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Paint The Sky With Stars

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12 April 1912

After the excitement of last night, his stomach still protesting the sheer amount of food he’d filled it with, Louis would quite enjoy a nice, relaxing day at sea. Maybe he’ll spend the whole morning in bed, just because he can, or go and entertain the children in the General Room to ease the ache in his heart from missing his sisters.

Or maybe Niall could have a massive, massive hangover, his discomfort disrupting the cabin and, by extension, Louis’ slumber.

“Horan, I highly doubt moaning once a minute will make you feel any better,” Louis snaps at around ten o’clock in the morning. Zayn and Stan have already licked their own wounds and ventured out for the day, leaving their fallen comrade behind to wallow.

If only he didn’t have to wallow quite so loudly.

Coming to terms with the fact that his day in bed simply isn’t to be, Louis climbs down from his bunk and dresses, pushing aside the steward’s jacket more roughly than the garment deserves. If nothing else, he’s certainly not going to allow himself to spend the day thinking about… Him.

After washing his face in the basin attached to the wall, Louis flicks some water at the groaning Irishman. The splashes seem to do the trick, as Niall pries open a bloodshot eye and fixes Louis with a mean glare.

“What are you playing at, Tomlinson?” he mutters darkly, his voice rough. “Thought you’d be gallivanting off to First Class by now.”

Louis bristles as he turns off the tap, whirling on Niall. “I have not been gallivanting, thank you.” He eyes Niall with suspicion, the man sitting up and scrubbing a hand over his pale face. “You haven’t told anyone, have you?”

“’Course not. I’m a man of me word.”

“You’re still half-rats, more like.”

Not bothering to argue, Niall stumbles out of his bunk and over to the washbasin. He practically dunks his entire head in the thing, resurfacing with water dripping from his dark brown hair. “Blame our dear Mr Lucas. He goaded me into it,” he says accusingly, but some life has returned to his dancing blue eyes.

Speak of the devil, Louis thinks as the door swings open. Stan pokes his head into the room and looks rather surprised at seeing Niall conscious. “Oh, I wasn’t sure you’d be up yet,” he admits sheepishly, before turning on Louis. “And you, shouldn’t you be off to wherever you disappear to during the day?”

“Reckon he’s found a girl,” Zayn says, close behind. “That’s where you get off to, isn’t it? Out on a razzle-dazzle?”

“Bite your tongue, Malik,” Louis replies crossly. “There’s no girl. The only person on this ship keeping me from my bed is Horan here, and according to him I have Lucas to thank for that.”

Stan shrugs, not looking at all remorseful for Niall’s state. “It was a right good time in the General Room last night. We were all a bit blotto by the end of it.” He narrows his eyes at Louis as he leans against the frame of the bunk. “You’d know that, if you ever turned up for one.”

“I will, I will,” Louis promises, desperate to keep the conversation as far away from his exploits as possible. It isn’t that he trusts Stan and Zayn any less than Niall, but the fewer people that know, the better.

Zayn looks incredulous, a dark brow arched on his forehead. “Tonight, then?”

Not like I’ll be anywhere else, Louis thinks glumly. “Tonight,” he promises, eliciting a cheer from the other men in the cabin and making Niall clutch at his head.

“Oi, keep it down,” the Irish lad hisses, glaring around the room. His gaze settles on Louis. “Tommo, get out of here. I’m sure your girl is wondering where you are,” he says with a wink, making Louis stammer and blush as Stan and Zayn erupt in laughter.

Louis narrows his eyes, but doesn’t miss the way Niall tips his head at the drawer concealing the uniform. The other lads don’t even notice; they’re too busy executing a charade of Stan (as Louis) trying to woo Zayn, who is doing possibly the worst imitation of an Irish lass that Louis has ever had the misfortune to hear.

He doesn’t want to see Harry. He doesn’t want to think about the fact that his lips have touched another man’s, and instead of revulsion he feels… something else. Curiosity. Interest. Maybe, somewhere deep down, even a bit of pleasure. It had been a rather nice kiss, after all, until Louis’ brain had caught up with his lips.

“All right, I’m going, I’m going,” he mutters, stalking to his bunk and pulling open the drawer. He grabs his overcoat and shoves the uniform inside, as inconspicuously as possible, before slipping past his new friends and out into the corridor. He may not wish to entangle himself further with the fellow with the soft mouth and gentle words, but he does have many regions of this ship yet to explore. There’s no sense in squandering the opportunity for fear of coming across one certain person among the two-thousand or more on board.

