways he could be involved in something that Harry wanted no part of. Harry ought to extricate himself while he still could, and he would.

Harry leaned forward and signaled the driver. “Tomaso? Stop the car.”

Tomaso said, “Something wrong?”

“Pull the car over,” Harry insisted. “Please.”

The car swiftly drove past tall Roman Renaissance churches. The shadows of angels and saints looked down with their implacable faces, from their enormous, darkened doors. With credit to Tomaso, he continued driving impassively.

“Harry?” Louis said, his voice as soft as dust. “Everything good? I’m so tired.” The soft and polite way he asked touched something in Harry. Louis was way more trusting than he should be; he was almost foolish. Harry’s feelings wavered as Louis seemed to be on the verge of nodding off. “Do you mind if I lean on you? I feel… mm. It… must be the… ”

Without waiting for permission, Louis dropped his head onto Harry’s shoulder, his words becoming indistinct. It was not an intimate moment; Louis was sinking into the realm of oblivion, his whole right side leaning heavily against Harry, his chin balancing precariously on Harry’s arm. Tomaso glanced in the rearview mirror, but decided to keep on driving.

Harry pushed back slightly, shifting their weight.

“Louis,” he said. “Hey.”

“Mm,” Louis mumbled, apropos of nothing. “What.”

Harry rearranged them so Louis wasn’t leaning on him quite as much, but it was like shifting a bag of bricks, or muscles. Louis’ hair whipped into his face, and yes, it smelled good too.

Louis continued talking. “You prob’ly guessed. I am the… I’ve… never ever…”

“What? What have you never?”

“D’you know…” Louis murmured.

It was as if an animal had been tranquilized and fell on Harry with all his dead weight. One bad bump in the road could snap Louis’ neck, Harry thought, and he wouldn’t even know it.

Tomaso glanced at the rearview mirror, but since everything was quiet, he continued driving.

“Do I know… what?” Harry nudged, trying to piece together what Louis was mumbling. “Tell me. Hey.” 

Louis shifted closer. He reached around with one arm and pulled Harry tighter to himself, settling his head right into the crook of Harry’s chest.

“Mmm...” Louis sighed, “... you’re… nice.”

Harry startled, not sure what to do. He nudged Louis a bit harder.

Louis slurred, mostly unconscious. He gave a soft giggle. “D’you wanna know something funny? I’ve never… had... ” He drifted off with a purr.

Harry fixed Louis’ fringe so it was out of his face. Louis was snuggled right into his chest, holding onto him like a piece of driftwood in a storm.

“A kiss,” Louis sighed. “First real kiss. Never had one. Isn’t that a lark.” Louis ended with a giggle and a soft snore.

Harry inhaled deeply. Louis leaned heavily into him, one hand tightly gripping his jacket sleeve. Harry pulled him off, watching Louis sway in place, and then decidedly swung his arm around Louis’ shoulders so he wouldn’t fall off. He adjusted his body so Louis’ chin rested more securely against his own chest.

Louis snuggled right in. His hair was sweaty and smelled flowery and expensive, the feathery strands on top tickling Harry’s chin. They were light and soft.

“Lui è veramente provocante, eh,” Tomaso said, glancing back in the rearview mirror. He’s a real flirt. “So where are we going, Harry?”

Harry was concentrating so hard that he jumped at the driver’s voice. Meanwhile, Louis’ grip on his jacket had loosened, his body relaxed. His face lay against Harry’s chest with a look of utter contentment. His lips opened just the slightest amount as his breaths evened out.

Harry sighed, defeated. “Take us home.”

 

 

 

•••••

 

 

Mi sono innamorato di te
perchè non avevo niente da fare
(I fell in love with you
because I had nothing to do)

from Mi sono innamorato di te, by Luigi Tenco

 

 

Twenty minutes later, Harry was working to unlock the door to his flat. Louis swayed gently next to him, his chin tucked into Harry’s shoulder, eyes barely open.

The door unstuck as Harry gave it a shove, opening inward. Harry stepped in and beckoned Louis to follow.

He flicked on the lights. His flat was a studio in the attic of a Roman penzione, three stories up, with a small bathroom just big enough to stick in a clawfoot porcelain bathtub, and a kitchenette in the corner for heating up leftovers. The bed took up whatever space wasn’t occupied by an upholstered sofa and a large, antique maple desk, with a patina like an old Stradivarius, on which Harry had his laptop computer, framed photos of his family, and other personal memorabilia. It was a bachelor pad.

“Nice place,” Louis said, slowly waking up. “I like it. Is this where your assistant stays?”

“No, sleeping beauty.” Harry glanced back at his guest. He hung up his jacket on a peg by the door, then ran his hands through his less than clean hair, smoothing his face. He dropped his wallet and keys in a dish on his desk. “This is where I live. I know it doesn’t look like much, but it’s home.”

“Oh, it’s cozy!” Louis said. “I approve.”

“Wow, thanks,” Harry said sardonically.

Louis chuckled. “I’m sorry about the assistant comment, Harry. I didn’t mean anything by it. I’ve just never been in a bedroom quite like this.” He sat on the bed, running his hand over the cotton bedspread. “It’s nice, in its own humble way, isn’t it? Can you show me to the other rooms?”

“This is it, Princess.” Harry opened a closet door and bent over to take some bed sheets out of a trunk. “Studio. We can’t all live like millionaires, can we?”

Louis looked embarrassed. “Well. That’s not your fault. It just wasn’t your fate.”

“Thank God.” Harry raised an eyebrow. “If you have no place to go tonight, Louis, you’re welcome to stay here. One night, that’s all. In the morning we can go to the police station and get you sorted.”

“You’re lovely, Harry.” Louis smiled. “I really like you.”

Harry grunted, bringing sheets over to the sofa and unraveling them, making up a bed. “Nope, I’m just tired. Hope you feel comfortable enough. I’ve got to go to sleep myself. Big day tomorrow.”

“Oh?” Louis asked lightly. “What’s on the agenda?”

“None of your business,” Harry replied. He pointed toward the head of the bed. “Throw me a pillow, will you?”

Louis tossed it over. “You keep many secrets, Harry Styles. If that is in fact your name.”

Harry frowned, and then chuckled. “Takes one to know one, doesn’t it? Now I have to get some sleep, if I’m going to avoid a hangover.” He puffed out a slow, deep breath. “It’s probably unavoidable anyway. Tomorrow’s gonna be long and boring, and I’d like to do it without a splitting headache. So that means you have to sleep too.”

“Rats.”

“I’ll get an extra blanket for you. Do you need a tee shirt or something?”

“Oh!” Louis shook his head. “You don’t have to do that.” He leaned back, patting the blankets on the bed. “This is fine for me. I get cold easily, but it’s nice and warm here. I’m sure I’ll be alright. And Harry,” he winked coquettishly. “I’ve always wanted to try sleeping in the nude. I don’t need a shirt.”

Harry laughed out loud. “Oh no, you don’t!” He laughed again, prompting Louis to laugh with him, although he didn’t know what he was laughing at. “You’re not sleeping in the nude. You’ll be on the sofa, darling. The bed is mine.” He went to the closet and dug out an old, faded black Kinks t-shirt, throwing it to Louis, who caught it in surprise. “And, as long as you’re sleeping in my sheets, you’re not going commando.”

“Commando? What’s that?”

“Means sleeping in the buff,” Harry said, laughing again. “Nuts out. Your odd bits jiggling about.” His hands made a little jiggling motion near his groin, then stopped abruptly when he saw Louis’ face. “Not a problem for me, but not on the first date, Romeo.”

Louis swallowed hard. “So we’re on a date?”

Harry smiled, walking over to stand right in front of Louis, his lips slightly higher than Louis’ so they almost touched the tip of Louis’ nose. He noticed Louis tipping up on his toes a little to compensate. This was so adorable that for a second, Harry lost his train of thought. Finally he rustled up some composure.

“Would you like it to be a date?” Harry asked.

Louis blushed immediately and fiercely. “N..no… not…”

Harry took both of Louis’ hands in his, and wrapped them up in between their chests. Louis’ hands were cold and dry. Unconsciously, Harry rubbed them to warm them up.

“Sorry, darling,” he said, flirting back. “I can’t tonight.” He squeezed both of Louis’ hands, and then let go of them and bopped the tip of his nose. “I’ve really got a full day tomorrow. Remember, no funny business.” He looked down. “Nuts in.”

Louis pushed his lower lip out in a pout. “You’re no fun.”

Harry stepped away and chuckled. He turned around, peeling off his shirt in one fluid motion, tossing his boots to the walls, and unzipping his jeans. When he turned back quickly to check, Louis was still standing in the same place, staring at his back with a dazed look on his face.

“Yes?” Harry asked.

Louis looked up, startled, and laughed nervously. “Nothing.”

“Tell me.”

“It’s nothing.” Louis began, and then stopped. “It’s just that I have someone undress me for bed, at home. Arthur— he’s my— he… never mind.”

“You have someone named Arthur undress you?” Harry asked, smirking. “Is he your sex slave or something?”

“No!”

“I don’t think I want to hear about your kinks tonight, Princess,” Harry teased. “It sounds very naughty, and I’m into it, but right now, what happens in that enormous house of yours can stay in the house.”

“That’s not what happens!” Louis protested.

“Arthur,” Harry said seriously. “A real sex servant. Have you no decency, man.” 

“I’m not kinky!” Louis was screeching. “Oh God, forget it. It’s just a family tradition… thing. Never mind."

“Mm,” Harry raised an eyebrow, making fun of him and getting into bed. “You sure have an interesting ‘family.’ I’ve love to hear about it, but we’re all out of time tonight. Stayed tuned for next week’s episode, et cetera. Hey, Pemberley, can you get the lights?”

Louis grumpily walked over and turned off the light switch, then felt his way back to the sofa. He plopped into it, hands by his side, and then sat still, his feelings confused.

Harry pulled the covers up to his chest, laughter sinking away, trying not to think about Louis. It was disconcerting to have him sitting there on the sofa like that, a few meters away. He tried to keep his eyes closed, but his ears were alert for every little noise, not to mention the blood pounding in his eardrums. What are you doing, Harry asked himself, inviting a stranger into your house— someone you know nothing about? He could stab you in your sleep. He could steal everything you own, not that Harry owns much. Who was he, anyway? Louis wasn’t Italian nor British. He was intriguing and mysterious, beautiful and stubborn and an ingenue. Maybe he was an expert criminal of some sort. Your mother would lecture you for doing something so reckless, Harry thought. She would absolutely send you a howler. She would end you. If you weren’t already dead by the morning.

Harry tossed his blanket aside and turned over, pretending to shift in his sleep. In his peripheral vision, he could see Louis still sitting in the same position, his blankets untouched, staring straight ahead. Finally Harry sucked in his lower lip and took the bite.

“Louis?”

Louis turned his head and swallowed. His head was silhouetted against the moonlight.

“What’s up?” Harry asked. “You alright?”

“Nothing,” Louis said. His voice sounded like the hum of a quiet church, echoing from a distance. “I’m fine. Go back to sleep.” 

Harry pulled himself up in bed. “Hey,” he said. “You’re making me nervous, pal. Not going to kill me in my sleep, are you?”

Harry chuckled awkwardly into the dark, getting no response. He scooted up higher in bed, watching Louis as he stayed totally still. It was uncanny. 

Finally Louis took in a deep breath, and when he exhaled, it seemed to be heavy and weary. Harry could see him slowly standing up.

“I think I’ll go,” Louis said slowly. “Sorry if I’ve bothered you.” Harry saw Louis’ profile, a few wavy strands of dark hair against the windows’ luminescence. He looked and sounded so alone, inexplicably sad.

“Wait,” Harry pulled himself up higher. “Hold up. Why’re you leaving? Was it something I did?

Louis turned his head quickly. “Oh no,” he said. “No, it’s nothing like that. You’ve been very kind, Harry. It’s… I think I should go.”

Harry turned toward him. “Are you sure?”

Louis nodded and squared his shoulders. “Don’t get up. I’ll let myself out. I’ve been too much trouble already.” 

“Where are you going?” Harry’s voice climbed higher with concern. “Hey, it’s the middle of the night, Louis. You sure?” 

Louis didn’t say anything else. Without any explanation, he moved swiftly and quietly out of the flat and let himself out. After the door clicked closed, Harry tossed and turned, unable to get comfortable. After another minute or two, overcome by guilt, he bolted out of bed, jumped into his jeans and threw open the balcony window. A small figure was just coming out of the building, walking morosely.

“Louis!” he yelled. “Hold up! Don’t go anywhere!”

Harry sprinted the three stories downstairs, taking three steps at a time, hoping Louis wouldn’t walk away. He was gasping for breath by the time he got down. He pushed the door open with a sweaty hand, moisture beading on his chest and the back of his neck. Louis was standing just outside the building, his eyes cast down. When he looked up, they were a saturated, dark blue color. His face was full of confusion.

“Harry?” he said.

“You shouldn’t go,” Harry said, trying to sound calm despite the fact that he was heaving air in and out of his chest. “I mean, it’s nighttime and you’re not used to the neighborhood. You don’t even know where you’re going. You should come back inside.”

”Is it dangerous?” 

“No,” Harry twisted. “I mean, maybe? I just... will you come back in?” 

Louis studied him. “I don’t want to be a bother.” 

Harry held the door with one hand, one foot stepping awkwardly toward Louis. “It’s too late for that, mate,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m kidding! Sorry if I’m not the greatest host right now. I’m a bit wasted. I’m not at my best, is what I’m trying to say.”

“You’ve been amazing.” A crescent of a smile crept into Louis’ face. “So I should come back inside? I’ll be okay?” 

Kicking himself, Harry answered, “Yeah, you will. Come on. It’s cold out here.” 

“You’re kind,” Louis said, his eyes softening.

“I’m… really, really tired,” Harry answered slowly. His eyes suddenly felt heavy. “I’m usually better than this. I’m an orangutan tonight. Big clumsy ape.” 

Louis looked down for a moment. Harry wanted to pull him in, to make him believe his words. Louis said, “On one condition.” 

“Hmm?”

Louis’ eyes sparkled. “Can I sleep commando?”

“Absolutely not!” Harry yelled. Then, “Another time, okay? I’m totally up for it. Usually I’m very open-minded. Tonight is an exception.” 

They climbed the stairs again, more slowly this time, but also more awake, the drugs and alcohol wearing off. Harry had been in such a hurry, his flat door was left open, the lights still off.

They walked in, short of breath and a lot more tired this time, but not in such a haze as before.

Harry closed the door.

“Round two,” he announced.

“Round two,” Louis echoed, steering toward the sofa. “A boxing reference, though it could refer to any number of the martial arts.” An absolute, endearing weirdo. 

“Hold on,” Harry said, stopping him. “You said you get cold.”

“Yes?”

“Well, it’s a lot warmer over here,” he gestured to the bed. “I get hot, actually, sleeping under the covers. I have a hot body... I mean, my body tends to get hot. Anyway, why don’t you take the bed? It’s more comfortable. I’ll sleep on the sofa.”

Louis squinted. Even in the darkness, Harry could feel his eyes crinkle up in a soft, sweet smile.

“There’s no need, Harry,” Louis answered, starting to walk toward the sofa. “I’m totally fine on the sofa.”

Harry put a hand on Louis’ arm.

“I insist,” Harry said. “Come on, Princess, don’t fight me on this.”

Louis chewed on the corner of a lip. Harry saw him frown in deliberation, and then set his lips in a decision.

“Can you sit with me until I’m asleep?” Louis asked.

Harry’s face scrunched up in confusion. “What? Why?”

“Please sit with me,” Louis said, enunciating each word. “Till I fall asleep. It’s not a request.”

“You’re asking a lot, Pemberley,” Harry said. He put pressure on Louis’ back until he turned and walked toward the bed. Harry lifted the rumpled covers. “Get in.”

When Louis has settled himself, Harry sat down on the edge of the bed, parallel to Louis but with his back to the wall.

“Can I ask you something, Lou?” he said. “Why did you take off like that?”

Louis turned away from him, closing his eyes. A minute had passed, and he still hadn’t answered. Harry stared into the night and hoped that Louis was exhausted enough to have fallen asleep, because he felt decomposed himself. He was just about to nod off when Louis answered.

“Nightmares.” It was barely above a whisper.

Harry thought about his first months back from Africa, the sound of gunfire in his dreams as he woke up crying for help, the loneliness of not being able to talk to anyone about it, his sense of guilt and responsibility. The hours he spent trying to write an article and then just giving up.

Louis’ voice interrupted his thoughts. “I get bad nightmares. I wake up sometimes, screaming, scaring myself. It’s a mess, really. Everyone at the p— the house, gets disturbed. So I can only imagine what a disaster it must be for someone not used to it.”

Harry turned to look at him. “You were worried about disturbing me?” He shook his head. “You wouldn’t.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know,” Louis said cryptically. Then he said, “You have no idea what it’s like.”

“I’m a loud snorer,” Harry said. “That’s what people tell me, anyway.” This made Louis laugh. “So there’s that. I can drown out your screaming. Or we can tie a mouth gag on you. Whatever it takes, mate.”

“It might help!” Louis composed himself. “What do you do, Harry? When you can’t fall asleep? I always wonder how normal people deal with it.”

Harry wrinkled his eyebrows in a frown. “No one’s really normal, are they, when it comes to nightmares.” He watched the elegant curvature of Louis’ shoulders, the long line of his back. “I guess, sometimes I read before bedtime. It calms me down. Sometimes I play some music.”

“What do you read?” Louis shifted himself back, so he was watching Harry. Harry could barely make out the sharp tip of his nose.

“I don’t know. This and that… what my friends write, the news. Poetry sometimes. Do you like poetry?”

“No,” Louis chuckled. “I’ve read enough poetry to last me two lifetimes. It’s all shite anyway. Poetry’s for the birds. Fucking horrible.” 

Harry laughed softly. He thought for a minute, and then began to recite in a gentle, steady voice.

 

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple

 

Louis listened to these words, slowly turning into feeling and sense by the low, soothing, raspy baritone of Harry’s voice. As he recited, laundry turned into angels, nuns floated by with an immortal dignity. The things of this world were messengers of divine love, if one only knew how to see them.

 

The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.

 

 

“That’s alright, then, isn’t it?” Louis said in response.

“Mm,” Harry said, stifling a yawn. “It’s one of my all-time favorites. Always works.”

Louis stirred in bed, feeling the cool, soft sheets underneath him, the warm blanket above, and Harry’s solid and steady body next to him.

Louis asked, “Do you believe in angels?”

He heard Harry swallow, followed by a series of steady, heavy breaths going in and out of his mouth. A purring snore soon came out of his chest. Louis stared at the dark wall of bookshelves. Framed snapshots sat on shelves containing hundreds of books. Paintings, photographs, posters, and other decorations hung haphazardly on the walls, along with the silhouettes of statues, mugs, and other knickknacks. A bottle of red wine sat opened on the walnut desk; all around were pens and pencils, wrinkled scraps of paper. A few dusty, dried figs were strewn on the table. Crumpled bits of paper were tossed around a square rubbish bin. Dust bunnies collected on the tiled floor. Shoes were strung out to the door, like protesting, forgotten pets.

Harry lived in a state of total chaos.

It was lovely, Louis thought. Harry was lovely. The night was everything he’d wanted. He closed his eyes and soon fell asleep, without even a second of yoga breathing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

  

I’m awake
I’m not the same
I’m free
I’m free

so I don’t know
so far away
if you come
it’s too late
we’ll drift far away

Astronoid, Up and Atom

 

 

Harry awoke with an ache in his neck and a crushing, grinding pain in his head. Inside his skull, a homunculus was crouched behind his left eye, chiseling away at it like a motherfucker. The little monster was building a Rube Goldberg contraption and Harry’s hangover was hitting every bump.

Another ache came from his neck, hanging off the bed, head suspended in midair, long strands of hair making a mess on his face. Why was he sleeping like this, anyway? His skin was sweaty and his mouth, dry. He probably snored all night.

Without opening his eyes, Harry bent his left knee in slow motion and painfully eased his body down the bed, using one hand to push on his left eyeball because— goddamnit — the hammering. Daggers shot off inside his skull. His lower back felt like gravelly asphalt. He shifted the rickety chassis of his body down inch by inch.

Rivulets of blood ran before his eyes. Okay? Okay, yes. Fuck. Okay.

Now the pounding went straight to the back of his skull. His heartbeat thumped in both ears. It hurt to open his eyes, to face even a sliver of weak daylight, which must mean it’s morning, or afternoon. At least, it was the next day. Time worked like that.

The ache in the center of Harry’s brain was a garnet blooming into an amaryllis. Everything shone too bloody bright inside his eyelids. He was supposed to do something today, right? Something semi-important.

What was it? Come on now.

No.

Yes, think. Was it work?

No.

Yes! Wake up! Wake. The. Fuck. Up. Styles.

No, damn it. Leave me alone.

After many more minutes, Harry allowed gravity to drag him earthward, his legs off the bed and his body as rigidly and uselessly as a zombie, cannons shooting around his cranium like a war zone. Eventually, somewhat upright, Harry drifted to the bathroom.

He grappled his way to the medicine cabinet, found the bottle of paracetamol and shook out two tablets, downing them with metallic-tasting sink water.

Standing still for a second, with his head bent over the sink, Harry contemplated whether to give in to a nice, cleansing vom. The heat was starting to seep into his tiny attic flat. The demons in his guts were armed with dental drills, crashing their tiny, inferno carts into his intestines.

He ran the cold water in the sink and stuck his face under the faucet. Water ran down his eyes and lashes, into his nostrils and across his lips, trickling down his bare neck and the front of his chest. The cold lessened the pain in his head, clearing the sinuses. It was only after it started feeling frigid that he remembered.

Ah, fuck.

The interview was today, wasn’t it? That press conference with the Doncaster Prince.

And what time was it now? How many times had Niall Horan already tried to text him? Where was his mobile anyway—

Then, wisps of memory began leaking through his consciousness, though they were very confused. Something must have happened last night, he was pretty sure. Was there a stranger?— a man, maybe. There had been a cab ride… whiskey… poker with the boys. It had been an early night, because Niall had begged off for work. They’d left the game, walked out...

A twinge of guilt shot through Harry. The interview was in a few hours, at most, and he looked— felt— like half-baked purgatory.

He recalled coming into the flat, putting his keys down…

Shit.

Louis.

Harry opened the bathroom door a sliver and saw him lying on the bed, next to where Harry had been sleeping. Harry could barely recall how he ended up here, where he had picked him up. Was it on the way home? Harry must have been pretty far gone. He could hardly remember a damn thing after the party. His name was Louis, right? Harry recalled him sitting under a streetlight, petite but toned, his hands in his lap...

Did they fool around? Harry wondered with a speck of uncertainty. Probably not, if Harry was still in his jeans, with a massive hangover and a crick in his neck. Harry glanced down between his legs. Nope. Definitely don’t remember anything like that.

Without warning, Harry’s mouth heaved a trickle of stomach acid into the sink. Seeing real vomit deepened his headache. He grabbed a strand of of hair and held onto the porcelain sink, and hurled again, bringing liquid pulp of mushy nuts and old alcohol. Tiny bullets whizzed all around his head. As he rinsed it down the sink and gargled his mouth out, Harry tried his best to formulate a plan.

Louis had to leave. Harry had to make him leave.

Harry limped back into the studio, felt in his jeans pocket for his mobile. All night, he had slept with his phone digging into his hip. Out of habit, Harry quickly hit the “on” button, only to find the battery had died.

He walked to his desk and plugged the phone in. A weak, accusatory blip came on, signaling a pulse of life. Harry stared blankly at the phone screen, forgetting why he was even checking it in the first place. His mouth tasted like brimstone.

In his peripheral vision, Harry saw Louis, dead asleep.

He was curled like a cashew with a perfect bum out. Now Harry understands why he was hanging off the bed: Louis was sleeping diagonally, taking up most of the space. He must have pushed Harry nearly over in his sleep, his blanket wrapped around his knees. He was in all black, in a satiny shirt and expensive track bottoms. Harry couldn’t quite remember his face. Not bad, Harry thought, weirdly proud of his drunken good taste. Well done, Harry Styles. Still, he breathed a sigh of relief that nothing naughty had happened, except apparently a blank memory of how he got here.

“Hiya,” Harry croaked, sounding like a sick frog. Clearing his throat, he tried again. “Morning, mate! Rise and shine!”

No response. Louis’ chest rose and fell evenly with his arm across it, his caramel-colored hair shielding his eyes. A square jaw, a defined chin, and pink, thin lips. A rough sketch of facial hair. He definitely looked promising. Suddenly a visual popped into Harry’s memory, of brilliant blue eyes as dark as the ocean at night.

Harry held his breath. There had been a car service— Tomaso, wasn’t it?— amber streetlights, paying by credit card, dragging their tired arses up three flights of stairs. Twice, he recalled. And Louis had a humorous last name, starting with the letter P. Was it Plimpton? Plymouth?

Pemberley. That was it. His Mr. Darcy... A soft guffaw escaped from his mouth.

“Hey,” Harry said, pushing on Louis’ pillow. “Pemberley. Get up.”

Louis stirred and turned onto his back, legs spread apart. His eyebrows rose, then a hand came up to rub his closed eyes.

“That’s enough, Payno. Stop it at once!” Despite its sleepy softness, Louis’ voice was unmistakably commanding and confident. “Touch me again, I‘ll feed you to Owen.”

Harry smirked. What a funny person! Did they talk about Payno? Was he a boyfriend? Was Owen their pet dog?

Louis lay still for a few more seconds. When he didn’t seem to wake up, Harry gave his legs a little smack, prompting him to scoot them away. After a few more forceful nudges, Louis finally lifted his hands in annoyance, and regally opened his eyes. Taking his time with slow, measured blinks, he finally located Harry.

“Oh,” he said guardedly. “Hullo, you.”

Harry waited for him. Louis didn’t seem to remember him either. Did he?

Louis’ lashes fluttered, taking Harry in. “You’re not Payno.”

Harry shook his head. “Nope.”

“Well, good morning anyway,” Louis smiled. “Have you kidnapped me?”

“You’re here on your own free will, mate,” Harry said. “Don’t you remember?”

“‘Course I do, Harry,” Louis smiled sweetly, crinkling his eyes. “I was hoping you had kidnapped me. What an adventure it might have been! You’re not an arsehole, are you?”

Even rumpled, Louis was adorable. His thin shirt showed off his toned upper arms, his tight belly, his shapely hips. His hair was mussed and the loose strands fell into his eyes, tangling in his eyelashes. Harry could stand here all day looking at him. Then the pounding in his head kicked him into gear.

“I’m afraid I have to be an arsehole now,” Harry said.

“What do you mean?” Louis blinked slowly at him.

“I have to kick you out,” Harry said. “You have to go, mate. Sorry. I’ve got important things to do today.”

Louis pursed his lips, mimicking him, “Sorry. I’ve got important things to do today. Look at me strutting about, I’m an important man. So very, very important.”

“You can stop being a little shite, Pemberley,” Harry said, trying to hide a fond snicker. “I’m not kidding.”

“Why do you keep calling me that?” Louis replied. “Who’s Pem— ” Then the realization sank in. Louis grinned in embarrassment. “Oh, that’s right. It’s me.” 

“Oh that’s right,” Harry parroted him. “You forgot your fake name, didn’t you? I hope you slept well, Louis Pemberley, or Tom Smith, or whoever you are.”

Louis gave him a big smile, stretching his arms out. “Oh, it was marvelous, Harry Styles. If that is in fact your real name. Your bed is very comfy.” His eyes crinkled coquettishly. “I didn’t even remember any bad dreams. Which is really, really good for me.”

“Right. You mentioned that.”

“And may I tell you a secret?” Louis pushed on. “This is the first time I’ve ever spent a night alone with a man.”

“Ha!” Harry replied, flustered. “For your information, you didn’t, mate. We didn’t do anything scandalous. Nothing happened between us, technically.”

Louis shrugged his shoulders, in possession of all the secrets. “Technically,” he said. “we did sleep in the same bed last night.” He pulled the covers up to his waist, and patted it down modestly. “All night, and it was fun. Don’t get all bent out of shape, Styles. No one’s coming to arrest you. They’re probably all still asleep.” He giggled. “Gosh, I’m starved. What’s for breakfast?”

“Nothing,” Harry answered curtly, running a hand through his admittedly dirty, probably-not-going-to-be-washed-today, should-have-been-cut-last-week hair. He was going to be in bad shape if he didn’t hop to it. “Nothing’s for breakfast,” he repeated. “There’s no time for it. There’s no time for anything, darling. I’m so late already. You— me— we— have to haul arse out of here.”

“Oh, really? What time is it?” Louis yawned. He lay serenely, stretching his legs.

“Look,” Harry sighed. His mobile phone vibrated on the desk, alerting him to a text. Harry glanced at it, worry shooting down his body. “I know it’s bloody rude of me, and trust me, I’m not usually like this— I treat people like a gentleman— but I’m asking you to leave now. No, not now. Like, ten minutes ago. Yesterday.” Then he reconsidered, and added, “Please!"

Harry crossed the two steps to his desk and picked up the phone, showing 9% charge. The alert was for a text from Niall.

“Oh right,” Louis said insouciantly behind him. “You have somewhere you need to be today. You’re quite important, so you keep saying.”

Louis was making no effort to move. Glaring at him in exasperation, Harry unlocked his mobile phone and clicked on the text app.

harry you there

That was all Niall wrote.

It was 9:39 AM. Harry still had a couple of hours until the press conference at the Doncaster Embassy, a mere half hour away by car. Thank God. He texted Niall back.

talk to me niall

how’s the craic

tell me what’s going on

it’s been cancelled

what?

the press conference thing, the Prince. been postponed

Harry wrinkled his nose, both annoyed at the change in plans and glad he hadn’t overslept.

you sure?

yeah, the office just got a press release. didn’t u get it?

haven’t checked

His phone lulled, and then a text showed up.

lazy wanker. whatcha doin anyway

Harry felt a bubble of pain in his head subside. It seems he hadn’t thrown up all the paracetamol, after all. His headache was just a tiny bit better.

i’m home

have u checked ur emails?

no niall, i’ve checked fuck all today. got a hangover.

told you didn’t i!!!

will ya fuck off c=3

Harry looked up in time to see Louis lick his lips, a look of impatience on his face. After conspicuously twiddling his thumbs, Louis slowly leaned back on the headboard and crossed his hands behind his head, letting the expanse of his toned chest stretch forward, his shirt fall on the fluid shapes of his muscles and nipples. Then Louis cocked his head, as if to ask, how much longer? Harry swallowed hard, turned away, and forced himself to look at the wall in front of him.

