Sunday, 23 February 2014
09:55:50 PM (GMT)
L It’s six o’clock in the morning, and Louis’ cat is on his face.
This, Louis thinks, is probably a metaphor for the state of his life. Perhaps. He’s
not up to contemplating it further yet. He hasn’t even had his tea.
“Off,” he says, the sound muffled by a mouthful of fur. He rolls over and dumps
Duchess onto the floor, and she makes an unhappy noise as she slinks out of his room,
probably to go throw up in his shoes out of spite.
Right. First day of the term, then. Starting the year off with cat hair in his
He hauls himself out of bed and puts a kettle on, almost tripping over the stack of
books and scripts by his bedroom door before he finds his glasses. He should really
finish going through all that shit eventually. They’ve been piling up for almost a
year now, odds and ends that he always means to get around to but never does. Zayn
calls it his bird’s nest. Zayn can fuck off, really.
It’s been a boring summer, like the one before it and the one before that. He read
a book. He bought a new set of bath towels. He spent three days marathoning trashy
American reality television on his laptop and getting food delivered to his flat. He
definitely did not get asked on any dates.
He leans against his kitchen counter and stares at his collection of mismatched mugs
and tries not to think too hard about it.
He turns the shower on and leaves it running as he makes his tea, having learned
years ago how to arrange his morning routine around the ten minutes it takes for the
dodgy water heater in his building to kick in. He’s lived here ever since he moved
to Manchester when he was twenty-two, and it’s full of the last three years of his
life, the curtains from his mum and the programmes on his bookshelf. He’s managed
to slowly accumulate a respectable collection of furniture, all of which actually
matches. It’s nice enough, even if he can’t do anything about that place on the
living room wall where Niall got too drunk and pitched a beer bottle at it.
When he’s finished his tea and dried his hair, he pulls on some pants and pads over
to his closet. Dressing for work is always a bit tricky. He’s not like Zayn, who
effortlessly charms all of the mothers (and some of the fathers) just by existing.
Zayn can get away with having an edgy haircut and dressing like a hipster librarian
with a motorbike fetish because he’s Zayn. And anyway, Zayn’s an English teacher;
fashion sense just makes him seem more sensitive and artistic. Louis teaches drama,
which comes with different stereotypes. There’s a fine line between artistic and
camp, and wearing leather boots would take Louis right over it.
So it’s braces and trousers and dress shoes for Louis, pressed shirts with the
sleeves rolled up, the occasional sensible jumper when it’s cold enough. It’s a
classic look, and he takes pride in it. It takes time to get his hair to that state
of artfully windswept, though, so he has to set his alarm for six and try not to let
the ungodly hour send him into a homicidal rage for the rest of the day.
As much as he hates getting up early and spending most of his evenings marking, he
likes his job. Well, most of the time he likes his job. On the days when nobody asks
him for the ten millionth time to explain something he’s already gone over or
breaks one of his lighting trusses right before a dress rehearsal, he likes his job.
He likes working with kids, likes putting on shows and gettingpaid to talk about
theater all day.
“You like your job,” he tells his reflection in the side of the toaster, waiting
for his bread to brown.
He leaves Duchess with a bowl of food and a pat on the head as recompense for kicking
her out of bed earlier, ignoring the icy glare she gives him in return. Then it’s a
final check in the mirror and out the door, bag slung over his shoulder. He spends
the drive to school contemplating what the year might have in store for him and
hoping to God for anything other than a repeat of last year’s flu pandemic. He had
to burn a set of of 800 thread count sheets. It was a dark time for everyone.
His regular parking space awaits him when he pulls into the carpark. He’s come back
during the break for meetings and workshops and days of preparing his classroom, but
it still feels like he hasn’t been back in months. The same brick buildings, the
same football pitch, the same scuffed bumper of a French teacher’s car staring back
at him. Another year. Nothing at all has changed.
He happens to catch sight of Zayn as he turns down his hallway, mostly just a quiff
and a cloud of cardigan-wearing gloom coming down the hall with a giant book tucked
under one elbow. He’s nursing a thermos of coffee and still seems to be half
asleep, and Louis really can’t be expected to let that grumpy face go unharassed.
“First day of school!” Louis says brightly, cuffing him on the shoulder as he
passes. “Perk up, sunshine!”
