The upside of taking the tube is that Louis doesn’t have to stand in freezing cold temperatures at a bus stop waiting for a bus that might smell any sort of questionable way.
(The tube always smells a little bit off, but it’s the same kind of little bit off, so it’s consistent).
The downside of taking the tube is that the second Louis has clicked on a link or scrolled down to read a new tweet, the train is moving and all hope of anything loading is immediately gone, leaving Louis with nothing to stare at but grey boxes.
On his nightly commute home, this leads to about twenty minutes of people-watching, with breaks whenever the train’s stopped to try to quickly load a page before it’s off again.
(Which almost never works, but that’s likely his own phone’s fault. It’s not exactly new).
Tonight there’s a woman sitting across from him with an emerald green dress and fishnet stockings. Her soulmate tattoo is visible through the stockings on her right knee, but Louis can’t make out through the loopy script what it says. She’s reading a book that Louis can’t quite catch the title of, but it looks like a werewolf romance sort of book. Could be good, he thinks to himself.
There’s a man two down from her who’s wearing a plain blue suit, but has paired it with a neon yellow tie. It’s hideously bright. Louis wonders if it was a present from a grandchild.
The train slows to a stop and Louis rushes to load another page of AITA. His phone decides to its sweet time, though, and he watches the blue loading line nudge its way across the top of the page, like watching a turtle try to win a race.
The turtle doesn’t win the race.
With a sigh, Louis looks up from his phone as the train takes off again. The car’s filled up, and he’s glad to have already gotten a seat (not that he wouldn’t give it up for a nice old lady in need!). There’s residual slush melting off of people’s shoes from the winter weather outside, turning into little puddles all around him. The woman in the seat next to his smells faintly of salmon. He leans away from her a little.
Liam has Wednesdays off, so he’s almost definitely at home on the sofa right now, watching The Yorkshire Vet, as he always does on his days off. Louis’ been on his feet all day, and he can’t wait for the opportunity to go push Liam to one side and demand that he order the both of them pizza. Or kebabs. Possibly a curry.
Now trying to distract himself from the faint salmon smell that seems to be growing stronger, Louis starts people-watching with a purpose. There’s a woman with a young child in her arms who has a stuffed bear in her arms, and all three of them are in matching blue dresses. The person now sitting opposite him has purple hair and earrings that hang past their shoulders in a tangle of tiny glinting beads. Louis wonders how often they get stuck on things. He can see what he thinks is a soulmate tattoo just below their jawline, something short. Good for them.
There’s a man at the far end of the tube who is wearing a chunky oversized sweater, colourful knit squares patched together like a clown outfit made for winter. Louis isn’t sure, but he thinks it might be hideous. The guy is turned around, though, so he can only see the back of it.
The next time the train slows, it’s Louis’ stop. Grateful to finally be parting ways with the salmon woman, he stands and weaves his way through the bodies standing between himself and the exit. Mind the gap echoing through the speakers in the train as he steps onto the platform. It’s cold outside but the walk home isn’t too bad. He texts Liam on the way about ordering pizza.
Exactly a week later, it’s Wednesday again. Louis has been on his feet for eight hours, the Christmas season finally out in full, taking the number of visitors to his little store from a few an hour to what feels like a few a minute. He’s spent all day putting books back, restocking receipt paper, answering customer questions who are shopping for their niece, their sister, their grandfather, their uncle, each of them asking for books that are self published and only available on Wamazon, or for books fifty years out of print, or for books that don’t exist ( To Kill a Mockingjay, for instance, or Catch-420). It’s exhausting. The bookstore has its regulars and its book fanatics and Louis can deal with them just fine. But if one more person complains that they have nothing in stock after asking for a book that hasn’t been printed since 1872, he will lose it. Murder should be legal on holidays.
Also, the train is late.
The train is so late that Louis’ considered just walking to the next stop. It’s a nonsensical option, as the train will definitely have appeared, gone to that stop and left again by the time he arrives. But he’s full of pent up customer service energy, and it would feel more productive at this point.
The only reason he doesn’t is that his feet are sore and he’s tired. Liam should give him a foot massage. That’s what roommates do, right? Liam will do anything if Louis begs enough. He’s not above begging.
