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Fortify Me

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“Lou and I actually met each other during bootcamp,” Harry says laughingly, tugging Louis close into his side, jokingly rubbing his fluffy curls against his neck as if he were a kitten. “In the bathroom—"

“It’s true,” Louis confirms, knocking Harry out of the way with a terribly faux-serious nod of his head. “The little jerk pissed right on me!”

Niall and Zayn laugh their heads off at that and Harry tries to bat away Niall’s teasing pokes with some truly weak karate moves, laughing just as hard as the others.

“He scared me!” he protests, still giggly. “And it wasn’t a proper piss! Just…just a little dribble.” He tries for a diplomatic tone, which only makes Niall laugh harder and then Liam’s back again with the bags of popcorn he’d been making and Niall turns on him instead, wrestling one of the bags out of his hand and dropping down onto the couch behind them.

It’s their second night in the Bungalow, Harry’s step-dad’s vacation cottage, and even though this is the first time they’ve seen each other in months— since the night they’d all gone out to dinner with their families to celebrate being put together as a band— there’s an easy, nearly shocking amount of silliness and closeness between them that Harry’s not sure he’s ever experienced before.

It’s just that, forty-eight hours be damned, it’s somehow already not strange that Harry keeps one hand on Louis’ knee to leverage himself when he leans forward to grab a handful of popcorn out of the bag in Liam’s lap and even less strange when he leans back again and Louis steals some of it straight out of his hand.

They haven’t done much practicing so far. And by ‘much’, they actually haven’t done anything at all. The closest they’ve gotten to anything real and productive was listening to the song they’re supposed to be preparing for the Judge’s House round— Torn by Natalie Imbruglia— off of Liam’s laptop a few times. Any attempts past that had always somehow fallen to the wayside; there was footie to be played, stories to be told, and, at least according to Niall and Louis, booze to be drunk.

“You can’t be proper mates with someone til you’ve seen them after a few strong ones,” Louis reasons after Niall mentions that he’d brought a few bottles of some liquor Harry’d never heard of before.

And so later that night when the bottle’s being passed amongst them, Harry tries his best to keep up with everyone else even though the most alcohol he’s ever had was a pint or two at his cousin’s wedding earlier that summer. He watches the way Niall takes deep, spluttering pulls from the plastic bottle, the way Zayn and Liam each take more reasonable, confident swills, and then suddenly feels very young when the bottle makes it’s way towards him. It’s just that Louis is right next to him on the floor, one arm draped over Niall’s bent knees, casually flicking through his fringe, and, well, he’s eighteen and all. He’s got the airs of someone experienced, Harry thinks anxiously, someone far beyond thinking a couple of sips of vodka are a big deal, and Harry honestly just feels like he’s the baby of the group for the first time, even though he’s always known that he quite literally is.

Zayn hands off the bottle and Harry thinks he’s being more or less casual, but something on his face must’ve given him away because Louis is wrapping his free arm around his shoulders.

“Down the hatch then, Curly,” Louis says, tilting the bottom of the bottle towards Harry’s face, forcing him to take a sip before he can back out. In the brief moment between the acrid, burning liquor hitting his tongue and when it finally slides down his throat, Harry finds himself wondering when he’d gotten this new nickname.

Curly, he thinks to himself as he wipes his mouth, pretending to glower at Louis’ giggling smirk. He’d always hated it when the kids at school would call him that, but it sounds different coming from Louis’ mouth somehow. He wrinkles his nose defiantly and takes another sip from the bottle, deciding (and immediately regretting) that it wasn’t so bad.

Curly. Not bad. Not bad at all.

And so they spend the better part of a week holed up at the Bungalow and every day feels like best day ever, better than the last, surely better than what’s to come, and Harry just can’t quite believe it because, yeah, he’d had some good mates in school and the guys in his old band were always a laugh, but this is…well…he’s not quite sure, but this is different.

He’s never really had a Liam in his life; someone so damn competitive, almost intimidatingly so. And he’s never met someone who laughs so hard about nothing as Niall, or someone as relaxed and easy to chat with as Zayn. And he certainly, positively, absolutely has never met anyone he’s ever gotten on with as well as he does with Louis.

He’s not even really sure why, is the thing. Louis is loud and bossy and it’s not that Harry isn’t, per se, but it’s just that being loud and bossy with someone isn’t something he’s ever experienced before. It’s after they hastily draw penises all over Liam’s face when he falls asleep first on the third night and then simultaneously blame Niall the next morning that Harry decides that this must be what it’s like to have a partner in crime. And, he thinks quietly to himself as Niall argues it wasn’t me!, a rather cute one at that.

Because Louis just has this sort of way about him. He rolls his eyes in all the right places and his deadpan little quips always seem to have Harry in stitches. On the fourth night, long after everyone else has fallen asleep in their pile of sleeping bags spread out across the sitting room floor, Harry finds himself sleepily contemplating a question that has become something of a reoccurring thought these days: would he rather be Louis, or be with Louis?

He tries to tell himself over and over again that the latter isn’t even an option. They’re in a band together. Isn’t the saying don’t crap where you eat? And he’d already learned that lesson the hard way, seeing as things in White Eskimo went to shit after Nick and him had gone out a few times and then Nick’d dumped him for some college type he’d met at a concert.

And even though Louis has always been casually open about fancying boys and he’s given Harry his fair share of (what he hopes he isn’t misconstruing as) lingering touches and flirty glances, Harry isn’t sure it means anything at all because, well, that’s just the way Louis is with everyone it seems. He cuddles in close to Niall and gives Zayn wet, smacking kisses on the cheek when he’s being particularly rambunctious, and so, yeah, Harry’s fairly positive that him and Louis, whatever they ‘have’, probably doesn’t extend far beyond that whole ‘partners in crime thing’ and so he resigns himself to wishing that since he’ll never be with Louis that he could be, at the very least, like him.

Louis’s just absolutely got confidence out the ears. He does what he pleases and doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks one way or another and that just stuns Harry. The way he’ll casually tell Liam to fuck off when he starts whining about not rehearsing yet or the way he’ll tell crazy, embarrassing stories without even a hint of shame. Harry couldn’t do that, he thinks. Not in a million years.

On the morning of their fifth and final day at the Bungalow, Liam finally corrals them into going through their song a few times and they sound pretty damn good in Harry’s opinion. And so he tells Louis just that later on in the afternoon as they lay on their backs in the grass outside, the others messing around on the trampoline a few feet away.

“We sounded alright this morning,” he says, brushing the dead grass Louis keeps dropping on him out of his eyes. “So good I almost can’t believe it, y’know?” He rolls onto his side and makes a jokey, dopey face, eyes wide. Louis just laughs but doesn’t respond. After a few moments and another grass ambush, Harry kicks him in the ankle. “Can you?”

“Can I what?” Louis responds, kicking him right back.

“Believe it. That we sound so good, I mean.”

Louis is quiet for a moment, fingers playing absently with all the grass clumps scattered between them. “Yeah,” he finally agrees, somewhat guardedly. He doesn’t say anything again for another few seconds, but then finally, “I’ve just got loads of practicing to do over the break, I think.”

Harry nods understandingly. “I know what you mean. I just want to be perfect when we come back. This is it, isn’t it? Our one shot and what not?”

Louis makes an odd face and Harry frowns because Louis isn’t really one for pulling faces, at least not that he’s seen, and the sight is a little off.

“Right, well, there’s obviously a difference here, though. Clearly.”

“What do you mean?”

Louis face twists into grimace and he flops down onto his back, folding his arms under his head with a comically dramatic sigh. “We can’t all be little popstars like you, now can we, Curly?”

Harry’s eyebrows furrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Louis turns his head to the side to look at him again, eyes narrowed as if he can’t decide whether or not Harry’s taking the piss. He opens and closes his mouth once as if unsure of what he wants to say. “It’s just…You’re— look, I’ve just got some practicing to do is all.” He suddenly sits up straight, brushing stray bits of grass off his shirt, and pushes himself to his feet. “Come on, then!” he demands, smiling cheerfully now, “I bet you five pounds I can pants Liam before you!” And then he takes off running towards the trampoline, leaving Harry scrambling to his feet behind him, slightly confused.