After stopping by the Dining Saloon for first seating of dinner, his bulky parcel stuffed in his lap, Louis finds the lavatory and shuts himself in a stall. He wasn’t able to eat much, just a bit of beef and gravy and biscuits, and even that is sitting uncomfortably heavy in his stomach. The food he considered a veritable feast yesterday morning now pales in comparison to the meal he consumed the night before.

Still, he thinks as he changes clothes, he’s lucky to have plenty to eat; he’s heard of steerage accommodations on other ships requiring passengers to bring their own food for the voyage. Louis had barely managed to scrape up enough for his ticket, let alone provisions for the week it will take to reach the New World.

Stashing his own clothes in a linen closet, Louis sets off for the now-familiar route to First Class. His foot barely touches the bottom stair when a rough hand on his arm pulls him backwards.

“What in the—” Louis cries out as he rounds on his assailant, heart in his throat at the idea that Malik or Lucas has somehow caught him dressed in a steward’s clobber.

Worse yet, the man detaining him is a steward. He’s a bit taller than Louis with neatly trimmed brown hair and dark eyes, bushy eyebrows drawn together as he frowns down at the imposter. “Where do you think you’re going, then?”

Unsure of whether to continue his charade or come clean, it’s all Louis can do to stammer out: “Oh, erm, I was…” But Louis is no coward. Swallowing hard, he squares his shoulders and looks the steward in the eye defiantly. “Why do you want to know?”

“You’re wearing my uniform,” the man replies flatly, reaching out an accusatory finger to flick the loose button. “I caught this on a door the morning we set sail, then I left it on my bed to fix it and changed into a spare, but when I came back that evening it was gone.” He crosses his arms over his broad chest, filling out the jacket he’s wearing far better than Louis does. “Now I know where it disappeared to.”

Unable to think of a plausible excuse, Louis merely hangs his head. “You’re right, I took it. I’m ready to accept the consequences.” It was fun while it lasted, anyway.

Face softening considerably, the man uncrosses his arms. Much gentler this time, the steward guides Louis by an elbow out of the main corridor and into an empty cabin, unlocking the door and gesturing for Louis to step inside. “Tell me why you took it, at least,” he says once the door is closed, looking almost sorry to have caught the man.

Taking a seat on an unused mattress, Louis explains everything—his yearning to see First Class, befriending a passenger, wanting to get to know the man better and having no other way to contact him.

“Who have you been visiting?” the steward asks, curious but circumspect. “Does he know who you are?”

Louis nods lamely. “He knows, but I’d rather not tell you his name. No sense getting the both of us in trouble.”

The steward sits for a moment, like he’s mulling over Louis’ story and deciding his fate. “You’re lucky you haven’t been caught before this, you know,” he scolds eventually.

That isn’t what Louis was expecting to hear. “I know. It was a stupid risk, and I shouldn’t have taken it,” he replies carefully, not sure where this conversation is heading.

With a laugh, the steward shakes his head. “Well, yes, but that isn’t what I meant.” He gestures to his jacket. “Third Class stewards have different uniforms. I have no business being in First Class, just as a First Class steward has no business coming down here.” He rubs his chin thoughtfully. “What we need is to get you a different uniform.”

“I beg your pardon?” Louis asks, nearly choking on his tongue.

“You need a First Class uniform. It’ll be much easier to get around in,” the man explains patiently, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “I should think I can find you one.”

Louis regards the man, bewildered by the graciousness of yet another stranger, one who has every right to be furious with him. For the second time in as many days, Louis finds himself asking: “Why are you being so kind to me?”

“Because I understand,” is all he says, a faraway look in his warm, dark eyes. “Besides,” he adds, a touch of humour colouring his voice, “I had to pay for that uniform myself, and I’d rather like to have it back. I’m Liam Payne, by the way.”

“Louis Tomlinson,” Louis replies, standing to shake the man’s hand. Liam’s face splits into a boyish grin, and Louis can’t help smiling right back at him.

Promising to return shortly, Payne excuses himself. True to his word, when he comes back he has a set of clothing folded in his arms, proudly offering the bundle to Louis. “Just make sure I get it back before we reach New York, or I’ll catch hell for it,” Liam says sternly.

The ensemble consists of a white shirt with a black bowtie, black trousers and a blue coat. This jacket and trousers fit much better, Liam having managed to find a set closer to Louis’ size. The same gold buttons line the front of the uniform, looking even more splendid against dark blue wool.

“Thank you,” Louis says earnestly, once he’s fully dressed. He hands the Third Class uniform back to its rightful owner. “None of this would have been possible if you hadn’t left your uniform out.” With one last clasp of Liam’s hand, Louis pushes open the door—Like it or not, it’s time to face Harry. His thoughts haven't strayed far from the other man today, especially when he was nearly caught. Louis needs to visit him at least once more, he decides, gain a sort of closure so he can enjoy his excursions without the stain of their deeds tainting all of First Class.

