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A Million One, A Million Two (a Hundred More Will Never Do)

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If Wilshire Academy is a cinematic cliché – and it is, with acres of manicured lawns, majestic stone buildings, surrounded on three sides by lush woods and two by a giant lake, and air that screams money loudly to everyone who happens past – then Harry supposes he is the aimless ne'er-do-well, the handsome boy with more charm than desire to succeed at anything really. It doesn't bother him but, after three years in this place, he is certainly self-aware enough to accept his station in the hierarchy.

What he can't accept is the fact that he's stuck waiting on another roommate, his fourth in six semesters, when he was supposed to be living alone. As he stares out the window across campus, he tries to tell himself that the top floor of Cowell Tower is not the worst living arrangement, that even if he has to share it with some random idiot, it could be worse. At least he can see the lake from here, the pier visible if he shifts a bit to the left.

Crew season doesn't begin until spring, but practices will kick off in a couple of weeks and Harry tells himself that he'll settle then. Being back in the boat with his teammates, back on the water with his brothers, will be exactly what he needs to forget the last week of an otherwise decent summer.

“So this is what single living looks like is it?” a voice calls from the doorway, interrupting Harry's brooding introspection. “Thought it'd have one less bed.”

Harry turns to find Liam's eyebrow raised in confusion, his gaze shifting from one side of the room to the other, and Zayn hovering behind him, probably standing on his toes to see over Liam's broad shoulder.

“It would,” Harry confirms. “If my dad hadn't pulled the bid for a single as punishment for catching me in a compromising position with the pool boy.” He crosses to his friends, letting Liam pull him into a half-hug of greeting.

When Zayn smacks Harry's back, he says, “Oh the hypocrisy,” and then ventures into the impressively-sizable-for-a-double room. He throws himself onto the bed and doesn't bother removing his shoes before resting one of his feet flat against the bare mattress that will soon belong to Harry's mysterious new roommate.

“Oh, but it's not the same thing at all,” Harry assures them. “Dad only fucks the underwear and swimsuit models he employs, and only if they're one hundred percent silicone free. Only the most naturally beautiful are fit for a Styles bed, you know.”

Liam leans against the foot of Harry's already-made bed and crosses his arms over his chest. “I thought you came out to your parents last year.”

Holding up two fingers to indicate that it was actually a couple of years ago, Harry laughs and shakes his head. “For fuck's sake, Liam, the man runs a fashion empire. He'd probably be more disappointed if I wasn't gay.” Tucking his hands into his pockets, Harry shrugs. “He just said that if I was going to fraternize with the help, I should make sure they were the best looking help. Which is, ya know, equal parts shallow and elitist, so he's really gunning for Father of the Year, I think.”

Zayn barely lifts his head to ask, “Was it worth it?” with a smile in his voice that says he won't ask for details but he also won't argue if Harry wants to give them.

“I'll let you know,” is Harry's vague response.

The thing is, Kale was a nice enough guy and he was fun for a few weeks, but if Harry's roommate turns out to be a complete knob, if he sacrificed a single room for a few sloppy blowjobs in the pool house then no, he wasn't worth it. If this illusive roommate turns out to be alright, though? Then Kale could do this thing underwater that Harry still hasn't figured out yet and fuck, it was a good summer.

When he turns his attention away from thoughts of Kale the Pool Boy and back to his friends, Liam and Zayn are doing that annoying thing where they communicate with their eyebrows. Liam can say a lot with his, Harry has found. Clearing his throat, he says, “So you two are shackin' up again this year, yeah?”

“You know how much Zayn hates people,” Liam says fondly. “I'm afraid he'd kill anyone else who tried living with him.”

Zayn grunts as he sits, nodding and wrapping his arms around his raised knee. “It's true, and you know my talents would be wasted in prison.” He stares at the floor for a minute and then looks at Harry with a sincerely perplexed look. “What would I even do there? Draw on the walls? Craft sculptures from toothbrushes and bar soap?” Shaking his head, he sighs again. “Nah, that's not gonna work for me, is it?”

Harry rolls his eyes. “Your father is a federal judge,” he reminds Zayn, who knows damn well that, between his eyelashes and his father’s connections, he could get probably get away with something far more heinous than murder.

“True,” Zayn agrees with a nod, pursing his lips in consideration when he turns to Liam. “What do I need you for again?”

“Cover stories. No RA on Earth can resist this face,” Liam answers immediately, probably spent the entire summer coming up with said excuse in case Zayn decided to turn on him at the last minute.

“That is also true,” Zayn declares, standing and patting his hands against his stomach. “Alright, so we're getting snacks. You comin' or waiting for your new partner in crime?”

Harry shrugs. A trip into town sounds alright, but his curiosity is going to win out this time. “Think I'll hang around here for a bit. I'll be setting up camp in yours when you get back if he's absolutely horrible.”

“Alright then. Good to be back, bro,” Zayn says, clapping a hand against Harry's shoulder as he passes.

Liam offers him another half-hug and says, “Missed you,” against his ear.

“Shut up. Go away,” Harry teases with a smile, waiting until their gone to return to the window. He'll play it off of course, that's what he's meant to do, but it's nice to know that someone noticed he was gone for awhile.

*

The new roommate arrives not with a bang so much as with a shout that can probably be heard across campus. Harry is sitting on his bed, thumbing through one of the books he was meant to read over the summer, when he hears a raucous, “Oi! Be careful with that, yeah?” from the corridor. “Costs more than that shitbag car of yours, that beauty.”

The response is a grunt and a disembodied, “You bought it for ten bucks at a yard sale, ya dick.”

The pair round the corner, red-faced and frowning. “Good thing value isn't based on what you pay for something then, isn't it?” the first one into the room says. When he notices Harry on the bed, his face lights into a brilliant grin. “Hey,” he says with a wave.

“Hi,” Harry responds, tossing his book to the side and wondering for a moment if he should offer to help them. His driver always brings his luggage up to the room so he's not sure about the protocol here.

“You my roommate?” the guy asks, taking another step forward with his hand outstretched.

Harry scoots to the edge of the bed and takes the proffered greeting. “Harry Styles.” He's standing when the other guy snorts a laugh from near the doorway. It's instinct, born of enough scorn to recognize it, when he turns to ask, “Something funny?”

The guy just shakes his head and drops the duffel in his left hand, flexing his white knuckles as he does. “There is no way that's your real name,” he says. “You got it from a porn generator or something, right?”

Before Harry can defend himself, his new roommate scrubs a hand over the grubby snapback on his head and says, “Oh my god, you're the actual worst.” To Harry, he says, “Ignore him. I'm sorry. Niall Horan. Nice to meet you.”

“Whorin'?” Harry asks, his eyebrows rising of their own accord. To Niall's friend, he asks, “And my name came from a porn generator?” with wide eyes.

“Don't bother,” Niall tells him. “Josh has zero sense of irony.”

Josh shrugs. “Incredible sense of hearing, though, especially when I'm standing right the fuck here.” He sets Niall's guitar down with an exaggerated show of care and then wipes his hands on his shorts. “Are you done using me for manual labor and then mocking me to my face? I gotta get back to work.”

In response, Niall lets out one of the most explosive and pure laughs Harry has ever heard. It's that laugh, the one that is still ringing in his ears when Niall grabs Josh in a huge hug and says, “Go on then. Thanks for the help,” that decides it for Harry. His summer fling, his subsequent punishment of having to share a room with this little, blond ball of chaotic energy, was probably worth it.

Turning away from their private good-bye, Harry crosses to his desk and begins fidgeting with the pens there.

“You behave yourself, you hear me? This shit doesn't happen to people like us. Don't you fuck this up, kid.”

So Niall is a scholarship kid then. Well, it didn't take a lot of confirmation, Harry could have guessed it before, but now he's sure of it. Of all the asshole roommates Harry's had, he's never actually lived with a scholarship kid before. Probably a little strangely, he finds that to be another endearing quality of this Niall Horan.

“Get outta here now,” Niall finally says, following Josh to the door and then turning back to address Harry. “Sorry, he's like family. Kinda overprotective sometimes.”

Harry just shakes his head and turns, pen still in hand though he's not sure he's used one since the iPad was invented. “It's not real,” is the first thing he says, though he doesn’t actually think it through first. “Styles, my name. It's not. Well, I mean it is my real name, but it wasn't always my family's-”

It's almost comical, the way Niall's eyes dart back and forth from Harry's left to his right and then back again. “Are you high right now?”

“No,” Harry insists, releasing a bit of a laugh because even he can admit that he sounds a little out of his mind maybe. “My grandfather was a bit of an eccentric, you could say, but he started this fashion magazine that made him enough money to legally change his name to Styles right after my dad was born. Dad also legally changed his name when he went into the family business, before I was born. So it's my given name, but it hasn't always been the family name is what I'm trying to say.”

Niall blinks slowly, shakes his head, and lets out a long breath. “Jesus, rich people. You're actually serious, aren't you?” When Harry nods, he says, “Is this the kind of thing you normally tell people when you first meet them?”

Harry shrugs. It's not the strangest thing he's told someone in the first ten minutes of knowing them. He figures it's better to freak them out from the beginning. If they're worth having around, it won't scare them off completely or anything. “Seemed somewhat relevant,” is his only defense.

Wordlessly, Niall crosses to the window, braces his hands against the sill and peers out at the lake. “This is insane.”

Dropping back to his bed, Harry leans against the foot and asks, “What about you, Niall Horan? Where do you come from?”

Niall points out the window. “Right across the lake, man. My family owns that restaurant right there. Dad's gonna flip when he finds out I can see it from here.”

“The seafood place?” Harry asks without getting up to look. There's only one restaurant on the waterfront anyway. “I've been there. Food's really good.” He knows from good cuisine and that little place across the way, the one no one back home would blink twice at, is some of the best he's ever had. It's one of his favorite things about this town.

Niall heads back to his bags with a nod, opens one of them and starts flinging clothes onto his bed. “Thanks. Been in my family since the forties. Dad's the owner and head chef.” He tilts his head to the side, sniffing a tee shirt before tossing it into another pile. “I mean, he never changed his name to Crustacean or nothin', but he's good at what he does.”

Harry barks a surprised laugh and claps his hands over his mouth, letting them fall when Niall turns, satisfied gleam in his eye.

“Where you from, Harry?”

“New York.”

This time, Niall is the one laughing. “You don't sound like any New Yorker I've ever heard.”

Harry shrugs. “My parents are both very, very British.”

“Of course they are,” Niall responds, shaking his head again.

“What's that supposed to mean?

Niall turns and chuckles again. “Nothing, no. It's just, my friend Louis always uses this super uppity British accent when he-,” Niall cuts himself off as though he realizes he's about to say something wrong.

But it's nothing Harry hasn't heard before. “Makes fun of all those rich assholes from Wilshire?”

Sinking to the edge of his bed, Niall reaches for his guitar and says, “Yeah, sorry.”

“Don't be,” Harry assures him, hoping that Niall realizes it's genuine. “There are definitely some of those here, but most of them aren't actually British.” When Niall smiles a little wider, he adds, “There are some good people here, too, I promise.”

The guitar is probably the rattiest excuse for an instrument Harry has ever seen, but Niall cradles it as though it's his most prized possession, plucking at the strings absently before he asks, “Which are you, Harry Styles? You one of the good ones?”

I try to be is the first response to pop into Harry's head, but it sounds cliché and empty. Instead, he settles for saying, “I hope so.”

*

It's not only Harry who's drawn into Niall's straightforward observations and booming laughter. Zayn and Liam seamlessly adopt him into the ranks immediately, so easily that Harry wonders if they weren't always waiting for Niall to arrive without actually knowing that he was missing. It certainly makes the start of the new year better, knowing that Harry's going home to someone he actually enjoys being around instead of constantly feeling like he's overstaying his welcome in his own room, hiding out at Zayn’s and Liam’s until they’re annoyed with his presence.

All in all, it’s been three days of the most brilliant semester in Harry’s time at Wilshire. It’s shaping up to be the kind of senior year films are made about, which is why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the villains of his life choose now to make their first appearance.

To be fair, they’re probably not as purely evil as Harry sometimes thinks they are, these three idiots with sour faces and tiny minds, but they’ve made Harry’s life hell for years so he thinks he can be forgiven for imagining them twirling their proverbial mustaches as they think of new and horrible ways to torture him.

“Well if it isn’t my favorite little fairy princess,” the smallest of the three, Tom Whitmore, says with a sarcastic smile. Even though Harry has tried to tell himself that Whitmore is smaller than him, dumber than him, and all-around just a terrible, terrible person, the ugly smirk on his face brings back so many awful memories that it’s difficult not to be intimidated.

“How was your summer, Harriet?” Whitmore’s right-hand man, Chester Lyons, asks with a snicker. He probably thinks that’s the funniest insult in the world, equating Harry to a woman. He is also an idiot.

Dalton Perkins, the third and possibly vilest of this unholy trinity, nudges Lyons with a shoulder and says, “Spent the whole time ass-up, I’d imagine,” in a staged whisper.

Harry rolls his eyes. “D’you imagine me ass-up a lot, Perkins?” he asks, torn between wishing Niall didn’t have to be here to see this and being grateful that he is. They probably won’t touch him if there’s a new, unpredictable witness to their general awfulness.

Perkins just laughs, though. “Has your voice gotten even more ragged, Styles? Girls always sound like that after they’ve spent some time choking on my dick.”

“Is that even an insult?” Niall asks, making himself known in the most unabashed, and slightly confused, way. “I mean, clearly it’s a lie because I don’t figure anyone, male or female, has ever wanted to be close to your dick, but that was the worst insult I’ve ever heard, bro. Generally, when you’re trashing someone else, you try not to make yourself sound like the grossest person in the room.”

“Who’s this?” Whitmore asks, his nose turning up as he considers Niall. “New boyfriend, Styles?”

Before Harry can answer him, Niall thrusts his hand forward and introduces himself. “I’m his roommate.” He glances at his hand, at the way Whitmore is smiling like a shark and refusing to shake it, and then says, “I’m sure you’re workin’ up to some sex joke there, buddy, but it won’t be smart or funny so just save yourself some time and fuck off, yeah?”

Lyons nods, so content and self-assured and fucking annoying. “Ah, I love fresh blood. Especially poor, scholarship blood,” he says after a condescending consideration of Niall, head to toe. “So hot-headed, so easily-provoked. So barbaric and simple.”

“Let’s not talk about simple, Lyons,” Harry says flatly. “You thought lobbing a tube of lube at my face last year was clever.” He waits a beat and stupidly adds, “Wasn’t, but it did prove quite useful in fucking your brother during Family Weekend.”

Lyons growls a foul name under breath, but Perkins holds him back before he can strike. It’s true, not that Lyons will ever actually believe it of his politician-in-training brother. Harry debates elaborating on how hard he got off on that one, on knowing that the writhing, quivering mess of a body beneath him was related to his arch nemesis and all, but it doesn’t seem prudent at the moment. He’ll probably pay handsomely for what he’s already said. The courage to shoot them down always comes at a steep and humiliating price.

The point is that it wasn’t clever, and certainly wasn’t as inspired as the time they hacked his email and sent a photo of a random dick to everyone on campus during their sophomore year, landing Harry in detention for six weeks. Although that was Wilson Jeffries’ handiwork, if Harry remembers correctly. They’ve not been quite as hard to deal with since he graduated.

“Right, well it’s been good catching up, Styles, but we’ve got to go. Professors to charm, ladies to impress and all. Just wanted to let you know you haven’t been forgotten,” Whitmore says with a sneer. He takes a step closer and lowers his voice a bit. “I think this is going to be our best year yet.”

Though he knows he shouldn’t let them get to him, the words are filled with such a terrifying promise that Harry shudders a little. There are days when he thinks punching all of them would be the most satisfying thing in the world. If he’s completely candid, every day is one where he thinks of beating them all to a pulp. Though he likes to think he’s gotten a handle on his anger, these three really know how to bring it boiling over the surface in seconds.

Whitmore and Perkins push past Harry easily. Lyons mutters, “We’ve got plans for you, Styles,” before joining them.

“Who the fuck was that?” Niall asks before Harry can fear the worst.

Shaking his head, Harry wills his hands to stop shaking before he clears his throat and says, “Remember when I said there were some assholes here?”

Niall cracks his knuckles in a cartoon fashion and wiggles his eyebrows at Harry. “That’s fine,” he says, staring after the trio now fading into the distance. “I know sixteen ways to gut a fish.”

While he smiles, Harry shakes his head. “Just let it go, alright? They’re all talk until you react. It’s their M.O. They prod and poke until someone else throws the first punch. It’s like a game to them.”

“I like games,” Niall insists, following as Harry starts down the path toward the Union. “I especially like games that including knocking the teeth out of some asshole’s head.”

“It’s not-,” Harry starts, frantically shaking his head. He has this same conversation with Zayn and Liam every year. “It’s me they have a problem with, alright? Don’t get yourself expelled because of me.” It’s even more imperative that Niall understand this, as he clearly remembers Josh telling Niall not to fuck up this one opportunity of his. If he did it defending Harry, well, Harry’s not sure he could handle someone else getting tossed out because of him.

Niall seems to consider his words for longer than is necessary. “I don’t like ‘em,” he finally states with a definitive nod.

For the first time in what feels like an hour, Harry smiles. “Nobody likes them. Their own mothers probably don’t like them very much, honestly.”

Liam is sitting atop one of the tables in the far corner when Niall and Harry finally make their way into the Union. Zayn is hunched over one of his latest artistic creations, brow furrowed and tongue caught between his teeth as he sketches a fine-boned girl with flyaway hair into his sketchpad.

“What the hell is going on here then? What's he up to?” Niall asks without preamble, dropping his backpack to the floor and sliding onto the table next to Liam.

Harry pulls a chair over and straddles it, crossing his arms over the back to get a closer look at Zayn's work.

“He's drawing,” Liam answers, though the evidence is quite obviously right in front of Niall's face.

Niall punches his arm. “I'm not actually blind, Liam. I meant what is he drawing?”

“Then I suppose you should have asked that, shouldn't you have?” Liam returns with a punch of his own.

More out of fear for Niall's safety than Liam's – he's turned into quite the boxing fan in his spare time, Liam has – Harry clears his throat and points as inconspicuously as possible across the room. “You see that girl over there at the pinball machine? The one with the pink hair?”

“Can't really miss her, can ya?” Niall asks with a snort.

He has a point. She's not exactly trying to blend into the scenery. “That's Perrie and Zayn here is obsessed with her.” When Zayn doesn't attempt to correct him, Harry continues. “Literally obsessed, in an unhealthy, build-a-shrine-in-the-back-of-his-closet kind of way.”

Though he still doesn't tear his eyes from his work, Zayn does answer the accusation with an annoyed, “I don't have a shrine.”

“Drawn enough pictures to build one, haven't you?” Liam asks, ruffling Zayn's hair and leaning back in anticipation of the smack that's sure to follow.

Instead, Zayn drops his pencil onto his paper and throws his arms out, exasperated. “I can't help where inspiration comes from, can I? Muses aren't logical, Liam. Art is not about common sense, it's about passion.”

Niall blinks, his mouth open, and to be fair, it's probably the most emotion Zayn has ever shown in Niall's presence so it's got to be a bit jarring. Harry thinks it's probably not normal that he can telegraph the shock of laughter that reddens Niall's face before it happens, but he's proud of himself anyway when it actually comes after mere seconds of stunned silence.

“That is the most hilarious thing I have ever heard,” Niall finally gasps as he tries to compose himself.

People are staring at them now but Harry couldn't be less bothered. “She's his Edie Sedgewick,” he says, smiling at Zayn as he grabs his pencil and shakes his head in a huff. He's kind of cute when he's pouting and Zayn is always pouting.

“What is wrong with you?” It takes Harry a second to realize Niall is talking to him, not Zayn this time. “It's like you believe that pop culture stopped being relevant in 1969.”

“You've not figured out yet that Harry is the king of the tragically hip?” Liam asks, reaching over to ruffle Harry's hair as though he's five.

Harry shakes the hair from his face with a very put-off frown, thank you. “I'm not a hipster,” he insists. “I'm just-”

“If you say the words 'old soul,' I will stab you with this pencil,” Zayn threatens flatly.

It's not because he's scared, though he's entirely sure that Zayn would do exactly what he's threatened, but more because Harry's bored with this subject that he says, “So, it's our first big weekend. Where are we going? What are we doing?”

“I vote party in the woods,” Liam says. On the one hand, it makes sense. There are at least fifty parties int he woods surrounding the school grounds each year. It’s also weird, though, since Liam has never actually attended a single one of them.

“I hate the woods,” Zayn says, using his finger to smudge a shadow into the hollow of Perrie's throat on the page.

Turning his attention to the only one of his friends who may actually have something interesting to say on the subject, Harry asks, “What about you, Niall? If anyone knows what to do around here, it's you.”

But Niall just shrugs. “I'm helpin' out at the restaurant most of the time, so unless you think guttin' fish and shelling clams is a good time, I'm probably not gonna be a lot of help.”

“I could-,” Harry starts.

“Nobody is giving you a knife,” Liam interrupts with a roll of his eyes. “People who have not yet met you would know better than to trust you with sharp objects.”

“Hey!”

Finally, Zayn looks up with a smirk that makes Harry's heart sink into his toes. “Last year during one of our practices, he knocked our entire team into the lake because he hit himself in the face with an oar.” He winks as though this is the best part of his day, embarrassing Harry. It probably is, the asshole. “Twice,” Zayn adds with a laugh.

“No you didn't,” Niall says.

“He did,” Liam concurs, ensuring that Harry now hates all of his friends. “It's on YouTube. I'll send you a link.”

With a sigh, Harry rests his elbows on the table and tries his best to glare at each of them. “One day you're going to get bored of making fun of me.”

Zayn ruffles Harry's hair this time and he really wishes they would just stop with the tousling. He's not a child, for fuck's sake. “I sincerely doubt any of us will live long enough to see that day, bro.”

While Harry considers the easiest way to murder and dispose of three bodies, Niall leaps off of the table and heads over to the vending machines for his third snack of the afternoon. Zayn returns his attention to his ever-important portrait while Liam bobs his head and beatboxes like that's a normal thing to do. If Harry could think of something scathing, he would say it right now and he wouldn't even feel bad about the feelings it might hurt.

Upon his return, Niall drops into the seat beside Harry and asks, “Do you guys like soccer?” with a mouth full of chips.

“We're British,” Liam says, pointing between himself and Harry.

“We're of British descent, you pretentious ass,” Harry corrects, taking a sick satisfaction in the way Liam flips him off.

Niall looks between them while he shovels another handful of chips into his face but, thankfully, swallows this time before he asks, “You two ever consider just fucking and getting this whole sexual tension thing out of your systems?” When Zayn chuckles, he adds, “You could probably do with a three-way, all of you, actually.”

Zayn says, “I'm sure Harry's considered it loads of times.” If he's trying to be quiet about it, he's a colossal failure.

“You love it,” Harry fires back, a bit smug because Zayn may have it bad for Perrie, but there's nothing he likes more than knowing anyone, preferably everyone, wants him.

Confirming as much, he winks at Harry and says, “I'm not telling you to stop, am I?”

Before they can go any further, Niall interjects. “Anyway, my friend is the captain of the City College team and their first match is on Saturday at three, so I'll be there if you wanna come with.”

“For boys in shorts with muscular legs and sweaty hair? I'm in,” Harry answers probably a little too quickly.

“Sounds good to me,” Liam adds with a nod. “Well, not for the sweaty-,” he cuts himself off and looks at Harry as though he's grown another head. “Sweaty hair? You just keep getting weirder.”

He'd be offended, but Harry's distracted with the thought of soccer players with great legs now so Liam can just fuck right off.

-

The first time Harry rolled into town, at the start of his first year at Wilshire, he thought that this must be one of those towns where they film television shows about kids who look far too old and express themselves far too eloquently to be in actual high school. It's small and quaint with picturesque views and small businesses run by the families that started them fifty years ago. The movie theater only has one screen, the bookstore doesn't sell a single eReader, and there is still a video rental place here. Liam's head nearly exploded the first time they went looking for a Big Mac only to discover that there isn't a franchise or chain restaurant to be found anywhere in town.

Harry supposes all of this must contribute to the capacity crowd filing into the bleachers at this afternoon's soccer game. Admittedly, he's always assumed that City was a community college, which Niall tells him is ignorant but Harry's not sure why he was meant to think otherwise. The student body is two thirds the size of Wilshire, with one academic building and two dormitories. They're currently sitting in the stands at the public high school because City doesn't have its own athletic facilities. Harry thinks he can be forgiven for his ignorance, thanks.