——

“I heard your dulcet tones in the shower this morning, Harry…You haven’t got a sore throat or something, have you?”

Harry looks up from his eggs, fork hanging frozen in front of his mouth. “…sorry?”

An older, pompous contestant named Wagner is seated directly across from them at the table. He shrugs indifferently. “Thought you sounded a bit rough, is all.”

Harry’s neck flushes pink almost immediately and Louis knows everyone else crammed around the kitchen table can see the embarrassment flood into Harry’s eyes, so before Wagner can make another nasty jibe, he makes a disparaging noise and fixes his eyes on the older man, hoping he conveys the contempt he feels.

“Oh fuck off, Wagner,” he says icily.  He senses Harry shirking down deeper into his seat besides him, so he quickly links their ankles and gives his foot a little reassuring tap. “Don’t need your insecure projections around the table, now do we?”

Wagner doesn’t reply, merely draining his mug and standing up rather stiffly, everyone snickering as he talks away. “What a bloody arsehole,” Louis continues casually, tucking back into his tea.

No one messes with Harry, is the thing. Not when it comes to Louis. No one messes with any of his bandmates, quite frankly, but especially not Harry. And, yeah, of course, Harry’s definitely his best mate out of the bunch, no questions asked, but he’s also the youngest, the one who wears his heart on his sleeve the most of everyone, so beyond being best mates Louis just sort of feels some sort of duty towards him. And if his stomach gets a little warm when Harry knocks elbows with him and gives him a bashful smile in thanks, well…so be it.

Duty and all that, right?

——

It’s during rehearsals sometime during the third week of live shows that Louis gets pulled aside by the producers: Simon, their mentor, and another man named Richard who Louis doesn’t know too well.

“A word, Louis?” Simon calls after him as he’s jogging down the hall with Zayn and Niall, trying to rush to find a vending machine before their break is up and they’re called back on stage. All three pause and look back, but after looking at Louis curiously for a moment, the other boys shrug and continue down the hall.

“Get me those crisps I had last time, Ni!” Louis asks, watching them from a second before turning around to face Simon and Richard.

They’re both smiling warmly, but Louis’s good at reading people, always has been, and he can tell there’s something beneath their smiles that’s just a bit too understanding for his taste and without really knowing why, he feels his hackles start to rise.

“Why don’t we take a walk?” Richard says, gesturing for Louis to follow.

——

When rehearsals start up again fifteen minutes later, Louis isn’t there and Harry finds himself glancing towards the door every few seconds or so, more antsy than he probably should be. Niall and Zayn had said the producers had wanted him for something, so he supposes it must be important, but he can’t imagine for the life of him what it could be and, truthfully, running through the song just feels awkward and flat without Louis. He wishes they could just wait for him to get back.

Another fifteen minutes or so go past and just as Harry’s starting to waver between concerned and annoyed, the door pushes open and Louis comes shuffling in, head held high as ever. He quickly hops up on stage and into his spot besides Liam; Harry goes to offer him a questioning smile, but the moment he finds Louis’ stare, his face drops because Louis’s red around the eyes and they might have only known each other for a few weeks, but he can tell that the grin he’s got plastered on is as fake as can be. Louis turns away immediately when he catches Harry looking.

Rehearsal goes on. Everything feels wrong.

——

Louis takes a shower the second they get back to the X Factor House that evening and never shows for dinner.

“What the hell did they say to him?” Liam says quietly as they finish eating.

The chair besides Harry’s is empty. It’s Louis’ and everyone in the house knows it, but right now Harry wishes someone else had sat down because the glaring hole between him and Niall is just depressing.

“Maybe something happened back home?” Zayn offers uncertainly and Harry finds himself nodding worriedly in agreement while he pushes the last of his potatoes around his plate. He knows Louis has a huge family and he knows just how important his kid sisters are to him…if anything were to have the power to make Louis feel this bad, it must to have to do with his family.

Later on, Zayn wanders off to Rebecca’s room and Niall and Liam head over to the TV to watch whatever’s on. There seems to be an unspoken agreement amongst them that Harry should be the one to try to talk to Louis.

He knocks twice on their bedroom door. “Louis?” No response. “Louis? It’s me. Harry.” He figures that if he doesn’t answer, that he should just give him his space. Nothing worse than being smothered when you already feel like hell.

After a few long seconds, he hears footsteps and the door pulls open. Louis doesn’t move, his hand still clutching the doorknob. His eyes are redder than before and Harry wonders how long he’s been crying for, if he’s ever stopped since they got home.

But before he asks anything or even says a word, Harry just takes a step forward and pulls Louis in close, wrapping his arms tight around his shoulders. He hears a deep, shuddering breath and then Louis’s arms wrapping around his middle, leaning into him. He’s just about to ask what’s happened when Louis’s suddenly ripping himself away, walking briskly back over to his bunk, laying down without a backwards glance.

“They said I’m too gay.”

The words are out before Harry could even open his mouth to ask. They’re like a punch to the gut. An explosion in his ears.

“What?”

He’s racing over to the bed then and sitting down, eyes wide, not understanding. Too gay?

“Can’t have a fairy in a boy band, I guess,” Louis says tonelessly, eyes trained firmly on the wood of Harry’s bunk above him. “At least not one as bloody camp as me.”

“Louis— what— did they say that to you?” Harry demands, his throat closing tight.

He’s disgusted and he’s angry and he feels horrible for Louis, but he’s suddenly scared, which is something he’s kind of gotten used to on the X Factor, but not like this. Because no one here knows Harry’s gay as well. Or well, he’s whatever he his. Not straight. He’s definitely not straight. And it’s not that he’s been hiding it, he would’ve said if he’d been asked, he’s just never thought it particularly necessary to inform people about it upfront, as if he were disclosing a secret. He’s not even sure Louis knows, though he thinks he must, especially after all these weeks of Harry trying and failing to keep the hearts out of his eyes whenever he looks at him.

Louis snorts. “In not so many words, yeah. I’ve got to tone it down, they say. The girls’ll lose interest fast enough if this continues on.” He says the last part with one-handed air quotes, a hollow sneer snaking across his face.

“That’s fucking— that’s…they can’t say shit like that!” Harry stumbles, everything beginning to sink in. He curls his legs up close to his chest and presses his feet beneath Louis’ stretched out calves. “What the hell are you supposed to do, then? Talk about boobs and, and…and snogging girls during interviews or something— “

“Yeah,” Louis cuts him off. “Spot on actually.”

Harry’s at a loss for words.

“Actually,” Louis presses on, a rougher edge to his voice now, “they think it’s best if I just get a proper girlfriend.”

“…they want you to get a fake girlfriend?” Harry spits out, getting more and more worked up. “That’s ridiculous! There’s no way you’ll do something as idiotic as that!”

Louis stays quite for a long time then and all Harry can do is stare at the spot where his ankles meet Louis’ skin, where his feet disappear under his leg. When he looks up, Louis face is screwed up into something awful and he reaches out to grab his hand, heart just absolutely breaking when Louis starts crying in earnest.

“If I don’t…if I don’t do it, we can’t win. That’s what they said…Simon says the girls’ll leave us and there’s no room for an out gay guy in a boy band and…and…he…,” he takes a shaky, wet breath, “he says I’ll just be mucking it up for everybody else. So I’ve got to do it, Haz. Because Liam’s worked too hard for this, he’s already on his second shot,” he cries, “and Niall and Zayn are giving their all, they want this so fucking bad…and, and shit, Harry,” he gives a breathy, watery laugh, wiping his eyes hard with the back of his wrist, “this is your chance and I can’t do that to you! Not to any of you all, but especially not you, Harry— “

“I’m gay too,” Harry blurts out. The look on Louis face confirms that he was not aware of this little tidbit and judging by his completely bewildered stare, Harry wonders if he even ever suspected. “Or…well, I’m just…I’m really not straight. Really.”

“Wh-what?” Louis is looking at him as if he has three heads and Harry’s suddenly flushing like mad because if Louis didn’t know that he’s gay, maybe he’s never taken how disgustingly dopey Harry has always acted around him as flirting, and he’s just now realizing it and he’s getting weirded out because he doesn’t feel the same way, and, no, this probably isn’t the best time for this sort of crisis to be playing out in Harry’s mind, but it definitely, really, seriously is because Louis isn’t smiling or nodding or even really acknowledging it, all he’s doing is staring at him with wide eyes.

