Louis cringed. Harry was staring moodily at the floor, twisting and untwisting his fingers -- long and oddly elegant for a rancher; Louis was still fighting not to think about them. Instead he dug around in his memory. Something about this situation felt so familiar…
Right, he sighed. Long Prairie, Minnesota. Ted Petersen. Their mothers had become best friends when Louis was about ten years old and they’d thought it would be cute (or at least convenient) if their sons were friends, too. It meant that Louis had been packed up and delivered to the kid’s house for compulsory sleepovers whenever they wanted to have a wine night. “Louis doesn’t mind staying over,” his mom would lie brightly into the kitchen phone, twisting the curly cord around her thumb. “I know; they get along so well. Teddy really keeps him out of trouble.” He remembered her hand between his shoulder blades, warm through his flannel pajamas, guiding him up the stairs to Ted’s room. Remembered the apologetic air he’d desperately try to project as Ted looked up from his computer, annoyance written all over his features every time.
“Play nice, kids,” she’d say. “Don’t have too much fun.”
Then the door would close, and Ted would ignore him. Louis would sit in the corner, curled in on himself, wiggling his toes and toying with the hem of his jammies, not allowed to touch any of the books or games in Ted’s room.
That’s what this felt like. But with all the added pressure of actually being an adult, and having to do a job, preferably in a somewhat socially acceptable manner. No corners to hide in.
“This is…” he started, just as Harry finally looked up and said, “Supper?”
“I’m sorry,” Louis said quickly, feeling tense and awkward. "About this whole situation." He’d been an idiot to think that they were flirting, earlier; clearly that was not how this story was going to play out. No one flirts with an unwanted house guest.
“No, don’t be,” Harry waved him away, but there was a whiff of play nice, kids in his voice. He was smoothing things over. “My mom’s stubborn; I told you. Especially about money stuff.” He rolled his shoulders, bringing one hand up to push on a deltoid and flexing his neck, as though he were trying to unknot some tension. “Mrs. Burden’ll have supper on soon. She’s the housekeeper. Niall helps her out in the kitchen most nights; between the two of them they almost make one good cook.”
Harry smiled weakly and rather hopefully up at him, and Louis could tell he’d tried out that joke before, on previous houseguests. “Eat with us?” he asked. “Maggie’ll be there; you can meet her and then I bet she’ll help get you set up with a few things.” Finally a bit of brightness sparked in his eyes, and his wind-chapped lips parted in a more genuine smile.
Louis felt polite, wry amusement flicker over his features, almost an involuntary response. “Sure,” he said, with an odd flutter in his chest. Sure I’ll eat with you. Sure I’ll meet this Maggie person, who you haven’t mentioned before but who is clearly your wife. Because you’re straight. And a real adult man who can ride a horse and fix fences. Louis wondered again about the degree from Princeton, still hanging crookedly over Harry’s desk -- wondered if Harry’d had other goals at one point as well, if there was any version of him that wasn’t a cattle rancher.
“Lead on, Styles,” was all he said.
Harry eased himself out of his chair, and Louis noticed the hint of a grimace -- a twinge in one of his lumbar muscles, maybe. Louis imagined kneading his lower back until it felt better, pressing kisses into the skin there. Warm, and probably paler than his slightly windburned face.
Harry beckoned Louis back down the hall, out into the open living area. The colors of the sunset flooded the dining space, only accentuated by a few spare pendant lights over the table. Unlike the night before, the place was bustling with people; there were ranch hands everywhere, easing their feet out of worn boots and drinking beers they’d been handed as soon as they’d come through the door. Their hoarse-voiced chatter made Louis feel simultaneously less obtrusive and more out of place, as though he were wandering into a conversation that had been going on for a long time. He tensed up automatically, and consciously reminded himself that it was better to just continue to act as straight as possible. Unfamiliar words like seedstock and banding were being thrown around, and Louis started imperceptibly when he heard one of the hands casually say, “should castrate ‘em all.” Cows, Louis reminded himself. They’re talking about cows.
He forced himself to relax a little and edged into the room after Harry, finally smiling at the sight of Niall in large, floral oven mitts. He was carrying a glass pan of macaroni casserole out of the kitchen, shouting, “Outta my way, losers! Hot plate coming through! Gourmet eats!”
A woman followed him, huge bowl of salad in her arms. She was gorgeous and willowy, dressed in a classic gingham shift with an open collar, barefoot and laughing. Harry made a beeline for her, taking the heavy, ceramic bowl from her with one hand as he planted a lingering kiss on her cheek. Oh, thought Louis, as his heart plummeted and he struggled desperately not to be disappointed. Yeah, I thought so. He felt silly for even having entertained the idea of flirting with Harry, and tried to force himself not to notice the way Harry’s flannel shirt and worn jeans fit him so easily. Everything was a fit. Harry Styles and his weird cows and his lovely wife, together on his ranch. A picture-perfect American family, with just enough quirkiness thrown in to make Louis ache a little.
“Maggie May,” Harry said, wrapping an arm around her waist and guiding her over to Louis. “Come meet my mom’s lawyer.” Louis tamped down the ridiculous buzz of jealousy that ran through his bones at the sight of Harry’s hand on her hip.
“Paralegal, actually,” he said. “Not a lawyer yet.”
“Oh, okay,” Maggie smiled. Then she rolled her eyes and checked Harry away from her with a sharp elbow. “And don’t call me that, H. You know I hate that song.” She extended her hand to Louis, and they shook. “Just Maggie, please.”
Harry was rubbing his side theatrically, pretending to have been injured, and the fondness radiating from his face made Louis’s heart clench. It would be pretty nice to have something like that, he thought.
“Louis Tomlinson,” he said. “Thank you for putting up with me. I know I’m creating a disruption for your husband.”
Confusion clouded Maggie’s face for a moment and she glanced over at Harry, but he’d been drawn into a conversation with one of the other wranglers. She shrugged and smiled at Louis; up close he could see the way freckles crowded around her pale eyes. She was really very pretty, hair blonde and thick and a bit dry-looking, reminding Louis not unpleasantly of hay. Everything fit.
“I don’t know why he’d consider you a disruption,” she said, “but if you are one, you don’t have to apologize to me about it. We love guests. I do, at least. Too many of the same old dickheads around here.” She said the last part rather loudly on purpose, and gave Harry a kick in the shin with her bare foot as she retreated into the kitchen.
“Heyyyy,” he frowned. “‘M not a dickhead.”
“You literally are,” she fired back. “Your nose looks exactly like a penis.” She left Harry frowning at this retort and disappeared around the corner toward the sound of Niall’s laughter.
“I don’t think your nose looks like a penis,” Louis said, and then felt his face heat up when Harry glanced back at him. “Not that I know what penises look like!” he scrambled to add. “Like, besides my own. Obviously. No extra penises for me.” Oh, Jesus.
He clenched his fist nervously. Fucking mortifying. Harry might be happily married and off the table, but Louis still didn’t want to make a fool of himself in front of him.