Niall’s text blinked on.

i bet u’ve got someone with u, don’t ye

Harry winced, wishing he could reach into the phone and strangle him.

not really

who is it?

listen, did they say why it’s been cancelled?

ye work fast, harry :) who is he

focus, mate

when did u have the time last night? after we left?

irish...

we left together, you and me. did ye pick up a homeless man or what

will you just tell me why it’s been cancelled >:|

so u HAVE GOT someone there!!!!!

can u not think about sex for a second. for ONE. FUCKING. SEXOND.

Harry’s face flushed to the brows. He was blushing too hard to check on Louis, who was probably going to flash his armpits next. Harry was beet red— from the heat, he told himself.

typo, he wrote. 

oo ur a grouch. didn’t u get any rest all night? ;)

go on u, why did they cancel it

right then. the official press release says that the prince’s been taken ill

Harry shook his head. Celebrities always did this, cancelled at the last minute. Royals too. Capricious, fickle, self-absorbed pains in the arse.

is he then?

who knows bro

he’s not sick?

course not, ye gobshite. is this ur first job, harry?? jesus mary and joseph

Harry glanced over to Louis, who had turned his head to look around. He was twirling a thin gold chain around his neck, playing with something hanging from it— a charm perhaps. The sun looked good on him, even though he was still too pale. The morning’s glow cast his cheeks in sharp relief.

so Niall texted. u doing anything later

dunno yet

listen, whoever you’ve got there, don’t shag him all day, yeah? we have work to do

mind your own business maybe

Harry put his phone down. He walked over and sat down at the foot of the bed, as Louis pulled his legs up to make room.

“So?” Louis asked. “Who was that?”

“We got lucky, Pemberley,” Harry said. “That was my work colleague. Crisis has been averted, for the time being.”

“Has your work been cancelled?”

“Postponed.”

Louis seemed immensely pleased. “Oh! That’s too bad.”

“Listen,” Harry was also secretly pleased. “I’m going to hit the shower,” he said. “And when I get out, we’ll think about breakfast. But after that— ”

“I have to leave,” Louis interrupted, not really listening. He hoisted himself to a sitting position. “So you’ve said. You get in the shower. I’ll whip us up some breakfast.”

Harry was incredulous. “You know how to cook?”

“Eggs,” Louis said. “Don’t expect too much, Styles. I’m no chef, but I think I can do toast and eggs.” Looking like an impish angel, Louis winked.

Harry couldn’t help but smile back. Egg whites and yolks swimming in smoky oil sounded really good. He started walking away, yanking his shirt over his head, then unbuttoning his jeans and taking them off, gesturing with his clothes vaguely toward his kitchenette.

“Help yourself,” he said. “Eggs are in the fridge. I’m not sure what else is there. Cheese, maybe? You can use whatever’s there.”

Harry tossed his dirty clothes in a corner of the room, on top of a growing pile. Once at the bathroom door, Harry glanced back quickly, and caught Louis staring at a very specific part of him, the peachy part under the pants, attached to the top of his legs. They both looked away at the same time, Louis’ chiseled cheekbones glowing bright pink.

“Sorry,” Louis pinched his nose. “I wasn’t... I... ”

Harry’s mouth went dry. “D’you get a good view then?”

Louis wasn’t blind, after all! And he wasn’t as innocent as he pretended to be. Harry watched him hastily straighten himself out.

“I wasn’t looking at you,” Louis lied in a high, squeaky voice. “I’m just not quite awake yet.”

Mm, right, Harry thought. He always had a sixth sense about people sneaking a look at him. It happened fairly regularly. Louis was checking out his arse, and from the looks of it, he liked what he saw. Too bad Harry had to get to work, he thought; Louis was quite a nice full English himself. Wouldn’t mind a bite, if he must say so himself. Then he pushed the thought away. He had already overslept badly and was stupidly hungover. This was no time to fool around, no matter how fit Louis was. And damn, he was fit.

Harry ducked his head and closed the bathroom door. Then he leaned heavily against it, twisting the lock.

Christ, but the look Louis had given him made Harry half hard. He was too fucking fine, that’s what. Harry’s heart was pumping like a piston. Whoever he was, the boy out there was like fire. Harry pushed his cock down roughly with the palm of his hand, but rather than helping, it thickened up more, jerking a little. It took all of his self-discipline not to turn right back around and push Louis down.

Harry hadn’t gotten laid in way too long. Months. Now that the press conference was cancelled, he had all the time in the world— definitely enough time for a quick shag. He thought about Louis’ blue eyes, that luscious, tempting mouth. Louis didn’t look like he would mind either, the way his eyes were glued to Harry’s backside. After all, he had come home with him. Harry could ask him, couldn’t he? He looked down at his erection, which was definitely not going away. Ask him, his cock urged. Ask.

But somewhere in Harry’s brain, marinating in whiskey and jacks and queens and the beautiful boys and girls he had fucked and been fucked by, was a tiny, authoritarian voice saying: No. Forget him. Not This One. This one was different. There was a certain indescribable quality about Louis, something naive and young. He couldn’t place it, but it unsettled Harry, made him feel strangely guilty and protective all at once. It just didn’t feel right. Harry had hooked up in one-night stands before, more than once. But Louis wasn’t just anyone.

Harry exhaled deeply. Goddamn conscience. 

Fuck, he would have to take care of this morning boner himself. Unconsciously, he had been playing with himself, fingering the loose skin through the fabric of his pants. He was hard now, with a monster that needed to be released. He dropped his boxers, turned the shower on, and stepped in, letting the cold water sting his skin. As steam rose from the floor, Harry put one hand on the wall in front of him, steadying himself, and allowed the water to lubricate his hand, sliding down the long shaft of his long, erect cock. His thumb played with the foreskin until he was wet inside and out, his precome mixing sweetly with warm water, forming a cloudy swirl. He gave some fast, light tugs, thumbing under the sensitive head and waking up the beast. It rose up to its full length with almost no encouragement at all, growled and twitched bright red.

“Fuck,” Harry groaned. “You’re gonna be the death of me.”

He thought about Louis’ blue eyes, his knowing smile and sassy confidence, his perky mouth. His hand worked faster, stroking the velvet skin up and down, thumb spreading the viscous precome all around the tip. He wondered what Louis would taste like, how his cock might feel inside his mouth. Harry loved giving blowjobs to the right person, and Louis looked like he needed one, would enjoy one, would cry out in that high, emotive voice, moaning his name. Harry. If his cock were half as pretty as he was… Harry’s dick twitched hard, a drop of precome sputtering out. He imagined being on his knees, hands behind his back, Louis feeding his cock to him. Louis would hold his cock in one hand and the back of Harry’s head in the other, nudging it in.

C’mon, Harry. Take it for me. Gonna fuck your mouth.

Louis’ cock would fill his mouth so he could hardly make a sound. Those hooded blue eyes would become unfocused with pleasure, he would lick his lips with quiet moans.

That’s it. You want it, love. Open for me, wider. Baby, suck it down. Like you’re gonna empty me.

Harry imagined his tongue dragging on Louis’ cock, Louis’ hands controlling his head. Making him take more and more. Louis’ hand would become more frantic at the base of his cock, stroking it toward his mouth, and he would moan out his pleasure. Harry loved this part of the blowjob, gagging on it, the feeling of almost not being able to breathe, his eyes rolling back and feeling dizzy, and then getting a respite as the cock slid out, giving him time to breathe as the fingers stroke the cock skin back toward him, touching his lips. He loved almost sucking the fingers in as well, kisses and sucks turning into the same thing in his wide mouth, all stretching and fucking and pulling moans out of the other person’s throat, turning him crazy with the need to come. Watching himself being watched, being fucked.

Milk it, Harry, his imaginary Louis commanded in his high rasp. Wrap your tongue around me. Swirl and suck it. Drink it dry. Fucking drink it all in. 

Harry saw himself ease forward, cupping Louis’ balls, feeling his spasm as he came. He tasted the first salty tang, the creamy, bitter spunk shooting into his throat, too fast, too much, too thick. He sputtered and coughed, then choked it down, wanting to show that he could. Louis would gather the drops that leaked out of his mouth and feed it back to him, the milky pearls dripping between his fingers, letting Harry suck on them too.

Lick me up, Harry. Twirl your tongue and suck it down. I want to see you drink every drop.

Harry’s hand slid around the hard, thick length of his own cock, now dark pink and throbbing violet at the tip. His thumb swiped over the sensitive slit, causing a groan and a litter of swearing. He was close.

But Louis wouldn’t. Louis hadn’t ever done this. Harry knew this as if it were a fact, the way he knew the alphabet, the way he knew his maths. Louis hadn’t ever had this experience, but he wanted it. His eyes yearned for it. He wanted to seek it out; he wanted to have a taste, he wanted the foreplay, the sweet talk, everything. He wanted to be loved by a man. And Harry wanted to give it to him. He would be gentle with him, make it good for him. He would tip his face forward with its rough whiskers, the tender angles cut like a Renaissance angel, and he would say it.

Kiss me, Louis.

Fuck, that was too much. There was no kink quite like the kink of true romance. Harry stuttered out a moan. His come shot out, missing his hand and hitting the shower wall, dripping down the lazy, winding maze between droplets. He was sure that his moan was too loud, sure that it could be heard through the door. His chest heaved with deep breaths as he came down, the last thick spurts pooling in his hand. He rubbed their velvety texture into his palm, then shook them off.

He closed his eyes and let the easy, fucked-out feeling calm his body, his heart pounding hard to soothe all the tension. He leaned his side to the shower and waited for the orgasm to subside. His arse throbbed with an emptiness, wanting more, his spine tingling down with spasms. Finally, a little sleepy and tired, Harry soaked his hair and body, shampooed, soaped, and rinsed off, making sure to erase any remnant of spunk from the walls.

It was just a fantasy to get himself off, Harry told himself. No harm, no foul. It had nothing to do with Louis, really, and Harry could totally act normal after getting himself off. It was natural, right? Totally.

He wrapped a cotton towel around his waist and came out, rearranging his face to appear as casual as possible. Louis was plating eggs on the kitchenette counter.

“The yolks are runny,” Louis said, looking up. “I hope that’s alright. I don’t really know how to do it any other way.” The flat smelled like warm olive oil and ground black pepper. It was nice. “You’re lucky I didn’t burn the place down, really.”

Harry walked over in his towel and picked up a piece of crunchy toast, tearing off a thin strip. “Hey, you've made dippy soldiers!”

“Hmm?” A bewildered look.

“These,” Harry held it up. “Dippy soldiers? Toast strips dipped in egg yolk? Mum used to make them for me when I was young.”

Louis’ face brightened. “Oh! I didn’t know that’s what they were called.”

There it was. Louis was definitely not British, Harry thought. What British kid didn’t know about dippy soldiers? And his accent, though faint, was distinct in the background. It didn’t belong in the U.K., or anywhere in the Commonwealth, to be honest. He had certainly learned to speak flawless British English. But where was he from, anyway?

“Your mother sounds very nice, Harry.” Louis sounded subdued.

“Mum’s the greatest of all time,” Harry said, biting into a strip of toast. “We call her the Goat, my sister and I. Greatest of all time. But I suppose everyone thinks that way about their own mums, right?” He glanced up. Louis seemed distracted. Harry realized there was nothing to drink, but didn’t want to make Louis feel bad. “Hey, you want some coffee?”

Harry moved to get water, and then remembered he had no coffee in the house. To his credit, though, he never made coffee at home, not when a Roman espresso was just five minutes away.

“Louis,” he said, “you get in the shower, and I’ll run out for coffee. Or juice if you want. What would you like?”

He saw that Louis was staring at a spot at the base of his throat, eyes a little unfocused.

Harry continued, “I think I left you some hot water for a shower.”

Louis didn’t answer. He seemed completely mesmerized, staring at the canvas of tattoos on Harry’s body.

Self-consciously, Harry twisted the towel a little tighter around his waist, suddenly wanting to pull it up to cover himself. He felt as if Louis could see the fantasies he had just imagined about him in the bathroom. A flush of color rushed into his face.

Clearing his throat, Harry said huskily, “Louis, mate, d’you get a good look then?”

Louis jerked up in alarm.

“Oh, sorry,” he muttered, swallowing hard. Then he indicated with a tip of his chin, without looking at Harry. “I couldn’t help noticing. You have those funny marks.”

“What marks?”

Louis shyly got up and came closer, pointing to Harry’s chest. “Those ones. There, and there.”

Harry glanced down. “Those aren’t marks. They’re my extra nipples,” he said. “I’ve got four of them. Twice the fun, innit?”

“Fun?” Louis pinked up from the nape of his neck. “Oh my God. No.”

Harry gestured to himself. “Anything else you’d like to check out, Mr. Pemberley? I can drop trou so you can do a more thorough exam.”

“No,” Louis said, standing up. “God, I’m so sorry. Forget I said anything. I’ve been so rude.”

Harry watched Louis’ blush turn darker and deeper. Even the tips of his ears were flushed a bright pink.

“You’re blushing,” Harry remarked, slow and steady.

Watching Louis intently, Harry pulled the plate of eggs closer, slowly tearing up a piece of toast and dipping it in the runny yolk. He put the dripping toast in his mouth, tongue out, and caught the thick drops on his lips. His body was hunched over the counter like a cat, shoulder blades sharp, pec muscles plump and curved, an elbow leaning on the tabletop with his hand irresistibly traveling back and forth to his mouth.

The runny yolks made a golden stain around Harry’s lips. Swiping it with a thumb and carefully tucking it between his lips, Harry sucked it clean, his tongue darting to lick the escaped drops. He knew he had Louis’ attention, and he knew Louis couldn’t look away. Harry finished with a sly wink, as Louis’ mouth hung open.

Louis’ thought process had completely derailed.

“Go on, Louis,” Harry said in his low, raspy voice. “Take a bath. You look like you could use some washing up.”

Louis’ mouth opened and closed silently again. As he walked to the bathroom, Harry yelled after him, “Want help?”

Louis slammed the door in response. Harry looked after him and began laughing.

Harry walked over to pick out some clothes from the closet, taking out a clean towel and an extra set of clothing that might fit Louis. Setting everything on the bed, he pulled the covers on the bed to straighten them and plumped the pillows.

Soon the bathroom door opened behind him, and Louis padded out in his bare feet. When he turned around, Harry noticed that Louis was still dry from head to toe.

Sheepishly, Louis said, “I need you to show me how the knobs work.”

“Which knobs?”

“Back home, someone does the— I don’t usually run the baths myself,” Louis said. “Someone sets it and cleans it up. So I would appreciate it if you could show me how the knobs on your bathtub work. Do you pull them out or—?”

Harry stared at Louis’ flustered face. So he had spent all this time in the bathroom trying to figure out how to start the bathtub.

“You’re kidding me,” Harry said, as Louis stood quietly gazing down. “You really want to work my knobs?”

“What—?” Louis stammered. “No. I— God, I hate you.”

“Come on, Princess,” Harry walked toward him. “Let’s get you sorted.”

After the bathwater was running, Harry went over to his phone and unlocked it, while slipping on a pair of trousers and a short-sleeved shirt. Niall had sent over a link, a press release. Harry clicked to open it.

It was an announcement that the Prince of Doncaster had unexpectedly come down with mild food poisoning, and would be rescheduling the press conference for another time. Accompanying the press release was an official photograph of Prince Louis. As he studied the photo, Harry felt the bottom drop out of his stomach.

Of course. Now it all made sense.

His name was Louis. He didn’t carry money. He didn’t open car doors. He didn’t know how to cook anything but eggs. Somebody drove him, dressed him and undressed him. He had a posh but unplaceable accent. He couldn’t even start his own damn bath.

All the mystery around Louis suddenly made perfect sense. Harry’s intuition has been right. Louis wasn’t just anyone. He was European royalty. He was Prince Louis William Tomlinson of Doncaster.

Harry stared at his mobile phone for ages. His hangover was slowly lifting. In fact, as he continued staring at the photo, it was as if distant horizons were opening up for him, clouds parting, the sun shining through.

He heard a random movement in the bathroom, waking him up to reality.

“Hey, Louis!” Harry quickly shouted, clicking his phone off with one hand. “I’m leaving now! Be back soon.”

“Okay!”

Harry stared at the bathroom door as if it were a fairytale. He still couldn’t believe what was happening. He grabbed his half-charged phone and a pair of sunglasses by the door, and quickly stepped out of his flat, locking the door behind himself. He felt as if he’d just secured a million-dollar treasure inside. And in a way, he had.

 

 

 

•••••

 

 

 

 

Louis trailed his hand in the bath, watching the light skim across the water. Harry hadn’t estimated the hot water very well. It had run out halfway through filling the tub, and the bath had quickly turned tepid.

Still, Louis liked his body’s buoyancy in a bath. It was as if everything inside him— his nightmares, his responsibility, his future— also weighed less. The cool water was refreshing in the humid heat. His skin faded and wavered under the surface. The morning felt softer and smoother. Like the charm that bobbed at the base of his throat, time was suspended, and Louis didn’t have to think.

At least for a moment, anyway. He was surrounded by the smell of Harry’s half-used candles scattered around the room— there must have been at least a dozen, in various degrees of use, a few still shrink wrapped in cellophane. Louis didn’t know anyone who liked candles this much. He didn’t know anyone who liked candles, period, since they never used them at the palace. The palace had flowers— thousands of fresh flowers, every day, in most rooms, replenished by the staff. Louis was so accustomed to them, he hardly ever thought about them. He realized that everything about Harry’s flat smelled raw and strange. Fire hazards, the candles were. That’s why the palace had fresh flowers; no fire hazards allowed at the palace.

Louis thought about how Harry was a fire hazard himself. In a million years, Louis had never expected to be taking a bath in a stranger’s flat. He never expected to be able to escape in the first place, let alone bump into someone like Harry.

He hadn’t been staring at Harry’s nipples. He was staring because, even when grumpy and hungover, Harry was the most beautiful man he’d ever seen. Louis couldn’t take his eyes off him. Everything about him was captivating— his broad shoulders and messy curls, which he had a habit of brushing off his forehead, his long, elegant limbs that extended to his fingertips, his bright, gem-like green eyes, the nervous habit he had of playing with his lips. Louis liked his long, hairy legs that converged on the most perfect buttocks he had ever seen. His sexy lips. His mouth that never shut up.

Louis thought he was being discreet, but Harry had caught him.

He hadn’t realized he was staring. He was Louis, the Crown Prince of Doncaster, and no one ever talked back to him. No one flirted, no one teased. No one made him as flustered and aroused as Harry. There was a protocol for dealing with each and every person he met. His sisters, his grandfather, his servants, the foreign dignitaries. There was a protocol for Eleanor— there was probably even a protocol for making babies. There was protocol for everything, for every minute of his life. There was no protocol, however, for someone like Harry.

The water was getting too cold to stay in. Louis ducked under the surface, soaking his head, and then washed his hair with soap as thoroughly as he could. He rinsed off in the tub, watching the suds drift on the surface. Then Louis pulled the plug and stood up, letting the excess water drip from his body.

Out of habit, he fingered the necklace and the charm with his right hand, his thumb tracing over the rounded corners of the tiny box. He reminded himself what the charm stood for, that he was the keeper of his kingdom. If he was vigilant, the world would stay calm, and everyone— including himself— would stay safe. The terror was under lock and key. No one would know his secrets. No one would peek into his dreams. Nothing would ever veer off course.

Oddly, Louis couldn’t remember any dreams from this morning, or from last night. He couldn’t recall the last time he hadn’t woken up in the middle of the night. But last night, he had slept on without dreams, for the first time in ages.

It was nice, he realized, this was nice— the man named Harry, their banter, this exploration into a real life. Louis has enjoyed this adventure so far; it had been fun.

But enough was enough. Once Harry came back, he would thank him and go. He would go back to the embassy. Joseph and Liam were probably beside themselves. Owen probably had his men everywhere in Rome.

Everything was waiting for him.

The longer he thought about it, the itchier he felt the need for a cigarette. His fingers wanted something to hold. He had them at the embassy, in his nightstand. There, he could always get Liam to fetch him a fresh pack, even as he admonished him for smoking.

Louis stepped out of the bath and peeked through the bathroom door, opened only a sliver so he could make sure all was clear. He saw that Harry had set a pile of clean clothes and a bath towel on the bed. Harry was considerate, after all.

Louis dried himself and put on, with amusement, Harry’s KISS concert shirt, the back of which said, “Hot ‘N Hard” in bold red letters. There was a small rip low in the front— right over where Harry’s laurel tattoo would be. Now why would Louis think of that? Louis quickly shook his head, trying to clear the image. Surely Harry hadn’t picked this shirt out on purpose. It was probably the first one he saw.

Louis imagined walking around the palace in such a shirt. Four generations of royal tailors wouldn’t make these KISS shirts for the Kings of Doncaster! He thought about Arthur pulling the shirt over his head, with his characteristically stoic face.

“Of course Your Royal Highness is Hot ‘N Hard,” he would say, without a trace of emotion.

Louis looked around the flat, noticing again the fascinating assortment of objects that he had seen last night, the scattered memorabilia that made up Harry’s single life.

He was single, by the looks of it— there was no sign of another person in the flat, the fridge was barely stocked with wine, a paltry rind of cheese and a few eggs, the bathroom empty of personal toiletries. There was also a pile of laundry in the corner that Harry had added to this morning.

A person in a relationship couldn’t care this little, Louis thought. Harry was a Tumbleweed.

Hold the phone. Louis checked himself. Don’t give him any nicknames, you bloody idiot. He’s just Harry. A stranger. He’s not your bloody Tumbleweed. He’s not your anything.

He wandered to Harry’s desk, his curiosity getting the better of him. There were framed photos of Harry with various people.

There was a photo with two ladies who had to be his sister and mother; the resemblance was uncanny. His sister was smiling, one eye closed, standing slightly in front of Harry’s laughing mug, blocking part of his face, and his mother was next to him, her face turned toward his with a beaming, proud smile. There was another black and white photo of Harry sitting on a sofa, legs crossed on a table in front of him, like a cool hipster, a few friends in the background. He was holding a half-filled wine glass and gesticulating animatedly with the other hand, pinky flying, mouth pert and wide open, curved upward in happiness.

Louis saw a commendation on the wall, a recognition of some sort. He looked closer. It was a prize for best analytical essay on the Egyptian conflict of 2015. On the bookshelf next to it was a photo of Harry, slightly younger, hair shorter, scruff more pronounced, posing with an older man carrying a big bag on his shoulder and a camera in one hand. The photo was signed, “Amici per sempre,” followed by a scrawled signature.

Louis wandered down to read the titles of some of Harry’s books. Surprisingly, there were books in Italian, German, and French, as well as English. They spanned from religious philosophers to existentialists to contemporary poetry. Many books had markers and tags stuck in them. Harry was well read. Louis was impressed. He hadn’t expected this.

The sunlight streamed from the windows, heating up the room. A glass door led to a small balcony. The whole city of Rome lay outside, her citizens waking to one of the great testaments of the human mind. It was all waiting for Louis, if he wanted it.

Squinting, he opened the door and stepped out.

 

 

 

•••••

 

 

 

“How long has he been missing?” Gates demanded. His demeanor was calm and firm, belying the chaos erupting around him.

“The security camera was obscured around midnight,” Owen answered. “It was covered by a towel, sir. Because of the darkness, it went undetected.”

“For how long?”

“At least two hours.” Owen’s chin sank down in guilt.

“And the guard stationed at his room?” Gates asked, voice still calm and clipped.

“He has been dismissed, sir. He claims that he brought His Royal Highness to the laundry room, to dry his pajamas.”

“Pajamas.”

Gates gazed at him with reproach. They couldn’t even laugh at how ridiculous that sounded.

Had Louis planned it? He was certainly gutsy and brash enough. Gates thought that he had seemed particularly restless— tumultuous— on this tour. It certainly wasn’t out of the question. On the other hand, Louis understood his responsibilities as a royal. He had been aged like a fine wine in his carefully controlled environment, to feel loyalty and honor above all else. Gates had supervised Louis himself, from the time he was a young child; he was his life’s work. Louis should have understood his role as the symbolic head of his people. To imagine the Crown Prince rebelling was nearly impossible.

But it was clear that something had snapped. The evidence was undeniable.

Gates stared at Owen, who was desperately trying to recall the events of the night. His cheeks were darkly ruddy. Even his soldier’s cut seemed in disarray.

“I saw His Royal Highness take his medication, sir,” Owen said. “Saw it myself. I can’t imagine that he could have left on purpose.”

“And yet,” Gates said icily, “apparently this is exactly what happened. Any evidence of foul play?”

“None, sir. We are taking all measures, sir.”

Gates sighed, his lips in a tight, thin line. The Anesidorans were arriving at dawn, practically around the corner. The press conference was less than twelve hours away.

“His Royal Highness had a routine to prevent exactly this sort of mishap,” Gates admonished, rubbing his forehead with three fingers. “We should not have altered it. Are you sure he took his medication?”

“Positive, sir.”

Owen’s broad face was lined with concern. He stood ready to follow any plan Gates devised, no matter how personally painful to himself. The Crown Prince of Doncaster, heir to the throne possibly sooner than any of them could imagine, had been missing now for four hours.

The guard had gone to the laundry room to search for the Prince after an hour, thinking that it was plenty of time to dry one pair of pajama trousers. He saw the pajamas lying in the dryer, almost as dry as his mouth felt, with no trace of the Prince anywhere.

He ran back to the royal quarters, and timidly, with his heart in his throat, knocked on the door. When there was no answer, he entered.

Initially, he felt immensely relieved on seeing the sleeping shape of a person in the bed. Tiptoeing closer, he noticed the unnatural quiet of the room, the lack of breathing or movement.

Was the Prince alright? He advanced in the darkness.

The shape lay unmoving under the covers. The guard squinted hard, but could make out little from the shape beneath. When he was finally close enough, he saw the glint of fabric poking out from under the covers. It wasn’t the blue satin of the royal pajamas. Not even close.

With a dreadful feeling in the pit of his stomach, the guard lifted the bedcover to reveal what he had already suspected: the bundle was a decoy. The Prince was gone.

He had rushed to his superior, who immediately checked the embassy’s electronic surveillance system. All perimeters appeared to be secured. No alarms had been tripped; no cameras removed. The obscured camera in the Prince’s bedroom was finally discovered, too late.

They alerted Owen, who watched and rewatched the security video footage of the hallway near the laundry room, in succession. In the surveillance tapes, the Prince was seen in the hallway, and then backtracking, and not seen again. The only other person to pass through was a lonely service worker, taking out the week’s laundry.

Owen ordered his men to scour the entire embassy from top to bottom. Even the cellars and courtyards were combed through. They looked in closets, under beds, in the shrubbery, in the fountains and pools. If the Prince was on the embassy grounds, he was nowhere to be found. It was only after a thorough search that Owen contacted Joseph Gates.

At that moment, Liam Payne was running toward them, hair flying, a dressing gown loosely tied over his body. His face showed a mixture of sleepiness and gravity.

“Joseph,” he said to Gates. He gave a brief nod to Owen. “I’ve just heard. What’s happened?”

“Liam Payne,” Gates replied. “His Royal Highness seems to be missing.”

Liam’s face screwed up in alarm. “What?”

“I take full responsibility, Mr. Payne,” Owen jumped in. “We’re trying our best to find him. He does not appear to be in the embassy compounds. My men are still looking, however.”

Liam put his face in both hands and rubbed, as if trying to buff the bad news away. His brows furrowed in distress.

“How? Prince Louis was just going to sleep when I left him,” Liam said. “He was a bit— well, maybe a bit more playful than usual— ”

Gates’ lips stiffened with the slightest hint of a grimace, not happy with what he was hearing. Playful was unexpected. Unexpected was bad.

“— but I left him tucked under covers, going to sleep.” Liam ran his hand through his hair. It looked more wild than ever. “I can’t imagine— ”

“We’re well beyond imagining, Liam,” Gates said. “You know as well as I do that the Anesidorans will be here in— ” he glanced at his watch, “— little over three hours. More than fifty journalists are expected to arrive later to cover the press conference. We both know it is the single most important day for Doncaster this year. We have been preparing for weeks.”

“I know, I know.” Liam was too stunned to think coherently. “What’ll we do?”

Gates paced apart, a hand on his chin, his face grave. The months and months of tough negotiations with their neighboring country seem to sink before his eyes, one by one, like stones into the cloudy sea, disappearing beneath the surface and never to be seen again. Doncaster’s future was held hostage— because he had been insufficiently self-disciplined. He had been careless, despite his vigilance. They all had.

Above all else, their Prince.

“We will regret to inform the public that the Prince has come down with a mild case of food poisoning,” Gates said. The text of the announcement took shape in his mind. “That is what we will say. We’ll send out a press release at once. It is nothing of concern, but His Royal Highness is indisposed, for the time being.”

Both Owen and Liam watched him with concern, hoping the announcement would be enough.

“Think it’ll work?” Liam asked. He clenched his thumb in his fist, worrying the cuticles.

“There will be the usual media gossip,” Gates said, “of no consequence to us, as long as we locate the Prince in time, before he turns up elsewhere. We will send out press releases. With proper discretion, it won’t even be news in a week. We shall announce a rescheduled press briefing as soon as His Royal Highness feels better.”

“Very shortly,” Liam added. “We hope?”

“We are to find him immediately,” Gates said, glaring at Owen. “As quickly as the Doncaster royal security is capable of doing. Isn’t that right, Owen?”

“Yes, sir,” Owen said. “We will locate His Royal Highness soon, sir, and with the utmost discretion. I will see to it.”

“Will you, indeed?” Gates said. His eyes were a mix of determination and worry. “I do hope so. The future of Doncaster depends on it. His Royal Highness has had a brief, inexplicable breakdown. It is manageable if we can act quickly.” He turned to Liam. “It must be so.”