“Hold on,” Liam calls, locking the empty cabin and catching up to Louis. “I’ll show you a better way to get there,” he says, pointing down the corridor with mischief in his eyes, as if he’s living vicariously through Louis’ exploits.

Grinning ear to ear now, Louis claps Liam on the shoulder. “Mr Payne, I think you and I are going to get along famously.”

✯✯✯

It’s been two days now since Harry boarded the Titanic, and he’s right back where he started: curled up in bed, staring at the ceiling, and wishing this damn voyage was over already.

He can’t believe he was so stupid. Kissing Louis was a mistake, and now he’s lost the closest thing to a friend he’s had in years. He can only hope Louis doesn’t turn him in, though Harry wouldn’t blame him in the slightest.

A knock at the door startles him out of his melancholy and out of bed, still wearing his pyjamas even though it’s past midday. His heart flutters with the hope that it could be Louis, perhaps willing to give Harry a chance to explain.

Of course, it could also be one of the officers coming to toss him overboard or keelhaul him—whatever they do with criminals at sea. He allows himself a single moment to wonder whether there is any kind of prison on board before he throws open the door.

The corridor is empty, Harry’s face pinching in confusion (and no small amount of disappointment) as he looks around the deserted hallway. He’s about to step out in search of his seemingly invisible visitor, pyjamas be damned, when the knock sounds again.

Alas, it’s coming from the door connecting his room with Gemma’s. It was only a matter of time, really; much as he’d like to mope around his cabin, his dear sister isn’t one to let him suffer in solitude. She seems to delight in forcing him into social interactions, for whatever reason.

It’s no surprise, then, when Harry opens the door to reveal a rather cross looking Gemma. Her hands perch on her hips as she scowls up at him. “May I ask where you’ve been all day? You weren’t at breakfast or lunch.”

Reluctantly stepping back to grant his sister access to his stateroom, Harry heaves an exaggerated sigh. “I was sleeping late… Didn’t much feel up to being social today.” He slumps into a chair and props his chin on his palm, waiting for the inevitable lecture.

“It’s past noon. That’s far long enough to have slept off whatever trouble you got into last night.”

It’s all Harry can do not to roll his eyes heavenward, not wanting to risk a wallop from his sister. “I didn’t drink too much, if you must know,” he grumbles, wishing that too much alcohol was the cause behind his pounding head and aching heart.

Gemma tilts her head, studying him curiously. “What’s troubling you, then? You seemed so happy at dinner. The fellow you brought, Tomlinson, he had you in higher spirits than I’ve seen in ages.”

He must flinch at the name, because Gemma’s eyes widen in understanding. “Did something happen after dinner?”

“We had a bit of a misunderstanding.” Harry’s eyes stay fixed on his hands, too humiliated to meet his sister’s gaze. “I— I kissed him, and he fled.”

Taking a seat at the table, Gemma reaches across it to grasp Harry’s hands. “I see. He rejected your advances?” Her voice is dripping with sympathy that Harry neither wants nor deserves, not after the way he treated Louis.

He pulls one of his hands away and jams it through his curls, fingers catching in a tangle. “He seemed not to, at first, and that’s what I find so frustrating. I suspect his brain and body couldn’t agree, and it upset him.” Finally working through the snarl of hair, Harry drops his hand to the table once more. “I most regret causing him any distress. I doubt I’ll ever get the chance to apologise to him.”

“I wouldn’t say that.” Gemma face is a perfect mask, completely inscrutable. There’s no doubt in Harry’s mind that she’s up to something, though what it is he can’t begin to guess. “You should have seen the way he looked at you at dinner. I’d wager that we’ll be seeing Mr Tomlinson again.”

“Perhaps only to slap me, as he should have done last night.”

“Perhaps,” Gemma allows. With one last pat of Harry’s hand, she stands to take her leave. “I’m going to lie down for a bit. You had better not be sulking in your room when I come back,” she threatens lightly.

Unable to resist smiling at Gemma’s concern for him, Harry nods. “I think I’ll go and find something to hold me over until dinner—which I will attend, you have my word,” he assures her.

Satisfied, she gives him a sly smile before disappearing back into her stateroom.

She’s right, though; he’s not doing himself—or Louis, for that matter—any favours by hiding in his cabin. Still, it’s with grudging acceptance that he dresses and sets out in search of sustenance. He only hopes he can trust himself not to scandalise another unsuspecting fellow for the rest of the passage.

He’s no sooner passed his uncle’s door than it swings open, the sound of an unpleasantly familiar voice floating toward him like a stench. “Harry, may I have a word?”