“Oh God,” Louis finally breathes. “We are so fucking fucked.”

——

A while later the other boys come creeping in, tentatively knocking at the door and then shooting Louis shy, encouraging smiles from the doorway when Harry calls out for them to come in. Niall immediately starts milling about, getting ready for bed, but Zayn and Liam perch on the bottom bunk across from where Louis and Harry are still curled up, looking between the two of them expectantly.

Harry looks at Louis for a moment, nibbling on the corner of his lip. He doesn’t know what to say, is the thing. He never once imagined that being gay would be an issue for the band and he’s never had to really hide his sexuality or straight up lie about it before, and just the idea of doing so feels dirty and confusing...but Louis’ words keep running through his mind. Or, the producer’s words, rather. Would they really be destroying the boys’ chances if they were to speak out?

In the span of two seconds, Harry and Louis have an entire conversation with just their eyes. They’ve done this a couple times before, usually when trying to get out of being caught or when they’re messing with Liam’s head.

Should we?

What’s the point in lying?

Louis starts off strong, the words spilling out of his mouth with practiced nonchalance. “Simon and the producers want me to, um…,” he loses steam, fumbling, “they just...kind of want me to tone it down, I guess.”

Zayn blinks twice. “What? The craziness? Like the jokes and what— “

“The gayness,” Louis cuts him off. Silence for a moment. Niall stops rummaging around in his drawer. “They want me to act less gay.”

Stunned is the word that Harry would use to describe the looks he sees before him. Everyone is stunned into silence. So he takes the chance to put himself out there.

“Which means I’ve got to as well. Seeing as I’m...gay and what not, too.”

The silence only stretches for another beat longer and then, “And what the fuck are they on about, then?” Niall says angrily. “How the hell are you supposed to just go about acting...not gay, or whatever? What’s the point in that, even?”

He drops the pair of joggers he’s holding and traipses over to the bed, squishing in besides Liam, who’s sporting a matching look of anger and confusion along with Zayn. And even though everything seems so incredibly shitty and upsetting, Harry can’t help but feel a rush of affection for the boys— his boys— because no one seems to be able to care less about his own admission, too caught up in the sheer injustice of it all.

——

As the shock wears off over the next few days, Louis finds himself coming to terms with it all and, though he’s ashamed of it, maybe, sort of…starting to understand where Simon and Richard are coming from?

When they leave rehearsals in the afternoon, or even when they just run outside for a moment, there’s always a throng of girls diligently waiting for them. They cheer and they scream and sometimes they shout out, begging for kisses and hugs and more, and the thing is, Louis has always known who their core fans are. It’s the girls who bring signs to the shows and tweet them crazy things. It’s the girls who are voting. And Louis loves them for it, he truly does, but now he’s just…maybe intimidated is the right word? He keeps finding himself second guessing every move he makes each time he goes out with the boys, suddenly anxious that some blonde will look at him too closely and crack the code, that she’ll run off screaming, “Louis’s gay! Louis likes boys!” and everyone will catch on and stopping coming to cheer. So the girls kind of freak him out, yeah, but he takes their presence as a good thing, as a sign that everything’s still alright.

Harry’s taken a different approach to the whole thing it seems.

“I mean,” he shrugs dramatically, digging his toes into Liam’s side. All five of them are piled on Louis’ bed, Zayn playing DJ on his laptop, filling the room with some trendy song Louis doesn’t know. “It’s just for now, right?” he says. “They’re just trying to give us the best chance they can, I think. Simon’s been in this business for years,” he adds confidently. “I don’t think he’s being like…derogatory or anything. Honestly. He just knows who our fans are right now and what they want from us. It’ll be different once the shows’ over.”

Harry also thinks Louis’ new girlfriend, Hannah, is just about the funniest thing to happen yet. Gotta laugh to keep from crying, Louis supposes. In truth, it’s probably not that big of a deal. Hannah’s a good friend of Louis’ from back home; one of his best. And they’ve had a running joke for years that they’re an old married couple and have made plenty of dating jokes on social media, so the whole thing seems plausible enough, Louis thinks. And Hannah’s always a laugh, so it’ll be nice seeing her around every now then, since Simon had said it’d be best if she came to visit a few times, to make sure the fans see her.

It could be worse, Louis knows. It could be worse.

But he thinks Harry probably wouldn’t be taking this whole Hannah ordeal in stride if he had been privy to the full, embarrassing extent of Louis’ little meeting the other day.

“You and Harry are plenty close, then, Louis?” Simon asks calmly, face not blank enough to hide his calculating eyes.

“Erm— I…yeah, I guess so?”

Neither Simon nor Richard say anything; Louis feels his palms beginning to sweat and tucks them nervously under his thighs.

“Anything you’d like to tell us about that?”

Louis frowns, thinking he’s seeing where this is going, but not quite able to believe it. “About Harry?”

“Yes.”

Louis shakes his head once. “No.”

A small pause and then, “You’re gay, correct?”

“Yes— yeah, I am,” he confirms, growing more and more uncomfortable by the second.

“And Harry?”

“No,” he replies quickly. It’s a question he’s asked himself too many times by this point and one he doesn’t have a real answer to. So he says no, figures that though he probably isn’t, it’s best just to play dumb in any case not wanting to out anyone. “No, he’s not.”

The two older men exchange a significant look and then Richard leans forward, resting his elbows on the table separating them from Louis.

“I’ll just come out and say it, then. There’s some media speculation that you and Harry are in a relationship, Louis.” And that’s— well, Louis had had a sinking feeling that that was where this was all heading, but it’s stilling surprising and strange to hear out loud. Richard pauses expectantly, as if waiting for Louis’ cry of protest or disgust. When none comes, he merely sighs and leans back. “So it’ll be best if maybe you two put a bit of space between you for the cameras. Surely you understand?”

Except he doesn’t. All of the boys are constantly hugging and touching and playing around. (He knows it’s more with him and Harry. He’s not dumb. He knows. He might not know what that means, but he knows.) But he’s never said he’s gay on camera, so if all the boys are doing it, why are him and Harry being singled out specifically?

So he asks just that. Because when Louis gets upset he gets snappy and he’s never been good at keeping face when he gets flustered.

Simon clears his throat and rubs the corner of his eye with the tip of his finger, as if he’s suddenly bored of the conversation; Louis’ cheeks flush harder. He’s always liked Simon. They owe everything to him— he’s their friend and their mentor and—

“To be quite frank, Louis, you’re just a bit too gay for the image that we’re headed towards at this moment.” Louis mouth locks shut. “Look,” Simon spreads his hands wide as if he’s making an effort to be reasonable. “You want to win? Play to the girls. I think you owe your bandmates that.”

And that’s the story of how at age eighteen, on top of the world and living his dream, Louis Tomlinson finds himself with a cover-up girlfriend, an unrequited crush on his apparently gay bandmate, and a new, uncomfortable sense of self-awareness.

——

So Louis tries it out— that whole “spend less time with Harry so people don’t catch on to how bloody flamboyant you are” thing. He makes a point not to sit by Harry while filming that week’s video diary, he does his best to step aside whenever a camera pops up around them. And it’s just…it’s just so confusing because he knows why he does it on one level, he knows that he literally has no other choice, not with the producer’s having explicitly told him to back off, but there’s also a secondary, throbbing, worried, frantic fear in his mind that if everyone else can tell that Louis has a big, fat, massive crush on Harry, that Harry must know it as well, and that’s just…well, it’s just not ideal, to be honest. It probably makes him incredibly uncomfortable, Louis thinks, especially since Harry’s come out to him and the boys now. Louis would be absolutely mortified if Harry thought he was playing one of those, “you’re gay, I’m gay, therefore we have a lot in common and should date!” games and now feels too awkward to even let him down gently. So right now it seems like staying far, far away from Harry and forcing himself to cool down is best for everyone, not only so he can reevaluate this stupid little infatuation, but also to really and truly reflect on what Simon’s words mean for him going forward.

It gets to the point where Louis is so generally stressed and anxious that he avoids being around Harry in general. It’s just easier that way, he decides. Because if he keeps sitting next to him at meals, their elbows will keep knocking together and Harry will keep brushing his hair out of his face when he turns to tell Louis a story and Louis will end up staring into his eyes for way too long of a time and that’s just not the sort of meal-time embarrassment Louis is keen to replicate thrice daily.