 

 

 

•••••

 

 

 

Harry nearly flew down the stairs to the ground floor, his feet tripping over his rapidly churning brain. Stepping outside, Harry put on his sunglasses and walked briskly toward his favorite cafe while speed-dialing Niall on his mobile phone. He swooped by other pedestrians, barely registering them in his peripheral vision.

“Styles,” Niall answered on the fourth ring. His mouth sounded full. The phone was also crunching and popping, as if it were tucked into a ball of cellophane wrap. Harry could barely hear him. “Sup. Talk t’ me.”

“Put down whatever you’re eating,” Harry nearly yelled. “Listen up, Cupcake.”

More crackling ensued for the next thirty or forty seconds, then abruptly stopped.

“Sorry,” Niall said. “Was trying to get a bit of breakfast on the run.” He chewed for an interval. Harry heard what sounded like gurgling. “You can hear me now, yeah? So what’s new.”

Trying to control the excitement in his voice, Harry announced, “I’ve got the Prince.”

After a pause, Niall asked brusquely, “I don’t understand. What the fuck are you on about?”

“Prince Louis,” Harry repeated. “Of Doncaster. I’ve got him. He’s in my flat right now, having a bath.”

Another silence passed, and then Niall was bursting into raucous, uproarious laughter, so loud that a passerby looked up at Harry. He made an apologetic face to her as the lady hurried past. Niall continued his hyena-like cackling over the phone, apparently overwhelmed.

“Shut up, Irish,” Harry insisted. “Listen, I’m not joking.”

“Right,” Niall wheezed. “Okay. And you’ll be selling London Bridge t’ me next. What else have you got, an alien in your freezer?” He laughed heartily again while Harry muted the speaker with his hand. “Good one, Haz. God, I can’t believe you thought I’d buy that shite. So, when are we getting together?”

“I saw the press release you sent, you dongle,” Harry said. “The photograph of the Prince? That’s the same person in my flat, right now. Taking a bath. I’m sure it’s him.”

“What are you— ,” Niall stopped short. “You’re not fucking with me, are ye, because I would never, ever forgive you. You know that.”

“I know,” Harry said. “And I’m not.”

“Are you there with him then? Right now?”

“I’m out getting coffee,” Harry said. “That’s why I’m talking to you. Listen, Ni, I have pretty good reason to think it’s him.” Niall was silent on the other end now, finally paying attention. “It looks like him. He has no I.D. with him, but there are lots of other clues.”

“Mate, just ‘cause you picked up a homeless bloke to shag, and even if he’s a looker, doesn’t mean he’s a bloody prince.”

“No, I’m telling you,” Harry countered. “There are other things, lots of other things. He looks too clean, for one thing. He’s got a posh accent. He doesn’t open car doors. He asked me to undress him last night!” Harry cleared his throat noisily. “And no, for your information, we didn’t— ”

Niall cackled helplessly again. “Shite, a homeless guy wants to have sex, and you think he’s fucking royalty! Harry,” he paused dramatically, “did he smell like leftover pasta and fags, by any chance? Old canned vegetables? There’s your clue.”

“Will you shut it,” Harry interjected, exasperated. “Focus for a sec, will you? This man looks exactly like the Prince. The Prince is missing. They put out some lame-arsed press release so they can buy time, but you and I both know it’s bollocks. The Prince isn’t sick. He is missing. In my flat. At this very moment.”

Harry heard a deep intake of breath.

“Harry, if you’re not jerking my chain… can you see the potential here? It could be— ” Niall’s voice was rising in pitch. He was finally getting Harry’s point.

“Could be a scoop,” Harry finished for him. “You’re seeing it now, aren’t you? Could be an exclusive. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“But how?” Niall was nearly yelling. “What the fuck is the Prince doing, with you?”

“Long story,” Harry sighed, “I’ll tell you later. I’m not even sure myself.”

“The fuck,” Niall groaned. “You better not be having me on. You fecking lunatic.”

“I’m stone cold serious.”

Harry heard Niall exhale. “So how d’you do that? How do the big stories always find you, you lucky bastard? Why you?”

“Dunno,” Harry chuckled. “Must be fate.”

Harry heard more clamorous crunching on the other end, and the sounds of deep breathing. He half-wondered whether Niall might be breathing into a paper bag— he was an excitable sort. If Niall were a dog, he might be a Jack Russell Terrier. They’d been known to attack themselves.

“Alright,” Niall said. “I’ll bite. What’s next?”

Harry thought quickly. “I’m going to get coffee, then I’m heading home. I’ll try keeping him occupied as long as I can.”

Niall chuckled. “Dirty minds, activate!”

“I’m not going to seduce the Prince, Niall,” Harry retorted. Then he grinned. “There must be some sort of international law against it.”

“If love’s a crime, throw me in jail,” Niall quipped tartly, and then added, “I’ll head over to yours now. I’ll tail him, see where he goes. Give me a signal, Harry, unless you’re too busy shagging.”

“Too busy fighting with him, more like,” Harry said. “He’s completely impossible. Gets what he wants, even though he’s obnoxious about it. He’s driving me bonkers.” Harry thought some more. “Seems to like me alright, though.”

Niall laughed. “Yeah, well. Who doesn’t?”

“Ha.” Harry had arrived at the café. He put Niall on hold while he ordered two double espressos to go.

“Harry,” Niall said. “What’s he like anyway, this Prince?”

Harry hesitated.

This morning, in the shower, he had been thinking about Louis in quite a different way. Now his feelings were conflicted, not all of them entirely pure. Harry wasn’t sure he could do the right thing for Louis, nor that he owed him anything. Louis was a public figure, a celebrity. Journalists only reported the news. They weren’t supposed to make it. Harry couldn’t be responsible for Louis’ indiscretions. He was an adult— a public figure. Harry wasn’t responsible for Louis. He didn’t owe him anything.

“He’s an adult,” Harry said. “He knows his responsibilities. Running away was his choice. It’s on him now.”

“It could be huge,” Niall said. “Huge for you, Harry. For us. Did you think about that? It could be journalism on a whole other level.”

“I know.”

Niall was right. Harry had been out of the game for three long years. His name didn’t come up for the big awards anymore. For too long, he had been taking himself out of the running. A story this big was another chance. Harry knew he was a good writer. With a long, sympathetic piece, he could get back into the game, plunge back into the adrenaline and the real news. He felt ready for it now.

“I’ll text you later, Niall.”

“See you soon, brother.”

Harry had arrived at his building. He unlocked the front entrance and sprinted up the stairs, hoping that Louis was still there, trying to balance the two espressos in his hands. The liquid felt as hot as the blood in his veins.

The flat seemed empty as he opened the door. All was quiet. Harry lifted his sunglasses and rested them atop his wavy curls. His nose beaded with sweat. His shirt was damp under the armpits and at his back.

The breakfast dishes were still on the counter, silverware on the plates, just as he’d left them, panhandle and spatula sticking out from the sink. The clothes on the bed were gone, and the towel was rumpled and damp on the bed. Harry surveyed the flat in a mild panic, worried that Louis had left. Eventually he spotted the open door to the balcony, propped slightly ajar with one of his shoes in the door jamb.

Harry breathed in a sigh of relief. Louis was sitting outside, looking toward the city, both feet propped precariously on the railing, rocking slowly back and forth. His hand was twirling something at the base of his neck— the charm, Harry realized, attached to a gold chain. He had it on last night, too. His damp hair blew in the breeze, reminding Harry of a soft, feathery sensation on his chin— when he’d fallen asleep on Harry’s chest. Stupidly, Harry brought his hand up to his chest, as if reassuring himself that he hadn’t hallucinated the memory. The espresso spilled out as it tilted. Harry quickly righted the cup.

He walked out onto the balcony, handing a coffee to Louis. “Don’t know how you like it,” he said. “So I got you a plain double. Hope it’s alright.”

“You’re very nice, Harry,” Louis said, beaming his gorgeous baby blues on him. “But I only waited to say goodbye.” He stood up, holding the coffee back to Harry. “Thanks for everything. I’ve had a brilliant time.”

“What?” Harry set the coffee down, his face flushed. “You can’t leave now.” He pulled out a chair, trying on his most sincere smile. “What’s the big hurry? Sit and finish your coffee.”

Louis’ eyes seemed to laugh. “I thought you wanted me gone? Thought you were ‘super important’ with your important things to do.”

“No, no,” Harry answered. He shook his wavy forelocks over his eyes and brushed it away with his right hand, off his forehead. “Forget that. Change of plans. That was earlier. I’m super unimportant now, terribly unimportant. A maggot, basically. Got loads of time for you.”

Louis picked up a coffee and took a sip, still standing. “A maggot! I’m flattered.”

“Yeah,” Harry said quickly. “No. I mean, I don’t want you to go. Want you to stay. Please.”

Louis craned his head to one side, squinting into the sun. The noises of Rome buzzed all around them: motor cars, buildings, the occasional faraway car horn. The sun was already blazing, a cloudless, blue-sky day.

Louis raised a hand up to shield his eyes. “It is a gorgeous day, isn’t it?”

In his mind, Harry estimated how much time had passed, and how much longer it would be for Niall to arrive.

“It is,” he smiled. “So stay for a while, Louis. I’m asking you to.”

Louis crossed his arms and turned his back on Harry, seemingly contemplating, as Harry waited patiently for him. When Louis turned around, he was playing with his charm again, twisting it in his fingers and rubbing the corners out of habit, as if he were touching a talisman. Harry sneakily tried to look at the charm. It resembled a miniature golden treasure chest, with a tiny, illegible engraving.

“If I were at home, I’d be getting a massage right now,” Louis wondered out loud. He hurried to add, “Isn’t it silly that I would think of that? I’m just so used to having a schedule. They rule my days, sad to say. Feels a little weird.”

“Weird how?”

Harry was stalling for time, in his mind already composing the tell-all. Prince has no clue how to start a bath, reminisces about massage. All royals were massive mental cases, weren’t they? Their heads were up their well-kissed rear ends. They were entitled nut jobs, and he didn’t feel bad any of this. So he kept telling himself.

“Doctor’s orders,” Louis said. “I get massages three times a week for my— um, condition. It’s part of my relaxation therapy.”

“What relaxation therapy?” Harry asked, just to keep him talking. “Why would you need something like that?”

Louis answered, “Well, I’m just not the best sleeper. I’ve got a problem.”

“So you said.”

“I have nightmares,” Louis continued. “Really, really bad ones. I used to wake up every night, screaming in my sleep. It was frightening… not just to me. To everyone around me.”

“Your mum and dad?”

“Um… no,” Louis answered, without elaboration. “They’re very vivid, bad dreams; sometimes I feel like someone’s chasing me, hunting me down. Sometimes I don’t sleep for days.”

Harry leaned on the building’s brick wall, glints of sunlight reflecting from his sunglasses. He knew the sun cast indelible shadows from the muscles in his shoulders and upper arms, and it made a pretty picture with the highlights in his curls. He saw Louis squinting, definitely a look of interest there. Harry quirked an eyebrow.

“Sounds awful,” he coaxed.

“Our family physician’s tried a lot of different remedies. So the latest thing he’s prescribed is kind of like, a comprehensive therapy,” Louis explained. “It’s their last resort. I swear I feel like I’m going crazy sometimes.”

“Do you?” Harry said. “You don’t look crazy to me, Louis. You look alright.”

“Looks can be deceiving.” Louis looked away from him. “The whole thing’s a huge production, like an international project, getting me to sleep. There are medicines and yoga and massage, and it takes a whole village.” Louis bit his lips, forcing out a feeble laugh. “Haha. Breaking from it feels almost criminal.”

Harry smiled. “You rebel.”

“You’d be surprised, Harry,” Louis said. “Sometimes things are more complicated than they appear. A lot of people depend on me. Maybe I’m not what you think I am.” Louis glanced up to see Harry carefully scrutinizing him, then added, “On second thought, I really better go.” He started moving toward the door.

“Hey.” Suddenly Harry’s hand shot out, holding Louis’ bicep. “Wait.”

“Why?”

Harry knitted his eyebrows, his hand pinning Louis’ arm. “Let me ask you. You didn’t have any nightmares last night, did you?”

Louis paused in thought. “You’re right. I didn’t.”

“You were out like a light,” Harry said. “You didn’t wake up at all. Not that I would know, I was so tired myself, woke up with a banger of a headache. But I didn’t hear a peep, no screaming or anything.”

“That’s true.” Louis shrugged. “I guess maybe therapy is working.”

Louis was close enough that Harry could feel his skin prickle under his hand. He dropped Louis’ arm and took a step back, leaving Louis a straight shot to the door. Louis could pass now, if he wanted to, could slip past Harry’s broad chest, past his slim hips and long legs, could just brush his hand on Harry’s firm tummy and push him to one side. But he hung back, and they both felt it, the reluctance.

About fifteen minutes had passed since Harry texted Niall. The Irishman should be pretty close, Harry thought.

“You know,” Harry blurted out. “It seems a shame for you to break your routine, Louis. Maybe I could do it.”

Louis looked up. “Do what?”

“Do you,” Harry repeated. “I could help you out, if you want.”

Louis was immobile for a second. “You could… do me?”

“Your massage,” Harry coughed. “What did you think I meant?”

“Oh!” Louis backed up a step. “Gosh, no, I mean— I wasn’t asking, Harry. I wasn’t implying that— ”

“Come on. Relax. I want to, Louis,” Harry said. “As a favor for a friend.”

Louis swallowed. At the palace, his therapist came three times a week, a tough, middle-aged, Danish male massage therapist who regularly pounded his muscles until he could cry mercy. But to be pounded by a Tumbleweed, with a body like this, and a voice like this, was an entirely different thing. Louis finally shook his head.

“I appreciate the offer, Harry,” Louis said, putting his hand up. “But I really should go.” He began to make his way around Harry’s bulk.

Fidgeting, Harry turned his body sideways to let Louis pass, scrambling to think of something. Their bodies were wedged in the small space in front of the door. Louis could feel the heat of Harry’s damp hairs radiating from his shirt. Harry touched Louis’ biceps again, and Louis nearly jumped.

“Louis,” Harry said in a low voice. “You can’t have the whole world on your shoulders.”

“What?” Louis hesitated to look at Harry’s face; they were so close.

“You have to want something for yourself,” Harry said, breath warm on Louis’ temple.

Louis barely breathed. He held his head perfectly still so he could stare straight ahead, into Harry’s throat. He was trying to conceal everything behind shadows.

“You’re not a bad person,” Harry said, “if you want something for yourself. Nobody cares. The world won’t end. No one’s watching you right now, Louis. No one.”

Louis looked up to see Harry studying him, his green eyes flecked with gold in the sun. Harry continued, softer and with humor, “Besides, I’m really good at massages. Look at these hands!”

He took Louis’ right hand and held it in both of his. His thumb traced Louis’ palm and gently pushed down, creating a relaxing pressure point. Louis’ pulse quickened.

“See?” Harry smiled. “Got massive hands. I’m really good with them.”

Harry smelled like a sweaty, freshly showered boy mixed with espresso, encasing Louis in a manly mist. Louis was dizzy with warmth, his heart pounding like a kick drum.

Louis whispered, “Is there anything you’re not good at?”

“I’m shit at apologies,” Harry replied. “Sometimes shit at being a good person. But I do try.” His smile was deep and beguiling, and his dimples cratered into his cheeks. Their faces were so close, they could practically taste each other.

“Harry,” Louis said. “I want you to know that besides being the first man I’ve spent a night with, you’re also the first to ever offer me a massage.”

“What can I say?” Harry laughed. “I’m a versatile person.”

Clearing his throat, Louis said, “You’re one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”

“Then you definitely don’t know me very well.” Harry put a hand on Louis’ shoulder. “Shall we?”

They came into the room, adjusting their eyes to the dark interior. Louis looked expectantly at Harry.

“Should we do it in the bed or on the sofa?”

Harry laughed loudly. “Wow. We could do it anywhere you want.” 

“Oh, God. It did come out wrong, didn’t it?” Louis laughed in embarrassment. He crossed the room and sat on the bed, laughing. “I hate to be a pain, Harry, but the therapist always uses oil. They say it helps the muscles relax. I mean, it’s okay if you don’t have any.”

“I got you covered,” Harry said. “Literally.” He pulled his nightstand drawer open and dug through its contents— a giant bottle of lube, many shiny, red packets of condoms, a rubber chicken, his rings, pencil erasers, candy bars. Harry pushed aside the mess of tubes and pens and juggling balls, finally retrieving a brown glass bottle with a sepia label.

“Hmm— lavender-vanilla,” Harry read the label. “Someone must have left it here.” Uncapping it, he took a sniff, then passed it to Louis. “What do you think? Smells pretty good.”

Louis sniffed and nodded. He began to peel off his shirt.

Harry stopped him, “Louis, hang on.”

He walked over to his laptop and made a few clicks. A few British voices began speaking over strummed guitar chords.

“Something to set the mood,” Harry said.

Harry ran to the bathroom. After a few moments, he came out wrestling the cellophane off a new candle. He opened the desk drawer and took out an electric fire starter, the kind used to start grills. It was way bigger than necessary for a candle.

“It’s huge!” Louis remarked.

Harry smirked, “That’s what they all say.”

“Stop it!”

Harry lit the candle and set it on the desk. An electric guitar began picking out a string of blues harmonies, accompanied by a soft rock drumbeat.

 

Us and them
And after all we're only ordinary men
Me and you
God only knows
It's not what we would choose to do

 

“That sounds really nice,” Louis smiled. He peeled off his shirt in one smooth stroke and dropped it to the ground. Then he unzipped his trousers and started pulling them off. “Is it alright if I’m nude? The massage therapist always does the whole body,” Louis said, blushing.

“Of course it’s alright!” Harry said, a tad too loud. “Listen, I run a strictly professional establishment. We have high standards. No funny business.” 

Louis bit his lip shyly, turned around, took off his trousers and pants, and then plopped himself belly-down on the bed, with Harry by his side. Harry poured a teaspoon of oil into his left palm, rubbing both hands in it, softening them and warming up the oil.

“Here goes,” he said. “One professional massage therapy, coming right up. Close your eyes.”

Louis did. He felt Harry’s thumbs start kneading between his shoulder blades, the warm oil working its way through his chest. In the darkness, Harry’s touch seemed to spread into his ribs, in his lungs and the air in between, so his whole chest was filled with a lavender-scented fragrance.

Harry’s palms cupped Louis’ shoulder blades and began a gentle rotation around the bone, working along the muscles and moving toward the neck. His thumbs and fingers kneaded the muscles at the base of the neck, breaking up the knots.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“Mmm,” Louis purred. “Feels okay, I guess.”

“Told you.”

Harry began working the shoulders, seeing Louis’ gold necklace dangled under the hair at the nape of his neck. The hair was a darker color there, finer, curling like down around the neck muscles. They tickled the back of Harry’s hands.

“Harry,” Louis turned his neck back slightly.

“Mmm.”

“Can I ask you something? It might be a little bit personal.”

“I don’t know,” Harry kept massaging. “Try me.”

“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.” Louis paused, and then asked, “I was looking around when you were gone, and I saw an award on your shelf. Why were you in Egypt?” He waited and listened, but Harry didn’t answer immediately. Louis pushed on. “Was it for work? Looks rather impressive.”

Louis felt Harry’s hands pause, and then continue to rub the oil into his shoulders with a slower pace.

“It was a while ago,” Harry said. “A long time ago. Yeah, I was there for some work.”

“What do you do, anyway? Are you a writer or something?”

Louis heard a sharp, soft intake of breath, but Harry’s hands were still moving.

“I do some travel writing,” Harry finally answered. “Take Brits around on adventures, bit of touring, that kind of thing. Right now I’m in between jobs.”

“Camping out in Rome?”

“Ha. You could say that.”

Louis smiled to himself, his eyes closed. “Rome is very romantic.”

“Is it?” Harry ran two fingers down Louis’ spine. “Have you been here before?”

“No, just since yesterday,” Louis said. What was left unspoken was the fact that Louis had spent most of his time here, in Harry’s flat.

Harry began working on the muscles on either side of Louis’ lower spine, just above the hips. Louis was rigid and strained there. Harry could feel him tense up with even a slight touch.

“Louis, mate,” he said, “soften up. You have to let your body yield. Go with the flow, you know? I’m not going to hurt you.”

“I know.” Louis grimaced. He pictured himself relaxing, as his therapist had always asked him to, imagining a softness at the center of the body and using willpower to let it spread out. He relaxed his thighs and tried to feel malleable, like water.

He asked Harry, “Does your mother live in Rome?”

“In Naples,” Harry answered. “My stepdad does business in Italy, so they’re constantly in Rome. They live on a hillside in Naples. It’s nice, actually. Right by the ocean.”

“Sounds lovely.”

“It is,” Harry said. “Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I go to mum’s house to get away.”

“Overwhelmed?” Louis smiles to himself. “I thought you were just camping out? Why are you so stressed out?”

Harry laughed. He poured a dollop of oil on Louis’ lower back, in the dimple above the buttocks. Using his fingers, he traced the oil outward in spirals, softening the skin all around.

“Touché, Princess,” he chuckled. “To get away from everything, I guess. When the city gets to be too much.”

“You’re a Tumbleweed.” It was out before Louis could stop himself.

“What?”

Harry didn’t notice the amusement in Louis’ voice. If he did, he didn’t show it.

“A tumbleweed— someone without roots. Someone who gets blown about by the wind,” Louis explained. “I mean, I don’t know. Rome, Egypt, Naples. You seem so free. I envy you.”

“You’d be surprised,” Harry said, his voice wistful. “I’m not what I seem either, Louis.”

“Why? Do you have ties to someone?” Louis raised his head and turned back halfway. Harry gently pressed him back down. “Sorry. I hope I’m not being too nosy.”

“What?” Harry said. “No, no. That’s not what I meant. I’m single, actually.”

“Oh.” Louis felt a funny lurching in his stomach. “You are?”

“Now.” Harry gave Louis’ thighs a tap. “I’m going to work on your bottom half.”

Louis’ buttocks contracted of their own accord. He ducked his head down as his whole face flushed red. His toes curled up anyway, and Louis knew that Harry had seen them. He laid his cheek sideways on the pillow, trying to take slow, deep, yoga breaths.

“Okay,” he squeaked. “Ready.”

Louis tried hard to concentrate on not clenching, moving, or doing anything out of the ordinary. His cock lay against his groin, chubbing up if only from nerves. He squeezed his buttocks and felt the cock twitch into the mattress— hard, but hopefully still dry. Louis tucked his head down in praying position, trying to remember the soothing chants that did not remind him of Harry’s lips and his huge hands moving over his body.

He felt Harry put one giant palm on each butt cheek, and slowly rock the cheeks in parallel, forward and back. The bastard knew what he was doing alright. He rocked in a slow, steady rhythm, back and forth, moving Louis’ groin up and down, pressing in just so. Louis felt his cheeks spread apart and come together, Harry’s thumbs just in the creases underneath.

“You’re very firm,” Harry said in a smirking, knowing voice. “These babies haven’t been worked on for a while, I bet.”

“Uh… couple of days,” Louis stuttered.

“You need to get them worked on more often,” Harry said. He was using two thumbs to knead the middle of the cheeks now, prying them apart slightly with each movement. “They’re so tight.”

“I— ”

“Ssshhh,” Harry shushed him. “Relax. It’s an order.”

His thumb pressed in from the bottom of each cheek, pushing toward the small of Louis’ back. The back and forth motion was both arousing and relaxing. Even as Louis’ erection got harder, he felt more at ease. He tried not to make any rutting movements in the bed, holding himself absolutely still. Involuntarily, he hummed from the pleasure of it, deep in his chest, feeling his body slowly sinking toward the center of the earth.

Harry moved his thumbs down to the back of the thighs and started working on the hamstrings, following the direction of the muscles, cupping them in the enormous warm, oily softness of his hands. He nudged Louis’ legs apart and followed the contours around each thigh, leaning in with his body to work the gluteus muscles at the bottom. He traced them down the thighs, pressing the outer quads all the way to the concavities behind the knees. Louis exhaled slowly and felt a gentle tingle all over his upper legs and buttocks. He must have perked his bum in the air, because Harry cupped his arse under the rim on each side.

“You’re quite a handful, Pemberley, even for hands as big as mine.”

“Harry— ” By now, Louis was as hard as a rock. He might start moaning if he wasn’t careful. “Could you please— ”

“Right. Back to business.”

Harry pressed his thumb into the dimple at the base of Louis’ spine. He traced it up Louis’ back, feeling the skin prickle with goosebumps along the way, and then stood back to admire his work. Louis’ skin was flushed pink all over and slightly shiny from the oil. Frankly, he looked good enough to eat.

Harry picked up the trousers from the ground and threw them on top of the “later” pile. He walked over to the dresser and picked out a new pair, made of a satiny, thin material so Louis’ assets could be better appreciated.

“All better, I hope,” Harry said. “Did I live up to expectations?”

“It was satisfactory,” Louis cleared his throat several times. “Now can you turn around while I get dressed?”

Obediently, Harry turned around, even putting his hands over his eyes. Louis hurried into the trousers, blushing with exasperation as the material clung to him. Glaring at the back of Harry’s head, he turned around to push his erection down, then gave his cock a painful squeeze to make the erection go away. Then he zipped them up as fast as he could.

Eyes still covered, Harry said, “Now it’s my turn, Pemberley. Do I get a question?”

Despite his self-control, Louis winced. “What do you want to know?”

Clearing his throat, Harry pointed. “You keep playing with that necklace. Why do you do that?”

Louis put his shirt on and tucked his charm in, reflexively feeling the smoothed over corners. Once in the shirt, he patted the charm through the fabric to make sure it was there.

“Just a habit, I guess,” he said. “It’s a present. I got it when my parents died.”

Harry dropped his hands and turned around. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.” His face was open and sympathetic.

“No, it’s okay,” Louis said, meeting Harry’s eyes. “It was a long time ago. They died in an accident, when I was fifteen.” He took the charm out to show Harry. “I got the necklace for myself, so I can remember all the sacrifices they made, and the people I have to take care of.”

Harry came forward for a closer look. The tiny golden box was engraved with tinier Greek letters, with an ornamental clasp carved in front. The corners had been rounded over by constant touch.

“That sounds serious. How many people do you have to take care of?”

Louis’ eyes crinkled. “Many.”

“What does it say?” Harry gently touched the tiny engraved letters. Still holding the necklace, he leaned in to take a closer look at it, and got a whiff of the floral massage oil. Louis smelled like a field of wild lavender flowers.

“The charm is supposed to be Pandora’s box.” Louis looked up. “From Greek mythology. Do you know it?”

“The box that kept all the bad stuff in?” Harry’s breath tickled Louis’ skin. Louis could see the wispy blond whiskers on Harry’s top lip, like a frosty smear of beer.

Louis nodded. “As long as no one opened the box. The myth says that it was a gift from the gods. Pandora opened the box out of curiosity, then all the bad things that plague humankind— sickness, death, jealousy— all that, came flying out. She couldn’t stop it.”

“Horse was out of the barn.” Harry smiled.

Louis chuckled. “Exactly. It was too late. If only she hadn’t been so curious.” Harry’s eyes were green pools that pulled Louis in.

“Killed the cat,” Harry’s raspy voice crawled along the air between them.

“Well, it’s just a story,” Louis laughed nervously, tucking the charm back into his shirt. He backed away, turning a quarter turn. “An old myth. It’s not, you know, real. Curiosity is human nature. The box is just a fairytale.”

“But you believe it.” Harry circled around to Louis. He stood in front of Louis, looking down at his bare throat, then reaching out to touch him down the muscles of his neck. Louis flinched. “That’s why you keep playing with the charm.”

Harry’s eyes were so bright that for a second, Louis felt as if he were falling into them, as if he had lost his footing. He took a step back to regain his balance, blinking to clear his mind.

Hope,” Louis said quickly. “That’s what the letters say, on the charm. Hope was the last thing in Pandora’s box. It’s in Greek.”

“Hope?” Harry repeated.

“Mm,” Louis turned away, his face mottled with blushes. He felt dizzy, his pulse quickening for no reason at all. “I really should go. Thanks for everything, Harry Styles. I mean it. I’m really glad we met.” He began walking to the door. “I really like you. You’re a good person.”

Harry wondered whether that was, in fact, true. “Wait,” he said. “You need some money to get home, don’t you?”

“Oh!” Louis turned around. “Right. I didn’t even think about that.”

”I know,” Harry said, somewhat to Louis’ surprise.

Harry crossed over to retrieve his wallet. “Let’s see. There’s seventy Euros here. That should get you across town.” He handed the money to Louis, the last bit of cash he had.

“I’ll pay you back, Styles,” Louis said solemnly. “Every penny. You can count on it.” His serious expression made Harry laugh. “I’m truly grateful. Give me your address.”

Harry smiles endearingly. “Via Margenta 51.”

Louis stared for a few seconds into space, his eyes concentrating. “Via Margenta 51. Got it. I’m going to pay you back with interest.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Harry said, giving him an amiable wave. “Just get home safely, yeah? You know where you’re going?”

“I’ll manage,” Louis said. “Thanks.” 

“Take care of yourself, you mystery man.” Harry bit back a smile, wanting to say more but shaking his head slightly, no. “I hope your life is full of kidnappings… I mean, adventures.”

“Same thing, isn’t it?” Louis smiled. “And yours as well. Full of surprises.” 

As Louis turned the door handle, Harry called out, “Oh hey, by the way!”

Louis turned around.

Harry said, “I hope your first kiss turns out to be fantastic.”

Louis’ eyes squinted hard, as if trying to read Harry’s mind, to gauge whether he was joking.

“What did you say?”

“In the car last night,” Harry said, amused. “You were falling asleep, and you were mumbling. I heard you saying you’d never been kissed.”

“Did I?” Louis said defensively, his face twitching. “I must have been hallucinating.” He added, “Because I have been kissed. Loads of times. Lots and lots. I don’t know why I said that.”

“Sorry then,” Harry said. “My mistake.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Louis murmured. “I’m— I’m— twenty-four, I— ”

“It’s fine,” Harry pushed on. “Innocent mistake. In all honesty, though, you need a good kiss, Louis. By someone who knows how to do it.”

“I— ” Louis’ blush was absolutely intense now. “Who would that be?”