Zayn scowls at him, and Louis smiles back, pleased that at least one person in the
world hates mornings more than he does. “Go fuck yourself,” Zayn mumbles.
“Now, now, mind your language,” Louis teases. “We are the moulders of tomorrow,
remember?” “I’m going to mould this book into your face,” Zayn says.
“Love you too,” Louis says, and they split apart, Zayn off to the stairs and
Louis continuing down the hall to his classroom.
He and Zayn came on staff the same year and became best mates almost immediately
through the shared terror of their first year in the faculty and a mutual
appreciation of each other’s fashion sense amidst a sea of tartan and beige. Zayn
started out as a teaching assistant, but took over the spot when the previous English
teacher retired. They’ve since earned a bit of a reputation for mischief, which
Louis’ not sure is really fair. So maybe they’ve been known administer field
sobriety tests to random students in the hallway, and maybe they
accidentally-on-purpose planted the idea of putting glitter in the air vents as a
graduation prank. They both have sound alibis for the time the assistant
headmaster’s car wound up on the roof, and even if they had hypothetically been
involved, it would have been all Zayn’s idea. Hypothetically.
Their second year, Niall got hired fresh out of uni as the assistant orchestra
director, and he fell in with the two of them right away. He’s a good sort, relaxed
as can be and always reliable, though he’s generally more likely to sit and laugh
at their schemes than participate in them.
Louis knows they’re generally regarded as the “cool” teachers, the youngest
ones and the ones least likely to write you up for a uniform infraction. He also
knows that Zayn is “the fit one,” the one whose classes are always anxiously
anticipated at the start of every new year. It’s understandable. Louis honestly
pities any unsuspecting, pubescent teen who shows up for their first day of school
and is confronted with Mr. Malik reading Wordsworth with his soulful eyes and
Zayn’s eyes, soulful or not, are irrelevant now, because he’s got a full day of
trying to keep a bunch of teenagers from slipping into a vegetative state while he
goes over syllabi. His first year he’d been given the typical arrangement of
teaching his class in the theatre, but if there’s one thing Louis needs it’s his
own space, and after a year of nagging the administration and being interrupted by
assemblies and spelling competitions, he’d been granted his own classroom. It’s
not much, but at least it’s his.
That should really be the tagline of his life, to be honest.
The students start filtering in slowly, small clusters that settle into desks at
random. Louis notices a lot of familiar faces. He’s been around long enough to have
seen most of them in the halls at some point or another, and many of the ones who end
up in his classes have already been in at least one of his productions. By the time
the bell rings, there are only a few he doesn’t recognize, new students or ones
that managed to fly below his radar. Excellent. Always fun the first day. Nobody ever
really knows what to expect from him.
Louis shuts the door and hops up on his desk, sitting cross-legged in front of the
“All right,” Louis says, adjusting his glasses. “Let’s skip the part where I
tell you good morning like I’m not already on my third cuppa and you say it back
like you’re happy to be wearing ties this early in the morning.”
A nervous sort of laugh ripples through the classroom, and Louis smiles. He forgets
sometimes that he’s actually quite good at this.
“As most of you already know, my name is Mr. Tomlinson,” he goes on. “Before
anyone asks, I’m from Doncaster, I’m a Capricorn, I enjoy long walks to the
vending machine on the third floor, and yes, McDonnell, I’m expecting your mum to
send toffee again for the night rehearsals this year.”
Another laugh. Louis feels a bit more of the tension ease out of the room.
“I’m sure some of you are thinking this course will be an easy way to get high
marks without having to do much work. It’s okay, nothing to be ashamed of. I did it
myself when I was your age,” Louis says mildly. “But I regret to inform you that
if you’re expecting to pass this class without ever cracking a book or doing your
coursework, you are tragically mistaken. We’ll be covering some of the basics of
theater, learning about some of the great playwrights, practicing acting and
improvisation as well as some writing. It’s going to be fun. I swear. If you
don’t have any fun all year, you have full permission to smack me ‘round the
Ice sufficiently broken, Louis passes out packets listing important dates for the
term and explaining his marking policy. The rest of the day goes by in the same vein,
and come lunchtime, Louis is feeling rather pleased with his work indeed.