Harry simply smiled. “Thank you, Louis,” he said, taking a beer from the wrangler he’d been talking to and handing it over. “And, uh, good to know?” He looked a little on edge, suddenly. His jaw was set, frown tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Louis glanced down at the bottle in his hand. It was a craft beer with a hipstery-looking label, Going To The Sun IPA. Odd choice. There was something odd about Harry… something a bit unexpected. Louis twisted off the cap and took a swig through pursed lips, letting the bitterness of the hops play across his tongue. Harry the cattle rancher with the Ivy League degree and the cow serenades. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
One thing, though, was depressingly conventional. Harry clearly hadn’t told his wife anything about the situation with National Energy Group and the oil under their land. Louis bristled at that. He prided himself on being progressive and liberal and very open-minded, and people who embraced so-called “traditional values” annoyed him intensely. He’d spent enough time around that sort growing up. It’s her home too, he thought. She at least deserves to know. I wonder if he makes all the decisions for both of them.
Maggie brought the last of the food through to the dining area, a big basket of hot dinner rolls, and whistled through her teeth to get everyone’s attention. “Eat!” she commanded, taking a seat next to Niall. Another woman followed her out of the kitchen, still holding a wooden stirring spoon, humming distractedly, squinting at the table as though trying to account for everything. Her gray hair was pulled up in a tight bun. Mrs. Burden, Louis thought. That must be where those lace curtains in the guest room came from. She nodded once and started to sit down herself, before realizing she still had the spoon in her hand.
Louis claimed the end of one of the long benches, trying to avoid bringing attention to himself as a newcomer. Normally he’d have no problem fitting into a new group, the loud, loud, loud side of his personality masking any social anxiety, but his position at the ranch was already so awkward. And there was something about being in the company of large, flannel-wearing working men that put the ugly taste of Long Prairie back in his mouth, and caused him to want to hide parts of himself. Be less “out there,” as his mother would say. (She always did like a good euphemism.)
So he griped silently instead. He found himself next to Harry, who seated himself at the head of the table. Classic, Louis thought. Big, manly provider and all that.
Louis reached timidly across the table for a roll, and was surprised when Harry beat him to the basket, flipping the cloth napkin off the top and handing him one. Then he kept handing him things. Green beans, a big scoop of the macaroni dish… Louis accepted all of it with raised eyebrows, odd shiver in his belly every time Harry put something else on his plate for him.
“I completely disagree. One hundred percent.” The wrangler to his left was talking to Niall about something, some ranch thing, Louis supposed. Until he happened to glance up at Niall, who was frowning murderously.
“The Backstreet Boys,” he said. “It’s the Backstreet Boys. You can’t just,” he threw up his hands with a despairing scoff, “you can’t just disrespect the Backstreet Boys like that!”
Louis barely hid a surprised grin in his napkin.
“They’re nowhere near N’Sync,” the wrangler drawled, in a bored voice. Louis thought he was the same one who had been talking about cow castration just a few minutes before. “In fact, I’d even put 98 Degrees as my number two.”
Niall gaped. Beside him, Louis thought he heard Maggie murmur, “Oh, here we go.”
“Quit Playin’ Games. Everybody.” Niall was counting on his fingers. “Larger Than Life. Not to mention,” he continued in an imperious tone, “the greatest boy band ballad of all time, I Want It That Way.”
“That is the greatest,” Harry piped up. “Hey Louis, what’s your favorite boy band? But like, careful how you answer. Niall might kill you.”
Niall nodded and poked his fork toward Louis. “If the word Lachey leaves your lips, you’re dead.”
“Boy band connoisseurs, are you?” Louis asked. He coughed into a napkin, shaking his head as he wondered what the hell type of cattle ranchers would unironically listen to pop music, much less 90s pop that had been marketed to teen girls. Luckily, he didn’t have to grope for an answer. “I’m gonna go Boyz II Men.”
The stormy expression on Niall’s face cleared, and he nodded approvingly. “That I can respect.” He held out the neck of his beer bottle, and Louis clinked it with his own. “Louis, everyone!” he announced to the table. “In case he hasn’t introduced himself to ya. Notary republic. Good taste.”
“And he was in the Peace Corps,” Harry added.
This drew the attention of everyone to him, which made Louis sigh internally. He nodded, tight-lipped smile on his face. “Yep. I was.”
Then Harry went around the table and pointed at all the ranch hands, introducing them to Louis with their names and job titles, and little tidbits of information about them. There was Hank, cattle wrangler, tragically committed to teetotalism. Paul, cattle wrangler, who had been working on the ranch since before Harry was born. They were both solid-looking men in their mid-fifties. Austin, farrier, amateur rapper -- he couldn't have been much older than twenty, and was clearly the baby of the group. Roby, horse trainer, about to get his GED… Their names began to blur together, but Louis smiled and nodded at them all. It was obviously a close-knit bunch, here at the Lonely Rose. Harry seemed the type to consider his employees family members.
“So you’ve traveled a lot?” Maggie asked, definite interest on her face, after the introductions were over.
“Not a lot,” Louis said. “I mean, a bit.”
She snorted. “More than me,” she said. “I grew up here. I’m teaching a World Geography unit right now over at the middle school in Sheridan, sort of ironic... Ooh!” she broke a dinner roll in half and gestured with it. “Went to the Grand Canyon once. That was pretty cool.”
“Oh yeah?” Louis felt a genuine smile coming on. Despite his weird jealousy over her husband, he found Maggie herself to be charming. It made sense that she and Harry had ended up together. Objectively, he could admit that much.
“Where did you go?” she asked. “For the Peace Corps, I mean. Lots of places?”
“Um,” Louis frowned, trying to remember. “Mostly Romania, but I did some exploring in the Balkans. Albania, FYROM… Once I was in Athens for the weekend,” he said, falling into one of his favorite stories about his travels, “and I was walking through a square, and there were some kids hanging out climbing trees by this peripteron. That’s like, a little newsstand. Sort of.” He put his fork down, started gesturing fluidly with his hands before he could stop himself. “And they were yelling at me, ‘Pos se lene?’ which means, ‘What’s your name?’”
Maggie nodded, clearly delighted.
“So I answered, ‘My name’s Louis,’ in English, because I don’t know too much Greek. And I asked them what their names were. The one on the left said ‘Nikos,’ and then he pointed at his friend and said, ‘His name is skata.’ Which means, ‘His name is shit.’”
Maggie laughed. Harry was looking down at his plate, eating, but Louis could see the hint of a dimple in his cheek and knew he was listening. It sent a thrill up his spine.
“So, like, the other kid was mad about that. And he pointed back at Nikos and said, ‘His name is Fuck-you-Bush!’”
Louis realized a split second too late that he was probably surrounded by political conservatives, but the punch line was out of his mouth before he could stop it. He froze, expecting the worst. Maggie giggled, though, and Niall cackled. Louis wondered if there was anything he wouldn’t laugh at.
“So wait, they thought ‘Fuck you, Bush’ was one word?” Harry asked. He started laughing as well, and Louis relaxed.
“Yeah,” he shrugged, taking another sip of beer. “Like, it was when he was still president, and there was a lot of international backlash against him. So this kid must’ve heard people saying it and thought that Fuck-you-Bush was just another English swear word.”
Harry aimed a wide grin at him, and wow, his smile. Maybe it was the two beers he’d had, but Louis felt lightheaded for a second. “I love kids,” said Harry, softly.
Before he could say anything else, Maggie cut in. “So, Looo-uis,” she said, sounding out the vowels with a long drawl and waggling her eyebrows. “Anyone special back in Denver we’re taking you away from tonight? Girlfriend? Wife?”
Louis almost snorted. Heteronormativity for miles out here. “I don’t have a wife,” he said. He couldn’t help his snippy tone, but it almost felt like she was rubbing his face in it. Oddly, Harry’s smile grew even wider for a second as he and Maggie shared a glance.