“Hope it turns out to be someone special.” Harry shrugged, watching him closely. “That’s all. You deserve it.”

Louis stood at the precipice of the doorway, his face a mixture of emotions, hiding all of his secrets.

“You too,” he said. “I guess. Hope you find someone special to kiss. Or hang out with, or whatever.”

“Who knows? Maybe we’ll meet again someday,” Harry smiled. He walked over to Louis. “Maybe I’ll kidnap you for real. I’ll provide the food next time.”

Louis could reach out and touch him, just like that. Harry was real. He was right there. He could pull him in.

“Maybe,” Louis said quietly. “You never know, Tumbleweed.”

He turned around, opened the door, and closed it behind himself. Harry heard his steps fading, until he couldn’t hear them anymore. On an impulse, he yanked the door open and ran out to the stairwell, shouting down the middle of the winding staircase.

“Louis!”

His voice echoed around the metal banisters in the stairwell, pinging from the hard spaces. Harry waited until he heard the footsteps halt. Louis’ face appeared at the banisters, looking up at him.

“I like you!” Harry shouted, heedless of how he might sound. His words were loud enough to fill the entire staircase, and craggy like a lizard’s loud hiss on a hot rock. It sounded ridiculous, terrible. Even from far away, he could see Louis’ expression soften, his eyes crinkle. “If you were wondering!” 

“You do?”

“Yeah! I do! I like you!” Harry repeated. “In case there was any confusion.” His heartbeat quickened inside his throat, making him sound breathless.

“Okay!” Louis shouted back. “Got it.” 

After a while, Louis drew back again, and his steps began echoing down the stairs. Harry returned to his flat, shutting the door against his back. He leaned against it, thinking of Louis’ bemused, skeptical expression. Then he quickly crossed the small living space to the balcony, and stepped outside.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Heartbreaks, the heavy world's upon your shoulders
Will we burn on or just smolder?
Somehow I know I'll find you there
Ooh, you wanna see if you can change it, change it
Still I know I'll see you there
Come a little closer, then you'll see
Come on, come on, come on
Things aren't always what they seem to be

 

Come A Little Closer, by Cage the Elephant

 

Pick up, Niall. Pick up. Pick up.

Cradling his phone, Harry leaned against the back wall of the balcony to hide himself from the street view. A few minutes had passed since Louis left his flat. Harry thought it would take a little longer for Louis to make his way down the flights of stairs.

Niall’s voice suddenly burst into his ear. “I’m here, boyo.” He sounded breathless. “Traffic was a nightmare, took forever. Has he left your flat?”

Harry grumbled, “Where’ve you been, Irish?”

“Do not get snippy with me!” Niall chastised softly. “You try finding a parking space in your neighborhood!”

Harry sighed. “Louis’ just left. He should be coming out any moment.”

Niall loud-whispered, “Oh, so it’s Louis now, lover boy?”

“Will you zip it,” Harry said, softly chewing the inside of his cheek. “Are you getting a good view of the front door? Think you can recognize him?”

“I’m not clairvoyant, am I? Tell me what he’s wearin’.”

“Oh for God’s sakes, you’ve seen his pictures!” Harry tried not to sound exasperated. “What kind of shit photojournalist are you? Anyway, here he comes with my KISS concert shirt.”

Niall, in an exaggerated stage whisper, “You did not. Your vintage KISS concert tee shirt?”

“So?”

“Old Hot ‘N Hard,” Niall reiterated.

“Yeah?”

“Seriously, H,” Niall giggled. “It’s a shitty thing to do to a normal man, let alone a Prince.”

Harry took a few small steps forward, trying to sneak a peek over the ledge of the balcony. Eventually, he saw Louis’ compact figure emerge from the building, the too-big shirt billowing around his upper body, his arms as thin as a puppet’s. Louis was checking the street from end to end.

“There he is,” Harry said in a low voice. “Coming out now. D’you see him?”

“‘Course I see him. The shirt’s loud enough to make my eyes bleed.” Niall whistled softly. “Might as well paint a big target on his back.”

Harry snorted. “That was my plan.”

“Brilliant. Well, I’m on him now. Wish me luck.” There was a moment of silence, then Niall’s voice sounded again. “Hey, Harry.”

“Hmm?”

“Your Prince Louis is a fine looking specimen of male Homo sapien, if I must say so myself. Did you notice that?” 

“You watch your mouth,” Harry said, feigning annoyance. “It’s the shirt, Niall. Everyone looks good in Hot ‘N Hard. Have you checked your eyes?”

“Trust me, my eyes are fine. Right now they’re locked on your boy’s scrummy profile. And those guns… woo! All hands on deck, ye know what I mean? Anyway,” Niall laughed again, the street noises roaring in, “don’t worry. This one’s not my type— bit on the scrawny side, and too juicy in the hind end. He’s more like your type, though, in’t he? Bite-sized pudding.” 

Harry waited silently, not bothering to dignify Niall with an answer. Meanwhile, he heard Niall’s camera shutter clicking away rapidly in the background. Harry assumed that Niall was taking photos; he could also imagine the headline to come: Prince of Doncaster Spends Night at Mysterious Private Address. Even as Niall snapped away, Harry’s insides roiled with conflicting feelings. He was seeing Louis’ last expression as he left the flat, soft and sweet, his voice curious and hopeful. Raising his right hand, Harry chewed on the cuticle of his thumb.

Niall’s voice broke through his thoughts. “I can always spot ‘em a mile away, you know. Your cute little crushes.”

“He’s a story, Niall,” Harry said. “Try to be a professional, yeah? Just for one day.” Harry could almost see Niall smirking below, and heard a few more shutter clicks. “Anyway, I don’t mix work and play.”

“Whatever, wanker,” Niall said. “When should I call you?”

“Hmm. I do need to stop by and talk to Courtney this morning.”

“Aye, tread lightly. She’ll be a sore one!”

Harry paused. “She’ll be angry about the story’s being delayed, for sure. It was her lead story, after all. Our lead story.”

Courtney Thompson was their editor in Rome. She bought and sold freelance stories to the major papers, and Harry was one of the few reliable, experienced journalists she counted on. Both Harry and Niall knew her well  enough to know she wouldn’t pass up on this story.

“She’ll be livid,” Niall laughed. “Just don’t feed the wild beast, you know what I mean.”

“Got it.” Harry glanced at his phone. “So what do you think, maybe in an hour?”

“Sounds good,” Niall said. “I’ll text you if anything happens.”

“Right, then. Happy trails.”

“Right.”

Just as Harry clicked off, a text popped up on his mobile, showing a photo of the Louis, one that Niall must have just taken. It was a profile view— not the clearest angle, since Niall must have done it quickly— but unmistakably him.  

Harry peeked down the street to catch Louis jogging across in the morning sun, his lithe figure lovely on the horizon, as graceful as a butterfly. Harry shook his head, reminding himself to stay on goal. He couldn’t see Niall, which was just as well, because it probably meant that Louis couldn’t see him, either. He was out there though, seeing, documenting. Following.

Louis was strolling along, dazed by everything around him. He stopped to check the concert posters tacked on the walls in rows, and then paused at the end of the block, where there was a water spigot emerging from the sidewalk.

The Roman spigots carried purified water down the mountains via the aqueducts, just like in ancient days. Harry watched as Louis slowly approached the dark spigot and gently lay his hand on it, as if touching a child. Even from where he stood, Harry could feel Louis’ sense of anticipation, his whole body alert with curiosity. He saw Louis bend over to catch a sip in his mouth, and then let the liquid drip down his neck. Wiping his mouth with the back of a hand, Louis tilted his head up to savor the sun’s rays. Harry felt his joy as palpably as a summer breeze.

A crease deepened between Harry’s eyebrows.

He turned and crossed the threshold into his studio apartment, his vision hazily adjusting to the darkness.

Blindly grabbing his keys and wallet, he was heading toward the door when the call came through on his mobile. The ringtone alerted him that his mother was calling him on FaceTime. Harry stopped in his tracks, checked himself and grinned.

“Mum.” Despite being a journalist who had covered gruesome stories of state-sponsored violence and civilian rebellion, Harry felt like a six-year-old boy whenever Anne called. Waving lightly to her, he said, “Hold a sec. Let me put you up on the monitor.”

“Good morning, darling.”

“Morning.”

Anne wavered, “Is this a good time? I can ring back later, if it’s bad.”

“No, no,” Harry answered, plugging his phone in to charge. “It’s fine. Give me a moment.”

Harry plopped down on the seat and clicked on the laptop. Anne’s face showed up on screen, an older and softer version of himself, with the same dimpled smile and large, bright, astonished eyes, the same sharp chin and mischievous expression. Looking like a teen girl, Anne had on a wide-brimmed, ribboned hat and a white poplin top with spaghetti straps, the blue sky high behind her, pots of vibrant red and orange flowers all around.

Harry recognized it as her Naples balcony, facing the sea. He moved himself into the computer’s frame, sitting up a little straighter as he noticed himself slouching.

“Busy day, darling?” Anne asked in her fluid, reassuring voice. She was sipping lemonade with a wedge of lemon from a full crystal glass. Her garden was full of lemon trees.

“Was just headin’ out,” Harry said. “It’s alright, though. I’ve got time. What’s going on, mum?”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah yeah, I’m sure,” Harry exhaled. “Actually, I’ve got more time than I thought. My assignment just got cancelled, last minute.”

Anne took on a look of concern. “Cancelled? Why cancelled?”

“Long story,” Harry answered, waving a hand. “It’s not that important, really. We had an interview— important interview— but the person we were supposed to interview got food poisoning. Allegedly. Anyway, they’ve been rescheduled.”

“Food poisoning! Is it serious, then? Was it anyone important?” She added in a lower voice, “Anyone I might know?” She winked. “Do I get to hear about it?”

Harry’s turned his eyes away on reflex. He was used to it by now, his journalistic instinct kicking in by default. He bluffed, as he was trained. He was used to bluffing, and he knew that Anne knew his game face.

“Nah. Nothing interesting.” Blinking, Harry tried to look bored, his fingers mindlessly playing with his bottom lip. Meanwhile, a pair of brilliant, gemlike blue eyes drifted into his mind.

“I see,” Anne teased him. “It is juicy then. I knew it! Will the girls and I be chatting about it over brunch on Sunday?”

Harry burst out laughing. “I’m sure I don’t know what you old biddies chat about.”

“Oh, stop it! Is it a British celebrity then?”

“No, mum. You’ll read about it when you read about it,” Harry deflected. “Could be terrifically boring, for all you know.”

Anne smiled, shaking her head. “Doubtful. Your writing is always lovely, Harry.”

“Hmm. I feel like there might be some inherent bias in that statement.”

“You’re too modest,” Anne tsked. “You know you’re a fine writer, sweetie. You should give yourself more credit. And all those journalism awards seem to agree. You know what I mean, those ones given by your peers.” She gave him an encouraging smile. Harry looked away, not wanting her pity. He heard a distant voice call to Anne as she answered, “Out on the patio, darling! I’m talking to Harry.”

Soon the broad, ruddy face of his stepfather Robin popped up next to Anne’s.

“Hullo, sunshine!” Robin wiped across his brow with a white handkerchief.

Harry smiled broadly. “Robin! How are ya?”

“We’ve just been to the arboretum, your mum and I, and I’d wager we bought half the nursery.” He took a deep, long-suffering breath. “She’s a right slave driver, Harry. Works a man to the bone.” Harry grinned.

Ann nudged him. “Rubbish. You hardly ever break a sweat.” She held up her empty glass, jiggling the ice cubes. “Would you mind getting me a refill, darling, since you’re up?”

“You see, Harry? This will be your fate one day.” Robin took the glass out of her hand and set it down firmly. “How they will abuse you, once they’ve got you tied down.”

Harry shook his head affectionately as Robin draped his gloved hand around Anne’s chair, leaning in to see Harry better.

“Harry was just telling me about a super secret assignment.” Anne turned toward Robin, filling him in. “He won’t even give me a tiny hint.”

“Hush hush, is it?”

“We’re not even supposed to ask,” Anne added.

“It’s really good then!” Robin inched his chair closer. “Is one of the royals having an adulterous affair or summat?”

Harry sputtered loudly, vigorously clearing his throat. “No, no. It’s nothing like that.”

“Well, they are a funny lot,” Robin said. “All those outlandish stories to keep us commoners paying taxes, while they gallivant about, sleeping with servants, having babies out of wedlock and whatnot.”

“They’re not all bad,” Harry muttered. “Some are quite nice, actually.”

“Harry,” Anne leaned forward, her forehead and nose widened by her mobile’s lens. “Will we get to see you this summer? I’ve been missing you terribly.”

“Yeah, I’m sure, mum,” Harry forced himself to sound cheerful. “My schedule doesn’t look bad. I should have a break soon. We have the whole summer, you know.” The Italian sunshine did seem to stretch for days at a time. Harry added guiltily, “Miss you too.”

“You look thin, darling,” Anne said. Harry quirked his mouth, having nothing to say. “Have you lost weight?”

“I don’t think so.” Harry pushed his hair away from the forehead, his hand sweeping across his eyes. “Hmm. I don’t know. Don’t really keep track.”

Since moving to Rome, Harry rarely paid attention to his meals. He grabbed food when he could, going to bed many nights without a proper dinner. Some evenings he would sit with friends, listening to their stories, picking at the food he ordered, never eating more than eight or nine bites. His clothing fell at the hips, the waistband catching on his angular pelvis. His eyes shone with a hollow brightness, which he attributed to a lack of sleep.

“Are you getting enough rest? Do you need money?”

Harry thought about the last spare cash which he had just given to Louis, and then pushed the thought away.

“Stop worrying, mum. I’m getting paid regularly. I can afford my flat.” He cast his eyes down, smiling wickedly. “And besides, if worse comes to worst, I can always ask my friends to couch surf. I’m pretty sure not all of them sell drugs or launder money.”

“Oh God, Harry,” Anne gasped. “Don’t even joke about that. You know I worry about you enough!”

Robin cackled. “You’re giving her a good excuse to come drag you home, lad.”

“Both of you stop worrying,” Harry insisted. “I’m an adult, and a hard bitten journalist, remember? I miss you very much too. I’ll try to come when I have time.”

“To Naples?”

“Of course to Naples. I’ll try,” Harry repeated. His fingers twisted together. “Anyway, you wouldn’t want me dropping in unannounced, surely.”

Anne’s eyes deepened into a frown. “Why ever not?”

“And don’t call her Shirley,” Robin added.

“If I show up at your doorstep,” Harry smiled, “it’ll mean I’ve given up. Remember I spent that year bumming around the world by train? I’ll figure it out. I always do. I’m resourceful, mum.” He cleared his throat deeply. “I’ve been about.”

“Oh, you heard him, Anne. He’s a big grown man!” Robin turned to Anne. His hand reached out to brush a hair away from her temple, golden in the sun. “He’s been about! Lad’s grown three chest hairs, suddenly has no need for parents!”

“Whatever the circumstances,” Anne turned around, her eyes boring through Harry’s. “I’m here for you. You know that, Harry. You can barge in here with absolutely no warning. You’re always welcome.” She blinked, then brushed at the corner of her eye. “We love you.”

Harry glanced down, then looked back up. “Yeah. Love you too.”

“Come on, lad,” Robin interjected. “Sure you can’t give us a hint?” Anne slapped him on the forearm, but he turned to wink at her. “You can trust us. Your mum and I are like MI-6, aren’t we. Absolutely on the lock down.”

“Very funny,” Harry said. “That’s not what they say, by the way.”

“Well, we’re practically the Swiss vault of information.”

Harry smiled. “Actually, it did start off a boring assignment, but I think it’s turned a corner.”

Robin grinned. “It’s going to be a headliner, innit? I can feel it in me bones.”

“Well, you didn’t hear it from me,” Harry said coyly. “Anyway, I’m off. See you soon, I hope?”

Anne kissed her fingers and waved. “Goodbye, darling. Love you.”

“Love you, Harry,” Robin added. “Get some meat on those bones. That’s an order.”

“Right.” Harry smiled as Anne waved and Robin gave him a thumbs up. “Love you more.”

Turning off FaceTime, Harry put the monitor to sleep mode and turned on his mobile. There were no messages. He sat staring at the blank screen for a pause, and then opened his contacts to Courtney Thompson’s number and called.

Five rings went by. Six. Harry was ready to hang up when she finally picked up.

“Speak.” Courtney always went straight to the point.

“Courts? It's Harry Styles.”

“Styles.” She was on speaker phone. The background buzzed with ambient noises, whirring fans and staticky air, the nervous energy palpable through the line. “I’ve not got the rescheduled time yet. The embassy said maybe sometime this afternoon. I have my assistant working on it, but no deets so far. Where are you?”

Courtney Thompson’s thoughts came in torrents, flushing through the air like an army of hornets. She was always impeccably put together, hair in a Wintour bob, crisp, rectangular glasses, tailored jacket. Her outer calm belied a vast inner appetite for the news. She was assertive, probing, impatient.

“I’m home, but listen,” Harry said. “Are you busy today?”

He was met with a rare moment of silence, followed by a scoff. “Are you having a right laugh, Styles. When am I not busy?”

“I’ve got something,” Harry continued. “I’d like to talk to you about it.” He held his breath, waiting. “In person.”

“What’re you on about?” Courtney’s voice now sounded farther away, distracted. In the background, Harry heard the rapid clicking of a computer mouse. She was scrolling through the news feed, probably only half paying attention to him. “What is it you can’t tell me over the phone? Tell me now.”

In person,” Harry insisted, his voice sounding like a gavel. “Is it alright if I come by?”

“What have you got?” Harry could hear the slight upward catch of her voice. He’d gotten her attention.

Harry drew in a breath and prepared his words carefully. “It’s about the cancelled interview,” he said. He heard a pregnant silence in the other end. “From today, with the Prince of Doncaster. You’ll want to hear it, I promise.”

“Are you taking the piss, darling? Because if you are, I will personally— ”

“Courts, be nice,” Harry reassured her calmly. “You’re the first person I’ve talked to, and no one else. You know why? Because I love you. And trust you. And vice versa, right?”

“You are not to call me ‘Courts,’ Harry Styles.” Her voice was stern and admonishing. “First of all, it’s not my name. My friends call me Courtney, and it’s always Ms. Thompson to you.” Harry‘s lips slowly curled up, smiling. Courtney Thompson was old school, but she was still as quick as any young whippersnapper; she could hold her own in a fight. “What have you got, anyway? Stop teasing. You have a verified source?”

Harry chuckled. “As verified as it’s possible to be. You’ll want this story.” 

He heard her exhale loudly, pausing forever in the Courtney Thompson universe, which was two to three seconds. The computer monitor hummed noisily in the background while the clicking completely halted.

“Can you be here in an hour?” she asked.

“I can be there now.”

“You’ve always been good on your word, Styles,” she said. “A rock star. I can count on you, can’t I? Don’t make me hate myself.”

“You won’t be disappointed,” Harry said. “Promise… Ms. Thompson, ma’am .”

“Call me ma’am again, I’ll cut your balls off,” she said curtly. “And serve them on a platter. See you in a few.”

“Yes, ma’am. In a few.”

 




•••••

 

 

For three long seconds, Louis thought he might head straight back to the embassy. Imagining Liam’s frantic face made him feel slightly guilty, for putting him in that difficult position. Joseph Gates was probably now trying to stall Anesidora with a furious efficiency. Gates was good at his job, Louis knew.

What difference would one day make, anyway? What difference, at all?

His whole life was planned to the second, and would be until the moment of his death. Louis shaded his eyes, looking down the broad boulevard. The road was wide open, its doors and alleyways beckoning to him.

A squat bus with large, open windows rambled down the street and began to slow down. On impulse, Louis hopped on with a mob of other people— destination unknown, fare impossible to figure out. Most of the passengers walked past the driver without even stopping. Louis glanced at his trouser pocket, feeling Harry’s euros snug and hot against his palm, the prospect of not knowing what to pay making him mildly anxious. He decided to stroll casually to the back, blend in with other frazzled tourists and go wherever the bus took him. The driver let him pass without a word.

It was hot and stifling inside, the morning humidity dialing up like an oven, skins shiny with perspiration and tempers simmering. Some children whined about the heat, fanning themselves with their puffy, flaccid hands. The adults stared into nothingness and tried not to make contact with the person next to them. The air smelled like oranges and dirt, the red Roman dust motes swirling in the sunbeams, stray light reflecting from metallic surfaces and refracting into tiny rainbows on the floors and ceilings. Louis grabbed a lukewarm metallic post, swaying with the staccato motion of the bus, its creaks and groans pure music. His body vibrated with adventure.

Whenever the bus made stops, clots of passengers would disgorge and another pink-faced crowd pile on. Between ochre churches and nondescript buildings outside, Louis would occasionally glimpse dark, narrow alleys here and there, some shuttered storefronts, chained bicycles and fire hydrants. He recognized nothing, not the cobbled sidewalks, nor the arching streetlights, not even the slatted bench on which he had sought refuge last night. It was all a brand new to him. Early pedestrians— tourists, most likely— walked along with wilted maps in their hands. Between street corners, Louis would sometimes catch the blinding light of spacious squares in the distance, dotted with tiny pedestrians, cafes, and somber, elegant marble monuments and fountains.

They soon turned onto a large boulevard, the Via Cavour, flanked by on both sides by tall buildings in shades of marigold and spice, casting their shadows into the thick traffic. Cars and trucks crawled along slowly, their horns blasting through the syrupy silence.

They turned a corner, and, as if a magic switch had been thrown, people woke up, turning their heads collectively in one direction. Louis followed their gaze. Like the opening images of a widescreen cinema, the looming hulk of the ancient Colosseum came into view, her calm, ordered arches squeezing bursts of happiness from Louis’ chest. He briefly panicked when the bus passed it. Then, as they approached the stop, he tapped impatiently for other to get off, before jumping off the bus himself.

As soon as he got closer to the Colosseum, a man dressed as a Roman centurion approached him, speaking in Italian-accented English.

“A photo, five euros?” he asked.

“Sorry?” Louis jumped, wondering whether he’d been recognized. “No, no. I don’t do candid photos.”

The man stared at him, waiting.

Louis elaborated. “I can’t. I’m very sorry, my good man. The palace has very strict rules about photos with commoners, and— well, thank you. No. I am in no state for an official or even candid photo. Perhaps another time. You may go.” He put up his right hand and waved him off.

The centurion shrugged, scanned around, finally settled on an American family eyeing him with fascination.

Someone else brushed into Louis, and then turned to dangle a chain of postcards in front of him, showing pictures of empty piazzas and classic buildings with immaculately manicured flower beds, spotless blue skies.

“One euro, sir,” the vendor barked, gaps between his blackened teeth. “You like? Only one euro. Beautiful pictures. You see?”

Louis observed everything with confusion and interest. He spun around, seeing a few curious stares at his shirt, and feeling the sun’s heat like a blow torch. He made his way into the shade of the building, closer to the gates, and merged into a large group of tourists. A tour guide was speaking in measured English.

“The wealthy patrons would sit low, closer to the action, yes? And the commoners would sit in the cheaper, nosebleed sections, higher up. They brought their own food, because the tournaments would last all day, sunrise to sundown.” She paused, checking on the crowd. “So we find a lot of artifacts when we dig into the ruins, including animal bones. Some were animals killed in the arena. Of course some exotic animals were from far away, and therefore expensive, never killed in combat but were only for show. Like elephants. And lions? They were actually transported here. But from where? Does anybody want to guess?”

“Africa?” An adolescent boy ventured softly.

“Yes!” she said. “And crocodiles. There were huge mock-ups of important battles, with ships and infantry and cavalry. The arenas were even flooded for sea battles. Can you imagine? And then we find some small animal bones in the ground below the cheap seats. Many, many small bones. Does anyone have a guess as to what they might be?”

“Dogs?”

“Squirrels?”

“Birds?”

“All very good guesses,” she said. “You are all so smart! Just like today, the Romans enjoyed a nice roast chicken, and theater goers do get hungry. And these were chicken bones! The hoi polloi couldn’t always afford the snacks sold on the premises, right? So, what do you do if you can’t afford the popcorn at the cinema?”

The tourists laughed.

“They brought their own!” someone shouted.

“Allora. So they brought their own grapes, their wines, their figs and chickens, and when they were done— ” She flicked her fingers over her shoulders. “They threw the rubbish to the ground below. Two thousand years later, voilà. We have our archeology.”

“Where did they keep elephants?” a tall boy asked.

“There were large pens to keep animals underground,” she said. “Temporarily, of course. We will see them in a bit. You can imagine the smell, in the heat, like today? Coming to a show was the only way for some people to see these animals. They were exotic, from another continent, like dragons or unicorns to us. The animals never survived very long in Ancient Rome. They were too fragile, and people didn’t know how to take care of them.”

“They died?” a tiny girl, six or seven-years-old, asked sadly.

“Exotic animals don’t do well in captivity, I’m afraid,” the guide said. “Today we will see some of their bones. And you will see an underground section where their cages were, and the walkway where they came into the Colosseum. Come. Let’s go this way.” She put her hand out and ushered the group forward.

Louis hung back, dazed by the surreal feeling of being here. It was he who felt out of place, and not the Colosseum, which seemed to be rooted utterly to this ground and this space.

The emperors of Rome were all gone, their power in ashes, their spectacles crumbled. They, too, were slaves to their ambition. The great Romans lived and died to rule the world, they built roads and bridges across universes, their temples summoned the gods. Yet what the world loved, and what was passed on, were stories about families sharing roast chicken.

The Roman emperors entered the city on lavish chariots, down the Via Appia, as their hired slaves whispered into their ears, “You are mortal.”

A moment of darkness passed through Louis’ mind. In the green shadows came the fleeing deer, the pursuing crowd, the mad cacophony of the masses bearing down on him. He wanted to run, was running in his mind, was tripping over his feet in his haste to get to water, to green arms waiting to pull him under, to pull him to safety. Louis blinked rapidly, trying to breathe, his chest too shallow and slow. He looked down at his feet and willed them to move, and finally, he was able to raise one foot after the other. Eventually, he began walking away.

 




•••••

 

“Courts.” Harry walked into the room, seeing only the top of her face behind the computers. “Stop slacking off.”

Without taking her eyes off the computer, and with one hand scribbling into a notepad, Courtney Thompson motioned with her chin for him to sit down. She continued working silently for a few more minutes, and then closed the laptop and pushed it to one side. 

“So,” she said.

“And good morning to you!” Harry flopped into an armchair next to the desk, his arms flung out. “Yes, I’d love a cuppa, thanks. Black, no milk or sugar. Make it strong, please?”

Courtney gave him a no-nonsense, solemn look, pausing for effect. Harry shifted in his seat and briskly cleared his throat.

He straightened up. “Alright. Anyway, about the Prince.” His eyes met hers.

“The Prince?”

“Prince Louis of Doncaster?”

“This isn’t twenty questions, Harry,” she said impatiently. “Spit it out.”

Harry laughed. “Well, it turns out he might not be as sick as some people think.”

She took off her glasses and pinched the corners of her eyes, then checked the lenses for smudges. She gave him her full attention only when she was completely satisfied.

“Shall we not beat around the bush?” Her manner was brusque and serious. “Please don’t make me pull teeth. What do you know about it?” Replacing her glasses, she put both elbows on her desk and looked at him until he broke off.

“The short version of the story,” Harry said, “is that I happen to know where the Prince is. He hasn’t been at the embassy since last night.”

“Is that so.” She stared him down. “Where has he been then?”

Harry returned her look now, the ball back in his court. He inhaled slowly, feeling the sweat beading inside the corners of his fingers, damp against his trousers. Beads of sweat collected outside his nostrils, and a light sheen was spreading across his bright cheeks. He could feel the moisture on his shirt, the heat on his collar.

”With me,” Harry said. He took in a breath, noticing a crack at the edge of the desk. Drawn to it unconsciously, his finger traced its hard borders. “He spent the night at my place, and left this morning. He’s in the city right now, right this second, all by himself.”

As expected, Courtney craned her neck back, closed her eyes, and shook her head. Her bob barely moved as she sighed heavily.

“It’s not what it sounds like,” Harry rushed. “Nothing happened. Between us, I mean… uh… we slept. In a bed. Allegedly in one bed— my bed— but that’s not important right now. It was an accident! Anyway, after breakfast, he left.” Courtney Thompson definitely did not need to hear any other details.

“Come on, Styles.”

He shot forward. “I’m serious!” 

“Listen, darling,” Courtney countered. “You know very well what we do around here. I might not be Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but we don’t pitch tabloid pieces, yeah? Not for clicks, not for anything. We have self-respect, one of the few things we truly have left. We verify. We have secondary, tertiary sources. Our word is our only currency.” She focused her eyes on him. “Right then. What have you really got?”

Harry sat back and strategized. He glanced around the room at the familiar objects— the bank of computer screens, the notepads, pens and pencils, the movie stills on the walls from Funny Face and Charade. His gaze finally landed on a photo on the desk. It was a candid of Courtney Thompson with Jenny Kleeman of the BBC, most likely taken at an industry event. Both of them had polite, cordial smiles and dark, sensible suits.

“I can prove it,” he said, pulling out his mobile. “Here.”

Unlocking the phone, Harry scrolled through the messages until he reached the last text that Niall sent to him. Louis’ profile, classically handsome and half in shadows, came up on the screen. It seemed like ages since he left. Harry held the screen for a moment, regarding the photo privately for the last time, and then turned it around.

“Prince Louis of Doncaster,” he said. “In person. Taken moments ago, here in Rome. On the street outside of my flat. And there are a dozen more.” 

Courtney took his phone and scrutinized the photo, holding it close to her face. After a long, sobering moment, she slid the phone across the desk back to Harry, who glanced at the photo again, then turned the phone off. One hand rose to flick his lower lip nervously.

“Alright, Harry,” she said, curious and calm. “How did you manage to get the Prince’s photo? From the beginning, please.”

Harry was rolling his lower lip between his thumb and index finger, pinching the borders pale.

“Let’s just say we met, he spent the night, and I have a way of contacting him. That’s all you need to know, Ms. Thompson.” The blood rushed back to his lip, a stripe of vivid color against his tanned face. “Interested?”