When the train rolls into the station at what feels like a glacial pace, Louis side steps his way around the crowds to the front. He’s not a proud man. His feet hurt and he wants a seat.
He’s picked the right door, apparently, because he’s able to be the first one inside and takes one of the last available seats, right at the back of the car.
And, the best part, is that he’s already got a page of AITA up on his browser, fully loaded, so when the train takes off he’s able to start reading the plight of a man who threw out all of his girlfriend’s globes. Surely, the man pleads. Surely he’s not an asshole?
(Obviously he’s an asshole, but Louis loves all the comments that tell him so, so he reads on).
He doesn’t run out of page to read for two stops, which is incredibly satisfying. The man was definitely an asshole, and now Louis is somewhat interested in starting a globe collection. It would make him look learned. When he finally looks up, it's to a much busier train car.
There’s a man standing near the door opposite him, swaying with the motions of the car with one hand on the pole next to him. He’s gorgeous, certainly a good person to start the people-watching. He’s got brown curls swept away from his face, and the corner of his jawbone is pronounced. Louis wouldn’t mind running a finger along that.
Louis should maybe get laid, actually.
The man has white trousers dotted with blue flowers, and they’re roomy enough that they pool on the floor of the train car around his feet. It’s lucky for him that the floor is mostly dry today. He’s paired the trousers with a blue and white striped shirt. It’s got a low neckline that shows off his soulmate tattoo.
The train is slowing to a stop now. Louis squints a little; the tattoo is two swooping lines across the man’s collarbones, more readable than some of the more calligraphic ones he’s seen.
That chunky oversized sweater
is like a clown outfit made for winter.
It feels like time slows down.
Those words echo in his mind, familiar. Why are they familiar? The— the sweater he saw last week. The one with all the knit squares.
The train slows to a stop and Louis just— he doesn’t move. He feels frozen in place as people surge around him. Suddenly everyone is moving too fast and then just as suddenly the car is near empty, taking off again.
The man is gone.
His soulmate is gone.
“Liam,” Louis says, barging into the flat. “I am going to scream now.”
“Please don’t,” Liam begs plaintively. He’s at the oven. He’s wearing oven mitts. The flat smells like banana.
“I am going to,” Louis insists, throwing his bag down on the sofa. “Liam I am going to scream right now.”
“Our neighbours called security last time you did,” Liam says. “If you do not scream, I will let you try these brownies.”
“Were you watching Chocolate Week on Bake Off without me?” Louis asks, scandalised now. “Now I am going to scream for multiple reasons.”
“We’ve watched this whole season! We watched it last month! I can watch one episode ahead on a show we’ve already seen!”
The brownies he’s pulled out of the oven are very light coloured. They smell very strongly of banana.
“Liam I am going to scream for several reasons and you haven’t even asked me why!”
Liam sets the brownies down. He walks over and puts his mitted hands on Louis’ shoulders. They’re very warm. “Why are you going to scream, Louis?” he asks, his beautifully expressive face expressing extreme concern.
“Because I saw my soulmate on the tube and then I lost them,” Louis says, and then he screams very loud, right in Liam’s ear.
“Give me another brownie,” Louis whines, laying flat on his back on the sofa and holding his plate out to Liam.
“I don’t think you deserve another brownie,” Liam says. “My ears are still ringing and I had to talk to security again. They’re going to fine us next time you do that.”
“It was a very reasonable scream and they should not,” Louis says. “But Liam, I am in turmoil. I am cast adrift upon the waves! My soulmate is out there and he has very pretty eyes and very… extreme fashion sense!”
“You’ll see him again,” Liam reasons. “Get on one of those message boards. Soulmate missed connections.”
“Those boards are full of scammers,” Louis says. “And there’s like fifty to choose from. I’d never find him. God, why is our soulmate system so antiquated?”
Liam frowns. “I think you’ve been reading too many of those books, your words are getting very flowery again.”
“I am a man of literature!” Louis shrieks. “All of my customers are horrible hell spawn and the least I deserve is a few moments to myself on shift to finish reading Dante’s Inferno!”
“You were not actually reading that, right?” Liam asks, looking concerned.
“No, I wasn’t. But I’ve been playing it on Xbox so I think I can surmise the plot.” Louis waves his plate at Liam again and this time Liam actually takes it. “No, I was reading the new Nora Roberts.”
