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Gods & Monsters

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Gods and Monsters -- Lana del Rey


 

The mahogany elevator doors open with a soft ding, their gold buttons a’glint. Louis sort of wants to smudge them with his fingerprints, give a bit of texture to their overly manicured sheen—he’s got grease on them still from the chips he found in that one boy’s fridge. Whatever his name was. Lucas? Something.

He emerges, steps onto smooth wooden floors the color of bitter chocolate, his shoes leaving little dirty scuffs with each stride. The dirt mars the potentially fresh wood polish, which is nice. It’s always satisfying to see things a little fucked up. People—especially these people—are too pristine. Too up themselves, if you will, worried about how things look, worried about how they’ll be perceived.

Fuck that, honestly.

Smirking at the scuffs, he continues down the hall, Kurt Cobain screeching the question of “where did you sleep last night?” into the buds stuffed in his ears. Best singer, that Cobain. It’s like, whenever he sang, he poured every disparaging, awful, shit feeling he’d ever felt into his vocal cords and ripped them from his body, threw them into the air and down others’ throats. It’s raw, you know? And real. Just fucking…real.

Louis likes real.

Still though, he probably should step out of his realness and step into the world he’s currently in now—the fake one. Ironic, innit?

He plucks the buds out, stuffs them in his shitty jean jacket that’s tinged with sour smoke and nicotine stains. With its little tears from disuse and sharp edges. Scuffs from being shoved onto pavement. Rips from slinking past rusty iron fences. You know—the usual. Living the charming life. They’ll put it on his gravestone: ‘Here Lies Louis Tomlinson. He lived a charming life.’

To be fair, though, that is probably how he’ll be remembered. As charming. Maybe a few other things, but charming should definitely make the list.  

“We’ll be back tonight, darling,” a luxurious female voice suddenly says as Louis makes his way deeper into the flat. It sounds like eighteen carats of gold and satin. It sounds like anti-wrinkle cream and posh perfume. Pristine.

“Alright, mum,” Liam’s voice says, indifferent. “Will you be back for dinner? Or should I have someone fetch something?”

Fetch something? Louis can’t help but snort—Liam’s such a fucking prince. Spoiled little preppy prince. Sexy spoiled preppy prince. It’s annoying but since Louis would kindly like to suck his dick again and house all of his major credit cards, he figures he can let his quirks slide. Liam tastes like money: Louis’ favorite flavor.

“Best do,” his mum says, and the shuffle of cloth is heard, the clink of a purse. “We’ll let you know if we dine somewhere local.” She says the word with obvious distaste as Louis rounds the corner and enters the room, her hand gesture flouncing the sentence away from her. It’s then that she spots him, one eyebrow arching in Disney-villain distaste as she assesses him with hazel eyes that scream the words her very polite lipstick won’t say.

Louis doesn’t even attempt to disguise his smirk as he meets her gaze. She fucking hates him.

Louis’ not got money, see. He’s from the other side of town (snort) and he’s “dirty” and “uncouth” and “dangerous” and “unrespectable” and all those other fucking words that are associated with one who doesn’t possess a chauffeur or a summer home.

Fuck off, ma’am, thanks.

“Hello, Martha,” Louis greets happily, making sure to show his teeth and pushing his cheeks up into the least sincere smile he can manage. He slides his hands into the pockets of his jean jacket—and, god, she hates that jacket even more than she hates Louis. Her lip is positively curling as she tracks the movement and her nostrils most definitely just twitched. As if she could smell it or something. Smell the sweat and drug abuse and bitterness and dried cum and dead-ends.

He hopes she does.

“Tomlinson,” she manages to grit out before smoothly moving past him—making no small show of taking the longest route, the route that leads her the farthest from Louis. Don’t want to touch the wild animals and all that.

He laughs out loud as she exits, throws his head back and everything. It’s not that funny but he wants to make a point. Rude cow.

When he quiets, lowers his head, he meets Liam’s eye, who’s smirking as well, looking pleased and bored. As he always does. He looks extra preppy today—got one of his white polo t-shirts on and those ridiculous jeans that look worn and torn because children in sweatshops were told to rip things just so. His trainers are enormous and spotless, his watch looks two stone, and his hair is styled as much as it can be, considering there isn’t that much there.

“Tomlinson,” Liam echoes, but his tone, unlike the sea witch, is colored with intrigue and delight and all the other flavors of one who’s being met with their entrée.

“You called?” Louis begins, blinking prettily and tilting his head to the side coquettishly, just for good measure, because he knows his eyes look better in the light, he knows his cheekbones cut the air. He’s got a good lure, he’ll be honest. If there’s one thing Louis’ got, it’s sex appeal. Nobody’s ever said no to him before.

Liam observes the movements with eyes that flash—Louis doesn’t miss it, never does—and smirks a bit wider, unabashedly ogling the boy before him. Which is fine. A+, even. It’s only a matter of time before Louis ensnares Liam. The boy’s not made of steel—he’ll break. They always do.

And this is one break Louis needs.

“Your hair,” Liam responds with, slowly beginning to walk towards him, hands in the pockets of those hideous jeans. He doesn’t so much walk as strut—it’s the prowl of the wealthy, of the popular, of the powerful. Liam walks powerfully. It grates upon Louis as much as it pulls him in. He needs powerful, he needs wealth. He’s poor as shit and even more aimless, doesn’t even have a proper home—just sleeps in boys’ beds and on mates’ couches and he works a shit job as a bartender/busboy because he dropped out of school because… Well. That’s a whole story.

Point is, Louis could use someone like Liam. He’s not big on love and romance and normalcy—people are scum, to be quite honest—but he’s not opposed to finding a steady source of income that comes with a side of excellent sex. And, no, he’s never quite had sex with Liam, but.

But he’ll break.

“You look like a street urchin,” he continues, his eyes solid and rich and relaxed as he reaches Louis, moving to touch the styled hair, which is getting a bit longer than he usually keeps it, tousled and twisted up in a 1950’s ‘do because Louis likes to look striking, likes to look on point.

Louis smacks his hand away immediately—no touching. Unless it’s an erogenous zone, nobody can fucking touch. Personal space, thanks. “The fuck is that? A street urchin,” he mocks easily, a spark of amusement flitting through him at Liam’s blink of surprise. Not so powerful now, eh?

Clouds overcast Liam’s face as he examines his reprimanded hand, his thick brows drifting together in irritation. “A tart,” he says curtly.

“Ah,” Louis nods calmly, watching Liam flex his fingers with complete indifference. “Well. Never said I wasn’t one.”

Liam’s lips curl into a bit of a sneer. Louis couldn’t give less of a fuck.

“So,” Liam begins, walking away, and his voice is no longer mischievous, but to-the-point. He always gets this way whenever he can’t dick Louis around. Such a little spoiled prince. Which comes as no surprise, really—only child of two evil and sickeningly rich war lords and the town’s Golden Boy? With a future paved in promise and arse-kissing? Liam’s just a product of his environment. Maybe that’s why Louis doesn’t completely hate him—he’s a product of his, too.

“I called you here for a reason, Louis,” Liam continues, dropping down into one of the plush chairs that litter the room. The sun pours from the floor-to-ceiling windows. Everything glass and gold glistens. Typical.

“Figured,” Louis says, impatient. He’s getting bored, getting annoyed. He likes Liam, he does, but being around any human being for a stretch of time is an endurance test. And in here, this cold, posh flat... He feels a bit suffocated and extremely uncomfortable; out of place. Though he’d never fucking admit it. Never.

“Time to play,” is all Liam says after a moment, is all he has to say, really, and he grins lasciviously at Louis from his chair, his fingers tapping calculatingly atop the armrest where thick clusters of maroon and gold are embroidered. It looks bold and clean and stiff.

“Ah,” comes Louis’ typical response as understanding dawns upon him and a new, odd sort of feeling settles within him. It’s not excitement anymore—it used to be exciting, back when they first started doing this. It used to be a challenge and it gave Louis…something to do. But now, after countless games of Louis winning… Now, it just leaves a very odd feeling within him and he’s not sure what it means, or if he cares to know. It just feels weird. So he shrugs, keeps Liam’s stare. “Who is it this time, then?”

The taps of Liam’s fingers carry through the quiet room. They tap against Louis’ nerves. He realizes he’s begun to clench his jaw.

“He’s new in town.”

New in town? Well, fuck. That’s a bit harder than usual, then. Maybe this will be fun. A challenge of sorts again. Maybe.

“How new?” Louis asks, attention piqued.

“Just moved before the school year started.”

“Your age?”

“Yep.” He pops the ‘p’. Louis hates when he does that. Fucking annoying.

With a slow nod, Louis walks over, sits on the chair opposite, perches on the edge of the seat. No need to dirty the cushions—it’s a dry thought.

“What’s the motive?” he then asks, lacing his fingers as he rests his elbows atop the thinning fabric covering his knees. He levels Liam with a steady gaze which he keeps, so Louis absolutely sees that same flicker in Liam’s eyes as Louis glides a clever tongue over his lips. Just to wet them. Obviously. “Why’s he a target?”

“Because he’s charming,” Liam replies instantly, and a new kind of flash flickers in his brown eyes now. Something darker, something more insistent and threatened. It’s a bit animalistic and that weird something kicks back at Louis’ stomach, creeps into his chest cavity a bit. He doesn’t flinch outwardly, though.

“We’re going after him because he’s charming?” Louis asks flatly.

Liam scowls. “He’s just gotten here and he’s already everybody’s favorite pet, everybody knows his name, he’s just been appointed as the Vice President of choir—I don’t need a Vice President, thank you—and he’s gotten the highest mark in two of our courses. Higher than me, both times.” His gaze sharpens, steels into coldest metal. “By one point.”

Louis smirks, unable to bridle his delight at a clearly ruffled Liam. Too, too funny to see a pouting prince.

“The teachers eat him up,” Liam continues, and all humor is gone. Louis smirks wider. “Everybody fucking raves about him, positively loves him, and there’s talk that he’s going to join the footie team. People think he’ll want to be captain. Lars said he overheard him boasting about how he won’t even need to try-out for the team—they’ll just appoint him the position.” Oh, this is too good. “His marks are currently the highest in the entire school. He’s got everybody wrapped around his finger. It’s only been two months of the term, Louis, and he’s already pissing me the fuck off.”

“Ohhh,” Louis laughs, unabashed, and leans back into the chair as he exaggerates his humor, slaps both knees loudly. “Oh, so little boy Liam’s feeling threatened, then? The Prince is afraid to suffer an uprising in his kingdom?” Liam glares poison at Louis but he only laughs louder. “You’ve got yourself competition, Payne. Golden Boy Number Two is coming right ‘round the bend. For you.” He points his finger accusingly for emphasis, because he can, because Liam hates it.

“Deal with him,” Liam replies tightly, teeth gritted. He doesn’t even entertain Louis’ taunts. It’s, frankly, annoying.

“Why?” Louis asks, smirks. “This might be fun for me to just watch you struggle a bit. Especially since you’re no longer the number one choice for your little university, are ya?” The words dig into the air and Louis knows it—Louis knows Liam, knows what this entire thing boils down to: Liam’s future, Liam’s reputation. Liam’s everything, really.

“It’s not ‘a little university,’” Liam glares, tightens fingers on the armrest. “It’s the only university. They only accept one from our school.”

“And New Boy’s going to get it.”

“No. He isn’t. And you’re going to make certain of it.”

“And just how am I going to do that?” Louis sighs, once again resting his elbows on his knees. “Usually you just want me to fuck someone and get them caught up in a scandal or summat. Just ruffle some feathers or piss someone off. Which, okay, great. Easy, that. But just how the fuck am I supposed to stop this bloke from being perfect?”

“Get him expelled. Distract him. Fuck up his reputation—whatever you must.”

Louis snorts, rolling his eyes. “What, you want me to proper fuck him over? Get caught fucking him in the chancellor’s office?”

“You’ve done it before,” Liam responds sweetly. “It’s nothing new.”

And, yeah, okay. Fair enough.

“Do you know anything about him?” Louis asks, after a moment.

Liam’s lips twitch, pleased. His tone alters, sounds less attacked and more appeased as the words slither from his lips. “His name is Harry Styles. He’s from a well-to-do family, from what I’ve heard. Lives with his mum and sister. Don’t know about a father. Just moved here from a small, shitty town I don’t recall the name of. I’m not quite sure who his friends are, yet. He’s not dating anyone—he’s a virgin, by the way—“

“No way,” Louis interjects then, incredulous, and laughs his surprise. “A virgin? He’s what? Seventeen?”

Liam grins, amused. “Around there, yeah. He’s a good boy, our Harry Styles. Clean reputation. Won’t date—focuses on his studies and all that.”

Oh, oh, oh. This is getting better and better and better.

“Which is why he’s better than you,” Louis smirks, and the grin slides from Liam’s face.

“Ruin him, Louis,” Liam says after a moment, and all the softness in the room is gone. “Destroy him any way you see fit. I’m giving you a certain amount of leeway here.”

“Why?”

“Because you never disappoint.”

This is true. It’s not bragging—it’s just true.

Louis nods, feigns studying his nails. They’re dirty as fuck, collecting all his sins. He smirks at the thought, hums REM’s “Losing My Religion.” Excellent song. Excellent band. Makes him feel like he’s living when he listens to it.

“If you successfully manage this,” Liam’s voice suddenly says, cutting the contemplative silence. Louis glances up, and Liam’s eyes are sharp, intent on Louis. And a bit…hungry. Unsurprisingly—they always break. “You’ll get a prize.”

Louis perks, straightens, drops his dirty hands and dirty fingernails. “A prize?” he repeats, intrigued.

Liam nods, slow, keeps his eyes on Louis. He stands, careful and deliberate, and Louis feels the curl of his lips as he saunters towards him, eyes still dark.

“If you succeed, properly…” he breathes with twisted lips and pooled eyes, bringing a delicate hand to brush fingers along Louis’ jaw. “You’ll get me.”

The contact is still unwelcome, still breaks Louis’ very firm rules of touching and space, but he doesn’t smack Liam’s hand away this time, merely catches it with his own, his fingers pressing into Liam’s flesh, just on this side of sharp.

They stare at each other hard, Louis calculating, Liam smirking.

“You’re serious?” Louis asks in a breath, the tone that always works, standing up. He looks him in the eye unforgivingly, steps close enough for the fission between their bodies to crackle.

They always break.

Liam nods without hesitation, brown eyes bottomless. Two little black holes, pulling the world inside. Only to crush it.

“I’m serious.” He presses a flash of lips against Louis’, too quick to grasp, before stepping back, a cruel twist to his mouth. “Ruin him, Louis,” he says, and Louis feels a rush of desire, the dizziness of seeing the prize and needing to win. “Ruin him, and you get me.”

Louis nods, feeling a spike in his blood, a clench in his fist as he keeps the gaze, as he feels himself being sucked in. “Alright, then.”

Challenge accepted.

Chapter Text

One More Cup of Coffee -- The White Stripes


 

Louis Tomlinson has been watching Harry Styles for four days.

And it’s not been very eventful. Turns out that The Uprisor in the Kingdom of Liam is not nearly as adventurous or lively as Liam made him out to be. Rather than “fitting into everybody’s pockets” (a direct and startlingly inaccurate quote from none other than Liam himself), Louis hasn’t actually seen the boy talk to another soul for more than five minutes at any given time. Rather, he strides quietly about the school grounds, earbuds tucked firmly in his ears, his fluffy head always bent low towards the soil and grass and cement pathways that glide beneath his purposeful, Converse-clad feet.

And that’s basically it. That’s pretty much all he does. Just walks around with a bag slung over his shoulders, head down, listening to music. Vaguely, distantly, and unamusedly, Louis wonders what he listens to, but the curiosity is almost instantly squashed when he comes to the inevitable conclusion that it’s most likely shit. Nickleback or something. Shit.

Still though, the boy isn’t what Louis had expected.

This ‘Harry Styles’ definitely doesn’t seem like the type that would boast about being recruited for a footie team without even needing to tryout (the boy is all stick limbs and points, and trips up while he walks, so…) and as Louis watches him every day for four days, peering at him through the tendrils of smoke from his cigarette while he times the slaps of his long, gangly feet against the pavement to the bass of Nirvana’s “Aneurysm,” he grows more and more curious as to what this boy could possibly possess that should cause Liam to feel so threatened. He can’t really put his finger on it from the distance though, so he doesn’t waste much time mulling it over, just brushes the thought away along with the ash from his cigarette.

It’ll be easy, though. This target? Easy peasy. Probably won’t take more than a week, even, given that the boy is seemingly docile and potentially shy. Clearly, he’s not one of the aggressive, repressed types that take a bit more time and concentration on Louis’ part; the ones who kick out their questionable sexualities on the field and grunt the words they can’t form before colliding their bodies into you in a manner that suggests more than just petty violence.

Nah, this Harry chap, with his earbuds and long limbs and unmoving lips, is a bit more… well. The ‘innocent’ type, Louis suspects. One of the naïve ones that flushes easily, that stutters out his sentences and sends forth shy smiles as he curls the edge of his notebook paper. He’s one of those sweet ones that Louis has so callously tossed aside on countless times before, all on Liam’s orders, all due to boredom, all because he’s just a shitty, deplorable fucking human being at the end of the day.

He does feel bad sometimes, though. Secretly, quietly, he does.

He doesn’t mind conquering one of the aggressive types — fucking them in the head professor’s office and getting purposefully caught or leaking shitty iPhone footage of them exchanging blowjobs all over Facebook or whathaveyou. He doesn’t so much mind crumbling the (frankly, pretty shitty) foundations of a douchebag footie player who’s bred even more misery in an already miserable world.

But he does feel the pinpricks of remorse when it comes to dashing the hopes of boys who hold a less…blemished heart. He does have a bit of trouble meeting his own reflection after he’s broken the spirit of one who was never meant to be broken.

But. Louis is piece of shit, ya know? Facts are facts.

It’s just how it is. Not everybody was born to be inherently ‘good’. The world is going to be filled with different characters, different flavours, different levels of respectability and whatnot, and Louis just so happens to be on the lower ranks. He’s not good, he’s not brave, and he’s not out to save anyone except himself. Even fairytales have their villains — it’s a part of life. And it’s always been that way. Louis’ always been a bit harsher around the edges. He certainly isn’t going to be winning any “Humanitarian of the Year” awards, that’s for sure. And he doesn’t mind it so much, being thoroughly unaffected by anything and everything and totally removed from his peers and their very trivial lives. Because he’s not like the rest of them. That’s the thing. They’re all the fucking same. With their money and their uppity attitudes and twattiness and their preconceived notions and recycled sentences that disappear as quickly as they come. The same.

He’s always been a bit sour, probably, always a bit different. Probably because, when he was a lad, he spent most, if not all of his time, with just Jo, his mum. He doesn’t ever remember calling her ‘mum’, though. Why call someone by anything else but their given name? Weird fucking customs, people have.

When he was just a baby, his father fuckered off, leaving just Jo and just Louis and no trace or memory or money or care. So it was down to them and that was it. They were very mobile, all through Louis’ first very ripe childhood years, constantly moving, Jo constantly hopping from job to job and town to town because she always taught Louis that “home was where the heart lay”—and the heart was ever moving, never constant. So on whim after whim they travelled. Met a fuck ton of people and experienced a fuck ton of things and Louis was just a wee little thing so it was all in good fun, really. Just changing flats every couple of months and staring up into different parts of the sky. Different babysitters, different friends, different temporary dads, different smells, different textures of carpet, different paint peeling in different corridors. Simple, really.

Looking back… it was probably because it was just the two of them for so long that Louis had always just regarded her as more a friend than a ‘mother’ figure. They were more like companions than family, in a way. It was odd. Sort of hard to put into words. But, thing is, he always held good thoughts of her despite the distinct lack of familial coddling. She may have left him on his own a lot, she may have been a bit flighty and too, too young for a son, but she was kind and creative and free and Louis was like a smaller, male version of her. They even have the same eyes—Louis’ best feature. Thanks, mummy.

And he liked their lifestyle—their haphazard, ever-changing lifestyle. He liked the changes and he liked the inconsistencies, and he liked the adventure of it all because he felt a bit more alive. He remembers reading or hearing a quote at a very young age: To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all. And that’s always stuck with him. It’s become a sort of religion to him, a sentence to wake up and go to bed to. And even as young as he was at the time, Louis still remembers hearing those words in his head every time it came around to packing up and leaving again, whenever he would fold his five shirts and two pairs of jeans into his ripped purple bag with the ink stain at the bottom. Because it felt like they were living instead of just existing. They were trading out memories and people and flats and, somehow, leaving seemed a bit more fulfilling than just building a shitty foundation in a shitty town with shitty people whose accents all sounded the same.

It was around the age of eight, though, that things began to get a bit more…complex. Convoluted, maybe.

That’s when she met Alan.

They were in Doncaster at the time, a decent enough northern town with a school that was easy enough to bunk off from. Louis’d found good mates—good, proper mates to sneak him cigarettes and make him laugh—and then, suddenly, the heart became constant, apparently. Because they stopped moving.

Instead, Jo got married to this burly bloke who was a fireman with a loud laugh. Instead of adventures and patched up suitcases and his purple bag with the ink stain housing his seven articles of clothing, it all became houses and wardrobes and fences and gardens and grocery shopping. It became Jo popping out five—count ‘em, five—fucking daughters in stunningly quick succession. It became Jo suddenly reading little girls bedtime stories and braiding their hair and kissing their cheeks while Louis made dinner and Louis cleaned the house and Louis babysat every single minute of every fucking day. It became Louis watching Jo suddenly awakening into a mother while Louis stayed a friend, not a fucking son, even if he didn’t need a mother because he was quite capable of keeping himself alive on his own, thanks.

It became Alan and Jo and the girls. And it became Louis, always mentioned a sentence away. Always separated by punctuation and a pause and a wall that tucked him into the smallest corner in the smallest room of the house. Like Harry fucking Potter, but with the perk of having a ‘best mate’ who was seventeen years his senior, who also happened to have birthed him.

And then, as all things do, that all came to an end. Because Alan the Fireman suddenly fucked off too — Louis can’t even remember why anymore—and it was back to Jo and her good friend Louis, on their own with five adolescent girls and shit-all to their names.

It was Louis working two fucking jobs at the age of fourteen. It was Louis unable to do his tedious fucking homework because he was so fucking tired all the time. It became Louis raising children while Jo struggled to hold her head above water and it became Louis babysitting still, always, while Jo worked overtime and Jo went on more dates and tried too hard but not enough and it became too fucking much by the time Louis was sixteen. 

It was just too much. He loves his sisters, true — he’s not a complete robot, or anything. And, honestly, they were the reason he stuck around as long as he did. But when he suddenly began failing all of his courses and was told he’d failed his grade again

Well.

It became too much.

So Louis left. Louis up and left one night when his blood was spiked with nicotine and his jean jacket scratched against the soft skin of his arms. He left after kissing his sisters to sleep one last time and he left without one fucking word to Jo because he didn’t need to say anything at all. She knew. She knew it was too much and she didn’t look for him after he’d gone. Not out of a lack of affection, Louis knows, but merely because she just knew and there was nothing left to say.

Even though… Louis probably should have found some words. Just a few, even.

He never once told her how suffocated he felt. It was a realisation that made him sick to his stomach the minute he stepped out the door, but it was one that wasn’t strong enough to make him turn back. Because he’s the child, isn’t he? He shouldn’t have to be the one to initiate that conversation because she was the mother. It shouldn’t be his fucking job to clean up the messes, now should it?

So he dropped out of school and moved in with whatever mates he had at the time. And, ever since, he’s been flittering from flat to flat, maintaining a glamorous job as a busboy who sometimes serves hard liquor to old drunken gents with wandering hands at the pub down by the river. It’s lucky he’d found the job when he did — he’d quit his two jobs after he’d run away in some ridiculous form of protest that proved absolutely nothing to no one. But one of his mates worked there and his lying-through-his-teeth good word landed Louis the gig and the tips he’d made almost immediately were enough to float him along his merry way and feed him and buy his vices, so. It was a win-win situation.

Thing is, though…. Louis lives in a nice neighbourhood, even if he does reside on the other side, the shittier side. But overall, it’s nice. Filled with rich folks and manicured lawns. Pets with diamonds in their collars—that kind of neighbourhood. So, as miraculous as his shitty pub tips were at the time, he still couldn’t even afford a flat to rent out for himself.

So the solution seemed a bit…simple, really.

It was around that age, sixteen, that Louis began to realise he could use his looks to his advantage. It was at sixteen when Louis began to frequent the richer bits of town, began to flirt with the meaty, sporty, credit card-endowed teenage boys with enough intrigue in Louis’ eyelashes and carefully cut lips to spoil him enough for a decent blowjob in return.

And it was just fun, really. Louis enjoyed it, enjoyed the power he held over a bunch of cocky douchebags that couldn’t quite break eye contact with him. Being from the “shady” side of town, the rich boys found him to be fascinating and dangerous and, in return, he found them to be financially beneficial, lavishing him with excellent hard liquor, gourmet meals at laughably pretentious restaurants, and arrays of presents that suddenly made life fun. So he got off with some pretty football captains and was sort of ‘adopted’ into the circle of good parties and good drugs and unattached sex.

Well. Mostly unattached.

It’s no secret that Louis’ had his fair share of cling-ons. Young, sweet boys with big eyes who fell just a little bit too hard after that orgasm; sexually repressed polo players who craved Louis’ attentions just a bit too much for his convenience; token bad boys who wrote awful pop-punk songs on cheap guitars because they wanted Louis for themselves, wanted to ensnare a heart that isn’t there, wanted to wreck the world with a partner in crime who, in the end, was only going to stab them in the back.

Really, it’s all just humorous because Louis doesn’t like to share his glories and enjoys kinship even less. Thanks, but no thanks.

So he’s probably damaged some feelings in his wake. Probably most definitely. He has absolutely deleted too many teary voicemails and unanswered texts with too many questions marks. He’s stared unfeelingingly into enough desperate eyes that he’s just come to sort of realise that he isn’t a good person. He just isn’t. He wasn’t born with enough compassion or care or patience; instead he was laden with a minuscule, distant, barely decipherable conscious that weighed him down and made him angrier.

Instead, he embraces an aimless life with no grasp of the future or, hell, even the present. Because, at the end of the day, Louis’ just a jumbled fucking mess of frustration and aimlessness, getting by from day to day and never thinking past that. So he makes a bit of extra money one night at the pub? Has some spare cash left over? He spends it on an elaborate breakfast the next morning, with maybe a bottle of champagne to chase it down, all the stops pulled, throwing his money away as quickly as it comes because if he’s going to burn, he’s going to burn bright. 

Once, for a solid month, he lived in an abandoned garage by a junkyard because instead of spending his money on, say, renting an actual flat, he chose to buy either cigarettes, vodka, hair product, or copious amounts of weed. And this thing barely even had a roof, the tin rotted away in spots, providing a perfect entryway for stray, icy raindrops and small intruders. He slept on a shitty, stained mattress that was flattened and uneven and painful, a few springs busted through the thinned, off-coloured fabric. They used to jab into his tailbone and bruise him, sending little flicks of discomfort throughout his body during the day. But he chose it, he chose to stay in a fucking hovel, sleeping top-to-tale with some meth addict he met at the pub. His name was Buzz and Louis mocked him heavily for it (for obvious reasons, fuck) and he would always swear by the moonlight that snuck through their rotted roof, a bent wooden guitar perched atop his lap, that he was going to be the next “big thing” in music. He was going to change the world with his re-inspired poetry and endless melodies and sometimes Louis would believe him, sucking on a cigarette as he stared at the stars that peaked through from above. He’d lie back on their cold, shitty floor that was half concrete, half dirt, and he’d gaze up through twisted, endless smoke and a haze that constantly seemed to blanket him, and he’d listen to Buzz’s dreams, vaguely wondering if he had any of his own.

He doesn’t, though. Louis may be many things, may possess many thoughts, but he doesn’t have dreams. He’s not even sure what they really are, what that even means… he’s not sure. It’s sort of fucking stupid and idealistic though, isn’t it?

Yeah. Just a bit.

But he kept on living, feeling continuously frustrated and bitter and constantly annoyed and uninvested and there wasn’t one fucking person in this shitty town that impressed him or truly sparked his interest—not even Buzz who, one day, decided to undergo a “spiritual reawakening” and moved across the country and sold all of his possessions. Though, Louis was a little sad to see him go, if he’s being honest.

So instead of a hovel with a meth head, he began hopping from mates’ couches to mates’ beds and back again, with little to nothing but the clothes on his well-toned back, thank you very much. He only had his music and Kurt Cobain’s frustrated wails and playlists entitled “fuck off” and just stared at the same quote he etched into the chipped wooden tables at pubs and spray-painted on dirty alley walls—“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all. He’d fallen asleep in too many places listening to the same songs and hearing the same words in his head.

And then he met Liam.

It’s sort of a funny story. Liam’s the classic Golden Boy of the town, see. He’s the one with the clean haircut and the too-white teeth and the parents that run the town with unyielding, hypocritical fists and he’s got the most money and the best marks and the best abs and if he’s not adored, he’s feared.

Louis hadn’t known fuck all about him when he’d first come into his pub, though. Louis doesn’t go to school anymore so the name ‘Liam Payne’ virtually meant nothing. He might’ve heard it said in passing before, but Liam wasn’t often a subject that was approached in detail when Louis was fucking nameless boys’ mouths in their pool houses.

So one fine night, Liam happened into Louis’ shitty pub down the river. Now, rich boys never usually go there, so the minute him and his mates walked in, it was noticeable. It was a thing. They thought they were being all bad and cool, hanging about on the other side of town, the shitty side. And Louis sort of laughed at them as he was wiping down the counter, casting them a few eyerolls and indifferent shrugs.

But Liam’s eyes latched onto Louis and it didn’t go unnoticed. He stayed at the counter, knocking back sub-par whiskey and thumping muscled hands on the worn, scratched wood as his mates thundered out laughter and slurs at the televisions tucked in the corners beneath the peeled, uneven ceiling. Liam watched Louis polish the cloudy pint glasses with an off-grey rag and Liam watched Louis stretch to the tips of his toes as he reached for top-shelf vodka.

The entire night, Liam watched Louis.

“The fuck you staring at?” Louis had barked abruptly, straightening up from where he’d been bent over, rummaging beneath the bar for spare cocktail napkins. He said it harshly, his dry throat crackling the words, but his practiced lips were speckled in a smirk, and he enjoyed the flicker of emotions that danced across Liam’s eyes. Very dark brown eyes. Louis didn’t know where they started or where they ended. If they ended, that is.

Liam set down his glass, the ice tinkling a bit harshly, never breaking Louis’ gaze. His own smirk was quick to form.

“You,” he said without a moment’s hesitation.

It was enough to prickle Louis’ interest, and it was enough to send a wider smirk Liam’s way, before Louis sauntered off, the distinct flutter of banknotes fluttering in his ears. Another night, another boy.

But, not long after, Liam had disappeared in a flurry of noise and screams and sports jackets, surrounded by his peers. Only momentarily was Louis deterred before shrugging and wiping down the rest of the bar. No major loss—just another rich boy. Not special, was he?

It was only after Louis closed up shop, shuffling on his beer-splattered jacket, that he noticed the shaded figure waiting for him outside.

“Thought you left,” Louis breathed, sliding a cigarette out of the pack with practiced ease. The sky was bright, the moon full, and Louis used the blades of blue light to his advantage as he sucked on the stick with hollowed cheeks, met the boy’s eye beneath his lashes.

And it did the trick. Always does.

Liam hadn’t really said much of anything. Just twisted his face into a smirk/grimace sort of thing as he shuffled Louis against the wall, immediately latched a hungry mouth to his neck. It was fucking incredible, Louis remembers. It was incredible because there was no pretence of affection—only lust—and it was incredible because he smelt like old money and he smelt corrupt and it was every single fucking thing Louis needed in his lungs. So he grabbed back, pushed back, and dropped to his knees for Liam fucking Payne, in the back alley of his pub.

It must’ve been good head because Liam asked him his name afterwards.

“Tommo,” Louis said through curls of smoke, lips still red, still wet, still smirking.

Liam glinted his grin as he extended his hand, clutched tightly to Louis’ own. “Liam,” he said in response, and took Louis’ number. “I’ll be in touch with you,” he’d said as he’d begun walking away, leaving Louis with his red mouth and an arched brow. “I get bored easily.” He cast one last look over his shoulder, his grin devilish and raw. “And I think you might be the cure for that.”

He said nothing else and Louis merely laughed as he finished his cigarette.

It was just three days later when he heard from Liam again. And from then on, they were…’partners in crime’, so to speak. Nothing sexual arose between them, not after that first night. Of course, it was no secret that Louis was up for it (pardon the pun) but Liam merely smirked whenever Louis would advance, would hold up a steady hand as he held that same glint in his eye. “Not today,” he’d purr, before taking Louis’ hand and dragging him along. “I have a game I want to play,” he would say, and that’s how it all began.

Liam was bored? He’d set Louis on an unsuspecting soul. Liam was mad? He’d set Louis to avenge him. Simple, simple, simple. And if there was some thin thread of actual friendship between them beneath the tarnished, sordid bits, then it was one formed through dissatisfaction, boredom, and a sort of loneliness that would never be confessed. It was two bad people finding solace in each other’s fate and it was how the world worked.

It’s still how the world works.

And so now Liam’s got him on this new mission—Mission Harry Styles—and Louis has been watching him for four days.

He’s been watching the quiet boy with fluffy brown curls and muted eyes and skin that almost glows translucent in the day. He’s been watching the slump of his shoulders and the way his jumpers bunch at his wrists and the way his gaze rarely ever lifts from the pavement with each step. He watches the boy’s sunny smile when he greets passerby who greet him first—a smile that the boy seems to flash more on instinct than anything, almost as if he smiles before he realises it or even thinks it through.

He’s watching Harry Styles right now as he walks, foot after foot, eyes on the pavement, towards the library and Louis is very sure that this boy is one of those who merely exists.

Boring. He’s a very boring type. Should be no problem at all. New in town or not.

Perhaps this’ll even be Louis’ fastest achievement yet—even faster than the boy who tattooed Louis’ name into his wrist after one week of stolen whispers in the park. What was his name? Brent? Something along the lines of that.

Yes, this boy should be easy as pie.

So with that thought, Louis stubs out his cigarette and pushes himself off of the wall before making his way towards the library, seeking the boy who merely exists and very secretly wishing he himself felt more alive.

Chapter Text

Seven Devils – Florence & the Machine


 

He’s on a mission.

He enters the library, pulling open the heavy wooden door that brings forth a wave of musty pages, dirty carpeting, and stale ink. It’s sort of acrid and gross and it stings his nostrils in this odd way but he ignores it, his eyes intent, searching. Wordlessly, he slinks to the back of the large room.

He saw Harry Styles come in here, is the thing. He knows he’s in here somewhere. He’s just got to find him, is all. Then the games begin.

The dirty soles of his Vans squeak a bit as he sidles past tall, endless rows of dusty books with spines that are cracked, chipped, and fading away under dim lighting that suffocates. The carpet smells like ancient paper and stagnation, creaking beneath his feet and sending up little puffs. Despite it being blue in nature, it’s actually alarmingly brownish—something he’d previously never considered possible but… Well. Public flooring is probably the one exception to art and all of its purposes. It looks and smells like long, boring nights filled with anxiety, silence, a bit of stress, and a touch of panic. And while, true, he’s not been in many libraries (even when he was in school, he was never very…erm…academic, shall we say), he can imagine that’s probably the general vibe of them--some sort of calm inner turmoil. A contradictory sort of chaos.

He likes them, though—libraries, that is. He enjoys the idea that in one single room there exists thousands of tiny universes, bound in leather and sitting quietly on shelves. Or maybe it’s the libraries themselves that are actually the universes, housing galaxies and worlds and dying stars and black holes and red dwarfs, undiscovered and untouched. Lying just beyond the surface, so you wouldn’t know it’s all even there…

In any case, it’s a cool thought. A universe in a universe. Maybe the world is a library. Maybe Louis is just another book on the shelf. Huh.

It’s sort of a comforting thought. Louis loves books, loves other peoples’ words. He loves hearing them sung in his favorite songs, he loves scribbling them down and carving them and painting them and he loves repeating them in a soft cadence when the world gets a little too fucking cacophonic. Books are nice. He loves reading. He loves the way people form sentences and use their vocabularies to say all the shit that he cannot.

“To live is the rarest thing…”

But anyway. He’s got business to attend to.

Ignoring the, frankly, repugnant giggles and the glares of students and staff, he continues forward. He peers past all the books and galaxies, skimming over the countless heads taking up the long, rectangular tables that lie in the open spaces of the shadowy room with too few windows and too many dust particles. He searches for a bent, curly head and earbuds, he searches for the boy, his boy, his target.

He continues circling, eyes penetrating through the dense clusters of students, well-dressed and clever and cocky, skimming through their iPads and Macbooks and quoting Bukowski. He squints a bit, just circling and circling and searching (because where the fuck is this kid?), disguised and unseen and becoming increasingly frustrated and a little hungry. This entire fucking thing is ridiculous.

God, the things he does for Liam Payne and his shit-eating grin… He purses his lips together at the thought.

Eyes on the prize, Tommo. Eyes on the prize.

With (slightly) renewed vigor, he creeps further to the back, the shadows of the room getting a little deeper, the dust swirling a little heavier, where the books sit quieter from years of being untouched. He feels an odd twist of sympathy at that—something admittedly rare for him—and he swipes his fingers across their spines. Just for a little attention, a little something. So they know haven’t been completely forgotten.

And just where the actual fuck is this kid? Because he’s definitely not in the library. He’s not in the throng of chatting students and he’s sure as hell not in the back of this crypt. Not one soul lingers amongst the forgotten archives, not even a fly, so just where—

Oh.

Wait.

He stops near a particularly challenged looking set of encyclopedias, squinting past them as he focuses his sharp eyes on a solo figure, shaded and sitting in an isolated corner at a small, rocky wooden table. The figure is hunched, quiet, purposeful, with a sloppy mess of curls sitting atop his head, all springy and unruly against the smooth plane of his neck. He’s got on a grey jumper that’s just a bit too loose on him yet simultaneously too short, the fabric thick and soft over the points of his back. There’s little to nothing on the table next to him, just a stack of books, a notebook, and an enormous bag of…carrots? Baby carrots?

Louis blinks. Okay then.

Without breaking his gaze, he slides his phone out of his pocket, shoots a brief text to Liam.

‘Found him.’

A moment’s breath and then it vibrates a response.

‘Perfect’

He can’t help the smirk that forms as he smoothes down his clothes, combs calm fingers through his carefully-managed hair, his heart sparking with each pump of blood at the anticipation of it all—the beginning is always the most fun. And this one? This one is going to be the most fun of all.

Because this is it. This is the big one. This is, probably, Louis’ last little mission, his last conquest before he finally gets Liam and, with him, complete and utter luxury; a life peppered in unspoken authority and vices upon vices upon hedonism.

This is it.

So.

Here he goes.

Without another second’s thought, he steps out from the towering bookshelves, presenting himself in plain view as he relaxes his face into something pleasant, preparing to sink his hook into the bait before him. It’s sort of funny when he thinks about it like that, actually. Styles is just a giant fish, swimming aimlessly in a sea of other, same fish. And here comes Louis, hook, line, and sinker.

Heh.

He walks over. Each step is careful, calm, and utterly prepared. Is he a little triumphant as well? Already? Well, maybe. Why the fuck not be? Like he’s said before—he’s never failed. Not once. So, naturally, he’s going to feel his oats just a wee bit, as the boy in question comes closer in view, completely oblivious and unknowing to the storm behind him, coming his way. Of course Louis feels triumph at laying eyes on this quiet, clueless figure who will soon be panting his name. Of course Louis feels fucking triumph at the knowledge that after he gets all of this petty bullshit over with in a timely, tidy fashion, he will have everything he’s ever wanted: Power. Ease. A voice. Some sort of fucking direction with more than one fucking route to take.

The carpet creaks as Louis walks, but the boy’s got his earbuds in (always), his hand steady as he writes notes in a thin, rumpled notebook. Occasionally he sneaks a baby carrot from the bag, the small ‘snick’ of his bites echoing in the silence and sending a few peeved glances his way, from across the room, from the bright side. But the boy pays no mind, just writes with a smooth, pale hand, listening to his music as the shards of light from the very high up windows lie atop the line of his back. He’s completely alone, completely isolated, and…well. Purposeful and quiet and seemingly very insignificant.

It’s a bit odd. Isn’t it?

This boy, that’s supposed to be fucking up Liam’s entire life—golden, golden rich Liam—is literally sat completely by himself in a room filled with arse-kissing opportunities and… Yet here he is. Nibbling on carrots and sometimes tapping his foot in time to a beat only he can hear. Louis already suspected that he was shy and a bit innocent-like, but… He doesn’t even have a social flare of some sort?

This whole thing is just odd.

But he’s upon him now, examining the titles of the books stacked before him. Looks like he’s got Kafka, Lovecraft, Vonnegut, and…is that Austen? Okay then, cool. Good to know. He racks his brain for knowledge, trying to pluck up a sentence that will appear both witty and spontaneous, something that will actually provoke the boy to listen to him instead of the music in his ears (Louis still sort of wonders what he listens too—music is sort of his thing) and he’s just opening his mouth, summoning up all the charm he so effortlessly possesses, already beginning to adopt his squinty-eyed smile that is sure to send a warm shiver to any onlooker—

When, suddenly, his foot fucking collides with the boy’s table.

“Oh, goddamn, shit!” Louis curses immediately, his grin sliding off of his face and quickly being replaced with a, most likely, largely unattractive grimace. Fucking wobbly-ass table is strong. A very strong, wrathful table. His foot feels like it may or may not be hanging by a thread, shit.

Styles startles, earbuds jostling out of his ears as he sort of shrieks? A little bit? There’s some ungodly sound that escapes him as he spins around, his pen falling from his hand, his head shooting up to point large, alarmed eyes up at Louis.

Very alarmed eyes.

They’re these bright things, a sort of nameless color. Somewhere between grey and green and blue? Maybe a bit like the sea on one of those shitty, overcast days where it’s always sort of raining but it never actually commits to it. Just sort of spits and drizzles. They’re glossy like that, like the ripples on the ocean’s surface, but…quiet. Sunless, perhaps. Dull in luster and forgettable and, just, lacking the charms of life, really. They’re just a pair of eyes that merely exist.

And, you know, Liam’s just an oversensitive prat, if this boy is deemed as a threat. This bland shade of grey? Styles may potentially be the least threatening color on the entire spectrum.

What a waste of fucking time.

Louis sighs internally, musters up an apologetic smile that will cast some light on the youth before him, his foot throbbing only a tiny bit, in time with the tiny pulse-point in Harry’s smooth, white neck. The boy still hasn’t moved, suspended in time and wide-eyed.

“I’m so sorry,” Louis purrs kindly to the curly, woodland owl sat before him.

Styles is softer up close. His features are very…well. Sweet. Sorta the only word for it, really. Simultaneously soft and angled and open, his lips very pillowed and bright, parted slightly in surprise. He’s got one earbud still clinging to his ear, the other dangling sadly. They’re white and clean, probably came with his little iPod—he obviously takes care of his things.

And he still hasn’t fucking blinked.

“I would like to say that that was the table’s fault, but…” Louis half-chortles seamlessly, by way of explanation, feeling only slightly flustered at his false start and the unblinking eyes before him that offer no platform to stand. Because, no, Titanic-ing into Harry Styles’ iceberg was not exactly how he envisioned swooping in on this kid.  

Not so smooth, Tommo. Good fucking job.

The boy just continues to stare, though, eyes far too big and searching. It’s weird. Too much. And it’s not like Louis’ any stranger to eye contact (it’s one of his strongest, surest tools) but… He finds himself almost wanting to look away as the seconds drag by and the boy refrains from blinking, just stares instead.

It’s kind of fucking unnerving.

“Why were you walking so close to my table?”

The words almost startle Louis.

Their abruptness (what does that fucking question even mean, anyway?) is almost harsh in the thick, musty air of the library, their lack of transition making them completely unexpected. Especially since Louis was beginning to doubt Harry Styles could even speak at all.

But speak he does—speaks quite well, in fact. Despite resembling a hobbit, the boy’s voice is one of those belly-deep ones, reverberating and lulling through syllables.

Still, though, the question is odd and a little defensive, so Louis blinks, almost startled. Almost.  

“Well,” he begins, more confused than offended, taking in the boy’s seemingly inoffensive nature, “I was actually just trying to see what books you had there. On your table.” He gestures to them, his foot still throbbing a bit dully (from punting the fucking table) as the lies tumble from his lips.

It’s easy, lying. It’s very, very easy. It comes almost second nature to him, is almost as comforting as breathing or sleeping.  He smiles down at the boy, feigns ease and amiability as he searches the unabashed gaze before him. He’s finally blinked now, at least. Thank god.

The boy’s brow furrows as he glances to the books that are now scattered beside him before he returns his cloudy, nameless gaze. “Oh. Did you need one? I’m sorry. I’ve got a few copies, so you can have—“

“No, no, no,” Louis interjects, holding up a hand and chuckling gently. He hates chuckling. “Not at all. Was just curious.” He smiles again, lips pulling over his teeth.

“Oh.” The form of the boy’s lips lingers on the sound, his eyebrows just barely knitting together. He seems confused—genuinely so—as he keeps Louis’ eye contact, items still scattered about him, a stray carrot rolling to the floor.

There’s a beat of awkward silence. Shit.

“I’m Louis,” he then rushes (because awkward silences are the enemy), extending his hand with a grin that he knows catches even the weariest eye. “Louis Tomlinson.”

Luckily, fucking luckily, nothing in Styles’ owlish stare alters as he glances down at Louis’ extended hand, face smooth and impassive. Because, yes, okay, Louis has a bit of a reputation. Even if he doesn’t attend this stupid fucking school, he’s been involved with enough ‘scandals’ and had enough liaisons with its occupants to earn his name scratched into a bathroom stall or two, have it whispered fervently in a few halls. Who knows, maybe even discussed amongst faculty. And he’s sure that nothing being said is overwhelmingly positive. Nor would it help his endeavors any.  So, yes, it’s very lucky indeed.

With a new-budded smile that pokes at his cheeks (and awweh, bless, the boy looks positively cherubic when he grins, a sweet, rosy blush alighting his flesh), Styles takes Louis’ hand, nodding politely his way. It’s sort of startlingly endearing, his features morphing into something so completely inoffensive and seemingly genuine; the very portrait of softness. No wonder everybody’s drawn to him—he naturally exudes a sort of charm. An indecipherable, lingering pull.

So that’s why he’s the new Big Shot. Mentally, he may have the social prowess of a ball of yarn, but the genetics of Harry Styles make up for it in spades.  

“Harry,” the boy in question replies simply, kindly, and Louis is almost expecting some kind of witty quip or endearment to match up with the uneven quirked lips and the bright eyes.  

But then suddenly the smile is politely stowed away as he already begins picking up his pen, ready to return to his diligent note-taking.

“It’s nice to meet you, but I best get back to work,” is what he concludes with, and then before Louis can even blink, he’s turned back around, earbuds back in his ears, and the conversation is effectively ended.  

Or at least so he bloody thinks.

Louis’ only just getting started.

Trying not to scowl (he may or may not be a little miffed at being rebuffed so easily and so callously), Louis clears his throat, pitching his volume loud enough to be heard over whatever shitty song currently playing on that bloody iPod.

“Just Harry?” he questions, voice laced with the undercurrent of impatience, but he keeps his smile in place because he’s meant to be enticing, dammit. He’s meant to be appealing.

Come on, Styles. Feel the appeal.

Eyebrows drawn together, the kid turns to him, presses ‘Pause’ with an air that is none too patient. “Pardon?” he asks, his tone just a bit irritated but mostly caught off guard.

Louis has to bite down his smirk, feeling just the tiniest thrill about it. At least he’s eliciting some sort of reaction instead of that polite bullshit. And, okay, yes, he may also enjoy poking at nerves a little bit. Perhaps.

“I said, ‘just Harry?’” he repeats, voice sticky-sweet as he quirks an eyebrow amusedly. And if he’s being a little shit then…well. Oops. The kid’s sort of asking for it.

He grins full-out when he sees the confusion (or perhaps blatant annoyance?) in the boy’s stare, twisting his neo-classical features into something far less picturesque and pleasing, far less ‘radio friendly’. And maybe it’s the lighting in this shithole or maybe there really is something a bit shy and guarded in it as well.

“Styles,” he offers after a moment’s pause, quiet and a bit hesitant. “My name’s Harry Styles.”

A triumphant feeling spreads within Louis, through his chest and ventricles. He smiles, wants to smirk, wants to stand a bit taller and cock his head with a Roman-coliseum-esque victory. He’s beginning to feel a bit more in control now, like he’s got the reigns in his hands instead of chasing after them.

“Well, Harry Styles,” Louis says, lolling his head to the side flirtatiously as he steadies both hands on the table, leans a bit forward. “I feel awful shit for sending all your carrots and books to the floor”—the boy’s startled eyes glance to the ground, hah—“so how about I make it up to you with a drink?”

At that, Styles pulls his gaze from the blue-brown carpet (where he’d actually just bent to pick up the one lone carrot that had fallen to its demise) and, somehow, looks even more startled when he meets Louis’ eye.

“A drink?”

Louis nods, smile breezy, blood sharpening in its flow. Here goes nothing.

“Of course. A drink. Any drink. Tea, coffee, water… Any drink, I promise. My treat, of course.” The words are smooth—they sound smooth, they feel smooth, and Louis’ got this in the bag, he can feel it. Just one more little push and he’ll have him in the palm of his hand.

But yet.

For some reason, the silence carries for a bit longer than is custom. Which is…unexpected.

At the boy’s perplexed stare (and he’s still housing the fallen carrot in his hands which lie ever so neatly on his lap), Louis leans a bit more forward, grins fuller and softens the lids of his eyes. “Milkshake?” he offers in a teasing tone, waiting for a reaction, a response, something, please.

There’s a moment where Styles seems to be at an honest loss for words, the expression on his face somewhere between bewildered and dumbstruck and almost bearing offense for reasons unbeknownst to Louis. Which is actually a bit odd, if he’s being honest. He’s normally pretty good with people, pretty good with sussing them out and gauging their reactions. But Styles is currently looking at him like he’s got tentacles sprouting from his fucking ears so, no, Louis can’t really say he’s got much bearing on the current situation.

So instead he does what he always does in times of distress: smiles prettily until his eyes crinkle and butts the toe of his shoe gently against the boy’s shin.

Immediately, Styles’ eyes find the point of contact, his brows painfully knitted now.

What the actual fuck.

“Uhm…” he begins, and his voice is so low, isn’t it? So very unlike his pretty, pretty princess features. His cloudy eyes flicker up, catch Louis’ eyes with that intense, bone-marrow-cutting stare, and settle. “That’s very kind of you, but… Uhm, I really should…” He gestures awkwardly to his notebook, the scattered books, the carrots. The fucking carrots. “Study,” he finishes.

And then he presses ‘Play’ and turns back the fuck around.

Seriously? Now this is just getting tedious.

So, of course, Louis then sits down. Proudly sits down, he might add.

It’s with an audible sigh of exasperation that Styles looks up again, any polite charm long since gone. Now it’s all alarm and befuddlement and irritation. Heh.

(And, okay, maybe it is sort of amusing as well as frustrating.)

Hel-lo,” Louis sings because he’s a shit, smiling cheekily and folding his hands atop the table. The buttons of his jean jacket dig into his arms a bit where he rolled them up and the surface of the table feels a bit sticky and cool, but he keeps smiling, undeterred, eyes set.

“Hello…” Styles responds, downright wearily. He doesn’t even bother raising his head now, just stares at Louis through his fringe of wavy brown curls, his jumper hanging loosely at his pale neck. He doesn’t blink, doesn’t move. His eyes may or may not be narrowing.

And Louis continues to beam, bright, expectant. He waits for the boy to say the first word or make the first move, fully aware that his actions are border-lining on annoying and overly aggressive. It’s not his best tactic—and certainly not the one he had anticipated to use—but Styles is proving to be a bit more…well, irregular than his usual boys.

It’s fucking frustrating. But it’s not unheard of.

There is still hope yet.

“May I help you?” Styles eventually presses at Louis’ smiley silence, once again setting down his pen and raising his head fully.

Louis merely shrugs. “Only if you’d like to come have a drink with me. That would help.”

And now the kid’s absolutely looking at him like he’s crazy. Louis’ unsure if he wants to laugh or strangle him.

“I have to study.”

A flick of irritation thumps in Louis’ pulse. “So study later.”

“I plan to,” Styles says slowly, so, so slowly. He’s staring at Louis with all the careful examination of one who’s stumbled upon an undiscovered insect. Fabulous. “That doesn’t stop me from having to study now as well.”

Touché, little student, touché.

So.

He needs a different approach.

Louis bites his inner cheek, searches the thousands of different tactics, different weapons of choice, that lie in his mind. Which is the right one, which is the right one?

“Look, Harry”—and it’s the first time he’s said his name, emphasizing it with a low tone and a sigh which elicits a whole lot of nothing from Harry (goddammit)—“I genuinely don’t wish to deter you from your academics or anything—“

“Yes you do,” Harry inserts. It’s said calmly, honestly, nothing accusatory in the tone. Just as if he’s stating a fact.

Louis smirks despite himself. Well, okay—at least the kid’s honest. He can respect that. Maybe he’s got a little more gumption than he thought. Maybe he’s not entirely weak.

“Okay, fine, I do. But what I was going to say was that, despite that, I really would like to make it up to you, if only for a moment. It’s the least I can do. Especially now that I’ve made a fuss about it. It’s a whole thing now. Allow me to apologize.”

Styles just stares.

Louis stares back, softens his smile into something a bit more laidback and calm. This kid is obviously a cautious little thing, the antithesis of ‘impulsive’. A slower approach will mostly likely be more effective.

Hm. Maybe a ‘friends first’ sort of thing will do the trick?

The silence stretches on for a bit, just long enough for Louis to fidget his feet (he’s hates sitting still and in this quiet, dusty, oppressive box of a room, he feels like he’s damn right near suffocating) and he’s about to open his mouth, about to steer this wagon into a different direction.

When suddenly Styles opens his mouth first.

“You don’t even know me, though,” he says quietly, his brows pinching together. A few wisps of curls un-tuck themselves from behind his right ear. There’s a brief, very brief, ripple of self consciousness in his eyes. Maybe self-doubt? Or maybe it was all just a shadow? A little shadow?

And once again, Louis almost falters, staring at the soft, frizzy curls, the hesitation in the boy’s gaze, the closed-off rigidity of his limbs, and, for a moment, he almost doesn’t know what to do with the quiet confusion of it all. His targets have been shy before, some have even been hesitant or aloof; but none have ever displayed the genuine, jaded disinterest that this boy has for Louis. None have ever been so…unresponsive.

Louis is going to kick Liam’s arse.  

“Well, that’s exactly the point, isn’t it?” he responds after a moment, and the smile he dregs up takes a little more effort than is usually custom. He tries to keep it there, tries to exude charm, but he’s distracted, skimming Harry’s eyes, trying and trying and trying to interpret what little he’s given. “I want to change that.”

A few beats pass where Styles continues staring at him beneath a thick cluster of hair nearly covering his right eye, his gaze cloudy, hazy on the edges. (He’s always staring, isn’t he?) He bites the inside of his lip briefly but Louis sees it, wonders what it means because he hasn’t gotten a grasp of this boy’s mannerisms yet. He’s not sure if it’s nerves or irritation or attraction or just a tick. But he bites his lip and Louis sees it and Louis waits.

“Why?” is what Styles finally asks.

God, these questions.

Louis quirks a brow. “What do you mean ‘why?’”

“Why do you want to know me?”

And, oh. Okay.

It sort of takes Louis by surprise. How the hell does he answer that?

For a few seconds, Louis gapes like a fucking fish, just staring at the kid as he tries to articulate a sentence that doesn’t sound completely formulated and insincere. But then suddenly Styles is up and standing, rolling up his bag of carrots and sticking it into his bag, collecting his books and clutching his notebook against his side, stuffing his pen in his pocket. His lips are pursed, his face impassive, but his movements are steady and swift and show no tremor or hesitation.

“Look, I’ve got to go. It was nice meeting you.”

And he fucking takes off.

Whoah whoah whoah. Hold the fuck up.

“Wait—hold on!” Louis calls, startled, grin sliding off his face as he nearly catapults out of his chair. But the boy’s already catapulted himself first, straight on out of the library, leaving only the heavy doors to fling in Louis’ face (thanks, kid) and little dust piles in his wake.

They emerge onto the sunlit school grounds, passerby laughing, the pavement warm beneath the rubber soles of their feet. Rubber soles. Rubber Soul. Excellent album, that.

Styles is still up ahead, Louis trotting to catch up like a fucking pony.

“Hold up, hold up,” Louis calls again, trying his best not to full-on run (Louis Tomlinson does not run) (even despite Harry Styles’ gazelle legs and Godzilla strides) as he fast-walks his arse up to the kid. “There,” he pants when he finally falls into step beside him. “You know, you may not look it, but you’ve got some speed in that caboose—“

“What do you want from me?” Styles then demands, spinning around to round on Louis.

His face is almost angry, etched tightly with a frustrated sort of confusion that seems more helpless than aggressive. His bag is slung over his sturdy shoulder, digging into his skin and bunching up the soft grey of his jumper. One hand holds possessively onto it, the other lies fisted at his side. He’s uncomfortable, he’s got his shackles up, and he’s looking at Louis like he genuinely just wants him to leave him the fuck alone.

This is not good.

A discomforting feeling surges through Louis momentarily as he takes an alarmed step back, his sure demeanor and amused smirk falling, falling down to the warm pavement and the cracks where the strangled blades of grass grow.

To be quite honest, he’s not really sure how to approach this. He’s not used to such…forthrightness?

He’s not used to any of this.

“Hey,” he says, pitching his voice low, in the most serious tone he can manage. He’s never been good at being earnest, but if there was ever a time for it, the time is now. “Look, I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable or anything—“

“But what do you want with me?” Styles repeats, openly frustrated, and it’s imploring, his hands gesticulating the words. In this moment, he seems less weary somehow, less guarded and silent and hesitant and all of those other things.

Right now, he just seems…honest. And he’s looking at Louis intently, patiently, exasperatedly. His lips are parted but he’s breathing a bit loudly through his nose. His eyes are wide. But they’re not tense.

Louis doesn’t know what any of it means.

“I just…” Louis shrugs, having difficulty finding the words as he shuffles a bit self-consciously, brings a hand to the back of his neck. He’s not used to this. “Look, I walked straight into your table, mate. Sent your shit flying, then startled your bones out of you. I feel badly, yeah? Just trying to make it up to you. That’s all.”

It’s a fucking lie. It feels like a lie. It sounds like a lie. Louis’ skin feels itchy and he’s not used to this.

Doubt flickers in the boy’s features.

“And, alright, you got me,” he continues in a stronger voice, reassembling himself a bit because, no, he will not cower in the face of a challenge. He readopts a smile, lets it form slowly, keeps it small and a bit shy. “Your pretty face doesn’t hurt things either.”

At that, Styles turns crimson. He blushes. Like a small, bashful child.

Thank fuck. The game is back on.

“Uhm? Thank you,” the boy stammers, but he’s not looking at Louis anymore, is full-on staring at the ground with a face that looks positively aflame. God, he’s a tender one. Just a little fawn.

Louis’ good with fawns. Excellent, even.

He’s got this.

“I really do have to go, though,” he continues, finally lifting his head again. His blush is a bit reduced. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”

Or maybe he doesn’t.

Because it’s not a question and it’s not an invitation and before Louis can even form his lips to speak, Harry Styles is gone.  

Chapter Text

Unattainable – Little Joy


 

“It’s an impossible task,” Louis says flatly, the minute Liam opens the door to his room. He’s got his arms crossed, his eyes set in a permanent glare that he hopes burns at least one hole in Liam’s bulletproof makeup. Or many holes. Hell, just swiss-cheese the fucker, why not?

But Liam just quirks an eyebrow. “Surely you’re not talking about Styles?”

“I am most definitely talking about Styles,” he snaps, arms uncrossing and falling to his sides. Somehow, he manages to glare even harder. “You do realize you sent me to chase after a bunny rabbit, right? A fucking socially awkward, docile as shit, weird, impossible-to-read goddamn bunny rabbit?”

A smirk forms on Liam’s lips but he doesn’t respond, just leans on his doorframe as he observes Louis through a calm gaze.

Since Liam seems intent on saying abso-fucking-lutely nothing, Louis continues, jaw set. “He doesn’t like me. He wants fuck all to do with me. And, to be quite honest, I can’t say I feel any differently. I also can’t exactly say that I even understand why I’m going after the thing in the first place.”

Liam quirks a brow. “Thing?” he questions, amused.

“Thing,” Louis affirms flatly.

There’s a pause, one where Louis’ flexing his frustrated muscles and biting his tongue and Liam is watching him like he would his favorite television program. Arsehole.

“So,” he drawls out slowly, eventually, eyes flickering over Louis’ body. “Styles isn’t taking the bait. Lost our touch then, have we?”

“Oh, piss off,” Louis glares, shoving past him into his room. He scoffs a bit for good measure, heading straight for the bed to sprawl out and massage the shit out of his aching temples.  

No, he has not lost his touch, thank you.

“Don’t disappoint me, Louis,” Liam then sighs, closing his door as he turns to face him. “This one’s important. Extremely important. He may not have taken to you on the first go, but he sure as hell took to that Latin exam we just had. Furthermore, my sources tell me that he’s been nominated for the Student Board next term. As President.” His eyes turn icy, his tone sharper. “Which, we both know, is a coveted position. Coveted by me.” A curl develops in his lips. “And I don’t even care to mention what that old cow Alice Horan said about letting him give a fucking speech at the school’s charity gala next month.”

Despite the sluggish frustration in his veins, Louis manages a smirk. He gets an odd pleasure out of Liam losing. There’s something indefinably satisfying about it.

“So, I’m sure I don’t need to explain why this of the utmost importance, Tommo.”

“Oh, ‘utmost,’ oh-ho,” Louis mocks under his breath. Oh, Liam and his uppity words. Fuck off.

Liam continues, undeterred, his posture stiff and muscled as he unzips a giant sports bag set atop his desk. His sharp brown eyes catch on Louis’. “Failure is not an option.”

Oh, alright then. No pressure or anything.

A spike of anxiety seizes through Louis’ muscles. Not an option. Doesn’t Louis fucking know it. This is his one shot, too.

He breathes evenly through his nose as he sinks his head deeper into Liam’s pillows (they smell like his obnoxious cologne and it’s almost too much), pushing the heels of his palms into his eye sockets. Anxious, he’s feeling anxious. Just wants to lie down and listen to something. A song, any song. The Doors’ ‘The End’ would probably fit pretty nicely right about now.

This is the end, my only friend, the end…

“Is your mum home?” Louis eventually asks, hoping for a subject change, his body and mind irritated, eyes aching with the pressure from his hands. “I like ruffling her feathers; it’s an easy task—all I have to do is say hi and ask about her day.”

“Stop changing the subject,” Liam replies coolly, folding up a pair of black ankle socks. His movements are so fluid, so sure. So Liam.

Louis’ lips purse. He doesn’t respond.

“Tommo,” Liam continues, and it’s said in as serious enough of a tone that Louis removes one of the palms from his eyes, glances up at Liam through one bleary eye. “It’s only the first day. Try again tomorrow. Just do what you normally do, alright? Start sucking his dick. That always works.”

He snorts. “Maybe.” He throws his arm over his eyes as he contemplates the scenarios (it’s probably illegal to suck dick in a library, right?) before he suddenly grins lasciviously, other images floating to the forefront of his mind. “It is a pretty foolproof tactic though, innit?” he hums conversationally, keeping his smirk at bay as he sighs the words. “It certainly worked on you.”

He can practically feel Liam freeze.

Smirk widening, he peeks from beneath his arm, sees Liam standing rigid with a t-shirt balled up in his fist. He narrows his eyes when their gazes lock, but it’s more lustful than anything.

“Yes it did,” he says slowly, unabashedly ogling Louis. “And it will work again.”

The ambiguity of the statement makes Louis want to shiver, makes him want to slide against the words and reach out, just grab.

Soon. So, so soon.

“Don’t worry, Tommo,” Liam continues calmly, picking up a spare pare of jersey shorts from the ground. “You’ve got this. You always succeed. So succeed with him so I can get my scholarship and the world will make sense again. Alright?”

“Yeah, yeah, alright,” Louis grumbles, sighing. He removes his arm, removes his thoughts, and instead settles his attention on Liam who is currently stuffing shirts and socks into a sports bag. “Where you off to, then?”

“Gym.”

Louis snorts. “So manly.”

Liam glares, Louis laughs.

“Is Brother Dearest home?” he enquires, stretching his limbs. Something cracks.

“Yeah. He’s in his room. As always.” Liam rolls his eyes as he says the words, picks up another pair of shorts and sniffs them curiously. Apparently passing the test, he shoves them roughly into his bag, along with the others.

Louis sniffs, humming The Doors as he inspects his nails. They’re illuminated by the sunlight pouring in from the enormous window in the room. Louis loves Liam’s room—in the sense of its architecture, not that it’s Liam’s room. It’s a gorgeous space, filled with sunlight and sky and the ceilings are tall and the corners are clean and it feels so wide and expansive and warm.

But he hates that it’s filled with Liam’s dirty, over-priced polo shirts and tailored jeans and hand-carved shoes that reek of overly-cared-for leather. He hates that there are knocked over bottles of half-used Givenchy and Marc Jacobs and Gucci colognes over every surface, he hates the piles of glinting coins that lie forgotten here and there and everywhere. He hates the rolled up banknotes scattered about, he hates the little bag of weed in the open desk drawer that lies next to the glossy vessel of cocaine and three forgotten iPods, and he hates that there aren’t posters or books or CDs or DVDs or…anything, really. Just the remnants of a sloppy rich kid. Just artificial, clean nothingness.

But that’s the world, innit?

He raises his hands in the air, sweeping away his thoughts, letting the golden light from the window cloak them entirely. Gold hands like gold lions.

“Is he stoned?” he grunts eventually, feeling the warmth prickling his skin. He balls his hands into fists before dropping them back onto the bed, away from the air, the sunlight. It was too bright, anyway.

“Probably,” Liam responds, distracted. “I asked him to come to the gym but he said that he just wants to enjoy the silence. Think about things. He’s so fucking weird.” He rolls his eyes, pauses in his actions of selecting a vest. “He needs friends.”

Louis just laughs, stares at the white ceiling. Everything’s so white in this flat. “He’s got friends, Payno. We’re his friends.”

But Liam’s only response is to roll his eyes again before sauntering out. “I’ll be back,” he says in a bored tone, over his shoulder. “Gonna take a shower.”

Okay, then. Good talk.

With a sigh, Louis forces himself off of the bed, feeling inexplicably tired. Well, not inexplicably. His shift at the pub lasted longer than he anticipated since they were unexpectedly busy for a stormy Thursday night so he didn’t end up clocking out until well after two. That, coupled with the fact that that one band came and performed—Louis’ favorite local band which also happens to be the only local band Louis doesn’t completely take the piss out of—lead to him not physically leaving the building until four.

He likes to stay for their full set, this band. He likes to watch them play and he likes to watch them pack up and disassemble themselves; sometimes he even lends a hand with the gear if he’s in the right mood. There’s just something satisfying about watching people perform, all ethereal and untouchable one moment, then dull and ordinary the next, after the power’s cut. When they’re stowing it all away and quietly bending down to rip the setlists off the ground, when their hands are still and the amps are off and the microphone hangs dead by a chord that doesn’t move. Suddenly it’s like they’re completely tangible. Just a couple songs differentiate them from the common drudgery of the world.

Isn’t that funny? Louis finds it funny.

He fucking loves music and he loves live music even more, but he finds it funny that the spell is immediately broken when reality comes and takes over, shattering the illusion that the world is more than it seems. When the chords are cut and the guitars are locked away and the snaps of the drum kits closing are heard; suddenly it’s not all melody and inspiration. It’s just a bunch of fucking misfits gathered onstage, playing a shitty pub because they haven’t caught their big break and they never will.

It’s life.

With a dry, heavy feeling in his bones, Louis gathers himself, stretches his limbs awake. He should probably go to Matthew’s flat. Take a nap before his shift tonight.

Instead though, he finds himself walking down the corridor, all the way to the closed door at the end. The one that’s always closed. Always with a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign nailed to it.

Louis smirks, almost fondly, as he observes it.

“Brother Dearrrr,” he calls without warning, knocking obnoxiously in time to the rhythm of the words. He knows that he hates when he does that. So, of course, Louis does it louder.

From the other side, he hears a mumble, a shuffle, a cough. Then the door is pulled open. And there he is. The world’s most beautiful, poetic, enigmatic, socially awkward little diamond: Zayn Malik.

He’s fucking gorgeous, gorgeous, and the only reason Louis hasn’t flat-out begged for his dick yet is because he’s Liam’s step-brother and there’s this weird sort of thing about it all. Basically, Louis’ pretty sure Liam would genuinely decapitate him, should he actually go anywhere near Zayn’s dick. He’s never questioned it, never discussed it aloud… But it’s a thing. Liam’s aggressive, overbearing protective demeanor towards and about Zayn is the closest thing to real affection that he possesses.

“Zaynie,” Louis purrs sappily, grinning. “Oh, how I’ve missed you and your weed-induced hazes.”

Zayn blinks slowly. “I just saw you this morning,” he mumbles, itching his nose with the sleeve of his long-sleeved shirt. It’s jet black and has the words “HIGH” printed in red, bold print. And that’s it. That’s all it says. Just an endless black shirt with all-caps letters that couldn’t be less flourished or more blunt.

Which is essentially his personality, summed up nicely.

“Doesn’t mean I don’t miss you,” Louis quips, tapping the end of Zayn’s nose, which earns him both a glare and a smile. Only Zayn Malik is capable of doing both. Simultaneously.

“Alright, alright,” he mumbles, swatting Louis’ hand away and quirking one end of his lips up. “You bored? Wanna smoke?”

Jesus, this boy is predictable.

“Nah,” Louis declines, peering over Zayn’s shoulder and into his room. “Just want to chill. Liam’s in the shower. I’m probably gonna go home soon.”

Zayn raises an eyebrow but says nothing, just allows Louis inside and goes back to sitting on his bed.

Zayn’s room is probably what the inside of a genie lamp would look like. It’s covered in luxurious colors and pillows and weird lamps made out of colored glass. There’s an enormous tie-dyed tapestry of an eyeball on the wall, next to an enormous bong (it’s definitely taller than Louis, but to this day he refuses to do the actual measurements despite Liam’s incessant, amused demands) and everything smells like cedar and musky warm cloth. It’s a bit cozy, if Louis had to define a word to it. Impressive, too—Zayn’s got a shit ton of comics and books (all of them excellent choices and in excellent condition) and over in the corner, by the closet, he’s got this retro-looking record player that sits by itself, accompanied only by a lone, orange candle. Zayn calls it his “meditation spot” but Louis has yet to see him doing any such thing. Still though, they put the thing to good use—he’s got an insane record collection that he prides himself on (he’s got every Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson vinyl ever made ever, which he likes to address on a daily basis—just a friendly reminder, you know) and he’s got a lot of Louis’ favorites. Like The Beatles and George Harrison and The Moody Blues and The Doors. He even has some Mamas and the Papas. And, thanks to Louis, some Velvet Underground. A wonderful little collection, all in all.

A wonderful little room, really. Sometimes it gives Louis a headache but mostly it makes him feel comforted. It’s more of a home to him than the random flats he stays at sporadically for any given time. Liam and Zayn’s flat is a constant thing. One of the only constant things in Louis’ life.

“So, how’ve you been, Zaynie?” he questions, plopping down on the desk chair. It’s lime green and it sends a squeak through the air.

He shrugs. “Good, I guess. You?”

“Good, good, yeah,” Louis nods, poking at a glowing, iridescent crystal. It’s currently a vibrant, lime green color. Fucking wild, Zayn is. Where does he get this shit?

Zayn sits atop the bed, legs crossed, just watching Louis with a bored expression. Ever the quiet one, that Zayn. He’s so soothing to be around. Absolutely no fuss. That’s probably why Louis loves him so much—they can sit in silence and Louis doesn’t have to pretend to care about what he has to say and Zayn doesn’t get uncomfortable when the moments drag. It’s nice.

“Whatcha reading?” he asks after a moment, spying the half-opened book lying face down on his bedside table.

Zayn sniffs, shrugs, glances over at it with tired eyes. “’S about this guy who inverts dreams and reality. He walks around and he doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not.”

“Is it a true story?”

“I don’t think so. But it’s a real condition.”

“Is it?”

“I think so, yeah.”

“Bizarre, that,” Louis mumbles, staring sightlessly at the cover. It’s intricately designed, filled with shapes and rich colors, but he’s barely registering it, just sort of staring and caught between an internal and external place. He’s zoning out, but he can’t help it. It’s quiet. It’s nice.

“Do you ever wonder if our dreams are actually our real lives, though? And that what we think is our reality—like, right now”—Zayn gestures to their surroundings, staring intently at Louis—“is actually a dream?”

Oh god. Leave it to Zayn to absolutely mind-fuck him within the first five minutes of their encounter.

“Well, all I have to say is that I really fucking hope that’s not true,” Louis half-laughs humorlessly, blinking back into himself and smiling wryly at the raven boy before him. That’s a good way to describe Zayn—raven boy. Raven Boy. Blackbird. Blackbird singing in the dead of night…

“Why?” Zayn asks, intrigued. He cocks his head, a loose piece of ebony hair falling into his darkest dark eyes. He’s got such beautiful lashes. So incredibly long. He probably gets them tangled in chandeliers and ceiling fans. “You don’t like your dreams?”

“I don’t have dreams, Zaynie. It’s a dreamless sleep for me.” He grins. His lips feel chapped.

But Zayn just smiles sadly in response, small enough that Louis can pretend he doesn’t see it. “Everybody has dreams, Tommo.”

“Proven fact?”

“Proven fact,” Zayn nods.

“Hm. Maybe.” He doesn’t like this subject. He feels oddly suspicious of Zayn pitying him or something. “So, have you heard about Liam’s newest game?”

Luckily, this change of subject seems to do the trick, for instead of the quiet empathy set in the back of Zayn’s eyes, he’s now rolling them, lying back on the bed and sprawling out, one arm pillowing his head. “You know I hate that shit,” he says. “It’s stupid.”

“I know,” Louis hums. Which statement he’s referring to, he’s not sure. “Still, though. It’s a fun one.”

“Hm.”

“I think he positively hates me. And since he’s supposed to be loved by all, it’s kinda funny.” He turns to Zayn, smirks. “You have to admit it’s just a little funny. I’m irresistible, after all.”

Zayn stares, quirks an eyebrow, one hand resting on his chest. He’s all sprawled out and beautiful. “Who is it, then? Who are you fucking with now? Who are you projecting your own unhappiness onto? Who is the subject of your internal discontentment that you insist on targeting towards others?”

It’s said so, so dry that Louis almost laughs.

“Alright, alright, enough,” Louis half-smirks, holding up his hands in defense. “We don’t have to start doing a psychological analysis, Professor X.”

A shadow of a smile passes over Zayn and Louis returns it immediately, only a quiet lick of irritation trailing up his neck.

“It’s Harry Styles,” he reveals after a moment, tone casual, posture loose. He moves to sit atop his hands, crosses his feet at his ankles. He doesn’t quiet reach the floor from Zayn’s chair. It’s more than a little irritating. “You heard of him? He’s in yours and Liam’s class.”

At that, Zayn’s shadowy smile vanishes.

“Harry? You’re going after Harry?” He sits up on his elbows and frowns, deep and creased and very unfortunate for one with such Olympian features. “Why the fuck are you doing that?”

Louis scoffs, eyebrows rising. “Why the fuck do you care?”

“He’s a good lad, Tommo. Like, a good, proper lad.”

“Is he? He seems a bit skittish to me.”

“He’s nice,” Zayn says sternly, but he settles back down. “I haven’t talked to him much, but he’s always been polite. Easy to talk to. Not an utter prat—and, you know, that’s unusual for around here.”

Louis hums his acquiescence. So Harry Styles is polite. That’s why Zayn and everybody else in the world love him? That’s why Liam feels like a cornered raccoon?

There’s got to be more to it.

“Is he funny?” Louis questions.

Zayn shrugs. “I dunno. Don’t think I’ve ever been around him when he’s had the opportunity to be.”

“Is he flirtatious? Personable?”

“Uh. Maybe personable? Yeah, he’s pretty personable. But not, like, overly so, I guess.”

“But what does that mean? Does he initiate conversations? Does he always say the right thing? Does he rest his hand on your forearm when you talk?”

Zayn lifts another brow, looking positively Edwardian and very unimpressed. “Well that’s oddly specific.”

“Just trying to get a vibe, is all,” Louis sniffs, averting his gaze to his nails. He picks at them distractedly, Zayn’s words floating about in his head.

Styles isn’t funny, isn’t flirtatious, and is sort of personable. Smashing.

“You know, I’m not going to help you with this fucked up thing you do,” Zayn comments after a moment, interrupting Louis out of his thoughts. He lifts his head at the words, finds Zayn already looking at him. “I like him. He’s a good kid. He’s a bit quiet, yeah. Maybe a bit boring, I guess. But he seems properly good and he’s really smart and he doesn’t fuck with anybody, so. So don’t think I’m going to do shit-all to help you fuck with him. I never liked this thing you and Liam do. And I definitely don’t like it now.” His voice is velour-soft and gliding, the words cooling the air with a minty chill, and though there’s nothing particularly cutting about them, there’s still something sharp that catches on the fine hairs of Louis’ arms and the back of his neck.

Zayn’s never been one to judge Louis, this is true. But, despite this, he’s always held this sort of… Disappointed quality about him. When it comes to Louis, that is. He’s always sort of pursed his lips and nodded after a pause whenever Louis and anything to do with his sordid glory comes up, and it has always effectively ended the conversation, leaving Louis’ mouth sour and his pulse ricocheting a bit.

It’s as if Zayn thinks better of Louis or something. Which is laughable. At best. Fucking unnecessary, more than anything.

Regardless though, it curls Louis’ lips into a thin line as his gaze breaks away from the blackbird boy, the musty incense of the room suddenly becoming just a bit too suffocating.

“I know,” Louis says hastily, agitatedly, as he slides his hands out from under his thighs and starts fiddling with the buttons of his jacket. He stands up, shuffles his feet, stares sightlessly at the giant eyeball on the wall. “I know, yeah, thanks Zayn. I didn’t ask for your fucking help.”

“Good,” Zayn nods calmly, seemingly at peace with the world.

“Good,” Louis clips, his skin prickling with paranoid discomfort.

He’s not a good person. Big fucking deal. He’s not about to feel guilty for how biology’s fucked him over. He’s not about to cry about it. Big fucking deal.

“He’ll be mine within a week,” he announces, just a little too loudly, into the silent room after the moments stretch on. He tilts his head, glances to the side to catch Zayn’s eye. He’s still just staring back, laid out on his bed, eyes deepest, darkest brown and relaxed and all too fucking aware. “By next week, this whole fucking thing will be over.”

“You think you can affect this kid enough to damage his entire educational career? Just because you’re good with your mouth?” Zayn’s not even being cruel, that’s the thing. He doesn’t sound harsh. He’s just being real. Laying it down.

But Louis’ not about to fucking apologize for who he is or what he does.

“Yeah,” he smirks loudly. It feels forced but he gives no fucks. “Yeah, I really do.”

All Zayn does is nod, slow as poured honey. “Okay,” he concludes with a shrug.

“Okay.”

But Zayn doesn’t look away. And Louis’ collar is getting hot.

“I’m gonna go,” he says, already backing towards the door. He effects nonchalance, pulls his lips into a devilish smile. “Tell Liam I’ll text him tomorrow, for me?”

Zayn nods once. His hands are on his lap, fingers laced and lax. He looks a little dazed, like he’s separate from the world, living somewhere deep inside himself. Maybe he’s meditating.

“I’ll, uh, see you tomorrow, then,” Louis breezes, hand on the doorknob. He’s ready to go and take a nap. Today’s been exhausting.

“Maybe, yeah. Probably. I think I’ll go to class tomorrow.”

Louis raises his brows, amused, as he turns the knob. This is good. This feels better, more normal. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” Zayn hums, and his dazed stare sidles away to gaze out the window. “Sometimes I like school. It’s too suffocating in here. Sometimes.”

Oh, Zayn. Always the philosophical poet.

“Indeed. Well, then. Till tomorrow, probably, Brother Dear.” And before Zayn can drop another beat of nonsensical wisdom, he pecks the air with a kiss and exits, pushing Zayn’s words to the very back of his mind.

**

‘Good luck today. Don’t disappoint.’

Louis stares at the text as he finishes off his third consecutive cigarette in seven minutes. Fuckin’ Liam. Annoying little brat.

Flicking the butt to the ground, Louis exhales, watching the grey wisps that slip out from his lips before he pockets his phone, his body just a tad tense with impatience. He went to the library around the same time as Styles entered yesterday, only to find a nice assortment of randoms that were most definitely not Harry Styles.

Needless to say, today is already starting out less than promising. Even better, it just occurred to Louis that he’s never bothered following Styles to anywhere that wasn’t the library. From day one, he’s always seen him go in there.

So, really, this is more than a little distressing. Because if he’s scared him off to the edges of the universe, then Louis has absolutely no idea as to how to find him. Not one.

So.

He’s been smoking like a fucking chimney, jiggling his leg hard enough to unearth some dirt, and he’s given more than one unsuspecting passerby an uncalled-for glare that even he can tell is too abrasive. And now Liam’s texting him and being a douche and time’s passing ever so fucking slowly and everything is sort of just shitty. Annoying and shitty.

Hm. Maybe Zayn knows where Styles gets about to.

He’s just about to slide his phone back out (and maybe grab another cigarette) when suddenly he catches sight of a now slightly-familiar set of sloppy curls and a large, brown jumper set atop a pair of stick legs and huge White Converse. And if Louis’ not mistaken (he never is) that is a recipe for one Mr. Harry Styles.

The world may not be totally against him just yet.

Immediately straightening (he’d been awkwardly leaning on a tree in the courtyard, one of the old, big ones by the pond), he focuses his attention on the boy, takes in the white earbuds and enormous backpack, the slouch in his walk.

Yeah, that’s definitely him.

And ‘Him’ is headed straight towards the library. Fucking praise.

Keeping the victorious surge and accompanied sigh of relief at bay, Louis pushes himself off the tree with efficient speed, already taking as big of strides as he can manage towards the boy and building in question. And thank fuck Styles is in his own little world, eyes on the ground and nodding his head to his music, because he doesn’t see Louis marathoning this shit, nearly breaking a sweat as he bustles forward, a bit of his styled hair falling into his eyes.

Great. Now he’s sweaty and his hair’s shit.

He’s just about in eyesight, when suddenly he halts, feet planting to the pavement firmly.

Because someone’s just stopped Styles.

It’s just a girl, some sweet-faced blonde with a nice smile and green eyes. But, thing is, is that she stopped Harry, her expression having flat-out brightened as they crossed paths before she reached out a gentle hand to rest on his bicep, successfully catching his attention.

Now, this may seem like an insignificant occurrence. However. This is exactly what Louis has been looking for. This is exactly what Louis needs to see—Styles interacting with other people. Because Louis has yet to see a full conversation between him and anyone and he needs to know the way he conducts himself with everyone, needs to see if he can find something that gives away some, any, answers.

So he plants his fucking feet and watches unabashedly as Styles’ eyes find the girl’s. They squint into a kind smile as he immediately plucks out both earbuds, facing most of his body towards her.

Okay. So he’s warm towards others. Good to know.

Too far to hear any actual words spoken, Louis squints, tries to read Styles’ lips, his body language, the girl’s lips, the girl’s body language… All of it.

Well, Styles clearly just said ‘Hey, so-and-so.’ And he’s clearly smiling. Very teethy, very polite, very genuinely sweet. Okay. He’s got a killer smile, like a proper human daffodil, so that’s understandable why the ladies are quick to warm up to him. Okay. Makes sense.

The girl begins chatting, flicking her, quite honestly, stunning hair behind her back. It catches in the sunlight and shines golden but Styles doesn’t take note of it, instead focusing intently on her face and seeming to just, well…listen. Nothing special.

The minutes pass. All that really happens is the girl talks while Styles smiles as he listens and nods occasionally, sometimes laughing a tiny bit and flashing those white teeth. One of his hands grips his earbuds and the other one is housed in his pocket; he doesn’t really do anything, just… Well. Just pays attention to the girl. Like, sincerely pays attention. He doesn’t look annoyed or bothered or anything.

Hm. So. In conclusion.

Harry Styles will brush Louis Tomlinson aside within a minute of meeting him yet he’ll listen politely to anyone else jabber away at him for twenty-seven hours.

How flattering for the ego.

With a sigh, Louis shifts on his feet, feeling mildly offended. All this is, is further proof that Styles does not indeed like Louis. Which is fine, whatever, but fuck. Isn’t the kid at least attracted to him??

About five more minutes pass before the girl finally continues on her way, parting with a lovely smile and a gentle little wave goodbye. And she’s doing that thing—the thing where you walk backwards as you depart so you can stare at the other person for as long as possible? Yeah, she’s doing that.

Louis can’t help but smirk a bit. Styles is obviously popular amongst the ladies, probably just for the mere fact that he pays genuine attention to them and not just their physiques. All the while being absolutely bloody adorable.

So maybe that’s all it takes to be loved around here. Maybe being simple and bland is the key to success. What did that one guy say? That famous quote or whatever? Something about ‘If everybody likes you, you know you’re doing something wrong,’ or something to that effect.

Everybody loves this Harry Styles because he’s smart and new and cute and polite. Nothing radical or different or wild or controversial. Just a bunch of teeth and eyes and soft jumpers.

So, then.

Why doesn’t he smile at Louis?

He wants to ponder it further but Styles has already almost reached the door of the library. So Louis takes off, picking up his speed to an actual trot (he’ll never admit it later), nearly wheezing with the effort.

He’s so fucking out of shape, Jesus.

It’s with perfect timing that his palm lands on the handle to the library door first, immediately before Styles’ hand—which instead ends up gripping onto Louis’.

Thank you, fate. And the gods above. This one’s for you.

“Oh! I’m sorr—“ Styles begins, startled, before casting green-blue (at least in this light) eyes upon Louis. Immediately they darken. Great. “Oh. It’s you,” says the actual human equivalent to a deflated balloon.

Irritated. Louis feels irritated.

But he hides it, instead raises one brow as Styles’ hand flies back to his side.

“Well that’s one way to say hello,” Louis muses, releasing his hand from the door. He motions for Styles, doesn’t press for conversation. Just smiles and takes a step back. “After you.”

A faint flush creeps up into Styles’ cheeks. “I’m sorry,” he says, ducking his head before looking back up to meet Louis’ eye, his lips in a frown. “That was rude.”

“It was an honest reaction, though. Can’t be too bothered about honesty.”

Styles’ eyebrows twitch in surprise. “I suppose.”

“You can go first, though. Go on. I’m not going to make you hold my hand to open the door or anything.”

Styles flushes again. “I wasn’t—“

“No, I know,” Louis laughs. It’s a fake laugh, his body too focused on picking up even the most minute signals coming from Harry’s warm skin and all-too-aware eyes. “I’m just being a shit. Go on, then.”

With an attempt at a ‘thank you’ smile, Styles pulls open the heavy door, carefully holding it open for Louis to take behind him. It’s not a wholly kind gesture, though, more of an obligatory one, and the forced smile and tension in Styles’ shoulders makes Louis want to burst into laughter, loud enough to echo in the quiet space. Like yesterday, the library is quiet, dark, and filled only with the sound of muffled voices and the sound of pages being turned. Maybe a mechanical pencil or two.  

“So, uhm,” Styles starts, clearing his throat, and the sudden bumble of his low voice takes Louis by surprise. Styles is walking ahead of him, fast enough to keep a distance but slower than his usual pace. “What are you, er, up to? Like, in here? Specifically?”

“Are you asking why I’m here? Again?” Louis asks bluntly. He smirks his lips, slides his hands into the back pockets of his jeans, eyes following every stride Styles makes.

Styles nods, flashes him a weary eye. “Yes.”

The smirk grows. They’re walking to the back of the room—back to that same shady table that Louis nearly broke in two. “To see if you were here, of course. Which you are,” he replies simply.

He knows he’s being cheeky and forward again but… He needs to at least get his intentions across if this is ever going to go anywhere.

In response, Styles just rolls his eyes, full on. He doesn’t even try to hide it and he looks the opposite of apologetic about it when he catches Louis’ eye, his lips so very taught and pressed.

Louis can’t help it—he actually coughs up a genuine laugh at that.

“Not the answer you wanted to hear, I take it?” he remarks, laughter still on the edges of his voice.

They reach the table in the back, Styles heavily setting down his things. Careful of the situation, Louis keeps his distance, instead stops a few steps back, hands still in his back pockets. Styles is methodical about unzipping his bag, taking each item out and setting it atop the table, his body half-pivoted towards Louis. And it’s obvious that he’s fully aware of his presence—his peripherals are in overdrive—and there’s something too stiff and uneasy about his posture.

At least he’s aware of Louis. Small victories.

There’s a small stretch of silence (and, oh, looks like he’s got grapes today, how quaint) before Styles looks up, eyebrows twitching to come together, his face serious and open and wide, those large, overbearing eyes staring straight back at Louis. Still weird, still unnerving.

“I’m not trying to be rude.”

“Okay.”

“But it’s not, like, exactly surprising that you’re here for…that reason.”

And, Christ, he can’t even vocalize it.

Louis half-laughs again. “Damn,” he grins, rolling up on the balls of his feet before bouncing back onto his heels. “I hate being predictable.” He winks and Styles instantly looks away, rolling his eyes again. But there’s another flush.

“It’s just sort of weird that you’re so, like, focused on me. I just really want to study, okay? I have tons of homework and a lot of work to do and I don’t know what you’re trying at, but I really, really want to focus before I have to go to work.”

Well.

There you have it, then.

Where does one even go from there?

“Alright, then,” Louis says as he chews his lip thoughtfully, half to himself, half to Styles, who is fumbling with the zipper on his bag, his head tilted down, chin bumping his chest. Louis sorts through the echoed dialogue in his head, tries to find a bit of rope. Hm. “You say you have to go to work? Where do you work?”

And, okay. Now even he has to admit that he just sounds sort of creepy.

“That wasn’t meant to sound quite that intrusive,” he rushes, pulling his hands from his pockets and holding them up in a defensive gesture.

Styles casts him one eye. “Why, though?”

“Why what?”

“Why do you want to know where I work?”

“Well, so I can—“

“Follow me there?”

A hot flush of panic. “What? No—“

“Visit me and distract me?”

“Jesus, Harry,” Louis laughs, a little uncomfortably, genuinely startled at the soft darts being thrown directly at his skull. Shit. This kid doesn’t mess around much, does he? “These questions… I’m not sure whose style of approach is more aggressive. You or I.” He ponders his words. “All I’m trying to do is catch a break and take you out,” he adds, just for good measure.

Once again, Styles ducks his head, stops fumbling with the zipper and drops his bag to the dirty carpeting with a sigh. “Look, I apologize—“

Louis sighs with more exasperation than he intended to, holding up one hand. “It’s really not necessary—“

“I just need to study,” Styles ploughs on firmly. His shoulders slump a bit helplessly. “And I’m not going to tell you where I work.” When he lifts his head, he looks determined, face set into hard lines and firm skin with absolutely no room for leeway.

Well then.

There’s really nowhere else to go from here, is there?

Slowly, Louis nods, his gaze falling to the dirty blue-brown carpet with its missing chunks and petrified gum stains. He’s never tasted failure so strongly before. This is just…

This is damn-right near embarrassing.

“Okay,” he says softly, more to himself. He’s got nothing right now. He doesn’t know enough about this kid to play into his interests, he doesn’t know who his close friends are, he doesn’t know what personality traits he even possesses… Just. Fuck.

He’s got nothing.

“Okay,” he says again, eyes still on the ground, and only then does he realize how much of a tit he must look. With a forced smile and casual eyes, he looks up to Styles and meets his stare, hands retreating back to his pockets. Something flickers in Styles’ face when their gazes collide, a shadow of something. Maybe it’s guilt. Louis hopes it’s guilt.

Maybe he just fell in love with Louis? Hah.

“I understand,” Louis says, and he tries to crinkle his eyes despite the flames of frustration. This has never happened before. This needed to work. Louis needed this. He swallows, pushes past something a bit more sinister and hopeless that lies in his throat. “I’ll let you be. Have a good day and all that.”

Styles is still watching him, still standing by his chair, his eyebrows dark and pulled together, his currently grey eyes so, so quiet. They’re a bit less wide than usual. And he’s biting his lip. He does that a lot, doesn’t he? Louis makes a note of it.

Or does he even need to make a note of it? Because this looks like it might be going nowhere.

“Goodbye, Harry,” he says at last, backing up on the spot. He flashes one last small smile before he turns and walks away, the grin falling clean off of his face the minutes Styles is out of sight.

This is all just… A fucking mess. This is a fucking mess.

Louis needed this. He needed this. But he potentially just fucking failed. It might be over. Already. That’s never, ever happened before and Louis needed this.

And then, of fucking course, he gets a text from Liam.

‘Progress?’

He ignores the shit out of it, just stuffs his phone in his back pocket.

A fucking mess.

He pushes open the door of the library, stalks out before he suffocates from the dust.

“Oi! Tommo,” a voice suddenly calls, just as Louis emerges onto sunlight and pavement and grass.

Who the?

He stops in his tracks, feeling only mildly annoyed (he’s not really in the mood to speak right now) before a quiet sigh of relief escapes his lips at the sight of Zayn walking slowly towards him, wearing a tie-dye t-shirt and black jeans, his feet stuffed into sandals.

“Hey, man,” Louis greets as Zayn clasps his hand and pats him once on the back before stepping away.

Zayn merely nods his greeting, eyes skimming the sky.

“You just get here?” Louis questions.

“No.” He’s still gazing up at the sky. His eyelashes are casting shadows on his cheeks. What a God of a man. Why couldn’t Zayn be the target?

Louis sighs wistfully. Or at least, as wistfully as he can manage.

“I’m having a shit day. Wanna go to the pub?”

Zayn’s eyes find Louis’ again and he nods. “Yeah.” They begin walking. “Why’s it shit?”

Another small rush of inferiority and hot anxiety flits through him. Ugh. “Because, despite the fact that I’ve managed to get even Liam fucking Payne to fall over his arse for me, I somehow cannot manage to get Harry fucking Styles to give me the time of day.” He grins as grotesquely as he can.

For a moment, Zayn’s quiet, the sounds of birds and students chirping filling the breezy air between them.

“Maybe you shouldn’t fuck with him, then.”

Louis scoffs.

Yeah. Maybe.

**

They’re sitting at an overly varnished, shitty table in the back by the toilets, the lighting almost too dim in the pub. Louis’ having trouble making out the words painted on his pint glass.

He’s still in a foul mood, both Liam and Styles at the forefront of his mind. He still hasn’t responded to Liam who texted once more only a few minutes ago: ‘I’ll take this as a good sign’ is what he said and Louis wanted to drop his phone into the nearest body of water. But with his fucking luck, the Lady of the Lake would just catch it and toss it back, Liam’s words still glaring right back up at him.  

Luckily he’s with Zayn though, who doesn’t require much attention or conversation. He spends most of his time avoiding eye contact with the server and ripping his napkin to shreds as he mumbles his words to the table. All the while as Louis wolfs down food (“my treat,” Zayn had said as soon as they sat down, as if it were obvious, with a roll of the eyes) and everything is calm and unassuming and Louis is almost beginning to feel a touch less like a failure.

But then Zayn speaks.

“Harry’s a good lad, Tommo,” is what he starts with, and Louis nearly chokes on a chip. His dark eyes flutter up at the sound, but he continues in his smoky voice, fingers playing with the beads of precipitation on his glass. “He doesn’t deserve to be pulled into what you and Liam do.”

Louis snorts, feeling less than generous about the lad. About the little fucker.

“Trust me, Zayn. He’s not being pulled anywhere,” he says wryly.

“You know what I’m saying. Just stop this stupid shit,” Zayn amends, undeterred, and his eyes penetrate through the dim light. Which is odd. Dark cutting through the dark. His cheeks are flecked with scruff. “There aren’t many people I can stand in this school. He’s one of the few. And he’s smart, yeah. Brilliant even. And people like him because he’s good-looking or whatever. But he’s not aggressive or harmful, or the like. Despite what Liam thinks, Harry’s not trying to fuck with him.”

Hm. Maybe. Probably.

“Yeah,” Louis agrees after a moment, picking at his cooling chips with salt-speckled fingers.

Zayn watches him carefully. “I can talk to Liam, if you like,” he offers. Which means that he’s serious about this. Because if Zayn is offering to speak to Liam, it’s because he knows that Liam listens to Zayn. Always. (Though he would never admit it.)

Part of Louis genuinely considers it.

But the other part of him…well.

The thing is, is that Louis’ good at this. He’s excellent at this. And he’s never lost. Never. He’s dealt with reserved before, he’s dealt with shy before, and he’s dealt with professionally aloof before. So why the fuck is Harry Styles the exception?

Because that’s the thing—he’s not. Louis won’t let him be.

No, he fully intends on maintaining his spotless record. They always, always break.

“I dunno, mate,” Louis ponders, flicking the plate of chips away and grabbing his already soiled napkin. His greasy fingers catch on the thin paper, ripping it. Some bits stick to his skin. Annoying. “Like… It’s frustrating, yeah. It really bloody is. Especially because this is the one that actually, like…” ‘Matters’ is what he wants to say. But he doesn’t. “It’s frustrating, but, thing is, is that I can’t deny that Styles is proving to be a bit more difficult than my usuals, yes?”

Zayn rolls his eyes at the words, takes a long drink from his pint. His wry stare is unblinking and heavily lidded.

Louis can’t help but smirk. “But, in a way, it’s sort of a challenge.” He thinks his words through, feels a sudden calm overtake his previous anxiety. A challenge. Louis likes a challenge. “I kinda wanna see how long it takes to win him over.” The epiphany is an almost startling one but it allows a surge of confidence to flow back inside Louis’ blood. Which is exactly what he needs right now.

He grins as he looks up, already feeling more appeased.

Zayn watches him with dark, steady eyes, his lips in a thin line. “Yeah, whatever,” he says eventually, but there’s something like sadness echoed in his features and, no thanks.

None of that.

Feeling a bit more irritated than is perhaps strictly necessary, Louis swallows the dregs of his pint.

None of that.

“Let’s go,” he grunts, all the while as Zayn continues eying him. Annoying.

And with that, they gather their shit, Zayn pays, and they walk out of the dim pub into air so bright it momentarily blinds Louis.

They don’t speak for the remainder of the walk back to the flat and Louis already begins making plans for the next day.

Chapter Text

Bright Young Thing – Albert Hammond Jr.

It’s fuck-knows-what-time in the afternoon when Louis manages to pull his sticky eyelids open, his face smashed against the dirt-scratched cushion of a shockingly discolored couch.

Ugh. It tastes like old chocolate. That’s…

That’s ugh.

Only slightly disoriented (thanks to another night at the pub that stretched into too wee of hours in the morning), he raises his body, muscles pulling tightly and refusing to warm. Bones are clicking, joints are popping. God, he’s old.

He blinks around him, taking in the bleary gray light that’s pooling through the small window on the far end of the room. Its blinds are half-pulled but it might as well not have any at all—great, big chunks are missing from the little off-white plastic strips and the string is tangled up beyond repair, leaving the structure at a jaunty, sharp angle. Such shitty blinds. Louis has the brief urge to tug the string until they just crumple to the floor, but.

But that would probably be rude, wouldn’t it. Considering this isn’t even his flat. Considering his mate lets him stay here whenever he wants.

Well. ‘Mate’. Anthony works at the same pub as Louis. Sometimes they drink and sometimes they smoke together and sometimes they laugh about the same misfortunes, but mostly they don’t chat and mostly they coexistence silently. But peacefully, so Louis considers that a mate. He’s fortunate to have the kid in his life, considering he stopped renting flats months ago. He’d never remembered to pay his rent, was the thing. Or he’d never have the money because he’d squander it on everything else. Either one.

Living is hard.

But anyway. He needs to get up. Bumming on mates’ couches is swell and all, but today’s a big day for Louis Tomlinson. He’s got a Harry Styles to conquer. And he’s got to up his game if he’s going to come close to succeeding. Because, no, he’s not giving up. Just because it’s been awhile since he’s had any sort of difficulty winning someone over, doesn’t mean that Louis forgets how to put up a good fight.

Nope. This is only the beginning.

With a sigh that he would like to label as more determined than exhausted, he pulls himself from the couch, sliding his aching, dirty feet into the shitty Vans he’d been smart enough to leave by his jacket. Good lad. Next to them, on the ground, is a copy of Sylva Plath’s The Bell Jar, half-opened and facedown. Louis’d tried to read it last night when they came back, the reverb from the shitty, electric guitars down at the pub aching just a little too loudly in his skull, behind his ears. He sometimes likes replacing the noise with words. But the words didn’t click last night so he’d just set the book down, turned over, and fell asleep.

It’s not surprising, really. He’s been trying to read that book for about a year now. For god knows what reason, Anthony’s had a copy of it since Louis met him (despite the fact that Louis has never seen Anythony read a sign, let alone full sentences strung together) and every time Louis’ here, he tries to read another page. But there’s something about it, something about the starkness or the distance or the reality or the unreality of it that makes Louis always set it down. He likes it, but…

But he never finishes books, anyway. Isn’t that weird? Louis’ never finished a book before. He enjoys reading, he does, but the minute he nears the last chapters and sees the end in sight, he stops.

Maybe it’s because he always knows what’s going to happen. He doesn’t need someone else to say it for him. He already knows. Maybe.

He coughs, coughs loudly, and wipes the back of his hand over his mouth. It feels warm and drool-y and scratchy. He needs to shave. Needs to look his best for today.

Needs to succeed.

With a brief, briefest, close of the eyes, he steels himself, breathing with his whole entire body, until the tips of his toes feel like they’re puffed with air. He continues to inhale, exhale, as he places his headphones over his ears, pulls open Pink Floyd and listens to ‘Jugband Blues’ as he exits the flat, the soles of his feet pounding in time with the uneven beat blasting in his eardrums.