“Prat,” she uttered. She tapped a pencil rapidly on her desk, its dull rat-tat-tat punching the air. “You know I bloody well am interested. Keep going then.”

“An exclusive profile,” Harry replied. “Yours to sell. The Prince of Doncaster out and about in Rome, in excruciatingly intimate detail. A behind-the-palace look at the eligible bachelor, warts and all.”

She considered this. Then, as she did, Courtney fast-forwarded to the crucial question. “What does the Prince know about you? Does he know you’re a journalist?” 

Harry propped one foot on top of a knee and crossed his arms behind his head, leaning back. “Ah. Good question, that.”

“Isn’t it.” She scrutinized him carefully, and then her face dropped. “Oh Harry, he doesn’t know, does he?”

“Maybe, maybe not. Might get a more candid report this way. More revealing.” He looked at her. “Don’t you think?”

Courtney half-sighed and half-exhaled. They were entering extremely dicey territory.

“Might be a good way to learn what he really thinks of the Anesidorans,” Harry was saying. “Show his true colors. Without any media filters.”

Courtney Thompson, veteran editor, considered these words. Celebrity interviews were all about one’s appetite for lies. You tolerated their bullshit sound bites, and in return, their fame— or notoriety—  got clicks for your newspaper. It was an unspoken contract. The celebs hated gotchas, and it was practically forbidden for royalty. It was Journalism 101, the most basic of journalistic ethics. You never sold them out. You never reported on them without their knowledge. Never.

But then again, her reporter would be taking most of the risk, and the story was as juicy as they came. She would be a fool not to jump on it, if he was telling the truth. It was one in a million. She knew ten papers that would buy the story right now, especially if they got an exclusive, and for high prices.

She studied her most reliable writer. People changed. One never knew. In this ancient city, even the most resilient marbles eventually crumbled to time and pressure.

“Harry,” she pressed him.

“I’m thinking a Sunday cover,” Harry pushed on, trying to ignore her. “Two thousand words. With private photos of the Prince— ” he put up his hand— “Don’t worry. I have Niall Horan.”

Horan’s in on it?” She leaned forward. “Good Lord. The two of you… Is that where the photo came from?”

Harry nodded. “An exposé of His Royal Highness, the Prince of Doncaster, as a mere mortal. See what he knows, what he’s like. Scope out the nuclear energy deal, perhaps.” 

Courtney nibbled the eraser tip of the pencil. She gazed into the depthless, light green pools of Harry’s eyes, which were as inscrutable as a lizard’s.

“When will you tell him?” she asked him, watching him for a reaction. “I mean, eventually. Will you tell him? Before it goes to press?”

Harry tried to shrug casually. “Should I?”

“Harry.”

Courtney felt like she didn’t know Harry Styles anymore. There was something raw and unmitigated beneath his youth and beauty, something primeval, like hunted prey, or hungry predator.

“If I write the truth,” Harry said, looking up, “then it’s on him, isn’t it? It wouldn’t be lies. Technically we wouldn’t be printing anything untrue.”

Harry was playing with a scrap of paper on her desk, twirling it between his fingers, pinching and unfolding it between the tips of his fingers and thumb. A fabric tie around his wrist scraped against the edge of the desk. The crisp corners of the paper became folded and rolled, shrunk into a ball and flattened out again, destroyed and softened. His fingers moved like a tide over the dented, water-worn earth.

“This isn’t like you.” Courtney’s voice had the subdued inflection of a question, tinged with curiosity and the concern of an older colleague. “Great opportunity, Harry, don’t get me wrong. You’ll be paid handsomely. But this tactic isn’t your style. This isn’t what you do. You hate this kind of thing.”

“No, I don’t hate it. I actually like it.” Harry’s fingers crushed the paper and formed it into a ball. He rolled it on the desk, not making eye contact with Courtney. “It’s my job.” 

“Harry.” Courtney leaned forward. “You do actually hate it. You’re not fooling anyone with that face, you know. You never liked celebrity journalism, and you don’t do it for money.” Courtney’s eyes widened, while Harry said nothing in reply. “So why? Why are you doing this?”

Harry picked up the paper and tossed it in the bin. He sucked in his lower lip. “I want back in.” He exhaled the breath he had been holding, looking up at her. “Correspondence, Courtney. Africa, the Middle East, Asia. I’m a foreign correspondent. That’s what I want.”

Courtney gazed at him sternly, waiting for him to continue.

“You’re right,” Harry said. “I hate it. Chasing celebrities, their lifestyle, their… fame. I don’t like writing about them, or their fancy dogs or yachts or whatever expensive gifts they’ve given each other. I couldn’t give two flips about royalty.” His eyes narrowed sultrily, perhaps to disguise his pleading. “Just promise you’ll help me. I want back in.” 

“You’re writing the biggest celebrity piece so you can leave off writing about it?” Courtney asked wryly. “It’s rich, you know.” 

He chuckled nervously. “Something like that.”

Courtney Thompson opened her mouth, and then closed it on reconsideration. “If you’re ready— are you, Harry? To get back into the fray?”

Harry looked down at his fingers, sweat beading between them. The room was saturated with humidity. Still looking down, he gave the slightest nod.

“If you’re sure, I’ll do whatever it takes,” Courtney said. “You have my word.”

Harry’s face brightened. Joy, anticipation, and fear sparked in his eyes.

“I want that journalist back,” Courtney continued. “I want the stories you used to write. I want the Harry who dove into the action. I’ll back you, two hundred percent.” 

“Thank you.” He stood up, a shadow of a smile on his lips. “I’ll be in touch then.”

“Later today?”

“Later.” He turned around, his hand on the doorknob. Then Harry cleared his throat. “Oh, and um… one other thing?”

“Yes.”

“I’m uh— a bit low at the moment.”

Courtney raised her right eyebrow.

“I’m asking for an advance.” Harry’s dimple caved persuasively. “Can you spare some cash, Courts? It’s for a good cause. Save print journalism, and all that?” He pumped his fist weakly in the air. “Help a rock star out.”

“Ay,” she sighed. Her eyes stayed on him while she opened a desk drawer. “I know I shouldn’t be agreeing to this. You talk me into the worst things, Styles. How much do you need?”

“Maybe three hundred? Four?” Harry’s face was that of a child asking for more toys at Christmas. “What do you think?”

“Three! Four!” Courtney Thompson’s mouth pinched closed. “I’m not a money tree, Harry. I thought we were writing an exposé.” She narrowed her eyes, hands poised on the drawer. “Didn’t realize you were getting married to him.”

Harry pleaded with puppy eyes.

“Such a bloody expense,” she grumbled. “You really are the most audacious creature, you know that. You’re lucky I like you. Will we be taking him to La Pergola, by any chance, handing out blank checks to valets and waiters along the way?”

“He’s a Prince, Courteena,” Harry countered. “Can’t very well go second-class, can we? We’d give ourselves away.” 

She shut the drawer and stood up, walking to a cabinet behind her. “God forbid we give away the secret that journalism doesn’t pay. Might discourage that line out my door.” Turning the combination lock on a safe, she counted out some cash, then took out a piece of paper and scribbled a promissory note, pushing the note and the money to Harry.

Harry winked at her, signing his name and folding the money in his trouser pocket. “You’re the bestest, Ms. Thompson. I mean it. You won’t regret it.”

“Don’t you dare Ms. Thompson me now,” she growled. “Not after scalping me. Get out, you swindler, before I take it all back.”

Harry laughed. “Goodbye, darling.”

He mock-saluted her and exited, closing the door quietly behind him. In his mind, he could see her fuming inside, but he also shared her anticipation for the piece. As he skipped down the stairs, a text alert sounded from his mobile. Harry shielded his phone and squinted. It was Niall. 

he’s at the colosseum.

A pause.

who? louis? Harry replied.

yeah, yer cute little royal crush

he’s not my crush

whatever. hey, question for u, does ur boyfriend know how anything works?

please elaborate—

i mean, he’s just waved off a roman centurion, like, dismissing him. i think he thought the guy wanted a picture with him

he what?

i’m actually stood here laughing. the guy’s so confused

who do u mean? louis?

no, the centurion guy! louis thought— ay ffs harry, do i need to send a picture for everything

shut up. is he alright?

Just then, a photo showed up on Harry’s phone. It was Louis, taken from the back, walking away from a man dressed in a centurion costume. His posture was elegant and relaxed, his bearing regal. Louis had really thought the centurion recognized him, and wanted to take a photo with him. It was, as Niall said, actually hilarious. And cute. Louis was very, very cute, even from the back. Fuck, everything about him was endearing.

guess u can take the prince out of the palace, Harry texted.

but u can’t take the palace out of the prince, ya? ur boy’s a right barmy stitch, i’m telling ye. so. what did our boss say?

she’s onboard. everything’s a go. i’ve got funds even.

oohoo!! party time!

Harry ignored him. where’s louis headed?

yer boyfriend’s walking north, and taking his sweet time 

alright then. i’m on my way 

i’m on him

hey. niall

what

Harry‘s fingers paused as he tried to frame his words carefully. The photos of Louis lodged deeply in his chest, pushing something in him that he wished would go away. He’s just a story, Harry told himself. A means. A way out.

can u— sort of— just watch over him

why, is he gonna do a jig?

Harry rolled his eyes. He could always count on Niall for dumb jokes.

yer a dickhead

flattery gets you nowhere

listen to me, louis is a prince

yeah so?

so he’s, u know...

not right in the head? mental? a homosexual?

i mean he’s not like us. he’s inexperienced. bit green.

oh! is he a virgin??

how would i know

not after last night, amiright ;) bang bang gangsta 

told u, nothing happened

he’s not street smart, is whatursayin’

yes. correct

he’s sheltered. got it, my man

get him to the trevi fountain. i’ll meet you there

how am I supposed to do that? he doesn’t know me from adam. he’s not gonna listen to me  

use ur powers of persuasion. Harry ran down the last steps from Courtney’s office, two at a time. ur charm, ur magnetism. niall, you’re irish, figure it out. i’ll be there as soon as i can 

 

 

 

•••••

 

Put everything in a suitcase one day, And run away to the runway
To find somewhere to lay my heart (lay my heart)
If you see me rollin' that's where I'm going
To find somewhere to lay my heart
Home's wherever I lay my heart

Iggy Azalea, Runway

 

 

The outfit caught his attention, a white, short-sleeve shirt, gossamer and soft, slightly translucent because of the small perforations in the fabric that absorbed the light. The trousers were dark, similar to what he had on. The ensemble in the window was simple but elegant, and it would vanish into a crowd better than Harry’s terrible shirt. Which Louis intended on returning, in any case.

But Louis had never done this before. He’d never walked into a shop and bought something. Liam took care of it all— he kept track of Louis’ measurements, contacted the royal stylists and let them talk to the designers. Come to think of it, Louis hardly went into a shop in Doncaster, let alone a foreign country, unless it was to promote some public campaign. 

Did he have enough money to buy anything? His fingers touched the crisp bills in his pocket, sliding smoothly against each other.

He pushed the door and went in. It was small and tidy boutique, with racks of clothing hanging tastefully against the walls, and a center table showing men’s accessories, dark socks, ties, cufflinks, tie clips and belts. 

Louis walked to the mannequin wearing the outfit in the window, which was about the same size as he was. The white polo shirt had a polished steel zipper running up to the base of the throat, and a tidy and modest collar, in a subtly mesh fabric. The fabric felt as elegant as it looked, sliding sensually between his fingers.

“It comes in a few other colors as well,” a voice spoke brightly in accented English behind him.

“Oh.” Louis spun around, startled. “Hullo.”

“It’s just your size, I think,” the saleslady said. She was older, with streaks of gray in her hair, and wore a jonquil blouse and ivory pants. Behind horn-rimmed glasses, her hazel eyes summed up Louis in one fell swoop. “I think the egg white is a beautiful color for you. You have a trim built. Would you like to try it on?” 

“It is lovely.” Louis turned his attention back to the mannequin, his fingers brushing the sleeves. 

“It would look very nice on you.” Her gaze fell on Harry’s concert t-shirt with faint disapproval. She turned back to the mannequin. “The fabric has a beautiful drape, don’t you think? Cut on the bias. This company is meticulous about details. It’s perfect for the weather right now.” 

Twenty minutes later and fifty euros poorer, Louis walked out of the shop in his new polo shirt, the KISS tee bundled neatly at the bottom of a small bag. The zipper on his new shirt felt like guards protecting his charm. Out of habit, Louis touched the rounded corners of the gold charm through the thin fabric, rolling it between his fingers to be sure it was alright. Yes. It was fine.

So. What now?

The avenues were suffused with sunlight. Pedestrians and cars streaked by, honking in loud clusters. Louis realized that he was probably the poorest person on the street. Instead of being worried, Louis felt a weight promptly lift from him, like a huge sigh of relief.

Louis was nearly invisible. He was a monotonous speck amongst the Roman colors, disguised by this simple white shirt. When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. His situation made him happier than a dandelion. A sign caught his attention across the street.

A barber shop. 

He walked in, and walked out with a new haircut. The long curls at the nape of his neck were gone. His sides were trimmed. His fringe hung loosely to one side, layered and soft. Louis looked like a young model from a magazine. Now he was nearly completely out of money. Louis had no idea which direction the embassy was. The only person he knew to ask was Harry, and all Louis had was an address which he’d memorized like a poem. He didn’t even have a phone number.

He’d never been in such a dilemma before. A curious mixture of panic and excitement burbled in his belly, which he covered with the palm of one hand. Louis could almost feel his insides jumping.

He was strolling along in this fashion, when a tall, blond stranger hopped up next to him. Louis’ trained composure merely flickered over with a sideways glance, as he continued walking. The stranger’s hyperactive energy leapt off him, a platinum streak of lightning.

“Morning,” the stranger said. “American? English?” He looked at Louis from head to toe. “Français? Italiano?”

Louis stared straight ahead without stopping, his grip tightening around the handles of his bag.

The stranger slapped his thigh with one hand loudly and laughed, the sharp sound cutting the air like a knife. “First time in Rome?”

“No,” Louis said. “I’m not— I am not interested. Thanks, but no thank you.” He tried to walk faster, keeping his limbs loose in case he has to run. Unlike Harry, this man was giving off slick, unwelcome vibes. Louis had met too many diplomats with an unctuous air like this person. In the end, they always wanted something.

“Hey,” the man said, reading his mind. “It’s alright, my friend. I’m not asking you for anything.” He raised both hands in a submissive gesture, and then skipped ahead, turning around to face Louis. His feet hopped backwards with practiced ease. “Did anyone ever tell you? You’re a very good-looking man. Extremely handsome. Beautiful, even.”

Surprised, Louis couldn’t help but glance up. The man had a wild shock of platinum blond hair, and his thick brows and long lashes were as light as silver. His eyes crinkled in his smile. His lips were painted an intense scarlet. He wore a tailored linen jacket that was a designer copy, but Louis could see smudges of grime on his sleeves, and a fraying cuff. A dark green silk scarf hung around his thin neck, parallel to the veins that ran up to his ears. He was probably around Louis’ age, but appeared much older, with the quality of someone who had been around. Against all of his instincts, Louis was intrigued.

“There's a party tonight.” The stranger continued smiling enigmatically. Louis couldn’t place his accent either. “I want you to be my guest, if you want to come. I promise you’ll have a good time.”

“What sort of party?” The words were out before Louis could stop himself.

“A special kind,” the man laughed, his toothy voice both mysterious and threatening. Maybe that’s what enticed Louis even more; he was ineluctably drawn to the Piper. “I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s at a magical place, with pleasures you’ve never even dreamed of. Isola del Piacere, it’s called. A beautiful young man like you will certainly have a big audience.” 

“Sorry.” Louis knew he shouldn’t be apologizing. It felt wrong, and the smile he got back was equally wrong. It felt like the opposite of happiness. “I don’t know what you mean.” 

The man stopped in front of Louis, forcing Louis to stumble into him. His eyes were icy and gemlike. One hand rested on his waist as he scrutinized Louis, the other on his chin. A moment silently passed, and then another moment. With languor, he raised a hand to trace an index finger down Louis’ jawline, lightly tipping his chin up, appraising him.

“I think so. Yes, definitely. You are gorgeous, aren’t you?”

On reflex, Louis jerked his face away, but was otherwise immobile, his mouth dry and palms itchy. He wanted to walk away. But for all the poetry Louis had ever known, his mind was a desert. He was rooted to the ground, without words.

“Come, now.” The man’s tongue flicked over the corner of his mouth. “Let me introduce you to my friends. They’re very nice people.” He winked. “If you’ve never been to Rome, we’ll show you an adventure to remember. Absolutely no obligations, friend. You walk away whenever you want.” His tongue darted around his scarlet lips. “We know all the best people and the very best places. Will you join us?”

“I don’t have any money.” The words came out of Louis’ mouth in spite of himself. What a stupid thing to say, he realized. Dumb, dumb.

“Pfft!” The man smiled, swatting away invisible gnats. “Not a problem, friend. You see, you don’t need money when you’re with us. We make our own fun.”

Louis opened his mouth and closed it again as the stranger stood smiling at him. He was playing a bartering game, but Louis couldn’t quite understand the stakes. Lips set firmly, Louis tried to suppress the rapid quiver he felt inside. His hand unconsciously rose to steady his stomach. 

Suddenly he felt a strong grip on his shoulder. Surprised, Louis turned to see another man, yet another stranger, this time with wide open blue eyes and stiff bangs shooting for the sky, smiling at him and pulling him in for a rough hug.

“Hiya!” the man shouted in a jovial Irish accent. “Well, well, well. When d’you get in, ye bastard? Why didn’t you tell me you were in town?” 

“What?” Louis said. “I’m not— who— ?”

Louis saw the two strangers guardedly acknowledge each other. Despite a lingering smile, the interruption had obviously angered and annoyed the first man. His cheeks were stiff with rage.

“Name’s Niall,” the second man winked. “Harry told me he ran into you this morning. How’ve you been? I’ve been wanting to meet you for a long time, the way Harry goes on about ye.”

“Harry?” Louis was confused. “He… talked about me? But I’ve only just— ”

“Are ye up for a pint?” Niall cut him off. “On second thought, might be too early for that, you’re right. Pint’s good anytime though, innit? Hahaha.” Looking at the other man, Niall wrapped his arm around Louis’ shoulder and was already guiding him away. “Sorry to interrupt, my dude. This man here’s a friend of my bestie. They go back for ages. School buddies. Been looking for you all day, my good man. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.” 

The first man nodded imperceptibly, piercing Niall with a deadening gleam.

“I apologize.. um… Niall, is it?” Louis pointed to the first man, still confused. “May I introduce you to... ”

“Karl,” the man said, extending his hand, which Niall shook gruffly. “We haven’t met before, have we?”

“Dunno, have you been in any recent crime stories?” Niall guffawed, observing Karl’s face blanch then quickly recover. “Or had an affair with Jack Lowden? Involved in any prostitution rings?”

“I beg your pardon,” Karl cleared his throat. “Are you a— ”

“Fan of gossip?” Niall filled in. “Oh. Am I ever! Up to my neck in it; you don’t even want to know. Come on then.” He nudged Louis’ elbow, smiling effortlessly. “Harry’ll be waiting on us. Can’t make him mad. You know how he gets.”

Louis glanced at Karl, not knowing what to do, or which of his options was worse. He couldn’t understand how or why Niall would know about Harry, although his heart quickened. Realistically, he had never expected to meet Harry again. He just couldn’t allow himself to nurse any hope. Even a smudge of it was like kindling in a dry forest. One must always keep moving to stop one’s heart from hurting, he told himself. Wait till the feeling’s gone. One simply had to be strong, that was all.

“I’ll tell you later,” Niall whispered gruffly into his ear, as if he was reading Louis’ mind. “Trust me on this one, Louis.”

And strangely, Louis did. The light pressure of Niall’s hand reassured him. Niall’s knowing Harry, and his own name, also reassured him.

“If you change your mind,” Karl smiled coolly after them, a man who knew there would always be another hunt, another day. He pulled a crisp linen card from the pocket behind his pressed lapel. “The party is tonight, at the Isola del Piacere. Night club in the Trastavere. Remember that name, won’t you? Show my card at the door and you’re in.”

Louis accepted the card, tucking it in his trouser pocket. “Karl Volpe,” the card said— a fox. The linen card felt warm against his thigh, a transference of warmth from another person’s skin. His gaze wavered before Karl’s eyes, which were as pale as a drop of water falling from the icicle.

“Ehem,” Niall nudged Louis. “Harry’s waiting?”

“Right.” Louis glanced at Niall’s expectant face. Niall’s eyes seemed to be communicating a secret code, but Louis lacked a decoder.

“Hope to see you,” Karl interjected. His fingers reached up lightly to brush the hair at Louis’ temple. “Tonight, yeah? Bring your friends. The more the merrier.”

With some impatience, Niall wrapped his hand around Louis’ shoulder and physically turned him away, using a gentle pressure to direct him forward. Louis turned to wave at Karl, who raised his hand in acknowledgement.

When they had gone out of whispering distance, Niall leaned in and said, “What the hell? You can’t talk to people like that, Louis.”

“Like what?”

“Like that rubbish,” Niall said dismissively. “That trash bin made of blood and bones.” 

Louis was surprised. “Do you know him?”

“Don’t have to. They’re all rubbish, aren’t they,” Niall said brusquely. “The whole lot of them. They’re all the same. Didn’t they teach you anything?”

Louis contemplated this information. “I know enough.”

“The hell ye do,” Niall barked impatiently. “Didn’t your folks ever warn you about strangers?”

“Strangers? For your information, I’m not a child,” Louis protested. “I’m twenty-f— ”

“Come on now,” Niall interrupted brusquely. Then, seeing the hurt on Louis’ face, he stopped them in the street and turned a kinder face toward Louis.  “Hmmpft. They’re— You’re— Listen, people like Karl can spot a person like you a mile away. It happens a thousand times a day in this city. You’re a mark.”

“What do you mean?” Louis asked, keeping his voice even. “A mark? Why? Why me?”

Niall paused, adjusting the wide straps of his black bag and hoisting it higher on his shoulder. His eyes briefly flicked back to meet Louis’. He set his mouth firmly. 

“It’s not a playground out here.” Louis almost jumped at the way Niall flung his arm out around him. “It’s not a movie or a stage set. No one stops anyone from doing anything. You get it? Bad stuff happens, and no one apologizes for the bad things.”

Louis cocked his head. Even though Louis had only met him, and he was no more familiar than Karl Volpe, Louis felt a frank simplicity about Niall. Like Liam, Niall exuded a certainty about the world, a system of right and wrong that, like earth’s gravity, made Louis feel grounded. It felt like the opposite of being pursued.

“No one cares about a lost person,” Niall was saying, his face getting flushed. “They’ll wring you out like a rag. You gotta stay sharp, be your toes, boyo.” 

Green dancing lights were swarming about Louis. Everything that seemed golden and blurry in his unconsciousness dimmed and receded. Niall was a calming force. His voice came through hazily as his hand steadied Louis. 

“You alright, dude?”

Louis breathed deeply. “Yes.” The ground held tight. “I’m fine now.” After a moment, Niall let go of him, and began walking again, leaving Louis to scramble after.

“Tell me how you know Harry.” Louis skipped up, a little breathless.

“We’re mates,” Niall replied, glancing back. “We work together. He’s a Brit, I’m Irish, somehow we got to be friends. He told me about you this morning, by the way.”

Trying not to seem overly eager, Louis coughed loudly into his hand, keeping fast stride next to Niall. Hoisting his bag up again, Niall made a grunting sound, and kept walking.

Louis said, “So you were telling the truth back there.” 

“‘Course?” Niall seemed offended. “I never lie? We were texting back and forth this morning. I was supposed to work with him today, you see. Now we both get to play hooky.”

“And?” Louis asked, softly. “Are we really going to meet him now?”

Niall shot an amused smirk toward Louis. “You’re showing your colors, Romeo.”

Louis quickly looked down, blushing from the neck up like a flamingo. His hand came up to swipe his nose, trying to hide his entire face, which made Niall guffaw. 

“You like him, don’t ye?” Niall teased. 

“No, don’t really care either way,” Louis tried to be nonchalant. “I mean, I’ve got nothing else planned today. Might as well.”

“He is an awfully nice chap. One of the best. And quite a looker, isn’t he.”

“No?” Louis deflected. “He’s alright, I guess. Five out of ten.”

“Five out of ten, oho! Wait till I tell him.” Niall roared with laughter. He pointed a finger at Louis’ new shirt. “Looks good on you, that shirt. New?”

“Thanks.” Louis tugged the shirt down, smoothing small wrinkles. They began walking again. “Where are we going?”

“Won’t be far now.”

They had walked past gobs of pedestrians, some of them squinting into the sun, some clutching sweaty phones, maps, backpacks, pastel water bottles sloshing with lukewarm water. A few store owners were just opening up their shops, unlocking doors, winding up metal rollers. The light cast tiny shadows where the brick sidewalks lay unevenly, and flattened out larger stretches of pale silver cement. Clumps of cars zoomed by with their petulant honking.

Louis carefully swept his fringe sideways, realizing that sweat was flattening his hair. They were walking down a long road between tall buildings, the air warm and stagnant, dampening all sound. Without warning, the alley opened into a large square, the burble of water in the air, flumes flying out from a marble facade, in a fountain large enough to swallow all the people there.

Louis took a moment to absorb the spectacle. They had arrived at the famous Trevi Fountain. He had seen photos of it at some point in his life, studied it in a history book, no doubt. Yet it was a different matter to see it in person. It was both more fabulous and more fantastic, the figures more animated in actuality, but also more ridiculous— the flamboyance more exaggerated and surreal.

They walked up to the edge of the fountain. The water was clear. Louis saw coins from all over the world, strewn beneath the foam— the world washed clean. The Prince was used to impressive classical architecture back home. Everywhere he went for diplomatic functions, there were rows and rows of giant Romanesque columns standing like stalwart soldiers, stretching to a vanishing point. Grand entrances, architectural filigree, ornamentation, ostentation, bravado— these were the façades of royalty. The sublime was everywhere, and hence had become invisible to Louis. 

But this… was like a fairytale.

“Hey.”

From nowhere, Louis heard that deep, craggy voice— like a razor being dragged down a sharpening belt. Without seeing his face, Louis instantly recognized the sound of his voice, its sandy edges crawling beneath his skin, lapping at his circulation. 

He whipped around. “Tumbleweed.”

“Princess,” Harry grinned.

Louis’ breath was tied up in his chest. Harry’s light eyes reflected the turquoise water, fringed by his wheat-colored lashes. He was there in person, solid and real, and sooner than Louis had expected. His smile went to Louis’ very center. Louis felt his insides drop, like an orbiting satellite docking into port. He could almost hear the decisive click. 

Harry’s raspy voice continued. “Heya, Niall.”

“Fancy seeing you here, Haribo,” Niall answered. Louis could’ve sworn that Niall winked at Harry as he turned around.

“I see you’ve had the misfortune of meeting my mate Niall,” Harry’s left dimple deepened. “I thought we could spend a day out together, since none of us need to be anywhere. Niall knows a lot of interesting things to do.”

“Didn’t you have to go somewhere?” Louis asked.

“Already went.” Harry smiled widely. “Cleared my calendar for you, Princess. The day’s all ours.”

Louis beamed inside. He couldn’t help thinking of Harry’s last words to him on the staircase. Had he meant them? Maybe it was only harmless banter. But he had raced out of his flat in urgency, and yelled down the staircase like a boy who was… and the massage was so flirtatious and… and… This experience was completely new to Louis: not having a crush on a man (which had happened tons of times), but possibly having the crush reciprocated? He didn’t want to leap to conclusions. His insides fluttered, rising and sinking like a dinghy in a storm. Anyway, the day’s aimless adventures were suddenly looking up. Louis noticed that Harry appeared genuinely happy too.

“We’ll be tourists for the day then,” Louis stated, keeping his voice as flat as possible.

“Sure. Why not?” Harry said. “The world is our oyster. Let’s start right now.” He turned to Niall. “You have three coins on you, mate? I’m fresh out.”

Niall tsked. “Yer bloody annoying. Mate.”

“C’mon,” Harry cajoled, watching Niall dig the change from his pockets. “Don’t be like that. You know I’ll pay you back.” Niall shook his head as he plopped the coins into Harry’s hand. 

Harry turned to Louis. “Have you ever done this, Lou? The Trevi Fountain ritual?” Louis shook his head. Harry grasped Louis’ left hand and pried his warm fingers apart, spreading his palm flat. He deposited one coin in the center, a golden half Euro. 

“So, you’re going to throw three coins into the fountain,” Harry said, his voice coming deep into Louis’ throat. “Each one gives you something in return. The first one guarantees you’ll return to Rome someday. Only if you want to, of course. Are you up for it?”

“Is there a— ” Louis cleared his throat. “Like, a proper way to do it?”

“Whatever strikes your fancy,” Harry said. “No rules here, Princess. Roman gods are very forgiving.” 

Louis looked at the cool brass-colored coin in his palm. He worked it up between his thumb and index finger, and then flung it as far as he could, hitting the marble pedestal several meters away. 

“Good arm, my boy!” Niall beamed at him. “Any chance you play a sport? Bang up!” Louis smiled with this compliment.

Harry raised his eyebrows admiringly. “Very nice!” He held up a second coin, a smaller, duller twenty-cent Euro. “Now this one’s for romance. For this coin, the gods will promise you a hot new fling.” 

“Oh boy,” Louis muttered. “Sort of cheesy, don’t you think?”

“Heyyyy,” Harry admonished. “I didn’t say it would be a good romance. Maybe if you’re lucky, Depression Dan, you can get a bad romance.” 

Louis’ lips turned down. “Doesn’t matter. It’s not going to come true anyway.”

“Not if you’re gonna slag it like that!” Niall retorted.

“Who knows?” Harry added. “If you concentrate very hard, darling, maybe your special someone’ll turn out to be a dickhead.” Studying the coin in his hand, he added wryly, “Anyway, it looks like a cheap date. Twenty cents probably won’t get you a Prince Charming.”

“Maybe a Prince Mediocre,” Niall quipped. “Or Prince Slightly Below Average.” 

“Misshapen but still edible,” Harry added.

“Give me that.” Louis grabbed the coin from Harry, muttering under his breath, “Definitely Prince Superior Class, if anything.”  He was craning his arm back to eject it when Harry caught his hand.