This works for precisely 48 hours.

After the first full day of successfully avoiding Harry in all but show-related circumstances, Louis doesn’t miss the confusion in Harry’s eyes the next afternoon when he hops off the couch the second he ducks into the TV room where Louis, Niall, and Aiden are chatting. He feels his gaze follow him as he mumbles something about calling his mom, but doesn’t dare look back as he darts out of the room.

And when Harry wanders into the bedroom fifteen minutes later, he doesn’t call Louis’ bluff when he jumps up yet again, acting as if he’d just remembered he had to tell Liam something. He probably should’ve picked someone else besides Liam if he’d wanted to it to be believable (when had the two of them actually had a one-on-one conversation that hadn’t ended in bickering?) but he isn’t thinking straight, only focusing on leaving the room before Harry starts casually stripping down to his pants just as he always does when he’s laying about in the bedroom.

By the time dinner rolls around and Louis merely opts for a mug of tea and a bite of toast, shaking off the score of worrying voices asking him if he feels alright and why he doesn’t want to sit down and eat a proper meal, Louis feels like pure shit. But he doesn’t know what else to do. He likes being Harry’s friend and he knows (or is at least fairly certain) that Harry likes being his mate as well, but he literally can’t be Harry’s friend. He doesn’t know how anymore. Because friends don’t find their eyes flickering down to their friend’s lips every few seconds during casual conversation and friends don’t make their friend’s stomaches flop around when they huddle in for a nice, platonic cuddle, and friends don’t find themselves wanting to spend every waking second of everyday with one, single, hilarious, gorgeous, adorable, wonderful friend and up until that meeting with Simon two days ago, all of that was Louis’ life.

He waves everyone in the kitchen off with a flick of his hand, says something about feeling a bit peaky lately and dumps his mug in the sink without washing it, ever the crappy housemate. He slumps up the stairs to the bedroom and promptly flops down onto his bed in a foul mood, hoping everyone will get the hint to just leave him to wallow in peace.

He wasn’t really lying about feeling sluggish and achey lately and ends up falling asleep with just the top sheet pulled over his fully clothed body. He doesn’t know how long he’s out for, but when he wakes up to the bedroom door opening and closing he keeps his eyes screwed shut, able to hear loud, laughing voices down below.

When he feels his mattress dip down, someone sitting besides his stretched out form, he freezes and then immediately hates himself for being able to tell that it’s Harry by the smell of his shampoo. He doesn’t open his eyes, hoping if he feigns sleep that he’ll just go away. He has no such luck of course— why would he?— but then Harry’s— Harry’s pulling the sheet back and laying down next to him?

Louis’ heart is pounding furiously in his chest and he knows, and he’s sure that Harry knows (and he hopes to God that Harry doesn’t know that Louis knows that he knows), that if Louis had actually been asleep, he’d be startled awake by this point.

“Louis?” he says softly. Harry’s socks are scratchy next to Louis’ bare feet.

He can’t bring himself to respond, feels like if he tries to open his mouth in this exact moment he might actually just start crying. Crying about everything. About being away from home for the first time ever, about missing his mum and his sisters, about the fact that he’s missing Stan’s birthday for the first time since they’ve been friends, about being told that he’s too fucking gay for the band he’s in, even though he’s finally at the point in his life where he’d gotten past that sort of nonsense, where he’d stopped caring about being too gay and realized that he was gay and you can’t ever be too much of yourself. He can’t talk right now, not to Harry of all people. Not when he just wants to fold himself into his arms and rest his head on his chest and do all the stupid, sappy shit he’s always seen in movies. He just wants to go home. He just wants everything to go back to normal.

“Louis, why are you avoiding me?” Harry asks, voice so quiet it’s almost a whisper. “What’d I do?” Louis swallows hard, not prepared for the wave of guilt that comes hurtling towards him. Harry thinks he’s done something wrong? “If this is about that scarf thing the other day I swear I was just taking the piss, Lou—“

Louis shakes his head quickly, feeling like even if he can’t speak, Harry deserves some sort of response from him. Harry’s quiet for a few seconds and Louis feels him rolling onto his side before he tentatively asks, “Is this…is this about what I said the other night?” Louis can’t help but crack one eye open at that, eyebrow arched in confusion. Harry considers him nervously for a few more moments, chewing on his bottom lip. His eyes are these huge, expressive saucers and he looks really genuinely upset about something. “About…” he continues, sensing that Louis isn’t about to respond. “About me being gay and all?”

That shocks the strop out of Louis. “What?”

Harry protectively pulls the sheet up closer to his chin. “I don’t— I hope you don’t— I just mean, I hope you know I’m not like…coming on to you or anything,” he says quickly. “If that’s what you’re…if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m not…like, I haven’t got a crush on you or anything.” Louis feels like he might actually puke. “I don’t want you to feel…awkward or anything…if, y’know, you were…thinking…that,” Harry trails off, bright pink.

If Louis wanted to cry before, that was nothing compared to now. “Right,” he chokes out. “Right…” he doesn’t know what else to say, doesn’t trust himself to try to laugh it off like he normally would if he were embarrassed.

“Not that I— not that you’re not, like, not cute or anything,” Harry suddenly says, sheet twisting in tighter under his chin like a nervous tic. “You’re— I, um…“ he laughs uncomfortably then, flushing deeper. “I don’t even know what I’m saying, oh my god…I’m sorry, I’m making this is weird, aren’t I?”

Louis just swallows hard and tries his best to shrug noncommittally. The word cute rings in his ears, but he knows that’s not what Harry meant so he tries to ignore it.

“I just don’t want it to be like…weird between us,” Harry says. “Because you’re like…Lou, you’re my best mate, I think? And I know I’m a bit younger than you and all, but like…we have so much fun and get on so well and…and I just don’t want you to get all weirded out if you think that I’m only friends with you because I like, erm, fancy you or whatever. Cause that’s not, that’s not…”

“It’s fine, Hazza,” Louis finds himself saying, staring up at the wood of the bunk above, trying to compose himself. This is a good thing, he tells himself. It never would’ve worked out anyways. He staunchly ignores the sound of his heart breaking in two. He rolls his head to the side after a moment and gives Harry the best smile he can muster. “You had me worried there for a second,” he tries to joke. “Thought you had the hots for me, you wanker!” The words are hollow and only serve to make Harry flush a shade pinker, but Louis doesn’t care.

They’re quiet for a few long minutes and slowly by slowly Louis feels the sharp pain of Harry’s clarification (rejection?) melt to a dull ache, one that Louis feels like he can deal with. At least he knows now, he tells himself. At least he knows.

“I’m just so happy I have you, Lou,” Harry says softly, prodding his toes against Louis’ ankle. “I feel like I’m going to get Simon’s little talking-to any day now…I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t here.” Louis very much doubts that, but stays quiet. “It’s just, like, it’s so good to have someone here who’s going through the same thing, I guess?”

Louis tries not to smile too wryly when he nods. “Yeah, yeah it is, I suppose.”

“And…and— ” Harry starts again, voice sounding a little braver, a bit more jokey, “and how much better could this be?” he gestures with one hand at the bed around them. “Two very queer, very fit mates having a very platonic cuddle during their very exciting boy band adventure?” He kicks Louis again. “That’s the stuff of movies, mate.”

Louis wants to die a little inside at his words and tries to remember that the very fit doesn’t count if a very platonic follows it. Harry falls asleep in his bed that night.

And the night after.

And the night after.

——

“I swear to God, Niall, if you suggest King’s Cup one more time, you’re banned from the bedroom!”

It’s their fourth week on the X Factor and Hannah’s come up to visit Louis and, ever the accommodating guests, the boys have turned to alcohol in hopes of making the trip worth her while. So it’s the five of them, Hannah, Rebecca and Aiden all grouped together in the downstairs sitting room because it’s the biggest and they’ve got a proper party going on by this point, with beer and liquor and snacks scattered about.