But supper went on. Maggie left that line of questioning alone and went back to asking Louis about Romania and his time in the Peace Corps. He told her more of his travel anecdotes, lighthearted stories about stray dogs and suspicious old bunici with their hair wrapped up in black scarves. He didn’t tell her about the homophobia. Didn’t tell her about how confining it felt to always have to avoid being too obvious, how exhausting it was to constantly be slightly afraid -- usually just slightly, but sometimes more -- in an area where being gay was more than frowned upon. Didn’t tell her about rakia, the strong, fruity moonshine that the men would sit in the shade and sip for hours… Didn’t tell her how forcefully this reminded him of that. Sitting and sipping his beer, slightly apprehensive, a small man amongst bigger men.
And all the time Harry was listening to him, monitoring his conversations but rarely talking himself. He seemed to be looking at Louis a lot. Louis felt Harry’s gaze prickle over his skin. Even though the sexual attraction presumably wasn’t mutual, there was definitely something between them. Some weird energy. Louis swallowed around a knot of nervousness in his throat. He gripped the paper napkin in his lap as he talked, picking the edges apart, wondering if he was going crazy or if Harry felt it too.
“Hey,” he said, just as supper was starting to wrap up, his voice low and confidential. Harry leaned in. “I think I caught your wife off guard earlier.”
“Um… what?” Harry blinked, eyebrows knotting up in confusion.
“Your wife,” Louis said, nodding across the table at Maggie. “I mentioned the… situation, the reason why I’m here, and she didn’t seem to know what I was talking about.”
Harry’s mouth dropped open for a moment, and he gave a startled laugh. “That’s probably because Maggie’s not my wife!”
Louis frowned. “Wait, what?”
“She’s um, married to Niall?” Harry said, sheepishly. “And she’s like, my best friend. I would have thought that was pretty obvious…”
Louis looked over to where Maggie and Niall were jostling each other, arguing loudly but playfully over who had called dibs on the last dinner roll. Niall pinched Maggie’s arm, and she yelped. He used the momentary distraction to grab the roll for himself, holding it above her head like a ten-year-old while she scowled at him.
“They act like siblings, though,” Louis whispered. “Are you sure they’re married?”
Harry snorted. “Trust me, you do not want to third wheel with them when they’re in the mood to make out.” He shivered and shook his head, wearing an expression of pained distaste. “They’re really into open-mouthed tonguing; it’s just… incredibly disgusting.”
Louis made a sympathetic noise and turned back to watch them. Maggie was still glaring at Niall indignantly, Niall’s smug face all lit up like the sun. He only kept up the taunting act for a few more moments, finally bringing the roll down and breaking it in two. He gave her the bigger piece with a kiss on the nose, and she giggled.
Oh. It was obvious, now Harry had pointed it out to him. Louis wondered how he could have missed it.
“The three of us have been friends a long time,” Harry explained, his face softening. “Since we were just kids, really. Now they’re like my relationship model. If I ever get married, that’s what I want to have.”
Louis’s throat suddenly felt like it was closing up, his chest constricted with hope. “So you’re not…” He made an abortive little gesture, unable to force the words out.
“Nope,” Harry said. “I’m like you.”
Louis’s eyes almost bugged out of his head, heart rate skyrocketing, before Harry added, “I don’t have a wife.”
Right. Okay. Louis was oddly aware of the air rushing into and out of his lungs. It felt thin suddenly, like he was up in the Bighorns instead of below them. Head pounding at 10,000 feet. Just because he’s not married doesn’t mean he’s not straight. Most people are. He probably is. So calm down.
“And I resent the implication that I wouldn’t tell my spouse about the situation with the oil,” Harry said. He looked a bit miffed, his voice slighty huffy. Louis refused to think it was adorable. “Hypothetically, I mean. Niall and Mags know about it vaguely, know that the oil exists and that I’m not selling -- none of the details. But if I were in a relationship, I’d be completely open.”
Louis could not stop his mind from going there. He couldn’t hold back a sudden flash of Harry spread out in front of him, three fingers deep and the veins in his neck standing out as he arched up off the mattress, room smelling of sex and sweat, both of them hard. Completely open. Fuck.
He cleared his throat, trying to compose himself. Luckily, supper was over, and that provided some distraction. Niall and Mrs. Burden were clearing the empty dishes off the table, Maggie sitting back to finish the last of her beer with a satisfied burp.
“Hey!” she said. “I just remembered, I’ve got something for you.” She leaned down, searching in the large purse at her feet. She drew out a plastic Walgreen’s bag and tossed it at him. “Toothbrush,” she said. “Toothpaste, floss, shaving stuff.”
Louis opened the bag and surveyed its contents with a surprised laugh. “How did you…?”
She shrugged. “Harry called me at school today and mentioned you forgot some toiletries. Asked me to pick them up on my way out here. Don’t worry; he already paid me back.”
Louis turned to Harry, eyebrows raised. “Oh, well -- ” He didn’t know quite what to say, and Harry was looking at him rather… intensely. “I’ll obviously give you money for these, Harry. The company’ll end up paying for it anyway.”
Louis thought he saw the tiniest flash of annoyance cross Harry’s face before he laced his fingers together and said in his calm, measured way, “You’re my guest, Louis. I’m your host. We take those roles pretty seriously out on the ranch, so no, you don’t have to give me any money.”
I wonder if he’s trying to frame it that way on purpose, Louis thought, like some sort of mental chess game to put me off my guard. Guest and host instead of notary public and deed signer.
But Harry looked quite sincere and Louis brushed the thought aside, blaming it on the corporate lawyer’s mentality Zayn had told him he was beginning to develop. “Don’t ever trust businesspeople,” Zayn always said. “They’ll shake your hand and feed you bullshit.”
Louis wondered if Harry was feeding him bullshit. For all the literal bullshit they were probably surrounded with, he didn’t think so. Still… there was something about Harry he didn’t quite get.
“Oh… kay,” Louis said, voice hitching in the middle of the word as he closed the bag and wound the crinkly plastic handles around his fingers. “Thank you.”
Harry nodded. He stood up and clapped Louis on the shoulder, saying, “Well, I’m turning in early. Didn’t get much sleep last night.” The warmth of his fingers on Louis’s body, blazing through the material of his shirt, made it hard for Louis to breathe. He squeezed slightly, and then slipped away. Louis felt static rushing to his head, wondering whether he’d just imagined it.
The tiny little ghost of a squeeze.
“G’night,” he said, and his own voice sounded raw to his ears.
Most of the other ranch hands had left. Louis stayed at the table for another half an hour, chatting with Maggie and Niall as they played cribbage. He got lost in the fifteen two, fifteen four and a pair is six counts, blinking back to himself after Maggie won the first game on a twelve-point crib. He smiled politely and said a final goodnight, padding back to the guest room with his plastic bag, feeling a bit out of place.
At least this time the bathroom was familiar. He took a quiet shower and finally brushed his teeth, sighing with pleasure at the clean feeling in his mouth. Took his time shaving. His muscles ached pleasantly from his full day of fence repair.
When he crawled into bed, damp towel still wrapped around his waist, he booted up his laptop and checked his email. Zayn had sent him some work, a couple of contracts to draft and one of Nick’s to look over. It involved downloading a fuck-ton of files, some of them video. Louis sighed and began the download, wondering idly if it was safe to look at gay porn on Harry’s wifi. Probably no one at the ranch was tech-savvy enough to find out…
Louis cupped himself in one hand, feeling his cock respond eagerly to the contact. He gently thumbed under the head, rubbing circles right where it was most sensitive. “Fuck,” he sighed, after about half a minute of indecision. Better not to risk it. He didn’t want to accidentally get jizz on anything Mrs. Burden would have to clean, God, how embarrassing. He took his hand away reluctantly.