There’s more than one teacher’s lounge in the school, but one in particular is on
the same hallway as Louis’ classroom, so naturally he claimed it as his by the end
of his first month. It’s the smallest of all of them, just a table with four chairs
and a small adjoining toilet. Small, but definitely good enough, and everyone in the
faculty knows that lunches there belong to Louis, Zayn, and Niall.
Louis thinks, as they sit laughing about their plans for the year around their own
personal table, that his gift for expanding into the space around him is probably his
most useful attribute. Starfishing, he calls it. He is a starfish.
“Obviously I’m keeping the spring musical,” Louis tells them, “but I’m
thinking about doing a Shakespeare in the fall. What do you think?”
“I think it sounds like you’re going to make me help you with two shows instead
of one,” Niall says.
“There’s a good man,” Louis says, patting Niall on the back. “Thank you for
“You’re going to consult me on this, right?” Zayn cuts in, giving Louis a look
over his coffee. “You’re not going to let a bunch of fifteen-year-olds butcher
the poor bard, are you?”
“Believe it or not, Zayn, I know a thing or two about Shakespeare,” Louis says.
“Just because I don’t spend my life analyzing sonnets doesn’t mean I’m an
Zayn laughs and elbows him. “You might be an idiot.”
“What’s on the reading list this year, Zayn?” Louis says. “Fahrenheit 451?
‘It was a pleasure to burn...’”
“Ha ha,” Zayn deadpans while Niall snorts into his lunch. “Fireman jokes.
The rest of the first week rolls by smoothly, and Louis starts to settle back into
his work routine. It’s nice to feel like he has some kind of purpose again after
months of treading water. For the most part, his students seem genuinely enthusiastic
about the more hands-on parts of the class already, and they only groan a little when
he assigns them reading over the weekend. All in all, it’s a good start, and when
Louis settles down on Friday evening with Duchess and a takeaway, he’s not unhappy
It’s his life, and it’s mostly quiet nights alone and the places where bitterness
made him harder years ago, but it’s all right, and he does his best to ignore the
stagnant feeling in his stomach.
Louis isn’t sure why, in a world that contains iPhones, basic sound equipment still
requires enough cords to strangle an average-size ox. Surely this should have been
sorted out by now. Surely there are scientists who could be using their science to
fix this. Surely that is what science is for.
Niall brought the speakers by, wheeling them in on the AV cart, and then returned
with a giant cardboard box. “Anything you need should be in there somewhere,” he
said, probably perfectly aware of the hell he was casting Louis into. The bastard.
Fifteen minutes later, Louis is still digging through the box, looking for the cord
to connect his laptop to the speakers. He’d planned to play some songs from La
Boheme and Rent so his students could compare the two interpretations, and he would
be damned if they were going to listen to opera through his shitty laptop speakers.
Some things are sacred.
Some sacred lesson plans are going to have to be scrapped, though, if he can’t find
the goddamned cord he needs. The box is half as tall as Louis himself, and he’s
bent nearly double, hunting through the dozens of seemingly-identical black wires
After an eternity, he spots what he thinks is the right cable, all the way at the
bottom. Thank the sweet USB-compatible baby Jesus. Holding his glasses on with one
hand, he reaches, reaches, brushes it with his fingertips, and...
...loses his balance, his torso falling into the box, his legs flailing above him
before tipping over and carrying him through what is almost certainly the least
graceful somersault of all time. He lies
there for a moment, sprawled on his back, his upper body and head still inside the
box and covered with speaker cables. The cord he needs is draped over his face.
“Um, you all right in there?” says a voice, obviously holding back laughter.
There is a person in his classroom. A witness to his current state. Louis stares at
the roof of his cardboard cube of shame and considers remaining in this box for the
rest of his life.
No. This will not do. A Tomlinson never admits defeat.
“Yes, perfectly all right!” he says cheerfully. “That was entirely
intentional.” He begins to shimmy out of the box with what he assumes can only be
the utmost agility. “Gymnastics, you know. Working on my floor routine.”
Free of his recyclable prison, he looks up to see who has caught him in this
predicament. Oh. Oh.
Louis is struck with the sudden urge to light himself on fire. His would-be rescuer
is a young man, which Louis had known from the voice, but he had not been prepared
for this. Dark curly hair, green eyes, and a smile that Louis likes so much that he
feels slightly violated. And no one should look that good in a plain white t-shirt
and cargo shorts. He’s leaning against the doorway to Louis’ classroom, staring
Louis blinks. He’s still there. Self-immolation is looking more and more appealing.