**

“Brother Dear,” Louis grins cheekily, the minute Zayn greets him when he pulls open his bedroom door. “Well, hello. Liam doesn’t happen to be here, does he?”

Zayn sniffs, pushing his thick glasses up the bridge of his nose with his index finger. He shrugs one shoulder. He’s wearing an orange and black t-shirt with tiny lime green triangles all over it. He’s got no trousers on, just black briefs. It shouldn’t be nearly as arousing as it is. Fuck.

“He’s at school, Tommo.”

“Oh.” Oh yeah. School. “Shouldn’t you be…?”

Again, Zayn shrugs one shoulder, before coughing into his fist. “Sometimes school is oppressive.”

Louis laughs lightly, shakes his head with the barest hind of fondness. Oh, Zayn. “It really fucking is, isn’t it?” They exchange a small smile of understanding. It’s nice. Zayn’s easy to be around. “Well, I just came by to give him an update about Styles before Round Three.”

Zayn’s lips purse but he doesn’t say anything, just nods and picks at his elbow.

“You gonna stay home all day, then?”

“I dunno,” Zayn mumbles, lips barely moving. “I might go for a run.”

“A run?” Louis repeats incredulously. Honestly, the most movement Louis has ever seen Zayn do is shuffle from his bed to the door. “What are you running from?” he asks bemusedly.

“I need some air. I feel claustrophobic in here.”

Hm. Louis clucks his tongue. “Fair enough.”

“Maybe I’ll start rock-climbing.” Zayn says it like it’s a genuine possibility. He says it like they live anywhere near a rock to climb.

Louis can’t help but laugh at that. “Yeah, maybe,” he smirks, resisting rolling his eyes. They live on two different planets, Zayn and him. Sometimes he wishes he lived on Zayn’s. Or could at least visit it on the occasion. “I’ll let you to it, then,” he concludes, reaching out to pinch Zayn’s stomach before he turns around and walks away.

“Ow,” he hears Zayn call after a five second delay.

It sounds anything but sincere but it makes Louis almost want to smile.

**

Louis has all but reached the library when he sees him.

There’s Styles, perched in the green, sunny grass beneath an old, mangled tree with large oval leaves, over by the pond in the courtyard. His back is leaned against the trunk and he’s slouching, his earbuds present as he cradles a large textbook between his legs. He looks peaceful, sitting there in a soft, timberwolf cardigan, his jeans a bit too short for him, revealing the smooth peach bumps of his ankles and white socks. His Converse are so white, too. So, so white. How are they not dirty? Even a little bit? Louis looks down at his own feet, the grey-meets-brown-meets-black-meets-yellow hue of his own shoes with little Sharpie drawings and grease stains. The laces are frayed and near black. They probably house fleas.

Well. Different strokes paint the world, and all that.

Louis just may be the antithesis to this kid.

Returning his sights back onto the boy in question, he begins making his way over. He’s got a plan. Sort of.

He’s not going to rehearse lines or form hooks in his head today. He’s just going to wing it. He’s just going to see how it plays out and he’s going to focus on Styles and his responses and quirks and flicks of his eyes and hands. He’s going to suss this boy out and then he’s going to build from there. If it takes awhile, then oh well.

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

By the time he reaches Styles, he can make out enough of the book in his lap to see it’s something to do with history. Or maybe art. There are brutal paintings, little chunks of text with impossibly tiny print, and high-def pictures of shitty looking artifacts that appear on the verge of crumbling. How…enticing. Good read.

Without a second’s thought of preparation or thought, he taps Styles’ toe with his own.

“Well, hello,” he greets, eyes carefully scanning Styles’ face as it shoots up from his book.

First he’s startled, then surprised, then… Then fairly blank. Which is progress, probably. Better than disdain at any rate, right?

Louis already counts today as a success.

“It’s you,” Styles rumbles, pulling out one earbud. He stares up at Louis, doesn’t blink.

“It’s me,” Louis affirms, staring right back. He attempts to quirk his lips a little bit. “Back again,” he jokes after a moment, offering up a self-depreciating shrug before he burrows his hands in his pockets. There’s a hole in the bottom. He sticks his finger through it, wiggles it around, plays with a bit of stray lint.

After Styles just continues to stare and decidedly does not smile back, Louis’ face drops, as does his gaze.

Everything about this is difficult. And awkward. He feels itchy. His collar is hot and scratchy. Why is this so difficult?? Why can’t he think of anything to say?

Today is no longer a success. Fuck.

“You really are persistent, aren’t you.”

Styles’ voice, which is soft and—dare he say?—amused, startles Louis to look back up, and the expression he’s met with is one that very nearly drops him to his knees to thank the stars above. Which is saying something.

Because Styles doesn’t look nearly as repulsed or irritated as he does exasperated. And everyone knows that, with exasperation, comes fondness. That’s like an unwritten rule.

Louis’ got a chance, Louis’ got a chance.

Liam Payne, here we come.

“I’m only persistent where it counts,” Louis replies, and he dares another small smile.

Styles doesn’t return it. But he doesn’t go back to his book, either.

“I’m sorry about yesterday,” Louis continues, snagging his opportunity. He’ll take his luck while he has it. “And about…well. All the days, I guess?”

This time, Styles averts his eyes, but he plucks out his other earbud. He plays with them in his hands, fumbles them with his long fingers. His eyes are downcast, excellently displaying his eyelashes. Pretty, pretty cherub boy. He will be Louis’.

“What are you sorry about?” he questions, quietly, and the low-set timbre of his voice sounds like thunder.

“Being aggressively forward,” Louis whips back, fast as lightning and, huh. Hey. They’re like a perfect storm, aren’t they? “And for being a bit of an arse.”

Styles chews on his lips, still fumbling with his earbuds, still looking away. “It’s okay,” he shrugs, and his eyes dart up to meet Louis’ for one split second. “I haven’t been very nice, myself.”

Louis tilts his head, considering the words, before daring to take a step closer. Styles doesn’t flinch.

“True,” Louis agrees thoughtfully, and he feels the luck, the hope, shoot through his bloodstream like heroin. Heroin. When I put a spike into my vein… “But, to be quite honest, you were merely reacting like any sane person would if someone snapped their table in half and proceeded to demand a date out of the affair.”

Styles laughs. Or perhaps he coughs, judging from the harsh, startled burst of the sound, but Louis’ pretty sure it’s a laugh, and he has to physically restrain himself from punching a victorious fist in the air.

The boy keeps a tiny, tiny smile, though, before finally setting his hands, now completely tangled in earbuds, onto the book in his lap, and he brings his head up to stare openly at Louis. One of his eyes is directly in sunlight, the other in the shadow of one of the great, big leaves above. One eye is magnificently lake-green. The other is marbled deep turquoise. Light vs. dark.

“May I sit?” Louis asks. He straightens his posture, aims to look the very portrait of respectability.

Styles nods. “Yeah. I guess.” But he glances back at the book in his lap.

“I won’t keep you from your studies long. I promise,” Louis adds, holding up his hands in an oath.

There’s a bite of a lip and another small nod and another faint flush on the edge of Styles’ cheeks. But he’s rigid. And, mostly, hesitant.

Still, though. He’s being receptive. That’s all Louis needs.

For a moment, the silence between them carries, but it’s quite nice, mostly due to the fact that it’s filled with the birds and the lulled voices of students in the breeze. Styles’ posture is stiff and he pulls his legs in closer to himself and straightens his back when Louis sits, but he’s not pouring forth waves of hostility or complete distrust, and the entire situation is so very opposite of yesterday, that Louis feels just a tiny bit out of his element again.

Today he came armed for brutal warfare. And instead he’s getting a peace rally. So.

What does he do now?

He sticks his hands in the grass, feels the cool earth beneath them.

Okay, so. As of now, Louis’ got a chance at winning this. He’s got a chance. So, now that the game has officially begun, what does he need to do? What does Liam want him to do?

Academics. He wants Louis to fuck up Styles’ academics. Distract him. Pull him apart. Ruin him and his popularity and success and reputation. Liam wants the scholarship for the university. Liam wants Louis to shred Styles’ chances.

Academics. Yes.

“You study an awful lot,” Louis comments casually, and he lets one of his legs fall to the side, his knee touching Styles’ thigh.

Styles shifts, removes the contact.

Dammit.

“You quite smart, then?” Louis continues, undeterred. “Since you’ve always got your nose in a book?”

Styles thins his lips a bit as he glances at Louis from his peripherals before settling his gaze on the pond before them. The surface ripples. A few ducks paddle away. “You could use to stick your nose in a book once in awhile,” he mumbles, quiet.

Louis half-laughs, surprised. “Hey, now!” He turns to the boy, pulls an incredulously wounded face, but keeps his hands gripped in the grass, one knee pulled to his chest. “What makes you say that?”

Styles’ lips twitch. He turns his gaze to Louis, fully this time. “Because then maybe you wouldn’t be so intent on talking to strangers,” he states calmly.

Heh.  

At least he’s got a bit of a sense of humor.

“Fair point,” Louis concedes, and only grins momentarily before he sniffs and looks away. “I don’t talk to just any strangers, though,” he adds, loud enough for Styles to hear. He watches a small family of ducks near the bank. They’re so little. Cute things. “Only the pretty ones.”

When he glances back, Styles is red. He can’t help his amused smile at that.

“I’m being aggressively forward again, aren’t I?” he asks, watching Styles turn still redder.

“A little,” he stutters, trying to hide his blush, tucking a stray curl behind his ear. He uncrosses his legs, crosses his ankles instead.

More silence. But it’s not wholly unwelcome. Louis’ still trying to think of how to approach this.

“You don’t go to school here, do you.”

At that, Louis’ spine tightens, any hint of a smile fading. A faint prickle spreads down his neck. This is dangerous territory.

“Uhm,” he begins, and this time it’s him who avoids the eye contact, despite the gaze he feels being burned into his skull. Styles is staring at him something fierce. “No. I don’t.”

“Do you go to school at all?”

Questions, questions. Normally, Louis wouldn’t ever even consider answering questions from his targets. But this may be the one exception. He needs a bit of Styles’ trust more than he’s ever needed the others’.

“No. Not anymore.”

“Then why do you come here? Why were you in the library when you bumped into my table?”

Okay. An intense interrogation. Okay. That’s fair. (No it’s not.)

Louis coughs a bit, knowing he needs to answer. The words are tight in his throat. “I have friends here,” he explains. And it’s the truth, but, somehow, it makes Louis feel even more skittish. He grips the grass tighter.

“Who are your friends?” Styles is pelting the questions, tone monotonous, his eyes never blinking, just burning.

Yet somehow it doesn’t feel aggressive, it just feels forthright and curious and direct. Which makes it the tiniest bit easier for Louis to answer.

“Er, Zayn. Zayn Malik.” He swallows, unsure of how much to say. If he holds back too much, it’ll only look more suspicious. He feigns an eased expression, tilts his head to meet Styles’ wide eyes. Still unnerving. Probably never won’t be. “And his step-brother Liam Payne. I’m pretty good mates with them.”

Styles nods, mostly to himself, but doesn’t blink, doesn’t look away. “I have a few classes with them,” he says, and there’s no tone in his voice, no sense of discomfort or warning. “They seem nice.”

Nice. Zayn’s nice.

Liam’s not nice.

If only this kid knew…

“Sure,” Louis laughs, fake as anything. He wants the questions to stop.  

“So you hang out at the school because of them? Even though they’re in class?”

Jesus.

“Well, yeah. I’ve got shit else to do. I work nights, so I’ve got lots of time to kill during the day. And I don’t have that many mates otherwise.” His fingers snap a few of the grassblades. The duck family is swimming in synchrony.

“Where do you work?” Styles asks. His voice lilts, all questioning and direct.

Louis wants to stop answering, could probably get away with stopping.

Yet somehow he finds himself responding without hesitation. “A pub. It’s shady, you wouldn’t have heard of it. Other side of town. On Waterstreet.”

Styles hums a nod.

This is not what Louis signed up for. Annoyed, he fakes a smile, steers the conversation in a different direction.

“So, Harry Styles,” he says breezily, leaning back and bracing himself with his hands. He grins, displaying his best angle. “Enough about me. I’m sure you’re far more interesting than this lonely old bastard. Unless—“ He looks down at the book still in Styles’ lap. “Do you need to get back to studying? Am I keeping you too long?”

Styles shrugs, his face mostly unreadable. There’s only a faint line between his brows, only a faint rigidity to his posture, only a faint over-awareness of Louis’ presence. “Not really, no. I’ve got to go to work soon anyway, so. It’s fine.” He shrugs again, some of his looser bits of hair flying away with the breeze. His cardigan looks soft, softer than his skin which looks breakable.

Poor breakable boy. But breakable, unfortunately, is what Louis needs.

“Ah, yes. The mysterious place of work,” Louis smirks. Styles’ lips twitch in response, but he looks away, embarrassed. “What’s a rich little thing like you gotta work for, anyway?” he teases, lolling his head to the side to rest on his shoulder. He stares at Styles through his lashes.

“I’m not rich,” Styles responds slowly, his eyebrows knitting together in confusion, frowning.

That perks Louis. He lifts his head from his shoulder. “You’re not?”

Styles shakes his head. “No. That’s why I have a job.”

Well hot damn.

Louis nods, looks back out at the pond. “I see,” he says, squinting against the sunlight.

Liam made it sound like Styles was rich. Didn’t he? Or did Louis just assume?

“So do you just hang about here all day?” Styles asks, curiously observing Louis, but his voice is quiet, almost uncertain. As if he’s not sure if he’s asking too much, prying too hard.

Definitely the antithesis of Louis.

“Yeah, mostly,” Louis shrugs. And, sadly, that’s an honest answer, too. Huh. He never really realized that before.

How fucking sad. And pathetic. And creepy.

Oh god. Louis is creepy.

“Yeah, I guess I’m creepy,” he mumbles in a grunted revelation. Oh god. “I’m a lonely, creepy weirdo.” His lips twitch with dark humor as he says the words, turning to Styles.

(He’s not lonely, though. He likes being alone.)

Styles’ lips twitch as well. “Is that why you’re so desperate for a date?” he asks, and either his eyes caught the sunlight, or there was a glint of mischief in that little fucker’s stare.

Well, well, well. Someone’s getting bolder.

At least it’s amusing.

“Probably, yeah,” Louis laughs, and he sits up straighter, drapes his arms over his upright leg. “I prey upon anyone who looks like they’ll talk to me.”

“I look like I’ll talk to you?” Styles smiles in a question, tilting his head. He seems to be taken by surprise at the comment.

Louis presses his lips together and ponders.

“No.”

The boy’s smile widens. It widens, but then he looks away and it fades.

Still. It feels like victory.

“I guess that’s why I’m so…er, present, though,” Louis continues, slathering on casualness. He’s gaining confidence. “That, and I feel like an arse for making you uncomfortable, so I’m trying to make it up to you by befriending you, see. Which, in turn, is making you even more uncomfortable. So you see my dilemma.”

“You’re not making me uncomfortable,” Styles says quietly, immediately. Louis’ eyebrows shoot up. “I just don’t understand, is all.” His eyes are so quiet. Everything about him is quiet. “Like, a week ago, we never even saw each other. And now you seek me out, like, every day.”

“It’s only the third day, pup,” Louis counters, dismissing the words with his hand. “It’s hardly an extended commitment.”

Styles just presses his lips together at that, doesn’t say anything for a moment.

“Still odd,” he eventually concludes.

“Yeah,” Louis agrees after a beat. “Still odd, I suppose. But here I am, eh?” He looks over at Styles, forces a smile he doesn’t feel like giving. He sort of wants to leave. This all just feels off. Still. Even with the glimmers of hope. “I can leave you be, though. Go find Zayn or Liam and bother them. Leave you to your books.” He thumps a finger on the aforementioned object as he says it, and it plonks loud enough to startle one of the ducks.

Styles merely shrugs, though. “Like, I said. I’ve got work soon. And you’re not bothering me. I’m not like…very good at conversation, though.”

Louis can’t help the amusement that pulls his lips into a smile, one eyebrow creeping up his forehead. “Really? You seem like quite the charmer to me,” Louis half-lies. Which, yeah, Styles seems more socially inept than not, but he’s apparently pulling his weight around here somehow. Louis thinks on the blond girl from the day before, her easy laughter and the way her eyes lit up upon seeing him. “People around here seem to like you. From the little I’ve seen, at least.”

Styles shrugs, closes his textbook. Another little flit of victory.

“I dunno. I like people, alright. They’re nice.” He slides the book into his bag, eyes trailing his movements. “But I don’t really…” He stops, glances at Louis. “Never mind.”

“What?” Louis questions, genuinely curious. He needs any information he can get.

“No. It’s nothing. I’m just being silly. ‘M tired.” He zips up his bag and doesn’t say anything more.

Well shit. That went nowhere.

Louis tries not to huff, just stares out at the pond, beginning to formulate excuses to leave. Tomorrow. Tomorrow will be the day. Tomorrow he’ll start trying harder. He’ll persevere.

“I just want to do my best here,” Styles suddenly says, and the abruptness startles Louis. He looks over to the boy, but Styles is staring out at the pond again, brows pinched and hands clasped together a little too tightly. “I’m not that good with making, like, actual friends. I can talk to people and stuff, like, at school. But it’s not…” He bites the inside of his lips, chews a bit as he thinks, his eyes just a bit darker. Louis watches. “I’m better at the school stuff than the social stuff, I suppose. But I’m new, see. So, like. I’ve got to try a bit harder for that as well. You know?”

No he does not.

“How so?” Louis questions.

This feels like he’s getting somewhere. If Louis knows Harry’s motivation, then he can pick it apart until it’s gone.

For a moment, Styles is quiet, just sitting with his bag between his legs, staring out at the pond with squinted eyes, messy hair, and soft lips. He’s a soft little creature in general, all quiet and honest. But inexplicably distant. It makes Louis stare a bit harder, trying to focus the boy into sharper view. Somehow though, he always seems fuzzy on the edges.

“This is boring. What I’m saying is boring,” Styles then dismisses, after seconds, maybe minutes, pass, furrowing his brow still more and looking away.

“Not boring,” Louis corrects easily. “Lay it on me.”

He wants to know. Nothing that’s coming out of Harry’s mouth is expected. He needs to know.

“Well.” Styles pauses again, nibbles on the inside of his lips and cheek. Itches his nose. Re-fumbles his earbuds. He’s got nervous twitches. He’s self-conscious, at least on some level. “It just seems so easy for everybody here. Both socially and academically. Did you ever go to school here?” he asks, turning to Louis.

Louis shakes his head. “Nah. Too posh for my taste. They would’ve hated me, anyway.”

A wry, amused smile forms at Styles’ lips but he doesn’t comment, just nods and continues. “Well, I’m not sure if you know the dynamic here or anything. From your mates, or whatever. But it’s…competitive here.”

Louis almost snorts at the irony of it all.

“And I’ve always had to try a bit harder in the first place, you know? I dunno. Like, my family doesn’t have, like, tons of money or anything. And I’m not that smart naturally. Or talented in any given area. Not really. I just don’t have that much.”

The easy smile on Louis’ lips fades, just the tiniest bit. Something slithers in his stomach.

“And so, like…” Styles pauses again, clearing his throat before he continues. “I’m sorry if I came across as really rude when we first met.” The words are a bit rushed, his eyes darting nervously to Louis. “It’s just—I just—“ His fingers lace tighter. “I don’t always know what to say. And.” He bites the inside of his lip harder, eyes flickering. “I know who you are.”

Something cold and solid plonks inside of Louis’ core.

Oh no. Fuck. Fuck.

“You do?” he asks, but his voice is scratchy, just a bit weaker than it should be. Fuck. Irritation bubbles inside of him, drenches out of his pores, into the pit of his stomach.

Styles nods, eyes once again darting to Louis’, then away again. “Yeah. I’ve heard your name around here. People talk about you.”

This is not good. At all.

But Louis keeps himself assembled and merely nods. “I see.” He can be done with this conversation now.

But, of course, Styles continues.

“They say things,” he says, slow and low. “About the kind of person you are.”

More irritation.

“Okay. And?” Louis’ chin juts a little defiantly.

He won’t let this kid judge him. He will not.

“And that’s pretty much it,” Styles mumbles. “I don’t know any specifics, or anything. Just little things.” He swallows, but he turns to face Louis, and his eyes are that same, infuriating width. No apology in the green, the blue, the grey. “Just little things people say about you. What they think about you.”

Tiny sparks of anger jump in Louis’ pulse.

Like these kids know shit all about his life. Fuck them.

“And what do you think about me, Harry Styles?” Louis then challenges, and though he keeps his tone smooth, he doesn’t dare blink or move, looking straight back into the eyes before him, defiant, strong, and proud.  

He will not be judged.

“I think,” Harry begins slowly, and his face calms, his shoulders loosen. “That I’d like to decide what kind of person you are for myself.”

It takes Louis by surprise so he doesn’t respond, just blinks a bit and turns his head to stare out at the rippling pond beyond them.

“Fair enough,” he eventually says, words flowing on the curtains of the breeze. 

His pulse feels jagged.

That’s not what he was expecting. Today feels like too much. Too much too soon. He’s getting somewhere, yeah, and he’s fucking thrilled to go to Liam’s after this and spill the details, but.

But he feels pretty fucking uncomfortable right now. This kid is so… So…

He doesn’t even know the word for it.

“I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings in any way,” Styles says quietly after a moment.

And what? What a ridiculous fucking thing to say.

“You didn’t hurt my feelings,” Louis snaps immediately.

But Styles continues as if he hadn’t heard him. “I shouldn’t have said that—about what people say about you… I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have, like—“ Styles stops. “I say the wrong thing all of the time. I told you I’m a shit conversationalist,” he finishes eventually, and when Louis turns his head, he finds the boy staring at him intently, apology written clear all over his face.

“I guess I should’ve heeded your warning,” Louis says dryly, but he turns up one corner of his mouth. Because he’s not even angry. Not really. Just startled. Just on guard. Styles didn’t say anything bad. He was…

Well. He was actually being kind. He’s not even judging Louis. Genuinely, he’s not.

Louis’ not mad. He just doesn’t know what to do with any of this. He knows it’s good, knows it’ll work for him… But. It’s all hard to understand and piece together and so Louis doesn’t know what to do with it.

“Well, in that case, if you put it like that,” Styles continues after a moment, and he blinks at Louis like the giant barn owl that he is, “I guess if I’ve upset you, then. It’s your own fault.”

Louis’ head snaps to him at that, and he’s honestly surprised to see Styles pressing back a tentative smile, his knees now pulled up to his chest, hands loosely lying on the grass on either side of him. Somehow, he seems both guarded and open at the same time. So inexplicable.

But Louis snorts. “Jesus,” he huffs, shaking his head, and he hears Styles utter a soft, amused noise beside him. “You’re certainly on fire today, aren’t you? You and your bloody sass.”

The words make Styles’ lips curl further. He rests his chin atop his knees, regarding Louis through the obstruction of eyelashes and rogue curls and flickering sunlight. His cheeks are pink, and he briefly rubs his red-lipped smile against the bumps of his knees and the blue of his denim. “I’ve never been called sassy before,” he mumbles, and then his gaze falls to the grass. “That’s weird to hear.”

“Maybe not by those you haven’t sassed,” Louis murmurs in an even drier tone, and Styles huffs another small laugh in response, chin still rested upon his knees. He’s all tucked up. Like a little burrito.

Aesthetically, it’s endearing. Styles is endearing. It’s a physical allure that he possesses. Some naïve, child-like innocence.

It’s a shame that Louis’ going to destroy it.

It’s a heavy thought.

“I should go to work,” Styles says eventually, after their smiles quiet and the water begins babbling a bit.

Louis nods. “Yeah. Where’s that, then?”

But Styles merely shakes his head with a hidden smile, rolling his eyes, as he picks up his bag and slings it over his shoulder. But he doesn’t stand up quiet yet. “You get creepier every day.”

Definitely getting bolder.

“I like to think of myself as personable.”

“Insufferable?”

“No, no, pup—per-son-a-ble,” Louis enunciates obnoxiously, because he’s a shit, but it makes Styles chortle. Which is fortunate. “So where do you work, then? Can I come? I won’t distract you. I’ll just sit in your lap while you do whatever it is you do, it’ll be fine.” He smiles devilishly, purposely being too forward now.

Luckily, Styles seems to understand the humor, looking amused rather than discomforted. “Completely insufferable.”

Louis’ mouth twists. “And you tell me nobody’s ever called you sassy before.”

“I’m not usually this impolite,” Styles chuckles, but he seems a little delighted at the aspect, and when he stands and Louis follows suit, he doesn’t seem wholly put off.

“I guess I just bring out the worst in people,” Louis winks.

Another blush from Styles. Louis should make it a drinking game.

“Maybe that’s why all the kids hate me,” Louis continues, feeling a tiny speck of pride as he watches the flush travel down Styles’ neck.

But at those words, the amusement fades from the boy’s eyes. “Hey, look, Louis—“ he starts, but Louis holds up a hand.

“Nah, I’m only joking. I’m not bothered by it.”

“They don’t hate you.”

“Oh? Don’t they?”

Styles shakes his head. “No. They seem to… I dunno. Look up to you in a way.”

Huh. Well that’s unexpected.

“But that doesn’t make what they’re saying unkind. One man’s compliment is another man’s insult. And I believe a person deserves more respect than that.”

Louis’ smile falters. Just a bit.

Respect. This boy, this target, thinks Louis deserves more respect.

There’s a moment’s pause and Styles just looks at Louis, unabashed and calm and unawares, willingly giving him the time of day. Because slowly, very slowly, he’s beginning to surrender tiny, insignificant bits of himself; until, one day, he will give over the significant bits, too. And Louis will use them against him.

And this boy thinks that Louis deserves to be discussed with more respect.

“You don’t know me, Harry,” he says quietly, after a moment. He tries for casual, but he knows the tone of his voice is just a bit too low.

“I don’t have to know you to show respect,” Styles responds immediately, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. A simple truth. Two plus two equals four. “It’s just how I view people.”

“So you respect everyone?” Louis questions, brow raised in surprise. How naïve.

But Styles merely nods, firm and sure. “Unless they give me a reason not to, then yes.”

‘Soon I’ll give you a reason not to,’ is what Louis doesn’t say. Just the thought lies a little roughly within him.

It’s a shame.

“You’re a good kid, Harry Styles,” Louis says eventually. With only a touch of guilt.  

Styles’ eyebrows rise a bit. “I thought I was sassy.”

Heh.

“You’re a good, sassy kid,” he amends, letting a small smile peek through. “A sweet little sassling.”

It makes Styles laugh. Good.

“I’ll let you go, though,” Louis says, taking a step back and away. “Have fun at work. Wherever that may be. I’ll probably see you tomorrow.”

“I didn’t doubt it,” Styles mumbles as he turns.

It’s something… It’s something adrift in the breeze that makes Louis’ hand jolt out to grab Styles’ arm.

Hypothetically speaking, this would be his last chance. If, if, Louis wanted to get out of this, this would be his last chance to cut this kid loose.

“Look. Harry,” he says, and Styles’ face calms into polite inquiry as he waits for Louis to continue.

He doesn’t.

“Yes?” he prods, eyebrows pinching.

Louis swallows.

“If I’m, like, genuinely bothering you… Just say the word. I know I say I’ve got shit else to do with my time, but I could start, like, knitting or something. Scrapbooking.” Styles laughs again. But Louis doesn’t smile. “Honestly, though. Just say the word.”

He stares intently at him, eyes locked in eyes.

Hypothetically, right now would be his chance.

“I know,” Styles says softly. But then he shrugs. “And I might’ve said it yesterday. But… I dunno. Sometimes I get lonely, too.” The minute the words are out, he presses his big lips together, his flesh pinkening, and he ducks his head.

It sends something through Louis. But it also sounds like a death toll.

“Okay,” Louis consents, releasing his grasp on his arm. There you have it. “Just checking.”

Styles half-smiles before he steps away. “See you, Louis.”

“Yeah,” he replies quietly, watching Styles as he turns and walks away, his bag bouncing softly behind him with each awkward, clomping step. He’s got such long legs. “See you, Harry.”

**

“I haven’t heard one fucking word from you. I hope that’s because your mouth’s been too busy sucking on Styles’ fucking dick,” Liam growls.

Jesus.

“Now, now, Keats,” Louis grumbles, holding up his hands in surrender. “Slow down with the sonnets. You know poetry gets me weak.”

Liam glares, crosses his arms. “Ha. Ha.”

“Ha. Ha,” Louis mocks back, but he’s got a glint of amusement in his returning stare and he smirks. With a shake of the head, he waltzes past the grizzly bear that is Liam Payne, before hopping onto his bed, pillows bouncing everywhere, random articles of clothing tumbling off the sides. His smirk widens when he stretches out, lets his entire body take up most of the bed, sprawling out as much as he can.

Eventually, Liam smirks, too.

But he hides it, immediately whipping around to stalk out of his room and down the corridor.

“Where’s the parents?” Louis calls after him, eyes gliding through the messy room. It smells like tacos or something. Or maybe that Liam’s feet.  

“Holiday,” Liam calls. “In Cannes. Back next week.”

“Oh, goodie. I love Cannes this time of year,” he drawls. He hopes they get food poisoning. Shitty rich parents.

But Liam doesn’t respond. Instead, Louis hears a rapt knocking on a door somewhere in the distance.

“Zayn!” Liam calls. “Open up, bro!”

Louis hears the door open, listens.

“Yeah?” inquires Zayn’s sleepy voice.

“There you are, you idiot. Where the fuck were you? You weren’t here when I got home. Where did you go?”

“Running.”

“Running? You run? Why are you running?”

Louis can almost hear Zayn’s shrug.

“Dunno. Wanted to?”

“Right.” And now Louis can hear Liam roll his eyes. “Well, Louis’ here. We’ll probably get dinner or something soon. Or just hang about here.”

“Cool.”

“Come on, then,” Liam sighs with exasperation, and the next thing Louis sees is Liam dragging Zayn by the shirtsleeve into his room. Zayn seems indifferent and unbothered, allowing himself to be steered.

“Hey, Tommo,” he greets. “I found a cool book. It’s from the point of view of a goat.”

Louis barks out a laugh. “Where do you find this shit, Zen?”

“Liam got it for me.”

Liam rolls his eyes again. “Only because it was free.” But he looks the tiniest bit pleased.

The only redeeming quality about Liam is Zayn. Maybe it’s because Zayn is a little insecure and awkward (a lot awkward) or maybe it’s because Liam’s the only child of two really bad people and the human side of him yearns for familial kinship, but Liam absolutely takes care of Zayn like a lioness would her cub.

It’s never spoken of—much like Louis’ desire to casually fuck Zayn isn’t. But it’s Liam’s one redeeming quality.

“Awwweh, lookit you two,” Louis smirks, leaning back on Liam’s bed. “Brothers for life, you are.”

Liam nearly hisses his “Oh, fuck off,” at the same time Zayn nods thoughtfully and mutters a pondering, “Probably.”

Too cute.

“So,” Liam then says, and he turns to Louis with his arms crossed, all official and masculine. Louis could take him apart piece by piece if he wanted to. With just his tongue and nothing else. Hell, with just one fucking finger. Liam knows this. It’s funny. “What’s the progress, then?”

Louis allows himself an indulgent smirk and a thorough examination of Liam’s body as he stretches out his own on the bed, cat-like. “Progress?” he questions innocently. He pouts his lips with wide-eyed, blinking confusion.

Liam glares. And probably gets hard. “With Harry Styles. Progress,” he repeats more firmly. Too firmly. His knuckles are white where they’re gripping his arms.

“Ahhhh, yes,” Louis sighs, and Zayn smiles, amused. “Hm, let me think…” He taps his fingers against his lips, feigning contemplation.

But then Zayn fucks it up.

“He’s failing, Li,” Zayn says, with the biggest shit-eating grin in the universe, and he looks up at Liam, amused, sitting on his hands at Liam’s desk chair.

Liam looks pink. Like a bubblegum bubble. “Still??” he blurts, wide-eyed.

“Hey!” Louis snaps, sending daggers to Zayn who merely looks pleased with himself. “Not anymore, no. Today we had a breakthrough.” He grins, wide and toothy. “He wants me to keep bothering him. The only reason he was weary at first is because he’s heard about me. Or something like that.” Louis rolls his eyes. “But he’s dumb enough not to listen to anyone. Says he wants to form his opinions himself. So. He’s walking into a den of wolves willingly, really.”

Zayn’s smile is gone, being quickly replaced with a frown. He remains silent and Louis avoids his eye, avoids the low plunk in his stomach.

“So, all in all, we’re good,” he concludes with a large grin that stretches his lips uncomfortably.

Liam’s face relaxes into slimy contentment. “Perfect. Just one step closer, then. I knew I could count on you, Tommo.” His eyes bore into Louis’.

It burns. Feels like fissures and cut wires.

“Yep.” He stares back, lids his eyes, and licks his lips. “I never disappoint.”

There’s one fizzly moment where Louis almost reaches out, almost grabs Liam by his shirt and just tugs his lips onto his—if only for a moment—but then Zayn moves and, oh yeah. Zayn.

“You two are weird,” he says, shaking his head, and his glasses fall down his nose a bit. He doesn’t fix them this time, though, instead focusing his attention on a crumpled up ball of paper on Liam’s desk. “Look guys,” he says, picking it up. He houses it in his palm, extending his hand towards them. “It looks like the moon.”

It doesn’t.

But Louis laughs and Liam looks annoyed and Zayn peers at the paper ball with misty-eyed wonder, and the conversation drifts away from them.

Somewhere, in the back of Louis’ mind, he’s aware that this will be his life soon. He’ll be a more permanent fixture here.

Very soon.

He’s just got to overcome one, curly, wide-eyed obstacle first.

Chapter Text

Major Minus – Coldplay


 

 

“Guess who?”

A long-suffering sigh. Then: “Who.”

Louis snorts.

Styles doesn’t even lift his head from his book (he’s outside again, but at a different tree—one that overlooks a little grassy plain where a small cluster of boys are playing footie) but there is absolutely a twitch in his left cheek—there is. Whether it’s a twitch of annoyance or the suppression of a smile is up for debate, but Louis likes to think optimistically. So it’s totally a suppressed smile.

“You’re very funny, you know.”

This makes Styles raise his head. Louis notes that he doesn’t have his earbuds in today. A rare occurrence. “You told me to guess ‘who’. So I said ‘who’.”

Oh wow.

Louis huffs, amused. “Thank you for the detailed description of your thought process,” he deadpans, and it’s enough to make Styles offer up a small smile and a single-shouldered shrug.

“No problem,” he says, and turns the page of his book. So tidy.

Shaking his head (this kid is really something, eh?) Louis gestures to the ground beside him. “May I?”

“Sure,” Styles mumbles, eyes skimming across the words before him. He seems a little distracted, more bent on studying the text than studying Louis.

Which is never good.

“So how are you today?” Louis asks, hoping to distract. If only he could successfully manage to somehow get a hold of his book and toss it in the pond…

Liam would love that. He can just imagine it now: ‘Hi, Liam. Today I tossed Styles’ book in the pond. Distracted him nicely for you. Can we have sex now, can I have your money now, can I take advantage of you now?’ ‘Oh yes, of course, let us fuck.’

He suppresses a snort at the thought.

Styles shrugs again. “Good, I suppose.” Pause. “It’s nice to be outside. Better than the classrooms.”

“Is that why I keep finding you out here rather than your little nook in the library? I’d begun to think you were just trying to dodge me,” Louis smiles, making sure his eyes crinkle, as he rests his elbows on his knees. He made sure to wear his best jeans today—AKA, the only ones without enormous rips in the knees and bum. They’re relatively clean, too. Those, paired with his Jim Morrison t-shirt and trusty jean jacket, officially put Louis in the running for Most Attractive Hobo in his age group. Maybe in all age groups.

Point is, Louis knows he looks good today. And he’s going to use it to his advantage. He’s even got his hair done—up in what’s been affectionately coined as a “cinnamon swirl” after that time Zayn pointed a lazy finger to the top of his head and said “You look like you’ve got a pastry sat up there.”

Oh, Zayn.

“I didn’t say I wasn’t trying to dodge you,” Styles counters, but his lips are twisting with amusement as they bumble out the syllables, so it’s not a warning flag or anything.

Louis makes himself a bit more comfortable.

Styles looks much the same as usual—wearing a white t-shirt and skinny jeans and pristine White Converse—and his hair is a bit frizzier than is custom (which is saying something) but he looks well-rested and pleasant. And very studious. He’s got a highlighter in his hand which he uses on the occasion, steadily dragging out lines of fluorescent yellow. Once in awhile, his eyes flicker up to the field in front of him, where the boys are playing.

Louis observes the action closely. Liam’s words are fresh in his mind.

“…there’s talk that he’s going to join the footie team. People think he’ll want to be captain…”

“Enjoying the game?” he asks with one corner of his lips quirked up. When Styles meets his eye, he raises a curious brow.

“I like footie,” Styles nods. “I’m terrible at it, though.”

Modest, probably. Just because Styles walks like a freshly birthed giraffe, it doesn’t mean he can’t run and kick with the best of them. It’s probably all an act. He’s probably some master manipulator.

“So you will need to try out for the team after all,” Louis says casually, and brings up one hand to inspect his fingernails. Playing it coy, and all that. Play it nonchalant.

Styles blinks. “Try out?” he repeats, and there’s an undercurrent of…amusement? In his voice? Louis glances at him from his peripherals, still faux-inspecting his nails. “What, just so they can reject me? No thank you. I’ll just go to the games. I’m fine on the sidelines.” Styles huffs a laugh as he shakes his head, before returning to his book. A breeze ruffles through his hair, bringing the distinct smell of freshly unearthed soil with it. And wet grass.

Louis loves that smell.

He’d love it more if he could compute what Styles just fucking said, though.

He wants to stick to the sidelines? What?

But.

Liam said…

“What? You’re not even going to…try?” Louis asks, genuinely taken aback. His hand falls to the grass and he turns his body a bit more towards Harry, glancing occasionally to the boys. They’re currently clustered, red-cheeked and sweaty and bright, all around the ball. “Don’t you want to be the footie captain and all that?” he blurts.

Which. Oops.

Ye know too much.

“Captain??” At that, Styles laughs, genuinely delighted and amused at the very prospect. “On what planet?”

And, oh. Well that’s…interesting.

Louis doesn’t gape like a fish. But he doesn’t not gape as he stares at Harry’s open laughter, the hand with the highlighter in it tugging strands of his hair out of his eyes and behind his ear. They just bounce back, though, full corkscrew. Soft little bounces.

“Besides, I’m new here,” Styles continues, quieting a bit. But his smile is there, still easy. The words don’t seem to affect him or weigh on him in any way. It’s more of a peaceful understanding. “There’ve been people on that team who’ve been working towards that title for years…” Like Liam. “I don’t feel like I’ve any right to just come here and claim something like that. Even if I was half-decent or had some sort of coordination.”

A small smile escapes Louis at that. Some sort of coordination, eh? Cute.

But. No.

Louis looks away, tamping his amusement down and erasing his smile.

He doesn’t really want to stare into Styles’ penetrating, honest eyes right now. He doesn’t feel that good—shouldn’t have drank so much last night. Should have had a better breakfast this morning.

Instead, he stares at the book in Styles’ lap. It lies gently between his thighs. He holds it carefully in his large hands. Aside from the highlighting, it’s clearly well cared for—no knicks or tears or bent pages. No dog-ears. Gently taken care of.

“You’re so nice, Harry,” Louis hears himself say, words soft. He didn’t really mean to speak them—they just sort of tumbled out of his lips.

Shit.

He can control his word vomit. He can. He just needs to…focus a bit more.

Harry’s brow furrows in response and Louis feels his gaze. “I think I’m just normal, actually,” he says, surprised. “I think?”

“No,” Louis counters immediately, shaking his head, and he shifts his stare to his own lap, a strange licking sort of black feeling rubbing at his conscious. He thinks of Liam, of his dark eyes and his slithering words. He thinks of all the assholes who never, ever cut him a break unless he was sucking their dicks or hooking them up with good weed and discounted vodka. He thinks of himself. “Not normal, actually,” he replies delicately.

Not normal at all.

It’s always hardest with the innocent ones. Always. Always hard with the good ones.

And Styles could be the best yet.

Ugh.

Feeling inexplicably hollow and, just…dirty, Louis shoves his hand in the breast pocket of his jean jacket. Cigarette please. Or ten. He doesn’t have time for this sentimental shit today.

As fast as his little fingers can manage, Louis stuffs the first cigarette he touches into his mouth, ignoring the eyeballs that are currently stuck to him, watching him with slight alarm. Said eyeballs are a fetching shade of jade today, by the way. Since it’s a little overcast, they’re cloudy. Louis thinks he’s decided that Styles’ eyes are officially green and sometimes they change to match the sky. Like little weathercaster eyes.  

Not that it matters, though.

Cigarette between his teeth, he begins smacking every pocket that could potentially house a lighter. Or matches. Or perhaps a magnifying glass if times are tough.

He probably looks a little frantic, a little like a madman, but he doesn’t fucking care because he feels paranoid and weird and hungover and his body is going to bust rocks pretty soon if he doesn’t get some fucking nicotine in his system.

Cigarette now, please. Lighter, please. He pats his bum and—ah, yes. There it is.

“You smoke?” Styles asks eventually.

“More than I breathe,” Louis comments under his breath, fishing for his lighter, raising his hips.

“Gross.”

Louis snorts and shakes his head, amused, before his fingers finally brush upon cool metal. Success.

He takes it out, flicks it into life as he cups the flame with his hands and pulls it toward the slender stick dangling between his puckered lips. It’s just breezy enough that the task is tedious. Fuckin’ nature. Annoying.

“Why do you, though?” Styles asks, curious. “I can’t think of one appealing thing about it.” He scrunches his nose like a small animal. He’s like one of those YouTube videos of kittens.

“I can—I’m hot as fuck when I smoke,” Louis smirks, his cigarette finally catching flame. He breathes in almost manically and feels the rush of blood to his head, the instant calm. He pockets his lighter and gazes at Harry with slitted, smug eyes, his tight lips releasing sinews of smoke excruciatingly slowly.

But he soon bursts into a laugh, though, upon catching the expression of wry un-amusement on Harry’s face.

“You really are something else,” Harry says, shaking his head. “How can you just say things like that?”

“What? It’s true, isn’t it?”

Harry’s brow furrows. “But not to everyone. It’s just your opinion. How can you be so, like, blindly confident?”

“Because I was raised to be,” Louis grins without a beat of hesitation, and throws forth a wink before taking another drag of his cigarette, long and slow and steady.

Styles doesn’t respond, just shakes his head and returns to his book, eyes squinted from either the light or his own amusement, his lips pressed shut.

Louis hates that book.

“You really do study too much,” he mumbles, taking another drag. The embers glow fiercely before they fade.

“You smoke too much,” comes the instant reply.

Much bolder. But Louis can’t help but laugh in surprise.

“This is the first time you’ve seen me smoke!” he protests, sitting up a bit straighter so he can nudge Harry’s ankle with the tip of his dirty shoe.

“And it’s already too much.” Styles isn’t looking up, but he’s smiling.

Louis smiles, too. “So sassy,” he mutters, but it’s said with more appreciation than anything else because at least Styles is amusing, at least he’s a clever thing. Not nearly as dull as he originally seemed to be.

If this little mission is going to be a long and tedious process, Louis would rather at least semi-enjoy the ride.

Styles laughs then, short and light, and the sound is nearly infectious. Every laugh feels like a tiny thump of success. Like a tiny step closer.

“But I really do have to study,” he mutters eventually, pairing his words with an apologetic smile. Aw, bless. “I already told you—I’ve got to try even harder here. Remember?”

Louis snorts. Oh yes, he remembers. “Yeah, but what for?”

“If I want to succeed, I’ve got to work for it. We discussed this!” Styles sighs, with all the air of one who is undergoing the most menial of tasks. But his smile still lingers, just beyond the surface, just shallow enough for Louis to reach if he wanted to.

“Succeed how, though?” Louis presses. He taps some ash off of his cigarette as he perks his ears a bit, ready to stash all of Styles’ words into a clean little folder labeled ‘For Later’ in his brain. Every word counts.

“Good marks,” Styles replies steadily, easily. He shifts, drops his highlighter and picks it up. “Good standing. You know—all the typical stuff.”

“But why?” Louis presses still more, bored. (The world of education and academic standing was never one that made particular sense to him. It’s all just a bunch of bullshit and favoritism.) “What for? Why exhaust yourself for a letter grade?”

At that, Styles seems to genuinely consider, his eyes lifting from the page and looking out sightlessly in front of him. He sucks the corner of his lip into his mouth, his fingers dancing delicately on the paper, fingertips brushing over heavily inked text.

“I dunno,” he says slowly, deeply, eventually. “I guess because it’s not just for a letter grade? It’s for my family?” He scratches the back of his neck, pondering his next words. Louis flicks ash from his cigarette, feels his eyebrows coming together a bit as he tries to concentrate on Styles’ soft words. “I just try to focus, work hard, and make my family proud. That’s all that matters to me. I dunno.”

“And excelling at tests and essays makes them proud?” Louis inquires, just a little bluntly, just a little wryly.

He’s an asshole. What can he say?

But Styles doesn’t appear offended. Just thoughtful. He turns to look at Louis. “Well, yeah. It does. My mum’s a teacher—she values education. She values me. Now, she would never pressure me or anything—“ Styles rushes to add immediately, and Louis purses his lips. “It’s just that… Well. My sister has a lot of anxiety. It’s harder for her to maintain a job and go to school sometimes. And we don’t have all that much money to begin with. So I just, I dunno, like to think that this’ll all amount to me taking care of them.”

Dear fucking god.

Of course, of course, this kid is a little bloody saint.

Louis breathes more smoke, trying to suffocate the empty parts of himself with smoke and more smoke and smoke, feeling a cross between irritation and…envy expand with each breath.

Little bloody saint. Loves to help the people.

A few moments of silence pass.

Styles continues reading. Louis continues smoking.

“What are you studying for?” Louis asks eventually, voice a bit scratchy. Too much smoke.

Instantly Styles smiles, looking up from his book, eyes clear when the words fall from his lips. “I want to be a doctor,” he says confidently. “So, Pre-Med. Mum loves the idea.”

“Okay. But do you?” Louis prods, raising a brow, damp cigarette pinched between two fingers. It’s almost gone.

And then Styles’ eyes quiet just a bit. A tiny bit, but Louis sees it.

Finally, he answers, but the confidence is muted, his voice softer than it was before. “Like, I said Louis—I want to take care of them.”

Take care of them.

Something hot and uncomfortable flashes through Louis.

He doesn’t want to smoke anymore. He stubs out his cigarette sort of aggressively, smashing it into the damp earth and tangled blades of grass. It was almost gone, anyway.

The smell that lingers in the air—cigarette ash melded with soil; the burnt clashing with the living—makes Louis feel a bit sick. It’s a fucked up smell.

“And that doesn’t bother you?” he presses, sharp. “That you’re the one that has to carry them along? That it’s all on your shoulders? And your shoulders alone? Even though you’re young and didn’t ask for it?”

Why does he feel so irritated?

But Styles shrugs, completely unbothered, his shirt Disney-white and laundry-advertisement clean. “Not really. Gemma—that’s my sister—has absolutely no clue what she wants to do with her life and… I suppose since I was blessed with the views I have on life and the opportunities I’ve been given, I just want to do what I can instead.” His hands fall into the grass, clutching at the strands in loose grips. His gaze is distant and thoughtful as he looks out into the plane before them. “I don’t mind the idea of being a doctor and taking care of people. Especially if it’ll make her and mum happy in some small way. I love them, you know? They’re all I’ve got.”

They’re all I’ve got.

“But does it make you happy?” Louis questions.

It sounds aggressive. He doesn’t mean to sound aggressive. It’s just… Frustrating.

Or something.

Styles carries his gaze over to Louis, jade, jade green eyes settling onto his skin, pondering. His entire face is just soft lips and large eyes and lots of smooth skin. Peach fuzz that glows golden in sunlight. “Their happiness makes me happy.”

“Does your happiness make you happy?”

A furrowed brow. “They are my happiness.”

They’re all but glaring at each other; challenging, narrowed eyes meeting challenging, narrowed eyes.

Louis’ jaw tightens. “Yeah, okay. But you have to find your own, as well. One that’s separate from everybody else. You need to keep some things for yourself, pup. You’re making a grave fucking error if you think it’s safe to have your happiness depend upon others.”

And, shit.

Louis should probably shut the fuck up now. This isn’t part of the plan. Preaching to Harry Styles is not conducive to seducing him.

It’s just that…

Harry is so opposite of him, isn’t he? This Harry Styles character. He’s so very, completely unlike Louis that it’s almost fascinating. Almost frustrating. Almost fucking awful.

Louis isn’t sure if he likes the way it makes him feel.

But Styles doesn’t appear to be genuinely angry or offended or anything, in the face of Louis’ blunt words. Rather, his brow is relaxing a bit, his lips loosening. The slump of his shoulders is soft and he sets his highlighter down in the grass, but he never looks away from Louis, eyes skimming his face as if he were reading one of those bloody textbooks of his. Louis isn’t sure if he likes the way this makes him feel, either.

“I never thought about it that way,” he mumbles eventually. Still staring at Louis. “Never really…put it together like that.”

Louis coughs, averts his gaze from the very direct one being pointed at him. Sometimes looking at Styles is too much. “Yeah, well. ‘S how I feel about it, I suppose.”

“What’s your happiness, then?” Styles questions very quietly, very softly.

And Louis scoffs before he can stop himself. “Oh, don’t be silly, pup—scumbags like me don’t deserve happiness!” He laughs. “I’ve got a pretty smile, though. That makes me happy. How’s that work?” He grins.

Styles doesn’t smile back.

It shoots another feeling through Louis, but he ignores it, instead coughing once more, just to slice up the thick silence that’s begun to blanket the atmosphere a bit. “Anyway,” he says offhandedly, throat dry, but with all the effort of a professional—he needs to regain control of the situation. “It’s good that you don’t resent them. Your family, I mean. For putting you on a road you didn’t ask to travel.”

The words spark an image. A memory.

He needs to regain control, though. So he pushes it away.

And then suddenly Styles smiles, just a bit. “I like that,” he says quietly, gaze veering off into the distance momentarily before it veers back. “’A road you didn’t ask to travel’…” he repeats quietly.

The brief silence that ensues contains the steady, tight beat of Louis’ pulse. He offers up a half-smile.

“I dunno,” Styles continues at last. “It’s not perfect, no. But I see it as: I either work forward for the people that I actually love, or waste energy on all of the things that matter a lot less in this world. Things that I don’t really agree with all that much.”

For some reason, that hits Louis.

Maybe it’s because Styles says it so easily. Maybe it’s because he sounds like he means it. Maybe it’s because the words scrape Louis’ throat and scalp and brain as they work their way into his body.

Or. Maybe it’s the tiny, blurry memories that are currently pushing against the barricade of his skull. The tiny, blurry memories of a very dark night. Of Louis walking out on five sleeping little girls and one mum.

Of Louis never saying goodbye and Louis never staying because Louis didn’t like the weight on his shoulders. Because Louis didn’t think it was worth it. Because Louis chose to waste his energy on all the things that matter a lot less in this world.

Because he wants to live. But maybe he just exists.

He swallows again and it’s just a bit more difficult this time.

Styles is staring at him. He’s so clueless to the fucking avalanche he just crashed down upon Louis, too. He’s so clueless and innocent and pretty in his little white t-shirt with his slender smooth arms and lovely curly hair and very nice teeth. With those large eyes that have already come to regard Louis with more curiosity than weariness.

Louis opens his mouth to respond. He needs to say something. He sort of wants to reach out, press fingers against the closest part of Styles, just to see if he’s real. Just to make sure. Just in case. To make sure that Louis’ not going fucking insane and his mind’s concocted the Anti-Louis. Just to make sure Harry’s not just a figment of Louis’ imagination—just a hallucination that mocks Louis, that throws all of his fuck-ups and shortcomings in his face.

He doesn’t know what he wants to say, but he needs to say something because he doesn’t like the way he feels—

But then his phone vibrates.

It’s Liam.

‘As of today, Styles is the first person in eleven years to have gotten a perfect score on Mosley’s Maths exam. Friendly reminder.’

Ah.

Louis shuts his mouth and clears his throat instead as he slides his phone back in his pocket.

He needs to regain control. This is ridiculous.

When did he become so soft?

“Hey, uh, do you wanna go for a walk or something?” he offers, without any transition or explanation. His voice feels like it’s filled with too much air. He smiles grandly. “My legs feel twitchy. And it’s beautiful out.”

Styles blinks, surprised. He’s quiet a moment, considering. But then: “No, thank you. I should study. Did we not just have this conversation?” But he’s smiling, bemused.

And Louis rolls his eyes, doesn’t feel guilty. Pushes it all down. He’s gaining his control back. He’s good—ace, even. He’s got this. He’s hot and he’s clever and he’s never lost. And he’s got this. “Oh, come on. I’ll help you study as we walk. We’ll use flash cards—is that what the kids do these days? Or is it all iPads now?”

Thankfully, Styles chuckles, and the air between them feels miraculously lighter, just like that. “I prefer actual books. I don’t like reading from a screen. I like holding the text in my hands, you know?”

“I like holding things in my hands, too,” Louis grins lasciviously, blinking his eyes prettily. Much better. This is good.

Styles bursts into red and laughter, two simultaneous explosions. “Oh my god,” is all he can manage, and it makes Louis’ grin morph into actual amusement. “What is wrong with you?” But the words are punctuated with giggles and bumps.

Endearing.

“I’m a piece of shit,” Louis chuckles. “An actual piece of shit.”

It makes Styles laugh harder for some reason, despite the fact that it wasn’t even that funny. But Louis’ always enjoyed someone who finds him amusing, so he smiles a bit proudly, feeling the inexplicable urge to keep going, to see if Styles can laugh still harder.

But he doesn’t. Because he needs to focus.

But then Styles speaks. “I don’t think you’re a piece of shit,” he smiles, laughter quieting. “If that helps.”

Louis smiles. “It does help.” He pauses. “Thank you.” And then suddenly he grins, realization dawning on him. “Wait, hold up here. Did you just compliment me? Me??” he repeats, faux-aghast.

And Styles may roll his eyes, but his lips are stretched across his face and his planes are smooth and relaxed, warmed by sunlight and the fluttering shadows of leaves. He watches the boys playing footie, leans back on his palms which are now rested in the dirt.

“I’m not saying anything,” he mutters quietly, words twisted up in his crooked smile.

It sounds like success.

There’s a beat of silence where Louis does an internal victory lap before he gathers himself, shooting Styles a sideways glance.

“But, real talk—we really should go for a walk.”

Styles laughs again, seemingly delighted.

It’s kind of nice. Louis’ never seen him laugh this much. Not once did he really see him, like, even pretend to laugh or chortle or snort or anything while he was spying on him.

Spying. The thought makes Louis frown a bit. It’s not, like, surprising or anything—he knows what he’s here for and how he came to meet the kid—but it’s still a bit startling. He can’t explain why.

“Studying is boring,” Louis insists easily, brushing the thoughts away as he watches Styles shake his head with amusement, picking up his highlighter again. But he doesn’t uncap it and Louis notices the shit out of that. ”Walking is fun. Did you know it’s good for your brain? Nine out of ten are reported to be more likely to never fail an exam again if they go for regular walks. Proven fact.”

“No it’s not,” Styles smiles, but he’s enjoying the banter. He’s unguarded, completely open in demeanor, expression, and manner. Good.

“Well, fine. Don’t walk with me.”

Silence.

“But how about coffee? Or tea? Everybody knows tea is brain food.”

Styles laughs again, louder, brighter, shorter. “You don’t give up, do you?”

“Nope!” Louis responds cheerily, popping the ‘P’. “C’mon. It’ll be my treat. I’ll take care of you.”

Two eyebrows shoot up in the air.

“Not like that,” Louis sighs, rolling his eyes. Dammit. “I mean just as friends. A friendly treat. I’m not trying to pull you anymore, don’t worry. I’m not completely oblivious. I can tell when someone’s not interested.” He says it easily, but he still feels a slight discomfort that this could all go awry.

Maybe even a little slightly panicked at the prospect of fucking this up. But friends-first is probably the only way he’s going to ensnare Harry. He’s got to look at the big picture.

Worryingly, though, Styles doesn’t respond.

Louis’ brows knit. “Too aggressive?” he asks, frowning.

Styles isn’t looking at him anymore. He’s looking back at the textbook in his lap, biting his lip and shaking his head.

“No, it’s not that,” he says quietly, then musters up a half-smile as he glances at Louis, then away.

Then nothing.

Okay then. Great. Once-fucking-again, Louis is at a loss.

Do they sell instructions manuals for Harry Styles?

“Actually,” he says at last, and now he’s staring at his watch, his eyebrows just a bit too furrowed for Louis’ liking. He has literally no idea what he did wrong. “I’ve got work soon. We talked longer than I realized.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry,” Louis offers, a little embarrassed. Which is weird. It’s not a regular feeling for him.

“No, it’s fine. It’s my fault just as much as yours.” Harry’s still not looking at Louis.

Fault. Right.

“So…” Louis drawls, attempting to help him gather the materials scattered on the grass around them. He hands him stray pencils, a notebook, a scrap of paper—Harry takes each item with a small smile and quick, jade eyes. “Work, eh? That very mysterious place you go to? Where ever could that be?”

There we go.

There’s a genuine smile from Styles. It’s small and he tries to hide it, but it’s there.

“You still want to know?” Styles asks, amused. He zips up his bag, stands, and hauls it over his broad shoulder. He winces a bit, but he smiles through it.

Hm. Is he wounded? Weak? Louis wonders.

“I mean. I do love our daily nature chats, don’t get me wrong,” Louis smiles, rising up on his own feet. “But I think it’s time for a change of scenery, no?”

Styles shakes his head. “I’ve got to work, Louis. Sorry.”

Dammit.

“Surely, I can follow you there? That’s cute, innit? I can be like your little stray dog!”

Another laugh from Styles. Thank fuck.

“Well, I certainly can’t get rid of you, so I suppose that fits.”

“I’ll take that as flattery,” Louis sniffs, and he feels Harry’s smile before he sees it. It’s fondly amused, if a little exasperated. Just like Louis predicted. “It can be fun, though, you know. You can name me and everything! I’m all yours.” With that, accompanied by a devilish grin, Louis takes a step back, hands out, offering himself on a silver platter. He raises his brows as he does a half-twirl, and Styles watches him, bag slung over one shoulder, his hip jutted out a bit as he laughs under his breath, amused and a little shy.

Then he begins walking without saying another word.

Does Louis dare hope?

He does.

Especially because Harry isn’t using his globetrotter glides, so he clearly isn’t trying to lose Louis. Success.

“So whatcha gonna name me?” he asks, batting his eyelashes, as he trots up to match Styles’ pace. “Eh? What do I look like?”

“I dunno.” He shrugs. “A Louis?”

How utterly brilliant.

Louis rolls his eyes. “That doesn’t count, spoil sport. You’re only saying that cuz it’s my name.”

Styles shrugs again, but he looks a bit more thoughtful as he walks, eyes ahead. “I dunno... Ben?”

What.

“Ben,” Louis repeats flatly. He narrows his eyes. “Are you attempting insult or…?”

Styles laughs then, eyes still in front. “No! You really do look like a Ben. Like… Ben Kenobi. A bit. Sort of.”

Louis halts, mid-step.

“Obi-Wan Kenobi?” he clarifies, horrified. “From Star Wars?”

“Yeah,” Harry nods, but he’s pressing back a smile, slowing his stride as he turns around to face Louis who hasn’t moved again, still frozen in shock.

“Harry,” he says, low. He’s pretty sure he’s glaring something fierce. “He’s seventy years old.”

“Well, yeah, give or take. But he’s wise and powerful. And noble!”

“So was Yoda. Want to try to tell me I look like him next?”

Harry laughs so hard, he actually clutches his chest. Louis feels his cheeks twitching to form a smile in response but he will not fucking smile after he’s been compared to someone over thrice his age, thank you very much.

“No, you’re not Yoda. You don’t have quite that many wrinkles,” Harry chuckles, and his eyes flash seawater when they squint in the light, all creased with amusement and mischief. “…Yet.”

“Yet?!” Louis barks. Any semblance of a collected demeanor vanishes clear off his face, leaving only…well. What he imagines to be something that could only be adequately labeled as ‘flabbergasted’. “What are you insinuating, pup?!”

“Well, you do smoke!” Styles laughs.

Louis’ jaw drops a bit further.

What. A. Little. Shit.

He’s torn between laughing and boxing the kid on the ears.

So instead he settles for closing his mouth and shaking his head, widening his stance just a bit as he settles hands on his hips. Okay. Gotta collect himself. He’s got to remain in control.

Still, though, he smirks a bit. Such a little shit.

“I’m not often left speechless, Harry Styles,” he says amusedly, staring closely as Harry ducks his head and flashes the proudest grin known to man. “But you have left me speechless with your insults and your sass and your very unassuming curls.”

“Unassuming curls?”

“Oh yes,” Louis hums in agreement, and begins walking again, if only so he can walk up to Styles, perch up on his toes, and tug the flyaway bits of hair on the top of his head. “I’m quite fond of your curls.”

He’s half-expecting to be batted away, but Styles just pinkens, smiling and tilting his head curiously as he watches Louis.

“’S just hair,” he mumbles, surprised.

“Oh, my dear boy, it’s never just hair,” Louis clucks dramatically.  

Another blush, another rush of success.

Louis’ got this. Louis has got this.

But then.

“I’m gonna go to work now,” Styles mumbles quietly.

And he turns around and walks away.

Wait. What?

Wasn’t Louis going with him…?

“No stray dog?” he calls after him, surprised, hand still suspended in midair from where he’d been pawing at Styles’ hair.

“Not today,” the boy in question calls back, without turning around, and Louis watches him as he retreats at an almost alarming speed. Oh, to have legs.

“See you tomorrow, Styles!” he shouts after a moment, feeling a little at a loss.

But all he receives is a backwards wave in response.

Hm.

“Not today.”

Well, at least it’s got a promise in there. Somewhere.

So Louis sighs and turns around, hands still warm from where they touched Harry’s hair.

**

It’s late. It’s so fucking late. And Louis is tired, goddamn tired, and there’s still three more hours until the pub closes. This is what hell feels like, he’s sure.

He sighs, breath seeping out from where his lips are pressed against his palm, as he digs the pocket knife into the wood fibers of the bar-top. The first thing Louis did when he was hired here, was carve his little mantra—“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”—onto the counter because, at that point in his life, he was going through a phase. He wrote it everywhere. On abandoned buildings with spray-paint, on soft surfaces with knives, on smooth surfaces with Sharpie, and everywhere else with pen. It felt poetic and rebellious at the time.

Nowadays, Louis’ too lazy to do much more than touch-up his past passionate declarations. So he just digs in his pocketknife, watching the letters sharpen and brighten as dirty wood chips away and reveals fresher bits. Once in awhile, someone will come up and ask for a shitty pint or a something-on-the-rocks. It’s easy and it’s dull and Louis needs a new job.

There’s not even a band playing tonight. Just some footie game that he currently couldn’t give a fuck about.

He wishes someone were here to distract him. Anyone. Hell, he wishes there was at least one other person working. But, no. Anthony had to leave early because he had to go to dinner with his girlfriend and her parents? Or something like that. So it’s just Louis. Alone. Bored. Tired. Wishing he was none of these things.

Wouldn’t it be funny if Harry visited him where he worked?

He smirks a bit at the thought, digging in the knife a bit harder on the ‘l’s. Wouldn’t that be just… Well. That would be handy as fuck. And amusing. Styles is amusing, Louis can credit him that. He may be meek and hard to read and inexplicably adored and smart, but he’s so hard to decipher in some ways. It’s hard to explain. It feels like there’s so much he holds back. But what could he hold back? He seems simple enough. Like he lives a simple enough life.

He’s cute, though. Really pretty. He’ll be fun.

It’d be funny if he showed up here. Louis even told him where he worked. Really, what’s stopping him from coming? He lets on like he puts up with Louis but he clearly likes him, if only a little bit. Hell, probably more than a little bit, let’s be real. Plus, if he actually showed up, Louis could be doing something useful with his time instead of poorly graffiti-ing some shitty countertop. He could progress their relationship. Maybe far enough to get it all over and done with by next week.

Pfft. If only.

A loud roar comes from the small group of drunkards huddled in the corner, all facing the TV like little prairie dogs. Their pints are lifted and sloshed in the air as they grunt and smack hands and clap each other on the back. A job well done. Good score, good game.

Louis rolls his eyes.

It’d just be funny if Harry showed up. Wouldn’t it? It would.

And then the door opens.

Louis nearly shits his pants when it does, immediately dropping the pocket knife, barely avoiding his foot. But he pays it no mind, instead shooting his head up—

And. Oh. Well. It’s Zayn. And Liam.

Which… Is almost as bizarre as it would have been if Styles actually had come and visited.

“Well, look who it is!” Louis greets, startled, as they saunter inside, Zayn looking caught between paranoia and fascination, his hands buried deep in the pockets of his baggy black jeans, his feet stuffed in sandals that he shuffles forward hesitantly. He glances with slight trepidation at the group of men watching the game. His shirt is black and illustrated with each phase of the moon’s cycle. It’s a cool shirt. Zayn has the coolest shirts.

Liam, however, looks positively murderous. His eyes are dark, his quiff messy, and his lips are curled in a snarl. He looks like he’s just rolled out of bed, wearing a large football jersey and track shorts, his enormous Nike’s unlaced. Someone’s in a temper.

“Nice to see you, lads?” Louis questions, raising a brow. He glances from one to the other.

Liam folds his arms, looks away. He’s fucking pouting. Like a child.

“He’s mad,” Zayn explains, jabbing a thumb in Liam’s direction. He blinks quietly at Louis. “Can I have a drink?”

Louis smiles, already nodding.

The best thing about Zayn is that after about one and a half beers, he thinks he’s drunk. Then he begins talking about alternate realities and emotions and love and all the reasons why triangles are the most spiritually enlightening shape. One of Louis’ favorite past times is providing Zayn with alcohol.

“Here you go, lad,” he grins, filling up a mostly-clean pint glass with Smithwick. “Drink up.”

Zayn beams like a kid in a candy shop, clutching the pint between two hands as he plops down on a barstool, nodding a thanks to Louis. “Thanks, mate,” he smiles, twinkling the broken light bulbs in the room. “Best give one to Liam, too,” he adds after he takes a hearty gulp, foam clinging to his lips. He doesn’t wipe it away. “He’s proper upset. Alice Horan’s trying to host his mum’s charity gala. You know the big annual one we always throw?”

Louis nods. Sure. Whatever.

“Well, I guess her son’s coming to live with her or summat. So she wants to host it so she can introduce him to everyone.”

“To parade him, more like,” Liam spits from a few steps back, arms still crossed, eyes still glaring sightlessly. “She’s such a fucking cunt. This is my family’s event. I was meant to host it. For the first time ever. Fuck her, honestly.” He makes a sound like a growl, then whirls around, his back facing them.

Very dramatic.

“Right,” Louis says, unimpressed. He watches Zayn finish the pint at an alarming speed. He’ll definitely be feeling that soon. “Well. That’s…unfortunate. Charities are just so fun.”

“Fuck off,” Liam glares, turning back around.

“Scotch on the rocks?” Louis offers him with a wicked smile.

It doesn’t take long for Liam to relent.

“Yeah, fine,” he sighs, rolling his eyes and taking a seat next to Zayn who has begun swaying a little. He yanks the glass out of Louis’ hand the minute it’s filled, and gulps it in one go as the other two watch on, amused.

“It’s alright, Liam,” Zayn consoles seriously, patting his forearm. “You would’ve been a better host, anyway. Her teeth are weird. You have nice teeth.”

Louis can’t help but smile at that, especially because Zayn says it all so seriously. No trace of humor in his molasses eyes.

“I’m still going to be the host!” Liam insists, looking almost panicked in his despair. So spoiled. Never used to not getting his way. “She hasn’t fucking won yet. Not if mum has anything to say about it.”

“Or my father,” Zayn agrees thoughtfully, crunching on ice cubes. His eyes are a bit bleary when he holds his pint glass up for inspection. “He won’t let her host it. He can be quite scary.”

“Yes he can,” Louis low whistles.

He remembers one time when he showed up at their flat at three in the morning, stoned out of his mind. He was greeted at the elevator by Zayn’s father—it was like meeting Hades at the gates of the Underworld. Louis has never pressed a button so fast as he did that night when he shut those doors and high-tailed it the fuck out of there.

“You say her son’s coming to live with her, though?” Louis continues, internally shuddering at the memory. “That’ll be fun. More competition for you at your precious school, eh?” He grins, eyebrows waggling as Liam pales just a bit more.

At that, Zayn positively glares at Louis, resting his elbows on the counter with definitive heaviness. He looks like a black iris, all wilted and beautiful and droopy. A flower without a garden. “Hey,” he criticizes, short and quiet. Disappointed. Definitely a flower. “Don’t be mean. That’s not cool. Liam is vulnerable right now.”

“I am not vulnerable,” Liam snaps. His quiff wilts just that bit more. Maybe he’s a flower, too. A Venus Flytrap?

But Zayn doesn’t hear, instead lacing his lax, caramel hand with Liam’s comfortingly, without so much as a blink of the eye. He’s definitely feeling his pint.

Here they are, just two blokes, blatantly holding hands atop a bar at a really shitty pub filled with old, angry men.

Not the best idea. But it’s Zayn.

“Are you holding my fucking hand?” Liam hisses, trying to extract his, but Zayn must have a sure grip, because they remain solidly entwined and unmoving, his large eyes blinking and examining the ceiling.

“Yeah,” he says simply. Each word is slow, and he’s got a lazy smile playing at his lips. “You’re my brother. It’s not weird.”

“You’re very weird, I assure you,” Louis laughs, picking up a rag and sponging up stray liquor drops which have begun to grow sticky. Ugh.

Aware of the fruitlessness of his attempts, Liam pouts even more, dejectedly letting his hand lie in Zayn’s. His cheeks burn red, though, and his eyes dart around them every so often, alert.

It’s a thing with Liam. Anything to do with homosexuality? Yeah, it’s a thing. Maybe it’s because his parents suck. Maybe it’s because he’s the Golden Boy of his school and may or may not have a steady girlfriend—Louis really isn’t sure. But either way, Liam is a closet case. A huge one. It’s yet another thing that isn’t talked about.

“I’m not worried about her rat of a son,” Liam mumbles eventually, as Zayn continues studying the ceiling intently for apparently no reason. Such a spaceball, that one. “My sources tell me he’s harmless. Just annoying. And dumb.”

“Your sources?” Louis mocks, amused, and tosses the dirty rag into Liam’s face.

“Fuck you!” he splutters, flesh turning beet red as he glares, chucking the rag to the ground.

Not quite like when Styles blushes, is it?

“Anyway. I’m not concerned about him individually. I’m just concerned about how his cow of a mother is going to act and how she’s going to flaunt him like—“ Liam stops, freezes on the spot.

Okay, then.

Louis quirks his brow, waiting.

Eventually Zayn even rips his gaze from up above, turning to look at Liam with genuine confusion. His cheeks are smooth today—he shaved. Louis still hasn’t decided if he looks better with or without facial hair. Zayn’s one of those people—always very fuckable.

“Are you alright, Li?” Zayn asks, tugging on his hand. “Did you enter another dimension?” (For Zayn, this is a valid question.)

But Liam looks like he’s just discovered Christmas. Like a regular Jack Skellington.

“Hold up. Hold the fuck up,” he says, and his grin glows almost manic as he raises his hands up, gesturing his words.

“Holding,” Louis says, impatiently.

Zayn merely stares.

But Liam still doesn’t move for a moment, just staring into the distance as if he’s seen the fucking light.

Until. Liam’s eyes settle on Louis.

The look he gives him is…alarming, to say the least. Like Louis has all the answers that Liam has ever sought. Like he’s a key that could open any locked door in the universe. Liam looks at him with greed.

Louis shifts under his gaze. He’s not uncomfortable—he’s not. He doesn’t intimidate easily, if at all. But Liam’s eyes flash with a primitive rawness that even Louis isn’t all that familiar with and the result is more than a little jarring. “Er,” he begins, unsure of what to say. Or do, for that matter. “Can I help you?”

“Yes you can,” Liam grins, slowly, wickedly, poisonously.

Oh, great. That’s never good.

Zayn extracts his hand from Liam’s, turning to face him curiously. “Liam?” he questions. He prods at his arm with his finger, a tentative poke.

Liam ignores it.  

“Niall Horan is an idiot, yes,” he says instead, barely above a whisper, and his eyes are positively shining. “But do you want to know what else he is? According to every single person who’s given me dirt on him?”

“Uh. Irish?” Louis offers.

Liam’s so overjoyed that he doesn’t even falter to roll his eyes. “Nope,” he smiles, grins, purrs. “He’s gay.”

“Oh. Well, good on him?” Louis offers, confused. Where is this going…?

“Closeted, too.”

“Isn’t everyone around here?” Louis smirks, meeting eyes with Liam.

They flash momentarily before he continues. “Alice doesn’t know. She’s a very staunch, religious Irish woman. Hates the very idea that her son could be anything but perfect and straight.” He grins, teeth bright.

What?

“What does this have to do with me?” Louis asks slowly, brows furrowing. This better not…

Zayn looks a little upset himself, having scooted his stool just a centimeter farther from Liam, his arms protectively folded around his tiny, slim stomach. It goes unnoticed mostly.

“Well, Louis. Let’s see,” Liam begins coolly, and his grin takes on an edge of supreme confidence, laced with just enough condescension. “I hate Alice Horan. Her son’s coming to live with her. Alice Horan doesn’t want a scandal in her family, least of all one that pertains to her precious, beloved only child that she’s trying to show off as her pride and joy. She would just be destroyed if she were to discover that her son is, in fact, a homosexual male.”

Louis grits his teeth, feels his veins tightening. No. “Liam—“

“She would keel over from the horror of her son fucking another boy. Let alone someone like you.”

Well then.

Louis purses his lips, heat flushing his body. Not a good heat. He pauses before he clips out a “Naturally.”

“And, best of all,” Liam continues, undeterred, “If you succeed, it’ll be a quiet affair. She won’t tell a fucking soul—it’ll all be hushed up and pushed under the rug. Who knows, you might even get paid off, Tommo. And our other little conquest will never even hear a whisper of it.”

“Harry,” Louis corrects before he even realizes it. Which is… Dumb.

“What?”

“Harry,” Louis repeats, and he feels a bit silly. He half-shrugs and looks away nonchalantly. “Harry will never hear about it.”

Liam furrows his brow. “Er. Alright? Whatever. Point is. Do this, Louis. Do this and you get me forever, okay? I promise. I’m all yours. And everything I have with me—yours.”

It’s said so bluntly and so…casually, that Zayn’ eyebrows even shoot up in the air, let alone Louis’.

Liam is literally handing himself over as a business favor. Yet he speaks of it without any heaviness or thought or hesitation. Just blunt, weighty words tossed on the table. Somehow, it makes them feel empty.

Funny, a bit. Whenever Styles has been blunt with Louis, it feels more real and genuine. But with Liam, it just feels empty and dark, like a chasm of a sentence. Funny.

After a second or two, Louis clears his throat, leans his hands against the side of the bar. “Wasn’t that the original deal?” he questions lightly.

“I never promised what it would entail,” Liam smirks. “I just promised you a fuck.”

Wait—what?

Louis frowns. “I’m not going after Styles for just a fuck, Li. That was not the deal.”

“So then fuck this Horan kid, too. And I’m all yours.” He says it so simply. Almost bored.

Zayn remains quiet, his head hanging low. He’s playing with the hem of his t-shirt, knees pressed together, feet tucked up and tangled in the legs of the barstool.

“I can’t do both,” Louis says flatly, shaking his head firmly. He grabs another rag, tossing it over his shoulder as he straightens to his fullest height. “No way. I’m not doing both. Styles is hard enough on his own.”

“I think it’s him not being hard that’s the problem,” Liam snips lightly, but his eyes are intense.

Oddly, something almost vicious whips through Louis at those words. He glares. “Fuck off, Li. Come on. I can’t do both. Harry is only just warming up, okay? It’s difficult—“

“Are you scared? You can’t handle it? You’ve gotten weaker?”

“Liam—“ Zayn finally protests, having lifted his lead. He looks genuinely upset, like he’s sad or been let down, but Liam brushes him aside.

“This is all you have, Louis,” Liam says, voice hard, and it’s laced with something that turns Louis’ stomach sour. “This is all you’re good at, mate. Sorry to be a dick. But it’s true. So make your own choice. But if you’re not even good enough to succeed twice at the only thing you can successfully manage… Then what else do you have?”

Zayn’s frowning so deeply it looks like someone drew lines on his face in permanent marker.

Louis feels something similar, but inside. On the outside, he doesn’t let one fucking thing show. He’s not about to hand over the satisfaction of it. But he does hear the words. And he does feel them. And he knows how this all works. He knows that Liam’s right.

Fuck.

How the fuck is he going to manage this?

“Yeah,” he says eventually, and he feels the hardness of his face, the way his skin feels too tight and very dry. “Yeah, alright. I’ll do it.”

They shake hands over the bar, and Liam grins like the entire world has clicked into place.

Louis doesn’t smile back.

Chapter Text

Little Shadow—Yeah Yeah Yeahs


 

Niall Horan is set to arrive in three days.

And Louis has done absolutely nothing in preparation of it, despite Liam’s gleefully texted reminders and not-so-subtle glints of the eye every time the name ‘Alice’ or ‘Horan’ is mentioned. Still, all is not completely lost—he does have a nice little plan of attack mapped out for him. At the time of Horan’s arrival, Louis will come to Liam and Zayn’s flat, where Niall will appear for an ‘introductory visit’. Apparently, Liam sent this smiling-through-his-bared-teeth invitation to Mrs. Horan with the proposed intention to acquaint Niall with some of his peers before the big Charity Gala next week—which, by the way, is still being hosted by the Payne-Maliks. Which is nice. Especially because it makes Liam act a little bit less like an insufferable tit.

So. There’s a plan. But.

Horan will be here, here, in three days. And in three days, Louis will need to work his mangled up magic on yet another unsuspecting youth with eyes and lips and awaiting hands. He’ll need to do his very fucking best again. Already. Despite it being almost three weeks since he’s first started on Harry Styles and he still has yet to obtain any sense of solid ground with the boy.

Three weeks.

It’s the first thing that Louis allows himself to think about when he sucks in the cold, burnt smoke of his cigarette, pinched between two dirty fingernails, staring out on the sleeping cityscape. A nice blanket of smog coats the skyline like a little protective blanket, keeping everybody asleep and poisoned under its embrace. There are no visible stars, barely a visible moon.

And Horan will be here in three days.

Really, Louis should be…researching. Or something. He should be poking about the school, poking at the rich kids with familial connections, and he should be hoarding information like a squirrel would its nuts.

See, it’s easy to wiggle out secrets around here. It’s a small city filled with small minds and Louis knows how to work each and every one of them. And there’s no loyalty lost, not ever, because everyone here? All they care about is their image. That’s literally it. They care about themselves and nothing else—especially not each other. Because everyone’s the fucking same. They’re all just bored and bland and menial and identical and not one of them’s alive—just a bunch of bodies filling up space, you see. Nobody is ‘special’ or ‘different’ or memorable in any way. All of the conversations are the same, all of the whispered intrigues are less than intriguing. Every person, every teen, every child, every adult—they’re all just copies of one another. Louis walks down the street every day and he hears the same songs pouring from the same phones clutched in the hands of the same kids wearing the same clothes.

Everything is the same. Everything is boring. Everything is predictable.

Life is sort of like that in general, actually.

And it’s for exactly this reason that information is easy to obtain, especially around here. Especially for someone new, someone out of the norm, someone about to become part of the grey matter. Swallowed up whole.

He can’t help but sneer at the thought before it sweeps away in the breeze, tangled up in the clouds of smoke from his lips.

But. He’s good at the research part, Louis is. It’s easy for him, easy because he’s above all this shit, above all the people he’s stuck with here. He’s smarter than them. He swarms through the dull masses and pickpockets the information he wants, all while they’re none the wiser, and he formulates his plan of attack while they’re all absorbed in the latest scandal or sports game. Or themselves, whatever.

He’s good at this game. He followed Harry for days before he finally approached him. He watched the way he walked and observed the way he dressed, studied the way his lips would twist when he talked, placing all of Liam’s embittered descriptions in line with the sways of his hips and patterns of his speech.

Then again.

Look where all that ‘research’ got him. Turns out he didn’t know shit. Still doesn’t. Hell, Louis still has yet to obtain a phone number, a caress, a smile that suggests more, or, well, anything really. Anything of use, at least.

He exhales sharply, a sudden jaggedness blooming in his chest that has nothing to do with the smoke he’s consuming.

Oh, Harry.

As much as he’s become more familiar with the boy from their short-lived chats they’ve had every afternoon, as much as he has grown accustomed to his speech and cadence and the way he blushes more often than he doesn’t, the way he stares like he’ll never blink those bulbous eyes again, and the way he always seems a little bit shy but also a little bit eager for the company…

Despite these little inconsequential droplets in their route to becoming ‘friends’, Louis still feels… Well. He feels a bit like he’s watching a movie on mute when he’s interacting with Harry. Because Harry’s there, he is, honest and naive.

But there’s something more to Harry. Like a contained fire, or something.

You see, he’s seemingly very meek. Very vanilla. He’s got a killer smile and top-notch, excellent hair. He’s got a simple, safe style where all his colors match and his patterns coordinate. He’s socially acceptable and amiable and warm and very handsome, with a childlike dimple to offset the bumbling trombone of his voice, its sound akin to a smooth pebble rolling down a hill. He’s very radio-friendly. Everybody likes him—there’s nothing to dislike.

But there’s something there. Louis doesn’t know what.

He can barely read the boy as it is half the time, nor can he even decide on what his opinion is about him. But he’s aware that there’s something about him that seems uniquely singular. He sees, on the occasion, something sparking inside of Harry and it just, well, intrigues him. Because the whole world is predictable, yet Harry presents him with something that isn’t totally expected. Not once has Louis felt like he’s gotten a firm grasp on him (both literally and metaphorically) and not once has he felt confident in his approach with him.

And, sure, Louis can’t exactly prove it or place it, but. But he feels it when Harry looks away sometimes, schooling his smile a little bit and ducking his head. He feels it when Harry’s about to speak but stops himself on that rare occasion. He feels it when Harry binds his fingers together tightly or when he covers his mouth when he giggles too loudly, or when he says something outlandish and immediately coughs and changes the subject before Louis can react.

Like yesterday, for instance. They were talking about some mask Harry has to make for his Drama course, for the play Antigone specifically.

“We can decorate them however we want,” he’d been explaining patiently, handing the crumpled assignment over to Louis. Louis skimmed it with mild distaste (he sure as hell doesn’t miss school), eyeing the photocopied page bursting with Times New Roman and shitty Clip Art images. “And that’s probably going to be fun. I like doing artistic things. I like glue. I miss it.”

“You like glue?” Louis had laughed, surprised, because he didn’t even really know that glue possessed likable attributes.

Harry flushed a tiny bit, smiling small as he looked away, his chin brushing the soft wool of his jumper. “It’s easier to put glitter on things with glue. I don’t know.”

“Glitter?” Louis repeated, a little stunned. Harry just doesn’t seem the type for glitter, is all. With his solid patterns and plain white Converse and delicate skin and wide eyes and sensibilities. He’s such a quiet little thing, mostly. Doesn’t seem the type to be drawn to loud, childish, flashy things… Like glitter.

Besides, most boys around here would never, ever admit to liking something like that. Even Louis, hell. The things you say around here are what people permanently judge you on and even little shit like that—that shouldn’t even matter—is something that doesn’t just slip from someone’s lips. Not if it doesn’t fit in the mould. Just imagine if Liam said that; Louis almost laughed at the thought.

So it took him by surprise. Louis likes to think things don’t surprise him because he’s intuitive and can read into people, predict them, map them out, but…

But, he’s beginning to realize, that the exception in this is Harry. Little Harry Styles.

“I like glitter,” Harry had said immediately, just a touch defensive as he jerked his broad shoulder in a shrug. “A lot. I think it’s always pretty and it reminds me of, like, life.”

What?

Louis had just blinked, once again startled because—life, what?

But then Harry coughed and snatched his paper back, his eyes firmly avoiding Louis’. “Have you ever had to read Antigone when you were in school?” he asked instead, voice firm, and the subject was efficiently changed.

And it’s the little stupid shit like that that leaves Louis curious, that leaves him to believe there’s more to Harry Styles than he lets on. Things that lie below the very vanilla surface. Things that Louis sort of finds interesting, amusing. Different.

But he always just lets it drop because he’s not sure he even really needs to know any of this… If he really deserves it, or. Or whatever.

Really, he’s just supposed to get in Harry’s pants. He’s not supposed to be unlocking any hidden doors in his psyche. He’s not supposed to be poking at the boy within the boy. Just supposed to woo him, just supposed to distract him enough to mess up his meticulous marks.

So he’s been trying to brush it all aside, to not think too deeply about any of it.

But.

Whatever it is, it makes Louis feel like he’s staring at an unsatisfying, half-completed painting and it’s… Fucking frustrating as much as it is intriguing.

Because here’s the thing, okay? Usually the typical boy would surrender by now. By now, Louis’d have gotten them into bed at least twice and the fatal blow would be dealt within the next few days or so. Because as aloof or as shy or as inexperienced as some of the boys that Louis has dealt with were, none had ever resisted him for very long once they knew of his desires, knew of his intent. When he would send them enough stray winks and gentle hands, enough whispered words of encouragement and empty promises, they’d always given in. They’d always allowed themselves to be pulled in by sharp cheekbones and soft stubble and sliced blue eyes and hands that would roam the body without any sense of hesitation or self-consciousness. They’d always given in because they all wanted Louis.

But Harry…

Harry Styles just observes Louis. That’s what it feels like. Sure, they talk. Sure, Harry laughs because, well, Harry seems to think Louis is funny. And that’s great, it’s brilliant, even. But Harry watches him with these wide, penetrating eyes and his hands sit calmly and he breathes very softly and he listens to Louis’ words and every day they meet, it feels like Harry’s piecing him together, bit by bit and piece by piece while Louis is left with nothing in his own hands. It’s like, somehow, their roles have been reversed and Harry is reading him while leaving his own book closed and untouched and set upon the one shelf that Louis can’t fucking reach.

It’s even weirder still that Harry doesn’t suspect Louis’ motives anymore. That he just seems to take each day in stride.

It’s different when Louis is blatant in his advances—when he’s shamelessly flouting his attraction and near-begging for a date or the time of day. It’s obvious then. It’s obvious what Louis is moving toward, what his goal is for finding that person in the first place, what Louis wants.

But with fuckin’ Harry ‘Let’s Just Be Friends’ Styles, there is literally no conceivable reason why Louis would be sticking around, if not for some distant desire to eventually conquer him. So why the fuck does Harry even want him in his presence? How can he trust him or enjoy his company when there’s no...well. Motive.

The whole affair is entirely odd and Louis has nearly exhausted himself analyzing it.

Louis thinks about Harry a lot. Too much. He’s driving him crazy.

He sighs, taking the last drag of his cigarette as he pulls himself from his thoughts, a breeze ruffling through his sweat-dried body, sliding into the gaps of his beer-splattered cut-off. He inhales a breath of clean oxygen. Then two. Then three.

Then he lights another cigarette.

His fingers jumble with the lighter, his palms sweaty and damp as they cup around the paper stick, nicotine soaked into his pores. He’s so fucking tense. Then again, he’s always tense. Even sat all the way up here, on Zayn and Liam’s swanky balcony that overlooks the entire, quiet, convoluted city with its speckles of lights and shadowed depths, he doesn’t feel very soothed. Just tense at a higher elevation.

Remember that time Liam coerced Louis into playing both Niall Horan and Harry Styles at the same time? Remember that time Louis couldn’t make a single dent in the latter while the former is set to arrive in only three fucking days? Yeah. Louis does, too.

Why can’t Liam do his own shit? If he’s so bent on humiliating this Horan kid and his mum, can’t Liam just stick his hand in the bloke’s trousers at an inopportune moment? Can’t he just kiss him or summat, closeted homosexuality be damned? Why is it always Louis? Why’s it always gotta be Louis?

It’s fucking annoying.

He inhales more bitter smoke and the gusto of it almost makes him lightheaded, almost makes the night sharper.

Fucking annoying…

Like Harry. Harry’s annoying. He’s the oddest little nut that Louis’ ever met. He’s so weird. He’s just this wide-eyed, quiet, bumbling boy who’s always weighed down with books and, sometimes, smiles that are too large for his face. He watches Louis unabashedly, always observing his little movements and little flicks of the eyes, and he’s so aware, is the thing. He notices everything while being simultaneously oblivious, wrapped up in his own little world with his textbooks and earbuds and large, cozy jumpers.

But he laughs at all of Louis’ jokes. Did Louis already mention that? He loves that.

Another, deeper drag of the cigarette. He allows himself a small smile.

It’s funny, because he can pretty much say anything to Harry and he’ll just…laugh. He’ll throw his head back and cackle or tilt his head and chuckle or clutch his stomach or his chest or his mouth and just fucking laugh like it’s no effort whatsoever and it’s… It’s nice. It makes Louis laugh too, sometimes. Even though he probably shouldn’t.

A small fluttering of ash falls from his cigarette, tumbling over the side of the balcony and drifting to the ground so far, far below. Far away.

You know. Another funny thing about Harry.

See, mostly Louis keeps his own information to himself. He doesn’t like to hand it over, not to his mates, not to his peers, not to his anybody’s—and especially not to his little targets. But Harry… Of course Harry somehow masterfully manages to pull something out of him when Louis isn’t looking. He’s done it only a handful of times, but still. It happens.

Like when he caught Louis humming The Rolling Stones under his breath and immediately asked what his favorite song was. Louis replied ‘Play With Fire’ without a second’s thought and Harry’s eyes brightened in the way they sometimes do lately. “I love that song,” he’d smiled softly, voice genuinely surprised and maybe charmed? It’s hard to tell. But he brightened, and though Louis should have rejoiced in the obviously positive reaction, he could only look away from those bright eyes, resisting the urge to flinch. Even the littlest details about himself are too much to give away. Nobody deserves them—they’re for Louis. They’re for Louis to keep to himself.

Or like that time when Louis quoted Kerouac and Harry asked him if he liked to read.

“Yeah, of course,” Louis had mumbled, taking a drag from his cigarette. (He smokes a lot, doesn’t he? Hm.)

Harry examined him, book in his lap, watching as the smoke trailed from Louis’ lips. Examined him like trying to decipher an equation.

“I like anybody’s words but my own.” Louis clipped the words with a wry smile and it made Harry’s own lips twitch into a frown.

“I like your words,” was his response.

It made Louis’ mouth twist cruelly. “You don’t know enough of my words, pup,” he’d somehow found himself saying. He still doesn’t know how.

It left a silence in the air and it flashed something hot and paranoid through Louis. Letting little things slip out, such as his favorite song, is bad enough. But when things like this are said… It’s a whole different kind of awful. It always feels too serious and too real and too personal for the moment. Like he’s just tossed a brick onto the family dinner table, right after the main course has been served, and ruined the entire fucking atmosphere with something nobody asked for.

He’s not self-conscious. But he does hate being anything but insincere and unaffected. Hates it. He’s not sentimental. He’s not sensitive or prone to emotion. So he hates it, hates it whenever things that feel a little too serious manage to penetrate through his atmosphere.

So Louis smoked and looked away from Harry, waiting for the moment to pass. The sky was grey-white and it was a little windy, a sharp chill on the breeze. Summer was leaving.

And then Harry’s voice broke the silence. “I don’t think you know enough of your words, Louis,” he’d concluded quietly, and when Louis looked back at him, Harry’s eyes were a little sad, peering at him without blinking.

The earnestness of them made Louis look back, just for one discomforted moment, until he finally ripped his stare away and took another drag, taking care to reassemble something inside that felt akin to bricks coming lose.

It’s a feeling that Harry is prone to cause. It’s unsettling. And Louis doesn’t like it.

But it only happens on the occasion and Louis still has a good grasp on himself, still has hand, so it’s not a huge thing. As far as the ‘mission’ goes, he’s at least managed to distract Harry from his homework in some small way. The kid may still be excelling at all of his courses (little study bug that he is) but Louis can most definitely say that more days than not, Harry has been spending his free afternoons chatting with Louis, books and papers left by the wayside. They meet either by the pond or in the library or, once, they even went for a short walk to the cafe—though Harry insisted on buying his own tea. Which was irksome.

But it still feels like progress and at least it appeases Liam.

Liam, who sometimes likes to crowd in Louis’ space when nobody else is home and grabs him by his wrist with a delicately unbreakable grip.

“Progress?” he’ll whisper, lips brushing Louis’ ear.

“He’s breaking. Slowly. But it’s happening,” Louis will grin in response, and the words wrap around his throat because he doesn’t really like to discuss Harry. Especially not with Liam. He’d rather just quietly map his progress, thanks. He doesn’t want to talk about Harry.

So he’ll silence Liam with a look or a squeeze or, sometimes, a brief brush of lips and it makes Liam’s eyes flash and it makes his grip tighten and it all feels so…intense. Whether or not it’s a good intense is beginning to become a little less clear. But it’s the only kind of intense that Louis has—so it’ll have to do.

“Don’t forget about the Horan boy,” Liam will always mutter when he finally walks away.

It always leaves Louis standing there, quiet, alone, face set and staring ahead. He’ll nod, once, mostly to himself, his fingers curling into themselves, a brief, smiling image of Harry fluttering in the back of his mind like a shitty projector image.

Niall Horan. Right.

It’s overwhelming. Too much. Too much on Louis’ plate.

“Why don’t you just tell Liam that?” Zayn had questioned earlier tonight, peering out from his lime green duvet which was wrapped around his entire body like a tortilla. “It’s too stressful. You can’t perform at your best if you’re stressed. You gotta chill, man.”

Louis nodded from his spot on the floor, hands laced behind his head as he stared up at the dark ceiling tinted by drifting rainbow shadows, courtesy of the little iridescent crystal.

Zayn and Liam had visited Louis at the pub again this evening. They hadn’t explained the reason for their arrival, but Louis suspects it’s because their parents are coming back from their extended holiday tomorrow. There’s always an air of tension whenever they’re home. It’s not a happy atmosphere. Very oppressive.

So they hung about while Louis gave them all free drinks and they clinked glasses, listening to the band that was screeching through its set. They were okay—a little too pop-punk for Louis’ taste (it’s all about the vocals, you know, and this kid just didn’t cut it) but it was fun and there were sweaty bodies and no fucks given, so. So it was a fun night. They brought Louis home with them, all drunk and surly and sarcastic, and he ended up on Zayn’s floor (per Liam’s request, snort) talking too much because he drank too much.

And Zayn was drunk too, thank fuck, so he was being very emotional and sympathetic and that was sort of exactly what Louis needed tonight. Though he’ll never admit it in the light of day.

“Liam won’t understand. You know that,” Louis mumbled. He was still wearing his shoes. They felt too tight, too hot beneath the thick quilt Zayn had laid on him. “He just wants his petty revenge. And I’m his best weapon.”

Zayn hummed sympathetically, eyes large as they peered through the dark. “You don’t have to be, though,” he said softly, deeply. Like he held all of life’s epigrams in his lips. “Just say no. Language is power, Louis. I believe in you.”

Louis snorted.

The conversation sort of reminded him of that one he and Harry had had…

Poor Harry. Poor innocent Harry. Louis is such a piece of shit. He’s going to hurt him so much and he’s such a good boy. A good person.

Louis had frowned, thankful for the dark of the room.

“Harry told me that he thinks I don’t know my own words,” he said quietly, a little lost in thought. He probably should’ve stopped talking and just went to bed.

The vodka said otherwise, though.

It was silent for a moment, Louis listening to the sound of his own breathing and feeling his chest expand. The room was very slightly swaying, but nothing crazy. He didn’t feel like he was going to be sick or anything. He just felt pleasantly inebriated at the time. Which was nice.

Feeling pleasant is nice.

“Harry’s nice,” was all Zayn had said, as if he’d been walking the same track of Louis’ thoughts.

It made something burrow in Louis’ stomach.

“He’s very nice,” he replied back, but he still felt the frown on his lips and he sort of wanted to go to bed, just sleep. His back was beginning to hurt and so did his hands from propping up his head. The room was so dark and open and seemingly vast. Sort of eternal and suspended. Sort of like an ocean. Yes. An ocean. He felt like he was in the middle of the ocean, un-tethered and unsupported and un-everything as he tried to tread water and stay above the surface. Nothing touching him. Nothing in sight.

Sometimes Louis really does feel like that—in general, though. Like, he’s got nobody that he’s really…aligned with or tethered to. Nobody in sight. He’s got Zayn and Liam, but they’re in a totally different league and world than him. And it’s not like they’re even all that close. Then there’s the people at the pub, but they’re just surface mates, really. Just people to bum fags off of and share an insincere laugh with. And as far as Louis’ family goes… Well.

We’ve already established that Louis fucked that up.

So Louis doesn’t really have anybody. He doesn’t. If an ocean is a metaphor for life, then Louis is absolutely treading water in the middle of it, alone, with not a goddamn lifeboat as far as the eye can see. Not even an island or a piece of driftwood. He’s got to use his own strength to stay afloat and he’s got to be resourceful if he’s ever going to make it out alive.

It’s just him.

Just like it was just him in that dark, scary ocean room, his blood drowning with alcohol and his vision swimming. With only Zayn’s disembodied voice to cling to and Harry’s blurry smile that, lately, has been tucking itself in the back of his mind in a confusing, infuriating way.

Who is Harry? Who even is he? Some Super Boy with lots of nice feelings and a pretty smile. Louis’ supposed to destroy him. He’s known him for about three weeks and Louis is supposed to tear him apart, all for Liam, and Louis doesn’t even know what he’s doing and he doesn’t have a home and he works a really shitty job and he abandoned his family when he was sixteen.

Something hot began to prickle at his eyes.

He closed them, turned on his side.

“Goodnight, Z,” he’d said, throat sounding stuffy, but he didn’t want Zayn to hear.

So he just pretended to fall asleep, briefly wondering if Zayn was already passed out when he didn’t answer back.

But then a few minutes passed and Zayn called out a softly questioning, “Louis? Are you okay?”

And Louis didn’t have the heart to answer him, so he just closed his eyes tighter.

He just wanted tomorrow. He wanted to be unconscious and he wanted tomorrow. Niall Horan is set to arrive in three days. And Louis needed, still needs, to prepare.

So it really came as no surprise when Louis couldn’t fucking sleep, the entire room saturated in blues and blacks, his body thrumming with acidic liquor and nervous, awful energy. The tips of his fingers felt numb and his toes felt tingly and hot and cold and his hair felt sticky with product, his face oily, and suddenly his ribcage felt too small for his heart.

Eventually, Zayn started snoring and, though that probably should’ve been peaceful or something, it was actually creating the opposite effect—it made Louis feel suffocated and a little panicked, like he’d never sleep again. The room smelled like incense and laundry (very Zayn) and everything was warm and familiar... So by all means, Louis should have been drifting to sleep. Especially considering how much he ingested.

But the snores and the beats of silence and the thoughts that wouldn’t voice themselves were just too loud.

So, defeated, he finally gave in, throwing the quilt off of his body clumsily, his blood hot, as he fumbled to stand, hand patting his jacket pocket for his cigarettes. Luckily, they were tucked right in there, so he tiptoed across the floor, past Zayn’s swaddled body and soft breaths and fluttering lashes (utterly beautiful, that fucker) and slithered through the cracked door, down the polished hall, and out into the formal living room, where the balcony lay.

It’s where the boys usually go, late at night before they drift to sleep, when they’re spending the last of their energy and their weed. Where Zayn offers up the secrets of the world and Liam growls out his frustrations, all the while as Louis just listens, content to pretend he exists somewhere out of his body.

Much like now, actually.

Here he is, out on the balcony (for about an hour now, excellent), chain-smoking and feeling the effects of alcohol evaporate from his tense, tired bones. Wishing he was existing, living, somewhere else. Maybe in someone else’s body.

Maybe in Harry’s body.

Maybe he wants to be clothed in clean shoes and soft shirts and cared-for jeans. Maybe he wants unruly curls and puffy lips and delicate eyelashes. Maybe he wants to be naïve and happy and full of affection and loyalty—the kind that he can give away without a second’s thought instead of trying to beat it to death, to vanquish it.

Ugh. Too much alcohol. Too many thoughts.

Hours pass.

Hours or maybe one hour.

But it passes, that stretch of time, and Louis just smokes cigarette and after cigarette as he watches the gently lit skyline lie beneath a travelling moon, the occasional trail of headlights breaking the calm. It’s fairly silent though, but at least there’s air, and Louis fills his lungs with it. Equal parts air and smoke and his fingers burn from it, burn from the cold and the smoke, but it feels more invigorating than anything. Even sat up in this posh flat that isn’t his. With two mates that don’t really belong to him.

The world feels inexplicably different. Louis doesn’t know why.

“Maybe I just exist,” he mumbles to the sky above and nobody argues him. “Maybe barely even that.”

A breeze ruffles through his hair. The kind that usually tosses Harry’s curls into his face, making his nose scrunch a bit and his eyes twitch.

“You’ve got a curl there,” Louis will sometimes say, eyes serious, as he leans forward on the grass.

Harry always blinks at him with earnest confusion. “What do you mean? Where?” he asks, trusting.

Then Louis’ll lean just that much closer, reaching out a hand, and he’ll tug the first bits he can get his hands on or sometimes just run a hand through a random cluster. “Just there,” he’ll say with a devilish smile, and it always makes Harry laugh and blush and close his eyes a little bit as he ducks infinitesimally closer to allow access.

It’s the one thing Harry consistently does—he lets Louis card his fingers through his hair. Louis rarely tries it because he doesn’t want to fuck up his luck but whenever he does, Harry lets him. And he encourages it, almost, with the way he’s ever so responsive and sweet. Louis doesn’t always let himself think of it like that, though. Because… It’s just…

It’s sort of like Louis doesn’t deserve to have those soft, affectionate moments. He shouldn’t be privy to Harry’s privileges.