With a sigh, he curled in on himself and drew the covers over his bare shoulder. Images of Harry on the horse, Harry’s big hands, the slightly curled ends of his shaggy hair cluttered his thoughts. Louis was horny; he was aching; he was tired. He was hard when he finally fell asleep, his frowning face bathed in the glow of the computer screen.
Louis was still hard when he woke up the next morning. He lay in bed, waiting for his erection to go away so that he could get up and piss. A glance at his phone told him it was only five-thirty a.m., and he could hear somebody stomping around outside in the hallway. He shifted a little on the mattress, groaning as he felt his muscles complain. The pleasant ache of the night before had turned into full-blown soreness.
“Shit,” he muttered.
Before he could process it, there was a soft knock at his door and Harry was opening it a crack to peek into the guest room. Louis had just been in the process of stretching, one hand running idly over his bare chest and sheet slipping down low on his stomach.
Harry’s eyes widened. “Sorry!” he said, quickly. “Sorry, I thought… um…” His gaze flicked down to the obvious tent Louis was making in the sheet.
“This you being a good host?” Louis asked. He meant for it to sound sarcastic, but he was still waking up and it came out all sleep-raspy and fond. “Breaking into my room at buttcrack o’clock to check out my morning wood?”
Well, that was direct.
Harry pointedly squinched his eyes shut, and swallowed slowly before speaking. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought you were like, up… I mean! Because I heard…” He shook his head and started over. “Wanted to see if you’d want to come with me to check on the heifers. Jolene likes visitors, so. I thought. But obviously.”
Louis felt his cock twitch under the sheet. I shouldn’t be getting off on this.
“I might take the rental out later to look at the actual sale property,” he rasped. “You know, might as well.”
“You should take one of the trucks,” Harry said immediately, his eyes still closed and the words spilling out more quickly than normal. “You’ll have to drive over some, uh... cow food fields to get there. Keys are in a bowl by the front door.”
Louis chuckled. “Cow food fields.”
Harry took a deep breath, hand slipping off the doorknob as though his palm were suddenly sweaty. “I’m leaving now. Don’t be self-sacrificing; take the truck. I don’t want to pay for your rental repairs, too.”
“Excellent hosting skills, Styles!” Louis called after him. He snuggled back down in the bed, getting a little friction against the mattress, still sleepy and not in the mood to mind the ache in his hard groin. He didn’t have to be up for another few hours, at least. Then he’d get to work on those contracts.
Louis hit send, and a corrected draft of Nick’s contract flittered away through the ether to Zayn’s computer back in Denver. He sighed, ruffling his still unstyled hair. Not much point -- he’d been working in the guest room all day, had just thrown on a pair of sweats and an old t-shirt he’d found at the bottom of his suitcase and jumped right back into bed.
Now his stomach grumbled. He checked the time… 1 p.m. He hadn’t even had his customary cup of morning coffee.
He padded out to the kitchen in bare feet, still feeling like an intruder. But there was a plate of leftovers in the fridge covered in plastic wrap with a Post-It note that said “For Louis,” next to a doodle of a penis. Louis wondered if Niall or Harry was to blame. He also wondered what to make of the penis. Was it teasing? Normal cow-bro behavior?
Louis shook his head, deciding all at once that he was overthinking things and should just eat the damn food.
Twenty minutes later, he’d consulted a large, nicely framed map of the ranch that was hanging in the dining room and grabbed the keys to one of the Fords. He was still underdressed, having packed only two business suits, his sweatpants, and a couple of holey old band tees. He’d drive back into town in the rental, later, and at least buy a pair of jeans. For now he took his briefcase with him, slipped his feet into the pair of women’s wellingtons he’d eschewed yesterday and trudged out through the drying mud to the truck.
It wasn’t hard to find the parcel of land. It was at the far western edge of the ranch, right under the mountains. Too rocky to be a pasture, too barren to have any agricultural value.
But it was beautiful. Louis could see why Harry wanted the land to be preserved, if environmentalism was behind his refusal to sell -- though the more time he spent with Harry, the more Louis thought that a simple concern for nature wasn’t quite it. There was something much more complicated keeping him from signing on the dotted line, some secret reason that went to the heart of him.
He shook his head. “Why so stubborn, Styles?” Louis felt that nagging suspicion again that he was missing something. Like there was some piece of Harry’s puzzle that he had yet to find that would fit all the quirky parts of him together.
Louis drove a few miles further west, right up to a little stream that ran down from Black Tooth Mountain. He could barely see Steamboat Point gleaming gray up to the north, U.S. 14 winding around its base. It was a gorgeous spot, almost completely untouched, dotted with wildflowers and a few scraggly trees. The faint remnants of a footpath meandered with the stream. Louis followed it with his eyes. It lead up to the door of a ramshackle cabin.
Part of the roof was caved in, and the front door was hanging half-off its hinges. Louis stared at it, but didn’t feel like going to explore. It filled him with an inexplicable sadness, and his muscles were still aching under his skin. People lived there, he thought. At some point. Who knows who? Now they’re lost; the cabin is left, but whoever lived in it is gone, and maybe no one even remembers them. They’ve just drifted away from the world.
Louis was drifting, too.
“It’s great out here, isn’t it?”
He hadn’t even heard the ATV. Harry seemed to just appear beside him, in a Carhartt jacket and dirty jeans. “Now you see why I can’t give it up.”
Louis sighed. “Styles,” he said, “I think you’d be a fool not to.” He walked quickly back to the truck, where he pulled his briefcase up onto the seat and unclasped it, drawing out the contract.
“You got a pen?” he asked. “Maybe there’s one in that ghost house over there.”
Harry just frowned at him, eyes truly troubled. He turned and straddled his four wheeler and drove off without another word.
On Friday, Louis finally got around to the fairly sizable batch of deposition notices he’d been assigned to draft about a month before. He’d been procrastinating on them before he left for Wyoming and the deadline was starting to feel uncomfortably close, so he decided to tackle them all in one go.
He’d started right after he woke up, only pausing every so often to creep out to the kitchen for snacks and sodas, or to indulge in much-needed internet browsing concentration rejuvenation breaks. The only other human being Louis saw all day was Mrs. Burden, who’d been unimpressed when she’d caught him standing in front of the open refrigerator and eating leftover chicken salad right out of the bowl with his fingers.
“Making yourself at home, huh?” she’d said, laughing in delight at Louis’s blushing, stammering response. Then she’d made him a delicious sandwich with the chicken salad (on wonderful, lightly toasted bread) and had lunch with him in the dining room.
But that had been hours and hours and several deposition notices ago, so it was understandable that Louis jumped slightly when there was a knock on the guest room door at around 6:30.
Louis blinked, rolling his eyes as he looked at his surroundings. He’d set himself up against a stack of pillows on the bed, perfectly arranged for proper back support, and after a hard day of work there were more than a few Diet Coke cans on the nightstand next to him and various food wrappers spread out over the comforter. Louis was a natural-born slob, and he’d made a gross little work nest just like he would have in his own apartment. Whoever was at the door, he hoped it wasn’t Harry.
“Yeah?” he asked reluctantly, his voice scratchy from disuse.