Harry has plenty of words he’d love to impart on his dear uncle, but his mother raised a gentleman, so he settles for thinking them quite pointedly instead. “What is it, Charles?” His voice carries as much warmth as does the Atlantic itself.

Unbothered by the chill in Harry’s tone, Charles squares himself and glowers up at his nephew. “That was a rather interesting chap you brought to dinner last evening. Thompson, wasn’t it?”

“Tomlinson,” Harry corrects coolly, his patience growing ever thinner. “What about him?”

Charles shifts uncomfortably, resting his mass on one foot and then the other. “I’ve told you time and again how important your reputation is, Harry. It isn’t just your name; it’s mine and your father’s as well.”

“Get to the point, Charles.”

Looking aghast, Charles wrings his hands in front of him, as if whatever he’s about to say is taking some great effort. “I just worry that man might try to lead you astray. You need to be careful.”

Bristling, Harry clenches his fists at his sides. “Well, you needn’t worry about me, as it is I hoping to lead him astray. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” Turning on his heel without another word, Harry leaves his uncle sputtering helplessly behind him. It’s a small comfort, but shocking his uncle with talk of his so-called ‘gross indecency’ is enough to put the tiniest bounce in his step, despite the weight curling heavy ‘round his heart.

✯✯✯

It’s on the third pass by Harry’s stateroom that Louis finally brings himself to knock. He hasn’t a clue what he might say—or what he hopes Harry might say to him—only that he needs to see Harry again, to put paid to their brief friendship, if nothing else.

Finally working up the nerve, he raises a fist and gives three sharp knocks. Now all he has to do is manage not to flee or revisit his dinner before Harry receives him.

Thankfully, the wait is short, and Louis is inside the door before it’s even opened all the way. “I apologise for barging in on you like this, but I really think we need to talk.” He spins to face Harry, only to find himself met with the lady Styles instead. “Oh.”

“’Oh,’ yourself, Mr Tomlinson,” she says, the ever-present amusement lighting up her face. “I suspect you’ve come seeking my dear brother?” Her eyes skim his body, taking in the uniform adorning it.

Blanching, Louis takes a step back, bumping into the table. “I can explain,” he says quickly, even though he’s not quite sure how to put his predicament into words. I’m a passenger posing as a steward. Your brother kissed me, and I have no idea what to do about it. If one didn’t guarantee a call to the ship’s officers, surely the other would.

“You don’t need to explain a thing.” Gemma joins him at the table, taking a seat and gesturing for him to do the same. “I’m merely surprised to see you in uniform. It’s one thing for my brother to fancy a fellow passenger; it’s quite another for him to be dallying with a member of the crew.”

Relief and guilt both strike Louis simultaneously, the former at his identity being safe and the latter at being deceitful. Then Gemma’s words sink in, fear taking over and running cold through his veins. “You know, then? About Harry?” His eyes are wide, hoping she understands what he’s implying—he doesn’t think he can give voice to such a thing, particularly not in the presence of a lady.

Her laugh takes Louis by surprise, as he finds no levity in the situation he’s gotten himself into. One of these days you’ll learn to stay where you belong, he tells himself. As it’s too late for that now, he can only sit and hear the lady out, feeling as tense as a compressed spring.

“I know more about Harry than anyone else does,” Gemma says, a faraway look in her eyes. “He struggled so hard with it, you know. When you hear your entire life that something is an aberration, it comes as a nasty shock when you find yourself having those kinds of thoughts.”

“How long has he known about his… preferences?” Louis asks delicately, curious to know more about the tall, handsome stranger. If he’s being honest, Harry stopped feeling like a stranger soon after they met, though when he began applying ‘handsome’ to the man without a second thought, he can’t say. “How did he find out?”

Gemma seems to think for a moment before replying. “I really think that’s Harry’s story to tell. He’s known for quite some time, though.” Her face, usually aglow with mischief or mirth, now sags with sadness. “He acquired a bit of a reputation back home. Took a shine to the wrong man and found himself the subject of a fair bit of gossip. Our father would have cut Harry off if it hadn’t been for our mother.”

“She knew, as well?” Louis asks, hanging on to Gemma’s every word, trying to imagine a younger, insecure Harry, alone and confused, his body at odds with the teachings of his family and his god.

“She did, yes. Mother may not have understood, but like I do, she could see that Harry was not acting out of sin. If it’s out of love, she told him, she couldn’t care less who he courted.” She shakes her head, lips pressed together in a sad smile. “It was one thing she and Father never agreed on—marrying for love. He only cares about making connections. With her gone, he wasted no time in sending me away to find a successful husband.” Her smile takes on its wry twist once more. “I have no intention of complying, of course. Harry came along to make sure I’m not mistreated, and to get a fresh start himself.”