And, yeah, that doesn’t really make sense, not when that should be the goal of all this and he knows it. He knows that goes against everything he’s building up to, but... But. He doesn’t want to think about Harry being pliant under his touch. Especially when that touch is dangerous.

Ah, fuck it. Whatever. He’s thinking too much. When did he get so fucking emotional? He’s never drinking again. Hell, he’s never thinking again.

He takes one last pull of his cigarette before he pinches it off into the night and turns on his heel, stepping back inside and shutting the door, leaving his thoughts outside with the city.

Chapter Text

Gimme Danger—Iggy Pop & The Stooges


 

The hideously unappealing sound of an alarm is blasting in Louis’ ear.

“Fuck off,” he groans into the grainy wooden floor. He splutters after a moment—a bit of lint managed to work its way into his mouth sometime during the night. Ew.

With bleary, dry, aching eyes, he locates his phone, silences it like a motherfuck, and drops it back down, flopping onto his other side and burying his face in his arms. He didn’t even bother looking at the time but he couldn’t really give a fuck what time it is right now.

Life can wait. His head’s erupting. There’s a volcano in there.

And then there’s a voice in his ear.

“Are you awake, Louis?” A gentle hand shakes his shoulder.

Goddammit, Zayn.

“No. Go away.”

“Do you want some tea? I have Kava. They say if you drink enough of it, you’ll experience hallucinogenic effects.”

“Oh, thrilling.”

“I can make you a pot.”

“Zayn. Stop talking.”

“Okay. I’ll make you a pot.” And then Louis hears the cold slap of bare feet against wood, padding away to the kitchen, and that’s enough for now.

Peace and silence.

Then the sound of an elevator dings and a thunderous greeting is shouted.

“I’m home!” comes the distinctive sound of one Liam Payne, and Louis can’t help but groan at that, wishing his eardrums would momentarily burst. Which, to be fair, they might. At least it feels that way.

“Please don’t find me,” Louis mumbles to himself, his drooled, slack lips moving against the cotton of his hoodie. “Please please please—“

“Louis’ in my room. On the floor. Sleeping,” Zayn’s fucking voice says, mild and informative as anything.

Goddammit.

“Tommo’s here?” Liam asks, delighted. Then there’s the sound of expensive sneakers hitting the floor at an alarming speed and—boom. “Tommo!”

“I want to die,” Louis moans to nobody in particular.

Fuck everything in this world.

“Tommo, what are you doing down there? Surely you’re not still sleeping?” Liam scoffs, amused and judgmental and proud with his chest puffed and his hair gelled and tall. Like the adolescent lion king he is. Little bitch.

“What does it fucking look like, Payne?” Louis’ mouth feels like cotton and tastes like toilet. Praise.

“You haven’t left the flat? At all?” So incredulous. So haughty.

Louis lifts his head. Somehow. (Divine intervention, probably.) He musters up the first glare that he can. “What do you fucking think? Now leave me. I feel like shit and you’re making it worse. Leave me.”

He just needs sleep. Maybe water eventually. And a toilet.

“It’s almost four, you fucking idiot.” And Liam sounds disapproving… If not mildly amused as well. “You’ve slept the entire day.” A distinct smirk is heard. It just is. “No wonder Styles looked so down when I left. He hasn’t gotten his daily visitor.” The words are said with a shitty smile. “I think he might be growing attached, Louis. Good boy. I can almost say I’m proud.”

At that, something positively icy shoots through Louis’ veins.

He lifts his head again, this time with more force.

“What? You saw Harry?”

Liam nods, still smirking, leaning casually against Zayn’s cluttered desk. His black and white snapback is rested high atop his head, angled to the side. His face is structured and confident as he peers down at Louis. He looks well rested and unaffected in his button-up and nice-fitting jeans. What an asshole.

“Went past him as I was leaving. Looked proper glum.”

Another swoop of ice in the veins. Probably his body’s way of warning him about impending vomit. “Was he outside? Where was he?”

“Yeah, outside. I dunno—like. By the pond, sort of. Does it matter?” he asks, amused.

Yes it does matter.

Louis shoots up without another thought, his entire body screeching with the effort. This is what hell feels like. But he doesn’t let himself think, just do.

“Shit, I gotta go,” he croaks, immediately stuffing his feet into his shoes. Where’s his jacket? Oh—yeah. He’s still wearing it. Cool.

Liam’s smile fades, his eyebrows knitting together.

“Wait… You’re going to school? Now?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Just because of Styles?”

“Obviously.” He’s trying to lace his shoes as fast he can, hands numb and shaky and fumbling. He’s so fucking hungover.

There’s a pause as Liam watches Louis, his lips pressed tightly together. And then Louis stands, shoes properly on, and Liam rests a strong hand on his shoulder, his darkened eyes looking into Louis’.

“You don’t have to go. I don’t give a fuck if you skip a day—you’re obviously making progress. Besides, I doubt you’ll catch him. He looked like he was packing up to go.”

Fuck. He’s probably not going to make it, then.

“Don’t care,” is all Louis says, and then he darts out from Liam’s grip, jogging to the elevator at a speed that threatens to dislodge his brain.

“What about your tea?” Zayn calls, just as the elevator doors are shutting.

“I’ll be back in an hour!” Louis calls back, but his skin feels waxy and cold with sweat and something like fear is filling his chest. Or maybe it’s guilt. Or maybe it’s dehydration.

Either way, he feels it ping with each unsteady heartbeat as he pictures Harry’s face, alone and expectant, waiting for Louis to show.

**

Sweat is quite literally dripping down Louis’ back, the pads of his feet are aching with each hit of the smooth cement, and his breath feels like it’s suddenly coated in spikes by the time Harry finally comes into sight, trudging along the sidewalk with his head bent, earbuds in, and bag slung over his shoulder. The wilder tresses of his hair flop with each stride and some fall into his eyes but he doesn’t bat them away, his hands clutched tight on the strap of his bag, his gaze aimed downward and seemingly far away. He looks gentle and dazed, like a cloud high above the atmosphere. It’s a cooler day, a little brisk. He’s got a zip-up hoodie on over his pale polo. It looks warm and soft and like it smells fresh. Louis has the random and brief desire to wrap it around himself.

He pays it no mind though, instead attributing it to his colossal hangover and erratic mental state as he hoofs past hoards of laughing students clutching Starbucks pumpkin frappuccinos and iced teas. Fall is approaching. Joy.

Louis jogs the rest of the space as smoothly as he can manage, trying not to rasp out a death rattle, right up until he’s finally beside Harry—who startles, a lot, the minute that Louis falls into place at his side.

“Goodness!” he yelps, louder than Louis’ ever heard him, briefly clutching his chest and nearly tripping over his banana-boat feet, before he calms and plucks out his earbuds, skin flushing. And, yes, he actually yelled ‘Goodness.’

It’s sweet.

Louis grins, waggling his eyebrows in his custom fashion, praying his face isn’t completely slick with a sheen of sweat. He probably still reeks of alcohol from the night before. Probably looks swollen and puffy. Ugh. He should’ve thought this out.

“Hi there,” he greets robustly despite the throbbing in his temples (and, shit, has he even drank a glass of water today?) as he touches a hand to his hair, just to make sure it’s not sticking straight up. It’s not. But it doesn’t feel like it’s in much better shape than that. “Caught ya from sneaking off, didn’t I?” He smiles still more, smiles through the head pain, bumping his elbow into Harry’s in a way that he’s grown to do out of mere habit. He’s trying not to pant, still out of breath from his run here because he’s severely out of shape and on the brink of completely fucking dying.

Ugh ugh ugh.

But Harry seems unbothered by Louis’ less-than-collected appearance, a smile slowly filling his face as he observes him. It’s akin to watching the sun rise over the horizon; a slow, golden shine bursting out into the world, inch by inch, second by second. Louis should be a poet. He’s good at bullshitting. “Didn’t think I’d see you today,” Harry comments quietly, winding up his earbuds without hesitation. Each word holds his smile. Like he’s genuinely pleased to see Louis. Genuinely.

“I know. I’m sorry,” Louis instantly apologizes and—well. That’s funny. Why’s he even apologizing? He never apologizes for such trivial things. But his mouth continues before he can question it further. “I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately and so, after I went out with the mates last night and had too much to drink… Well. I guess it caught up to me today. I’ve only just woken up.” He smiles self-depreciatingly, offering up a half-shrug. “I’m the most worthless human being you’ll ever meet,” he laughs. “I should’ve texted you.”

Harry slows his stride to turtle speed, observing Louis with that ever present small smile. He shrugs, but there is a momentary cloud obscuring the Kerry Green of his eyes—they’re otherwise very bright today. Sunny, if you will. “You’re not worthless. Not at all. Especially because you couldn’t have texted me if you tried—you don’t have my number, silly.”

Ah. Yes.

But—wait! Ding ding ding!

Opportunity!

“You’re right, aren’t you,” Louis says slowly, the pieces in his brain falling into place like Tetras, his own pace slowing until they’re almost at a standstill. He feels his stomach gulp, a quick spasm of accomplishment. “I don’t suppose we could change that? Unless, of course, that sounds like the most unappealing idea in the world. In which case, I can start naming off my four favorite foods, categorized by season, in order to make a clever subject change to prevent you from feeling awkward.”

There. He’s offered the bait. Liam will be proud.

Without hesitation, Harry laughs, grin widening, filling up the sky. The sun has risen. Surely there’s a song about that, but Louis can’t quite think of it right now. Maybe ‘Here Comes the Sun’ by The Beatles. That’ll do.

“As much as I intend to find out what your seasonal favorite foods are,” Harry begins, eyes glinting in a way that Louis finds to be completely supernatural, “I would much prefer to give you my number.” He ends the sentence with a pressed-lip smile, feet planting to the ground as he turns towards Louis, one hand on the strap of his bag, the other finding refuge in his jeans’ pocket. He looks just on this side of bashful and maybe a little nervous, but mostly…just…sure. Like he’s given this thought, or something.

But that could just be in Louis’ head.

A lot of things are in Louis’ head. For instance, a pulse. There is a throbbing, pulsing, beat in Louis’ head right now, and it’s either his hangover or something else and he isn’t interested in analyzing it further than that.

But Harry did just say he wants to give Louis his number and that is absolutely worth something. He wants to. That’s… That’s worth gold right now. More than gold. Liam is going to shit. (Maybe he’ll shit gold.)

“Okay,” Louis says, a little startled, his grin fading into something more stunned, less put-upon. Because, you know, holy shit. Wasn’t it just last night when he was having an existential crisis because he’s supposed to be playing Horan’s body like a fiddle in a mere three days and yet in the month he’s known Harry he hasn’t even been able to procure a phone number? And now here they are? Are the gods listening? Do they love Louis? Holy shit. “Er, yeah. Yeah!” he stutters. Get it together, Tommo. “That would be excellent, Harry. Swell! Sick, mate. Yeah! Uhm.” He’s totally bumbling. He’s stuttering. Fuck. Is he blushing? Can he do that? Is that what that warmth in his skin is? He’s so incredibly hungover. He’s goddamn desperate, too.

He’s gotta step it up. This is just embarrassing. Add humor, Louis, add humor. He continues, gaining back the reigns of his smile. “Who would’ve thought a little boy from nowhere, with naught to his name but the clothes on his back, would be standing here today, with none other than Harry Styles, about to receive his phone number. I can barely believe it myself! I’d like to thank everyone who voted for me, the fans, God—“

Luckily, that paltry, panicked streak of forced humor does the trick because Harry is laughing again, swatting at Louis with cheeks that are ten times more aflame than Louis’ feel, and it suddenly doesn’t feel embarrassing or awkward. Just normal.

“You’re so silly,” Harry mutters with a brief, airy giggle as he shakes his head. Louis doesn’t miss the fact that he doesn’t hold it back, instead allowing the warmth of his gaze and breath to settle into Louis—into the bags under his eyes, into the dirty grit of his jean jacket, into the bits of his tattoos that are visible. Smoothing out all the rough edges. Louis also doesn’t miss how Harry moves to fold his hands behind his back, maybe self-consciously or maybe not, and crosses his feet at the ankles. He’s all twisted up and sweet-looking, like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty or a small child and it’s more feminine than Louis’ ever really seen him, but it fits him and it’s endearing and it seems to come natural, so. It’s lovely, actually. It seems unguarded and relaxed.

He doesn’t want to jinx it. But.

But it almost feels like Louis’ glimpsing into that part of Harry. The part that always seemed at bay, held back and protected. The part saved only for those who truly know him, who are more than just menial acquaintances. Fuck. The gods must really love him. Must’ve pitied the shit out of him last night.

Hm. That’s cheesy. He needs to stop thinking. He needs food and water.

“I’m not usually called ‘silly’,” Louis mutters, amused, as he unpockets his phone. “But thank you for the sentiment.”

“I’m not usually called ‘sassy’ and you’ve managed to label me as that, like, every day. I think we’re even.” He tilts his head, smiles calmly. He looks academic. Poised. Classic. Grecian. Yet soft.

“Look at us,” Louis grins. “Just bringing out the worst in each other, aren’t we?” He hands Harry his phone, never breaking eye contact as he feels his mouth quirking upward. Their fingers brush and it buzzes somewhere (any contact is good contact in Louis’ book—it always amounts to winning) but Harry’s gaze never falters and he makes no notice of it, instead just taking the phone in his smooth, soft grip.

“Not the worst,” he quietly replies, but he’s tapping out his number so Louis leaves it at that. “There,” he says once he’s finished, and he hands it back, grin back in place. “Now you can send some warning when you choose to abandon me.”

Another wave crashes through Louis’ bloodstream. Or is that just nausea?

“Abandon?” he questions, lifting one eyebrow. Maybe they have come farther than he’s realized. “Now, that’s harsh. I had to scrape myself up off the floor for you.”

“For me?” Harry laughs, surprised.

Louis nods, though he shifts a little uncomfortably. Probably shouldn’t be so free with his information. Probably shouldn’t be so honest. He needs to watch himself more. “Yeah, well, not only for you. The floor was uncomfortable as well. And I had to pee. And then, of course, Liam woke me up, so...”

Harry nods, smile diminishing the tiniest bit, just standing there with one hand in his pocket, the other still gripping that bag, loaded down with all those books. It looks heavy and Louis wonders if that’s what’s making his own lips tug down a bit as he observes the slight reservedness of Harry, something small pressing into his chest momentarily.

“But let’s be real,” he immediately adds before he can stop himself, almost against his will. The words practically gush out of his lips, like flooding water. “It was really just because of you. As much as I try to act cool about it.”

Shit.

What was he just saying about watching himself?

Feeling oddly embarrassed about the confession (is it a confession?), he turns away, refusing to gauge Harry’s reaction. Which is uncharacteristic in and of itself because he’s never been one to be embarrassed about stating facts.

“Anyway,” he says, needing a subject change, please. “It’s not abandoning you when you have so many other friends.”

Another laugh from Harry, but this one is short and humorless. “I don’t have that many friends, actually.”

Hm. That may be true. Louis hasn’t really ever seen Harry speak with anyone for more than about five to ten minutes and he never hears him speak about others except for his family. When he glimpses his interactions with others, it’s always Harry that ends the conversation, a little awkwardly and very politely, leaving his counterpart to gaze wistfully at his retreating figure. It’s always others who start the conversations and it’s always Harry who ends them. Which is weird. Everything about Harry is weird. Everything about this target is weird.

“Why is that?” Louis asks, blunt. “You don’t hang about with many people. Everybody seems to like you. They want to be around you. But yet you don’t actually choose to be around them. Why?”

If Harry’s uncomfortable at the words, he doesn’t show it. Instead he begins walking again, picking up a slow pace, his shoulder occasionally bumping into Louis’. His hair is shielding his profile. “I dunno. I guess I have nothing to say.”

Louis furrows his brow. What a load of shit.

“Surely you do,” he protests, and this time he knocks Harry’s shoulder purposefully, trying to catch his eye. “You say things to me!”

“Yeah, but only in response to the things you say first,” Harry points out.

Is that true? Louis can’t decide if that’s true. It doesn’t seem true. Harry talks all the time. He says interesting stuff. He’s funny. And Louis pretty much hates people collectively, so if Louis approves of Harry Styles’ existence, then he must be a top notch human.

He doesn’t know how to say that, though. And he’s not sure if he should. Or if he wants to.

“Well. What are you interests?” Louis asks, tone easy. “It’s easier to talk to people when you’re talking about something you care about.”

“Erm. I dunno,” Harry shrugs, briefly biting on his pinky nail. He shrugs again. “I don’t have many.”

Louis sighs.

“Alright. Then what do you want to do with your life? Aside from the doctor spiel,” he warns, the minute Harry opens his mouth. He closes it then, a little bashfully. Louis forces back a smile. “What are your personal goals? What does Harry want to do for Harry?”

There’s a pause, a moment where Harry seems to consider. Then: “I dunno?”

“Boy, Harry,” Louis then laughs, throwing his hands up in the air. This kid is exasperating. “If you’re trying to be the most boring person on the planet, then I must say, you’re succeeding.”

And Harry blushes again at that, skin actually burning at the words. But it’s not a good sort of blush. Not the kind that travels across his flesh in plumes, Louis’ eyes tracking its descent. Rather…it’s harsh. Something instant and sharp. And it’s paired with Harry’s brow creasing, his head ducking as he breaks eye contact with Louis, taking his smile and sunrise with him, and his steps falter just that much, shoes scuffing the pavement. Harry, clearly, is hurt.

This has a surprising affect on Louis.

It startles him. Full on startles him, alarming him, slapping him a bit in the cheeks and mouth, recoiling him into wishing he could immediately take back the words. Is that shame? Perhaps, yeah, maybe. In any case, he’s a piece of shit, isn’t he?

That was a shit thing to say. His skin burns with apology. It’s unfamiliar and raw and it makes his jean jacket rub uncomfortably against his neck.

Harry’s looking down, lips tight in a frown, skin still burnt.

It’s awful, to be quiet fucking honest.

“I’m sorry,” Louis blurts immediately, stopping dead in his tracks. Harry doesn’t immediately stop though, so Louis reaches out, tugs gently at his elbow. It’s enough for Harry to pause, though he doesn’t lift his head, curls obscuring his face, the drawstrings of his hoodie swaying. The raw feeling inside Louis doesn’t go away, only quickens. So he speaks because he doesn’t know what else to do, doesn’t let go of Harry. “That was a shit thing to say. I apologize. That was—I shouldn’t have said that. I-I didn’t mean it like that.” He’s stuttering, fumbling, bumbling, and all the other things he hates but seems to do around Harry consistently. But he’s hot with that ‘shame’ feeling and he’s itchy and he wants Harry to look at him again. He’s so sweet. He’s so sweet and Louis offended him and Louis hates himself a bit for it because Harry doesn’t fucking deserve that. The thought burns his throat. “I’m a piece of shit,” he says quietly, the words quick. “I’m such an arsehole. The worst kind of human. A gargoyle, really. I’m sorry, Harry. Genuinely. I didn’t mean what I said.”

But Harry’s shaking his head. “No, it’s okay, Louis,” he says quietly. He still won’t look up, though.

And that’s all that matters to Louis. The horrible raw feeling persists the longer that Harry won’t look at him.

It’s so weird; the way his insides feel right now is weird.

“No, really. Seriously. I mean it. For real.” He doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know how to verbalize sincerity. This isn’t something he usually does. However, his mouth seems to think differently, because before Louis can even string a full sentence together in his mind, he hears himself speaking. Rapidly. Without any sense of control. “I—usually it’s the people that keep the most to themselves that are the most interesting, you know? That’s something I genuinely believe. People who keep their cards close to their chest are the ones that are worthwhile. It’s those annoying little fucks like me that just lay it all out, that are the boring ones.” He doesn’t know where this is coming from. He’s literally just speaking. From a place he can’t locate. “Cuz we don’t have much, see, so we just give it all right away in hopes someone will take the only things we have, you know? Like me, I’ve got nothing. Nothing at all. So I’m all show, just because that’s as good as I can manage. While you—you’ve got, like, this treasure box filled with all kinds of things you only give to the people lucky enough to receive it. Your entire existence matters, Harry, so you reveal that to those who matter back. And that’s beautiful, really. That’s like the shit you read about in the classics and you’re what people write songs about. You’re more interesting than somebody like me ever could be.” Louis doesn’t know what the fuck he’s saying, but he finds himself staring into Harry’s eyes now, the boy finally having looked up, Louis’ hand still gently gripping the crook of his elbow. And that’s really all that matters. “I’m such an arsehole. I’m sorry,” he finishes lamely, uncomfortable.

He’s said so much. But he can’t even be arsed to regret any of it. He just feels hot. He just feels shame.

He feels. And it’s weird.

But Harry squints up at him, both hands now buried deep in the pockets of his jeans. He shakes his head, observing Louis through sun-squinted eyes. He remains silent momentarily, words assembling behind his green gaze. Then he speaks, at last.

“You keep telling me who you are, Louis,” he says slowly, the words melting into Louis’ prickling spine, gluing together the fractures. His lips are pulled into a thin line, the corners hinting to tug down. “I wish you’d let me decide for myself.”

Another moment of silence.

Louis doesn’t know what to say.

But he hears himself speak anyways.

“Alright, then,” he announces, and his posture loosens as he stands before Harry, actively allowing any semblance of collected control to ooze out of his body. He looks Harry square in the eye, lets his hands fall by his sides. It’s the most exposed he’s felt in years, yet he hasn’t even done anything. He’s just standing here. “Based off of the previous events, what kind of person do you think I am?” He takes a step back, raises his arms in awaiting appraisal. “What do you see when you look at me?”

There’s a brief moment, one where Harry glides his eyes over Louis’ entire frame, calculating and slow.

“An arsehole,” he quips eventually.

It’s the completely unexpected smile forming on Harry’s pink lips that provokes the surprised squawk from Louis. Which, naturally, leads Harry to laugh or giggle or do whatever the fuck that ‘sounds-like-daisies-flopping-in-the-breeze’ sound is. And just like that, the intense, unwelcome, heaviness of the situation lightens significantly.

He’s such a silly, awkward boy. Always takes Louis by surprise.

“You’re not actually an arsehole, though,” Harry amends, after their mutual chuckles have died down and Harry’s smile calms into kind contemplation. “You may do arsehole things at times, but you’re not a bad person, Louis. Not at all. The fact that you apologized and recognized what you said was, maybe, hurtful?—yeah, that’s not as common as you may think. You’re good, Louis. I like who you are. And I appreciate that you put the effort to say sorry. Even if it wasn’t that big a deal.”

Louis stares at him, something faint prickling within. It’s…well. That was nice. He’s never really heard that before, never really viewed it that way and… Even though that rationale may be common sense to some, like Harry, it’s just… Well. It’s nice to hear.

“I didn’t mean it, though,” Louis says, after failing to find the right words. “About you being boring? Just for the record, I don’t think that. Quite the contrary, really. Just so you know.”

And it makes Harry smile, sweet like sugar cubes and crystallized ginger, and, somehow, that appeases the situation.

Then Harry looks at his watch, breaking the weird, otherworldly composition of the moment, and Louis has to cough to settle himself back in reality, stay grounded to the world around him. He feels warm and patched up and jumbled. This must be what it feels like to be Zayn.

“Gosh, I’m sorry, Louis,” Harry then says with a frown, looking up at Louis with chagrin. The sun glows on the surface of his hair, making it appear bronze and like flaming leaves all at once. “I’ve got to go. I’m gonna be late for work.”

“Oh. Work. Right,” Louis responds blankly, blinking a bit because it feels abrupt and he doesn’t know why. He needs water though and he probably needs more sleep, so really, this should be a welcome opportunity. He doesn’t move to leave, though. “Well, have fun. Work hard and suchlike. Go get ‘em!” He punches an insincerely enthusiastic punch into the air and Harry’s frown dissipates into light amusement. Just like that.

“Thanks,” he smiles, before he begins shuffling backwards. It’s a wonder he doesn’t trip. “I’ll, erm. See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah. I’ll text you,” Louis smiles and taps the outline of his phone in his pocket. “Bright and early. I hope you enjoy vigorous ‘good morning’ texts and an abundance of unflattering selfies that serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Oh, and you should also expect to receive a detailed, photographed account of every meal I eat. From at least three different angles, with three different tints, courtesy of Instagram.” He lifts his cheeks in the cheesiest grin he can manage.

As to be expected, it sends Harry guffawing. Honestly, that’s probably the best word for Harry’s laugh. It’s a fucking guffaw.

Hideously endearing.

“As long as you don’t mind YouTube videos of kittens and babies, I think we have a beautiful text future together. And pictures of different cheeses—I like to take pictures of cheese.” The statement would normally send Louis into a barrage of taunts (because who the hell takes pictures of cheese as a pastime?) if it weren’t for the fact that Louis was currently trying to figure out how Harry’s eyes shine like that. That… Weird, glinting, CGI-effect thing they do. He said he likes glitter—does he ram the stuff into his eyeballs? “I look forward to your text, Louis,” Harry concludes after Louis remains awkwardly silent (damn) but his tone is warm enough that it smoothes out all the residual rawness left in the air from earlier. It’s nice.

“Likewise. Till then, pup,” Louis waves, sending one last smile before turning around, ripping his gaze away before he loses himself in another thought. The last thing he sees is Harry waving, wide and flouncy, like a loose spring—more animated than he usually is.

It feels promising.

But Louis needs to go. He should probably go back to Zayn and Liam’s… He’s off from the pub tonight so maybe he can get away with sleeping there all day? At least until their parents come home. Then he’ll have to call up Anthony, see what he’s doing.

He sighs.

“Hey, Lou?”

Louis stops immediately, whirls around a bit clumsily before he can pose himself into something a little more smooth and sultry. No wonder he hasn’t conquered Harry yet—he’s a hot mess lately. Just a sloppy, unkempt train wreck. Awful.

“Yeah, pup?” he inquires and finds that Harry has barely moved from where he last left him.

He looks a little unsure, lips bitten and puffy, his eyes lidded with a curve of hesitation. Slow blinks. A pause.

He called him ‘Lou.’

It might linger in the air, the oxygen molecules holding onto it, not letting it slip away.

“Are you busy? Right now? It’s okay if you are.” He’s far enough away that he has to shout a bit and his brows are creased. He’s still nibbling on his lip. His hoodie is bunched over his hands and his feet are set at odd angles, pointing in two directions that pave a path for Louis to walk between.

Louis almost trips over himself in his haste to walk that path, bridge some of the gap between them.

This feels promising. This feels important. He has half a mind to text Liam. Or record their conversation or something. This could be it. This could be the beginning of the end.

The idea sits unexpectedly hollow in Louis but he doesn’t think of it. Doesn’t fucking touch that.

It is what it is. No room for sentiment.

“No, I’m not busy. No. Why?” He tries to sound nonchalant but his voice breaks a bit at the end, causing his neck to flush with self-reprimand. Goddammit, Louis.

“I dunno,” Harry shrugs, but a smile is slowly forming. There’s that sunrise again. “I guess I just… Wouldn’t be opposed if I happened upon a stray dog today. On my way to work.” He smiles like his words make sense.

A stray dog? The fuck?

“What on earth are you talking about?” Louis asks bluntly, raising one eyebrow.

The response he receives is a roll of the eyes as Harry marches up to him and tugs him by the hand, dragging him along as if he were an errant child. It’s ultimately jarring and very out of character, and Louis’ jaw may or may not drop from the unexpectedness of it, very aware of his palm being pressed against Harry’s palm.

Definitely a different side of Harry. He’s not usually this forward.

“C’mon, Ben,” Harry mutters with exasperation, but Louis spies the indent of his cheek, that sure smile present.

And then it dawns on Louis.

“Wait,” he perks, electricity beginning to flow in time with his blood. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying? I get to follow you to work? I get to be your stray dog?”

“Don’t say it like that. It sounds creepy,” Harry smiles, letting go of Louis’ hand (dammit) and moseying along, looking ahead. “But yes. I’m showing you where I work.”

They cross the street, Harry looking both ways.

Louis just gapes at Harry, following without hesitation.

“Your phone number and your place of work in one day? My, my, Pup. We’re on our way to being proper besties at this rate,” Louis grins, teasing, but his excitement is evident, which he doesn’t mind all that much—not when it makes Harry duck his head and beam and look over at Louis with unabashed sweetness.

This is a big moment. Holy shit.

“May I ask what brought this sudden trust on?” he continues, sneaking glance after glance at Harry’s profile. He’s got a smile dancing at his lips. Doesn’t he always, though? “Dare I say that you missed me today when you thought I wouldn’t show?” He grins still wider, but the words pat against his pulse and his throat feels uncharacteristically dry.

Then again, he is still hungover. An important detail.

Harry shrugs, his smile twitching a bit. “I like being around you,” he says by way of explanation, genuine, catching Louis’ eye as they walk. Forthright. Just stating what he feels. Without even so much as a blink.

Louis can’t imagine being like that. Could never be like that.

But even so. This moment just got bigger.

“Most people do,” Louis winks with false bravado, but his smile feels oddly soft. He flicks a finger against Harry’s side which makes him jump and huff a smile.

He has the breathiest chuckles. All his laughter sounds like balloons.

“Well then, Harry Styles,” Louis says softly, his smile calming as he observes the boy beside him, whose steps are far greater and far more awkward than Louis’. Their hands knock and Louis doesn’t miss how Harry’s eyes glance down to the point of contact, just briefly. Almost impossibly quick. But Louis sees. “By all means. Let me into your world.”

And Harry smiles back at him, shaking his head, before he allows himself a small laugh, his face a beacon amongst the dregs of the city.

Chapter Text

Fun—Troye Sivan


 

It’s a music shop. It’s called Spin Records. It’s right across the street from the school.

And it’s not what Louis was expecting. (Add it to the list.)

“Is this seriously it? You’ve been working a stone’s throw away this whole time? And in a music shop, no less?” Louis questions, both eyebrows threatening to disappear into his hairline. He fixes a blank-meets-incredulous look at Harry. “I expected a dentist’s office, if I’m being quite honest. Or a book shop, if I was feeling really creative.”

“A dentist?” Harry questions, confusion writ across his brow, but his lips are still all jumbled up with a smile. The enormity of his mouth is making his grin all but consume his face and it almost looks as if he’s putting genuine, vigorous effort into taming it down a bit. Louis can’t help but watch the phenomenon, slightly fascinated. “I’m certainly not qualified to be a dentist, Louis. Contrary to popular belief,” he adds dryly, boldly, and it makes Louis laugh.

“I know that, you sassy plum, but I pictured you as a desk employee or summat. A proper secretary.” He smirks a bit, slides his hands into his pockets as they stand in front of the storefront, facing each other. Harry has yet to make any move to enter the building though, instead content to watch Louis with a quiet, amused smile lying in the soft brightness of his eyes, hand on his bag which very heavily rests atop his shoulder. It’s the burn of his whispering gaze that prompts Louis to avert his smirk away, up to admire the spray painted sign of the building. It’s black and red and bold, a hastily and cleverly drawn black record player set by the large letters. “You’ve got nice teeth, see,” Louis adds in a mumble, just a fraction of a second later. “Dentist seemed logical.”

A lone eyebrow lifts on Harry’s face, but the gentle observance in his expression remains intact, that smile still pillowing his lips. He really is lovely to look at, isn’t he?  “General dental hygiene equates to being associated with licensed professionals?” he questions, but he punctures the sentence with a soft laugh. “I think I may have learned a different definition of logical, Louis.” He smiles wider then, smiles because he knows he’s a little shit.

It startles a short gust of a laugh out of Louis as he rips his gaze away from the building, bringing it back to the boy in question.

Such a shit.

“Didn’t realize I was talking to Sassper the Friendly Ghost,” Louis grumbles lowly under his breath, loud enough for Harry to hear.

It, of course, sends him into a fit of giggles. And it really wasn’t that funny—it was a corny joke. A really bad joke. But damn. If Harry’s not careful, he’s going to inflate Louis’ ego even moreso. And then what will he do? He’ll just float away and the world will never be rid of him.

“Sassper the Un-Friendly Ghost?” Harry suggests, still giggling, and he doesn’t tuck his palm against his mouth or bite his lips to stifle the sound. He just glows a bit brighter and tilts his head a bit and… It’s really familiar. Open. It feels personal. Does that make sense?

No, of course it doesn’t. Louis’ still hungover. Nothing makes sense.

He silences all the nonsensical thoughts.

“The Bitchy Ghost,” Louis amends further, and, yep—there he goes again. Laughing like Louis was actually clever or something.

He only feels that he’s smiling when it starts aching his cheeks. And the minute he does, he immediately stops, forcing his face to smooth into something indifferent because Harry’s sweet, yeah, and his laughter is something very enticing. But there’s a line, see. A line between Louis and his targets.

It needs to remain a firm line.

So he clears his throat, offers up a self-aware shrug and gestures to the door.

“Well, shall we?” he asks, twitching his lips closed and raising his brows. Schooling it in.

It takes Harry a moment to respond, eyeing Louis with a fading smile and hints of confusion laced between his lashes.

“Yeah,” he replies eventually, already moving forward to open the door. Being the outstanding chap that he is, he holds it open for Louis, watching him unabashedly.

A bell signals their entrance and as Louis takes his first steps onto the faded carpet, he’s immediately met with the scent of dust and cardboard and a faint lingering undertone of hemp and incense. All music shops smell the same. He sort of fucking loves them, sort of fucking loves that scent.

The place is sparsely decorated, save for a few older posters pinned to the white walls and a tie-dye tapestry here and there. There’s a TV tucked in the corner ceiling, small and crackly and a bit faded, displaying commercials on mute. The lights overhead are fluorescent and a bit flickery—which is probably why there are about four mismatched lamps, plucked right out of the seventies (all orange and avocado and yellow plaid), randomly set around, on the greyish carpet, their brown chords twisted up in snake-like piles. At the entrance, there’s an enormous brown bulletin board, packed with fliers for local gigs and…animal shelters? That’s probably Harry’s doing. Record players are interspersed amongst the isles of records and CDs, each one softly playing a different tune. Jefferson Airplane one minute, Ozzy Osbourne the next. There’s a framed photograph of Bjork behind the counter. The entire place is eclectic as fuck. And messy. And dusty.

Louis loves it. A lot. Too much.

He should probably text Liam.

Yes, now would be a good time to text Liam. After all, he won’t be coming back to the flat as quickly as he’d insinuated and he should let him know. He should let him know, too, that… This is happening.

Whatever this is.

He slides his phone out as Harry steps inside and walks with purpose towards a small counter tucked in the corner where a register lies next to a clear plexiglass cube filled with pins and buttons, various band names splashed across their surfaces. He casts a glance at Louis over his shoulder but says nothing, setting his bag atop the counter with a heavy sound that vibrates the buttons, rattles a few drawers. Louis’ fingers seek the letters quickly, too quickly, and he finds himself deleting more text than he’s typing, especially considering that he’s literally typing out one word: Progress.

Ugh. Annoying. He just needs some sleep. Maybe some medical attention.

At long last, he’s able to send it to Liam, tucking his phone back into his pocket with one smooth move, immediately meeting Harry’s curious eyes.

“Just letting a mate know that I’m gonna be longer than expected,” he half-lies smoothly, allowing his eyes to crinkle oh so kindly. And why did he feel the need to explain himself, again?

Goddammit, Tommo.

Harry’s brow furrows as he zips open his bag. “Oh? Am I keeping you from something? I’m sorry. I should’ve asked instead of just dragging you here.” His words sound like tiny frowning emojis.

It’s another press in Louis’ ribs. He shouldn’t have said anything. That was shit. Fuck, he’s getting sloppy at this, isn’t he.

“No, no,” he assures in a rush, adopting his best grin as he steps to the counter, placing his hands atop the surface. It’s scattered with laminated neon flyers for Velvet Underground gigs, decoupaged onto the wood. Or maybe varnished on? Louis’ never been a crafter. Either way, whatever. “No, not at all, pup. I just didn’t want them to think I got swept away in the breeze. Or, you know, collapsed from dehydration.”

Harry’s brow furrows only further at that and he’s just opening his mouth to speak when Louis raises his hands, immediately cutting him off.

“Just a joke,” he soothes, which is… Well. Weird. “Point is, Harry, is that I’m where I want to be.” He allows himself a smile that grows from natural muscle movements rather than forced ones. It’s a pleasant feeling—he can barely even feel that it’s there. “Thank you for taking me here. Sick place,” he finishes with an approving nod, already beginning to scan his surroundings a little more closely.

A pleased sound comes from Harry (thank god) and a brief duck of his head (that Louis spies from his peripherals) assures him that he’s said the right thing.

Good.

“So this is the mysterious place of work,” Louis mutters, trying to keep his slight envy at bay. Harry is watching him closely, gauging his reaction and it’s still a little unsettling. “I expect the full tour, you know.” He glances sideways at Harry, allows a brief quirk of lips. “I want to see every nook of this hovel—with its dusty vinyls and wee spiders that wear beanies.”

And Harry laughs, full-on, casting a delighted smile upon Louis. It’s flattering, to be quite honest. He just finds him so funny. “How did you know our spiders wear beanies? You said you’ve never been here before!” Another small chuckle falls from his lips.

Cute, odd boy.

“I have sources, you know,” Louis says like it’s obvious. Harry laughs again, louder, and though it’s probably obnoxiously loud for the small space, it’s all just sort of nice and Louis turns away, observing everything with a slightly bigger smile, hands in his pockets. “I like music,” he comments offhandedly, after a pause.

He really shouldn’t give too much of himself away, though.

“Me, too,” Harry mumbles back. Soft. Nice.

Louis looks over to him, only to find Harry staring (always) and they both reveal soft smiles, exchanging them for each other’s, before they look away simultaneously. Louis has the distinct and alarming urge to bite his lip. He’s never once bit his lip before.

He needs sleep.

“There you are, Harry man,” suddenly comes a voice, interrupting their smiles. “Late today, kid.”

Louis turns his head immediately to the source, currently immerging from a wall of beads behind Harry—it’s a fuzzy, stoned man in his thirties with a smooth, unbothered voice that sort of sounds like California and lazy afternoons.

“Sorry, Julian,” Harry smiles apologetically, but ‘Julian’ couldn’t look less upset about it. “Was caught up in some things. Uhm. This is Louis.” He gestures awkwardly with his large hands.

“Hey, man,” Julian greets with a hazy smile and a wave, his eyes slow to blink. He’s wearing a jean vest. Nobody is impressed. “You applying?”

“No, no,” Harry rushes with a laugh. “He’s a mate. Brought him along today.”

Louis ignores the urge to smile, pleased.

“Oh,” Julian nods, looking thoroughly impressed. “Cool, man.” He’s like the American Zayn. He looks like he belongs in quirky t-shirts and slippers, perpetually eating slices of pizza and playing Super Nintendo. He looks like guitar strings and bean bags. “Should still apply, though,” he continues, casting a lazy smile. “We’re hiring. You seem cool. I like your tattoos.”

Louis raises his brows, glancing down at his visible splatters of ink. All that can really be seen are the strip of card suits on his left wrist and the edges of his spider web inked on the inside of his right one. So, in short, barely anything at all. Can’t really imagine how this character could like his tattoos if he can’t even fucking see them.

Besides. Louis doesn’t even like his own tattoos most of the time. Doesn’t talk about them, usually forgets they’re even there. He only likes receiving them; he doesn’t really like wearing them afterwards.

“Thanks, mate,” he says dryly, folding his arms over his chest. “But I’ll pass. Got a job already.”

“But you only work there at night, right?”

Louis blinks, surprised, turning to Harry. He’s met with wide, inquiring eyes, his face tilted in puppy-esque curiosity. Does he want Louis to apply here?

That’s…unexpected.

And, ultimately, a terrible idea.

Still, he briefly considers it as he stands there with his feet wide apart, hands gripped behind his back, surveying the chipped paint of the walls and water stains that have curdled the corners of the ceiling into an unappealing orangish brown. He pulls his gaze over the rickety, handmade shelves painted generically white and he observes the shadily stained carpet, the back room dedicated to classic rock, and smiles a bit empathetically towards the seemingly untouched corner where the classical vinyls lie. Poor Bach.

All in all, this really is the kind of place Louis would love to work. It’s better than his stinky, smelly, darkly lit pub filled with angry gents and subpar live acts. It’s different being here, working in the daylight, instead of in the deep hours of night, like some undead, cursed thing. Louis feels like a vampire most nights.

But maybe he sorta likes being a vampire. The daylight never really suited his moods.

He glances again at Harry, the wheels in his mind turning at an alarming rate. Should he? Work with Harry?

Fuck, that’s messed up. Especially considering the nature of their…’relationship’. Louis’ only here for one reason and one reason alone. Once he’s properly gotten to Harry and tampered with what he needs to, he’s supposed to split. He’s supposed to just ditch him and never see him again. That’s the plan.

And, really, how could he ever bring himself to look at Harry again? Afterwards, that is. How could he ever look at those stupid, enormous, fucking awful bright eyes ever again?

What if they weren’t as bright anymore? What if Louis did that?

No.

No, he can’t work here. Not if this place means anything at all to Harry. He can’t work here, only to have the entire atmosphere poisoned for the boy once Louis has crushed him. Even though he would quit—because there’s no question that he absolutely would; he may be the scum of the earth, but he would never, not for an instant, force Harry to leave this job so that Louis could keep it—it would all still be tainted with memories of Louis. Of what Louis did to him.

Will do to him.

No, no, no. He can’t.

“Louis…?”

With a cold shiver and a start, he snaps out of his reverie, finding Harry’s curious eyes again. So, so vivid.

“Sorry,” he apologizes instantly, feeling flustered and nauseous and a bit lost in the words that are repeating themselves in his skull. “I was just…working it out in my head.”

Within a split second, Harry’s face alters from gentle concern to heightened surprise, a new smile growing. “Yeah? Are you going to apply?”

Fuck, he looks so excited about the prospect. How did this happen?

So, so sick. This is exactly where Louis wants to be and this is awful. This feels like his skin being pulled back, this feels like his ribs being splintered. It’s probably ‘guilt’ again. It’s probably a lot of things.

Stop it, Tommo. Grow the fuck up.

“Er. Yeah. But not for myself, though,” he explains quickly, and ignores the way his skin feels. He sets clear eyes on Harry, then Julian who is still standing by the entrance of the backroom, where the thin line of colorful beads click and sway in the silence, following the bassline of “Bellbottom Blues” that’s crooning softly from one of the record players. “The pub’s got me hands full. But I’ve a mate, see.”

And this—this is true.

“He’s been a bit restless as of late. Feels suffocated and the like. Needs something to do,” Louis explains, and Julian’s eyes brighten a bit with dim interest. “I could mention it to him. He’d probably give it a go.”

“Oh, yeah? Cool. Bring him by tomorrow. He sounds nice. I like hiring within the family.” He motions his large hands, twirling them in the air as he encompasses himself, Harry, and Louis. It tugs down heavily on Louis’ lips. Family. “It keeps out the douche wads.”

Douche wads. Alright then.

Harry smiles like he’s been awarded a touching compliment.

Louis just raises his brows.

“I’m sorry mate, but you don’t know me. I’d hardly call us family,” he says flatly, and he doesn’t miss the surprised turn of Harry’s head. He can feel the stare, feel the confusion writ in Harry’s eyebrows and the little mark between them.

Clearly, he doesn’t know Louis very well if that tiny splotch of attitude caught him off guard.

Julian couldn’t look less phased, though. “In time, man. In time.” Definitely the American Zayn. This could work. “Any friend of Harry’s is a friend of mine. I’m sure we’ll get on splendidly, dude.” It’s said with such an easy smile, his entire body and aura just so relaxed and effortless, that Louis feels caught between feeling more annoyed and not at all.

Still, though. Fair enough.

“Touché,” Louis remarks with a half-smile, but his eyes are still cool and Harry still looks a little confused. Whatever.

“But I gotta go. Dinner awaits, kids. Lock up tonight, Harry?” Julian makes his way forward, offering up his fist to Harry for a smooth, quick bump which Harry returns with a giddy smile as he nods.

So precious.

“Good to meet you, Louis,” he remarks, flashing a thumbs up in his direction. Louis accepts it. “Bring your friend around tomorrow, yeah?”

“Sure thing.”

And with that, Julian saunters out, empty handed and seemingly abrupt. But it must be the norm because Harry just settles himself behind the counter, pushing a few thick globs of curls out of his face. He adjusts the stool, checks the register, tidies up a few pens and reads a few notes as Louis slowly begins pacing the aisles, eyes on the boy before him.

But then Harry looks up, meets Louis’ eye, and smiles. Plain as day. Simple as anything.

“Why were you like that with Julian?” he asks, more curious than upset.

“I dunno.” Shrug. “I think I’m just like that with everyone.”

“You’re not like that with me.”

You’re the exception is what he doesn’t say.

“That’s because there’s room for only one uppity prince in this relationship,” he says instead, hands ghosting over album titles.

“Uppity prince?” Harry repeats incredulously.

Louis merely flashes him a sidelong smile, striding over by the M’s.

Milburn. Moody Blues. Mumford and Sons. Muse.

“You heard me. So. Are you going to give me that tour, then?” he asks, coy. “Because I really do demand to see this place in its entirety. Don’t hold anything back. I want the leaky pipes, the cracked floorboards, the Billy Swan records that I know you have, don’t even lie—”

Harry cackles—maybe the hardest yet. It’s so loud and abrasive and warmly infectious, poking at Louis’ body like tiny toothpicks. “Oh my goodness,” he continues to laugh, shaking his head. One large hand loosely clutches his stomach. “I can’t believe you just mentioned Billy Swan—“

“You know of him, then?” Louis asks, surprised, a wide grin beginning to form, unbeckoned.

“I can’t even lie,” Harry grins back, words tumbling out in soft giggles, one curl stubbornly flopping onto his forehead while the others stay brushed aside. His shoulders look bony and petite from his perch atop the tall stool, his knees nearly bumping the counter. One of the strings of his hoodie is tucked into the collar of his t-shirt. “I do. And we have the record where he’s on the cover with that swan? In the bathtub? And it’s all, like, supposed to be very normal?”

“Yeah, because standing in a field with a swan sat in a porcelain tub is perfectly normal, Sasspup. I don’t understand your implication here.” But Louis can’t help but laugh as he says the words, watching Harry’s giggles only infect further as he brightens. His eyes are squinted in delight, set on Louis’ mouth. It doesn’t feel sexual, though, and it spurs a warmth inside.

“I can’t believe you know that record,” Harry says at last, after their mutual laughter has dissipated. He’s shaking his head fondly, hands in his lap. “That’s bizarre.”

“It’s memorable.” He pauses. “So is Star Castle.”

Another cackle, just as loud. Definitely too loud for the quiet space, but Louis doesn’t mind. Just wants to make it even louder if he can. He reminds himself that it’s because Liam would be delighted. Liam.

“And then of course there’s Richard Harris,” Harry says, and ‘mirth’ is probably the best description of his general demeanor. He’s so classic and chipper and… Fictional. He seems fictional. If they ever make a movie about an Old English bard who travels the world and sings to the birds in the forest, Louis is going to write the casting director.

“Ah, yes,” Louis says seriously. “The man who left the cake out in the rain.”

It only sends Harry into more cackles and it sends Louis into something he can’t quite identify, their laughter bumping against each other’s in the air, all swirled up in the beat of the crackling records, the bits of sticky gum that stain the carpet, and the dust that lies on the forgotten cassette tapes sitting in a milk carton in the corner of the room. It’s weird and nauseating and different and electric.

Even weirder when their conversation never seems to stop flowing, always punctuated with Harry’s laughs.

But it’s nice.

**

The tour that Harry gives Louis is short and simple. And very sweet.

There isn’t much to see—which Harry had warned him about, of course.

“It’s not much of a shop shop—more a direct representation of Julian’s basement, really,” he’d said a little pinkedly, and Louis wanted to tap fingers against his cheeks to make him smile a little looser.

“I happen to adore basements,” Louis’d said easily, hands in the pockets of his jean jacket. “Immensely.”

It made Harry relax a bit, teeth poking out through the grin. “Oh yeah? A regular basement dweller?”

“The dwelliest. This place is going to love me—just wait till your beanie-wearing-spiders get a load of all this.” He gestured to himself grandly, preening like a peacock, and Harry looked so utterly delighted and not a wink apprehensive, that Louis briefly considered taking a photograph of him.

Not for himself, obviously. For Liam. Liam.

So it all went smoothly—so, so fucking smoothly. Harry’s just so easy to be around. He laughs at all of Louis’ jokes and he listens to him and he brightens at his observations.

But that’s also the thing, though. He listens. He asks questions. It’s really… Alarming.

“What kind of music do you like?” he’d asked sincerely almost as soon as their little tour began, walking side by side down the aisles, the soles of their feet squeaking rhythmically on old, carpeted floorboards.

Louis shrugged noncommittally, as he always does, his eyes skimming his surroundings, searching, always searching, for the next thing—next topic or subject change or distraction—because he doesn’t give forth anything to anyone, ever. Not ever. It’s a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ sort of thing. Or ‘don’t tell, so don’t ask’ maybe? In any case, Louis’ used to not hearing the questions asked anymore, not really used to any questions at all, not like these unessential, frivolous ones.

So maybe that’s why he eventually answered them.

Or maybe it was because Harry doesn’t let these questions just dissipate in the air like Louis wants them to—not even after Louis will shrug and move on.

“Louis?” he’d repeated, too loud to ignore. “Do you have any music or bands or songs or things that mean a lot to you?”

And that’s what Harry does, that right there—he implores with these cute little questions and these wide eyes and an earnest voice and he watches Louis so closely and listens even more closely when Louis feels his skin warm a bit at the surprise of being asked twice.

“Uhm, do I like certain music?” Louis’d repeated, clearing his throat as he glanced in Harry’s direction. Always staring. He looked away again, jauntily bringing his hand up to awkwardly flick through Madonna records. “Er. Yeah. I suppose. I like older music meself. The classics. Rock, mostly. I dunno.” He shifted, feeling almost humorously uncomfortable. Honesty was never his best policy. “I love music. Listen to it loads. All the time. Even if I’m not physically, I’m listening in here, you know?” He tapped his head twice in succession with his pointer finger before he realized that he sounded like fucking dork. And then he clenched his jaw, annoyed with himself. Firmly opposed to looking at Harry because he felt oddly exposed, oddly dumb, and, just, unsure, Louis took a firm step forward and away, putting a comfortable physical distance between them to sooth the scratches of irritation in his nerves.

Because Louis Tomlinson can lie smoothly, he can adopt a pose and a quote and a mission and a purpose with exceptional ease. But give him room to voice something that’s a little less scripted and all you’re left with is something very unimpressive and ineloquent. Which is more than a little annoying.

So he’d intended to regroup, to step away and gnaw his lips until he could reassemble back into himself, but Harry’s soft-as-sticky-brown-sugar voice fumbled up his steps.

“I thought so,” he’d answered, sounding pleased.

It made Louis glance back, eyebrow raised. And, yep—Harry’d looked more than pleased. “What do you mean you thought so?” Louis asks, a bit snippy, but also just curious. Surprised.

Harry maintained bright eye contact, hands behind his back, shrugging one shoulder a little coyly, chin bumping the juncture of his shoulder. Louis watched the motion before his eyes flicked back to his face. Cute. “You wear a lot of Pink Floyd t-shirts,” Harry continued. “And Jim Morrison ones. And Beatles and Rolling Stones.” Louis blinked. So observant, Harry. So aware. “That, and sometimes you hum songs. Like, sort of, uhm. Under your breath? A bit? Usually, like, Eric Clapton or Mama Cass.” Louis firmly battled his body’s desire to flush in shame at that one—he didn’t realized he hummed. God. “And you just sort of hate modern things mostly, I’ve realized. You’re like, really bitter about modern society in general. Just, like, with the things you say and the way you observe people and…stuff.”

Louis stared.

Harry shrugged again, a little more pink now, a little less smiley. He tapped his toe against the thin carpet, hands still behind his back, head bowed and releasing a curtain of curls that obscured his face. “You just don’t seem the type to listen to, like, Maroon 5, or something. You’re more… Timeless.”

Louis continued to stare.

How in the…?

He hadn’t known how Harry even composed that much about him, just from their meaningless encounters over the past month. But. But there you have it. Because Harry wasn’t wrong. He was… Well. Shit.

Harry is way better at this getting-to-know-you game than Louis is, apparently. Fuck.

He gnawed his lips again, practically chomping them off, unsure if his mouth wanted to grin or sneer.

Harry can read him. It’s a disconcerting thought.

Timeless. He found Louis to be timeless.

Gnaw, gnaw, gnaw.

“Timeless,” Louis repeated, just a hair too soft. But he couldn’t look away from Harry, who looked up sharply upon hearing Louis’ voice. “You think I’m timeless. That word specifically.”

Harry’s entire face set fire. But he didn’t back down. “Well—yeah. Yeah, I do.”

That doesn’t even make sense. What does it even mean?

It sent a roar through Louis’ gut.

“You’ve got so many nice words in that pretty head,” he mumbled eventually, unable to procure any other words, unable to even think about it all, really. He stared at Harry, contemplating. Hard. “All those nice thoughts marinating in your lovely curls.”

It made Harry duck his head again, but this time with a beam across his face. By the time he looked back up, his flush was reduced, as was the palpable tension within Louis’ body.

“I like all music myself,” Harry’d said. An answer to a question that was never asked. Somehow, it didn’t bother Louis, though. He listened, chewing the inside of his cheek. “There’s some brilliant stuff being made nowadays. Bastille, Mason Jennings, Haim… But I love the classics, as well. If I was a butterfly, Mick Jagger would be my wings.”

Louis’d laughed before he could even attempt to stop himself, actually snorting through his nose like a fucking pig on a farm.

“And who’s the wind beneath your wings?” he’d asked, delighted as much as he was bemused, shoulders loosening.

Harry leveled him with a pointed look, pursing his lips as if it were obvious. “Bette Midler. Obviously.”

They’d laughed simultaneously, and Louis thinks he might’ve drowned the out the sound of Harry’s guffaws with his own.

And it’s… It’s been like that. The whole time. The whole, brief tour has been little conversations that Harry innocently pokes at and Louis, somehow, always succumbs to. And, somehow, never ends up regretting.

At long last, after Harry’s shown him each surprisingly well-organized section, all of the cracks in the walls, the autographed Polaroid of Alex Turner on the wall (who looks a proper twat with a cigarette dangling between his lips, hair gelled to the heavens as he holds up a lazy thumbs-up), and pointed out the spot where their previous employee, Benji, had vomited upon discovering The Libertines were going to perform a reunion gig, they enter the back room. Harry pushes past the long, plastic beads that sway and swing onto Louis who follows close behind. They drape over his skin, feeling a bit like the brushes of fingertips. Pleasant feeling, that.

“So, here we have the highlight of today’s tour,” Harry announces, followed by a dramatic pause.

Louis raises his brows, refusing to smirk or smile or let his lips do anything at all as he watches Harry watching him, pleased as pie.

“This… Is where I have my lunch!” Harry reveals it like it’s Christmas, throwing his hands up in celebration before gesturing grandly to a rickety table set against the wall. (He’s been getting steadily sillier throughout the entire tour. It’s oddly refreshing.) Bob Marley posters are splashed everywhere, their corners ripped. Another record player sits off to the side, next to a table that houses chia seeds and whole grain crackers and a lighter. One lone lava lamp sits, dark and cold, on the floor. An acoustic guitar stands beside it, stickers peeling off of its surface, a few peace signs carved into its body.

Yeah, Louis definitely needs to bring Zayn here tomorrow. He’s going to adore this place.

“I honestly did not expect you to work somewhere like this,” Louis muses, but appreciatively, letting his fingers stroke the rough strings of the guitar.

“You didn’t?” Harry asks, and he asks it like he’s touched. Pleased, or something, his eyes soft and his lips parted a little. His neck looks smooth and pale beneath the dim lighting in the room.

“Not at all. It’s fucking sick, though. I love it.” Louis smiles as he meets Harry’s stare, the words honest. “I love all of it.”

Harry’s smile softens. “Me, too.” But the tone is a little sad and Louis furrows his brow in inquiry.

“Why…?” he begins to ask, unsure of what words to even use, but Harry seems to understand, offering up a small sigh, eyes falling.

“Erm, well, yeah, so. Thing is, I probably shouldn’t stay here for much longer,” he says quietly, lips pulled down.  

Louis blinks, surprised. “What? Why not?”

A small stretch of a pause lingers before Harry finally answers, sniffing a little, hands playing with the hem of his hoodie. “Well. It doesn’t pay that well and the hours are a bit erratic. Really, I should go somewhere that’s got better wages or, like, looks better on my resume. But. I dunno. I just really like it here. It’s like the one thing I have that I just really, really like.” He purses his lips, looks at the rickety table. “I could help out mum and Gem better if I quit, though. So. I need to at some point. Just… Not yet, you know?”

No, Louis does not know. That sounds like a load of bullshit.

“Harry,” he tries to say delicately, but his voice is already a little impassioned as he sets firm eyes on the small boy set in a tall frame. “You enjoy this job. Stop trying to save the day and please let yourself have this, yeah? There’s nothing wrong in enjoying something, keeping something for yourself. You have a job, alright? That’s good enough for your age, especially considering you’re working your arse off in school and charming the entire world, all at the same time. So give it a rest and don’t you dare quit, lest I drag you back here and have ol’ Sid here give you a firm talking to.” He gestures to the particularly aggressive picture of Sid Vicious veraciously eating a hotdog taped to the wall.

It makes Harry smile, lifting his head to look at Louis. “Thank you,” he says, soft. The very antithesis to Sid Vicious eating a hotdog. “I like when you talk…like that.” He gestures clumsily midair with one hand before he brings it back to twisting up the hem of his hoodie. “‘S just this way you say things. Makes me feel better, less guilty. Thank you.”

A definitive pang resonates in Louis’ stomach. And another at the base of his spine.

“Well. Yeah. Yeah, I mean.” He doesn’t know what to say. His skin is hot. His brain feels hot. “So, uhm.” His brain is whirring. Harry’s looking at him with big eyes. Fuck. “What do you eat then?” he blurts.

Confusion overcomes Harry’s features. “Wait, what?”

“What do you eat?” Louis repeats, gesturing to the table, feeling like a prize idiot. He just needs a subject change, though. He’s dangerously close to feeling out of his element. “When you eat lunch here? Tell me a typical Harry Styles meal.”

Distractions, please.

“Oh,” Harry blinks, clearly taken off guard before his expression settles into actual contemplation. He’s such a good fucking sport. Louis feels a warmth spread through his chest. A thankful feeling—another rare occurrence for him. “I dunno… I really like peanut butter. And celery.”

The fuck?

“Did you just pick the two most unappealing foods you could think of?” Louis questions, mildly horrified.

He gets a smile in response. “And cheese, too. I love cheese.”

“Well, that’s a bit better. If not entirely suitable for a meal.”

Wider smile. “Uhm, I also usually eat lots of spinach. Lots of salad. Wraps and things. I dunno.”

“Aaaand you failed the exam,” Louis concludes loudly, barely letting the boy finish, but that smile is still ever present. “Jesus, Harry. You’re not a bloody rabbit!” He narrows his eyes suspiciously. “You’re one of those health nuts, aren’t you?”

“No. No, I wouldn’t say that,” Harry contemplates seriously. Louis’ mouth twitches as Harry ponders the notion with all the intensity of a Grecian philosopher. “But I do enjoy food that makes me feel good. I suppose I like the simpler stuff.”

“Of course you do.” It sounds flatter than Louis meant it to. Oops.

But Harry grins, snapping out of his deep thoughts, and tilts his head like a dog. “And what about you? What’s a Louis Tomlinson meal?” More questions.

More answers. “Anything that looks marvelously unhealthy and is guaranteed to take at least three years off of my life,” Louis responds without a beat’s hesitation, smirking. “Win-win situation right there. Delicious food and a premature death. I’ll take ten, thanks.”

And Harry’s smile falls.

“Don’t say that,” he says quietly. “That’s not funny.”

It wasn’t really meant to be, but Louis doesn’t say that.

“Sorry,” he says instead, automatically, his smirk sliding off his face. “That was… Stupid to say.”

“Yeah,” Harry agrees, brow pinching, lips pressed tight. He’s watching Louis closely.

“I’m sorry,” Louis repeats, but this time the shame actually seeps past his clothes and soaks into his skin a bit.

A few seconds of silence pass before Harry opens his mouth again, voice just as soft, eyebrows still knitted and prickled with sadness. “I don’t mean to be rude or boring. I can take a joke and all, but…” He pauses, somehow managing to stare even more intently into Louis, pinning him against the wall with the green bullets of his gaze. “Please don’t say things like that about yourself, Louis.”

“I won’t,” he finds himself promising, properly chastised. He feels a bit cornered, like hands are pressing against his throat.

He’s not used to this…seriousness. This concern.

He hates this. It’s too much.

A few awkward minutes pass.

After neither of them speak, their gazes tangled up in each other’s and knotted, Harry ends up turning around wordlessly, leading Louis out of the room and thus concluding the tour.

Louis feels a strange thump in his gut as he follows Harry’s uneven footsteps.

**

The rest of the day is salvaged, at least.

After the awkward aftermath of Louis’ less than commendable remark, things do get a bit silent between them as Harry perches back on his stool at the register, Louis awkwardly gliding back towards the long rows of vinyls. Occasionally he glances in his direction, but mostly Harry just reads in his textbooks, his pencil occasionally tapping along to whatever song is playing. It’s silent and jagged enough, the entire atmosphere so completely altered, that Louis has just firmly made up his mind to get the fuck out of there—when the bell above the door dings and two customers walk inside.

They’re just a pair of kids wearing Converse and Nirvana t-shirts, attempting to grow out their hair and face the beginning stages of teenage rebellion. Louis can’t help but smile a bit fondly at them. Good times.

They, of course, try to buy utter shit, though.

“Sum 41,” Louis reads blankly, spying unabashedly over their shoulders as they make to pay for the album clutched in the blonde one’s hand. “You can’t be bloody serious right now. What are we, eleven? Have we no self respect?”

They both turn around, taken aback and blinking in surprise, at the same time Harry lifts his head, his hand already reaching to take the album. A pleasant shade of shock is splattered across his features.

It creates an oddly satisfied feeling in Louis. Shock is better than disappointment. Being stared at is better than being ignored.

So Louis keeps going, feeling Harry’s eyes on him.

“Now, now, kids. Let’s put rubbish back with the rubbish, yes?” Gently but firmly, he plucks the album from their slackened, startled hands, their eyes wide as they continue to gape at him wordlessly. Such little fawns. Louis grins. “Have you ever heard Iggy Pop?” he questions kindly.

Swallowing, both kids shake their heads simultaneously.

“Ah. Thought as much. Come along, young ‘uns. We’ve much to learn,” he says, gently coaxing them towards the scratched up vinyls, only briefly catching Harry’s eye—which is filled with tamped down laughter mixed with pure horror.

It’s fucking brilliant.

Eventually, the kids leave, a Lou Reed album tucked underarm (“bloody sick, thanks mate!” they’d exclaimed happily, and Louis felt like Spiderman in that moment), leaving Louis to smile smugly at Harry, who still sits behind the counter. Only difference is, is that now his hands are covering his eyes, his grin slowing splitting his face as soon as the door shuts, laughter slowly billowing from his lips as he shakes his head, skin pink.

Any residual awkwardness is long since forgotten, and any other reservation Louis may have felt has all but evaporated upon seeing the shaking of Harry’s shoulders. And, okay, yeah—he’s slightly relieved Harry’s amused rather than genuinely pissed off.

“Louis!” he scolds through his shocked laughter, and he finally removes his hands. His eyes are huge, his teeth poking out from bright lips and a gaping mouth. “You can’t just talk to customers like that!” It’s somewhere between ‘chastising’ and ‘delighted.’

Louis beams like the morning sun, puffing his chest just a bit.

“And why the hell not?” he asks evenly, but the twitch of his cheeks shatters his attempts at unaffected composure. “I was helping them in the long run. Kids these days—you know. Need a bit of guidance from their chiseled elders.”

At this, Harry bites his lip (presumably to hold back a laugh) as he repeats in a slightly strangled tone, eyes positively gleaming with suppressed giggles, “Did you just refer to yourself as a ‘chiseled elder’?” he questions.

“Yes, I did.”

There’s one beat where they just look at each other from across the shop—and then they burst into simultaneous laughter. Such is the theme for the day, Louis supposes.

God, it feels nice, though. To just laugh? So relaxed and genuine? It feels really fucking nice to laugh like this. It’s been so long since Louis has actually teared up from hysterics—he was beginning to doubt his ability to cry at all.

“You’re so insufferable,” Harry laughs, overjoyed, shaking his head. He wipes the moisture from his eyes with the sleeve of his hoodie and it’s cute as all fuck and very soft looking.

Louis is proud, proud, proud. He made Harry laugh like that. Proud.

“I’m so chiseled,” he corrects, smug as anything, but his voice cracks in a laugh upon seeing Harry’s responding expression, and they laugh until it actually feels exhausting.

It’s sort of fucking incredible.

**

It’s nearing dark. The shop’s going to close in an hour.

Their customer stream has been steady (Louis has, mostly, been trying to keep his comments about their purchases to himself, much to Harry’s amusement) and the entire night has been a calm, peaceful situation that almost resembles that of a dream. With Louis sauntering around the aisles like he owns the place, eventually feeling comfortable enough to select the records to play, gently settling the needle onto the black plastic as it whirs and whirs.

Naturally, he makes Harry guess every artist he plays.

Impressively, Harry gets most of them right. Which isn’t all that shocking, actually. Given that he works here.

Still though, Louis finds himself begrudgingly impressed, smiling almost proudly at the boy when he immediately names off George Harrison’s “I Live For You” with all the confidence of a true fan. Good boy.

“Well, well, well, Sasspup. Seems I may be a bit in love,” he teases, the lilting chords filling up the now darkened shop, its lights glowing a bit oranger, a bit softer. The darkened windows display laughing passerby and the blobs of headlights, streetlamps. It’s cozy in here, almost. Sort of cozy. Harry looks tired, sitting on his stool with puffy eyes that smile, his hoodie all big and swallowing him whole. He hasn’t touched his textbook in an hour, his pen forgotten and capped, laying off to the side as he watches Louis with an ever present smile.

At the words, Harry’s face blanks out a bit, only momentarily. But it’s enough for Louis to look away quickly, feeling his insides twist unpleasantly, trying to focus on the sound of George Harrison’s voice and ignoring the sour disappointment of a failed endearment. When he does chance a glance back, though, Harry’s looking down in his lap with a smile lingering on the edge of his lips though, his expression akin to a billowy feather.

Harry’s kind of like a billowy feather in general. Soft and pretty. Tickles your cheeks.

Louis’ tired. It’s late.

“I should probably go,” he says, already lifting his jacket from its spot on the ground, by the yellow lamp. He clears his throat, trying to seem unfazed and cool and natural. Trying too hard, probably. Goddammit.

Harry’s head snaps up then. “Already?” he asks, disappointed. He watches Louis’ movements with a crease between his brows, his shoulders slumping just slightly. He looks exhausted. He looks fucking adorable. God.

“Well, yeah, Harry. It’s late. Gonna close soon, anyway, aren’t ya? Besides, I should get back before I fall asleep in the street.” He half-smiles, tugging on his jacket. It feels rough and unwelcome. Sigh.

At that, Harry tilts his head, quiet and curious, fingers fumbling with the edge of his textbook. His glance skitters from the book to Louis, and back again. “Where do you live?”

Louis stiffens. Ah. Not a good subject.

He feigns a smile. “I’m in between places,” he says lightly. Which isn’t a lie. Sounds better than ‘sorta homeless’ at least.

“Oh,” is all Harry says, and then he drops it.

The silence carries long enough that Louis takes it as a sign, so he’s just opening his mouth to say his goodbyes, taking a small step towards the counter, when Harry looks up again, that familiar blush licking at the planes of his cheeks.

“You can totally leave, yeah, if you’re tired,” he says, half-shrugging with a shy, flushed smile. “Or, like, you could stay. Maybe? If you wanted. I dunno. Like you said, we’re almost closed and it’s just… It’s boring here at night because hardly anyone comes in this late and I get tired and—“

“And I’m excellent company, Harry, just say it,” Louis jokes, despite his chest sharpening a little intensely. “You can’t get enough of me, you want me to stay, etcetera, etcetera. I understand. You don’t have to explain. Spare me your paltry excuses.” He holds up a hand, grinning as Harry flushes and rolls his eyes, shutting his textbook with a definitive plonk.

“It appears I’ve been caught,” Harry says wryly, tired eyes lidded and unimpressed. “What a series of unfortunate events.”

“Alright, Lemony Snicket. No need for the ‘tude.”

“Is it ‘tude? Or is it obsession?” Harry questions seriously.

Louis has literally no fucking idea what he’s on about. “What-?” he questions, blinking like a chicken, but Harry erupts into his starburst laughter.

“Obsession is a perfume,” he explains, the longer Louis looks completely baffled. “There was this really bizarre commercial for it in the eighties. I think? I think it was the eighties. You’d have to see it. It’s ridiculous. They’re always like, ‘is it ‘blank’, or is it obsession?’ And it’s funny.”

Jesus. The way this kid explains things could make literally anything not funny.

(Also, how in the fuck does Harry know about commercials from the eighties? About perfumes, no less??)

“Yeah, it’s so funny,” Louis can’t help but deadpan in response, face as fixed as stone. “I’m laughing so hard right now.”

Harry laughs, mostly at himself. “Hush!” He’s shaking his head, lightly embarrassed but strangely pleased.

So Louis pitches his voice as low and monotonous as it can go. “I can’t—not when I’m laughing so hard.”

Which actually does make Harry laugh hard. “You’re so awful!” he complains joyously, clapping his hands like a seal as he chuckles, and he’s so cute and chipper and glossy like sequins. Maybe Harry really is a glittery sort of person. Not so out of character after all…

“Am I awful?” Louis questions, face still serious. “Or am I obsession?” This time he makes himself laugh. (What can he say? He’s a clever star.)

“Obsess-ive, more like,” Harry mumbles, but it’s fond and appraising and smiley.

At the words, something warm licks dangerously up the center of Louis’ chest, and maybe it’s the haze of the night or the exhaustion in his bones that makes him respond so very easily, so very forward and unbound without a moment’s consideration.

“With you? Maybe,” he admits calmly, not even bothering to adopt a posed expression or a carefully timed flick of the hair. Just natural. He’s tired. “I blame it on that smile and the unyielding kindness behind it, though.” He doesn’t know where the words originate. Maybe a book, or something. Doesn’t know how his mouth forms them. “And that little sense of humor of yours. And your smart little brain with your pleasant little words. Your pretty hands and that laugh, god. Quite a number, you got, Harry Styles.” He speaks without one ounce of self-awareness, and only after he’s finished his embarrassing-as-fuck monologue does he realize just what exactly he let spill through the air.

Jesus. Shit. Damn.

That was… Soppy. And aggressively, inappropriately affectionate. And just, overall, way too over the top.

God. He wants to hide inside of a sewer. Maybe become a ninja turtle. Just eat pizza and fight crime and hide from Harry Styles and society. God. He might be blushing. Definitely going to find a sewer, then.

In an attempt to keep his skin from shriveling off, Louis smiles, hoping that his strange streak of sudden shyness stays firmly away from his lips and instead hides somewhere far away, where nobody can find it.

However.

Harry seems equally as shy, the cushion of his bottom lip caught beneath a gate of white teeth. He’s having trouble maintaining eye contact with Louis (which is fine, to be honest, eyes are overrated and Louis would much rather inspect the carpet right now) and he’s nervously tucking hair behind his ears, his dimple oddly pronounced and shadowed.

“I’m not… Those things,” he stutters, flushing incredibly, and his voice is wavering the smallest amount. He seems almost overwhelmed. Oddly, it calms Louis a bit. “Definitely not ‘unyieldingly kind’ or whatever you said.” He laughs self-consciously, very short, and doesn’t lift his gaze which is pointedly stuck on the register. But there’s…

There’s almost certainly a quiet curiosity in the line of his shoulders. And his ears, Louis swears, are perked like a dog’s, and it’s enough to press Louis forward, once again blacking out from reason.

“To me, you are,” Louis counters, staring hard at Harry’s profile. “In the month I’ve known you, you’ve shown me more undeserved kindness than I’ve received in my entire life thus far, and that says something. To me, at least. I’m not nice, Harry. And yet you’re always providing niceness in return.” He shrugs with his hands before dropping them. They bump against his thighs. “Sounds like unyielding kindness to me.”

Jesus.

He must be out of his fucking mind. What the fuck is he saying? The words come easy, though, probably due to the exhaustion and the slackness of his jaw. Probably also due to the way Harry’s eyes flutter at them, now staring at Louis in this really awful, bashful way that scrapes the backs of his eyelids.

There’s a pulse of silence, punctured by Louis’ thick heartbeat, before Harry finally speaks.

“Sometimes you allude to things that make me sad,” he says quietly, soft enough to be mistaken for the shuffle of paper. “Like, things that I wish I could change for you.”

And suddenly the atmosphere feel oddly heavier, in a way Louis hadn’t been anticipating, the attention now focused on him. Part of him wants to steer the conversation clear away. Immediately.

But he listens instead, all of the hairs on his arms standing to attention, arching up to listen because he’s human and he’s curious and he isn’t used to any of this, doesn’t know what to expect.

He sort of likes the unexpectedness that Harry brings along with him.

“I get that you’re a very private person,” Harry continues, soft and slow and present. Watching Louis so carefully, like he’s fragile, made of delicate glass. “And I don’t know all that much about your life, despite hearing a fair bit about you from other people. Just in passing, like,” he rushes, probably upon seeing the blood drain from Louis’ face. “But, thing is, I get that you’ve got a lot of…stuff in you. And things you don’t want to share. And I’m fine with that. More than okay. I respect that, yeah? But I still just get sad sometimes.”

“Sad?” Louis repeats dumbly. “Why do you get sad?”

“I’m sad that the world may not have been what you deserved it to be.”

The sentence sounds like a soft boom, a gentle roll of definitive thunder, and Louis has no idea what his face is doing or what the rabbiting of his heart means.

He’s torn, though. That he knows. He’s torn between agreeing with Harry—because, no, the world wasn’t fucking great for him, it never was and still isn’t—but then he thinks about Harry and how he spends so much energy and thought and care into taking care of his mum and his sister, all the while as he collects bits of harmless information about Louis just because, and laughs at his jokes just because, and he’s a kind little bee that buzzes from flower to flower, carrying the sweetness with him.

And then he thinks about himself, walking out on his own family at the age of sixteen because he wanted ‘fun’ and his family wasn’t ‘fun’ enough.

Hot shame boils within him at the memory and he blinks it back harshly, still smelling the moisture in the air the night he fucking left. Still hearing the uneven chirp of crickets and watching the cracks in the pavement beneath his feet as they carried him away, away, away. Feeling the bag tug on his shoulder.

No.

Louis’ always been a piece of actual shit and the world gave him more than he’s deserved, really. He just happens to fuck it all up because he morbidly enjoys a good, thorough destruction. After all, he’s a Disney villain, he thinks sourly.

“Well, you’re half-right, young Sasspup,” he says softly, effecting a careful tone and level eyes. But his pupils feel like they’re shivering and he can’t stop swallowing. “The world wasn’t what I deserved—I deserved far worse.” He says it flatly because it’s not self-pity and it’s not up for debate. It’s a fucking fact. He can own up to that. “I’m a right bastard, Harry. Anything I am, I brought upon myself. I assure you.”

“You’re not a bastard,” Harry protests firmly, but it’s gentle. “Stop saying stuff like that all of the time—“

“Trust me,” Louis interjects, holding up a hand, his lips drawn in a thin line. “You don’t know me, kid. You don’t. I’m not good, alright? Not like you. What you hear about me… To be quite honest, you should probably start listening to it. Just listen. Even if it’s not true, it’s true, you know?” He swallows, thick and lumpy and very aware of the unwanted focus he’s drowning in. He shouldn’t be saying this. He shouldn’t. Liam will kill him. He can’t say this. This could fuck up everything—for Liam, for Louis.

He does anyway.

“If we’re being honest, Harry,” he says quietly, sincere, and his voice feels so loud in the quiet of the room, the music pitched so low. “You shouldn’t hang about me anymore. Shouldn’t talk to me or look at me or…or laugh that silly laugh of yours anymore.” He swallows, suddenly very inexplicably sad. “You really, really shouldn’t.”

“I want to, though,” Harry says earnestly, leaving no room for air nor breath nor thought.

It splits seams. It splits the air.

Louis swallows.

“I’m not good,” he tries again, but rationality is leaving his body, instead being replaced by something warm and beating—something that feels red and gorgeous and strong, blanketing his airways.

“Louis, Louis—please,” Harry says, holding up his hands as Louis flounders for words, for any excuse that will get the message across without actually spelling the message. “May I say something?”

Louis bites down firmly on his lips, nodding once. Okay. He’ll listen.

Harry’s entire expression softens with a smile. “Thank you,” he says, a little amused but mostly gentle, and Louis already feels like he’s slipping beneath the surface. “So, uhm. I’m sure you’ve probably noticed that I don’t have many friends,” he begins, and his smile fades as he looks down at the counter and begins gently tapping out a beat with his pointer fingers.

Louis nods, but Harry’s already begun speaking again.

“I guess, uhm, I don’t get along with many people,” he continues quietly. The taps stop. “I don’t really, like, care about them? Sort of? I mean, I do! Of course I do. But, like, I don’t connect with people. Ever. Like, whenever I’m myself, just, you know, really myself, people don’t get me. They don’t get my jokes or think I’m funny or… Think I’m ‘sassy’ or whatever. They think I’m weird, or something. They don’t really listen to me. Or really, like, see me? That sounds really corny, but.” He shrugs, scratches the back of his neck, eyes still on the counter. “But the way you treat me is different.”

Harry’s eyes find him. Louis inhales sharply through his nose, clenching his fists to the point of discomfort.

“Everybody thinks I’m boring and I even sometimes think I’m boring… But you make me feel less so. I don’t like the things that everybody else likes or say things that everybody else says and I’m not ‘normal’ or ‘conventional’ all the time and I just—“ He stops, looking a little panicked and pink, biting his lips. Louis listens, caught somewhere very high up, feeling like he’s dangling. He doesn’t dare move as he waits for Harry to continue, everything suddenly feeling very precarious. “I’ve never felt like I fit in with anybody ever before, not in any genuine sense. Everybody’s the same, Louis. And I’m, somehow, separate, it feels like. But it’s easy with you. It’s never been easy before. I like that it’s easy. I like you. Just in the short time I’ve known you, you’ve felt more like a friend than some of the best mates I’ve had for years.” He’s extremely pink now, his voice is wavering, but he doesn’t look away from Louis, crucifying him with his stare. “That’s probably really pathetic. And, I dunno, maybe I am? I don’t care much.” He shrugs before he continues. “But, I guess, like… Everything just always seems so boring and… Sort of distant? Sort of far away from me. And, somehow, you make things less boring when you’re around. So. I really don’t want to stop talking to you. Because you’re the only person who makes me want to be myself without feeling like I’m doing something wrong.” He’s flushed tip to toe now, his eyes very glassy and unblinking, and if you poked him, Harry might actually pop.

But Louis can’t quite give a fuck about all that right now because he has to focus on the last dregs of self-preservation that he has within him.

Never in his entire life has he felt such a strong surge of two opposite emotions: gut-wrenching shame and pure, motherfucking allure.

Christ, mate. Just. Shit.

He can barely maintain the oxygen flow in his parched, smoke-deprived, still-probably-hungover lungs, and here he is, now trying to wrap his head around the fact that this little My Little Pony, sat right in front of him like a fucking prince, has just told him the most… Affecting, moving, and startling words that Louis has ever heard another human being say. And to him, no less.

Harry likes to be around Louis.

Harry said that Louis makes life less boring.

Harry said that everybody’s the same. But Louis’ different.

Just repeating the words in his head sends a dizziness through his brain, accompanied by a quick lick of electricity in his stomach that feels almost remarkably unpleasant.

Louis’ not one for sentiment. Not even a little bit, unfortunately. But he thinks that, if he does have a heart… Then these are the only words that will probably ever manage to find it. He’s not a fan of using the word ‘touched’ (unless in reference to penises or bums, thanks) but, okay, fine—the world wins.

Louis Tomlinson is touched. In the most genuine and overwhelming way a human can be.

He might need to find that sewer again.

“Louis?” Harry questions shyly, watching him like a hawk, eyes hopeful. He’s trying to gauge his reaction and Louis can only imagine what his face looks like. Probably comatose.

“Harry,” is all he can procure, and his voice cracks on the second syllable which is incredibly embarrassing. He scowls before he can stop himself, clamping his mouth shut and digging his nails into his palms. He can still feel Harry’s eyes though, so he makes himself look back, makes himself blink away the dizziness and the blood that’s flowing in all the wrong directions.

Liam. He has to remember Liam. This is not… This is all for Liam.

Focus, Tomlinson. Reign it the fuck in.

The rational part of his brain sounds like white noise, though.

“I really appreciate that. What you said. Thank you,” he manages gruffly, shortly, and his head is screaming for him to just fucking stop, just walk out because this is going in a terrible, terrible direction and he needs to go back to Liam’s flat and report about his fucking day. Because this is all a fucking game and that’s it. “No one’s ever— That’s—“ He cuts off, wincing against the screams in his skull, wincing against himself, really.

Harry looks relieved though, and the silence stretches between them only for a short while before he picks up the thread of conversation again, voice always so rumbly and soft.

“I just wanted you to know,” he says with a smile. “So please stop trying to get rid of me when you’re the one who stalked me in the first place.” It’s teasing and it’s said with a twisted up grin and impish eyes and Louis could laugh with relief right now if he wasn’t so weighed down with anxieties and a lot of unlabeled, powerful…emotions. Things.

“I’ll stay,” is all he can think to say, voice still a little off. “Till you close up shop,” he adds. But it means a bit more than that, it does, and it’s proven by the way the little pinpricks of unease begin to settle in Harry’s eyes.

He beams, slow to form, eyes still tired and warm. “Yayyy,” he parades jokingly, punching mini fists into the air as he watches Louis make his way to join him behind the counter. He continues to watch him when his hands fall back into his lap, continues to watch him, intently, as Louis stands beside him, shoulder to shoulder. He watches as Louis skims a cool, slightly shaky hand over the glossy surface of the textbook, and he watches as Louis tries to plant himself back in reality, tries to catch his breath a bit because he feels like he’s lost some of it.

He just watches Louis and Louis feels the warmth from his body, even if it’s all just in his head.

“You haven’t studied much today,” he remarks hollowly, looking at the closed book and avoiding Harry’s happy eyes that are much closer now. Never blinking.

He shrugs. “I enjoy your words more than I do—“ He glances at the book. “—Howard Belville’s.” He smiles prettily. “Besides, it’s no big deal. Can always catch up later.”

“Yeah,” Louis says, past the bubbles in this throat. “Always catch up later.”

They share a smile (Harry’s is robust and golden while Louis’ is tentative, brittle) and Louis is dimly aware that his phone is vibrating in his back pocket, but it somehow doesn’t seem to matter.

Not when Harry rests his chin on his hand, blinking up at Louis with slow, swooping giraffe lashes. Not when Louis smiles a bit more solidly, jabbing his elbow gently into Harry’s side. Not when there’s only a handful of minutes before their time together is over, and not when it all feels so overwhelming and bizarre, completely out of Louis’ realm.

He can’t quite care about anything, really. So he just presses a bit closer to Harry and smiles when he purposefully hums ‘Apple Scruffs’ off tune, looking nowhere else but at Louis.

**

They’ve successfully closed up shop (well, Harry did—Louis watched from afar, rubbing at the exhaustion in his eyes and yawning beneath the full moon, shuffling from impatient foot to impatient foot) and the night is crisp and clear, full of barely-visible stars.

It seemed only natural for Louis to offer to walk Harry to his bus stop, to wait with him. Just natural, you know? So now here they are, walking down the orange, shadowed streets, shoulders bumping, as Louis carries Harry’s bag.

Which is surprisingly heavy, fuck.

And Louis… Well. He needs to ask Harry something. Something important.

“So, uh. I’ve a quick question for you,” Louis coughs, and it’s with all the air of a fumbling teenager, which is mildly horrifying but mostly just annoying.

Harry, already picking up on the change of atmosphere, lifts a brow and glances at Louis from his peripherals, his smile poking his cheeks. But he slows his pace as he walks, his head ducking a bit to listen, and… And Louis swallows, suddenly very aware of the sweat that’s begun to prickle the palms of his hands.

Okay.

“Have you heard about the Payne-Malik’s Charity Gala coming up? The one next week?”

He exhales. There. Wheels in motion.

“Uhm,” Harry begins, lifting a solo shoulder in a shrug. “I think so? I’ve heard talk about some ball-thing. Gathering, or whatever. Some thing.” Louis can’t help but laugh, and Harry colors a bit but somehow relaxes as well, his smile comfortable. “A couple of people have actually asked me to go.”

And then Louis’ smile freezes.

What?

A couple of people have asked him to go? Already?

“Oh,” Louis says, flatter than he intended, and if his footsteps falter a bit, nobody has to fucking know. An odd feeling creeps up on him, though. It’s unpleasant. Unpleasant enough that it forces him to break eye contact, his jaw clicking as he faces forward, his skin feeling taught against his bones. Very unpleasant.

Did someone get there first?

His blood flushes at the thought.

“Never mind, then.” His voice sounds weird.

“No, no,” Harry rushes then, but Louis doesn’t look at him, not yet. “No, I’m not, like, going with anyone. I told them all I might go. But, like, separately. Alone. Like, on my own. Drive and stuff.”

The words soften the edges that have unexpectedly developed, and it’s enough to make Louis briefly catch his eye again, a faint smirk ghosting his features. “Drive and stuff?” he mocks, and it makes Harry bite his cheek when he smiles, looking away bashfully.

Bashful. If Harry was one of Snow White’s dwarves, he would be Bashful.

Louis would be Grumpy.

“Well, yeah,” Harry says. “Or walk. Or bicycle.”

“Or skip?” Louis offers. “Because why not?”

Harry chuckles, cheeks peachy and warm. Peach cobbler. “Or twirl?”

“Jog?”

“Mosey?”

“Meander?”

“Fall?”

“’Fall’?” Louis repeats, incredulous, stopping in his tracks. “I call bullshit. Falling is not a means of getting from here to there, Harry.”

“It most certainly is!” Harry protests, halting as well, but he doesn’t elaborate, just stands in a silver and orange mist beneath the sky.

“Okay, whatever, anyways,” Louis brushes aside, refusing to laugh, refusing to get caught up in a topic that is so completely unimportant. God, this kid makes him stupid. “Point is—you don’t know if you’re going or not, then?”

Harry quiets, offers a shrug. He looks down at his feet as they begin waking again, toes kicking at pebbles and a few sporadic, fallen leaves. “I dunno. I mean… I’m not really into parties. It’s sort of awkward… I never know what to do with my hands.”

At that, Louis can’t help but smile, feeling a softness outline the hard contours of his eyes.

Bless him.

In an automatic response, he stops walking once more, lifting his own hands up, palms facing Harry as he grins widely, flashing a wink.

Harry comes to another stop, confused.

They stare at each other, Harry completely lost, Louis with a pleased grin, hands still midair.

“Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man,” Louis begins chanting casually with a cheeky grin, as if this were a natural sequence of events.

It’s enough to send Harry into a fit of startled amusement, eyes positively glowing, before almost instantaneously smacking his hands against Louis’, picking up the game without a second’s hesitation or reserve. “Bake me a cake as fast as you can,” he giggles in response, face alight.

It makes Louis smile, a bit softer than usual, their claps splitting up the air particles between them.

“See, Sasspup? Now you have to come to the Gala. A good game of Patty Cake solves any hand anxiety, so you’ve no excuses left.”

Harry laughs again. Again, again, again. Always. “This is true,” he concedes, as they let their hands fall. “Don’t know why I never thought of it before.” His smile quiets before he glances up at Louis, eyelashes shielding the intensity of his gaze. “Thought you were going to say something rude,” he comments mildly, almost in an afterthought. “About the hands thing. I didn’t expect Patty Cake.”

And. Huh.

He has a point.

Here Harry was, complaining that he didn’t want to go to a party because he didn’t know what to do with his hands, and here Louis was—playing fucking Patty Cake instead of insinuating that Louis could, quite easily, find ways to keep them occupied.

Goddammit. He’s losing his touch.

He schools his smile though, keeps the frustration away from his mouth. “Ah, yes, well,” he says instead, folding his hands behind his back. “Nobody said that Patty Cake wasn’t a sensual game.”

Harry’s grin is wide.

“Just for the record, though,” Louis continues casually, after a few peaceful moments of silence when they’ve begun walking again, the night only interrupted by the patter of their feet. “I’ll be there. And I solemnly swear—“

“That you’re up to no good?” Harry offers, to which Louis playfully elbows him.

“That—“ he continues, louder, and he feels Harry’s grin, “—that I will always be available to occupy your hands.”

There. Tommo’s back.

Harry blushes immediately, breaking eye contact.

“Sassy, why are you blushing?” Louis questions innocently, taking note and feeling pleased. “I was merely talking about clapping games. Get that pretty, curly head out of the gutter, you rodent!”

“Pretty?” Harry questions, whirling his head around. He looks soft and altogether…like one of the seven dwarves. Cute.

“Rodent,” Louis corrects, and they smile at the same time. “A very pretty little rodent pup. With a healthy portion of attitude,” he amends.

Harry beams, bright enough to light the streets, so Louis reaches out to fluff his hair, lets his fingers tangle up in the curls affectionately as Harry beams wider. He opens his mouth to say something—but then suddenly the low groan of an engine is heard, accompanied by the blare of headlights, and they both startle, watching the bus chug to a stop, breaks groaning.

The door swings open unceremoniously and Louis steps back from Harry instinctively, sliding one hand in the pocket of his jacket, offering up a little wave with the other.

“Bye, bye,” Louis smiles, but Harry doesn’t move.

“Goodnight, Louis,” he says softly, grinning, after just a moment. “Text me, yeah?” It’s said even softer.

Louis’ nodding before he even fully realizes it. “Of course,” he replies simply. “It will be a momentous first text, I promise. You won’t regret giving me your number. Not at all. You’re going to just love the extensive photographs of my rock collection.”

More laughter, more smiles, more stars.

“See you tomorrow? Are you going to bring your friend to the shop?” Harry asks, and he still hasn’t moved, the bus’ engine idling impatiently.

“Yep. We’ll be here,” he promises. “Till tomorrow, Harry darling?”

Another brilliant smile. Harry nods. “Till tomorrow, lovely Louis,” he giggles lightly, blowing a silly kiss into the air before turning to walk onto the bus, all long limbs and unexpected delicacy.

Of course, Louis makes a show of catching the air-kiss, makes a show of stuffing it in his trousers like the bloody child he is, but it makes Harry crank out one of those guffaws of his as he waves through the smudgy window, nearly pressing his nose against the glass as the bus finally pulls away.

Louis watches it shrink as it barrels down the street, watches the little ruby headlights disappear around the corner. He watches it until it’s long gone and he’s left with the remnants of his smile, standing alone on the street with no current idea of where he’s going to sleep for the night.

Maybe Anthony’s?

Eh, whatever.

He doesn’t care. He’ll figure it out.

With one last lingering smile, he turns on his heel, keeping his iPod in his pocket as he listens to the echoes of Harry’s voice instead.

Chapter Text

Once Upon A Dream—Lana del Rey


 

“Perfect.”

Louis raises his eyebrows. “Perfect? I look like a fucking waiter.”

Liam’s cut brown eyes lock with Louis’ in the reflection of the full length mirror set in his room, sending a fierce scowl his way. He swoops his chin low, nearly brushing the clean line of Louis’ shoulder—all wrapped up in fine, tailored fabric that itches, fuck—and brushes lips against the smooth skin beneath his earlobe. Sharp hands press into his sides, fingers gripping tight and pushing a breath out of Louis’ lips. Liam’s eyes never stray.

“You look clean,” he amends in a slithered whisper, but the annoyance in his stare is quickly watering down with desire. “You look fit as fuck. There’s no way you won’t succeed.”

Louis swallows at himself in the mirror, taking in his blazer, his snug white tee, his well-fitting black trousers (that he borrowed from Zayn because Louis’ wardrobe consists of almost literally nothing, on account of a lack of closet or, you know, home) before flitting his eyes back to Liam’s. He wills his features to relax, wills himself to smile, smug, as he gazes back with lazily lidded eyes and clenched fists.

“I know,” he replies mildly, a practical hum in the air, but it sounds scratchier than he intended, the words harsh against his throat. “I always do.”

Yet, see, today it’s particularly important that Louis looks good.

Because Niall Horan’s on his way over.

The little Irish rose had arrived in town later than expected. Of course, it fucked with Liam’s grand plans of Louis fucking the kid into his mum’s mattress, but. Details. It definitely presented a problem, though. Because Horan is arriving today, today, and today also happens to be the day of the ever famous Payne-Malik Charity Gala.

Which, to top it all off, has now also turned into a motherfucking masquerade—thanks, Liam.

See, he’d nearly shit an egg when he discovered Alice Horan’s newfound plans of postponing her son’s arrival (“She probably fucking suspects me of my motives on her son, or something,” Liam had spit, face red, throwing a rubber ball at the wall with impressive intensity as Zayn and Louis watched on with raised eyebrows. “Probably thinks I’m—“ He cut off, furious. Louis rolled his eyes and Zayn looked concerned. “She’s fucking sabotaging me. Always! I hate that bloody cow!” And then he actually stomped his foot on the clean polished floor, rattling a few pens on the desk nearby, and Louis bit down the urge to just smack him on the head with a blunt object). So, in a flash of ‘brilliance,’ Liam had proposed the whole mask thing to his parents.

“It’s brilliant,” he’d claimed to Louis as they passed a bowl on the balcony that night, his eyes licked with smoke and blue light. He inhaled sharply, lips red and poisonous, smirking. “That way, you can fuck about with both of them at the same time, make the entire night a shit show. Then maybe we’ll actually have some fun.” Smoke spilled with each word. “The Styles kid and Horan. Fuck Horan in his mum’s car, or something. She’ll love that. And you can do whatever you want with Styles, it’s your show.” He took another hit. “Best yet, you can deny it later and everything if you get mixed up in something. You’ll have a fucking mask on! They won’t know shit!” He laughed like he was clever.

Louis just sucked on his own cigarette, staring out at the cold city, one hand fisted in his jacket pocket. He squinted his eyes against the chilly breeze, against powdery smoke. Against Liam’s stupid goddamn sentences.

“They’ll know it was me. Harry’ll know it’s me,” is all he said, words pinging into the night. The longer strands of his hair ruffled in the wind.

Liam merely shrugged, unfazed. “Alright, so don’t talk to him, then. Just do shit. Can’t prove it then, can he?”

Louis gritted his teeth.

“He’ll know,” he repeated, firm, but Liam was already looking like a cat who got the only cream left in the world. “Besides,” he continued, louder and quicker, before Liam could. “He won’t come. Harry? He won’t. He doesn’t like social bullshit. He’s not into partying, or whatever, like you lot.” He swallowed then, shielding back images of earlier in the day—of Harry politely smiling his way out of a small group who’d come to chat with him, probably asking him to join them for an after school activity, like the little G-Rated clan they were…

And then he thought of the way Harry had kindly declined, brushed past them with his eyes locked where Louis had been waiting for him, standing against a tree like a scrappy hobo as he drank cigarette smoke, headphones stuffed over his greasy ears, scratching at his thighs with his impatient hands. What a prize.

Harry’s always choosing him these days. Always so thoughtlessly choosing Louis.

Louis shielded the thought away.

There was only a momentary pause.

“Well that’s easy, then,” Liam’s amused, confident voice purred. Louis looked over to him, saw his relaxed shoulders and expensive sweatshirt and freshly trimmed hair. “You’ll just have to give him a reason to come, won’t you?” And he grinned.

The words were laced with enough innuendo for Louis to choke on it. And he almost did, too.

But instead he took another drag and didn’t say another word for the rest of the night as Liam talked and talked and talked—of grand plans, of himself, of his successful future at that bloody university that started this whole thing…

Ugh.

Anyway. Back to the present.

“You seriously want me to snatch up Horan and Styles today?” Louis questions after beats of silence pass, filled only with Liam ogling his body in the mirror. It’s beginning to irrationally irritate him and he doesn’t know why. He usually loves when Liam fawns for him, lusts after him like the primitive sack of bones he can be. Ugh. “Both of them? At the same fucking party?”

His mouth twists as Liam sniffs his neck and almost purrs, nodding and finally releasing his tight hold on Louis’ waist. Somewhere, a hazy blurt of desire thrums through him, something dull and twisted that feels present but just out of reach.

He wants Liam. He does. He’s fit. He’s got shit tons of money. Louis can ride on those coattails—literally and figuratively—and it will give him a bit of something in his life. Liam’s a solid choice. He is. And it’s this reason that Louis decided to do all this shit in the first place—he wants Liam. Always has, ever since he sucked him off in that alley, all that time ago. (How romantic.)

Thing is, is that he always knows where he stands with Liam. There’s no pretense of kindness or manners. There’s no flowery bullshit. They’re both fucked up and selfish and angry and hedonistic and primitive and they don’t mind using other people to make themselves happy. It works with Liam. It’s easy with Liam. He’s the successful version of Louis. And if they join up—like, get ‘together’ or what have you, when Liam finally gives in to him… It’ll be a good life. It will.

Louis had been drawn to Liam for the simplicity of their relationship. For the fact that he knows Liam wants him. He knows how Liam feels about him. What Liam thinks about him. What Liam expects from him.

It’s so entirely opposite of Harry. He never knows what the fuck Harry thinks or feels. He never knows what Harry will say or do. Louis knows literally nothing about him and feels out of his fucking element and he’s not even sure if Harry wants him. He thinks he does. Probably does. The way his skin warms and the way his eyes never stray… The way he barely ever touches a book around Louis now, just rests his chin on his palm and laughs at Louis’ jokes and listens to his stories and teases him in that low, soft bumble…

Louis should probably inform Liam about that. He’s getting Harry distracted. He should probably tell him that. He should also probably tell him that they’ve been texting. A little. Maybe a lot, depending on your standards. But Liam hasn’t mentioned anything about Harry’s status at school getting any worse, so.

So why mention it? It’s clearly not a thing.

He blinks, startling himself out of his daze as Liam steps away, grinning victoriously. Fuck, he’s gotta get himself together. He watches his retreating back in the reflection of the mirror.

And then his phone buzzes against his thigh.

It takes firm concentration to ignore it.

“If anybody can do it, it’s you, Tommo,” Liam says, and Louis momentarily forgets that they were even talking. “You and that mouth of yours.” Liam catches his eye, twists his lips, then goes back to poking at his piles of clothes. Gotta pick out his own ensemble for the day. Gotta show the Horan boy who’s boss.

Louis purses his lips, fingers ghosting over the outline of his phone tucked in his tight trousers, watching the line of Liam’s body as he sorts through shirts. He feels jittery and unkempt. These clothes are ill-fitting and foreign and too tight on him. He’s sick of being Liam’s dress-up doll.

He tugs at the collar of his shirt, snaps the waistband of the trousers.

“You know, I heard that Alice Horan was going to host her own party tonight. Just to introduce her son for herself,” Liam continues, unawares of Louis’ mild crisis, cutting up the silence and looking positively livid as he flings shirt after shirt into the air with one hand, unbuttoning his jeans with the other. “Tonight! Can you believe? The same fucking night as my parents’ annual party? Annual, Tommo—as in, we have it every year.”

No shit, Sherlock.

Louis watches from his place at the mirror, lips pursed. He feels tense. Oddly tense. When is this kid coming? Shit.

He wants to check his phone.

But not with Liam here.

“Stupid fucking cow,” Liam curses under his breath, taking a generous sip of something that glows golden when he raises the glass to his lips. (Where did he even procure that from?) The whole thing somehow looks very sinister—something Liam is surprisingly good at. Louis’ not afraid of him—how could he be afraid of a child?—but he’s not dumb either. Liam may be an utter prat but…he’s got power and he’s got a vindictive streak. A lethal combination. “It wouldn’t do you any harm to have a proper show of it tonight, you know,” he smirks, glancing at Louis, setting down the glass.

Louis raises one eyebrow. “What, you want me to ruin the party your family is hosting?”

“Charity gala,” Liam corrects.

“Tedious information,” Louis sighs, rolling his eyes. “I thought this whole masquerade thing was in honor of me getting a move on Harry?” It’s a dry comment, laden with sarcasm and narrowed eyes.  

“Two birds, one stone,” Liam grins, unfazed.

“He won’t come,” Louis says after a moment, once Liam has selected a shirt. It’s black, lined with nice little black buttons. It’s a little wrinkled. He’ll probably have a maid iron it.

“He’ll come,” Liam responds immediately, now pulling up a pair of black trousers. His eyes are focused on the task at hand, appraising the cloth in the light. The shiny silver watch on his wrist looks enormous.

Without conscious thought, Louis’ hand ghosts over his thigh again. He raises one brow before he crosses his arms over his chest, steeling his body into exasperated indifference. Because Harry probably won’t come. They haven’t talked about it since that night at the record shop and, truthfully… Louis doesn’t want him to come. Sort of. A little? Fuck, he doesn’t even know.

“Honestly, Liam,” he sighs, shutting off his brain, “I really don’t see it—“

“Oh, he’ll come,” Liam assures, and his grin appears so offensively pleasant that Louis wants to dig fingernails into his flesh. “He’ll come very hard, I’m sure. For you.” He lies the selected clothes on the bed as he makes a show of licking his lips, wiggling his eyebrows obscenely, and it’s such a common, well-practiced situation between them that it really shouldn’t send shoots of blistering annoyance through Louis’ bone marrow, but. It’s just. Fucking uncomfortable and unsettling, it is.

He just doesn’t… It’s just…

Liam shouldn’t talk about Harry like that. It’s not fair to the kid. He’s harmless.