“It’s Niall… Can I come in?”
“Uh, sure," Louis said, leaning over to stuff fruit snack and string cheese wrappers into his nearly empty bag of Kettle Chips before tossing them onto the floor next to the bed. Really, this wouldn’t have happened if Harry’d had a less well-stocked kitchen. Louis was only human.
“It’s like a frickin’ tomb in here,” Niall said, as soon as he opened the door. His distaste was clear in his voice, and he quickly flicked the overhead light on, grimacing at Louis while his eyes darted around. "God, right down to the smell of death in the air! Have you even moved since this morning?”
“I’ve -- I’ve been to the kitchen,” Louis said weakly, peering at Niall over his glasses. The wrangler had clearly just come inside, still in his field clothes and giving off the smell of fresh mud, sweat, and farm animal. Louis felt a twinge of embarrassed jealousy; he only smelled because he was wearing a sweatshirt that was slightly too thick for the room and hadn’t bothered to shower.
“Well, then,” Niall said, with a snort and a swig of the beer he had in hand, “you definitely need to get out.”
“Yep, out. Like to a bar? We're going out. Hank holds down the fort every other Friday, so the rest of us can blow off some steam,” Niall explained. “You’re coming with.”
Louis made a noncommittal grunting sound and tugged off his glasses to rub at his eyes. He immediately wanted to go -- it had been quite a week, he genuinely liked Niall, and he felt like he was covered in a filmy layer of unhealthiness from sitting inside all day -- but his first inclination was to decline out of some sort of strange, ingrained social convention, and wait for Niall to insist again. Just as he was about to do so, it dawned on him that Niall had said “we” and “the rest of us." That probably meant Harry.
Maybe if he’s drunk he’ll be more likely to agree to sign, Louis thought, trying to convince himself that was his only motivation for wanting to be in a social situation with Harry Styles where alcohol was involved. Harry was straight and Louis was ridiculous.
“Harry’s coming too,” Niall said, as if reading his mind. He was fiddling around with a small porcelain horse figurine on the dresser by the door while he waited for Louis to respond, making it gallop across a lace doily and do little pirouettes. The sporadic horse sounds he was making were very true to life.
“Um, okay,” Louis said slowly, trying to make it clear that Harry wasn’t a deciding factor. "When are you leaving?”
Niall glanced at his watch and shrugged, “‘bout half an hour? Gotta shower real quick and stuff.” He gave Louis a once-over and snickered into his beer bottle. “I’m guessing you do too...”
He seemed delighted when Louis grabbed the makeshift trash bag off the floor by the bed and failed miserably to throw it across the room at his head, running off down the hallway and cackling with laughter.
Twenty-five minutes later, Louis was pacing in the living room while he waited for Niall. There was an odd feeling in his belly at the prospect of going out in Sheridan. It was an edgy unease that reminded him of how he’d felt the first couple of times he’d been invited to go out to parties in college, all those years ago. He’d been so nervous and overeager, so excited to get drunk and make friends (and maybe meet another boy who openly liked boys for the first time in his life).
Louis scoffed at himself and rolled his eyes before pausing his circuit around the rug so he could peer into an antique mirror that was hanging on the wall. His hair was still damp from the shower, sticking up haphazardly, and the best he could do for an outfit was a plain black t-shirt and the sixteen-dollar pair of dark blue Wranglers he’d picked up at Walmart the other day.
No one else cares what you are wearing, he told himself, frowning at his own reflection and fluffing his hair. You’re in the middle of fucking nowhere.
“Do you like that mirror?”
Louis sucked in a breath at the sound of Harry’s deep, rumbly voice, and he whipped around to see the rancher framed in the doorway of the mud room. A blush rose on Louis’s face, based on the assumption that Harry was teasing him for primping. Harry’s expression was earnest though, and he was looking up at Louis expectantly while he bent down to take off his boots.
“It was my grandmother’s,” he said, coming up beside Louis in his stocking feet. His cheeks were nicely rosy, and he had the same fresh air and animal scent clinging to him that Niall'd had. Only it smelled better to Louis for some reason, and he had to suppress the urge to inhale deeply.
It was a beautiful mirror -- lovely, lightly speckled glass in an understated gold frame. Louis was about to say as much when Niall stomped into the room from the direction of the ranch hands' bathroom, munching on a dinner roll.
“Rosie had great taste,” he announced through a mouthful of bread, nodding his approval.
Harry smiled and glanced at Niall quickly before turning his attention back to the mirror, his eyes soft. “Yeah, she did,” he agreed quietly.
“You’re comin’ out, right H?” Niall asked, this time between bites. “Want us to wait?”
“Yeah, I’m coming,” Harry said. He paused, grinning at Niall and raising his eyebrows twice. “But you two go on ahead, I’ve gotta get dressed.”
Niall let out another of what Louis was beginning to realize were his signature full-body cackles. “I’m sure ya do,” he said, grinning back at Harry.
Before Louis had any chance to figure out what was going on, Niall was slinging an arm around his neck and guiding him toward the door. "We’ll be at Liam’s, obviously,” he shouted over his shoulder at Harry’s retreating figure. "Mags is meeting us there. Roby said he’d DD." Harry just raised an arm in acknowledgement before disappearing down the hall to his bedroom, and Niall turned back to Louis. “You want a jacket or somethin’? It’s kinda cold out..."
Liam's Saloon was nicer than Louis had imagined it would be. He’d been expecting some kind of hokey, faux-Wild West establishment, lots of swinging double doors and sepia-toned pictures of people standing by wagons, holding shotguns. Instead he found himself in a regular bar, one that would have been at home in downtown Denver. It was bigger than it looked from the outside, much deeper than it was wide -- a long, narrow rectangle with a beautifully-maintained bar against the left wall and booths along the right. Space opened up toward the back; there was a pool table, a couple of dart boards, and a jukebox.
It wasn’t much past seven, but the place was already fairly busy, and they had to walk almost three-quarters of the way down the bar before they found two open seats together. Their forward progress was repeatedly impeded by various people to whom Niall had to say hello.
“First round’s on me,” he declared, thwapping a beer mat against the edge of the bar when they finally sat down. He tossed it into the air and caught it. “What can I getcha?”
Louis sighed, tugging on the sleeves of the too-big Carhartt jacket Niall had shoved into his arms before they'd left the ranch, craning his neck to get a look at the impressive number of taps. Niall laughed and pushed a beer list his way. Louis ended up picking something from a Wyoming brewery, figuring he might as well. He turned around on his stool, looking at his surroundings while Niall ordered for them.
He laughed softly as he took in the decorations on display above the booths on the opposite wall. There were framed pictures of the very mountains that were visible right out the bar’s front windows, and he found it endearing. Louis was scanning to the left, past the Dallas Cowboys banner and a neon Miller High Life sign when he stopped suddenly, his head jerking back in surprise.
What the fuck?
There was a rainbow flag -- a big fat rainbow flag, just like the ones people had been carrying around at the last Pride Louis'd attended -- pinned tight on the wall, perfectly and proudly displayed.
Does that mean something different in Wyoming? Louis thought, genuinely baffled. I mean, it doesn’t. Does it?
He swiveled back to Niall, who was sliding Louis’s pint of Snake River IPA over to him as he chatted with the barman.
“Is that --” Louis began, interrupting them with a furrowed brow. He cut himself off, feeling self-conscious when Niall turned his head and raised his eyebrows, expecting a full question.