“Why do we even bother with drinking games?” Liam complains, shifting Niall’s slouching form off his shoulder. Harry fights to bite down a smile, thinking back on the days in the Bungalow when he’d thought Liam was relaxed and cool, a totally experienced drinker. It’d only been after a few more parties that he’d realized that Liam barely drank anything at all, feigning sips and only really drinking when someone watched closely. Not that it matters one way or another to Harry. It’s just funny how different it had all seemed at the time.

“Because games are fun, Liam,” Hannah chides, reclining out on her stomach. Harry likes her, he’s decided. She’s funny and laid-back and fits in well enough with the group that her presence isn’t a hinderance or anything. She’s taken the whole thing with Louis in stride as well, especially since some of the girls outside had been downright rude to her when they saw her holding his hand earlier on.

“Oh!” Rebecca claps excitedly. “What about something like the Newlyweds Game or whatever it’s called?” When no one seems to know what she means, she continues, “like, there’s a question asked to the group, right. Like, um, ‘what’s Zayn’s favorite color?’ and everyone has to go around and say what they think it is. And if anyone guesses correctly, Zayn would have to drink in that case. Anyone that gets it wrong has to drink.”

Harry’s had a few drinks by this point (just a few!) (maybe more than a few?) and he’s sat side by side with Louis on the floor, their backs pressed up against the couch, their shoulders touching— Louis is actually leaning into him more or less— and it’s almost distracting in a way. It’s like he’s specially tuned into the other boy’s every movement: Louis’ leg shifts a bit to the right, Harry’s squirms to meet it. Louis jokingly dips his head into the crook of Harry’s neck, making a fun face across the circle at Niall, and Harry’s shoulder pushes up a hair, accommodating him. Harry’s acutely aware that all of his is happening and, yeah, it’s a little odd, but only because it’s so comfortable and easy.

Harry doesn’t think he’ll be very good at the game (how on Earth should he know what Liam’s favorite season is or Aiden’s favorite movie?) so he decides to just throw out ridiculous answers instead. (Season 4 of Friends! Lion King 1 1/2!) Louis always laughs into his shoulder, clutching his vodka-filled cup loosely to his chest. Harry tries to keep himself from preening (he’s just drunk, he reminds himself. He’s just drunk and they’re a touchy-feely group of friends) and he definitely doesn’t start to ham it up even further, acting silly purely to get a rise out of Louis.

When it’s turn for Louis to ask the group a question about himself, everyone gripes that Hannah has an unfair advantage, what with having been one of his best friends for ages. Louis brushes them off and sits up straight, folding his hands all prim and proper in his lap and schooling his features into a look of stern seriousness. “Which would I rather? Stay up all night long or sleep all morning?” he asks, wiggling one eyebrow flirtatiously.

They go around the circle, everyone giving hesitant, shrugging responses. Hannah, second to last, confidently reasons, “Well, I’ve never known you to willingly get up before noon, so…I’ll choose sleeping all morning! In fact, I’d be shocked if you woke up before then even if you’d gone to sleep at nine the night before!” Louis merely makes a mysterious face and turns ceremoniously to Harry, the last of the group.

“Well, Curly?” he asks, flashing him a toothy grin. Harry wishes Louis didn’t always have to smile at him like that. It does weird things to his stomach and it’s already churning from the booze.

“I’d say…neither,” he says slowly, knocking the sides of his knees against Louis’. “Because you’ll only stay up late with me when we haven’t got anything before one in the afternoon the next day.” He shoots Louis an accusing look. “Trick answer, you cheat!”

Louis grabs Harry’s free hand. “Ding, ding, ding! We’ve got a winner, folks!” he chants, lifting their clutched hands high in the air and waving them about.

“Louis, that’s cheating!” Liam complains, but Louis just flips him off.

“Well, that just goes to show how well you know me, doesn’t it, Liam!” he says flippantly. Louis has lowered their hands, but they haven’t let go. Harry stares at their interwoven fingers, pale against the black of his joggers where they rest. A beat passes and Harry feels Louis gaze lower, realizing the same thing. He drops Harry’s hand like it’s hot.

“Alright, Hazza, you’re next, then,” he says quickly, giving Harry a shove and simultaneously moving to stretch his legs out before him, away from Harry’s.

Harry doesn’t miss the movement and tries to fight off the small knot growing in his gut. “Uh,” he mumbles, trying to think, distracted by the way Louis’ tongue darts out, the tip brushing against the rim of his cup just as he leans in to take a sip. “What is…um, what is my, um…favorite fruit?” he says randomly, swallowing hard and tearing his eyes away, scanning the room around them in what he hopes is perceived as nonchalance.

“Bananas, of course!” Louis responds before anyone has a chance.

Harry’s head whips back to stare at him again. “Yeah,” he says, unable to help the giggle that bubbles up.

“Well, well, well,” Aiden laughs from across the circle. “Look at this little married couple we’ve got here.”

Everyone laughs and the game continues. Harry gets every other answer wrong and he drinks a lot as a consequence. Louis correctly guesses that Zayn’s favorite TV show as a kid was the Power Rangers, but flubs everything else as well. When the round comes back to their end of the circle however…

“Favorite brand of cereal?” Louis asks.

“Cheerios?”

“Dogs or cats?” Harry asks.

“Cats.”

Louis. “Chicken or Beef?”

“Chicken.”

Harry. “Favorite color?”

“I’d peg you as a purple boy myself, but I bet you tell people green.”

Correct. Correct. Correct. Correct.

And then suddenly everyone’s so drunk and interest in the game has waned for the most part, but Louis and Harry are now crossed legged, turned inwards so that they’re facing each other, knees pressing up against the other’s.

“Thoughts on Beyoncé?” “You don’t get the hype. But you like Single Ladies.”

“Sweet or savory?” “Christ, Curly, pick something difficult! Sweet, obviously!”

And some of it’s stuff they’ve already talked about in the past, but a lot of it’s intuition, somehow. Harry doesn’t think Louis has ever told him that he loves the Fray, but he has a feeling that he does, and that since does, he probably likes the song “Look After You.” He thinks Louis’d probably sound very nice singing it, actually. He just knows somehow. So he says just that and then Louis is laughing incredulously and admitting that he actually has a cover of the song posted on YouTube.

It’s like the party around them has faded away. Maybe it’s the booze. It’s probably the booze, Harry tells himself. He has to tell himself that, is the thing, otherwise he’ll start zeroing in on the way Louis’ eyes crinkle when he giggles and he’ll start reading the way he playfully slaps his palms against Harry’s thigh as something realer, something warmer than it is. He remembers the hollow ache that had burrowed into his chest when Louis had realized Harry had a crush on him, when he’d done everything in his power to avoid him for days. Zayn had coaxed the truth out of Harry the next day when he’d woken up to see the two of them snuggled together in Louis’ bed and that was bad enough. Having to admit what he felt, having to see the pitying look in someone’s eyes when he’d fumbled about for the words to accurately describe the sting of rejection was just too much. The worst. He doesn’t want to go back there.

But it’s hard when Louis’ cheeks are flushed and his eyes are bright and his lips are pink with vodka and Sprite. It takes a lot of effort not to stare at the dip of his collarbone where his t-shirt is skewed. He wants to kiss it. Very, very badly.

So instead he flops flat on his back and mumbles something about getting sleepy.

——

“Guys,” Louis says softly, not sure why he’s whispering. “Guys, can I talk to you about something?” He, Zayn, and Hannah are sitting on Zayn’s bunk, having wandered away from the dying party downstairs a little while back. Last Louis saw, Harry was cuddled up on the sofa fast asleep, knees drawn in tight to his chest, curls dusting his closed eyes.

Louis is drunk. Wasted, truly. And he feels a little like vomiting, but it doesn’t really seem like it has to do with the liquor, if he thinks about it. It feels more like sadness.

“How do you get over a crush?” He pauses. “Like a big one, I mean.” He throws an arm around Hannah’s shoulders and leans his head against her, kicking one of his legs over Zayn’s in the process.

For a second neither of them responds and Louis immediately starts to regret broaching the topic, sure he’s opened a can of worms that would’ve been best left alone, but then Hannah giggles shrilly and tickles into his side.

“Is this about Harry?” she teases.

“What?” Louis scoffs, “who said I have a crush on Harry? I was just—hic—asking. I was just asking in general!”