“You know, Liam,” Louis says, and his tone settles into something very careful, almost as if he’s talking to a business associate or a temperamental child (same difference, really). He pauses, lets the air between them settle a bit, watching a lone dust particle drift to the floor. “Perhaps Harry isn’t as much a threat as you make him out to be.” In his peripherals, he sees Liam freeze. “Perhaps he’s… I dunno. Maybe we should just throw in the towel on this one. Just forget it. He’s a good lad, yeah? He’s not got any plans to ‘de-thrown’ you in school, or whatever. Trust me. He’s just—“

“It’s not about ‘de-throning’, for fuck’s sake,” Liam suddenly says, sharp, turning on his heel to stare at Louis. He’s only got on his pants and socks—nothing else. It’s distracting. All that pale skin that Louis wants, that Louis’ probably going to get. Somehow, the thought leaves him cold. “It’s about him taking my spot”—he jabs his thumb into his chest as he pelts the words like a spoilt child—“at the one fucking university that I’ve been preparing for my entire fucking life. It’s about him taking my future away from me. My parents have trained me for this since I was fucking born, for god’s sake!”

“Yeah, but—“

“Are you afraid, Louis?” The question feels unexpectedly heavy, and Louis’ head nearly pops off when he whips it up to look at him. Liam’s eyes are hard. Cold. Maybe a little panicked and blackish brown. “Are you afraid that this will be the one conquest you can’t obtain? That you’re going to fail for the first time?”

There’s something about the way he says ‘fail’ that sends a ripple of hot annoyance through Louis, his eyes instantly narrowing.

Liam steps closer, something igniting in his eyes. Confidence, power, all that shit. He’s watching Louis closely, watching the way his words wash over him. “You can’t win him. You can’t do it. Can you?”

Challenge, challenge, challenge.

He steps still closer, breathes a warm, curdling breath against the planes of Louis’ cheeks. “Can’t win me,” he whispers.

Louis’ jaw tightens, his fists clench. He doesn’t meet Liam’s eye, mostly because he can’t. Because he might actually fucking punch the prick, with his slithering words and shitty, overpowering cologne that costs more than it could ever be worth.

“Are you getting weaker, Tomlinson?”

“No,” he immediately spits, harsher than he understands, harsher than he wants. “No, I’m bloody not. I’ll get him, yeah? I’ll win. The Horan boy, too. Both of them. Just give me one night and they’re both mine.”

Liam’s smile is enough to set Louis’ blood on fire. It’s a knowing smirk, a winning smirk, a smile that tells the story of a boy who always gets what he fucking wants. Louis hates him, fucking hates him for it in this moment, but his mouth is wired shut, his teeth clamped together and he can only stare, hard as he fucking can, at the ground as Liam sidles past him, swiping an uncalloused hand that hasn’t seen a day of work against his hip.

“Excellent,” is all he says, and he leaves the room, leaves Louis standing in the middle of it without anything.

**

Niall Horan arrives a little before luncheon, while Liam is still poking at his hair, the tea is still being made, and Louis is discreetly hauled up in the corridor, shaking his head as he stares at a selfie of Harry. He’s adorned in gardening gloves, holding up a small shovel with one hand, giving a thumbs up with the other.

This stupid fucking boy. He’s actually gardening. Gardening. Decorative green gloves and all. Looking pink-cheeked and earthen, his curls like tangled roots, his lips like wildflowers.

Louis grins despite himself.

He types a response before he even realizes it, shaking his head because of course Harry is sending gardener selfies. Of course.

‘I’m not at all surprised by the fact that you have a garden. You eighty-seven year old man.’

He sends the text just as he hears the elevator doors softly ding open, before hearing the polite greetings of the housekeeper and a low, male lilted voice. At roughly the same time, Liam pokes his head out from the bathroom, turning to Louis—who quickly tucks his phone away—and jerks his thumb in the direction of said voices, startled and all gelled up. Louis can smell the cologne from here. Try hard.  

“I think he’s here,” Liam whispers comically loud, eyes wide. “Fuck, he’s early!” He gapes at Louis, looking at a loss for what to do.

Oh, Liam.

Louis finds himself laughing, shoulders loose, hands in his pockets. Harry’s ridiculous selfie is still in the back of his mind, sending him into good humor, regardless of the situation at hand. “Yeah, so I hear.”

Liam blinks before he scowls. “Shit. Hold on a sec.” And then his head disappears and Louis receives another text.

‘Gotta get out here before the first frost!!! My flowers miss me!! Almost as much as I miss them :))) x’

What a stupid little text.

There is literally no reason that smiley should have three mouths. No reason at all.

Louis refuses to grin, refuses to have three mouths himself, so instead he sends a judgmental selfie in response because he looks damn good today and it’s imperative that Harry knows this—he shaved and everything. Put on new pants. Washed the sleep out from his eyes—he’s like a modern day Apollo. (He’s a vain bastard, what can he say?)

You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you…

Harry would probably sing that to him. No, he absolutely would. He would sing it and do that endearing thing he’s been doing lately—where he just grabs onto Louis’ arm, right above the wrist, and just holds on, his hand in a loose grip. It’s oddly affectionate and casual and Louis often wonders if the boy even realizes that he’s doing it because he never blinks or hesitates in his movements, just grabs and holds on and carries on their conversation before eventually letting go and leaving marks on Louis’ arms.

It’s probably a sign of intimacy. Harry’s getting attached.

Immediately, Louis pushes that thought away, shoves it far and out of sight and tries not to get his hands tangled up in all of the strings that are attached to the statement, all the weight and convoluted twists and turns that are laden in its syllables. He can’t think about any of that right now.

With a steeled breath of air and a clearing of the mind, Louis looks up.

And is greeted with a few things.

1. Liam’s fake smile as he appraises their newly appeared guest (oops, when did that happen?), his hands clasped a little too tightly.

2. A tray of steaming tea on the table nearby.

3. An adorable little blonde thing wearing cream trousers and a powder blue shirt buttoned to the very top of the collar, looking like he just rolled out of the set from the Teletubbies—sunny, smiling baby face and all.

Well, then. This is Niall Horan.

Louis blinks, a little surprised. He doesn’t know what he was expecting the kid to look like—maybe a ruddy, Irish vegetable? Something a bit more red and meaty? His aunt’s Irish and he remembers her being very red and very meaty. Definitely not…like this kid.

“Well, hello,” Liam smiles sweetly, brown eyes crinkled. “Niall Horan? Good to finally meet you, mate. I’ve heard excellent things.” Lying bastard. He holds his hand out to shake, successfully managing to hold back a wince when the Horan kid takes it without hesitation.

But Louis can’t help but snicker a bit at Liam’s attempts at kindness, no matter how fake they may be.

“Liam, yeah?” Horan asks. His voice is rich, comes from somewhere deep in his belly. He’s already smiling, polite and sweet. “I’ve heard about you, too. Nice place you have here! Thanks for having me!” His demeanor is very amiable, if a little ditzy. A little…chipper.

Chipper is annoying.

“Thanks for coming,” Liam smoothes, before taking a step back and gesturing to Louis—who is just standing here very awkwardly, thank you. He smiles, slow to form, letting it spread carefully across his face, once he catches Niall’s eye. “This is Louis. A mate of mine. I hope you don’t mind that he’s going to be joining us?”

The question is said so delicately, with just the right undercurrent of suggestion, that Louis really thinks that maybe Liam should begin using his manipulative talents for some greater good. If such a thing should exist, that is.

And there—there’s the mischievous glint in his eye and, yep, there is the slightly-widened stare that Horan is giving Louis, like he’s been stranded in the dessert for days and has just had a glass of water set down in front of him.

This kid is definitely a major closet case. This kid is definitely going to be a piece of cake.

Louis is just about to parade the simplicity of this conquest around in his mind, when suddenly his phone buzzes on his thigh, silencing the parade and jolting his spine a bit straighter.

Shit. Gotta ignore it.

“Good to meet you,” he smiles, pitching his voice to satin and ignoring the urge to grab his phone where it lies heavily against his thigh. Instead, he adjusts his face into sultry availability—his trademark expression, if you will. Horan softens immediately like freshly whipped butter, his bright, elastic face an even mixture of flustered and pleased. “Sorry if I’m dead weight here,” Louis continues, grinning enough to show the peaks of his teeth. “You probably weren’t expecting to have to make nice with two idiots, eh?” He smiles easily, shaking Horan’s smooth hand firmly but gently.

Horan is still staring at him, happy mouth slightly agape, his blue eyes nearly beginning to bug. Not a very elegant creature. But he’s definitely responsive. Definitely easy to read. And definitely into Louis.

Good. Convenient.

Louis still wants to check his phone, though.

But, fuck, no. He needs to try with Horan. He needs to do this. This, this whole game, is easy for him, it’s always easy.

So why the fuck is it suddenly so hard?

As a few stretches of silence linger, filled only with Horan grasping Louis’ hand (who raises one eyebrow when it appears the kid has absolutely no plans of ever letting it go, instead opting to smile dazedly at him), Liam begins to positively glow. He’s pleased as punch as he folds his hands in front of himself, bearing all the plotting authority of a Bond villain. He’s just a giant, shimmering punch bowl sat in the middle of the room. Wearing a hideous watch.

Then suddenly Horan gathers himself, flushing a bit as he emits a low whistle, his limbs jerking back into life as he drops Louis’ hand like it were burning him.

“Fuck,” he curses to himself, then immediately gains a nice, splash of red on either of his cheeks as his smile falters, looking at the two boys with wide, apologetic eyes. “Sorry!” he bumbles with an awkward laugh, voice like an earthquake. Louis feels uneven from the tremors of it, fighting back a wince. “Damn—er, sorry! For the swearing.” He turns even redder, looking a bit like a deer caught in headlights as he looks from Louis to Liam, almost as if he’s unsure as to whether or not he’s going to be scolded for his complete lack of manners.

Oh, how little he knows his present company.

“Not a problem, mate. We’re not your mum,” Liam comments in a sigh, clearly unable to resist rolling his eyes. Louis almost rams his elbow into his ribs at the rudeness of it, but Horan seems undeterred. Pleased, even, his features and shoulders relaxing that much more.

Still, though, Louis offers a half-smile (that’s the best he can do, sorry) as he rests a pliant hand on Horan’s shoulder which startles the boy into a small body jerk, his skin warming again, his eyes scrambling to Louis’ face. “I know we’ve just met and all, Horan, but I promise you we can survive a lewd comment or two. Or ten. Or any number, really. I’m not fragile, I promise.” Louis grins as he says the words, obligatorily squeezing the boy’s shoulder once before pulling his hand away. He doesn’t miss the wistful look in Horan’s eyes as he trails his gaze after the missing contact, doesn’t miss the way his body just barely sways towards him.

Instead of letting the gaze simmer though, instead of catching it with his own, Louis finds himself looking away, an odd sort of coil in his stomach.

He feels distracted. And uncomfortable. Something feels off.

Why, though? This is Louis’ element, this is what he does best—never does he feel more powerful or appeased as when he can lord his own allure over a dull, rich kid who normally would look down upon him. There’s something very addicting to being in control when you’re the ‘lesser’ of the two powers at hand, and it’s Louis’ favorite thing in the world: reducing the ‘elite’ to a slobbering, pathetic mess, crawling at his ankles.

But, shit. He’s looking at Niall’s sweet, brash (if a little bit annoying and maybe ditzy?) face and he sees this kid waiting patiently to be introduced to this new society he’s being brought into, thinking he’s making new friends right now and…

And he sees Harry, too.

Louis sees where he would rather be right now. Sees a pair of gardening gloves and a white sky overlooking unearthed soil and geraniums, all paired with an uneven laugh that takes the ache out of Louis’ bones.

Goddammit. This is a game, this is all a game.

And right now, his game is Niall Horan.

Fucking focus, Tommo. Focus.

He snaps out of himself just in time as Liam turns to him, every inch of his face composed into the perfect host.

“Shall we sit down with our new guest, Louis? Tell him a bit about the town? Get to know each other better?”

Niall beams at the sentence before Louis can answer. “That sounds incredible, mate! Gotta admit I feel a bit overwhelmed here already.” He laughs, a bolt of electricity, as he slides his hands into the pockets of his ironed trousers, flashing his eyes to Louis again. “I think I’m going to like it, though. It’s a nice change! It seems fun here.” Every word is the sound of bubblegum being popped.

Louis tries to smile with allure, tries to blink his eyelashes in the way that’s always worked before. It feels uneven, though. He probably looks like he’s got a twitch. “Yeah,” is all he manages to say, and Liam shoots him a look. Shit. He clears his throat, relaxes his face again. “I think we’re going to have a lot of fun,” he amends, leaving the sentence wide open for possibility.

Liam looks appeased at that, nodding his agreement. Horan’s eyes are bugging again, looking utterly delighted and crimson.

“Cool!” he laughs, flustered.  

Liam is pleased. “Cool,” he concludes, a bit ironically, before glancing towards the other room. “So then,” he says abruptly, checking his watch and not wasting a moment. Polite conversation can go and fuck itself, basically. “Tea, anyone?”

With that, he herds them all to the table nearby, sitting down on one of the gold-embroidered armchairs as Louis takes the other, leaving Horan the couch, both of their eyes digging into him. Man vs. Wild.

Lucky for them, Horan is mostly oblivious to the attention, mostly oblivious to the way Louis keeps jiggling his leg and tapping the outline of his phone in his pocket. “Yeah, I’m famished,” the Irish bundle says happily as he makes his way over in a slouch (his posture is terrible), his arms long and swinging. He plops down politely on said couch, taking up more room than is strictly necessary, already grabbing a cup for himself as he begins spooning countless sugar cubes into the precious liquid, occasionally flashing up a brilliant smile to the two boys sat before him.

Louis winces at the sacrilege, each sugar cube clinking against porcelain like a death toll, as he takes a sip of his own blissfully bitter beverage. Nice and dark. Nice and simple. The way tea should be, thank you. He tries not to scowl at the kid.

“So you’re not really into sugar, I take it,” Louis comments dryly, which makes Liam smirk and Niall laugh loud enough to shake mountains. Louis raises his brow.

It’s not like when Harry laughs—this is just… Abrasive. Harry laughs like warm bubble baths or hot cocoa that sloshes out the sides of a mug. Horan’s laugh is like an erupting volcano. Like Pompeii.

Harry’s hot cocoa and Horan is Pompeii.

Louis holds back a frown, glancing down into the surface of his tea.

Get it together, Tommo.

“I just really hate tea,” Horan explains simply with an effortless smile, oblivious of Louis’ horror as he dumps a gallon of milk into his cup. Jesus. He licks the spot where it dripped onto his hand, sitting with his elbows on his knees. Despite his fine attire (his mum clearly dressed him) he’s a bit uncouth, his limbs languid and unwatched, his eyes a little clueless and distracted. “Can’t stand the stuff. Tastes like skunk. None of that for me!”

“Tea doesn’t taste like skunk. Weed does,” Louis amends, and Horan nearly spits out his tea. Louis grins toothily at him as the boy wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, his eyes locked into Louis’, once again flushing slightly. Slowly, he removes his hand. Slowly, a smile forms.

Louis flings a smile back this time, leaning back in his chair as he crosses his legs, allowing his limbs to relax to their fullest potential. Horan watches the entire process, almost a little distractedly, as if he isn’t fully aware of himself and his slackening jaw. It’s that easy.

Yet it doesn’t feel easy. Which is really fucking problematic.

“That it does. But better,” Liam chuckles momentarily, checking his watch again with bullet eyes. He seems a bit bored now that things are obviously going well, which is always a positive sign. The prince is happy.

“Does it?” Horan blinks, finally snapping his gaze away from Louis (who can’t help but smirk) and looking to Liam, intrigued. “I’ve never smoked before.”

Louis blows on the surface of his tea. Niall’s eyes flick back to him, which only widens Louis’ smirk. He sees the boy swallow, his eyes fixed. “Well, we can fix that,” he smiles lazily. He can do this. “We’ll keep those lips occupied in no time.” He flashes a wink, nearly sending Horan choking to death.

Very easy to rile up. Louis vaguely wonders if he’s ever been with a guy before. Vaguely wonders if he wants to be the first.

“Shit,” Horan curses under his breath when he finally stops coughing, his hands a little antsy, tugging on the neck of his collar. “You’re a funny bunch, aren’t you? Think I really am gonna like it here!” He looks warm and not at all embarrassed despite his obviously jumpy state, laughing brightly, a bolt of nervous energy. 

Liam actually laughs at that, loud and unguarded. “We’re not exactly boring, I can promise you that,” he mumbles, and his touched-up persona crumbles a bit, leaving room only for the natural weight of his eyes and the curl in his lips.

Wow. Wouldn’t it be funny if, in a strange twist of events, Liam doesn’t hate Niall? Louis can only hope. Then maybe he won’t have to actually go through with all this bullshit.

“So, uh, you guys going to the thing tonight?” Horan asks once his laughter has died, taking another big gulp of his tea, eyes falling back to Louis. “I only just got here yesterday but mum’s insistent that I go and meet everybody. She was real pleased about us hanging out today, though—you shoulda seen her.” He motions around the room with his finger, taking in his surroundings, before setting down his cup with a clang. He’s still smiling excitedly. Bless. “Wouldn’t stop banging on about how well I’m going to fit in here!” He smiles before he brings his hand up to rest his chin on his palm. His lips are red from the hot tea. “I won’t have anyone to talk to besides you guys, though. Could be a bit boring if you’ve shit—er, other stuff—to do.”

Louis smiles, tracing the lip of his cup with his index finger distractedly. “We really don’t give a fuck if you swear, Horan.”

“It’s more annoying when you don’t,” Liam adds, a touch haughty. He’s definitely loosening up, revealing the true Liam Payne. Huh. Good.

“Thank jesus,” Niall exhales, straightening in his seat and letting his hand fall. He locks his knuckles together, grinning from ear to ear with Disney eyes. “I swear like a fuckin’ sailor and for the life of me, I can’t control it. Mum says it’s me worst habit, but. I think it’s one of my better ones.”

Liam smirks.

“Well, don’t you worry, Horan. You’re in a welcome place, here,” Louis winks, still tracing his cup. “And, lucky for you, we’ll be there tonight. Which is actually brilliant because—“

He’s cut off by the jolt of his phone vibrating once more, sending shocks right up his thigh.

It’s probably Harry again.

Shit.

It’s probably another selfie. Or a picture of flowers or something. Probably with a ridiculous caption like ‘Meet my flower family!!!!!’ or some shit. Awful. So awful.

At Louis’ sudden silence, Liam looks to him, curious. But he brushes it away, reassembling his smile and pushing flowers and Harry Styles up and out of his brain. “Sorry. I… Erm. What was I saying?”

“We’re going to my parents’ Gala…?” Liam prompts, and his eyebrow is raised in question.

Horan stares like a puppy waiting to be entertained. Very blonde. Very young.

“Ah, right. Yeah.” God, he wants to look at his phone. He doesn’t want Harry to think he’s ignoring him. But he also can’t really tell him what he’s doing, so… Whatever. Anyway. “Uh. Are you?” Louis asks, fumbling just a bit. Maybe.

Liam might facepalm. He’s not sure.

At that, Horan laughs, highly amused as he shakes his head. Very chipper. “Yeah, I kinda have to. Mum, ‘n all. Remember? I was the one who asked you if you were going.”

“Ah, yes,” Louis nods, a little too distracted to properly give a fuck. (After all, he’s not even sure if he’ll see Harry at this Gala bullshit tonight so he really doesn’t want him to think he’s ignoring him.) “Mum. Right.” Balls. What’s he talking about again? He’s scrambling to take the reins and he can feel Liam’s eyes burning into him. “Well. Then… Like I said—don’t worry. I’ll be there and I’m excellent company.” Louis’ face splits into another wide grin, which luckily procures another smirk from Liam, another intrigued blush from Horan. “I won’t leave your side, promise.”

That is so totally not a promise.

Horan shifts, eyes flicking from Louis to Liam, grinning. “Cool. I could use the company,” he beams, but his skin is still red and his eyes keep sticking to Louis’ face, his left fist clenched a bit too tightly against his thigh.

Very easy.

“Perfect,” Louis quips, taking another sip of his own tea, but his eyes don’t leave Horan’s, and Horan’s throat definitely bobs in a gulp.

Harry’s neck looks prettier when he swallows.

Goddamit, Tommo. Shut up.

He pushes the thoughts away, instead stays locked in Horan’s gaze.

Then suddenly a phone rings, loud and obnoxious and splitting up the uneven silence.

For one brief millisecond, Louis wildly wonders if it’s his phone, if Harry’s calling him because he hasn’t been answering any of his texts and he’s concerned. But then he looks to his right and sees Liam fumbling with his iPhone 6 and suddenly the plan slots back into place, the outline they’d meticulously sketched out beforehand ringing reminder bells within him: Liam gets a phone call and has to leave, thus enabling Louis to get some alone time with Horan. It’s all been mapped out.

Duh. Obviously Harry isn’t going to call him. Jesus.

Besides, Louis doesn’t even like talking on the phone. Texts are just fine, thanks. No need for small talk or prolonging boring conversation. With texts he has control.

“Oh, shit. I’ve gotta take this,” Liam says, faux-surprised as he looks at his phone with overly disgruntled eyebrows. He’s a shit actor. Louis is so much better. He looks up at Horan with apology, already making to stand up. “I’m gonna need to leave the flat for awhile. Is it alright if I…?”

“No problem, mate,” Horan dismisses instantly, as if they were old chums, waving a wide hand and wielding a smile as Louis momentarily shares a glance with Liam, who’s already making his way to leave, strutting like a rooster. He winks before he disappears from sight, phone raised to his ear.

And then there were two.

There’s a moment of silence as they sit there, Horan gaping a little hungrily and not-so-subtly at Louis. He’s ever so slightly fighting to keep composure though, his grin nervous and his energy even more so. He keeps licking his lips, eyes jolting from Louis, to the floor, to Louis, to the curtains. It’s almost cute, how obviously sexually frustrated this little sunbeam is, but…

But to be quite honest, Louis sort of doesn’t care, even if he really, really should. He’s more focused on the fact that Liam is finally out of sight and his phone is currently three texts heavier.

But Horan…

But Harry…

Louis bites the inside of his lip, flashing a halfhearted smile up at Horan, who returns it lightning-fast.

“Hi,” he says, awkward.

“Hi,” Horan says back.

Another moment of silence. Horan twiddles his thumbs, beginning to examine the opposite wall with keen interest.

Ah, fuck it. He won’t mind.

“Sorry, I’ve just got to check something real quick,” Louis excuses, already whipping out his phone at a truly shameful speed, not even bothering to look to Horan’s face for approval or to gauge his reaction. He unlocks it hastily and, yep, they’re all from Harry.

‘You look very posh! What’s the occasion?’

And then the second text: ‘Your hair looks like the ocean :)’

And then the third: ‘I want to learn how to surf x’

Ocean? Surf? What? How can hair look like water? Why does Harry want to surf? Does he want to surf on Louis’ hair? Or was he just making a vague statement? This is a legitimate question with Harry Styles.

Louis shakes his head, already tapping out a reply.

‘What does that even mean? Have I got seaweed in me ears? Also, I’m dressed for the Ghala tonight. You going ??’

“So, uhm, Louis, right?”

Louis blinks, startled out of bright text and the ellipses that’s alerting him that Harry is already texting back. He looks up to find a pair of big blue eyes looking at him curiously, two eyebrows raised.

Horan. Oh yeah. Right.

“Erm, yeah,” Louis nods, locking his phone and setting it facedown on the table. He won’t touch it for the remainder of this rendezvous. He won’t. “That’s good, ol’ me.”

Horan nods, smiling enthusiastically as if it were a truly interesting fact. He leans a bit more forward, elbows braced on his bony knees. “That’s a…good name!”

Okay. Clearly this kid is struggling for conversation. Louis can’t help but take pity on him. So he clears his throat, posing his face into something a bit kinder.

“It most certainly is,” Louis grins, pulling up every bit of focus he has and pointing it towards the boy before him. He can do this. He’s brilliant at this. “So. Horan. Tell me a bit about yourself. Aside from the fact that you’re utterly adorable, of course.” He grins prettily as Niall flushes from tip to toe.

“Uhhh—“

“Are you looking forward to living here? Amongst all of this?” Louis sweeps an arm around the room, genuinely amused at the way Horan’s eyes keep stuttering back to his lips, his hands tapping out incessant beats on his thighs. So nervous.

“Yeah. Definitely,” he grins, but he swallows, obviously flustered as Louis decides to up his game and stealthily switch over from his chair to the couch, right next to Horan, pressing their thighs together. They’re very close. Indecently close, one might say.

“Good,” Louis near-sighs into the small space between them, voice just husky enough as he allows his knuckles to brush against the boy’s leg.

His intentions are clear now, at least—he knows by the way Horan’s skin has gone from red (he may or may not have Rosacea) to completely white, that ever-present smile wiped clean from his face and replaced with obvious, nervous-meets-intrigued anticipation. He’s also now gripping onto his knees for dear life, his knuckles pale, and his back is as straight as a flagpole.

Jesus, this kid is tightly strung. Louis has to bite his lips to withhold a bark of laughter.

In the back of his mind, somewhere, he can’t help but wonder if Harry is still typing. His phone hasn’t buzzed with a new text yet.

But oh well. No matter. Back to the task at hand.

“So, is this your first time meeting Liam?” Louis purrs after it’s obvious that Horan is incapable of speech. Putting himself on autopilot, he allows his instincts to take over as he inches still closer, smiling teasingly as he lets his arm settle on the back of the couch, fingers brushing Horan’s shoulder.

Horan warms to the touch, beaming. “Yeah, actually. He’s nice! Me mum says great things!”

This halts Louis’ smile and gently moving fingers.

“Your mum? Alice Horan?” he questions, blinking his surprise.

Horan nods, very quickly, chewing on his lip.

Louis stares. “She says nice things about Liam?

Horan nods again, grinning and still unable to completely look away from Louis’ mouth. “Yeah,” he laughs a little breathlessly, still drumming out those nervous beats. He’s jiggling a leg now, too. “Says he’s a good influence!”

What the fuck, Liam? What the actual fuck? He made her out to be some Maleficent type figure—this evil, calculating, demonic thing always purposefully plotting against him and…

And now he discovers that she likes him?

Honestly, what the fuck.

Louis’ about to prod further, already opening his mouth despite being completely unsure as to how to approach this, but then his phone vibrates.

A text. Harry.

Without a second’s thought, he pulls his arm away from the back of the couch, disengaging himself from Horan’s side as he picks up his facedown phone with focused hands.

‘I dunno’ is all it says.

Well, then. That was anticlimactic.

Slightly irate, Louis responds immediately, his taps a bit harsher than is strictly necessary.

‘Yes you do. Can I expect to see your pretty face tonight or not pup ?’

“So, uh, do you go to school with Liam, then?” Horan asks, glancing between Louis and his phone.

“Hm? Oh, erm, yeah…” Louis replies slowly, in a daze, fingers flying as he thumps out a second message.

‘Or, should I say, can I expect to actually have fun tonight’

He sends a wink for good measure. Good job, Tommo.

“Oh, yeah? Are you in the same grade?” Horan asks, smiling more fully once Louis looks up at him.

Which… What is he talking about?

“Sorry?” Louis asks, brow pinched, still clutching the phone. He sets it down quickly.  

Horan’s smile lessens a tad. “You said you go to school with Liam? And I was asking if you were in the same grade.”

“Oh.” Louis scrunches his face. “Oh! No, nah, mate. I don’t go to school, sorry. Must’ve misunderstood the question.”

Buzzzzz, goes his vibrating phone once more. He picks it up instantly, any words that Horan may be saying becoming soundless puffs of air.

‘ :) HAHA’ (of course Harry uses capital ‘haha’s—he types exactly how he sounds) ‘I dunno… I just finished gardening! I’m all covered in soil :( ‘

What a little shit. He’s clearly avoiding a committed answer.

Louis scowls at the screen, faintly aware that somewhere, a Horan is talking. He’s also faintly aware of the distant ding of the elevator doors opening, but it’s all very, very faint, Harry’s words a lot more bold and bright and present.

He needs to talk to Harry. More than this text message bullshit. Is he coming tonight? He needs to know.

Hm. Maybe he’ll call him.

“Louis?”

With a start, he comes to, looking over and nearly bumping his nose off of Horan’s. The boy looks a little concerned and antsy, his very sweet expression dampened just slightly.

“Alright, mate? You seem a bit distracted.” He nods to the phone in Louis’ hands.

“Oh!” Louis laughs, dry as parchment, suddenly feeling a tiny bit ashamed. It’s like he’s been caught with his hands in the biscuit jar or summat. Awkward. “My bad, Horan. I’ve just been trying to reach someone and…” He sighs, every excuse suddenly seeming paltry and exhausting. “I’m just an arsehole,” he admits flatly.

He’s half expecting to be walked out on, honestly.

But, much to his surprise, Horan actually smiles, easy and forgiving.

“Nah, it’s alright. I’m not mad.” He shrugs, still eyeing Louis a little closely, smile still a little flustered, but it’s mostly resigned and comfortably light. Uncomplicated. Thank god. “And you don’t have to keep calling me ‘Horan’, by the way. Niall’s fine. You make me sound like me granddad.”

At that, a real half-smile actually touches Louis’ lips, his eyes casting Horan—Niall?—a glance. “Alright, Niall,” he nods. “Fair enough. Thanks for being, uh, patient with me. I’m not usually this much of a tit.” That’s a lie. But he smiles anyway and Niall laughs.

“’s fine,” he grins, taking another winced sip of tea sludge. “Wish you lot had something else to drink, though.” He sets down the cup with mild distaste, causing Louis to smirk as he picks up his phone, checking to see if he has any new messages—he doesn’t.

That’s it. He needs answers. He’s going to call him, first chance he gets. Whenever Liam comes back…

But shit. When will that be? Probably too long. Probably an hour before the gala, with Louis’ luck.

No, he has to talk to Harry sooner than that.

He can’t possibly ring him now, though. He just can’t. He’s not about to ditch Niall after Liam already has, even if the offer is overwhelmingly tempting and Niall’s humor is startlingly forgiving.

He sighs.

It’s just as he’s giving up internally, casting a sad smile on Niall (who keeps glancing back at him, confused), that he spies a tall, dark, and socially awkward figure sloping purposefully in the corridor, head bent.

Zayn!

Thank fuck.

“Oi!’ Louis calls, jumping on his chance like a hyena would its prey, already snatching up his phone and leaping off the couch.

Niall’s blinking in bewilderment, clearly at a loss as to what’s going on as he begins stuffing shortbread into his mouth, crumbs falling from his lips.

Zayn freezes in the corridor.

“Yeah, you,” Louis chirps, nearly skipping over to him.

He looks a bit tired as he turns a little fearfully to Louis, his hair swept to the side and nearly covering his right, shadowy eye. He’s wearing a black t-shirt with three different colored triangles in the middle, his black jeans torn at the heels, and the slump in his posture indicates he’s ready for a nap. Since today was his first day working at Harry’s record shop (which, honestly, he can’t wait to hear about from Harry since Zayn is the least reliable narrator on this planet) it’s fairly warranted. This is Zayn’s first job and first attempt at the independence he’s been craving his entire life. But Zayn is also very sheltered and easily scared off, so he can only imagine the boy’s current emotion.

Unfortunately for him, it’s probably about to get a lot worse.

“Hi, Louis,” he greets wearily, eyes flicking nervously where Niall sits in the other room. He may or may not know what’s currently going on. Liam tends to keep that info from him, on account of Zayn’s severe distaste for his and Louis’ game.

“Can I borrow you for a tiny second, mate?”

“No,” Zayn immediately says flatly, and is already beginning to make his way to his room, when Louis grabs ahold of his shoulders and begins marching him in the opposite direction. “What are you doing??” he questions, alarmed, but Louis ignores him, instead walking him into the sitting room, hands pressed firmly into his shoulders, and nearly shoving him into the chair across from Niall. Unsurprisingly, Zayn goes easily, putting up little resistance due to the dazed confusion of his general existence. He might be stoned, too, judging by the way he still hasn’t blinked, eyes wide and staring at Niall with a very blank face.

Niall freezes when he looks at him, mid-chew, eyes equally wide.

Louis looks between them, gauging their reactions with the tiniest drop of hesitance in the soles of his shoes. Maybe he shouldn’t leave…?

But then Niall swallows—his gulp resonating in the tense, silent air—and erupts into a volcanic grin as he lifts one of his hands in a sloppy wave. “I’m Niall!” he beams, looking positively enthralled.

Zayn looks terrified.

They’ll be fine.

“Well, you two have fun! I’ll be back in a moment,” Louis assures as he continues on his route to the kitchen, stifling a snigger at Zayn’s “rescue me” eyes.

He’ll owe him later. Buy him a trailer of good weed and tie-dye all of his socks or something.

The minute Louis steps foot into the kitchen, he leans against the counter and pulls out his phone, dialing Harry’s number faster than he’ll ever admit to later. He presses it to his ear impatiently, rolling his eyes at a picture of Liam’s parents on the fridge. They’re on the beach drinking Pina Coladas and look as pretentious as they are. Ugh.

It rings only once before Harry answers.

“Helloooo?” sings his deep sea voice, dragging out the word in a lilted question.

It occurs to Louis then that he’s never heard Harry’s voice over the phone before. It sounds warm and crackly like old records. Like the records him and Harry play every day, constantly trying to best each other while never keeping score. (Louis’ winning, though.)

“Hellooooo,” Louis mocks back, as low as he can go.

He hears the puffs of Harry’s laugh. He smiles.

“What do you want?” Harry asks, but he’s obviously grinning—Louis can tell, even over the damn phone.

“Well, well, well,” Louis tuts. “Apparently gardening sharpens your tongue! Licking the thorns from the rose bushes, are we, Sasspup?” he questions, trailing his hand across the surface of the counter as an indefinable swell of softness stretches in his limbs.

He can picture Harry’s retuning smile, his duck of the head.

“Everybody knows that you become prettier when you eat flowers,” comes the warm reply, laced with amusement.

“Hm,” Louis hums in agreement. “You are what you eat.”

“Exactly.”

The pause that ensues feels like mutual smiles, all soft and peaceful, and Louis sort of hates it.

He clears his throat. “Er. Anyway. So, kid. You going tonight?”

“Going where?” Harry asks faux-innocently.

Har. Har.

Louis rolls his eyes. “Take the rose bush out of your mouth. I’m serious—are you coming?”

There’s a small stretch of silence then, Louis only able to hear himself breathe.

“I dunno…” Harry says slowly, eventually. “It sounds a bit much.” His voice is quiet, dimmed by the connection.

Louis’ lips press into a frown.

Part of him doesn’t want Harry to come, it’s true. Mostly because of a certain Irish cotton ball. Not that Niall’s not a good kid—he is. Louis likes him more than he was anticipating. It’s just… He doesn’t want to split his attention with Harry. And he sure as fuck doesn’t want Harry to see them together. Get the wrong impression… Or, rather. The right impression.

He frowns deeper.

But if Harry doesn’t go… Well. He won’t see Harry, then. That’s pretty much it for that side of the argument. But it seems like a big side and Louis just… He doesn’t like this shit, these kinds of parties. He doesn’t like standing around, bored, drinking as much as he can to occupy himself because he’s in a room filled with androids. Zayn usually doesn’t stay for long since he despises social situations, especially ones involving elders, and Liam is always preoccupied with being the center of attention as his parents look on in either mild distaste or self-imposed pride. And then it always ends with Liam getting into an argument with said parents, then getting abysmally drunk, leaving Louis to look after him for the night and put him to bed as he swears and swings and tries to slide his hand down Louis’ pants, slurring out his aggressions about his mum and dad and their loveless opinions of him.

In short, it’s always a shit show. And Louis doesn’t really blame Liam for it in some regards since his parents really are shit. They definitely hate Louis—Martha looks at him like he’s roadkill.

It’s all just sort of awful and tense and exhausting. Not fun at all.

But if Harry went?

Louis thinks of hideous laughter and broad shoulders and really oddball comments, always wrapped up in large red lips and big teeth and… And somehow the night doesn’t seem quite so daunting.

Yes. He wants Harry to come. Louis’ going to be wearing a mask, for fuck’s sake, which he can guarantee he will never willingly do ever again—Harry better fucking come.

“Right,” Louis says, after a moment, beginning to pace the kitchen. “So. I never ask people to do things. I’m not big on asking in general, to be quite honest.”

Harry huffs over the line. Louis ignores him.

“But I, Louis Tomlinson, am asking you, Harry Styles, to come to this party tonight.” He pauses, fumbling with the lapel on his jacket. “And not just because I’ll be bored and I’m looking to be, like, entertained, or anything.” He swallows, tries to pitch his voice casual. “I just want to see you.”

As soon as the words hit the air, his chest feels a bit shaky. Maybe that was too much. Maybe he shouldn’t have said that.

It feels like minutes pass without a sound, Louis unable to hear even Harry’s breath on the other end. He checks to see if the call’s been dropped—twice—but, nope. Harry’s still there.

He’s just beginning to feel a bubble of panic form when suddenly he finds himself speaking again, words foaming out of his mouth nervously because he’s an inept turd these days. God.

“Mostly though, I’m just curious to see how you accessorize when you don’t have a bookbag on you.” He says it in a rush, hoping to lighten the mood a bit. Even if he does sort of want to crawl inside of himself for it.

But Harry, bless him, bursts into sudden laughter. A single goddamn burst of laughter.

“I wear tiaras when I don’t have my bookbag,” he replies, chuckling low.

A tiara.

Louis startles into a laugh before pressing a fist against his lips to silence himself, pulling the phone closer to his ear. “Appropriate,” he comments, removing his hand. “Since I am your peasant.”

And, once again, Harry doesn’t respond for a moment.

Shit. Clearly, Louis has been interpreting this all wrong. Fuck.

But then Harry finally speaks.

“I’ll think about it, yeah?” he says, gentle.

It pushes a frustrated pebble into Louis’ throat (why is this such a thing??) but he agrees, gives in with a sigh. “Yeah, alright. I get it,” he grumbles. “But, uh, I’ve got to go. Maybe I’ll see you tonight, then?”

Another pause.

“Yeah. Maybe.”

Louis frowns. “Right. Well. Bye, Harry.”

“Bye, Louis.” It’s said a little forlornly but Louis doesn’t analyze it, too frustrated and disappointed (with Harry? With himself? With life?) to give it much thought, hanging up swiftly.

Instead, he ambles back to the sitting room, phone clenched tight in his hand, head averted downward. Time to save Zayn.

He’s got a thousand apologies and excuses set on his tongue and is just about to deliver each one with stunning ease, when suddenly…

He stops dead in his tracks.

All the words evaporate from his opened mouth.

Because there, right bloody there, is Zayn. Sitting on the couch. Next to Niall Horan. Laughing.

That’s right—Zayn is laughing. With a stranger.

Louis gapes.

You see, Zayn is never good with strangers. He gets standoffish and paranoid and closed off, often finding any excuse to leave. Yet here he is, looking only marginally nervous as he chuckles softly at some story Niall is telling—who looks like he’s about to fling the sun into the sky, all confident and invigorated by Zayn’s smile that he lets slip towards the plush rug beneath their feet. Niall’s hands are moving wildly as he narrates, his head completely turned to Zayn, just ingesting him with his eyes, this faraway look in them.

When Zayn lifts his head, hair falling into his gaze, he looks equally hazy and enraptured.

Well. This is unexpected.

“Oh, hello,” Louis smiles, unable to keep the smug undertone out of his voice as he folds his arms over his chest and leans against the wall. He can’t help but take great amusement from how the two boys jump and spin around, broken harshly from their bubble.

Oh, this is too funny. What a brilliant, brilliant twist of events.

“Looks like you two are getting on well,” he grins, looking pointedly at Zayn, who is now staring quietly at Niall’s profile, curious and drawn.

Jesus. If Louis didn’t know any better… He’d say that Zayn is full-on smitten.

Today is going to be a great day. Zayn’s in love and Louis officially has an excuse to avoid fucking around with Niall. Because there is literally no way in hell that he’s going to chase after the boy with Zayn there—especially when he’s looking at him like that.

Beautiful day.

“Yeah! Really well!” Niall beams, laughing in time to his blush. Or is that giggling? Dear god.

Zayn merely nods, still staring at Niall’s profile.

Louis bites his cheek, highly amused. “How adorable. Well, uh. Don’t mind me. I think I’m going to sneak off to Liam’s room for a lie down. Head hurts a bit. You know.”

He may as well be speaking in tongues though for all the comprehension he gets in response, the boys being too concerned with stealing peripheral glances of each other. This is like primary school. Incredible.

“Good talk,” Louis says dryly after the unresponsive silence prolongs.

Obliviously, Niall spins back to Zayn, grin taking up three quarters of his face. Zayn fumbles and looks away, blinking rapidly before his gaze falls to his feet and cements there, face looking a bit shiny.

Well, then. That’s that, Louis supposes.

Shaking his head in complete and utter amusement, he turns to leave the room.

The last thing he hears before he closes the door is Niall’s awkward clearing of the throat, followed by a faux-nonchalant, “So, will you be at this thing tonight?”

Louis pauses just long enough to hear the dust bunnies settle.

And then Zayn’s pleased “Yeah,” is grunted out, causing Louis to shake his head once more.

Wow. Too, too funny.

Wait until Liam finds out about this.

`**

Louis is currently smack-dab in the middle of the Payne-Malik’s Charity Gala (wearing a wolf mask, no less) and he still has no clue as to whether or not Harry Styles is going to show.

Which is…mildly infuriating.

Especially considering he’s running out of patience and alcohol, his flask becoming depressingly light with only the delicate tinkle of the few droplets left in its sacred belly. Sad, sad, sad. Awful, even. Fucking horrible.

It’s a nice function, though. From a starched-collar point of view, that is. It’s being held in some…giant, ballroom thing in some hotel that the Payne-Maliks probably own—Louis’ not really sure. He’s never quite known, or questioned, what Liam and Zayn’s parents do. All he knows is that they make a shit ton of money, lord it over people, and proudly bear the title of being the wealthiest in the area. They’re top notch parents, too. They do all kinds of wonderful things, such as ignore Zayn, superficially cater to Liam while providing no emotional or sentimental comfort whatsoever, and maintain a stunning record of never hugging nor smiling at their children. Not sincerely, anyway. They also enjoy long holidays out of the country, charity galas, and everything that has nothing to do with Louis Tomlinson.

He smirks at the thought, pouring the last dregs of his flask down his throat. The only hatred that’s stronger than Martha Payne’s hatred for Louis Tomlinson is Louis Tomlinson’s hatred for Martha Payne. What a fucking cow. A pretentious, awful cow.

But anyway. No need to think about her. She’s off in the corner anyway, sweet-talking all the guests in her peacock mask, holding her flute of champagne as she casts annoyed glances in Zayn’s direction, mostly for the fact that he opted to make his own mask tonight. Which is, quite literally, a paper plate cut out in the shape of an eyeball, detailed with black and green sharpie. Admittedly, it’s not the finest creation…

But there’s no need to be a bitch about it, honestly.

It’s still an alright party. Lots of colorful punches (sans alcohol for some fucking reason) and lots of bodies wearing beautiful dresses and dry-cleaned suit jackets. Lots of chatter and laughter and selfies. Lots of warm lighting and lots of sequins and lots of billowing cloth the color of soft amber, gently coating the windows and wrapped around the chairs, dangling from refreshment tables. Everything is autumnal and golden and burnt orange. It looks nice. Everything looks nice. Louis can admit that.

Well. Everything except Liam, that is.

“Styles better fucking come,” he growls at intervals, his once smug eyes now flashing a very startling shade of impatience.

With a flagrant roll of the eyes, Louis scans the crowd from their perch in the shadowy corner of the large room, lips forming a thin line as he takes in the flurry of glitter and feathers, the cackling elders, the giggling teens, and everybody else in between. There’s a lot of cologne in the air. There are a lot of itchy collars. He can’t say he’ll ever willingly attend a masquerade ever again. He only wore his mask for a grand total of seven minutes before he had to flip it to the top of his head. That thing is hot as fuck. And uncomfortable. And it smells like burnt synthetics.

“I warned you that he might not,” he reminds, trying to maintain an unaffected air to his voice and probably failing. It’s a struggle to not sound as irritated as he feels. “He’s told me multiple times that this isn’t his sort of thing.”

“Well then what is his sort of thing? For fuck’s sake, Tommo, the reason I proposed this bullshit to my parents in the first place was to lend you a helping fucking hand in all this.”

Louis raises his eyebrows, turning to a somewhatly livid Liam Payne. His mask (which is just an obscenely dull velvet black thing that only covers his eyes and the slope of his nose) is a little askew, his gelled hair a little droopy, and his necktie seems to be choking him. All in all, he’s a bit of a hot mess.

“I didn’t ask for help,” he comments icily, adjusting the lay of his jacket. It fits too tightly, isn’t relaxed and fluid like his jean one. He hates these kinds of clothes.

Liam flashes another, fiercer glare. The Prince of Glares. “You clearly needed it.”

Louis grits his teeth.

Okay, so the evening is obviously tense.

Mostly due to the fact that Liam’s in a shit mood, which is absolutely accredited to the stunning lack of Harry Styles. AKA, the stunning lack of Liam’s self-validation by watching someone else get played with like a fucking doll because he’s an insecure twat with emotional issues.

However.

It’s not just Harry’s absence that’s sending him in a tizzy. There’s another petite factor going on here tonight that Louis knows is driving Liam fucking nuts. And it’s right over there in the opposite corner of the room.

Right over there stands two people, awkwardly far apart, but too close together to be unintentional. They’re both looking anywhere but at each other, unless they manage to sneak covert glances while the other isn’t looking. One is wearing an uneven eyeball made out of paper. The other is wearing a black, glittery mask with a comically extended nose that dares to knock all the drinks off of the servers’ trays. Right over there stands Zayn Malik and Niall Horan, and they’re both an awkward fucking mess, clearly in the beginning stages of some precious mating ritual.

It’s no secret that Louis aborted his mission of ripping into Niall and thus destroying the heart of his poor mother. The moment Liam returned to their flat and found Niall chatting happily upon the couch, skin radiant, as Zayn looked on with this tiny, bright smile that somehow elongated his eyelashes and softened his stubble and diamond cheekbones, it was apparent that something was off. Severely off.  

“What the fuck?” was all Liam had said when he found Louis in his room, eyes quickly turning thunderous, and Louis couldn’t help but smirk up at him, donning a chipper demeanor that he was sure was going to get under the gorilla’s skin.

“Alright there, Payno?” he’d chirped.

Liam settled his burnt eyes onto Louis. “Alright,” he’d managed in a strangled growl, before properly stomping off to the bathroom, looking oddly close to being emotionally distraught. It was only momentarily unsettling, though it did freeze the gloating, amused smirk on Louis’ face.

But any emotional fragility was gone the minute Liam returned, toweling off his hair with quick, jerking movements as he promptly turned on his music to a decibel-shattering volume, erasing any possibility for conversation. He hadn’t mentioned it again, even when Louis tried to peel it out of him, hours later.

Instead, he’s taken to being a little bitch. And now Louis is stuck with him.

Excellent evening, all in all.

“This is about Niall, isn’t it?” Louis asks flatly, adjusting the lay of his mask. It’s fucking up his hair. But he’s diligently refusing to think about that.

Liam’s face hardens infinitesimally. A tense moment shifts between them before he finally responds.

“Couldn’t do one fucking thing could you?” he growls under his breath, still searing his glare out into the crowd, refusing to look at Louis. If those intensify any more, he’s going to give Cyclops a run for his money. The Gala will be ruined, the guests will be dead.

Louis takes a hard, fruitless sip of his flask, wishing more than anything that he had the inborn ability to produce wine from air. That would be nice. That would make the world nicer.

He sighs, screwing the cap back on and following Liam’s petulant gaze to the two little clowns in the corner. Niall’s scratching the back of his neck and not-so-subtly craning it to look at Zayn while Zayn is standing rigid with his arms limp at his sides, eyes darting very obviously sideways, to Niall. It’s so awkward that it’s surpassed cute and is just painful.

Still, Louis holds back a laugh.

“Liam. Look at the way Zayn’s looking at him. Go on, really look,” he says sternly, gesturing towards them.

Immediately, Liam hisses, shoving Louis’ arm back down. “Don’t point,” he reprimands. “Don’t draw attention to them!”

Louis rolls his eyes, unable to give one fuck. “Sure thing, boss. But look, yeah? Shut your gob and look.”

A terse moment passes between them—one filled with Louis sending his own glare onto Liam (who still won’t look back)—before Liam’s jaw finally clicks and he slowly settles a lingering gaze upon the pair, watching them closely. Zayn, specifically.

All but seven seconds pass (Niall just tried to make a joke, it seems, because Zayn has, quite literally, squawked out a laugh and now looks painfully uncomfortable and self-conscious, if a little bit encouraged) before Liam snaps his gaze away, a stubborn set to his mouth.

“Yeah, what about him?” he grunts, folding his arms. Unhappy prince.

“Liam,” Louis says, eyes accusing and tone chiding.

Liam haughtily looks away, nose in the air.

Li-am,” Louis repeats, firmer, and it sends a rolling sigh through the other boy, his arms unfolding and dropping to his sides.

“Yeah, so what?” he questions dully, obviously put out. “You know, you were the one that was supposed to take care of Horan. You were the one I told to do this. First Styles, now Horan—what the fuck has been going on with you?”

A small streak of self-consciousness zips down Louis’ stomach before he squishes it, propping up one brow. “Don’t pin this back to me, Liam. This is a whole ‘nother thing. This is beyond my control. Just look at the pair, will you? Look at Zayn’s face. Look at the way he’s looking at that kid.” Liam looks like he’s just sucked on a lemon. “Did you honestly want me to upset that? You know Zayn hates our game. I’m not doing that to him. I may be a right bastard and a ruthless piece of shit, but I wouldn’t fuck with our Zayn like that. Not when he’s taken such a liking to the bloke.” He pauses. “And you wouldn’t, either.”

Liam purses his lips, eyes fighting some internal battle, as he remains silent, casting occasional glances in the boys’ direction.

“Does Zayn even know about Niall? What we planned to do with him?” Louis asks, scratching the back of his head where the elastic of his mask is tugging at his scalp. Stupid fucking thing.

“You know he doesn’t like hearing about that shit,” Liam snaps, rolling his eyes so exaggeratedly it spurs on a glare from Louis.

“I’m aware, thanks,” he snaps back, just as irritated. “But the way you’re acting—“

“He can do a lot fucking better than that walking stick,” Liam blurts, near-furious, his eyes almost catching fire. Louis blinks. “No brother of mine is going with a son of Alice fucking Horan’s! I will not let him betray me like that!”

Wow, so he’s having a full on strop. Excellent.

“The kid isn’t that bad, jesus,” Louis mutters, rubbing a frustrated hand through his hair before realizing, too late, that it’s already probably disheveled to a grotesque degree. He probably looks a mess. Fuck. He tucks his hands firmly in his pockets. “You were even beginning to soften up to him a bit, admit it.”

“I was not,” Liam grumbles petulantly.

“You were, though. You were beginning to like him a bit, weren’t you?”

“’Liking’ is far different that ‘tolerating’, Louis. Besides. I was with him for all of five minutes. Hardly enough time for me to give a fuck.”

“Apparently not,” Louis teases, and Liam finally throws his Cyclops-glare upon him which startles up a laugh. “Come on, Payno. Don’t ruin the night because Brother Dearest has fallen in love. I think they’re kind of cute.”

Liam looks far from pleased at the words, not a touch of humor in his features. “Yeah, well you would.”

Louis sighs, relenting and letting his smile fall. He can spot when he’s in a losing battle. He’s not dumb. Oh well.

He settles back into the shadows, leaning against the wall, as Liam continues to send daggers over to Zayn and Niall, who are still fumbling around in the air around each other. Since it’s Niall’s ‘introductory night,’ his mum keeps coming over to introduce him to various smiling individuals and try to drag him off into the fray, much to the sad tilt of Zayn’s mouth. However, Niall never relents, always opting to play it solo so he can, apparently, breathe Zayn’s air rather than socialize. And, seeing as the boy seems to possess enough social skills to start his own business, Louis takes it as rather a sweet gesture.

Especially when the bartender calls Niall’s name, beckoning him over as he holds an unlabelled bottle of something with a wink. Louis’ all but expecting the kid to finally surrender in his attempts to make conversation with Zayn (who already looks brokenhearted as he watches the two interact with forlorn eyes, nervously shredding up a cocktail napkin); but then Niall turns back to Zayn, a confident and determined grin painting his enthusiastic, cherubic face as he waltzes up to him, exchanges a few, loose-shouldered words, and then proudly guides him along with a hand just barely brushing against his back. Zayn looks bashful, nervous, and pleased. Niall looks proud and confident and flushed. They’re two polar opposites, really. Louis can’t help but marvel a bit at them as he watches.

Here Zayn is, this dark and introverted soul-searching boy who spends his time sitting on carpets and staring into all of the dimensions that haven’t been discovered yet, questioning life and the existence of aliens. He doesn’t talk unless he has to, doesn’t socialize even when he does have to, and pales at the thought of prolonged conversation and eye contact.

But then there’s Niall Horan who is, potentially, a fallen sunbeam, who exposes all of his teeth when he smiles, who seems completely at ease in situations that any normal person would find infinitely awkward. He’s exuberant and seemingly innocent and forthright and happy, his emotions are writ on his face and flow easily from his unabashed lips, and the kid is just bright, really. Chipper and easy to read and responsive and extroverted and open to the world in ways that parts of Louis can’t help but scoff at.

And here they are, wrapped up together somehow as Niall introduces the bartender to Zayn, never leaving the latter’s side now that he’s finally gained permission to be there. Zayn looks more than okay with the idea, if a little bit weary of all the boisterous laughter and chatter going on around him. Still, though. This is the most social he’s been in years. Hell, the most social he’s been since Louis’ met him. And that’s… That’s kind of a big deal.

Louis steals a glance at Liam and thinks that, maybe, that look in his eye confirms that he’s thinking the same thing. He would never admit it, though.

It’s funny how opposites are drawn together, isn’t it?

Is Harry the opposite of Louis? Not that they’re drawn to each other, or anything—it’s not like that—but, still. Are they? Harry is definitely the Niall to Louis’ Zayn. Harry is the bright one with warm skin and earnest eyes and large hands that don’t mind gripping onto Louis. Then again, he’s also the quiet one, the one who gnaws on his lips before he voices his thoughts, the one who holds it all in and keeps some of it away from Louis. He’s the one who is deep and soulful and beautiful, the one who lets himself be guided by Louis’ touch.

“You know,” Louis says slowly, half in a daze as they continue to watch from afar. He wonders if Harry will come. “Another good thing about this unexpected little development”—Liam tenses—“is that it will give me more time to focus on Harry. Our main project.” He doesn’t like the way the words sound, but he pushes the discomfort down because he has nothing else to do with it.

“If he bloody shows,” Liam mumbles, agitated, but Louis settles a hand upon his arm, startling Liam to meet his eye.

“Even if he doesn’t. It still gives me better focus. He’s a hard nut to crack, that one.” He swallows, feeling an alarming discomfort that he can’t pinpoint. He just feels the need to say this—to Liam, to the world, to himself. It sounds and feels bumpy and uneven but he just needs to say it and Louis doesn’t know why or what or how or when or… Just. Louis doesn’t know. “But I will get him eventually. I won’t fail, Liam. I will get him. And I will have you.”

Somehow, inexplicably, that’s the sentence that eases the tension in Liam’s shoulders.

They stare at each other for countless minutes, Louis’ hand on Liam’s arm and Liam’s eyes dug somewhere inside of Louis’, and the guests move and talk around them, unawares, and Louis’ heart beats in a way that he wants it to stop.

“Promise,” Liam says quietly, but his eyes are unreadable and his voice is barely decipherable.

Louis feels odd twists in his guts as he responds, voice faraway, “I promise.”

And Liam smiles, maybe genuinely, taking one step closer, a bright flash of light or power or hope in his onyx gaze. But then.

But then the spell or the curse or whatever is broken, because suddenly Liam’s eyes cut past Louis’, hooking somewhere over his shoulder, and it leaves Louis just enough time to swallow, breathing through his trickles of anxiety, before he follows his gaze.

“The fuck is that?” Liam actually laughs, any tension vanished, pointing in the direction of his amusement. “Look what that kid’s wearing.” He laughs again, loud and sharp, utterly delighted.

Intrigued, Louis tries to find the source, eyes squinting in the dim light, unsure of what to expect.

Which, really, is what should have clued him in that it was Harry. Because there he fucking he is.

He’s here. He came. That is absolutely Harry Styles, mask or no, and Liam is laughing with complete elation at the sight, unawares, but Louis feels like he’s being pressed into the earth.

Because of fucking course, the kid is unlike anybody else, standing out amongst them all like a motherfucking beacon of ethereal light. Of fucking course. Amidst a sea of black and grey and charcoal, amongst a sea of ordinary and same, there walks the boy wearing this ostentatious mask bathed in orange and gold glitter, pink etched on the tips of its wings.

Because, yes, he’s wearing a butterfly mask. This glittery, yellow-flecked, majestic butterfly mask. And while it’s certainly not out of place in this sea of animals and insects and goblins, it’s certainly the only one of its kind. It’s certainly the most beautiful.

“Oh,” is what Louis finds himself replying to Liam’s cackles.

“What is that kid wearing?

And, well. Harry’s wearing a pink shirt. Just an ordinary button up, fit for the occasion. It looks marvelous on him, fits nicely around his shoulders and arms and slender torso. But it’s pink and so it’s different and so Liam laughs. He’s got light trousers, light shoes—all a noticeable contrast from the black and bleak and Liam laughs and Louis doesn’t.

Harry.

“Why are you laughing?” he asks sharply, turning to Liam with a surge of extreme annoyance that he can’t seem to pat down.

Liam looks surprised. “What?” he questions, laughter dying a bit.

“Why are you fucking laughing?” he challenges, and the hardness of his eyes—or maybe it’s the way they keep flicking back to Harry, just to look at him, just to see the boy—makes Liam’s eyes clear a bit, a weight of understanding dropping in their depths.

“Oh,” he says after a moment, smile quickly turning clever. “Oh, that’s the Stlyes boy, isn’t it?”

Louis swallows.

Liam grins. “You certainly recognized him very quickly. Is he often this ridiculous?”

Yes, Louis wants to say, but it’s not for Liam to hear.

“Fuck off, Liam,” he says instead, irritated, and Liam’s smile falters.

“What? Why are you—“

“I need to get a drink,” Louis says, flushed and irritated and very aware that Harry is in this room as he pushes past a bewildered Liam, making his way to the fountain-sized punchbowls on the other side of the room.

The poor boy. Poor, sweet, lovely Harry.

Louis fights the urge to walk immediately up to him, just to say hi. He likes Harry, likes talking to him. He enjoys his company. A funny thought.

He pours himself a glass of shitty, electric, over-sugared punch, sipping it because he’s antsy as fuck and he doesn’t know what to do with the tiny surges of energy that are practically sizzling his brain. He tries to hum a song but he ends up humming several, all jumbled together and mismatched, none knowing their place. He can’t think of his own words and, now, he can’t even think of other peoples’.

He takes another harsh sip, all the while as he stares.

The boy, the butterfly, is just gliding through the room, floating on the outskirts, looking past bodies and keeping to himself, his mask completely disguising his face. But Louis knows it’s him, of course it’s Harry. There are those soft, wavy curls of his that look tall and rambunctious and endearingly unkempt and real. There’s that slouch in his back and that clumsy roll of his feet. His hands that sometimes bump against his thighs too much, that sometimes clasp awkwardly together because he doesn’t know what to do with them. There’s Harry with his lovely, lovely clothes and polished shoes and…and he came.

He came because Louis asked him to.

Louis can only watch, drawn. Watches as Harry looks at passerby, ducking his head and waving to all those who are surely pouring their compliments to him or making smirking remarks. Remarkably, he doesn’t seem to give a fuck that people are noticing him. That people are pointing him out. He looks flattered at the kindness and oblivious to the unkindness and it’s just… It’s a little unexpected.

Because Louis sort of has this preconceived notion of the Harry in his head—the sweet little one that he keeps in a cubby that he covers up, mostly because he doesn’t like knowing it’s there. But in that cubby is a sweet, naïve, delicate boy that needs protection from the world. A boy who is sensitive and trepid and scared and filled with precious things that are in danger of being spilled. Louis sort of regards Harry as this gentle, meek creature who shivers at harsh light and abrupt winds and Louis sort of thinks of him as needing to be treated with fragility, but…

But, though it may be true in some ways… It’s sort of a ton of bullshit.

Harry, this Harry, the one who strides through the room unabashedly wearing pink glitter, unabashedly sticking out of the mundane, living while the others are existing, is anything but fragile and timid and meek. He’s anything but the little creature that needs the protection that the unanswered parts of Louis had assumed he needed.

Fuck, Harry’s probably the one that needs to protect Louis.

The thought lies acidic in his gut, sends sharp warning signals through Louis’ brain.

Fuck. He hates the way that sounds in his head. He positively hates the way that… He just hates it. Fuck.

He’s just about to suffer a mild panic attack, when suddenly there’s a solid, warm presence behind him. It feels just a bit heavy and overbearing. Liam.

“Go to him,” are the words that are whispered in his ear. Liam’s breath, Liam’s voice, soft and smooth and edged with determination. The words are meant to be silk. They feel like mud.

But Louis knows his part in all this, knows he agreed to this even if everything feels a little fucked up, so he just swallows and nods. He nods without looking at Liam once.

Okay. Okay, he can do this. He can get this over with tonight, he can shed Harry of himself and shed himself of Harry before anything too…heavy forms between them. He can just finish this bullshit tonight and he can survive this. He can have Liam and he can get what he wants.

He can do this.

Louis walks forward, emerging from the shadows as he slides his mask down, obscuring his face. No more time for thought. No more thinking.

He steps into the warm light of the room, joining the bustle of the crowd as the dim lamps catch on the black glitter of the wolf he wears, sending a prismed haze around him, around his peripherals. Harry probably won’t even know it’s him. Especially considering the fact that Louis is wearing an actual fucking suit (without the noose though, thanks) and his tattoos are covered up and his hair is styled differently; nothing specific to him, nothing that would enable his dead body to be identified, is visible. He’s just another body in the crowd.

So he just walks, moves forth through the dancing couples and the ghouls and the goblins and the peacocks and the foxes and monsters with their sequins and ribbons and cocktails, and he glides through them all as he begins to follow Harry.

It’s slow at first. Just slow, calm steps. Trailing behind an oblivious boy.

But he doesn’t really want Harry to be oblivious. He wants Harry to see him. He doesn’t even have to know it’s Louis, fuck, he just wants Harry to look at him.

He stops, a pull and a tug laced in his ribs, before he begins moving in the opposite direction. Slowly, as Harry circles the room one way, Louis circles the other, always remaining directly across from him, eyes never straying. Still, Harry notices nothing, continuing to gently brush past shoulders and elbows, his curls tangled up in the ribbons that tie up his mask, spilling out over his little ears.

The music swirls, somewhere above.

Vaguely, it dings in Louis that this is how it all started. Isn’t it? Back in that library, that first day they met, when Louis was hidden amongst books and pages and dust, and Harry was just sitting there, unknowing and quiet and sweet. Louis circled him then, too. He watched him and circled him before he finally trapped him. Well. Sort of. Sometimes it feels like the other way around.

But the thought lies acrid in his mouth, makes him feel nauseous, makes him feel foul, so he stops it, stops thinking, just watches the soft, glittering butterfly with curls and limbs. A wolf drawn to a butterfly. Funny that.

It doesn’t take long for Harry to notice, then.

It’s subtle at first. Just little flicks of his head, once in awhile glancing in Louis’ direction, more curious than anything.

And then the flicks begin to last a bit longer.

He’s clearly aware of Louis’ presence now, aware of the wolf, but whether or not he knows who lies behind it is a mystery. Perhaps he knows Louis’ mannerisms the way Louis knows his? In any case, he doesn’t seem weary of the figure because Harry begins slowing his pace, his feet beginning to drag purposefully against the polished marble floors, and before long, it’s Harry’s eyes that never leave Louis.

Slower and slower they walk, circling each other around the room, masked eyes boring into masked eyes.

Somehow, in the quiet sanctuary of the disguise, Louis feels invigorated. Somehow, amidst the anonymity he inexplicably feels right now, it feels amazing. It’s like he’s not Louis, he’s not Louis Tomlinson with the weight that sinks every letter and clings to his syllables. It’s like he can, momentarily, believe a different story for himself right now. A story where Harry Styles matters, can matter, the beacon of light in the dark. A story where he can answer the unanswered parts of himself.

He stops, skin warm and tingly, like the tiny flutters of wings brushing his flesh. Butterfly wings.

Harry, from across the room, stops too.

Louis’ heart beats steadily in his ears. Shit. Distantly, he’s aware of Liam’s presence, his eyes somewhere in the room. But he pushes it away.

And then Harry begins walking to him, each step slow, striding, and careful. That sloping rhythm.

Louis’ every blood vessel might burst. He’s not sure, though, and he doesn’t fucking care.

More steps are taken. More steps, more steps, more steps.

They don’t say anything when Harry reaches him, meeting in the middle of the crowded dance floor like West Side Fucking Story. ‘I Bet That You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ by the Arctic Monkeys flits along in the back of Louis’ hazy mind. It’s only appropriate. The tips of Harry’s shoes touch the tips of Louis’.

Around them, everybody seems well versed in the box-step, ballroom dancing like something out of Labyrinth (Louis’s childhood favorite movie) and, huh. Louis is probably David Bowie. Harry is probably Sarah. No, most definitely Sarah. A far more beautiful Sarah. Would Louis steal Harry’s baby sibling just to entrap him in his world? Just to lure him there and keep him amongst all the hideous things?

Maybe. Probably. Yeah.

Problem is, though, that Louis can’t fucking dance. Definitely can’t ballroom dance, jesus. So, really, this should be all the reason in the world for him to, you know, not raise his hands in a silent invitation for Harry. Or is it a plea?  But he does anyway, maybe because he’s not Louis Tomlinson right now, and Harry understands, and Harry responds immediately, his hand easily slipping into Louis’, his other immediately going to his shoulder.

His body aligns perfectly with Louis’.

Louis can see his eyes now. They’re murky green with flecks of amber and undercurrents of aqua. Above them, he can see Harry’s dainty, elongated eyelashes that he, in this moment, can admit that he’s wanted to count and wants to feel fanned against his cheek. He can see the pale, delicate skin beneath Harry’s eyes and he can dream of a universe where he could press his fingertips against the flesh, brushing away any memory that doesn’t fit this moment, pushing his cells into Harry’s cells.

Delicately, strongly, he grips Harry’s warm hand in his own. He feels the boy’s fingers squeeze his and, for a moment, it unevens his pulse before it returns back to normal. He presses his hand deeper into the slope of Harry’s waist as he moves him about the room in a slow, ethereal waltz that he’s improvising on the spot because thinking is just something he cannot do.

It works, though. Somehow, it works and Harry follows Louis’ every move, every lead, and neither of them speak as their palms press against each other.

They dance (dance) silently and if you told Louis that this is what he’d be doing a year ago, he would’ve spit in your face. But now it all just quietly seems to make sense as flecks of glitter fall from Harry’s mask onto Louis’ jacket and it feels like they’re obscured from each and the world and somehow it’s all a lot simpler.

And then suddenly Harry stops them, brings them to a soft halt, eyes flickering all over Louis’ mask, before finding his gaze again. He stills, gently pulling Louis to a standstill while never releasing his hold, and Louis almost speaks, almost questions him as he begins to remove his hands—but Harry doesn’t let him.

Instead, shit, instead, Harry presses closer. The sweet, fiery, pink boy with the long legs and that ridiculous mask and the curls and the laugh that has managed to begin sewing itself into Louis’ skin, presses closer and holds a determined hand into Louis’ side as he pulls him towards himself.

Louis’ cellular functions pause.

He feels separate, feels like he’s just watching as Harry pulls him still more, ducking his head as those eyes glide down to Louis’ lips, in the middle of the goddamn room.

What is he doing? Is Harry seriously going to… Is Harry going to kiss him?

If Louis wasn’t so shell-shocked and entirely fucked up right now, he would probably find this to be the most storybook, romantic, and picturesque moment of his very un-romantic life.

As it is, though, he can’t quite recover from the knowledge that this is, in fact, happening, and that they’re currently surrounded by people, by chaos, and a certain pair of eyes in this room that he knows is watching them.

He knows Liam is staring, smiling, licking his lips in anticipation because he sees the beginning of the end in sight. Because this is where it starts and this is where it ends—with Harry pulling his mouth ever closer, pressing fingers into Louis’ clothes and looking soft and shielded by fabric as his eyelashes quiver. This is when the entire game begins to destruct and Louis feels those eyes on them and he doesn’t fucking want that, doesn’t fucking want the destruction. Not one fucking bit.

He doesn’t want Liam to see.

He doesn’t want any of this.

This is all supposed to be a joke. This is supposed to be a game that a couple of spoiled brats and emotionless fuckers conjured up, and it was never supposed to be genuinely serious. It was supposed to be a solution so Liam could go to a fucking university. That’s it. That’s all this is supposed to be and yet it feels like Louis’ getting his insides pulled out of him as he watches Harry’s eyes close and this doesn’t feel like a game because it’s not fucking fun.

It’s overwhelming. It’s too much. And he doesn’t want Liam to see.

“Fuck,” Louis breathes quietly, so quietly he doubts Harry can even hear, and he pushes away. Instant and harsh, he pushes Harry away.

Of course, it spirals a flood of surprised pain in Harry’s opening eyes, which. Fuck. This isn’t fun.

Louis doesn’t speak, he doesn’t want to, but he also can’t just turn around and walk out while Harry’s eyes are that color of hurt. He just can’t and he won’t, not when it clashes so harshly with the graceful curve of his eyelids. So he blindly reaches out, clasping Harry’s hands and folding them up in his own clammy, shaking ones, before bowing his head. I’m sorry, he wants to say. Wants to say without saying it. I’m sorry I’m me. So instead he presses Harry’s knuckles against his slackened, foul, unmoving lips without a second’s thought. Not now is what he wants to bite into the flesh, and he isn’t sure if Harry gets the message or not, but when he looks back up, the eyes are less hurt, more calm, and there’s a warm, pulling undercurrent that’s begun to settle there.

Louis will take it.

He smiles even though Harry can’t see it and he presses one more kiss to the back of the boy’s hand as he half-asses a clumsy bow, his blood still surging too harshly, the need to leave beginning to drown him.

He tears his lips away then, beginning to back up and only dropping Harry’s hands at the very last minute, refusing to let the boy’s gaze keep him there any longer than he wants to.

He’s suffocating. He needs air. He needs to leave.

It’s just as he’s about to push open the door, fresh air in promising sight, that he feels before he hears a voice hiss in his ear.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

But Louis doesn’t turn around, couldn’t give a fuck about Liam right now, so he just shoves past the grip on his arm, the voice in his ear, the soft eyes he still sees in his head.

And he leaves.

Chapter Text

Bigger, Stronger—Coldplay


 

The good thing about having shitty parents is that they’re never home.

This is something Louis is infinitely thankful for when it comes to the Payne-Maliks. Seeing as how Louis only has a handful of options as to where to go during his free time, having a fallback location is always nice when one is, more or less, homeless. Long ago Liam had entrusted him with free reign of the place, knowing Louis wasn’t stupid enough to steal anything, and so whenever Anthony (or Ben or Stan or Oli or Lucas or any other charitable acquaintance of Louis’) is otherwise occupied and cannot house him and his filthy shoes and nervous, nicotine-stained hands, he’s able to come here. Just sit in Liam’s room and listen to his music as he stares at the wall or out the window, sometimes trying to read one of the many books Liam possesses merely for show. Sometimes he’ll smoke a bowl as well, but usually it’s with Zayn.

Speaking of the mystical wonder, Zayn hasn’t been around much lately. Or at least, not at the flat. Ever since he got a job and a boyfriend, he’s been quite the social butterfly—never at home, always doing something. It’s sort of precious; Louis can’t even begrudge him for it.

“So you and Niall, eh?” Louis had asked the day after the gala, trying to sort through his mess of hairsprayed hair that he hadn’t been able to wash yet.

He’d stayed at Anthony’s the night before, fleeing there as soon as he’d left that whole mess of a party. It’d been a wise choice—Anthony is always easy, calm company. Always very simple and relaxing. They ended up watching The Incredible Hulk as Anthony sipped on independent brewery beer and made incredibly nerdy commentary that Louis secretly found interesting as he gnawed on his nails, firmly ignoring his phone that he’d shut off after receiving too many of Liam’s incessant, peeved text messages. He might’ve been firmly ignoring the fact that Harry hadn’t texted as well. Maybe also firmly ignoring himself.

Altogether, it was an alright night, if maybe a restless one.

The very next morning, Louis had crept back to the boys’ flat, when the sun was still faded and pink-tinted, to return the borrowed clothes, folded neatly beneath his calloused hands. He’d felt and looked like shit when he knocked on Zayn’s door, phone lying dead and untouched in his back pocket, right up against the shitty Andre Gide paperback he’d found in Anthony’s bathroom—he likes to read when his thoughts are too much or not enough. But Zayn didn’t care, or maybe didn’t notice, and he’d stepped back to allow him in with sleep-creases still in his face, eyes puffy, a faraway smile on his face. Louis could only attribute such a look to one thing, so he had barely taken two steps into the oil-scented room before he’d inquired slyly, plopping down in the desk chair.

“Yeah,” Zayn nodded, factual and pleased, gently putting the clothes away with an almost manic grin on his awakening face. “Yeah, I’m in love now.” He said it so matter-of-factly. “I think my soul has transfigured, too.”

“Oh, has it?” Louis questioned, a wry smile peeking out. “Well that’s brilliant, Dearest. I love when that happens.”

“Yeah,” Zayn agreed. He closed his closet doors before turning back to Louis with an even larger smile. “He’s really helped me evolve. I finally understand the romantic element of the world. And my path, too.”

“Zayn, you met him less than twenty-four hours ago,” Louis had laughed, but Zayn merely shrugged.

“That’s how I know it’s real,” was all he’d provided.

Louis wasn’t sure if it was wise or foolish. Still doesn’t.

Ever since then (which was just last week, actually, wow), Zayn has been remarkably different than his usual bottled-up self. Instead of spending seven hours locked in his room, tripping on Morning Glory seeds and charting the sun’s path, he’s been going out with Niall. The sweet little Irish boy keeps spoiling him, taking him out to exquisite dinners nearly every night and lavishing him with exotic teas and spiritual crystals and concert tickets and… And all of the other shit that Zayn loves. How Niall seems to have gotten such a thorough grasp of Zayn’s interests so quickly is beyond Louis, but. It’s still pretty cute all the same. He even bought Zayn a necklace—it’s an eye with a yin-yang as the pupil. Zayn’s worn it every day since he got it and sometimes likes to go into monologues about its deeper meaning and why Niall is his yang and why he’s his yin. It’s actually pretty boring and semi-annoying but Louis lets him talk.

Mostly because Liam doesn’t.

“He’ll come around soon,” Zayn always says wisely, whenever Liam storms off in a huff. “He just needs to find his own yang.”

And every time, Louis laughs for about five minutes after while Zayn blinks at him, confused.

Liam really is adjusting rather poorly, though. If he’s not rolling his eyes, he’s pouting in the corner, muttering obscenities under his breath.

“Maybe I’ll tell Alice,” he scowls darkly one night, when Zayn doesn’t come home.

Thing is, since Alice Horan isn’t such a fan of the idea of her son being gay, Zayn and Niall have been having to keep their little affair (is it an affair? Louis’ not entirely sure—sometimes he thinks they’re still just courting each other by the way that they still blush when they catch the other looking) completely under wraps. Not a peep is said about it and, oftentimes, they have to find places to meet up. It’s very Shakespeare.

And Liam is very Tybalt.

“You will not,” Louis replies immediately, eyes hard. There’s warning on the edges of his voice. He knows Liam cares for Zayn, he knows he wouldn’t want to truly hurt him… But he also knows he’s an idiot and he likes to feel appeased after he feels wronged

There’s only a moment, filled with Liam’s angry brows, before he sighs, walking out of the room, shoulders stiff.

“No. I won’t,” Louis hears him say quietly as he watches him leave, but it’s enough.

It’s not a huge deal, though. One of these days Liam will give in to the begrudging cuteness that is Zayn and Niall. He will. If Louis finds the odd couple to be endearing, then Liam sure as hell can. How could he not? They spend most of their time smiling at each other and touching each other’s cheeks. They’re very tactile—Louis had never realized just how physically intimate Zayn was before—and they make these odd little noises with each other, little robot beeps and bird whistles and suchlike, and Zayn is always soul-searching and seemingly protective while Niall is always happy-go-lucky and clingy. Fucking awful.

It makes Louis smile to think about. He’s smiling just thinking about it right now, in fact. Sort of, at least.

He’s currently sitting on Liam’s bed, playing with his addictively soft duvet, listening to his music at the lowest volume. The duvet’s black. Black like Louis’ tattoos. Like the web that’s scrawled on his wrist, spiky and poorly done. He’d gotten it immediately after watching Spiderman—with Toby McGuire—in his mate’s bedroom after he’d fucked him, both of them a little too strung out on… What was it? Shrooms? Or was it E? He can’t really remember. Either way, they were both out of their fucking minds and eating onion crisps and Louis had, at the time, underwent a spiritual awakening while watching the movie. He’d been convinced he was Spiderman, convinced that he could identify with the hero. So he promptly hopped off the bed while the credits were rolling, grabbing his jacket, and strolled out of the room without one word, leaving whatshisface behind and never seeing him again.

Huh. He just realized that. He never did see that kid again, did he? Why is that?

Maybe he hurt his feelings, or something. Maybe gave him the wrong idea. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Because, see, that’s how Louis’ entire life is, you know. Sure, he’s got his cute moments—his Zayn and his Niall and his evil-meets-sorta-cute Liam—but, mostly, Louis’ dealt with some dark shit, you know? He’s part of the dark shit. Maybe he is the dark shit. He used to abandon people all of the time. And he literally never felt remorse or empathy. Never.

He stares down at the tattoo. It’s spider-less because Louis is the spider. He’s the spider man.

Blinking in time to the quiet beat of drums in his ears, he presses one finger upon the ink, watching the way it distorts with the movement of his skin, watching how he can manipulate it. One of Louis’ best talents is manipulation, you know.

Not with Harry Styles, though.

He swallows, presses down on the skin a bit harder, watching it pale around the edges.

Not with Harry, though.

He hasn’t seen him since the gala. Not once. He’s been hiding like a criminal, hauled up in either this room or the pub or on someone else’s couch the past week. They’ve been texting, though. Just a little. Louis tries to answer all of the ones Harry sends but sometimes it’s just really difficult and he feels exhausted when he tries to type out an answer.

The day after the gala, when Louis had finally recharged his phone, he’d found a single message from Harry, sent late the night before. Probably around the time Louis was watching The Incredible Hulk, actually.

All it said was, ‘Were you there tonight?

And so all Louis said was, ‘Yes’

And that was it for the day.

But then the next day Harry’d sent another one, around the time Louis would usually come find him outside his building, after his last course.

‘I thought you said you’d warn me when you decided to abandon me again ? :(‘

Louis’d felt like instant shit, he did, but he was also currently suffering from some sort of…something. Some problem inside that he didn’t understand and was trying to figure out, so he couldn’t even bring himself to leap out of bed and find the boy, lighting up the day with a smile that only comes natural when it’s in the vicinity of Harry’s.

‘I’m sorry, Sassy. Life’s kicking my arse today.’

He gnawed on his lips for a total of ten seconds before he found himself sending another one, feeling inexplicably heavy in his ribs.

‘Don’t get used to this solitary freedom tho. You haven’t seen the last of me yet pup’

And what did he get in response?

‘:) I was hoping you’d say that. Miss you, hope life is better to you. Please call if you need anything x’

And, god, it was so respectful and supportive and just, like, genuinely fucking nice. It was fucking relieving. Harry wasn’t pushy or pressuring or suffocatingly concerned.

It made Louis feel more sick and he just didn’t know why. He still doesn’t know why.

Something just feels really, really wrong inside.

See, usually Louis’ insides are fairly quiet. He’s never really felt them before, didn’t know his insides even had feelings, and he’s never been caused much discomfort from them, aside from the occasional sharp twinge that always follows whenever thoughts or talk of his family is mentioned. But that’s—that’s another thing. Let’s not get into that.

But, see, now? Now, Louis’ insides feel very, very jumbled and he just doesn’t know what the fuck is going on. Is that normal? Is it normal to physically feel things that you can’t mentally comprehend? He’s not stupid enough to think that his emotions have no part in this—he’s aware that, for some reason, his intestines are directly connected to his brain. Somehow, a string was tied, pulling them together, and though he doesn’t remember ever giving permission for this procedure, it’s obviously too fucking late for remorse, isn’t it?

So now Louis is stuck with insides that squirm and simultaneously feel like they’re pumped with lead, especially when he thinks about Harry, thinks about Harry’s tall, glittery stride and the way his eyes tremble when he’s about to kiss someone.

God. Has Harry ever even kissed someone before? He seems so innocent, has often alluded to the fact that he’s never been in love, never dabbled in relationships… He wants to know. There are so many things he doesn’t know about Harry and that makes his insides feel heavier. More lead pumped inside.

Louis picks up his phone.

‘Have you ever kissed anyone before ?’

He doesn’t care if it’s random and creepy and unsanctioned and that Harry is probably still in school right now. Louis sends the text with a blank expression on his face, before setting his phone back on the bed beside him.

Liam’s been weird about Harry lately, too. He’s been getting even more impatient, trying to poke and prod at Louis for answers.

“Why is it taking so long, though?” “Why don’t you try harder?” “Why are you sabotaging me?” “What’s wrong with you?”

His phone buzzes.

He picks it up carefully, the lead shifting around in his stomach, his fingers bracketing Harry’s words.

‘No…’

Louis swallows, watches another text appear.

‘Why? Also, will you be here today? It’s been over a week… :(‘

Another buzz. Louis feels heavier with each word.

‘Are you mad at me?’

“Fuck’s sake,” Louis exhales, rubbing a hand over his eyes when his nerves snap a little too harshly—little elastic ‘no!’s slapping every vein, joint, muscle, and appendage. Guilt. “Fuck’s sake, Harry.”

He swallows again, throat dry, typing carefully in the mostly silent room, Mama Cass crooning softly in his eardrums.

‘Did you know it’s impossible to be mad at people with curly hair ? And that its scientifically proven that you will turn into a goat bladder if you act like a tit to them ?’

He sends the text, feeling the lead lighten a bit as he sniffs a smile, imagining Harry’s confused brow and soft lips as he reads through Louis’ elusive words.

‘In other news,’ Louis continues to tap. ‘I’ve turned into a goat bladder. Happy days x’

It only takes a moment.

‘HAH! Does this mean you’ll come?? Pleeaaaaasse :))’

Louis sets down the phone. He’s not sure. He still feels so discombobulated, energy zapped from him… Just depleted, really.

But he misses Harry. Every day, he misses that little fucker and, sometimes, when he watches Zayn and Niall, he misses him even more. That’s such a bad fucking sign. God.

It’s as he’s pondering his response to Harry that suddenly the door is flung open, followed by heavy footsteps and a thin packet of paper being smacked onto the desktop beside the bed.

Sigh. Liam.

“Good to see you, darling,” Louis mutters dryly as he meets Liam’s grumpy face, eyebrows pulled together and lips tight.

Great. One of those days.

“Do you see that mark?” he demands instead of responding, pointing at the paper. It appears to be an essay, typed up and formatted nicely, accented with the thin, red lines of a professor’s even scrawl.

Louis leans forward, squints to find a grade. “An A?” he guesses, the writing a little illegible. Liam’s silent, pressed mouth apparently translates to a yes. “Oh, well, then. Excellent job, Payno. Proper proud and all that.” There’s little life to his voice, his intonation flat. But it’s whatever. He tried.

“No. No, you’re wrong,” Liam says testily, shaking his head in a weird, shivery motion. Oh, boy. Here we go. “No, you are not proud because there is no fucking reason to be. I didn’t get a flawless fucking A, did I? Nope! But you know who did?” Liam’s eyes are bugging. Louis glares up at him, uneven hair falling into his eyes. “Your little bloody boyfriend.”

Instantly, Louis feels his body heat, the dullness of his eyes sharpening. “Oh, you mean the ‘boyfriend’ that you’re currently bribing me to fuck? That boyfriend?”

“Yes,” Liam continues, eyebrows pulled down even further, slitting his eyes. “That boyfriend. The one you haven’t actually fucked. And, if I recall, the only reason I’m bribing you in the first goddamn place, is because you are supposed to be preventing this shit from happening!” The last bit is shouted, soaking into the thick, silent air around them and hanging in place.

Louis’ glare drops to his hands, now lying in his lap. He sort of wants to spit on the duvet.  

A frustrated growl rolls out of somewhere deep in Liam’s chest before he begins shedding himself of his school attire, unfastening his tie and whipping his blazer off as he paces violently around the room. “Honestly, Tommo, what are you doing?” he continues, a fleck of split flying from his lips. Louis glares at his hands harder, his cheeks feeling hot, his neck feeling prickly. “What the fuck do you even do when you’re with him all that time? You see him more than you bloody see me and yet, miraculously, nothing has fucking changed! What are you playing at? You haven’t even kissed the fucking kid yet—which, need I remind you—“

“I know!” Louis finally snaps, pulling off his headphones and seething, already shuffling off the bed. He’s not dealing with this shit right now. “I fucking know, alright? I’m working on it, I keep telling you.”

Liam looks impressively unsympathetic. “Then where are the fucking results?” he questions, hard.

Louis doesn’t respond, instead opting to violently stuff his feet into his shoes.

“We’re going on two months now.”

“We are not,” Louis replies hastily, but a flash of panic shoots in his veins. Two months? Has it really? Jesus.

“Two fucking months and you’re still at square one.” Liam stares at him, hard, as Louis studiously ignores him, winding up the chord of his headphones. “So. Tell me. What have you managed to accomplish? Hm?”

Louis sets his jaw.

Liam blinks, faux-innocently. “Anything at all? Hm? Because you apparently have some sort of power over the kid—he came to the fucking gala.”

The gala. Ugh.

A surge of unsettling images assaults Louis then, his body stilling; namely one pair of eyes, shrouded in glitter and the elegant reach of wings. The lead inside of him churns before solidifying again.

He hangs his head. Every single part of him feels tense, feels heavy, feels so fucking jumbled. This is all a giant pile of bullshit. “I’m going to do better,” he promises quietly, mostly to himself, after the silence drags. His hands are fisted into balls at his side, his knuckles tight.

“Prove it,” Liam responds quietly. He takes a step closer, lifting Louis’ chin with one finger.

Begrudgingly, Louis meets his eye. There’s lust in the gaze, mingled with frustration, pain, irritation… And something black. Maybe there’s a touch of sympathy in there, too. Louis thinks he might see something like that.

“I know you’re going through something,” Liam continues quietly, and Louis’ insides freeze.

Wait, what? Oh god.

Does he know? He can’t know. How could he possibly know? Louis doesn’t even know. What is there to know? There’s nothing to know.

He couldn’t possibly know if there’s nothing to know.

Still, Louis holds his breath, lungs tingling as he stares at Liam unblinkingly, steeling his expression.

“And I don’t know what it is and, frankly, I don’t give a fuck. It’s your thing, I get it. There’s a lot of weird shit in your life. Whatever.”

Oh, thank fuck.

It’s not a cruel statement, and it eases the tension out of Louis’ spine, relaxes him incredibly as he exhales.

He doesn’t know. Thank the gods.

“So I’m aware that shit’s a little bit more difficult for you this time around, alright?” Liam waits for Louis to respond so he nods, once. Liam looks appeased. “I’m not trying to be a dick, here. I just need you to do this for me. It’s important to me, Tommo. Alright?”

Louis nods again.

Something flickers in Liam’s eye. “Besides… I thought you’d want to get this done quickly.” A hint of a frown ghosts upon his mouth. “I thought I gave you motivation to succeed.”

Ah. So that’s what this is about.

“You did, Liam,” Louis says, as earnestly as he can manage, and he has absolutely no idea if he means it or not. “It’s just proving a bit more problematic, yeah? But I’ll get him.” Swallow. “I always do.” He smiles, wry and sour, but Liam looks relieved, the tension bunched around his eyes slowly easing away.

“Good,” he says. “Now try harder. For me.”

The room feels like it’s getting smaller. Everything fucking sucks right now. And Louis can’t blame shit on anyone else but himself, which is the worst part.

“For you,” Louis promises in someone else’s voice, before sliding out of Liam’s grip, a horrible sort of feeling settling inside. “I should get going, then. Gonna meet up with him. With the Styles kid.”

Liam nods. “Perfect.”

Louis nods as well, opening the door.

“Oh, and Louis?”

He turns back around.

“Good luck.”

Liam’s grin makes Louis feel physically sick. He’s not even sure why—it seems natural enough, this is nothing out of the ordinary. This is relatively radio-friendly for him, for them.

What is wrong with him?

If I was crying in the van with my friend, it was for freedom from myself and from the land.

The lyric pops in Louis’ brain before he can stop it. It’s from one of those hipster bands Harry loves so much, from one of those songs he always plays at the record shop, watching Louis as he listens. Louis insists that he hates it but he secretly sort of loves it. He even downloaded it. He will never, ever tell Harry that.

There are countless, countless things that Louis never, ever wants to tell Harry.

He sighs, trying to pull his limbs and brain together as he assembles a smirk onto his face, looking at back at Liam with feigned ease.

“Thanks, captain,” he winks before exiting, his smirk immediately falling off of his face the second the door clicks. 

Chapter Text

Motion Picture Soundtrack—Radiohead


 

It’s the perfect time of fall. Every tree is alight, their leaves saturated in different shades of fire, the sky is white and warm, gold and silver hovering on the edges, and the air is as crisp as the twigs that crunch beneath Louis’ steady, pounding feet.

He’s walking with purpose, albeit a bit jagged. Jagged like his current state of mind and shitty, greasy hair that he hasn’t even bothered to wash in about a week. He looks like complete shit, to be quite honest, the scruff peppering his face just a tad too long to be labeled as mere ‘stubble’. He’s wearing his same ol’ filthy jacket, his shitty shoes, his too-tight, ripped up black skinny jeans, and his reliably stained Rod Stewart t-shirt.

All in all, he can’t help but feel a quiet pang of self-consciousness.

Harry will probably turn him away the minute he sees him, looking like this scruffy, dirty mess. And, honestly, that would be the best possible outcome right now, even if the thought does make Louis’ teeth feel like wood.

But, no.

No, Louis has no time to indulge that sentimental bullshit anymore. He’s already spent an entire goddamn week Googling his symptoms for fear that he might be dying—he doesn’t need to dwell on the ‘unfortunate’s of life any longer. He’s gotten himself into the present mess. He willingly signed up for this. So he is going to follow through. Because he’s Louis fucking Tomlinson and if he was able to march out on his entire sleeping family without a second’s thought, then clearly he can handle breaking one gentle boy’s heart.

As he gets closer to the school, the scarf-wrapped bodies and clutched Starbucks beverages increase, as do the peacoats and the monotonous trills of laughter. In a brief moment of distraction, he finds himself eying one girl’s tea a little hungrily; she raises her eyebrow at him, a mix between challenging and irritated which Louis almost jumps on because challenges are sort of his favorite thing. He as half a mind to pluck the bloody drink out of her snippy little hands, down it in one go and hand her the empty remnants just because he can. Fortunately, however, he bites down on the urge, instead flicking his eyes ahead and trotting onward, keeping a look out for the only reason he’s out and about on his blustery, quaintly autumnal day from hell. He searches, licking his chapped lips, looking for Harry amongst the masses. 

Part of him wants to find him immediately. Part of him never wants to see him again. Sort of a shitty situation.

Annoyed with himself (he’s got to stop fucking thinking shit like that), he bites on the inside cushion of his lip, sharpening his focus as he crunches along pavement and fallen leaves, the cold beginning to coat his limbs.

He can do this, okay? At this point, he’s got to either shit or get off the pot. So he’s got to fucking do this. And as soon and quickly as possible, even if he currently looks like a rooster carcass.

So he walks with harsh footsteps, his posture stiffening, his joints tightening, his spine straightening as if there were steel rods being thrust into his body. With each step, he assembles a fortress inside of himself, every slap of the pavement slathering on a new brick.

He is a fortress. Louis Tomlinson is a fortress. Impenetrable. Strong. He’s a motherfucking fortress and he will be the last one standing, simple as that. And so he ambles on.

It’s when Louis begins heading towards the pond, that he sees him.

It’s when he’s happening upon the tree that they always sit against—its bark grey and twisted, its leaves mostly gone, only the curled, drooping brown ones still clinging for dear life—that he sees a clean white pair of Converse, a burnt orange jumper, and a softly glowing brown head bent over a small book that lies between the boy’s crossed legs. Everything about the image is Harry, simple as that, and it really should’ve ended there, but somehow it doesn’t.

Somehow, Louis stops in his tracks, the very sight of him squeezing too much air out of his lungs and igniting something sharp and startling into his bloodstream. It feels alarmingly like adrenaline and Louis doesn’t know what that fucking means because he didn’t just snort a line and he didn’t just get punched in the face and he didn’t just sprint across town evading police. He’s literally just looking at Harry’s solitary, bent figure, surrounded by the swirls of clustered students. Yet, somehow, Louis can’t catch his goddamn breath.

Without dwelling on what that means too much (no, thanks), his feet pick up his stride again, but this time with even more purpose, more determination. He’s positively marching towards the boy, staring at him unyieldingly because he’s suddenly and inexplicably overwhelmed with the desire to see Harry’s face when he first spots him. He wants to see what his eyes do, what his mouth does, where he puts his hands… It doesn’t really make any sense but he needs to see Harry seeing him.

And then he does.

Harry looks up from his little book as the crunching leaves get louder, and Harry’s eyes slip right into Louis’, sending the world in five different directions. His blank expression bursts into surprise which cracks into actual joy and Louis’ feet falter again because it’s joy that’s in that boy’s face. Distantly, he’s aware that nobody else looks at him the way that Harry does. There’s no primitive lust in his gaze, there’s no need or claim or want or derision or weariness or judgment or fear or anything that Louis is so accustomed to looking back into. It’s just joy, that’s all, and Louis feels addicted to it already because it feels nice and new and it doesn’t make sense.

But then, the actual fucker that he is, Harry closes his book, never taking his wide, joyous eyes off of Louis, and he stands up, legs long and gangly as he finds his footing amidst tree roots and foliage. Then it gets worse, somehow, it does, because he starts walking towards Louis, eagerly, as if just waiting the five extra seconds for Louis to reach him were five seconds too many.

Dear lord. What the fuck.

Louis still can’t catch his breath. Maybe it’s this reason that suddenly an awful, awful feeling shoots through him as he watches Harry come to him; a feeling that, for the first time in Louis’ life, tells him that he can’t beat this. That he is going to fail and there’s nothing he can do to stop it.

But fuck, no, hell no.

He tries to push it away, tries to swallow that down because he still has free will and right now his free will has made a deal with Liam, but then Harry reaches him, stopping at a cautious distance, his smile bubbling off his face.

“Louis,” he greets breathlessly, his smile beautifully wide. Maybe he can’t catch his breath, either.

“Hey, stranger,” Louis greets, smiling weakly, stuffing his hands in his pockets because they feel shaky. His eyes immediately fall to Harry’s lips, their last encounter suddenly deciding to make an appearance in his memory because the world enjoys a good laugh at his expense.

Shit. Harry tried to kiss him. Harry wanted to kiss him. Harry wants him.

Louis needs a cigarette. Too bad he doesn’t have any.

Harry continues to smile at him, if a little gently and cautious, taking in the details of Louis’ face. “Alright?” he asks, soft as apple butter. He’s got his little novel in his hand still. So studious.

“Alright,” Louis’s nodding, trying firmly to keep his gaze from Harry’s mouth. It makes his skin feel hot in a way that’s entirely alien to him. He’s not sure if it’s lust or not—lust usually doesn’t feel exactly like this. This feels less comfortable, more alien and abstract. Hard to pin down. Lust is easy. “You?”

Harry nods as well. “Yeah,” he says softly. Then, promptly, his smile grows. “You’re here,” he grins, bashful and pleased, sweeping unruly curls off of his forehead with one hand, his thumb accidentally catching on his eyelashes, making him flinch. He blinks several short times before he settles his reassembled pleased smile back onto Louis, folding his hands behind his back with bitten lips. He looks almost coquettish. Unfairly sweet and delicate.

The entire fortress that was once Louis Tomlinson gets a boulder catapulted into its side. Bricks are pulverized. Casualties are many.

Louis might be fucked.

“I’m here,” he parrots uselessly, hands suddenly feeling heavy. He clears his throat, looking around the school grounds because looking at Harry pumps even more lead into his stomach and catapults more boulders.

A brief, windy speckle of silence ensues, and one brief glance back at Harry’s face tells him that his smile is diminishing by the second.

“I’m glad you came,” Harry tries softly, eyes faintly sad, but his smile clings to his lips. “Missed you.”

Another wave of adrenaline. Jesus. What the fuck is going on? Perhaps he needs to make a visit to WebMD.

Louis clears his throat, shuffling his feet a bit as he looks down at the leaves that lie in uneven clusters on the ground. “Yeah, yeah, me too,” is all he says, voice a little off-pitch, and more silence ensues.

Despite his firmly avoiding gaze, Louis knows that Harry’s smile is transforming to a deep frown. He can feel it. It’s driving him nuts but he honestly doesn’t know what to say because he’s made up his mind of how all of this is going to work from now on, and it’s got to be different. He tries to shuffle through a few sentences, none of them sounding right, until he settles upon one. It’s decent.

“Didn’t think I’d find you out here, to be honest,” he says with a shrug, studying the bark of a nearby tree.

“Why?” Harry asks, and there’s confusion in his tone.

Louis reaches out a hand to touch the bark. It’s very rough, very cold. He shrugs. “I dunno. Thought you’d be hauled up with some mates or… Something.” He chances a quick glance at Harry. Yep. Frowning. A lot. It makes his head feel caved in. “You know, you should hang out with some of those classmates of yours. You know they’d love to have you. Since you’re the school’s golden boy and all.” A wry smile forms and he dares to meet Harry’s eye, his hand still picking at the bark on the tree. Harry doesn’t return the smile. Louis clears his throat, looks away again. Picks at more bark. “You should try making friends, Harry.”

“I already told you,” he says slowly, and Louis doesn’t miss the syrupy hurt in his voice. “I don’t get along with people very easily. I’d rather just wait for you.”

“But you didn’t know if I was going to come today,” Louis argues, dropping his hand and turning his full attention to Harry, no matter how difficult it feels. He’s strong.

“No, I didn’t,” Harry agrees, frustration pulling at his soft features. Louis feels like a complete asshole. He can feel himself frowning, ashamed, his body at odds with his brain. Thousands of conflicting messages inside. Bursting like bombs, crackling like lightning. “So that’s why I wait every day.”

And, oh, god. He’s been waiting for him every day? Every day?

Louis feels like his stomach is currently housing an aquarium, everything suddenly swimming. No more electricity, just swampy sludge and seaweed. A squid or two, maybe.

“You wait for me every day?” he asks, a little hollow. He digs his hands into his empty pockets, knuckles scraping against denim.

“Yeah,” Harry nods confidently, but a blush is warming the tips of his cheeks. “Yeah, of course I do.”

Of course you do.

Louis has to look away. This is not working.

“I’m sorry,” he says, before he can stop himself.

Harry is silent.

“I’ve honestly been feeling so shitty,” Louis admits quietly, and this isn’t the way he’s supposed to be working right now, but he just can’t fucking seem to stop himself. Everything has become so difficult. When the fuck did that happen? Where did ‘easy’ go? Why did it leave?

“Is it because of me?” Harry asks quietly after a moment, watching Louis closely. His eyebrows are pinched and pained, looking freshly cut out of marble against the backdrop of the school and the trees and the pond.

“No, no,” Louis rushes, turning to him again, because he has no control. “No, it’s not. It’s nothing you’ve done.”

“Because it seems like it’s me,” Harry continues, as if Louis hasn’t even spoken, and his countenance seems smaller, more self-conscious. “And, like… And, like, right now, even. This is the first time I’ve seen you in over a week and the first thing you tell me is that I should be finding new friends.” His face is almost entirely pink now, but he looks moist and fragile, his words shivering. “It sort of feels like you’re trying to get rid of me, Louis. But you don’t know how to do it, or something.”

And, fuck. Isn’t that just the thing.

Louis laughs humorlessly, bone dry. “Honestly, Harry?” he starts, turning to him with a twisted expression. “If we’re being really fucking honest right now? If I was a bigger man, a better person, that’s exactly what I would try to do.” Harry blinks, stunned. “But, as I am—just a tiny, weak little gremlin…” He shakes his head, that same awful feeling of defeat settling in his chest. “I don’t think I’m able to do it. And that’s the truth.”

Harry’s eyes are clouded, weary and confused, still prickled with hurt. “…Thank you?”

Louis just shrugs, looking away. This isn’t going the way he wanted. It never does. “I dunno if it warrants that, but. But that’s the truth. You should find better people to surround yourself with.”

“Hey. Don’t talk about yourself like you aren’t worthy enough to surround someone,” Harry chides softly. When Louis looks up, he sees a softness in his gaze again, paired up with a disapproving mouth.

The entire fortress is probably collapsed. Leveled, even.

“Look, I’m sorry I’ve been shady,” Louis continues, resolutely ignoring the comment despite being propelled by it. “But I’ve, er, missed having you around, too, kid. I’m a little fucked in the head so sometimes… I dunno. Shit happens sometimes and I’m sorry for making you think it was your fault in any way. I don’t want to make you feel like that.”

Harry smiles, slow and wispy. It’s more than enough. “It’s okay. I’m just glad to see you, if I’m being honest. I was lonely without you.”

Dear god. Each sentence this boy spits out is worse and worse. Louis can’t tell if he wants to stick his own head in a blender or if he wants to write down Harry’s words, keep them for himself in some romantically shitty journal with ink stains and smudgy fingerprints. He’s always wanted to keep a journal… But his dedication has never lasted for more than four days. Maybe Harry will re-inspire him.

“Do you work today?” Louis asks a little breathless, tilting his head as he continues to stare at Harry, whose smile is slowly growing the longer Louis holds eye contact. And now he feels his own smile beginning to form. Fuck.