“Is that…?” Niall said leadingly, when Louis didn’t continue.
Louis thumbed over his shoulder at the flag. "Is that what I think it is?” he asked, his skepticism clear.
Niall’s face broken into a grin, and he took a big swig of beer before answering in delight. "It sure is!”
“This isn’t -- this isn’t a gay bar...”
“Well, no, it’s not,” said a pointed voice from behind the bar. Louis turned and saw the bartender who had just served them. He was good-looking and clean-cut, standing with a towel draped over one of his nicely developed forearms and a suspicious look on his face. He frowned at Louis. “Would you have some kind of a problem if it was?”
Louis blushed, choking out an embarrassed laugh. His hand tightened around his beer and the liquid sloshed from side to side, some of it escaping over the top of his glass. "Oh, um, nope. No. Absolutely not!” he said, widening his eyes and emphasizing his words in a way that he was pretty sure conveyed just how comfortable he would actually be in such an environment. “Just, uh, a little... surprised, that’s all. In -- in a good way, I mean. You know, this part of the country... so -- so far out in the country...”
The man behind the counter softened visibly at Louis’s words, and Niall was nodding in understanding beside him.
“Well,” the bartender said, a hint of pride in his voice as he threw the towel over one shoulder and placed his hands on the bar in front of him, “we try to be as welcoming as possible around here for that exact reason. There isn't an overabundance of safe spaces for LGBT folks around these parts.”
Louis blinked, huffing out a small sound of surprise. Why did everything about this place continue to confound him at every turn? He couldn’t quite get a grip on things. Ever since he’d been shunted here so unceremoniously, he’d been off-kilter and always a step behind.
“It’s important to Harry,” Niall said with a smile and a shrug, as though that should clear everything right up.
Important to Harry, Louis repeated internally, the gears in his mind grinding slowly as he tried to process it. Safe spaces for LGBT people are important to Harry…
“Important to Harry…” he whispered slowly, out loud this time. He took a small sip of his IPA and set it back down in front of him, tracing a finger through the condensation on the side.
“Yep!” Niall said brightly. His lips were twitching at the corners a little, like he was fighting a smile. He nudged Louis’s arm and nodded toward the door. “There he is now.”
Louis looked over his shoulder, glancing around. The second his eyes came to rest on Harry, he absolutely froze.
What the fuck?
He was lucky he’d set his drink down on the bar because otherwise it would have crashed to the floor. Which, come to think of it, was exactly where Louis’s jaw was. His mouth was literally hanging open as he stared at Harry Styles in complete and total shock.
Harry was about twenty-five feet away, chatting amiably with a middle-aged man who must have stopped him when he'd first come in. The man looked like a rancher just back from the field, judging by his thick, stonewashed jeans, Shit-Kickers, and flannel workshirt.
Louis swallowed hard. Harry on the other hand...
Harry was dressed entirely in black, subtly varying shades and textures of the color that somehow came together just so. All of it was tight, some of it was almost sheer. He’d poured himself into the skinniest of skinny black jeans, and his button-down shirt was made of material so fine that Louis could see the suggestion of dark tattoos and an infuriating hint of nipple beneath it whenever Harry shifted in the light. It was open almost to Harry’s navel, revealing a tantalizing view of collarbones, pecs, and sternum, and so much smooth, supple skin. He’d tucked the shirt into the jeans in way that emphasized its perfect tailoring; the fabric seemed to skate over his torso, taut in all the right places. It made Louis itch to place his hand on the soft slope of one of Harry’s tiny little love handles and squeeze. The only western touches to the outfit were the studded straps on Harry's black suede ankle boots and the black leather belt that was cinched around his narrow waist, its large silver buckle sitting above the nice swell of Harry’s bulge and drawing the eye.
What the fuck.
Harry looked incredible, but although many of the other bar patrons were giving Harry friendly waves from across the room or clapping him on the back when they stopped to say hello, Louis seemed to be the only one so enormously affected by his appearance. The only one who was practically on the verge of a fainting episode just from the sight of him. The only one who seemed surprised at all. Which meant...
He dresses like this all the fucking time? What the hell? Louis thought, his heart racing. He knew he was gawking, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away. Harry Styles. Harry Styles. Harry Styles. Harry’s name kept running through his mind in time with the urgent pulse of Louis’s blood, which was singing in his ears and surging through his body at an alarming rate.
And then everything got worse. Infinity times worse. Louis barely even knew where he was anymore, if he was sitting or standing or even existed in a corporeal sense at all. Because Harry Styles had shoved a hand into the gorgeous chocolate curls he’d left loose to his shoulders, sweeping them up off his face, and was looking directly at Louis as he started to head toward him, his features strong and gorgeous in the dim light. Harry’s hips swayed gently as he walked, essentially slinking down the bar. That, combined with the intensity of his stare, made him look like some kind of louche vampire dandy, coming to feast upon Louis’s neck.
I would offer him up my carotid the second he asked, Louis thought numbly, biting his lip. He had to suppress a strangled sigh at the further realization that he was the one who wanted to devour Harry. The jeans were so snug on Harry’s strong, plump thighs, and watching them rub against each other as Harry walked, Louis wanted to sink his teeth into them so much it made his mouth water and his pants feel tight.
Get it together. Please. Get it together.
There was something vaguely and wonderfully feminine about how Harry was presenting himself -- in the way he was dressed and how he was moving, and Louis found it absurdly, almost compulsively attractive. He’d never felt anything like it before, and he didn’t know why this was so particularly striking to him. As Harry continued to close the distance between them, Louis saw momentary flashes of Jennifer Lopez and Marilyn Monroe and Cyd Charisse all mixed up inside this seemingly rugged cow-man. Maybe it shouldn’t have worked, but it did. It was one of the most beautiful things Louis had ever seen, and he felt consumed by his desire to keep drinking Harry in, to look at him as long as possibly he could.
Louis’s mind raced back through the past couple of days they’d spent together. It felt like the swirling, slippery puzzle pieces that had remained stubbornly out of his gasp were suddenly falling into place. He thought about how he had said wife, but Harry had said only said spouse. The little looks Harry and Maggie had exchanged during dinner. How Harry had reacted to Louis’s morning wood. How he’d maybe been flirting back in the pasture that day.
Safe spaces for LGBT people are important to Harry…
When Harry finally slotted in next to him, standing up at the bar, Louis turned forward, too overcome to maintain eye contact. He gazed fixedly at the rows of whiskey and vodka and rum in front of him, feeling like his nervous system had gone haywire -- his skin was tingling and he'd broken out in goosebumps, even though the room was suddenly too hot for comfort.
“How -- how are you, Louis?” Harry asked in his deep, velvet rumble. He sounded almost shy, and when Louis turned his head to meet his eyes again, Harry blushed a light pink.
Louis felt like the bottom had dropped right out of his world.
“I’m good,” he managed after several beats, burrowing further into the jacket he was wearing, despite being so overly warm. "How are you?”
Harry shrugged, carefully tucking his hair behind his ear. Louis blinked, still dazed, and wondered if he was imagining the slight tremor in Harry’s hand. He looked down at his own, trapped under his thighs on the bar stool -- otherwise they'd probably be shaking too.
Did I just not want to see it? he asked himself. His possible discovery about Harry’s sexuality might have shed some light on certain things, but it definitely didn’t make Louis feel like he was standing on firmer ground. In fact, he felt even further in over his head than ever. All of his preconceived notions about Wyoming and the people in it reeled through his mind at breakneck pace, and he felt a stab of guilt cut through the all confusion. Did I -- Did I refuse to see it?