“Aren’t you going to make a wish?” he said with an amused smile. “First real kiss and all. Now’s your chance to wish for someone nice.”

Louis’ lips parted to speak, but then his eyes narrowed and he pulled his hand back. He jerked his eyes away from Harry, studiously avoiding him. He hoped he was only blushing from the Roman heat. Louis could feel Niall’s eyes go from him to Harry and back to him again with a glimmer of amusement on his lips, as if watching a miniature ping pong match. Louis said nothing in return, but closed his eyes, concentrating, as Niall and Harry watched.

With a tremor, Louis sent the coin on its feeble journey. The coin skipped once and dropped into the water’s surface, right in front of Harry, only a meter away. All three of them stared at the coin drifting to the bottom.

Harry deadpanned, “Did you mean to aim that at me?”

“I take it back, lame arse,” Niall muttered. “ What a terrible throw. You’re not very athletic at all.”

“I wasn’t aiming!” Louis retorted, staring at the coin. “At anyone! It wasn’t meant to land there. The wind… it…” He protested as the air around them hung dead as concrete. Harry lifted his eyes knowingly at Louis, who was staring resolutely at the coin, trying to make it disappear and avoiding him like poison.

“Sure,” Harry replied drily. “The wind.”

Louis cleared his throat vociferously. “We’ll forget about that one. Let’s move on. What’s next?”

Harry exchanged a look with Niall, before taking out the last coin, an entire euro.

“We’re getting into heavy territory here, Princess. The third coin is for marriage,” Harry answered. “Sex, kissing, kids. The whole lot.” He winked at Louis. “Till death do us part, shared toothbrushes, pets! What do you think? You up for it?”

Louis’ brows furrowed. A small cloud passed over him.

Harry continued, “Is there a special princess for our special Princess?”

With some vehemence, Louis grabbed the coin from him, accidentally cutting his nails into Harry’s skin. It scratched a thin line of red across his thumb. Surprised, Harry jerked his hand back.

“Whoa!” Niall exclaimed. Louis’ reaction was visceral enough to startle him.

Louis’ eyes turned dark, no longer enjoying the game. “You know what? I can think of a million better things to spend this coin on,” he said coldly. “Literally a million other things.”

Niall checked quickly with Harry, then asked, “Not a big fan of marriage?”

Louis took a slow, deep breath and held it. The veins in his neck popped out slowly as he exhaled. He looked away, face tumultuous and overcast, not in the mood. His fist curled around the coin, clasped tightly next to his leg, his knuckles taut and white.

Watching him, Harry cut in. “Well, fuck the silly ritual. Never worked for me either.” He waited. Louis’ lips began to turn up in the slightest smile. “The Roman gods can go fuck themselves, no offense to those present,” he pointed at the sky. “Lou, what would you like to do instead?”

A barely perceptible change flickered over Louis’ face, and then was gone. His fist, clutching the coin, also visibly relaxed. He squared his shoulders ever so lightly, and a calmer, more controlled demeanor took over. On command, Louis Tomlinson had zipped himself into a more disciplined, more public costume— an amazing transformation to witness. He turned to Harry with a neutral, friendly smile. 

“Are you saying you’ll treat, Harry?”

Harry smiled back. Courtney’s money was burning a hole in his trousers. “Of course I’ll treat. I’m a gentleman.”

“So you keep saying.” Louis‘ eyes squinted against the sun. “Then start treating me like a gentleman.”

 

 

 

•••••

 

 

 

Valentino handed the double gelato across the counter. Louis took it quickly, before the ice cream started sliding down the side. After sampling a few flavors, Louis had chosen zabaione and gianduia. Two of his favorite desserts at home were eggnog and chocolate soufflé, and the gelati reminded him of that sweetness.

They were at the Gelateria Valentino, a short walk from the Trevi Fountain. Chips of sugared ice dotted Niall’s lips as he wolfed down his lemon sorbetto. Harry ordered his gelato, and stood at the cash register paying. A few customers drifted in and out to check out the store’s colorful display cases.

“Better?” Harry turned to nudge Louis.

Licking up the side of his gelato, Louis mumbled, “Mmm. Hmm.”

Harry dipped a spoon into his cioccolato fondente gelato— dark chocolate. It was his go-to gelato flavor, and in Rome, some form of it was always available. Harry loved Christmas pudding flavor best, but no gelateria in Italy would indulge this Englishman. He had found it only once, unexpectedly, in a little shop near Florence. Louis’ crunchy little bites into the sugar cone were infuriatingly charming.

Munch, munch, munch. 

You like?” Valentino asked them.

“Hmm.” Louis crunched. “Really good.”

Harry translated, “He says it’s the best he’s ever had.”

Laughing silently, Valentino moved on to serve some new customers. A group of teenagers had entered with their frayed backpacks, and were loudly chatting and joking with each other in French.

Listening to them, Louis said in between his bites, “Naughty!”

Niall explained to Harry, “They’re school kids from Provence.”

Harry raised an eyebrow at them, “Oh, that’s right. You both know French.”

Louis gave him a side eye. “A little.”

“They’re on a lycée holiday,” Niall said. “Cute.”

Louis continued, “They’re saying how they’re going to use their lunch money to get gelato and weed, and hope their chaperones don’t find out.”

“Ha, seriously!” Harry honked a laugh, then put his hand over his mouth. “That’s very sneaky!”

“Can’t trust the French,” Niall remarked. The white sorbetto and pink spoon brought out his shiny, apricot tan. “They’ve got hidden agendas everywhere.”

“Unlike the honest English, you mean,” Louis asked innocently.

This prompted Harry to cough violently, choking on a dollop of gelato. His hand struck his chest as he made gagging noises. The teens turned to stare at him, and Louis eyed him curiously.

“Alright?” 

“Just an,” Harry gasped in a frog voice. “Oat in my throat. Something... got caught.”

Niall raised an eyebrow, “I’ll say.”

The teens had inched up to the counter and were asking to try different flavors of gelato, conversing, laughing loudly and pushing each other. Louis, Harry, and Niall began to move away, finally deciding to leave the tiny shop.

They ambled aimlessly down the street, staying on the shaded side of the road even though a muggy heat encased them. Sweat banded their foreheads, matting their hair down. Looking like a pile of baby snakes, Harry’s locks curled up messily at the ends. Niall’s bangs flagged like wilting barley.

“So, Louis,” Niall said, pushing his sweaty hair out of the way, “what are you doing in Rome, anyway? Just visiting?”

Between bites of sugar cone, Louis mumbled, “Family vacation.”

“He’s got a big family with lots of servants,” Harry explained. He walked up next to Louis and bumped him on the hip. “He’s even got a man who undresses him at bedtime. Named Arthur, isn’t that right?” 

“Ha! Now there’s a fucking cliché!” Niall spat out, laughing like a maniac and looking from Harry to Louis.

“Why?” Louis asked.

“The movie!” Niall said. “Haven’t you seen it? There’s a rich arsehole, played by Dudley Moore, who has a valet named Arthur, played by… what’s his name… Sir John Gielgud… honestly, you’ve never seen it?”

Harry and Louis stared at him dumbly.

“Good God,” Niall exhaled. “It’s classic comedy! And you call yourselves Englishmen!”

Louis mumbled quietly, “I’m not English.”

“How do you even exist in the world?” Niall kept on. “Jokes are flying right by you, left and right.”

“We’re not as cultured as you are, Niall,” Harry teased. “Nor as handsome.”

Niall narrowed his eyes and snarled. “Pathetic. But for real, Louis, you actually have someone undress you every night?”

“Maybe.” Louis bit his lips, keeping more words back. 

“Aren’t you a bit old for it?”

“My family isn’t like other families,” Louis replied quietly, as if it explained everything. He did not elaborate. “We’re… different.” 

Niall chortled. “For sure.”

“Tell me,” Harry prompted Louis. “How are you different? I’d like to know.”

Louis sucked his breath in, his lips tightly closed even though shiny with gelato. “When my parents passed away, I became responsible for a lot of people.”

“Your family,” Niall said cheekily, putting air quotes around “family.”

Harry asked, “I thought you were only fifteen when they passed?”

“A fifteen-year-old understands more than you think,” Louis answered, quickly checking Harry’s reaction. He took a small bite of his cone gravely. “Sometimes one’s life is already mapped out. I am set to inherit my grandfather's business, for example. It’s been in the family for generations, just waiting for me.”

Niall said, “Creepy, though, isn’t it?

“I don’t get that,” Harry said. “You can always choose something else. Aren’t you your own person?”

Niall had finished his sorbetto and ran to throw his cup away. He wiped down his cold, sticky hands on the front of his trousers as he jogged back, licking his lips along the way.

He said, “What does the business do, anyway? I don’t understand why it needs to be passed down generation by generation. You’re not the Illuminati, are you?”

“No, silly.” Louis laughed. “We’re not. It’s hard to explain.”

“Why can’t you just sell the business?”

“It’s not that sort of business,” Louis said. Niall quirked his eyebrow and scowled, as Louis continued. “It’ll never be for sale, I hope. Too many people’s lives would be changed. It’s been in the family too long. I… feel responsible for them. All of our people. My parents always said it was up to me. It’s my duty.”

“Our people.” Harry probed.

Louis twisted to look away, the shopping bag rustling in his hands. “Big family.”

“Sounds quite enigmatic.”

Niall grunted in agreement. “Mysterious and ominous.”

“And posh,” Harry continued. “Big house, servants, drivers…”

“Your lot must be swimming in dough,” Niall blurted out.

Louis finished his cone and wiped his lips demurely, crumpling up the service napkin. He chuckled without much amusement. “It’s not all that glamorous, trust me. I do travel a lot, but I never end up seeing much.” He gestured with his hand. “In fact, this is the first time I’ve been out and about in Rome.” He glanced at Harry quickly. “First time having a gelato too. Treated like a real gentleman, out in public.”

Harry’s dimples caved, and his mouth widened into a deep smile. “There’s a first time for everything, Louis.”

Louis’ eyes flickered with happiness. “Apparently.”

Niall absorbed their nauseating, puppy-love vibes and concluded, “Listen, sweet gentlemen of Verona, I’d love to stay and chat, but Niall Horan has important things to do, places to be, people to meet, et cetera. Gotta make like a politician in an election year, and run.”

“You all say you’re so very important,” Louis remarked. “So many meetings to go to. Such busy bees.” He gestured at the air around himself. “Yet here we are!” Louis laughed softly at their complacency.

Niall ignored him. “It was nice meeting you, P— Louis.” He gave Harry a knowing look. “I’d keep an eye on this one, H. Seems like a proper keeper.”

“Keep an eye on both of us maybe,” Harry said, winking at Niall. “You never know what could happen.”

Louis interrupted, “Why? Will you be kidnapping me?”

Niall laughed heartily. “Ugh, you’re disgusting. Goodbye, you two. Text me if you’re gonna do anything fun later, I’d be up for a night cap. Hazmat, d’you remember that bar I told you about?”

Harry furrowed his brows. “Which one?”

“Down in Trastavere,” Niall said. “The sex positions one. Chocolate and wine— the  bookshop.”

“The tourist trap, you mean,” Harry said. 

“Party pooper!” Niall readjusted the shoulder strap on his bag. “Go on! Give it a try. It’ll take all of ten minutes of your grumpy arse time. They’re nice there. Won't break your bank either.”

“Sex positions?” Louis repeated. “What— ”

“It’s fun,” Niall said. “Not what you think, alright? Get your mind out of the gutter, Lou.” He gestured to Harry. “Make Mr. Crusty Curmudgeon here take you. It’ll be cute, I promise.” Harry shook his head as Niall waved them goodbye, laughing his hyena laugh.

When Harry turned around, Louis was watching him nervously, both hands wrapped tightly around the handle of his shopping bag. He squinted and his lips were pinched closed, spots of sweat glistening on his face.

“You really don’t have to… ” Louis started to shake his head.

“Despite my vast knowledge about being a gentleman,” Harry quipped, right hand on his chin and left arm on his waist, “I seem to be doing a remarkably bad job of putting you at ease.”

Louis’ face puckered as his eyes crinkled in thought. “Ha.” 

“You hungry? Wanna get a bite?” Harry asked.

Louis shook his head, the gelato still in his stomach. His eyes wanted to speak, but he said nothing.

“We could go informal,” Harry suggested. “There’s a great appetizer place around here. Or if you prefer, we could go the full seven courses, but it’s usually sort of too m— ”

“I was wondering, Harry.” Louis’ voice had become steady, focused, steely.

Harry noticed it. It made his chest go cold. “Yeah?”

Louis looked into Harry’s eyes, so intently that Harry almost felt compelled to look away. His directness was burning. “Seems like such an improbable coincidence.”

“What d’you mean?” Harry’s breath was shallow.

“Niall,” Louis answered. Harry tried not to wince; he mostly succeeded. “Finding me. Just— casually — bumping into me in the middle of this,” Louis turned, gesturing, “huge metropolis.”

“Only a few places a tourist can go.” Harry’s voice tremored. “Innit.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I like Niall. He’s a nice guy.” Louis cocked his head, his question lingering. “But Rome’s a very big city. Even I know that.” His gaze bore into Harry with a knowing confidence. 

“Alright!” Harry admitted. His lips were set unapologetically, his jaw square. “I asked him to find you. He found you on purpose.” 

Louis’ eyes widened. They seemed ever more deeply, shockingly blue. “Why?”

Harry’s eyes turned down as he seemed to wrestle with the answer. Louis watched him calmly, silently, waiting for a reasonable explanation.

“Louis.” Harry stepped closer, enough that Louis could make out shimmering sweat in his scalp, smell the scent of grass in his hair. “I’m sorry, but you didn’t even know where you lived last night. You were so knackered… out of it… You had no money! You fell asleep on a park bench, for God’s sake. I don’t know,” Harry paused for a breath. “Call it a gut feeling.”

“You thought that I’d get lost?”

“I think you’re a stranger here. I mean, I know you’re an adult,” Harry said. “Twenty-four-years-old and all. But I know this city. Niall knows this city. Rome is a big, big city.” He raised his eyes to look at Louis once more. An understanding passed between them, a moment of clarity, a transference of words unsaid.

“You were worried about me.”

It came out as little more than a whisper— a wish voiced out loud. As soon as he realized he said it, Louis began to back away, his feet already in motion, his face a battlefield, plotting a line of defense.

Harry reached out to take one of his elbows, merely a few fingers brushing Louis’ skin. He was hesitant.

“Yeah, no. No, I mean, sorry,” Harry stammered. “I know I shouldn’t have. It wasn’t— I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have done.”

“No,” Louis said, his voice a raspy whisper. “It’s not that, Harry. I didn’t mean… I mean, I actually don’t mind.”

“You don’t?”

“No, I’m…” Louis hesitated, frozen like a stone. He wished that Harry would come closer and maybe hold him, or maybe just give him a manly clap on the back, brush it off as a joke. Anything but this fleeting, feather-light feeling that someone might actually care about him, for himself. It was weightier than the worst punishment in the world. Louis wished he could give in to it.

“You’re… “ Harry let go of his arm and gave him space. He waited anxiously. “What?”

“I’m glad.” Louis finished. “I’m glad you decided to… I’m glad you.. we’re…” Louis inhaled, and when he turned away to exhale, it came out as an unmitigated laugh, with such a joyous, great relief, loudly and without inhibition. He laughed so hard that he became breathless, body bent over and hands clasped to his chest. He made helpless gasping sounds but couldn’t stop.

Harry leaned over to check on him, a smile already starting on his face. When he saw that Louis was enthralled by the silent, overwhelming laughter, he began laughing too, for no reason, running his hand through his messy, sweaty, manic curls. So they laughed side by side, crying and gasping, hitting each other and laughing again when they dared to look at each other. It was too hilarious, Harry’s sending Niall in the nick of time, Harry’s worrying about offending Louis, and Louis’ not minding it a bit. It was hilarious because none of it should have made sense; it was weird as fuck. Yet it made perfect sense, because here they were, almost touching, finding ways to touch without really touching, laughing their heads off.

“I’m out of breath,” Louis gasped. “Oh dear. Niall.”

One look at Harry and Louis started laughing uncontrollably again. 

“Arthur,” Harry squeaked out. “John Gielgud.”

“No!” Louis shouted, putting his hand on Harry’s chest. “God, stop.”

They drew closer and closer, batting at each other, their hands brushing with a thrilling electricity. Harry watched Louis’ breathing relax and slow, his chest expand with a calmer luxuriance. It was alright. The uncomfortable moment had passed, and there was an agreement between them, detente. 

Harry almost felt guilty. Louis trusted him. It was worse, much worse, than distrust. 

“C’mon,” Harry said, pulling Louis’ hand. He kept his eyes averted, sticking to his purpose. “God, I’m starving. Let’s get out of here.”

This time, Louis didn’t say no.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

   From a little spark may burst a flame.

  • The Divine Comedy, Dante Alleghieri

 

“You’re fast, Princess,” Harry said, pointing to the bag in Louis’ hand. “Went shopping already?”

”Technically, this belongs to you.” Louis held out the bag’s handles, then glanced at his own torso. “I saw this shirt in a shop window; it called to me. I swear, Harry, I really did appreciate the shirt you lent me. I was just going to have it washed and pressed.”

“Didn’t you like my shirt?” 

“No, no, I do,” Louis replied hurriedly. “Of course I do. You were so nice to lend it to me.”

“Louis, I’m taking the piss.” Harry nudged him. 

Louis pointed to the bag. “Your shirt was a bit— loud, that’s all,” he tried to explain.

“Heyyy, watch it. Hot ‘N Hard is one of my favorites.” 

Louis’s color deepened. He bit his lip. “Is it? Sorry.” 

“Found it in a thrift shop in New York,” Harry said. “But you can keep it if you want.” 

“No. I’ll get it back to you, if it’s your favorite,” Louis said solemnly. “I promise.” 

Harry nodded, then surveyed their surroundings. 

“What do you want to do today?” he said. “First day in Rome. Your choice. The city’s wide open, Princess.” 

Louis considered. “What are my options?” 

“Oh, right,” Harry said. “You don’t know, do you? Hmm… is there anything in particular that you might like to see… top ten Italian baroque churches?” 

Louis pulled a disagreeable face. 

“No,” Harry thought out loud. “Bit niche, maybe. We could go see the Sistine Chapel? Or the Castel Sant’angelo; it’s a pretty cool place. Although, on second thought… you probably won’t like it.” 

“Oh? Why not?” 

Harry paused. “Well. It is a castle.” 

“Ugh,” Louis replied. “You’re right. No thanks.”

Harry shrugged. “Castles could be romantic, you know.” Louis shook his head. “In a goth way? Isn’t that where fairytales happen?” 

“Castles are evil and boring,” Louis said. 

“What about princes and princesses?” Harry asked. “The knights in shining armour?” Without warning, Harry crouched into a fencing position and thrust his right hand forward menacingly. “En garde, Your Liege! I am here to save you.” 

Louis rolled his eyes fondly and brushed his hand away. “That’s not how it works, Tumbleweed. And anyway, it’s Your Royal Highness, actually.” 

“If you say so,” Harry said breezily. “You’re in Rome, Louis! There are a thousand possibilities. If your tastes run to morbid, we could go to the catacombs and see some dessicated monks.” Seeing Louis’ unenthused face, Harry continued, “If you want food, I’ll take you to some brilliant eats. If you prefer romance— ”

“Why do you keep mentioning romance?” Louis interrupted him. “I’m not looking for romance.”

Harry pushed him. “Why not? You do know that Rome is short for Romance.” 

“I’m pretty sure it’s not.” Louis quirked his eyebrow. “And besides, I’m just not interested. I don’t need any other reason.” His face made Harry chuckle. “Why are you snickering?”

“Can't you see it?” Harry slapped him playfully in the upper arm. Louis swerved, but too late. Harry already made contact. “How you play yourself.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“You try to be so cool on the surface, as if you don’t care,” Harry explained. “So cynical and weary. I get it. But on the inside, you’re wondering who’s going to give you your true love’s kiss. You’re a romantic, Princess. If that’s not a contradiction— ”

“Oh, do shut up,” Louis flushed pink from the neck up. 

Harry nudged him. “Admit it.” 

“It’s not anything like that.” Louis stepped away to avoid more slapping. “I’m more experienced than you think, Styles. I’ve had all the make-out action I’ve ever wanted.” 

“Oh, bro.” Harry kept his features neutral. “Sure you have.” 

Louis turned on him. “I’m not a prude, dickhead. I can get it if I want it. Anytime.” 

“Mmm-kay.”

“Some of us just happen to have standards,” Louis continued. He turned on his heels and began walking away, talking quickly. Caught off guard, Harry tried to keep up. “We have self-control. We don’t poke our ‘things’ in random holes for no reason.” 

“Oi, self-control!” Harry laughed. “Is that what you call it?” 

Louis glared. “You can joke if you want to. Unlike you, intimacy has to mean something for me. A touch, a kiss. Otherwise it’s pointless, isn’t it? I mean.” He bit his lips, too late to keep the words back. “What do you really think? Tell the truth, Harry. You read poetry. What do the poets think about it?” Louis twisted back, glancing at him. 

“Who cares what the poets think?” Harry frowned, gesticulating. “This is real life.” 

Louis looked at him coldly.

“What do you want me to say?” Harry continued. “Literature is also full of people randomly fucking.” Louis winced at his words. “You can’t take what you read as a recipe for life, mate. Sometimes you have to make a leap of judgment and go for it.” 

“So it’s ok to hook up with random people?” Louis asked, indignant. “Just like that? I can’t believe you. I mean, technically I shouldn’t care. I have my principles, and obviously yours are very different. It’s totally fine if we don’t share values.” 

Louis began stomping away like a herd of wild stallions. Harry circled his long arm out and tried to stop him, but instead hit Louis in a ticklish spot, making him jump. Louis yelped loudly and swerved away. 

“Get off, you’re annoying!” 

“Sorry!” Harry’s strides were longer, and he caught up in no time. “Come on, Louis.” 

“Let me go,” Louis spat out.

“Please,” Harry begged again. He managed to hold him still, to the point where Louis was no longer trying to stomp forward. “Listen to me for a sec.” 

Louis chewed his lips, but stopped wriggling, his hands crossed challengingly in front of his chest. 

Harry paused, took a deep breath, and then continued more slowly. “I know what you mean. Intimacy should be meaningful. But I also think it isn’t immoral to want a little romance.” 

“That’s not— ” 

“Shhh.” Harry put a finger on Louis’ lips to stop him talking. “I meant, for you, Louis, personally. It’s okay to want what you want. Nothing’s going to break. The world will still turn.” 

Louis stared at him hard. His lip trembled as Harry continued. “I’m not saying hop in the sack with anybody.” Louis waited, watching him. “But it’s ok to let yourself think about it. To dream about it. I’m not going to judge you or tell on you, for sure.” Harry shrugged. “Who would I tell, anyway?”

“You don’t get it,” Louis protested. “I can’t do that. On principle. I have higher standards to meet.” 

“But why?” 

Harry sighed, unraveling one of Louis’ hands and turning it between them, palm side up. For a moment, Louis thought he might lean forward and jokingly kiss his hand, and he wavered between wanting that to happen and pulling it away. He breathed shallowly, waiting. Although his hand was open, Louis’ small muscles felt tight and hard. But then Harry began to trace the crease of his lifeline with his index and middle fingers, meandering from Louis’ wrist up to his joints, gently and absentmindedly, like a goat going up a mountain trail. It was soothing. 

Holding his hand motionless, Louis could not take his eyes off Harry’s finger. He gulped quietly, hoping his throat wouldn’t make a noise. 

“You don’t know much about me either,” Harry said quietly. “Maybe I’m not as bad as you think.” 

“You travel a lot,” Louis blurted out. “You’ve had an exciting life. You’ve been everywhere, met lots of people. You’re a Tumbleweed.”

“Yes.” Harry waited. “And?”

“You talk as if you’ve had many relationships, so many that you’ve lost count,” Louis said. “Maybe your heart doesn’t get broken anymore. Or there’s no heart,” his finger gently poked at Harry’s chest, “in there.” 

“Is that what you really think?” 

“I don’t...” Louis hesitated. “I don’t know.” 

Harry was still holding his hand. Even as Louis looked aside, he felt Harry’s eyes bore into him. 

“Maybe my heart’s been broken just once,” Harry replied slowly, “and not in the way you think.” 

Louis’ eyes shot open. “How?”

“I’ll tell you another time, if you’ll give me the chance,” Harry replied. “It’s a long story.” Louis’ shoulders sagged back. “I’m not as callous as you think. I might surprise you.”

Louis checked Harry’s expression then, to see whether he was kidding. Harry blinked and broke their eye contact. 

“I can’t be that bad, else you wouldn’t be here with me, right?” Harry let go of Louis’ hand and turned, ready to continue walking. After a few steps, Harry turned back abruptly. 

“Lou,” he added, “you too.” Gently, he came closer, his hand reaching out. Barely touching Louis’ shirt, he traced the shape of a heart in the pristine, soft fabric. Louis felt his heart quicken. “In here.” 

Louis chewed his lip, looking away, the sun bleaching his hair ray by ray. He shuffled his feet and struggled to come up with a reply. Just as he started, Harry put his finger on his lips, shushing him.

“What’s inside matters, other people’s standards be damned,” Harry said. “You feel alive inside, don’t you? It’s not a crime. It’s part of being a human being to want love.” 

No one had ever talked to Louis like this. He wasn’t sure what to feel. A warmth rose from his belly, snaking up his middle. 

“I can’t,” Louis said, shaking his head. “I just can’t.” 

Harry drew closer. “You can. Someone like you deserves more. You know that.” 

Louis furrowed his brows, dropped his eyes and turned away. After a moment, he felt Harry touch his chin and pull him back in. Louis realized he had been clenching his jaws so hard that his muscles popped and his cheek was sore. 

Louis refused to look at him. Instead, he stared resolutely at the middle of Harry’s chest, right through his shirt, a valley between muscular mountains. Ridiculous, fantastic male anatomy, he thought, his mind momentarily distracted. 

Louis wished he could run away, but also wished that he could give in and fall into Harry’s arms. What would it feel like? Would it be so bad? His chest was a valley of soft, bouncy muscles, a veritable human trampoline. 

Looming tall in front of Louis, Harry held Louis’ hand in a calm and relaxing manner. Louis wanted to memorize this feeling, so he could call it up in the bad times to come. Somewhere around him, walls were noiselessly crumbling away.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Louis said. 

“I mean,” Harry said in a matter-of-fact way, “someone as nice as you deserves better.” He waited for Louis to interrupt him, but he did not. “You weren’t meant to be hard, Louis. You’ve watched a thousand versions of love happen, haven’t you? And you deserve— ” Harry paused, running an impatient, nervous hand through his hair. “You know what? Somebody needs to kiss you. Soon.”

Louis felt the floor of his heart drop down. He made a feeble attempt to break away. “Stop teasing me.”

“I’m not,” Harry said, his hand steady and strong. 

Louis felt like a child at a new playground, shy and inexperienced, the play equipment completely foreign to him. 

“I’m nobody,” Louis said. “No one.” 

“You are someone, alright,” Harry said. He pulled on Louis’ hand, drawing him closer. “I suspect that’s the problem.” 

Louis looked into Harry’s light green eyes, intelligence and knowing filling his kind face. 

“Who am I?” Louis asked him.

Harry chuckled. “Someone special. That’s my guess.” 

“Then who’s supposed to kiss me?” 

Louis looked up at Harry, his eyes filled with questions, the sun glinting off his gold-flecked lashes. They were, once again, as much in each other’s space as possible without intersecting. Harry squinted hard. 

“That’s up to you,” he said. “Sometimes you have to make the first move.” 

Louis inched ever closer, close enough for Harry to see distinct lashes and feel his rapid breaths. His expression intense and serious, Louis moved closer, until their noses were nearly touching. With a sense of anticipation, Louis opened his mouth, as Harry readied himself, his lips perked and eyes ready to close.  

“Tumbleweed,” Louis whispered.

“Yeah?” 

“I think I might have had too much water,” Louis said pertly. “Must have overestimated my thirst.” Louis’ left eye winked languidly, his lashes like a moth’s wing. “I need a washroom please.” 

Harry sighed dramatically. “For God’s sake.” 

Louis let go of Harry and hopped away. “What did you think I was going to say?” 

“I don’t— ” Harry clenched his jaw. “You— ” 

Louis raises his brows coquettishly. “I feel alive!”

Harry gritted his teeth. “Congratulations.” 

“For what it’s worth, I did hear every word you said,” Louis said. “And I’m going to think about it, I swear. But right now I really do need to wee.” 

The corners of Harry’s lips turned down as Louis laughed. “It’s what’s inside that counts, you said so. Right now what’s inside is a full bladder.” 

“God, you’re funny.” 

“Aren’t I!” Louis grabbed his arm. “Come on, take me to the nicest toilet in Rome. What are you waiting for? You promised.” 

Louis laughed wickedly as people watched them, two beautiful young men flirting so blatantly with each other, so joyful and carefree, it was like a dream. It was as if at any moment, the marble statues might start talking. 

 

 

 

•••••

 

Although St. Peter’s had a hundred defects, the Pantheon had none. 

  • Gian Lorenzo Bernini 

 

They walked along the shade of the buildings, where the sidewalk simmered. The concrete and brick radiated the sun, its brilliance bouncing from the windows on the ground floor. Taller windows on the upper floors reflected the clouds, floating by in panes of dark glass. The men walked closer to each other than before, with a fresh and comfortable intimacy. There was no hesitation when they needed to scoot together to let someone pass, no awkwardness in brushing their bodies against each other. They felt the touch of each other’s skin pleasantly. 

“So tell me, seriously. Have you never had a girlfriend?” Harry turned toward Louis. 

“No,” Louis half-cackled. “Definitely not a girlfriend.” 

Harry looked at Louis skeptically. “Are they very picky, where you’re from?”

“Who?” 

Harry scowled. “The girls.” 

“Ay, girls.” A vigorous cough attacked Louis. “Are you insinuating I’m a leper or something?” 

Harry shot him a glance. Louis felt his neck glow up with heat, and turned away nervously. They were moving north, the sun steadily climbing overhead, heat and light beating down. 