“Yeah,” Harry nods, lips tugging his cheeks. “Actually, I’m late already. As we speak.”

Louis blinks. “Late? Why didn’t you say? You were just sitting there reading, so I thought—“

“I know,” Harry shrugs. “I was just waiting a bit longer for you today. Had a good feeling.”

At that, Louis allows himself a genuine grin, a bouquet of flattery blooming inside his ribs. “Well I’m glad that worked out, then,” he says, kicking at a few stray leaves, flicking up his eyes to Harry in a teasing smile. “I, uh, don’t suppose you’d mind terribly if I stalked you to work too, then? I’m sure Julian misses me. As do the spiders and the Syd Barrett records that I’m sure nobody else touches.”

“As if I’d allow anyone else to go near them,” Harry teases, teeth poking out of his grin, shaking his head disparagingly. “They’re yours, if I have anything to say about it.”

Louis chuckles a bit. “You’re such a charmer, Sasspup. Too, too good to me.”

The beam on Harry’s face is enough to split the clouds in the sky, haul summer back. “No, I wouldn’t say that,” he argues with a pleased sort of air, studying Louis so closely with those luminous eyes of his. “But I do like being good to you. I would say that.”

Well, then. At least Louis is getting accustomed to the random spikes of mystery adrenaline now. So that’s good.

“You did say that. You literally just said that, word for word,” Louis points out with an amused smirk, swimming again, his eyes beginning to settle onto Harry more, now a bit hesitant to look anywhere else. He’s such a lovely sight, is the thing. All pale flesh and glowing corneas and blanketed limbs and large hands, holding a crispy, leather-bound novel that probably smells like dust and dead skin cells.

“Oh. Yeah. Okay. That’s fair,” Harry twinkles, looking anything but offended by Louis’ ribbing. He looks the opposite, even—pleased as fuck. Delighted, one might say.

Ugh. What is Louis going to do with this mess.

“Oh, Harry Styles,” he lets slip on a sigh, shaking his head.

“Oh, Louis Tomlinson,” Harry teases back with a roll of the eyes, popping his hip and folding his arms across his chest in the haughtiest manner possible.

A surprised laugh falls from Louis’ throat. “Well, lookit you! I see the ol’ sass is at a ten today.”

“An eleven,” Harry corrects, and Louis laughs again, which feels nice. Things are beginning to feel nice.

“Excellent,” he says approvingly, something oddly like pride coating the word as Harry preens, glowing with gold and fire under the attention and beneath the white sky.

A few seconds bump along, only punctuated by Louis’ laugh and Harry’s smile.

“I missed your laugh,” Harry comments fondly, absently, eyes cast all over Louis’ face; but then suddenly he freezes, burning bright red, and his eyes widen almost worryingly, as if he only just realized the words that he let slip.

And, just like that, an unexpected tension breaks up the pleased, blustery calm between them.

It’s enough to make Louis blink, his smile faltering, as the words hang in the air, right in front of his eyes, quivering in the breeze.

“I missed your laugh.”

Fuck writing that one into some shitty journal. If he were a more sensitive soul, Louis’d probably get that tattooed right across his damn ribcage. He’d probably get it in Harry’s handwriting and press his fingers against it every night as he fell asleep in whatever dingy hole he was currently hauled up in. If he were a more sensitive soul.

As he is, though, Louis feels his smile fade, mildly horrified about the fact that he’s even conjuring up hypothetical tattoo scenarios, let alone experiencing the sharp squeeze of his chest. In fact, ‘mildly horrified’ is probably an excellent summation of Louis’ view on his relationship with Harry in general at this point in time.

It’s all just so much, see. It’s so fucking much. And Louis can’t seem to organize any of it into something logical that he can understand.

After the silence carries on a bit, Louis a little lost within himself, Harry’s face falls. The unmistakable streak of hurt flits through his gaze and Louis doesn’t miss it.

Fuck. Fuck, forreal though, fuck.

Because this probably all looks entirely bad to Harry, doesn’t it? Since Louis can’t actually explain what’s going on with him, all Harry sees is a failed attempt at a kiss, Louis consequently pulling away, and now, during their reunion of sorts, Louis pulling back even more. He’s coming off as uninterested. As uncomfortable. And, sure, he is, but… But not in the same way. That’s not… That’s not conducive to any of Louis’ plans here.

Shit. He needs to fix this, how can he fix this?

“Uhm,” Harry says awkwardly, red and ashamed, blinking his pained eyes away from Louis. God, he’s just so honest, isn’t he? Everything he feels is poured right from his cells. “Sorry,” he stammers. “I’m sorry. Do you-do you want to go now? I mean, if you still want to? To the shop, I mean. Do you still want to go? With me? Or? You can go by yourself, too. I mean. Yeah.”

They stare at each other, Louis fish-lipping words that won’t come, Harry burning up like the sun, determinedly trying to maintain Louis’ eye contact.

What can Louis do? Harry thinks he’s uninterested. Harry wants Louis and he thinks he’s being rejected, oh god. When did this drastic turn of events happen? It makes Louis feel dizzy. And oddly paranoid.

“Of course I want to go still. With you. Let’s go, yeah? Don’t want you to be late,” he says dumbly, the pitter-patter of panic thumping in his chest.

Harry nods stiffly before he begins to walk, but the tension is so, so palpable that Louis can’t just let this go, he can’t just walk with Harry in some unspoken, misunderstood silence all the way there. No. He wants it to be nice again.

“Harry, look,” he starts, unsure of where to go from there as his feet remain planted on the dying grass, his voice sounding a bit strangled.

But Harry doesn’t stop, just continues onward as he shakes his head firmly. “I get it, Louis,” he says quietly.

“No, you don’t,” Louis protests with a frustrated sigh, and before he can think better of it, he reaches out to Harry, catching his hand in his own. “Will you just listen, yeah?”

At this, Harry does stop, but when he turns to Louis, he looks red and flustered and embarrassed, trying to avoid his gaze.

“I don’t want to listen,” he says to the tips of his toes, even quieter. “I’m not dumb. I get it, okay?”

Louis blinks. “Get what?”

Harry sighs, shuffling awkwardly and trying to free his hand from Louis’—but he doesn’t let go. “That you don’t—“ He stops, looks away harshly, and his face looks so delicately composed that Louis wonders if it would crumble if he dared touch it. “That you’re not—“ he tries again, but fails to actually say anything.

God. This got real heavy real fast. Louis is so out of his fucking element.

“Harry,” he tries softly anyways, and tugs him just that bit closer, trying to catch his eye. But no words come, they never do, and fuck. Fuck, the longer he’s silent, the worse this looks.

Harry thinks he’s rejecting him. Rejecting him. Louis was the creepy bastard that literally stalked Harry until he would willingly talk to him and here he actually thinks that Louis doesn’t want him now? He still can’t wrap his head around it.

But, fuck, he doesn’t want him now, does he? He shouldn’t want him now. He can’t want him now.

He wants him now.

Shit. No. Fuck.

This is so overwhelming.

It’s only when Harry begins to pull away with more determination, an odd glint of wetness lining the elegant curves of his eyes, that Louis is spurred into immediate action. He’s never been good with words, can never assemble them—but he’s always been good with actions.

In a moment of stunning and impromptu brilliance (or is it insanity?) he gently tugs Harry back, moving to stand directly in front of the boy, his heart beginning to pick up its pace as it so often does these days. He feels a bit short of breath again as well, but his eyes focus in on Harry’s downcast ones as he slowly raises Harry’s hand up, bringing the boy’s knuckles to his lips.

It’s a direct replication of Louis’ masked actions at the gala. And, god, he hopes that Harry gets it. He hopes he gets it.

Harry’s eyes immediately flick to Louis’ the minute he feels his mouth brush his flesh, eyes widening in complete surprise. He’s obviously taken aback as he watches the scene, Louis now clasping Harry’s hand in both of his as he moves the kiss to the back of the palm, bowing a bit—just as he’d done last time they were in each other’s presence, back when they had the comfort of disguise between them.

But now they’re bare, exposed, eyes locked in eyes, and he wants Harry to understand, see. Louis can’t say it, can never say anything, but he wants Harry to know. To know that he knows. To know that it’s not… That he does…

He wants Harry to understand.

As he watches Harry’s eyes, he sees the blooming of understanding curl within the green-grey. He watches the comprehension and the softening of the humiliation and self-consciousness. He sees Harry blink a succession of fluttery blinks and he watches his lips part on air and unspoken words and he sees everything, is the thing. Louis watches the entire process of Harry understanding and it’s fucking breathtaking for reasons unbeknownst to him, but it’s fucking beautiful and it feels like it fixes everything. At least in this moment, it feels good and Louis feels like he might have done something right this time.

“I’m not good at saying it,” he explains softly, still clutching Harry’s hand.

Harry bites his lip, a smile threatening to burst through as he nods solemnly, squeezing Louis’ hand. He looks radiant and dazed. Louis is plummeting.

“Thank you for being good to me,” he continues quietly, voice suddenly scraped raw.

It all feels entirely too honest. Especially for someone like Louis.

But this entire fucking thing is also completely out of his control and no matter how many fortresses he builds, he can’t seem to find the strength to win. And though that’s terrifying, the thought lying acrid inside because he doesn’t want to be weak, can’t be weak, he also doesn’t let himself panic or cringe or combust inside. Instead, he just anchors into Harry’s gaze and smile and the warm press of his hand in his own.

And then Harry’s grin is blinding.

“You’re welcome,” he says, words soft as his mouth, before bringing his other hand (the one still clutching that blasted novel) up to squeeze Louis’ elbow momentarily.

It somehow manages to ground and de-ground Louis. But it’s nice. And it’s sweet. And Louis’ head is sort of a mess because part of it is screaming about opportunity and progress and Liam, and part of it is quietly stunned and hot, glowing in the face of Harry Styles.

“Shall we go?” he asks Harry softly, gravelly, after a long stretch of fluttering silence, gently releasing Harry’s hand.

Harry looks almost disappointed as he tracks his falling hand, but it’s only brief. Soon, his smile returns, warm and wide, catching the fall colors in his lips. “We shall.”

They walk side by side, feet kicking up the leaves as their elbows brush and Harry’s laugh sends the crows flying out of the half-naked trees, Louis falling to his death beside him.

**

When they reach the record shop, Louis’ stomach feels sufficiently lighter than it has for the past week, Harry’s buoyant laugh and curls and footsteps lifting most of the strain away. It almost makes Louis feel like himself again, his mind shut off, his body relaxing, his phone silent in his back pocket. Somewhere in his brain he’s aware that he’s still involved in a great, big mess, still owes Liam and needs to suck it all up and stick with the plan…

But today is not that day.

Today is dedicated to the autumn breeze and pink cheeks, pinker lips, and bright eyes that reflect the golden sun hovering above the horizon, skimming over the rooftops and soaking into the shop windows, reflecting back prisms. Today is dedicated to Louis finally feeling some physical relief, finally feeling a smile form naturally again. To feeling Harry’s elbow bumping into his side intermittently when he ducks his head in a smile and glances at Louis beneath his lashes, when he thinks Louis can’t see him. But Louis always sees him.

“After you,” Louis smirks as he holds open the door of the shop for Harry, watching him trip over the leaf-covered cracks in the pavement and gathering himself with a complete lack of grace or composure. He laughs when Harry sends an adamant glare, laughs even more when he can’t maintain it for the life of him.

“Thank you,” Harry replies haughtily, but his whole air is diminished by his wide smile that pulls a dimple from his cheeks. It’s one of those odd little details of Harry that just make him more enchantingly unforgettable, that smile, that asymmetrical indent, those large teeth and crooked set of lips.

“You’re just so bloody adorable, aren’t you?” Louis finds himself cooing in a tease, holding open the door with one hand and extending his other to firmly press his thumbprint into Harry’s cheek. It feels good, a proper fit, so he keeps it there; the alarm bells inside of his head are muted, instead replaced by a peaceful hum, so he doesn’t think about it because this is probably part of the plan and probably something Liam would approve of. Mostly, though, it’s no big deal. Just nice. So he stops it at that.

Harry seems to think it’s nice, too.

He’s full-on stopped, caught in the threshold between inside and outside, just staring at Louis with a horrifically beautiful sort of wonderment in his eyes, lips slack and eyes wide. His skin is shaded in reds that would make nearby leaves envious and he nearly blends into his surroundings with the orange of his jumper. Everything bright and warm.

“I am?” he questions, his grin slow to grow as he stares at Louis unblinkingly. Without breaking the gaze, he lifts his own hand, gently wrapping his fingers around Louis’ wrist, holding it in place against his cheek. Just keeping it there as Louis’ thumb brands itself into Harry’s flesh.

A low swoop jumbles Louis’ small intestine. Maybe his liver, maybe the kidneys and gallbladder, too. Maybe he’s been sufficiently scrambled up, like an egg. Louis is a fucking egg.

One, two, three, four seconds pass with Louis’ thumb pressed hard into Harry’s smile, Harry’s hand delicately wrapped around his thin bones, their eyes tangled up and their smiles chapping in the cool evening wind. It’s oddly nerve-wracking and it makes Louis feel winded, so he eventually pulls his hand away—but not before brushing his thumb down the slope of Harry’s jaw, and the boy’s eyes infinitesimally flutter at that. Flutter like Louis’ seen them flutter before.

He swallows, taking a step back and gesturing Harry inside. “C’mon, pup,” he says as he attempts a smile. “Better get inside before all the rats do.”

“Oh, you mean, rats like you?” Harry questions sparklingly, and he giggles like a music box when Louis squawks and ushers him forward with a warning pinch to his back.

Laughing softly, they step inside, Harry holding the door for Louis as he casts him a genuine smile. Everything about him.

“Oi! Lads!” they suddenly hear, just as Louis’ about to tease Harry about the state of his hair (which doesn’t look too far off from the piles of leaves outside) and they both jerk a bit, spinning to look at the counter.

Julian’s not here today—rather, it’s Zayn, accompanied by the voice—Niall. Of course.

Louis smiles, immediately waltzing over, Harry following close behind. “Well, well, well. If it isn’t Beauty and the Beast.”

Niall’s elated grin falls into confusion. “What? Who’s the beast?”

Zayn is grinning at him from the stool, eyes hazy. He’s got his eye-meets-yin-yang necklace on, as well as a string of plastic emerald beads, and he’s wearing a brown tie-dyed waffle shirt, his hair messy and swept to the side. Such a gorgeous little thing. Louis is only somewhat surprised to realize the thought is felt with more a familial fondness than a sexual one. Huh.

“Hopefully me,” he says, playing with Niall’s fingers that rest on the counter. “I sympathize with misunderstood characters.” He grins dopily when Niall tilts his head in confusion, and Louis laughs at the pair. He looks over, sees Harry smiling, but his eyes are on Louis and for some reason that makes Louis laugh again as he unconsciously puts an arm around the boy’s shoulders, pulling him to his side without thought.

Harry beams, immediately gripping Louis’ side in clenched fingers, pulling him even closer.

A couple of heartbeats fill the air, but Zayn and Niall are fairly oblivious, already muttering in their own little lingo as Zayn offers him his thermos of tea.

“Nah, it’s shit,” Niall mutters, but is taking a sip as he says it, his face contorting.

Zayn grins, nodding to nothing in particular, before gripping Niall’s hand (which still lies splayed on the counter in front of him) more fully, lacing their fingers lazily, and turning his gaze to Harry.

“You’ve met my soulmate, right?” he asks, nonchalant.

Niall grins, wiping his mouth with the back of his peacoat sleeve, setting down the thermos on the countertop. Apparently, he’s just as emotionally ‘all or nothing’ as Zayn because the lad doesn’t even bat an eye at the label. Rather, he looks pleased and confident—as if this were some universal truth, or something. Weird kids, them.

“Erm, yes. A couple of times, actually…” Harry blinks slowly, glancing at Louis in confusion.

Louis smirks, suppressing a bark of laughter; since Niall’s come around, he’s been at the shop every single day. Therefore, Harry has met him almost a dozen times by now.

Oh, Zayn.

“Don’t mind our Zayn,” Louis waves dismissively, giving Harry’s shoulder a little squeeze; he receives a bitten smile and flicker of eyes-to-lips in response. Pitter patter, goes the heart that Louis pretends he doesn’t have. “He forgets the details of life sometimes. Smokes too much of that weed. That blasted weed those hooligans keep getting their hands on.” He grins, turning his gaze to Zayn and Niall, offering up a wink.

Niall bursts into a startlingly loud laugh, rattling the records on the shelves, as Zayn shrugs, completely unfazed. “I don’t think you can smoke too much weed. That’s like saying you can grow too much. I don’t think it’s possible,” he says, eyes the color of cooling espresso.

“Well, depends,” Louis grins. “Grow how?” He waggles his eyebrows. Because he can.

At that, Zayn’s steadfast composure actually breaks and he giggles, flushing and dropping his gaze to the counter; Niall laughs even more, head tossed back, his loosely clenched fist pressed to his mouth while Harry just smiles and shakes his head.

“He’s gone all red,” Niall laughs, shoulders shaking with the effort as he brushes a knuckle against Zayn’s jaw, who reddens even more, bowing his head a bit and smiling. Niall positively cackles, completely endeared, bending over to push his head into his space. They may or may not Eskimo kiss, little giggles and touches and random sounds wafting between the two. Sickening.

Still, though, Louis puffs his chest purposefully, turning to look at Harry with a smug sort of pleasure filling his face. “I’m funny,” he states, gesturing towards the tittering pair of monkeys. “Look how funny I am.”

Really funny,” Harry agrees, nodding enthusiastically enough to send a few longer strands of hair flopping into Louis’ cheek. The fucker sounds far less than genuine, though.  

So, of course, Louis pinches him. And, of course, Harry shrieks like a newborn and tries (and fails) to pinch him back. It’s obscene.

“You two are so cute,” Niall suddenly comments, apparently having finished his impromptu cuddle time with Zayn, as he points a hypocritical littler finger at the pair.

Jumping a bit, Louis and Harry pull their gazes from each other. It feels strangely like they’ve been caught and Louis feels his skin warm at the feeling, blinking too many times as he attempts some composure. Whether it’s in shame or pleasure or shock, he’s unsure. But Harry’s red as a beet as well, so, he figures it doesn’t quite matter.

“Yeah, they’re pretty cute,” Zayn agrees fuzzily, but Louis sees it in his eyes—that look of ‘I know what’s going on.’

Because Zayn does know, he knows that Louis and Liam have Harry as one of their targets. That this is the game. And, usually, that’s enough to send Zayn walking out of the room, but for some reason, he’s been silent on the matter lately, instead opting to play at being oblivious. Louis’ been tempted to ask him why, but he also sort of doesn’t really want to talk about the whole situation. So it’s currently just an unspoken thing between them.

Oh well. It’s no big deal.

Zayn tugs on Niall’s hand then, and Niall looks to him, smile ever present. “Hey, wanna go get dinner?” he asks, content and calm and soothing. “Harry’s shift starts now. I’m done.”

Niall brightens, already nodding halfway through the sentence. “Oh, brilliant! Yeah. Cool.” He beams as Zayn shuffles on his thin jacket, picking up his tea thermos and the one book he brought with him. It’s a Latin Dictionary. Louis asks no questions. “That went by quickly,” Niall states, sounding surprised, his hands in the pockets of his khakis. “Thought I was going to be bored today since it was so dead.”

“I’m never bored, man,” Zayn replies smoothly, stepping out from behind the counter, and Louis can’t help but smirk at that because it’s the truest thing Zayn has ever said. He shares an amused glance with Harry from his peripherals.

“I know. I think it’s brilliant,” Niall beams, watching Zayn amble towards him with a child-like fluster. It’s pretty cute to see how enamored they are with each other. Louis can admit that. They’re so swept away and nervous. Utterly precious.

Zayn nods, pleased, before he turns to Louis, his eyes blinking slowly. “I’m gonna ask Liam to join us for dinner,” he says, simple as anything, placing his hand on the small of Niall’s back. “I feel like he needs to socialize more. Get out a bit, you know?”

And, wow, that, coming from Zayn, is absolutely hilarious.

But Louis doesn’t comment or laugh, instead just nods. “Yeah, actually. I doubt he’ll go because he was in a sour mood today, but yeah. Go for it.”

“Why was he in a sour mood?” Harry asks, concerned.

Oops. Shit.

Louis falters, catching Zayn’s eye. “Uhm.”

Shit shit.

“He has a lot of emotions,” Zayn supplies, cool and sure. “I don’t think he knows how to manage them very well, though. He’s my brother. Did you know that?”

“Oh! Er, no, actually,” Harry replies, surprised. “Not really. Louis doesn’t really talk about him much…”

Oh, great. And now Harry’s eyeing Louis, confusion marring his gaze. Splendid. Perfect.

This is not good subject matter. He doesn’t wanna talk about Liam. Not with Harry. He doesn’t want Harry to know. None of it.

“Uhm, well. Well. There’s not much to talk about, is there?” Louis laughs, a little insanely, as Niall and Zayn and Harry stare at him. Just fucking splendid.

“I’ve never met him,” Harry says slowly, brow furrowing. “Not, like, properly. He’s in a few of my courses. We don’t ever talk. Not really.”

I know, Louis thinks wryly, before stepping out of Harry’s hold, releasing him from his grip. Too much, too much.

“He’s one of your best friends, isn’t he?” Harry continues, questioning, brow furrowing further as his own arm drops.

“He’s a mate, yeah,” Louis clips, hoping his tone signals the end of this conversation, but Harry looks even more confused and put-out as Zayn watches with sudden sad eyes and a downward tilt to his mouth.

“I like him,” Niall comments, boisterous and oblivious, breaking up the new-formed tension. “He’s nice. Busy, but he’s nice.” Suddenly, he snaps his fingers, brightening as he turns to Harry. “Actually, he was at the gala, Harry, did you see him? He was with Lou the whole time—remember? Louis, weren’t you over in the corner with him—“

“Yeah, I don’t know, the whole night was a blur,” Louis rushes, skin heating, wishing he could combust Niall with a gaze.

This is not a good direction to go in.

Niall seems oblivious to the hostility though, just blinking like a doe and smiling amiably between the pair as Harry blinks up enough dust clouds to create a storm. Big, confused blinks. Louis might chew through his lip if he doesn’t get a cigarette in his mouth soon. 

Zayn, however, seems to have picked up on Louis’ sudden volatility, because he’s now standing protectively close to Niall, their hands firmly entwined, sending a purposeful look Louis’ way.

“You looked so sick as that wolf, though,” Niall continues with a grin, flashing a thumbs up. “Super cool, mate.”

That wolf.

And, well, then. Here it all is, lain out. If there was any doubt left in Harry’s mind about Louis’ identity the night of the masquerade, it’s certainly vanquished now. Which is good, but…

With a small chill up his spine, Louis slowly looks to Harry, who’s staring back with something like triumph and affection in his eyes.

“Thanks,” Louis murmurs, but he can’t look away from Harry, unexplained nerves bubbling up inside.

Harry’s eyes look hopeful. Why do they look hopeful?

“Uhm, hey. Let’s go, Niall. I’m hungry,” Louis suddenly hears Zayn say, echoed in the distance.

“Alright, alright,” Niall chirps briskly, chipper enough to snap Louis out of Harry’s gaze and back to the present.

Before Louis can say a word, though, the pair is nearly at the door, Zayn ushering Niall along with a gentle hand and hunched shoulders.

“Good to see guys!” Niall calls out just before he walks outside. He waves, beaming pleasantly. “We’ll have to all get dinner soon, yeah? Let’s hang out!”

“Sure,” Louis nods. He still feels Harry’s eyes on him. “Why not?”

Niall beams even more at that before sending one last wave as Zayn pulls him along, head pointed up towards the sky. The door shuts, jingles for a second or two, and then the silence settles.

And now it’s just them.

Louis needs every cigarette in the world. Maybe an oxygen tank, too. Maybe a self-help book.

“Fun pair, aren’t they?” he coughs after three more silent seconds pass, feeling inexplicably tense. He continues to stare at the door, not wanting to look at Harry. Which is weird. He doesn’t understand it, but he knows he doesn’t want to look.

In his peripherals, he sees Harry nod. “Yeah. I’m glad they found each other.” It’s softly spoken.

Louis clears his throat. “Yeah. Good times.”

Harry hums, nods slower. “Funny, how the world works.”

“Yup.” He pops the ‘p’. “I guess.”

“Why won’t you tell me about Liam?”

Louis nearly sheds his skin.

“Huh?” he splutters, turning full-on to face Harry without thinking, shock writ across his face and stopping the warm beat of his heart.

Shit shit shit shit shit shit.

Harry’s peering at him, hands folded in front, looking timid and unsure as he nibbles nervously on the cushion of his lower lip, brows all punched together like old tree roots. “It’s just, uhm, you never talk about him.”

Louis stares. “I don’t talk about anyone.”

The brows tangle up even more. “Yes you do. You talk about Zayn and Niall.”

“Barely!” Louis splutters, feeling rashes on his cheeks and chest and hands.

“Well, yeah, sure, you don’t mention them all the time or anything,” Harry rolls his eyes, but his pink cheeks give him away. “But, like. You still mention them. You never talk about Liam.”

Fuck shit fuck shit fuck ass shit. Louis’ eyes flit around the store, praying for a distraction or a good, old fashioned vice. Where do they keep the vodka in this joint?

“Don’t I?” he asks, trying for nonchalant but it fails abysmally, his voice squeaking like a baby mouse. He clears this throat, feeling the rashes intensify. God.

For a moment, Harry just looks at Louis, taking in his face and looking faintly disappointed. When he speaks at last, his voice is quiet.

“Never mind,” he says softly, turning away and walking towards the counter. “You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to. I get it.” With a heavy clunk, he sets down his bag on the counter, his face the very portrait of a storm cloud.

Well, shit. Now Louis feels like an asshole.

With a sigh, he tries to unwind the never-ending spirals of tension wrapped around his body, instead choosing to breathe and focus on air (not cigarettes) and the boy before him who currently looks like he’s just discovered his mother kissing Santa Clause.

Breathe. He can do this. Just walk and breathe and talk and breathe. Fortress, remember the fortress.

He moves forward, walks to the counter as his shoulders relax, trying to find a bead of language to use because he’s fucking ineloquent and clumsy and shit at generally everything having to do with communication and…emotions, or whatever.

He sighs again.

“He’s just a mate, alright?” he says with a tiny bump of a shrug as he shuffles forward. “I don’t really know what to say about him. I don’t have much… He’s just a friend of mine who I’ve known for awhile now, is all. He’s kind of a dick sometimes, as well, so there’s that. What do you want to know?” He resists the urge to gnaw on his fingernails, instead walking until his feet bump the counter. He sets his hands on top, looking Harry in the eye with all the confidence he can muster.

Harry looks back at him, motions stilled, eyes still weary and doubtful.

“Well, like,” he begins slowly, sitting down gently on the stool. He tucks his feet on the rungs beneath, folds his sweater-clad arms over his waist in a hugging gesture. “I know he’s, like, super smart. He’s number one in the school, I think. And he’s really popular and everybody loves him and knows him and stuff. And he’s in all these activities and sports and things. We’re in chorus together. And we’re both trying for the same university, I know.” Louis sucks in a sharp breath before he can help it, his blood instantly going so, so cold. Harry doesn’t seem to notice, though, just continues mumbling. “I dunno. He just seems really popular and cool and I know you guys are friends, or whatever. So.” Harry looks down, unfolding his arms to instead play with the hem of his jumper, his brows furrowing again, creating a harsh line across his forehead. “I’ve just never met him through you, or anything. Thought maybe… You didn’t want him to know you were friends with me. Or something. I don’t know.” He shrugs uselessly, hands fumbling with his hem.

Louis feels like electric mud. Does that make sense? Because that’s what he feels like.

He stares at the boy right in front of him, his very soft skin and very lovely hair and very disheartened features and thin little hands that are actually quite large and he stares at his bony shoulders and broad chest and smooth neck and the spot on his cheek that somehow manages to appear charming. And he feels like electric mud.

“I’m not ashamed of you, Harry,” he says, enunciating each word.

Harry glances up at him but doesn’t say anything before returning to his hem-job.

“If anything, I’m ashamed of Liam,” he jokes, feeling a drastic need to make Harry smile and soften again. He walks his hands across the counter and tries to pull Harry’s out of his nervous fumblings. He sees Harry swallow as their fingers link up, feels his own throat swallow as well. He ignores it, just tries to soften out Harry’s locked knuckles and catch his eye. “I’m sorry I’m a shit friend.”

“You’re not a shit friend,” Harry protests, immediately looking up. A guilty flush speckles his skin now. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t—I’m just—“ He cuts off and sighs, his shoulders loosening. Thank fuck.

Louis lets go of his hands but doesn’t move away. This all just feels odd and precarious and he doesn’t know what cards to play. So he keeps his mouth shut and instead just watches Harry, who looks to be in the middle of some sort of inner crisis.

“I dunno, I’ve never seen you two together or anything,” Harry barrels on, and his gaze falls downward again, which makes Louis frown without control. “But I have heard him talk about you and stuff. I don’t eavesdrop, or anything!” he rushes, looking up again, and Louis is almost tempted to laugh with how careful he’s being, how hesitant and odd. “It’s just, I know you two are close. Obviously. And Zayn and Niall mention him a lot and Zayn always talks about how much you two are together. And how you stay there all the time. I just didn’t know that, is all. And you never talk about him, you know? And it just seemed weird. Especially when Zayn said he was his brother, which, I dunno—I guess I should’ve put that together but I just didn’t realize and…” He trails off again, now beginning to nibble on his thumbnail, sending the occasional nervous glance in Louis’ direction. “I’m not making sense,” he says, words mumbled by his thumb. “Am I?”

Honestly, this is probably one of the tensest and worst subjects that Louis and Harry could ever possibly talk about.

And yet. Louis is sort of dumbly endeared by Harry’s entire awkwardness and nervousness and closed off limbs and fidgety eyes. He just wants to, like… Wrap him up maybe? Tease him until he laughs? Pet his hair and ease the tension out? Which… Wow.

He is, maybe, becoming soft. Which is horrifying.

Louis clears his throat and averts his gaze for exactly two seconds before his eyes betray him and find Harry’s again. Goddammit.

“You’re making sense, yeah,” Louis responds at last, trying to keep the amused smirk off of his face. But he must not be doing a very good job at it though, because Harry’s eyes narrow as he flushes again.

“Hey, don’t make fun,” he chides, flushing even moreso as he refolds his arms and averts his body on the stool, turned away from Louis.

“No, no, no, I’m sorry,” Louis laughs, breaking up his composure because he has absolutely no control over himself. This is so bad. “I’m sorry,” he laughs again, walking to the other side of the counter to face Harry fully again, resting his hands upon his sharp knees as he ducks to meet him at eye level. “I get it, I do. I just wasn’t expecting… I don’t know.” He shakes his head, lost for the words. “How long has this been on your mind, then?”

Harry shrugs, begrudgingly meeting Louis’ eye. “I dunno. Not long.”

Louis grins, completely endeared by the pout he receives. “Long enough though, eh?”

Harry refuses to respond.

“Look, I’m not sure what to say, exactly,” Louis admits, affecting a more serious tone as he attempts to piece the situation together. “I can try to talk about him more, if you want. I don’t think I’ve been leaving him out of conversation on purpose, though.” Which is sort of true. Mostly true. When he’s with Harry, the last thing he wants to talk about is Liam, of all people. “It’s just that Liam is complicated, you know?” Pause. “And there are… Things, Harry.”

He swallows, the humor suddenly gone. Suddenly, it all feels a bit more serious. Too serious. And Louis really doesn’t know what to say right now.

Harry stares back at him, his petulance fading as concern begins to trickle in. “Things?” he questions, the baritone of his voice somehow childlike.

Louis bites his lip.

Yes. Things.

“I don’t know what to do, Harry,” he admits quietly in a moment of weakness, after the silence drags and nothing else surfaces.

And now Harry just looks confused.

“Look, Louis, I’m not trying to make this a thing. It’s fine. I shouldn’t have mentioned it—“

Louis silences him with a look.

“Okay, so maybe it’s good that I did,” he amends in a mumble and Louis offers a half-smile. “But, I guess… I just was concerned. Like. Scared.”

Scared?

“About what?” Louis prods, ice suddenly beginning to encase his entire body. His hands are still on Harry’s bent knees, his face still close enough to see the details of Harry’s flesh. Anxiety is surging through him like cars on a motorway. Car after car after car.

“I dunno.” Harry drops his gaze. “That there was someone else?”

Oh god.

Someone else. Someone else. Harry is worried that Liam is Louis’ ‘someone else’. Harry is worried at all. Harry likes Louis. Harry is admitting he likes Louis.

This should not be a shit storm. But Louis’ insides and brain and appendages apparently did not get the memo because this is most definitely a shit storm and he feels a lot of blood being pumped to his head and feels a lot of prickles on the back of his neck. Is this normal? What the fuck is going on? This is a storm and there is a lot of shit in it.

“Someone else,” Louis repeats blankly, jaw slack and eyes staring as he removes his hands from Harry’s knees, stands and straightens up. He resists the urge to back away, back all the way on out the door. The world feels small, the warning bells feel loud. His heart’s beating louder.

Harry watches him, looking sad. “Yeah,” he nods. “I wasn’t sure if you had someone else.”

“There isn’t, I don’t,” Louis assures instantly, before he can even register what he’s saying, and the minute it spills out he sucks in a breath, taken aback by the firmness of the words and the desperation of their delivery.

What is going on? He feels like he’s a puppet or something, possessed by something greater.

He stares at Harry, breath short and heavy.

“There isn’t?” Harry asks after a moment, so soft it could be the patter of rain outside.

Swallowing, mind numb, Louis shakes his head. “No,” he affirms, and the word sounds scratchy.

Harry’s looking up at him, eyes so intense and penetrating that Louis has to look away because this is all entirely too much.

Liam. This conversation is all about Liam and Liam is the reason he even knows Harry and Liam is the reason that Harry has just, basically, professed his feelings and Liam. Liam. Liam is the problem, Liam is the one who created this. Liam is the one who will break this.

What does it feel like to want to cry?

Letting out a shaky breath, Louis stares at the empty room, watches how the shadows shift beneath the falling sun.

“It’s dead in here today,” he husks out, eyes dry and burning, throat very tight. He wants to breathe, please.

“Yeah,” Harry agrees softly. “It’s always like this on Tuesdays.”

“I’m sorry for mentioning all this,” he says after a moment, watching Louis. “I made it weird.”

“You didn’t make it weird. I made it weird,” Louis sighs.

Harry frowns. “No, you didn’t. I did.”

Louis meets his eye. Quirks one eyebrow, his throat loosening a bit. “No, I did.”

I did.”

No, I did,” Louis insists with a huff, but his eyes aren’t stinging anymore and instead of feeling a little suffocated and overwhelmed, the room feels a bit more breathable, Harry’s eyes laced with amusement.

“I made it weirdest,” Harry protests, but he’s biting down a grin now and Louis wants to laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Hell, he wants to laugh at the fact that he wants to laugh. In the mere span of seconds, Harry sends him from paralyzing fear and sadness to amusement and that is all sorts of fucked up. Normally, Louis has enough trouble feeling one emotion during the day and now here he is, being catapulted from one to the next to another and a fourth. Honestly.

“I made it infinity weird,” Louis smirks, sliding his hands in his back pockets.

“That’s not fair, you can’t say that,” Harry protests, but he’s not even bothering to hide his grin now.

“Don’t be a sore loser, weirdo,” Louis grins, tapping the boy’s shin with the tip of his shoe. And it all feels settled again, feels normal. Just like that. So Louis smiles wider, reveling in the feeling of the tension now leaving his body. “How about instead, you put on a nice record for us? Some nice happy tune that I’ll hate.”

“So, any form of modern music?” Harry remarks dryly, already beginning to get up, and Louis laughs then.

“Precisely, friend,” he smiles, eyes lidded as he stares at the boy. “Precisely.”

And, just like that, it’s easy again. And somehow more difficult than ever.

**

It’s getting to be that time of night again. The shop is going to close soon, Louis will need to haul his arse back to someone’s flat, and he’ll have to say goodbye to Harry with… Well. With at least some sort of plan to move forward so he has something to report back to Liam, who is currently waiting patiently.

He’s been texting Louis all night, pressing him with questions and nagging him to respond and just… Being generally needy, really. Which is odd but Louis barely registers the vibrations in his pocket anymore, instead registering the dusty vinyls he makes a habit of sorting alphabetically while Harry studies his thick textbooks and flicks bits of paper at him. Little shit that he is.

“You think you’re so funny,” Louis glares as he removes yet another crumble of notebook paper from his hair. They’ve been sticking entirely too easy—probably from all the grease, to be quite honest. Much to Harry’s delight.

“I am funny,” he protests. “My mum thinks I’m hilarious, in fact. Tells all her friends about my witty jokes.”

Louis quirks a brow. “In the entire time I’ve known you, pup, not once have you made a witty joke.”

“Hey!”

Louis’ lips twitch as he takes in Harry’s appalled expression. “The funniest joke you’ve ever made was when you told me your favorite movie was Anne of Green Gables.”

“That was not a joke!” Harry squawks. “That is my favorite movie!”

“And it’s still funny!” Louis laughs, slapping his knee for emphasis because it spirals Harry into an attempt at a glare. “Every damn time! You are just a basket of jokes, aren’t you?”

“Oh, hush,” Harry scolds, but his attempted glare has been tossed aside and replaced with a fond smile. “At least my mum supports me, even if you don’t.”

Louis laughs. “True. At least you have your mum.”

Their smiles catch in each other’s eyes and Louis’ stomach rolls around a bit uncomfortably so he stands from his spot on the floor, wiping the dust from hands onto the thighs of his trousers.

“What about your mum?” Harry suddenly asks, curious, from his spot at the counter.

Louis freezes, mid swipe.

“My mum?”

Something akin to a chain link fence rattles inside of his brain.

“Yeah,” Harry smiles, oblivious. “What does she think about that sense of humor of yours? And all of your, erm, ‘quirks’,” he smirks.

Something cold is now dripping in the lowest part of Louis’ stomach—maybe it’s from the chain link fence in his brain.

His mum. Hah. The memories he has of Jo are fuzzier these days. Did she find him funny? He thinks so. He remembers her laughing a lot… He also remembers her not hearing him a lot, too. And he remembers when he stopped trying, as well.

He brushes away the thoughts, reassembling himself. “I, erm. I’d prefer not to talk about that, actually,” he replies delicately, hoping he hasn’t just made it obvious or weird or tense in any way, hoping that Harry won’t have that look in his eye.

But then Louis looks up and, yep. Harry has that look in his eye.

“Oh,” he says quietly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t—“

“No, stop,” Louis sighs, holding up a hand. “Don’t apologize. There’s honestly no need, kid. I just don’t like to talk about my family.”

“Oh.”

There’s an awkward silence then and Louis hates it, hates that whenever he’s honest about shit like this, just honestly stating that he doesn’t want to partake in a conversation that will lead to nowhere, it always feels so heavy and awkward and pitying afterwards. It’s always filled with the other person’s curiosity and unwanted empathy. This always happens.

He glances up in Harry’s direction, noting that the boy looks unsure as he stares unseeingly at the textbook page before him, his pen capped and sitting atop his notebook. Right. Awkward.

“But, hey, you know. I don’t mind if you talk about your family,” he offers, trying to clear up some of the air. At the sound of his voice, Harry looks up, eyes cloudy. “Just so you know.”

Then Harry smiles. “Okay. And, obviously, I don’t mind that you don’t feel comfortable talking about yours. Just so you know.”

Louis smiles, too. “Well. Good. Because I’m not going to.”

“Works well for us, then,” Harry laughs, endlessly amused by all.

And there he goes again, smoothing out the jagged spikes in the room, changing the tone just like that.

“What a nice little pair we make,” Louis comments idly, picking up his jacket and pulling it on, careful to avoid the holes in the fabric.

“Perfect, even,” Harry smiles, but he’s already looking back at his book and Louis doesn’t miss the color that rises in his skin.

Unable to procure an adequate response, Louis settles for smiling to himself as he strolls over, glancing at the textbook on the table. He knows Liam would probably love it if he snatched it away right now, using Harry’s obvious affection for him to his advantage. Distract him, etc. The book’s in reach, too. He just has to pluck it up and muss up Harry’s curls and flirt a little obviously and the boy will most definitely let him get away with it. Because that’s how Harry works. He’s sweet and a little flighty and warm. He lets people distract him.

It’s a thought that leaves Louis nauseous. He’s always nauseous lately.

“Need any help studying?” he offers softly instead, watching the way Harry’s eyes skim across the page before they look up to meet his own.

He smiles, obviously flattered, stirring up the warmth lying in Louis’ belly. “No, it’s okay. I don’t want to bore you. I know you don’t like school or structured assignments and regulations.” He shrugs easily, already turning back to the page.

But Louis stops him, tugging on the elbow of his jumper. “Hey, no. I won’t be bored. It’s always easier to do work when it’s someone else’s.” He half-smiles when Harry turns back to look at him, one eyebrow raised. “Besides. I want to help you. And I’ve already alphabetized this entire store, so. I’ve got shit else to do.”

“Really?” Harry asks, doubtful. “You want to help me study science? You hate science.”

“I do. Which will make it all the more fun to take the piss. As I help you.” Louis smiles, resolutely ignoring the part of his brain that is watching all of this unfold with infuriated shock. He made a promise to himself today. And not once has he attempted to uphold it.

“Well… Okay. Just for the last half hour, then,” Harry agrees with a smile that looks different than all the others. It’s a new smile. It’s one that looks soft and surprised and a little impressed, maybe. Or touched. Or something sentimental. It’s one that Louis is probably going to think about when he walks to Anthony’s tonight.

“Just for a half hour,” Louis agrees. “I will butcher your education for only thirty minutes.”

Harry bursts into laughter, sending little comets sizzling through the air, burning off the tips of Louis’ eyelashes and singeing his lips. He smiles with his burnt mouth as he watches Harry, watches all the comets.

“Now,” he says, when Harry’s laughter finally burns out, and he leans against the counter, glancing down at the book. “Tell me what I can do to help.”

And he knows it’s terribly wrong and it doesn’t make sense. But Louis shuts off his brain and ignores the vibration of his phone as Harry’s warm hands pass him a study guide.

Louis is so entirely fucked.

**

“Well. I best leave you, I suppose,” Louis yawns, stretching a hand over his mouth as he looks up at the faded stars above them. They’re hard to see amongst all the streetlamps. There are a few, though.

They’ve just closed up shop, their feet heavier than they were thirty minutes ago when Louis’d begun to help Harry study. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But, shit. Science is hard. Even with all the answers in front of him, Louis’ brain sort of hurts. His mouth hurts, too—probably because he hasn’t smiled this much the entire week.

God. Since when does he need to smile? He’s becoming so fucking soft.

“Hm,” Harry hums noncommittally as they stand on the street facing each other, nobody else in sight. “Uhm. I don’t suppose you’d actually want to go on a walk first, though? Maybe? If you’re not too tired?”

God, he sounds so hopeful. Louis could be sleep deprived for a week and have a freshly amputated leg and he’d probably still agree to go for this bullshit. Fucking Harry. Fucking endearing little bastard.

“No, I’m not tired at all,” Louis lies. And he genuinely shouldn’t be, though, is the thing. Since his entire life consists of night shifts at the pub and partying, this isn’t even all that late for him. What is it, like ten o’clock? Definitely going soft.

Harry’s face lights up. “Brilliant,” he smiles, and Louis’ ribs feel settled. “Uhm, shall we?” He gestures forward, smile crooked and hair haloed in the streetlights.

“We shall,” Louis smirks, beginning to walk.

They remain silent for a bit, Louis too tired to think up conversation, the night too cool and peaceful for much else but footsteps and exchanged sleepy smiles. It’s wonderful, though, purely relaxing. Maybe Harry is one of those people that Louis doesn’t have to talk to all the time. Maybe he’s like Zayn—he can just sort of ‘be’ and do nothing with him and it’s not weird. Maybe he’ll be able to do everything and nothing with Harry.

Wouldn’t that be nice.

“I’m, um, really glad I saw you today,” Harry says suddenly, voice soft.

Louis turns to look at him, sees his half-shadowed face smiling back. The night light is soaking into his skin and he looks distorted and orangish but Louis kind of likes it, likes it because he knows it’s still Harry and the world could never change that.

Shit, maybe he is overtired; he’s waxing philosophical.

“I am, too,” he agrees, leaves rustling beneath his feet. He stifles another yawn. “I am sorry for being a twat, though. For being absent so long and not really warning you about it.”

“No, it’s okay,” Harry shrugs. “I think I get it.”

Hm. Doubt that.

“Well, in any case,” Louis continues. “I am sorry. But I am happy to, you know. Hang out with you again. And I don’t plan on changing that any time soon, so don’t think you can get rid of me that easily.”

At the words, Harry smiles and everything suddenly looks softer. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

“Good, because I said it.”

With a roll of the eyes, Harry chuckles, bumping Louis’ elbow purposefully with his own. “Arse,” he mutters under his breath.

“Yeah,” Louis mutters in the same tone before sliding a hand to his bum and rubbing it. “It is a good one, isn’t it?”

In the dead silence of the night, Harry guffaws like a caveman.

“Shush, shush you!” Louis nearly giggles (he will never admit that later, thank you) as he tries to muffle Harry’s hideous noises with his palm, halting to a stop and taking Harry with him. “Shush, you’ll wake the entire world with that sea urchin noise! It wasn’t even funny, for fuck’s sake!”

Harry just giggles more, pressing Louis’ hand further against his mouth to stifle it and Louis should probably feel a slither of disgust at the spit accumulating on his flesh, feeling Harry’s teeth and wet lips, but he feels only a sense of spreading warmth in his bones, mixed with a desire to replace the hand with his mouth. He wants to suck up Harry’s laughter and swallow it and carry it around. Like a jar that carries fireflies, he wants to carry Harry’s laughter.

He’s going insane.

Eventually, Harry’s laughter dies, Louis’ hand still pressed to his mouth, and Louis watches the way Harry’s eyelids soften as they gaze at him, his hands gently beginning to pry away Louis’ moist, cold-and-hot fingers from his mouth. He doesn’t let go of Louis’ hand in his, though, and he smiles fondly as they just stare at each other, face to face on the pavement beneath the tall posts and streetlamps and shriveled flower baskets.

“I don’t think I laughed once while you were gone,” he comments mildly, lips still quirked.

Louis blinks. “Really? Not once?” he asks, taken aback and very aware that Harry is holding onto his hand, even if it is just by the tips of his fingers. He pictures their fingerprints aligning, pictures their ridges slotting into place.

Harry shakes his head. “Not once.” He doesn’t blink, just stares, skin licked with cold. “Actually, aside from mum and Gem… Nobody has ever really made me laugh like you do.”

Oh god.

Louis swallows. “Never?”

Harry shakes his head again, just once this time. “Nope. You’re fun, Louis.”

“You’re a sap, Harry,” Louis replies, but he grins and pulls his hand from Harry’s cold grip, instead lacing it through the limitless curls atop the boy’s head because he’s helpless to stop himself in this life. The strands feel like cold ribbons rubbing against his flesh and it’s nice, so he keeps it there for a bit as he watches Harry’s eyes waver with contentment, his shoulders relaxing and his smile drifting into slackened joy.

“You’re probably a sap, too,” Harry mumbles as his eyes close, words a bit slower as Louis continues to card his fingers. “Just a secret one.”

“I don’t think so,” Louis replies, bemused.

“Hm. Maybe not.”

“Yeah. Maybe not.”

And then Harry opens his eyes, a bright and piercing look filling them, and Louis sucks in too much air.

He coughs, removing his hand and turning around, afraid that he might turn into stone if he stares at Harry for much longer. Maybe his curls are actually snakes and maybe Harry is Medusa. It’s something to think about.

“Anyway,” Louis mumbles, continuing to walk again, and he hears Harry rejoin him, if a little reluctantly. “You can’t have had very many good people in your life if I’m one of the only ones to make you laugh. I’m not funny, you know. Not really. It’s a secret, though, don’t tell anybody.”

“I think you’re hilarious!” Harry protests, shocked, and it’s so genuine that Louis bites his laughter down.

“You are so good for my self-esteem,” he remarks, shaking his head.

“I’m serious,” Harry continues, eyes wide. “You’re just… Witty. I dunno. Really funny. I like your sense of humor. So much.”

Louis fights the smile off his face, refusing to look pleased. “Well, you’re odd. But thank you.”

Harry shrugs. “I should be the one thanking you. For taking the time to, like, make me laugh.”

“Oh, jesus,” Louis snorts, shaking his head. “You are such a good little soldier, aren’t you? Thanking me for making you laugh? Honestly, Sasspup, you are something else.” He pauses, thinking over Harry’s words. Hm. “Though, it does make me a bit sad to think of a young, lovely Harry Styles that never laughed properly in his youth.” He glances over at him when Harry doesn’t argue, quirks an eyebrow. “Is that how it went, then? Were you the lovely youth that never smiled?”

Harry attempts a smile at that, eyes very kind when they look at Louis and very far away when they look off into the distance before them. “Uhm… Maybe? I dunno. I’ve told you before, right? I just never have clicked with other people very well. Which is mostly my own fault, I think,” he rushes to say when Louis frowns, just a bit. “Don’t get me wrong—I’ve had a wonderful life. A really great mum and sister and I’ve been fortunate in countless ways. I had a great childhood and people have always been kind to me. I’ve just never really… Felt the same way back I suppose. Towards friends and things. So I guess I was never overly happy, I’d say. But I did smile and stuff.” He shrugs. “If I was ever lonely, it’s because it was my own fault, so it’s fair.”

Louis falls silent at that, instead just kicking up the countless crispy leaves that cut through the silence and the sharp glow of the moon.

Harry’s so good, isn’t he. Such a good head on his shoulders. Wise beyond his years.

“We’re so different,” Louis replies quietly, words almost getting lost in the crunch of the leaves underfoot. “You’re so… Mature about it all. You’ve got perspective, you know? You’re able to see the big picture and take a step back, Harry. I… Well, I’ve never been like that. See, I’ve always liked the idea of being the victim. Because then it gave me a reason to feel shitty and act shitty and… I don’t know. It just made me feel justified. And, uhm…” He clears his throat, feels his heart pick up a bit as his palms bead with sweat despite the cold, cold chill. “And I suppose that’s the reason I was able to leave. It’s why I don’t live with my mum. I chose to be the victim.” He swallows as their pace slows and he feels Harry’s eyes on him, feels the way he’s holding his breath, afraid to disturb the moment. Louis’ sort of holding his breath as well. It all feels precarious. “But that’s all I want to say about it. I don’t know, maybe someday I’ll want to talk about it. Just. Not now.”

“Okay,” Harry nods. “That’s more than fine. I understand.”

Louis nods as well. “Thanks. Thank you.”

“But, just for the record.” Louis glances over at him. “I think you’re much stronger than you give yourself credit for, Louis. And you punish yourself for past mistakes.” Harry purses his lips at the same time Louis’ stomach squelches and he’s just about to protest, but then Harry’s talking again, deep words warming the air between them. “But it’s also none of my business, so I’ll just shut up now.” And then Harry actually zips his lips, which makes Louis feel an instant affection, a smile immediately forming. He just loves how easy Harry seems to make things. Never too tense, never awful. Always makes it nice.

“Thank you,” Louis says again, laughing lightly, and they crunch along.

“Uhm. You know. The stars are really bright tonight,” Harry suddenly says, stopping in his tracks and tugging on the arm of Louis’ jacket.

He stops, looks up. “They are.” He then shoots Harry a smile and begins walking again.

After a moment, Harry catches up. “Erm. I think you have an eyelash, Louis. Just there,” he says, once again tugging on Louis’ jacket to halt him.

“Hm? Where?” Louis asks absently, mind scattered in a few places as he looks to Harry patiently.

Harry looks…odd, to say the least. Perhaps nervous? Definitely a little jittery. “There,” he says, extending a shaky finger to dab at the hollow beneath his right eye. He flicks it away before Louis can see it, eyes glistening in the cold, alert and flitting back to Louis, who smiles softly in response.

“Thanks, pup,” he grins, before once again continuing to walk, a yawn erupting from his lungs. It’s only after he’s stifled it back inside that he notices Harry is not, in fact, beside him anymore, and he’s just about to turn around when he hears a petulant, impatient voice in the distance behind him:

“Louis, can you stop walking, please?”

He starts, turning on his heel in confusion, only to find that Harry is still a ways back, hands limp at his sides, looking helplessly frustrated.

Louis blinks. “Er—sorry?”

Harry sighs, but there’s a nervous smile hovering on edge of the sound as he walks forward slowly, the soles of his shoes making soft scuffs in the night.

“Sorry,” he apologizes with a bumble, but his smile is so dopey and cute that Louis can’t even be bothered to question the odd behavior, finding himself blindingly charmed by it all. Harry’s just so cute. “I just—I was trying to get you to stop but you weren’t taking the hint.”

“Oh. My bad.”

Harry rolls his eyes, but his smile remains intact as he looks off the side, shaking his head a bit, hands in his pockets. But he doesn’t say anything further, and Louis raises his eyebrows as the moments stretch.

“So, uh,” he coughs, wishing Harry would look at him. “Are you sick of walking, or…?”

“Oh! No! I’m sorry,” Harry apologizes again, flushed, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand and rubbing his eyes with the other. Little baby bear. “No, no, I’m just… Trying to assemble words.”

“Ah, yes. Words.”

“Words, words, words.”

They smile at each other, Harry all awkward, Louis all expectant. This is so odd.

“Look, uhm. I’ve never done this before and, clearly, I am not very good at it,” Harry begins, letting the words fall out in a defeated sigh, hands falling to his sides heavily.

“Well, admittedly, I’m not really sure what you’re doing, but you do have my full attention, so. You can’t be all that bad at it,” Louis smirks, but Harry still looks mostly terrified.

“Right, well, uhm. I don’t really know…” He sighs, running a frustrated hand through his piles of hair. Louis tracks the movement, watches the way the strands fall and reassemble themselves. “I suppose I should just…” He sighs again, but this time with an edge of determination, as if steeling himself, and just as Louis is about to question him, Harry blurts out in a wind: “Would you like to go out with me sometime?”

It’s said in such a rush, the words more air than voice, but Louis hears each word.

It’s… Unexpected. But also not.

Louis licks his lips, repeating the echoed words in his head as his eyes fall somewhere around Harry’s waist, little prickles of panic and guilt and sadness tingling his body in waves. He studies the hem of Harry’s jumper—in all its burnt orange glory—and can’t quite look up because suddenly his eyes feel impossibly heavy.

“Would you like to go out with me”

This moment right here is what it all culminates to. And yet it feels so entirely awful in so many different, intricate ways. Fuck.

Harry must be able to pick up on Louis’ distress. Because before Louis can even begin to sort out the darkness and the chaos that are currently replacing the air in his lungs, Harry begins speaking again, this time more quietly and nervously, voice wobbling just below the surface.

“Look,” he begins, and Louis’ chest feels sharp, sharp enough to hurt. He doesn’t look up as Harry speaks. “I know I’m a bit weird. And, like, boring. And probably really awkward?”

Louis watches him shift from one foot to another, his arms folding up over his stomach defensively. He can’t quite respond, words suddenly out of reach, but he glances up sharply, gives one firm shake of the head because none of that is true.

Harry attempts a half-smile at the gesture before his arms tighten around his waist and he looks away, nibbling on his lips between words, hair falling into his eyes. “It’s true, though, I know,” he insists, shrugging, and Louis feels a frown cut through his face because no, no it’s not.

But he lets Harry continue because Harry’s eyes are bright, mingled with the sparse light pouring through the dry leaves left in the spiky, black trees nearby.

“But the thing is, Louis… Is that, like… I dunno. Around you, I feel, like… Braver, or something. More myself, in a way. Does that sound weird?” He glances at Louis, who merely swallows and shakes his head, before nervously darting his eyes back away, arms still tightly folded. “It’s just that, when I’m around you, I feel more confident to say and think and do all the things that I’ve always sort of thought about in the back of my mind. Like… I’ve always had these notions about the way to live life and how to see things… How to act, even. But it was always so different from how everybody else seemed to act that I just sort of ignored all those things, assuming it was just something… I dunno. Something to ignore.” He turns his eyes to Louis then, and his arms loosen infinitesimally. “But then I met you. And you’re different, Louis, you are. You just say whatever you feel and think however you want and you don’t care about the way people look at you or talk about you… You don’t try to fit into their moulds or make friends just for the sake of it or fake being kind or follow any sort of expected path, you know? You just live your life as yourself and you think about things differently and feel things differently and, just being around all that? It makes me feel comfortable. Like I can be myself, too, even though I always thought, maybe, I was just… I dunno, deformed or something.”

Louis laughs, dry and hard, because if he doesn’t, he feels like he might choke. “Jesus, Harry,” he laughs, wanting it to sound less affected than it is. “You’re not Quasimodo, for god’s sake. Being a little dramatic, there,” he tries to dismiss.

But Harry’s words are glass. Little, beautiful, finely sliced shards of glass that have already embedded themselves into his palms and throat and arteries and bloody, beating heart.

Fuck.

“I dunno, Louis. Have you seen Hunchback of Notre Dame? I can kind of relate,” Harry smiles (small) and his cheeks are flushing again because they always seem to be, and his arms are finally falling loose to his sides.

A returned smile is attempted before it feels too heavy, and then Louis drops his head, having to close his eyes and wishing that would solve everything, wishing that he could separate himself from the boy before him, permanently, just by closing his eyes. Snapping his lids shut and clipping all the intricately woven strings tied to every single one of Harry’s bones. All just by closing his eyes.

But then he opens them and Harry is right there, words still echoing off of his lips, and he looks nervous and embarrassed and expectant and very, very lovely. ‘Lovely’ is probably the best word to describe Harry Styles. Just all around lovely.

Something about the thought pokes a slight smile at Louis’ lips. Before he understands it, he reaches out one hand, catching his fingers on the hem of Harry’s jumper, tugging him just a bit closer.

Harry’s eyes track the movement as a smile big-bangs onto his face, his own hand immediately reaching for the bottom of Louis’ jacket, hanging on as well. It makes Louis feel warmer, it makes him lose himself just that bit more, unfortunately.

“I should’ve known better with a boy like you. That I would love everything that you do. And I do. Hey, hey, hey. And I do,” Louis hum-sings quietly under his breath as he holds onto Harry, not quite meeting his eye yet, trying to keep the smile off of his face and his feet on the pavement.

“Why are you singing The Beatles?” Harry laughs softly, voice almost a whisper like he doesn’t dare disturb the night.

Louis hums as his smile grows, happy Harry recognized it. “Just felt appropriate, didn’t it?” he says just as softly, before absentmindedly bringing up his other hand to tug on the other side of Harry’s jumper.

Of course, Harry does the same. They stand there, anchoring each other, smiles mirrored as their eyes flick up and back and back and away and back. Clicking in and out of place, lips twitching, hands clenched in each other’s fabric like two children on the playground reluctant to let go of each other.

“I love when you sing,” Harry says very quietly.

Louis snorts but doesn’t say anything; he realizes after a moment that at some point they’ve begun to sway a bit on the spot. He has no idea who started it, has no idea why it’s still happening, but it feels nice as their bodies rock in unison, just barely, beneath the moon, their breath mingling in its barely-formed puffs.

“Hey, Harry?” Louis asks after the moments pass, filled only with their gentle movements. He looks up to meet Harry’s eyes that still manage to appear alarmingly bright despite the darkness and the shadow. He smirks, watching as Harry waits patiently, seeming so pleased and so fucking cute. “Wanna go on a date with me?”

It’s said teasingly, his smirk growing, and they’re still swaying, Louis tugging on Harry’s jumper twice as soon as he finishes the sentence.

Harry’s grin grows despite the petulance of his brow. “Hey,” he complains with twitching lips. “I was the one who asked you!”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t want you to have all the fun, did I?”

Harry beams.

“Is that a yes?” Louis prods, still swaying, knuckles warm in the knit of Harry’s jumper. In this moment, it all seems simpler. In this moment, things seem a little beautiful and not at all warped.

Harry’s nodding before Louis’ even finished mumbling the words, so smiley it hurts. “Yeah, of course, obviously. I’d love to go on a date with you, Louis.” Just saying the words throws an essence of glitter in Harry’s irises and that alone is amazing enough to fuck up Louis for life, he thinks fearfully.

It’s all terrifying but it’s brilliant. It feels like living.

“Good,” he says quietly, very cold and very warm all at once. He releases Harry’s jumper, taking a step back when Harry finally releases him as well. “But it is late and tomorrow’s school. So, should I walk you home? Or?”

“Actually, the bus’ll be here in about five minutes or so.” Harry shrugs. “Besides, I live a bit too far to walk.” He smiles. “But. You know. If you ever did want to see where I live, you can. Could. If you want.”

Bless this child.

“Yeah, maybe, of course,” Louis replies, a jumble of replies to match the frying of his brain.

Harry smiles, bumping his chin on his chest as he looks to his feet, pleased.

And Louis wants to say more, he does, but then suddenly, like clockwork, the groan of the bus comes hurtling out of nowhere and it’s disappointing, is what it is. Louis squints up into the oncoming headlights, a frown settled inside of him because it feels like a spell of sorts has been broken, reality coming to take them away.

“Okay, well… Thank you for walking with me, Louis” Harry smiles, and Louis nods.

“Anytime, pup.”

Slowly, Harry begins walking backwards towards the bus. He’s probably going to walk into a bench.

Louis suppresses a laugh at the thought, waving once as he watches the boy retreat, wings in his chest and lead in his stomach. “Have a good night, kid,” he calls.

Harry beams, golden. “I will. You, too! Text me?” he asks, so young, so hopeful, so beseeching as he nears the bus. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Yeah. I’ll see you tomorrow,” Louis promises, wishing he could control his smile, wishing he could control anything. But he’s powerless and so he smiles, watching Harry retreat until he finally climbs the steps of the bus, vanishing from sight and being taken away into the night, leaving only a smudgy outlined wave in his wake.

Immediately, Louis pulls out his phone.

‘See you tomorrow’ he sends, smiling down at the luminescent screen.

Almost immediately Harry replies.

‘:) Can’t wait :) xx’

He really shouldn’t stare a text this long. But he does, and he’s smiling, his face cold and burning and tongue tingling with the need for nicotine, his body aching with the need for sleep. But still, he stands and stares at the words that cut across his screen.

And then his phone vibrates again.

But it’s not Harry.

Immediately, Louis’ smile slides from his face, a barren darkness settling inside.

‘Well?’ is all the message reads.

Well, indeed.

Liam. It all comes back to Liam.

He pauses, unsure of what to do.

The thing is… The thing is, Louis made his decision this morning. He did. Today, he sought out Harry with the intention that he was going to go through with this entire thing and that was what got him out of bed today—the promise to finish what he started and follow the path that he cut for himself. Because he’s still in control, he’s not weak, and he’s made his bed so he has to fucking lie in it. It all comes back to Liam.

He made his decision. He can’t back at now, can he? No. He can’t.

But he also didn’t foresee…

But no. He made his goddamn decision. Leveled fortresses be damned, he made his own decision.

There’s no way it would work with Harry, anyway. There’s just no way. Because, even if Louis did try… Even if Louis wanted this, really, really fucking wanted this—whatever ‘this’ is… Harry will find out some day. He’ll have to. And that’s…

You can’t build off of lies. You just can’t. Louis fucked himself over. And now he has to suffer the consequences. He fucking knew this this morning. This isn’t new. He knew this and he sought Harry out today to finish what he started.

It wouldn’t work, anyway.

So, with shaking fingers, he texts back.

‘Asked him out tonight. Won’t be much longer now,’ is what he sends.

It’s truly shocking how horrible it feels. It’s just a fucking text. That’s it. It’s a text he’s sent a thousand times before. In far worse situations. This is a fucking routine procedure and all he did was fucking text Liam the truth, the goddamn truth, and it’s absolutely incredible how much this is utterly destroying something in Louis’ body. He vaguely wonders if it’s a vital something.

He looks up into the sky, squints at the same stars that looked over him and Harry. They look disgusted with him, they’re looking at him like he’s a traitor. Because he is. The stars hate him.

He looks down.

‘Perfect.’

Louis stares at the word, hollow, throat beginning to close again. Then there’s another buzz.

‘You deserve a reward. Come over. Now.’

And, somehow, it all feels even worse.

But he has no fucking choice. He’s the villain, remember? This is how it goes, he agreed to his and he’s good at this and it’s supposed to be simple, for fuck’s sake.

He ignores the taste of blood when he taps back an ‘On my way’.

And he ignores the stars, too, as he begins walking in the direction of Liam’s flat, wondering why he can’t hear the beating of his heart anymore.

Chapter Text

Halcyon—Ellie Goulding


 

“So. You remember the plan, right?”

Louis nods, watching as Liam dresses (for one sporting event or another, who fuckin’ knows) from his usual spot on the bed, knees pulled up, his back pressed against the cold, hard wall. It’s not all that comfortable. Or maybe it is, because he has no inkling to move. Or maybe his body’s just numb, or something.

I have become comfortably numb…

“Yeah,” he mumbles, wrapping his arms tight around his legs as his gaze slides to the corner of the room. He glares at the white paint and dustless corners, hates how clean and empty they are. “I remember.”

And how could he not? Ever since he’d told Liam about officially asking Harry out, the bloke’s been ramming plots and proceedings down Louis’ throat like he were stuffing a turkey, blueprinting out the evening in such minute detail that it always leaves the room dizzy and the air off-kilter.

Then again, everything about Liam has been making Louis feel dizzy and off-kilter lately… And not in the good way, either.

He doesn’t know exactly why or what’s changed, really, but it’s been like this ever since that night—when Louis came over here for his ‘reward’ or whatever, after Harry’d blushingly asked him out and Louis felt the world crash in on itself. At the time, he’d walked to Liam and Zayn’s with a knowing dread building in the pit of his stomach, but he still walked there, see. He still went. Because he knew his desire for Liam, knew what he wanted and knew what he chose, and so he pushed the right buttons on the elevator as it carried him up and up, and he shut off his mind because what it was whispering at him, deep from the back of his brain, didn’t make sense. When the doors dinged open, softly pulling apart, they had revealed Liam, already waiting there for him, his eyes dark and filled with intent, hands reaching out for Louis with purpose… Their bodies had been a centimeter from colliding.

And yet. Louis had stopped him.

Blind, hard-to-understand panic shot through him as his body reacted against his will, a hand shooting up to still Liam’s nearing mouth.

“Oi, what’s this?” he’d rasped out as his blood churned, icebergs stuck in his arteries. He felt so nauseous, so utterly out of energy. He was fucking spent and he just… Suddenly he just couldn’t.

Even in the darkness of the flat, Louis had seen Liam’s eyes flash.

“Why are you stopping me?” he’d demanded, a bolt of offense charging through his voice. There was hurt in there, too. Surprise and hurt and offense.

It made little parts of Louis feel guilty as he pushed him fully away (he’s always wanted Liam before, always, and he’s never been shy about it) but, that night, he just couldn’t give a fuck, the fabric of his jacket still smelling like the music shop.

“Liam, I’m tired,” he’d explained quietly, voice strained beyond repair, and suddenly he didn’t know why he’d come at all. He was here, why was he here?

He avoided Liam’s fierce gaze, choosing to stare sightlessly into the flat instead, Liam still standing uncomfortably close in front of him.

“Louis…” Liam had said, voice different, eyebrows knitted together like heavy, black chords. Maybe it was panic in his tone. Or maybe it was pure offense. Or maybe it was shock. But Liam’s voice had sounded different, almost like a plea, and Louis couldn’t find it within himself to give in.

“Goodnight, Liam,” he had found himself saying instead, closing his eyes as he moved past the boy, his entire body empty.

He’d slept in Zayn’s room that night, crawling in silently and curling up on the floor, feeling and hearing the way his heart beat in an uneven rhythm, interspersed with the sounds of Zayn’s soft snores. He fell asleep after lying there for too many hours, and when he awoke, it was to the sight of Zayn lighting incense in his boxers, completely unfazed by Louis’ presence, no explanation necessary. Only when they emerged from the room an hour later did Louis see Liam, dressed and ready for school as he texted on his phone, slumped over in an armchair. Delicate shadows had lain beneath his eyes, but otherwise he looked entirely unfazed, his hair styled and his clothes matching. The grip on his phone was tight.

“Morning,” Louis’d greeted hesitantly as Zayn sloped to the bathroom, still puffy from sleep.

Liam looked up. “Morning, Tommo.” And then he returned to his phone, knuckles white. “I told Sarah you’d be here for breakfast,” he’d said, after a pause. “Should be ready any minute now.”

And that was that.

They never discussed it further, not once. Everything just quietly remained a bit weird as Louis continued to feel a little bit guilty, knowing he should want Liam, want him just as much as he always has, should want anything he can get... But.

But something felt changed that night and still does. And it’s vaguely terrifying, so Louis doesn’t think about it and sure as fuck isn’t going to talk about it.

Nothing’s changed, he tells himself.

But even now, as he watches Liam smooth the t-shirt over his stomach before bending down to tie the laces of his trainers, his hair clipped and styled, his eyes dark and his skin clean and his hands strong and well-kept… Louis feels that quiet sense of terror. That change. That something. He remembers that night when he’d wanted so badly to want Liam… Yet couldn’t.  

He tugs his legs closer to his body.

“What time are you picking him up tonight, then?” Liam asks after a moment, straightening. He rolls his neck once, procuring little clicks, as he looks expectantly to Louis, moving to shut his laptop atop his desk. He looks very freshly showered, smells very freshly showered.

It should pull Louis in. It should make him want to peel himself off the bed, crowd into Liam’s space and breathe the scent off of his neck and suck it into his bones. It should make him want.

But he feels nothing. And it makes his throat dry.

“I told him I’d be at his house around six,” he replies quietly before clearing his throat, shaking himself out of himself.

Liam nods, pondering. “Good. Good. I’ll text you the address to the restaurant when you leave from there. And you’ve got Zayn’s car, right?”

“Yeah.”

Liam smirks. “I don’t suppose you actually told him what you’re going to use it for, have you?” he laughs, and Louis clamps his jaw tight, a brutal spike shooting through his heart.

He ignores it, though. Just ignores it like he’s been ignoring everything lately. It’ll all go away eventually. Just as George Harrison once said—all things must pass. Pass the fuck away.

“No,” Louis replies carefully after a moment, eyes dropping to his knees, feeling irritation begin to bubble up. “Obviously, I fucking wouldn’t. Probably wouldn’t let me borrow it then, would he?” he snaps, maybe a little too harshly.

But Liam looks mostly unfazed, picking up his duffel bag and slinging it over his shoulder. “Yeah, probably. Guess you’ll just have to be clean about the whole thing. Fuck Styles tidily tonight, Tommo. Don’t want to ruin the leather.” He says the sentence with an obscene smirk, beginning to walk towards the door.

Louis stares hard at the indentations of the bones in his knees, mouth clamped shut, muscles tight.

“Alright, so,” Liam continues, a little slower, after it’s clear Louis isn’t going to speak. “I’ll text you the address once you’ve picked up Styles. Then, after you’ve eaten and gone back to the car, you can do your thing. Then I’ll show up, walk in on you two, and boom—we’ve got enough gossip to fuel the destruction of Styles’ reputation, if nothing else.” Liam beams, utterly delighted as he adjusts the strap of his bag, hovering near the doorway. “He’ll probably be dropped from the school board once they get wind of it—you know how they hate scandal amongst their representatives. And if Brenton gets wind of it…” Liam whistles low, his pleasure evident. “They definitely won’t choose him, now will they? Not a prestigious university like that.” He beams, proud of himself.

It doesn’t really make sense, seems more like a teenage sitcom, but Louis doesn’t argue, just continues to stare at his knees.

“I just don’t get why you have to be there,” he says eventually, irritation speckling his voice.

Because,” Liam begins, rolling his eyes as if it were obvious, “I can do useful things. Like procure photographic evidence. And send said evidence to everyone who matters.” He waves his phone in one hand as he smirks, the other landing on the doorknob. “And you know that two voices are better than one, Tommo. It’s great and all if you tell the world that you’ve successfully managed to fuck the perfect Harry Styles. But, coming from me, it’s even better.” His smile almost looks sweet. “You know everybody will make shit of him for it. They’ll be ruthless—I’ll make sure of it.”

“Why, though?” Louis asks, closing his eyes to keep the wave of nausea at bay. He may or may not be suffering from a case of vertigo as well, the entire room spinning. He needs a cigarette. Needs to buy cigarettes. It’s been days—he’s going fucking crazy.

There’s a brief pause.

“Because that’s what we always do,” Liam says slowly, confused. “And it’s worked in our favor every time.”

Jesus. They really are a pair of dickheads, aren’t they?

It was never an issue before, though, is the thing. Something’s changed.

Louis swallows down something that could potentially be bile. Or maybe his soul, trying to escape and get the fuck away from him. He breathes through it though, breathes harshly through his nose as he chisels his face into stone and opens his eyes.

“Just text me the address,” he manages, voice even, and still doesn’t look at Liam, instead opting to stare straight ahead at the wall.

Liam raises one brow. “Will do. Text me when you get there.”

Pause. “Yeah.”

But Liam doesn’t leave just yet, though, and the silence that drags on is enough to pull Louis’ gaze up, catching sight of the boy before him.

“You’ve got this, Louis,” he says, tone a bit quieter, and it appears that he’s attempting a smile. Trying to be encouraging.  

Louis attempts his own halfhearted smile in response, ignoring the ice and the nausea and the everything that feels wrong.

“Yeah,” is all he can muster up, and then Liam is gone.

**

If he’s going to abide by the schedule that he and Liam have mapped out, then Louis needs to leave in approximately ten minutes. Just ten minutes.

He stares at Zayn’s bedside alarm clock, daring the time to go either slower or faster—whichever, really. He’s not sure what he wants. Doesn’t give a fuck anymore. It all works the same no matter what.

He might be a little bitter.

“You alright there, Lou?” Niall asks, voice loud in the peaceful calm of the room. He’s sitting on Zayn’s bed strumming his acoustic guitar.

Zayn’s sprawled eagle on the floor just below him, staring at the ceiling with wide eyes, looking mesmerized—he claims that, whenever Niall plays guitar, it inspires visions within him. Then again, he also claims that Niall is the single most talented person in the world and Louis has yet to hear the kid play more than three Styx songs. 

Blinking out of his inner wallowing, Louis clears his throat, already nodding and feigning an easy smirk. “’Course,” he says easily. “Just bored is all. Can only take so much of your gentle strumming, Horan.”

Luckily, Niall doesn’t press the matter more than that, instead just laughing, short and quick, before returning to the guitar in his hands. He looks very preppy, wearing a cable knit jumper and collared shirt, his jeans clean and tailored. Louis wonders if he’s spoiled.

“Thanks for letting me borrow your car again, Dearest,” Louis remarks in Zayn’s general direction. From this angle, he can only really see the back of his head and his sprawled legs, feet poking up (one of his socks has a hole in the toe) but Louis still catches his nod.

“You’re welcome. Sometimes I forget I have a car.”

“Well, I can always take it off of your hands if it becomes too much,” Louis grins, hands fisted beneath his thighs and quivering only just slightly.

“No, it’s okay,” Zayn answers seriously, as if he’d genuinely considered it.

Oh, Zayn. At least Louis will always have Zayn. Life will still have its moments.

He’s just got to get through tonight. Just survive tonight, and then it’ll all go back to normal, back to the way it was. It will be simple again and Louis will be fine. After tonight.

He glances at the clock again. Seven minutes to go.

“Aren’t you going out with Harry tonight?” Niall asks then, as if he were tuned in to Louis’ thoughts.

Harry. Har-ry. Louis blinks in time to the syllables echoed in his head, fists tightening that much more. The ease of his put-upon grin slips, shrinking his skin and neck muscles. Harry. 

“Er, yeah,” he replies casually, gathering himself as the echoes fade. “Yeah, I am, actually. Need to be leaving in seven minutes, in fact.”

At that, Zayn cricks his neck, turning around to meet Louis’ eye. Even from the odd angle, he can see the deep frown in his face.

“You’re going on a date with Harry tonight? You didn’t tell me that.”

Well, shit.

“Didn’t I?” Louis asks nonchalantly as he rises from the desk chair, the bright red numbers of the alarm clock glaring at him, mocking him. Time is so fucking slow sometimes, isn’t it? Time is so frozen. Maybe he should mention that to Zayn—he’s probably got some deep theories about it all.

“No. You didn’t,” Zayn replies, and his frown deepens before he turns to Niall, who glances down fondly, a little smile playing at his rosy lips. “How did you know and I didn’t?”

Niall shrugs, continues playing. “Heard Liam and Louis talking about it the other day.”

“Liam?” Zayn repeats, sounding alarmed, and Louis’ stomach drops when Zayn sits up, turning to look Louis in the eye.

Louis avoids his gaze. He’s pretty sure he knows what will be looking back at him and he just… He doesn’t want that right now. He’s having a hard enough time, thanks. No need for further criticism. He’s got a pretty good handle on it himself.

“Louis. Are you going on this date because of Liam?” Zayn asks, and it’s filled with all the betrayal in the world, all the genuine disappointment. It’s like watching a pile of puppies fall down the stairs. It’s awful.

Zayn knew, though. He knew that Harry was the target. He shouldn’t be surprised. Why is he acting surprised?

It still feels awful.

Louis shrugs, fighting to keep the composure of his face to a nice, healthy blankness. “Maybe.”

Even though he doesn’t see it, Louis feels Zayn’s frown deepen.

“I thought you liked Harry.”

“I do like Harry,” he snips, just the tiniest bit, feeling a flush crawl up his neck.

“Then why are you—“

“Look, I really need to go,” Louis interjects loudly, heart beginning to thump at an irregular pace, a mild sense of panic erupting from within. No time to think about this shit. No time for interrogation or guilt trips.

He’s strong. No time for that weak bullshit.

“I’ll text you guys later. Have a good night,” Louis grits, already closing the door behind him, body stiff. He hears the sound of Zayn calling his name before it’s followed by the low rumble of Niall’s voice and Louis doesn’t really care to think about the potential conversation they’re going to have about him, so he just walks on through the flat, head held high.

He can do this.

He’s just about to reach the elevator, all clean and polished and prestigious, when he suddenly catches sight of a flash of lipstick and pearls and a pencil skirt, suddenly smells the distinct scent of condescension and money.

Ah. Martha.

Unable to resist poking the bear (her presence is a rare occurrence), Louis halts at the entrance to the kitchen, popping his head inside.

“Hello, Martha,” he waves cheerfully, adopting his fakest smile.

Smoothly, the woman turns around, her silky brown hair twisted up in an elegant bun. She arches one, thin eyebrow his way, her red, glossy lips pursing even more than they already were.

God, she’s such a bitch. If Louis is a Disney villain, then this woman must be straight out of hell.

“Oh. You,” is all she says, not shy to rake a disgusted look up and down him. Lovely woman.

“Good to see you again. Just wanted to say hi. Have a good night!” he chirps, beaming, before continuing on his way, mission accomplished—she looked sufficiently disgusted. Good.

“Where’s Liam?” he then hears the woman ask, cold and indifferent as ice as it hits his shoulder blades.

Louis’ stride never falters. “Some sporting event, I’m sure,” he calls, rolling his eyes. Honestly, no wonder Liam turned out the way he did. Honestly. “He’ll be back later tonight.”

“Good.”

And then the witch says no more, so Louis presses the button of the elevator and slips on his headphones, determined to listen to anything but his thoughts.

**

‘Here’

Or at least, Louis hopes he’s here. Squinting past tidy hedges, orange, glowing streetlamps, and white fences, Louis tries to read the delicately painted number on the house. He thinks it’s the right number. He’s pretty sure. Besides, Harry gave him good directions, so. So this has to be it.

A few moments pass as he waits for a response, trying to hum Pink Floyd as he taps out an uneven rhythm against his thigh. He looks down at his jeans—they’re not his worst pair. Then again, he’s only got two. They’re both shit, but this one only has a single, barely noticeable rip (in the bum and it’s just a wee thing) and the color is still fairly vibrantly blue. He’d forgotten he had these, actually, and ended up stumbling upon them at Anthony’s that morning when he’d dropped his wallet and it managed to wedge itself beneath the couch. Just how his jeans had managed to get stuffed under there, though, is another thing.

Whatever. Other than his jeans, he looks decent. Definitely fuckable. Definitely alluring. At least, Liam said so. So that’s good. Especially considering he’s only donned a black, long-sleeved shirt and his jean jacket. That’s it. No frills.

He doesn’t really want to look good, though. Not tonight. He doesn’t want to think about why, but he doesn’t.

Maybe Harry will reject him. That would be… God, that would be ideal. If Harry turned him away and left the situation unscathed, that would be wonderful. Maybe Louis should purposely sabotage everything. Act like a tit, or something.

Hah, though. Honestly, hah bloody hah. As if that would fucking work. Louis could never manage to successfully be a dick to Harry.

The thought is an awful one. It’s a cold, stagnant, shitty thought. Because tonight he has to be a dick to him. He’s literally going to dine him, wine him, and then fuck him in this car, this very car. Zayn’s car. He’s going to take Harry’s fucking virginity in Zayn’s car and then Liam’s gonna fucking catch them and maybe take motherfucking pictures and… And then they’re going to tell everybody. And ridicule Harry. And mock him.

That’s the plan. That’s the goddamn plan.

Oh god.

Something agonizingly sharp shoots through him, seizing up his windpipe and throat and eyes. He closes them, everything seeming to burn, his vision blurring on the edges. Is this panic? Is this a panic attack?

God, calm down, Tommo. Fuck’s sake, get yourself together.

He bites his lip as he shuts off his brain, a cold sweat beginning to prickle at his flesh.

This is so fucked up. He is so entirely fucked up. Something is wrong here.

Exhausted, he rubs a hand over his eyes.

And then suddenly his phone alights. He lets his hand fall, blinks bleary eyes down at the text.

‘I see you! :)’

Louis swallows, reading the words over and over before he finally lifts his gaze to the house before him. And, yep—there’s Harry. Outside, waving his phone, still in socks. He’s beaming. He’s flushed and beaming and he’s wearing a thin white shirt with buttons at the collar and it only reaches a little past his elbows. His jeans are black and skinny, elongating his stilt-legs and his socks are white and his hair looks bouncy and glossy and near-black in the dark as he begins jogging uncoordinatedly towards Louis. So many limbs.

Louis might throw up. Genuinely.

He swallows for the umpteenth time, trying to focus on oxygen intake as he watches Harry come closer and closer, fire and ice in his chest because Harry Styles creates chaos within him, creates contradictions and chemical reactions. The beautiful asshole. The poor, beautiful asshole.

At last, Harry reaches the car door, leaning down to press his bright, flushed grin against the cold glass, fogging it up almost instantly.

Louis doesn’t want to smile, thinks it’s horribly inappropriate at a time like this, but his body doesn’t listen and he smiles anyway, rolling down the window with one quick flick of a button. His entire torso feels hollow as a small gust of cool air assaults him, the soft, warm scent of Harry close behind it.

“Well, hello,” he smiles, hating the fact that just speaking to Harry calms him, chases away the nausea and panic and loneliness. This is pathetic. This is wrong.

Harry beams. “Hi,” he drawls, waving very unnecessarily, and Louis can’t help but laugh at that, which only makes Harry look more pleased. He waits until Louis’ chuckles subside before he continues. “Would you like to come inside?”

Louis blinks. “Inside?”

What?

Harry nods, smile still in place. “Yeah, inside. C’mon. Mum and Gem wanna meet you. C’mon. Please?” And then he holds out his hand, reaching through the car and almost brushing Louis’ chest with his long, extended fingers, forehead pressed against the car doorframe, cold metal indenting his warm skin. He looks breathless and happy and excited and…

And everything extremely beautiful.

Louis wishes he could cry. Maybe he could force himself right now. Maybe he could squeeze a tear or two. Maybe then he’d feel better.

“I really don’t think I should,” he replies honestly, glancing down at Harry’s clawing fingers that are now extended enough to brush the fabric of his jacket without gaining purchase. He firmly resists the urge to lean forward. Even more firmly resists grabbing Harry’s hand with his own and blowing a raspberry into the palm because sometimes Harry makes him want to do the stupidest, silliest shit, makes him want to act like he’s five fucking years old in some intangibly nostalgic way.

Instead though, he just locks his gaze with Harry, praying that his eyes show an ease that the rest of his body can’t quite feign.

He can’t meet Harry’s family. He can’t do that to them. To him. That’s crossing a line and that’s not fair to anybody involved. He can’t. He cannot.

The adamancy of his thoughts suddenly dies, however, when he witnesses the smile drain from Harry’s entire face as he slowly retreats his hand, fingers going slack.

“Oh,” he says, blinking as he searches Louis’ face, and the hurt is so fucking evident that Louis has half a mind to start his car and bolt the fuck out of here before something irreparable breaks inside of his body.

Fuck. He should’ve smoked with Zayn before he came here.

Silence passes between them as Louis bites harshly down on his lips and stares at a very crestfallen Harry, large hands clutching the door where his head pokes through.

Fuck. He can’t do this.

Louis fucking sucks. He sucks. He is weak and he fucking sucks.

“Alright,” he blurts, feeling like a damn just broke inside of him. “Alright, go on, then. Let’s go inside. I’m just being… Just being a fucking weirdo.” His entire body is flooding with loose, rampant water. Everything’s being destroyed. Goddammit, Louis. He just knew this was going to happen.

But, upon seeing Harry’s face light up so instantly, he can’t really regret a damn thing.

“I swear it won’t be weird,” Harry beams, reaching out his hand again to merely squeeze the fabric of Louis’ jacket (what? why?) before pulling back and standing up.

Before Louis exits the car, he sighs, trying to gather some pieces from the wreckage inside of him. His hands lie on his thighs as he stairs straight ahead into the night before he closes his eyes briefly, just for one second.

He doesn’t know what he’s doing. But, maybe, he needs to stop thinking so much. Maybe it’ll all be easier then.

With that, he opens the door and steps out, his face and body betraying him as they break into warmth and smiles upon finding Harry’s eyes above the metal roof; the boy’s resting his chin upon his arms, leaning on the car and watching Louis closely, grinning like he knows some secret about the world that nobody else is privy to.

“What?” Louis challenges, wishing the word didn’t carry the sound of his smile.

Harry shrugs, still grinning. “Nothing. Just happy.”

Just happy. It makes Louis’ grin falter.

Don’t think, don’t think.

“Uhm, uh. Let’s go inside, shall we?” he asks, ignoring the twist to his stomach.

Smiling softly, everything simultaneously aglow and washed out in darkness, Harry waits for him before they both walk towards the house. Louis’ hands are balled up, stuffed deep in his jacket pockets, eyes firmly on the door they’re approaching. It’s a cute house. Very tidy and cozy-looking. It’s assembled from brown bricks and painted windowpanes and there are flower boxes everywhere and there’s a nice, well-kept sidewalk. The lights are on inside, glowing gold against the harsh outlines of windows, and the porch light casts a soft radiance over their figures as they approach.

Harry’s staring at Louis. Maybe to gauge his reaction. Maybe because he has a crick in his neck. Maybe because he likes Louis as much as Louis likes him.

God. He needs to stop thinking stupid shit like that. For real this time.

“After you,” Harry grins, making a show of hopping up the two porch steps and holding the door open for Louis. It’s so fucking stupid. It’s so fucking endearing.

Louis bites his cheeks to keep his grin from growing as he rolls his eyes, stepping inside and ignoring the dread, dread, dread dripping down his spine because he is utterly lost right now and the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ are beginning to blur in his mind.

“Thank you, pup,” he smirks, pausing to wait for Harry, who smiles at him as he enters, gesturing forward.

“Come on,” he mumbles, eyes flickering all over Louis before he suddenly pauses. “You look really nice, by the way. Really handsome. Really, uhm, beautiful.” And then his skin warms, of course, but he doesn’t look away or move just yet. He just smiles, genuinely, looking like he’s just ran a marathon.

Handsome. Beautiful.

Louis doesn’t think he’s ever been called those words before, not in a context like this. Never ‘just because’. Maybe during sex, yeah. Maybe when he’s being ogled at. Maybe when he’s being discussed amongst others or when somebody needs something, or whatever. But… Like this? Just…genuinely? Kindly? With no real intent? Just stating it, just because? Never.

Something else, very tiny, feels like it breaks somewhere—this time in Louis’ brain.

“Er, yeah. Thanks. I know,” Louis jokes, throat dry as he flashes the best smile he can manage during this trying fucking time, and Harry laughs, warm and woolen, like thread unraveling from a spool.

“You’re so insufferable,” he chuckles, beginning to walk.

Louis follows, anxiety draining just a bit as he watches the boy’s smile. “Correct. But you know what else I am?” he asks, just before they reach the kitchen. He stops.

Harry stops as well. “What?” he asks, already looking delighted and excited and all those wonderful words.

It rolls a pleasant wave through Louis.

“Full of shit,” he concludes simply, and it sends Harry into a bark of surprised laughter which is enough to heal the sick and the dying.

“Yes, you are,” he laughs, shaking his head fondly as he enters the kitchen, Louis following a little hesitantly behind him.

Here we go, then. Time to meet the fam. Yay. Did Louis ever mention how much families hate him? Especially mothers? (Martha, anyone?)

When they enter the kitchen, Louis is met with a pleasant, well-lit room with golden colored walls, cream curtains, white cabinets, and smooth brown granite countertops. Everything is quaint and cozy and bright and clean, all the kitchen utensils anybody would ever want displayed neatly. There’s a tin jar filled with ladles and a wooden block stuffed with sleek knives and a row of hooks that house spoons and sticks and…things that Louis isn’t really sure of. On the windowsill sits a vase of fresh flowers, a jar of honey, and a banana. On the wall above the stovetop hangs a clock in the shape of an apple and it ticks along in time with the bubbling of the pot that is currently cooking beneath it. The oven’s on and warmed, probably housing a fucking pie, and the entire room smells like bread and cooked sugar, and everything is bright. Like Harry, really.

At the counter stands a very pretty woman, her brunette hair long and well-trimmed as it lies across her shoulders. She’s got very pretty eyes, a very pretty smile, and her yellow shirt is pushed up to the elbows as she pulverizes a wad of meat in a metal bowl with her fingers, seasonings flung everywhere. Over to the side, sitting at the table, is another pretty female—but this one younger, her brunette hair dipped blonde at the ends, a large jumper swallowing up her entire body as she perches atop one of the blonde wood chairs, crosslegged, her little socked feet poking out. She, essentially, looks like a female Harry, except her eyebrows are a little more pronounced and she seems a bit shier. Louis doesn’t miss her flashed smile though as she averts her eyes and takes a sip of her glass of water before she begins playing with her hair, firmly focused. Still though, she repeatedly glances up at Louis with a tiny pink blush (a family trait, then), resulting in three sets of eyes surrounding Louis, staring at Louis.

How very comforting.

“Er. Hello,” he attempts, hoping his uncomfortable smile isn’t too obviously fake. Introductions have never been his forte.

But the woman at the counter just smiles, unawares. “You must be Louis,” she says, pulling her hands out of the metal bowl, fingers glistening, little tufts of pink meat clinging to them. She wipes them off on a sage towel before she makes her way around the counter, heading straight towards Louis. “It’s wonderful to finally meet you.”

The smile she sends in his direction is so inviting and effortlessly welcoming that, for one moment, Louis nearly glances behind him.

“Uhm. Thank you,” he says a bit dumbly, blinking his surprise as he glances sideways at Harry, who’s smiling wide enough for all three of them. “Likewise,” he adds after a moment, taking the now extended hand before him.

“I’m Anne,” she offers, easy and sweet. She has a very pretty voice. Her movements are fluid. Overall, she’s just very…motherly. It tugs something in Louis’ chest.

“And, obviously, I’m Louis, so I won’t say that bit again,” he jokes, a little awkwardly, but he receives smiles in response. Probably pity smiles, in all reality. Which he appreciates. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“And this is my sister Gemma,” Harry explains then, after Louis’ let go of Anne’s warm hand, motioning towards the girl at the table.

She smiles, a little goofily and self-conscious as she offers one short wave, pulling one knee to her chest. “Hey,” she offers, far more subdued than Anne, but not unkind. Not unkind at all.

“Hello,” Louis waves back, glancing again at Harry, who keeps watching him with a wide, close-lipped grin. “Nice to meet you.”

God, he’s shit at this. He’s never been good with small-talk or bullshitting. As far as ‘people skills’ go, he’s relatively abysmal. Okay, completely abysmal.

Luckily, Anne seems to take pity on the situation, her caramely voice warming the air. “I apologize for the mess—we’re just making dinner. I told Harry that we’d be more than happy having you, but…” She looks over to Harry, smiles knowingly. “I suspect he doesn’t feel like sharing you just yet.”

“Mum,” Harry scolds under his breath, smile instantly replaced with mild horror and burnt cheeks.

Louis’ scalp prickles, pleased.

“Well, I’dve been happy to join you,” he shrugs, trying to catch Harry’s eye (who is currently studying the ceiling very intently). “I don’t remember the last time I had, like, actual food.” He attempts a smile, glancing in the direction of the bowl of meat. “It looks delicious, whatever you’re making. Much better than my usual diet of pot noodles and Galaxy bars.”

At that, Anne laughs, just a little puff of air. Somehow, her eyes warm even more as she shakes her head, bringing her hand up to squeeze Louis’ arm only momentarily before she walks back to the other side of the counter.

“Next time, then.” Next time. “We’d love to have you, Louis.”

Well. This is certainly unlike the norm. Anne seems to…like him.

Okay. Of course.  

“I’d love to be had,” Louis replies with a shrug, a smile slipping through the cracks. He feels surprisingly at ease, the warmth of the room filling his nostrils and soaking into his muscles, relaxing his body in a pleasant, homey way that he hasn’t felt in…well. Years, probably.   

A quiet laugh sounds from the corner then. He glances over to see Gemma smiling, tugging a sweater-paw over her mouth as she observes Louis silently.

“We should probably get going,” Harry says, glancing at the apple clock, and Anne nods.

“Don’t let us keep you any longer, dears. Have fun. Be safe.” Her gaze shifts to Louis and her smile grows, so genuine that it’s almost startling. “It was lovely to meet you, Louis.”

And that… That’s nice. That’s…different. So different than what Louis is accustomed to. Parents usually hate him, looking him up and down like he’s the insect from Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and if they’re not severely unimpressed, then they’re just dismissive or weary, always keeping an eye on his movements.

Leave it to Harry bleeding Styles to have the mum of all mums. Then again, it makes sense. Love breeds love, and all that.

“It was lovely to meet you too, Anne,” he says, surprised at how well the words fit in his mouth as he returns the smile, before looking over to Gemma, who is still watching silently. “And you as well, Gemma. Lovely to meet you. Nice jumper. Solid choice.”

She smirks at that, laughs under her breath. “Thanks. Nice jacket,” she shoots back. “Very indie.”

Anne shakes her head as she smiles, grinding pepper atop the raw meat. 

Louis laughs, surprised. “I like to think of it as retro, but. It’s really just laziness, innit? And a lack of funds.”

Again, Gemma laughs, but it’s nice and it’s pleased and she nods her head to conclude the conversation. It feels like approval and Louis doesn’t understand it, but it feels warm in here and nice and part of him laments the fact that they aren’t just staying here for a boring family dinner. He can’t remember the last time he’s had one of those.

Well. He can. But he doesn’t want to.

He pushes the thought down.

“Ready, Louis?” Harry asks, expectant and seemingly excited as he shrugs on a jacket, wide eyes intent.

Louis nods, a little reluctantly. He doesn’t want to leave. It’s odd. But it’s just that there’s something about this place… It’s so homey. So comforting and so picturesque that it’s just, well, addicting, really. It feels like childhood, or something.

It makes his bones ache in a very harsh way when he realizes that this is the first and only night he’ll be in this home. After today, he’ll never see these people again. Never step foot on these golden wood floors, never smell the cooked sugar and watch the flowers on the windowsill fade.

Which is fine, it’s not a huge thing. He’s only just met these people today—it’s not going to take very long for him to forget them.

It’s just the fact that he has to give them up that makes it all sting a bit more. It’s the fact that he doesn’t want to give any of this up. And that it’s all just getting harder and harder every second. That’s what’s so fucking difficult right now.

With a sigh, Louis turns to Harry. “Ready when you are,” he says, hoping his words don’t sound as sad as they feel.

They mustn’t, because Harry beams. “Brilliant. Bye mum, bye Gem,” he sing-songs, dashing around the room to peck his mum’s cheek and tug a strand of Gemma’s hair. Louis can’t help but snort as he watches the scene, smirking as Gem trips Harry in retaliation and nearly sends him flying.

But then Harry’s back by his side and tugging him along, hand pressed into the cushion of his elbow, and Louis twists around as he’s being pulled away, waving one last time at the warmth behind him.

“Goodbye,” he calls, grinning when Anne looks up and smiles. “Save me leftovers!” he jokes, and, god. He wishes it didn’t have to be a joke, you know?

But. It’s whatever.

Swallowing the bumps in his throat, he turns around, catching Harry’s eye briefly before they step outside into the night.

“Thank you,” Harry says, once the door is shut and they begin walking towards the car. “For coming inside. I really appreciate it.”

Louis shrugs. “It was nice, actually. I’m usually really, really bad with families. But… I dunno. I liked them.”

Harry’s smile says it all. “You did?” he asks, hopeful.

Little irresistible fucker.

“Yeah,” Louis nods, unlocking the car. “I really did. They’re nice. Easy to be around.” He glances up at Harry as he opens the car door. “Like you.” He climbs inside before he can read Harry’s reaction, his heartbeat a little skittish.

Harry doesn’t reply once they’re in, instead opting to look out the window, trying to hide his enormous smile, and Louis feels like he’s made of Legos, being picked apart one piece at a time.

“So,” Harry finally says when Louis starts the car, slapping his hands on his thighs. He turns to him, lips curved and light. “Where are we headed?”

Ah, ah. Right. The restaurant. And oh, shit. He needs to text Liam, doesn’t he?

Any trace of a smile drains from Louis’ face.

“Uh. Well, actually I was thinking we could go to this one place. A restaurant.” The words feel dead in his mouth.

“Oh?” Harry perks, curious.

“Yeah, uh. It’s supposed to be really good. Lemme, er. Lemme just get the directions really quick,” he lies, as he unlocks his phone with cold fingers, shame pulsating through him in a rush.

Without a second’s thought, without one fucking thought, he types and sends the text to Liam.

‘He’s in the car. Ready to go.’

He will not let himself think. It’s all down to auto-pilot now. He can do this. Meeting Harry’s family was… Yeah, okay, it was a mistake. But it’s done and it’s over with and now Louis has to focus and just move forward. Simple as that.

He sets his jaw as he shifts gears, pressing on the gas. They take off.

“Know where you’re going?” Harry asks after a moment, and when Louis looks over, he finds the boy watching him curiously, sitting on his hands. Cute, little…urgh.

Louis shakes the thought out of his head, instead averting his focus back onto the road, hands gripping the wheel tight.

“Yeah,” he grits, head swimming. Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think. “I’m all set.”

Harry smiles. “Good.”

No. Not good.

They drive in silence for a stretch of time, the steady streaks of orange streetlights flicking over them in pulses. Louis’ knuckles are locked, he’s gripping the wheel so tight, the leather imprinting into his skin.

He will not think right now. He will not think. He will not feel. Simple as that.

“I’m excited,” Harry suddenly says, disrupting the quiet.

Louis glances at him, only to find that he wishes he didn’t. Harry’s beaming at him, eyes optimistic and glinting and curved in a soft gaze as he stares at Louis, lips all twisted up and dark in hue. Louis’ eyes fall to them for a moment too long before he remembers he’s not supposed to be thinking or feeling and he rips his gaze away.

Might as well add ‘don’t see’ to the list. No thinking, feeling, or seeing tonight.

“Why are you excited?” he asks, lights flicking by overhead. Everything is orange and black.

“For tonight. For this!” Harry explains as if it’s obvious, gesturing to their surroundings, and Louis can’t help but laugh at that, dry and sharp and miserable.

“Surely, you’re not serious?” he tries to laugh again, feeling his lips pull down, skin tight. “I can think of a thousand things I would rather do than spend a night with someone like me.” He shakes his head, tries to let his smirk form naturally.

A second passes, punctuated only by the rhythm of the road bumping beneath.

“I can’t,” Harry replies quietly.

Louis refuses to look at him, closing his eyes momentarily to ground himself. His head feels like it’s filled with water. His eyeballs feel dislocated. Something is physically wrong with him.

“Oh, I’m sure you wouldn’t find me so great if some tall, handsome stranger came waltzing up and whisked you away,” he tries scratchily, knuckles shifting on the wheel and crackling a bit.

Harry merely shrugs. “They wouldn’t mean anything to me. Besides, I honestly can’t imagine someone being more handsome than you.”

Oh dear god.

Feeling another fresh bout of nausea, Louis laughs, all garbled and dry as cardboard. “Jesus, kid, you’re going to send me to an early grave,” he mumbles under his breath, and one glance at himself in the rearview mirror tells him just how anguished his brow looks, how panicked his eyes.

He’s such a fucking mess.

“I’m sorry,” Harry rushes, hands in his lap, picking at his jacket. He worries at his lip, glancing at Louis. “Gemma tells me that I’m too honest sometimes and it makes people feel awkward.”

Thankfully, this uncoils some of the dire anguish inside of Louis, prompting a genuine breath of laughter from him as he loosens his hands on the wheel. “Awkwardly honest, eh?” he questions, one corner of his lips lifting involuntarily. “I can see it.” He smirks fully when Harry’s head whips around to look at him. “But I like that about you. Especially since you’re so hard to read.”

“I am?”

“Oh, yeah,” Louis nods. “See, I’m excellent at reading people. It’s sort of my thing. But you? Nah, mate. I never had a good read on you. It’s only because you’re honest as fuck that I can find my way in the dark.”

“You can’t read me?” Harry asks, amused. He puffs his chest a bit. “Is that why you were so obsessed with me when we met?”

And, ah. Here’s the shame and guilt and regret again. Hello.

“No,” Louis replies slowly, carefully, eyes unblinking on the road. “No, that’s not why.” And he leaves it at that.

He can feel Harry’s confusion as the silence stretches on, probably wondering what he did wrong, what he said.

Louis swallows, a fine layer of sweat beginning to tingle the back of his neck.