"You know, I'm doing all right,” Harry said, continuing before Louis had any hope of getting a handle on himself. He shrugged again and gave Louis a nervously playful smirk. "Couldn't find my jacket when I went to leave, though..."
Harry tugged on the sleeve of the tan Carhartt Louis was wearing, and Louis's heart flipped over in his chest, adrenaline spiking through him when Harry’s knuckles nudged against his wrist. Niall hadn't bothered to tell him it was Harry's jacket. Maybe he should have known though; he was swimming in it.
"Fits you better anyway, I suppose," Harry teased, his eyes twinkling.
Louis was still struggling to regain his composure, but hell if he was going to let a chance at banter pass him by.
“Oh right,” he said sarcastically, giving Harry a smirk of his own and straightening up to his full height on his barstool. He swept his eyes down Harry’s lean frame and tried to ignore the way his heart fluttered as Harry’s blush went a shade darker under the attention. "I’m sure you were absolutely desperate to find it. Really would have completed that ensemble.”
Harry threw his head back and laughed in delight, and Louis fidgeted in his seat, flushed with pleasure at his response.
“Thank you for saying so, Louis,” Harry said. He gestured toward Louis’s painfully new jeans. “I mean, you’re clearly already an expert on cowboy fashion.”
Louis laughed. "Perfectly on trend,” he said wryly, patting his thighs and only vaguely wishing he wasn’t in the dumpiest outfit he’d worn since his senior year of high school. At least they weren't cargo pants. “I know.”
Harry snorted and then smiled at Louis so openly that it made something suspiciously like longing twist in Louis’s gut. The strength of it surprised Louis, so much so that it was quickly replaced by anxiety.
What are you getting yourself into? He’d been about to ask Harry if he wanted the jacket back, eager to see whether Harry would be a good sport and ruin his look by ‘completing the outfit' or if Louis would be able to call his bluff and then get to tease him about it for the rest of the night. But now everything seemed so complicated and confusing again. This is your boss’s son! And you’re flirting with him? This is flirting, isn't it? And the contract...
“Styles! How ya been, man?” The enthusiastic voice of the bartender cut through Louis’s thoughts, startling him and destroying the little cocoon of intimacy he and Harry had built.
Harry didn’t seem fazed though. He turned his wide-open smile to the man behind the bar, his dimple deepening.
Okay, see. Get a grip. Louis rolled his eyes at himself, a small tug of disappointment making him forget his other concerns. Even if he is gay, that doesn’t mean he’s especially interested in you.
“I’m good. How ‘bout yourself?”
Louis’s cheeks heated up with another realization as Harry chatted with the bar man. You don’t even -- If he’s even -- Jesus Christ. Just because he might not be straight doesn’t mean… He -- he could be bi or, or... Louis’s thoughts were spiralling away from him, and he turned to narrow his eyes at the side of Harry’s head, as though staring would somehow help him discern Harry’s precise sexuality or maintain the cool he never really had in the first place.
“Can’t complain. Can’t complain,” the bartender said, smiling and flicking a coaster down in front of Harry. “What can I getcha?”
“Whiskey sour please, sir,” Harry answered. He thumbed toward Louis. "But first, Liam, have you met Louis?”
The bartender looked over at Louis, his eyes darting up to the rainbow flag on the opposite wall and then back down again. He laughed. “Not officially, no.”
Harry glanced back and forth between the two of them like he was missing something, and Louis’s heart started to hammer. It was one thing having a very strong hunch that Harry wasn’t straight, but the idea of explaining what had happened, of having everything explicitly and unequivocally out in the open, made Louis feel dizzy with nerves.
Does he know I’m gay? Louis wondered. He shifted inside the oversized Carhartt jacket. His palms were clammy. He does. I think he does.
“Well,” Harry said. He drew the word out like he was waiting for one of them to jump in with an explanation, but Louis couldn’t quite bring himself to give one, and Harry didn’t press for it. “Louis, this is Liam Payne. He's the owner and operator of this very fine establishment, and a dear friend of mine. And Liam, this is Louis Tomlinson, he’s visiting from Denver and he’ll be a guest at the Lonely Rose for the foreseeable future.”
“Welcome to Wyoming, Louis,” Liam said, reaching across the bar to give Louis’s hand a firm shake.
“Thank you,” Louis said softly. He felt let down that the moment had passed and he’d just let it happen. He wanted it back. He wanted to know for sure. “Nice to meet you.”
Liam nodded. “You too. Can I get you another?” he asked, pointing at Louis’s nearly empty pint glass.
“Oh!” Louis said, running an awkward hand through his hair. His movement was impeded slightly by the heavy canvas sleeves of Harry’s jacket. “Um, yeah. Please. Snake River IPA.”
“You can put it on mine,” Harry said. He leaned back, craning his neck to look around Louis. “Ni, hey! What are you drinking?”
“Fat Tire,” Niall said, not missing a beat.
Louis had been so distracted by Harry’s entrance that he’d completely forgotten about Niall, and now he saw that Niall was looking at him with a rather knowing expression, as though he’d been observing the whole time. Louis tried to keep his own face as neutral as possible, determined to maintain his dignity.
What is this night? What is this place? he thought, overwhelmed as usual. Maybe he should just give up and accept that as his default state of being, now that he was in Wyoming.
“So, Louis,” Liam said, when he’d returned with their drinks. “What brings you to Sheridan?”
“Uh,” Louis said, eloquently. He had no idea where to begin, but he didn’t get any further than that before Harry jumped in.
“He’s here on business.”
Louis’s brow furrowed, and he turned back to get a good look at Harry. Harry’s tone had been clipped in a way that made it clear that the topic wasn’t open for further discussion, and he was frowning deeply and staring down at his whiskey while slowly turning the glass in a circle. He lifted his head, probably feeling Louis’s gaze on him, and when their eyes met he averted his quickly, staring blankly forward at the mirror behind the bar, his face shuttered.
For what felt like the hundredth time since he'd arrived in Sheridan, Louis found himself grappling with riddles he didn’t have the right clues to solve. He just had so many questions -- there were always more -- and he didn’t even know how to go about organizing them all in his head. Why didn’t Harry want to talk to Liam about the land deal? Was he under some kind of social pressure from the community to sell? Would his refusal to do so hurt the economy of the area, and shouldn't Anne have briefed Louis on that as a potential way to pressure Harry into signing? Why didn’t those types of considerations seem more immediately important? Why did it all feel so personal?
If Liam thought there was anything odd about Harry’s reluctance to elaborate on his statement, he didn’t show it. He just winced and chuckled ruefully at Louis. “Business? Sorry to hear that. But, hey, if you get some time off, let me know. I’d be happy to take you on some hikes in the area,” he gestured to Harry and Niall, “while these two are busy with calving and culling and whatnot.”
“I might take you up on that,” Louis said, thinking wistfully of the view of the mountains from Harry’s dining room window. Nature seemed very appealing at that moment. Simple and uncomplicated and far away from the human entanglements that were making Louis feel so frustrated and out of his depth.
He was startled back to reality by Niall cursing next to him. “Motherfucking shit!” he groaned, staring into his empty wallet. "She took all my cash! Unbelievable!” He glanced over at Harry, a wild look on his face. "Styles, spot me ten bucks? Maggie’ll be here any minute!”
“She left you your debit card, didn’t she?”