“Ah, that sounds more like you,” Liam says, returning with another brownie on the plate. They’re really not bad, but Prue probably wouldn’t approve. “Obsessed with soulmates and love.”
“And I lost him,” Louis wails. “I had my chance and I lost him!”
“You know he rides the tube,” Liam points out. “And he lives in London.”
“Yeah, so does Gareth Bale but I haven’t seen him around!”
“Plus,” Liam muses, “Do you think he’s seen you too? Do you have a soulmate tattoo now?”
Louis’ eyes grow wide. He drops the plate with a clatter (“No Louis, my brownie—”) and starts stripping off his clothes, getting tangled inside his hoodie as he goes for too many layers at once.
“Do you see it?” Louis asks, looking down at his torso frantically. “I saw his eyes! He must have seen me! Right? Oh my god he got his tattoo a whole week ago and he didn’t see me then! I would’ve noticed!”
“There!” Liam points. Louis has no idea where Liam is pointing.
“Where are you pointing?!”
“To your— there!”
“Liam, you are pointing to all of me!”
“Just— fucking— your hip!”
Louis twists around, pulling his joggers down checking his right hip, and then his left—
“Oh my god,” Louis says.
Liam whistles. “And I thought the one you gave him was long.”
He has to pull his pants down on his hip a bit. It’s four lines, tiny loopy cursive writing that is going to be very mocked by his sisters when they see it. It really is long, so much longer than what he usually sees (and definitely longer than the short romantic one-liners in Nora Roberts’ books).
I have to think something sexy at them. Oh wait did that count? That's so embarrassing they better not be my soulmate.
Liam squints at the lines. Then he looks up at Louis. Louis is shirtless and halfway to trouserless.
“I like him already,” Liam says.
“I’m going to throw up,” Louis says.
(Louis doesn’t throw up, but he does spend the next hour laying in that same state of undress on the sofa, getting pictures of his soulmark from every angle on his phone, and then feeling vaguely ill about the whole thing).
He does consider posting the pictures to a few soulmate search sites, but doesn’t end up doing it. He’s heard too many stories of people faking soulmarks to try to get a quick fuck (not that that would happen to him, because he’s seen his soulmate, but still. It’s the principle of the thing).
He texts his mum and he texts his sisters and he texts that one guy he sort of knows from work — Oli — who replies to the picture with an inquiry about whether Louis would like to switch shifts for the weekend after Christmas. Louis leaves him on read.
He seriously considers just riding the Piccadilly line back and forth for a full day to see if he spots him.
But that’s the kicker, isn’t it? There are so many trains and so many cars on so many trains and he knows that his soulmate — his very wordy soulmate — rides that line but when and why and does he have a preference of cars?
Holy fuck, how does anyone in London find anyone else? This is insane. He’s going to go insane.
At some point Louis screams again, but Liam tackles him and covers his mouth. Liam apparently really doesn’t want to get fined.
For the next week, every time Louis descends down into the tunnels, he’s on high alert. There are people everywhere! Who let these many people out into the streets? This is insanity. How do cities function? Humanity is massive.
After he has a small panic attack about the population size of Britain, he’s back on high alert. The echoing image of his soulmate flashes in his mind as he watches everyone who walks by, everyone who gets on the train, everyone who gets off the train. Louis feels like a poorly trained predator.
He catches sight of a few people who are almost him, but never quite.
For a whole week hopes and watches and worries and runs his hand along his soulmark, as if it’ll start glowing and point him in the right direction. It doesn’t.
Then Wednesday comes. Wednesday comes, and Louis thinks — he saw his soulmate on the Tube last Wednesday. And he saw his soulmate on the Tube the Wednesday before that. This is his best shot. This must be the day he sees him again.
It’s also another day of standing and standing and standing and helping customers who get Mary Shelly and Shelley Noble confused. A customer in the toilets peels the barcodes off of fifteen harlequin romance novels. The alarms at the doors still go off because the barcodes are not where the security tags are, but Louis still has to clean up the mess.
So he finally gets to the end of his shift and he races to the Tube but then wonders if he shouldn’t be racing because then, maybe he’ll get on a train too early? So he slows down a lot and then worries that he’s slowed down too much.