He's sure as hell not going to mention that to anyone here, though. It seems that the entirety of this town and maybe four or five surrounding towns, have shown up to support the teams playing this afternoon. It's kind of nice, actually, the air charged with a tangible excitement as they settle into their seats in the back corner of the bleachers.

Harry scans the team running it's warm up drills on the pitch. “Which one is your friend?” he asks Niall, who is happily munching on cotton candy with one hand, the other stuffed inside a giant foam finger that Harry is sure will end up affixed to their wall when they get home.

“Louis,” Niall says, as though he hasn't repeated the name four thousand times this week already, as though maybe Harry forgot that Louis is his best friend, the funniest guy to ever walk the earth, the embodiment of everything Niall hopes to be when he grows up, blah blah Louis blah. “He's the captain, over there on the left. Number twenty-eight.”

While Harry is seeking his target, he hears Liam ask, “Are they any good?”

“Who fucking cares?” Harry asks, almost to himself, when he finds Captain Louis, number twenty-eight, because sweet Jesus on an airplane, he has quite possibly the best ass Harry has ever seen from a hundred yards away. He'd very much like to inspect it in extreme close up detail. “Look at his ass,” he says, because everyone should be privy to the odes he's currently writing in his head while watching Louis jog from the goal back to the center of the field.

Coming to this game is, by far, the best thing he has done since the day he arrived at Wilshire.

Niall punches Harry's arm and Harry turns to find three unimpressed faces glaring back at him.

“What?” he asks, blinking and then motioning back to the field. “Am I the only one here with eyesight? Look at it! It bounces!”

“Not the only one with eyes,” Zayn assures him with a long-suffering shake of his head. “The only one without a brain-to-mouth filter, though.”

“Well that's not even a little bit true,” Liam interrupts, clapping his hand onto Niall's thigh. “Have you met my good friend Niall?”

In his own defense, Niall rolls his eyes and takes another huge bite of his cotton candy. “Are you three going to talk during the entire match?”

“If we don't, Zayn might fall asleep,” Liam explains.

Zayn nudges Harry with an elbow. “Hey, look. Liam's a comedian today,” he says with absolutely no humor in his voice. Harry's ninety percent sure that's because Zayn is three seconds away from dropping back into sleep at any moment.

“Shh, I'm busy,” he says, resting his cheek against Zayn's head when Zayn snuggles into his arm. His eyes never leave Louis because Harry is ace at multitasking when there are cute boys involved. “Niall, what do you know about the Kinsey scale and your fair friend's placement on it?”

Niall snorts but doesn't answer. That's fine, though. As the opening whistle sounds, Harry finds he's too distracted to worry much anyway.

_

Okay, so Harry Styles is not shy. He's never been shy. Since he was a tiny thing with an overpriced bowl haircut, singing and doing some awkward approximation of a tap dance at his mother's garden parties when he was four, he's never been nervous around people at all. There are times when he doesn't so much want to bother with them, but he's never been scared of them.

As the crowd disperses after the game, as Niall leads them over to the sidelines of the pitch to wait for Louis to finish his shower, Harry is feeling butterflies in his stomach and it makes no sense whatsoever. He thinks it could be because Niall has built the guy up to be some sort of superhero. The way he practically won this game single-handedly only reinforces the hero worship really. He suspects it may have to do with the way Harry spent more time imagining what Louis looks like under those shorts than he did actually paying attention to the match, but admitting that now makes his face feel like it's going to burst into flames.

Charming and coy are words that have been used to describe Harry, sure. He's fairly certain that throwing up on his own shoes doesn't fit into either of those categories.

He's about to tell the others that he's not feeling very well, which isn't exactly a lie, when he hears a rasping voice shouting, “Well look who stepped out of his ivory tower to rub grubby elbows with the peasants.”

Louis is beaming at Niall, arms outstretched until Niall throws himself into them, grabbing the back of Louis' neck when he says, “Good job out there, Tommo. You were ace, as usual.”

“Yeah,” Liam chimes in. “Rest of the team was basically shit, but you were impressive.”

This is the point when Harry has to turn away and refocus his attention before he embarrasses himself by either punching Liam in the throat or apologizing profusely to someone he's never met. Either option might end in tears so making faces at the little boy sitting directly behind them on the bleachers seems like the better option.

“Liam, you can't just,” Niall starts and Harry can actually hear him rolling his eyes. “Jesus, think about you're saying before you say it out loud, would ya?”

“What? It was a compliment,” Liam defends.

The little boy on the bleachers giggles when Harry crosses his eyes and sticks out his tongue. He looks down at his lap and then over to his mother before grabbing his ears and pulling on them as he sticks his tongue out at Harry in response. It's pretty cute and Harry finds himself contorting his face into another ridiculous expression without even thinking about it.

“So these are the replacement friends, are they?” he hears Louis ask, but he's forcing himself not to focus on the conversation too much. This is easier, thanks.

Zayn gives an offended chuckle, the kind that Harry recognizes as Zayn’s infamous I'm only smiling to distract you from the pain you're about to feel laugh. “You are just one tiny ball of charm, aren't you?”

The boy in front of Harry makes his way to his feet, hanging off of the bleacher railing while puffing his cheeks out like a monkey. He's really quite cute, this little thing in his hooded sweatshirt and track pants.

Niall is saying something, but Harry doesn't really clue into it until he hears, “Louis, this is Zayn and Liam. They're basically good guys, if a little too ignorant for their own good at times.” He's bouncing on one foot and scratching under his arms when he hears Niall ask, “Where the hell is Harry?”

He blushes when Louis asks, “What the fuck is he doing?” but he doesn't stop because that would imply that he's actually paying attention. Great. This is exactly the first impression he was hoping to make on the hot guy with the great ass. Perfect.

“It's best not to ask,” Niall says. “Harry! Get over here!”

With a roll of his eyes, Harry drops his shoulders and reaches out a hand for the little boy to shake. He gives a whispered apology for being so unceremoniously dragged away from their wordless conversation and straightens his shirt before turning to face the music.

“Sorry. Was distracted,” he admits, keeping his head down for another minute just to catch his breath.

“This is my roommate, Harry,” Niall says, patting Harry on the back as he makes the introduction.

As it turns out, it's a good thing he took a minute. Louis' ass from afar was spectacular. His face up close is the kind of thing people write disgusting poetry about. Jesus.

“Hi,” he finally says, sounding about as old as that kid he was just playing with, offering a little wave as well and hoping it comes off more charming than juvenile.

His hopes are dashed when Louis snorts and cuts his eyes to Niall. “Are you kidding me with this?” He points to Harry's throat and says, “Please tell me the bow tie is ironic.”

Zayn growls, literally fucking growls, and in his peripheral Harry can see Liam forming a fist. He could honestly care less about Louis' insult but he'd like to keep the bloodshed to a minimum. As far as he knows, there's still a small child sitting very close by.

“Um, congratulations on your win. You were really good,” Harry says in a rush, finally stretching out a hand in a seriously belated greeting. Louis only raises a skeptical brow, so Harry adds, “For the record, I'm well-aware that you're making fun of me with the bow tie thing and all, but your eyes are distracting me from a more witty comeback so I'm just hoping that maybe blatant honesty is your weakness?”

“Oh, Jesus Christ, Harry,” Zayn groans at the same time that Liam moans, “For fuck's sake, man.”

Louis, however, smiles. It's not warm, more scathing really, but it's a smile. “Does that doe-eyed thing actually work for you?”

“Sometimes,” Harry admits with a shrug. It usually does work for him, but some of his brain power is returning so he's thinking that total honesty probably isn't the best policy for the time being.

For a long moment, Louis just considers him, staring with a thoughtful expression that Harry can't actually read. That's alright. He's used to being sized up by members of the fashion industry. Blank stares are practically a way of life.

“Are we getting food or what?” Zayn finally interrupts, turning to Niall but pressing his shoulder tightly to Harry's, as though he's making sure that Harry knows he's still around.

Louis smirks. “Guess it's time to feed your new pets, Nialler.”

“You're coming with us,” Niall announces, wrapping an arm around Louis' shoulder.

“Oh no, thanks,” Louis answers with a definitive head shake.

But Niall is not deterred. “C'mon. Bobby's making your annual First Game Shrimp Platter. Probably already has it done.” He nudges Louis until he begins to walk in the direction of the parking lot. “But, I mean, if you've already got plans, I guess you can always call him and tell him why you're not gonna make it. I'm sure he'll understand.”

Louis groans, but Harry's not really listening to their banter anymore. Sandwiched between Zayn and Liam, following as they all make their way to the car, he wonders just how long this guy has been carrying this chip on his shoulder, this resentment for a bunch of people he's never even met before today, and he makes a decision. He's going to prove Louis wrong.

The thing is, he's not the first person to assess Harry by what he has rather than who he is, and Harry has faced more difficult people in the past; he's never lost. He's going to win Louis over, whether Louis likes it or not. Yep, he's going to charm his pants right off, figuratively of course.

Well, and he wouldn't complain if he also managed to do it literally.

_

It only takes a few minutes at The Lakefront Restaurant for Harry to shake off the remains of his earlier trepidation and ease back into himself again. The doors won't open to patrons for another hour, so even the vast deck feels intimate and private without any other company. Niall's dad is incredibly easy to talk to, welcoming all of them and stuffing them full of the best seafood they've ever tasted, apart from that time he and Liam spent three days eating only shellfish prepared on a beach in the Mediterranean.

After devouring a platter heaped with coconut shrimp, Louis seems to relax as well, his walls dropping enough to trade a few quips with Liam and engage in a mild food fight with Zayn that has Niall's face turning purple with laughter. The air is a bit humid but the breeze from the lake is pleasant and the twinkling lights around the deck provide a lovely atmosphere that Harry thinks he could easily get used to, given enough time to exist inside this inner circle.

While Liam and Zayn argue over who's the better beatboxer – apologies to Liam but he is not better than Justin Timberlake – Harry excuses himself to the restroom. When he returns, Louis is leaned against the bar, fingers tapping delicately against the polished wood as he watches sports highlights on the television mounted above it.

Bolstered by the easy mood of the evening, Harry leans at Louis' side and asks, “So you grew up around here then?”

Jumping slightly, Louis settles with a nod of his head. “Born and raised,” he confirms, his focus never leaving the television. “A regular townie.”

“Do you like it?”

Louis shrugs. “It's easy to be content when you don't know what else is out there, I suppose.”

“Well it's not like you've never left town at all,” Harry teases, but he swallows when Louis turns to him with a shark-like grin.

“We don't all have daddies with private jets and yachts and a billion dollars.”

A spike of defensive anger shoots through Harry but he calms it because a.) he's pretty sure that Louis is just trying to get a rise out of him now and b.) he never expected this to be easy. He reminds himself of the challenge and leans both of his elbows against the bar. “You don't have to have a private jet to leave town. There are roads in and out of here.”

One of the bartenders sets a tall glass of water in front of Louis and Louis thanks him before he answers Harry. “Don't really have anywhere to go,” he says while pressing the lemon and lime slices into the bottom of his cup with his straw.

“You don't really need that, either,” Harry says. Some of his best memories involve jumping onto a subway with Liam and riding around until they get the urge to jump off again.

When Louis shakes his head at his glass, just smirks like he was expected Harry to say that exact thing, Harry pretends to be affronted. “What?” he asks with as much indignation as he can muster though, to be fair, it's not all that convincing.

“Nothing,” Louis says with another shake of his head. “It's nothing.”

Sinking to the bar stool at Louis' side, Harry decides to call his bluff. “I'm a cliché, right? Aimless rich kid, living off of daddy's money with no idea of where I want to go or what I want to do and either too content or too stupid to realize that?” Louis dips his head, hides a smile, and Harry nudges Louis' calf with the toe of his shoe before he adds, “Maybe tryin' to pull a townie just to see if I can? I just like the idea of playing on the wrong side of the tracks sometimes? Is that it? Am I close?”

When Louis sighs, it's with a resignation that Harry has heard before. You're not in yet, but you could be if you keep cracking away at this rough exterior with that smile and your charming self-awareness, he likes to think it says.

“You're wasting your time with me is all,” Louis finally says, turning his full attention to Harry for the first time since they were introduced.

It's a little overwhelming, honestly.

Louis goes on to say, “I dated a girl from that school awhile back. It didn't turn out so well.”

“Did you?” And that is a twist Harry didn't see coming. “What happened there?”

With a shrug, Louis says, “I always suspected that it had something to do with the disdain her parents and all of her friends had for me, but who knows?” He takes a long drink of his water and Harry is, in no way, distracted by the way his cheeks hollow when he sucks at the straw. He swallows and smacks his lips loudly. “Could have also been that I realized I was incredibly gay.”

And the angels sang a beautiful chorus of Hallelujah. Harry beams when Louis' eyes twinkle with what Harry is choosing to think is a flirtatious kind of amusement.

He bites his lip in a way that looks accidental but absolutely isn't. “Right, well this is a completely different situation then,” he says with complete confidence.

“You think so, huh?” Louis asks, taking another drink and maintaining eye contact, as if proving to Harry that Louis is also capable of being totally blatant.

Harry nods. “I do. I mean, first of all, I don't give a shit what my parents think. Second, my friends already like you as much as they like anyone. And third, I'm not a girl.”

They're strong points, Harry thinks.

Louis counters with, “Your hair says otherwise, Curly.”

Harry stretches his leg until it slides against the back of Louis' where he stands. “My penis makes a pretty sound argument,” he replies.

“Does it?” Louis asks with an arched eyebrow.

With an exaggerated look around the empty restaurant, Harry drops his voice and says, “You wanna find out?”

Louis' laughter explodes like a bullet from a shotgun. It is the best sound Harry has ever heard in his entire life. He lifts his water from the bar and nods toward the patio, signaling for Harry to follow him. “I guess it's true what they say, huh? Money really can't buy class.”

“Nope,” Harry agrees easily.

Stopping short at the door, Louis turns and considers Harry for a moment, taking in the curve of his smile and the whole of his face before he blinks himself out of his thoughts and says, “You are so strange.”

Whether it's intended as such or not, Harry is taking that as a compliment. At the very least, it's a step in the right direction.

-

Weirdly enough, it's been awhile since Harry has obsessed over someone. He likes people in general, but it feels like it's been ages since he met anyone who could occupy as much of his brain space as Louis does. Considering the fact that he's only seen the guy twice in as many weeks – Saturday afternoon soccer games have very quickly become his favorite things – it's probably creepy, but he's there, inside Harry's brain, constantly. He almost forgot how much fun it can be to have a crush on someone.

In class, he wonders if Louis is good at calculus or physics or sociology, if he's analytical or more prone to the creative side of learning. He thinks about studying in a library with Louis, pressed elbow to knee at a quiet, secluded table, their ankles hooked and their hands brushing as they pretend to be focused on boring textbooks instead of the heat from each other's skin. He misses several lecture notes because of it.

During practice, he wonders if Louis likes the water, imagines what the afternoon sun must look like reflecting off of the lake and staining Louis' skin an even deeper tan than it already is. He loses himself in fantasies of long, summer days spent lazily bobbing in the water until one of them gives in to the urge to dunk the other under, inciting a vicious and slippery wrestling match that ends in languid kisses on a blanket while they let the sun dry them off. It's a nice thought, until he accidentally forgets to row and Liam punches him so hard in the shin that he gets a dead leg and a stupid limp for the rest of the day.

At night, he lies in his bed and imagines whispered conversations and devolve into stupid laughter, rolling back and forth in this tiny space until Louis' thigh presses too high and hard between Harry's, until their breathing grows heavy and their mouths crush together, desperate and wanting. He thinks about rocking against Louis' thick, muscular thigh until he's begging in sharp whispers against the curve of Louis' neck, until Louis mercifully works a hand between them, into Harry's shorts, quickly jerking him in sharp strokes until Harry comes embarrassingly fast against Louis' fingers. Niall usually throws a pillow at him and tells him to take it to the showers on the nights when those fantasies get a little more involved than he realizes.

The point is that his head is filled with Louis and it's nice, comforting in a way that Kale the Pool Boy and Harry's other flings haven't been. He likes the beginning stages of a new thing, where the possibility is nearly as satisfying as the actualization of it. Of course it would be great if Louis reciprocated, but it's not strictly necessary just yet and that's okay, too.

Tonight, he's wondering what kind of car Louis drives, if he drives one at all, when he pulls up to one of the pumps outside the gas station. He thinks that Louis would look pretty good behind the wheel of something compact and sporty, something expensive and sleek and pretty, ostentatious and ridiculous. Even his fantasies are tempered with the reality that Louis would probably reject such an idea on principle alone, but Harry doesn't care. He still thinks a Porsche Roadster would suit Louis just fine.

He's thinking about how great it would be to someday gift Louis with exactly that car, somewhere down the line when Louis' grown accustomed to Harry's penchant for springing large, expensive gifts on the people he loves, when he steps into the station to pay for his gas.

He's so distracted that he doesn't notice the clerk behind the counter until an all-too-familiar voice asks, “To what do I owe the great honor of your presence, Sir Styles?”

Harry drops his wallet, sure that his face is flaming a million shades of red. “Shit,” Harry hisses, bending to pick up his wallet and calm himself down.

There's no way Louis knows what's going on his head so he needs to stop being an idiot and act like an actual human person.

“You alright?” Louis asks, a hint of what is either annoyance or amusement in his voice.

“Fine,” Harry insists, righting himself and plastering a stupid grin on his face. “I'm actually here for your services not your company.” And doesn't that sound like the most douchetastic thing he's ever said in his life?

Louis crinkles his nose as he accepts Harry's credit card and runs it through the machine. “What kind of services do you think I provide? I don't know what kinda guy you take me for, Harry.”

Harry blinks, thrown off by the question because he hadn't actually intended to make any kind of innuendo this time. Jesus. “The kind who works at a gas station when my tank is on E,” he answers, rolling his shoulders and clearing his throat in a last-ditch effort to control himself.

“Well that makes me seem quite boring, doesn't it?” Louis teases.

“You're anything but boring,” Harry answers automatically.

“Oh fuck you,” Louis retorts, but he's laughing now. “I know that's probably very charming in your world, those lines of yours, but I'm starting to get embarrassed for you in this world.”

“I'm not actually using a line,” Harry insists because he's not and it's starting to get offensive, this completely cheesy version of him that apparently lives inside Louis' head.

Louis opens his mouth and then snaps it shut again, shaking his head and giving a short laugh. “Sorry. I, uh. I'm really stressed and I'm taking it out on you. I'm sorry.”

It's the first time Harry's heard Louis apologize for anything and he finds that he likes it more than he probably should. At least it puts him more at ease than he has been. “What are you stressed about?” he asks, casting a glance around the room to see that they're alone after he's signed his credit card receipt and slid it back.

Louis taps the open textbook on the counter between them. “I have an exam tomorrow. We're three weeks into the term and the professor already hates me, so I have to be on top of this shit.”

“What subject?” Harry asks, stuffing his wallet into his back pocket.

“Romantic Poetry.” Off of Harry's raised eyebrow, Louis rolls his eyes and falls forward onto his elbows, holding his head in his hands. “It fulfills a literature requirement. Don't look at me like that.”

Harry wordlessly rounds the counter and stands at Louis' side, stealing the book away and looking over the text.

“What are you doing?” Louis asks, taking a step back to give Harry some room.

“Helping.”

“Right. And what do you know about the Romantics, Harry?”

With his head down, Harry looks up through his eyelashes and grins, smooth and sly and a knowing. “You think I just popped out of the womb this charming Casanova you see before you?” he asks, nudging Louis' hip with his own.

Louis groans but he doesn't tell Harry to leave. “This is going to be torture, isn't it?”

“If you want to be all glass-half-empty about it, probably,” Harry tells him, flipping a page without looking up. If he meets Louis' eye, he's going to see lose all of the confidence he's amassed in the last few minutes. “Could be enlightening, though.”

He grabs Louis' notebook, scribbles a few lines from one poem and another line from a different one, drawing an arrow to remind himself of the correlation for later, before Louis says, “Harry, you don't-,”

“Have to?” Harry finishes for him. “Yeah, I know.”

He doesn't add that he's been thinking about this all week, studying like this with Louis. This truce between them is tentative enough without Harry turning creepy.

-

The thing about sport, in general, is that there's never really an off-season. Training and conditioning are year-round pursuits, as any athlete worth their salt will attest. Harry's never really claimed to be worth his salt, though. The extent of his summer activities included having a jog around a very small section of Central Park and lifting a few shopping bags when lounging around poolside became a bit tedious. He supposes some of the things he did in the pool could be considered athletic, but he didn't step foot inside the weight room, didn't bother exercising his core muscle groups because that sounded like work and he couldn't be bothered.

So it can't really be much of a surprise that the first week of actual rowing practice renders him practically immobile. At first, it wasn't terrible because all they did was lazily circle the lake a few times, but the school updated its rowing center over the summer and Coach couldn't wait to get them onto the new state-of-the-art equipment. Harry hasn't been able to move his shoulders without fighting the urge to cry since.

He's ready to drop from the exhaustion of it all when he receives a text from Niall. Where u @? Come to the lookout.

He's usually up for any kind of procrastination, but Harry has three papers that are due within two days of each other next week and he's already determined that he's going to finish at least one of them tonight. He expected his senior year to be easy. So far, he's been very, very wrong.

Can't move. Homework. is all he messages back, flopping onto his bed and altering the plan for the evening just a bit. A short nap, a hot shower, and then homework.

His eyes are just beginning to drift when he gets another text, this time from Liam. Come onnnn. We neeeeed youuuu!!!!1!

Rolling his eyes, Harry leaves that message unanswered because he's told Liam ten thousand times that there is no need for all of those extra letters. He'll never learn if Harry indulges him. Also, his arm has decided that it's not going to function, even if Harry asks it very, very nicely.

It's Zayn's text that actually has him sitting and running a hand through his wayward hair. Louis wants to know where you are. Should I tell him you're not interested in the pleasure of his company?

Yesterday, Coach lovingly shouted in Harry's face that he can't expect his muscles to keep working for him if he's not going to use them, that he has to keep moving if he's going to be worth anything to the team. So hiking up to the Lookout is really just conditioning he should have been doing over the summer, right? Maybe he'll ask Zayn a few questions about their History lecture while he's there, something to help with his paper, kill a few birds with one stone. It has nothing to do with Louis being there.

It’s just multitasking. His father would be proud.

-

He smells his friends before he sees them, the bittersweet scent of marijuana cutting through the crisp autumn air.

“You're not on campus, idiots,” Harry announces as he breaks through the clearing to find Liam and Niall passing a ball back and forth while Zayn and Louis lounge against a tree, sharing a joint. “Police don't look the other way nearly as often as Wilshire staff do.”

Zayn just rolls his eyes and pats the ground beside him. “Shut up,” he says.

Folding into the space beside Zayn, he waves off the joint and smiles at Louis, who gives him a mild grin in return before sighing and accepting Zayn's offering himself. Harry knows he's staring as Louis lifts it to his lips, hollows his cheeks on the inhale, closes his eyes for a brief moment while blindly handing the joint back to Zayn, and then pouts on the exhale. He knows he's staring but he could not care any less if he tried.

Finally, Louis opens hazy eyes and meets Harry's stare with a brighter, more knowing smile. “So, Harold, we were discussing superheroes.”

Harry groans. “Of course you were.”

“Harry's opinions on the subject are shit,” Zayn insists, wrapping his free hand around Harry's shoulder and dancing his fingers along the the swell of it. “He likes Superman.”

“What's wrong with Superman?”

“Jesus, not this again,” Liam groans as he and Niall approach, dropping to the ground in front of the other three. “I'd give my left testicle for a week without this debate.”

It's tired and played out, but Harry still contends that none of them actually mean that Superman is shit. “I'm sorry, Liam, but 'he's just not' isn't a good enough answer as to why he's not the best. If someone would explain it to me or have an actual answer, I might be swayed, but your giant, puppy eyes rolling at me isn't actually and argument.”

“He's boring,” Louis answers, eyes cutting between Liam and Zayn as though he can't imagine why neither of them has ever explained this to Harry. “He's so good and he can do everything. What's interesting in that? He has no fatal flaw, nothing to connect with or relate to because he's too fucking good at everything.”