Fuck. He’s weak. So weak. Weak enough that it feels like the silence is becoming loud and he has to say something else, say something because he’s always so fucking shady with Harry, always leaving him hanging like that, and it’s not fair to the kid. It’s just not.  

“It was actually because of your naturally curly hair,” he tacks on lamely, words sped up by the jumps in his heart rate. Without thinking, he stretches out a hand, slides his fingers into Harry’s hair for a tousle, and Harry laughs easily, immediately leaning into the touch to allow better access.

“You stalked me because of my hair?” 

Louis nods seriously. “Absolutely. Want to steal it for myself, don’t I?”

Harry laughs again, delicate and soft, the sound tumbling around in the car. It’s nice.

“Do you mind if I just leave my hand here? The whole time? I’ll just leave it right here,” Louis decides, settling his hand deeper into Harry’s hair, the mood lightening and easing the weights on his chest and brain. “You don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind,” Harry confirms with a lidded smile.

Louis smiles back, feeling the last of the tension leave the car. And then, suddenly, he hears—

“Are you purring?” he asks incredulously at the soft, vibrating sound suddenly being emitted.

However, rather than responding, Harry just grins. And purrs again.  

“Oh my god,” Louis laughs, tugging on a few stray bits of hair, and Harry purrs again, this time louder. He looks entirely too pleased with himself when Louis laughs again, snickering like a school child in the back of the classroom.

“You’re the most bizarre creature I’ve ever met,” he chuckles, shaking his head.

Harry blinks prettily at him. “Who? Me-ow?”

Louis bites the laugh down. “Oh my god,” he struggles. “Harry Styles, did you just fucking ‘meow’ at me?  Through the use of a pun? On our first date?”

Face bursting into a beam, Harry nods, quick and flouncy, biting his lip as his eyes flick across Louis’ face. He could imprison the world, he could.

“Well,” Louis low whistles, before finally extracting his hand, much to the disgruntlement of Harry. “You certainly know how to charm a man.”

“I only want to charm you,” Harry smiles, leaning his head back on the headrest as he gazes at Louis.

It falters something inside of him. He looks away as his smile shrinks, his flesh suddenly on the verge of shriveling up.

Harry’s just so lovely. He’s so… So much.

What is Louis fucking doing?

Fighting down another swell of panic, Louis remains silent, eyes now glazed and lost on the black, endless road before them, lights and headlights and outlines of houses whizzing by.

What is he doing? Why is he doing it? What’s the fucking point?

He could back out. There’s still time.

Fuck. He curses under his breath, shifting uneasily on his seat at the whiplash of anxiety and self-reprimand that jolts through him. He sees Harry glance at him curiously but remain silent, and he attempts a half-arsed smile his way in response, but his body is still tight and tense and fucking tortured with World War fucking III.

He could break Liam’s promise. Technically. He could.

Would that make him weak, though? What would that mean? Does it mean that Louis’ getting too soft? That he failed? What would it mean if he just… Just chose Harry?

Fuck fuck fuck.

Suddenly, the automated voice of his GPS bleeps through the sludgy silence of the car. They’ve almost reached their destination.

“Yayyy,” Harry cheers with a silly smile, affecting a tiny attempt at a shimmy, and, god—it makes Louis laugh, despite everything. Which, in turn, makes Harry laugh, eyes open and watching Louis shake his head with a grin, turning into the parking lot of the restaurant.

God. Harry’s so…

Fuck. What is Louis doing?

They park, the engine cutting harshly and exaggerating the silence. The click of the seatbelts clink as they shuffle, their eyes on the building before them. It’s…posh. Very posh. Like something Liam’s family would have quality time at.

Of fucking course Liam sent him to this sort of establishment. Of fucking course he chose the worst option possible.

This place isn’t Harry. This isn’t Louis. This is stuffy and formal and boring and… Just shit, to be honest.

“Am I underdressed?” Harry asks after a moment, voice laced with worry.

Louis turns to him, finds him looking himself up and down, self-consciously munching on his lip. He doesn’t respond, just watches Harry, feeling so, so sick and twitchy, hands sweaty and sparking with tiny electric shocks where they rest on his thighs.

Harry looks up, concerned. Louis can’t speak, eyes lost.

“Should I—“ Harry starts, before the buzz of a phone is suddenly heard, effectively cutting him off.

It takes a moment for Louis to realize that it isn’t his and suddenly Harry is pulling his phone out of his pocket, reading the screen; and then suddenly the distress on his face is replaced by a blushing smile as he laughs and rolls his eyes, briefly pressing his palm to his forehead.

“Oh, god,” he mutters, obviously embarrassed, and it’s enough to momentarily still Louis’ intestinal discomfort, his curiosity perked.

“Everything alright?” he asks, voice quiet and words slow.

Maybe it’s someone else. Maybe Harry has someone else. Maybe he needs to ditch Louis and meet up with them and live happily ever after.

It’s what should happen. Even if it does burn something dark and painful in the deepest part of Louis, burns like something he’s never felt before, more painful than anything he’s ever felt before. God. This whole ordeal has almost definitely shortened Louis’ life expectancy by twenty years. At least.

“Yeah,” Harry chuckles awkwardly after a moment, once he’s sent a text back. He glances over to Louis, cheeks pink in the dim light of the car, skin softly lit with the lights glowing from the restaurant. “It’s just my mum.” Another buzz resonates from the phone in his hand and he glances down, turns a bit more pink. “And my sister.” Even pinker now as he reads the text.

Louis bites his lip, guilt stabbing every soft part of his body. “Oh, yeah? What do they have to say?” He doesn’t know why he asks.

Harry laughs lightly, shaking his head as he sends another text. With a sigh and another roll of his eyes, he sets his phone down on his thigh, giving his full attention to Louis. “Uhm. They just…” he shrugs, embarrassed, and it’s almost entirely adorable. Louis would appreciate it more if he wasn’t about to throw up his soul. “Just telling me that they hope I have a good time and to be safe and… And that they really like you,” he adds, voice dropping in volume as he rushes the words, breaking Louis’ gaze, cheeks flaming again.

Wait, what? They really like Louis? Harry’s family? Louis?

“Me?” Louis asks, dumbfounded, blinking several short times.

Harry nods, still unable to meet his eye. “Yeah. They’re really overprotective and silly sometimes. Too involved in my life, probably,” he laughs. “Uhm. They just wanted me to tell you that they think you’re funny.”

“They think I’m funny?” Louis parrots, heart sinking, a tingling sensation beginning to spread out from his chest. “I barely said anything…”

Harry shrugs. “I dunno. They’re probably just, like, thinking about the stuff I’ve told them about you, too.” He shrugs again, jerky and quick.

“You talk about me with them?”

At that, Harry does turn to him, giving him an odd look. “Of course, I do, Louis. Why wouldn’t I?”

The oxygen leaves the car, leaves Louis’ lungs.

He can’t go through with this.

Something begins to drip in his bloodstream, slow and steady. Drip, drip, drip.

“I dunno. Didn’t think I’d make the cut, I guess,” he jokes pathetically, feeling the drips pick up pace, just a fraction. Drip drip drip drip.

He can’t do this.

Harry smiles, slow and sweet and completely unawares to the life altering explosions around him. “You always make the cut,” he assures, presenting his best smile, and the drip increases still more, beginning to flood Louis’ blood passageways.

He can’t do this, he can’t do this.

Another text flashes on Harry’s phone and he pulls his brilliant bloody smile away to glance down, his face instantly cringing, a surge of red climbing up the column of his throat.

“What?” Louis asks, heart beating with the drips, hands shivering, the muscles in his knees jumping.

“Gem thinks you’re fit,” Harry replies in a manner that suggests the words leave a foul taste in his mouth.

Louis can’t help but laugh at that, strangled, forehead prickled with sweat, lips shiny and shaky. “Does she, now?”

Harry nods, obvious displeasure on his face. “I mean, it’s great that she likes you—she doesn’t take to that many people—but… But she doesn’t need to find you, like, attractive. Not that everybody on the planet doesn’t, or anything,” he adds in a mumble, locking his phone and sliding it back in his trousers, the trace of a pout on his lips.

Louis swallows. “You’re too nice when you talk about me.”

“Really? I’m just saying what I think. Just being honest.” He smiles softly, bumping another shrug along his shoulders. His eyes are on Louis again, his body half-pivoted to him, hands lying one on top of the other on the side of the seat as he blinks slowly at him, eyeballs lidded and praising. It’s a warm gaze. Just like his mum’s.

He really liked Anne. Apparently, she liked him, too. God.

“Mums don’t usually like me,” Louis says quietly, mostly to himself, feeling the drip speed through him again, picking up its pace at full. They should be getting out of the car now. They should be going to their table and ordering their bullshit food and Louis should be texting Liam right now.

Dripdripdripdripdrip.

No.

“Ready to go inside?” Harry asks, always pleasant and always sweet. Always patient and watchful. One of his curls is so out of place that it’s nearly sticking straight up in the air and Louis wants to wrap it around his finger. Sort of has an urge to twine it up and kiss it because it looks soft and he knows Harry’s eyes would grow softer. It’s fucking bizarre too, because Louis’ not a tactile person, never has been, and yet he keeps getting these urges lately. He wants to touch without intent, he just wants to touch and pet and soothe and play and it’s not Louis’ fucking nature, is the thing. He’s never, ever been like this, not once in his entire fucking life.

Something is changing in him and he’s not sure if it’s good or if it’s bad or if it’s strong or if it’s weak; all he knows is that he can’t fucking go through with all of this. Not with Harry gazing at him with that expression blanketing his face. Not with his sweet, soft hands lying there like that. Not with that shirt on and that jacket and not with those long, narrow feet stuffed so gracelessly in the furthest corner of the car and not with those lips that look bloodstained at the worst of times, always wrapped up in some smile or quiet emotion that Louis wants to clutch in the palms of his sweaty hands.

No.

“We’re not going inside,” Louis suddenly says, the drips cascading into waterfalls, surging so fast inside of him that it nearly renders him unconscious, his vision swimming on the edges, the colors of the night intensifying. He’s probably dying. He’s probably having some awful allergic reaction to something and he’s probably dying but he doesn’t fucking care right now. “Let’s get out of here.”

He throws the car in reverse before Harry can reply, flooring the gas once he’s back on the road.

“What?” Harry blinks, spinning wildly to watch the retreating shadow of the restaurant before spinning back around to Louis, eyes wide. “What’s wrong? What are you doing?”

He can’t do it. Louis Tomlinson can’t do it.

“You enjoy music, right?” Louis asks, ignoring Harry’s question as his blood flows. It’s less jarring now, his airways seeming to open up suddenly, his body rolling in a reassuring rush of adrenaline and life. The stress eases out of his muscles with each second passed. He glances over to Harry, allowing himself a half-smile at the boy’s agape mouth and bewildered stare. “Right?” he prompts.

Harry nods wordlessly, gaping like a fish.

“Good. Me, too. And there’s this, uh. This local band that’s not so bad.”

“A local band?” Harry repeats slowly, the shock beginning to dissipate as he quirks an interested brow. “You like a local band? Modern music? You?” He grins, properly, all lopsided and youthful, completely at odds with the deep husk of his old man voice. Louis fucking loves that voice. Did he ever mention? “I think I’m going to faint.”

“Hush, Sasspup,” Louis chuckles, breathing again, just breathing. His pores feel like they’re opening up, his lungs feel like they’re expanding. It’s better already. He just won’t think about the aftermath. He’ll just think about now. About Harry. About now. “”They’re good, alright? They’re sure as hell going nowhere, but they’re good.”

“Hey!” Harry protests, leaning back in his seat, relaxed again. “Don’t say that. They might make it.”

“They won’t.”

“They might, Louis! And, even if they don’t, they’re doing what they love and that’s incredible, if you ask me. That’s the only goal in life.”

“Stop being inspiration, Harry,” Louis smirks, glancing over at the boy before reaching out a hand to flick at his thigh.

It should come as no surprise when Harry catches it in his own, holding onto it with all the gentle reverence of a thane from an Old English ballad. He’s so fucking cute. Did Louis ever mention?

“Are you holding my hand?” he asks, raising his eyebrow as his eyes flit between the road and Harry.

Harry looks entirely too pleased with himself. “Yes. Can I?”

Dear god. Louis bites harshly on his cheek, refusing to smile. Refusing, for fuck’s sake.

“Yes.”

The smile on Harry’s face lights up the car then, and Louis falls silent, feeling only the press of Harry’s palm against his own, thinking about his skin cells jumping ship and clinging to Harry’s skin cells instead.

He won’t think about anything else. Tonight it’s just Harry.

Just Harry.

Chapter Text

Once In A Lifetime—One Direction


 

They arrive at the pub around seven, its dingy door slamming shut with repetitive thwacks as bodies flitter in and out for smoke breaks, purses clanking, heels scuffing the pavement, denim rubbing against denim.

Louis thinks he might spot Anthony darting in between bodies, carrying a tray of shots—he’s pretty sure he’s working tonight—and a handful of other familiar faces. It’s not uncommon for everyone to come out here whenever they have their live shows. Especially for this band.

The small crowd gathered outside mostly consists of cool kids (those artsy types with bored, smoky eyes that Louis hates and sometimes stares down, maybe) and a few older, stoic individuals with dusty leather jackets. On the whole, it’s a sea of shitty tattoos, grungy t-shirts, and trendily hideous trousers, everybody clutching beer bottles as they cluster in groups, laughter blending in the air with the clouds of smoke pouring from the cigarettes pinched between their fingers.

Just a typical night in Louis’ life, really.

“So, this is where I work,” he explains as he opens Harry’s car door, smirking down at the boy’s wide eyes that appear to be soaking up every detail. “I know it’s not much, but. It’s decent money and requires little to no effort on my part, so. Right up my alley, really. Just serving the drunks of England, that’s me.”

“You’re old enough to work at a pub?” Harry asks, blinking owlishly at him as he stands, immediately gluing himself to Louis’ side, as if it were second nature, and gazing at the scene before them in wonder. His body heat is instantaneous, Louis feels it collide with his own immediately, and their jackets are brushing and their toes are pointed towards each other and they’re sort of huddled and secluded away from the scene before them, which really doesn’t mean anything at all. But somehow, it makes Louis feel swollen with something, makes him feel warmer and jolted with excitement, just feeling Harry beside him and watching over everybody else. He’ll never admit it in the light of day.

But the feeling’s enough for Louis to place his hand on the small of the boy’s back, a tiny thrill shooting up his legs when Harry mirrors the motion on him, almost unthinkingly, eyes still wide and observing.

“I’m almost twenty, you know,” Louis comments amusedly, watching Harry’s profile. “A bit older than you.”

Harry blinks, sliding his gaze to Louis. “I’m almost eighteen. You’re not that much older.”

Louis shrugs, completely at ease. “Whatever. Age just becomes a number after a certain point, anyway. So.” He grins, watching the spread of a smile glow on Harry’s face as they stare at each other, voices and noise wafting in and out of the atmosphere. “You ready to see this gig? They’re good, Harry, I warn you. Really good. You might get swept away with my incredible foresight and good taste, when you see them. I might become your music guru.” They begin walking, Louis letting his hand drop from Harry’s back as he makes his way forward, grinning at the boy next to him and winking chummily, his chest so much lighter than it has been all night, his lungs filled with so much air. And secondhand smoke.

Harry laughs, pleased as he follows closely. “Is that so? Am I going to be wooed?”

“You’re already wooed, don’t play coy,” Louis teases, exaggerating a roll of the eyes.

“Coy?” Harry laughs again. “I didn’t think I was,” he smiles, wide and real and close, locking his gaze into Louis’ for a moment before they finally reach the entrance, past the bumps of bodies and elbows, and Louis has to look away, suddenly feeling too much air.

When he pulls open the door, they’re immediately assaulted with smoke and harsh, chaotic noise, a few older gents in the back throwing expletives like confetti and a few errant teens laughing far too fucking loud over in the corner. Everything smells pungent and sharp, like sour beer.

Ah. Feels like home.

It’s packed, bodies all lined up near the tiny stage, beers in hand as they chat and wipe sweat off their brows. The bar’s a clusterfuck, people queuing for drinks as far as the eye can see, impatiently gripping tenners in their dirty hands. Stan’s there, working a mile a minute as he laughs and charms clientele, a bar towel flung over his shoulder as he pours frothy bitters from the tap like the pro that he is. Anthony joins him shortly, buzzing around, his tray now empty and his smile taking up half his face as he calls one person or another a cunt. Beautiful.

“Alright?” Louis asks Harry in a shout, leading him through the sweaty masses.

Harry looks enthralled, his eyes darting around, taking everything in, his lips parted as he breathes in the smoke and thick bass of the stereo system while the stage is assembled, thick chords being plugged into heavy amps, microphones tapped. Everything stinks with the undertone of heady cologne and weed and Harry’s skin glows warm and golden amongst it all, absorbing every molecule, his curls licking the back of his neck.

“More than,” he shouts back, meeting Louis’ eyes for one sincere pulse before continuing his examination of the room.

Louis smiles.

And then suddenly—

“Oi! Lads!”

Startled, Louis jumps before spinning around, ears perked, because isn’t that voice of—

“Horan?” Louis blinks, utterly surprised, as Niall and Zayn come walking up out of nowhere, matching smiles in place, arms around each others’ waists. “What the fuck’s got you two out here, of all places??”

Niall shrugs one shoulder as he looks to Zayn, all calm features and bright hair.

“Wanted to hear some live music,” Zayn explains, soulful and sincere, clinging to Niall like a life raft, eyes darting around them wearily. Not so calm, this one.

Still, Louis warms at that—Zayn has always enjoyed the idea of coming to the pub to see gigs but, since the crowds and the more social aspects of the situation have always deterred him, the only instances he’d actually ended up going were after heavy bouts of persuasion from both Liam and Louis. Never in a million years would he go on his own accord.

And yet, here he is, smack dab in the middle of the crowded bar with Niall bright and beaming at his side, looking weary but grounded and a little sleepy. As if this weren’t completely momentous.

It’s nice, that. It makes Louis smile, makes him feel something like pride, maybe? Regardless, at this point, Niall could probably run Louis over in his car and he’d still be rooting for the kid. Hell, with the way he’s instilled so much confidence in Zayn in the short time they’ve known each other, Louis’d probably let him do it again.

“Us, too!” Harry shouts then, snapping Louis out of his oddly sentimental reverie. The boy’s positively buzzing beside him, one finger in his ear, the other cupped by his mouth. He’s such a little dork. A beautiful little dork.

Rolling his eyes (maybe fondly, maybe) Louis pulls his gaze away from Harry, only to find Zayn looking at him, an odd tilt to his mouth, an unblinking intent in his eyes. Beside him, Niall says something to Harry, something chipper and robust, and the pair begin chatting, all the while as Zayn peers at Louis silently, impassive.

Louis doesn’t look away despite the pangs of self-consciousness he’s beginning to feel the longer Zayn just stares.

“Thought you were taking him to dinner,” he finally states blankly, but there’s something knowing in his look, something mystical carried with the words.

It squelches Louis’ stomach.

“Erm, yeah. Well. I didn’t like the place.”

Zayn nods, slow and mostly to himself. A smooth sweep of his hair is hanging in his lidded eyes, face expressionless yet filled with the world’s knowledge. And then he’s beckoning Louis forward with one finger, all subtle and targeted, so Louis leans close straight away, nose nearly brushing Zayn’s shoulder. He smells like weed and blankets and Niall’s cologne.

“Does Liam know?”

The words slither roughly down Louis’ ear canal as he blinks, startled, before glancing over at Harry in a random jolt of panic, praying he hasn’t heard the question. He hasn’t—he’s busy talking to Niall, laughing as Niall slides an easy arm around his shoulders, pulling him towards the direction of the bar.

“No,” he says as quietly as he can amidst the noise, turning back to Zayn. “He doesn’t know.”

Zayn nods to himself once again. “Good,” he states after a pause. He must catch the surprise in Louis’ eyes because he leans back in then, voice calm and silken as he mumbles the words with all the pearl-eyed wisdom of an ancient Roman God. “I’m not going to judge you. I see what’s going on.” Louis sucks in a breath, nearly pulls away, but Zayn steadies him with a calm hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. I believe in you, Louis.” Louis bites his lip, tastes pennies, body frozen as he listens to every word. “It’ll work out if it’s supposed to.  We’ll figure it out.”

And then Zayn releases him, a calm, knowing look cloaking his gaze, and Louis has the embarrassing and faintly disturbing desire to hug him, swallowing down the goosepimples lining his throat.

“Mate…” he drifts, hoping his tone conveys how thankful he is for the words, for the undeserved kindness, moving to shake Zayn’s hand because he doesn’t know what else to do, suddenly overcome with something that feels horrifically like hope and a little bit like relief. It’s a dangerous thing to feel, but with Zayn’s confident hazelnut eyes looking back at him… Louis lets himself feel it. Just for tonight. Just for now.

Zayn nods in response. “Love you, man. We’re connected on this planet.”

Louis nods as well, lips quirking faintly.

Then suddenly a body, spiked with blonde hair and energy, comes colliding into them, arms wrapped around both of their necks.

“Why are you still over here?” comes Niall’s beer-spritzed breath, and Louis squints as he wafts the assault away with his hand, while Zayn’s gaze pools into soppy adoration, sliding his arm around the boy’s waist. Niall’s gaze softens as he meets his eyes, smile goofy. “Hiya,” he says, probably already forgetting Louis exists.

Louis smirks, shaking his head as he watches Zayn beam sleepily, looking into Niall’s very soul with the intensity of his half-moon gaze. Only Zayn can pull that off.

“Hey,” he mutters back, slow and chill. And they meet in a brief, chaste kiss, both smiling too much for anything more than a bump of lips and a few odd, high-pitched sounds carried under breath, and Louis extracts himself from Niall’s arm.

“I’ll leave you two to it,” he smirks, but they don’t hear him, instead opting to wrap both arms around each other, Niall laughing about something (or nothing) very quietly, eyes stuck on eyes and flitting down to lips. It’s sickening.

Moving towards the bar, Louis perks his eyes, searching for a pile of lavish curls and gangly limbs. For a moment, he only spots the mundane usuals, none looking like his Harry, not even a little bit, and a frown begins to settle on his lips, everybody looking the same all around him. But then—then he spots him, looking like a vision in his soft ivory shirt with his cherub’s curls (and cheeks to match), downing a cup of something foamy and amber in one go, using a hand to steady himself on the bar, one foot kicked up on a nearby stool.

Oh, fuck. He’s drinking. Goddammit, Niall.

Pursing his lips and pushing any mind-muddling romantic assessments about his hair away, Louis marches up to him, plucking the now-empty cup out of Harry’s hands with little difficulty. Harry blinks his moist eyes rapidly, momentarily surprised until he realizes it’s Louis, his very red and very shiny lips stretching into a wide grin before he mops the excess liquid up with the back of his sleeve. His wrists are thin and they look warm. A fleck of foam lies on his pinky.

“Lou,” he smiles, all luminescent and ethereal, looking like a warmed glass of Rum Chata, and his breath is just as pungent as Niall’s.

Honestly. They were alone for two minutes, tops. How the hell did they manage to find and consume all the liquor in this goddamn place? It’s with honest self-control that Louis resists the urge to shoot a glare in the leprechaun’s direction; what was he saying about letting him run him over with a car? The idiot.

“Easy there, kid,” Louis says, sniffing the remains of the cup with a wrinkled nose. And, oh, good—it’s just a cheap draft, more watered down than anything.

Then again. Given the fact that Harry weighs as much as a feather and probably has never drunk before, it could still inspire a bit of damage. Shit, Harry’s probably the type that gets sugar highs—he’ll probably most definitely feel the effects of alcohol.

Goddamnit, Niall. Goddamn the Irish.

Sighing, Louis sets the cup down atop the scratched countertop before turning his attention back to Harry who, thankfully, looks sober, despite the sloppy, invigorated grin upon his face. With a coquettish tilt of his head, he extends his arms, reaching out for Louis and gripping his biceps with curled in fingers, stepping closer and looking down at him with warm skin and fanned lashes. Pretty pretty boy.

“I like your friends,” Harry smiles, the words carrying into little puffs that imprint Louis’ cheeks. His beer breath is mixed with the scent of his cologne (or whatever it is that gives him that gorgeous little smell—it’s almost too soft and unique to be synthetic) and suddenly the sharp lines of his body seem fuzzier, everything soft and amber as his fingertips redirect the blood flow in Louis’ arms.

Louis snorts, flicking eyes over the pinpricks of red on Harry’s cheeks, taking in the frizz of tangled hairs near his right ear. “Hate to break it to you, but you’ve met my friends several times already, love.”

“I know,” Harry grins, shrugging and tugging on Louis’ sleeves, pinching the jean between his fingers as he gazes at Louis, swaying rhythmically, ever so slightly. His head’s still tilted and curl after curl keeps tumbling into his eyes. “I just really like them. And I like this place. I like that you work here. And I like you. I like your life.”

Well, that’s a new one.

Frowning, Louis gently removes Harry’s hands, the soft edges becoming hard again. “I promise you, you wouldn’t say that if you knew my life.”

At that, Harry falls silent, his giddy smile fading, eyes becoming serious. He doesn’t say anything for awhile, just watches Louis, still lightly swaying, hands at his sides, looking empty and unsure. “So tell me,” he offers quietly, unbothered. “I’ve told you about my life. I want to hear about yours. I want to know you.”

The fibers in Louis’ skin tighten at the words, a perfect mix of anxiety and breathlessness threading within him, trying to sew up the loosened bits. The words sit in the air.

Nah, no thanks. Tonight’s not about this. Nothing serious. Just fun. Just Harry. Just him and Harry. Nothing else.

“Maybe someday,” he compromises tightly before allowing himself a small smile, hand reaching for Harry’s arm. “But for now, let’s go over to the stage. They’ll be on soon.”

Thankfully, Harry nods, dropping the matter easily as his face bursts with another beam, grabbing hold of Louis’ hand and allowing himself to be lead into the fray. He waves at Zayn and Niall as they pass; they, of course, barely notice.

“Ready?” Louis asks him, just as they reach the innermost part of the crowd, pressed up against the edge of the makeshift stage. Harry’s in front of him, safely cocooned by Louis’ body wrapped around him, back pressed against his chest, and though Louis is just a tad bit shorter (though he doesn’t like to dwell on that detail, thank you), he still wraps a protective arm around the boy, tilting his chin up just slightly to avoid bumping into his shoulder as he presses the word into his ear.

He feels Harry nod before he sees it, turning to him with excitement splattered across his features. “Ready,” he says without an ounce of hesitation, just as the band begins hopping up on the stage, beers and drumsticks in hand, throwing half-arsed waves at the crowd.

Louis’ arm tightens around Harry as they assemble their instruments, twanging out chords on the guitars and adjusting the mics.

“Good,” he says, a little breathless, a little bit on fire as the crowd quiets and the lights dim in front. Harry’s warm against his front, solid and soft and sweet-smelling. Louis feels like his blood is soaring, mingled with anticipation and, maybe, excitement. He’s feeling worlds away from how he did just two hours ago. He presses the thought away, though, instead nods in time to the countdown of the drumsticks. “Good.”

**

The entire set is wonderful, the night is wonderful, the world is wonderful.

It’s not a word that Louis often throws around—or uses at all, really—but with the guitars and the bass and the drums and the thundering of the shitty piano, all swirled up in time with the jumping, sweaty bodies around them, Harry’s damp back pressed against Louis’ damp chest… Well. ‘Wonderful’ is probably the best way to describe it.

“They’re amazing!” Harry shouts at one point, hair sticking to his moist skin in little circles, eyes glassy and glinting as he reaches back to pet unseeingly along the side of Louis’ face. It’s just a mindless act, one of ‘thanks’ or something alike, and it’s merely a slide of his clammy palm down Louis’ cheek, but it fires up every nerve and cell and chemical in Louis’ physiology, anatomy, body, whatever the fuck you wanna call it. Louis sets on fire, and his grin bursts off his face in that moment because it’s just music and him and Harry and Zayn and Niall somewhere behind them, probably slow-dancing because they don’t, and never will, give a fuck.

Everything feels like ‘right now’ and ‘here’ and ‘alive’ and it’s wonderful and loud and unyielding and as song after song is played, Louis becoming drenched in other peoples’ sweat, he wonders if he might be happy, or is, maybe, close to it. He wonders if it might be in reach and that maybe tomorrow he’ll be, like, genuinely happy—like they are in shitty movies or the TV shows that he can’t be bothered to watch. He wonders if, maybe, right now, with Harry’s body blending into his own, with Harry’s colors and screams bleeding into his own, that he could be genuinely happy and he wonders if maybe that he could be alive, too.

He’s always claimed he never just ‘existed,’ that he was never like everybody else around him. But, thing is, he’s never felt like this before, never felt like his entire being was on fucking fire, never felt like he was a goddamn supernova or cosmic creation.

Amidst sweat and amps and heavy pulses and noise, he wonders if, maybe, in a way, Harry brought him to life. And when he looks to him, sees him nearly jumping out of his skin, adrenaline surging in the boy’s body as they collide and collide and close their eyes blissfully to the melody that thumps inside of their ribcages, Louis wonders if maybe he brought life into Harry, too.

Fuck, these are some heavy thoughts.

Shit, Tommo. Slow down.

But. Regardless. Whatever it is, whatever the truths of life are and whatever the fuck’s going on, whatever shit Louis’ currently got himself into…

Right now, the world makes sense. And it’s wonderful.

“Wonderful!” he laughs out loud, to nobody in particular as the song belts on, someone’s beer sloshing onto his feet. He gives no fucks.

Harry laughs too, turning to catch Louis’ eye and grinning. His skin glitters with sweat, his eyes reflect the sporadic, shitty lighting of the pub. He manages to make the dingy look beautiful. Fuck, he manages to make everything look beautiful. He manages to make it bearable and nice. Endless.

And then Harry presses a wet kiss to the side of Louis’ neck, sloppy and unseeing and laughing, the drums reverberating in their bones. It makes Louis momentarily still, the cooling residual spit on his neck burning his flesh off as Harry pulls away, unabashed and grinning and bold, bolder than Louis has ever, ever seen him.

He tightens his grip, fingers digging into the thin fabric of Harry’s white shirt, and presses closer before they return their attentions back to the band.

**

“That was so fucking amazing!” Harry’s saying, probably for the tenth time, arms outstretched and pointed upwards towards the night sky, fingers reaching up, up, up.

It’s funny because Louis’ never heard him swear before, but tonight he’s just letting the expletives fly from his moist lips, his body flushed and bright as the sweat dries from his flesh in the cold air. Maybe it’s the drink. Maybe it’s something else.

“You liked them?” Louis asks, grinning, watching from a few steps away with an amused grin. His hands are in his pockets and his neck prickles with the licks of the sharp air lapping up the residual moisture there, but he pays it little mind as he watches Harry in this moment—this bright, enormous, starfished creature he’s never quite seen before.

After the set was over, they’d opted to pop outside for air while everybody else rammed their bodies back to the bar and, honestly? It was the best fucking decision ever. Because it allowed Louis to see Harry burst out into the night, the door swinging wildly behind him, his hair billowing around him in rays, laughing like a fucking maniac as his feet hit the pavement and he ran, just ran. Of course, Louis followed after him wordlessly, praying that Zayn wouldn’t see (Louis never runs, ever) as he huffed his arse forward, the laughter soon becoming infectious. They were still damp and sticky and pumped with blistering melodies and they were probably disgusting, probably stunk just awfully, but it didn’t matter, did it? Not when Harry threw his arms out and spun in a circle, face cracked open with spilling laughs as the moon bathed his face. It didn’t matter when Louis was out of breath and watching him with quieter laughs, when Harry kept looking to him, just to look. Just to let their eyes slot together, before gazing back up and spilling more praises and obscenities that sounded insane but felt like they made sense.

And now here they are, twenty minutes later, in the same exact fucking spot. And Louis just continues to stare, wondering if his pupils look like black holes, the same way Harry’s do. They’re outside of the pub, far enough away from the smokers to be secluded, close enough to hear the drifts of their laughter. The street’s empty and, from this spot, you can see the glimmer of the river that lies ahead, across from the train tracks.

“I loved them,” Harry shouts, words lifted in a half-laugh, as he whirls around, hands loose in the air as he nearly stumbles over his own feet. “I’ve never been to a gig before. Never seen a band or any live act. It was… It was amazing, Louis.” He directs his sloppy smile to him, throwing it with the force of a grenade; it lodges in Louis’ chest and explodes upon impact, sending him into a billion, trillion tiny pieces.

Harry looks so rowdy and proud of himself.

Louis can only laugh, blood pumping.

“You’re certainly in rare form tonight,” he comments, walking up to the boy before he even registers it, just because Harry has a pull and tonight Louis’ letting himself be pulled. He reaches out a hand when he approaches him, brushing down the wilder strands of Harry’s damp hair, tucking bits behind his ear and untangling them from his eyelashes.

Harry stills, his smile whispering away as he watches, eyes soft and cutting at the same time, reflecting the silver of the moon.

“Thank you,” he says quietly, still a little out of breath, and his lips look burnt from the cold.

Louis lets his hand fall. “For what?” he asks curiously.

“For taking me here. For everything.” Harry shrugs. “Just. Thank you?”

Louis nods, heart pinched and body humming. “Thank you,” he says back, and Harry’s eyes flicker with surprise, but he doesn’t question it, instead reaching out to take Louis’ hand, hot and cold mixing together.

It feels terrifying for a flash of a moment, but then it’s gone, and Louis grips Harry’s hand back. No thinking tonight. Just fun. Just Harry. Just them.

“Wanna go back in real quick before we head out?” Louis asks, voice surprisingly steady and puffed with air. “I’m gonna see if I can bum a smoke and have a shot of something.”

Harry grins, slow and syrupy, squeezing Louis’ hand as he steps closer. “Brilliant,” is all he mumbles before grinning wider and beginning to lead the way, and Louis laughs, surprised at the boy’s eagerness, the energy jumping off his skin.

They head back to the pub and, luckily, Louis does manage to find a generous soul who’s willing to give him two cigarettes—one to smoke now and one for the road—and Anthony pours him two shots of tequila as Stan slides him something that contains pickle juice and whiskey that he’s never heard of.

“Cheers,” Louis grins, downing two in succession as Harry watches from atop a stool, hands clasped as he grins, eyes following the movement of Louis’ neck. It sparks livewires inside of Louis as his throat burns, before he licks his lips, eyeing the one remaining shot of tequila sitting on the bar. He hesitates before he takes it, catching Harry’s eye. “How’re you feeling, kid?” he asks.

Harry shrugs, still smiling. “Really good. Why?” he asks curiously.

Louis glances at the shot, then glances at Harry. “Have you ever drank before?” he asks.

“Well. I mean, earlier tonight,” he says. “But that’s it, really. Aside from, like, some wine over the years. Never been drunk, though.”

“You don’t need to be drunk,” Louis says, a strange surge of protectiveness sprawling through him. “But being buzzed is fun. Provided you’re in a safe environment,” he tacks on, and god, when the actual fuck did he become a fucking grandmother? Jesus. Liam would bust a nut laughing at him if he heard this. Hell, Zayn would probably die in a fit of hysterics.

Harry merely rolls his eyes. “I’ve heard the lectures, thank you,” he mutters, but his lips are twisted upward. “My mum’s never cared. She trusts me. I’ve just never had the desire to drink before.”

“Oh, fair enough. Was gonna offer you a shot, but. Never mind, then,” Louis smiles, moving to take the shot without questioning Harry any further, but he stops when Harry stills him, large hand on his forearm.

“Hey, wait. I said I never had the desire to drink before. I’d like to try it now.”

Surprised, Louis eyes him, a slight frown on his face. “You sure? I’m not trying to, like, encourage you or whatever. Seriously, no worries, Harry.”

At that, Harry rolls his eyes again, but his smile is growing by the second. “I know that, silly,” he sighs, and it’s lovely. “I’m just curious, I guess. And I feel safe with you, so. No better time to try than now, right?”

I feel safe with you.

Louis swallows, his feet ready to float up and off the ground, carrying him to space. Maybe he’ll be sucked into a black hole and his body will be crushed and pulverized into nothingness.

He nods, letting Harry pry the tiny glass from his hand.

“Alright,” he agrees, unable to take his eyes off of Harry, and Harry grins. “Just be careful, yeah? If it’s too much or too—“ But Louis is promptly cut off by Harry downing the shot in one swift movement, completely ignoring anything he had to say. Okay, then.

Naturally, he coughs, sputtering as his eyes water, and he brings up his sleeve to cover his mouth. “Goodness,” he coughs, voice strangled, and Louis can’t help it—he laughs. He laughs a lot, and it makes Harry’s watery smile build into his own laugh.

They laugh and laugh and laugh, and the crowd is beginning to thin and Louis’ not even sure if Niall and Zayn are still here, but he can’t quite care when he leans on the bar and Harry sits on his stool, kicking out one foot to wrap around Louis’ leg and pull him a bit closer, his eyes still glassy and brimmed with laughter.

“Another? Just one more?” he asks, lips pushed into a little pout.

Louis’ already beginning to feel the effects of the liquor, thanks to his empty stomach. Shit. Harry’s probably gonna be more susceptible to the drink, as well. Shit.

“You feel okay?” he asks seriously, unthinkingly bringing up a hand to swipe some of the hair off of Harry’s forehead, feeling the skin there. He’s not too clammy anymore, not too burnt up with heat and sweat, and his gaze is soft. He looks innocent and adorable and like Louis would probably build him a goddamn castle out of sandstone if he asked, nicely or not.

He sighs, defeated. Of course he’s going to let him have another. He’s pathetic, isn’t he?  

“I feel really good, Louis,” Harry insists, imploring as he pulls him in by his jacket, and he won’t stop grinning up at him like the little sunflower that he is. “If you want one more, I can also handle one more shot. That’s all I’m saying.”

Louis laughs, motioning to Stan, who takes note immediately, already preparing two glasses. He can’t see what he’s using, but he doesn’t care—anything will do.

“You’re just manipulating me right now,” he smiles, a little lazily, letting himself be tugged. “Trying to butter me up with your big hands and pretty smile.”

Harry beams. “Is it working?” he asks, hopeful.

Louis levels him with a look. “It always works, you bloody idiot.”

And then Stan arrives with the shots and they clink their glasses, smiling into each others’ eyes as they toss all their fucks to the side and feel the alcohol burn, just happy to be alive, happy to be here with their legs tangled up, Harry’s hand hanging from Louis’ jacket in a soft clutch.

**

The entire night’s sort of a blur.

Maybe it’s because of the shots, maybe it’s because Harry’s hand fits so nicely in Louis’, maybe it’s because when Harry laughs, he’s begun to step into Louis’ space, bumping a fist against his chest as he ducks his head, resting his forehead on Louis’ shoulder like it’s his spot, like it was carved for him. Maybe it’s because Harry’s hair smells nice and hard to describe and feels soft on Louis’ chin, his hands warm and his laughter warmer, breath sharp with alcohol and perfectly intoxicating.

Maybe it’s because, after they finally leave the pub, they spend their time doing nothing in the world outside, fucking nothing, and it makes Louis laugh because he wants to spend a universe’s worth of time doing nothing right now.

It’s probably the alcohol talking, but suddenly the world seems beautiful and Louis wonders if it might be because of Harry.

“The thing about punk rock is that it’s an emotion, Sasspup,” Louis’ explaining, impassioned, as they stumble down the street clutching the remnants of the greasy, cold chips they’d picked up nearly an hour ago. The sweeps of their feet kick the stray rocks and dead leaves around them, the chill of the night long since numb to them. They’ve been talking about music for awhile now, Louis doesn’t remember why or how. “It’s not just about the music or the safety pins and Mohawks and eyeliner or all that bullshit that people associate with it—it’s a state of mind. You’ve got to be fucking fed up to create punk rock, kid. You’ve got to be up to your ears in bullshit in order to be really goddamn punk and—and you’ve got to be angry and a little bit fucked up, you know?” He’s still tipsy, the words rushing out of his slackened, icy lips as he speaks, gesturing uncoordinatedly with his hands and feeling the words fill up his chest because he never cares about anything as much as he does when he’s fucking blasted. And he’s lost in the moment now, eyes widened against the open expanse of sky and sharp stars above them, the glowing ripples of the river’s surface, and the creaky, tall industrial buildings that cluster around them on either side of the tracks. “It’s a cry for help,” he continues, factually. “It’s supposed to be ugly and angry and different because it’s unique to you because you’ve got shit else to your name, you know? It’s just you owning up all your misfit-ery and owning up to all those shitty qualities of yours that alienated you. It’s being angry and proud and fucking screaming it out, you know?”

Harry is listening beside him, wide-eyed and enthralled, nodding to Louis’ every word as if hanging on for dear life. It makes Louis feel interesting, makes him feel important. It’s nice. It spurs him on.

He thrusts a half-ironic fist into the air, half-smiling sloppily as he turns to catch Harry’s eye. “Punk rock is rattling the bars of your jail cell,” he concludes, like it’s the statement of the century.

And it might as well be, given the way Harry’s eyes widen that much more before he nods, slow and serious, as if absorbing the sentence into his very pores.

Louis smiles as he watches him, fist falling back to his side as he tosses his leftover chips into a nearby bin, fingers greasy and cold. The sudden emptiness of his hands makes him a little itchy though, so he opts for sliding out the spare cigarette from behind his ear—the one that that kindly stranger lent him, back at the pub. With quick fingers he finds his lighter, flicks the flame, and swallows up the smoke that soon follows, burning relief coating his lungs.

Harry watches him, all the while, alight with unseen sparks of electricity.

“Hey,” he rasps quietly after a moment, suddenly reaching out for the cigarette. “Give it here?”

“What? Ah, no,” Louis replies firmly, moving out of reach. “No, no, Sasspup. No fuckin’ way.”

At that, Harry’s brow furrows, licked icy blue in the night. “Why not?” he pouts, slow and put-out.

Louis just smiles around the cigarette. “Because.” He exhales.

He’s met with even poutier lips. “Because why?”

“Because it’s addicting and it’s a shitty habit and it kills you.”

“Okay, but you’re doing it,” Harry points out, still staring at Louis’ lips and the smoke that spills from between them.

“Well,” Louis smirks with a shrug, flicking off an ember onto the cracked pavement underfoot, “I don’t mind dying.”

Harry jolts to a stop, stilling Louis right along with him, fingers firmly pressing into the cushion of his wrist. When Louis meets his gaze, he sees the hard lines of shadows in his face, a humorless bow of his lips.

“Stop saying things like that, Louis,” he says quietly, sounding sad suddenly. “Please.”

Louis blinks, startled, his stomach squirming at the seriousness of it all as he regards Harry’s unmoving expression, firm and frowning, and, okay. He feels a bit bad. Clearly, Harry doesn’t always appreciate his sense of humor. Right. 

“Sorry,” he bumbles, eyes flicking down to Harry’s fingers on his wrist. It’s warm and he quietly hopes that Harry doesn’t move his hand.

There’s only a brief pause before Harry responds.

“It’s okay.”

And then they continue walking, easy as anything, and Harry’s fingers remain on Louis’ wrist for a few paces before they seem to reluctantly slip away, falling back to Harry’s side. Louis tries not to lament the lost touch (he’s not sappy enough for that, alright?) as he focuses on inhaling his cigarette as fast as he can, his hands suddenly too cold to remain exposed.

But as they walk, he can feel Harry’s glances at him, a secret smile playing on his face.

“You care,” he suddenly says, quiet and pleased in the bitter air.

Louis blinks, confused. “Sorry?”

“You care about me,” Harry clarifies, every word said with a tiny smile that packs a thousand punches to the throat. “You don’t want me to smoke because you’re worried.”

Oh jesus.

“Alright, alright, calm down now, pup,” Louis bristles, suddenly self-conscious and too warm.

But Harry’s smiling up at the stars, swallowing them up in his eyes. “I’m just saying,” he comments idly.

“Yeah, well,” Louis gruffs, taking another drag. He exhales, watches the smoke pool out in a stream as he resists rolling his eyes, tries to remain aloof. “Don’t write a poem about it, or anything.”

Harry merely smiles in response, still staring up at the sky above.

God, this fucker. This honest, forthright, sweet fucker. Louis will not fall further victim to his whiles. He has to at least retain some sense of pride, hasn’t he? God.

It’s not two minutes later that Harry speaks again, dissolving the calm, smiling silence settled between them.

“Hey, Lou?” he hums, casual as anything.

“Hm?”

“Wanna hear my poem?”

Oh dear god. Seriously?

Gritting his teeth to keep from laughing or grinning or falling over his own two feet, Louis arches an inquiring eyebrow, turning to meet Harry’s stare. Of course, the bastard is grinning, proud and loud and pleased.

Harry blinks, slow enough that Louis briefly wonders if the planet’s begun to rotate slower, has maybe begun to rotate backwards, even. “It goes, ‘He likes me, too.’”

He likes me, too.

He’s got to be fucking kidding.

Louis’ head practically swims with the bluntness of it all, the unabashed confessions that Harry just gives so easily… Jesus.

“’He likes me, too?’” he parrots as he stares at Harry.

He beams. “Yep.”

“That’s not a poem, Harry,” he replies, but it’s a little scratchy and a little too soft.

“It is if I say it is,” Harry argues proudly, entirely pleased and nearly skipping, his hands behind his back as he bustles along beside Louis. “It’s all about the state of mind, Louis, not what society labels it. Weren’t you just talking about rattling the bars of establishment?” he teases. “I’m punk rock now.”

And Louis has to actually physically bite on his lips to hide his smirk of approval as he flicks his cigarette away and stubs it with the tip of his shitty shoe. “Oh, shut up.”

And Harry’s laugh echoes across the empty rooftops and down the street and through Louis’ bloodstream as they walk and walk and walk.

**

It’s later. Maybe an hour or maybe several hours, Louis can’t even tell anymore. But their bodies are still numb with cold, their feet aching with their countless steps, and everything seems so bright despite the hour.

It’s late though, is the thing. And Louis knows it as he glances at Harry’s profile beside him, feeling reluctance pull at his chest. It’s late. And he promised Anne to keep Harry good and safe tonight—not kidnap him in the harshest part of fall and return him in the wee hours of morning.

Sighing, he stuffs his hands in his pockets, letting his laughter finally subside. See, Harry had just told him that he’s always wanted to be an old lady—he actually said that. And meant it. Naturally, it sent Louis into hysterics for about seven solid minutes, interspersed only with Harry’s effortless thwacks of his fists against all the parts of Louis that he could reach, his own giggles carried under wind. Bless this boy.

Louis hasn’t laughed this much in so, so long. He was starting to question whether the rest of the world was as funny as him.

Then again, it’s not really that Harry’s funny, per se. He’s just…ridiculous. Precious.

Louis closes his eyes.

“It’s getting late, pup,” he says, clearing his throat and glancing up at the moon as Harry’s shoulder bumps into his. “I should probably take you back.”

“Not yet,” Harry replies instantly, hopeful, and it’s said in such a rush that Louis looks to him, eyebrows shooting up. Harry flushes before looking away. “Erm, sorry. Just… Not yet? Please? It’s nice out here. With you.” He swallows and Louis sees every detailed movement in the paper smooth sheen of his skin, feeling little tiny jolts seize his fingertips as he repeats the words in his head like the masochist that he is.

“You sure?” he questions doubtfully, gently tapping Harry’s shoulder with his own (a game they’ve been playing all night like a pair of preteens). “I don’t want Anne to worry…”

But Harry’s shaking his head, looking at Louis with easy eyes and upturned lips. “No, she won’t worry, I promise. She trusts me.”

“Yeah, but does she trust me?” Louis questions, raising a brow, and it’s a fair question.

Harry’s face says otherwise, though. “Yeah, of course she does,” he says, confused. “She has no reason not to.”

Hm.

Louis looks away.

They continue walking, now on the tracks, careful to step on the wooden planks and avoid the harsh gravel, lest Harry should roll one of his delicate ankles—it was a joke Louis made earlier. He still finds it funny.

And then suddenly Harry’s pawing at Louis’ arm again, a small contented smile on his face when Louis looks over. He glances up to meet his eyes, the green looking very decidedly not-green in the dark, and his skin looks alien and mercurial. “Do you mind if I…?” he questions, motioning to Louis’ arm as he lightly grasps it with both hands, and Louis isn’t even sure of what he’s asking but he shakes his head anyways, mumbling out a, “Go ahead,” because it never really crosses his mind to say no, does it?

Smiling, Harry takes Louis’ arm gently, slowly pulling back the sleeves of his jacket and shirt, turning it palm up. Louis shivers at the impact of cold air on his flesh, but he doesn’t say anything, just continues to observe Harry’s actions curiously. He watches as his eyes flit to the marks of black ink on his arm and—

Ah—he’s inspecting his tattoos. Should’ve known.

Louis watches him, feeling something gentle billow in his lungs as Harry ducks his head to inspect, hair tumbling out from all around, skin appearing almost translucent in the dark. He looks like a china doll. He’s just so uncommonly pretty.

And Louis is turning into a fucking idiot.

“I’ve always thought about getting tattoos,” Harry suddenly mumbles, startling Louis out of his daze. “I want one.” He traces his fingertips along the ink on Louis’ skin, slow and whispered, and Louis’ eyes nearly roll into the back of his head because it’s inexplicably fucking intense and nice. It’s weird. It’s almost more comforting than sexual, even.

“Yeah? What would you get?” Louis questions softly, still staring, keeping his ridiculous fluttering at bay.

Harry lifts his head. “Well, that’s just the thing,” he sighs, tugging Louis’ sleeves back down before dropping his arm, slowly letting his hand slide down the column of it before lacing it with Louis’ own. It feels well-practiced and natural, he never even falters. “I don’t know what I’d want to say for the rest of my life. You know? It’d have to be something that would be, like, forever. I don’t think I’ve found something like that yet.”

“Hm,” Louis nods thoughtfully, mind still a little caught up in Harry’s hand. “Well. We’ll just have to find it then, won’t we?” he asks, and Harry’s smile brightens so suddenly that it’s alarmingly akin to a camera flash, leaving its victim delirious and disoriented.

“Yeah,” Harry agrees, softly carrying the word in his mouth as he gazes at Louis. “We will.”

And they continue walking.

**

It’s not much longer before they happen upon a lone, lit up shop—the only thing open on the whole damn street.

“Civilization!” Louis gasps mockingly as Harry chuckles and points excitedly.

“Can we go in?” he asks, grinning infectiously, but he’s already tugging Louis’ hand forward and Louis’ already following. Whipped.

“No, absolutely not,” Louis deadpans, smirking as he ushers Harry inside, and their smiles are too wide and they don’t make sense as Louis feels Harry squeeze his fingers, tumbling inside the automatic doors with red lips and chapped skin, hair wild from the breezes.

It’s so fucking stupid, is the thing. It’s all so stupid because they’re on their first date and it’s supposed to be some monumental, romantic affair, and yet they’re looping the aisles of some twenty-four hour joint, picking up sweets and laughing at shitty lawn ornaments on the sale rack and smacking each other with plastic back-scratchers. They’re acting like children, they are, and yet somehow it’s entirely enjoyable. Fun, even, which Louis will never, ever admit to ever again. At least not out loud.

Louis smiles indulgently as Harry samples a feathery, glittery pink hat from the children’s section, resting it atop his enormous head because it definitely won’t fit, and Louis finds himself smiling even wider when Harry whips out his phone. Wordlessly, Louis crowds up in his space, tucking his chin in Harry’s cool neck as he crosses his eyes in the most obscene manner possible before the pictures begin snapping away, one after another. Little repetitive snicks in the quiet of the shop.

“Smile!” Harry scolds eventually through a laugh.

Which only makes Louis smile hideously, crossing his eyes even more and furrowing his brow, tongue poking out of his lips. He’s kind of an arsehole like that. But it only makes Harry laugh harder and (let’s be real) that was Louis’ only real goal, so he laughs, too, grinning at Harry when he turns to look at him, his gaze so soft that Louis swears he can feel the fabric of it brush his cheeks, gentle as microfiber.

And then there’s another ‘snap!’ and Louis blinks—only to find Harry’s phone still posed in front of them.

“Harry. Tell me you did not just take a photo.”

Harry beams angelically. “Erm… I did not just take a photo?” he blinks cheekily, completely unapologetic, before tucking away his phone and flicking Louis on the nose.

“Oi!” Louis yelps, but Harry darts away like a fucking toddler (unacceptable), so Louis has no other choice but to chase him. And, yeah, okay, Louis actually chases him down the aisle, officially accrediting this night to be the most humiliating and unspeakable one in Louis’ life to date. But he doesn’t really think about it, instead just following the sound of Harry’s breathless giggles until they find themselves at the till, the tired man behind the counter looking entirely unimpressed. Louis smirks at him. “Hey, Harry, I’ll wait outside for you, yeah?”

“Alright, yeah,” Harry grins, eyes never leaving him, even as the surly gentleman begins scanning his items, the beeps splicing the dull hum of air.

Sending one last wink, Louis bounces outside, feeling the harsh cold assault him again. But it’s nice and it’s refreshing and it feels invigorating, so he stands amidst the cold, closing his eyes and tilting his head up. Just feeling. Feeling the ease of his body and the lightness of his chest, feeling the delicate vibrato of his heart and the tingling in his stomach—feeling everything pleasant that he’s never quite felt before. It’s nice. Everything’s nice.

“Finiiiished.”

Smiling before he even opens his eyes, Louis turns to Harry, watching as he walks up to him as the doors of the shop close behind him, a small plastic bag in his hand. He beams when he reaches Louis, immediately taking his hand and standing so close that Louis’ shoulder presses into his chest, warm and solid.

“Miss me?” Harry asks, grinning, looking down at him, eyes falling to his lips before finding their way back up.

“Not really,” Louis replies with a shrug and a deviant glint, something akin to nerves flicking against his stomach lining. God, he’s too old for nerves. Fuck this shit. “Was too busy thinking about myself.”

“Oh my god,” Harry grumbles, but his demeanor never falters. “Let’s sit down,” he says, tugging Louis along like his own personal play thing. “On that bench over there.”

They sit, the iron groaning beneath them, and Harry tucks himself right up along Louis’ side, smiling as he rifles through the plastic bag in his lap.

“So what did you end up buying? Just a bunch of rubbish that’ll rot your teethies out?” Louis asks with a smirk, before Harry suddenly holds up a pack of two black Sharpies. He raises one brow. “Alright. And what’s that for, then?”

Harry grins, already opening up the packaging, never breaking his gaze. “So you can give me a tattoo,” he explains calmly.

Louis stares. “Give you a tattoo,” he repeats blankly. “What the actual fuck are you on about, pup?”

Shaking his head, Harry laughs, already unscrewing one of the markers and shoving it into Louis’ hand. “I told you I want a tattoo but I don’t know what I want. So draw me one! I’m giving you full permission.” He beams like he thinks of himself as a genius.

Louis stares at him like he’s an idiot. “You realize how dangerous it is to give me full control, correct?”

Harry nods, seemingly holding back laughter. “Yes, correct.”

“And yet..?” Louis prods, slowly nearing the tip of the pen to Harry’s skin, a mischievous tilt to his mouth, a questioning arch in his brow.

“And yet I give you full control,” Harry concludes, and only thrusts his exposed arm at Louis that much more, excitement buzzing from him.

Honestly, this child…

“Alright, then,” Louis consents with a sigh, smirking when he sees Harry roll his eyes. He pauses, Sharpie midair, as he contemplates what to do. Sure, he could go the usual route and draw a penis. Sure, he could write something childish and insulting that would make Harry guffaw like the kangaroo that he is. It would be funny. It would be harmless.

But…

Hm. He could draw something a little more poignant, like a butterfly. Or…

And then it hits him. The most obvious choice. The one thing he’s always written, everywhere, all his life, whenever he’s had the opportunity. The one thing he actually takes seriously, carries with him—the thing that he’s come to associate with Harry. In so many ways.

His impish grin smoothing out, he sets the cool tip of the marker on Harry’s skin, feeling the boy’s eyes on him as he grips his hand gently in his own, words flowing out as neatly as he can write them along Harry’s underarm, stretching to his wrist. The letters look small and scratchy, harsh against pallid flesh.

“To live is the rarest thing. Most people exist, that is all.”

With a definitive lick of the lips, Louis caps the marker, nodding to himself as he watches the ink dry under the streetlamps.

Harry tilts his head to read the words, keeping his arm in Louis’ lap, mumbling them under his breath. When he finishes, he looks up, eyes thoughtful and a little far away. “What’s that from?”

“I’m not sure,” Louis admits, blinking down at the dark cut of the words against Harry’s unmarked skin. “I just remember hearing it at a very young age and it always stuck with me.” Shrug. “Made sense to me.”

Nodding, Harry hums, looking back down at the words and reading them again and again, whispering them in a breath and blinking in the spaces.

“I know the feeling,” he mumbles after a moment, still inspecting the sentence with quiet eyes.

Louis stares at him, an unexpected lift in his heart.

And then suddenly he’s grabbing Louis’ arm and pulling it into his lap, a small smile spreading.

“What are you—“ Louis starts, watching as Harry rolls up the sleeve of his jacket.

He looks up, grins mischievously. “Your turn,” is all he says, and it’s enough for Louis to half-smile, letting Harry continue.

“Of course it is,” he grumbles, but he makes no protest as he feels the cold, icy drag of marker on his arm, leaving the slightest tickling sensation that Louis refuses to laugh over. Even if it does make him squirm a bit.

“Hold still,” Harry laughs, resting a warm palm on his arm as he pauses in his ministrations.

“I am perfectly still, thank you. A regular slab of marble, I am,” Louis sniffs, turning away, and he hears and feels Harry’s exhale of amusement against his arm.

At long last, Harry releases him, pleased as pie.

“Ta-daaa!” he sings, arms raised momentously as he looks for Louis’ reaction.

With pursed lips and narrowed eyes—“I expect very little from you, just so you know, Styles”—Louis leans over, eyes flitting over the neat scrawl on his skin.

He blinks, feeling a small and almost unrecognizable pang of affection.

“The boy who lived” it reads.

And Louis really doesn’t need to feel a swell of bloody emotion at that, he doesn’t need to make this lighthearted moment turn into some soul-drenched romantic cliché epiphany, so he swallows down the connotations of the words, swallows away his tightened throat and hummingbird pulse, instead raising a level gaze to Harry’s expectant face.

“Really?” he deadpans. “Now we’re quoting Harry Potter?”

And then Harry grins, Sharpie still posed between his fingers like a paintbrush. “Yeah! I’m surprised you recognized the reference.”

“Hey, I may not be the most scholarly knife in the block, but I didn’t live under a rock, for Christ’s sake. I know Harry Potter, alright? Though I must say, you seem more the type to play the legend himself. With the green eyes and the name and all that.” He smirks, inconspicuously plucking the Sharpie out of Harry’s loose grip. “You’re just missing one key feature…”

At that, he gently takes hold of Harry’s chin, tilting the boy’s head up towards the stars, the sky full of stars. Harry flashes him a brief, quizzical look as Louis softly pushes his tufts of curls off and to the side, but he doesn’t protest; he just watches Louis as he brings up the Sharpie and sets the cool, inky tip upon Harry’s forehead, promptly drawing a jagged lightning bolt.

Heh. There.

He drops his hand from Harry’s face to his shoulder as he leans back, admiring his work.

Harry blinks. “Tell me you did not just draw a lightning bolt.”

Pause.

“I did not just draw a lightning bolt.”

Silence. Harry’s eyes remain on Louis, suspicious.

Louis’ lips quiver with the effort not to laugh.

“You did, didn’t you,” Harry asks, but it’s not a question.

“Correct,” Louis sing-songs, pleased as anything as he allows his grin to shine through.

Surprisingly, Harry grins back, bringing up a hand to touch blindly at the mark. “Why did I let you do that?”

“I have no idea,” Louis admits in a laugh, already bringing the Sharpie back up, hand still on Harry’s shoulder. “You’re just lucky I didn’t draw the glasses.”

At that, they both pause, Louis’ sly grin growing enough to expose the little ridges of his teeth as Harry narrows his eyes, glancing down at the Sharpie now dangerously close to face.

“Don’t you dare…” Harry begins, low, dragging out the words in a song.

Louis grins even wider. And then he lunges.

“Gah! No!” Harry crows, laughing almost hysterically as he tries to fight Louis off. He puts up a valiant effort (though, admittedly, if Louis actually wanted to draw those glasses, he would damn right draw those glasses) and eventually Louis pulls away, little Sharpie marks scuffing his fingers and hands and wrists, laughing as Harry cowers wearily, hands in defense mode, laughter still spilling out of his lips in breathless gusts.

“I’ll be taking that back now,” he clips, trying to withhold his grin as he plucks the Sharpie out of Louis’ hand, chin held high.

Louis smirks, leans back on the bench and lays his arms along the back of it, sprawled out and relaxed. He keeps one eye on Harry though, just in case.

The mischievous streak between them dies down, however, the longer their gazes lock, Harry’s quickly diluting from playfully apprehensive, to soft. Which comes as no surprise, really.

He doesn’t say anything though, the silence between them unspoken and calm. Instead, he takes Louis’ hand from the back of the bench, cradling it in his lap. With a secret sort of smile, he opens up his hand, palm up, delicately smoothing out Louis’ bent fingers, one at a time. He never lifts his gaze, never glances up, just smiles to himself as he focuses on the task at hand, all the while as Louis watches with a tiny burp in his heart, refusing to blink. His eyes are nearly watering with the effort, but he doesn’t give a fuck. He’s mesmerized by Harry in this moment, mesmerized by the feel of cold fingers setting his own aflame. Insane. Everything about Harry is insane, makes the world insane.

And then Harry brings the Sharpie down upon the cushion of Louis’ palm and begins drawing, sending sharp, cold tickles up Louis’ arm, sharper than before. He will not giggle—he’s not actually fucking ticklish, FYI—so instead he bites down on his lip as he squirms just a fraction this time; he doesn’t get reprimanded again, but he also doesn’t miss the way Harry’s smile twitches.

At long fucking last (Louis nearly bit through his lip to keep from squawking at one point), Harry releases his hand and looks up, eyes anything but hesitant as he motions to his work.

Merely arching a brow, Louis raises his palm to his face, squints in the dark at the long, sloping letters.

“HARRY” it says. That’s all.

When he looks back to Harry, the boy tilts his head, giggly and loose and silly and soft, rubbing his cheek on his shoulder and staring back at Louis with those damn eyes. “Because you’ve got me in the palm of your hand,” he explains, as if he’s the cleverest thing in the world, and that, coupled with what he’s fucking implying, makes Louis feel something startling rush up inside of himself.

Wow. Just… Wow.

“You think you’re very clever, don’t you, you sap?” Louis asks, trying to sound unimpressed. He looks back down at his hand, resists the urge to stroke the letters. “This is the corniest thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Harry couldn’t look less insulted. “Awweh, Louis! I’ve impacted your life! I stand out!” he beams, scooting even closer against Louis’ side.

He can feel Harry’s eyes on him, smiling and glowing and jarring, but he doesn’t turn to meet his gaze, instead just stares at his palm, feeling out of his fucking realm and far beyond control.

He’s got no control.

It’s for that exact reason that Louis finds himself searching for Harry’s hand in the dim light, the streetlamps barely casting enough light to make out the details of Harry’s jacket. He finds his hand, though, Harry offering it up willingly, but he doesn’t link up their fingers or hold it in his own. Instead, he lies it in his lap, face up, and snags the Sharpie back.

“LOUIS” he draws on Harry’s palm. And he hopes Harry understands. What he can’t say. What he’ll probably never be able to say.

“There,” he mutters upon completion, avoiding Harry’s very perfect eyes.

And Harry doesn’t reply, only smiles this brilliant shimmer of a thing, and it’s as if he does know, he just knows. Doesn’t need to ask or confirm, he just knows.

Grin in place, he leans his head down, rests it upon Louis’ shoulder, palm still in his lap. It’s peaceful, it’s nice. Louis’ heart is skidding out of place.

“Tired yet?” he questions softly, trying to be as still as possible. He glances down at Harry’s curls, at the tip of his nose and his slow-sweeping eyelashes. He spies the jagged line of the lightning bolt peeking out.

“Nope,” Harry replies quietly, and it’s a lie, it’s a total lie.

But Louis lets it be a lie.

**

It’s officially late now. Really fucking late. Late enough that the sun is beginning to poke above the horizon as they trek back to the car at a pace that implies more than just exhaustion, pinkies linked together as the gravel crunches underfoot. So maybe it’s early, actually.

The soft laps of the river slapping against rocks fills the silence. Mutters of freshly-awoken birds waft around, here and there. Just one or two for now. Louis suspects there will be more soon.

“We should pick up the pace,” Louis says quietly, voice scratchy from overuse. “So I can get you home faster. Get you to bed before Anne beheads me.”

Unsurprisingly, Harry shakes his head. “No,” he yawns, only shaking his head more vehemently. “Not yet. It’s nice out here.”

And it is. With his body silhouetted in pale blues and medium blues and touches of dark blues and the first, sizzled wisps of gold and pink and purple stretching up from the horizon, Harry looks very nice, indeed. Very beautiful and poetic, like the kind of boy who would be photographed and splashed across every hipster blog on the internet. His hair’s soft and unkempt, his skin white and ridged with exhaustion, and his eyelashes are perfect and delicate, tickling the sky that lies beyond him, rocks clicking beneath his Converse—which, Louis notices, now have scuffs and marks, tarnished by their walk and night of mild mayhem. They probably reek of beer, too. Oops.

“Alright,” Louis rasps quietly, squeezing Harry’s finger, which makes the boy smile as he turns to him, rubbing is eye with a fist. “If you say so.”

They walk a little closer together, no words spoken, pinkies still linked. Louis’ ignoring the urge to kiss him.

He wants to, fuck, he wants to really incredibly a lot fucking bad, but… But somehow it feels like he can’t, like he doesn’t quite deserve to just take that. So he ignores it, instead just gripping onto Harry’s slender finger and feeling his body stumble into his own, watching the night wash away from him. Observing the chameleon of colors that his body flits through. The change, the evolution, the everything.

It sort of sickens and embarrasses him when he thinks that he wants to know what Harry looks like during every time of day. It’s sickening and embarrassing, how much he wants that.

His stomach growls. Whether it’s from shame or hunger, he doesn’t know, but—

“I want food,” he mumbles, yawning against his hand as he looks off to the river, watches the way the barest hint of sun falls on its rippling surface.

Harry nods, sleepy, but perked up at the words. “And tea?”

“Yeah.” Louis smiles, looking to Harry, who nods again. “Yeah, let’s go get some shitty breakfast.”

He pulls Harry along with him, heading towards the dim glow of a bakery.

**

It was Harry’s idea not to eat in the car and then head back.

“No, I want to watch the sun rise,” he’d claimed, tired and gravelly, tugging on Louis’ free hand—the other holding the paper bag filled with moist, warm croissants and a drink tray, set with their two steaming Styrofoam cups of tea.

“Harry, love, I really need to get you home before the year’s up,” Louis protested lightly, but Harry’s eyes were shadowed with exhaustion and bright with an entirely infectious eagerness, and so Louis merely sighed, giving way almost immediately. “Yeah, alright, then,” he nodded, as Harry beamed.

He followed him to the stretch of grass beyond the tracks, just before the hill sloped down to the river, amongst refuse and scrap metal and industrial fury. Pollution foamed the edges of the water. It was far from romantic, but as the sun peaked out, burning orange and celestial, it sort of didn’t matter. It was just nice.

They sat side by side, nibbling silently with sticky lips and tired eyes as their knees bumped, chewing slowly as they sipped occasionally at their teas, steam moistening the tips of their cold noses. It was nice and it was quiet and, occasionally, Louis would look over to find Harry smiling at him. He’d smile back, bumping into his body, and then Harry would duck his head with a quiet beam before he continued eating, always shifting that much closer. Nice.

The croissants are done now, though, their cups of tea almost empty as they clutch them for warmth in their hands. Harry’s twined one leg around Louis’ at some point, keeping him close, and they’re just sitting here still, silent and yawning, occasionally chuckling quietly about one thing or another, sometimes humming a song unevenly.

Louis’ bum is cold and stiff. He couldn’t care less.

“Hey, Louis?” Harry suddenly sighs, resting his head on Louis’ shoulder and blinking heavily.

“Hm? Yeah?” he blinks, craning his neck to look at him.

Harry merely smiles. “Louis,” he repeats, but this time it’s said a little differently, a little whimsically. “Louiss,” he repeats, in a hushed song. “Louiiiiis, Louuuuis, Lou-is.”

Louis’ lips twitch. “What do you want, you nutter?”

Keeping his head on his shoulder, Harry blinks one tired eye up at Louis, smile still gracing his pink, morning mouth. The lightning bolt shines. “Nothing. I just like your name.”

Of fucking course he does.

Louis tightens his lips, resisting the smile poking at his cheeks, setting his sights back on the horizon. An aluminum can floats by, bobbing on the surface of the river below.

“Hey, Harry?” he says quietly, after a lengthy pause.

“Yeah?”

“Your name sucks.”

And it’s enough to send Harry into near-delirious giggles, rolling his body into Louis’ as he stuffs his face into his neck, breaths puffing against Louis’ skin. Louis feels his cold hands gripping at him, sliding across his torso in a half-embrace as he laughs and laughs, shoulders shaking, and it really isn’t funny, Louis’ never really funny, but he can’t help but laugh as well, unable to take his eyes away from the mop of hair attached to him, and the boy underneath. He’s clearly sleep-deprived.

After a few moments, the laughs subside, leaving Harry to gently remove his face from Louis’ neck, blinking up at him with an open expression, his mouth made of soft lines. The glow of unborn sun fades across his nighttime cheeks.

“I really like you,” he says earnestly, without blinking, soft enough to be considered a whisper.

Louis swallows, clenching his cup of tea all the tighter, resisting the urge to swipe fingers across Harry’s lips. “I hope you do,” he replies instead, eyes caught on them. He can’t kiss him. He really shouldn’t. It feels unfair, somehow. With the question marks and the gritty bullshit in his brain, it doesn’t seem fair to do. Not yet.

“I do,” Harry insists, pulling closer, and Louis feels cross-eyed as he stares at him, but doesn’t look away.

“Good,” he mumbles, removing one hand from the warmth of the Styrofoam in his clutch and laying his arm around Harry, pulling him that much more flush against him. It feels uncommonly warm and complimentary. Harry’s hair is tickling his chin, some hairs poking into his neck, but he smells so nice and he smells like the cold, and Louis grips onto his shoulder with an intensity he doesn’t truly understand yet. But he doesn’t overanalyze, just closes his eyes, feeling Harry’s hums reverberate against his ribs.

It doesn’t take long for Harry to fall asleep. And Louis knows he should wake him up, knows he should take him home this very instant.

But, as he feels his warmth press into his muscles, sipping the last remnants of tea as he watches the sun rise and feels the deep puffs of Harry’s breath against him… He can’t quite bring himself to do it just yet.

He will in a moment, he will. When he finishes his tea. But.

Not just yet.

**

“Alright, kid, we’re here,” Louis announces, voice soft yet alarmingly loud in the silence of the car.

Everything feels a little surreal and humming—it always feels like this when he stays up all night. The car is cold, leather not yet fully warmed up by the heat, and the shadows inside are dark enough to mute the outlines despite the peaked light that surrounds them outside. The sky is vibrant blue and purple, laced with yellow and white. There isn’t a cloud in sight.

Harry yawns, big and wide like a feline, curled up in the passenger seat. He blinks at Louis, eyes fuzzy and soft, a small smile pouting his lips. He’s been in and out of sleep ever since Louis was finally able to rouse him and drag his arse into the car. He kept trying to initiate conversations on the way here, asking Louis about his favorite things before he’d begin snoring gently, mouth slack, head leant against the fogged window. It should’ve been annoying but it’s Harry, so it’s endearing, and Louis could only shake his head and smile as he drove on, occasionally glancing over at his sleeping companion with far too much care for his liking.

And then they parked and Harry startled awake, and now here they are—in the quiet hum of the car as Louis watches him gain his bearings, Harry blinking dopily at him. He wants to reach out and smooth his knuckles over his chin, his cheek. Wants to slide his hand along his arm and just hold his hand again.

He wants to, but it’s morning and things feel a little complicated right now, so instead he smiles and leans his head back against the seat, just watching.

“I had a really great time,” Harry mumbles, lips swollen and bumping together as he lies there, chin on his chest. He makes no move to sit up or leave. Louis doesn’t want him to leave.

“Good,” Louis nods, glancing down at his lap before looking back up, pleased. “I’m glad.”

Harry pauses for a moment before he asks, “Did you?”

Louis smiles, feeling warmth prickle every spot on his body. “Yeah,” he nods. “Of course I did.”

Swallowing, Harry nods, seemingly appeased. “Maybe we could do it again?”

And this is the part where Louis should be playing it very cool, looking enticing and oh-so-unaffected by any such prospect, leaving his date with teases and curiosities and intrigues…

But instead, he’s nodding his head eagerly, like a cartoon of a golden retriever, and rushing out a “Yes, absolutely,” with all the enamored gusto of a lovesick adolescent clutching a photo of their favorite popstar. It’s mortifying, but Louis’ face is too tired to burn and the sun’s glaring onto the metal of the car, so he just squints a bit and shrugs, smiling a little awkwardly as Harry warms into a beautiful grin.

“Okay. Cool. Uhm, yeah, me too, of course,” he bumbles, clearing his throat as he finally sits up. His neck looks warm and his hair is lopsided and tangled, but he looks just… He looks really nice, okay?

Louis stares at him, feeling a pulse in his throat.

“Soon,” he says, and Harry smiles wider, ducking his head.

“Good. Promise?” He glances up through the sweep of his hair.

At that, Louis rolls his eyes. “Yes, I promise, you sap. I definitely promise. We’ll discuss details tomorrow. You work at the shop?”

“Yeah,” Harry nods, sweeping his hair to the side as he unbuckles himself. “I work at four. You can meet me after school though, if you’d like. If you’re free. Do you work?”

“Nah,” Louis shakes his head. “Not till Thursday. Stan took a couple of my shifts because he wants to take his girl on holiday. I’m nice like that, you know.”

“So generous,” Harry teases.

Louis smirks.

And then there’s silence.

“Get some sleep,” Louis encourages huskily, holding back yet another yawn as Harry continues to gaze at him. “I’ll text you before I go to bed.”

“Alright. Okay. I’ll text you, too,” Harry smiles, but he seems a little nervous, his eyes suddenly brighter, his limbs a little more taught. “Uhm. Goodnight, Louis. Thank you for everything. It was—it was really amazing. Like, really. Probably, uhm, like, the best night of my life.” He half-laughs the last bit, flushing brilliantly and smiling lopsidedly, and Louis is just about to chuckle and wave him away, when suddenly he’s lunging forward, pressing cold lips against Louis’ cheek.

Louis freezes, stomach swooping down somewhere near his arse, his heart stilling in his ribcage.

Harry pulls back then, eyes wide with nerves as he flashes another smile. “Goodnight,” he says again, just in a soft whisper, but he doesn’t move away, and Louis has quite possibly been welded permanently to the seat by cruel and mysterious forces. Not one ounce of air is left in him, not one, so all he can do is remain still and speechless as he watches Harry’s eyes flicker back down to his mouth, a determined set to his lips, a jolt of electricity in his eyes.

And then Harry’s lips are on his, quick and damp and soft, just gently pushing into his own, sliding them against the lines of his teeth and Louis’ entire composition fucking topples, like a tower of goddamn toothpicks, and he’s just about to reach up and press his fingers into the soft bit at the back of Harry’s neck (he knows exactly where already, he might have thought about this once or twice)—

When suddenly Harry pulls away, looking wild and a little terrified and completely besotted, eyes as round as circles.

Louis blinks, stunned. So stunned in fact that, in an act of awful teenage cliché, he mindlessly brings the pads of his fingertips to his lips. Thus concluding that he is, indeed, the worst sort of person. He will never let himself live this down.

But seriously, holy shit. Harry kissed him. Harry kissed him. How could he possibly be responsible for his actions?

God, he’s fucked. Weak and whipped and entirely fucked.

Apparently noticing the glaze of Louis’ eyes and the reverence he presses into his lips, Harry’s trepidation melts into happiness, every harsh line soothed into something silken.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says at last, quiet and pleased, smiling enough for his own sunrise. And with that, he gets out of the car, taking care to duck down and wave one last time at Louis before he slopes down the sidewalk, occasionally casting a glance back, before finally disappearing behind the door, a secret smile painted on his cheeks.

The sun has fully risen when Louis finally drives away. Lips still abuzz, Harry’s scent fresh in his nostrils, and any thoughts of Liam still firmly pressed away, he wonders if he’ll ever sleep again.

Chapter Text

I Wanna Be Yours—Arctic Monkeys

The entire world is burning apart, crumbling off into tiny little embers that drift away in the wind, soft as curled paper, leaving what’s left engulfed in bright, licking flames.

And, no, Louis is not being dramatic.

It’s just that…

Harry.

Harry. Little Harry Styles. Harry with his warm palms and fingers that burn through cloth and smiles that brush Louis’ skin and jumpers that bunch at the waist and feet that are always perpendicular and lips that are always perfect and hair that’s always lying so softly, ready to be mussed up by Louis’ hands. That Harry. You know.

Louis is sort of sick to his stomach these days because of that Harry. He sort of can’t feel his body.

And he sort of doesn’t give a fuck because he’s not letting himself think anymore.

See, it’s been like this ever since the date. When the first match was lit, really.

Louis’d woken up on Anthony’s floor the day after, wound up with restless dreams and bitten with a strange sort of beautiful tension filling his limbs and lungs. He’d rolled over, bleary eyed with twitching lips, and the first thing he saw when he checked the time on his phone was the small slew of text messages from one mister Harry Styles. It was a bolt of electricity that shot through Louis, sparking him wide awake as he unlocked the screen with finesse and began devouring the words, sitting up on one elbow and threatening his sleep-drenched eyes to stay the fuck open.

All of them had been meaningless—the first merely Harry saying good morning, sending a sleepy selfie of a smile that could’ve been made of fucking feathers with how soft it was—and a few random sentiments that shouldn’t have made Louis feel the way he did.

‘I don’t think I’ve ever been this tired in my entire life xx’

‘So. Exhausted. Can’t pay attention to one word the prof’s saying. Keep thinking of you :) x’

‘Can’t wait to see you today. I’ve come up with a brilliant nickname for you :) xxxxxx’

‘You should show me your favorite punk music :) Tonight? x’

‘Louis :)))) xxxxxx’

‘(Louis)’

It was just… It was so hideously sappy and clingy and completely opposite of how Louis works. It was incredible.

‘I can’t with your words this morning you sap’ he’d sent back, now smiling and lying on his back and feeling dizzy, dizzy, dizzy. ‘But yea I’m excited to see you too pup. And I expect an excellent nickname. King will do’

He’d sent it and then rolled over, burying his face in the shitty, stained brown cushion of the couch and tried to fall back asleep despite the dancing electric bolts flittering up his spinal cord. His body’s always keeping him up these days.

He only gave up when he got a text from Zayn.

‘With Niall. We’re hungry. Want food? We’ll go somewhere. Hang out.’

Zayn is, by the way, the least savvy texter in this universe. Choppy sentences and half-formed intentions are the most you’ll get out of him. Louis sometimes wonders if his texts to Niall are the same.

But anyway, yeah, Louis’d went to breakfast with them, the happy couple, and it was one of those situations where Louis was on one side of the booth, stirring his tea with pursed lips and a raised brow as he eyed the expectant couple before him. Zayn’s elbows were on the table as he stared unblinkingly at him and fiddled with a spoon, Niall leaning into his side with an arm slung around his shoulder. Two against one, it felt like.

“So…” Louis caved eventually, the clink of metal against porcelain just a bit too much for his frazzled nerves. His phone was on the table, face up. Harry hadn’t texted him back yet. He was acutely aware of the fact, too aware, and his eyes kept glancing to the screen at intervals, just in case. Fucking pathetic, it was.

“You’re in love with Harry,” Zayn had stated matter-of-factly, a little dreamily, and it was enough to make Louis spit out his tea.

Niall nodded beside him, leaning his chin on his hand. “It’s cute,” he mused happily before scratching his ear. “I like Harry. Good lad. He’s got incredible hair.”

“He does,” Louis had said, shell-shocked and unaware of what else to say, blinking dumbly.

They continued to stare at him, pleased and silent, and Louis nearly shit his pants.

“Look, I’m not, folks. Not in—not in that—not that. I’m not. I like him, yeah, he’s…” He trailed off, words caught in the spikes lining his throat. He decided to stir his tea some more. Because why not? “He’s great and all. But it’s not—it’s complicated. It’s not that. I can’t do that. I can’t—“ He continued to splutter and it made Niall laugh.

He turned to Zayn, bent close and mused, “You broke him.” He sounded very Irish.

Zayn’s eyes had softened, looking amused as he nodded and briefly touched his head to Niall’s forehead, still observing Louis with mirth. Fucking goddamn mirth.

“You two can fuck off now,” Louis had bristled, feeling an irrational streak of irritation, but it only made the other two look smugger. “Not everybody falls in love within three minutes of introduction, you know. That shit’s uncommon. Not healthy, either.  Just fucking saying.”

They both nodded, looking altogether far too secretive in their unconsciously coordinated jumpers and relaxed shoulders. In that moment, Louis hated them.

Luckily though, nothing more than that was pressed. No talk of Liam, no talk of problems, no talk of Louis’ feelings—or lack thereof. It was all far much simpler and they merely ate their eggs and toast and tea and coffee with smirks and eyerolls and pleasant laughter as Niall ordered too much food (for Zayn, he’d claimed which made the guy flush pleasantly) and Louis swore too much and Zayn kept proposing mind-altering perspectives on the world. (“What if we’re not really in this restaurant? What if this is all an illusion and instead we’re actually just in my room, stoned? What if none of you are here and you’re all just in my head? What if you’re not real?” he’d questioned intensely, looking faintly panicky and excited, and Louis just stared, mug midair, as Niall looked enthralled.)

It was a nice time though, ending in Niall paying the bill (even nicer) and they all parted with claps on the back and cigarette offers.

And then… Well.

Louis had told himself earlier in the day that he was going to start thinking, is the thing. He’d said that he was going to start mapping out some plans here. Was gonna start to figure out what to do about all of this—with Harry, with Liam, with himself. And that he was going to take a few paces away from Harry (only in the smallest sense because, no, he can’t stay away completely) but…

But what ended up happening, of-motherfucking-course, was that Louis walked his arse around the entire fucking town after leaving Zayn and Niall, phone in his palm as he watched the time like a fucking hawk, the clouded sun moseying across the white sky. So, really, it came as no surprise when he inevitably found himself on the outskirts of Harry’s school, barely a soul in sight on the bleak grounds as he found himself waiting, leaned against a tree. Like a fucking lap dog. He was waiting for Harry while he finished his cigarette—his body having made the decision before his mind could—and resolutely ignoring the presence of his phone against his thigh.

It was probably filled with messages. He’d set it to ‘Do Not Disturb’ to avoid remembering the outside world but he’d spied Liam’s name on his unread text messages earlier and he… Well, he wasn’t quite ready to tackle that mountain that day.

Hell, he wasn’t ready to tackle any mountains. Not even hills. Not mounds or bumps or nothing.

Of course, having said that, he was essentially standing atop Mount Olympus at that point, waiting for Harry. Because the enormity of Harry was sort of equivalent to Zeus in his sad, mortal mind, wasn’t it? And Louis was the besotted human who wanted the sky and the light and all that unattainable shit he didn’t understand. How very Romance Novel.

But anyway.

Brushing the sentiments away, Louis continued to wait.

Nervous anticipation began to build. Odd, confused terror filled him. And a whole brand new slew of anxieties assaulted him. Because… What exactly was he supposed to do when he saw Harry? How does he greet him now?

Does he…kiss him? Is that a thing now? Should he shake his hand? Hug him? Pat him on the back? Do nothing at all and act casual? Like same ol’ Louis? What the actual fuck was he supposed to he do?

It was an unforgiving crisis that Louis had undergone that afternoon, inhaling every last cigarette in his possession (which wasn’t many—he’s absentmindedly trying to quit; he can only handle one addiction at a time, can’t commit to a vast assortment) as he fiddled with his jacket, fiddled with the butts, fiddled with the philosophies of the world because Louis Tomlinson is damn cool, yeah, he is—but Louis Tomlinson was having fucking kittens that day.

And then suddenly he saw Harry.

It was something out of a low-budget movie, really. The way that the anonymously faced students spilled out of the doors all at once, their smiles and chatter tangled up together and resonating in toneless sound. The way that the sky shone white and a few leaves fell from the branches, drifting elegantly to the ground. The way that, amidst the chaos, there was Harry, walking with purpose and softness and beauty, his hair bouncing in slow motion. It was slow fucking motion, it was. Harry was Zeus and he was breaking up physics.

Somewhere, distantly, in Louis’ stomach, the tremor of anxiety he’d felt flared up like a dragon being woke. But in that moment it seemed dulled and far away, coming second to the rush in Louis’ ears at just seeing Harry again. Just something as simple as seeing the boy he’s come to see so very often.

Harry was smiling, warm like caramel drizzle, and he must’ve spotted Louis the minute the doors opened because he was making a beeline for him, the swirling students parting like the sea. Maybe Harry was actually Moses.

Louis stubbed out his dying cigarette, flicking it to the ground and wiping his palms off on his jeans, schooling the twitching of his cheeks as Harry reached him.

“Louis,” Harry greeted in a warm breath, still walking towards him, his entire atmosphere soft as pillows, and—here goes.

Here was the defining moment.

Louis really was going to play it cool. He was. Anything else would’ve been out of character.

But before he could actively square his shoulders and jut his jaw and wink like James Dean, Louis found himself being swallowed up in the warm slides of Harry’s arms as they wrapped around his lithe body, pulling him flush against him in an unbreakable way. Not an ounce of hesitation in the gesture.

“You came early,” he felt Harry smile in his hair, body body body lined right up against his, and Louis just blinked, feeling every fucking cell clamp onto Harry as he clutched at him instinctually, hands holding his sides. His small, lovely little sides. Louis has felt a lot of sides in his time—Harry’s sides are the nicest.

“I did,” he said, muffled by Harry’s jacket, but he didn’t move to disengage himself, his body taking root in the dying grass. Harry felt nice. Solid and present and warm and…Harry-like. Nice.

“I’m very pleased. Thank you.”

Louis rolled his eyes. “You are so welcome, kind sir.”

He felt a smile in his hair.

Neither of them let go—not amongst the crowds of teenagers and fleeing professors and passerby. It was a public display of affection, is what it was, Louis’ least favorite thing, but he didn’t find himself letting go, instead found himself swaying in a neverending hug, Harry’s body slowly getting heavier. Nice.

“’M tired,” Harry mumbled, gravelly, and sighed. His back was loose, hunched, his knees bumping Louis’ knees as they sagged.

“I bet,” Louis said quietly, freeing his mouth from the fabric of Harry’s jacket. He pressed his cheek against the side of his face instead. A nice little place. “I tried to get you home early last night. I tried, but you weren’t having it. Throwing your sass around like you always do.”

He felt another smile.

“Was worth it,” Harry murmured, words buried in Louis’ neck.

Louis merely smiled in response, feeling mildly overwhelmed. They’d only been on one date. One date. Singular. That’s all. They’ve only hugged a handful of times in the months they’ve known each other. Just a handful of times. But now, now that they’ve been on one date and spent some countless hours together, drawing shitty Sharpie tattoos on each other and watching suns rise and now that Louis knows what Harry looks like when he sleeps…

It was like suddenly the barriers fell away and it just…was. They just were. Suddenly there was no holding back and Harry felt unthinkingly comfortable to glue himself into Louis’ spaces and suddenly Louis was overwhelmed, having absolutely no idea what to do. How does any of this work?

Are they just…together now?  

The only answer he received was the sound of Harry’s breath. Maybe that was the right answer.

“Hey,” he mumbled, blinking as he stared ahead sightlessly, bodies flitting past. Everyone was wearing peacoats. “What’s that nickname you have for me? That you texted about.”

He felt Harry chuckle, felt the reverb of his chest. “Well…” he dragged out, quiet and vibrating. Louis absentmindedly tapped his fingers against his sides, continuing to let himself be swayed. Harry’s body was getting heavier but it was welcome. Sort of grounding. “You know how you call me a pup?”

Smirk. “Yes.”

“Well, I was thinking about animals, you know? And what animal you would be if you were one and… I really like animals. But there are a lot of them.”

Louis blinked. “I’m aware, yes.”

“So it was a big decision.”

“Alright…”

“Especially taking into consideration all the animals I don’t even know about, you know?”

“Harry, where is this going? Have you suffered a stroke?”

But he only felt Harry smile and shake his head. “It’s the buildup, Louis. I’m building up to the nickname.”

“What’s the nickname.” It wasn’t a question and Louis wasn’t biting back an amused smirk.

“Mousling.” Harry’s tone was proud.

Louis stilled.

“I beg your motherfucking pardon?”

Harry laughed then, too loud in his ear, but refused to let go of Louis, instead clutching him all the tighter as he dug his hands into the bones of Louis’ back, burying his face in his pulse point. Skin against skin, warmth against warmth. “I’m the pup and you’re the mousling. Because you’re cute.”

“Cute?”

“And petite.”

Petite?!” Louis nearly screeched, trying (and failing) to disengage himself. “I will have you know, Sassy Styles, that I am anything but petite. Though I may be a centimeter less than you at most, I am far from delicate or small. I’m made from unbreakable product, you know. I’m like water—the softest and strongest force on this planet. I’m not petite, for Christ’s sake!”

But Harry was guffawing, chin now digging into Louis’ shoulder as he un-tucked his face and laughed to the heavens because he’s a little shit and he’s easily amused. Little fucker.

He wouldn’t let Louis go, though. And he seemed completely unapologetic.

“I think you’re cute,” was all he said again, before sighing once he felt Louis’ struggles subside. His hold loosened, his body coming to relax against Louis’ again. Heavily, unmovingly. Nice. He felt tired.

“I think you’re a little shit,” Louis mumbled, but he half-smiled. “I won’t respond to that, by the way. I am not a mouse, let alone a mousling.” He adjusted his grip, secured his arms around Harry more tightly, feeling the boy’s body slipping. “I think a more appropriate nickname would be ‘steed’ since I’m lugging your arse around.”

Harry hummed, pleased and yawning. “’S nice, though. Thank you. My legs tire easily. I’m fragile, Louis. Not all of us are made of unbreakable product.”

It was cute. Louis harrumphed but laughed quietly.

A few more moments passed as they held each other up, silent and piled together like puppies, before Louis finally broke away, something pinging inside.

“Let’s get you to work, yeah?” he’d asked, soft and slow, and Harry smiled sleepily at him, nodding as he laced his fingers with Louis’. Just like that. And then, for no reason at all, he pressed a cold kiss to Louis’ cheek.

It was a shy thing, a blushing move, and Louis was so goddamn endeared. It was so innocent. So young. So everything that Louis is not.

And shit. It’s times like that when Louis’ all too aware he’s dealing with a fawn—a little virginal babe that he has no business talking to, let alone touching. Even given the ironic circumstances he’s found himself in…

But no matter. Not now. He’ll… He’ll figure it out later.

All that mattered that day, as Louis smiled and tugged Harry down the street, was the way it felt to slot into Harry’s life. Nice.  

When they’d reached the record shop, they’d found Julian, relieved to flee and smelling strongly of weed and wine. Louis greeted him with mild disinterest (much to Harry’s amusement) before he darted out the door, eyebrows waggling in a very uncouth manner that made Louis scoff and Harry laugh. He still doesn’t know if he likes Julian.

But they settled in easily enough, tossing jackets on the ground and flicking through albums to play.

“You’ll stay? Till close?” Harry’d asked from his stool, hopeful.

Louis looked up from the two albums in his hands—The Who and Jimmy Hendrix—and raised a brow. “Don’t I always?”

And Harry’d beamed and went back to his book, unspoken anxiety dissolving away. Nice, nice, nice.

It wasn’t long after that Zayn and Niall showed up—ever the conjoined twins—and Louis couldn’t help but half-smile upon hearing Niall’s boisterous entrance, followed by Zayn’s steady slope.

“Morning!” Niall greeted inaccurately as Zayn implored an earnest, “So, what’s up tonight?” Which, really, sums up their dynamic perfectly. Night and day, they are.

Harry and Louis exchanged amused smiles before Louis shrugged. “Hello there, lads. How goes it?”

It led to Niall telling a story that Zayn nodded along to seriously, occasionally interrupting to add a helpful and oddly sensical metaphor. What a pair.

They’d stuck around for awhile, just an hour or two, before they departed for one of their grand dinners Niall’s always so bent on taking Zayn to.

“Italian tonight?” he’d asked, slinging an arm around Zayn’s shoulder and staring at him so closely his eyes almost crossed.

Zayn nodded. “Cool,” he agreed before holding up a firm thumbs up, extending his arm towards where Louis and Harry were clustered at the till, Louis giving him shit about his stuffy essay. “See you later.”

They left, just as simply as that, leaving the dust particles and scratchy needle of the record player and Louis and Harry in their wake.

Which was, somehow, oddly thrilling.

Being with Harry, alone, knowing that they were more than just friends now… Knowing that they’d already kissed and that they probably would again… Something about the change in the atmosphere, the sudden silence after the chaos of Zayn and Niall, was terrifying and invigorating for Louis as he caught Harry’s eye and smiled, very aware of the glint he saw there, reflecting the same electricity. He’d felt breathless and too young, and so he looked down, occupying himself with reading Harry’s essay and picking it apart.

It had been simple that first day. Mindless and easy and fun and exciting. All of those things.

And as the night dwindled down, the stragglers leaving the shop and the lights shining brighter against the shadows outside, Louis found his heart beating in his throat suddenly, watching as Harry locked the door, hands slow.

There was no reason to be nervous, no reason for prickling skin and a dry throat and jumpy limbs. Louis is anything but shy in these situations—hell, he’s been around every block and every corner there is. But…

But as he roamed the aisles distractedly, hands lingering on faded paper and sliding against the plastic slips that housed the more delicate vinyls, he found himself bloody terrified, eyes darting nervously to Harry every other second. He dragged his feet as he swallowed the bumps and the jolts, as he watched Harry flick off the lights, leaving the room in a cool glow, bathed only in the dim lamp from the counter and the lava lamps that dotted the rare surface. Everything was bluish and orangish and brownish and dark, and Louis’ blood pressure probably skyrocketed in that moment, because suddenly the air changed and he couldn’t feel his hands as he sloped along unsteadily, trying his hardest to appear nonchalant.

And then Harry turned around.

It was with slow, shy steps that he met Louis’ eye, a beautiful and small smile budding on those lips, growing into a full bloom. Louis caught it, smiled back a little, and then darted his eyes back to the records, his ribs crushing his heart. Or maybe his heart crushed his ribs, he still doesn’t know.

Harry’d begun strolling down the aisles then. Just like Louis—half-interestedly loping, eyes glancing purposefully in his direction, with his hands behind his back. It felt like there was smoke in the air or fog or perfume or…something. Something in the air felt heavy and swirly and Louis was almost tempted to swat it away, to sweep away the blockade so that he may see Harry better, but the idea simultaneously terrified him. And so he merely strolled, his steps bringing him closer to Harry, whose eyes seemed so bright in that dark room that night.

Before he knew it though, he found himself toe to toe with Harry.

He looked up, feeling like a fucking ghost, feeling like he’s never felt before, not ever, and found Harry’s face, so uncommonly close to his own. The air whooshed out of the room then, the fog and perfume and smoke lifting away. It was just Louis’ face and Harry’s face and a heartbeat that threatened to combust.

It had been dark in that room, yes. But it could’ve been pitch black and Louis still would have seen the excited terror in Harry’s grey eyes that fell downward, the thrill in his parted lips, and the shyness in his shoulders as he came closer, closer, and leaned forward, never once blinking.

Louis was so terrified that he didn’t even think to close his eyes when Harry finally kissed him.

But it snapped something in him—the warm breath that spurred his own, the lips that felt like bedsheets (a little rough but mostly soft)—and suddenly the world became black as his eyes snapped shut and he found the feeling in his hands, wrapping them around Harry’s waist to tug. Always closer.

Kissing him, proper snogging Harry, did not make anything less terrifying.

Rather, it sort of made it worse? See, Louis is good at kissing, comfortable with kissing, fucking excellent with the whole kissing thing. He could win wars with it, he could—he’s well attuned to his body and even more attuned to others’.

But with Harry? Somehow, kissing became terrifying. Beautifully, mesmerizingly, hideously and wonderfully terrifying. It sounds so fucking dumb to say it, too. But that’s what it feels like and it’s addicting, god. It’s never felt like that before.

And so Louis lost himself a bit, just letting Harry kiss him at his own pace. It revealed everything he couldn’t or hadn’t said yet—revealed his inexperience and earnestness and tentative little curiosities. It was sweet and started chaste and drifted into curious and ended in not-so-chaste and Louis could fucking taste Harry, something exclusively Harry, and now he fucking knows what he tastes like, okay? He knows Harry’s goddamn saliva and he’s never thought about things like that before and it should be weird and sorta disgusting but it somehow makes Louis feel a little bit ruined for everybody else. For anything else. Fuck.

Eventually, the kisses and the licks and the purrs and the delicate hands died down. They dwindled into little pecks, little presses of exhausted, reddened lips against cheekbones and the bits just beneath each other’s jaws.

Louis was fucking dizzy, was probably blushing. Harry was making these weird little mewling noises, face tucked into Louis’ neck. He began doing that swaying thing again—it’s something he’s always doing whenever he hugs Louis, just one of his many quirks—and he clung to him tightly, Louis clinging back, face hot and feeling like it had been assaulted with pins and needles.

He felt hands on his face then. He blinked, dazed and terrified and trying to reign it all in, before finding himself looking into Harry’s eyes, his sweet, happy eyes that looked worlds away and so, so openly fond. The hands began delicately petting at Louis’ cheeks, occasionally sweeping his hair away with nimble fingers. Sweet. Fragile. Reverent, almost.

Another soft press of mouths.

“I’m glad I get to kiss you now,” Harry mumbled, words disembodied in the dark.

Louis found them, though. Caught those fuckers and put them into his own body.

He scoffed, dutifully ignoring the trembling in his hands. “Alright, sap,” he’d joked, but the words cracked.

“It’s true,” Harry said imploringly, quiet and confident and insistent. “I’ve wanted to kiss you since I first saw you. In the library.”

It made Louis’ heart drop a bit, a streak of guilt painting his entire body, Liam’s face threatening to form in the back of his mind. He dissolved it though, pushed it away, let himself feel surprised instead. For now.

“Really?” he’d asked, genuinely stunned. (He recalled Harry’s less than warm reactions to him…) “I thought you hated me? Honestly, I thought you, like…” He shook his head. “I practically had to stalk you. I was two steps away from getting a net to catch you.”

But Harry’d only nodded. “Yeah, but like… I thought you were really handsome. I mean, like, I had eyes, you know.”

Ah.

Louis pursed his lips. “Ahhh, I see how it is.”

“No,” Harry protested, childlike in that moment as he banged a gentle fist on Louis’ shoulder. “No, but like… Then we started talking? And suddenly I forgot you were handsome.”

“Oh, so I’m forgettable, am I?”

“No, no, no,” he laughed, swatting at Louis still more. “Not like that! It was just that we, like, started talking, you know? It was like—I thought you were handsome at first when I saw you. And then we talked and it was sort of like, erased? A bit? And then I focused on what you said instead, you know? And we talked more and suddenly you became beautiful in a different way. And then, like, I remembered you were handsome and it was sorta like you were beautiful in all these different ways and it was just like… I dunno. I wanted to kiss you all the time then.”

At the time, Louis had no idea what to say. It didn’t really make sense but it also did and it was terrifying, just like Harry’s kiss, and it was… Everything was a lot.

“So, basically, what I’m saying is… I’m just happy to kiss you now,” Harry concluded, smiling proud.

Louis nearly choked on air, disguised it as a laugh. Shit.

And then Harry shrunk a little bit, burrowing his face in Louis’ neck again as he folded himself in, seemingly embarrassed. Louis clutched onto him, stunned and lost and overwhelmed, just brushing his fingers up and down Harry’s spine. He focused on his breathing because it felt like it needed the attention. His exhales were a little shaky—he prayed Harry didn’t notice.

But of course Harry didn’t notice. He was too damn busy pressing little kitten kisses to Louis’ neck, little tiny pecks that made sounds in the quiet room. Louis allowed it, curious and amused as it relieved some of his blind terror, and he tried to watch as Harry traveled up, one pecklet at a time, dotting kisses all over Louis’ face with tiny little gusty grins, face etched in sincerity.

“What the hell are you doing?” Louis’d laughed, bewildered as he held on.

“I get to kiss you now,” Harry explained as if it were obvious, smiling so bad. His jumper was bunched at his wrists and the fabric was warm against Louis’ chin where Harry’s hands cradled it. “So I have to kiss you everywhere. You’re mine now.” It was punctuated with a coy look because that’s what Harry fucking does.

“Oh my god. I can’t believe you’re saying these things,” Louis snorted, but he was breathless and his words sounded funny. “Slobbering all over my face… We’re not puppies.”

“But you call me pup,” Harry pointed out. His smile grew. “I love that you call me pup.” He dropped a kiss to Louis’ nose, lingering.

Louis died.

“I’ve never had a nickname before,” the lips on Louis’ face murmured. “I love that you give me nicknames. I love that you treat me differently than anyone else treats me.”

Louis died again.

“Well,” he swallowed, steadying himself by digging his hands deeper in the fabric of Harry’s jumper, “I like how you treat me differently than everybody else as well.”

Harry blinked. “Is that true? Am I different? Doesn’t Zayn treat you nice? And Niall? Aren’t they better to you than I am?”

Louis scoffed. “Well, no. I mean, yeah, they’re the nicest to me that anybody’s ever been. They’re my mates. We’re good to each other and they’re good kids. But… There’s not—you know.” Louis shrugged, wordless. “It’s not affection, or anything. Zayn’s always respected my limits, I guess.”

“I don’t respect your limits?” Harry’s brow furrowed, pausing.

“Well, I mean…” Louis trailed off, eyes looking past Harry, suddenly all too aware of his proximity, of his own voice. “It was more like… I dunno. You cared to look past them? You sorta just… Went anyway? I thought I wouldn’t like that but… I don’t know.” Another shrug. “Maybe I only like that with you.”