Louis can’t help but think of his own sisters, tries to imagine them being sent away to loveless marriages. He’d go along in a heartbeat to protect them, even if it meant leaving everything behind. It makes him feel a sort of kinship with Harry, knowing they’d both do anything for the women in their lives. His own concern now extends to the lady across the table, certain that if it ever were necessary, he’d look after her as well (though he’s fairly certain that Gemma Styles is quite capable of taking care of herself).

“Thank you for telling me all of this,” Louis says, tracing the grain of the table with a shaky fingertip. “Harry’s lucky to have you as a sister.”

“And I him.” Gemma reaches across the table, taking Louis’ hand. “Be kind to him, won’t you? He’s had far too much heartache in his life.”

Confusion flickers across Louis’ features, but he nods anyway. “I will,” he vows, earning him a squeeze before she withdraws her hand. He wants to ask her what she meant by that, but the door opening interrupts his query before it leaves his lips.

✯✯✯

When Harry heads back to his stateroom, he’s only managed to find tea and biscuits to quiet his protesting stomach. With the Dining Saloon closed in preparation for the next meal, and the restaurants feeling rather too intimate for dining alone, he’d taken refuge in the Lounge instead. Perhaps he’ll ring for a steward, see about getting something brought to his room. Hell, maybe he should take his meals that way for the rest of the journey.

He stops short of opening his door, curious to hear voices coming from the other side. Pressing his ear closer, he can just make out Gemma’s mellow tone, though to whom she’s speaking he can’t begin to imagine. Nellie, perhaps, though why would they be in his room?

The voices are too soft to make out individual words, but when a male voice follows Gemma’s, Harry wastes no time in flinging open the door.

Gemma is indeed occupying his room, though it’s the man with her that catches Harry off guard.

It’s Louis, dressed now in a uniform similar to Wheeler’s and the other stewards Harry’s seen around. He’s seated at the table next to Gemma, hands balled into fists on the tabletop. He meets Harry’s gaze with wide, unblinking eyes, though there doesn’t seem to be any revulsion hidden in their depths.

“I’m sorry, am I interrupting something?” Harry asks from the doorway, glancing with concern between the pair of them.

“No, I was just leaving.” Gemma moves from her chair to Harry’s side, skirts rustling in her wake. She leans in close, her lips only a hairsbreadth from Harry’s ear as she whispers, “I like this one, Harry. Please be careful.” She punctuates the warning with a kiss to her brother’s cheek. Without another word, only a reassuring smile in Louis’ direction, she leaves the two men alone in the heavy silence.

Harry turns back to his unexpected guest, Louis still watching his every move. “What was that about, then?” he asks, clearing his throat.

When Louis doesn’t respond, Harry joins him at the table. “Listen, I must apologise for last night. I shouldn’t have—”

“How long have you known?” Louis cuts him off. “That you like men.” His gaze has fallen to the table, colour rising in his cheeks. "How did you come to know such a thing?"

There isn’t anger in Louis’ tone, but it isn’t overly friendly either. Still, it’s better than the outright disgust Harry feared hearing. He swallows against the lump rising in his throat. Maybe there’s still a chance that he and Louis can come out of this on good terms, if not exactly friends.

“I always thought it curious I didn’t fancy girls the way my friends did,” Harry says slowly, reminiscing on a time when life was far less complicated. “When I was old enough for boarding school, that all but confirmed it. Experimentation is to be expected during adolescence, and I don’t need to explain how that might play out at an all male school.” Harry chances a sheepish grin at Louis, the other man quickly looking away. Lips sliding back into a more sombre expression, he carries on. “It wasn’t only experimentation for me, though. I enjoyed myself far more than I’d ever dare admit to my classmates.”

“And, erm, after your schooling? What then?” Louis asks, curiosity getting the better of him.

Encouraged by the interest, Harry sits up straighter in his chair, folding his hands together on the table in front of him so that he can lean the slightest bit closer to his guest.

“After school, I met a like-minded man who was all too happy to teach me what I hadn’t yet managed to learn on my own. We saw each other secretly for quite some time, until his mother discovered us and sent him away, making sure to place the blame for her son’s actions solely with me.” He laughs, short and rueful, at the memory. “So not only did I lose the first person I cared for, I also lost a great number of friends. Of course my father found out, and it was only my mother’s pleading that kept me from being disowned.”

Louis’ expression has softened into one of almost pity, the story seeming to have melted his frozen tongue. “I’m sorry things have been so difficult for you,” he says, looking troubled, “but you have to know what you’re doing is a crime, Harry. You’re lucky that boy’s mother didn’t do worse than sully your name.”