“You know what I mean,” Harry insisted. “I’m trying to figure out why you haven’t ever had a partner. Are the girls cute, where you live? Are they polite? Nice? Approachable? Or are they boring and heinous?” 

“They’re not— ” Louis stammered. “‘Course they aren’t heinous. Some are very charming. Some are quite funny and athletic as well.” 

“So you appreciate a funny ball juggler. Am I hearing you correctly?”

Louis looked up in alarm. Then he caught himself, cleared his throat and chuckled. “Very funny. They’re the best ladies in the world, if I might say so myself.” 

Harry shook his head and smiled. “You’re amazing, you know that.” 

“Why?” 

“You’re so fucking good at swerving,” Harry said. “You never say anything. You’re an amazing machine.” 

“No, I’m not,” Louis winced. “I’m genuinely proud of where I’m from. We’re a good people, and that includes the women.” 

“So?” Harry turned his head. “Where is that, anyway? Where are you from?”

Instead of answering, Louis looked up. 

They had turned the corner and stopped at a storefront, in the shady side of the street. On the way, they passed elegant hotels, and Balenciaga and Gucci boutiques, all of which Louis walked by without a second glance. The unassuming cafe in question sat between tall grey buildings, it’s entrance marked by a slim stone arch. The white awning said, “Caffè Greco,” in gothic lettering. An elegant stencil of “TEA ROOM” decorated the store window in burnished gold. The glass revealed a glimpse of the incandescent  glow and crimson walls inside. 

“Are we finally here?” Louis asked, avoiding Harry’s question and hopping from leg to leg. “Really have to wee.” 

Harry shook his head, admiring Louis’ timing and his ability to duck questions. He really was a pro. 

“Come on. Let’s have a drink at the bar first.” 

They walked up to the front of the cafe, threading their way through other people milling about and getting their small pastries and beverages. The din of conversation was joined by the frequent clinks of plates and silverware being set down or cleared away. Men gathered near the cash register, conversing in rapid Italian, their demitasse cups in one hand and the other gesticulating forcefully. The dark polished wood reflected a large display case of fresh baked goods. A small crowd hovered over it, their fingers smudging the glass as they pointed. Sugar and buttery scents dotted the air. 

Harry ordered their espressos while Louis left to find the toilet. The barista briskly fired up the drinks and set the cups on the counter on tiny saucers. Harry was about to take his first sip when he caught sight of Louis coming back between waiters and tables. 

“And?” Harry raised an eyebrow. 

“It’s clean enough.” Louis picked up his cup, took a sip. “I guess. Not sure about it being the nicest in Rome though.” 

“Pretty nice, wasn’t it?” 

Louis was puzzled. “It was alright.”

“That’s toilet with a famous history,” Harry said. “The best spot to wee in Rome. Jot that down for your travel notes.” 

“Was Jesus here or something?” Louis smirked. “The holy pee.” 

Ignoring him, Harry recited, “Sobald du dir vertraust, sobald weißt du zu leben. Something like that.” 

“Oh God,” Louis was on alert. “You’ve gone and done a quote.” 

Harry narrowed his eyes. “The person who wrote that might have been here. It means, ‘As soon as you trust yourself, you’ll know how to live.’” 

With wary looks on their faces, they both said simultaneously, “Goethe.” 

“I knew it!” Louis rolled his eyes and dismissed him with a wave of his wrist. “Ugh. Huge poseur.” 

“What?” Harry was incredulous. “No! Goethe was a great philosopher!” 

Louis countered, “Nope.” 

Harry made a face. “Yes, he was.” 

“He virtually manufactured quotes, Harry,” Louis said, to Harry’s consternation. “And they’re like, the worst— feel-good cliches, aren’t they? I bet people buy posters of Goethe to hang up in their office cubicles, just to shoot darts at it.” 

“They do not!” Harry retorted. “You’re just being contrarian now. Have you actually read him?” 

Louis glanced back. 

“No need to. I saw another one of his word-vomits on the wall back there.” Louis gestured behind himself. “By the toilet. It was equally limp, by the way. Figured this place had a boner for him or something. Like a Goethe fetish club.” 

Harry laughed out loud. Louis wasn’t wrong. 

“Tell me who else might’ve wee’d here then,” Louis challenged him, “so I can pay the proper respects.” 

“Well, there’s John Keats,” Harry said. “You can’t hate on Keats. He used to live up the street from— ”

“— blah blah blah bunch of depressing autumn shite. Next!” 

“Depress— !” Harry furrowed his brows, his mouth hanging open. “You’re impossible. Alright, there’s Lord Byron, Casanova…” 

“And me, now, as well,” Louis added saucily. “That makes one important person, at least.” Harry rolled his eyes. “Although I have to admit, the washroom was proper nice. Oh, and I gave the attendant a tip— that is the correct etiquette, isn’t it? It seemed odd to have someone watch me pee. I figured he was supposed to be paid.” 

Harry took a deep breath. “How much did you tip him?”

“Whatever I had left. Tenner, maybe?” 

Harry widened his eyes. “You gave a ten-Euro tip to the washroom attendant?” 

“Something like that.” Louis squinted. “Is that too much?” 

“You spent everything you had on a washroom tip,” Harry repeated. 

“Worth it,” Louis answered, leaning closer. “He handed me a towel. Proper gentleman, he was.” 

Harry stared helplessly at Louis, then felt his trouser pocket to make sure Courtney’s money was still there. 

“Come on then,” he said. 

“Where are we going?” 

Harry grunted. “I need some real lunch, and for once, I’ve got cash, even if you think everything is free and money is fake. Some of us actually have to earn that money. Are you hungry?”

Louis thought it over. “Can we go for pizza?” 

Harry relaxed, surprised that nothing Louis says can surprise him any further. “Is that what you want?” 

Louis smiled impishly. “I think I would, actually!” 

“Well,” Harry agreed. “There’s pizza everywhere, but you’re in Rome, Louis.”

“And?” 

“Rome is for something special,” Harry smiled. “If you’re only here for a short time, I want to make it memorable for you.” 

For you. A wild, winged creature flip inside Louis’ chest, but he flicked it away. 

They exited the restaurant and headed toward a wide plaza with a large and ornate fountain, the famous Spanish Steps. People milled about, taking their rest. The wide stone stairs were flanked on either side by pastel-colored buildings in which Romantic poets had come, centuries ago, for the Italian sun to dry their consumptive lungs, only to perish months later, their faces still youthful and smooth. 

Louis skipped on the brick sidewalk. “Can we go to Niall’s bar then? The chocolate one?”

“Oh, your gutter mind.” Harry shook his head in mock despondency. “You’re still thinking about those sex positions, aren’t you? What were you saying about sticking your thing everywhere, again, Princess?”

“There’s no actual sticking,” Louis corrected. “According to Niall, anyway. Only sexy cocktails.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “Maybe we will later. It’s in the Trastevere, where we’re headed, but I’ve never actually been there myself.”

“Then it’s something new for both of us.” Louis nudged Harry. “We can share it. It sounds interesting, don’t you think?” 

“Sounds like a big tourist trap,” Harry said. “But why not. Let’s tuck it away for later.” 

Heat dripped down from the double-towered cathedral on the top of the steps, getting hotter with every concrete step. Even the people sitting on them were melting, their hands helplessly fanning the still air. Louis and Harry turned south in the slim shade of buildings. 

“Can we still do pizza as well?” Louis asked as they walked.

Harry said affectionately. “You really want pizza?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever properly had it.” 

Harry did a second look, and then stopped in his tracks. 

“Excuse me, you’ve never what?” 

“Had proper pizza,” Louis repeated. “I mean I have, of course. Sometimes I go to the kitchen and Cook gives me a bite. The roy— we have a sort of family tradition. We don’t eat anything without silverware.” 

“Hang on,” Harry interrupted, a hand on Louis’ arm. “Have you never eaten sweets? Or a bar of chocolate?” 

“Of course?” Louis looked at him as if he were crazy. 

Harry responded, “But chocolate isn’t served with silverware?” 

“Yes, it is.” 

“No?” Harry tilted his head indignantly, resisting the urge to get closer. “It isn’t?” 

“At ours, it is. Always. As grandfather said, if one wishes to taste food properly, one uses silverware. With real silver.” 

“Bollocks!” Harry couldn’t stop himself any longer. His hand dragged through his hair, sending his curls in a sweaty cascade. “The whole point of chocolate is to eat it for fun. What your lot does is straight up mental!” 

You’re mental,” Louis responded calmly. “Maybe have a slice of pizza and calm down, Curly. I’d even cut it up for you. I’ll use plastic silverware if it makes you feel more at home. More salt-of-the-earth, like.” 

“I’m going to strangle you,” Harry said. “Kickstart the revolution.” 

Harry inhaled deeply and shook his head, as Louis started giggling. Harry realized then that Louis had been teasing him, winding him up. He had finally got Harry back. Harry conceded: one point to the Prince. Harry began to grin as well. He couldn’t help it. The Prince was charming. 

“Come to Naples one day,” Harry said, amused, “and I’ll treat you to the best pizza ever made.”

Louis’ eyes were still sparkling. “Really?”

“It’s simply the best in the world,” Harry said, and then on thinking further, “Because of history, I suppose. Neapolitan stubbornness. Passion. There’s nothing else quite like it.” He grinned, looking at Louis. “It’s Naples magic.” 

“Magic,” Louis sighed. 

It hit Harry, then, how different Louis seemed when he was genuinely happy. His edges softened as his eyes relaxed and creased. His stance was no longer so rigidly defensive. His shoulders curved in and his head was held lightly. Louis hiccuped, catching himself, and shook his fringe down, brushing it aside with a few fingers. His body was a thin sparrow, small and fluid. He became vulnerable, his armor fallen away. 

Still lost in his thoughts, Harry could only stare at Louis, mesmerized by the juxtaposition of wiry toughness and vulnerability, his agility and frailty, and the intense, oceanic blue of his eyes, until Louis grew self-conscious and coughed. 

“So, which way, Harry?” 

“Oh!” Harry shook himself out in embarrassment. “We’re pretty close to the Pantheon. Want to see it?” 

“The Pantheon?” 

Harry asked, “Have you heard of it?” 

Louis’ smile was small and contained. “A little bit. Let’s go.”

The noise of the crowd increased as they traveled down the uneven brick sidewalk toward the monumental temple. Louis kept track of Harry by the glints of sunlight on top of his head. 

A gigantic, clay-colored temple soon came into view across the piazza. A wide fountain burbled in the center of the square before them. Eight repeating Corinthian columns loomed in front of the temple like a sentry of guards, their fancy headdresses stretching to the sky. The entrance was topped by a massive, blank pediment, a stage set for ancient gods and goddesses. Like all intact ancient ruins, it was surreal. 

“There she is,” Harry gestured. “The grand old lady.” 

“She’s old, isn’t she?” 

“She was already ancient when Michelangelo was born. Imagine that.” 

They wound their way toward the monument. The piazza was crowded with people taking photos, walking, standing, resting, sweating— surrounded by outdoor tables for restaurants and bars. People were queuing in line in front of restaurant entrances, leaning against anything they could, sticky with futility and fanning themselves.

Louis and Harry entered the cool, dark interior of the Pantheon with light dropping from above. Harry gave Louis a moment to absorb it all, every surface a marbled color, enormous in scale yet balanced and harmonious. Louis’ mouth was opened slightly, in rapt attention. 

“What do you think?” Harry asked. 

Louis’ eyes were a brilliant, sapphire blue in the darkness, as if lit from within. He saw it all with a keen intelligence, distilling hundreds of pages of knowledge into a few minutes of sight and sound. He was compressing it all into his mind. Even when he stayed quiet, his eyes were loud with curiosity, hunger. 

“Cool,” he said to Harry. “It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?”

“It’s supposed to be the same diameter across the floor as it is to the top of the building,” Harry pointed. 

“Up at the oculus,” Louis said, his eyes traveling up to the hole in the roof. 

“Oh,” Harry said. “Is that what that’s called?” 

“Mm.” Louis continued gazing at it. “Eye to the sky. Never thought I’d actually see it in person.” 

“How do you know about this place?” 

“Read about it, some. Did you know,” Louis turned to Harry and gestured toward the ceiling, “a giant sphere would fit perfectly in here, top to bottom. Read about that, too.” 

Read about it. Prince Louis’ tutors had made him memorize the entire timeline of the Emperor Hadrian and the rebuilding of the Pantheon after the great fire, its conversion from pagan to Christian worship after the Roman Empire, the artistic and mosaic patterns that were also found in Pompeii. Until now, Louis had never seen anything like it. He never cared much about it, because he assumed it would never matter to him. He could hardly believe he was actually here, and didn’t have to make a speech in front of a crowd commemorating some dead person. There wasn’t a picture-perfect, deliquescing flower arrangement anywhere. No one pushed him into place to be photographed. No one shoved him onto an elevated platform. He could do whatever he wanted. 

Louis walked to the nearest wall and rested his hand on a column, letting the cool marble seep into his palm. Even with hundreds of people inside, the Pantheon felt otherworldly, like an entrance to Hades. The sarcophagi along the walls and the three-dimensional floor patterns shimmered like cenotes. Louis was reminded of the green lake of his nightmares, except here, human genius had tamed everything to a dark clarity. 

“It feels like drowning,” Louis said out loud, to no one in particular, “doesn’t it? In a nice way.”

Harry turned toward him. “What are you on about?” 

“Like Hades,” Louis marveled. “The underworld. The River Styx. Do you know what I mean?” Seeing Harry’s confusion, he snapped out of it and tried to laugh it away. “Nothing. Never mind. I was only joking. Forget about it.” 

Harry frowned. “Not to criticize or anything, Louis, but you’re kinda— not making any sense.” Louis’ eyes widened. “And you seem to keep a lot of secrets. What else is in that mind of yours?” 

“Do I?” Louis’ voice squeaked. “Huh.” He strolled slowly along the wall, tracing the stone surface with one finger. As usual, Harry’s question went unanswered. 

Harry pursued nevertheless. “For instance, you didn’t answer my question from before.” 

“Which was?” 

Harry stopped. “Where are you from?” 

Louis sighed in relief. “Doncaster,” he said. “A tiny kingdom. Have you ever been?” 

“Never,” Harry said. “And you’re here on vacation?” 

“You could say that,” Louis said. They walked along the gently curving wall. “I’m officially here on government business. Boring, bureaucratic stuff.” He raised a hand. “That part I actually can’t discuss.” 

“Fair enough,” Harry said. “You’re alone, then? No significant other?” 

Louis paused. “Mm. No.” 

Harry stopped walking, forcing Louis to stop as well. “I don’t get it. You’re young, funny, you’re not incredibly horrible, tolerably fit…” 

“Thanks for saying I’m not horrible,” Louis said. 

“Not incredibly.”

Louis laughed. “You really know how to make a guy feel special. And anyway, maybe I have,” Louis answered defensively. “A secret girlfriend. Why do you want to know?” 

Harry met his eyes. “Just curious.” 

Louis sucked his lip in, his eyes cast to the ground, and leaned against the cold wall. He brought one arm around as if to cross his chest, but then continued on in a one-handed hug, feeling his fingers up and down the short-sleeved shirt. It was a gesture of tense nerves, and Harry almost told him to forget about it; the question felt too raw. Louis was shrinking into himself. 

Then Louis did something unexpected— he cocked his head to one side and shrugged, a motion both off-handed and determined. Whatever, it said. Might as well. Harry noticed a tiny tug to the corner of his lip as he squared his shoulders and became still. His chest puffed out. He took a deep breath and raised his chin. 

“I don’t have a girlfriend,” Louis stated slowly and clearly, “because I don’t like girls.” 

Harry waited, unsure whether Louis had more to say. “Oh.” 

“I’ve tried,” Louis turned to him. 

“You don’t have to explain.” Harry was still processing those words. 

“I’ve never told anyone,” Louis cut in. “And now, you know. You’re the first.” 

Harry became still. Louis looked up and shrugged with a thin smile. 

“No one else knows?” Harry asked. “You’re sure?” 

“No one.” Louis shook his head. “You said so yourself, Harry. You wouldn’t judge.” 

“Right,” Harry swallowed. “I did say that.” 

“So,” Louis said tentatively. “It’s our secret then. Just between you and me.” 

Harry frowned, his lips pinched in a line. “Just us.” 

“I’m glad,” Louis said. “I thought you might understand. After today, whatever else happens, it doesn’t matter as much. At least one person in the world knows the truth.” He smiled, both resigned and relieved. “I’m gay, Harry. I’ve never kissed anyone because it’s never felt right. When I’ve kissed girls— it didn’t count for me. That wasn’t me.”

“Louis,” Harry breathed lightly. 

Louis continued, “There wasn’t anyone who could know… before, you know? No, you couldn’t possibly understand, Harry, but there was no one I could confide in.” He took a deep breath. “Now there’s you. I’m actually glad it’s you.” 

Harry winced, saying nothing.

Louis’ hand strayed to the charm at his throat. “You’re like my Pandora’s box, Harry. My last hope.” He shrugged and laughed lightly, twisting the chain between his fingers. “It actually feels good to say it. I’m… gay.” 

Louis looked so small then, so alone and slight, that Harry wanted to pull him in and reassure him, but instead Harry rocked on his heels, backing away slowly. “I didn’t mean to pry.”

Louis frowned, watching him. “I wouldn’t have told you if I didn’t want to?” 

Harry ran his hand across his face. His curls were matted damply to his forehead. He pushed them off roughly, taking a deep breath. 

“Harry,” Louis continued. “I’m good, actually. Like you said, no one else knows, and no one cares, right?” He looked at Harry with softness, and then playfully punched him in the stomach. “What you said before— you were right. It is okay to admit it. I do want something that I can’t ever have. Just saying it out loud makes me feel a little bit better.” 

“I didn’t think— ” Harry began. “Louis, I wasn’t making any assumptions about your sexuality. I hope you didn’t think that.”

“It’s alright, Harry. Now I’ve said it, I can let it go.” Louis continued, and then looked away quickly. “Last night I was lost and alone in the city. You could have passed me by, but you took care of me and made me feel safe. With no assumptions about me. Your actions tell me you’re a stand-up sort of person.” Harry coughed, not willing to confess that Louis’ beauty may have swayed him more than a little. “And today, you even sent Niall after me. You were worried about me. I… appreciate that. By the way, he’s proper funny, that one.” 

“Yeah, well. Niall’s a good man,” Harry said. “Always gets the job done. Proper bloodhound.” 

Louis smiled. “Can I ask you something?” 

Harry squirmed, fingers curled tight against his leg. “Shoot.” 

“When you said I was nice before, did you mean it? You weren’t just puffing me up.” 

“‘Course I wasn’t.” Harry’s heart hammered. “I meant it.” 

Louis took a breath in, and then grinned with relief. “Shall we make it even, then? You tell me a secret. I promise I won’t tell anyone.” 

Harry looked into Louis’ eyes, his lashes long and still, the beauty of the color piercing him, and Louis’ cheeks flushed with high color. Harry felt the heaviness of his betrayal. 

“Maybe later,” he said feebly. 

“You’re a mysterious one,” Louis said, putting a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “Now who’s holding back? You owe me.” 

The feeling of guilt still heavy in him, Harry shifted away. 

“Oh.” Louis took his hand back in surprise. “I’m sorry.”

“No,” Harry said. “It’s— ”

“Was it because of what I said?” Louis winced. 

“No, no, no,” Harry retorted, loudly enough that several people turned their heads. His eyes were pleading and intense. “It’s not that. I would never think that.” 

“Then… ” Louis backed away. 

“Louis,” Harry cut himself off and turned aside, a hand rummaging through his hair by nervous habit. “Listen to me. Stuff like this— personal stuff— you can’t be so... trusting. Don’t trust people. Don’t trust anybody, me included. You don’t know what people are really like.” 

“Why?” Louis’ voice was trembling. “I know what you’re like. I do trust you.” 

“But.” Harry pushed down the panic rising in his throat. “Should you?” 

Louis fixed his eyes on Harry. “Yes, I’m certain of it. I’m a good judge of character.” 

Harry began pacing away, the conflicting feelings inside driving him mad. His head was going in circles while Louis regarded him with a disarming innocence. He wanted to blurt it all out, but he couldn’t. This game had gone too far.

Louis stood there with a forlorn and lost expression on his face. The penumbra of the Pantheon seemed to be swallowing him. His hands hung small and listless by his side.

In a moment, Harry turned back and tugged Louis in, sealing their shirts together in a hug. He could feel Louis’ chest moving erratically, his heart pounding impossibly hard inside. Harry wrapped his arms around Louis warmly, in spite of the heat around them, burying his head in the crook of Louis’ neck. It would be so easy to let him know. He felt Louis’ shoulders freeze, and then slowly relax and sink, giving in. Harry wanted to hold him there, on the other side of knowing what an untrustworthy, deceitful, careerist creep he truly was, before Louis could begin to hate him, before reality would divide them forever. Louis settled in. His thumb gripped Harry’s back, hooking him in place, and his chin rested on Harry’s shoulder. 

“Louis, you’re very brave,” Harry told him. “Remember that. So very good and true.” 

“Thank you,” Louis answered through Harry’s skin. After a long moment, Louis added, “I’m glad it was you that I told.” 

“I wish— ” Harry stopped, his words caught in his throat. 

“What is it?” 

“I wish you could have all the happiness in the world,” Harry said. “Someday. I wish everything ends well for you.” 

Louis inhaled Harry’s sweat and salt, feeling safe as he seldom had before. He felt his agitation slowed down, a calm stillness enter. He wanted to remember this moment. 

“You’ve already given me a lot,” he said. 

He felt Harry shiver, and then hug him even tighter, his hands pressed into Louis’ back. 

Finally, Harry broke their embrace. A few curious onlookers were glancing surreptitiously at them. Harry’s eyes seemed to glisten when he looked at Louis, at his beaming happiness. The light inside the Pantheon gave him a luminous glow. Harry didn’t want to let him go. He wanted to keep his skin connected to Louis, in some way linking them together a little longer. This was also the happiest he had felt in a long time. He couldn’t deny it. Harry made eye contact, and made sure Louis was paying attention to him. He started walking out of the Pantheon. Louis followed. They were two against everyone else. The light of the oculus stayed in the Pantheon, guarding the souls of the underworld. 

 

 

•••••

 

The sedan with diplomatic license plates sat firmly in one of Rome’s infamous traffic jams, surrounded by invisible exhaust fumes. Besides the plate, the car had no distinctive marks, a black Mercedes like thousands of other air-conditioned, S-series sedans, ferrying the city’s rich from office to boutique to home. This car, however, was going nowhere. Similarly, its occupants were mentally spinning, the darkly tinted windows concealing their angst. 

“Has Owen found out anything?” Liam’s worried face was even worse than his happy face, with a transparency that concealed nothing, only a desperate hope for good news. 

Gates shook his head. “Our men have been surveying the area near the Colosseum this morning. They showed photographs of the Prince to a few passersby, as discreetly as they could— ” 

“Jesus, they didn’t!” Liam gasped. “You’re not seriously having them wave his photo around, Joseph! If it gets out that he’s missing, it would be a diplomatic crisis.”

Gates said somberly, “The Anesidorans will be extremely unhappy. We have already put them in a bind, as it is. Princess Eleanor isn’t accustomed to waiting for errant Princes, and an international treaty cannot be held hostage to his whims.”

Liam looked out at the unmoving traffic. “How did they take it?” 

“As well as can be expected,” Gates sighed. “Their delegation was ready. And although there may be some fine points, in essence the treaty needed only signatures from the two countries. Now the entire process has been postponed, and we have no reasonable excuse. The press— ” 

“Vultures, you mean.” 

“The press cannot be held off without further explanation, if this goes on.” Gates paused. “You and I both know that. We will have to come up with something better than a stomach bug.” 

“We can’t have the Prince ill for too long,” Liam said. 

“No.” Gates shook his head just as his pocket vibrated, alerting him of a new text. He retrieved the diplomatic phone and entered the two-step password to unlock it.

Looking at Liam, Gates said, “It’s Owen.”

Liam leaned toward him. “What does he say?” 

“They’ve found eyewitnesses,” Gates answered. “A busker dressed as a Roman centurion, by the Colosseum, has seen the Prince. He’s fairly certain it was His Royal Highness. It says,” he squinted, “that the Prince was spotted in civilian clothing, and behaving in a ‘confused’ manner.” 

“What does that mean?” Liam bit his lip. 

“Wait. There’s more.” Gates scrolled down. “A tourist group saw him as well.” He turned to Liam. “It looks like we have an approximate location, Mr. Payne, and a time stamp. Our search will fan out from there— His Highness will probably be on foot, and we can estimate where he’s most likely to be by now, within a given perimeter.”

“We’ve got a lead, then.” 

“A member of the royal family will never be lost for long, Payne. Sooner or later, someone will step up to claim him.” 

“Claim him?” Liam knitted his brows together anxiously, “I don’t like the way that sounds.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“You aren’t exactly making me feel better.”

“Mr. Payne,” Gates said coldly. “My responsibility is to Doncaster and to His Royal Highness, not to make you ‘feel better.’ I’m afraid you’ll have to create your own happy place.” 

“You sure?” Liam said without a hint of irony. “I could do with a bit of cheering up. Do you think he’s okay, though?”

“The Prince is smarter than you think,” Gates replied. “He has more wits about him than mere book learning, and that’s saying a lot. We both know His Royal Highness is conversant in several languages— ” 

“He can get around,” Liam said. “I know, I know.” 

“If you’ll excuse my frankness, Mr. Payne,” Gates said. “His Royal Highness can do much more than ‘get around.’ He’s actually quite brilliant.” 

Liam sighed. This information did not reassure him. “Have you contacted Princess Charlotte or the others?” 

“No,” Gates said. “We’ve secured all personnel on a strictly need-to-know basis. Communiques are being carefully monitored in and out of the embassy. All phone calls are being recorded.” 

“He’s never been, you know,” Liam gestured to the street, filled with a cacophony of fumes and honking, “out there before. By himself. Alone.” 

“I pity the person who dares take on His Royal Highness,” Gates said wryly. “I mean no disrespect by it. God knows he has challenged me plenty, through the years. He’s made of stern and enduring stuff.” He returned Liam’s worries look with a reassuring look. “We’ll find him, Liam.” 

“But when?” 

“By day’s end,” Gates ruminated. “I can’t guarantee it, but that is my goal. In my estimation, it is achievable, in all likelihood.” 

Liam wrung his hands together. “Goals are nice.”

Gates looked out the window. “Rome is a big city, Liam. Tell me, has the Prince ever mentioned anything to you about leaving the compound? Do you have any idea where he might have gone?” 

Liam put his head in his hands and rubbed his hair distractedly. “He never said a thing to me. Now I wish he had. At least I would know what in the devil possessed him. I can’t imagine why he’s doing this?” 

“Indeed.” 

“Honestly,” Liam said. “It’s so out of character.” 

“Is it?” Gates said. “I wonder. Prince Louis is destined for many great things, but he hasn’t always embraced every aspect of his royal heritage.” Gates thought of the young boy under his care who would run to odd parts of the palace, lost for hours, only to turn up late for dinner. He wouldn’t have had time to dress nor comb his hair, often looking the worse for wear, considering he was an heir to the throne. The King and Queen, who dined at a later hour, were never informed of these episodes. “Perhaps this is an opportunity to find out how things are on the other side, as chaotic as it may seem to us.” 

“As long as we find him,” Liam emphasized. “Safe, and in one piece. Joseph, will you do your best? Please tell me you will. I know you are trying, I know it’s silly to ask.” Liam bit his knuckles while his right knee shook up and down. “I’m just worried. I can’t help it.” 

“You feel responsible,” Gates said. “As do I. We will find the Prince. I will stake my reputation and my livelihood on it. We must, and we will.” 

The car inched forward, only to stop again at a red light. Liam gazed out at the pedestrians on the sidewalks, zigzagging through traffic, hoping against all odds that he could spot the Prince amongst them. 

Where are you, Louis?   

 

 

•••••

 

Staring at the blank page before you
Open up the dirty window
Reaching for something in the distance
So close you can almost taste it

 

“If you could do anything in the world,” Harry asked, “what would you do?” 

After a few blocks in the sun, they were both flagging again, beads of sweat sticking to their bodies. On top of that, the espresso and snacks had worn off, and they were both grumbling for real food. 

After thinking for a moment, Louis’ face lit up. “Oh!” 

Harry waited with curiosity. 

“I’d like to feel the rain on my skin,” Louis ruminated. “Maybe take a walk on the beach.” 

“And?” 

Louis shrugged. “That’s it.” 

“That’s it.” Harry bumped his shoulder. “Spoken like a person with everything.” 

Louis squinted at him. “What do you mean?” 

Harry composed himself, and took a breath. “A person of privilege doesn’t worry about their basic survival,” he explained. “Like, a clean place to live. Or a job that makes them feel satisfied. Safety, food. Their family. Things like that. A person of privilege can afford to dream about the rain.” 

“You asked if I could have anything,” Louis snipped back. “I didn’t know it was going to be a political litmus test.” 

“Oh, damn, you went off!” Harry glanced at Louis quickly, gauging his mood. “You’re right, though,” he admitted. “I was a bit judgey, wasn’t I?” 

“A bit ,” Louis retorted. “Everyone can afford to dream about the rain, Harry.” 

“Point taken.” Harry hand strayed to Louis’ forearm, a finger brushing down its length. “Why don’t you tell me about it, then— the rain?” 

“Fine.” Louis glared at him, and turned away sulkily. “It tends to be wet.” 

Harry let out a loud cackle. Scooting closer, he draped his arm around Louis’ shoulder, and let it stay there. “C’mon, don’t be like that, baby. Tell me about the rain.” 

“You’re annoying,” Louis answered. He rolled his shoulder but didn’t move away. 

“Well, the rain is lovely in the spring,” Harry continued, pulling Louis closer and roughing up his shirt. “The Villa Borghese has this amazing light. If you were around longer, I’d take you to see it. It’s really, really gorgeous, one of the best places I know. Or if you make it to Naples, you can come to the beach. People swim and fish on the beach. You can take a sailboat out for the day, if you want, or hang out on my mum’s deck, just doing nothing.” 