Harry smiled, understanding. “Maybe that’s how it is with me, too. I guess, maybe, people did try to get to know me in my life. Tried to befriend me and, like, reach out. Maybe I could’ve connected to someone if I wanted to. I guess I just didn’t want to. Not until you.”

A flush of flames welled up inside Louis as he bit the blood out of his lips, eyes steady on the boy before him. “Well, look at us. A pair of saps.”

“I really like you,” Harry stated, bold and pure. “I’m going to kiss you some more. Okay?”

“Okay.” Louis swallowed, feigned a smirk. “Do you what you must, pup.”

And then Harry beamed, glitzy and glamorously, and the world was reduced to one boy. One boy and one set of lips and one pair of lungs and two hands, all beneath an odd, lovely brain and fantastic hair. Just one boy.

Really, ever since that night, it’s still been just one boy. One singular young boy amongst a world of millions of young boys, amongst thousands of awful things and boring things. And Louis has absolutely no clue as to what he’s doing with him.

He hasn’t talked to Liam in weeks. Weeks. Because he doesn’t know what he’s doing and he can’t deal with it. He can’t deal with the bewildered, infuriated, confused texts being pelted at him. He can’t deal with the loose ends he’s standing in, tangled up in. He can’t deal with the unspoken tension and the willful ignorance that is super fucking problematic and he can’t deal with the overwhelming bouts of guilt he experiences every goddamn day, especially when he’s trying to fall asleep.

He can’t deal with any of it. And so he ignores it.

It’s just so fucking difficult, see. It’s so incredibly, unfairly difficult because when he’s on his own he gets panicked and logical, all of the problems rising to the surface at incredible speed. And he’s always promising himself to start addressing them, always firm in his decision to start fixing this colossal fucking mess.

But then he finds himself with Harry again, that sweet little beacon of hope that’s come to represent the only worthwhile shit that he’s found on this planet and… And suddenly it’s all just so simple? It’s just Harry asking Louis to come over for family dinner again, for the third time that week. It’s Harry insisting Louis eats his vegetables when Anne’s spooning them onto his plate and it’s Gemma laughing at Louis’ jokes. It’s Harry giggling too much and singing too many songs and trying to convince Louis to take ballroom dancing classes with him in his living room, socked feet tucked under Louis’ thighs as they sprawl on the couch and watch mindless television, pitched at the lowest volume. And it’s Louis developing habits like tucking Harry’s hair behind his ears whenever it’s a bit wilder than usual or reaching for his hand instinctually now because, at some point, his hands have begun to feel incomplete on their own.

It’s odd because they’ve only been properly…whatever they are (together? Is that what kids call it these days?) for just under a month, but already Anne expects Louis at the door, smiling invitingly before the door’s even fully opened.

“Come on in, Louis. No need to knock,” she says every time. But Louis knocks every time.

“Thanks, Anne. Looking lovely today, by the way. Smashing the hair game. Now I see where Harry gets it all from,” Louis will say, and it always earns him a pleased peel of laughter and an elbow squeeze and extra portions of dessert. It feels very motherly, the way Anne treats Louis, and it reminds him of…

Well. It makes him think of Jo sometimes, that’s all. All this family time and ‘home is where the heart is’ bullshit, it prods at some long-forgotten memories. Willfully forgotten, really. Louis hasn’t had a proper home in years. Hasn’t had a mum or sisters in years. He never thinks about it, though, never bothers himself with shit he can’t change, but lately…

Lately, he’s been hugging Anne goodbye and she smells like perfume and cotton and sometimes Louis has to clear his throat before he can turn to Harry; sometimes he has to focus on the sleeve of his jacket or the way the windows fog against the chill. Sometimes his throat feels itchy and sometimes it gets very fucking overwhelming.

But then comes Harry, smiling and bouncy because he’s turned into a proper puppy as of late—all wild energy and unapologetic affection with underlying mischief—and he collides into Louis with beautiful force, wrapping his blanket-clad body around him.

“Snuggles before you go to war,” Harry purrs as he wraps the blanket around Louis, engulfing them both.

“Snuggles? I don’t deserve such privileges. I’m but a lowly soldier, sir,” Louis plays along, smiling despite the sandpaper in his throat. Anne shoots them a knowing look before she shakes her head and walks quietly away, waving one last goodbye to Louis. Louis blinks, looks away.

My soldier,” Harry mumbles, quiet, holding on. Possessive little shit.

“Your soldier,” Louis affirms, secretly pleased, but he makes sure Harry sees it when he rolls his eyes.

And then Gemma walks by, pursing her lips and being obvious in her teasing disgust and they’re at that point already, just a month in, that it’s completely normal for Louis to flick his middle finger her way and stick out his tongue and still more normal for her to repeat the gestures before blowing a kiss and retreating up the stairs.

“Your family loves me, you know. More than they like you. Better watch out, Sasspup,” Louis grins, watching Gemma’s feet disappear. “There’s a new king in this court.”

“I don’t mind,” Harry’s muffled voice replies immediately, still buried in blankets and Louis’ neck. “So long as you are a kind and gentle king and wear tights, I don’t mind one bit.” He lifts his head, smiles when he meets Louis’ eye. “Authority overwhelms me. I’d rather be the quiet mastermind. Like, your Merlin.”

“Oh?” Louis laughs, unable to stop himself. “I’m King Arthur and you’re Merlin? Is that how this works?”

Harry beams. “Yes, but you’re not allowed a Guinevere. Capiche?”

Louis laughs again, clutches the blanket around them tighter. “Capiche, kiddo.” And then he kisses him because it’s easy, and everything else doesn’t matter.

It’s difficult too, though.

Because it’s very strange, all of it. The entire dynamic is stressful as it is calming, but everything feels easy, easier each day as Harry’s words become less hesitant and his actions become more instant, his kisses warmer and longer and his hands never, ever leaving Louis. And each day it’s a bit easier to forget and each day Louis finds himself reaching for Harry, if only for a moment. Because he’s not good with this, see, not good with the touching and the sentiments and the quiet moments and the cuddles and the bullshit…

But with Harry it’s easier, every day, and it’s nice. A stupid word, but it’s nice. Louis wants to touch him, intermingle the feeling of his gorgeous fucking mouth on him with the feeling of his hands being bunched in his warm jumper, and it’s weird, okay? Because it’s sexual, certainly, the urges he feels—but it’s just as much…not? It’s something more, something deeper, and that’s the weirdest part. He wants Harry on his body, all over his fucking body even though they’re taking it slow, torturously slow, but… But he sort of doesn’t mind if it only culminates to just that—just Harry lying on top of him, falling asleep into his shoulder as he crushes his ribs and presses his lungs.

Fucking…weird. And difficult.

But also simple.

It’s almost been a month and Harry has fallen into the habits so seamlessly. He calls him hideous terms of endearment (“pumpkin” being the absolute worst and best and Louis turns crimson whenever he says it in front of Zayn and Niall) and he’s always cuddling up to him and he’s honest and thoughtful and so…affectionate.

Meanwhile, Louis is a sinking ship and can only really follow his lead. Because, as inexperienced as Harry may be, Louis somehow feels even less experienced. Sure, he’s great at sucking a dick (and, no, he hasn’t had that privilege with Harry yet because…well…Harry is young and focused and very, very innocent) and Louis can do this, that, and the other with someone’s body, press the right buttons. But, aside from that, he is an unpracticed infant when it comes to…relationships? Is that the word for this? Yeah, probably.

This isn’t even something he thought he wanted. And yet…

Here he is.

He sighs, shaking himself out of his thoughts. He’s thinking too much. Getting a migraine. He should probably drink some water.

The air is cold, whipping sharply against his skin as he trots along the sidewalk. He’s on his way to meet Harry at the library for a bit before his shift at the pub. It’s a bitter day, an even more bitter Halloween—Louis’ never been all that fond of the holiday, never cared for children screeching for sweets, but even he feels a touch of empathy for all the sad souls that will be trudging out in tonight’s tundra. It’s fucking cold.

It’s just when he’s lost the feeling in his thumbs (there’s a hole in his jacket pocket, how quaint), that the school comes into view, reaching just over the tops of the buildings. A warmth pillows inside of him at the sight—he’s come to associate this place with Harry now. He’s been conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs.

Onward, he goes, humming a Jefferson Airplane song he’s had stuck in his head since he woke up on Stan’s floor; he fell asleep listening to it last night. It’s called ‘Today’ and Louis absolutely didn’t listen to it because it reminds him of Harry. He isn’t quite that far gone yet, probably never will be. Just because he’s sort of undergoing a life-altering experience with this kid, it doesn’t mean he’s about to burst into a soft, cuddly explosion of blankets and feelings and Hallmarked sentiments.

He’s still Louis. He’s not gone soft.

It’s at that precise moment that his phone buzzes; he’d finally taken it off of ‘Do Not Disturb’ the night before in a halfhearted attempt to sort his life out. Hah.

A heavy weight settles in his stomach and lungs, the same weight he gets every time his phone so much as twitches. He’s always afraid it’s going to be Liam. Literally always. And Liam texts him just about every day (hasn’t yet tried calling him, though, nor has he tried to actively see Louis) so it’s not an unfounded fear.

The thing is, is that Louis still doesn’t know what to say to him, doesn’t have any clue as to how to handle the predicament he’s in, and the longer he can pretend Liam doesn’t exist, the longer Louis can be content in an uncomplicated way.

But, see, he knows it in his stomach—he knows his good luck is running out and he knows time is running out, slowly but surely, and he knows that Liam will find him somehow. It’s only a matter of when. And when he does… Louis needs to be prepared. Either he needs to break off the whole game and thus leave an enraged Liam to wreck havoc on them both (a fucking daunting prospect, to be quite honest—Louis has seen Liam’s best work, you must remember) or he can pretend to play along a bit more. Just until his and Harry’s thing is a bit stronger, more established—until they’re at a point where, maybe, Harry won’t leave him on the spot once he discovers the truth. Is that even a possibility though? Is it? Louis doesn’t know.

And, god, what if it’s not? What if this entire thing is hopeless? What if there’s no happy ending?

Fuck. No.

Not the time for this.

He’ll deal with it later.

Swallowing lead, Louis pulls out his phone, fingers dry and cracked and itching for nicotine. He’s sort of given up smoking. Mostly, he doesn’t crave it as much as he thought he would—only when he’s having minor internal crises does it present itself as a real fucking problem. Like now, for instance. But. Whatever. He’s stronger than an addiction.

He unlocks his phone—and breathes again. It’s Zayn.

And the text merely says ‘We’ll talk soon’. Which is seemingly in response to nothing. Typical.

Louis smirks, types back a quick, ‘I count on it,’ and then tucks it back away, feeling a little burp in his heartbeat when he nears the tall buildings of Harry’s school. Harry’ll be in the library.

Fuck, he should’ve thought to bring him snacks. Baby carrots or grapes or something. He eats a lot of bananas—shit, Louis should’ve brought bananas. The poor kid’s had a long day, cramming for exams.

Maybe he still has time to pick some up…?

Then again. That will cut in on his Harry time, since he has work at six. No, best just skip the bananas and bring him a trolley’s worth next time he sees him. Yes, that’ll do.

Smiling at the conjured image of Harry’s face being met with a mountain of fresh fruit, Louis hops up the steps to the library, chuckling to himself and wincing at the harsh breeze as it slips through the holes in his jacket. Maybe he needs a new jacket. Maybe. Or maybe not. He’d rather spend the money on bananas, to be honest.

It doesn’t take long to find Harry, tucked all the way in the back as per usual, headphones on and books splayed. Just like when Louis had first found him, all those months ago.

Without warning, he strides up behind him, plucking one earbud out as he plants a wet kiss onto his neck. “Guess who?” he greets, lips still on Harry’s skin, and Harry only jumps a fraction, his beam already awoken as he leans into the feeling, hand immediately finding its way into Louis’ hair, keeping him in place.

“Professor Martin! About time,” he smirks but his eyes are clear when they meet Louis’, who raises both brows, unimpressed.

“You’re getting funnier, Harry,” he deadpans, wry.

“I’ve always been funny, Louis.”

“Oh, have you? Where are you getting this information from? Wikipedia? You know that’s not a credible source, right?”

And Harry laughs, kitten-like and expansive as he leans back in his chair, tilting his face upward as he throws arms haphazardly around Louis’ neck, pulling him in for an upside-down kiss. Very Spiderman.

It’s awkward and Louis bumps his nose harshly against Harry’s chin but they laugh through it as Louis bites the corner of his lip and Harry makes obnoxiously wet kissing sounds. Pest.

When they part, Harry’s cheeks are pink and his eyes are bright and he stares at Louis like he can’t look away, hand entangled in his hand. “I’m glad you’re here,” he says quietly, but there’s a tilt to his mouth. An uncommon tilt.

Louis frowns. “Why wouldn’t I be here?”

Harry shrugs. He swallows. The tilt is still there.

Something’s up.

“Did you miss me today?” he asks then, quiet and imploring. He still hasn’t let go of Louis’ hand, looking up at him beseechingly.

Frowning still more, Louis sits down, tightens his hold on Harry’s hand as he inspects his face. “Always do. You alright there, pup?” he asks, trying for light, but Harry’s tilt deepens to a frown and he looks away, pulling Louis’ hand into his lap.

“Yeah, ‘m fine,” he mumbles, but he’s staring down at his textbooks with tornadic eyes. Definitely not fine. “Just… I dunno.” He shrugs, pink. “Weird things.”

“Weird things?” Louis repeats, tremors of anxiety shooting through. “Such as?”

Harry clears his throat, looking down at his textbook, Louis’ hand still in his lap, clenched tight. “Well. You know Liam Payne, right? Your friend?”

Oh god.

The blood drains from Louis’ face. Maybe it drains from his entire body.

“Uhm. Well—yes. Yeah. Yeah, of course. Liam. Yeah. What about Liam?” His voice sounds terrified, spiking in random syllables, but he tries to feign his expression into soft lines, staring so hard at Harry that his eyes almost tear.

Again, Harry shrugs, and his entire demeanor is so unsure, so cautious and shy that it reminds Louis of their first encounters—of how Harry used to be, before… Before this. Them. Whatever. Just before. He’s gotten so used to the loud, silly, impish, weird and affectionate Harry that this shy, timid creature before him makes him feel a little nauseous. He hates it. A lot.

“Well… It’s sort of strange,” Harry begins slowly. “Like… I dunno. Like, I know you guys are friends. Even though he’s never around…” At that, Harry glances to Louis, just for a millisecond, before looking back down at his books. “But he’s never really mentioned you before. Which is totally understandable, given that we don’t ever talk and, like, I only ever see him in class.”

“Okay. Go on.” He squeezes Harry’s hand, scoots his chair closer.

Harry’s shoulders just barely loosen at the gesture. Still, though—they loosen.

“Well. Lately, he’s been talking about you?”

Something freezes in Louis’ stomach.

His expression remains blank. “Okay.” He pauses. “How so?”

“Just. Like, little things. Just to his mates in class. He’ll just mention your name? And, like, tell stories? I dunno, it’s not a big thing. He just talks about you a lot lately and it’s sort of strange because he never really did before. And, clearly, you guys have spent a lot of time together, judging by all the stuff you’ve done and—and I don’t know. I guess I just didn’t know that. It’s weird.” Harry shrugs, still looking down, frown etched deep.

Louis is just opening his mouth—to reassure, to soothe, so spill the contents of his fucking vault because he can’t have Harry feel like this, whatever ‘this’ is, when—

“And then he came up to me today.”

Louis stills, mouth open, poised to speak. He shuts it immediately, feeling something cold crawl up his spine.

Oh fuck. Oh fuck no.

“He was really nice, don’t get me wrong. But he…” Harry swallows.

Louis is frozen, terrified.

Oh fuck. He shouldn’t have procrastinated. He should have dealt with this. He should have fucking dealt with this. It’s only the beginning and he’s only just started with Harry, really. He fucking likes this kid, he likes him. He likes his family and he likes his life and he likes his brain and his words and his jumpers and his shoes and he likes him so much and he doesn’t like people, ever. Louis never likes people and he found someone he likes and he should have fucking protected it. Fuck.

Slowly, Harry looks up, hesitation and fear clutching to the curves of his eyes. And maybe there’s hope in there, as well. Maybe? And maybe that’s trust lining the green-grey-blue.

“He wanted me to give you this.”

At first, Harry doesn’t move, and Louis is confused, staring at Harry’s empty hands—save for Louis’ own. But then Harry disentangles his fingers, moving to his bag with a speed as slow as poured honey, and Louis feels his stomach drop out of his bum, watching in quiet terror as Harry unzips it.

He pulls out one item. It’s one of Louis’ t-shirts. One of the few he has. One that he’s been missing but hasn’t given a second’s fucking thought to because that comes with the territory of living in a few different places at once. Of not having a proper home.

Oh fucking shit.

“That’s—“ Louis begins, stuttering and blinking, and Harry watches him, brow delicately furrowed.

“He came up to me,” he continues, slow and deep and hesitant, unblinking. His eyes are so big. “And he introduced himself properly for the first time ever. Said he’s heard a lot about me since we’re both trying for the same university.” Oh god. “And then he told me that…like…” His face twists a bit, confused. “He’d heard from Zayn that you and I hang out? Or something? Basically, he implied that you never mentioned me. Or something like that. And that when Zayn had said it in passing, he was surprised? I don’t know. But, like, he said that he’s been busy and asked me to give you this because you left it”—Harry swallows, eyes flickering and glassy—“in his room.”

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.

Fucking Liam fucking Payne.

Louis stares at the article of clothing in Harry’s hands. Stares, but doesn’t move, his mind racing. Because how the fuck is he supposed to respond to that? Is he supposed to lie?

Instinctually, his brain tells him to lie.

But then he looks up at Harry, looks at the unsure slope of his shoulders and the sadness in his mouth and the terrified hope in his gorgeous fucking eyes and… And Louis knows what he tastes like and what he smells like and he knows his different kinds of laughs and he knows his ‘nice’ voice and his natural voice and he knows Anne and Gemma and he knows that he loves Anne’s lamb stew and that they always send him home with Tupperware full of it and…

And he can’t lie to him.

But he can’t lose him. He’ll have to… Be as honest as he can be. For now.

“I probably did leave it in there,” Louis nods, gingerly taking the offered t-shirt and letting any semblance of composure drain from his face because he’s being honest. Just right now. He’ll put himself back together later but… Right now, he can lay himself out a bit. He wants to. He wants Harry to see because it’s genuine, it is. He wants Harry to know that. “Probably a month or so ago.”

Harry looks breakable right now beneath the cold fluorescent lights.

So Louis continues.

“It’s not from any sexual thing, though. Contrary to how Liam may have made it sound. It’s not like that between us. I mean, it’s…” Louis pauses. Honesty, right? He’s doing honesty? Well, here goes. “Like, way back, a few years ago, when I first met him… Something did happen, yeah. The first night we met.”

Harry snaps his head away, body tight.

Louis feels his throat burn, his eyes tighten as he scoots still closer, reaches his hands to grasp Harry’s warm wrists softly, loose enough for Harry to break away. He doesn’t, though. So Louis continues.

“It started out weird, I admit, yeah. But nothing’s happened for years. Nothing, Harry. And there hasn’t been anything at all, not even remotely, since I met you. He might be… I dunno. He might be trying to fuck with me. Or you.” He licks his lips. He should tell him. He should come clean. Right now.

But.

But what if…

What if Harry won’t forgive him? Louis can’t have that, he can’t, he’s selfish and he can’t lose him yet, not when he they’re still so fresh, so new. Not when he hasn’t proven himself yet.

He just needs more time. He needs more time to show Harry how much he cares. That he’s genuine. He’ll tell him, he will. But not yet. He can tell him this, but he needs to prove himself to Harry first. Then he’ll tell him. He will.

“Look, Harry. Harry,” he says quietly, imploring, and Harry slowly turns his head. He still looks small, but less small, and there isn’t betrayal or hurt or anger in his gaze. Just tension. Maybe fear. “Harry,” Louis says again, this time softer, and he lets himself smile, just barely. “I know I don’t reveal much, alright? I know I’m a shady little character. Plucked right from the pages of a shitty book.”

Harry chuckles, soft, as he ducks his head, before bringing his gaze back up. It’s softer. Thank you, thank you.

Louis smiles a little stronger. “I know I hold tons of shit back and skirt away from answering questions and… And all that other shit you know I do. Okay? I admit that I do that. I’m cool, you know. Gotta keep up my reputation.”

Harry smiles, nods. “Really cool. The coolest kid not in school,” he mumbles, whisper soft, but his smiles fades just as quickly.

Still, Louis holds on.

“Exactly. But, thing is, I won’t lie to you about that. About my… About me. And you. I won’t lie about me and you. I like you. I like you more than I do myself. I like you a lot—as much as your mum’s stew.” Again, Harry laughs, a bit louder, a bit more relaxed. “And Liam can be a real prat sometimes and we have a very convoluted friendship”—Harry’s mouth tilts again—“but I promise you that’s all he is—just a silly prat and nothing more to me. I haven’t seen him in almost a month because we’re sort of… I dunno. On the outs, a bit. I’ve been avoiding him actually, because I’m having second thoughts about our friendship in general, lately.” He swallows, feels a jolt of anxiety at the honesty of the statement. He hasn’t even admitted that to himself yet and here he is, telling Harry. Without hesitation. But he continues, ignores the buzzing inside. “And also because, you know.. I’ve been spending all my time with you, haven’t I?” He smiles, knocks gentle knuckles against Harry’s chin. It makes him smile like a peach and Louis warms instantly. “And, for the record, Liam does know that you and I are friends. He’s just being a little bitch.”

But Harry’s face is impassive again, the smile instantly gone.

“Friends?” he repeats. He looks like he’s been slapped in the face. “You and I are friends?

“Er,” Louis blanks, mind halting. Shit. Shit shit shit. Mayday, mayday. “More than friends? Special friends? Er—“

Once again, Harry’s face falls. “Right. I see.” With that, he snaps his textbook shut harshly, its spine cracking in the silence, his entire body coiled and ready to spring.

“Whoah, whoah, whoah,” Louis rushes, bewildered, as he clamps tighter fingers around Harry’s wrists before he makes to stand. “Okay, okay, hold on—please. Just-just hold on. I’m… I am shit at this, wow.” He runs a hurried hand through his hair.

Harry’s expression is hard. “Yes. You are,” he says pointedly, tone cold. His eyes are softened with sadness though, and it spirals Louis’ thoughts into a panic, makes his heart hurt and his body feel dysfunctional. He needs to fix this.

“Thank you,” he attempts weakly, still holding onto Harry and still a mess of blank space and anxiety.

Harry doesn’t reply.

Right, then.

“Okay,” he breathes, forcing words out. Anything will do. He just needs some words. “Okay, so. So. Clearly… I mean. We’re not just friends, obviously. Obviously, Harry, fuck.” He sighs, rubbing his temple with nervous fingers. “I like you. So much, yeah? I like you.” It’s terrifying to say in such an earnest way. Louis ignores the terror, though. Because he has to. “And I don’t treat my friends this way, I promise. I never would. I just…” He clears his throat, focuses on the grainy wood of the table rather than Harry’s piercing eyes. “I’m very, very shit at this, okay? Like, genuinely shit at this whole thing. I don’t know what words to use, or—“

“How about ‘boyfriend’?” Harry asks, firm. “Why can’t you call me your boyfriend?”

Jesus Christ on a stick.

Louis blanches, looking up, startled. “Boyfriend,” he repeats, feeling blood drain from his face.

So much is happening. Why is this such a thing?

Harry nods, crossing his arms, a deep-set frown on his lips. “Yes. Boyfriend. Why can’t you call me that?”

“I-I—Well. I mean, I could—“

“Why won’t you?”

“It’s not that—“ Louis attempts, blanching, weak, and helpless, hands now clenched in his lap.

“Louis,” Harry says, hard. He looks upset, agitated. “I thought that’s what we were? I don’t get…” He looks helpless now, young and confused. “I thought that’s what I was,” he finishes quietly, lamely, and he drops his gaze, his entire countenance sagging.

Fucking shit.

“You are, though,” Louis splutters before he can think, panicked and a lot terrified at this sudden shift in events. “You are. Of course you are. I’m just… Harry, I’m not good with this, you know? I’m not, like, well-versed in this, er, lingo, or whatever. I don’t ever… I’ve never had…” He sighs, frustrated. Embarrassed. “I’m new to this, alright? I don’t care what we call it, I honestly fucking don’t. All I know is that I like you, properly like you, and I want to be with you. In all the ways I can think of.”

“What do you mean you’re new to this?”

Louis swallows, glancing down at the frayed end of his sleeve. He shrugs. “I’ve never had a…boyfriend before, is all.” He purses his lips, notices the surprise emanating from Harry out of his peripherals. “No big deal,” he adds primly, just because.

“You’ve never--?” Harry questions, shocked.

“Not technically, no. Never for like… I’ve never really stuck around for more than a week or two, give or take.” He knows how horrible that sounds. God. He coughs and looks away.

Harry’s watching him closely. “But you stuck with me?”

“Yeah, obviously. Yeah.”

“But why?”

“Because you’re different, aren’t you?” Louis huffs, both embarrassed and frustrated. He’s so bad at this stuff, this is actual hell. Still, though—he’ll do it for Harry. He’ll suck it the fuck up. “I don’t think you understand how serious I am when I say that I like you, Harry. I like you. And I don’t like anybody, okay? So, like… I don’t want to ruin this. And I want to do it right. But I just don’t know what I’m doing so it makes it all a bit tricky. I’ll probably fuck up and say shit I don’t mean. But I like you and I want to be your-your boyfriend, or whatever.” His face burns at the very word. He feels like a preteen, Jesus. “I’m trying, though. I am.”

There are a few pings of silence, filled only with the blood in Louis’ ears.

After a few pings too many, Louis looks up. He can’t take the suspended uncertainty any longer.

When Harry smiles, he tries to bite it away and hide it in his chest, arms still folded. But he’s smiling. And then he looks over to Louis, an embarrassed blush on his lips. “I’m sorry,” he says after another beat. “I sort of had a meltdown just now.”

“Well,” Louis shrugs, but he smirks, relief pooling in his belly. Thank you, thank you. “You may have had a moment, yes. It’s okay. Lord knows I have enough of them.”

“Am I really your first boyfriend?”

Oh Jesus. Here we go.

“Well, yeah,” Louis shrugs, feigning indifference even though his neck is hot with self-consciousness. “Like, first serious thing. Yeah.”

Harry smiles so brightly it’s almost alarming. “You’re my first boyfriend, too. First kiss and everything.”

And that makes Louis blink, his countenance immediately softening because he knew this, he did. But it’s good to hear.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. So I guess that’s why I… I dunno. I guess that’s why I get scared. I really, really like you, Louis. I’ve never felt this before.”

I’ve never felt this before.

Louis wants to tack on a ‘me neither’ but the library is very quiet, too quiet, and his voice already sounds spent and thin and he’s overwhelmed a little. So he bites away the comment, instead letting a coy smile prickle his mouth, looking up at Harry through his lashes. “Yeah? You want to keep me?”

Harry chuckles, warm. Tilts his head and crawls a hand to link with one of Louis’. “Yeah,” he drags in a low song. “Mine to keep.” He squeezes his fingers, smiling dopily.

God. This boy.

“Good, then,” Louis nods, conclusive. “Now I’ve a place to stay.” He twitches out a smirk but the comment makes Harry’s entire countenance soften, his eyes lidded and clustered with too many lashes, curled up delicately.  

There’s a pause as their smiles are exchanged, easy and settled, a strange sort of contentment cloaking them.

“So…” Louis continues after a beat or two, smile fading as his tone drops. He needs to address something. He stares at Harry, hard. “You’re okay with the Liam thing? Honestly? We’re good?”

“Yes,” Harry nods, immediate. “I get it. I trust you, Louis.”

A sharp twist forms in Louis’ gut at the sincerity of the words, of the placated calm of Harry’s countenance. It’s probably his conscience making an apperance. Since it’s obviously left his head long ago, it must have vacated to Louis’ stomach. Lovely.

He nods, grimacing a smile. “It’s only you, you know,” he comments mildly, hoping his sincerity cancels out some of the betrayal. “I don’t give a fuck about anybody else. Only you.”

And those words? Those words are honest.

“I do give a fuck about everybody else. But it’s only you for me, too,” Harry smiles, tone teasing.

Louis can’t help but smile, the little fizzles of anxiety calming a bit. “Good. That’s what I like to hear, Sasspup.”

“Me too, Mousling.”

And, just like that, Louis squawks, the mood lifting further. “Oi!” he complains, pinching the soft skin of Harry’s wrist. He yelps in delight (sending some glares their way) as Louis scoots still closer on his chair, halfheartedly jabbing Harry’s ribs with his fingers. “I am no mousling! I am a mighty mouse!”

Harry’s grinning, huffing out laughs. “Alright, Mighty Mouse. I can accept that.”

“Oh, shut up.”

And then they’re kissing, in the library, Louis’ t-shirt in his lap and Liam’s name itching his throat as he tries to push it all away, just focusing on the feel of Harry’s lips. Because that’s all that matters right now.

**

When they part, it’s with a hug that lasts too long, interspersed with too many kisses and tugs of hair.

“We’ll be handing out treats tonight for Halloween,” Harry says, still wrapped around Louis. His face is only centimeters away, his eyes cast down on Louis’ lips. Personal space is lost on this child. “It’ll be just a quiet, cozy night. You’re welcome to come join us when you’re done at the pub. I’ll give you a treat.” His tone is hopeful, mischievous, and earnest. Only Harry can meld such emotions together so seamlessly.

“Not a trick though, right?” Louis asks, one eyebrow raised. He settles his hands deeper into Harry’s sides, the folds of his jacket itching his thumbs. “Only nice things?”

“Only nice things for the boyfriend,” Harry promises, pink from the cold, and he smiles as he softly closes the gap between them once more, cold lips pressed against cold lips. One peck and then he pulls away, smile brighter still. “Text me?”

“Yeah,” Louis nods, heart in his throat as he watches the shade of Harry’s lips deepen. “I’ll text you when I’m done. See you after work, Pup.”

And then three more kisses.

And then they part, Louis’ lips warm.

**

“Alright, mate. I’m out of here,” Louis calls, tugging his sleeves down as he picks up his jacket. His phone buzzes against his thigh. Probably Harry.

Stan looks up from where he’s hauling up stools, an off-tinted cloth flung over his shoulder. He flashes a tired grin, nods. “Sounds good, mate. See ya. Happy Halloween,” he adds with a small, shadowed smirk. The lights are dim in the pub; everything’s yellowy orange and smoke stained, everything quiet and abandoned.

Louis half-smiles, pulling his phone out of his pocket. “You too, obviously.” He glances at the screen—yep. Harry.

Text me when you’re on your way! I saved you your favorites :)) x’

Of course he did. Louis smiles.

“Alright, alright—get your blushing arse out of my pub so I can close, will you? Text your boyfriend somewhere else,” Stan laughs, shooing Louis with the rag, and Louis can only return the laugh as he departs, valiantly ignoring to roll his eyes. Stan can be such a twat.

It’s as Louis’ stepping out of the bar and sending his responding text (‘Be there soon. I expect the best of the rest pup’) when something shifts in the shadows to Louis’ right. 

Immediately he pockets his phone, squinting into the lumpy shapes the cloudy moon and shitty pub lighting cast upon the pavement.

It’s not long before his eyes adjust to the darkness.

It’s not long before the figure of Liam Payne comes into clear sight, his curt, muscled body leaning against the wall of the pub.

“Fuck,” Louis breathes, loud enough for the other boy to hear, as he twists his head away in irritation, shoulders slumping.

Fuck. Fuck shit fuck. Now is not the time for this. Harry’s waiting for him, he’s exhausted from another tedious night of middle aged drunkards with thick skulls, now is not the time for this.

“Hello to you too, Louis,” Liam’s voice says, but it’s quiet and it’s smaller than usual and it’s nothing that Louis was expecting.

Surprised, he quirks one brow, slowly carrying his gaze over to the hunched, darkened figure. Liam’s hands are in his pockets, his head is titled a bit downward, thick brows pushed together. A small frown pouts his lips, his stubble is longer than usual. He looks out of character and, well—normal. He looks like a human. A teenage boy.

It’s startling and Louis isn’t sure if he likes it.

“What’s wrong with you?” Louis grunts, blunt and to-the-point because Harry is waiting for him and it’s cold outside. And he doesn’t want to deal with this. Not now.

But Liam ignores the question, instead pushing off the wall with the same air of exhaustion one finds in someone at least four decades older. He seems old and creaky, tired and angry. Weaker, somehow.

“You’re ignoring me, Louis.”

Yeah, obviously.

But Louis keeps quiet, just stares with pursed lips.

It seems to unsettle Liam further, his eyebrows twitching, his lips threatening to unfurl. He looks away, scrabbles shaky hands into his jeans. Louis watches every movement, cold and confused and tired, wishing everything was simpler, so much simpler. Wishing he could walk away right now.

“Cigarette?” Liam offers, voice adopting some of the unaffected cool he usually possesses so naturally. He extends the pack to Louis, eyes intent, dark. They meld with the atmosphere.

Louis pauses, regarding him, before finally shaking his head, just once. “No, thanks. Gave ‘em up.”

And Liam’s hand drops like a dead weight, any composure leaving his face. “What?” he asks, clearly taken aback.

Louis merely shrugs. “Gave ‘em up,” he repeats, looking away, letting his stare fall upon the sliver of river he can see, past the dilapidated buildings and the rocky train tracks. “Was getting annoying.”

Liam merely stares.

After a few pangs of silence, Louis shifts. His phone buzzes and it cuts through the silence, the glimpse of light that escapes glaring in the darkness surrounding them. And Louis wants to look at it, moves on instinct to look because he knows it’s Harry, but something about the way Liam’s looking at him holds him back. Something in the sags of his body, the tightness in his throat, the purple under his eyes. Something holds him back.

“Are you here for a reason, Liam? Or are you just here to kick about? Because I gotta get going,” he sighs, wanting to sound more impatient than he actually feels. Unfortunately, there are stabs of curiosity, maybe pity, shooting through his stomach.

It’s probably just lingering sentiments. From before—before Harry. It’s probably the last remnants of Liam’s hold on Louis. That’s all. He needs to become stronger than it. If he’s going to attempt a happy ending, he needs to become stronger than this.

Still, Liam remains quiet, watching Louis with unreadable expressions. Then he takes one step closer. Louis’ feet are planted into the ground.

“Are you going to see him?” Liam’s voice is soft. Almost sad. “Is that why you have to go? You’re going to see him?”

Suddenly, the world feels much, much colder. Louis’ throat feels encased in ice. “Liam—“

“It was supposed to be a game, Louis,” he says then, almost desperate, a strong undercurrent to his voice. He takes another step forward. “It was supposed to be our game. Nothing is even happening and you’ve just fucked over all of my plans and now you’re not even fucking acknowledging me. And you’re going to see him now, even now, when you haven’t done a fucking thing this entire time. What the fuck, Louis?”

Louis swallows, clenching his fist as his gaze drops. His jaw tightens. Too many words want to slip out. He’s not sure which ones he should say.

Liam looks unnervingly fragile, tired and helpless in this moment. The cold has spritzed his cheeks pink, his eyes are glassy and black, and his body is adorned in the same spotless clothing that reeks of too much cologne but it’s rumbled and uncoordinated and everything about him is unsure and it’s fucking unnerving.

“He’s going to get the scholarship at this rate. Brenton only takes one, Louis. One.

Silence. Louis doesn’t dare move.

“You know how much I needed this.”

Louis closes his eyes, tight as he can. It hurts and it shakes his lids but he doesn’t give a fuck. Too much right now. Too much.

Once again, silence reigns, the heaviest that Louis’ ever felt. It’s thick and pungent, toxic, pluming through the space between them and clinging to their skin, their throats, their eyes. It’s clogging Louis’ nostrils. Fucking suffocating.

“Do you like him?” Liam suddenly spits, and a flash dances across his pupils.

Fuck. He can’t get angry. Louis has to make sure he doesn’t get angry. Not yet. He can’t destroy everything yet.

“Liam—“

“I asked you a fucking question, Louis. Yes or no. Do you like him? Is that what this is about? Is that why nothing is fucking happening? I can’t quiet tell, Louis—are you just bad at your job or are you being a fucking pussy? Have you got a little crush? On Harry fucking Styles?”

Okay, so. Liam is mad.

Which, obviously, is no surprise. Louis’ been expecting this. It’s what Liam does when he doesn’t know how to handle his emotions—he gets really fucking mad. And he gets even. He gets appeased. And that—that’s what Louis needs to avoid.

Liam can’t get even right now. He needs to be placated. Just for awhile longer. It stabs at Louis, makes him feel weak and fucking deplorable (but he sort of is, isn’t he?) but he swallows, shakes his head anyway as his hands tremble and sweat, the cold seeping into his bones.

“No,” he says quietly, shaking his head, but he has to close his eyes, duck his head so nobody has to see this bullshit. Harry’s message is sitting in his phone, in his pocket, his words pressed against Louis’ thigh and he’s lying about him, pretending he’s something less than he is (everything) and Louis is a fucking mess right now but he has to do this. He needs this to work and right now, he can’t have Liam be mad. He can’t ruin this, not yet. He can’t, okay? “Liam, it’s convoluted and it’s hard to explain but, no. No. Just—don’t worry. I’ve got this.” He swallows, looks up at Liam. He looks terrified, angry, weary. Louis tries not to blink, ignores the itching in his throat. “I’ve got this,” he says quietly. If his voice catches, they both ignore it.

A long silence stretches between them. It pulls, thins, threatens to tear. But then Liam steps forward, nodding once, and Louis doesn’t miss the sickly wet sheen of his eyes. It’s fucking bizarre, is what it is. Louis’ never seen him like this before.

Everything is all wrong.

“Okay, Lou,” he says quietly, nodding once more. He lifts a hand, presses it to Louis’ cheek. It’s cold, unsure. It feels toxic and Louis feels sick from it, immediately poisoned.

He tells himself that this is right, this needs to happen. This is essential if it’s for the best in the long run.

“I need you to succeed,” Liam continues, quiet, hard. “You will destroy him, right? That’s what all this is about? You’re still on my side, yeah?”

Louis doesn’t meet his eye. Nods, curt and brief.

“We’ll make an excellent pair, you and I,” Liam finishes softly before his hand drops, and it feels like a punch to Louis’ stomach.

This is all so, so, so fucked up. He has fucked up. He feels like he might choke.

“I’ve got to go, Liam,” he says, strangled as he steps away, wanting to crawl out of himself.

Liam’s gaze momentarily darkens. “To him?” he asks, because he just won’t fucking let up, will he?

“I’ve got to go,” is all Louis says in response, and before Liam can reach or plea or hurl more fucking boulders at Louis’ weak little blockade, Louis turns on his heal, carrying himself into the night with a panic that surges through his limbs and makes his heart patter weakly.

The moon is cloudy, mostly obscured, and seems to watch him in pity as he makes his way to Harry’s house, Liam’s presence still palpable behind him.

**

When Louis finally arrives to Harry’s, his panic has subsided to something more akin to shame and numbness. Numb shame, perhaps. It’s a steady flow of discomfort and quietness, whatever it is. It’s cemented into his face, too, so when Harry opens the door for him, it’s difficult for Louis to smile, difficult for him to breathe and relax when Harry immediately pulls him into a kiss.

Of course, Harry notices, pulling back with little speckles of concern dotting his brow, pinching at his eyes.

“Lou?” he asks, rubbing a warm, smooth hand across Louis’ forehead. It’s instantly soothing and nice and Louis sags a bit, gaze caught somewhere over Harry’s shoulder.

He can’t quite speak yet, not when he feels like a treacherous fucking leech, so he attempts a smile as he rubs his hand down Harry’s arm, catching his fingers in his own.

Whatever’s in his face must be enough for Harry to understand not to push it. He doesn’t press, doesn’t ask questions, just holds on to Louis’ hand as they stand under the porch light in the doorway, Harry warm and present, watching him with quiet eyes and supporting him with unyielding hands.

“Can we sit, please? Just you and I? Just sit here?” Louis finally asks. He sounds distant, off. Nothing like his usual charming self.

Harry nods immediately, easy and understanding. “We can sit forever, if you like. I’ve got a lot of sweets.” Louis watches with tired eyes as Harry lightly smirks, disengaging himself to reach into his house, pulling back to reveal a large bucket in his hands. It’s almost entirely full. Louis can’t help but laugh, just a tiny bit. “I will feed them to you and keep us warm. Nobody will talk to us. It’ll be nice.”

He’s such an odd duck. Such a complete dork. Louis smiles, fuller.

“It will be nice,” he agrees, tugging Harry down onto the cold porch steps. They settle, Louis immediately leaning into Harry’s side, heavy and uncoordinated. He doesn’t care though—he just wants to feel Harry’s body warmth, just wants to feel cozy and secure for this brief stretch of time before everything collapses in on itself.

Harry wraps long arms around him, pulling him still closer. He feels his nose in his hair, feels his body hunching to wrap around him, and he feels the steady beat of Harry’s heart. It’s more than nice. Louis exhales.

“You have a way of making me feel better about things,” he says quietly, mouth mussed by the sleeve of Harry’s jumper, where his arm is pressed against his chin. “It’s weird and I don’t understand it. But you have a way.”

He feels Harry’s grin. “It’s because we’re purple,” he says quietly, a smile in his tone. “Purple is obviously the best color, you know. And, like, you can’t make it without red and blue, right? So I’m blue and you’re red and you need me to become purple. Just like I need you. To become better.” And Louis actually feels the pride bowing in his lips.

Harry thinks he’s so clever. Louis wishes he wasn’t smitten.

“One day I’m going to write down all the shit you say,” Louis mumbles, but he turns his head for a kiss, a quick press of cool, moist lips. Harry presses for more though, always does, and it makes Louis smile, makes him feel good, so he lets Harry kiss him as he tightens his hold, their cheeks and noses pressed together and spreading a little bit of warmth.

“I like you,” Louis says, quietly, little puffs of air steaming from his lips. He keeps his eyes closed, doesn’t move his head away. The sentence sounds sad.

“I like you, too,” Harry beams, nudging their noses. Adorable bastard. “And I like when you say it. It’s nice.”

Hm. It is, isn’t it?

Slowly, Louis opens his eyes, focuses on Harry before him. The shadowy green-grey mixture of his irises. The blurred lines from being too close, from the night.

“I want you to stay,” he says, sad.

He probably should stop talking. He’s just feeling sorry for himself now and he’s going to say something he shouldn’t.

So he bites his lips and looks away, nestles further into Harry’s embrace.

“I will stay,” Harry says, but there’s a speckle of confusion. “And I hope you stay, too. You haven’t even met my garden properly yet.”

Louis laughs in his chest. It sounds like a purr.

“You have to stay, see? You have to,” Harry rumbles in his ear, swaying them under the porch light, on the cold stone of the steps.

“I hope so,” Louis mumbles, very, very quietly, and it’s dropped after that.

They spend the rest of the night wrapped up like presents, tearing open chocolates and licorice and gummies, smacking on their treats as they watch the clouds pass by the moon, humming songs and talking quietly. They refuse to succumb to exhaustion and it’s everything that Louis wants, never knew he wanted.

And it’s everything that he really hopes he can keep.

Chapter Text

Handsome Hands—Ingrid Michaelson


 

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

The words feel heavy in Louis’ mouth, even after they’ve left the confines of his lips and teeth. He stares down at his untouched sandwich, firmly avoiding Zayn’s intent gaze. Faintly, he smells the wafts of incense that cling to the boy’s black t-shirt, mingled up with the fried butter and meats that hang in the air of the pub. A waitress buzzes past, holding a tray of frothy pints. The chatter of the mid-afternoon rush is gentle, a soft hum of cheery voices.

It’s oddly really fucking annoying. So Louis just keeps staring at his sandwich.

“Hm,” Zayn nods, contemplative and serious as he stares at Louis, fingers laced on the table. He’s long since finished his meal—he’s the fastest eater Louis’ ever met—and has now taken to inspecting Louis with all the careful examination of one peering through a microscope at an unfound organism.

It makes Louis feel exposed and jumbly so he picks a little at the crust on his plate, the muscles in his face tense and unmoving.

“Liam’s been upset lately,” he mumbles calmly, eyes unblinking. Louis shifts in his seat, tries to remain impassive. “I think he’s looking for you.”

“Actually, uh, yeah—yeah he found me,” Louis says, clearing his throat. “Awhile ago. He, uh… We had a chat. After work.”

Softly, Zayn’s eyebrows pop up. “He went to the pub?”

Louis nods, stiff. Fuck, he’s tense.

Again, Zayn nods, mostly to himself. “Yeah… Yeah, I guess he did mention something like that in passing. Cool.” A beat. “So are you good now?”

Louis shakes his head. The sandwich is mocking him.

“Hm,” Zayn hums again, his gaze settling somewhere distant. He blinks several short times, apparently assembling the words in his head before he glances back to Louis, lips already parted. “You know, Niall’s mum still doesn’t know about him. Or me, obviously. It’s a secret.”

At that, Louis lifts his head, surprise clear in his tone as he stares at Zayn. “Wait, really? Isn’t he, like, three minutes away from proposing?” It’s said with a gentle smirk, one that pushes past the dam of resistance now built in Louis’ face.

“Yeah, we’re definitely soulmates,” Zayn nods, very serious. His gaze is clear. “But his mum still doesn’t know. She’d be a right state, he says. She needs time to warm up to the idea. Become immersed in the change.”

Louis can’t help but smile a little bit at that. Zayn is always so unabashed, so serious, so mystical. It makes Louis feel very human and ordinary. Which is sort of brilliant sometimes.

“Does she know you’re friends?” he asks, genuinely curious despite the complete subject change.

Typically, he hates it when the conversation steers away from himself, especially if it’s after he’s gathered the gumption to actually bestow his concerns onto another. But since it’s Zayn and since this matters, he flows along with the seemingly random topic, listening intently as he shoves away the plate of food—there’s no hope for his appetite. It’s a clear surrender.

“Yeah,” Zayn says, eyes still boring into Louis. His lips are smooth as they move, no trace of question or caution. “I’ve met her a few times. She’s nice. She has really cool jewelry.”

Louis snorts a laugh, rubbing at his tired eyes. He’s exhausted, unable to sleep because his fucking brain is revolting against him, keeping him awake for countless hours always.

“She knows we’re friends and she knows I’m from a good family so she likes me but she’d probably go mad if she knew about us.”

“So what are you going to do?” Louis asks, eyebrows pinching just slightly as he meets Zayn’s eye, one hand tapping against the unpolished wood of the table, the other clenching a balled up napkin. “If you’re ‘soulmates’ or whatever”—he gestures with the napkin hand, valiantly resisting a roll of the eyes—“then how are you going to manage inviting her to the wedding? Planning on sneaking around? Being the best mates who live together and just happen to adopt children? In a very platonic, masculine way? You know, as one does.”

He’s probably being a little bit of a prick. He feels sour though, a little bitter, so he doesn’t apologize or waver his gaze, just bites his lip and blinks slowly at Zayn who stares back unflinchingly, seemingly unbothered.

“Of course not,” he says calmly. “We’re going to choose the right moment to tell her. We’ll know when—there will be signs.”

Of course there’ll be.

“And once we listen to those signs and tell her, we’ll go from there. But it’ll work, Louis. It’ll work because we love each other and we were meant to find each other.” He leans back in the booth, loose-limbed and easy, acting as if he hadn’t just fulfilled every Disney cliché in the book. “We’re both dedicated and we’re both willing to work for it, man. We have all the tools we need to construct our own path. And that’s why I’m not afraid.”

Hm. Something ripples through Louis, a faint glimmer of recognition or understanding.

“You’re not afraid, huh? Not at all?” he asks quietly, and his eyes fall back down to the table.

“No.”

Louis looks up, sees the tranquility in Zayn’s brown eyes, the sweeping curve of his lids.

“I’m not afraid at all. We’re too strong to be easily broken.”

The sentence sits between them, both hopeful and heavy, and it strikes Louis immediately, every fucking word. The image of Harry—the one that’s always a blink of an eye away, fluttering always at the back of his mind—sharpens into view, hope, hope, hope blooming like flowers around the thick curls of his head.

It could work.

The thought flashes through Louis, made of lightning.

It could work. They could work.

“So you don’t know what’s coming,” Louis says as an influx of hope sweeps through his lungs. He’s still staring at the table, lost in the words that are forming before he can even properly think them. “And you don’t know how it’ll affect you. But you’re not scared. Because you know you’re willing to fight for it?”

At the silence, Louis looks up, pulse stronger than it was before. He finds Zayn peering at him from beneath his messy hair, a lopsided smile slow to form. He nods once, pads of his fingers now pressed together.

“Yeah, man.”

Louis swallows.

Shit. He’s willing to fight for Harry.

Isn’t that hilarious? Louis Tomlinson, the self-appointed ‘don’t give a fuck’ guru is willing to fight for something. And it’s a person, no less. A boy. A young boy who sometimes pretends to be a kitten whenever he wants his back scratched or whenever he’s procrastinating on homework and demands Louis’ attention. A boy whose carefully white Converse have become ripped and stained from all the late night walks with Louis, whose room smells like cinnamon because of the candles he always burns, whose favorite color is peach because it’s sort of like pink but it’s softer.

Louis wants to fight for him. Louis wants to keep him.

But will Harry want to do the same?

Fuck.

Closing his eyes, Louis scrubs his hands over his face, rough and unforgiving as he pulls at the strands of his hair. He burrows his eyes in his palms, little golden dots speckling the darkness behind his lids. Fuck, everything is so hard.

“I like him, Zayn,” he says suddenly, apropos of nothing. It’s quiet, sad, lingering. Fuck, when did Louis get so boring?

“I know.”

“I really like him. And I want to just, like…” Louis stops, lets his hands fall from his face as his eyes drift around the pub sightlessly, searching for the right words. “I just want it to be us. That simple. I just… I dunno. I wanna just… Be with him. Just with him. And it should be fucking simple, right? Shouldn’t it? I mean, fuck’s sake, Zayn—look around! Everybody’s with someone. You’re with someone. It’s so easy for everyone else but it’s always a fucking thing with me. Do you know how often I have to change the subject whenever Harry asks me about where I live? Because that’s fucked up, right there. I’m essentially homeless. Whenever we talk about his family, I have to avoid thinking about mine—because that’s fucked up too. My friendships are even fucked up—look at Liam and I. Hell, my relationship with Harry is the most fucked up. Every single aspect of my fucking life is a mess while everybody else just lives their lives and it’s just that fucking simple. But I’ve got to jump through hoops and, you know what? You know what’s the best? The funniest part?”

Zayn blinks, sitting quietly, face emotionless.

So Louis just continues, neck too warm, eyes too bright. “It’s my fault,” he growls, jabbing his forefinger into his chest sharply. “It’s literally all my doing, Zayn. And normally I’d blame everybody else, blame it on the fact that I’ve had to deal with a lot of shit so it’s okay for me to act this way or that. But then I look at Harry, fuckin’ Harry, and he would never blame someone else for his shit. He would never do that. Harry is literally busting his balls just so he can get into this posh fucking university just to make his family proud. That’s the reason. Just to make them proud. And it’s just—“ Louis cuts off, shaking his head as he casts his eyes downward again, pressing the palm of his hand against his forehead. He leans heavily on it, his body suddenly tired, more tired than before. “I’m in a tangled fucking mess, Zayn. And I have no idea what to do.” He pauses. “But I will fight for him. It sounds laughable, I know. It’s stupid. But I’ll fight for him if I have to. It’s like you said—it’s too strong to go away easily.”

When he finally drags his gaze back to Zayn, he finds the boy smiling, an odd glint to his eyes that he usually only gets around Niall.

“What?” Louis asks, glaring.

“We’re lucky to have found our soulmates at such young ages,” he remarks peacefully.

And, oh Jesus.

Some of the exhaustion slips out of Louis’ bones then, replaced instead by light, flicking sparks.

“Alright, slow down there, Speedy. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he grumbles, feeling his skin warm, but he doesn’t expound on it.

This kid. Honestly.

Zayn’s smile evens out into calm composure as he blinks slowly at Louis. “If the universe wants you together, you will be together.”

Louis snorts. “Fuck the universe. I want us together.”

Zayn beams.

It may or may not cause Louis to blush, realizing what exactly he just said, what he implied, because he’s not usually very candid or feeling or emotional at all, lest about this sort of shit, so it’s just… Well, it’s mildly embarrassing. But it’s Harry, okay? It’s Harry so it’s very different than romance novels or bad sitcoms or frivolous relationships that are drenched in over-compensatory love declarations. And it’s honest, too. It’s just Louis being fucking honest.

So why should he be embarrassed? He shouldn’t be. It’s no big fucking deal. So he likes someone. So he wants to be with them. Big fucking deal.

Still, his cheeks flame and still, Zayn smiles like he just captured a pearl of wisdom in his palm. Whatever.

The rest of the lunch goes quickly, the spaces filled with Zayn talking about Niall at length.

“I’m supposed to meet up with him soon. We’re going to smoke in my room and hypothesize different meanings of life. Niall’s really smart, mate. He understands things on a physical, practical level while also keeping touch with my abstract ideas. He told me that he believes in alternate realities and that his alter ego is in a boyband.”

At that, Louis snorts, loud enough to turn a few heads. “A boyband,” he repeats flatly, raising one judgmental eyebrow.

But Zayn just nods solemnly. “Yeah. I think it’s incredible.”

“It’s something,” Louis mutters beneath his breath, but Zayn’s too caught up in being enamored to notice. “So, uh. You need to meet up with him soon you said? Should we get going? Did he text you?”

“I dunno.” Zayn blinks, flittering back to reality, setting eyes on Louis. “I don’t like to use phones. I know where to meet him, though.”

“Oh, okay,” Louis grins, amused. “Then shall we?”

“Yeah,” Zayn agrees and he’s already standing up and halfway across the room by the time Louis finishes his drink.

Rolling his eyes, Louis shuffles on his jacket, scuffling after Zayn with annoyance (not everybody has gazelle legs, thanks). He stuffs hands into his pockets, comes into contact with the beanie currently settled in there and, just as he reaches Zayn, stuffs it over his head unthinkingly. He wonders what time it is, feeling the weight of his phone in his jeans. Harry will probably be done with his meeting soon.

“What’s that?” Zayn suddenly asks, pointing atop Louis’ head.

For one moment, Louis has absolutely no idea what he’s referring to—until he touches a hand to the beanie. Ah.

“A hat,” Louis shrugs, trying not to grumble as he continues on his way, pulling the collar of his jacket up higher, just a touch self-consciously. It’s a harsh wind today.

“You never wear hats,” Zayn comments after a moment, but there’s something in his tone. “You say they mess up your hair.”

“They do.”

“So why are you wearing that one?”

Well, shit.

For a few moments Louis contemplates ignoring the question, ambling out onto the cold street. He squints against the wind, feeling Zayn’s presence heavy and curious beside him.

At last, he sighs, refusing to let his cheeks warm to the confession. “Harry made it,” he mumbles, mostly hoping that Zayn will not, in fact, hear this minor detail.

But, naturally, he does.

“That’s really meaningful, Louis,” he says soulfully, stopping to plant a hand on Louis’ shoulder and stare into his eyes. “I’m sure it makes him really happy that you do that.”

Oh god.

Louis’ cheeks are definitely burning. Goddammit.

“Yeah, uh. Hopefully,” he murmurs, feeling remarkably awkward as he scratches the back of his neck and tries to disengage himself from Zayn’s earnest clutch. “Anyways. It’s warm and practical. So I wear it.”

They continue walking.

“He knits?” Zayn asks after a moment.

“Yeah,” Louis replies and he wishes his voice didn’t soften with the amusement he always feels whenever he thinks of Harry and his silly little habits and interests and talents that are so supremely rare and unique and stupid and cute. “Yeah, he does. Good, isn’t he?”

Zayn agrees appreciatively.

“It’s grey. A nice color.”

Louis smiles, soft and barely noticeable. “Yeah. He’s got a pink one.”

“Matching?”

“Fuck’s sake, no. Not matching. What do you think we are?”

“Is it matching, Louis?”

There’s a brief stretch of silence, filled only by their feet hitting cold, frost-dusted pavement.

“If it’s matching, it’s only by coincidence,” Louis eventually sniffs, refusing to meet Zayn’s eye. But he doesn’t need to see the smile on his face to know that it’s there, pressed full and warm against wintry November air.

“He knitted you matching hats,” Zayn whispers, serious.

Louis flushes, refusing, absolutely refusing to smile. “I’m sure he didn’t do it on purpose.”

“I think that’s truly beautiful.”

Silence settles again, Louis’ lips twitching as Zayn stares up at the sky, occasionally bumbling into Louis’ side because his strides are long and he’s trying to tame his pace. Zayn is so sensitive.

Still, though. Louis doesn’t disagree as he bites his lips.

**

‘All doooooone! :))’

Louis briefly smiles at his phone. ‘Comiiiiing’ he sends back before pausing, a smirk filling his lips. ‘And I’m also on my way too. ;)’

Heh, sorry. He couldn’t resist.

It only takes a moment for Harry to send back his all caps ‘HAHAHAHAH’ that spans two lines of text. Louis can perfectly envision the blush that is most definitely coloring Harry’s neck at this moment, the way he’s staring at his phone with those luminescent owl eyes and unruly hair and snowy skin. He’s probably got his mittens on—those hideous pea green ones that he’d purchased from that old lady with the one eye and pet parrot. (Louis likes to call her ‘Pirate’, much to Harry’s horror. When he’d asked him how he knew her, Harry merely replied, in the sweetest simplest manner, “I sometimes have tea with her and she teaches me about flowers and gardening and stuff. She’s really smart, Louis. She has the most beautiful rose bushes.” Where does he find these people, honestly?)

Oh, Harry.

His phones buzzes again. It’s a series of emojis—most of them blushing smilies, the others consisting of fruit and indecipherable hand signals. Louis has absolutely no idea what any of this means but he’s not above being charmed by randomness. So he smiles and rolls his eyes, tucking away his phone before he does something ridiculous like text back a smiley or something equally mundane and embarrassing.

Louis Tomlinson is above smilies. He has never texted a smiley in his life. He will not start now. Even if Harry just so happens to use them as the dominant proponent in his speech.

But shit, though. Stuff like this is crazy sometimes, isn’t it? Sometimes these little things take Louis by storm… Just, like, the fact that he was seriously tempted to text Harry something as small as a smiley. No big deal, right?

Wrong. That’s a huge deal. Louis doesn’t do that stuff. That’s not part of his character or mannerisms and all his life, he’s always stuck to his true nature and never bent his will or actions to accommodate others. Never. Not once. Not even for his family. Instead of straying from his firm line of ‘self’, Louis walked the fuck out and never once was tempted to act out of character or even try to. And, sure, this is literally just all stemming from a text, a stupid potential text, but the thing is, Harry makes Louis want to be different. He does. He makes Louis want to simplify his life, he makes him want to clean up the cobwebs and get his shit together and eat a little healthier and sleep a little more and he makes him want to be a little better and little more honest and a little less addicted to his demons. He makes him want to text motherfucking smilies in his texts and he makes him want to smell his hair and touch him for seemingly no other reason than just to touch.

It’s a huge fucking deal, okay? And it’s terrifying sometimes, it’s horrifically jarring and unsettling when Louis takes a moment to wonder if he’s, like, changing or something. Because he doesn’t really notice this ‘change’ or whatever, but he feels happier and, if he thinks about it, he can spot certain alterations in his behaviors and speech and that’s… That’s a lot.

But, see, it’s a good change. It’s for the better. Louis’ happier. Sure, he’s a fucking mess because his life is chaos and it’s on the brink of collapse, but with Harry (and without the complications) it’s better.

He wants to keep him. He does. He wants Harry.

He can do this. He can. He’s Louis fucking Tomlinson. Surely he’s won over someone before, hasn’t he? Sexually, yeah. He’s ‘conquered’ (so to speak) hundreds of willing bodies. Thousands, probably. Billions.

But has he ever… Has anyone ever stayed for him?

He swallows, feet hitting the frosted ground. It’s so cold outside. Winter is definitely here. It’s cold and fucking unforgiving, much like these bullshit thoughts that are making his throat feel so small.

Has Louis ever kept anyone before?

Probably not. But was that by his choice? Or someone else’s? Do people want to keep him?

Fuck. He’s never done this before. How is he supposed to know if he’s good at it? How is he supposed to know what to do?

The tall, stone building comes into sight. Harry’s professor’s office is in there. Harry’s probably inside, swaying on the spot as he reads some flier on the bulletin board that nobody else has bothered to even cast a glance at.

He wants to keep him. And he can prove it. To himself, to Harry, to Liam, to everybody. He can keep him. He just needs to try, try as hard as he fucking can. Or even harder than that.

When he pulls the heavy metal door open, it squeaks painfully in the cold, the metal cutting into Louis’ bare hands. He needs gloves. Or Harry’s hands. Either one will do.

Before he’s taken three steps inside the building, he hears a shuffle, a small gasp, and then the excited burst of a cocoa-and-butter voice:

“You wore it!”

Immediately, against any sense of control, Louis’ smile takes up his face. He touches the beanie atop his head with frozen fingers, eyes never straying from Harry’s beaming face, the boy walking up to him with soft steps and warm cheeks, his own beanie atop his head—it’s peach. Of course. (Louis thinks it looks more pink, though.)

“I did, indeed. Told you I would.” He tries not to smile even moreso when Harry keeps walking, walks until his feet collide with Louis’, walks until his arms are engulfing him, his nose pressing against his ear, enough to tickle. Louis is not ticklish, Louis is not ticklish— “You great oaf,” he most certainly does not giggle, trying to free his head from where Harry is apparently trying to inhale it, “You’re going to squish me!”

“I won’t squish you. Promise,” Harry mumbles through a smile, just nosing, nosing, nosing along the side of Louis’ head. He taps the crown of his head against Louis.

“What are you—“

“Matching hats,” Harry sing-songs, grinning lopsidedly.

Oh dear god.

Louis refuses to smile. “You are too much.”

“I’m so happy you like it. I tried really hard to make it perfect. I’ve only made just a few hats before so I wasn’t sure if it was even going to turn out—“

But Louis silences him with a kiss, a cold press of lips that soften the words out of Harry’s mouth, and then there’s silence filling the corridor, both of their bodies relaxing just that much more.

“I adore it,” he finishes simply, pulling his mouth away. Harry looks dazed, eyes still caught on his lips, hands pressed firmly into the crooks of Louis’ elbows. “And you did an incredible job. I can’t even tie me own shoes and here you are, stitching together hats. When the world ends and we’re forced to live in huts and live off of the land, I’m taking you with me.”

Harry beams, utterly delighted. “I’ll knit us blankets. And make us soup. And I can probably figure out a way to use tree roots for a broth because Agatha had mentioned—“

“Oh, Jesus,” Louis mutters, trying not to laugh at the earnest contemplation in Harry’s tone. “Agatha’s the Pirate, right?”

“Louis! Don’t say that!” Harry chides, grin morphing into a disapproving scowl at an alarming rate. “She’s nice! Physically, she may only have one eye, but her soul sees more than we ever could! And she’s not old. She’s young at heart.”

Oh dear actual god.

“I will not be charmed by you,” Louis says firmly, after a full thirty seconds of staring at the glaring little pout before him. Whether he says this to himself or to Harry, he’s not quite sure. “I will not be taken in by your pretty little words or your nice thoughts.” Teasingly (and, maybe, hoping for a return of Harry’s smile) he taps his icy fingers against the bed of Harry’s lips, where they’re stubbornly pressed together. He doesn’t miss the spark of amusement in Harry’s gaze though, even if it is gone rather quickly, so he continues, letting his fingers muss up the lines of his mouth, pulling at his lips and chuckling as Harry fights to keep his composure. But he’s relenting, of course he is, his shoulders loosening in laughter that’s contained but building and Louis grins and then Harry finally grins, and it’s so dumb, is what it is. It’s dumb and they laugh, the sound pinging off of the cold granite floors of the empty corridor.

He wants to keep him.

“Let’s walk?” Louis suggests, allowing his smile to stay.

Harry nods, his own smile in tact. “Yeah. Here—I brought you gloves.” He digs in the pockets of his peacoat, pulling out those ghastly green mittens before offering forth a pair of thick grey gloves. His smile is easy. “Your hands are always so cold and you never wear any,” he explains.

Louis stares at them. Then pulls his gaze to Harry’s calm, unassuming face. It was so natural for him to do this. It was so easy for him to just think of Louis like that. Just… Care about him. In the most pure sense. Fuck.

He needs to keep him.

“Erm,” Louis begins, clearing his throat as he takes the offering. They’re very thick, very warm. Well made. They match the beanie that Harry made for him. He swallows, alarmed by his own reaction because he feels overwhelmed suddenly, overwhelmed. “Thanks, pup. Thank you.” He finds Harry’s eyes, blinking and a little blushing. He seems pleased. Good. “Thank you,” he repeats before pressing another kiss to his mouth and another to his chin. Anything he can reach, really. He’d like to kiss Harry’s toes, even.

That’s something he will never, ever say in the light of day.

“You’re welcome,” Harry replies quietly, still grinning enough to melt any ice in the air. After Louis’ pulled on the gloves (and, shit, yeah—they’re very warm) he offers his own mitten-clad paw, and Louis grins as he takes it, knocking his shoulder into Harry’s for good measure as they exit the building.

**

As they walk, Harry blathers on about his meeting, all the while as Louis watches his profile, oddly content, his mouth twisted up at the corners. Their mittened hands are still clasped, swinging between them, and the sky is darkening from white to grayish blue. Snow feels eminent.

It’s all very winter and usually Louis hates that, hates the inconvenience of the cold. But right now he can’t remember why.

“What?” Harry asks eventually, after Louis’ been staring just a bit too long, a bit too unblinkingly.

He lets his smile form slow. “I like you,” is all he quips, smug, squeezing Harry’s fingers.

The words make Harry color beautifully as he ducks his head, ever the bashful baby swan. “I like you, too,” he mumbles to his feet before he lifts his gaze, pressing forward suddenly to peck the corner of Louis’ mouth. “I like you tons.”

“I like you infinity,” Louis counters, moving his hand to wrap around Harry’s waist, pulling him flush against his side. He smirks, poking his tongue out from his teeth. “So, there. I win.”

Still beaming, Harry wraps his own arm around Louis. “We both win,” he compromises sagely, stumbling a bit over his feet. “And I’m not ever gonna let you go. Not even to get a glass of water or use the toilet.”

Louis scoffs out a laugh. “Weirdo.”

“Mmm-hm,” Harry nods, proud. “The most weird.” He pauses, contemplates for a moment. “Well, next to you, that is.”

“Next to me,” Louis agrees, liking the way it sounds. He pulls him closer and they continue walking, Harry continues talking, and the faded sun falls.

**

They’re almost at Harry’s house when Louis hears him sigh forlornly. (They walked there today—their new hats made Harry feel ambitious. That was how he phrased it. It was precious and Louis tried his best not flutter out a smile because he’s not… He’s not made of butterflies, or anything. He’s still just Louis. But he did smile a little.)

Louis turns to him, nudges at his side. “Alright?”

Harry merely shrugs, eyes on the ground. “Yeah,” he shrugs again. He lifts his head, laughs a little. “Sorta wish I was working today, though.”

Working? Harry wishes he was working?

“What? Why on earth would you wish something like that?” Louis asks, eyebrow popping.

Harry’s eyes trail over Louis’ face for a moment before they drift off somewhere in the distance. He squints a bit, looking lovely and fragile and discontented. “I dunno… I don’t just wanna go home. I feel like…doing something. But I know there’s nothing to do, you know? I should go home, study, do my homework, you know… All that. But.” He sighs, now shrugging a bit helplessly as he stares at Louis. “I wish there was just… Something around here. Or. I dunno.” He pauses, studies his toes. “I feel, like, caged in a lot. Usually I ignore it because I know I’m just being stupid, but. I feel stifled sometimes. Wish I had more…air, maybe. Room to breathe and to, like, move. And do things. And stuff.”

“Ever the poet,” Louis smirks, earning him a light smack against his arm. “But, uhm,” he continues, as Harry just sags, already walking down the street. Louis keeps his feet firmly planted, an easy grin on his face. “Why are you walking away, Sasspup?”

Confused, Harry turns. “What? What do you mean?”

Heh.

Louis grins fuller. “Come on.” He jerks his head.

But Harry’s only reaction is to cluster his brows. “What? Where are you going? My house is that way…” he protests, pointing lamely in the opposite direction. But he doesn’t move.

So Louis grins wider. “Yeah, I know. We’re not going there though, are we? We’re going on an adventure.”

This time, the eyebrows shoot into Harry’s hairline. “An adventure?”

“Yes, pup, an adventure. That will lead us to a place where we can breathe and move. Now, come on!”

After a few seconds of Harry just staring at him, fish-mouthed, Louis sighs before he marches up to him and grabs his mitten-clad hand in his own, pulling him along gently but firmly. “The whole world is our playground,” Louis throws over his shoulder idly, as Harry’s look of surprise morphs into one of bumbling joy, escaped curls flapping in the breeze. “Take the night by the hand and set it on fire, and all that.”

Harry just laughs, delighted, and the sound spurs Louis on, waking up the cold creases by his eyes.

“Let’s promise to never be bored again,” Louis says, turning around to face Harry as he walks backwards. He catches his other hand, pulling him along, and Harry laughs again, seemingly just because, as his smile widens into uneven, beautiful territory.

“I promise,” he beams, picking up pace, and Louis knows that he can do this, wants to do this forever.

“Let’s pretend we’re somewhere else,” Louis continues, feeling an odd sort of exhilaration fill his body because, apparently, he’s regressing to the age of five. But he doesn’t quite give a fuck, not right now, not when Harry’s staring at him like that and his feet are carrying him without thinking. “Let’s pretend we can do anything in the world, Harry. Anything at all, anything we want. And let’s just do it.”

“What if I want to ride an elephant?” Harry asks, just to be difficult, but the crater in his cheek tells his delight.

“Then we’ll do it!” Louis roars victoriously, happily; he feels foolish and ridiculous. It’s wonderful. “We can fly or—or, I don’t give a fuck, we’ll do it all! The day is ours.”

“But Louis,” Harry reminds, pulling him to a stop, pulling him close to his body. He smiles softer as he looks down at him, lifting one of his mitten-hands to Louis’ cold, flushed cheek, cradling oh-so gently. “There isn’t much time left in the day.”

Yet Louis merely shrugs, his own hand coming to rest atop Harry’s. “Then I suppose we’ll just have to make the day longer.”

It’s a simple sentence, an obvious solution—but it makes something ignite in Harry’s grayish green irises as he pulls Louis close in a kiss, thrusting his smile into Louis’ mouth, passed Louis’ teeth, down Louis’ throat, and settling it in the safe confines of a heart he thinks that, maybe, he actually has.

And then they walk, hands pressed tight, mouths red, their laughter echoing across the frosty peaks of houses.

**

Of course, of fucking course, out of all the things Harry chooses to do, out of all the opportunities Louis proposes—Harry, in the end, chooses to walk with Louis.

He says it as he holds Louis’ hand, looking long and slender and striking in his black coat and peach beanie. “That’s what I want more than anything,” he says simply, and Louis scowls about it despite the fact that his heart actually churns like butter. Harry smirks, just a bit. “You feel the same way,” he continues, smug. He pokes at Louis’ determined frown. “You like me infinity, remember?”

“I never said that,” Louis replies primly. He avoids the gentle hand that attempts to smack his stomach before entrapping it between his own and kissing the back with exaggerated politeness. “Let’s walk, mine beau.”

Harry squawks out a laugh. “Did you just call me your ‘beau’?”

“I did. Clearly, I’m turning into you.”

It makes Harry hum happily, walking that much closer.

“Can’t believe that you chose to just spend time with me when you could’ve done anything in the world,” Louis mumbles after awhile, their footsteps carrying them down the street. “Where’s your imagination? We could have done brilliant things, seen beautiful places, pup. Yet you chose the very un-brilliant, un-beautiful Louis Tomlinson. Shame on you!” He says it with a teasing laugh, but Harry frowns.

“You know,” he begins, all slow like he does, “for someone who likes to act all tough”—he jabs a soft, playful finger into Louis’ chest—“you certainly say some unfair things about yourself. It’s not nice.”

Ah. Well.

Louis’ smile falls a fraction.

It’s sorta awkward, feels a little unevenly serious, but he just continues walking, not meeting Harry’s gaze. “Well, I suppose I don’t need to say the good things because they’re obvious,” he tries, tone indifferent.

But Harry still frowns, just a bit. “I’ll say them for you, then. Because I think you’re wonderful.”

And Louis wants to say something to that as much as he doesn’t, his pulse thumping in his ear canal; but he’s a bit wordless as he stares at Harry staring at him, all unabashed and wide and soft. So instead, he soothes his hands down Harry’s shivering arms, rubs a warm hand across Harry’s lightly chattering jaw.

“You’re so cold,” he muses, frowning. “Come on, let’s get you a scarf. We can’t go on adventures if you’re frozen.”

It’s a cop-out, it’s fear, but Harry only smiles and nods, never begrudging Louis for it as he follows him into a nearby shop.

It’s wonderfully warm inside as they flit about the isles. Louis makes a beeline for a wooden table cluttered with (what appears to be) the thickest scarves they have, piled on top of each other and looking delightfully knotted up with yarn and wool alike. He weighs a few in his hands, absently aware that Harry’s somewhere behind him as he inspects them carefully—because they’ll need to wrap around Harry’s neck a few times, to ensure adequate protection from the wind. He thumbs the material, examines the quality…

To be quite honest, he’s probably getting a little too involved in the whole ordeal.

But he just want Harry to be warm, okay? And he may hate shopping, despise it even (fuck, he’s only got about three outfits, tops, and there’s a reason for that), so he can’t help but laugh a little to himself. But he doesn’t think much more about it as he searches for the best goddamn scarf this shop has to offer. The best scarf for his Harry.

Finally, he turns around, two thick wool things in tow (one purple, one white—they didn’t have peach, unfortunately) and he’s just about to ask Harry which one he wants…

When he sees Harry looking at, what could be, the least practical choices on this planet.

“Harry,” he says flatly, as Harry gently swipes his fingers over the beautiful, flower-patterned fabric. “In no way, shape, or form would those keep you warm.”

But Harry continues to stare at them, a little bit of wistfulness in his eye as he admires the patters. The delicate flowers look lovely against his pale fingers.

And Louis already feels his resolve softening.

Sighing, he takes a step closer, quirks his head to look at Harry’s profile. “Do you think they’d keep you warm enough?”

Harry merely shrugs. “Dunno. I think so… I just really like them. They’re really pretty.” But then his hand falls to his side and his mouth frowns, enough for Louis to spot immediately. “It’s just dumb how, like, there are these arbitrary rules about what people wear. You know? It’s dumb that, like, people would get weird about a guy wearing something labeled, by others, as ‘girly’, or whatever. I don’t like that everything’s compartmentalized, everything’s put in a labeled box. I think people should just wear what they wanna wear and it’s that simple.” He frowns a bit deeper. “But I know that people think I’m weird. So. I dunno.”

Louis stares, lowering the scarves in his hands as he watches him, quiet.

Fuck. Harry, just… He’s…

He’s so much. So much in such a quiet, lovely body.

“I agree,” he says at last, voice wavering on ‘proud’. Or something akin. “I completely agree, actually. Fuck the world. Fuck other peoples’ opinions. Fuck society. I don’t believe in adhering to rules, especially shit ones that make no sense, so fuck ‘em.”

With that, he promptly sets the scarves back on their table before marching over to Harry and leaning over him, gently balancing his weight upon his arm as he snatches up the red and black scarf with roses printed on it, gold embroidered on the edges. It really is nice. Pretty, even.

Harry blinks, surprised. “What are you doing?”

“Buying you this scarf,” Louis says immediately, already making his way to the till. “Because it’s going to look wonderful with your beautiful curls and gorgeous little smile and that lovely little face. And it’s warmer than the whole lot of nothing you’ve got right now so it’ll do the job just fine. And I’m buying it for you, young Sasspup, because anybody else would just ruin it. This was clearly meant for you and you alone.” He pauses, smiles, tapping a finger to his beanie. “This hat you made me even told me so.”

A surprised laugh startles out of Harry as he follows Louis, hand resting on the small of his back. He ducks his smile into Louis’ shoulder. “I didn’t know accessories talked.”

“Only to me,” Louis whispers conspiratorially, winking.

Harry beams, neck pink and soft. Louis wants to rest his hand on it, just to feel the warmth, the softness, the pulse that beats steadily.

“So, you’re not, like… You wouldn’t feel weird to walk around with a boy in a flowered scarf?” Harry asks, quiet, and there’s a distant trepidation in his gaze.

Louis shakes his head immediately. “I’d feel weird if I didn’t walk around with a boy in a flowered scarf, actually.” He grins. “But, really, it’s just a scarf at the end of the day, isn’t it?”

So Harry grins and thanks him, heartfelt, as Louis insists on paying in full, their hands brushing beneath the counter.

When they emerge back onto the street, Louis [attempting to] artfully adjust the scarf around Harry’s neck, he finds Harry gazing down at him, eyes lidded with the kind of soft affection he’s only found in paintings and quiet, acoustic songs. Louis’ not sure if he knows many true love songs; he needs to find some.

“Louis, I think it’s wonderful, the way that you are.”

“Hm?” he hums as he makes final adjustments. The floral scarf is lovely against Harry’s jacket, even lovelier with his beauty and his peach little beanie; Louis never in a million years foresaw himself walking down the street with a pretty boy wearing flower patterns and pastels, smiling like the cherubic apple pie that he is, but it works and it fits and it’s simple—Harry’s delicate loveliness next to Louis’ dirty chaos.

It is what it is. And it’s everything.

“How do you mean?” Louis asks, tugging on one end before letting go of the material. “Aside from my stellar bum and artfully disheveled hair, that is.”

And Harry chuckles, warm and low, pulled from somewhere deep as he continues to cast soft eyes at Louis, his breath puffing over his face. “I think it’s wonderful how you just don’t care about all the stupid things in life. And how you, just—“ He sighs, pulling his gaze away, searching.

Louis waits, feeling suspended on his toes, though his feet are firmly on the ground.

“I feel like I always make this about me, and it’s not like I only like you because of me, or anything, but… From personal experience, I think it’s wonderful that you make me feel comfortable saying and doing whatever I want to, encouraging me to be whoever I want to be. Encouraging all of the things in me that I’ve always wanted to be encouraged. I dunno.” He ducks his head, embarrassed. “It’s small and stupid and I know I sound sappy… But I don’t think you realize how great that is. How rare that is. I dunno.”

Harry looks positively fuchsia when he finishes, staring at Louis beneath lashed eyes.

And Louis can only laugh, startled, heart thumping, because he doesn’t know what to do right now, he never, ever does. “That was the most beautiful poem I’ve ever heard, Harry,” he teases quietly, smile wavering as he rests his fingers beneath the bow of Harry’s lips. He taps on the bottom one curiously, just once. “How do these things do that? Why are they so nice to me, these beautiful lips?”

Harry laughs then, face calming as Louis smudges mitten-fingers over Harry’s mouth playfully, gently pulling.

“Heyy,” Harry protests, swatting and definitely giggling, but Louis grins as he withstands his ground.

“No, no,” he protests back, insistent. “I have to ask them a question, let me ask them a question.” He calms for a moment, crouching in real close, movements soft.

Harry studies him closely, suspiciously, standing completely still as Louis comes closer, closer, and still closer—before pouncing on him, latching his mouth to his. Of course—what else was he to do?  

But Harry’s smiling too much right now, smiling and laughing both, so Louis’ teeth clack against Harry’s and he pulls back, an impish smile on his face. “Hey, Bucky, if you want to be impressed by my impeccable kissing techniques, you best stop grinning so hard.”

“Bucky?” Harry questions, holding onto him tightly. He’s still grinning, still staring at Louis’ lips.

“Yeah. You’ve got some chomping buckteeth in the front, you know. You could gnaw down a tree.”

And Louis is teasing, he is painfully teasing—but Harry’s positively basking in it and it’s wonderful, it works. They fight their laughter back as they hold the other’s gaze, Harry feigning indignant squawks.

“Are you implying that I have beaver teeth??” Harry questions, appalled.

“Well, I’m not not implying it, darling.”

There’s a beat.

And then they burst into laughter as one, all arms wrapped firmly around each other like the tangled mess that they are.

“They’re beautiful teeth, I love them,” Louis mumbles against Harry’s lips when he kisses him, insistent and peckish. “I want to keep them, I want to be the tree to your beaver.”

Harry cackles so hard and unexpectedly that he actually bends over, taking Louis down with him.

“Come on,” Louis says eventually, their cheeks chapped, eyes alight. “We still have the rest of our day. And we’ve only done small things—we have to do big things now.”

“Like what?”

“It’s up to you. Anything. If you want to continue talking for the rest of the night, that’s a big enough thing for me.” Louis smiles, tugging on the end of Harry’s scarf. “Or if you wanna like, explode stars and raid planets, then that will work too.”

“Can we do it all?” Harry asks hopefully.

“Absolutely,” Louis nods, pulling him close as they continue walking, their steps in synch. “We can do it all.”

**

Eventually, they find themselves by the river, walking the same path they had on their first date, all that time ago.

Harry mentions as much, all eager and eyes a’glint, pointing with a crooked finger and breath that tangles up like smoke.

“It is, it is,” Louis nods, squeezing Harry’s hand; Harry squeezes back.

The moon’s up now, casting long, pale shreds of light atop the iced over river. Everything’s alarmingly bright, whitened by snow and glass.

“Hey,” Louis mumbles, staring out at the light, the ice, and the untouched bits of shadow. “Wanna hear my favorite song? It sounds best at night.”

“Yeah,” Harry says immediately, voice barely above a whisper as he watches the moon.

Cold fingers unravel the earbuds around Louis’ iPod—the one he always keeps in his jacket, his one precious possession aside from his phone—and his cheeks are a little too frozen to smile. So he just slips in one bud, pressing the other into Harry’s ear, and clicks through until he finds it, finds his song, all the while as their breaths mingle, their bodies aligned.

“Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup…”

They listen to John Lennon sing about being “Across the Universe” and nothing changing his world, shuffling towards the icy river, gravel and frost crunching underfoot, hand in hand, breath balancing on plumes that float towards the stars that seem to shine brighter in the cold. Everything’s sharp and blue and bright and the strum of the guitar cascades in time to their matched pulse points and Louis wonders if, maybe, he knows what love could be. Or is. Maybe.

After the chords fade, Harry blinks owlishly, a serene smile on his face that lights up with the night’s icy gaze.

“It does sound better at night,” he muses, calm. “Would you like to hear my favorite song, Louis? Every time I listen to it, I think of you. It’s for you.”

Louis sucks in cold air and holds it in his lungs, letting himself smile. Just a bit, now.

“Yeah, ‘course,” he mutters as Harry slips out his phone and scrolls. With quiet hands, he plugs in the headphones, presses ‘play’, and Louis closes his eyes, just as drums begin to thump through his bloodstream, smooth as silk.

When Louis peaks open an eye, he sees Harry smiling, his own eyes closed.

“I like it,” Louis comments, closing his eyes again. “What’s it called?”

“’Only One’ by The Black Keys,” Harry says quietly, preciously.

Louis swallows, smiles to himself. “You’re the only one,” he sings along, under his breath, and he feels Harry’s hand tighten around his. “You’re the only one…”

“Reminds me of you,” Harry repeats, quieter this time.

They meet each other’s eye, smiles small and skin pale but cheeks flushed.

“I reckon it reminds me of you, too,” Louis replies, calmly as he can, even as his palms sweat.

Harry’s response is to smile so full, it looks like it might drip off his face.

Louis feels like a teenager. This is all so…youthful. Innocent. Cute.

When the song stops, they wind up the headphones, tucking everything away. They continue walking, descending further towards the river, frozen weeds crunching underfoot, before stopping at the base of the ice, where the water would normally be licking their ankles.

“Ever been ice skating?” Louis asks, quirking a brow.

Harry snorts. “No. I think I’d be terrible at it.”

“Oh, you absolutely would be,” Louis assures, smirking. “It would be fantastic. Let’s go.”

Without another word, he drags Harry onto the ice. He throws back a glance after a second’s thought, searching Harry’s face for any genuine discomfort—but he finds none, instead seeing another smile splattered there as he clutches Louis’ fingers for dear life, focusing on his feet as he carefully steps onto the solid ice.

“We won’t go in the middle,” Louis says as he turns around, now facing Harry. The boy looks thrilled, if a bit unsteady, the bottoms of his ears pink. His eyes are glassy when they look up, shining. Louis can’t help but smile as he observes him. “Don’t want to fall through, even if it is quite solid. So, you know… Don’t go far, or anything.”

Harry laughs. “Don’t think it’s an option, to be honest,” he mutters, to which Louis laughs in return.

“Okay, so, if you fall, I will make sure to fall first,” Louis promises as they edge a bit farther, steps getting a bit more careful as the frost splays their heels. “Don’t you fret because my bum will cushion the both of us”—Harry startles into a loud cackle—“so, really, we’ll both pop right back up, probably. I’m like your personal bouncy castle.”

More icy plumes of laughter, more shaky steps and slides of the heels.

“Teach me,” Harry grins, already flapping an arm a bit wildly to keep steady. It’s so cute, how can he be so cute?

Louis never thought he would be tossing the word around so casually, but… Then again, he never thought there’d be a Harry.

“I shall,” Louis smiles, steadying him gently, hands linked.

They quiet, eyes locked and brightened by the full moon and dustings of snow surrounding them. They look saturated and intense and simultaneously washed out and Louis faintly wonders if they look as beautiful as he imagines them to be.  

But then the picturesque spell is broken, jarringly, because it’s at that moment that Harry somehow manages to slip, just enough to pull them both off balance.

“What the hell?” Louis laughs, startled, immediately letting go of Harry to steady himself before he lifts his head—

Only to find Harry essentially running in place, limbs flapping like a fucking bird.

“How the fuck did you manage to get so unsorted so quickly?” he laughs heartily as he sidles forward, trying to catch at least one of Harry’s limbs—but Harry’s too wiggly, giggling too manically, and it’s entirely ridiculous. It’s so ridiculous and impossible and Louis presses hands into his shaking stomach as he laughs and laughs, feet firmly planted on the ice, his beanie keeping the tips of his ears warm.

He doesn’t even remember the last time he’s laughed this hard, to be honest. Maybe he’ll develop some abs from it.

“I’m falling!” Harry then shouts, louder than Louis’ ever heard him, and it’s filled with energy and star bursts and sugar pastels and Louis feels like he’s being shocked with unseen electricity because he can’t stop laughing, his heart bloated like a fucking puffer fish.

“Harry,” he attempts, as Harry begins to right himself, though his legs are awful wobbly. “Where’s your center of gravity??”

“I told you!” Harry chides, trying to slide his way forward, hands raised up before him.

Louis shuffles a little closer, catching them, amusement writ across his face. “Yeah, but I didn’t think it was actually possible to be this bad. We’re not even doing anything!”

And now they’re both laughing hysterically, the sounds of their shoes scraping the ice resonating through the empty, still air, echoing alongside the slaps of their grabbing hands and the crystallizing ice.

It’s just as Louis’ beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel, just as Harry is beginning to make some headway and actually, you know, stand, when he somehow manages to slide hideously, his entire body arching back through the air—before he lands firmly on his bum.

“Pup!” Louis laughs, immediately scrambling to him despite the wracks of his highly amused body.

Harry’s laughing just as hard, crumpled on the ground like a ball of used paper. He lifts his head, trying to glare; he’s near crying, his face split with amusement, brows pulled firmly together. It’s quite the vision—if Louis was a more poetic man, he’d probably scribble sonnets onto the snow-sprinkled pavement about it.

“I thought you were going to cushion me!” Harry reprimands in a shout that’s punctured by guffaws. “Where’s that bum? Where’s my bouncy castle? I was looking forward to falling on that.” And, without warning, he scoots towards Louis, hands reaching for his hips, trying to smack his bum.

Harry is such a shit. When did he become such a shit?

Delighted, Louis scampers out of reach, sliding expertly atop the ice in his shitty shoes with no traction. “Well, well,” he grins mischievously, laughter on the edge of his voice, fingertips stretched in the air expertly. “Isn’t that a sentence.”

More laughter, more grabby hands.

At long last, Harry groans out a “I think I’m bad at this,” before flopping backwards onto the ice, breaths punctuating the air. His cheeks are pink, his hat’s slipping off, and his limbs are sprawled, making him look like a starfish. The breath puffing from his mouth twirls and curls upwards, drifting toward the large, circular moon cushioned by stars and very tiny planets. A puffing starfish beneath a sky full of stars.

Louis’ little starfish.

“You are truly as bad as I’d predicted. Probably, in fact, worse.” He grins as he takes a few sliding steps closer. “And I wouldn’t change a damn thing.” He says it syrupy and sweet, bopping Harry on the nose.

Harry cracks one eye open, smiling. It widens before he puckers his lips, eyes begging for a kiss.

Louis, of course, rolls his own. “Yeah, alright,” he fake-grumbles, lips tugging as he kneels down and obliges. Icy mouth on icy mouth. Even their spit feels frozen, gums and teeth and tongues frozen and numb. So fucking cold.

Louis’ cheeks sting with it. His hands ache against the scratchy planes of ice and his knees are digging into it painfully as well; everything is discomfort and pressure as Harry leaves white-cold trails of saliva along Louis’ mouth and jaw, little dabs of saliva on his chin and nose, cold fingers pressing into the warm bits behind his ears.

Inexplicably, he’s never been more comfortable in his life. Hah. Funny, that.

The thought cascades down his spine and rolls across his shoulders as he hums a smile, hums something that feels like possibility and maybe even reality, into Harry’s lungs. Into his own lungs.

**

It’s a little after midnight when they finally return to Harry’s house, skin buzzing and numb, mouths sweet from the cocoa they’d purchased on the way back. Louis tries to tuck Harry’s hat further on his head—his hair is so smooth it keeps sliding right off—but Harry keeps kissing him, all mischievous and playful, hands everywhere.

“You’ll catch a deathly illness,” Louis chastises.

“We’re already home, though.”

“Besides the point.”

Harry just smiles, leaning his full weight against Louis who “ooph!”s as he catches him, clasping his hands around his back. “Come inside?” he questions, a little whiny and very hopeful, hands resting atop Louis’ shoulders.

“It’s late, Harry. You should be sleeping.” He pecks a kiss to his neck, just because. He does things like that lately.

“Please?”

“Sleep.”

“Pretty please?”

It shouldn’t be this easy, Louis thinks wryly as he eyes Harry’s endearing blinks and puffy lips. He sighs, relenting.

“Yeah, fine. Just for a bit.”

“Just until I fall asleep,” Harry promises, already unlocking the door and tugging Louis inside.

**

It ends in snogging, because it always does these days.

Louis’ heart thuds against his ribs as Harry slides delicate hands over his clothes, long fingers catching on hems, and, fuck, Louis wants. Louis fucking wants and, normally, Louis gets.

But, despite the flush of his skin and the tightness in his stomach, he… He can’t.

Gently, he pries Harry’s curious fingers away from the button of his jeans.

“Hey,” he mumbles, very quietly, face hot, as he breaks the kiss.

It’s just—it’s too complicated right now. He can’t have Harry, not in that way, while… While there exists a Liam and a game and a deal and… Not yet.

Not yet.

The curiosity in Harry’s eyes lingers as Louis sighs, leaning back to lie on Harry’s bed. He licks his lips and stares out the window; the moon’s very bright. He wonders if it’ll snow again.

“Uhm…” Harry begins quietly, hedging.

Louis licks his lips again. They feel hot and swollen, much like the rest of his body. And brain. And heart. Ugh.

“Is it me, or…?” Harry questions, but it’s essentially a whisper.

Immediately, Louis turns to him, meeting those wide eyes as he brushes a shaky knuckle down the length of his cheek. “No,” he says simply, earnestly. “No, it’s nothing like that. You just…” His gaze skids, threatens to glue itself to the wall, before he forces it back on Harry. He swallows. “You just matter, is all. Just… It’s different with you. Everything means something. You know?”

He’s half expecting a frown in response, perhaps a protest, or a pouted round of questions. Maybe even a laugh.

But what he gets in response is a blushing smile, Harry nuzzling into the palm of his hand like the kitten that he is. “That’s so romantic,” he says, lips moist against Louis’ skin.

He snorts, rolling his eyes, but his cheeks betray him as they heat. “Yeah, I’m a real romancer,” he mumbles, but Harry grins as he continues nosing along Louis’ hand, down to his wrist, down along his arm…

“You are,” Harry protests, sweet and low. He settles against his side, rests his chin upon Louis’ chest. Big green eyes blink down at him, eyelashes slow to catch up. His eyebrows are neat and tidy. Pretty kitten.

Silence blankets them, calm and comforting. Louis stifles a yawn, rubbing absent fingers along Harry’s limbs as Harry’s eyes drift shut, slowly, slowly, slowly.

“Hey, Louis?” he mumbles, eyes closed.

“Hm?”

“Would you like to spend Christmas with me and my family? Maybe?”

Louis’ hands pause.

“I mean, if you’re not spending it with your family, that is,” Harry rushes, words quick and jumbled. “Because, like, it’s fine if—“

“No,” Louis rasps, staring at the ceiling. He swallows, lets his fingers continue their gentle slides and wills his heart to steady. “No, I won’t be spending it with anyone. So, uh. Yeah. Sure. I’ll come. If I’m not, uh, intruding, or whatever.”

“You wouldn’t be,” Harry assures, voice quiet. “It was Gemma and mum’s idea. And I really want you here. If you want.”

“Yeah. Alright.” He continues to stare at the ceiling, something light and heavy in his lungs. He pauses. “Thank you.”

He feels Harry’s nod, feels his hands secure themselves more tightly around him.

“Louis?” he asks, a few quiet moments later. Harry’s voice sounds careful, distant. A little small.

Louis swallows. He knows what’s coming.

“Yeah?”

“Why… Why don’t you talk to your family?”

Instantly, Louis’ stomach muscles tighten. He doesn’t dare breathe, just for one moment, just for a moment as he collects his thoughts, assembles words and images into a coherent line of thought. Of explanation. Of…excuses.

“Harry…”

“Look,” Harry says, lifting himself atop his elbows. He looks down at Louis, frown lines etched deep, bringing a hand to rest atop Louis’ heart. Just resting it there, cautious and sweet. Just there. “You don’t have to tell me, you know you don’t. But… Maybe, like, if you never told anyone… Maybe if you talked about it, it wouldn’t be so scary?”

“It’s not scary,” Louis clips immediately, lips tight.

Harry falls quiet, blinking downwards.

“I’m sorry,” Louis breathes immediately, pinching his eyes shut. “That was—I’m sorry. It’s just. It’s difficult. It is scary.”

“It’s scary to admit things are scary,” Harry says quietly, and his shoulders are tight and his eyes look nervous which is… Not okay.

Sighing, Louis rubs his hands over the tight muscles, breathing through his nose as he slowly feels them relax, feeling his heart pump against Harry’s palm.

“You wouldn’t like me if you knew the truth,” he says quietly. He says it to the air, hoping it shoots upwards and over Harry’s head, too fast for him to catch.

Harry catches it, though.

“I would,” he protests. He sounds so sure.

“You might not,” Louis reasons. He swallows again. Why is his throat so dry? “But I’ll tell you.”

There’s one heavy moment of silence, filled only with Harry’s breathing, respectful eyes, and the calming pressure of his hand.

Louis clears his throat. “So. I, uh. I have five sisters. And Jo. Jo’s my…uh, my mum. Basically… Basically, I left Jo and the girls, years ago. I left them one night. Just walked out while they were all sleeping—“ His voice betrays him, wavering hideously. He tries to swallow again but it’s more difficult so he clears his throat again instead, blinking up at Harry’s white ceiling, flickering orange from the candles. “I walked out on them because I had too much responsibility and I didn’t want any of it. So I never talked to Jo about it. I left instead. After I tucked the girls in.” He breathes harder, harsher, determined not to let his eyes… No.

He doesn’t fucking cry, okay? He hasn’t in so long, he can’t remember when. He likes that, he likes not feeling, not crying, for fuck’s sake.

He continues, determined and emotionless. Harry’s fingers press into his chest, his breath quiet. “They adored me. All five of them. Adored me almost as much as I adored them. And so I read them their favorite story—this stupid picture book about flower fairies or something. The villain’s this spider-lady. She’s bloody terrifying.” He huffs a humorless laugh. “So I read it out loud, as I always did. Did all the voices and that.” He smiles then, lips sad and hard. “My bag was already packed in me room. Phoebes was the last to fall asleep.” His smile fades. A black feeling begins bleeding through him, originating from the center of his body. “I kissed them, each one, on their foreheads as I always did—I was a proper good brother, mind. I was good. Until, you know, the part where I abandoned them.”

He feels cold. Utterly fucking cold. And sick.

Face and throat itchy, he turns onto his side, Harry tumbling behind him, hand ripped away from his heart.

“I never said anything to Jo. Just… Opened her door. I wasn’t sure if I was going to wake her or maybe just… Say goodbye? But I didn’t do anything. Just opened the door. Saw her. Closed it. Then left. That’s all. I went to my room and took my shitty bag of nothing and I left, Harry. No word, no contact, no note… That was it.”

The silence between them is thick, sludgy. Harry makes no move to touch him or speak. It makes Louis’ eyes burn as he shuts them, rattling out a strange breath.

“I told you,” he says firmly, quietly, mostly to himself.

And then he feels a tentative hand.

A soft, gentle, tentative hand, resting upon his shoulder.

“Louis,” comes the softly-spoken voice, rolling in like thunder, and it makes Louis shut his eyes tighter, his body curling in on itself because he wants to fucking shrink, shrink down to nothing right now. “Louis, no.”

Louis just clenches his jaw though, entire body rigid, even as he feels Harry slide up behind him, warmth mingling into his cold skin.

“Louis, I still love you,” Harry says quietly, resting his head beside Louis’, the words sliding into his ear. And—

And what? Did he just say…

Opening his eyes, Louis twists to look up at Harry—who’s eyes are sad but earnest, looking down at Louis with something that’s beyond what Louis’ very limited vocabulary could identify. But it’s tender, is what it is, and Louis just blinks at him, a little taken aback, as Harry brings one large hard up to his face. Just to rest. Just there.

He smiles apologetically. “Probably a bad time to say that,” he says quietly, thumb scraping Louis’ eyelashes. “I’m sorry. But it’s true—I still love you.”

Louis stares, heart hovering somewhere above his body. His fingertips prickle. His blood flows.

Harry doesn’t hate him.

Harry loves him.

Everything churns.

“It’s okay,” Louis whispers, and his eyes are probably wide, so wide, as he stares up at Harry, who’s cradling him protectively in his hands, his arms, his legs. “I don’t mind. I’m—happy,” he attempts, jumbled. Bewildered.

Harry loves him.

A smile forms before him, another flick of Harry’s thumb sweeps along Louis’ cheekbone. “Okay. Good. Because I love you. And… And I can see why you wouldn’t want to talk about that.”

Instantly, the heaviness of the situation returns, Louis’ limbs heavy. The warmth and hope begin to seep away again. Fuck.

“But I would never hold that against you, Louis,” Harry says fiercely, cupping Louis’ jaw and looking into his eyes with the sort of fiery determination that Louis has only ever heard of, maybe even scoffed at before. “There’s… There’s shit that’s happened in the past, okay? And it’s not good, it’s not like it should be rewarded, or anything. But you’re sorry for it, Louis. You’re… It’s not black and white, is it? I know the person you are, I know what you’re made of and what you think and I wouldn’t change you for anything, Lou. I wouldn’t. You’ve made mistakes, yeah, but it’s shaped you into who you are. And…” Harry briefly bites his lip, his fire quieting just a bit. “And there’s so much time to remedy it, you know? The past is the past. But it’s the present and the future that are in your hands, you know? Like… It’s not black and white, Lou. You’re not a bad person. I love you and I know you and you’re not a bad person.”

Louis’ teeth clamp onto his lip, eyes tight and small and burning. “Harry…” he whispers, heart dropped somewhere low.

Guilt. All he can feel is fucking guilt.

Louis’ not a bad person? Hah. Hardly.

Harry is so forgiving, so loving, Harry loves him, and here, Louis…

Louis is lying to him. Every day. Every single day.

“Harry,” he begins, quiet as a breeze as he hooks his fingers around Harry’s. He sits up, scooting until his back rests against the headboard, and he feels dizzy right now, fucking dizzy, but he swallows past it because Harry’s right—it’s how he chooses to handle the present and the future that matters.

He needs to start fucking fixing things. Addressing things. Being…honest.

“Harry, I need to tell you something,” his voice says, but it sounds hollow, far away. His eyes feel shaky as they hook into Harry’s.

But Harry exudes calmness, completely serenity, as he smiles softly, pulling Louis that much closer to him.

“Harry. Awhile back, I—“

Fingers push against his lips. Blinking confusion, he looks down, tries to pull Harry’s fingers away, but Harry is shaking his head, firm as he places his other palm over Louis’ mouth.

“No, no,” he quiets, muscles relaxed. “Don’t upset yourself. This was a big conversation, yeah? Don’t feel guilty.”

Louis blinks, confused. “No, Harry, I need to talk to you. It’s—it’s important. It’s about”—he swallows—“something I almost did. Or—have done. Or, I dunno.”

Cocking his head, Harry regards him curiously, hands falling to Louis’ lap. “Okay, well… Does it matter?” He asks it kindly though, so patiently and sweet.

Yes, it matters. It matters a lot. It’s eating Louis alive, for fuck’s sake.

“Yes,” Louis manages to push out. “It might… Affect how you see me. Permanently.”

Harry’s brow furrows, but only momentarily. He nods, mostly to himself, before his calm green eyes settle back on Louis. “Okay…” he begins, warm hands curling around Louis’ waist. Soft. “Whatever it is, will it affect us?” Louis blinks, again and again. “Does it affect how you feel about me? And our future?”

Swallowing, Louis feels his eyebrows pull together, words slipping from his brain. “Well, I mean. Sorta? Not really, I suppose. It doesn’t change how I feel about you, okay? It doesn’t, not a bit—“

“Then I don’t care,” Harry says simply, smiling. “Unless you’ve, like, cheated on me—“

“No!” Louis says fiercely, shocked, and Harry smiles, still softer.