It's an interesting point, Harry concedes, though he knows damn well he wouldn't if it were Zayn or Liam making it. “Looks good in tights, though,” is his only counter.

“Well that settles it then, doesn't it?” Zayn asks, laughing as he squeezes Harry's neck.

Harry flinches away. “And I suppose you're so much better than me because you can name all four thousand and two X-Men.”

“No,” Zayn insists, shaking his head and ruffling his hands up through Harry's hair. “I mean, yes, that is one reason, but there are a great many reasons that I'm better than you, babe.”

He can feel his cheeks flushing as Louis throws his head back to laugh, all witty comebacks dying in his throat. Not for the first time, he wishes his brain would stop doing this weird hiccup thing around Louis.

“I mean, he's got a point. Zayn here is a professional artist now, sold his first piece and everything,” Liam interjects with that glint in his eye that says he knows something no one else does.

“What? You sold something?” Harry sits up a bit straighter because, apart from Louis just existing here, this is pretty much the biggest news of the day. “That's incredible.”

Niall bursts out laughing, nearly toppling himself over and Zayn glares. “Don't start, Liam,” he warns and Harry is certain he's missed something now.

“What's going on?” he asks, shifting on the ground to more fully face his friends though, in hindsight, it's not his best decision because now he can focus completely on how fantastic Louis looks with his soft hair and oversized hoodie, not to mention the serene, unbothered expression on his perfectly angular face.

“Remember that watercolor Zayn did during Spring Break last year?” Harry nods because, well, who could forget it? It was massive and a perfect rendering of Perrie in a flower crown, so beautiful it made Harry reconsider his own sexuality for three whole seconds. “Hemme paid him five hundred for it, and another five to keep his mouth shut about where it came from.”

“What?” Harry asks, horrified. “Why the hell would you do that, you absolute fuckwit?”

For the first time since Harry arrived, he sees Louis' brow furrow as he tunes into their conversation. “What's going on now?” he asks.

Harry's awe of Louis' every breath and motion is blinded temporarily by Zayn's overwhelming stupidity. “He sold a painting of the absolute love of his life so another asshole could impress her with it.” His fingers itch with the urge to punch Zayn straight in the throat.

His anger is calmed a bit by the soft, genuine curiosity in Louis' responding, “Why?”

Zayn shrugs, taking the joint from Louis and hitting it before answering. “It's not like I'm ever going to show it to her myself, am I?”

“You're such an idiot,” Niall says, reaching forward to clap a hand over Zayn's shin. “I love you, but you're an idiot.”

Louis shrugs, his mouth quirking into an agreeing half-nod. “I think he's right. That Cyrano shit never works out, ya know?”

Harry expects Zayn to tell Louis where to go, but it appears that the pair of them have developed some sort of bond while Harry wasn't looking. It's a bit strange but also a bit comforting to see Louis folding so easily into his insulated little circle.

“We'll see,” is all Zayn says, leaning back against the tree and tilting his face toward the rays of sun breaking through the leaves overhead. “Fate has a way of working things out.”

When Louis peers around him, shakes his head in fond disbelief at Harry as though they share some can you believe this guy? inside joke, Harry just shakes his head in return and tosses an acorn at Liam.

He doesn't say it aloud or anything but he sort hopes Zayn is right, for all of them. Even if Zayn is being a dumbass idiot at the very same time.

*

It's not often that the dormitories at Wilshire Academy are relatively quiet, but Saturday nights are an exception, especially Saturday nights at 9:30 when everyone else is already where they're supposed to be and Harry is stuck waiting on Liam to get the tilt of his hair just right, or whatever the hell it is he does in the bathroom that takes so fucking long. Harry likes to believe it has to do with his hair because he's known Liam since they were infants and anything else is far too traumatizing to consider.

He bursts through the door of Liam's room without knocking, stopping short when Liam jumps out of a squat and kicks a backpack with his heel, cursing at the dull thud it makes.

“What the hell are you doing?” Harry asks, one hand on the doorknob and the other holding him steady on the frame.

Liam's immediate, “Nothing,” doesn't sound suspicious at all.

Harry would call him on it, but they're already forty fucking minutes late. “Alright, well we have to,” he stops again and glances around the room. “Where is Zayn?”

“That's a question as old as time, my friend,” Liam answers, relaxing his shoulders after the initial shock of being interrupted.

“Alright,” Harry says again, slower this time because Liam is being fucking weird, even for Liam. “Well he knows where we'll be. Let's go.” He watches as Liam grabs the backpack and slips his arms through the straps. “What is that?”

“Don't worry about it,” Liam says, as smoothly and convincingly as a child with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar.

Harry watches as Liam looks both ways in the hall and then checks over his shoulder again while he locks the door. “Why are you being so weird?” he asks when Liam furtively glances both ways again.

“I'm not.”

“Okay, weirdo.”

“Where's Niall?” Liam asks in the most obvious topic change of all time.

Harry tucks his hands into his pockets as they near the end of the hall. “Went to get Louis. They're meeting us there.”

“Oh.”

“What?” Harry asks, stopping short at the top of the stairs and turning.

Liam just shakes his head, a pitiful expression in his wide, sincere eyes. “Nothing.”

“If it's nothing, stop looking at me like that.”

The thing about Liam is that he tries, for some reason, to be mysterious. He tries to be aloof. He tries so hard to feign this superior, unaffected persona, one that he’s seen modeled by his father since he was young, but Harry knows him far too well to fall for the act.

For Harry's sixth birthday party, his mom got him a pony for the day and though he wanted to love it as much as his friends did, Harry was terrified. It was Liam who climbed on first, tentative smile and trembling fingers clutching tightly to the reigns, to prove to Harry that there was no reason to be scared. When they were eleven, they kissed under a blanket in Liam's room just to see what it was like. At thirteen, they stole a bottle of champagne at a party Harry's father was hosting and got drunk together for the first time on the floor of his study. The maid found them passed out together in a pile the next morning and the cook fed them greasy breakfasts while they whined about hangovers and death until noon.

When he was fourteen, Harry came out to Liam in a rush of words that tripped over each other, and then promptly apologized for dropping such a huge bomb on his head like that, but tried to explain why he thought Liam should be the first to know. Liam just wrapped him in a hug and said that it was alright, that it didn't have to be a big deal, at least not any bigger than any other part of Harry. The innuendo was unintentional but so perfect for shattering the tension that Harry nearly cried from the relief of it.

The point is that, while he may be able to convince other people that he’s a stereotypical socialite asshole, he and Harry have never even tried to bullshit each other about anything. It makes him one of the few people Harry trusts for useful advice, but one look at his face can usually tell Harry whether or not he wants to hear what Liam has to say.

He's torn on this one, honestly.

“Just,” Liam looks down at his feet and then shrugs. “Be careful, I guess.”

In his guts, Harry knows already, but he can't bring himself to give in that easily. “Careful with what?”

Liam's eyebrows are pointedly saying, you fucking know what, you difficult prick, but his words only say, “With Louis.”

“Jesus,” Harry breathes, leaning back against the cold, concrete wall with his arms crossed over his chest.

“It's just, I know how you are,” Liam says, gripping the straps of his backpack, his face settling into that steely resolve that tells Harry they could be here for awhile if Liam gets into lecture mode.

“How am I, Liam?” he asks defiantly, arguing for the sake of it now.

“Don't get tight about it. It's just an observation. I just wonder if Louis went to school here, if he was one of us, would you still want him?”

And that, admittedly, was not what Harry was expecting him to say. “One of us?” he asks, his voice echoing loudly in the old halls. “Christ, you're as bad as he is with all of this Us versus Them bullshit. We're all just fucking people. What is wrong with you?”

“You know I didn't mean it that way.”

Even though he looks somewhat contrite, Harry is wound up now and Liam's no better a liar than Harry is. “Yes, you did.”

“Alright, I did,” Liam admits. “Because there is a difference, Harry. I didn't say it was better or worse to be on either side, but you're naïve if you think there is no difference at all. This always happens with you, with the pool boys and the shop clerks and the bloody public school kids. It's like taming a wild horse. One of you is going to end up broken and I quite like Louis but I love you and it's alright that I want you to be careful!”

It's not until Liam's heavy, angry breathing is the only sound between them that Harry realizes this is the first time he's heard Liam raise his voice since they've been back at Wilshire this semester. Over the summer he slipped into an even more apathetic, yet strangely twitchy, version of himself but this feels normal, reliable, familiar. Harry thinks it's understandable if he doesn't answer, or even really process Liam's words, until a couple of seconds later.

He raises an eyebrow and asks, “Am I the horse or the trainer in this scenario?”

Liam cracks a small smile when he says, “I don't know. I didn't actually think that metaphor all the way through.”

Pushing off the wall with a laugh, Harry tosses his arms around Liam's neck and pulls him close. “I love you, too, man,” he says against Liam's ear.

“Awesome,” Liam answers, pushing Harry away and then pulling at the back of his sweater to keep him from falling down the stairs. “But you need to keep your hands off my bag.”

Pouting, Harry follows as Liam jogs down the stairs. He didn't even care about the stupid bag until Liam made such a show of protecting it. “Just tell me what's in it,” he whines, his hair bouncing against his ears and cheeks as he struggles to keep up with Liam's determined stride.

When Liam shouts, “Fuck off, Harry,” over his shoulder and breaks into a run toward the parking lot, Harry thinks it feels more like old times than anything has this year.

*

This is not how Harry's night was supposed to end, thank you very much.

In the pantheon of fantasies he's had in this week leading up to their first big party in the woods, stumbling through the back door of the gas station, blood trickling down the side of his face while Louis swears a blue streak and tries to keep Harry from crushing them both on the pavement was not on the list. Though, to be fair, the way Liam set off every firecracker in his backpack just as the fight was really starting to ramp up, therefore causing everyone to scream and scatter before they all got caught drunk off their asses on school property was more genius than he'll ever give Liam credit for out loud.

It's a shame really because they'd been having such a nice time. Zayn was pining silently after Perrie. Liam's eyes were darting about, like he was just waiting for the proper moment to either run away or, as it turned out, release a rather lovely display of fireworks that may or may not have burnt the entire woods down for all Harry knows. Niall was popping in and out of their group, talking to other people Harry didn't even know Niall had met yet.

Louis, though, had been so flirty and lovely with Harry. They'd been so caught up in their own world that Harry hadn't even noticed the three jackasses approaching until it was too late to divert them elsewhere. If anything pisses him off about this night, it's that they popped the bubble he'd been building with Louis, a bubble filled with private smiles, flushed cheeks, and brushed fingers against their arms and backs.

The door slams with a metallic clank, darkness engulfing the employee work room until Louis props Harry against a wall and fumbles for something. The light from the single, hanging bulb overhead is putrid, barely a streak of yellow and dirt in the small room, giving it more of a horror movie aura than the soft, romantic glow Harry was hoping for tonight. The sight of his own face in the mirror over the wash bin only magnifies the effect.

He watches as Louis pulls a first aid kit off of a nearby shelf and his face hurts. His cheek is throbbing, his mouth feels like it's on fire every time he smiles, but he can't help the way his split lip keeps curling into a soft grin when Louis' brow furrows and he bites another angry “fuck” under his breath.

Finally, Louis speaks to him for the first time since they left the woods in his battered old truck. “What the fuck were you thinking?”

He douses a piece of guaze with a disinfectant and presses it to the gash on Harry's eyebrow, causing him to flinch away before answering, “That I wanted them to lay off of you.”

“I am not a fragile flower. I can defend my own honor, thank you very much,” Louis insists, capturing Harry's chin in his hand to hold him still while he sets back to cleaning Harry's wound.

The thing is, Louis can think he's tough but he doesn't know those guys. He doesn't understand who Whitmore is or what his band of merry idiots is all about at all. He still thinks that everyone at Wilshire is the same, but they're just not.

Before he can say so, the back door opens again and Zayn comes strolling in with his hands tucked neatly into the pockets of his leather jacket. “Nice shiner you're gonna have there, Golden Gloves,” he smiles, stepping directly into Harry's space and running a protective hand over the back of Harry's head.

Harry cringes when he smiles and says, “Thanks. Figure it should be just about the color of my blazer by Monday morning.”

Zayn’s hand slips to the back of Harry’s neck, his fingernails scratching there when he says, “I called Dad on the way over. He’s going to take care of it.”

“Was he mad?” Harry asks, hating how small his voice is when he looks up at Zayn and leans into his hand.

But Zayn just smiles fondly and lets his hand fall away. “You finally stood up to them after three fucking years, man. I think he was proud, but he can’t actually say that.”

Suddenly, Harry can feel how focused Louis’ eyes are on the floor. It’s obvious he’s listening and Harry doesn’t much care for the direction the conversation is beginning to take. “It was time,” he practically hisses through clenched teeth, hoping that Zayn will pick up on his reluctance to continue this.

Zayn, however, is an asshole. The glint in his eyes says that he knows exactly what Harry means, but he kicks his foot out to nudge Louis’ leg anyway. “You must be pretty fucking special, Tommo.”

Louis’ attention snaps to Zayn, his fingers clutching Harry’s wrist where he’s been doctoring his bleeding knuckles.

“Zayn,” Harry warns, to no avail.

“He should know,” Zayn insists. “Those dickbags have been on Harry from the second he came out of the closet. They’re relentless and horrible and Harry has refused to fight back for years. He won’t even let any of us fight back for him, which obviously pisses them off more.” He returns his hand to the top of Harry’s head, ruffling his hair. “Our Harold has the self-restraint of a saint.”

“I don’t!”

“Shut up, you do.”

For the briefest moment, Harry wishes that he was back in that damn woods, listening to Lyons, Whitmore, and Perkins talk shit about him again. Them, Harry knows how to handle by now. He knows how to grit his teeth and keep his head down, how to ball his fists without ever raising them, to walk them off no matter what names they call him or his friends.

He knows they’ve managed to get eight people suspended or expelled from the school in the last three years. He knows that it doesn’t matter if even the professors know who the instigators are, nobody is going to do anything about it. He knows all of that and he’s done a damn good job of refusing to play their stupid games until now.

 

If only they’d left Louis out of it, none of them would be in this mess. If only they had walked away when Harry warned them. If only Lyons had bitten his tongue before he sneered his fucking lip and spat that horrible damn word directly at Louis.

“Whatever they were saying to you tonight couldn’t be worse than some of the shit they’ve done to him,” Zayn tells Louis, who Harry notes is now standing very, very still, staring straight ahead and breathing slowly through his nose. “If you're wondering why he snapped, it's not because he can't control it. It's because he didn't want to this time.”

Louis swallows hard enough for Harry to see it but says nothing, so Harry nudges Zayn with a shoulder. “Are you done making me a martyr? It’s not a big deal.” His mouth aches with the weight of his words, but he’ll take a thousand searing split lips if Zayn will just stop talking.

“Yeah, I’m done,” he says, staring meaningfully – at least Harry thinks it’s meant to be meaningful, but he sometimes loses track of Zayn’s pensive pouts – at Louis for another moment before he presses a kiss to the side of Harry’s head. “I’ll grab some aspirin on the way home, yeah? Call me if you need anything else.”

Harry thanks him, stares after him as he leaves, and wonders what Louis is thinking because he’s certainly not saying anything. In fact, he still hasn’t moved so much as an inch.

When he can’t take the silence any longer, when his face hurts too much to hold his patience in place, Harry starts to say, “Look, it’s not-,”

“You’re a fucking idiot,” Louis interrupts, turning and taking a step back with fire in his eyes. He throws the gauze into the sink and repeats himself. “My god, you’re such an idiot. I don’t go to your stupid school. I can’t get in trouble with them like you can, Harry. What, are they going to suspend you? Expel you? Or do those things not exist in your world?”

Louis is right in some respects. He wouldn’t get suspended if he’d thrown a punch tonight. Like the other four townies that those chuckleheads have lured into fights, he’d probably spend at least one night in a jail cell, though. What Harry did was best case, whether Louis recognizes it or not.

Something tells him that Louis wouldn’t appreciate that kind of sacrifice, though, so he says, “Nobody’s getting expelled. I’m not even going to get called in for it. Relax.”

He slides off of the stool he’s been perched on and heads over to the freezer, ecstatic to see a bag of pizza rolls covered in a bit of freezer burn there. He presses it to his face and when he turns, Louis is smirking toward the floor, shaking his head.

“What?” Harry asks.

“Nothing,” Louis answers and then looks up at Harry again. “You’re just so sure of yourself, aren’t you? So sure that you’re untouchable.”

Shrugging, Harry leans against the freezer. “This time,” he nods, because it’s not true of every scenario but it definitely is here. “Look, Zayn’s dad is the president of the board of directors. He has a standing brunch with the headmaster every Sunday, so he’ll slap down some executive order tomorrow before they even have a chance to tattle.” He smiles a little wider even though it hurts because he’s rather proud of this point actually. “Also, I busted Tom’s lip, but I also made sure he caught me clean, so this,” he says, pulling the bag away to indicate his swollen face, “is going to look pretty tragic by Monday. He can say I started it, but there were enough people there who would take my side and he definitely left me looking worse than I left him.”

Louis’ mouth drops when the full weight of Harry’s confession settles over him. When he closes it again, he’s almost smiling in the dim lighting of this tiny room. “You planned this.”

“It’s probably my most frequently recurring fantasy,” Harry admits, though it wasn’t specifically meant to be carried out tonight. “Before I met you anyway,” he adds because why the hell not? It’s not like he was trying very hard to hide his crush before he took a punch to the face for Louis.

True to form, Louis just rolls his eyes, returning to the first aid kit. “If you had such a foolproof plan, why not put it into action before now? You could have shut them up years ago,” he says, pushing the pizza rolls away from Harry’s face to press a small bandage over the actual cut in his eyebrow.

Harry waits until Louis takes another step back to say, “I guess I never had a good enough reason to. They’ve never bothered me as much as they did tonight.” He doesn’t say that he’s never liked someone else enough to care if Lyons called them what he called Louis tonight. It’s never turned his vision red or made him want to hurt anyone as badly as he did tonight.

“I don’t,” Louis starts and then stops himself, taking another step back and scrubbing his hands over his face when he hits the wall. “Fuck, I don’t know what to do with you.”

And it’s suddenly hilarious. In this dingy, gas station with a fucking open wound on his head and a crack in the corner of his lip, scabs already forming over the scrapes on his knuckles and holes in the knees of his jeans, he’s too tired, emotionally wrecked, and completely stupid with it all to worry about being coy or nervous.

“I can think of a few things, if you want some suggestions,” he offers simply.

Louis chuckles again and, for a hint of a second, Harry is sure that he's going to get shot down again. He even starts to mentally prepare himself for it when Louis mutters, “Goddammit,” and launches himself across the limited space, smashing his mouth to Harry's.

And it would be great, awesome even, the stuff of dreams if Harry's mouth wasn't busted open and if, though he can only hypothesize and he's probably being a bit dramatic, his cheek wasn't shattered.

He doesn't give his body permission to pull away, but it does so anyway, cringing and jerking before Harry can tell it that this is what it's been wanting for weeks now. Louis' eyes widen, his fingers still clutching the sides of Harry's neck, and Harry grabs his belt loops to keep him close because they are not pumping the brakes on this speeding train now.

“Your face,” Louis starts.

Harry shakes his head and lifts one cracked finger to rest it over Louis' slick lower lip. “Is beautiful, I know. I can't imagine how hard it's been for you to resist it this long.” He smirks as best he can and rests his forehead against Louis' before continuing. “Be a shame to regress now that you've given in.”

When he goes in for another kiss, Louis stops him with a hand to the center of Harry’s chest. It’s possible that Harry pouts, but he’ll claim that it’s just the swelling in his lower lip if Louis tries to call him on it. He may have shed his inhibitions in the last thirty seconds, but his dignity is still firmly intact.

“I’m not saying no,” Louis tells him, burying his fingers further into Harry’s hair and pressing a softer kiss to the end of his chin, where there are no bruises and no pain. “I’m saying let’s wait until your face is healed up.”

“That could take days, maybe even a week,” Harry protests, adding a whine to his pout for good measure.

It seems to work as Louis rocks forward, his hips brushing against Harry’s as he quickly nips at the portion of Harry’s lip that is not bloodied and broken. “Maybe you shouldn’t have done such a good job of getting your own ass kicked, Champ,” he whispers against Harry’s ear.

This time, Harry pushes Louis away because, honestly, if he’s going to be a tease about it, Harry would rather just not show how desperate he is for any of Louis’ attention right now. It barely puts any space between them, but it’s enough for Harry to breathe a little. “If I’d known this was an option on the table, I wouldn’t have, believe me,” he assures Louis. “Or maybe it’s your fault for not letting me know that it actually was an option, for sending me platonic mixed signals.”

Louis just shakes his head and pulls his keys out of his pocket, making his way toward the door. “You are not pinning this one on me. I tried to get in there and help with the fight. You and your guard dogs had no room for my fists of fury in your little revenge plot.”

Following Louis out of the building and into the parking lot, Harry laughs. “I wonder if we could convince Zayn and Liam to wear little collars that say I heart Harry from now on.” Harry slides into the passenger’s side and waits for Louis to start the car, turning to face him when he doesn’t. “What’s wrong?”

His voice is deadpan but his eyes are amused when he answers with, “I think you might have a concussion.”

“You wanna stay the night and keep me awake?” Harry asks, wiggling his eyebrows for effect. He's kind of joking, but if Louis wants to say yes, he's not going to admit that. “I mean, I have several vital parts that were not involved in that fight at all.”

He leans into Louis' touch when he tenderly runs his hand over the side and top of Harry's head. He laughs outright when Louis' hand slides down over his face and pushes him back. “Put your seat belt on, lunatic. The last thing I need is to lose you in a wreck now.”

Doing as he's told, Harry leans back in the seat and bites the inside of his cheek to keep himself from saying something hopelessly cheesy, like You'll never lose me.

*

If Harry is completely, vulnerably honest, he'll admit that he is sure nothing will change after that night. He and Louis will go back to being friendly with no mention of their after-party activities, he just has a niggling feeling in the pit of his stomach on Sunday morning.

Though his mouth is still sore and his eye is fading to a bile-yellow around the edges of the bruise, by Wednesday night, he can't hang around wondering if he's right or not anymore.

He drives over to the gas station, hunching his shoulders as he eases through the front door and skulks around the potato chip display in the back corner until the girl buying cigarettes at the counter leaves. By the time he finally makes it up to the counter, Louis is watching his approach with open interest.

“If it isn't my favorite little slugger,” he greets with a bright smile.

“I am not little,” Harry insists, but he can't stop his own grin from spreading over his face, the warmth settling low in his belly. He's not going to bring it up, but if Louis just smiles at him like that for the next five minutes, he thinks maybe that'll be okay.

With a tilt of his head, Louis reaches out with a sure hand, grabbing the lapel of Harry's thin jacket. “It's healing,” he deduces like the doctor he is not. “How's the mouth?”

Harry sucks his bottom lip into his mouth, runs his tongue over it, releases it with a pop, and smirks at the way Louis' eyes track the movement. “Feels alright, I guess.”

“Hm,” Louis hums, yanking Harry forward to suck the same lip into his own mouth.

It's possible that Harry's eyes roll back into his head. He grips the edge of the counter to keep his legs from giving out while his brain sings a jaunty little tune of happiness.

Finally, Louis breaks the kiss but not his hold on Harry's shirt. His eyes crinkle in the corners in the most genuine smile Harry has ever seen Louis give anyone, apart from maybe Niall. He tucks that smile, along with all of the satisfaction and warmth it drops into Harry's belly, into his mind for safe-keeping.

So sometimes Harry's gut is wrong. He's alright with that.

*

“Rich people are so strange.”

Harry lifts his head, squinting into the mid-autumn sun before turning to see Louis at his side. He's backlit like the brooding outsider in some indie film, feet planted on the ground and elbows resting on his raised knees while he plays with a blade of grass and looks at the boats floating around the lake.

They don't spend enough time like this, Harry thinks. Just the two of them, alone on a sunny afternoon, Harry sprawled on his back in the grass while Louis sits quietly at his side. They've had a few interesting conversations in the last couple of weeks, a few non-conversations that were even more interesting in Harry's humble opinion, but time is limited. They both have classes, practices after that, and Louis works. They have mutual friends who always seem to find the time to be around when Harry wishes that they weren't. Today is the best Harry's had in weeks.