Louis sighed, confused again. Liam’s took cards, he knew. Niall had paid with one earlier.
“Yeah, to rub it in my face!” Niall’s voice came out in a high-pitched shriek of a shout, and Louis laughed involuntarily, bewildered. Harry was giggling beside him. Niall’s eyes narrowed, like he was realizing that Harry had known all along that his debit card had been left in his wallet intentionally and out of spite.
“You know she’s just gonna jump your songs when she gets here, Ni,” Liam said. He was grinning, too.
“Yeah? Well, this wouldn’t happen to me if you bothered to update to a fully modern jukebox or fucking kept a classic one!” Niall said, his eyes ablaze as he jabbed an accusatory finger at Liam with one hand and snatched up the two five-dollar bills Harry was holding out with the other. He gesticulated wildly with them as he continued to speak. “I should be able to pay with a credit card! And the fucking pay-extra, fastlane, my-song-first-I-have-more-money feature is everything that’s wrong with America!”
Harry must have read the confusion on Louis’s face because as soon as Niall started stalking toward the jukebox, still muttering under his breath, he began to explain.
“Maggie and Niall have a little friendly competition about who controls the music every time we come here,” he said, still laughing fondly. “It’s ridiculous because they both like the same sort of stuff, anyway.”
“Harry,” Liam chided in mock seriousness, chuckling, "it's about being the decider!”
“What’s the deal with the debit card, though?” Louis asked, taking a pull of his beer. There was an ATM at the end of the bar, so if Niall needed cash for the jukebox...
“Oh,” Liam said, his body shaking as he and Harry started to laugh even harder. “Niall hates ATM fees. Like, really hates them.”
“They’re everything that’s wrong with America, too,” Harry choked out between giggles.
He and Liam looked so happy and endeared, Louis felt another tug of longing in his gut. This time it wasn’t because Harry was so ferociously attractive. Well, it wasn’t entirely because of that. It was mostly just that Harry and Liam were kidding around in such an easy and appealing way, and Louis realized he would genuinely want to be a part of this group of people if Sheridan were his home.
Before he could stop himself, he’d concocted a fully-formed friendship fantasy in his head of Liam and Harry telling someone else about Louis’s quirks in an affectionate manner. It went something like this: "And then we were gonna start the movie, but Louis came around the corner way too quickly and like, caught his toe on the blanket and almost fell down the stairs... That's what happens when you insist on wearing an afghan around like a skirt for extra warmth.” “He always looks like priest whose mother knit him a cassock." "It’s ridiculous because you know the whole time he’s wearing it he’ll never put socks on.”
I really want them to like me. I want him to like me. Why is this happening?
“You owe me a pick, Niall!” Harry called out across the bar. “That’s my money.”
Even at a distance, Louis could see that Niall had rolled his eyes.
“Okay wait,” he said, turning toward Harry with a hand raised like he had a bargain for him. "How about instead of one pick, I choose two songs in your honor?”
Harry moved his head from side to side like he was mulling it over. “Songs will be chosen in good faith?” he asked.
Harry smiled. “Okay…” Niall did a fist pump of celebration, and Harry held up his right index finger and pointed it at him. "If! If! You pick one in Louis’s honor too.”
Niall paused, then a slow smile spread across his face. “Fine,” he said, raising his eyebrows primly. “Deal.”
Louis felt a pleasant rush of belonging spread through his body at Harry’s request, and he used the collar of the Carhartt jacket to hide his blush.
“Five bucks, one of the songs he picks for you is Man, I Feel Like A Woman,” Maggie said to Harry, laughing as she leaned in to give him a friendly kiss. Her cheeks were still pink from the chill outside, and she smiled at both of them, squeezing Louis’s shoulder and sighing slowly. “Well, I just had to break up a physical fight at an eighth grade girl's volleyball practice, so I think it’s best if we all have some tequila.”
The next thing Louis knew it was after midnight and he was drunk. Well and truly drunk and dancing to Like a Prayer (a Maggie pick) with Harry Styles. Or, he was dancing next to Harry, anyway. They were close enough that every once in a while their shoulders brushed.
Harry was delightfully camp when he danced, his long, loose limbs moving fluidly to the beat. He didn’t hold back, and Louis loved it. The fascination he’d felt when he’d first seen Harry at the bar had only grown, and he couldn’t take his eyes off him. He’d been openly staring for the past half hour, but Harry didn’t seem to mind. He’d been staring right back, and Louis’s lingering doubts about whether or not Harry Styles was interested in men had been almost entirely washed away.
It was starting to make Louis ache, how badly he wanted to touch.
“Guys, just one more song, okay?” Maggie called over from the bar, as Madonna’s voice started to fade out. Harry had banished her and Niall from the open space in front of the jukebox after they'd started making out during the Macarena (a Niall pick). “Roby wants to go, he’s bringing the truck around.”
“All right,” Harry said. He thumbed his sweaty hair off his forehead, breathing heavily as they waited for the next song. Louis didn’t recognize it when it came through the speakers. There was a pretty violin melody and a strong female voice, singing about touching the earth. It definitely wasn’t typical dance music.
“Oh boy,” Harry muttered. He shifted uncomfortably, staring down at his boots.
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” Niall hollered, his face lighting up. He grinned and lifted his beer. “This one’s for you, Louis! Dixie Chicks in honor of our esteemed notary republic!”
“What song is this?” Louis asked.
Harry laughed sheepishly, still fidgeting. “Uh,” he sighed, and shook his head, a small smile on his face. “It's called Cowboy Take Me Away.”
“Oh,” Louis whispered, a thrill running down his spine at the implication. He and Harry locked eyes, and Louis was barely breathing as time stretched out between them.
“Yeah,” Harry let out, his chest rising and falling visibly under his sweat-dampened shirt.
He took a tentative step toward Louis, and Louis swallowed hard. His body was screaming out for Harry’s hands. He wanted to move into his touch, reach out and grab Harry himself so he could burrow right into his chest. But he was frozen in place. He wasn’t sure how this was happening, couldn’t really believe that it was.
Six hours ago, I thought he was straight. This is my boss’s son. My boss’s son. Billions and billions.
Harry had inched another step closer and was reaching out to touch him, and Louis wanted it so much it hurt. But he was also drunk, and nothing made sense, and the words came flying out his mouth before he could stop them. “You should sign the property transfer, Harry. Why won’t you?”
Harry went still and his face fell, hand dropping back to his side like a rock.
Louis closed his eyes. Fuck. He’d been blessed with this sort of timing his entire life.
“We should go,” Harry said, after a beat, his tone detached.
“I didn’t mean --” Louis tried, but he didn’t know how to explain, he barely even knew what was really going on. Everything was so jumbled up in his mind, and before he could say anything else, Harry was already walking back to where Maggie and Niall were standing with Roby by the bar, and the Dixie Chicks were singing about being set free. Louis sighed, and went to join them.
His head hurt by the time they were back at the ranch. Harry had silently helped him into the Carhartt jacket and then guided him up into the extended cab of Roby’s giant truck with a hand on the small of his back, as if to show him that everything was all right.
Then he’d smiled at Louis in the living room, with tired, blurry eyes, looking soft and rumpled in the best possible way, more beautiful than ever.
“Good night, Louis,” he said quietly, before shuffling off to his room.
Louis just stood behind the couch for a minute with a lump in his throat.
Jesus Christ, this was inconvenient. It was going to make everything even more difficult than he’d anticipated.
What am I going to do?