Hannah slaps his arm. “I know you, Lou!” she protests. “I know what your mush-eyes look like!”

“I don’t think it’s like much of a secret at this point, anyways,” Zayn adds sleepily.

That doesn’t make Louis feel any better, though. If Harry knows and everyone else knows, he must know that everyone else knows, and since he doesn’t fancy Louis back, it must be terribly embarrassing that everyone knows that he has a crush on him. The whole thing makes his gut give another churn. Louis suddenly wishes he hadn’t had that last vodka sprite.

“I do not have a crush on Harry, Zayn.” He tries to sound dismissive, but it slurs out as defensive instead.

“Yeah, well,” Zayn counters, lifting his nearly empty bottle of beer to his lips, “why do you both act all coupley and what not then? S’not some great conspiracy or whatever, Lou. You’re practically already boyfriends at this point, I reckon.”

“No, we’re not!” Louis’s going into overdrive then, trying to formulate a plausible way to tie off the conversation, to make it seem like he wasn’t asking about Harry. It’s just that his head’s starting to hurt now (or is it his heart?) and his face is on fire. He feels like an idiot, out and out. “Harry doesn’t…we’re not like that,” he finishes lamely, not even sure what to say.

Zayn groans dramatically. “Oh fuck off. Mate, sometimes you and Harry follow each other to the loo just so you can continue your conversation while one of you pisses!” he exclaims, throwing a pillow at Louis’ slouching form.

Louis sits up quickly, trying and failing to bat the pillow away before he wallops him in the ear. “Hey!” he retorts, indignant. “That was one time! And we were talking about which Adam Sandler movie is the worst! It was an important conversation!”

“Harry’s fucking off his rocker for you, Tommo! Like, he literally will not shut up about you! And he told me so himself, way back when!” Zayn says, staring at Louis as if he literally cannot believe the conversation they’re having. “To be honest, I thought you two were already shagging at this point! Are you…are you seriously telling me you’ve been thinking this whole time that Harry doesn’t like you?”

“It’s true,” Hannah confirms. “I only met the kid tonight and I swear your name was the only thing in his mouth. I was waiting ’til the morning to kick your ass for not telling me about your secret boy!”

“He…talks about me?” Louis says, sure this whole thing must be a drunken hallucination.

“Christ, mate, it’s always ‘Louis said this!’ and ‘Louis doesn’t like that type of jam!’” Zayn mocks Harry’s low drawl. “I swear to God, he once went on for a solid five minutes about the color of your bloody eyes! I mean, come on, Lou! Have you never seen the way the kid looks at you and thought, shit, he kinda looks like he wants to suck my dick right now?”

“Zayn!” Louis shouts, throwing the pillow back hard.

“I’m serious!” He takes another pull from the bottle. “Stop being twats and just sort it out!”

——

Louis wakes early the next morning and for a second he can’t remember why he already has butterflies in his stomach, but then he rolls over and sees the bottle Zayn had been drinking from the night before and their conversation comes swimming back to him.

“Harry’s fucking off his rocker for you, Tommo! Like, he literally will not shut up about you!”

He jumps out of bed, not entirely sure what he’s supposed to do this with this new information. He’d heard Harry come stumbling back to bed in the early morning hours, but when he whips around to see if Harry’s still asleep, his bunk’s empty. And it’s just like…knowing that they’re both awake…and in the same house…and (apparently) like each other…It’s just too much for Louis who suddenly feels a whole lot braver than one would think (if bravery had an extra douse of recklessness.)

So he slips out the bedroom and down to the kitchen, but Harry’s not there. And he’s not in the TV room or the sitting room either, so he jogs back up to the second floor again and that’s when he hears the sink running in the bathroom and he doesn’t give himself a chance to think, to worry, or to even decide what the hell he’s going to say.

He throws the bathroom door open without knocking, deciding that privacy doesn’t matter in a time like this. Harry jumps at the noise and then freezes like a deer in the headlights, eyes wide, mouth foamy with toothpaste.

“You have a crush on me?” Louis demands. “What the fuck?” Harry coughs, gagging on his toothbrush in surprise, eyes going even wider if possible. “Are you fucking kidding me, you idiot? I’ve been sitting here for the past four weeks feeling like a right moron because the sight of your damn curls makes my mouth water and you had to go off and specifically tell me that we’re just ‘two very queer, very fit, very platonic mates’ when this whole time you’ve been telling Zayn how cute you think my eyes are!”

They stare at each other for a few seconds and then Harry turns and leans over the sink to spit. When he straightens up they stare at each other again, the silence is deafening.

“You…you like my curls?” he half-whispers, voice strangled.

Louis crosses his arms accusingly. “Of course I like your curls, Curly! I play with them every chance I get, don’t I?”

“But like…you like my curls?”

“I like…I like— ” Louis voice starts off loud still, but then tapers off. “I like…well…just about everything about you, Harry,” he finishes, finally sounding like he can’t quite believe what’s happening anymore. He’s breathing hard and has to make his hands into fists to stop them from shaking with adrenaline “Why’d you tell me you weren’t interested?”

“I thought…I thought you weren’t interested,” Harry mumbles, staring in disbelief.

Harry,” Louis’ laugh is affectionately manic, “when have I ever given off the impression that I wasn’t interested in you?”

Harry takes a step forward then, eyes still wide, and Louis meets him in the middle, thinking, well, he’s already done the hard part, hasn’t he? All that’s left is—

“Harry, I’m going to kiss you,” Louis says firmly, much more confident than he feels, “and then maybe, just maybe, you’ll finally realize that yes, I am indeed interested in you. A whole fucking— ”

Harry closes the space between them before he has the chance. Soft lips meet soft lips and Louis’s wrapping his arms around Harry’s waist, running his hand up to the center of his back, trying and failing to catch his breathe, completely and utterly gone.

——

Sneaking around corners, hiding from the staff, trying to get two bloody seconds alone together.

Harry almost wishes he hadn’t kissed Louis that morning: now that he knows what it’s like, that he’s seen how pink Louis’ lips get afterwards, that he knows what it feels like to have Louis’ fingers curl around his hips, it’s all he ever wants to do.

The universe, unfortunately, has other plans.

Rehearsals. Interviews. Sound bites. Vocal coaching. Promo appearances. Dance lessons. Hair appointments. Teeth whitening.

It’s the fifth week of the X Factor and Harry’s not really sure what’s changed or why, but everything’s somehow ten times more intense. One Direction is suddenly being favorited to win (win???) and the spot light on the boys is burning brighter than ever. There are cameras everywhere in the house now, constantly scoping out the next Behind the Scenes tidbit; it’s put a serious damper on Harry and Louis’ already limited free time activities. So they’ve sort of had to…resort to desperate measures.

“Shh…” Louis breathes against Harry’s lips; it’s 3 AM and they’re cuddled up in Louis’ bunk together, blankets pulled high over their heads as they try and fail over and over again to resist the temptation to give into the other’s advances.

“H—Harry, come on,” Louis whispers, so soft it’s nearly soundless. “They’ll wake up!”” But then he’s wiggling one of his legs between Harry’s and kissing at he corner of his mouth, tiny, wet pecks so innocent they’re somehow dirty.

Harry nods in sullen agreement. They’re all of four feet from Liam’s snoring form. So they can’t. They really can’t. Even if the weight of Louis’ hips pressed against his own is driving him crazy, making him picture all sorts of less-than-chaste teenage-dream type scenarios.

He aims to roll away, but Louis’ leg stays firm where it lays between his thighs, making the rocking motion of his attempted escape a whole lot more pleasurable than intended.

And then he’s slipping his fingers under the hem of Louis’ t-shirt and dipping back down for a hungry kiss, parting Louis lips with his own and pushing inside, just barely sure of what he’s doing, but fairly confident from the way Louis sighs that he’s on the right track.

Someone sniffles across the room, but Harry is only frozen for a moment before he’s at it again, pressing wet, sloppy kisses against Louis’ tongue, drinking him in, making it up as he goes along.

It’s not that they’re exhibitionists or whatever— Harry’s positive that given the choice, they’d both prefer a bit of a more private arrangement, but beggars can’t be choosers and what with the way Louis’s got one thumb rubbing at the dip of Harry’s collar bone and the other brushing at the skin just above the hem of his PJ pants, that’s just what Harry is. A beggar. And he’ll take whatever he can get.