“How do you figure?” he asks, lying back down to let his eyes drift shut again. He twists his ankle until his leg follows the roll of it, connecting solidly with Louis' thigh.

“You make a sport out of racing boats, for one thing.”

There's not much that Harry feels the need to be defensive about, but rowing is something that he actually does care about. “What's so strange about that?”

“I don't know.” He can feel the weight of Louis' shrug. “Just seems weird.”

With a soft chuckle, Harry sits up and plucks a handful of grass. “Says the boy who spends his time kicking a ball around.”

Louis' shoulders stiffen defensively. “Yeah, but that's. I don't know, everyone can do that.”

“You don't have to have loads of money to row, Lou. It's a canoe, not a yacht.”

Harry thinks it should bother him more, the way Louis still mentions and mocks the things Harry's never thought twice about, the things that are just part of his life. He thinks maybe it would if it were anyone but Louis. It doesn't seem malicious, more curious really, so he humors him. Humoring him leads to making out with him, and Harry's a bigger fan of that than he is of defending his station in life anyway.

“Just seems like such an Ivy League thing to do,” Louis says.

Considering the paddle boats in the water now, Harry tilts his head a bit and then says, “Maybe because a lot of Ivy League schools are on a coast? Ergo, closer to the water. I don't know.”

“Ergo?” Louis asks, laughing as he turns to bump his shoulder against Harry's. “But you don't even get dirty, do you? Just sit above the water, moving your arms and sweating a little, but at the end of the day there's no grass stains on your knees, no dirt under your fingernails. You're certainly not risking skinning your pretty face, are you?”

He trails a finger lightly over Harry's cheekbone, the one that was still tender and a little green just a week ago or so. “I get callouses if I forget to tape my hands before we go out,” he says, but his voice is floating away and distracted now.

Louis hums, his tongue caught between his teeth. Harry thinks he would very much like to lean over and catch that tongue, push Louis back into the grass and just suck on it for awhile. He's become a huge fan of the things that tongue can do lately.

Blinking for fear of losing himself in a lewd public act that might get them both arrested – he's fairly certain his father wouldn't overlook something like a juvenile record – he catches Louis' hand in his own and holds it against his own thigh.

“So by your definition, in order to be a real sport, you have to get dirty or risk injury?”

Louis nods, his eyes widening as though he can't even believe Harry would ask such a question. “Yes!”

“Is golf not a sport then?”

“Not for the peasants, Your Highness.”

Harry snorts a laugh and shakes his head. “Now you're just being difficult,” he says.

The way Louis' nose scrunches and his eyes crinkle is the best thing Harry has seen all day.

“C'mon,” he says, making his way to his feet and pulling Louis up with him.

“What are we doing?”

“Just come on,” is all Harry will give him, practically dragging him along the shoreline.

It's almost impressive how persistent Louis can be, never relenting with his stream of where are we going? questions until Harry's dragged him nearly a quarter of the way around the lake, through the hole in the Wilshire perimeter fence and through the back door of the school's old boat house.

In fact, he doesn't stop asking questions when Harry selects a paddle boat in the far corner, a shiny thing owned by one of his professors, Mr. Higgins, already stored away until next spring. He climbs inside and pulls Louis with him, pressing in close to Louis' side and wasting no time in attaching his lips to the side of Louis' neck.

“What are we doing here?” Louis manages to ask while craning his neck to give Harry more space.

With a grin, Harry whispers against his ear, “Showing you that you can, indeed, get dirty in a boat.”

Louis groans and leans back until he's practically lying in one of the seats. “That was terrible,” he teases, resting his hands on Harry's hips when Harry straddles his thighs.

“Maybe,” Harry agrees, returning his attention to the vein in Louis' neck while his fingers start worming their way under his soft sweatshirt, onto the even softer skin of Louis' belly. “Want me to stop?”

Louis' grip digs into Harry's skin, just above the waistband of his track pants when he says, “Don't you fucking dare.”

He lets his head fall back while Harry trails his lips lower, working his mouth over the ridge of Louis' collarbone, sucking at the skin before worrying it between his teeth and then licking over the mark he leaves. Rolling his hips against Louis' is instinct more than seduction at this point, but he grinds harder when he hears Louis' soft whimpers against his ear.

Satisfied with the lovebite he's left just beneath the collar of Louis' shirt, Harry kisses his way back up Louis' neck, lips burning from the soft scruff on his chin. With one hand on Louis' shoulder and the other trailing up to the center of his chest and back down, leaving chilled bumps in its wake, Harry presses open-mouthed kisses against Louis' cheek and then asks, “What do you want?” in a rough, hushed whisper that sounds like shouting in this empty building.

Louis' stomach clenches under Harry's fingers. He whines more than answers, thrusting under Harry's weight until the hard line of his cock is brushing Harry's through the layers of their pants.

“Lou?” Harry prods, his fingers teasing the elastic at Louis' hips. “What do you want me to do?”

With an aggravated huff, Louis lifts his head, his expression clouded in the streaking light from the setting sun outside the boathouse. “As long as you're fucking touchin' my dick, I don't really care, Harry,” he says, too flushed and breathless to sound as angry as Harry assumes he's trying to be.

Laughing to himself, Harry bares down again until Louis' head flops back onto the seat of the boat, his thighs spreading and dragging Harry's right along with him. When Harry finds Louis' mouth again, Louis shoves his hands down the back of Harry's pants and pulls him closer, grinds him harder, biting at Harry's lips until Harry pulls back with a gasp.

Louis moans, a deep and ragged sound that rips through Harry's chest and straight to his cock. His grip on Harry's ass is tight, fingers digging in hard enough to leave marks that Harry can't wait to see in the mirror later tonight.

They've made out a lot in the last few weeks, a lot, and it's amazing. Beside the fact that Louis is an expert kisser, he gets the giggles pretty easily. Then he blushes and tries to hide it by biting at Harry's neck and shoulders, laughing and swearing against Harry's ear, and it's really pretty terrific. It's the best thing Harry's ever felt.

But as great as it is, Louis isn't pulling back this time. He's not at work and he doesn't have to run home to help his mom take care of his sisters, doesn't have a test to study for or plans with Niall. It seems like a waste to rub against the guy when he has permission to, as Louis so eloquently put it, fucking touch his dick.

Tearing himself away once more, Harry sits up, blinking a few times to clear his head from the hazy space he always finds this close to Louis. He pushes the sweatshirt up to Louis' chest, dipping his head to catch one of Louis' nipples between his teeth as he reaches for his pants.

“Dammit,” Louis hisses, arching hard off his seat. “Such a menace,” he groans, slipping his hands out of Harry's pants to cover his eyes with his arms.

Maybe it shouldn't be as much of a trip as it is, watching a guy as collected and cool as Louis losing his shit, grasping at it and hiding his face to conceal the effect Harry's having on him. Knowing that he's the cause of it, that he's able to take Louis apart like this, makes Harry feel sexy in a way that none of the models he's fucked ever have.

He lets his attention drop from Louis' face to their laps when he tugs the top of his loose sweatpants down and finds that Louis isn't wearing boxers underneath. The shiny head of his cock pops free of his pants and Harry might give a yelp of surprise.

For the first time today, Louis sets loose a peal of laughter that feels like it shakes the rafters of the old boathouse. “What, is this the first cock you've ever seen, Styles?” he teases, dropping his arms to his sides as he raises an eyebrow at Harry.

“Just wasn't expecting you to be so easy for it,” Harry shoots back. His honest answer – that it's not the first but is absolutely the best cock he's ever seen – would probably get him kicked at the moment.

Louis sits up with more speed than a guy should have with another person sitting on them, grabbing the back of Harry's neck and hauling him in until their foreheads are pressed tight. “You gonna make me beg for it?”

Tempting, seeing as Louis is the proudest person Harry has ever met, but he fears it might be wasted on this moment. He's too close to coming in his own pants right now and hearing Louis step off of his own high horse to beg might undo him in an embarrassing amount of time.

“Let's save that, shall we?” he asks, adopting a cheeky grin that feels as shaky as his thighs right now.

Without warning, he wraps a tight fist under the head of Louis' cock and gives it a quick tug, causing Louis to growl and rut forward like some kind of animal. Somehow, he's still unprepared for way Louis echoes his movements, pushing Harry's pants down low enough to get a hand around him just as quickly.

Harry's head falls onto Louis' shoulder, his fingers working quickly to match the rhythm Louis is setting for them. There's nothing graceful or pretty about it, barely supporting each other with their shoulders, breathing incoherent cries against one another's skin, chasing a high they've yet to find together and aching to be the first one to pull the other over the edge.

In the end, Harry falls first, his hand stuttering and squeezing against Louis' dick as he comes with a filthy string of colorful curse words and a bite to Louis' shoulder. Louis isn't far behind, spilling hot and wet over Harry's fingers the second Harry's teeth sink into him.

“Fuck,” Louis finally says, his voice so rough and jagged that Harry thinks he might get hard again immediately.

Licking his lips as he pulls back, allowing himself to glance at the mess they've made in Professor Higgins' boat, Harry shakes his head and laughs. “I hate to say I told you so,” he starts, running his fingers through the come on Louis' belly.

“No, you don't,” Louis answers, pushing at Harry's shoulder as he slumps back in his seat. “You love it more than anything.”

Harry watches Louis sprawled there, his thighs still warm and thick under Harry's, with his flushed neck and his rapidly rising and falling chest, glowing in the minimal light between them, and he thinks, maybe not more than anything.

*

It's sort of strange, the way this thing with Louis is progressing, Harry thinks. This isn't his first relationship or anything like that, but Louis is just different. They're both busy, but they manage to talk every day even if it's only in hushed whispers to keep from waking their respective housemates late into the night. Harry knows he has a tendency to forget everyone else in the world when he's dating someone, lost in a world of sappy sentiments and stupid amounts of sex, but he can't help thinking that Louis doesn't feel like one of those other boyfriends.

He feels like a friend, the kind that makes him study when Harry's mind starts to wander and rewards him with quick, sloppy blowjobs in the back room at the gas station when he finishes a paper. Louis is the kind of friend who will tangle his legs up with Harry's while they're hanging out with the others at the lookout, talking to Zayn about Scooby Doo while he draws lazy, distracted patterns against the skin on Harry's belly. He's a strange, mutant hybrid, Harry thinks, hovering somewhere between friend and boyfriend and looking a little like a god while he does it.

It's possible that Harry is a little bit in love.

He must be because there is no other reason on Earth for him to be out of bed on a Sunday morning, dressed in a bulky school sweatshirt, wearing fucking knee pads over his jeans and still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. There's no reason for it except Louis decided, during last night's dinner at The Lakefront, that they should all meet up for a rousing game of paintball this morning.

Harry probably wouldn't even mind so much if Liam wasn't jumping around, rolling his shoulders and cracking his knuckles and acting like an absolute nutter, paintball gun clutched tightly in his hands as he aims it around the room, occasionally checking the scope and making explosion sounds with his mouth like a weirdo.

“What is wrong with you?” Harry finally asks when Liam aims the gun straight at Harry's forehead and then cackles like a maniac.

With an unaffected shrug, Liam lowers the gun and jumps up and down again. “I'm excited.”

“Why?” Harry asks around a yawn, leaning against Zayn to keep from falling to the ground as his eyelids drift.

“I like paintball.”

“Since when?” Harry has known Liam approximately all his life and he's never once heard the guy so much as mention this activity until today.

Zayn's voice is flat, his eyes staunchly remaining closed as he leans against Harry. “Since he's decided he's tired of being any variation of sensible, I'd imagine.”

When Liam flushes a bit, Harry tilts his head to consider Zayn's statement. It would make sense, this new, slightly reckless, chaotically misguided version of Liam that has manifested itself since the beginning of the term. It does nothing to explain the reasoning behind Liam's twitchy, sometimes randomly boisterous actions, but it's a start down a path to possibly understanding what the hell is up with him, Harry supposes.

“It's not,” Liam begins to argue and then shakes his head and rolls his eyes like Zayn is being ridiculous. “You don't know what you're talking about.”

“I live you with you, idiot,” Zayn responds, still as bored and lazy with the conversation as ever.

“You make it sound like I've become some sort of dick.”

“If the inference fits,” Zayn says, turning his face to rub his nose against the shoulder of Harry's lined sweatshirt.

Pointing his gun at the far wall, Liam chuckles. “That's not even a word.”

“Shut up, Liam,” Zayn shoots back, bothering to pry just one eye open in order to glare.

“How about you both shut up?” Harry interjects because he knows them, knows how quickly this could turn rather ugly if either of them feels particularly aggressive this morning.

“S'wrong, Harry?” Zayn asks, and Harry really should have known better than to open his mouth because now Zayn is sitting up a little straighter, squinting into the sunlight as he focuses that shark smile on Harry. “Worried about making a good impression on your lover boy?”

Harry's not worried, but Zayn has this way of bringing out a snippy side of Harry that lies dormant around most other people. “You wanna talk to me about being infatuated, Mr. I stayed up until three drawing another picture of the girl I love so someone else could give it to her and probably bone her because of it? Really?”

With a dismissive wave of his hand, Zayn bounces to his feet and says, “We all make our marks in different ways,” in such a haughty tone, Harry can't help laughing.

“Some of us through actual verbal and physical contact,” Harry points out, sticking his nose up to adopt an exaggerated air of Zayn's arrogance.

“Don't judge,” Zayn snaps, selecting a rifle from the pile and testing the weight of it in his hands. “It's very unbecoming, Harold.”

Liam laughs this time, the first sign that he's even been listening to them. “Because Harry's always so worried about being becoming.”

Shoving him out of the way, Harry moves to select his own weapon. “I don't even know what that means.”

Their bickering is cut short by the raucous sound of Niall's, “Boys! Sorry we're so late!” as he rounds the registration stand with Louis in tow.

“You're not that late,” Harry assures him, because he might have dragged Liam and Zayn out here a few minutes early in anticipation of seeing Louis again. Maybe.

Louis, dressed in baggy sweats and a giant hoodie, knitted beanie shoved low on his head like something out of Harry's most cuddly fantasies, steps around Niall to approach Harry first. “Late to Niall is fifteen minutes early to every other person on the planet.” He stops just inside Harry's personal space and hooks a finger into the pocket of Harry's own sweatshirt. “Morning you,” he greets.

And Harry knows that he's grinning like an idiot, knows that his face is probably a little more flushed than the cool, morning air would dictate, but Louis smells like he's fresh from the shower and there are still little bags under his sleepy eyes and, dammit, Harry is kind of gone for this guy, so he just says, “Morning,” in a soft tone that sort of gets stuck in his throat and he doesn't even care.

Louis begins to lift up onto his toes so that Harry can kiss him hello, but Niall opens his big, stupid mouth and claps his stupid hands and says, “Alright, so me and Lou take on the three of you?” in a stupidly loud voice. Harry hates Niall right now, even more when Louis takes a step back and aligns himself with stupid Niall.

“But that's not even,” Harry protests and he might be pouting but it's too early to be bothered with something like caring.

Niall rolls his eyes, which seems to be something he's grown fond of doing when Harry speaks. “Well I only see five people here, Harry, so unless you know someone else is coming or you've found some revolutionary way to split your ass in half-,” he stops, eyes closed, when Louis snorts and chuckles, “Not now, Tommo,” he warns. “It's going to be uneven is the point.”

When Louis raises a suggestive eyebrow in Harry's direction, he wants more than anything to say that he and Louis will be a team. Then he doesn't care how uneven the teams are. Just let him be with Louis.

“It's fine,” Zayn says and, before Harry can protest, he's being pushed away to strategize or something equally ridiculous. “Stop it,” Zayn says with a pointed finger in Harry's face once they’re out of earshot from Niall and Louis. “If they are arrogant enough to believe they can beat us, let them think it.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Harry starts to protest, possibly to point out that they are not in a boat, this is not a race, and Zayn's competitive side is a bit excessive for this setting.

But then Liam grabs the center of Harry's sweatshirt in his fist and hauls him in with a seriously disturbing grimace. “I'm not lying down and playing dead so you can get a consolation blow job at the end of the day, is that clear? I could not care any less about your dick right now.”

Harry pushes him away by the shoulders and brushes himself off as he stares, wide-eyed, at Liam's glowering face. “What the fuck has gotten into you lately?”

He looks to Zayn for back up, but Zayn just sighs and shakes his head. “Look, you want to impress Louis? Show him that you've got a little brawn behind your bank account.”

“He knows that,” Harry insists because Louis has sucked innumerable love bites into the swell of Harry's shoulders and the curves of his biceps. He's conceded that, while he might not be a fan of Harry's chosen sport, he's definitely a fan of the definition it gives Harry's body, thanks so much.

“You've seen him on a pitch, Harry. You know how competitive he is. He's only going to be impressed if you go equally as hard,” Zayn adds, pressing a paintball gun against Harry's chest a little harder than Harry thinks is strictly necessary.

The thing is, Harry is rather competitive. He does actually want to win today, but he'd also like for everyone around him to stop acting like bloodthirsty animals if it's all the same. They're starting to make him slightly uncomfortable. “It's just a game,” he says weakly.

“And games are meant to be won,” Liam growls, stuffing a helmet onto his head and hunkering down to peer around the edge of the shed they're currently hiding behind. “Now come on, both of you. Suit up and let's win this.”

Harry catches the helmet Liam wings at him easily, but only looks to Zayn in confusion. “Seriously, did someone bodyswap him this summer? Is he ‘roiding? What is going on?” He's starting to wonder if he should be worried.

But Zayn just shrugs. “I find it's best not to ask,” he says.

Because Zayn lives with Liam and, somewhere under all of their arguing and bickering he knows they love each other, Harry chooses to follow Zayn's lead. He doesn't have much time to explore the issue further anyway, not with the way Liam goes charging into the fray with a shout and a sudden stream of paintball fire.

It's going to be a long day.

*

Louis is, exponentially, the absolute worst loser in the history of losing. He pouts and swears and refuses to smile. He could easily go home, Harry thinks, and lick his wounds in private but he opts instead to hunch into the booth with the rest of them at the diner, glowering at them so they don't forget that he hates them all for besting him.

Frankly, it's a little unnerving. Harry tries to settle into an easy conversation with the rest of the group but it's difficult with Louis attempting to become one with the wall while putting as much distance between himself and Harry as the little booth will allow. At first it was cute because, well, everything Louis does is pretty cute in Harry's opinion. It's grown a bit boring now, so Harry excuses himself to the restroom and takes a deep breath, untainted by Louis' cologne and his sneer.

He's only been standing at the sink, biding his time until it might be safe to return to the table, for a few minutes when the door opens and Louis sticks his head inside, offering Harry a raised eyebrow and a scowl.

“Hi,” Harry waves, turning to rest against the sink, arms crossed protectively over his chest.

Louis steps into the bathroom, shuts the door quietly, and tucks his hands into his pockets. “I'm not going to hit you or anything, you know? You don't have to cower in the corner like a puppy.”

“How do you feel about kissing?” Harry asks, smiling a little when Louis narrows his eyes. “Okay, well when you pout like that, all I wanna do is kiss it away, so I figure it's better if I keep my distance for now.”

This time, Louis does laugh, stepping in closer until Harry drops his arms and widens his stance. “You're ridiculous,” he says, but he seems to be amused rather than angry, so Harry thinks maybe that's a start.

He shrugs, resting his hands against the sink at his back. “It's true.”

“Is it? Because sometimes I can't tell with you.”

“What, if I'm being honest?” Harry asks with a laugh.

Louis takes one more tentative step forward, close enough to touch but keeping his fists balled tightly at his sides. “Yeah. Because, like, Niall tells me you're the worst liar he's ever met, but then you're all charming with lines that are so incredibly awful that I can't imagine anyone would ever say them unless they think it will convince someone to sneak off into a bathroom for filthy, filthy reasons.”

Harry considers this for only a second and then reach out to hook his finger into Louis' pants. “Niall's right, you know? I'm a terrible, liar.” Then Louis' words strike him lower, deeper. “Hang on, you don't think that being charming is the same as being a coercive asshole, do you?”

Look, Harry is used to people calling him out on his dimpled grin and his cheeky flirtation. It's fine because he's not actually trying to pretend that he's not charming or that he doesn't know that he is. He doesn't want anyone thinking that he'd ever use that to make someone do anything they don't want to do, though. That Louis could even consider him that guy bothers Harry more than he knows how to put into words.

“No,” Louis assures him, leaning slightly into Harry's hold, their faces mere inches apart. “I just think that it's entirely probable that you are fully aware of your ability to convince people that they want exactly what you want.”

“Lou, I promise you I'm not that manipulative,” Harry says quickly, tugging until Louis falls into his chest with a oomph. “Yeah, I can talk the gatekeeper into letting me take my mom's car for a spin now and again, but I don't actually use that skill to talk someone into fucking me in a bathroom stall or anything.

Louis rolls his eyes, slipping his arms around Harry's waist and teasing the hem of his sweatshirt with chilled fingers. “Well, obviously. I mean, I've always assumed that's what your VIP rooms are for.”

“You need to stop assuming things,” Harry tells him, his voice falling hushed between them as Louis turns his face up.

When their eyes meet, Louis nods, tongue ghosting over his lips and Harry's quickly. “Yeah, I think maybe I do.”

His mouth is warm, coated in the flavor of the bitter coffee he was pouting into back at the table, but Harry could care less. He'd kiss this mouth even if it was flavored with poison, he thinks, which is wholly melodramatic but Harry doesn't care when Louis' body is pressed tight against Harry's and his mouth is willingly surrendering.

“Hey,” Louis says, abruptly breaking the kiss and pulling back far enough to push one hand against Harry's chest. “I am not in the mood for this.”

Harry thinks his eyes must be twinkling if they show even a fraction of the fondness he feels for Louis right now. “Hm, that's a shame. Why not?”

“You're not actually so good with that mouth of yours that you can make me forget that atrocity that happened today,” Louis says, brows narrowed as he takes a step back.

Tightening his hold on Louis' waist, Harry pulls him back in and leans his full weight on the sink. Louis can sulk all he wants, but now that Harry has felt him all soft and warm against his chest, he's not interested in losing that.

“If it makes you feel any better, that was all Liam and Zayn,” he says. “Our win had next to nothing to do with me.”

Content with that answer, Louis nods and slips his arms back around Harry's waist, tucking his fingers into the waistband of Harry's jeans. “I mean, it was cute watching you try, but you are a bit like a baby giraffe who hasn't yet figured out how to use his legs.”

Coming from Liam or Zayn, or even Niall really, Harry would argue, but this is the first genuine smile Harry has seen from Louis since their game started over three hours ago. He'd sacrifice every ounce of the dignity he has left to keep that expression on Louis' face.

*

For all that Harry would like to pretend that he's on an extended holiday, being as he spends all of his time with his friends and there's never a threat of his parents busting in on them, his professors seem intent on assuring him that he is, indeed, at school here. Midterms were a firm reminder of that fact and the mountain of homework that has been assigned to him in the three weeks since are only driving the point home even further.

This school must be cutting legal corners somewhere. Surely someone could be sent off for torturing students in this way. Five o'clock rowing practice, classes that start at seven thirty and don't end until four o'clock in the afternoon, papers required to be at least ten to twelve pages long due every week or so, it's more than a seventeen year old can be expected to accomplish, isn't it?

There was a time when none of the assignments would have mattered to him, but things are different now. They've rounded the corner toward the inevitable future and Harry has learned that, if he stands a chance of living his life after Wilshire in the way he wants to live it, he's going to have to put the work in now. His father has made that abundantly clear actually.

He feels like he's about to collapse under the weight of his backpack when he rounds the corner toward his room and rubs his hand over his eyes. He's spent the last three hours in the library, studying for an Economics exam and texting Louis about going out later. Louis hasn't responded, so he's not only exhausted but also supremely disappointed as he thinks about falling into his bed and not coming out for the entire weekend.

It's when he's nearly dead on his feet already that Liam charges down the hall and nearly crashes into Harry. “Jesus, Liam, watch it.”

“Sorry, mate,” Liam says with what is, to his credit, a pretty genuine look of concern. “Didn't see you there.”

With is key in the door, Harry asks, “Where are you off to in such a hurry anyway?”

“Movie night in the common room,” Liam says as though Harry should already know that.

“Is that tonight?”

Now he just looks like Harry's started speaking some ancient, dead language. “It's every Friday night, Harry,” he says slowly, reaching one hand out to grip Harry's shoulder. “Are you alright?”