“Okay, then. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter, Louis. I know you’ve made mistakes, I know that. But I don’t need to hear them, alright? Because I know who you are now and I know that I love you and I know that’s what matters. Everything else? It’s the past. It doesn’t matter.”

It doesn’t matter.

Louis breathes, feels it, hears it, listens to it as he stares at Harry. Inside, a tiny window is opening, a tiny window letting in rays of light.

It’s in the past. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is…now.

Louis can do this. He can deal with Liam separately and Harry never has to know. He’ll make sure Harry never has to know. He’ll just…be with him. That simple. Just be with him.

And Harry never has to know. Because it’s in the past and Harry is Louis’ present and future.

A heavy exhale ushers out of Louis’ lips. Fuck. He can do this, he can actually do this.

“Okay,” he says, a little numbly, almost terrified to let himself bask in this, in what all of this is. What it means. “Okay,” he says again, nodding. “The future. Our future. That’s all that matters.”

“That’s all that matters,” Harry agrees, smiling, pulling Louis closer. “We can talk about your family later, if you want. Like, options. Or whatever. And in the mean time—“ Harry continues, louder as Louis opens his mouth to protest, a darkness flittering through his eyes and heart, “we can spend Christmas together. Like proper husbands.”

“Husbands, oh my god,” Louis rumbles, half-smiling, but his heart is still thumping from everything.

Fuck, this entire night… It feels huge, feels colossal, and it feels like he somehow got away unscathed. It feels…too good. Too safe.

But he pushes the paranoia away. Focuses on now.

Harry smiles, eyes closed, face pressed against Louis’. “Mmhm,” he hums, content. “Proper husbands.”

Together they sit, eyes closed, wrapped up like knotted thread as the candles burn down and the shadows shift and, eventually, Harry falls sleep, breaths ghosting across Louis’ neck and soaking into the skin above his pulse. All the while as Louis never lightens his hold, never lets go, and, for the first time, lets himself see a future.

**

When he finally pads towards Stan’s, winter scrunching beneath his shoes, Louis goes to check the time on his phone, only to see three missed calls from Liam.

Infinitesimally, his body hardens, just infinitesimally, before he locks it again without another glance, sliding it back into his pocket.

Liam doesn’t matter anymore.

Louis just needs to focus on right now.

He walks, cradling hope in his chest.

Chapter Text

I’m A Ruin—Marina and the Diamonds

“What do you even get for a mum?”

Zayn peers at Louis from beneath his messy hair, eyes slitted in contemplation. He’s a pinprick of complete calm amongst the bustle of the brightly lit shop, swarmed by individuals clutching handfuls of bags and children. “Tarot cards?”

Louis stares at him.

Right. He should’ve known better than to ask.

“Er. Thanks, Z,” he smirks, valiantly resisting laughter as he continues strolling down the aisle. It’s cold in here despite the number of bodies flitting about; his hands are freezing, even with Harry’s gloves on. It must have to do with the fact that his ol’ jean jacket has so many gaping, shredded holes now that his pockets are barely even pockets. If he were a smarter lad, he’d buy a new one.

But he’s never claimed to be smart, so. Whatever.

“How about a rolling pin?” Zayn offers next, hands limp at his sides as he peers hesitantly around, eyes dark. The sentence is carried with all the languidity of assuredness because Zayn firmly believes everything he says, firmly believes his suggestions are practical and wise. It’s one of the many reasons Louis loves him, actually.  

So he laughs, clapping a hand briefly to Zayn’s tense shoulder. The nylon of his parka is cold as well, seeping through the knit of Louis’ gloves. “I think she’s already got one of those, mate. But good effort.”

In response, Zayn just hums contemplatively, swinging his arms as he continues walking, eyes still flicking around the shop with mild unease. It’s a little chaotic inside—all the last minute shoppers (like Louis) are scrambling, trying to find the most heartwarming purchases that forty-eight hours can buy. And Louis knows that Zayn is a bit squeamish in the outside world, not to mention in crowds, so he sticks close to him as they continue perusing for Anne’s present.

Louis wants to get her something nice. Special, like. It’s the least he can do after she’s offered to let him stay in her house for the entire holiday weekend, so. Like he said—it’s the least he can do. And he likes her. Quite a lot, even.

They stop in front of a large glass…box thing. Inside are delicate bottles of perfume, glinting golden and silver and pink and pearl. They look fragile and clean, like Louis’ hands would scuff them.  

They also look mum-ish. Hm.

“How about perfume?” Louis questions, glancing sideways.

Zayn looks mildly overwhelmed. “Uh. Yeah,” is all he grunts, shuffling closer to avoid an onslaught of laughing teenagers passing through.

Sighing, Louis looks back at the selection. They essentially all look the same.

“Isn’t perfume kinda expensive?” Zayn asks after a moment, voice very near to Louis’ ear, making him jump just a bit. Zayn gets a bit clingy and intrude-y whenever he feels awkward.

“Yeah, but, Anne’s…” Louis shrugs, unsure of how to finish. He keeps his face aloof, shuffles from one foot to another. “She’s a good lady. Want to get her something special. Especially if she’s letting me stay with her family on Christmas, you know? Kinda… She’s a bit like a second mum to me or summat. Or rather,” Louis mumbles, a little darker than he means to, “A real mum.”

At that, Zayn remains quiet, just stepping that much closer and breathing harshly through his nose. He smells like Niall and weed.

After Louis’ successfully managed to obtain a clerk and a nice bottle of something-or-other for Anne, he pays at the till, barely flinching at the total while Zayn noticeably starts.

“Where’d you get that kind of money?” he asks, genuinely curious, as Louis stuffs his wallet back into his jeans and unceremoniously totes the sleek, shiny bag of perfume and tissue paper in his slackened hand.

“Hm? Oh, that?” Louis sniffs, bee-lining through the masses (and taking care to keep hold of the sleeve of Zayn’s parka). “I’ve actually, uh, been saving up. Sorta.”

“Saving up?”

“Yeah. Just, you know. I don’t smoke anymore so I’ve stopped buying cigarettes. Stopped buying weed and shit. Don’t drink as much, either. And, just… I dunno. I’ve been trying to get more hours at the pub so I have, like, something to fall back on.”

He doesn’t miss the wide-eyed stare Zayn is giving him.

Rolling his eyes and feeling a self-conscious burn in his cheeks, Louis just keeps walking until he bursts through the doors, unleashing him to the sharp chill of winter. Oh well. At least it’s away from the chaos.

“Are you saving up for a flat?”

“Maybe. I dunno. I’m just… Trying to gain some semblance of order.”

“That’s amazing, man,” Zayn comments without blinking, voice low over the din of the street. Each slap of his feet crunches the snow. “I’ve been thinking about getting a job, too. But then I realize that it would probably just stifle my spirit and creative flow. I don’t fit with society’s constructs.”

At that, Louis barks out a laugh, head thrown back. “A job is more than a construct, Zayn. It’s, unfortunately, a bit more important.”

But all Zayn does is shrug, unperturbed. “Maybe. Maybe not. I dunno.” And it ends there, with Louis’ amused eyes and Zayn’s thoughtful blinks as they huddle together in the sharp breeze.

Louis really has been saving, though. He’s been trying to rely on himself, and only himself, for (what might be) the first time in his life.

See, he just needs to prove something. To himself, to Harry.

He can take care of himself.

He doesn’t need to rely on Liam for things anymore. Doesn’t need to rely on anyone. Harry’s shown him that—he doesn’t rely on anybody for anything. Rather, he’s always encouraging others to rely on him while simultaneously shouldering his own burdens.

Louis doesn’t want to be another burden to Harry. He wants to show him he can support himself, can help carry any loads they may share. Wants to prepare for, like… Future things. You know—things.  

Somehow, it always seemed so impossible before—taking control of his life? It seemed…daunting and vast. But it’s a quiet concern that he’s had lately, something that’ll disquiet him whenever he’s at Harry’s house, watching him study diligently at his organized desk in his organized room. In a house that’s well cared for and filled with familial kinship and honesty and clean linens and scrubbed floors and fluffed pillows. Their windows have curtains and it smells like washing powder and butter almost always.

Louis will sometimes look out the window, eyes far away, hands in lap, as he sits on Harry’s bed, an unopened book in his lap. He stares unseeingly at a sky that threatens to swallow him up, reaching past the moist glass and snatching him right out of Harry’s room, out of Harry’s life.

“Do you ever feel aimless, Harry?” he’ll ask, quiet and barely aware that he’s voiced the question at all. He blinks, startled by his own forthrightness.

Harry turns in his seat, brows already delicately furrowed, one curl lying across the plane of his pallid forehead. The lilac of his jumper softens his skin and features, washing him out into a pastel watercolor creation that Louis wants to absorb into his fingertips.

“Maybe sometimes, I guess.” His voice is quiet and velvety, a little unused. He pauses before he asks, “Are you alright, Lou?”

And Louis never looks away from the window, just shrugging as he stares unseeingly.

It’s always just when Louis starts to feel very lost that Harry climbs into bed with him, wrapping legs and limbs and fingers and smiles and warm breaths around him. Securing himself into place, securing Louis into place.

“You’re still so young, you know,” he mumbles into the soft skin of Louis’ neck—the part where it meets his shoulder. “Don’t forget you’re young, Louis.”

Louis tilts his head, just for the comfort of feeling Harry’s words form against his flesh. He still doesn’t blink, doesn’t move, doesn’t smile. Just reaches out a cold hand and slides it onto Harry’s leg, giving one weak squeeze.

Harry’s limbs tighten.

“And you’re not aimless. It’s okay to feel that way and you have every right to that. But I know you’re not aimless. You’re just sorta, like…” He drifts off as he ponders, words fading under the dim lights, getting lost in the blankets. He hums a breath before he continues, lips warm and fluid as they form the words. “It’s kinda like you’re in a big room, right? You’re standing in this dark room and it’s filled with so many things. All the things that you can do with your life because you’re brilliant, alright? You’re brilliant and so talented and creative and clever and this room has every option inside of it—piles and piles of options. But, it’s sorta, like, the room’s completely dark? Completely. And you can’t see anything because the light’s not on and it’s so black and stuff, that you can’t even find the switch to turn it on. So you can’t see all the options, can’t see everything that you’re capable of.”

Louis swallows, tightens his grip on Harry’s leg.

“Once you turn it on though, Louis, the world will be yours.” The words bump against Louis’ veins. “You’ve just got to find the switch. It’s the hardest part but, like… You’ll find it. And I’ll help you find it if you need me to. The hardest part’s getting started. But you’re the strongest person I know so… Don’t be too hard on yourself, yeah? It’s difficult.”

And then Louis turns, finally ripping dead eyes away from the window as he sets a sad gaze on Harry. He swallows, the echoes of sentences pouring themselves through his orifices, drowning him yet filling his goddamn lungs with something that he needs right now, something he’s always needed his entire life and has never gotten.

He never thought he needed it. Not until Harry gave it to him: reassurance, trust, confidence. Support. Love.

A faint flicker of embarrassment rumbles inside of his gut (when did he soften so much? When?) but he doesn’t pay much attention to that shit anymore. He doesn’t give a fuck if it sounds cheesy or sappy or whathaveyou—he’s not ashamed of what Harry makes him feel. He’s not going to blanch every time he gets unexpectedly comforted or cared for.

“Harry,” he says, quiet and scratchy. He doesn’t know how to continue.

But Harry always understands because Harry always smiles, syrupy and wide, nuzzling unabashedly into Louis’ face. Louis will grab his hand, pressing his fingers against his lips because he adores his boy and wants his warmth flush against his own warmth.

He kisses over Harry’s fingernails—sometimes they have remnants of nail polish on them. The first time Louis noticed it, Harry flushed, ripe-red all along the column of his throat. He’d snatched his hand away, stammering out a, “I—I know it’s, uhm, weird, but, like, it’s just that Gemma sometimes puts it on for fun? And, uhm, I just sorta think it’s pretty? Sometimes I keep it on, I don’t know, I know it’s weird.”

Louis’ response was to kiss his nails, one by one, before tossing him a devilish smile. “You should wear black. That’d look sick,” he’d said, simple as that, as Harry’s eyes loosened, the stress dissolving into warm surprise. After a few moments of silence—Harry still looking at him a little cautiously—Louis had sighed, wrapping him up in arms like he’s grown so accustomed to do. “It’s not weird, Harry. Remember—fuck the world? If you like it, it’s that simple. I certainly don’t care. No such thing as rules for a Louis Tomlinson and a Harry Styles. We’re just us. I’m a vagabond with one outfit and no concept of structure and you’re a boy with beautiful nails and beautiful clothes and a beautiful ol’ head.”

It made Harry clutch onto him feverishly and Louis didn’t miss the wet sheen glazing his eyes when he smiled.

He loves Harry, you know. He does. He can’t say it because he isn’t sure if it’s right yet, but he loves him and he likes to think Harry understands it with his actions… Even if he can’t place words to it yet. Just yet.

But he thinks Harry understands.  

Harry always seems to understand.

“I think you’re anything but aimless,” he’ll continue, one last time, lips mumbling against Louis’ lips. “And I think it’s only the beginning.”

And Louis will smile, more than he has in his entire fucking life. It feels like something bright speckling his heart.

“Alright,” he says, expression relaxing and limbs warm again. He rubs gentle hands along Harry before urging him up. “Enough about me. Let’s get you back to that studying, eh? I’ll help you; you know how good I am with those flash cards.” He manages a wicked grin as Harry chuckles, pulling him off the bed with surprising agility.

“You take it too literally, Lou—you’ve got to stop flashing me every time I get an answer right. You know how unproductive that always is.”

“’Unproductive’ is highly debatable,” Louis counters, his smile easy, as his hands circle Harry’s waist, bunching the lilac jumper in his hands. He loves this jumper—it’s soft and plush and warm and always, always smells like Harry the most.

Harry purrs, contented, as he kisses him, his no-longer-hesitant hands moving with purpose as he smiles and giggles and bumps knuckles against Louis’ jeans.

And, see, this is a thing they do now, too… Casual…things, or whatever. But just little things. Little precious things that Louis takes very seriously, very carefully, always making sure to cast out breathless, intense “Are you sure”s to Harry, in between his furrowed “Is this alright?”s that Harry, literally always, agrees to. Usually very wonderfully eagerly.

But, like. It’s…

It’s everything to Louis, these small things. Everything. And he protects them with his life because this part of Harry is his and nobody else’s and he wants to hide it from the universe’s dirty hands. And he hasn’t, can’t, refuses to…go further.

He can’t have sex with Harry. Not yet. Sometimes Harry hints at it, all hopeful eyes and inquiring hands, but it’s only ever been hints. They’ve never talked about it, thank god, and so Louis always plays it safer, plays it easier because he just can’t…

For some reason, he can’t do that. Not yet. He doesn’t want Harry to surrender himself to Louis until it all feels a bit cleaner.

Soon. It’ll be soon.

Anyway.

“Okay,” Louis suddenly says, snapping out of his mind and clearing his throat. Zayn suctions to his side on the crowded street, looking even more paranoid and discomforted. “Time for Gemma now.”

At that, Zayn frowns, deep-set and heavy. “I thought it was only for Harry’s mum.”

“Nope. He’s got a sister, too.”

Grumbling, Zayn maintains his frown. “And there’s no way to get out of this,” he mumbles, mostly to himself, slumping his shoulders as he trots in Louis’ wake. “Since she’s gonna be your sister-in-law soon.”

Louis merely elbows him (a bit harshly), refusing to acknowledge the zip in his spine or the warmth in his cheekbones and chest. Instead, they continue down the street.

**

“Louis? Hey.”

Somewhere, distantly, Louis feels his shoulder being gently shook. It’s accompanied by a hushed voice, the rustling of sheets, and the smell of...bacon. And eggs. And tea. And…cinnamon? Sugar?

God, it smells good.

He groans, shuffling his face out of the floral-patterned pillow ever so slightly. He feels another gentle shake.

“Louis, wake up. It’s Christmas!”

Against every fiber of his will, Louis’ exhausted face cracks a tiny smile.

“Harry?” he questions, though he knows the answer.

A giggle is his only response, paired with the squeaky dip of the bed as Harry climbs in alongside him, cold toes pressing into the warm nooks behind Louis’ bare knees.

He hadn’t gotten much sleep last night, see. He’s not used to early nights, what with his insomnia lately, not to mention his graveyard shifts at the pub. So when the Styles clan had began drifting off one by one last night, sprawled respectively amongst the various chairs and couches in their living room as Christmas flick after Christmas flick murmured along on the TV, twinkles of snow tumbling peacefully outside… Louis remained bright-eyed and quiet, clutching onto a sweetly sleeping, drooly Harry (clad in a gingerbread sweater and furry red socks, bless him) and counting the ticks of his heartbeat, feeling warmer than he has in years. Maybe ever. The room was dim, washed in red and rainbow shadows from the lights strung around the elegance of the evergreen tree stood by their bay window. An ornate star was on top. The ornaments were a pleasant mix of polished and handmade—most of them Harry and Gem’s, back when they were uncoordinated children with a penchant for glitter. Louis inspected them as they all slept, the crackles of the dying fire warming the silence. His mouth still tasted like the homemade cocoa they’d had after dinner—when they all opened up their pajamas from Anne. Even Louis got some.

“For me?” he’d asked, face blinking in shock as Anne handed him a parcel with a soft-eyed smile.

She nodded, smile widening—just like Harry’s does. All slow and sincere. A lotioned hand patted his cheek. “Of course, dear,” she’d said, simple as that, before handing Harry his.

It made Louis smile as he clutched the green plaid of the wrapping paper, his name written neatly on the tag at the top, adorned with a plastic red bow. He’s never really gotten Christmas presents before, much less ones that were wrapped. Jo never had enough money for those sorts of things and Louis was never as bothered by it as he probably would’ve expected. Even in Doncaster, when the girls were born and things were a bit more stable, he’d never gotten anything more than the chance to buy himself a new CD or pair of trainers, notes clutched in his hand as he took the bus by himself.

Back when it was just them, just the two of ‘em, Jo would say, “Life is our gift, Louis,”, when she’d tuck him in on Christmas Eve night; which also happens to be his birthday. “And you’re the only gift I need on Christmas. Happy birthday, boy,” she’d smile, tweaking his nose before pressing a kiss to his closed eyelids. Then she’d leave, patchouli and smoke wafting in her wake, and it would be Louis in the dark, falling asleep.

He swallowed at the thought though, tamping it down. He never told Harry it was his birthday.

He gently opened the present.

“Thank you,” he’d said, heartfelt, looking up from the neatly lain pajamas inside. Really, they were just simple black sweats and a white t-shirt (unlike Harry’s magenta and white fur-dusted onesie, hah) and, somehow, that meant more. Because it was exactly Louis’ style and Anne knew that or maybe Harry told her and that…

They know him.

Feeling a little too much unexpectedly, he merely pressed a kiss to her cheek, hugging her. He used to hate hugging, found it awkward and anxious and stilted. But hugging Anne feels like hugging a mum, feels like hugging Jo back when she’d tuck him in, and it’s something Louis sort of loves now.

“Thank you,” he’d murmured again, as Anne patted his hair comfortingly, clinging back.

“You’re welcome, love.”

It was nice. The best Christmas Eve he’s ever had. Definitely the best birthday.

And now, with Harry here beside him, breathing steadily in his ear as he wraps warm hands around him, it’s looking to be an equally good Christmas.

“Come on, Lou. Come on, mousling,” he murmurs, but his own voice is sleep-scratched and peppered in yawns.

“Not yet,” Louis mumbles. “And I’m not a mousling. I’m a man now. Mighty Mouse.”

He can feel Harry’s smile, feel the puff of air from it.

“You’re not a man. You’re still my boy.” He ends the sentence with a nuzzle to the side of his face and it’s enough to force Louis’ sticky eyes open, peering up at him with the hint of a smirk.

“’m twenty now,” he grumbles, but it’s good natured and casual.

Harry pauses.

“So I’m a big, ol’ man. And definitely a mighty mouse.”

Impressively quick, Harry lifts his head. “You’re twenty? When—when did that happen? I thought you were nineteen?”

He doesn’t want to make a big deal out of his birthday, genuinely. But it also feels dishonest and childish to hide it from Harry altogether—he’ll have to be born someday, won’t he?

“I was nineteen.” He pauses. “The day before yesterday.”

And Harry shoots out of bed.

“It was your birthday yesterday?? Louis! You didn’t—“ And, without another word, Harry scrambles out of the room. “MUM!” Louis hears him shout.

Oh dear god.

Groaning, Louis lets his face fall back into the pillow. His ankles are cold where Harry’d disrupted his blankets. His cocoon has been split open. The little fucker.

Silence ambles along with the sporadic snowflakes outside of the damp, frosted window of the guest room. They’re quite beautiful—they catch in the peaks of early morning sunlight. Fuck, what time is it, even? Louis’ not a morning person. Not a wake-up person in general.

“It is really??” comes Anne’s voice from somewhere downstairs suddenly.

God. He better make an appearance before they assault him with balloons and breakfast in bed.

Smiling to himself, Louis hauls his shivering body out of the guest bed, hoisting up his sweats as he yawns against the back of his palm before descending the creaky, carpeted stairs. Gem’s door is open so she’s already awake as well. How the hell do they all do it?

When Louis finally ruffles into the kitchen, he’s met with the exact image he’d feared: Anne sliding on her gloves, already suited up in her winter jacket, as Harry hands her a list of somethings, his hair flying away in every direction. He’s mumbling something to her in a low tone, only stopping when Anne not-so-subtly motions towards Louis.

She smiles, warm and amused. “Louis! You never told us it was your birthday,” she chastises.

“Er, yeah… I just… It’s not a thing for me?” he offers, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. He scratches his nose; it’s not scratchy.

Harry merely purses his lips, clearly withholding his comments. It’s sort of adorable—his face is scrunched up like the pup he is.

“Please,” Louis continues, emphasizing his words with tingly hands. “Don’t go to any trouble for it. Please. I didn’t want to take away from the holiday—“

“You wouldn’t be taking away from anything!” Harry insists, appalled, but Anne chuckles as she picks up her purse.

“I’m just going to run a few errands before we open presents. Gemma’s in the shower, roast’s in the oven—Harry, keep an eye on it.” She says it with a firm finger punctuating each word and Harry nods, eyes wide and serious. “When we get back, we’ll have breakfast and open presents, alright?” She smiles, kissing Harry’s cheek.

“Sounds good, mum.”

Louis just smiles sheepishly, feeling his skin warm uncomfortably when Anne turns to him. She looks anything but irate though, seemingly happy to do…whatever it is that Harry is having her do. Still, he feels guilty and awkward, offering his cheek a little shyly when Anne pecks it, gaze bright.

“And don’t think you’re getting away without a proper birthday cuddle from me,” she teases, poking him playfully in the chest.

Louis half-laughs, biting his smiling cheek. “Alright,” is all he can think to say, a little awkwardly and much quieter than is custom, and it makes Anne pull him in for a proper hug.

“Happy birthday,” she says quietly, her chin hooked over his shoulder. She’s rubbing his back in soothing circles and her hold is secure. Motherly.

Louis swallows, hugging her back.

“Love you, darling,” she smiles as he pulls back, making Louis’ chest twang, and pressing one last kiss to his cheek before disengaging herself completely and turning around, hauling her purse further up her shoulder. “See you in a bit. And Harry—keep an eye on the roast!”

“Yes, mum!” he calls out, but his eyes are already on Louis, warm and glittery, his sleep-mottled smile dancing on his mouth.

Then the door is clicked shut and it’s just them, the roast, Gemma, and Christmas morning.

Louis’ feet are cold against the floor. He wishes he had some socks. Maybe he could transfer some of the heat in his face down to his toes.

“You never even mentioned it was your birthday,” Harry says quietly, shaking his head as he walks up to Louis, but he’s still smiling. “I would’ve loved to have celebrated it properly, I would’ve loved to get you something—“

But Louis is already shaking his head, placing hands on either side of Harry’s face. One corner of his mouth twitches up. “I don’t want you to go through the trouble. Just another year that I’ve been out of womb. That’s all. Never really understood the fuss about birthdays, to be honest. It’s tedious, is all it is.”

“It’s not tedious!” Harry all but squawks, and it makes Louis laugh in spite of himself. Harry pries Louis’ hands off his face, tucks them against his chest instead, thumbs rubbing wide circles. He suddenly beams. “You’re never getting away with this again, you know. For every year after, until we’re very old, I’m going to make your birthday an event.”

“Don’t you dare.”

“I shall! And it will be to show you that birthdays are special. It’s a celebration, Louis. A celebration about you. Because you were born and you’re alive and you… You’re really important. Birthdays are ways to focus on someone as an individual. Because you need them, you know? And it’s the day that they entered this world and it’s sorta like… It’s also sorta like you’re celebrating your thanks that they’re here at all because, without them, maybe you wouldn’t fully be here, either.”

Louis tries to keep a frown on his face. He does. “Leave it to you to say the sappiest, sweetest rubbish…”

Harry chuckles, nuzzling back into Louis’ neck. Louis hates that he loves it.

“You’re ruining me,” he mutters, shaking his head as they sway in the kitchen. They’re always swaying. His heartbeat falls a little quiet as the silence stretches on, the oven sizzling, Bing Cosby singing from the other room. “And I’m ruining you,” he adds, quieter.

Goddammit. This is not a day for guilt. He needs to stop being so self-pitying.

He closes his eyes, shakes the thought away, and pulls Harry closer. “You know you’re…” He searches words, tires to find something. He doesn’t, though, he never can, so he gives up. Just lamely, he says, “You’re everything to me, you know.”

That’s all he can offer.

“You’re everything to me, too,” Harry muffles back immediately, mouth against his shoulder. Then he pulls back, grin bright. “And I want to celebrate that. I love you, Louis. Happy birthday.”

Louis nods, biting his lips and refusing to let emotion assault him anymore than it already has.

Harry seems to understand though, because he doesn’t push or wait expectedly for a response. He just smiles warmer before he steps away, tugging Louis’ hand. “Now, come on. Let’s get dressed in our Christmas finest and eat chocolate.”

“And make tea?”

“Lots of tea. And can we watch cartoons? Christmas cartoons?”

“What on earth are Christmas cartoons?”

“You know—cartoons about Christmas.”

And Louis laughs, overjoyed, as he follows Harry up the stairs.

**

Once Anne is back and Gemma’s out of the shower, Christmas breakfast is spent with sweets, eggs, bacon, tea in Christmas-themed china, and this beautiful fruit-adorned tart thing set in front of Louis in honor of his birthday. He gets the biggest portions of food, gets hugs from all around, and is treated to a lovely card from Anne that he reads after his stomach’s filled to the brim. It tugs at his innards and he actively has to steady the waver of his smile when he closes it and sets it down gently atop the snowflake embroidered napkins.

“Thank you, Anne,” he mumbles, cheeks hot. He can feel his smile tugging his features in several different directions.

Anne nods with that ever present smile of hers, reaching out a hand to settle atop Louis’. “You’re welcome, Louis.”

It makes everything feel warmer somehow.

“All grown up now,” Gemma smiles teasingly, tucking hair behind her ears. Her knees are pulled up to her chest. “Can sit with the big kids now.”

Laughing, Louis quirks an eyebrow. “Big kids, eh? Like you?”

She grins, though it’s a bit more of a smirk. “Well, I was twenty first, you know.”

“Almost twins!” Louis remarks, hopping out of his seat and making his way towards her, his grin widening. “Look at the pair of us.” Without another word, he wraps her up in a sloppy hug, arms wildly thrown around her shoulders as he bends over the back of her chair.

She laughs, reaching arms up awkwardly over her head, attempting to entrap him in a headlock or something. Gemma’s fun like that—she’s always up for a tussle and she’s always good-natured about it.

“Hey,” Harry frowns, all petulant lips and eyes. “Don’t say you’re twins. It’s creepy.”

Glancing up, Louis tilts his head. “Why creepy?”

“Because that’s incest. You’re my boyfriend—you can’t be my brother.”

It’s said so indignantly that everybody at the table laughs. (Except Harry.)

“I don’t get what’s so funny,” he grumbles, pouty. It’s entirely too ridiculous and Louis resists coddling him for a total of forty seconds.

“Of course I don’t want to be your brother,” Louis sings into his hair, plopping himself onto Harry’s lap. Both of their bodies are warm, festive fabrics mingling together, smiles a little loose. Anne chuckles and Louis doesn’t miss the roll of Gemma’s eyes as they both stand up and begin gathering the plates. His arm slides around Harry’s shoulders, secure, and it warms the lines in Harry’s face, his eyes falling to Louis’ mouth. “That’d put quite the damper in my sex life.”

Flushing to his ears, Harry squawks, scrambling to press his palm against Louis’ laughing mouth. It’s so entirely juvenile and exaggerated but it just makes Louis feel infinitely warm and unbothered, almost cloud-like. Floating up above, somewhere. So he keeps laughing against Harry’s palm.

Over by the sink, Gemma and Anne exchange a look, shaking their heads fondly as Christmas carols croon through the smoky-sweet air.

It’s not even noon and yet it’s the best Christmas Louis’ ever had. By a fucking landslide.

**

The entirety of the holiday is spent exactly like something you’d see in a film or TV special. Louis’ never really celebrated Christmas before, not properly, so he’s not really sure if this is something every family does or if it’s just the Styles Way, but it’s… Really pleasant. Really good, overall. Great, even. Maybe wonderful.

They all spend the day at the house, opening up presents casually as they nibble on cheese trays and chocolates and extra-special blends of tea. They’re all in their socks and the pajamas that they’d gotten the night before (even getting a photo taken in them—Harry, Louis, and Gemma, piled up on the stairs like kittens, much to Louis’ chagrin) and, see…

See, Louis wasn’t expecting any of this, okay? So he certainly wasn’t expecting presents. He’s staying the entire weekend at this family’s house—that’s present enough. He wasn’t expecting presents.

So when Harry hands out the various parcels and packages, all brightly wrapped and festive, then suddenly extends one out to him, Louis just blinks dumbly down at the box outstretched before him.

“For me?” he asks blankly, completely taken by surprise.

Harry just beams in response, the Santa hat on his head askew. “Yeah, Louis,” he rumbles in that sweet, deep cocoa voice. “For you.”

It’s from Gemma, Louis reads, and it makes him swallow as he meets her eye. She nods from across the way, a little pink in the cheeks, and she looks quite tiny in her enormous green elf-adorned cardigan.

Louis smiles back to the best of his ability, suddenly feeling overwhelmingly sentimental, and he thinks she understands that when the flush of her cheeks begins to quiet before being replaced by a softer smile, one that lingers with something unfamiliar.

It’s only just as he recovers his voice that he receives another present—from Anne. And then one from Harry, another from Anne, and more and more from Harry. It’s startling, is what it is, and all Louis can do is just sit there, dumbfounded, because he was fully expecting to spend this time tucked into Harry’s side as a mere spectator, watching with keen interest as Harry’s clever hands ripped through immaculate paper, as he took in the glow of Harry’s eyes when they brightened with genuine delight. It was a comforting prospect.

And yet here he is. Being…welcomed into this family. Embraced and spoiled…

He doesn’t know what to say.

They unwrap their presents individually—everybody gets a turn (oldest to youngest, goes the order) and everybody watches. It seems more personal this way, more drawn out, and it flushes Louis with an odd pride when Anne and Gemma open their presents for him at the heart of the attention, their faces breaking out into surprise and appreciation. They both thank him profusely—Anne kissing him a total of five times all over his face, clutching the lovely little box of perfume to her chest—and Harry turns to him after each one, beaming, with a startling sort of warmth settled behind his eyeballs that Louis hasn’t quite seen before.

“You didn’t have to,” he mumbles, heart-felt and touched as he plants soft lips on Louis.

“But I wanted to,” Louis says back. And it makes Harry beam.

And then it’s Louis’ turn to open his gifts.

It’s… Well, it’s definitely overwhelming, to say the least.

He can’t quite explain the feeling of opening up Gemma’s gift—a Vans t-shirt, a burned CD of her favorite songs, and a little satchel of homemade chocolate truffles. The note inside says ‘Because I know you’re a fiend for chocolates’ and a little smiley face is drawn next to it. It’s very Harry-esque and it’s familiar and, just…

It’s wonderful.

“Thank you, Gems,” he says, heart pitter-pattering as he catches her eye and smiles, soft.

“Anytime, Loulou,” she replies without a beat—it’s a nickname she sometimes tosses at him. It always makes him snort and it always makes Harry a little jealous because he thinks he should be the only one who gives Louis special nicknames. Oh, that boy.

It all only gets worse when he opens Anne’s presents, though. She gets him things that a mother would buy for her son. It clogs his throat as he unwraps warm socks and undershirts and tea and gift cards and gingerbread men, bundled up in plastic and ribbon. She spoils him.

“I can’t accept all this,” he croaks out, eyes wide, items splayed before him. “Anne…”

She waves a hand, shaking her head. “Nonsense. Happy Christmas, Louis.” The words are as encompassing as the blankets tucked around Louis’ legs and he blinks several times, feeling Harry’s arm snake around his waist as he mumbles his heartfelt thanks, gently putting his treasures away with all the care than he can manage.

He’s never experienced anything like this before. Quite frankly, he’s blown the fuck away.

And then… He gets to Harry’s gifts.

“I hope you like them,” the boy mumbles, all shy and excited as he watches quietly from beside. Their knees are bumping beneath the quilted blanket and that point of contact is enough to make Louis feel a little more tethered to his surroundings despite the air inside his head.

“I’m sure I will,” he reassures, voice already pitched too low, tugging on the red ribbon that holds the first package together.

It comes as no surprise when he more than likes every single one. Every one.

He doesn’t know what to say.

The first thing Harry gives him is a journal—a black, leather-bound thing with cream colored pages and nice margins and a soft, flexible spine. “You’ve said that you always wished you had the temperament for a journal,” Harry explains, small and quiet. “And I thought maybe you should try. If you wanted. Because you’re always doodling in my notes and, like, writing lyrics and things and you always say such wonderful, like, inspiring things…” He drifts off as Louis opens the book reverently, unable to speak.

What does he say? How could he possibly respond?

The book is solid in his hands, smelling like sweet leather. Inside, on the very first page, is Harry’s handwriting.

“To live is the rarest thing. Most people exist, that is all.”

Beneath it:

“I love you, Louis Tomlinson. Thank you for giving me life. :) Always yours, Harry”

And fuck. He remembered. He remembered Louis’ favorite quote. And he just…

The words stutter what must be Louis’ heart, his veins, his brain, and everything else that composes him.

“Harry—“ he begins, but his voice breaks, and all he can do is look at him, eyes locked into eyes.

Harry bites his cheek to hide his smile, clearly pleased, before looking back down at the rest of the parcels. “Keep going,” he urges, a little bit more confident.

So Louis swallows and continues.

The next thing he opens is a jacket. A fucking jacket. A jacket like the one he needs but never buys. It’s black, thick, and well-made, sturdy enough for winter but light enough for spring. The inlay is plaid, the zipper is silver, and the buckles and buttons are sleek ebony. It’s warm. It’s Louis. The pockets don’t have holes, there are no scuffs or stains. It doesn’t reek of cigarettes and faded cologne.

Harry got him a new jacket.

“Harry, I can’t—“ he tries again, turning to him, but Harry’s nibbling his lip self-consciously.

“I know you love your jean jacket,” he rushes to say. “But you’ve mentioned wanting to get a new one and I know it’s falling apart and your hands are always so cold in it and—I dunno. We can return it, if you hate it. You can pick out something you like—“

But Louis shakes his head, cutting him off. “No, I only want this one,” he says, quiet. He smiles, lets it form on his face. “No, honestly, Harry… I don’t deserve all of this. I don’t deserve any of it. But. Thank you. Honestly, thank you, this is…” He trails off, speechless.

“You like it?” Harry asks, hopeful.

Louis kisses him in response, just a pause longer than a peck. “More than,” he says quietly, lingering on his lips. “Thank you.”

Then Gemma throws a wad of wrapping paper at them (Anne tsks) and they separate, laughing, before Louis finishes the rest of his gifts which consist of sweets and little odds and ends and a few baked goods.

And then Harry begins on his gifts.

Everything feels light and airy and elevated as Louis takes a sip of his tea, toes warm and stomach niggling as Harry selects Louis’ gift to open first.

See, Louis’ not good at giving gifts. He’s not. He always over-thinks it and procrastinates and feels weird and self-conscious about it and, despite Anne and Gemma’s joy over his presents, today is no exception. Because he really wasn’t sure what to get someone like Harry. Nothing ever seems good enough, you know?

He settled for this hipster record that Harry’s been wistfully wishing for—he found it on eBay which was just pure luck. Then he got this book of Keats’ love letters (mostly because Harry’s always banging on about reading and poetry and love and shit) that he found in this charming bookshop one day when he was waiting for Harry’s school to let out. He also ended up getting him another floral scarf (this one with gold flowers and white ivy), candles for his room, chia seeds (mostly as a joke because he’s always teasing him about them), and a pair of wooden knitting needles—he’d gotten them at a farmer’s market that Harry dragged him to, sneaking off to purchase them from a gentle old man while Harry stared greedily at homemade beeswax candles and jars of local honey.

“Louis!” he exclaims after he’s screeched his way through all the items. He sets large, wet eyes on Louis. Tears are brimming. “Louis, this is perfect, all of this is perfect!”

Louis can barely manage an, “I’m glad, you’re welcome,” amongst Harry’s fevered kisses, chanted ‘thank you’s, and body-squishing hugs.

Anne takes photographs of the scene and when Harry finally releases him, Louis dabs the tears away from his eyes, laughing and shaking his head. “I can’t believe you’re actually crying, you fool,” he chides through wide cheeks and it makes Harry sniffle and blink and quirk his lips just so, closing his eyes with each brush of Louis’ thumbs. And then Anne and Gemma laugh fondly as Harry hiccups and Louis offers to refill everyone’s tea. Harry goes back to opening his presents, sniffling every minute or so, a smile lingering on his face, his gaze always darting back to Louis.

Everything about this moment is what Louis wants.

It’s relaxing, it’s quiet, it’s sincere.

It’s addicting.

**

By the time evening rolls around, Louis feels warm and bloated with food, limbs and eyelids heavy as he stretches across the floor, Harry by his side.

So, of course, it’s then that he gets a text from Zayn.

‘Wanna celebrate Christmas and walk?’

Louis chuckles, shaking his head as he begins to type out his politely worded ‘no’—before Harry suddenly leans his head over, resting his chin on Louis’ shoulder, and gazes down at the screen.

“You can invite him over, you know,” he suggests, eyes blinking slow. “Mum and Gem wouldn’t mind.”

Surprised, Louis looks to him. “Really?”

Harry shrugs. “Yeah, why not? It’d be nice. Cozy.”

“Alright,” Louis nods, smiling as he scoots just that much closer. “Alright, yeah. If you really don’t mind.”

“I really don’t. I think it’d be fun—I like Zayn.”

“Is it okay if he brings Niall?”

“Yeah, definitely. I’ll make us cocoa. And we can all wear matching jumpers.”

Louis snorts, even as he’s texting the offer to Zayn, before wrapping Harry up, pulling him close to his chest. “I despise you,” he grins, noses bumping. He can hear the clink of plates and pans in the kitchen—either Anne and Gem are cleaning up or they’re making more food. Either prospect is nice, so lovely and nice.

“Love you, too,” Harry mutters, smiling like a star. The tips of his cheeks are pink, his hair’s a mussy mess of frizzy curls, and his breath smells like chocolate and peppermint.

Yeah, Louis definitely loves him.

“I’ll help you make the cocoa,” Louis says, just as Zayn texts back.

‘Sure’ it says. Then a moment later, ‘My love will join me’

Pffft. How typically poetic of Zayn. It makes Louis smile—fuck, everything makes Louis smile. What a sap.

“Yeah,” Harry nods, pleased, already getting up. His bones crackle like the fire. “That will be nice. And I’ll light my new candles for the occasion!” He grins through his stretched-out yawn, arms lifted high above his head.

Pretty, pretty angel boy.

“Wild,” Louis chuckles, fond, and Harry pinches him before he straightens, offering his hands.

“You’re mean,” he sing-songs, unbothered. “Now come help me in the kitchen, please.”

“Yes, sir,” Louis replies seriously as Harry hauls him up. Their chests bump and they laugh, unable to resist a quick kiss or three.

Their hands linger together as they make their way to the kitchen, hips bumping.

**

When Zayn and Niall arrive, Gemma and Anne are still in the kitchen listening to more Christmas tunes while putting the finishes touches on some last-minute meat pies; Harry and Louis are watching from their spot at the table, sipping large mugs of cocoa and resting warm hands atop each other. They really are like proper husbands, Louis reckons. It’s a startlingly peaceful thought.

“Happy Christmas!” Niall sings happily once he enters, face split with a pink-edged grin. His hair’s damp from snow and the tip of his nose is uncommonly red; he looks the spitting image of Christmas. Especially in comparison to Zayn, who’s wearing a large black knitted stocking cap with ear flaps, lidded eyes gliding across the room inquisitively, hands deep in the pockets of his enormous orange jacket.

“It smells like prune juice,” he comments seriously.

“I love prune juice,” Niall exclaims, shrugging off his own jacket easily as he makes his way to the table. Louis kicks his feet back onto Harry’s lap as he watches, amused, taking a sip from his mug. “It’s better than you’d think, Z.”

“I’ve never had it.”

“Then how do you know what it smells like?”

“I dunno,” Zayn shrugs, sitting down, his jacket still on. He stares at Niall, serious. “I just know. Just like I can taste sound. I just know.”

Gemma blinks, pausing in her ministrations. “I’m sorry, did you just say that you can taste sound?”

Zayn and Niall both nod seriously. “It’s a really rare gift,” Niall boasts, looking proud as he flings an arm around Zayn’s nimble shoulders.

“Yeah,” Zayn agrees. “I’m pretty special.”

Louis snorts into his mug, just as Harry giggles and turns to him, squeezing his knee.

“Oh, Brother Dearest,” Louis smirks, shaking his head. “I’m so glad you and the husband have joined us. It’s just not Christmas without your crystal-ball wisdom.”

“Yeah, I got one of those for Christmas, you know.”

This comes as no surprise.

“Oh?” Louis feigns intrigue just as Gemma and Anne exchange an amused look. “Who got you that, then? Surely not my best friend Martha?”

Because Louis’ pretty sure that Martha prefers to pretend that Zayn doesn’t exist—and it’s mostly because he wants things like crystal balls. Cow that she is.

“No,” Zayn says peacefully, but his eyes fall to the table. “It was Liam.”

And, just like that, Louis’ smile freezes.

“Oh.”

“Yeah.” Zayn’s eyes then dart to him, a little quickly. Too quickly.

Liam. Right. Haha, good times. Good reminder, yeah.

Louis swallows, setting down his mug. He’s suddenly lost his taste for cocoa.

“Actually. Uhm, Louis, can we speak?” Zayn suddenly asks, gently removing Niall’s arm as he stands, eyes still on Louis. “Like, really quick? Over there somewhere?” He gestures to the other room, eyes unmoving.

It makes Harry frown and it doesn’t go unnoticed.

“Erm. Yeah,” Louis attempts to say casually, sliding palms across his thighs before he rises. He offers a mustered up smile to Harry who’s looking up at him, brows furrowed as he clutches his mug between his thighs, lips pouting. “I’ll be right back, pup,” he says, sweeping a soft hand through the fringe lying across Harry’s forehead.

It makes him blink, his brow furrowing that much more, before his pout deepens. “Where are you going?” he asks, glancing over to Zayn.

“Just for a wee chat. Be right back.”

“A chat about what?”

And Louis doesn’t want to answer that, won’t answer that, so instead he just laughs as he says, “I’ll be back,” but it feels humorless and his chest is hollow.

Niall, meanwhile, has already found his way over to Anne and Gemma, curiously watching as they sprinkle icing sugar atop the mini meat pies, occasionally asking the odd question. It makes Gemma smile a tiny bit and Anne looks patient and pleased.

“I suggest keeping an eye on that one, though. He might chat their ears off if they’re not careful,” he adds, motioning to the trio, but Harry just continues to look unsettled.

“Okay…” he says slowly. But he doesn’t move so Louis just smiles one last time before turning around and following Zayn into the other room.

In the dim light, Zayn looks serious—all frown lines and quiet, careful eyes.

“I suppose I can’t invite Liam over? Tonight?” is the first thing he says. Or asks, really.

Hah. Funny.

“Of course you fucking can’t,” Louis replies immediately, lips tight. He folds his arms across his chest. “Why would you even ask that?”

Zayn looks sad though, eyes downcast as he slouches, hands hanging limp. “Martha and Dad left for holiday. He’s home alone.”

“Yeah,” Louis snaps, feeling a flash of something indefinable shoot through his body. “He’s alone because he’s a prick.”

Zayn’s frown deepens. Silence settles.

Finally, he parts his lips to speak. “He told me he’s been trying to contact you. Says you’re ignoring him again.”

“Yep.” He pops the ‘p’.

“He knows something’s up, Louis.”

Ice prickles in his chest. “About damn time.”

“But you haven’t told him?” Zayn stares, words slow. “The truth?”

Louis swallows, looking away. The truth. “Not as such.” Swallow. “No.”

He hears Zayn’s sigh, deep and heavy as if hauled from the floorboards.

“Louis, he’s upset,” he implores quietly as he takes a step forward. Louis remains still as stone. “He’s trying to get your attention. And he’s saying that he’ll use Harry to get it if you keep ignoring him, alright?”

At that, something hot touches the points of Louis’ spine.

“What the fuck does that mean?” he snaps, suddenly feeling alert. “Did he tell you to threaten me, Zayn?  Is that what this is? You relaying his message or summat like the bloody mafia?”

“No, no,” Zayn rushes, holding up appeasing hands. “No, man. No, it’s just… I just want you to know what’s going on. Because you’re not talking to him, you don’t know what’s going on, man. You can’t keep ignoring him, alright?”

Louis’ chest stills prickly and tight, still feels cold with stabs of something he doesn’t want to identify. “And why the fuck not? Huh? Why not? Is it because he’s suddenly Darth fucking Vader? He’s going to hurt Harry to hurt me or summat? Is that what you’re seriously telling me right now?”

But Zayn just quiets, his lips pursed and sad. “He’s my brother,” he says, quieter than he’s ever spoken. “And he’s not doing well right now. It’s not about what he’s threatening to do, it’s not about any of that—I just want you to talk to him. Communicate. Stop pretending like he doesn’t exist when so few things on this planet do, man.”

Fuck. This is not… This sure as hell is not something Louis wants to deal with right now. Not today, not on Christmas. Not here.

He swallows, looking away. His fists tighten on his arms.

“He’s catching on, you know,” Zayn adds after the silence drags. He’s quiet and whispered, sounds like curled paper and pencil shavings. “He knows Harry is more than just part of the game—“

“Shhh!” Louis hisses, panic flashing through him as he spares a quick look over his shoulder. “Not here,” he warns, low. “Do not mention any of—of that here.”

Once again, Zayn quiets.

God, Louis’ such a dick. He sighs, heavy.

“Look.” He tries to release the tightness in his jaw, tries to ease his fists and relax his shoulders as he glances up. “I’m sorry, Zayn. I’m not being fair about this.”

“No. You’re not.”

“I just… I can have this with Harry, alright? You said it yourself—“

“I didn’t tell you to ignore everything else, though,” he protests, expression firm. “You’ve got to embrace your reality before you can infuse it with your desires.”

Louis blinks, just once. “What the hell are you talking about?”

Sighing, Zayn tilts his head, a pitying expression overcoming his features. “You’ve got to talk to him, Louis. If not for him, then for me. It’s Christmas, he’s alone, and he doesn’t know why you suddenly hate him. This just doesn’t feel right, man. Break it off with him or whatever but just… Just do something.”

Fuck. He’s right, isn’t he?

Closing his eyes, Louis takes a deep breath, feeling it reach down to his tailbone, before he exhales. Long and slow.

“Alright,” he nods finally, bones suddenly feeling brittle. “Alright. I’ll, uh. I’ll call him. But later, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Zayn nods, but there’s a glimmer of a hopeful smile.

It only makes Louis smile back as he bumps a fist against his arm affectionately. “Come on,” he says, nodding towards the kitchen. “Let’s go back.”

Together, they return to the bright lights and laughter, a small boulder lying in Louis’ stomach.

“What was that about?” Harry murmurs once Louis reaches him, wrapping an arm around him.

“Nothing,” Louis assures him with a smile before pecking his lips.

The frown lingers there though, as does the crease between Harry’s brows, but he doesn’t say anything, instead just watches Louis as they fall back into conversation with the group, laughing at Niall’s attempts at cooking.

And it all feels warm and soft, everybody’s faces shining…

But Louis, somehow, suddenly feels very cold.

**

It’s about three-ish hours later when Niall and Zayn eventually yawn their departure.

“I sorta just wanna lie down and think for awhile,” Zayn mumbles, eyes glazed as he leans into Niall’s body in the corridor, tired and heavy.

Niall nods, eyes equally glossy. “Yeah. Christmas is exhausting. Maybe we should skip a year.”

“Skip Christmas?” Harry questions, looking near-horrified.

Louis chuckles.

“Yeah,” Niall nods, serious. “Why not?”

“That’s really cool,” Zayn nods in approval. “In place of it, we could have a day where we just self-reflect and take naps.”

“And smoke,” Niall adds.

“And eat.”

“And maybe put on trousers.”

“Hm,” Zayn hums contemplatively, eyes far away. “Maybe.”

“And that seems like a good place to cut-off,” Louis concludes, hopping off the couch as he smirks at the pair, donning his own shoes while they shuffle on their jackets and boots.

“Wait, where are you going?” Harry asks, staring perplexedly at Louis as he slips on his Vans.

“Just gonna walk them out,” Louis replies easily, but the weight of his phone is heavy against his thigh. “Won’t be a moment. Stay inside and keep my seat warm, yeah? Maybe make another bit of tea? Please?” He bats his eyelashes for good measure, the way that always makes Harry chuckle.

But Harry doesn’t chuckle, instead just nods slowly, lips thin. “’Kay.”

It makes the boulder shift inside Louis. But he doesn’t say anything, instead just feigns his ease as he follows Zayn and Niall out the door.

“Bye everybody!” Niall waves, smiling. He’s so fair and boyish. “Thanks for everything!”

“Yeah, peace,” Zayn mutters, flashing the symbol with his fingers.

Louis laughs as he ushers them out, shutting the door gently behind him. “Quite the characters, aren’t you.”

“Hopefully,” they both say as one. But neither seems phased by it as they continue to slope along towards Niall’s car, occasionally emitting a yawn.

“Bye, kids,” Louis calls, already removing his phone. His heart thumps irregularly. “Happy Christmas!”

“Happy Christmas,” they call back.

And then the doors shut, the car starts, the lights flash into life. Then they’re gone. Leaving Louis beneath a dark sky and few stars and one large moon that reflects off of the screen of his blank phone.

He stares down at it, swallowing three consecutive times before he finally presses Liam’s name.

It takes only one ring.

“Louis?”

Swallowing, Louis closes his eyes, assembling his body into strength. Power. Indifference.

“Liam.”

“Christ,” he hears Liam breathe and the agitation is palpable. “There you bloody well are.”

“I’ve been here the whole time.”

“Don’t fuck with me. Not right now.”

Louis exhales; he watches the stream of steam from his mouth. He swears he feels it curl on his tongue.

“So,” Liam begins, hesitant and slow. The line is silent, ever so silent. “What have you been up to?”

Somehow, that pisses Louis off.

“Don’t ask me like you give a shit about me. You just want to know what’s going on with Harry.”

“No,” he says slowly, agitated, “I want to know how you’re doing—“

“You better not fucking touch him,” Louis hisses, rage building and churning inside of him. Here, in the dark, it’s easy to be angry. It’s easy to be fucking furious when he’s alone beneath a very quiet sky and closed windows. “Zayn told me tonight, told me what you said about trying to get my attention—“

“You saw Zayn tonight?”

“Yeah. Him and Niall were here.”

“Where are you at?”

“Harry’s.”

“Oh.”

His breath feels quick, irregular. He feels out of his league right now. He doesn’t know what to say, fuck—what is he supposed to say? What’s too little? What’s too much?

What’s the right choice?

His pulse is too loud. He wonders if Liam can hear it.

“You haven’t been doing anything to prevent Harry from getting into Brenton, have you.” It’s not a question.

A few seconds pass, each listening to the other’s breath, waiting for it to falter.

“No.”

Liam’s breath quickens, a sharp intake is heard.

“Why not?” he asks, and it’s paper thin and quiet. It sets Louis’ bones on edge.

“I don’t—“ Louis stops, suddenly overwhelmed. The night sky is wide, dark, all encompassing. And he feels so fucking tiny. He feels tiny and stupid and Liam is just breathing on the other line, quiet and seemingly sad, sad of all things. Liam Payne sounds sad and he sounds quiet and, once upon a time, him and Louis were friends.

If that’s what constitutes ‘friends’, that is.

“There’s a lot going on, Li,” Louis finds himself whispering, suddenly feeling cold and very far away. The rage has ebbed, dissolved into something a little more helpless. Lost. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“What’s wrong? Are you in over your head? Just—just try to, like… Just stop, then. Just forget—“

“No,” Louis protests, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “No, I can’t do that.”

“What if he gets it, Louis? What if he wins?”

And something sour fills Louis’ stomach once again. Anger rushes back, fury and frustration and…

And it’s just always about winning with Liam fucking Payne, isn’t it?

“Shut the fuck up, Liam,” he finds himself spitting, hand tightening around his phone. “Honestly. Just fucking shut up.”

There’s one moment of shocked silence. Then:

“What the fuck, Louis? What’s wrong with you lately? Have you lost your goddamn mind?

It only spurs Louis on further.

“Jesus Christ, stop! Do you hear yourself? You’re the one who’s constantly fucking with people and you think I’m the problem? All you want to do is win, Liam, but you never can fight your own goddamn battles—“

“But I gave you something to fight for, for fuck’s sake—“

“Look, I called you because Zayn asked me to,” Louis rushes, louder than the words he doesn’t want to hear. “He’s concerned about you for some fucking reason and so, since it’s bloody Christmas, I told him I would. But you know what? I honestly wish I hadn’t.” He laughs, dry. “I’ve got fuck all to say to you.”

“What are you talking about?” Liam asks and he sounds incredulous and small. His voice is very far away. “What’s this even about? Styles? Is all of this about Harry fucking Styles?”

“No,” Louis chokes, wanting to maintain his anger, “it’s more than that—“

“Because you agreed to this fucking game, Louis. You agreed to this—you’ve always agreed. You wanted to play, you wanted to fight my battles for me, you’ve always wanted me. And now suddenly you’re acting like a fucking arsehole for no fucking reason and—“

“Louis?”

Instantly, in a fucking flash, Louis pulls the phone away from his ear, ending the call with all the terrified finesse of one who’s been caught a few too many times.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

He whips around, a panicked sweat dotting his collar as he meets Harry’s eye.

He’s standing by the door, a blanket wrapped around his limbs, staring at Louis a little unsurely, the porch light soaking in his hair, his skin…

Louis’ heart is thumping in his chest. Fuck.

“Harry,” he says, surprised, as he tries to cool his tone, his limbs, his heart. God, he hopes he didn’t hear. He hopes he didn’t say anything, he fucking hopes, prays, needs for Harry not to have heard anything wrong. “What, uh, what are you doing?”

But he ignores the question. “Who were you talking to?” he asks, brow pinched.

“No one,” Louis dismisses, immediately pocketing his phone—Liam’s calling him back. Nope.

“Who were you talking to, Louis?” Harry presses more firmly, but Louis keeps his mouth shut, just staring back at him. It makes Harry frown, frustrated, as he pulls his blanket tighter around himself. “Why can’t you tell me?”

“It’s not anything, Harry, believe me—“

“Then why can’t you tell me?”

“I just… It’s more trouble than it’s worth, to be honest,” he lies, terrified. His heart won’t slow down. “So let’s just please go back inside—“

“Oh? Communicating with me is more trouble than it’s worth?” Harry suddenly snaps, eyes far darker than they were a moment ago. “Is that what you’re saying? You’re just going to brush me aside? Like I’m a mothball or something?”

A mothball? What—?

Shocked, Louis stares, floundering for words. “What? No! No, you’re not a mothball, I just meant—“

“You know what? Forget it. Forget it. You just stay out here, calling whoever the hell you want, and I’ll be inside, alright? But, by all means, keep dialing everyone in your contacts list. Don’t let me stop you.”

And with that, the door shuts, leaving a stunned Louis outside.

Fuck. Honestly.

He sighs, dropping his head in his hands, standing amongst the snow and ice and darkness, the warmth of the Christmas lights inside unable to reach him.

**

It’s a solid thirty minutes before Louis finally goes back inside, his body numb with the cold, his head a silent mess of panic.

He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Still. He thought he found a solution, a loophole through this whole intricate web… But he still doesn’t know what he’s doing and he’s still really, really in love with Harry Styles.

If he’s not careful, he’s going to break him. He doesn’t want that. He wants that less than anything.

Feeling a shudder through his entire body, he trudges inside, quietly gliding past where Gemma and Anne’s sleeping bodies lie on the couch in front of the fire. All the presents from the day are still piled around the tree, little bits of leftover wrapping paper dusting the odd spot here and there. It’s all very cozy and quiet, the aftermath of a truly wonderful day.

But Louis still feels sick and Harry’s nowhere in sight, so he just keeps walking, gently climbing the stairs one at a time.

He doesn’t know what he’s going to say to Harry. He doesn’t know what to say anymore.

But it’s Christmas. And he doesn’t want to ruin Christmas.

When he finds Harry, he’s in his room, lying in his bed on his side, facing the wall. His arms are hugged around his middle and he looks tiny, is the thing. He looks so little like that, in that bed. Alone. In the dark.

He doesn’t move when Louis shuts the door, he doesn’t move when his footsteps creak across the carpet and find their way to the bed, knees bumping the mattress. He doesn’t move when Louis climbs in behind him, pressing his cold body against Harry’s warm one. He doesn’t move as Louis presses cold cheek against warm cheek, doesn’t blink when Louis inhales and exhales, hands gently finding their way into Harry’s.

Harry lets him hold his hands. It means something.

“I was talking to Liam,” Louis says, quiet and scratchy.

He feels Harry shift, feels his fingers tighten around his.

“He’s having a hard time because I haven’t been speaking to him lately. Zayn wanted me to call him because, you know… He’s his step-brother. So I did. And he just pissed me off. And that’s… Well. I guess that’s it.”

It takes a few moments, but eventually Harry rolls over, finding Louis’ eye in the dark. He’s still frowning.

“Why didn’t you just tell me, then?”

Louis sighs, rubs a thumb over the back of Harry’s hand. “I dunno. Didn’t want you to get jealous, I guess? Didn’t want to talk or think about Liam today?”

Harry frowns deeper. “I am jealous. But. I know that I’m just being silly. I know that you’re not, like, with him or anything.”

“You shouldn’t be jealous. Not of him. Not when you’re you.”

Harry quiets at that, but the flicker of a smile shows on his face.

“I’m sorry I react so strongly to things,” he says quietly, eyes darting away. “I know I can be kinda childish.”

But Louis shrugs, looking down at him with a fondness that tugs at his ribs. “I don’t think you’re childish. And I’d probably be jealous if I was in your shoes, too. Just human nature, you know? But I don’t want you to feel that way. I want you to know that you’re the only one, alright? It’s just you, Harry.”

He nods, bites his lip. “You, too. Obviously.”

Louis smiles. “Good,” he mumbles, pressing his forehead against Harry’s before kissing him, soft and quick. He lets his lips rest there though, just barely brushing. It feels nice. Close. Comforting.

He feels Harry’s hand snake into his hair, his fingertips gently brushing his scalp. “Did you have a nice Christmas?” he asks in the cadence of a whisper. “Aside from me being stroppy?”

Again, Louis smiles. His insides are melted rubber. “I had the best Christmas I’ve ever had. Especially with your stroppiness.”

It makes Harry chuckle, a gust of air against his lips. “Shut up. You don’t mean that.”

“I do mean that,” Louis protests, burrowing closer, letting his smile glide down the plane of Harry’s neck. “I like you, Sasspup. I like everything about you. Especially your sassy side—you do remember that that was one of the things that endeared me most to you? Back when we first met?”

“Yeah,” Harry breathes as Louis slides warm hands along his sides. “Yeah, I remember.”

“I like every single thing about you,” Louis mumbles. His mouth brushes the bones at the base of his neck. It makes Harry breathe and shiver, his legs entrapping Louis’ own. They’re entangled like pretzels and it chases the chill away from Louis, makes him feel hot-skinned and soupy.

He loves Harry.

“I’m sorry about getting jealous,” Harry murmurs, body relaxed. He stares up at Louis, hands on either side of his face. “I love you, though. I just love you a lot and I’ve never been in love with somebody before so… So, I guess I’m not very good at it all yet.”

“You are, though,” Louis reassures, just as quietly. “Don’t apologize.”

He kisses him again. He kisses him and all he feels is breath and warmth and silk lips and pearl hands and the lacey tresses of hair brushing his cheekbones.

Briefly, Harry pulls back. “Do you love me, Louis?” he asks, breathless and rouge. He tastes and smells like Christmas. His eyes are still on Louis’ lips.

But something uncomfortable slithers through Louis, so he just kisses Harry instead, kisses him his answer because he loves him. He loves Harry but he doesn’t want to say it, has never said it before. Doesn’t know if he can say it.

Not yet.

And Harry doesn’t press, doesn’t push it as their bodies sink together, the silence of the room drenching their clothes and limbs. It’s all so quiet, save for the slides of their lips and pattering of their breath.

It’s how Louis wants to spend every Christmas. At Harry’s side, tasting Harry’s mouth, feeling Harry’s pulse.

And just pretending like the rest doesn’t matter.

Chapter Text

Made to Love—John Legend;

Nights in White Satin—The Moody Blues


 

‘It’s April next week. Only three weeks until they announce who Brenton’s chosen.’

Louis stares at the text, eyes expressionless as the sunlight wavers upon the screen of his phone.

They’re just words. He can delete them. He can lock his phone and silence them and he can look away from then any time he wants.

Because they’re just words.

But still, he stares, his body still and tired and really fucking cold despite the warm weather as he lies on Stan’s couch. Or is he at Anthony’s? No—no, he’s at Stan’s.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember where he is. Stuff like that gets a little difficult when all you do is couch-surf because you’re a nomadic, inconstant mess. And it becomes very, very tiring after awhile…

Another text buzzes in.

‘Call me tonight’ it says.

He frowns, eyes flickering over the words over and over. He’s sick of calling Liam.

For the past few months, Louis’ taken yet another new approach to him: one where he’s regularly half-arsing communication while keeping him perpetually at arm’s length. It entails a lot of sporadic phone calls made in the dead of night once a week, usually when Louis’ walking back from Harry’s house, the wind whispering against his dry skin, his collar pushed up high. It involves mostly “I’ll explain later, Liam. But it’s fine”s and it comes with a nice, heaping portion of guilt and panic along with it because Harry’s scent still lingers on him and his image is still pressed into the backs of his eyelids.

It leaves little encouragement to sleep, it leaves little room for sincere smiles, and it paves the way for a lot of the anxious, gritty misery that always seems to be lying in Louis’ gut these days. As he stares sightlessly at books. Gazes out of windows with dead eyes. Or, most commonly, counts the seconds in his head like a death toll as he pours pints, for no reason that he can will himself to grasp.

But. But he doesn’t know what else to do. And he knows he’s running out of time, see. He knows. He’s aware. He just… He just can’t bring himself to do anything.

He knows he needs to tell Harry. He’s tried, even. It never works, though. Whether it’s because Harry or him, he doesn’t know… But it never works.

And so now, as he stares at Liam’s words, it all feels just that bit more anxious, that much more gritty.

It’s a bullshit way to start the morning, really.

So Louis just locks his phone as he slides a cold hand over his eyes, tucking his phone away where he can’t see it.

“You up, mate?” Stan calls from the kitchen. It sounds very loud in the dusty morning light, with everything very still and bathed in yellows.

“Yeah,” Louis calls back as something, somewhere, cracks in his body while he stretches.

“Cool. Make sure to lock the door on your way out, yeah?” Suddenly Stan appears, jacket zipped up, as he makes his way towards the door. He casts a glance at Louis, a genial smile in place which Louis returns as he brushes sleep from his eyes. And then Stan’s got his hand on the doorknob, ready to exit.

“Oi, wait,” Louis calls, holding up a hand, as he hauls himself off the couch, yawning as he digs for his wallet in the back pocket of his new jeans. (Hah, yeah, can you believe? New jeans. Harry, quite literally, made him buy them, insisting his others smelt like wet dog. He wasn’t wrong.) He shuffles towards Stan, pulling a few notes out and stuffing them into his unsuspecting palm.

For a moment, Stan blinks at him, utterly taken aback.

So Louis shrugs dismissively, pocketing his wallet as he turns from him and heads towards his shoes. “That’s for housing my arse for all this time,” he mumbles a little awkwardly. He’s never been very good at being…thankful, or whatever. Like, verbally thankful. “I, uh. Appreciate you letting me crash here.”

“Yeah, mate, no problem,” Stan says slowly, almost suspiciously. He pauses. “But, Louis, this honestly isn’t necessary—“

“No, it is,” Louis insists, looking over at him long enough for Stan’s mouth to shut. “It’s more than necessary. And, uh. Well, if it’s no trouble, I’ve been thinking…” He shuffles around a bit, stalling because he’s not good at asking things. The back of his neck is itchy and he may or may not have a wedgie. His feet are cold. The carpet beneath him has an orange stain on it.

Stan waits expectantly, eyebrows still lost in his hair, money still sitting rumpled in his hand.

Louis clears his throat, adopts a strong posture. Just suck it up. “I’ve been wondering if, maybe, this could be a bit more regular. Me crashing here every night, that is. If you’re cool with it. I’ll start paying half rent, naturally—“

“Half rent? Fuckin’ A, Lou, that’s not—“

“I will be paying half rent,” Louis continues, firmer, “and I’ll help out with… Ya know. Flat shit. Or whatever. If you want. Up to you.”

God, he’s shit with words. Maybe he does need to go back to school after all…

Silent seconds pass, carried on by the breeze outside. It rattles gently at the windows, making a sound that Harry would probably insist as being “the wind purring” or some shit. He says things like that, he says all those precious little things. Louis writes every single one of them down in his journal because he’s so entertained by them. Which is fairly funny, considering that Harry got that for him so Louis could write his own thoughts; and he does, don’t get him wrong—but Harry’s quite a large chunk of Louis’ thoughts now. So his journal’s just as much as Harry as it is himself and he thinks that probably says a lot, says everything, and it’s something that he surprisingly doesn’t mind.

At last, Stan speaks.

“Yeah, mate.  Yeah. That’d be brilliant, yeah,” he nods, still clearly shocked, his eyes wider than Louis’ accustomed to seeing. It makes him snort a laugh which, in turn, makes Stan laugh too. “Yeah,” he says again, this time a little less taken aback. “Sounds fun, Louis. I appreciate the help, mate. You can stay as long as you like. I can clear out that tiny room I use as my closet—“

“Nah, the couch is good,” Louis promises, flashing a casual thumbs up as he slips on his shoes. “Honestly. I just need a couch. Sleep better on them after all these years, anyway.”

But Stan’s looking at him doubtfully. “Are you sure?”

“Quite.” Pause. “But thank you.”

It makes Stan huff out another laugh as he turns the doorknob. “You’re welcome.” He shakes his head, pulling it open. “You really have become the noble little gent as of late, haven’t ya? Must be the married life. Settled you down.”

Married life, jesus.

But Louis successfully manages to swallow down his hints of self-consciousness, instead adopting an easy smile accompanied by a bow of the head. “I’m just a boring old man now,” he smirks, just as Stan steps outside.

He receives a good-natured laugh in return before the door shuts.

**

Everything is sort of a casual mess right now.

It all just consists of Louis quietly unraveling at the seams. It’s Zayn and Niall being the exact same, all peaceful and prophetic and bright-meets-dark together. It’s Harry going to school and studying and rambling about his growing passions while Louis works shifts at the pub, sweet-talking his tips and working his arse off because it feels good. It’s the clock ticking in every fucking room that Louis enters. It’s a sun that always sets, usually when Louis’ in the Styles’ household, wearing clean socks on his feet. It’s Harry being…everything. The most essential parts of Louis, at least. And it’s time running out.

There’s stress there. There’s quicksand somewhere. There’s Louis in the middle of it all, silently pretending that he’s very much okay when he’s very much not. There’s sleepless nights and anxious twisting of hands and nail biting and foot tapping and knee bouncing and staring at the sky for countless hours. There’s a quiet, tired voice, a sad laugh, a lingering gaze whenever Harry isn’t looking. There’s desperate hands and intention-less kisses and embraces that are initiated just because Louis is demanding that his bones mould to Harry’s, is demanding to memorize him completely and how his angles bump his angles.

Because he’s afraid that everything is coming to an end. And he wants to hold onto everything that he can.

“What are you going to do after graduation, Zayn?” Harry asks one day at the record shop, all innocent and curious as he stands there in a faded yellow t-shirt and skinny jeans. He’s holding a Turtles record because Louis said he loved it and wants to play it next.

The question, though. It tugs on Louis’ nerve endings. He straights infinitesimally, ears perked as he faux-peruses the 80’s hair metal records.

“I think Niall and I are going to travel the world,” Zayn mumbles, playing with pins atop the counter. He’s arranging them into peace signs.

Beside him, Niall nods breezily, his white jumper clean. “Absolutely. I think we’re probably going to travel for at least a year. Maybe settle somewhere along the way and build an empire.”

“Yeah,” Zayn agrees, serious. “I think we’ll do that. We might get married. I’m not sure how I feel about the practice yet, though.”

He says it so casually.

“We could do our own marriage,” Niall suggests with a shrug, now sitting atop the counter and swinging his feet. He taps the pins with his fingers as he gazes at Zayn. “Our own thing, like. Sod tradition.”

Of course, Zayn’s eyes brighten like stars at that, staring at Niall like he were the world’s largest pile of gold. Which he might be, to be fair. “Niall. Yeah, man. Yeah, let’s do that,” he whispers in awe.

They exchange grins and it makes Harry tuck his smile into his chest before he glances at Louis.

He returns the smile, still feeling mildly uneasy about the topic at hand. He’s hoping it’ll be dropped there, the conversation will be dropped, but then Niall goes ahead and fucking asks, “What will you be doing, Harry? Going to Brenton probably? If Liam doesn’t get it?”

And, shit. If the entire world doesn’t feel like it’s crashing from that handful of words, then Louis doesn’t know what crashing feels like.

But Harry just hums and shrugs, his answer noncommittal as he sets the record on the turntable. “I dunno. I see things differently now than I did before…” He glances at Louis again, soft. “But yeah. We’ll see, I guess,” is what he says, paired with a smile he flashes up at them, and Louis feels his heartbeat in his goddamn throat as he plays it casual, plays it cool, his ears burning.

Then the subject is dropped, naturally shifting onward, and Louis can breathe again.

But. It’s never really dropped, is it? The subject? It’s never really gone. It’s always there, lying quietly. Waiting to be poked, tripped upon.

‘3 weeks’ he receives again via text message a few nights later while watching some shitty Jane Austen movie with Harry suctioned to his side, mumbling the lines under his breath because he’s Harry and he’s sentimental and sweet.

The text makes Louis inhale sharply, locking his phone immediately as cement plops inside of him.

Harry turns to him, brows pinching. “Alright?” he asks, gentle, inquiring.

Louis has to stare at the TV a moment longer, just long enough to swallow and still the jump in his pulse. Long enough for Harry to gently swipe fingers along his jaw.

“Yeah, ‘course,” he smiles as he turns to him.

And if Harry sees something amiss in his eyes, he doesn’t say, just kisses him instead.

“You know,” he whispers a few minutes later, forehead pressed against the side of Louis’ neck. Louis’ pulse is still a little off-kilter. “Mum and Gem are leaving this weekend. To visit my nan.”

Louis hums, eyes still on the screen. “Why aren’t you going, pup?”

He feels Harry shrug. “Asked if I could stay back.”

Frowning, Louis glances down at him. “Why? Is your nan mean or…?”

Harry chuckles, shaking his head as he lifts it, meeting Louis’ eye with his own very warm, dim ones. “No, not at all. She’s a lovely nan. The best nan that a youthful flower like me could ask for.” He grins lopsidedly.

“Youthful flower?” Louis repeats in a deadpan and it makes Harry laugh, loud and bright. A tiny explosion in the dark room. Louis grins full out, tugs him even closer.

“Yes, I am a youthful flower,” Harry sniffs, but his laughter is still staining the words. He quiets a bit though, face calming as he turns back to Louis. Eyes lock eyes. “But, uhm. Yeah. I asked to stay back. Because, uhm. Well. I guess I thought maybe…” He shrugs, awkward, eyes unblinking. “Maybe you could…stay? It could…just be us.”

The words are quiet, really fucking quiet, and they’re the loudest Louis’ ever heard.

His heart thumps once, twice, three times like a fucking bass drum.

“Just us?” he asks, voice pitched too high. He clears his throat.

Harry nods slowly, eyes never blinking. Big ol’ owl. “Yeah,” he whispers. “Alone.”

Sex.

That’s literally all Louis is thinking right now. Sex. Harry is asking him to stay this weekend, in this house, alone with Harry, so they can have sex. For the first proper time. Sex. Sex with Harry.

Holy actual shit. This is…

This is terrifying. And, sure, Louis is far from being any sort of virgin but… Shit. He’s never had, like, proper sex with someone he’s cared for before. He’s never…looked into someone’s eyes or any of that crap. He’s never… It’s never mattered before. What they did, how they did, how Louis did… It’s never mattered before.

It will matter with Harry.

And holy shit, he’s terrified. Thrilled, excited, thankful, even. And really mostly terrified.

“Yeah,” he nods before he can even gather himself, “Yeah, definitely.” It sounds like there’s a seagull in his throat.

But Harry must not notice because he’s nodding too, a faint blush in his cheeks, and his smile catches between his teeth. “Good,” he smiles quietly, their words trapped between them. The movie is faint and far away in the distance, the room is essentially an abyss. “I’m glad.”

“Yeah,” Louis mumbles, still nodding. “Me, too.”

And then Harry blushes crimson before he pecks a shy kiss to Louis’ lips and resettles his head back on Louis’ shoulder.

And Louis Tomlinson is bloody terrified.

**

“I’m terrified,” he tells Zayn as he takes another sip of his pint.

It’s midday and the sky seems too bright, the wind too windy, so they retreated to a dimly lit pub on the far side of town. Harry’s currently doing some music thing with a few choir kids. He was a little reluctant to go (“Why don’t you want to come with us?” he’d asked Louis, pouting. “Well, for starters, I don’t sing, Harry.” “But you should! Your voice is beautiful.”) but Louis insisted he did, promising that they’ll have all the time in the world come this weekend and it silenced them both, really. Because Harry beamed and turned a fetching shade of vermillion while Louis found himself to be housing a rather large squid inside of his stomach. He walked away a little shakily, feeling Harry’s eyes on him all the way, and even now, two hours later, he still feels like he’s composed of tentacles and slippery limbs.

He’s somehow regressed and it’s mortifying and very stressful. All because of sex, of all things.

“Don’t be,” Zayn assures, folding his napkin into a tiny triangle. He’s already gone through three pints. He doesn’t really sip things—he likes to devour them in gulps, his eyes darting around with mild paranoia. Always alert. Yet never alert. That’s Zayn in a nutshell. “It’s natural to want to make love to your soulmate.”

Louis sets down his glass with a thump, causing a bit to slosh out the sides. He tries not to glare. “Must you always sound like a Moody Blues song?”

Zayn shrugs, undeterred. “Words are words.”

Hm. Deep.

“Well, in any case,” Louis continues, hunching his shoulders a bit. “I’m… Still terrified.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean ‘why’? This weekend is the—Harry’s invited me to—we’re probably gonna—ya know—“ It would be splendid if Louis’ skin wasn’t currently pink. It would be splendid. But his body’s been quite the little traitor over the past several months, so.

Smirking, Zayn regards him over the pint glass that he’s now holding up with his fingertips, peering through its foggy glass and catching the prisms with his eyes. “You’ve never had trouble saying it before,” he muses.

Louis flushes. “Well, that’s because I’ve never done this with Harry before,” he hisses in defense and it makes Zayn’s eyes shine like black pearls, all softened and sympathetic.

“Don’t be nervous,” he says after a moment before going back to inspect his glass reverently.

“Why?” Louis grunts, one eye still on Zayn. At this point, he can’t really take Zayn’s sage advice given that his point of view exists somewhere far out of the confines of this universe. He says things like “make love”, for Christ’s sake.

“Because,” Zayn continues, words tumbling out of his soft, slackened lips. Eyes still lost in the pint glass. “He loves you. You love him. It’s natural and your bodies will become one, man. Sex is like another plane of existence. It’s reaching another level inside of yourself, it’s truly living in the now.”

Like he said—Zayn exists somewhere far outside the universe.

Louis just stares. “I’ve had plenty of sex, Zayn, thanks,” he mutters wryly. “Yet I just don’t think I’ve reached any new planes of existence thus far. Funnily enough.”

But he just dismisses the sentence with the flick of a hand. “That wasn’t sex. That was just…using someone to masturbate.”

Startled, Louis laughs.

“Sex is more, like, a union,” Zayn continues, gaze now veering far off. “Of souls.” He nods to himself then, seemingly satisfied with his discourse.

It does absolutely nothing to quell the shivering terror in Louis’ stomach.

“Right. Thanks, mate,” he exhales anyway, tapping his fingers atop the table, lifting his eyes to the ceiling in a silent prayer. A prayer to the self.

Calm the fuck down, Tommo.

“You’re welcome,” Zayn replies sagely, finally setting down the glass. He moves his hands to rest atop the table, staring at them instead, thus signaling the end of the conversation, of any conversation.

“Right. Well, time to go, Brother Dearest?” Louis questions, already scooting out of the booth, nerves still jangling within. He ignores them, though. Because they’re obviously not going away, so… So whatever.

Zayn hums his agreement, following with a three-second delay, as is custom.

They walk out in the warm, sunny streets, the wind whipping jovially at their hair, Zayn murmuring something about Niall. And Louis pretends to listen, tries to listen, he does.

Problem is, he’s too busy being really fucking terrified.

**

Knock, knock

Louis lowers his hand, knuckles tingling. The sound seems louder today, seems somehow harsh in the stillness of the day.

He swallows, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. The bag he borrowed from Stan is digging into his shoulder—it’s laden down with an extra pair of jeans, another t-shirt, some boxers, some tea. Just the usual shit. If it has other, uh, supplies, well then… Well then, there’s that, too.

Louis swallows, shivering against a gust of wind.

He’s just about to knock again when suddenly the door is flung open. On the other side is a wild-haired Harry Styles, enormous grin in place. His cardigan is pea green and rumpled, hanging off of his broad shoulders and it looks fuzzy and woolen and wonderful and Louis stares at it, stares at the damn cardigan instead of Harry’s face, because he’s suddenly hit with a wave of shyness.

Everything just feels so…big. A lot.

“You’re here!” Harry sings, grin plastered across his cheeks, and he’s flushed and bright and excited. He’s youthful, he’s beautiful.

This is it. This is their weekend. This is it. Them. The whole…build-up thing…this is what it culminates to. Being in love and—

And Liam wanted Louis to sleep with Harry. That was one of his goals. It was part of the deal.

The thought is startling and sharp.

The unexpectedness of it takes Louis by surprise, punches his lungs. Shit.

Liam. The deal. Harry. Liam…

But Harry’s still grinning unknowingly and suddenly everything seems a little sour.

Swallowing, Louis musters up all the strength he has to smile. “Here,” he parrots back, holding the strap of his bag, and Harry laughs, just because, as he continues to stare at him.

A few moments pass, the sun shining down. And then Harry snaps to it, blinking a few successive times as he steps back.

“Sorry,” he mumbles, flushing, gesturing Louis inside. “I’m just a bit, uhm. Zoned out, I guess?” He laughs once as Louis crosses the threshold, shuts the door behind him.

“So,” Louis says, once they’re inside where it’s quiet. Very quiet. He sets down his bag with a thump on the floor. Toes off his shoes. Smiles up at Harry and ignores the slither of his conscience. “What shall we do?”

Harry grins immediately. “Well. Are you hungry?”

He snorts. “I’m always hungry, Sasspup.”

“Oh, good!” Harry claps (actually claps) before he finds Louis’ hands, immediately dragging him towards the kitchen. Their socked feet slide on the floors and their smiles grow with every step, fingers laced together. “Because I’ve made us dinner. Properly,” he adds, proud, making Louis laugh. “And there are candles and everything.”

“Candles?” Louis asks, clutching his heart. “Whatever did I do to deserve candles?”

They stop then, Harry halting on the spot, making Louis jump. Without word, he tugs Louis close, wrapping long arms around his neck in a way that feels more familiar against his skin than his own shirts do. He smells like he’s been cooking—smells like seasonings and butter and warmth. He smiles quietly down at Louis, bumping his nose against his own which Louis really wishes he didn’t find so endearing.

“You’re you,” Harry mumbles, pressing brief kisses to Louis’ mouth. “And that’s why you deserve the entire world’s worth of candles.” Louis feels himself grin, chest warming. “But. Alas. All I have is two and just some dinner to start. So I hope you like it.”

“Of course I’ll like it,” Louis whispers back immediately, hands pressing into Harry’s back, and he’s gone, isn’t he? He’s gone, gone, gone. “You could set your shoe in a frying pan and I’ll gladly eat every bit of it, will eat it every day forever. That’s the price I pay for being weak for you. Enjoy your power, young one.”

Harry beams, laughing under his breath. “Not weak,” he argues. “Strong.”

Of course he said that. Louis can only smile.

“Now come on,” Harry continues, pulling him along. “Time for dinner.” He grins lopsidedly, his curls shiver with his movements, and his fingers grasp onto Louis’ with warmth and unyielding strength.

And, suddenly, Louis isn’t so terrified anymore.

**

It was a brilliant meal. Which is less than surprising—Louis never had any doubt about it.

But now he’s painfully full and sated and warm, legs kicked up as he splays his body on the couch; Harry’s bloated figure is lying on the floor beside him, eyes closed with a smile playing upon his face. The lights are few, the shadows are warm, and the silence hums along pleasantly, interspersed by the crackling of the fireplace.

“I feel fat,” Louis grunts, watching Harry.

Harry’s lips quirk even moreso. “Good,” he mumbles slowly, body weighted and sleepy. “I want to fatten you up. Make you a nice plump husband.”

Oh jesus.

Despite the lethargy of his body, Louis balks out a laugh. “Well, then. At least you’re finally revealing your true intentions,” he teases, half-arsedly attempting to swat at him from his perch. “Whatcha trying to do—stuff the pig before he’s cooked? Do you have plans, Mr. Styles?” Grinning, he turns onto his side to face him.

Harry cracks one eye open. “I do, I do,” he mumbles, smiling still wider. “All the plans with you.”

“Hm.” Louis closes his eyes, lets his head lull as he just breathes, contented and quiet, body entirely relaxed. “Good. We’ll make nice plans.”

“We will…”

There’s a brief pause before Harry once again cracks an eye open.

“We could, uhm… You know, we could make some plans now…” he suggests.  

“Sure,” Louis mumbles, eyes now shut. “Why not?”

He thinks he hears Harry swallow before he continues. “Alright. Well, maybe… Maybe the first thing we should plan is, like… To visit someone. You know? Together? Or alone, if you want.”

What?

Furrowing his brow, Louis smirks, unable to open his eyes just yet. “Visit who? And why would I want to go alone? I don’t like people, Harry, I need you to entertain the people.”

There’s a beat of silence.

“Well, like. Maybe the visit could be…your family.”

Louis’ eyes snap open.

“Just, like, think about it, okay?” Harry rushes, already sitting up and using appeasing hands, his face etched in careful concern. “Just consider it. Because I know it bothers you and it’s, like, one of those things that’s in that metaphorical room of yours, you know? The one that’s all dark and filled with all the opportunities you can’t see? In fact, I think it might be the light switch, Louis. I think it’s what you need to do to move on and—“

“Harry,” he interrupts flatly, but Harry just keeps going.

“I know it’s scary and I know that I don’t understand but I also know that you have to at least try, Louis, because you’ll never forgive yourself—“

“Harry,” he repeats more firmly and, luckily, it shuts Harry’s mouth. He sighs, sitting up as well. “Look, I get what you’re saying, alright? And I appreciate it. But I’m not going to discuss this with you.”

“Oh.” Harry’s face falls.

“Not—not because it’s you, or anything. I just… I just don’t want to talk about this. Not this weekend. Alright? I don’t…” He sighs again. “It’s just really complicated and I don’t want to talk about it.”

A heavy silence follows the words, heavy enough for Louis to feel a niggling guilt in his stomach. But, thing is, he’s not about to discuss this. He’s absolutely not going to.

Still though, he looks over to Harry. The boy’s sad, his eyes cast downwards on the carpet, hands lying limp in his lap. His legs are stretched out before him and he looks the portrait of a forlorn toddler. Louis wants to climb in his lap.

So he does.

“Heyyy,” he drags in poor imitation of Harry’s voice as he clumsily flops onto the floor and crawls over. Wonderfully, it does twitch Harry’s lips and he does allow Louis to settle atop him, making himself nice and small so he fits just so. Usually Louis doesn’t like to be small. But he doesn’t mind with Harry. “I’m not trying to be a prick. I’m sorry I’m a prick. I really like you, though. So I’m sorry. Thank you for caring enough about me to think about that stuff, let alone talk to me about it. ‘M sorry.”

But Harry’s already shaking his head, hands settling on Louis’ hips. “No, I’m sorry,” he mumbles, ducking his head. “I need to stop meddling.”

“You’re not meddling,” Louis points out. “Not quite.”

Harry shrugs. “Whatever I’m doing, then. I’m sorry. I need to respect that you have boundaries and…things.” He frowns. “Sometimes I get too involved. Sometimes I’m too much.”

“No, no, no,” Louis shushes, wrapping arms around Harry’s neck fiercely enough to crush him to his chest. It makes Harry utter out a surprised “oof!” but Louis ignores it, holding back a laugh as he locks him in his embrace, swaying them as much as he can in this position. “I like you just the way you are. You’re not too much of anything, silly boy. Silly little pup.”

“I’m your pup and you’re my mousling,” Harry’s muffled voice says somewhere below.

Louis rolls his eyes. “I like you, but. Fuck off.”

Harry sniggers.

They remain like that for awhile, just silent and tangled up, bellies still full, before Harry finally pulls away, sleepy eyes meeting with Louis’.

“I love you, Louis,” he says quietly, apropos of nothing, the words sounding scraped.

And part of Louis wants to say them back…

Almost as much as he doesn’t want to. It’s just…

He just doesn’t really like that phrase, okay? And not just because it’s seemingly impossible to say (will he ever be ready? Probably not, definitely not yet), but in his life, for the few people he’s probably loved (Zayn, Jo, his sisters…) he’s never used that term before. He’s never heard it used on him before. Those words don’t mean anything and he…

Why should he have to say something that holds absolutely no fucking value within him? Yeah, he loves Harry. But why does he need to say something if he can prove it? They’re just words, otherwise.

So Louis just grins before kissing him, all lingering and soft and entirely un-Louis-like.

Then Harry deepens it, always deepens it.

And Louis’ still in Harry’s lap, you know. He’s still there, sliding to fit his knees on either side of Harry’s waist as he settles his weight differently, feels everything center itself as Harry’s mouth pulls at his own, his hands roaming, roaming, roaming. It’s all very custom—something they’ve done before.

But it’s the catch in Harry’s breath that gives him away. It’s the slight shake of his hands, the insistence of his movements…

Everything is purposeful. Everything has an intended outcome.

Harry wants him. Louis wants him, too.

And it should be that simple.

But. But it’s at that exact fucking moment that Louis suddenly hears Liam’s voice curl into his brain, echoed and watery.

“His name is Harry Styles.”

It jolts inside him, makes him stutter in his movements. Harry notices, briefly pinches his brow before he dips back into the kiss. His hands fall to Louis’ jeans, all fire and intent. He smells wonderful, familiar, beautiful… Louis loves him, loves the way his mouth feels soft and open and, just… Just feels like Harry now.

So he closes his eyes, will his body to forget. To just focus on right now. On Harry. His Harry.

But the slithered words only keep coming, echoing, gliding through his skull, down the back of his neck; his conscience, his guilt are roaring, creating little tears against his lips and heart…

He’s not dating anyone—he’s a virgin, by the way—“

Louis’ stomach clenches, Liam’s words loud. Harry holds on tighter.

And then. Then Louis hears his own voice, the ripple of his own words. Short, snappish, cocky. Barren.

“Now way. A virgin? He’s what? Seventeen?”

“Around there, yeah. He’s a good boy, our Harry Styles.”

Fuck. Fuck.

Wincing, Louis pulls away.

“Louis?” Harry questions, startled. “Lou, what’s wrong?”

He said those things himself. He did, he talked about Harry that way. He said those things and he laughed about him and…

And Liam. He still calls Liam. He talks to him every week and skirts around the fucking issue and he’s about to sleep with Harry, take his fucking virginity, for fuck’s sake, and he still talks to Liam.

All of this is still part of the game. Even if it’s not, it fucking is.

Jesus Christ, he feels sick.

“Louis?” Harry presses worriedly and his hands are all over him, trying to pry Louis’ own away from his face. “Louis?” He sounds almost terrified in the silence.

Louis wants to vomit. Or maybe cry. Something.

“No,” he hears himself say, very, very quietly. Speckles flash behind his eyelids the harder he pushes his hands against them.

“What?” Harry asks, leaning in close to hear. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t deserve you,” Louis mumbles into his palms; part of him hopes Harry doesn’t hear. He doesn’t want to fight about it, doesn’t want to draw attention to, what really is, a simple statement. A fact. His eyes clench shut all the tighter as his stomach roars its protest. “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

“Louis,” Harry continues, gentle and slow as he softly pries away Louis’ hands at last. He stares at him, brushes Louis’ hair away with careful fingers, a patient but concerned smile on his face.

Louis can only watch him, heart rabbiting, everything feeling heavy and cold. He genuinely, truly loves him, is the thing.

But he can’t do this. Not like this. Not when there’s a Liam that still expects a call.

Yet Louis can’t move. Not when Harry is gently swiping fingers across the tense lines of his face, slowing his breath, smoothing out his muscles. He can’t move.

“Louis,” he murmurs again and the name is soaked entirely in adoration. “I love you. So much.” Fingers trace his cheekbone. Louis breathes, in and out. “And I want to do this. I want you. I really, really do. I love you and I want—I want everything with you.”

The words are everything he wants to hear, everything he feels in return. But somehow they still cut and Louis knows why.

He knows what he needs to do. He knows how to solve this, even if it seems like chaos and panic.

Slowly, Harry takes one of Louis’ hands, gently rests it atop his heart. Louis can feel the beat of it beneath his palm, can feel the heat of his chest soaked into his shirt.

“You already have this,” Harry continues quietly, earnestly. His eyes are wide and bright, so bright, just like when Louis met him that first day in the library. “Everything else is yours, too. I want you to have it. I love you and I want—“

“I can’t.”

The words are blurted before Louis even realizes they’ve formed in his brain. He blinks, startled at himself, but realizing he can’t take them back.

Harry stills. His brows pull together. “What?”

“I—“ Louis cuts off, staring at Harry with a pulse that has, once again, sky-rocketed.

He can’t run from his fucking problems anymore. He can’t keep doing this.

He needs to fix this if he’s going to do this. He needs to do this right, he has to stop fucking with Harry.

He has to fix this. He knows how to fix this.

“I’ve got to go,” he splutters, blinking as fast as he’s breathing, and he stumbles as he gets to his feet.

“What? Louis, where are you—“ Harry calls, face white as he tries to catch up.

And, shit. He doesn’t want Harry to think—God. He’s just ruining everything, isn’t he?

Louis freezes, turning on the spot to face Harry who now looks small and horribly fragile, clutching himself. Holding all his pieces together. His eyes search Louis’, almost pleadingly, but he makes no movement to step closer, makes no movement to bridge the gap or reach out. He looks small and broken and embarrassed and—

No. Louis can’t leave like this.

He’s jumbly when he steps to him, cradles his cheek and presses his mouth fiercely to his. And Harry lets him kiss him, reaches out a tentative hand to settle on Louis’ arm, gentle and hopeful.

But Louis pulls away before it can lead anywhere.

“I’m coming back. I’ll be back soon,” he promises firmly, never breaking Harry’s eye. “I promise you that I will be back soon. I just need—I need to go right now. I need to—I’ll be back. I promise you, Harry.”

“But where are you going?” Harry asks, voice cracking, and Louis feels something falter inside.

“I’ll be back,” is all he can reply, sounding desperate and wild as he retreats to the door, eyes still on Harry. “Please—I just—I’ll be back, Harry. “I’m so sorry but I’ll be back and—it’ll be better.”

“What will be better? Louis, what are you talking about?”

“Please don’t lock the door,” is all he says before he shuts it.

And when his feet hit the pavement as he runs into the night, they resonate through the air like cracks, splitting directly into his heart.

**

The elevator doors ding open. The sound is alarmingly harsh in the silence of the night and it startles Louis, makes him jump, before he takes in the dark empty rooms before him.

His shoes scuff the floor as he takes a step inside. The shadows on the walls are still, the furniture is cold and stiff. It’s so quiet that it’s loud.

He continues walking, eyes firmly set ahead. His pulse has kicked up again—if it ever went down, that is.

He’s got this, okay? He’s got this. He has to do this. He can’t spend one more day with Harry while this bullshit is going on.

He’s going to end it. And he’s going to end it right fucking now.

The light that slips in through the cracks of Liam’s door guides the rest of Louis’ way. His palms feel tacky and gritty, his eyes feel dry as fuck, but he ignores it all as he knocks, his breath lodged somewhere deep in his chest.

Calm, Tommo. Calm.

He doesn’t wait for Liam’s response before he opens the door.

As expected, Liam sits inside, sprawled on his bed, clutching his phone in one hand while staring sightlessly at the ceiling. The room smells of weed and cigarettes and socks with undertones of onion crisps. It’s rank.

He jumps when he sees Louis, sitting up immediately.

“Tommo?”

Louis just stands there, silent, breathing. He’s painfully aware of his muscles as Liam stares, eyes flicking to his torso.

“You got a new jacket,” he remarks, quiet.

Louis nods, head full of air. “Harry got it for me.”

It makes Liam’s lips purse, something darker shrouding his features. There’s another moment’s silence before he speaks again. “What are you doing here—“

“I’m done.”

Liam stares. Slowly, he slides his body off of the bed. “You’re done?” he questions carefully but he’s clearly confused, bewildered, even. His large eyebrows are slowly drawing together, his movements cautious.

Louis nods just once, eyes never blinking or ripping away from the man he once so wildly desired. Now, he feels nothing. Perhaps loathing, if anything. Resentment. Pity maybe. “I’m done,” he repeats, low. “With your fucking games. I’m done. The thing with Harry? It’s not happening, Liam. It hasn’t for a long time. If ever, really. I’m done.”

The words are melodic, steady. They carry through the room like a hum and every fucking breath births freedom in Louis’ chest, his lungs, his fucking conscience, and even his joints feel a little less tightly wound.

He can do this, he is doing this.

It’s going to be okay.

So he breathes, in and out as Liam’s eyes darken, unblinking in their movement but descending in their color. His face looks to be made of stone in this moment; Louis wonders if he punched him, if it would crack. Just split into pieces and litter the floor.

At last though, Liam speaks.

“I—I thought I gave you incentive for this,” he says quietly, his words chalky, leaving dust in the air between them. “I was going to give you me, Louis—“

“I don’t want you anymore,” Louis says, slow, agitated, sad. Breathless. “I just want him.”

Liam looks physically ill. “Styles?

“Yeah,” Louis nods, closing his eyes at the name. “Styles. Harry Styles. My Harry Styles.”

Your Harry Styles?” Liam raises an incredulous brow, the pain on his face quickly morphing into a sneer. “Yours? Are you fucking serious right now, Louis?”

But Louis ignores the hilts in his breathing, instead focuses on the words and he continues, undeterred. “I’m done, Liam. I’m not your dog’s body anymore. I’m fucking done with this. Done with you.”

“With me?!” Liam suddenly roars incredulously, face regaining its color. He’s blood-red and enraged, something rabid and fearful struck in his countenance.

Louis doesn’t even flinch, his body unyielding as he holds his ground. He nods sharply, eyes boring into eyes.

So Liam barrels on, unraveling at the seams as he takes one step closer, fists curled tightly at his sides. “You agreed to this, Louis!” he shouts, voice splintered in every syllable. “You were just as big a part of this whole fucking thing as me! We are the same, Louis fucking Tomlinson, the same. You think you’re better than me? Just because you fucked some pretty-faced fuckin’ kid—“

“Shut the fuck up,” he growls, muscles tightening.

Liam ignores him completely. “You think you’re changed now? Think you’re finally fucking worth something? Well you’re bloody well not. You’re like me, just like me. You’ll always be like me. We’re the same, Louis. We’re fucked up and we have nothing else in this fucking world but each other and you will never be done with me—“

At that, Louis laughs, as exaggeratedly and hysterically vicious as he can. Because this is bullshit, this is—this is—no. He’s doing this, he’s getting to Liam, and he’s done with all of this. Forever.

“I choose him,” he says calmly, articulating each letter as he shakes his head in amusement, watching Liam’s pupils dilate, his fists shake. He’s trying so, so hard to remain fierce, dominant, tyrannical. But Louis knows Liam—he can see when the cracks start to form. “Think whatever the hell you want, mate. But I choose him. And I’m done.”

With that, Louis begins to retreat and it feels like he’s snapping cables with every movement, every single twist in his cells suddenly untwisting.

It feels like air, like oxygen, like freedom.

It’s so pathetic when he thinks about it—here, he’s always claimed that he was so alive, so different from everybody else. Unburdened by society and its demands and regulations. He always boasted of his self-proclaimed freedom and wore his selfishness like a badge and yet, this whole fucking time, he’s been nothing but a prisoner. To himself, to Liam Payne, to the very world that he’s always let win by letting it warp every part of him.

He let the world forge weapons that he used on himself.

And now? Now it’s over.

Now he knows what freedom is. What it properly is.

It’s just as he’s reaching the door that Liam shouts out, panicked and shaky like a cornered animal in its last moments. Fuckin’ weak.

“I’ll tell him,” he shouts, the words shivering against the windows. “I will tell him everything—you know I will. I will torment him, I will torment you, I’ll—I’ll do everything I fucking can and when he knows the truth, he will leave you, Louis. And then you’ll be alone—“

Something odd, sharp, and colorfully intense suddenly fills Louis’ chest when he turns around, words spilling from his mouth before he can even register them. “I already told him.”

It shuts Liam’s mouth immediately.

Beat, beat, beat, goes Louis’ heart but his face never betrays him despite the whir of his thoughts, the panic of his lie. “We’ve discussed it, Liam. That’s why I’m here. He knows everything. He knows about you, about us. And he knows that I’ll never leave him. Throw whatever the fuck you want at us—I don’t care. I will win, I always do. I’m the only person that’s not afraid of you, Liam Payne. You’ve got no ammo. It’s done.”

“I don’t believe you,” Liam rasps, his entire body deflating. He looks so small, so entirely small. Louis used to think he looked enormous, rich, powerful. Sexy. He used to think he was made of forged steel and platinum.

Liam used to matter. It makes something ugly and sharp spread inside. Maybe it’s guilt or sentiment. Or disgust.

But, whatever it is, it’s enough to make Louis swallow as he stares at the shadow of a boy before him, not walking out just yet.

“I’m sorry, Liam,” he finds himself crackling unexpectedly, and the words sound just as sad as they feel when they crawl up Louis’ tongue and out of his mouth. “But it’s over.”

Liam stares, hands now limp and pale. His watch is large, bright, looks to be weighing him down. His eyes are tired and dulled brown, shadows deep. His hair is unstyled. Clothes no longer pristine, just rumpled and too large. His lips are parted on words he can’t manage as he just stares, stands and stares.

Heavy beats pass, Louis’ hand still on the door. Liam still staring.

“Goodbye,” Louis finally grits, firm, a tornadic mix of fury and sadness, of guilt, of indignation and relief, as he turns on his heel and walks out.

Liam doesn’t follow him, he doesn’t call out. He just lets Louis leave, lets him take each scuffed step back to the elevator, walking past Zayn’s silent room and the empty, shadowed living room, past the balcony overlooking the city, past the corridor that leads to Martha and Ray’s room, separated as far as they can be from their children.

Louis walks until he reaches the elevator, presses the cold, spotless button.

And he descends, leaving Liam behind, his pulse finally quiet.

**

It’s blinding, overwhelming relief that fills Louis when he finds that the door to the Styles’ household actually opens.

It’s open. Harry didn’t lock him out, it’s open.

Thank fuck.

Louis exhales deeply.

The house is silent when he enters, still dimly lit by sporadic lamplight and the embers from the fireplace. Harry’s nowhere to be seen, though. And it tugs at Louis but he’s too fucking relieved, free, happy right now to care much.

Because now he has Harry. Forever. Nothing is holding him back and now he can love him unconditionally, take care of him, be with him.

He doesn’t know why he never thought of it before—just lying to Liam, telling him that Harry knows. It’s fucking ingenious. And given Louis’ knack for lying (or, previous knack, rather) it’s startling, almost shameful, that it never crossed his mind before.

Oh well. Doesn’t matter.

All that matters now is Louis and Harry. That’s it.

Unable to keep the smile at bay, Louis climbs the staircase, each step bouncy and light, meaningful. Everything feels like something right now, everything feels.

Harry is his. He smiles wider.

He finds the boy in question in his room, curled up on his duvet and staring out the window, a sad tilt to his mouth, fingers laced upon his stomach. He turns when he hears Louis, turns sad, watchful eyes on him, his hair askew and frizzy. It’s curled in odd directions and it lies unevenly and his eyes look drawn and there’s a spot by his lip.

And he’s perfect and Louis wants to worship him.

He w