Louis wriggles up the mattress a bit and then he’s rolling on top of Harry, dragging one of his ear lobes between his teeth and leaning down to suck at the skin just behind his ear and Harry can’t help it— he’s never done anything remotely like this with anyone before; the most he ever did with Nick was a little snogging in the dark of a movie theater!— he’s just so giddy and happy and overwhelmed and excited that he breaks out in a fit of giggles.

A groan from somewhere across the room.

“Fucking go to bed!”

It’s been one week. Harry’s not sure what he did with his nights before this.

——

Harry tucks his phone between his shoulder and his neck and reaches down to grab the boxes laying in bags at the foot of his bed. “Alright, so tell me what you’re going to say one more time,” Louis’ voice rings out through the line, tinny and distant.

Harry plops the bags down onto his bed amidst the mountain of wrapping paper, ribbons, and tape and then grabs his phone and punches the speaker option. “Um…okay, so…” he says slowly, tossing it down and searching for the scissors he knows are around somewhere. “So we’re obviously all staying on together as a band.”

True. They’d signed with Simon and Syco Music the day after the X-Factor Finale a week earlier.

“And it’ll be easier if we’re…like, all close together and what not,”

True. Can’t make a record without all the band members present and accounted for. “And we’ve decided London is the obvious option.”

True. It’s not like Holmes Chappell is a music hub or anything.

“But the thing is, the complex the label’s looking at for us says each renter has to be eighteen years old at least.”

True. And Harry’s only sixteen.

“So, I’ve got to live with a guarantor it looks like.”

True. Someone’s got to be the primary on the lease, and it can’t be him.

“And everyone want’s their own place, I guess, but Louis’s offered to help me out if no one else wants to.”

False. Niall isn’t particularly looking forward to living alone.

“So, Louis and I are going to be roommates, then.”

True. Well. Hopefully. Harry’s mum’s permission pending.

Louis hums thoughtfully, considering the defense presented. Harry doesn’t quite know why he’s so nervous to tell his mother their plans, but he can’t help it. She doesn’t know him and Louis are dating (or well, not really dating seeing as those words have never been said and Harry doesn’t really want to spend anytime debating on what this could possibly mean, but they are still fooling around—or… at least they were when they’d said goodbye between sloppy kisses just the other day…) and not only does she absolutely adore Louis, ninety-nine percent of the situation is the truth. He does need to move to London and he does need a guarantor for the apartment. If said guarantor just so happens to be his bandmate that he’s been hooking up with for the past month or so…Well. So be it.

“I think that’s pretty good, Curly,” Louis says after thinking a few moments. “Covers all the bases at least.”

Harry stares down at his phone on the bed as Louis speaks, an unfamiliar ache wading into his gut. It’s Christmas Eve and they’ve only been apart about three days, but he somehow misses Louis. Like really and truly misses him. As if he’s not set to drive up to Doncaster for the New Year’s party in all of four days.

“I’ll break it to her this afternoon,” he replies, absently reaching for the role of silver wrapping paper. “I…” he starts, already trailing off, distracted by the intensity of whatever it is that he’s feeling. “I really miss you, Lou. Is that weird?” They must’ve kissed twenty times before boarding the separate trains back to their homes the other day, much to everyone else’s chagrin. It seems like nothing now, Harry thinks. He’d give up every present under the tree just to have Louis here in his arms in this very moment, to be able to snuggle into to the crook of his neck and fold himself around him. He tosses the paper back down onto the bed, suddenly not in the mood to wrap.

“Weird?” Louis repeats, voice fading in and out slightly over the connection. “Yeah, I’d say it’s pretty weird…But I know exactly what you mean,” he adds, laughing a little. “It’s rather stupid isn’t it, though? We’ll see each other in just a few days, won’t we?” Harry tries to suppress the twinge in his gut at Louis’ flippant tone.

“Yeah, but…” But he has things he’d rather be doing right now, is the thing. He composes himself. “I think I’ll do a twitcam later tonight,” he says, inhaling deeply, trying to distract himself from his gloomy thoughts. “You better watch me!”

“Why?” Louis teases. “So I can listen to you chat up a bunch of girls on my birthday?”

“Oh, piss off!” Harry says, trying and failing to sound annoyed. “I’ll have my Santa hat on…”

“Oh, well then,” Louis giggles. “That changes everything! Forget Christmas Eve festivities! Forget birthday cake and gifts! Harry Style’s’ll be doing a twitcam in his Santa hat, everyone! Stop the presses and tune in!”

Harry can’t help but grin, rolling his eyes affectionately. “You’re the worst, did you know that?”

“Clearly, young Hazza. Clearly.”

——

“Five…four…three…two…one!”

Louis probably sloshes half his drink out of its glass as he cheers, but it’s New Year’s Eve and it’s a new year with Harry so instead of looking around to apologize to whoever he’s soaked, he’s grabbing Harry around his tiny little waist and pulling him in close, dramatically (and clumsily) dipping him backwards with one shaky arm and giving him the biggest, brightest smooch he can possibly muster. When they lose what little balance they had all of two seconds later and fall into a heap of tangled limps and sticky booze, he doesn’t even mind. He just smiles against his mouth and Harry smiles back until their teeth are knocking and they aren’t even really kissing, just grinning with their lips pressed together (which is actually arguably the best kind of kiss.)

He feels happy and free and in love.

He feels invincible.

——

Harry’s been staying at Louis’ house for three days now, ever since the New Year’s Party, and each night since then they’ve stayed up much later than advisable, curled up in a nest of blankets and junk food in Louis’ downstairs den area just talking and talking about the future. It always starts out self-depreciatingly: They’ve got the X-Factor Tour coming up in February, so that’ll be insane. That’ll probably be their peak, they think. After that, they’ll make a record. Two, actually. That’s what their contract says anyways, but it still seems like an impossible, far-off fantasy.

Inevitably the late-night conversations always turn towards what-ifs. Towards dreaming.

“What if we play the Super Bowl someday?” Louis sighs happily, laying on his side, pressed up close to Harry. His parents are fast-asleep upstairs, there’s no need to keep a platonic two feet between them at this point.

“What if we get a world tour,” Harry replies, the words slipping out of his mouth almost reverently. “What if…what if we make a million pounds.” He says it quietly, as if afraid to actually acknowledge what they’ve all been thinking, what the media’s been saying, what their families have been trying not to talk about.

“What if we make TWO million pounds,” Louis counters him, giggling.

“Three.”

“Four.”

“Five!”

Five seems like the limit, or at least the joke ends there. They’re quiet for a moment and then Louis squirms in closer, enough to rest his head against Harry’s collar bone.

“I could buy my mum a new house with that kind of money,” he says. “Probably send the girls through good schools too. Maybe even university.”

Harry smiles and reaches over to flick the fringe out of Louis’ eyes. “That’d be insane…imagine having enough money to just buy houses…and like, cars and stuff. Could probably even buy a plane with that kind of money!”

The truth is they have no idea what they’re talking about. They’ve only ever worked minimum-wage jobs, have only ever known a normal, working-class life. Thousands seem like millions and millions seem like billions. It all seems incredible and neither dares to dream too hard.

“I’m so glad I met you, Harry,” Louis says softly, tilting his head up a bit to see him better. “So glad I peed on you, more like,” Harry nudges him playfully. And then Louis’ whacking him in the side with an elbow and clambering on top of him in an ill-disguised attempt at wrestling that will surely descend into making out.

Louis wants to ask the question heavy on his tongue: Where is this going? Is this forever? He knows it sounds dumb, but he’s 19 and forever seems a lot more feasible than it is.

He doesn’t ask though, just keeps his lips pressed flush to Harry’s neck, his arms looped tight around his waste, afraid to break the spell of whatever This is that they’ve got going. It’s too special, too fragile. Maybe if he never says another word they really could stay like this forever.

The den’s cold, but their blankets are warm. They’re warm. The future looks warm. It’s all so terrifyingly comforting.

——

All five of the boys are standing around nervously inside a cold, elegant conference room in downtown London, waiting for someone to show up and make this “one chance” everyone’s been going on about to materialize.

One Chance as in their One Chance at Making It.