Nodding, Harry fights the droop of his eyelids and says, “I'm fine. I think midterms just nearly did me in, you know?”

“Come relax with us then,” Liam suggests, the squeeze of his hand reassuring and steady against Harry's arm. “Zayn's already there, holding the good couch in the back.”

If they're all here, then Harry has no idea where Louis is. That probably shouldn't be his first thought, but there it is. “Is Niall there, too?”

Liam nods, his eyes hopeful. It serves as a reminder that Harry has been too busy to spend much time with his friends lately, as well.

Instead of saying that he's pretty sure he'd fall asleep before the opening credits, Harry tightens his hold on his backpack and says, “I think I'm going to take advantage of the quiet and finish this paper for English Lit.”

“Harry, if things are getting to be too much,” Liam starts, eyes darting to the floor and back up like he's not sure what he's offering or how to offer it. “Just, don't stretch yourself too thin, alright?”

This is why Liam is his best friend. No matter what kind of weird, hyperactive, jittery things he's doing these days, no matter how little Harry understands him sometimes, his heart still beats for his friends. He's still the sensible and dependable one, even when he doesn't want to be.

“Same goes for you, yeah?” Harry says, swinging an ineffectual and pointless punch to Liam's shoulder, sending him down the hall with a shout and a fist pump.

When Harry opens his door, he spares a fleeting glance toward the bed and thinks of taking a nap, but he wasn't lying when he told Liam that he has a paper to start.

*

He's only been working for about twenty minutes, outline for his paper barely finished, when there is a staccato knock on the door.

“It's open!” he shouts, figuring Niall's forgotten his key again and sent Zayn to get it.

He's surprised to hear, “So this is how the other half lives, huh?” in Louis' unmistakable rasp.

Turning in his seat, Harry's breath catches in his throat. Louis' nose is bright red from the cold that has settled over the campus in the last couple of weeks, his hair stuffed under a dark red beanie and his shoulders engulfed in an over-sized Army jacket that might actually belong to Zayn. His eyes are dancing as he glances around the room, still leaning in the doorway.

“What are you doing here?” Harry finally asks, pushing away from his desk and swiveling in his chair to cross his arms over his stomach.

Louis shrugs. “Oh, I was in the neighborhood.”

“Were you?”

“Yeah, just across the lake there,” he says, pointing out Harry's window as he pushes off of the door frame and closes the door behind him. “Actually Niall texted and said that everyone was otherwise occupied, including your RA, so carpe diem and all that.”

Harry wonders if he's being a bit to forward when he stands from his desk and drops onto his bed. “And how long have you been planning on sneaking into my room, you deviant?”

Louis wanders over to Niall's side of the room, smiling privately as he runs his hands over a couple of pictures on the dresser there. “Since I was about twelve, I think.”

“Creepy,” Harry says on a laugh.

“No, I mean Niall and I used to plan all of these ways we were going to break in here and pull all sorts of pranks,” Louis explains, plucking one of the strings on Niall's guitar before turning his attention back to Harry. “Sadly, they weren't very creative pranks. Plans to break in weren't great either, really.”

“Shame,” Harry commiserates, leaning back against the wall and watching Louis watch him back.

For a moment, they just stare and Harry wonders if this is normal. Do other guys their age spend as much time quietly watching each other as he and Louis do? Does he even care if they do?

“So,” Louis finally says, stepping away from the bed and slowly making his way over to Harry. “What are you doing locked away all by yourself on a Friday night?”

Harry chuckles when he realizes the truth is quite pathetic. “Homework actually. And then I thought I might get to bed a little early.”

“Have I been keeping you up too late?” Louis asks, his eyebrows furrowing as he bypasses the exploration of Harry's desk in order to approach his bed.

“No, it's not that,” Harry assures him because, of all the things he needs some relief from these days, Louis is most certainly not one of them. “There's just a lot of work to do this year, more than I expected.”

His breath hitches again when Louis toes his shoes off and climbs onto Harry's lap, his hands immediately going to the hair curling around the base of Harry's neck. “What am I going to do with you, huh?”

With his hands on Louis' hips, Harry says, “I hope it involves total nudity.”

Louis rolls his eyes. “You are such a teenage boy,” he says dramatically.

“Hey,” Harry reacts automatically, resting his head against the wall. He can feel the edges of his smile stretching manically. “So are you,” he points out rather eloquently, he thinks.

“It's good we have that in common,” Louis says with a definitive nod.

Harry just shrugs, though. “It wouldn't matter if we didn't,” he says, mind shuffling through the few hookups he's had that weren't exactly in his 'acceptable' age bracket. They don't seem all that important to bring up right now.

“Ah,” Louis says with a knowing smile. “Got a bit of a daddy kink there, Harry?”

That's not it, Harry doesn't think so anyway. It's just that things like age and gender and socioeconomic bullshit have never mattered to him they way they do to some people. He could launch into that, and he could have Louis argue back especially about the last one, or he could smile and pull Louis into his chest, slide his hands over Louis' ass and roll his hips forward until Louis' eyes drift shut.

So he opts for the latter option and whispers, “I'd take any version of you, Louis,” and waits for the inevitable chest slap or eye roll or snort of derision from Louis.

It doesn't come, though. All he gets is a tug to his curls and an uncharacteristically sincere smile when Louis says, “I don't know if I'm ever going to get used to you.”

Harry lifts his head just far enough to nip at Louis' lower lip until it's a darker pink and a bit swollen. Then he says, “I don't know. I think you're doing alright so far.”

When Louis smiles, when Harry recognizes it as an agreement, he thinks maybe they're doing better than alright.

*

Covert sexcapades in Harry's room become a thing, sort of. Harry waits until his floor is quiet, then texts Louis that the coast is clear. Louis sneaks into the building – Harry still doesn't know how he's getting in and out but he doesn't actually care – and then they spend a couple of hours messing around in Harry's bed. One of the guys will text them when their time is up and Louis will steal away into the night again.

It's a well-oiled machine for a few weeks, up until tonight.

It's Thursday and they haven't seen each other since Monday. Louis is playing indoor soccer for the winter and Harry's rowing team is gearing up for their first public training exhibition – for alumni and financial supporters, which Harry understands are important, he doesn't have to be told repeatedly while lifting two hundred and fifty pounds at five thirty in the morning, thanks Coach - so practices have been intense before and after classes.

Between training, Louis' job, and their intensifying workloads at school, Harry thinks he can be forgiven for yawning into Louis' kiss. They're stripped down to nearly nothing, grinding and rutting against each other on Harry's bed but, after the yawn, things dissolve quickly into giggles and lazy touches until they both drift into a hazy sleep, tangled up in each other and so perfectly warm that Harry hopes he never has to move again.

“Christ, Louis!” Niall's voice explodes into the sweet silence of Harry's mind.

“Harry?” Louis asks, the words muffled by the pillow his face his smashed into at the moment. When Harry can only manage to grunt, Louis says, “Make it stop.”

“Haven't figured out how yet,” Harry tells him, tightening the death hold his legs have on Louis'.

Niall just sighs and Harry pries one eye open to see him running his hands over his head. “You can't be in here right now. Room checks are in three minutes.”

With a groan, Harry rolls onto his back, bringing Louis with him until he's draped over Harry's chest like a blanket. “He can hide in the closet.”

“There's a joke in there somewhere,” Louis mumbles, stirring enough for Harry to know that he's waking up a bit.

“We'll see who's laughin' when you're arrested for trespassing,” Niall tells him and it's funny. Niall is the most laid back person Harry has ever met. That he's this upset over finding Louis still in their room strikes Harry as hilarious.

“Zayn's dad can get me out of it,” Louis says. It's true, so Harry doesn't understand why Louis is fighting against his hold and struggling to sit. “My mom's going to start worrying soon, though. I should get going.”

“But we didn't even get to-,”

“And you won't in this room!” Niall exclaims. “Do you hear me? Are you listening?”

Louis snorts. To be fair, Harry's not sure what Niall thinks they've been doing in here the last couple of weeks. In lieu of asking, he just says, “We don't use your bed.”

Like a child in the deepest stages of denial, Niall shakes his head and points to both of them. “I have managed seventeen years without paying two seconds' thought to Louis' dick. I am not startin' that shit now.” He yanks the door open and peers out before shutting it again, broad like a spy in a over-the-top comedy.

“It's a nice dick,” Harry whispers into the top of Louis' head.

Louis rubs Harry's shoulder with a giant grin. “Thanks, babe.”

Nodding, Harry lets his eyes drift to the sight of Louis' ass as he bends over the side of the bed to grab his sweats. “I mean, I'm a fan.”

“You're not so bad yourself,” Louis says, casting a sly glance and a flirty smile over his shoulder.

“Stop it,” Niall says sternly, snapping his fingers when Harry runs his hand over the bumps of Louis' spine. “You, stop touching.” He points to Louis. “You, go home.”

“Jesus, okay, fine,” Louis snaps, growling as he stands and stretches. “Hey, Niall, remember when you were fun?”

“Remember when you weren't banging my roommate in front of me?” Niall shoots back.

Harry manages to sit up but he's still tired enough to fall back against the wall as he says, “I remember that. That wasn't fun. There's no need to bring up unpleasant memories.”

Niall flails his arms and rolls his eyes like he has no idea what to do with the most difficult people in the world. There's a sick sort of satisfaction in that reaction, Harry thinks. “I'm going to create a diversion. Wiggle your ass out the window and down a drain pipe or whatever it is that you do to get in and out of here.”

When he's gone, Harry stretches his foot and drags his toes down the back of Louis' thigh. “You don't have to go, you know.”

Louis turns, resting his knee on the edge of the bed. “I really do need to get home before my mom starts to worry.”

Because he's lived in boarding schools since he was eight, Harry sometimes forgets that people have to take their parents into account when making decisions. “Alright, fine,” he concedes. “I'll see you tomorrow though?”

Louis knee crawls onto the bed and between Harry's spread thighs, weaving his arms around Harry's neck. “I have practice until five thirty and then I have to work from six to midnight.” His fingers feel amazing scratching the back of Harry's next. “Why don't you get some sleep and I'll see you Saturday, yeah?”

“Sleep is overrated,” Harry declares, leaning forward to catch Louis' lips in a haphazard kiss that's still better than any other kiss he's shared with anyone else.

“It's your exhibition,” Louis reminds him, as though Harry could forget.

It's possible Harry is smiling like an idiot when he opens his eyes and says, “You remembered.”

“Of course I remembered.” And it's not that Harry thinks Louis doesn't care, but it's just that he knows that Louis doesn't care. “We don't have a game and I switched shifts so I could be off work.”

“What?”

Louis draws back, slipping one hand from Harry's neck to rest it against Harry's cheek. His thumb trails over Harry's lower lip. “Harry, you come to every one of my games. I'm not going to miss yours.”

“You hate Crew,” Harry declares.

Though he doesn't argue with that point, Louis does say, “I don't hate you, dummy.”

And it's weird because Louis is not the only person in Harry's life who doesn't get the appeal of rowing, who finds it pointless and downright boring. He's the first to ever put that aside to watch Harry do it anyway.

Harry knows he's young and he's never actually been in love, but he thinks it must feel something like this.

*

Though the days sometimes feel unending, the semester is passing quickly. Thanksgiving is only a week away and Harry has plans to spend every day with Louis, even if he has to forgo studying in the library to crack the books at the gas station while Louis works. He may have to share a couple of times – Zayn's joining them tonight since Liam has a date with a sophomore he met at a party last weekend – but as long as he gets to see Louis, Harry couldn't care less.

He stops at the library, grabs a couple of the books he's going to need tonight, and then heads back to his room to change out of his uniform. He hears the music before he opens the door, an unfamiliar, rhythmic guitar melody that Harry finds himself nodding along with as he steps into his room.

Niall is sitting in the window, tapping his foot along with the tune he's playing, laptop and notebook at his side and a pencil trapped between his teeth. He doesn't look up when Harry comes in and Harry waits until Niall stops to jot something on the paper before he speaks.

“That sounds awesome, man,” Harry says, ripping his tie off before flinging his blazer to the bed.

“Thanks,” Niall says, resting his guitar against his knee as he adds, “It's for my composition final.”

Harry yanks the hem of his shirt out of his pants and only unbuttons it halfway before tearing it over his head. “Finals aren't for six weeks,” he says.

“Well, I can't trust my muses to shit something out the night before, can I?” Niall asks, snorting as he leans his head back against the wall. “I have to ace this so I don't lose my scholarship.”

But it's Harry's turn to snort as he drops his khakis to the ground. “You're not gonna lose your scholarship, idiot. You're a genius.”

“Yeah, well it's not you I have to convince, is it?”

“I don't think I've ever seen you look so stressed out before,” Harry tells him.

“Right?” Niall sighs and scrubs his hand over his face, careful not to jostle the instrument in his lap as he casts a glance out the giant window. “I'm not sure the pressure of everything settled in until now.”

Standing in front of his closet, Harry waivers between his softest, cable knit sweater and his warmest, navy blue hoodie. Louis likes the sweater but the sweatshirt is so goddamn comfortable. Distractedly, he remembers that he's having a conversation and asks, “What d'you mean?”

“I don't know,” Niall admits. He gingerly sets his guitar on the floor and swings his legs around to rest his feet on Harry's nearby desk chair. He leans forward and holds his face in his hands. “At my old school, I barely had to try and I was the best, at least with music. I taught myself how to play traditional songs, folk songs, pop songs, everything. People knew I was that guy. Here, it's like I only stand out if someone recognizes me as that scholarship kid with the yard sale guitar, ya know? It used to be impressive that I taught myself everything but now a lack of classical training is worse than having some kind of disease or something.”

“Why'd you even want to come here in the first place?” Harry asks, grabbing the hoodie and turning his full attention to Niall. He leans against the edge of the desk and crosses his arms over his chest, wondering why they've lived together for three months and are just now getting around to this conversation.

Niall sits up straighter and nods over his shoulder. “I used to sit over there, across the lake, on the deck at the restaurant, and for years I've seen the kids from here wandering around with this air of, I don't know, certainty.”

At that, Harry can't help but laugh a little. “We're the most insecure mess of abandonment issues you've ever seen, Niall. It's probably dangerous to have this many completely uncertain people in one place.”

“Nah, man, you don't get it,” Niall argues, leaning forward again. He rests his elbows on his knees and clasps his hands between them, looking up at Harry. “You know where you go from here. Like, you leave here and you know that college and the rest of the world is just waiting for you. You can finish school and take a year off, doing whatever you want and that excites you, right?” When Harry nods, Niall unfolds his hands and gestures vaguely. “That's what I mean. You don't have to be scared that you won't be able to get into college after that or that you'll get sucked into helping your family stay out of debt and won't be able to leave after a year. You don't worry that you're going to be stuck in this place, playing for spare change in your dad's restaurant when the nights are slow enough that you're not needed on the back line. You don't worry that you're going to spend the rest of your life never quite getting the smell of dead fish out of your pores.” He shakes his head and grabs his guitar, leaning back against the wall once more. “You're not trapped. Your best days are ahead of you and you know it. That's what I want, man. I don't wanna be stuck.”

As Harry listens to him fumble through a couple more chord progressions, he thinks about the weight of Niall's words. He's had innumerable conversations with Liam about just how trapped they both feel in this life of theirs. They're expected to go to the same school their dads did, to learn their family business and take over when the time comes. They're expected to follow an exact path and, while Harry knows that he's fortunate to be allowed a gap year, the end result doesn't change for them. He wants to lay all of that out for Niall, to let him know that he's wrong, but he wonders if he's not.

They could break the mold. There's nothing stopping them. Disapproval and even the dreaded 'cutting off' from family money can be overcome. Niall makes a particularly awful, discordant sound, laughs at himself as he shakes his head and tries it again with better results, and Harry realizes that they've grown accustomed to certainty that Niall speaks of, that it keeps them from trying the things they muse and fantasize about while locked away with the good champagne during their parents' tedious parties.

Niall isn't afraid to try something new because he's got nothing to lose, and Harry thinks maybe he and his friends could learn a lesson in that, too.

He finishes dressing, steals one of Niall's snapbacks, and stuffs his wallet into the back pocket of his jeans. “You should play that for Liam,” he suggests on a whim as he's headed for the door.

“Liam?” Niall asks, as though this is the strangest thing Harry has ever suggested.

Harry nods, though. “You're right. We know for certain where we're going to end up, me and Liam and Zayn, but that doesn't mean we don't want something else for ourselves. Just talk to him. I think you might both need it.”

*

“Are you going to miss me while I'm gone?”

While Harry is dying for a break, the thought of leaving Louis and heading back to New York tomorrow is not something he relishes. Thanksgiving has never been one of his favorite holidays anyway.

“Oh, are you leaving?” Louis asks, laughing when Harry jabs a finger into his side.

“Asshole,” Harry says with a roll of his eyes, squinting into the flurrying snow that's only recently begun to fall.

They're lying side-by-side in the bed of Louis' truck, moonlight and the neon sign from the gas station the only illumination at this late hour. Liam and Niall are covering for him so that he can spend a few hours with Louis before he has to catch a train home in the morning. He can't help thinking that New York is never this quiet at twelve thirty in the morning, that for all of its appeal, it lacks this stillness that Harry has come to love over his three and a half years at Wilshire.

“It's only four days,” Louis says, shifting onto his side and propping himself up on an elbow as he looks down at Harry. “Then you'll be right back here, annoying me with your stupidly attractive face again.”

He may have a point, but Harry is suddenly distracted by the way the minimal light plays over the angles of Louis' face, highlighting his cheekbones and deepening the shadows of his cheeks so that he looks like one of those beautifully haunting, androgynous paintings Zayn used to do before he became obsessed with Perrie. With the snow falling and the chill in the air, their silent breaths are visible like soft-focus filter that makes Louis look lovely. He's just so lovely, Harry thinks.

“Hey,” Louis interrupts, nudging Harry's chest with dancing fingers until Harry blinks up at him, pulling himself out of his own thoughts. “What's gotten into you, hm?”

Harry huffs and shakes his head, turning his attention back to the sky, to the glittering stars and the silver moon and all of the other cliché things he feels useless to describe on a night like this. “I always get like this when I have to go home.”

“Oh come on now. It can't be that bad.” Louis lies back down, shivering a bit as he acclimates to the chilled metal of the truck bed. “Your house is big enough to escape your family and you'll be in Manhattan for Black Friday. There is literally no downside to your life.”

When he cuddles into Harry's side, when he presses his frozen nose against Harry's neck and then fucking giggles at the way Harry shivers, Harry is hard pressed to disagree. Except, “That's because you've never been in Manhattan on Black Friday.”

“That is true,” Louis says wistfully.

If Harry didn't already know how much Louis was looking forward to his mother's traditional Thanksgiving feast, if he hadn't been talking about it incessantly for a month now, Harry would invite him to New York. If he thought for a second that Louis would even consider excepting, he would concoct an irrefutable offer.

Instead he asks, “What do you want for Christmas?” Because if he's going to be shopping on Friday anyway, he might as well know what to get the one person he cares to buy for this year.

Louis doesn't hesitate to answer, “Nothing.”

“Louis.”

“I'm not kidding. I don't want you to get me anything.”

The way he's tensing against Harry's side only proves his point, but Harry is not putting up with that nonsense. “Well I'm not going to get my boyfriend nothing for Christmas. If you don't make me a wish list, I'm going to buy you everything that makes me think of you while I'm gone and you won't have room enough to store it all.”

He's only slightly kidding and not, in any way, trying to brag about the fact that he can, indeed, buy a ridiculous amount of things for Louis for Christmas, but Louis clearly doesn't get the joke when he struggles out of Harry's hold and sits up fully at his side. He pulls on Harry's arm until Harry has no choice but to do the same.

When they're facing each other, Louis says, “I'm not joking about this, Harry. Don't buy me anything. It has been years, like more than I can remember, since my mom and I could afford more than one present for each of the girls. If you buy me anything, I will sell it and I don't actually care if that makes me a dick or not.”

The answer punches Harry in the gut because it's the closest Louis has ever come to discussing money with him at all. He knows that Louis' mom works two jobs and that Louis' gas station money is split between paying for his own college tuition and chipping in where his family needs it, but he doesn't know if he's ever met someone who doesn't get more than one present for Christmas.

“Alright,” he finally concedes because, for once in his charmed life, a cheeky and flirtatious response isn't going to get him out of this one. “So we won't spend anything. We'll just get creative and give each other a memory instead.”

Louis narrows his eyes and tilts his head like a puppy, considering whether or not Harry is actually serious. Finally he laughs and says, “You are the sappiest person ever.”

Harry tackles him back, blanketing Louis with his body as the snow begins to fall more heavily around them. “Thank you,” he says with a smile, forcing himself to shake off the uneasiness in his chest because, well, Louis is under him and looking only at him. That's a memory he needs to keep for the next few days.

“Hey, guess what,” Louis finally says, slipping his hand under Harry's beanie until it falls sideways on his head, until Louis' fingers are tangled in the curls and tugging just enough to make Harry's dick take notice. “I think I might possibly find the time to miss you a little.”

If it wasn't freezing out here, Harry thinks he could definitely give Louis something to miss. As it is, he rolls his hips forward and settles for peppering Louis' face with kisses until he's writhing and laughing into the quiet night.

*

Thanksgiving is, surprisingly, not as dreadful as Harry fears.

Granted, he spends most of it locked in his room, watching television, but also lazily thinking about ideas for Louis’ Christmas present, so that’s pleasant. They text a bit, when Louis isn't busy having an actual family affair, and Harry is thrilled to see Liam for a few hours when his family joins Harry's for Thanksgiving dinner, even if Liam can talk about nothing other than the songs he's been writing with Niall over Skype. He seems more calm than he did back at school, which is odd but Harry is too busy wishing he was with Louis to worry about it much.

On Black Friday, he rounds up a few friends – if they can be called that, as they all work for his father but don't seem to mind Harry bumming around with them in their free time – and they hit 5th Avenue for a bit of shopping. He sorts his mom and dad out first, easily popping into their favorite shops and choosing the first thing he sees even when it's not on sale. It doesn't matter, they'll barely notice it anyway.

The hair stylist that his dad uses for his most high-profile shoots – her name is Lou and she has the cutest daughter Harry has ever met – drags him into FAO Schwartz, where they spend two hours arguing over the most appropriate toys for small girls. Her boyfriend, Tom, is in a band and fawns over every guitar in music shop while helping Harry choose the perfect gifts for Niall and Liam. Lou's sister, Sam, drags him into a small gallery to select something for Zayn. He spends more time in the cosmetic shop than he would like, but it's a small price to pay for all of the advice the girls have given him over the course of the afternoon.

By the time he returns home to pack for the train back to school, his Christmas shopping is entirely sorted. It's a first for him, but it frees up all of his time over the next five weeks for focusing on finals and one more gift for Louis, because he said not to buy him anything for the holidays but mentioned nothing of his birthday the day before and Harry is taking that as permission to spend a little on the occasion.

Zayn, who opted for staying on campus during the break because he likes the quiet solitude, texts a picture to Harry on Saturday morning. He's near the statue of Franklin Wilshire riding a horse in the Revolution, and snuggled in next to him - Zayn, not Franklin - is a beaming Perrie Edwards, her hair no longer its signature pink but a stunning, pale lilac. The accompanying message says, I'm not the only one who hung back for the holidays.

All of Harry's requests for more information go unanswered – even Liam doesn't seem to know what the hell is going on now - and he tells himself that Zayn needs someone to confide in. It doesn't matter that Zayn has never been one for caring and sharing. Being there for his friend seems like a better excuse for grabbing a train back to school a day early than missing his boyfriend does. Louis is more likely to accept it anyway.

*

Harry arrives back in town around six and Zayn is waiting for him with a bright, but infuriatingly tight-lipped, smile. The sun is already sinking, nearly out of sight behind the treeline, but Harry only stops by his room long enough to drop his luggage next to his bed and grab his car keys out of the drawer, where they've sat untouched for the better part of a month. It's not that he doesn't appreciate the ride his parents bought him for his sixteenth birthday, but he doesn't have much occasion to drive it back home and finds it's easier to hitch a ride with Zayn these days. Louis is far more comfortable driving his own truck when they go out, so sometimes Harry just forgets that he has his own transportation.

On a night like this, he's grateful, though.

He parks around back at the gas station and then walks to the front door, shaking snow from his hair as he unfurls his scarf and steps up to the counter. The widening look of surprise in Louis' eyes is a pretty great reward for not texting ahead, Harry thinks.