“And what is posing as a steward to sneak around, then?” Harry replies, a bite in his voice. “You don’t seem the sort to worry overmuch about following rules when you’re the one breaking them.” Wincing at how harsh he sounds, Harry calms himself with a sigh. “Listen, Louis, it was never my intention to cause you any grief. I’m very sorry that I seem to have done just that.”

Smiling for the first time since Harry’s seen him again, Louis replies: “How does the saying go? ‘The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.’” He looks down to his hands, still clenched on the table, though not so tightly as before. “You do tempt me, terribly so, and I’m afraid I’m not sure what to do about it.”

Harry’s heart soars at the admission, hope fluttering its wings with each erratic beat. “And I believe it was Oscar Wilde who wrote, ‘The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.’”

Louis is momentarily stunned, just long enough for Harry to curse himself for being so bold. “Well, look how that turned out for Mr Wilde,” Louis replies at last, smiling bright enough to illuminate the windowless cabin.

The lighthearted nature of Louis’ remark takes Harry by surprise, startling a laugh out of him in a mixture of amusement and relief. “You have a point,” he concedes, daring to let his smile spread wider. “Now where does that leave us?”

The smile on Louis’ face vanishes as quickly as it had appeared. “I can’t say I know. I’ve never been more confused by a person in my entire life as I am by you.”

The winged creature within Harry’s breast takes flight once more. “Then you know it didn’t feel criminal when we kissed. You felt something, didn’t you?”

“I feel loads of things that I can’t make sense of.”

“I can help, if you’ll let me.” Harry knows he must be a sorry sight, all but begging Louis to stay. What is it about this man, a complete stranger mere days ago, that has Harry’s heartstrings pulled so tightly they might snap if he should turn Harry away?

Uncertainty has woven itself into each of Louis’ features, from the crease in his brow to the thin line of his mouth. “I think I should like some time to myself, if you don’t mind.” His voice reminds Harry of being licked by a cat—soothing and coarse, all at the same time.

Without a second thought, Harry boldly reaches out to cover one of Louis’ fists with his hand. He marvels at how much smaller Louis’ hand is for a beat before giving the gentlest caress, pulling away before it proves too much for the other man. “Take all the time you need,” he says sincerely. “Please, just promise I’ll see you again before we reach New York. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering what might have been.”

“And if I’m too gutless to face you again?”

Reaching into his jacket, Harry produces the watch he always wears, its constant weight reassuring in his pocket. Sometimes, when he misses his mother particularly badly, his hand finds the thing of its own volition, the metal growing warm in his palm as if she is thinking of him as well. The logical part of him knows that it’s his own body causing the sensation, but the same blood flows through his veins as did hers, and that’s close enough.

“Hold on to this for me,” Harry says, unhooking the chain and handing the timepiece to a bewildered Louis. “My grandfather left it to my mother when he died, and she gave it to me on my eighteenth birthday. I know you’ll take good care of it.”

Louis stares at the watch in his open palm, the chain dangling out of his hand and swaying in time with his pulse. “Harry, I couldn’t possibly take this.”

“You can,” Harry says confidently, in spite of the emotion threatening to cause his voice to waver. He reaches out once more and closes Louis’ fingers around the watch, his own digits tingling from the combined touch of familiar metal and unfamiliar skin. “Just make sure it finds its way back to me. I know you will.”

There’s a moment of silence as Louis continues to gape at the watch wrapped in his fingers. Then, with a short nod, Louis tucks the watch into his pocket. “I should go. People are getting suspicious about where I’ve been running off to.”

Harry stands as Louis does, gripping the man’s hand in farewell, though he longs for an embrace instead. “I’ll be waiting,” Harry promises as he opens the door for Louis.

“I’ll try not to make you wait too long,” Louis vows in return.

“I meant it when I said to take all the time you need,” Harry says solemnly. Then, in a lighter tone: “I won’t know how long it’s been anyway, as I’ve given you my watch.”

That brings a small but genuine smile to Louis’ lips. Without another word, he sets off down the corridor, looking over his shoulder once before disappearing around the corner.

When he’s sure Louis won’t come running back to him, mind made up and arms open wide, Harry returns to his stateroom only to head straight for Gemma’s.

She answers on the first knock, having guessed her brother would seek her out the moment Louis took his leave. “Well? How did it go?” She asks, scrutinizing his face for clues as to what kind of comfort he might be after.

Harry slumps against the door frame, exhaustion from the emotional ups and downs of the day hitting him all at once. “He’s gone back to steerage.”

“And what business does Mr Tomlinson have in steerage?” Gemma asks, eyebrows lifting in interest. “I was under the impression he worked in First Class.”