At least Zayn could flirt with that hot fireman he’s obsessed with over Louis’
smoldering remains. Some good could come of this yet.
Louis has never seen this person before in his life. He is sure of that. He would
He pulls up his braces, which have fallen on one side, and fumbles for words that
won’t make him sound like a complete idiot. What comes out of his mouth is, “Who
the fuck are you?”
Smooth, Tomlinson. Very nice.
The newly-discovered bane of his life just laughs—Jesus, he’s got dimples—and
pushes away from the doorframe. “I’m Harry,” he says. “Was passing by, heard
a crash, figured you might need a hand,” he continues, holding out said hand to
Louis. Louis grabs ahold, and Harry pulls him up.
Somewhere between the ground and standing upright, Louis realises that his legs are
entirely entangled in cords, and he can do nothing but look on in horror as his
momentum carries him directly into Harry’s chest. It’s a very nice chest. Broad,
solid, warm. Oh, God. He should have stayed in the box. He hadn’t fully appreciated
his time in the box. He had been so young, so foolish.
Harry just laughs again and holds Louis upright by his waist with one hand, and fuck,
Louis hates him already.
“Hold still, we’ll get you sorted,” he says. He drops to his knees and gets to
work untangling the cables around Louis’ legs. Louis stares stoically at the wall
and refuses to contemplate the state of his life. There is an extremely attractive
stranger kneeling at eye level with his crotch. No. Nope. Not going to process this
“There we go, almost free,” Harry says, rising to his feet with the end of a cord
in one hand. “Give us a twirl, then,” he says, tugging slightly on the cable.
Louis complies, his ears burning, and pirouettes his way to freedom. If he’s going
to be made to look ridiculous, he’s not going to do it halfway.
Harry outright giggles. “You’ve got the gold medal in the bag, I think.”
Louis gives an exaggerated bow. “You’re clearly a man of taste.” He pauses a
moment, shifting his weight. “Um, thanks for your help. Do you think you could be
convinced to, er, never tell anyone about this? Ever.”
Harry just smiles his horrible smile. “Not a problem. I won’t reveal your routine
to the Russians. You need any help with the rest of this?” he asks, gesturing to
the audio equipment. “I’m handy with a speaker.”
The idea of spending another full minute in his presence makes Louis want to rip off
his own skin. “Oh, no, I think I’m all right, thanks,” he says hurriedly. “It
was nice to meet you, Harry.”
“Nice to meet you too, Mr...” Harry trails off.
Louis briefly considers giving a fake name before remembering it’s still written
across the damn board from the first day of school. “Tomlinson. Louis,” he adds,
holding out his hand.
Harry’s grin widens. “Louis,” he says, grasping his hand. “I’ll see you
around.” And then he’s gone.
Louis lets out the breath he’s apparently been holding the entire time, and turns
toward the box to find—or re-find, he supposes—the cord he needs. This is all
He nearly trips over himself again when a thought strikes. He asked for my last name,
not my first. Oh God. Oh no.
At lunch, Zayn shrugs off his concerns and continues shoveling chips into his mouth.
“He doesn’t have to be a student. And anyway, the way you described him? Sounds
way too hot to be a teenager.”
Louis keeps his head buried in his hands. “Maybe he’s just freakishly
developed.” He peers out between his fingers. “Who knows what the hormones in our
food are doing to the youth, Zayn.” He had been ogling a student. A child. He had
been contemplating the pectoral firmness of a child.
Zayn reaches out and snatches a piece of grilled chicken from Louis’ salad. Louis
makes an outraged noise and bats at his hand, but to no avail. “Hey, I’m just
protecting you from the hormones, man,” Zayn says smugly, before popping the
chicken into his mouth. “But back to how you’re probably going to prison.”
Louis groans and drops face-first into his salad.
He doesn’t see the possibly hormonally-overdosed teen for two days, and is
beginning to think that he must have imagined the whole thing in a concussed haze.
Head injuries could cause hallucinations, right? Of course they could. And you
probably can’t go to prison over hallucinations.
He should have known his luck would run out eventually. He’s walking to his car
Friday afternoon, contemplating whether it’s going to be a red or white wine kind