“I thought you weren't coming back until tomorrow,” Louis says, fighting a smile and losing as Harry leans across the counter in the otherwise empty station.

He shrugs. “I got bored.”

“Well, welcome back,” Louis whispers against Harry's lips.

Four days without this was too much, Harry thinks. “Thanks,” he finally says when he pulls himself away, still half-draped over the counter just to be closer to Louis. “Did you have a good Thanksgiving?”

Louis nods, launches into a story about his sisters dueling over the table with turkey legs until his mother nearly had a breakdown, and Harry thinks that all of his fears on the train were completely unfounded. It was ridiculous to think that a few days in separate states would ruin this thing they've been building, that they wouldn't pick right back up again, that Louis would forget him or something. He's not even sure where those doubts came from, but they're obliterated with a few smiles and the warm touch of Louis' hand against his own on the counter.

“So what time do you get out of here?” Harry asks, hoping that maybe this isn't one of those midnight shifts.

Checking his watch, Louis says, “Soon. Seven.”

“Want to grab some dinner?” A nice, quiet date night would be good right now, Harry thinks but doesn't add because, contrary to what Louis may believe, he is actually trying to tone it down a bit.

His stomach sinks when Louis bites his lower lip and shakes his head. “I can't tonight. Promised my mom I would babysit.”

“Oh,” Harry says, the word colored with obvious disappointment. “Do you want some help?” he asks, perking at the idea of watching Louis interact with his sisters firsthand. He's heard so much about them and he thinks that he could sacrifice time alone with Louis for meeting the people Louis obviously loves so much.

“No,” Louis says, definitively shutting Harry down as another customer steps through the door.

Harry shifts to the side, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible during the transaction, attempting to shake off the abrupt nature of Louis' response.

By the time they're alone again, Harry's gnawed his bottom lip red. Louis doesn't expound or offer any explanations, but he does step out from behind the counter to rest his hands on Harry's hips. “How about I sneak into yours after mom gets home later?”

As bothered as he wants to be, it's really hard to stay even marginally upset when Louis' hands are teasing at Harry's jeans like that. With a nod, he says, “Yeah, okay. That'll work.”

“Hey,” Louis says, lifting onto his toes to nip at Harry's lip. “I'm really glad you're back.”

If Harry shivers all the way down to his toes with the sincerity of the statement, he doesn't admit it out loud.

*

Louis' abrupt reaction is a fleeting memory that Harry probably doesn't even remember, if asked. The semester is beginning to wind down now, the school aflutter with the promise of the upcoming Winter Formal and the impending stress of finals, and Harry is no exception. Tonight, while his friends are having dinner at Niall's place, he's locked away in his room to study for a Physics test that will count for thirty percent of his final grade.

When he realizes that he's read the same paragraph in his text book three times, Harry decides that it's time to take a break. He could do with a snack, he thinks, so he heads to the gas station because, well, he could also do with some boyfriend time and Louis is working. Of course he is. Louis' always working it seems.

The bell over the door dings when Harry steps inside the harshly bright station, bypassing food in favor of stepping directly to the counter. The woman already standing there seems familiar and it takes Harry a moment to place her as the one in all of those pictures Louis has shown him on his phone.

He runs his hand through his wayward curls and wishes he wasn't wearing baggy sweats and a mismatched scarf to meet Louis' mother for the first time.

In the process of fidgeting like a spastic fool, both Louis and his mother have turned to look at Harry with curious expressions. He smiles, readies some charming and hapless opening line, but freezes when he notices the forced grin on Louis' face.

“Hello, Harry,” he says with a formality that Harry has never heard from him. Even when they met, Louis showed emotion in the form of disdain. “What can I do for you?”

Harry stammers, “Um, I'm just taking a study break.” He can feel the blush in his cheeks when he turns to the woman at his side and offers a small wave. “Hi.”

Her smile is kind, but she obviously has no interest in striking up a conversation with some random stranger. To Louis, she says, “Alright, I won't keep you from your work but you make sure you eat all of that, do you hear me? I don't want you bringing any of it home this time.”

She's patting a plastic container on the counter, something warm if the condensation fogging its edges is any indication. Louis snatches it away with a growl. “I said I will,” he tells her with a roll of his eyes.

“Hey!” his mother says, playfully stern as she points her finger toward him. “Watch the attitude, Mr. Sass. I will kiss you in front of your friend. Don't think I won't.”

Harry smiles when she winks at him but Louis just shakes his head. “He's just Niall's roommate, Mom.”

The smile sinks like a boulder to Harry's gut, balls his stomach up and continues sinking straight to his toes when Louis' mother nods. “That's right,” she says. “I've seen you at some of Louis' football games, haven't I?”

All of them, Harry wants to say. I've been to every single one of his games, outdoor and in. I haven't missed a single one because I'm ass backwards crazy for your son. He swallows all of those responses and, aloud, says, “Yeah, I've been to a few.” He catches Louis' eye and then adds, “With Niall.”

Louis' mother says it's nice to meet him and Harry nods and smiles over the rumbling in his stomach before he flees to the back of the store to peruse the Corn Nuts and Bugles, both snacks he hates but that are preferable to standing at that counter any longer.

Harry does a lot of stupid things, ridiculous and thoughtless things, and he's used to sometimes seeing Liam or Zayn look at him as though he's grown another head. He's lost count of the number of times Niall has called him a 'fucking idiot.' It never bothers him, though, because underneath their words he knows they still love him. The people who mean the hurtful things that they say, the slurs and the scorn that he's heard on occasion both in New York and at Wilshire, don't bother him either because those people don't matter to him. None of it has ever felt like this.

He runs his fingers over several bags of Hostess cakes and pies, thinks he was supposed to be buying snacks when he walked in here, but nothing looks satisfying anymore.

By the time he ambles back up to the counter with a plain bottle of water in one hand and an energy drink in the other, Louis is alone at the register. He does have the decency to look a little apologetic at least.

“Sorry about that,” Louis says quickly, making sure to brush his fingers against Harry's when he takes the bottles from Harry's hands. “I'm just not sure she's ready to know that I'm seeing someone else from Wilshire.”

Seeing someone. It sounds so damn casual when nothing about their relationship feels remotely casual to Harry. He's in this, full tilt now and it hurts to hear Louis shrug it off as some passing fling. It hurts to realize that, while Harry thought they were right there on the same page, they were apparently reading from completely different books.

He'd like to wax completely romantic about it, bleed his feelings and his pain all over this counter between them, but Harry's pride stops him short. He shakes his head as he accepts the credit card Louis slides back across the counter. “It's fine. Certainly not the first time I've been the dirty little secret.”

“Harry,” Louis starts with so much regret and apology in his voice.

But Harry beams the smile that everyone always believes to be genuine – it comes complete with a dimple and eye crinkles, even – and leans across the counter to press a firm kiss to Louis' lips. “Alright, so I've got loads of studying to get back to.” He adds another kiss for good measure, just to show Louis that things are fine between them, that this little incident is nothing, totally understandable and everything is just great. Fine, great, fine, wonderful. “I will see you in the woods Saturday night, yes?”

Louis nods, his brow raised skeptically. His tone drags when he says, “Yeah.”

“Awesome,” Harry says on a smile that feels like it's sliding quickly toward manic. “I will see you later then.”

He doesn't stop smiling until he slips into his car and starts the engine. White-knuckling the steering wheel, he stares across the lot and blinks at the windshield, takes a few deep breaths, and reminds himself that they've been working until now. It doesn't matter what either of them thinks it is because whatever it is, it is working. He doesn't need a parental stamp of a approval. Louis' mother hasn't known about their relationship until now and it's been great.

He's tired and stressed from school is all. This is not a big deal. He overreacted for absolutely no reason. Even if he isn’t blowing it out of proportion - which he absolutely is, has to be - he reminds himself that he has Louis in some capacity and that's better than not having any Louis at all.

*

“I don't know, bro. I'm still marginally upset that I can't be the blue power ranger after graduation,” Zayn says, taking a long drink from his beer bottle as he rolls his head along the wall.

“You're insane,” Louis tells him, laughing when he takes a drink from his own red cup. “It's all about the red ranger, man.”

Harry couldn't really care less about any of the fucking power rangers because he's too busy being grateful that they're not all freezing their balls off in the woods right now. When they arrived to heavily falling snow and only three other people waiting to party – Perrie and Hemme, which has been a real treat all night honestly, and Perrie's friend Jade – Niall suggested they head to his dad’s place instead. It's small and cozy and Niall's older brother bought them a case of beer and some snacks, so Harry is quite content to just sit here on the couch and listen to Louis and Zayn debate terrible children's television all night. Liam and Niall are performing Ed Sheeran songs and there's a lovely fire crackling in the fire place. It's an all-around lovely night.

It doesn't hurt that Louis has plastered himself to Harry's side, practically draped across his lap, and he hasn't even tried to get away from Harry's hands on his hips or his face buried into the side of Louis' neck. He flinched a bit when Harry used his teeth on that first love bite, but he seems perfectly happy to let Harry maul him now. As far as laid back Saturday nights go, this is one of the best Harry's had in ages.

He thinks it's going to be an even better night when Louis drags him up the stairs and into a small bedroom at the end of the hall. From the mess of it, the football and music posters on the walls, and the trainers he recognizes at the foot of the bed, he deduces that it must be Niall's room. Harry does spare a thought to how angry Niall's going to be if he finds out what they're doing in here, but Louis is slamming him onto the bed and Harry can't actually be bothered to consider Niall anymore.

“What has gotten into you?”

Harry blinks at the ceiling and then lifts his head enough to see Louis standing beside the bed, arms crossed and a rather irritated look on his face. “Um,” is Harry's eloquent response.

“Why are you being like this?”

“Like what?”

“Like you're being.”

Alright, Harry may be slightly buzzed and even a little confused at the abrupt turn this conversation has taken, but Louis is not making any sense. He sits with a small grunt and shakes his head. “That kind of answer only works in television soaps aimed at people who think 'vague' and 'deep' are the same thing, Louis.”

After glaring at Harry for a moment, Louis says, “You are not my dirty little secret.”

“What?”

With a sigh, Louis nudges Harry's hip with his knee and climbs onto the bed at his side. “You know what. What you said the other night, you're not. I don't see you like that. You don't have to prove anything.”

If he's one hundred percent honest, Harry will admit that his incessant pawing of Louis tonight has been, at least in some small part, due to wondering if this thing between them is temporary. If it does have an expiration date, he's decided that he wants to get his fill before time is up. That only works if Louis realizes that Harry is in this until Louis pulls the plug, in whatever capacity Louis wants.

Snaking one arm around Louis' waist, Harry tugs him closer and says, “It's alright, Lou,” against his ear, smiling when Louis shivers against his mouth. “I'm really good at being really dirty.”

“Stop it,” Louis insists, shoving Harry's chest until he falls back again. “Please just stop being a dick.”

“Sorry,” Harry says, the apology a bit muttered as he covers his eyes with the hand not holding onto Louis. “The stress of finals must be getting to me or something.”

Louis raises a skeptical eyebrow. “If I call bullshit, are you actually going to tell me what's up?”

No, because a small part of Harry still believes that he's blowing things completely out of proportion. Saying it out loud will just make Louis roll his eyes and tell Harry to stop being melodramatic. Another tiny voice in the back of his head is saying that Louis maybe just needs some time to catch up to Harry and everything will be perfect. So no, he's not actually going to tell Louis what is up.

“It's not bullshit,” he insists, schooling his face into that mask of genuine sincerity, the one Louis thinks Harry wears to get his way all of the time but that Harry has never really used on Louis until now. Desperate times. “I can't lie to save my life, right? I'm sure it's just stress.”

While Louis considers him for the longest time, long enough that Harry is absolutely certain he's not at all buying what Harry is selling, Harry staunchly holds his ground. He will not crack first. He can't.

Finally, Louis swings his leg over Harry's lap and presses his hands into Harry's chest. “Let's see what we can do about relaxing you a little bit then.”

The smile that stretches across his face as he grips Louis' hips hard in his hands is miles more real. “Yeah, let's do that.”

Louis slides his arms over Harry’s shoulders, leaning in until their pressed chest-to-chest, hips rolling in slow, teasing circles as he seals their mouths together. His tongue licks at Harry’s lips like a little flame, stroking the heat that is already starting to build in Harry’s gut.

“Relax,” Louis whispers, using his own body weight to drive Harry flat onto his back, going in for another quick kiss before anchoring his hands against Harry’s chest, squeezing his pecs as he sits.

The smile he offers is dazzling, a little playful and a lot naughty as he slithers back to rest on his knees between Harry’s thighs. Harry wonders if he knows just how hard it is to relax when Louis is being all seductive and graceful like that.

If Harry thought this was going to be drawn out, full of teasing and false starts, he was wrong. Louis pops the flies on his jeans, easing the zip down, without much ceremony. He grunts as he yanks Harry’s jeans down his leg, muttering under his breath about how tight they are, while Harry wars with the tiny bit of guilt still hanging round the corners of his conscience.

Inside this room, at this very moment, he and Louis are on the same page. They want the very same thing. none of the other bullshit matters, not school or families or their friends downstairs. None of it is as important as this. He can relax and it will be fine.

It’s hard to worry when Louis smacks his thigh. “Scoot up,” he says, ripping his tee shirt over his head and tossing it carelessly to the floor. “There ya go,” he nods when Harry does as he’s told. His hands are warm against the inside of Harry’s thighs when Louis pushes them apart. “Jesus, Harry, you look so good right now.”

Harry wonders if Louis is delusional. Harry’s still wearing his socks, his boxer briefs, and an orange sweater. He probably looks hilarious, but if Louis wants to compliment him, Harry will take it with a knowingly raised eyebrow and a thrust of his hips.

“Calm down,” Louis teases, rubbing his hands along the tops of Harry’s thighs. “I’ll take care of you.”

“Then do it,” Harry bites on a groan when Louis’ thin fingers ghost over the line of Harry’s cock, straining now against the fabric of his underwear.

He can’t complain much more, though, because Louis answers by bending at his waist and mouthing Harry’s cock until his boxers are damp with it. When Harry looks down, Louis looks up, smiling through lowered lashes, his ass round in the air from the angle he’s bent over. It is, by miles and years, the hottest thing Harry has ever seen in his life.

“Shit,” he curses, gripping the sheets on either side of him to keep from thrashing before his cock is even uncovered.

Louis’ eyes drift closed when he sucks at the head through Harry’s shorts, moaning. He reaches for Harry’s waistband and sits just long enough to yank the boxers off of his legs. They’re still hanging from Harry’s left foot when Louis presses one hand over the head of Harry’s cock, keeping it flat to Harry’s stomach, and licks a fat, wet stripe from the base of Harry’s balls to the head of his dick.

“Fuck,” Harry hisses, his hips bucking without permission against Louis’ mouth.

Louis, fucking menace that he is, pulls back just far enough to chuckle in amusement, and then returns to sucking at Harry’s balls while running his thumb in devastating circles over the wet head of Harry’s dick.

By the time Louis moves, rising on his knees and jerking Harry’s dick with one hand while he pulls his own from his open jeans with the other, Harry is damn near incoherent. He knows there are words coming out of his mouth, but he couldn’t say if they make any sense at all. He figures it doesn’t much matter when Louis thrusts into his own fist while stroking Harry’s cock in the same rhythm.

They’re both muffling desperate moans when Louis takes Harry’s dick back into his mouth, stroking and sucking like he needs it, like it’s more necessary than air.

Harry doesn’t think before he grabs Louis’ hair in both hands, pulling him down and holding him until he gags. He releases his hold immediately, but Louis just pulls off long enough to fill his lungs and then wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

His grin is sinful, his voice wrecked, when he says, “Do it again,” and plunges back down to suck Harry into his throat.

In his head, Harry starts babbling porn star things, taunting Louis for wanting a big dick in his mouth so badly, calling him a perfect cocksucker and a pretty, little slut. If Louis’ muffled keens and frantic motions are any indication, Harry’s maybe not only saying them in his head.

With a growl, Louis pulls off of Harry’s dick and leans over until his own come is striping Harry’s thigh. The sight of it is nearly enough to finish Harry off, and then Louis swallows him down one more time, this time while rubbing one finger over Harry’s asshole.

He’s still shaking with the aftershocks when Louis collapses at his side a minute later, pressing a kiss to the side of Harry’s neck and nuzzling his nose into Harry’s shoulder.

“I can’t feel my legs,” Harry says, laughing when he realizes that he can’t actually feel much of anything. His entire body seems to be made of gelatin at the moment.

Louis hums. “Mission accomplished then.”

It’s only then that something occurs to Harry. “Niall is going to kill us.”

“Probably,” Louis concurs, his voice rasping toward sleep. “Worth it, though.”

As Harry wraps an arm around Louis’ back and tugs him for a short nap, he thinks, yeah. It’s worth it. Whether this is all they’re going to have, or they get fifty years together, it’s worth it.

*

Things are better. Really, Harry thought they were getting better. He's not walking on eggshells around Louis or fearing that every call and text message is going to be about breaking up. His schedule actually feels under control for the first time all semester. Things are better.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Liam demands, charging too close to Harry's heels as they storm out of the practice pool and into the locker room.

The thing is, Harry doesn't know. He doesn't know why he did it or what he was thinking. He was just suddenly angry, his body thrumming with this negative energy, this irrational rage zipping through his veins, and Zayn was just there. It just happened. “Nothing is fucking wrong with me, Liam, back off.”

“You just pushed Zayn out of the bloody boat!” Liam shouts, still too close, much too close.

Harry stops short at his locker and bangs his forehead against the cold metal. “He was being a shit,” he says softly, feeble in his own ears.

You are being a shit,” Liam responds, shoving Harry's shoulder and stoking the fire in his belly again.

“Fuck off, Liam,” he warns, his tone purposefully low. The rest of the team is going to be joining them soon and he doesn't want to do this in front of everyone.

“What the fuck was that, bro?” Zayn demands as he slams into the room with as much force as Harry did. His face is red, fists balled at his sides, hair plastered wet to his face.

“Sorry,” Harry apologizes flatly, yanking his locker open to grab his shoes.

Zayn isn't accepting the apology, though. Stopping beside Liam, he crosses his arms over his chest and says, “Once more, Harry, with a little feeling.”

“Can you both just get out of my face for thirty fucking seconds please?” Harry shouts, slamming his locker again to prove a point. Not knowing exactly what that point is doesn't make it less valid.

Liam leans against the locker next to Harry's. “Something isn't right here.”

“Pardon me if that's hilarious coming from either of you,” Harry snorts, refusing to face either of them.

“Harry,” Zayn starts again.

And it's too much. It's just all too much. “No,” he says, spinning on his heel to jab his finger into Zayn's chest. “You have spent the entire semester doing fuck all but helping someone else impress a girl that is clearly as into you as you are into her, but neither of you will fucking admit it and it's infuriating.” He flails his arms in a vague gesture toward Liam when he says, “And I don't what the fuck is going on with you lately, but you're up and down like a goddamn roller coaster and it is exhausting trying to keep up. So you'll excuse me if I don't wanna sit down for a heart to heart with two idiots who are just as fucked up as I am.”

Zayn only allows the silence to sit for a moment before he asks, “Are you quite finished?” in a very bored, very irritating tone.

The scream that Harry lets out is primal and not at all satisfying. The resounding clang of the locker when he punches it isn't much better. And the freezing afternoon air against his bare arms and feet when he storms out of the training center is downright painful. He should have at least pulled a sweatshirt on, or some socks.

“You're going to get pneumonia, you dumb fuck,” Liam says not thirty seconds after Harry leaves them behind.

“Oh, for god's sake, Liam,” Harry cries, throwing his arms up in defeat. “A dramatic storm-out only works if you don't fucking follow me!”

A thick coat covers his arms as Zayn says, “Come on.”

“I need to study,” Harry snaps.

“You need to shut your fucking mouth and come with me.”

*

After twenty minutes in the old clock tower, wrapped in warmer clothes and smoking some of Zayn's best pot, Harry is starting to feel more like himself again. He thinks it's probably a combination of the location and the company, having his two best friends in the one place they've always been able to hide away from everything and everyone. It's obvious from the empty bottles and cigarette butts that they're not the only ones who know about the clock tower above the Science building, but Harry has never seen anyone else up here.

It occurs to him, while they're sitting in amicable silence, lost in their own heads, that this is the first time since they arrived this semester that it's been only the three of them. He loves Niall and fuck knows he loves Louis, but there's something comfortable about Zayn and Liam that he's never found with anyone else.

Liam finally breaks the silence with, “I think I'm going to start a band.”

“What?” Harry and Zayn both ask in unison.

Shrugging, Liam's shoulder bumps Harry's from the place where they're both pressed together next to the wall. “Niall and I have been kicking it around for a couple of weeks now, I guess.”

From his seat in the window, Zayn says, “Plot twist.”

“Better than trying to burn the woods to the ground, I suppose,” Harry adds, taking another hit and considering this new information. It does make sense, given all of Liam's odd behavior before he started writing with Niall.

When he says as much, Liam exhales sharply, the sigh of privileged angst. “I'm just so fucking bored. And I know that there will be college and internships and giant, trendy shoes to fill, but I spent the entire summer thinking that there had to be something out there, something more, something exciting.”

“And music is something exciting for you?” Harry asks.

He knew that Liam was into it, that he liked to sing in the shower and that his voice was decent. Those piano lessons his mother forced him to take when he was a kid seem to be paying off in some of the stuff Harry's heard them playing in his room, but it feels like he should have known that Liam was this passionate about something.

As if reading his mind, Liam nudges him again, rolls his head along the wall to offer Harry a sincere look. “I didn't know that it was until I started writing with Niall, but yeah. I mean, nobody wants to listen to a spoiled rich kid whine about how dreadfully boring his life is, do they? But if you lay a strong melody behind it and vague up the lyrics, it's better. And, I don't know, it feels productive or something.” He shrugs and then adds, “It feels important.”

“It's art, man,” Zayn says, though he's still pouting at the view of the campus instead of turning to face them.

Patting Liam's leg, Harry says, “I think you should go for it, man.”

“My dad's gonna shit himself,” Liam predicts on a chuckle.

“Does that matter?” Harry asks.

Liam rolls his shoulders and tilts his head to stare up at the face of the giant clock. “It shouldn't.”

With a grunt, Zayn stubs the butt of his joint into the concrete of the window ledge and swings his legs in to face his friends. “So don't tell him yet,” he suggests, as though it's the most obvious answer in the world. “You can do it for the summer. Try it out in college and then see if it's going anywhere. Fuck, man, you're seventeen. You don't have to make a career out of anything just yet.”

“You're very wise, Obi Wan,” Liam agrees with a serene nod of his head.

But Zayn just shakes his head and scrubs his hand over his face. “If I was wise, I'd be dating my dream girl instead of helping someone else do it.”

“Why don't you just tell her?” Harry asks, because it's becoming a bit ridiculous.

The weird thing is that Hemme isn't a bad person, from what Harry's seen. Granted, he's only been around them a few times, but it appears that the guy actually really likes Perrie. He seems to treat her well and she doesn't seem annoyed by him or anything. The problem is that he looks at Perrie like she hung the moon while she's shooting all of her starry glances at Zayn. Harry has a hard time understanding how someone as observant as Zayn doesn't realize that.

“It's gone too far,” Zayn admits. “Now that I know her and we're friends and everything, it'll be like I've been lying to her.”

“You have been lying to her,” Liam points out like the helpful asshole that he always is.

“Shut up, Liam. I didn't judge you,” Zayn snaps, but there's an obvious lack of conviction in his tone.

Harry kicks a foot out until it connects with Zayn's ankle. “Tell her,” he says. “It's going to be worse if she finds out from someone else.”

The look that Zayn shoots him is unamused, to say the least. “You'll understand if I don't take relationship advice from you right now.”

Fuck. Harry thought that he was doing better at hiding his own issues. He honestly thought that he had a pretty good handle on them. Obviously, he's not as smart as he sometimes likes to think.

“Whatever,” he says with a dismissive shrug. “It's not the first time I've liked someone more than they like me.”

“Yes it is,” Liam says.

With a whine that is more than a little embarrassing, Harry sags against Liam's shoulder and agrees. “Fuck, yes it is and I hate it.”

Zayn's eyes widen. “You think you like Louis more than he likes you?”

“Well, he certainly doesn't want to be seen with me, save for a few very specific locations.”