She doesn’t know, Harry realises, pursing his lips tightly. Of course he can tell Gemma; he’s told her everything for as long as he can remember, and she’s never once betrayed that trust. Told him he was being a bit daft at times, sure, but he deserved it. He only hopes this isn’t one of those times she finds it necessary to upbraid him.

“He belongs in Third Class,” Harry admits, watching her dark eyes widen in surprise. “And he isn’t a steward. He’s a passenger.”

She listens intently as he tells her about how Louis snuck into First Class in the guise of a steward, happening upon the Styleses completely by chance. “I knew he looked familiar,” Gemma murmurs, once the tale is told. “He’s the steward who barged in on me our first night on board.”

“Barged in?” Harry asks in alarm. “Why is this the first I’m hearing of this?”

“He didn’t do anything inappropriate, Harry. Please calm down.” Gemma strokes his arm soothingly as she continues. “It is I who should be ashamed; I sent him to your cabin in hopes you would appreciate the view.” Her cheeks are crimson now that the admission has been heard.

“You sent him?” Harry repeats in wonder as Gemma nods. “We probably only met because of you.”

Gemma’s full lips part in a smile. “You’ll have to thank me should he come back to you.” Then, more gently: “Do you think he will?”

“I know he will. I gave him Grandfather’s pocket watch.”

The smile morphs into a perfect ‘o’ of surprise. “Harry, you’ve never gone anywhere without that thing since the day Mother gave it to you. What on Earth possessed you to give it to a man you barely know?”

She’s right, of course; Harry doesn’t know Louis from Adam. He’s just a man with an infatuation for a total stranger, someone from what might as well be an entirely different world. Their paths would likely never have crossed if they weren’t both confined to the same ship—and that they met on the ship at all is nothing short of a miracle. Harry’s certain he was meant to meet Louis, and something bigger than either of them made it so.

So, yes, he might hardly know Louis now, but it seems they’re destined to be in one another’s life. Who is Harry to argue with Destiny?

“Destiny,” Harry replies simply. With that he turns on his heel and dreamily strolls back to his own room, shutting the door between him and a rather perplexed Gemma.

✯✯✯

The bundle of clothing is right where Louis left it, stashed at the back of a linen closet. He changes mechanically, focusing on his movements so as to avoid thinking about his latest encounter with Harry. It’s too much all at once, both his brain and his heart seemingly trying to flee his body to save themselves. What’s worse, the watch rests heavy in his pocket like an anchor, keeping him from floating away altogether.

He pulls the watch out of the uniform trousers, taking a moment to study it before plunging it into the pocket of his own. It’s quite lovely, gold and glinting in Louis’ palm. The level of care it has received is obvious in the lack of scratches and dings in the hunter’s case. The front of the case sports a sweeping floral design, vines wrapping around the edges and ending in a circle around the monogram at the bottom: EJC. Louis brushes his thumb over the letters, wondering if EJC was Harry’s grandfather. Whoever he was, how would he feel about his watch falling into the hands of someone like, well, Louis—poor and impure, with nothing to offer someone like Harry in return.

With a groan of frustration at his sorry state of affairs, Louis tucks the watch away and pushes angrily out of the lavatory, drawing curious stares from the group of men passing by in the corridor. He brushes past them without a word, too preoccupied to worry about being polite. All he wants is to curl up in his bunk and sleep until the world makes sense again.

Of course, that isn’t to be, because no sooner than he turns a corner, he runs straight into Liam Payne.

“Tomlinson!” Liam cries jovially, steadying the smaller man from their collision. “You’re back awfully soon. Have a nice stroll?” His left eye closes in the barest of winks, just enough to clue Louis in to the true question he’s asking.

“I’m afraid I didn’t feel much up to exploring after all,” Louis replies, clutching the bundle of clothes tightly to his side. “If you’ll excuse me, I was just headed back to my cabin to lie down.”

Louis doesn’t make it more than two steps before Payne catches his arm. It’s getting to be a habit, it seems. “Here, allow me to escort you. You’re looking awfully pale.”

Not possessing the mental or physical energy to argue, Louis mumbles out his cabin number and lets himself be lead through the maze-like hallways of the ship. When Liam turns down a different hallway than the one leading straight to Louis’ cabin, he looks at the man in wonder.

“Thought we could take the long way,” Liam says cryptically. They reach a dead end, no one in sight and all the nearby cabin doors closed. “We’re safe here,” the steward says once they stop. “Now, what happened up there that has you so shaken?”

Frowning, Louis leans against the wall opposite Liam, arms crossed over his chest defensively. “I appreciate your help, Mr Payne, but what makes you think my activities are any of your concern?”