The thing is, Louis’s not really sure what Making It entails. All he knows is that they’re here to sign some papers. They’ve already been signed by Simon and Syco, but now they need a management company it seems. PR stuff and what not (whatever that means.)

After an hour long meeting involving multiple buzz words and legal jargon that Louis hopes no else understands either, One Direction officially signs with Modest Management. Louis feels significantly lighter after all’s said and done. He’d never said it straight out, but he’d been terrified during the days leading up to the meeting that there would be another big to-do about Harry and his relationship— or friendship as far as they know (what if they told them they couldn’t live together!), but it actually hadn’t been all too bad.

A  team of lawyers in dark suites had explained a few aspects of the contract to the five of them: Confidentiality clauses. Promo appearances. And something called a morality clause.

“We don’t just have to sell you to the girls, boys,” a tall, slender man explains carefully. “We’ve got to sell you to their parents as well.”

Louis had stifled a giggle at the phrasing. Sell them? What are they? Slaves?

It became less funny once he realized what the man meant, however.

The whole team of lawyers and agents turns to face Louis squarely. “Louis, this should go without saying, but as I’m sure you understand, you are, for all intents and purposes, a normal, straight teenage boy.”  Louis blanches. “We’ll be taking steps in the future to secure this image for you.”

He’s suddenly relieved they hadn’t told anyone outside of the boys what him and Harry have been up to lately. It’ll be easier this way, he figures, nodding along with whatever the man is saying.

So he’ll never say he’s gay out loud? No big deal. And if he and Harry can’t hold hands in public or whatever, it won’t be the end of the world. He’s gotten used to living life on the down low since the X Factor. At least they won’t be followed around by cameras or anything anymore. The really hard part must be over now.

——

It’s two days after the meeting with Modest, Harry’s back home in Holmes Chappell for the rest of the week, it’s three o’clock in the afternoon, and Louis is currently laying in bed in the clothes he wore to sleep the night before in the midst of what he really and truly perceives to be the great drama of his admittedly short, but incredibly wild existence.

It’s Harry, is the thing.

Well, not Harry himself. Harry the person is perfect. Harry the person is small and all cheek and big eyes and the way he laughs makes Louis want to set himself on fire a little bit and gaining the privilege to kiss those cheeks and stare into those big eyes and wrap himself around that small frame is probably Louis’ proudest achievement to date, sure, but Harry the concept is a whole other story.

Because Harry still isn’t Louis’ boyfriend. “Still” being a possibly presumptuous word. It’s just that all signs seem to point towards go and green and yes and please! But…the words haven’t been spoken, the question hasn’t been asked, and it’s now been officially twenty seven days since the first time they kissed in the dirty, messy X Factor House bathroom at 9:44 AM (not that Louis remembers that kind of bullshit or anything) and so…well…Louis is getting a little nervous.

His computer is open and laying on the bed next to him, but he doesn’t open his eyes or turn his head when he hears the sing-songy beeping of an incoming Skype call. Niall and Zayn have opted to stay over at Liam’s house for the rest of the week before everyone reunites in London and Niall’d texted Louis earlier asking if he wanted to Skype with them for a bit. It had seemed like a reasonable enough suggestion at the time, but now he’d truly much rather indulge his inner angsty teenager and mull over his situation with Harry for the fiftieth time that afternoon.

All the same, he begrudgingly cracks open a single eye and reaches to accept the call. He watches the screen for a moment, waiting for it to connect. The second he sees a grainy, pixelated blob of bright yellow hair he lets his eyes fall back closed again.

“I’m not sitting up, lads. Just throwing that out there,” he announces.

“Well, hello to you too, Lou,” Zayn’s voice rings out, only mildly distorted over the call. “What’s your problem, then?”

Louis heaves a melodramatic sigh and debates the pros and cons of asking the boys for their advice on the situation. Before he has the chance, though, Liam’s voice cuts through.

“Lover’s quarrel?”

Louis’ eyes open at that, narrowing immediately. “Excuse you, Payno, but there are no quarrels to speak of in any of my relationships—“

“What, like you’ve got more than one?—“

“—and I’ll have you know that Harry and I are doing just fine, thank you—”

“So if the boyfriend’s not the problem, what is?” Niall cuts him off.

Louis falls silent, trying to make a split second decision to ride or die with the topic of conversation.

His voice is about ten decibels softer when he finally speaks. “I actually don’t have a boyfriend, but that’s besides the point.” He’d meant to sound casual and unaffected, but he knows he’s failed, even to his own ears.

All at once: “What?!” “You broke up?” “What the fuck did you do, Tommo?”

Louis frowns, finally dragging himself up to a sitting position so he can see the screen properly. All three boys are huddled in front of the computer, varying levels of shock slapped across their faces.

“No, we didn’t break up, you twats,” he brushes them off impatiently.

Another short pause. “It’d be a little hard to break up something that was never even official…”

Radio silence on the other end. Finally, Liam spits out a, “What the hell, mate?”

“We’ve never…” Louis begins awkwardly, feeling more than a bit idiotic. “We never really said what we were, I guess?” He stares down at the keyboard, avoiding his friend’s incredulous faces. “Is that…I dunno, is that weird or is it just me?”

Niall stares blankly at the screen.

Liam actually gets up and walks away from the computer.

Zayn’s the first to speak.

  “Louis,” he begins blinking slowly. “Are you fucking serious right now? Did we not discuss this back at the X Factor House? The whole Harry being ready to crawl up your ass at a moment’s notice thing?” Niall gives a cackling snort at the double entendre. “Did I just imagine you two with your tongues down each other’s throats, babbling about how much you’d miss each other after the meeting last Monday?”

“If you’re so worried, why don’t you just ask him, Lou?” Niall interjects, looking mildly confused.

Zayn rolls his eyes. “Because that would be the logical thing to do, Nialler, right, Tommo?”

“I know, I—“

Liam suddenly wedges himself back into frame and he’s…he’s holding a turtle in each hand?

Louis opens his mouth to ask what the hell is up with that, when Liam interrupts, thrusting one of the small turtles in his hand towards the camera, shaking it gently.

“Louis. See this turtle?” he says seriously. “I’ve had this turtle for a grand total of twenty four hours. This turtle is an infant. This turtle is a bloody turtle and shouldn’t know anything, yet this turtle is apparently more intelligent than you because this turtle knows you’re a right fucking moron and the only way to stop having emo Skype conversations with your best mates about your boy problems is to fucking ask Harry if he’s your boyfriend!”

Louis promptly ends the Skype call.

——

“Hello?” Harry sets the journal he was scribbling in off the the side. Phone calls from Louis are always a pleasant distraction from anything and everything in his personal opinion.

“So...are you my boyfriend or what?”

Harry lets out a bubbly laugh, nose scrunching up in confusion. “What?”

“You heard me!” Louis’ voice sounds almost accusatory and Harry giggles again, taken aback by the stark juxtaposition between the topic and Louis’ tone. “Are we dating or what?” he repeats.

“Yeah, I’d say so,” he replies nonchalantly, smirking.

“Even though we can’t hold hands in public, and no one can know we’re gay, and if anyone asks we aren’t dating?”

“Well, I’m always up for a good bromance, at any rate,” Harry teases, wondering what’s brought this all on.

There’s silence on the line for a good fifteen seconds.

“I don’t want a bromance.”

“What do you want then?”

“I want a boyfriend.”

A third giggle shoots out of Harry’s mouth, totally uninhibited. “I think you’re all set then. You’ve already got yourself one of those, Lou. Good to go.”

Harry thinks he hears a deep sigh of relief on the other end. “Promise?” Louis’ voice is softer now, less hyper, less bravado.

“‘Course, Lou. Always.”

——

Later that night as he’s laying in bed, Louis can’t keep the grin off his face. Can’t sleep. Can’t watch TV. Can’t even mess around online or anything. He’s too riled up, too giddy, mind just absolutely overflowing with thoughts, and dreams, and plans for the future.

He feels a little dumb (but only a little bit) when he takes out his phone to shoot of yet another quick text to Harry. (And why should he feel dumb? He is his boyfriend after all?)

While he waits for his response he flicks open the Twitter app and quickly scrawls out a short message.

@Louis_Tomlinson  9 Jan 2011

Is it just me that thinks turtle's give good advice ?