“Man, you can't blame him for wanting to go slow,” Zayn says.

Harry can, actually. “As you so aptly pointed out a minute ago, we are seventeen, Zayn. There is no 'slow' setting on my relationship dial.”

If Harry didn't already love Zayn, all of his huffing and puffing and condescending eye rolls would get really old, but sometimes he does have useful information. Like when he says, “All I know is that he gets super chatty when he's high and this is a new experience for him, so cut him some slack.”

Liam snorts and lets his eyes drift shut. “You should probably listen to him, mate. They're BFF's now, him and Louis.”

“Why don't you go cry about it to your new BFF Niall?” Zayn shoots back.

The tension between them bothers Harry – they're Liam and Zayn and if they don't tolerate each other more than they tolerate anyone else, the balance of the universe is completely off – but there is a more pressing issue at hand here. “Both of you cry about it later. We're talking about me here. What do you mean it's a new experience for him?”

Like the supportive and caring friend that he is absolutely not, Zayn just shrugs. “Not really my place to say.” When Harry growls, Zayn fixes him with a pointed stare. “Maybe you should, I don't know, talk to him about it yourself.”

“Like you talk to Perrie?” Liam inserts, sounding like a jealous and petulant brat.

“No, like you talk to your dad about all of your hopes and dreams,” Harry fires back, just as jealous and petulant because, honestly, that’s all any of them really are in the end. Sometimes he wonders why they're even friends when they spend so much of their time being dicks to each other. Sometimes he thinks that's probably the very reason right there.

Zayn just shakes his head and slips down off of his perch to press into Harry's other side. Harry stares down at Zayn's boots, at his own trainers, and rests his head on Liam's shoulder.

They sink into another contemplative silence until Harry says, “Maybe we should work on getting through the rest of the semester without exploding and then see where we are.”

Liam hums and then grunts as he pulls his knees up to his chest. “Speaking of, I've got a study group in twenty minutes.” He hops to his feet and presses a kiss into the top of Harry's head before reaching out to bump his fist against Zayn's.

“Love you, Li,” Harry calls, getting a hum of agreement from Liam as he disappears into the stair well. Turning, he claps a hand onto Zayn's thigh and says, “Love you, too, ya know?”

Zayn rolls his eyes again, but he's smiling when he says, “Yeah, yeah.”

With complete sincerity this time, Harry says, “Sorry I pushed you out of the boat.”

When Zayn wraps an arm around Harry's shoulder and pulls him in tight, Harry goes with it easily, snuggling into the familiar warmth of his friend. “It's alright,” Zayn assures him, his chin poking into Harry's shoulder. “I like having something to hold over your head.”

He can't really help laughing at that. It's fair and it's so Zayn, so familiar, that Harry finally feels himself settling down again.

 

*

Hiding himself away in the most remote corner of the library was not exactly Harry's plan for the afternoon, but Louis' finals are a week earlier than theirs and he's busy studying so Harry figures he might as well do the same.

He likes it back here, tucked away with the rare books that smell a little too musty for anyone else to get too close. He doesn't feel as guilty when his mind drifts from the subject at hand because nobody's watching him here. Chances are, nobody is watching Harry at any table in this library, but he likes to think he garners attention everywhere he goes. He's an arrogant shit sometimes, he can admit that.

The silence erupts with a booming, “Finally, Christ! I been looking everywhere for you!”

Harry drops his feet from the table and glares at Niall. “You realize this is a library, yes?”

“Yeah,” Niall confirms with a shrug.

His expression is blank when he slides into the seat across from Harry, as though he doesn't even know why Harry is asking.

“You are very loud,” Harry clarifies, his eyes drifting to the steaming, cardboard cup in Niall's hands.

“Yeah,” Niall agrees with another shrug before sliding the cup to Harry.

He takes it with a quirked eyebrow. “What is this?”

“Peace offering,” Niall says, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the table.

“Are we fighting?”

Sinking back in his chair, Niall says, “Please just read the cup and don't make me say it out loud.”

Glancing at the heat guard, Harry finds a couple of sentences in a familiar, messy scrawl. Study hard and do well. I miss you. Love, Louis. XXX He smiles so hard, he thinks his face might actually crack.

In a reverent whisper, Harry continues to stare at the words when he says, “Thanks, Niall.”

“He's never done this before, you know.”

“What? Bought someone coffee?”

“Had a boyfriend, you twat,” Niall says, as though Harry is the one making little sense right now.

“What?”

Launching forward again, as though staying in one place for too long is physically impossible, Niall says, “Twat. It's a slang term for -,”

“I know what a twat is, Niall,” Harry interrupts him. As has been the case since he was in middle school, he doesn't actually care about twat. “Louis' never had a boyfriend?”

“Nope,” Niall answers with an easy shake of his head. “I mean, he's had hook ups and stuff, but not an actual relationship with a guy. It's weird.” The fact that Harry thinks that sounds just a bit homophobic must show on his face because Niall snorts. “It's not weird that he has a boyfriend, idiot. It's weird that he has a you,” he says with a flopping hand gesture toward Harry. “A person he's, like, into enough to keep them around.”

Briefly, Harry wonders if this is what Zayn was talking about in the clock tower, if Harry should cut Louis some slack because he's never actually had a boyfriend before. He wonders if that's why he's so uncomfortable with bringing Harry into his world, dragging their relationship over to the other side of the pond. It's one thing to say that he likes boys, but it's another all together for them to see him with one.

“He's been sackin' me off to spend time with you and that is weird. Never did that with his girlfriends.”

“Sorry,” Harry apologizes, though it sounds half-hearted. On the one hand, he actually is sorry that Louis is losing time with Niall because Harry knows what it's like to feel like he never sees Zayn and Liam anymore. On the other, it's hard to feel bad about spending time with Louis.

Niall just taps the table, though. “Don't be sorry, man. He's happy with you.”

“Is he?” Harry wonders, more to himself than to Niall.

“Yes,” Niall answers anyway, reaching over the table to smack the back of Harry's head as he stands. “So don't fuck it up.”

Harry nods while Niall wanders off, mumbling too loudly about getting out before he's taken by the urge to read something.

The thing is, Harry thinks maybe he can deal with this new information. No, absolutely he can. He was so convinced that this distance between them was either all in his head or because Louis was somehow not as interested in Harry as Harry was in him. He didn't know how to begin a conversation about fixing those things, but a sexuality crisis he can deal with.

Digging his phone out of his bag, he quickly texts, Thanks for the coffee. 3 x's tho? Bit pornographic that.

The response is almost immediate, as though Louis has been sitting in his room, textbooks open, just waiting for Niall to deliver that coffee, squirming in his seat while he worries about Harry's response. The thought of writhing, squirming Louis sends his brain to a place it should not be in public so he taps his screen and smiles at Louis' words. Maybe it was meant to be.

The easy, flirtateous manner of Louis' texts and the gesture of the coffee are enough to lift Harry's spirit back to where they were before Thanksgiving.

You've got a dirty mind, Tomlinson. I like that in a guy.

The next response nearly gives Harry a heart attack. You haven't seen dirty yet, Styles. Just wait until after finals.

After finals. He attaches a series of suggestive emojis and sets about studying once again.

*
It comes out of nowhere, really.

They're in the boat house again, he and Louis, curled together in Professor Higgins' boat as has become their custom since the beginning. Louis is so soft and warm against his Harry's side, his hair so slick and clean between Harry's fingers.

“Niall says you've never had a boyfriend before,” he muses, more to himself like thoughts spoken aloud instead of an actual statement.

Louis huffs, barely a movement, as his fingers trace the skin of Harry's belly beneath the hem of his sweater. “Niall talks too much. Always has. Ol' Chatty Horan, that's what I like to call him.”

“Is that why you don't want anyone to know about us?” Harry asks and, really, he didn't mean to. He didn't even consider the question before it was out of his mouth. It just kind of happened.

Stiffening, Louis props himself up on an elbow and turns his face toward Harry, the shadows of the soft, overhead light yellow and pale on his skin. “What?” he asks, tilting his head like a confused puppy.

He's so cute, so perfectly adorable, that Harry swallows the question and shakes his head. “Nothing. Never mind,” he says, clearing his throat to push the rising panic away.

“No,” Louis insists, grunting a little as he pulls himself up, his entire body turning toward Harry now. “What are you talking about?”

“Nothing. It's silly.”

Louis tangles their fingers together. “Just talk to me, Harry.”

And maybe that's the breaking point. They talk about everything, interests and dreams and fantasies, but they don't talk about thoughts and feelings. It's just. They have better things to do when they're together, Harry figures.

Heaving a dramatic sigh, he stares at their joined hands, at Louis' considerably smaller one, and says, “I don't know. It just seems like we only ever meet up alone or with the boys, like never around your friends from school or your family or anything.”

“Harry,” Louis says in that tone Harry's mother uses when she thinks he's being a ridiculous little boy. The way he pushes Harry's curls from his eyes does not help with the comparison. “I'm not ashamed of you.”

“I don't think that,” Harry assures him, flinching away from his gentle touch just a bit. “I don't know. It's. I don't want you to be afraid of being seen with me.” In his head, this entire 'reassuring Louis' thing went a lot better, was loads easier.

He expects Louis to get defensive or to assure him that everything is fine. He doesn't expect a heavy sigh of defeat or for Louis to look away in something akin to shame. “It's not because you're a boy.”

Dammit. Fucking dammit.

For a week now, Harry has convinced himself that it was a gay thing, that Louis was freaking out about having a boyfriend and he has prepared himself for that. Without it, he's back to square one. Normally, he loves being right. At the moment, he'd give anything not to be.

“Oh,” he hears himself whisper, tugging his hand away and straightening his shoulders. “So it's just me then.”

“No,” Louis says loudly, too loudly in the silence of the empty shed. He grabs for Harry's hand and settles for holding his wrist. “Babe, it's not like that. It's just, I don't know. I think I've been wanting to make sure that it's a real thing before I drag everyone I know into it.”

Oh, so basically exactly what Harry has been fearing all along. Perfect.

“And you're not sure yet?”

Because Harry is sure. He is one hundred and thirty million percent sure that he is off of his ass in love with Louis. He knows it, like he knows his name and what he's supposed to do when he graduates. He knows and he's right back to that damn gas station again, except he knows for certain this time that they're not in the same place, that it’s not a silly doubt that exists only in his head.

Sighing, Louis relaxes his death grip on Harry's arm and sinks back into his side of the boat. “My girlfriend before, the one from Wilshire, I was with her for nearly an entire year. I'm a little gun-shy is all.”

The thing that sends him over the edge is not even the fact that Louis is unsure, really. It's hard to swallow, yeah, knowing he's the only one allowing himself to fall madly in love, but he thinks maybe he could get over that. What bothers him more is that he let himself believe they were past this, the idea that everyone who goes to that stupid school is exactly the same, that Harry is just like anyone else with a trust fund and an expensive car and an empire of cash that came years before him and has literally nothing to do with him. He stupidly allowed himself to believe that Louis saw him as a person.

He doesn’t whine or shout about it, though that’s exactly what Harry wants to do. That would make Louis’ point, though, prove that Harry is as obnoxious as a few of his classmates, as Louis thinks all of them are. Instead, he takes a deep breath and asks the question he’s not sure he wants an honest answer to at the moment.

“Do you think you'll ever get over it?” he asks.

“I hope so,” Louis answers with a soft, sweet, perfect smile.

“I do, too,” Harry agrees, though he can't do it with the same smile. “Because I don't know how long I can wait for you to figure out that we're not all the fucking same, Louis.”

Louis might look less horrified if Harry admitted to killing someone. “I know that,” he says, brow furrowing as his expression hardens, as though he's just now realizing that they're suiting up for a fight he hadn't seen coming. “Sometimes I think it's just impossible that we're going to be able to last, so I'm waiting to see if the other shoe is going to drop.” In a last ditch effort toward damage control, he reaches out for Harry again. “Guys like you don't happen to guys like me, Harry.”

“What does that even mean?” Harry asks, pulling his arm back.

“You know what it means.”

He does. Harry knows exactly what it means but he would like to hear Louis admit it for once, to say that Harry is never going to be able to overcome those stupid stereotypes, no matter how hard he tries or insists that they're untrue.

He swallows hard around the lump of realization blocking his throat. “Do you think it would be easier if we met at your school? If I was a kid that transferred in like that, maybe that grew up in this town and worked a weekend job to help pay bills?” It’s a roundabout way to approach the subject, but Harry is going to hear Louis say it if it kills him.

“I know I’m meant to say no, but I think it would, yeah,” Louis says, his voice barely a whisper in the cabin.

As it turns out, it absolutely does feel like it kills him.

It also angers Harry, the simple admission that he’d been prodding for all along. It would be easier for him if Louis didn’t have to work, if he didn’t need a job. It would be easier for Harry if Louis’ mom wasn’t already working two jobs and his stepdad hadn’t walked out on them and Louis didn’t feel this overwhelming obligation to take care of his family all of the time. Frankly, if he didn’t have those responsibilities, if he was more like Harry, he could stay the night and Harry could force him to sleep in that damned wet spot for a change.

“If you didn’t smell so bad after one of your matches, hugging you would be a lot easier for me,” he spits, climbing out of the boat and raking his hands through his hair.

Louis squints at him as though he has no idea what Harry’s talking about right now. “What?!” he nearly shouts, jumping out of his own side of the boat, the width of it a chasm between them. “You can’t just start a conversation in your head and expect me to take part in it midway through!”

“There are things that would make it easier for me, too, Louis. And every single one of those things you couldn’t change even if you wanted to, even if you loved me enough to try, it wouldn’t matter because they’re not yours to change!”

Harry doesn’t know where the miscommunication is happening. It all seems rather obvious to him. The things about Louis that he doesn’t like are unchangeable and he’s accepted that. He’s willing to move around them, to be annoyed without letting it be a roadblock preventing the forward progress of their entire relationship. Why can’t Louis see that Harry’s money and his enrollment at Wilshire and all of those other things that he’s so hung up on are completely out of Harry’s control, too?

“That’s hardly the same thing, is it?” Louis asks, his smile neither warm nor fond in the pale, setting sunlight drifting between the slats in the shed’s walls.

Dropping his head, Harry surrenders. He can’t fight it anymore, doesn’t know what else to offer that isn’t going to leave him an empty shell in the end. “It never is with us,” is all he says as he turns to leave.

“Where are you going?” Louis demands, only just gearing up for the fight Harry’s already finished.

At the door, Harry doesn’t let himself look back because he knows he’ll break. He’s already starting to crack and that hurts enough. “Back to my ivory tower.”

“Harry!” Louis calls after him, but Harry only continues to walk, can’t allow himself to stop. Louis was right about one thing. It’s only going to hurt more if they keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s better to just kick it off now.

*

Harry skips classes the next day, buries himself under his covers and prays that none of his teachers send the nurse to see him. Her family probably thinks she's a lovely woman but her hands are always freezing cold and her bedside manner is more suited to a maximum security prison. The fact that Niall doesn't try to coax him out of his cocoon of blankets tells Harry that Louis has probably already filled him in on all of the gritty details.

He stops himself from calling Louis to apologize more than once. His brain bounces back and forth constantly. One minute, he thinks he absolutely did the right thing for both of them. The next, he's sure that overreacted and wishes he could just go back and redo yesterday from the start. Then he reminds himself that Louis' had months to get over his issues and Harry can't make a person change his mind or his feelings. Then he remembers that he fucking loves Louis and walking away from someone he loves just because it's a little rocky right now is not an okay thing to do. After that, he's right back to thinking that he did the right thing for both of them and the cycle just never ends.

Sleeping isn't an option – every time he dreams, it's of Louis in various stages of undress – so he busies himself with playing video games and eating all of the ice cream from the freezer in the common room. He's not particularly proud of being a modified romantic comedy but, as REM so aptly put it, everybody hurts. Sometimes.

He's sitting in the window, staring out across the lake and wondering if it's frozen enough to walk on yet when the door flies open and Zayn steps in with a smile so big and so completely out of character it actually sends a shock of panic through Harry's chest.

“So I don't know if you've heard,” Zayn starts, kicking the door shut and holding his arms up in victory, “but someone in this room is taking Perrie to the Holiday Formal.”

The panic gives way to pride but Harry just raises an eyebrow and turns his attention fully to his friend. “Am I?”

But Zayn just shakes his head and chuckles. “No, my friend. You are not.”

Resting his feet on the chair under the window, Harry leans his elbows against his knees and shakes his head. “So you finally told her the truth.”

“I did,” Zayn confirms and flings himself onto Harry's bed. “My voice was shaking and it was massively embarrassing but I finally got it all out and she could have been completely and utterly pissed off but she was so cool and awesome and amazing and so I asked her to the formal and she said yes and now it's going to be the best night of my miserable life.” He finally stops, heaves a deep breath, and narrows his eyes at the soft smile Harry is giving him. “What?”

“I think that's more than you've spoken in the four years I've known you.”

Zayn shrugs as though it's nothing. “I'm excited.”

He should be. That fate he's been waiting on all this time finally came through for him. Harry thinks, if it were anyone other than Zayn, he would be bitter. “Congratulations, man.”

Standing again, almost as though sitting in any one place for too long is going to ruin his good mood, Zayn claps his hands together and heads for the door. “So I'm thinking we can double up for dinner, yeah? You and Louis. Me and Perrie. It'll be a laugh.”

It hurts to admit it, but Harry just drops his head and says, “Sorry, Zayn. Think you're on your own this time.”

“Why?”

Because even before the fight, Harry wasn't going to bother Louis with something he absolutely would not want to do. “It's not really his thing, is it?”

“Are you being an asshole?”

Swallowing his first, most indignant response, Harry shrugs his conceit. “Probably, but I feel like it's justified.”

Zayn takes a step forward and says, “It's probably not.”

“I can't do it,” Harry admits out loud for the first time, sounding much more final than he felt when he walked away yesterday. He waits for Zayn to squish into the window seat at his side and then he says, “I wanted to. Fuck, you have no idea how badly I wanted to. I can't, though. It's too big and not knowing if he'll ever come around to feeling it too is crushing me.”

“And if you give it any more time, you're afraid it will only get worse,” Zayn deduces because, for as much as Liam has known him longer, Harry knows that Zayn understands more than he usually lets on. He slips an arm around Harry's waist and rests his chin on Harry's shoulder. “What if it doesn't, bro? What if you give it time and he actually does come around?”

Even as he answers - “I don't know if it's worth the risk” - the words feel awkwardly misshapen in Harry's mouth.

*

The hardest part of fighting with Louis is thinking of him approximately twenty thousand times in a day and not being able to text him or run out to see him and let him know. The second hardest part of fighting with Louis is living with his best friend.

Harry can't blame Niall for being upset with him for what happened, but it would be nice if he would at least acknowledge Harry’s presence on occasion. He doesn't even really need an acknowledgment. It would just be nice to know that his roommate isn't going to spend their upcoming, holiday break brainstorming ways to kill Harry in his sleep next semester or, worse, deciding to move out. Harry's had enough roommates, thanks. He'd like this one to stick.

“Are you ever going to talk to me again?” he asks suddenly one night when they're both studying for their last finals. After that, it's the Winter Formal and then freedom.

“No,” Niall answers, his eyes never leaving his text book. “It's got nothing to do with Louis, either. I'll owe you a punch in the face later for that one, but that's your business. I wouldn't just stop talking to ya because of it.”

So that probably rules out murder while he's sleeping. Harry tosses his book aside and leans back against his headboard. “Then what is it, man?”

Snapping his book shut, Niall glares. It's disconcerting since Harry didn't even know Niall was capable of glaring. “This is our first gig, Harry. If my friend is too much of an asshole to show up for it, I got nothin' to say to him.”

Shit. Liam petitioned the Formal committee – more like agreed to take the chairperson, Carly, to the dance if she agreed – to let his and Niall's new band be the entertainment for at least part of the night. Along with Niall's friend, Josh, and another kid from one of his music classes, a sophomore named Justin, they're going to be playing seven original songs in the middle of the dance. Harry isn't convinced that they're going to be all that great – they've only been a band for about two weeks – but he's not so cynical that he can't acknowledge it's a big deal.

It's just that he doesn't want to be there at all if he can't be there with Louis. Maybe that's selfish, but Harry doesn't think he can stand three hours of sitting alone on the fringes of a party he doesn't even want to be at. He does that enough back in New York.

“There'll be other gigs, Niall,” he assures his friend.

But Niall isn't having it if the roll of his eyes is any indication. “Not other first ones, you assfaced idiot.”

Goddammit. He doesn't want to go. He's nearly ready to whine and pout and throw a tantrum about it, but in his guts he knows that Niall is right. Being a supportive friend takes priority over pining all night.

Standing, he wipes his hands on his jeans and takes a step toward Niall's desk. “Alright, I'll go,” he says.

The light from Niall's smile is explosive as he scrambles up from his chair and charges toward Harry, using the element of surprise to knock him flat on his ass and to land one hell of a punch to his jaw.

It's not the kindest 'thank you' Harry has ever received, if he's honest.

“That was for Louis,” Niall tells him, grabbing both sides of Harry's face in his hands and planting a quick, dry kiss right on Harry's mouth. He pulls back and he's still smile. “And that's for me and Li.”

And then, as Niall is wont to do, he parks himself back at his desk and continues studying like nothing happened while Harry lies on the floor and wonders what the hell even is his life anymore.

*

It's like deja vu all over again when Harry walks into Liam's room on the night of the formal and finds him hunched over a bag on the floor.

“More fireworks?” he asks, smiling when Liam jumps and spins, nearly toppling over in the process.

When he's collected himself, he stands and makes a show of checking Harry out from head to toe. With a father at the forefront of fashion, he's not exactly hurting for well-tailored, smartly designed formalwear, Harry's not.

“Look at you, Mr. Bond,” Liam teases, eyes flitting to the top of Harry's quiffed hair. “I think I like the hair better in your face, though.”

Harry runs his fingers through the high arch of his curls and scrunches his nose. “D'you think? They make me look fourteen like that.”

With an easy going smile, Liam turns back to his own mirror and debates between a button down shirt and a long-sleeved baseball tee. “You look good, Harry,” he assures.

“Nervous?” Harry asks, slipping in behind Liam at the mirror to steal the button down and toss it on the bed. “You should be comfortable up there.” Liam's never been as comfortable buttoned up to his throat as Harry always has been.

“I'm about to throw up, mate,” Liam confides, turning and leaning into Harry's hands on his shoulders. “What was I thinking?”

Tilting forward until their heads meet in the middle, Harry smiles as brightly and as genuinely as he can. Just because his own heart is breaking doesn't mean that he's going to let it overshadow his best friend's big night. “You're going to be amazing,” he promises, catching his own bottom lip between his teeth like it's some sort of secret just between them.

Liam rests his hands on Harry's waist, his boyish grin of excitement spreading over his face until it practically swallows his eyes. “I'm really glad you're going to be there.”

While he wants to say he wouldn't miss it for the world, Harry is interrupted by the obnoxious ringing of his phone in his pocket. He steps away from Liam and fishes it out, only to see Louis' name on a text across the front of his screen.

I need you at my house right away.

Before he finishes reading that message, another comes through on its heels.

You know I wouldn't ask if it wasn't an emergency.

“Um, I have to go,” Harry stammers, backing toward the door. It never occurs to him not to leave immediately.

He's nearly to the door when Liam calls out, “Harry, wait. Take this.”

“What is it?” Harry asks, zeroing in on the garment bag Liam was packing when he walked in. “What do you want me to do with it?”

“It's my suit, for after we perform. Just hold on to it for me.”

“Why?” Harry asks. “Liam, I don't even know if I'll make it back in time. I don't know what I'm-”

“Just take the fucking thing and go, alright?” Liam shouts, eyes bugging as he thrusts the bag toward Harry again. “Hurry!”

He pushes Harry out the door and, if Harry's heart wasn't beating in his throat with the fear that something has happened to Louis, that he's going to find him bleeding in the hallway of his house or something, he would seriously worry about Liam. One boy at a time, that's all Harry has time for right now.

*

By the time Harry makes it across town – he may break a few speed laws, and possibly the sound barrier – he's convinced himself that he's going to find someone dead. He's not sure if Louis has killed someone or if he's actually the corpse, but he knows it's going to be bleak. He doesn't know how a dead man sends a text, either, but logic isn't exactly working side-by-side with panic here.

He screeches to a halt in the driveway and runs toward the front door, drawing up short and nearly slamming into Louis when the door is thrown open in his face. So he's alive. Harry honestly doesn't know if that's the best or worst news.