Louis relented. “Sounds alright, I guess.” 

“Alright?” Harry was indignant. “Anne Twist would snip your balls for saying that— that’s my mum, Anne. She’d tell you it’s much more than just alright. My mum’s the hostess with the mostest.”

“Is she?” 

“She’ll even squeeze her own lemons for your lemonade.”

Louis laughed. “God! She’s a fancy creature.” 

Harry made a mock-serious face, “Anne is also a woman of privilege. My stepfather makes sure she’s completely content, at all times. Queen of life.” 

In response, Louis cast his eyes down, focusing beyond the cobblestones, becoming suddenly quiet. “That’s another thing, I suppose,” he murmured.

“Mm?” 

Louis chuckled, embarrassed. “Another thing I’d like to experience. Someday.” 

“My stepfather?” Harry said, pretending to be scandalized. “He’s already taken, Louis.” 

“No, dimwit,” Louis said. He escaped from Harry’s giant hands and walked apart, flicking his nose a few times and looking away. “Not your stepdad. I’m sure he’s very nice. But, like, someone who’d make sure… I was… content.” 

“Thought you had a whole house of servants catering to your every need?” Harry joked. 

Louis met his eyes wistfully, and threw his next words away. “Not like that. You know what I mean.” 

They had come to a street with a few shops and restaurants. A dark-haired woman came out of a doorway, carrying two wooden sidewalk chairs, which she leaned against the wall.

E perchè ci stai evitando, Harru?” she said, addressing Harry. “Hai trovato un nuovo ristorante da amare?” Why have you been hiding from us, Harru? Have you found a new restaurant to love? 

Harry’s eyes lingered on Louis, and then he turned to her. “Tu mi devi perdonami,” he said, putting on a smile. “Guarda, Flavia, ho portato un amico.” You’ll have to forgive me. Look, I brought a friend. 

“Hmm,” the lady said, examining Louis from head to toe. “Are you going to make him stand out here all day?” 

“Are we invited in?” 

“Of course, sciocchino.” Silly child. “Come in. The pasta has just been cut. You have perfect timing, as usual.” 

She went back inside. The doorway she came through was narrow, barely large enough for two people to squeeze through, the trim painted a solid brown color. A curtain of thickly piled, vermilion-colored yarn hung in the doorway, looking like ropey dreadlocks. A yellow awning shaded the door, with “Sora Margherita” written in green cursive across it. The entrance was surrounded by mottled cement, colored in rusts and grays, with a white number, 30, stenciled to the right of the door. Potted honeysuckles climbed up the walls on wooden trellises. 

Louis leaned toward Harry. “Have we done something wrong?” he asked tentatively. “Why is she yelling at us?” 

Harry snickered, tilting his head down. “Oi! She always yells like that.” 

“She does?” Louis was skeptical. 

“That’s Flavia,” Harry said. “She and Stefano run this place. Best Roman food in the city. You’ll love it.” Harry tossed his head toward the entrance. “Come on. She told us to go in.” 

“Is it open yet?” Louis shaded his eyes. 

Harry laughed. “It always looks like this. It’s better inside.” 

Louis followed Harry in. The interior was small, with a long slate tackboard running along two walls. Neatly displayed on it were newspaper clippings, letters, customer art and postcards. A wooden board ran above, with a row of blunt wooden pegs to hang up jackets and coats. Newspaper clippings and postcards spilled over to the plastered wall in the back. An open cupboard held bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar above. On the floor, small tables were covered with butcher paper, and set with silverware rolled up in red napkins. There were a few patrons already seated. 

“We’re lucky it’s not worse,” Harry said. “There’s usually a line out the door. I’ve had to eat in their kitchen before.” 

“How do you know them?” Louis asked. 

“You live here long enough,” Harry answered mysteriously, “you get to know everyone.” 

They sat in one of the tables in the corner. A young man soon brought a bottle of water and filled their cups. Harry shook his hand as if greeting a friend, and a few words were exchanged. 

After he left, Harry said, “I ordered the specials today. Hope you don’t mind, Lou.” 

“So, what are we eating?” Louis asked lightheartedly. “Anyway, I’m glad there’s silverware. In case of chocolate bars, you know?” 

Harry rolled his eyes fondly. “Oh boy. I’m not falling for that again. I hope you like the food. Otherwise I’d have to take you to pizza, and I think I made clear that Neapolitan pizza is the only pizza that should pass mortal lips.” 

Louis sighed. “Will it ever be my time, then?” 

Harry paused, studying him. Before he could say anything, however, the waiter returned with a basket of homemade bread, and a plate of carmel-colored, crispy artichokes, looking like fried roses. 

“Carciofi alla giudia,” he announced, setting the plate down. The artichokes had an aroma of garlic, rosemary, and lemons.

“Dig in,” Harry invited. “Fried artichokes. We have them year round, but we’re at the tail end of the best time to eat them, spring. You gotta try these. Tell me what you think.” 

Louis stabbed one cautiously with a fork, and took a tentative bite. 

“Tastes like crisps,” he said, pleased. “But also like dandelions and gardens.” 

“A poet,” Harry said, “describing food.” 

“They’re yummy.” Louis gave him a deadly glare. Harry chuckled at his sass.

Harry helped himself to the artichokes as well. In the meantime, their waiter brought out a plate of prosciutto, sausages and cheeses, and spent a minute explaining the provenance of each item. And then came the plates of pasta with a creamy pepper sauce. 

“This is… a lot of food,” Louis said between bites. “Do you always eat like this?” 

“Only when I’m with royalty,” Harry laughed knowingly. “This is my secret place. Not just anyone gets to come here.” 

“What did you say?” Louis glanced up, clearly startled. 

“What,” Harry repeated. “You’re a visitor from Doncaster, aren’t you? So you’re my special guest.” 

“But I’m not really… ” Louis trailed off, unable to finish his sentence, to lie outright. 

“To me, you are,” Harry said, clearing his throat nonchalantly. “Royalty, that is. Overprotected and a little bit sad. What about siblings? Do you have any?” 

Louis bit his lips. “We’re a big family. I’m the oldest, and I have five younger sisters and a younger brother.” 

“Much younger?” 

Louis nodded. “The closest sister, Lot— my closest sister is six years younger than me.” He twirled the pasta mindlessly on the end of his fork. “How about you, Harry?” 

“Older sister, Gemma,” Harry said. “By three years. She’s in England now, so we don’t see her as much.” 

“Is she also a tour guide?” Louis asked guilelessly.

Harry almost spat his water out, casting an anxious look at the kitchen door. Luckily, no one seemed to be around. He raised his eyebrows quickly and returned to Louis. 

“Erm— no. She works for a nonprofit aid organization in London. They raise money for cancer research.” 

“Oh, nice.” Louis cut off his pasta with a slurp. “You know, I think this might be the best spaghetti I’ve ever had.” 

“Shhh! Don’t let Flavia hear you.” Harry pulled closer. “You should never confuse tonnarelli with spaghetti; she’ll Flavia you alive… get it?” As Louis groaned, Harry lifted a strand of pasta with his fork. “This is tonnarelli; the noodles have eggs in them, and are cut wider, to better catch the sauce.” 

Louis leaned closer to Harry as well. “The sauce is like bechamel on steroids.”

“Bechamel!” Harry marveled. “Mr. Gordon Ramsay himself.” He twirled the pasta. “Stefano makes and cuts the pasta fresh every morning. Some of the pasta served in the restaurant is dry, but never for cacio e pepe, which is what you're eating right now. It’s his signature dish.” 

Louis chewed thoughtfully. “It is amazing.” 

“People queue for hours for it. It’s just fresh pasta, cheese, and black peppers.” Harry took a bite with an expression of utter bliss. “And Stefano’s magic. When the fresh pasta runs out for the day, the dish is sold out. Stefano won’t allow for substitutes. The dish is a secret recipe. And it’s been like this for twenty-three years.” 

“As it should be.” Louis raised his brows. 

Harry agreed. “Stefano’s a stubborn Italian man, through and through.” He paused. “What about Doncaster then? What’s your favorite dish from home?” 

Louis stopped mid-bite. He mentally scrolled through the inventory of everything he’s ever been served in the palace, elaborate cuts of meat with their alcoholic sauce reductions, delicate morsels of fish, tender game such as rabbit and pheasant, caviar, cold vegetable consommes at state dinners, the huge variety of trifles and panna cottas and sponge cakes and biscuits. 

“Sunday dinner, I’d say,” he concluded. “Served late, at home, usually a beef roast with some potatoes and greens.” 

“So simple?” 

Louis smiled coyly. “Actually, I was tempted to say breakfast cereal. I really do like it. Without milk, even.” 

“Do you eat it with a fork and knife too?” Harry’s eyes twinkled. “Pizza, Sunday dinner, and breakfast cereal. A true gourmet.” 

Louis glanced at him silently over the rim of his water glass as he drank, brilliant blue eyes peeking through his lashes. 

“Hasn’t there been,” Harry changed the subject, subtly, he thought, “some sort of energy crisis in Doncaster recently? A problem with pipelines from Russia, or something. I heard there may be a deal with your neighbor.” 

“Anesidora,” Louis finished succinctly. He might have said it too quickly. 

Harry waited. When Louis offered nothing more, he pushed on. “What do you think about it?”

“Honestly?” Louis set both elbows on the table. His demeanor became cool, serious. He leaned forward. 

“Mm.” Eyes widening, Harry rolled the edge of a napkin between his thumb and index finger. He wrinkled his nose and continued, “I’d love an insider’s perspective.” 

Louis paused for a second. Harry unconsciously leaned forward, lips open in anticipation.

“Wellllll…” Louis answered authoritatively. “Too bad I can't answer you. That is official state business.” 

“So? Your lips are sealed?” Harry nudged him. “What do you think should happen, though, personally?” 

“I think the right people will make a good decision.” Louis said with no inflection to his voice, and with absolute self-control. His hand, however, strayed to his necklace’s charm, patting it unconsciously. “Whatever happens, I’m sure the decision will be for the good of the country.”

“There is a deal, then.” Harry insisted. He put his fork down, put both elbows by his side, and looked intently into Louis’ eyes. “No joke? There will be an energy deal?” 

Louis’ response was to faintly lift the corner of his mouth. He chewed his food thoughtfully, and then pointed to the plate of meats and cheeses. 

“Have you tried the prosciutto, Harry?” he asked, his voice clear as a bell. “The prosciutto is lovely. I wonder how they make it so tender?” 

Harry snorted, watching him. Louis was too well-trained. Clearly Harry wasn’t going to get anywhere with him.

“You should try it with the melon balls.” Louis forcefully stabbed a melon ball with his fork, then followed up with a sliver of prosciutto below that, letting the gossamer ends dangle. “It’s the perfect balance of transparency and sweetness. Everything goes down easier when it’s sweet, you know what I mean?” 

“Even a bit of politics,” Harry hinted. 

Louis quirked an eyebrow and laughed. “Especially that.” 

Flavia arrived to their table with a slice of ricotta torta big enough for two, laying down two dessert forks, one for each. She filled their glasses with water and asked Harry whether they wanted coffee. 

Flavia, we’re stuffed,” Harry said in Italian. “I don’t think we have room for— ”

“E mancare di rispetto a Stefano, così?” You’re going to disrespect Stefano like that? Her serious expression broached no disagreement from Harry. Then she lightly flicked her head toward Louis. “This one. He’s special, eh?” 

Harry barely glanced over. “Sì, lo è. Wouldn’t bring just anyone here.”

Ho pensato che potesse esserlo, so come sei. E' bellissimo,” she said. I thought he might be, I know how you are. He’s handsome. She cleared away their dishes, watching Louis, who shifted in his seat. “Sembra un bravo ragazzo. In culo alla balena, Harru.” He looks like a nice boy. Good luck, Harry. 

Harry tried to suppress his smile. “Thank you.” 

Flavia leaned over and patted Louis’ shoulder affectionately, then tilted her head toward Harry. “Good, eh?” she said in English, making sure Louis understood her. “Un brav’uomo,” she repeated, making sure she was perfectly clear. A good man. Then she walked briskly away. 

Louis glanced over at Harry, whose hand was hiding his mouth. Louis could see a faint shadow of the dimples, however. 

“Something funny?” he asked. 

Eyes smiling, Harry simply pointed to the cake. “Eat up, Louis. She said cake is on the house.” 

 

 

•••••

 

 

It was close to four o’clock in the afternoon. 

The overgrown bushes near the sidewalk and along the river banks obscured the Tiber River. The sun dappled through the looming sycamore trees, with their tall trunks and peeling bark shedding poems into the air. 

They walked along without saying very much. Harry wasn’t sure whether he imagined it, but Louis seemed lighter; he held himself less stiffly, and swung his shoulders when he was walking. His stride was loose and curvy. In this quiet way, it impressed Harry how careful Louis was, how his physical expression was a negotiation between his natural delicacy and his training. Like a light switch flipping, Harry could tell when Louis’ guard was up.

“Did you have any deep fears when you were growing up, Harry?” Louis tilted his head sideways. 

Harry noticed the rosy slope of Louis’ cheeks, which, when he thought about it, was the shape of a perfect apricot. 

“Fears?” Harry said. “Hmm. I worried about my parents, like any other kid, that something would happen to them. After my parents divorced, I was always afraid my mum wouldn’t ever be happy again.” 

“But you were just a child. What could you do about it?” 

“Yes, well,” Harry answered. “No choice, really. Mum worked. Dad only saw us on the weekends. Gemma and I spent a lot of time by ourselves. We were bound to have morbid thoughts.” Harry turned to Louis. “I suppose you felt that, too?” 

“It was different.” Louis kicked at a weed poking out of the sidewalk. “We had our whole lives planned out— granddad’s business, you know. In a way it was worse.”

“Yeah?” 

“We couldn’t talk to anyone, really, about the accident.” Louis sucked in his cheeks, the angular hollows visible even in the shade. “There were so many Doncaster subjects… I mean, er… so many people, in Doncaster, you know, who depended on everything continuing smoothly. No glitches. There was a protocol, and we followed it. It was more important than a fifteen-year-old boy’s grief.” Louis stared at the ground. “There’s a protocol for everything.” 

Harry watched him. “I’m so sorry.” 

Louis turned, his left eye pinched closed and a sardonic smile on his lips. “You get used to it.” 

“You can disguise your grief,” Harry said slowly, “but it isn’t healthy, I don’t think?”

Louis turned to study Harry. His attention made Harry meet his eyes, and then turn away abruptly, as if Louis could see his true intentions. 

“That’s ironic, you know,” Louis laughed modestly. 

“Why?” Harry stammered.

“What you just said about grief,” Louis replied. “I don’t know much about you, Harry Styles, but I know you’re keeping something back, and I know what you just said applies as much to you as it does to me.”

Harry wiped his face of expression, clearing his throat.

“What’s your deal, anyway, Harry?” Louis continued. “If you want to share, I’d love to hear your side.”

“I’m honest,” Harry lied, without much conviction. “What you see is what you get.”

Louis didn’t push it. Fair enough. They were both keeping secrets. 

They came to a bend in the river with a clearing through the bushes. In the middle of the water stood the ruin of an ancient bridge, disconnected to the banks. Louis would always be surprised at the way ancient Roman ruins simply popped out of nowhere in Rome, co-existing with the birds and tourists and traffic. They were everywhere in Europe, but the density in Rome made them exceptional.

“Is that old?” Louis pointed to the fragment. 

“As old as the Roman Empire.” Harry’s eyes followed his hand. “It’s literally called the Broken Bridge, the Ponte Rotto. People have tried repairing it over the ages, but the river is stronger. The repairs keep getting washed away.” 

“It isn’t doing too badly though,” Louis said. “Still here after all that time.” 

“That’s true. It’ll probably outlive both of us.” 

Louis paused. They passed the bridge and walked along the slow curve of the river. 

“Are you afraid of that?” Louis said. “Not leaving anything behind? Not doing anything of consequence?” 

“You’re full of big questions.” To reassure him, Harry touched Louis lightly on his upper arm, and added, “Put that thought on hold. We’re almost there.”

“Hmm?” 

Harry nodded enigmatically. “Speaking of dark magic and old places, I want you to think of a good question. Something you want to know, something that demands the absolute truth.”

Louis stopped short. “Why?” 

“Think of a question to ask an ancient god, if you could,” Harry wrinkled his nose. “We’re talking old, old magic. Magic that’s older than Rome.” 

“Like,” Louis bit his lip. “Pagan magic?” 

“Like pure spirits,” Harry said. “Thunder. Lightning. The spirit of dirt and stones.”

“Should I be scared?” Louis chuckled uneasily, willing himself to start walking again. “Can I ask a question for you to answer, Tumbleweed?” 

Following him, Harry quirked his right eyebrow. “If you want. Then I’ll have to answer you truthfully.”

His chest tightening, Louis asked, “Or else what?” 

“Old gods take no prisoners,” Harry intoned. “There are severe consequences for lying.” 

“Oh.” 

“Yep,” Harry repeated. “You don’t want to fuck with an old god.”

Louis pinched his lips tightly, his hand straying to the hollow in his neck, searching for the familiar charm. 

“We don’t both have to answer though?” 

Harry shrugged. “Fair’s fair, I think.” 

They arrived at a large crossing, one of the Roman intersections where rotaries blend into crosswalks, and pedestrians were at the mercy of motorists. An ornate but isolated fountain burbled silently in the traffic island, a lonely child awaiting a four-century-old parent. They could see a thin line of people across the way, snaking out of a rust-colored church with an erect, rectangular tower. 

“Are we close?” Louis looked with bewilderment at the cement crosswalk.

“Come on.” 

Sunbeams were suspended hazily in the air, although it was already late afternoon. Louis followed Harry’s long strides across the road, their shadows trotting in parallel. 

Harry slowed down closer to the church. It was clear he intended to join the line of people waiting quietly on the sidewalk. Louis traced them to an entrance into an iron gate, and then a line curving to the left, leading to a dark and vaguely sinister interior space where his view was blocked. Unlike the Pantheon, this was not a place Louis had ever came upon in his studies. It seemed to be part of a church, yet not a well-known church. Its placement outside the main building and the line of fidgety tourists made Louis feel slightly on edge. 

Louis scanned his surroundings. Surely by now, Gates has been scouring the city for him. He checked for the telltale cars with their darkly tinted windows and diplomatic license plates, and for Owen’s familiar men. 

The coast deemed clear, Louis asked, “What is this place?” 

“The Mouth of Truth,” Harry answered.

No one paid attention to them as they got in line, their hair matted down with sweat like everyone else’s. Soon they were under the shade of the portico. Louis saw the line drift slowly to the right, into a separate, open area. On the other side of the line, tourists exited in small groups, smiling at the photos they’d taken. Surely this was a good sign. 

It was just a tourist spot, Louis told himself. His chest fluttered with imminent panic. His dreams were just dreams, after all; they weren’t more likely than anyone else’s to come alive. His fingers sought out the familiar corners of the treasure chest charm, the edges rubbed soft over the years. Dark magic was only make-believe, wasn’t it? 

He glanced quickly at Harry, whose profile was placid and amused, gazing straight ahead. The line moved, and then they were next. 

People had been walking up to a large marble disk on the wall, carved with the gray image of an old man with a large mane of hair and beard— or a lion. The eyes and mouth were dark absences in the stone, chipped away by long-dead hands and menacingly hollow. A crack extended from the corner of the left eye to the perimeter. The uneven surfaces of the cheeks made the statue look as if it were emerging from underwater. The gaping mouth gave an expression of surprise, or mild condemnation.

“People come here for fun?” Louis asked, only half-joking. 

“Mm. You ready, Princess?” Harry nudged him up to the stone. They studied the stern face in silence. 

“Doesn’t look very friendly,” Louis remarked. 

“Here.” Harry reached for Louis’ arms, which were unconsciously crossed in front of his abdomen. He loosened one of Louis' wrists and led it up to the stone mouth. 

“Put your hand in there. Legend has it that the spirits will know if you’ve answered a question honestly.”

“And if not?” 

Harry wrinkled his nose. “Your hand gets chopped off.” 

“No!” Louis reflexively jumped away. “Seriously!” 

Harry shrugged. “I’ve always answered honestly, so I wouldn’t know.” 

“You liar.” Louis tried to smile, but his hand hovered in the air. “Have you ever actually done it?” 

“No, I haven’t,” Harry chuckled. “But I’ve always wanted to try it. Go on. Put your hand in. Let’s give this thing a whirl.” 

“Why don’t you go first?” Louis waited, but Harry wasn’t making any moves to volunteer. 

Although Louis knew it was a gimmick, knew in his head that there was nothing behind the stone, something primal made him hesitate as he inched his hand toward the mawl. He slid in without touching any part of it. 

“Alright,” Harry’s eyes sparkled with mischief. He put a finger on his lip. “Let’s see. My question is this. Who was your first real crush?” 

Louis knitted his eyebrows and bit down on his jaw. He tried not to blurt out the name immediately, because the memory opened something black and deep within. All these years later, Louis tried to forget him and his name, and sometimes he was almost convinced that he had. If the memory didn’t exist, maybe Gates would not have witnessed anything in the conservatory, and therefore no friend had been betrayed, no family moved away, no lives or careers ruined. Because of Louis. Because he had been helpless, once, in his desire. 

Harry cocked his head, waiting for the answer, while Louis’ eyes became unfocused, staring at the parallel lines across his wrist. 

Louis finally said, in a voice he had heard in his head a million times, “Marius.” 

Harry was intrigued. “Who’s Marius?” 

“He was my best mate growing up.” 

Louis looked straight into the face of the marble disk. Marius was forever a child in a space beyond, a beautiful elfin creature who might still listen to Louis, and might forgive him. It might not be too late. Absurdly, Louis recalled the shoe he struggled to put on as he hurried out of the conservatory, the costume he couldn’t take off fast enough, the feeling of panic in the hallway as he ran to his French tutor. Where was Marius now? He was also in his mid-twenties, somewhere in the world. Was he happy? 

“And,” Harry prompted, “did he know?” 

Louis shook his head so lightly that it was barely perceptible. “He left before… he… ”

Louis’ wrist began to tremble, the thin hairs on his arms standing as if he were cold. Then the shaking of his hand increased until he couldn’t control it anymore. He turned to Harry with a helpless expression, his eyes like the liquid ocean washing the world. His lips opened silently. 

It took a second for Harry to see it. When he finally did, his eyes widened and he quickly pulled Louis’ hand out of the stone mouth. He held it balled up in his own fist, clutched to his abdomen. Harry felt the rack of motion going up Louis’ arm into the rest of his body, the small but unmistakable chain reaction causing him to freeze completely. The only motion was the blinking of his eyes. When Louis’ breathing deepened, Harry kept holding his hand, rubbing a thumb over his knuckles until everything had settled down. He glanced quickly at the line of people behind them. 

“You okay?” Harry asked softly. 

Louis blinked a few times and then smiled. “I’m fine. Must have been a déjà vu moment.” 

Harry squeezed his hand, and tried to keep his tone light. “Must have been a special one.” 

“He was,” Louis said. His expression turned lively as he nodded his head towards the stone face. “Your turn, Tumbleweed.” 

“You sure?” Harry scrunched his face jokingly. “We can go. There’s no need for— ” 

“Fair’s fair,” Louis cut in. He worked his hand loose and gestured toward the marble disk. “I have a question ready.” 

Harry could read nothing in Louis’ expression, but he was intrigued. He extended his arms and flexed his hands outward, stretching out his tattoos. Then with great theatrics, he slowly lowered his hand into the gap of the marble mouth. 

“Go easy on me, mate.” 

Louis’ lips widened in a closed smile. Eyebrows raised, Louis asked him, “Alright then?” 

Harry nodded. 

“Harry,” Louis asked, “what are you most afraid of?” 

Harry frowned. “Can you be more specific?” 

“No,” Louis said glibly. “Just be honest, like you’ve always been.” 

Harry wanted to roll his eyes, but he had to concentrate on keeping his hand still in the stone mouth. Looking into the stone god’s ancient face, he replied nonchalantly, “Temo di essere un codardo.” I’m afraid that I’m a coward. 

“Hey,” Louis protested. “Not fair!” 

“I answered,” Harry said, eyes narrowed. “Now can we go?” 

Louis persisted. “Answer the question in English,” he paused. “Or French. I’ll ask you again. What are you most afraid of?” 

Harry held his satisfied smile for two seconds. 

“Nothing,” he answered smugly. “Niente.” 

Louis’ eyes widened. He cocked his head in mild surprise. His blue irises flicked quickly to the ancient face, and then rested back on Harry’s, as if watching for something to happen. 

And as astonishing as time-lapsed videos of a lunar eclipse, something did. 

Harry’s smile began to wane. His eyes took on the look of uncertainty, then mild panic, as his arm stiffened. Louis was already moving toward him when Harry let out a painful yelp, his free arm clutching the wrist that was thrust into the mouth. 

“Harry!” Louis studied his face in alarm. There was no smirk of humor anywhere. Harry was not playing with him. 

Harry’s shouts became more frantic as he clawed at the skin until the fine thin hairs were stretched red at the roots. Louis came behind him, wrapped his arms around Harry’s waist, and pulled as hard as he could, his shoes slipping on the ground as he grunted. Louis’ head felt like it was in a murky fog, his heart pounding impossibly hard. As thin as Harry was, he was still bigger than Louis and a load of deadweight. He simply could not move him. 

“Harry!” Louis pleaded. “Help me!” 

Then it ended as fast as it began. Harry whipped around with a sly smile and grabbed Louis with both arms, so that Louis fell into him. Louis was initially flooded with relief, only to realize that he had been tricked. As Harry held him warmly, Louis leaned forward and bit down hard on Harry’s chest, springing them apart. 

“Ow, boyo! That was unnecessary!” Harry rubbed his chest tenderly, face screwed up with pain. 

“Arsehat!” Louis retorted. “You gave me a fucking panic! What the hell was that all about!” 

“Aw, Lou.” Harry stretched his hand toward Louis, which was promptly batted away. “Were you worried for me?” 

“Fuck this!” Louis slapped the air above them. He paced back and forth, face in a furious grimace. “You can’t fuck with fate, Harry. You think you can, but you just can’t! It might be hilarious to you, but it isn’t to me. Fuck! Bloody fucking hell!” 

Glaring at Harry one last time, Louis began walking away. It dawned on him how the portico had suddenly become silent, all eyes focused on them. Drawing attention to himself was the last thing that Louis wanted. He ran his hand over his eyes to hide some of his face, and continued walking, hand on his cheek to shield himself, paying no attention to Harry calling his name. 

He was nearly across the street when Harry caught up to him and began walking beside him without a word. Harry kept his head down contritely, hands curled loosely by his side. 

After a few minutes, Harry asked, “Where are we going, Lou?” 

Louis kept walking without answering, even after he felt silly. Maybe he had overreacted. It was a silly prank, that was all. In a way, he wished Liam could magically pull up alongside the curb and whisk him away. If only he could summon him like genie! Louis had embarrassed himself enough for one day. He had probably said too much, even if he did enjoy Harry’s company. It was time to nip this fantasy in the bud, and be a good Prince. No more gay confessions. No more incognito adventures. It had also been the longest time, Louis realized, that he had gone without smoking. He needed a cigarette badly, now, almost as much as he liked Harry. It was intense how much he felt this. 

“I need a cigarette,” he said to Harry, voice clipped and hard. He could satisfy at least one craving. 

Harry startled. “Okay.” He looked around them. “Louis, where’s your bag?” 

In fact, Louis has completely forgotten about it. He wasn’t used to carrying anything, and did not have the habit to check for missing things, as it was becoming tragically clear. 

“Oh no.” Louis thought out loud. “I must have left it at the restaurant. Your shirt…” 

Harry was already taking out his phone. He dialed a number and spoke in Italian for a few minutes, intermittently nodding his head at Louis. When he clicked the phone off, his face was reassuring. 

“Flavia is putting it away for me,” he said. “We left it under the table.” 

I left it. It was so careless of me.” 

“Still need the smokes?” Harry asked. 

Louis nodded. He needed cigarettes more than ever. 

Harry stopped them in their tracks, looking at the landmarks around them and trying to pinpoint their location. Then he opened up a map app on his phone and punched Cioccolata e Vino into the search bar. Raising his hand against the late afternoon light, he noted that it had not gotten any cooler. If anything, the air had solidified into a hot brick. They were dissolving in the Roman oven. 

Louis waited quietly on the sidewalk, one hand on his waist and body weight shifted to one hip. A sideways glance told Harry that Louis was even more beautiful at rest, wrist delicately bent above his hip, cheekbones casting dramatic shadows, his afternoon cinnamon facial hair coloring a sharp jaw. His hair was flaxen on his sweaty brow. Harry wanted to gather him up and smell him deeply— and then he realized how stupid this thinking was, inhaling a Prince. What would his punishment be, if he was found out? Who cares. It would probably be worth it, he thought. If he had only known, he would have asked Louis to snuggle last night. He had only been Louis Pemberley then, a sleepy Princess. Damn this useless hindsight. 

“Sex positions,” he propositioned, one eyebrow cocked.

Louis’ body sprang alive. “Really?” 

Harry quickly sent a text to Niall, along with the address to the bar. 

“I’m just confirming the address with Niall,” he said to Louis. “He might be joining us later.” 

“Niall’s coming?” 

Harry looked at the reply. “Maybe.” 

Louis brushed his fringed back and tucked a few strands of hair behind his ear. He didn’t even mind Harry taking his elbow and spinning him ninety degrees on the sidewalk. 

“Was I taking us the wrong way?” 

“It’s not the wrong way if you want to go to Naples,” Harry said. “A great place to visit, by the way. I know you’re tempestuous, Louis— you can’t help walking off the face of the earth. But if you’re looking for a Ménage à Trois, we’ll have to head this way.” 

“Now there’s a French phrase for you!” Louis grinned. 

Harry winked. “Careful what you wish for, darling. Se son rose, fioriranno.” 

“Meaning?” 

“Meaning you’ve got a naughty mind, and you’re a bad influence on me,” Harry said. “Normally it’s not my kind of place, but you need a chocolate and a cigarette, and probably an ice cold bath.” 

“You’re lying, Tumbleweed.” Louis said. “You want a chocolate too.” 

“Damn,” Harry grinned back at him. “You know me too well.”