And maybe it was because he was too fast or too slow or got on the wrong train car, or maybe it was another reason entirely, but he catches sight of no one with those beautiful curls or broad shoulders or green eyes or peculiar fashion sense.
By the time he’s home, soulmate-less and alone, he’s too sad even to scream. He takes control of the remote and changes it from The Yorkshire Vet to Gogglebox. Gogglebox is his sad times show.
Liam looks at him with big soulful eyes and orders him a curry. It’s pretty delicious, but his soulmate is not the one to deliver it so Louis is still sad.
Two days later, Louis is still very sad but Oli refused to cover his shifts, so he has to go brave the bookstore crowds and work another shift. This close to Christmas, no one can order anything in time and that just makes everyone more angry. Gift card sales go up, but the number of people who tell Louis that he, personally, has ruined Christmas for their child goes up at about the same rate. As if Louis were the one responsible for these children who apparently want all seventy copies of a manga that finished four years ago. This bookstore is not big enough for the entire One Piece set.
He works at the register for the first four hours of his shift (the number seven key breaks off in the first hour, which means he has to keep using the end of a pencil to enter card numbers), and his break comes just as another rush of people stream through the doors.
Well. Let Zayn deal with them. Louis bought a Pret sandwich on the way into work and it is calling his name.
“Excuse me,” a low voice says from directly behind him just as Louis is about to enter the break room. Shit. He was so close.
Louis turns around, ready to tell this stranger (this stranger with a nice voice) that he’s on break, but Zayn would be happy to help you, when—
“Holy shit,” Louis says.
“Uh,” says Louis’ soulmate. “I’m sorry?”
He’s taller than Louis remembers but that’s probably because Louis was sitting down last time. But he’s got those broad shoulders and those green eyes and those curls and today he’s got that questionable colourful cardigan again.
“You’re my soulmate,” Louis says, pointing to the partially visible soulmark at the collar of his shirt. “That’s me.”
“Oh,” the man frowns. He doesn’t look nearly as excited as Louis needs him to be right in this moment. “Um, I know this cardigan is, uh, not the best. As I have had pointed out to me now. But I’ve actually had this mark for a few weeks, it’s not new, so…”
Louis frowns. “No,” he says. “You don’t understand.” The man doesn’t understand. Louis needs him to understand. Desperately. Right this minute. He reaches for his hip but then thinks better of pulling down his trousers while still clocked in. “Come here,” he says, grasping the man’s wrist.
“Uh,” says the man. He looks concerned but not outright frightened, allowing Louis to guide him into the employee-only break room. “Am I allowed to be in here?”
“Yes,” Louis says. “No. I don’t know. I don’t care.” The room is, blessedly, deserted. It’s too bright and too quiet and there’s an ancient TV above the refrigerator that has a VHS slot in it, because their training video is still only a single ancient VHS. “Here, look! I saw you! On the tube! And you saw me!”
He pulls his trousers down the side of his hip and reveals his soulmark. His long, rambling soulmark. “I called your cardigan a clown outfit made for winter! That was me!”
The man stares very intently at Louis’ hip. Then he looks very intently at Louis. “You were on the train,” he says.
“I was!” Louis shouts. He might yell again. He could do with a good yell. “I saw you! Twice!”
“You think my cardigan is hideous,” the man points out. “The one I’m wearing right now.”
“Well,” says Louis. “I… didn’t say hideous.”
“All of my shirts are low cut,” the man says, his face very serious. “Everyone knows my soulmate thinks I wear a clown outfit.”
Louis grimaces. The mark is very visible. “In my defence,” he says. “I cannot be held accountable for what I think while people watching, and it never occurred to me that that would come back to bite me, although it is occurring to me just now right this moment how obvious it is that that was going to happen.”
The man continues to look at him. He looks so serious. Louis wonders if he’s going to have to pay for soulmark removal surgery. Oh god. He’s going to have to tell Liam.
Then the man laughs.
He laughs very suddenly and very loud and Louis jumps in surprise.
“I was having the worst day,” the man says through his laughter. “Literally the worst. I had just dropped my laptop in the sink that morning—”
“Oh my god,” says Louis.
“And then I’d rolled my ankle so I was limping everywhere and I had just gotten off of work where a woman yelled at me for a quarter of an hour because we don’t sell soap—”
“We don’t either,” Louis says.