Best, obviously it's the best. If Louis has, indeed, murdered someone, Harry can work with that. At least he's still alive. Or something. Harry would give anything to be able to breathe properly right now, but Louis is alive and his eyes are rimmed red. There are tear tracks on his cheeks, caught glittery in the porch light. Jesus.

“What is it?” Harry demands in lieu of a proper greeting.

Louis just grabs his wrist and drags him into the house, through a small entry and into the living room, stopping beside a wide array of unopened trinkets and toys, colorful clothes and shoes, and neatly organized beauty products.

Oh, fuck. It seems like a lifetime ago that Sam and Lou helped him pick all of this stuff out for Louis' sisters. He covers his mouth with his hands and wills himself to take a much needed, calming breath.

“Louis, I'm sorry,” he starts, raking his fingers through his hair, unable to take his eyes away from the scene at his feet. Everything has been meticulously sorted and laid out, scrutinized, and Harry can't blame Louis for being angry. He'd meant to warn him that this was coming. “I forgot that they were being delivered today. I would have,” he stops himself and shakes his head. “Well, actually, no I wouldn't have canceled it because regardless of what's happening with us, your sisters still deserve to have gifts, but-,”

He's mercifully cut off from his rambling by Louis' mother stepping around the stacks to wrap him in a hug so tight it steals all of the breath he's just regained. Her tears are warm against his neck, her 'thank you' muffled by her lips on his shoulder. He pats her back and looks to Louis, but Louis is still staring at the ground.

When Louis' mom finally releases him, Harry explains, “You said not to get you anything for Christmas, but you didn't say anything about the rest of them. We said we'd make memories for each other and, well, I thought. I don't know, man, but I know how much they mean to you and you said it was hard to get them more than one thing, so I thought maybe the best way to-,” he stops again when Louis doesn't meet his eye. To Louis' mom he says, “If anything doesn't fit or it's the wrong color or they just hate it or want something else, please let me know. I'll replace it. I can make it right.”

The words feel heavy with more, another meaning that Harry hadn't realized he was feeling until it's already out there.

“Everything is perfect. Just perfect. Thank you, Harry, so much.” She hugs him again and then pulls away, wiping at her eyes and sniffling. “Just thank you.”

Harry nods, unsure of what else he's supposed to do. This is new territory for him. “You're welcome,” he finally says when he remembers at least one of his manners.

Clapping her hands together, Louis' mom sniffles one last time and then releases a long, laughing breath. “Alright, I have blubbered on long enough. I am going to go hide these things before I pick the girls up.” She turns to Louis and snaps her fingers. “You need to go get dressed.”

She's up the stairs before Louis approaches Harry and tugs on the garment bag in his hand. Harry didn't even realize he'd grabbed it out of the car until right now.

“I think that's for me,” Louis says, offering Harry a tentative smile and rushes up the stairs with the bag in hand.

Harry has no idea what's happening. Seriously, he's had dreams that made more sense than whatever is going on right now. He would like to take advantage of the fact that he's in Louis' house for the first time, that he's just met Louis' mother, and that he was invited here tonight. He should take the opportunity to wander the room, to look at the old pictures of young Louis and his sisters, to collect ammo for the next time Louis decides to get smart with him. That, of course, would indicate that there's going to be a next time and, until ten minutes ago, Harry would have said that he didn't want that. He would have said that it was an impossibility, really.

Now he doesn't know what the hell is going on and moving from this one spot feels like it might bring the entire fabric of reality crumbling down around him. Or maybe it has already started to fall. That would explain this entire evening better than anything else Harry's come up with to this point.

Before he can spiral any further into his own thoughts, there are thundering footsteps on the stairs. Louis emerges in a suit that is clearly borrowed – from Liam, no less, who obviously knew this was going to happen and played a part in it, that sneaky asshole - and it's too large, but Harry thinks he looks pretty damn good anyway.

“It's a bit broad through the shoulders,” Louis says when he reaches the bottom of the stairs, his hands lost in the length of the sleeves. “Maybe I should have asked Niall for some pants that weren't eight sizes too long,” he adds, kicking his feet and shrugging his shoulders shyly when he meets Harry's eye. “My best friend is playing his first gig tonight. I'm not missing that,” he explains. “And since I can't get into this fancy affair without an escort, I was kind of hoping that you would...”

He trails the end of the sentence away and Harry swallows hard while nodding. Of course Louis wants to see Niall play. He could have asked Niall to escort him, Harry thinks, but he didn't. He asked Harry. It probably doesn't mean anything. Harry probably shouldn't get his hopes up.

So he just says, “Yeah, sure, of course,” and walks out of the house before his legs decide they don't know how to move again.

Maybe he should just hand his keys over to Louis right now, Harry thinks as they approach the car. It's possible he's fallen and hit his head very hard at some point that he doesn't remember. It's as good an explanation for this bizarro night as any.

*

The hotel hosting the formal is thirty miles and two towns away, since nothing in the immediate area lives up to Wilshire's standards or something. It didn't seem that far before Harry had Louis in his passenger's seat and spent the last twenty minutes wondering if he should say something or just let the silence continue to hang like thick, suffocating fog between them.

He's not even thinking about Louis really. Well, he is, but he can't get the rest of the evening out of his head, either, the way all of his friends have conspired to get him in this car with this boy tonight. The entire thing reeks of Liam, not just the covert 'here, hold my suit for me, oops that's for Louis' part. If Harry were a betting man, he would put odds on Zayn telling Liam that Harry wasn't planning on going to the dance. Liam then decided that not only was Harry going, but he was going to take Louis with him. He probably called Louis and offered him the suit and the idea to text Harry with an emergency right before the dance. Liam knows well that Harry would drop everything and run to the aid of a friend in need. From there, he probably talked Niall into the whole 'roommate guilt trip' angle and, boom, everything was in place.

Harry suspects that the gifts were just a happy coincidence in the path of a much greater ruse. For the life of him, he can't figure out if he feels betrayed or flattered, though.

“I want you to know that I get it,” Louis finally says when they're only a few miles from the venue.

They're running a bit late, but Zayn texted to say that Niall and Liam weren't on yet, so Harry is taking his time. In his current state of mind, he's pretty sure he would run the car off of the road if he didn't force himself to slow down anyway.

When he doesn't say anything in response to Louis' statement, Louis goes on. “I know why you walked away now. I put you in a box with my past experiences and preconceived notions and that wasn't fair to you. I do understand that.”

At the next stoplight, Harry risks a glance at Louis and finds him leaning against the door, body turned slightly toward Harry, a sweet, soft smile on his handsome face. He wants so badly to say something, but he's genuinely at a loss.

“Alright, so I didn't really get it until my mom sat me down and wheedled the whole story out of me that night, after you left me in the boat house,” Louis admits, chuckling a bit as he cuts his attention to the light, now turning green again.

Harry eases through the intersection and prepares to turn at the next light, allowing that statement alone to settle into his brain. Even after Harry did exactly what Louis was afraid he would do, Louis still chose to tell his mother about them. It wasn't supposed to matter anymore, but it did.

“I was already trying to figure out how to tell you that, and then all of those packages came today,” Louis goes on. “And I wanted to be angry with you, I really did. I wanted to think you were showing off or proving that you're better than me or any of those things I've always thought that people like you do, but I just wasn't. I couldn’t be mad. I thought I had it all figured out, ya know, but I should have known, I think. I mean, from the beginning, you've been completely unexpected, so it shouldn't have overwhelmed me as much as it did, but you're such a genuinely good person, Harry. What you choose to do with what you've been given, with what you can't change? It's noble.”

“I'm not a saint,” Harry hears himself saying before he really thinks about it. He grabs a ticket at the hotel parking garage and then says, “I didn't do it because of some grand benevolence for your sisters. I did it to impress you.”

“Yeah, but there were other things that would have impressed me, too,” Louis argues. “You could have tried to learn to kick a soccer ball without falling over. I mean, I don't think it would have worked, but the effort would have impressed me. You could have written me a poem or something, I don't know. There were other things you could have done.”

Harry has never written a poem in his life. Well, there was one in third grade, about bananas and the ocean but he's resolved never to speak of that again, so he wasn't ever going to write Louis a poem.

Once the car is parked, Harry kills the engine and sinks back in his seat. There are so many flashes in his mind right now, faces that he's looked at tonight and things that have been said. It's going to take the entirety of his holiday break to sort through them all.

“Today, when I was standing there and looking at all of those things you bought, I kept thinking about how different we are because you spent an entire day shopping for amazing gifts that will delight four girls you've never even met. And you can think you did it to impress me, but you said that you wouldn't have canceled it because everyone deserves more than one present at Christmas, not because you wanted in my pants. I've seen you smile at the people who are shit to you, myself included. This entire semester, you've been working your ass off to earn the gap year you want instead of assuming that someone is going to hand it to you. Liam and Zayn have both warned me, in rather graphic detail might I add, that if you give me a second chance and I fuck it up somehow, they will actually, literally kill me and I really do believe them. You don't just buy that kind of loyalty, not from guys who have just as much in their own trust funds.”

Harry wants to argue that there's no way Zayn's trust fund is as big as Harry's or Liam's, but now hardly seems to be the time. All of his words seemed to be lodged behind this enormous lump in his throat anyway, so it's all for the best.

Tentatively, Louis reaches for Harry's hand. His fingers are shaking when he threads them with Harry's and squeezes firmly. Since the day they met, Louis has been one of the most confident people Harry has ever met. This insecurity, this hesitance, doesn't belong. The urge to wrap an arm around him, to comfort him and reassure him, sweeps over Harry with staggering power but his body couldn't move right now if he tried. Instead, he settles for squeezing Louis' hand and looking through the windshield at the concrete wall in front of the car.

Louis' breath shakes audibly before he continues. “You are one of the most genuinely good people I have ever met, Harry. You're worlds better than I am and that has nothing to do with our economic backgrounds. I just wanted you to know that I get that and I guess that I'm glad I got the chance to know you, even if you avoid me as soon as we get out of this car.”

Avoid him? Harry can't move, let alone run away. He's nauseous thinking about letting go of Louis' hand right now. He's not going to run away. Not right now. Not again.

Blinking, Harry lets his eyes meet Louis' for the first time since they left his house. “I'm right here,” he says, voice barely rising above a whisper.

“Yes, because we tricked you into it,” Louis counters with a smile that Harry dares to think is a bit hopeful.

So he rolls his eyes and tugs on Louis' hand a bit. “I could have ignored that text, Louis,” he says, leaning forward to rest his elbow on the console between them. “If I didn't want to be here with you, I wouldn't be.” Adding that he doesn't do much he doesn't want to do makes him sound like an entitled ass, so he keeps that part to himself, though it doesn't make it any less true.

Goddammit, he just looks so fragile, like no matter how strong he's trying to be, he's still terrified that this entire thing is going to shatter. Before, Harry could be angry with him for that and it felt justified. Now he knows that the fear is a result of already watching Harry walk away once, of not knowing whether it's about to happen again.

Maybe it's the courage Louis has shown so far, the way he's so honestly admitting that he was wrong and he wants this to work again, that prods Harry into doing the same. Maybe he's just tired of pretending he hasn't dreamt of this day for the last week.

“I don't think anyone has ever looked at me like your mom did tonight,” he says, clearing his throat around the emotions threatening to spill over. “It was like I did something that really meant something. I mean, don't get me wrong, I know my parents love me. This is not me complaining about them not being around or pushing me too hard or any of those other cliches that Gossip Girl shows you or whatever.”

He stops short to sniffle, doesn't even realize he's been tearing up until Louis reaches over to wipe a thumb against the corner of Harry's eye. If he can just stop himself from breaking down completely, put his thoughts together and make Louis understand something, he'll call the night a success. Right now, his thoughts are so jumbled but he knows he'll never get it out if he stops trying now.

“It's just, like I bought Zayn a painting for Christmas, right? And I know he'll love it. He'll appreciate that I thought of him and that I know his tastes well enough to choose something that he actually likes instead of grabbing some print of Dogs Playing Poker, like his ex-girlfriend did a few years ago. But I think, I don't know, on some subconscious level, he's going to know that he could have gotten it for himself, that if he'd have seen it first he would have gotten it for himself. Or, like, I could send my mom a text, just to let her know that I'm thinking about her, and she would love it. She would text me back and tell me that she loves me and it would be perfectly nice, but people tell her that she's beautiful all the time. She used to be a model for fuck's sake. People tell her they love her all the time. It's just. I don't know, Louis. I don't want to make it sound like nobody in my world appreciates me or anything I do for them.”

Louis' fingers are cold against his lips when he presses his hand to Harry's mouth. “I get it,” he assures him before he pulls his hand back to his own lap again.

“I just know that I like being able to do things for you, things that I wouldn't be able to do if I lived over on your side of the pond. And I also like that you can give me this motivation to keep working hard and this perspective on life that you wouldn't be able to if you lived on my side, ya know? I've never had to be more than my family's name for anyone before,” he admits, unsure of whether or not that's going to sound like a good thing to Louis, though it feels like a revelation in Harry's mind. “Maybe I've never gotten to be more than that. If everything was exactly the same, it would be completely different.”

Louis' laughter is explosive inside the car and Harry smiles as well because it does sound stupid.

“I just meant-,” he starts, but Louis shakes his head and squeezes his hand again.

“I know what you meant, dummy,” he says with so much affection, Harry thinks his heart might break in half from the weight of it.

“Alright, fine,” Harry concedes. “I know we come from different worlds, Lou, but I don't think it makes us less compatible.” There, that might actually make some sense.

Leaning forward until his face is just inches from Harry's, Louis says, “I love you,” with so much sincerity, it nearly knocks Harry back.

“Do you?” he asks, licking his lips and feeling Louis' breath on the tip of his tongue.

“I really do,” Louis says, his eyes crossing a bit when they steal a glance at Harry's lips.

“Is that enough?” Harry asks, because he wants to believe it but he's the one who needs assuring this time.

If the kiss Louis presses, slow and sure and so, so lovely, onto Harry's mouth is any indication, Harry thinks they'll be fine.

He finally allows himself to breathe easily when Louis pulls back and says, “Let's find out, shall we?”

*

Whoever decided that a high school dance should be scheduled the night before Holiday break begins and that it should be held in a upscale hotel is either a genius or a lunatic, Harry thinks. The rooms were booked solid when he stopped at the front desk to inquire after one and there was no way Zayn was giving his up, not with the way Perrie looked in her little purple dress tonight.

Even Niall and Liam – who are supposed to be Harry's and Louis' best friends in the world – refuse to give up a room they booked together, a room they plan to use for an all-night jam session, to aid their friends in getting laid. They're worthless to Harry right now.

The biggest drawback to attending a private boarding school full of rich kids with credit cards is that there is no amount of money in the world that they would willingly exchange for getting drunk and laid after a high school dance. Assholes, the lot of them.

“Look on the bright side, love,” Louis says as he and Harry are driving back to Wilshire on a dark, deserted road just after midnight. “If they're all there, crammed into rooms beside, above, and below each other, they still have to be as quiet and careful as they are back home.” He leans as far over the center console as his seat belt will allow and grabs Harry's earlobe between his teeth. “Means we've got the whole of your building to ourselves and we can be as loud and filthy as we want to be.”

At the moment, Harry is finding Louis' optimism incredibly sexy.

*

Louis wasn’t kidding about the loud and the filthy.

He’s stripping off before they even reach Harry’s room, Liam’s tuxedo left in a heap by his room door before continuing on to Harry’s room in nothing but his neon green briefs and his socks. Harry is sure he’s never seen Louis smile as brightly as he does when he flings himself on Harry’s bed and wiggles his eyebrows playfully.

“Make sure we’re really alone, Harold,” he says, nimble little fingers tracing a path from his left nipple to his belly button and back.

If he’s honest, Harry would much rather just stay right here and follow the same patch across Louis’ torso with his tongue, but he does as Louis requests - because of course he does - running up and down the hall, banging on every door and causing enough raucous to wake the dead. When no one answers or tells him to shut the fuck up, he takes it to mean they are, indeed, alone.

He returns to his room and Louis wastes no time leaping onto him, knocking them both to the floor, slowly grinding against Harry while telling him all of the things he wants to do before the night is over. Harry is still wearing his tuxedo trousers and his shirt, and they’re both ruined by the mere promise of Louis’ tongue in his ass later.

After a couple of hours, things take a bit of a dodgy turn. Louis is sprawled across Niall’s desk, sweating and flushed, writhing and begging, with his legs wrapped around Harry’s head. He’s riding Harry’s fingers, beyond the ability to talk as he whimpers and moans in the most delicious of ways, while Harry sucks gently at the head of his cock.

Harry murmurs gentle encouragements until he hears Louis’ breath catch just so. “Want you to come on my face, Lou, yeah? Can you do that for me, babe? Mess me up? Get me all dirty for you, Louis, please,” he says.

Louis growls, fingers tangling in Harry’s hair as Harry pulls off his cock and begins to stroke it with a fury. He opens his mouth against the head, smacking his own lips with Louis’ dick until Louis comes with a long, curse-filled shout and tugs so hard on Harry’s hair that Harry is sure he’s going to have a couple of bald spots in the morning.

The hair pulling isn’t the problem, though. As it turns out, that’s better than fine. Harry likes it, maybe more than he ever imagined he could like having his hair pulled while someone calls his mouth a goddamn glorious fuckhole frankly - Louis is at his most creative when he orgasms, Harry thinks - but it’s not until they’re both nearly passed out, Louis on the desk and Harry on the floor, panting and laughing, that Harry realizes what’s actually happened.

He turns his head to reach for Louis’ ankle when he sees Niall’s composition book, one of the many that litter most surfaces of their room since he and Liam started their band. More specifically, he sees the disgusting glob of his own come across the pages of a song they were working on yesterday.

“Oh fuck,” he gasps and then laughs because, shit, Niall is going to kill him but it’s maybe the funniest thing he’s ever seen at the moment.

Louis slides off the desk, all boneless and warm and soft as he cuddles into Harry’s side. “What’re you laughing at, hm?” he asks in a wrecked whisper, his lips momentarily erasing everything else from Harry’s brain as they work along the column of his neck.

He flops one arm against the floor, nodding slightly toward the book, a flush flooding his chest when Louis laughs. “Don’t think that’s what Liam meant when he wrote the line ‘cover me in your love’ yesterday,” he says.

He’s more proud than apologetic when Louis barks a laugh and bites at his earlobe. At some point, he’ll make it up to the lads, buy them something expensive and lovely to make up for what will inevitable earn him a punch to the balls when Niall discovers that mess.

For now, he has more pressing matters to attend to.

*

“It's nearly four,” Harry whispers against Louis' neck, instantly distracted by licking the salty taste of sweat from Louis' skin.

Louis hums and rolls his body toward Harry's, wedging his thigh high and tight between Harry's legs. If he didn't think his dick might weep at any attempt to do more right now, Harry would definitely do something about that thigh. As it is, he's exhausted. Turns out, four hours and more than a couple orgasms will do that to even the most spry of teenagers.

He trails a finger over the curve of Louis' bicep and dips his head to press a kiss to the swell of it before he asks, “Do you need to get home?”

“Not tonight,” Louis mumbles into Harry's chest.

“Really?” It's possible Harry sounds a bit excited by that news.

Louis rolls onto his back with an exaggerated grunt, but there's no denying the bright happiness behind his eyes when he opens them to meet Harry's gaze. “Yes, really,” he says, laughing in that breezy, fucked out way that turns Harry’s insides to goo. “Finals are over and my mom has tomorrow off. She knows where I am, so unless you want me to go-,”

“Never,” Harry interrupts, draping himself across Louis' body until Louis tickles his side.

What's Harry supposed to do then? It's not like there's an option outside of kissing Louis breathless or, if there is, Harry can't actually think of it right now, so kissing it is.

Suddenly, he remembers something, bolting upright in the bed so quickly that the momentum nearly carries him over the edge. He flails and yelps like the extraordinarily graceful flop that he is, laughing right along with Louis when he finally rights himself and pushes the hair out of his face.

“Alright, so I'm heading home tomorrow,” Harry says. “Or later today, I guess.”

Louis' face falls a bit, his eyebrows narrowing. “Way to ruin the moment, asshole.”

“Shut up, we're not having a moment. You already fucked all the emotion outta me. I'm physically incapable of having a moment with you right now,” Harry retorts, pivoting at the waist to drop over the side of the bed and feel around underneath it.

It should make Harry nervous, the way Louis asks, “Is that so?” while running a finger down the knobs of Harry's spine. He's busy looking for a perfectly wrapped box with a lovely red bow, though, so it's a bit shocking when Louis pokes at Harry's tender hole with a pointed finger.

The sound he makes might not be the most masculine, but he can't be bothered to care because he's sore and that fucking hurt. “You're such a dick,” he finally says, shaking his head as he sets the present between them. “I'm half tempted not to give you this now.”

Louis looks skeptically at the box and then at Harry, propping himself up on an elbow. “You weren't supposed to get me anything.”

“For Christmas, yes,” Harry agrees, smug as he can possibly be when he adds, “There were no birthday rules.”

“Oh fucking hell,” Louis shouts, falling back onto the pillows and covering his face with both hands. He laughs then, blinking at the ceiling and then rolling his head to see Harry again. “You're impossible.”

Harry smiles cheekily and nods. “And I sorted your sisters out, so no selling this one.”

“Oh, alright,” Louis concedes, struggling to push some of the blankets away as he sits and leans against the headboard. With both arms extended, he wiggles his fingers and says, “Gimme.”

Lifting the box, Harry hesitates before handing it over. “Promise me you will keep an open mind,” he says.

“What did you do?”

“Just promise me.”

It's possible that he got Louis the one thing he'll like more than Harry's mouth on his dick. It's also possible that, at auction or to a private collector, it could fetch a pretty hefty pricetag.

Rolling his eyes dramatically, Louis heaves a sigh and says, “Fine. Hand it over.”

Harry watches as Louis tears into the gift, smiles as he stares at the brand new soccer ball inside the box, and then laughs when the realization of it all dawns on Louis' face.

“Is this actually-,”

“Mmhmm,” Harry hums his affirmation, his smile so wide that he thinks his face might crack.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Louis asks, looking up at Harry with the widest eyes Harry has ever seen. “This must have cost-”

“It cost ten dollars, Lou,” Harry tells him and, yeah, it's tacky to tell someone how much you spent on their birthday gift, but it's just a fucking soccer ball. Or it was before Harry called in a favor from one of his dad's friends.

“Okay, but it's worth a fortune,” Louis says, eyes drawn back to the ball in his hands.

Harry just smiles, remembering something as clearly as if Niall was saying it right now. “Good thing value isn't based on what you pay for something then, isn't it?”

Louis' fingers run gingerly, so carefully, over the signature on the ball and then he looks at Harry again. “Did you actually meet him then?”

No, Harry has not actually met David Beckham. “His publicist is a friend of my dad's. He did a spread for the magazine last spring, so I made a few calls but, no, I've not met him. Even my life isn't that charmed, Lou.”

When Louis looks up, Harry thinks his heart may stop short in his chest. He's just so beautiful, especially when he's so incredibly happy. “Still,” Louis says, gripping tightly to the box that the ball is in, as though he'd rather die than let it go. “It's not bad.”

Harry shifts to his knees and then tips forward, careful not to nudge the gift in Louis' lap, afraid for his life if he accidentally dislodges it from Louis' grip right now. “It has it's perks,” he says, closing the gap between them to press a kiss to Louis' mouth. “Happy early birthday, Lou.”

He pulls away and settles onto his back. Louis carefully sets the box on Harry's bedside table and then launches himself onto Harry, legs tangling painfully with Harry's and his elbows digging into Harry's chest and stomach. He sucks at the side of Harry's neck, biting and licking against the column of his throat and, fuck, but Harry thought he was done for the night. Turns out, his dick's a trouper, halfway to hard again when Louis rakes his fingernails over Harry's nipples.

“Ya know,” Harry starts, tilting his head to give Louis more access to his throat. “I'd have taken a simple thank you.”

Louis looks up, lips swollen and wet, hair mussed, cheeks flushed. “Simple thank yous are for when your gran knits you a sweater or your sister draws you a picture in school. Personally autographed David Beckham soccer balls that include my fucking name and a personal message deserve so much sex you won't be able to sit on that train tomorrow.”

And, really, who is Harry to argue with that?