Nonplussed by Louis’ sharp tongue, Liam shrugs in response. “They aren't. But then again, who else do you have to speak to about them?”

Damn if the man didn’t have an excellent point. There’s Niall, of course, but getting him alone doesn’t always prove easy. Besides, Liam has already shown that he’s trustworthy, though what his motives are Louis can’t begin to guess.

“Do you know why I signed on for this voyage, Tomlinson?” Liam says once the silence has dragged on long enough, Louis’ internal struggle keeping his brain too busy to work his mouth. The steward doesn’t wait for an answer. “There’s a girl back home, back in Wolverhampton. Her name is Sophia, and I’m going to marry her.”

Curiosity piqued, Louis lets his guard down, arms falling to wrap around his middle instead. “I’m afraid I don’t follow. How can you marry her if she’s there and you’re here?”

Liam laughs, his entire face crinkling with amusement. “I can’t, but then again I can’t marry her there either. Her father won’t allow it.” He sobers quickly, the pain in his brown eyes clear as day. “My family doesn’t come from much, unlike hers; they own a thriving bicycle factory. Her father is afraid I won’t be able to care for her as well as a more successful man could.” He tugs at the jacket of his uniform. “This is my way of proving him wrong.”

“But you’ll be at sea all the time. Surely that doesn’t help your case.”

“Once I save up a bit, I’m going to buy some shares of her father’s company. He doesn’t have any sons to leave it to.” Liam’s smile is both hopeful and sad, reminding Louis terribly of Harry’s smile not so long ago. “I love her, Mr Tomlinson. I’ll do anything it takes to be her husband.”

He’s so determined, his love for this girl written all over his face, that the sheer force of it has hope blossoming in Louis’ chest. “Why are you telling me this?” Louis wonders aloud. “What does any of this have to do with me?”

The soft smile is gone, an impish one in its place. “Perhaps nothing at all,” Liam replies, taking a few steps back toward the main corridor. “Just know that I truly believe love will always find a way, and where there’s love, it’s never foolish to hope.” He winks once more and turns his back, leaving Louis in the empty corridor alone and more uncertain than ever before.

There’s just enough time for a kip before the dinner call, though whether it’s the now-familiar bugling or Niall all but pulling him out of his bunk that wakes him Louis isn’t sure.

“What… do you think… you’re doing?” Louis grumbles irritably, slapping the Irishman away with sleep-heavy limbs. It feels as if he barely closed his eyes at all.

Laughing, Niall ducks out of the way of Louis’ flailing. “You’re coming to supper with us, Tommo,” Niall informs him, making it quite clear by his tone that Louis has no say in the matter.

Behind Niall, Stan is nodding enthusiastically. “Spending the whole evening with us, if you keep your word.”

Louis rolls over with a groan. He did promise to give his bunk mates some of his time, and it isn’t as if he doesn’t want to. It’s the railroad spike that feels like it’s being driven into his skull that’s the problem.

“Up with ya,” Niall urges, yanking the blanket off Louis’ bed, much to the approval of Zayn and Stan.

Admitting defeat, Louis eases himself down from his bunk, ignoring the triumphant look on Niall’s face as he searches for wherever his left shoe got off to. “Horan, I have a feeling Ireland’s a quieter place with you on this ship.”

Zayn chuckles, watching in amusement as Louis struggles into his footwear. “You haven’t heard anything yet. Last night he and this bloke Daly were teaching everyone drinking songs. Sounded like a bagful of angry cats.”

Niall squawks in protest, but Stan claps a hand over his mouth. “Then Horan had a go on Daly’s bagpipes. That was even worse.”

Finally besting his shoes, Louis straightens up with a laugh. “Sounds like someone was a bit deep in his cups, eh?”

Red-cheeked and grinning, Niall just shakes his head. “Absolutely not. That was before we started drinking.”

The dining room fills quickly, with only seats enough for half of the steerage passengers at a sitting. The quartet manages to find four chairs together, the other lads greeting fellow passengers with enthusiasm. Louis doesn’t recognise a soul, he realises; it has him missing the cozy table in the First Class saloon with the Marvins and the Styleses. Then again, he’d have to face Harry, and he’s nowhere near ready to do that just yet.

Instead, Louis turns his attention to present company, determined to have a pleasant evening in Third Class—the sort of evenings he should have been having all along.

The fare here is simpler, the conversation louder, and the after dinner concert consists of whichever passengers brought instruments along for the trip. Still, Louis thinks, with one arm around Niall’s shoulders and another around Stan’s as they sing along with the crowd, this life isn’t so bad after all. He’d be perfectly content to remember his place in life, where he’s meant to be, if it weren’t for one thing:

There’s a very good chance that he’s falling in love with Harry Styles.