“I work at a bakery!”
“Oh that’s really weird,” Louis says. Then rushes to correct— “I mean, really weird of her!”
“Right! So I have this terrible horrible day and then I come home and my roommate informs me that I have this insult of a tattoo across my chest.”
“Really, so sorry, that’s a bad move on my part.”
“And I just,” he giggles again. “I was so fucking happy. That on this horrible day I at least got the statement piece to all of my future outfits.”
He’s smiling so wide and Louis is still rather unsure whether or not he’s about to get pre-broken-up-with. “So we are… is this… not terrible?”
“It’s hilarious and I love it,” he says. “I can’t wait to show everyone the man who insulted me.”
“Okay, I’m not sure that’s now I want to get introduced to the family of my soulmate,” Louis says. “Like, that seems like a bad move on my part.”
“What’s your name?” the man asks.
“Louis,” Louis says. “Yours?”
“Harry,” he says. “Louis, may I just say that you are just as sexy as I thought you were when that soulmark was put on your body?”
“I think that’s a compliment unless you were being very sarcastic in your thinking,” Louis says.
“No sarcasm,” the man says. “And I am going to wear this cardigan for the rest of my life.”
He’s smiling so widely and Louis is smiling so widely and maybe they are even going to kiss or something—
And then the door bursts open.
“Louis I swan to jon, there is a line out the door—” Zayn says and then stops. “You don’t work here,” he says to Harry.
“This is my soulmate,” Louis says, motioning to Harry like a prize on a gameshow. “We’re going to get married probably.”
“Cool,” Zayn says. “Help me on the floor right this minute or I will set this whole building on fire.”
“Right,” says Louis. “Uh. Harry.”
“I can wait,” Harry says. Am I allowed to read the books here?”
“In… the books in this bookstore? Where we sell books? Yes. You are allowed to read the books.” Louis gives him a look.
“Well I don’t know! Maybe you want them in pristine condition!” Harry argues. That’s cute. Louis thinks that’s really cute.
“You’re my soulmate. Read whatever books you want. I’ll buy them for you.”
Zayn has taken him by the wrist and is dragging him out of the door.
“Actually, read the ones on the break room table!” Louis calls out as he’s being dragged away. “They’re advanced reader copies! They’re not out yet!”
The door closes behind him, separating Louis from his new favourite person. Hopefully his soulmate isn’t also a thief or anything.
Louis doesn’t get a chance to return to the break room for three hours.
When he does, he’s exhausted. He’s so tired. He opens the door, and finds Harry, Harry whom he’s only just met and also insulted and also is probably in love with, on the floor in the corner with a stack of ARCs next to him.
“These are good,” Harry says. “I’ve already finished that one.”
He points to one that Louis hadn’t even known they’d gotten in. It’s the newest Nora Jones.
Louis wonders if it’s too early to say I love you.
“You were going to ask me something,” Louis says, coming over to him. He’s been thinking about it for three hours now. “I assume you were going to ask me to help you find a book? When I so rudely interrupted you?”
Harry blinks at him. “Oh,” he says. “Yes I was.”
“What were you going to ask?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Harry says, his eyes wide. “Not important now. I have these!” he holds up the one in his hands. “Can I buy an ARC?”
“You’re my soulmate, take whatever you want,” Louis says. He sits on the floor next to Harry. “Now you have to tell me, though.”
“I wasn’t looking for a book,” Harry hedges.
“Mhmm,” Louis says. He brushes their fingers together. It’s electrifying.
“I was actually going to let you know that I had seen a kid setting fire to a book in the children’s section.”
“Ah,” Louis says. He thinks. “Actually, I’ve had worse happen.”
Harry looks concerned. “Really?”
“It’s a bookstore at Christmas,” Louis says. “I have ages of stories to tell. And I would like to tell you! How would you feel about coming to the flat of a virtual stranger and watching an episode of Great British Bake Off while that came out two months ago while said stranger’s roommate bakes incomprehensible sweets?”
“That sounds amazing,” Harry says. “Would it concern this roommate to learn that I work at a bakery?”
“It would stress him out so much,” Louis says. “I can’t wait. It’s going to be amazing.”
Harry smiles very wide, and Louis takes his hand to help him up.
They sit together on the train.
When they get home, they stress Liam out very much.